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?

An Investment in Trust

In 1980, at the age of 26, I bought the family construction business.  The deal came complete with hefty payments and several pieces of heavy machinery that were well beyond their useful life.

The machine that I relied on most every day was also the one in the worst condition.  The 1959 Bantam Truck Crane could mightily and safely dig dirt, and set seawalls and dock pilings on a job site, but it was a smoking, sputtering, rusted out hulk on the highway.  I know, I know… it was totally irresponsible on my part, but it was all I had to work with at the time, so I used it… until the State Department of Transportation pulled me over at the corner of Old 41 and Bonita Beach Road.

I knew I was in trouble when, through the thick smoky haze in the driver’s compartment, I saw blue lights flashing behind me.  Thankfully, the roar of the un-mufflered, sputtering engine drowned out all my comments as I allowed the 15-ton rusty wreck to coast to a stop on the side of the road.  Not that it had bad brakes… it had NO brakes.  So, as I sat there waiting to go to jail, I watched the officer walk slowly along side the machine towards me.  He was looking up and down at the truck like it had just landed there from another planet.

“SHUT OFF THE ENGINE!” he yelled as he adjusted his sunglasses.  I gave my best forced grin and yelled over the roar of the sputtering motor. “I CAN’T!  IF I SHUT IT OFF… IT WON’T START AGAIN!”  He put his clinched fists on his hips and yelled… “WELL…THEN OPEN THE DOOR!”  As I fiddled with the door handle I mumbled a dejected (“If you say so…”) and then slammed my shoulder into the perpetually jammed door.  As it popped open, rust flew everywhere… everywhere on the neatly pressed uniform and polished shoes of the now fuming lawman.  He slowly looked down at his rusty speckled outfit, but before he could comment, his anger turned to amazement as he noticed that there was no floor in the vehicle.  My seat just hung in mid air over the front tire, supported by a single piece of rusty steel.  He leaned forward and pointed with both hands. “WHAT THE… WHERE’S YOUR FLOOR?”  I shrugged. “Well… uh… ”  He was actually hopping up and down now, still pointing. “YOU’RE JUST HANGIN’ THERE OVER THE TIRE!”  Then he looked down at the tire and I closed my eyes.  “WAAHHH??  THERE’S NO AXEL HOLDING YOUR TIRE ON!  GET OUTTA’ THAT THING!”old crane

Now, I knew if I got out the engine would quit and then there would be an all day scene right there on US 41. Everybody I knew would drive by and wave… uggh!  “OFFICER?  IF YOU LET ME DRIVE ANOTHER 1/2 MILE, I CAN SHUT IT OFF!  THEN I’M ALL YOURS!”  He took his hat off, looked around, while wiping his brow.  “ALL RIGHT!  BUT I’M NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANYTHING THAT HAPPENS… AND REMEMBER, I’M RIGHT BEHIND YOU!  I smiled a bit “DON’T WORRY… I PROMISE NOT TO LOSE YOU!”  He didn’t laugh.

When I got to the parking lot I shut off the motor and hopped out.  He was right there with a fresh ticket pad.  “Okay, let’s start with the lights.  Hop in there.”  I shook my head.  “Sir… I can save you some time… nothing works.”  He looked over his glasses.  “Well… how about the turn signals.” “No Sir… nothing!” “The brakes?” “No Sir”  “THE HORN?” he yelled, frustrated.  I looked down at my feet and then back at him shaking my head slowly.  He stared at me for a bit, obviously sizing me up and then he put his ticket pad in his pocket and began talking slowly.  “If I ever… see you… in this thing… on the road again…”  “No sir! You won’t! I promise.”  He nodded, got in his car and left.

Every so often, I meet people in positions of authority that for one reason or the other won’t swerve an inch from the rules; that won’t weight information that’s not “in the book”. Perhaps they feel they aren’t allowed to or they don’t trust their own judgment or people in general.  I don’t know why the officer gave me a break, but I’d like to think that his instincts told him that the young man in the greasy cloths was a hard working young person that deserved his trust. If we should ever meet again, I hope that he finds that his instinct to trust me was a good one… and that what I’m driving actually has a floor in it.