I first came to Europe as a young American soldier way back in 1998. Now, after 16 years in Europe I am preparing to relocate back to the US. I've been living outside the US for so long that I sometimes feel like a foreigner in my own country and since I've always been sort of a wannabe writer I started this blog to write about my experiences re-adjusting to life in the United States after living abroad for so long...
Saturday, May 10, 2014
I'm 42 and I Just Passed My Drivers Test.
When last we left our hero, he was concerned about moving back to the US after so many years without a valid US drivers license. How would he get around? Would he be able to rent a car with his Italy license? Does anyone care? For answers to these and other burning questions, stay tuned...
...And we're back. I had last taken a drivers test as a high school junior, 26 years ago. My New Hampshire license had expired in 1999 while I was deployed to Kosovo as a soldier in the US Army. NH has (or had, at least) a three year statute of limitations on renewing you license after it expires but I didn't make it back in time so for the next 15 years I drove on my US Army Europe or US Armed Forces Italy drivers license without issue.
Now I have friends who have been in similar circumstances as me and who have told me that the state that they moved to simply swapped out their USAREUR or AFI license for a state license so I was hopeful that South Carolina - being a state loaded with military bases - would do the same for me. I went to the local DMV with my license, my military ID card and my orders and hoped for the best...but it was not to be. The nice woman actually started to give me the documents needed to do a direct swap and I was thinking I was going to get lucky when she took my AFI license, looked at it with a funny look, and then took it into her supervisor who apparently informed her that it was not one of the licenses that they accepted for a direct swap. My heart sank as she informed me that I would have to take all the tests all over again, the eye test, the written test and the road test. She actually asked the woman next to her if, because I was such an experienced driver, they might possibly waive the road test but the woman (best described as an old curmudgeon who was seemingly not happy with her station in life) shook her head and said no, absolutely not. So the woman helping me gave me the website for the drivers manual to study and instructions to just come back and see her with all my documents when I was ready to test.
Now, at this point I was worried because one of the needed documents was my social security card and I was sure that it was packed in my household goods. She said I could substitute my DD214 (military discharge papers) since they also have my SSN but those too were in my household goods. I was getting stressed out by this point because my car is slated to arrive any day now and I can't register it without a US drivers license so I had to wait for my HHG, I could have trouble. So imagine my elation when I got back back to the hotel and looked in my suitcase and found that I'd had the foresight to pack both my social security card and my DD214 in my checked bags. Things were starting to look up for a change.
I got to work the next morning determined to spend the day memorizing the SC driving manual because I had to make sure that I passed my test on the first try. My new coworkers all got quite a laugh at my predicament and the parallel parking jokes were flying. I opened the manual and pored over the various speed limits, traffic signs, parking distances to different obstacles such as railroad crossings, fire hydrants and intersections - things I had not thought about since I last took my drivers test 26 years ago. They have a practice test on the website and I figured I'd take it to see how I was progressing. It was surprisingly easy, almost embarrassingly so. I ended up taking it five times to chart my progress and I got a 93, 100, 100, 87 and 100. I felt ready.
I girded up my loins and departed the office to the sounds of good natured heckling from my new coworkers reminding me to keep my hands at 2 and 10. I returned to the DMV with all of my documents and a confident air that belied the nervous feeling I had in my stomach. The woman remembered me right away. We had spent so much time together at her window that I found out more about her life than I ever wanted to know. I heard all about her father who she was estranged from: (You have to imagine the following part in the voice of an angry black woman...) "He lives in Connecticut but I don't see him anymore because he just can't seem to make the effort to come see me or his grandbabies and if he don't wanna try then I ain't got no time for him. He done nothing but turn his back on us his whole life and I don't care what he do no more." For a minute, I actually started wondering if I was getting Punk'd. Her personal issues notwithstanding, she was really nice and certainly helpful compared to her coworker, the curmudgeon. I passed the written test with flying colors and was passed over to the curmudgeon to process my stuff for the road test. The curmudgeon told me she needed my vehicle registration, I told her I had a rental, she said fine, then she needed my rental agreement ("to prove that you are the driver of the vehicle"). Of course, for some reason, I did not have my rental agreement in the car and I could not locate it in my folder that I put all of my important documents in. I had to go back to the hotel to get it but it was not there either so I had to call the rental car office to ask if they could make me another copy. They asked what I needed it for and I tried to explain it to the guy but he ended up laughing loudly at me having to take my driving test at 42 years old. It was a bit emasculating actually. He apologized for laughing then said come down and he'll make me a copy. I got back to the DMV and sat in front of the curmudgeon's window and waited patiently. They informed me that she was out on a road test and I was instantly terrified at the thought of having her as my road test instructor. She returned and stood at her window, glancing at me occasionally but not acknowledging my presence. Eventually the woman with the estranged father said "He's back with his rental agreement..." and the curmudgeon replied that she wasn't processing my documents, someone else was. I wondered to myself how long she was going to let me sit there waiting for her before she said anything. After a bit, she just told me to go wait outside in the waiting area for my road test.
This pretty much sums up how I felt on this day.
I waited. And waited. And waited. Suddenly a woman - who was not the curmudgeon - came through the door and called my name. She did not look very happy either but at least she was not the curmudgeon, I reasoned. I had kind of though that when the tester found out my circumstances, that I as only taking the test as a formality and that I've been driving all over the world for the past 26 years, they would just be lenient and not really have me do anything crazy. Unfortunately my worst fears were realized as the first thing she did was a thorough check of the rental car - lights, blinkers, horn, brake, everything - and then told me there would be NO conversation in he vehicle as I would need to concentrate on the road 100%. This woman did everything completely by the book, as if I were a high school kid fresh out of drivers ed. It's funny how difficult it is to drive in a situation like that. Something I've done with no problems for 26 years suddenly becomes laborious. I was taking no chances with this woman because she meant business. I kept my hands at 2 and 10 the whole time, I constantly glanced at my speedometer to make sure I wasn't going one mile over the speed limit and I kept my mouth shut and did everything she told me to. At one point she asked me to identify the sign we had just passed; luckily I had looked at it and knew it was a speed limit sign. Later she asked the same question but I was not so lucky this time as I was looking at my speedometer and missed it. She said "ok..." and scribbled in her clipboard. I was tense, nervous. She had me do a three point turn on a small rural road. Then she had me drive backwards on the same road for about a quarter of a mile which is more difficult than it seems. More scribbling. We got back to the DMV and she pointed to a set of big wooden barriers and it was time for my old nemesis: parallel parking. I have never been very good at parallel parking but the good Lord must have been my copilot that day because I completely nailed it on my first try. More scribbling. I sat still for what seemed like an eternity and then I heard the magical words I'd longed to hear for the past several years: "You passed." I paid my 25 bucks, smiled for my picture and walked out of the DMV holding a brand new drivers license.