Gunny's Corner: The cat, the mouse and the orangutan
The day fell somewhere in the middle of the week. Not that time mattered, considering how “Perpetual Monday” was the theme. Our routines gave our lives a sense of normalcy, growing accustomed to the sounds of gunfire, helicopters and explosions. The deployment progressed into a mundane live-action movie.
However, today was different. It would set itself apart from any other day. Today, I’d hear a story that I’d repeat over a zillion (that’s a real number, seriously, I’ve counted) times in my career.
It all started with a peculiar question: “Are you the dog barking at the orangutan?”
One evening in Gunny’s cigar corner, a stemming session ensued about religion. Politics, religion, and similar topics are forbidden in professional work environments because of how passionate and divisive people’s views are, or can become. This was a seasoned crowd, and we knew how to handle sensitive topics without ridiculing contrary opinions.
The Master Gunnery Sergeant (MGySgt) had just explained the importance of learning more about the Muslim culture, and it’s traditions, when a Sergeant Major (SgtMaj) from another unit passed by. He overheard our discussion and joined the circle. The conversation proceeded for a few minutes before the SgtMaj interrupted with a question of his own.
“You guys are sitting around ‘jaw-jacking’ when we’re dealing with real problems, real issues, and not some ‘what-if’ questions in foreign politics.”
The MGySgt looked over at me. I shrugged my shoulders.
“What issues are we missing Sergeant Major?” MGySgt said. “Enlighten us.”
“Well, for one, our supply routes are IED’d almost daily. Getting gear from the states is like expecting the IRS to refund you money that they accidentally deducted, and most of our equipment is held together by 550-cord, duct-tape and superglue.” The SgtMaj said.
“Hmph.” The MGySgt grunted.
“And don’t let me get started on the armor. We have troops going outside ‘the wire’ day in and day out without an ounce of armor of those vehicles. Why? Because there isn’t any.”
The Gunny motioned to me to unfold the chair propped up to my right. He pulled a fresh cigar out of his handmade humidor, and offered it, along with a pack of matches to the SgtMaj.
“Sergeant Major, if you don’t mind me asking, are you a dog barking at an orangutan?”
“The hell you just say, son?”
The MGySgt chuckled. I snorted warm Pepsi up my nose.
“How about you take a seat and share a smoke with us. I believe there’s a story that may lend a different perspective to your situation.”
The SgtMaj sat down, well-accustomed to a good cigar huddle with senior leaders. He lit his cigar with ease, blowing the smoke casually.
At my first outing to Gunny’s corner, I drew an accelerated pull of smoke and hacked for five minutes. Maybe some of us are born cool. Apparently, I wasn’t. No one noticed me wiping Pepsi-colored snot from my flak jacket either, so I guess I’d keep my cool points a little while longer.
“What’s your story?” The Gunny leaned back in his chair, arching his exhale into a giant smoke cloud hovering above our table. The wind must have been afraid to touch it. It hung there like Christmas decorations.
“Well, there’s this mouse, and he knew the farmer always hides his cheese in the barn. Every night, the mouse snuck out through a crack in the wall, and stole a pinch of cheese from the pile. The cat knew the mouse did this. Each night, the cat waited for the mouse to leave the barn with his prize. Once the mouse poked his head out, the cat gave chase. But so did the dog.”
The Sergeant Major shifted in his seat.
“Whenever the dog spotted the cat running, he’d chase after it. This routine kept on for months, until the day the farmer brought home an orangutan from the local bazaar. Not sure if all of them do, but this particular orangutan loved cheese.”
I shifted in my own seat. The stoic expression of the Sergeant Major gave no hints to his opinions so far.
“The dog was so thrown off his ‘oodle-loop’ by the presence of the orangutan that all he managed was to bark at it, every day, every night, all night, and all morning. The dog didn’t eat regularly, missing meals on occasion. His sleep patterns were thrown off, waiting in the middle of the night to check on the orangutan for another round of barking.”
“Mind you the farmer never once motioned to take the monkey back,” MGySgt said. “The orangutan was here to stay.”
“Now the mouse figured out when the orangutan was in the barn, and managed to snatch his cheese when the furry guy wasn’t around. The cat changed his stalking locations to better adapt to the mouse’s appearances. Those two continued their chase long into the fall,” The Gunny said.
“The dog didn’t get it.” MGySgt mumbled almost to himself.
“The dog lost weight, fell ill, and barked his voice hoarse before the summer was out. He no longer jogged around the fence watching the farmer, chased the chickens, or even noticed the cat and all the fun he and mouse was having,” The Gunny said.
“That’s a fine story but what’s that to do with what I’m telling? Don’t you get it? It is life and death out here. This isn’t some game playing ‘match-the-farm-animals.’ I need armor, I need batteries, and I need @$&%ing spare parts for vehicles….I need things that matter.”
“What I get is if you spend all your time complaining about your problems instead of using that energy to solve them, you wouldn’t need a farmer’s story to tell you what to do.”
The Gunny blew a little more Arturo Fuente into the festering cloud, but the cigar smoke wasn’t the cause of the static electricity in the air. Had anyone asked me earlier, I would have sworn the SgtMaj could have recharged a 9-volt between his eyebrows. Then something changed.
“Well, I’ll be damn son. You’ve got a point. I’ve been so aggravated all I’ve done is stomp around teed off, blowing up on my lieutenants. The Colonel just told me to go for a walk, and I ended up here fuming with you outlaws.”
MGySgt gave him a nod. Something about the title of outlaws met his approval. Hey, I just came for the free smokes (at least at first).
“Ya’know, Sergeant Major, I heard that Al Taqaddum and Baghdad are getting shipments of armor in this month. I’m sure if you send your request up the flag pole a little higher, you might be able to get a couple of your boys some protection until the rest arrives.”
The Gunny leaned forward, pulling his attention back to the table. The amusement of the cloud no longer held its appeal.
“I also know that the Communications Battalion just received a shipment of rechargeable batteries,” I said. “I’m sure they’ll let you temp-loan out a few to hold you over.”
In the beginning I normally kept my mouth closed, but that seemed relevant. Approving nods around the table satisfied my anxiety.
The night continued with more relaxed discussions, eventually getting back to the initial forbidden topics of sex, politics and religion. One thing was for sure, when the SgtMaj shook each of our hands before leaving that evening, I knew a gem of wisdom had been passed. It’s a lesson we all learn, even later in our careers.
Later in my own career I’d have to follow the exact same advice as the SgtMaj that evening. I caught myself running around, making a fuss about a problem instead of spending that time and energy, and more importantly, everyone else’s time and energy, solving the problem.
My orangutan didn’t arrive one summer afternoon; I created it out of my own restlessness. How many of us have come across supervisors with the same illness? How long, if ever, did it take them to figure it out? Long? Too long?
Well, there’s good news. If you’re smart, and you’re listening, you don’t have to be that guy or gal. Take a step back and look at the big picture. How much time have you wasted barking at an orangutan? Have you found a way to save your boss, supervisor, or dog, from falling into that vicious cycle?
Not all routines are perfect, or healthy, but they help us repeat our steps to success. It’s important to develop the tools to get back into a productive space when something wild and hairy throws us off our rhythm. Good Luck!