HE squeaked through high school. He dropped out of Boston University (journalism) and Merrimack College (pre-med), then quit art class. He dreamed of becoming a political cartoonist.
His father was a bricklayer, and John Galvin could have worked in construction, too. But his knack with the syringe kept him in the National Guard. His sergeant ordered him to take the exam for West Point, and one thing led to many others.
Now, on June 30, four-star General Galvin will retire as NATO's Supreme Allied Commander - Europe, ending 44 years in the United States Army.
"I'm not too good at laying brick, but I'm not too bad as a stucco man. Plasterer, too," says Galvin. "It's like the road not taken. We all have those." Other career options
At one point Galvin's serious career options also included running a gas station. Instead, he ended up presiding over the Atlantic alliance during the period when the great stand-off of the cold war finally collapsed.
His career, in fact, mirrors the cold war's course. He joined the military at about the time of NATO's formation in the wake of World War II. The many posts he's had in Europe include commander of the US 7th Corps and assistant division commander with responsiblity for defending the Fulda Gap - a wrinkle of geography in Germany long assumed to be the place World War III might begin.
"Still, about once a week I get this cold chill. I think, it's over. The confrontation. The cold war," says Galvin.
Asked if he considers himself a general present at a victory, he says that, instead, "I'm going to say it's a great success, not only for us but for our former adversaries. They are now heading down the same road we are."
American troops in Europe are being reduced from the 325,000 of a few years ago to 150,000, or perhaps lower. No longer does NATO military planning focus on, in essence, filling a chain of foxholes from Norway to Turkey. Instead, NATO will be centered around smaller, flexible forces prepared for minor conflicts around the alliance periphery. They could also be faced with countering terrorism, peacekeeping tasks, and peace enforcement.
"What we're looking at now is a lot of situations that are extremely volatile," says Gen. Galvin. It is likely that NATO units will be involved in some sort of peacekeeping or humanitarian assistance - in war-sundered Yugoslavia, for instance. Having agreed to consider requests from the Council on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) for peacekeeping aid, NATO clearly will be involved in policing actions in the future.
The choice of General Galvin's successor reveals something of this. He's Gen. John Shalikashvili, who was the commander of allied forces aiding the Kurds in the wake of the Gulf war.
"Peacekeeping is going to be quite dynamic," says Galvin. "Needs might change from day to day. Forces might need to be extracted if they fall under fire. You need highly-qualified people."
That John Galvin himself might ever qualify as expert enough to talk about geopolitical strategy was perhaps a near thing. "I was a drop-out in a lot of different places," he says gleefully. Bad grades dogged him through high school in Wakefield, Mass. (The school, now a junior high, has since been named after him.) Entering Boston University, he tired of the idea of being a journalist "almost immediately," and left. A year of pre-med training followed at Merrimack in Andover, Mass. That got old, too.
John Galvin loved to draw, though. He'd been a cartoonist in high school, so he decided to try real art training. It didn't take. "The only thing I hadn't dropped out of was the National Guard," he says.
Galvin had entered the guard while in pre-med school, and was thus assigned to the medics. He perfected the art of giving shots to leery subjects, as the money was good.
Such creativity led his sergeant to convince the young private to take the exam for entering West Point and the world of the career officer.
"I said I didn't think I could pass the test. He said. `that's an order'," remembers Galvin.
As a West Point cadet who had finally put his history of dropping out behind him, Galvin says he proudly showed around the sergeant "who straightened me out" on a visit. The sergeant's widow will attend General Galvin's final retirement ceremony. Meeting with Mauldin
That cartooning bug, though - it never really went away. At West Point, cadet Galvin was under an officer who had been an inspiration for one of Bill Mauldin's famous cartoon characters. One day the officer walked into Galvin's room with Mauldin in tow. "You can imagine what it means for a kid who thinks he might be a cartoonist; what it feels like to have Bill Mauldin walk in and say `Hi'," remembers Galvin, fondly.
What else in his military career matched that? "Well," says the general, "there was the end of the cold war."