Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Ned, Fred, Ted, and Willy were all cousins from South Carolina that came to work for me when I was a superintendent for a large bridge building company in the 1980’s. They were hard workers that rode to work together, ate lunch together, lived in the same house together, partied on the weekends together and showed up hung over on Mondays together.  They were as close as a southern family could be, so when you hired one, you hired them all.  And when you fired one, you fired them all.

Being a working superintendent, I did whatever I had to do to get the job done so after we drove some pilings out in the middle of the wide canal and the large concrete cap was poured around it,the forms had to be removed including two 60′ long steel beams, one on each side of the pilings.  It was a tricky procedure and before sending the entire clan out over the deep water on the small 10′ x 20′ floating work platform, I made sure that everyone knew what to expect and what to do if something went wrong.  “I’m going to keep tension on the beams until you remove the bolts and then when you’re all ready, I’ll lower it down a bit.  But keep your eyes open! Both those beams are going to spring out towards you about four feet!” The entire family nodded in unison, so I walked up the bank and crawled into the cab of the large crane that was hooked up to the beams in the middle of the canal 100 feet away.

After the cousins had removed all the supporting braces and bolts, I reminded them all one more time.  “Now remember, keep your hands in front of you… I’m going to let the beams down a bit and their going to pop out towards you… so be ready!”  Again, four nodding heads let me know it was time and I eased the giant beams down.  And just as predicted both beams swung towards the crew on the tiny barge and just as planned the men simply put their hands on the beam, stopping it from swinging.  Except for Ned.  When the beams swung towards him, he panicked and in text book “Wile E. Coyote” fashion he turned and ran the same direction that the beam was traveling.  This may have worked had he not been on a small barge in the middle of a canal.  So Ned found himself running like a cartoon character in mid-air as he plummeted into the water.  After splashdown, all his cousins casually walked over to the edge of the barge, leaned over and looked at the place where Ned had fell in.  All that was visible was a hard hat, slowly spinning there on top of the brown water.  This was briefly hilarious and after a good laugh I shut the machine down and yelled at the remaining family members.  “HEY!  Where is he?!”  They were still looking down.  Fred looked up at me, pointed down and said slowly in a very southern accent… “He went in the watta!”  I jumped out of the crane and started towards them. “Yeah, I know!  Can he swim?”  They all looked down, then back up and shook their heads. “No sir… not a lick.” said Ted casually.  I freaked.  “WELL DON’T JUST STAND THERE, JUMP IN AND GET HIM!” They all looked up at me and shook their heads. “We can’t swim either boss.” Said Willy shrugging.  Now I was at a dead run towards the canal.  As I slid down the steep bank I heard Ted say calmly “There Ned is, comin’ up the bank over yonder.”  Sure enough, there on the opposite side of the bank, 50’ from where he went in, was Ned, crawling out of the water like an alligator on all fours.  Fred called out to him. “You all right Cuz?”  Ned rolled over on his back sucked in some air and yelled “No I ain’t all right!” He pointed without getting up. “Ya’llwere goin’ let me drown!”

Don’t get me wrong, I was really happy to see him alive… but I couldn’t figure out how he got way over there.  “How’d you get all the way over there if you can’t swim?” He propped himself up on his elbows and said matter-of-factly. “I just sank to the bottom and walked over here.”

The rest of the day the group entertained themselves with all kinds of theory’s regarding how Ned had been able to take on enough ballast to stay on the bottom and where he had stored it.  But later on as I was showing them how to put on their life jackets, I had one simple question. “Why didn’t you guys tell me that you couldn’t swim?”  As Ned fiddled with the strap on his jacket he said “Cause you didn’t ask us boss. And I wasn’t plannin’ to go in the water.”

Guess what the first question I ask employees now?

School Bus Lessons

If you were a junior high or high school student in Bonita Springs In the 1960’s and 70’s, chances are you went to school at Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers. Depending on where your bus stop was (mine was at the Dome Tavern) it was a good 45 minutes each way, basically adding an hour and a half to your school day. Because of this, it was next to impossible to participate in after school programs or sports. Not that participating in typical high school sports was in the cards for me, because my after school activity was working for my dad. But although I learned a great deal working for my father, the hour and a half on the bus every day taught me very little. The trip to Fort Myers was awful. It was hot, loud, bumpy, and boring, making it impossible to do homework or even read. Besides, most of the time everyone on the bus was either tormenting someone, (flicking the guys ears in front of them, focusing a magnifying glass on their neck or just bopping him in the head with their math book) or defending themselves from attack. There was never any of the real fighting or violence that you see sometimes on the internet these days, but some of the younger students did spend a lot of time stuffed under a bored senior’s seat or being passed around like a Frisbee at a rock concert. There was plenty of really interesting and bizarre behavior, so I spent a lot of time just observing the weirdness, pulling friends out from under seats and sweating. I don’t think you could consider this time well spent or constructive in ANY way… but you had to get to school somehow.
Six years of Junior High and High school added up to a LOT of time on the bus, especially for the poor bus drivers. Through the years I noticed that some handled the stress of the job a lot better than others. As a general rule the ones who tried to maintain order via vigilance and discipline, their eyes continually darting up to the big mirror, their sweaty faces red from perpetually yelling, emotionally melted down within a few months. Generally, their tour of duty would end with them pulling the bus over, quickly standing up (usually banging their head on the mirror) and facing the back of the bus. They would then stutter, shake and scream for a while before they flung the door open, got off and walked around the bus for ten minutes, hands waving as they talked to themselves. Some of us felt bad for them, but others just jeered. It was pretty awful. But then there was one driver who no one trifled with…

Billie Gunn drove us to school for three years, cigarette hanging from her mouth, never looking at the young terrified faces in the mirror as she drove at ten miles an hour over the speed limit, hitting bumps so hard that it flipped us all like pancakes and taking corners so fast that you either slid out of your slick plastic covered seat onto the floor or were crushed against the side of the bus by the two other kids in your seat. I’m not sure that she meant to keep order this way but we were all so busy holding on for dear life that we had no time for anything else. Then, as exhausted well shaken and stirred kids gathered their scattered books and made their way off the bus, Billie, with her cigarette still wagging on her lip, would pop the door open and with her gravely yet happy southern voice say “Bye Babies!” I think she actually cared about us… maybe even liked us! And despite having a bit of a lead foot, she was an excellent driver… tough and unfazed by anything or anybody!

One year, I suppose because the trip wasn’t long enough, the school system rerouted us through Fort Myers Beach. Billy threaded the needle through heavy traffic over that dangerous bridge day after day until our luck ran out and she met an oncoming semi-truck in the middle of the narrow span. There just wasn’t enough room and the buses outside mirror vaporized on the side of the bridge. As she pulled over and stopped the bus, cursing under her breath, no one said a word. After she had sat still for a moment, she looked up in the mirror and said, “I’m sorry babies!” Then, she cried.

I suppose you never know what’s really in someone’s heart until they show you.