Gunny's Corner: Lift your leg and wave
The steam coming from the top of my scalp had nothing to do with the temperature outside. The blistering sun could have burned a hole in the earth right out in front of me and I probably would never have noticed. An implosion of anger has that effect on us -- well, maybe some of us.
I glanced over at the Gunny, and he smirked back. Something about my animated outburst of frustration must have amused him. He rarely smiled.
This was the first time he and I sat at the cigar circle without a crowd, but upon his suggestion, I followed him to our corner without hesitation, grateful that my better judgment kicked in before something stupid fell out of my mouth in the CO’s office.
A few of us had spent the past 72 hours working on a more efficient way to track our equipment. The antiquated process we currently used was a throw-back from the ‘70s. Problems with maintenance and accountability arose daily, and not because people were irresponsible, but because we still used a system designed for counting rocks with a sledgehammer. We had just pitched our plan to the Operations Officer, who cut us off mid-brief and kicked us all out of the CO’s office with nothing more than a dismissive “Wasting time fixing what isn’t broken” yelled to our backsides as we hit the door.
“How are you not as pissed as I am?” I asked.
“Why raise my blood pressure if I don’t have to?”
“This is ridiculous! We could improve our capabilities!”
I knew what that meant. A story was soon to follow. He patiently waited for me to light my cigar and get comfortable. I fumbled with the matches, further amplifying the rage still coursing through my veins, but his serene demeanor made me feel somewhat silly, almost childish. It became easier to calm down.
“I took my son fishing some years back, and he asked me a question that changed how I felt about catching fish entirely.”
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He said, ‘Dad, why do you lift your knee and swing your foot back and forth like that before you start fishing?’”
Gunny chuckled again. Probably more at the confusion on my face than anything he said.
“I said, ‘Son, it brings in the fish and good luck, and it’s what your grandpa taught me.’”
“He said, ‘Really? Why?’”
“I had no idea what to tell him after that, so I promised him we’d ask my dad when we got home. Sure enough, not five minutes into the house, my son runs over to his grandpa and asks the question.”
We both take deep puffs from our tobacco sticks, calming my nerves and further relaxing his voice. The mood shifted with the wind, and with a little more shade, we may even have forgotten that it was over 100 degrees outside.
“My father said, ‘Young man, I learned it from my dad when I was about your father’s age, and all I know is it brings in the fish. But don’t take my word for it. You’re in luck. Your great-grandpapa is awake and in a good mood; he may be able to tell us how it started.’”
“Your great-grandfather is still around?” I tried not to sound surprised. “He was my grandfather at the time. Not anymore, he passed last year. Stubborn bastard lived to be 96 years old, and he still had his wits about him.”
“What did he say?” I asked.
“We all sat around the old man while he was perched up in his rocking chair and told us his story. He said when he was a young man he had a friend who would fish across the pond from him every Thursday and Sunday like clockwork. The guy lost his arm in WWI and would fish with one arm and one leg he used like an arm. Whenever he saw grandpa he’d lift his leg and wave it like a hand. Grandpa returned the gesture, waving like a drunken Captain Morgan, and it cracked the guy up something serious. They looked forward to each other’s wave every outing.”
“Wow.” I couldn’t sit completely speechless.
“I asked Grandpa right then who I had been waving at all those years, and you know what he said?”
“What?” I asked.
“’Hell if I know, ask your dad.’”
I choked on a puff of smoke. We both laughed heartedly. The cold Dr. Peppers we snagged from the chow hall went well to improve the ambiance. A cigar, a good joke, and a cold soda goes a long way.
“All those years I followed blindly what my dad told me without ever asking why. It’s a human trait and you can’t fault anyone for it.”
Right then I fully understood the message. It’s natural to resist change, regardless of how seemingly mundane. We are a society of creatures who find comfort in our routines. Anything that has a potential to throw a monkey wrench in that structure brings fear.
Once we find something that works, however temporary, that skill is passed down to generation after generation in order to repeat that process. It takes an innovative, determined mind to evaluate the situation in order to improve on the original design. No one wants to be the one responsible for breaking the system, which impedes our ability to notice when the situation has changed.
Leaders, take a look around your organizations, your sections, your platoons. How many processes are repeats from their predecessors? Has anyone taken the time to see if any of those processes are valid today? Probably not, and sometimes that’s okay. Tradition builds structure. We just have to be cognizant not to allow it to build stagnation. Innovation and creativity are easily stifled by a stubborn sense of “It’s always been this way.”
Gunny’s story reminded me that three generations of men could perform a task they never understood without ever asking if it applied to them or not. The argument could be made that their actions were a memorial of sorts, a dedication to an old family friend. However, that would have to be something they consciously decided, together.
The Operations Officer fell into a comfort zone, a mental trap, by following the pattern of his predecessors. Without learning why our forefathers built the structures around us, how do we ever learn to improve upon them? It’s not enough to learn how to mimic their motions. We need to mimic their desire to advance.
If the great-grandson ever lifts his leg to wave, it should be a fully informed, conscious gesture, and if the young leader walks in with a clever idea, give him five minutes to flesh it out. The notion may literally save a life, a company, a job, or a family.