I once heard a story about a farmer who paid good money for a Missouri mule that he couldn’t get to do a lick of work. Disgusted, he contacted an old mule trainer who arrived clad in bib overalls and chewing on a huge wad of chewing tobacco. Eying the mule standing out in a field, the mule trainer chewed thoughtfully for few minutes, spit, and told the farmer, “Well-l, job don’t look too tough, but my methods being what they are, yer gonna have to pay me in advance.”
The farmer paid up and stood back to watch. The mule trainer walked over to a pile of fence posts, spit, picked out a good thick one, strolled over to the mule, spit again, drew the post back, swung it with all his might, and hit the mule right between the eyes, knocking it to its knees.
The farmer came running, yelling, “Hey! What’re you doing? That’s no way to treat a valuable piece of horseflesh!”
“Well-l-l-l,” the old mule trainer said, spitting again, “if’n yore gonna teach a mule somethin’, first thing you gotta do is get his attention.”
I met a lot of those mules while I was in the Air Force. Some of them eventually learned. But others ...
There’s a thing called a epiphany. You may have run across it in your Bible classes. The dictionary defines it as a sudden intuitive understanding, a flash of insight. But you and I know it by a more modern name: A moment of truth.
For a long time I believed that some of the mule-headed types I met in the Air Force never learned, that after four years they ended up as dim-witted as they were when they enlisted. But recently, thinking about it, I’ve come to believe that maybe I was wrong, that a few of them actually did learn something, and learn it well, though they did it a bit late.
Let me give you a few examples.
First, there was the dodo I met at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, who drove a beat-up old motorcycle as though his greatest wish was to die as soon as he could possibly manage it. We’ll call him Charlie.
Now, I know literally nothing about riding a bike, having never owned one, but at that point in time, I had two good friends who were bikers and they told me that the things that Charlie was doing on his bike were nothing less than two-wheel suicide.
I talked to Charlie about it, and so did they, but my guess is that it penetrated about one micron of skull bone.
But in the end, I sincerely believe that one Texas summer night Charlie had an epiphany of the first water.
My two biker friends were out running a dirt road that ran across the desert, passing over a series of low rolling hills. They were just having a ball, enjoying the cool night air, the brilliant stars overhead, and the feel of a hard, dry dirt road under their tires, when who had to show up but Charlie.
They told him to get lost. And it looked like he did.
But knowing Charlie, they turned off their headlights, slipped up to the edge of a bluff, and looked down. Sure as heck, there was Charlie, hiding in some brush half a mile up the road, waiting for them to show up.
Disgusted, they drove off in the opposite direction.
What Charlie did was to sit and wait until he thought he saw them coming down the road toward him. Then he gunned his engine, swung into the road, and drove right between their headlights.
It was a dump truck carrying a load of native stone.
I figure that in the time it takes to cover the 75 feet between the point where your headlight first shows the grille of a truck and the time you become fully integrated with that grille there is just time for a momentary flash of understanding.
Another case. Hangar doors are huge things, tall enough to handle a full-size aircraft whose tail may be 50 or 60 feet high, or even higher. They are massive things, weighing many tons and requiring heavy electric motors to open and close them. For that reason, most hangar doors have small personnel doors built into them, not much different from ordinary house doors.
The trouble is that when you drive in and close the hangar doors you have to walk perhaps 50 feet to get to a personnel door to get out. I had one young two-stripe airman who was so lazy he worked out a way to avoid that short walk. He would drive in and close the hangar doors, but when he was done he would walk back to the center of the doors, hit the OPEN button, let the massive doors start to move, step out, reach back in and hit the STOP button, and then the CLOSE button, and walk away.
I told him to quit it, but apparently he knew better.
One fine day he did his usual thing, but this time he hit the OPEN button, stepped out, and hit the CLOSE button without bothering to first hit the STOP button. But the CLOSE button did not function as fast the STOP button would have, with the result that before the doors stopped there was an overrun of cable, several feet of which lay slack. It appeared nothing was happening to the doors, which stayed still as the motor took up the slack.
So-o-o-o ... He stuck his head back in to hit the CLOSE button again.
Then the doors closed.
I can easily believe that as he heard the doors begin to operate there was time enough for him to experience a small bright moment of truth, don’t you?
And then there was the three-striper up in Iceland who got tired of being there and deliberately drove a six-by-six truck into our radio tower, taking it down, figuring he would be kicked out of the service and get to go home.
He was right.
His moment of truth came when the colonel heading the court martial informed him that he would stay in the Air Force until he earned enough money to pay for the tower.
I’ll bet that came as a bright flash of understanding.
Oh boy, do I ever!