I joined the laborers union after graduating high school, and worked on numerous construction projects in and around my hometown. The work was hard at times, but always invigorating, and gave me a great paycheck. My friends were always envious of me when they saw me on a road crew or construction site, and I always showed off in front of them as if I really had it made, when in fact, most of the time I was working my ass off.
So one early morning at the union hall, the dispatcher called my name and I was sent out to a job at the local junior college. I drove the twenty miles to the construction site and parked my car on the bare dirt near the rented trailer that served as the job shack, surrounded by temporary wooden barricades.
They were just breaking ground on the new project, and string lines showed where the footings were to be dug. Several men wearing white hardhats were standing around the jobsite when I walked up the dirty steel steps of the job shack, and met the superintendent. He was a kindly sort of man who didn’t say too much. He simply gave me my hard hat and a new shovel and told me to go over to where the other men were working, and report to Bill the foreman. He pointed through the window and told me which one was Bill. “The tall guy over there with a white hat, and big ears.” So I took my shovel and walked across the way to the job site, making sure not to step on any of the strings along the way.
“Hi Bill, I’m Rick.”
“Good to have you on board. You ready to go to work?”
“Sure am.”
“You see those two guys over there with the shovels?”
“That’s where you’re gonna start digging.”
“Cool.” It looked to me like the job was going to be a breeze. For one thing, there were two guys already leaning on their shovels, and I was going to be the third. A cakewalk. So I walked over and took my place alongside the other two guys who were leaning on their shovels, and introduced myself, and made small talk. They were pretty cool guys, and we got along great.
Long about break time, the foreman, Bill, walks over to me and says, “Hey Rick, how’s the trench going?”
“It’s going alright.” I continued leaning on my shovel, right near my two associates who were doing the same thing.
He looked down at his feet, then back up at me “Well, Rick,” he said, embarrassment showing on his face and his demeanor. “Those other two guys actually work for the college… They don’t work for us. They’re not supposed to be the ones digging that trench. You are.”
“Oh shit,” I said. Now both of us were embarrassed, and I wished someone had pointed that out to me in the first place. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem, kid. Just start trenching here.” He indicated with his finger the future trench I would be personally digging, and then left me to complete my task.
I stepped over the string line and put my foot on the heel of the shovel, and felt the ground yield beneath me. With a pull on the handle of the shovel, I felt like it was a groundbreaking ceremony and I was a big shot. I deposited the dirt on the other side of the string, and then repeated the process several more times, with each repetition I felt less and less like an important dignitary, and more and more like a common laborer. This process went on for what seemed like hours, when in fact, only minutes had gone by. Thank God for lunch time. I found some respite in the coolness of the toolshed, and made short work of a sandwich from my lunchbox, and chased it down with a Coke still cold from the refrigerator.
Back to work, facing four more hours of digging, alone and unhelped by the two college employees who watched uninterested from the sidelines, I soldiered on, removing more and more dirt from the future trench, and creating a miniature, meandering mountain range with the displaced dirt.
I carried on into the early afternoon, the trench I had made using what I thought was adequate thrusts of the shovel, was not looking that good, truthfully. But I knew the outfit I was working for was not out to break any world records, so I figured the order of the day was to just take my time and go easy, so I did.
A long shadow crept up alongside mine, and as it drew closer, I could tell it was my foreman Bill, because the length of the shadow was at least equal to mine, if not a little bit longer. I looked up to see Bill standing there with his big ears red from the sun, his lips forming neither a smile nor a frown, but somewhere in between, which seemed to be a look of concern. “How’s that trench going?” He stepped in a little closer, as if to inspect it.
“Okay, I guess.”
“Son, you’re starting to make my head hurt a little bit.” He stepped even closer to me as if he had something real important tell me and only me, and didn’t want anyone else to hear it, so I leaned in toward him and listened intently while I watched his face. “I want to tell you something.”
“Yeah boss, was that?”
“Well, it’s about that shovel.” He nodded toward the shovel I was leaning on, my right foot still resting on it. “You know,” he said, “If you fill up the back part of that shovel, the front part will take care of itself.” That’s all he said.
I stared at him blankly, contemplating what he had just said, and he looked back at me and maybe blinked his eyes once or twice, but otherwise said nothing else. “I never thought about that.”
“Yeah, it’s true.” Then he walked over and took a look at the trench, and made a few observations: “You’re not near deep enough, and on the sides you want to go all the way out to the string, and make it square on the sides.”
I was still thinking about what he had said earlier about filling up the back of the shovel, and I was beginning to realize my performance was really not up to par, and I should get with it and dig the trench. After all, they were paying me pretty good money to do it. So, Bill turned around and walked back to the job shack, and I, with renewed zeal, tackled the trench – and did it the right way, just like Bill told me to do it. I filled up the back part of the shovel, and sure enough… the front part took care of itself. Glory be! I went home that night feeling good about the work I’d done that day.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told this story to people, and watched them laugh with delight and amazement at the simple, yet profound wisdom of an old job boss. I have also incorporated that truth into other areas of my life, and found that it has many more applications than just digging a trench. I’m still thankful to Bill for that day he took me aside, and in a caring way, shared with me something that would benefit me for the rest of my life.