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  • I was still relatively new in Headquarters, after having worked 12 years in a field office. By the time I left that regional office, I had become a relatively big fish in a small pond. However, in headquarters, I was very much a very tiny fish in a very large pond.

    I had to fly out to Omaha from D.C. to meet with the Director of our Technical Service Center there. He’d suggested I fly Midwest Express. The entire plane was like Business Class, at regular rates. There were no direct flights, but there was one that went through Milwaukee and got me to Omaha in time, so I took that one.

    I’d gotten a large to-go cup of gourmet coffee in the terminal, which I was still working on when they started boarding the plane. There were only 2 seats across on either side of the aisle for the entire plane, with a little console between each seat. Sweet! I had an aisle seat. I set my coffee down on the console and was just starting to get myself settled when the passenger in the window seat showed up. “Mind if I squeeze by you?”

    No problem! I stood up, stepped into the aisle, and began to lift my laptop into the overhead compartment. I glanced down and noticed the window-seat passenger lifting my cup of coffee up to his lips and taking a swig. “Dude’s drinking my freakin’ coffee”, I say to myself. “WTF!” I see that he immediately puts it back down, and then tries to act like he never touched it. “O.K.”, I think to myself, “He messed up and he knows it. Now he’s going to act like it never happened. Dude!”

    But I decide I’m just going to leave this one alone. Life’s too short, and the poor guy obviously made a mistake. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to touch that cup of coffee again! We both just sit there and do our level best to ignore that sucker, like it isn’t even there.

    We strike up some small talk, anything to keep off the subject of COFFEE! Then I pull out my notes for my meeting in Omaha, and he starts talking with the guy in the seat in front of us, who’s obviously with him. The guy hands him a portfolio and says, “Here’s your briefing papers for Milwaukee!”

    I glance over as he opens the folder, and see the USDA Seal at the top of the paper. “How about that, a fellow USDA employee”, I think to myself. I’m getting ready to say something to him, when my eyes trail down the paper and I see “The Honorable Secretary Daniel Glickman”. “Hmmm”, I think to myself, “Must be someone important at the Department level.”

    I glance over at the man’s face, for the first time, and damn near shit myself – oh my God, it’s the Secretary of Freakin’ Agriculture, Dan Glickman! Sitting here – beside me – on an airplane. Wait – he drank my coffee! Oh, man! Am I ever glad I didn’t say anything!

    The next thought that enters my brain is, “Tell him how refreshing it is to be sitting beside him on an airplane in ‘regular-guy’ seats, when his predecessor was accepting free flights all over the country, to Super Bowls and NCAA Championships , on private jets funded by the industry we are charged to regulate!” However, my next thought is, “You know, that could come out all wrong, and you could wind up firmly inserting your size 13’s right into your mouth, and completely ruin your career with the People’s Department! Don’t say a word, fool!”

    I went with that thought, and just kept my big fat trap shut the rest of the flight – never even mentioned that I work for the People’s Department. I’ve had just enough coffee to wind up saying something really stupid.

    Right about then, the flight attendant came by, looked at us and said, “Are you finished with that cup of coffee?” We both just sat there – still ignoring that sucker to the bitter end. I reached over, picked it up, and just said “You can take this away.”

    A year and a half later, I was honored with a prestigious Secretary’s Departmental Honor Award for my role in Reinventing the Government at the People’s Department. I had to walk up on the big stage and accept the plaque from the Secretary. I wandered if he’d remember sharing a cup of coffee with me. Thankfully, he didn’t – or if he did, he still wasn’t letting on!

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