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  • Writer's pictureKeith Sones

To Err is Human, But Please Be Honest About It

When you break a dump truck, it’s a pretty traumatic experience.  You definitely don’t advertise it and you might even be tempted to lie about it.  Or maybe it’s just me.

Yes, you read that correctly.  I broke a dump truck.  I didn’t crash it, roll it, let it run away on a hill or back into something.  In fact, it wasn’t even moving at the time. But I broke it anyway.  It’s actually easier than you think.

I was 18 or 19 years old and working for the local school district maintenance department. It wasn’t a particularly high skilled profession, but it paid decently and I needed money for the next school year. My days were spent cutting the grass at various schools, delivering boxes of paper, landscaping and doing other small maintenance jobs. I was one of the few that had a driver’s license suitable to drive the dump truck so from time to time I was dispatched to pick up loads of dirt or gravel. Most days I would also tow a large trailer with a loader which was used to fill the dump truck. There was a sequence of events that happened each morning.  Raise the box of the truck get rid of any rainwater or debris, then lower it again.  Install the heavy trailer hitch onto the truck. Back up to hitch the trailer.  Drive the loader onto the trailer, then secure it with several chains. At night, everything in reverse.  That was the order of the tasks that had to be used. Every time.  No alternates allowed.

It was a Friday afternoon and I’d been running late. When I arrived at the shop my body was tired but my mind had fast forwarded to the weekend. Thoughts of hanging out with friends, swimming in the lake and playing some baseball consumed my brainpower. That stuff was way more interesting than focusing on the truck and trailer “put away” sequence that I had successfully done several times in the past.  Still thinking about the fun of the next 48 hours, I backed up the truck, drove the loader off, parked and disconnected the trailer, moved the truck to it’s parking spot then quickly used the hydraulic controls to lift the box, wanting it to be clean for the upcoming week.

I was halfway done when I heard the creaking.  Assuming it was a hinge that needed some grease, I kept my hands on the controls, the box continuing its journey up.  It was only when the entire vehicle shuddered that my mind snapped back into the reality of the moment. I instantly stopped the box, pulling my hand away from the controls, panic flooding me. I did a cursory scan of the unit, knowing instinctively that the problem had something to do with the box being raised. Seeing nothing obvious I ran to the back of the truck.

Which is when I saw the lower part of the box wedged against the very strong trailer hitch which was bolted directly into the frame of the truck. The hitch I had forgotten to remove because I’d been thinking about weekend frivolity.  I immediately wanted to fix it, or even better, go back in time five minutes and start over. But neither of those were options so in a fit of insanity, I decided that it was time for a good old fashioned coverup. With haste (and great difficulty) I managed to remove the trailer hitch and stow it in its rightful place, then surveyed the damage. Some paint scraped and a dent in the lower part of the box was all I could see. ‘OK’ I told myself, ‘it’s not that bad. I’m sure no one will notice.’ Apparently, my temporary insanity was being reinforced by an equally powerful state of delusion.

Monday morning. The weekend had been a wreck with fear of reprisal stalking me at every turn. Danny my boss told me I’d be cutting a lawns at a nearby elementary school, which was fine with me. I wanted to out of the shop as soon as possible. 

I had one foot out the door when Charlie, a perpetually early riser and normal operator of the truck poked his head into the room. “There’s something wrong with the dump truck.”

I froze, wanting to run but unable to move.

“What is it”? asked Danny.

“Well, the box is dented and I can’t get the hitch attached” replied Charlie.

Danny turned towards me. “Keith, didn’t you have the truck on Friday?”

“Uh, yeah, I did” I stammered.

“Anything wrong with it?” continued Danny.

“Nope” I muttered.

Danny questioned Charlie. “Anyone use it on the weekend?”

“Don’t think so. The gate’s been locked the whole time.”

“Hmm, well that’s weird” said Danny, stating the obvious. “Well, if there’s some damage we had better get it to the repair shop and make sure it’s safe.”

“I’m on it” Charlie said and disappeared.

