I was terrified. My job was surely gone and I was just starting out. I pulled the covers over my head and tried to think of what to do. After a few minutes, the answer came to me. I just wouldn’t tell them.
The early 1980s was a much different time that we are experiencing today. As opposed to historically low interest rates, investors lapped up bonds at a guaranteed 20% return while homeowners struggled with mortgage rates that were at similar levels. It was a tough time for many industries as the cost of borrowing was simply too high, so many stopped hiring and some shuttered entirely
A year into university, I had mailed out hundreds of resumes looking for a summer job, and had been fortunate to secure employment with the maintenance department of a school board. It wasn’t exactly the most fulfilling work I could imagine, cutting the grass on playing fields and shuttling boxes of paper into the various educational facilities in anticipation of the inevitable return of students and teachers, but it was certainly better than nothing. The year before I wasn’t able to get a summer job at all and ended up literally knocking on the office doors of the doctors and lawyers in town (I figured they all had money) looking for odd jobs. So pushing a lawn mower and doing some landscaping for a regular paycheque was a step up.
In an effort to upgrade my skills and increase my chances of future employment, I had recently taken the test to drive large trucks, and was thrilled when my new and improved driver’s license arrived in the mail. I felt proud of my new status, like somehow the ability to legally get behind the wheel of a dump truck or highway tractor had provided me passage into adulthood. The kids could drive a car, but I was king of the road. The license was also a benefit to my supervisor, as now I could move the landscaping equipment around the region instead of having another employee deliver it for me. At 19 years old, I was assigned a dump truck, large trailer and a front end loader to go with it — the combination necessary to move piles of dirt as a number of school yards underwent transformation.
The safe operation of this equipment required more than just jumping in, turning the key and heading out. Things like understanding the braking system, how to safely shift gears on a hill and ensuring the loader didn’t fall off of the trailer were pretty important, so my boss Danny spent some time with me going over everything. “Now remember,” he said. “You have to uncouple the trailer and remove the hitch before you lift the box on the truck or you’ll wreck the hitch,” he bellowed in his old-school fashion. I nodded confidently. ‘C’mon,” I thought, “how stupid does he think I am?” We finished the review of the truck and trailer, then it was time for me to get to work. Loaded up, I went through all of the pre-trip checks and climbed into the cab of the truck, firing up the engine. As I headed out into traffic, sitting high above the drivers of mere passenger cars, I hummed “King of the Road,” a popular song from the 1960s. I couldn’t keep the smile off of my face.
Arriving at my destination, I parked the rig, unloaded the earthmoving machine and got to work. At the end of a long day, having finished rearranging piles of dirt and smoothing them into what would soon be a grassy field with kids running on it, I packed up and drove back to the shop. Tired but happy after my first official day of being a part time truck driver, I fell asleep with a feeling of accomplishment.
The rest of the week was a repeat of that Monday, loading equipment, driving to the worksite, moving dirt, and heading home. By Friday, I was ready for a rest but got back to the shop late, so I hurried to put everything away. I drove the loader off the trailer, parked the trailer and lifted the truck box to dump the last bit of soil out, wanting to have a clean truck for Monday.
As the hydraulic system lifted the box and tilted it back, rising higher and higher, the creak of bending metal hit my ears like a heavyweight boxer slamming his fist into my stomach. Horrified, I released the control lever and immediately lowered the box, hoping beyond hope that everything was okay. The box now sitting on the truck frame, I kneeled to inspect the hitch and saw it hanging at an angle, twisted and drooping. My heart skipped a beat, recalling Danny’s instruction of a few days ago, his voice running through my brain on an endless loop.
Panicking, I managed to remove the mangled hitch and set it on the trailer, then backed the dump truck against the fence where no one could see it. There were only a couple of people left in the yard as I slunk away and headed home on my bike. “It’ll be okay,” I told myself, not really sure how that might happen but allowing myself to spend some time in that irrational world of faith where magical things happen when no one is looking.
So now it was Monday morning and as I hid under the covers and decided that I just wouldn’t say anything, I encouraged my delusion by convincing myself that perhaps, just maybe, it would just slip by.
Sitting in the lunch room, partaking in the Monday morning ritual of listening to the rest of the workers talk of their weekend exploits, I was nervous and quiet. Danny laughed as the stories of the weekend flowed; shoeing horses, back country mud bogging and Sunday hangovers forming the highlights. Everything seemed normal, and I began to relax. The clock clicked past 7:00, starting time, and everyone rose to get their day underway. I followed, starting to think my mistake just might go unnoticed.
“Keith,” the voice rang out in the hallway. I stopped in my tracks, my heart pounding. Turning slowly, I saw the department manager standing there, hands on his hips and a scowl on his face. “Come with me,” he commanded. Resigned to my fate, I slowly trotted behind him as he walked through the door to the lot where the trucks were parked. Danny walked behind me. The manager walked directly across the parking lot to the dump truck, and I knew the jig was up. I was about to be reprimanded and summarily fired. I continued walking slowly, my body and mind subconsciously conspiring to add a few precious seconds to my time as an employee. I could see the manager standing in front of the truck, feet apart, arms crossed. I finished my dead man walking meander and stopped in front of him. He wasted no time. “Charlie had to use the dump truck Friday night and couldn’t hook up the trailer ’cuz the hitch was busted. The truck frame was also bent, and I had to get it into the shop on the weekend. Cost me five thousand dollars.” He paused, glaring at me. “Don’t be so *%^$#@ stupid next time.” With that, he walked away, brushing past me on his way back to the shop. I stood in shock, not sure what to do or say. I wasn’t fired? Could it still happen? Danny broke the silence as he sidled up beside me. “Look, not your brightest move kid. Stuff’s gonna happen sometimes, no one’s perfect. But don’t try to hide it. You shoulda told me on Friday when it happened, we coulda got it fixed and Charlie wouldn’t have had to screw up his weekend. Now get to work.”
He too walked away, leaving me with a day’s work in front of me and a job to come back to tomorrow. Moving more methodically than before, I checked the newly repaired truck and hitch, closely inspected all of the equipment and drove quietly to the jobsite, sober in my thoughts. I’d been crazy to think that somehow it would go unnoticed, that my boss wouldn’t know I was the last person to drive the truck. I deserved the dressing down by the manager, and probably a lot more. I couldn’t fix what I did, but I could make sure I didn’t do it again. And when something happened again, like Danny had said, I’d make sure to come clean right away.
I’ve tried, with a few lapses along the way, to live that way ever since. I certainly won’t profess to be any sort of angel (“Hey honey, tell him I’m not home,” as the phone rings and my wife picks it up), just that I know the value of Danny’s words.
I’ve been very fortunate to have mentors in my life that usually show up right when I need them. Some of them, like my grandfather, have been an important part of my life. Among his many words of wisdom, his maxim “Your right to swing your fist ends where my face begins” helped me to really appreciate that I can do whatever I like, but when it impacts someone else I had better think twice so I don’t cause them harm. Others have offered timely advice in passing, providing guidance when it was needed then disappearing, never to be seen or heard from again. Like the guy who was sitting beside me in a pub for no more than half an hour and left me with the words, “What’s the point of walking out of your $200,000 house then getting into your $50,000 car and driving to a job you hate?” (Note: this sage advice was proffered in the 1980s so adjust the prices accordingly.) I decided to go back to school shortly after this fateful encounter.
The benefits of being straight up are as clear as the damage caused when people lie, mislead or shelter the truth. Like all of you, I’ve observed courage in action. One manager had an employee that was always late because of her young child but needed the job. The manager had a heart to heart with the employee, informed her that she wasn’t right for the job and went the distance to find her another role she was better suited for. Conversely, at another time and place, I watched as a person was offered a position at a good salary and quit their current job, only to be told on arrival that the wage would be substantially less. One person calls it the way it is and takes action that is necessary but admirable, the other is too gutless to tell a prospective employee the truth. Needless to say, the first employee is still with that company, the second moved on to better things.
At the risk of sounding like every stereotype who ever said, “Things were better in the old days,” I’ll simply leave you with this. We are all defined by what we do, how we treat others and how we react to our mistakes. If you believe that others aren’t watching and paying attention to you, you’re wrong. They’re continually watching, evaluating, judging. Irrespective of whether you are a famous celebrity or an ordinary Joe/Jill, the only difference is the size of the judging panel. You get to choose what they see. So ask yourself.
What will they see, and how will they remember you?