Given my enduring state of terror I was shocked I was able to get the lawn tractor started let alone cut the grass with any level of professionalism.  When I was dragged into the office and confronted – the truck frame was bent and it was going to cost a lot and you lied and we should fire you right now and…well, I was in a strange way relieved. I deserved to be fired but at least now I didn’t have to contain and perpetuate the lie. Ultimately they let me keep the job but I lived in a state of shame. Keith the liar. Keith the guy who can’t follow simple directions. Keith the guy who wrecks things. They didn’t say any of this. They didn’t have to – I was busy defining myself that way.

It took me a surprisingly long time to figure out how to not feel that way. The answer should have been simple, but sometimes I suppose one needs to feel the full effect before the lesson gets learned. Fast forward to 1987. I was now working as a repairman in a factory that made trucks similar to the one I broken. We had all been working long hours and I was, once again but this time with complete surprise, dragged into the foreman’s office and informed that I had neglected to fill a differential with oil. For those that don’t speak the language known as “truck”, a differential is the part where the driveshaft meets the axle – it's big and full of rotating parts and is pretty important. When it was in final testing it seized up (that’s a bad thing).  “See, that’s your clock number on the inspection sheet.”

I looked at the paper he held in front of me. “That’s my number but not my writing” I countered. And it wasn’t. I couldn’t recall even working on that vehicle, which had a unique custom paint job and would have been memorable. They launched an inquiry and eventually cleared me.  Someone else had written my number on the sheet. On purpose? In error? I’d never know since they didn’t tell me who it was. But I’ve never forgotten how it made me feel, being accused of something I didn’t do. Infuriated that I had to defend myself. Angry that somehow I now had a stain on my record. Then I recalled that day when I had done pretty much the same thing. Lied to get myself out of trouble. Set up someone else, although I didn’t know who, to take the fall. There was nothing good about any of it.

It was, however, a good lesson to learn even though I was late to the party. When I was a little kid I would sometimes lie to avoid the consequences of my actions (“it must have been my sister that ate the last cookie”) but I didn’t have an adult view of the world.  Now the lesson had come full circle and I truly understood the importance of honesty and how the lack of it could hurt people, especially me.

Years later, when working for a utility I had the responsibility to identify and secure suitable locations for high voltage substations and transmission lines. Part of my job included holding town hall meetings with local residents to let them know our plans and educate them on what we were building and why. It became apparent quickly that most people have huge assumptions and very little knowledge about power infrastructure and at times it would have been easy to pull the wool over their eyes. I could have let them think the facilities would look or operate in a certain benign way, then let them kick and scream once the construction was done, when they couldn’t do anything about it. But that’s not only wrong, it always backfires. Because honesty is not about facts, it’s about trust. And it you can’t be trusted, you have nothing.

On occasion I’ve been honest to a fault. A few years ago I was at a social event and a dear colleague asked me to take a picture of him and his wife. Taking his phone I snapped a quick picture, just one, and handed it back. On the trip back to the hotel they looked at it and it was not her best look, eyes closed and hair awry. My co-worker remarked that my photography skills were lacking and I simply stated “the camera doesn’t lie.” He was shocked, she was hurt. My effort to deflect his comment came at the expense of his wife’s dignity. If I knew that honesty is the best policy, I obviously had little understanding that discretion is the better part of valour.

I’m nor professing to be an angel, that I’m not tempted from time to time to sling a little spin as a way to make the discussion a bit easier, at least in the short term. So why am I telling you all of this?  I mean, we are all supposed to know by the time we are in grade school that telling the truth is necessary. But the fact is that we live in a world of complex issues, and you undoubtedly have knowledge on some topic, whatever that might be, that others don’t have and need. Every day we hear politicians, journalists, industry peers, neighbours and family members telling us things that are biased, shaded in favour of the outcome they want, even if it’s at the expense of someone else.  Or many others.  Conveniently missing facts, amped up rhetoric and poor analysis are at play in so many conversations.

We need to be better than that. If we truly want to make the world a better place or merely just treat people with respect, it starts with honesty.

We will all be better for it.

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