Learning without Knowing It at the Time

Lessons Learned

Environment plays a role in who we were, are, and will become.

There are actually a few reasons for thinking about this tonight, but I need to complete some additional research before feeling like I can comment beyond the basics.  Still, it’s an introduction into remembering how you often learn more from mistakes than successes and that any situation can be a valuable learning opportunity.

I was in high school, probably my sophomore or junior year, when I knew that after school I needed to get home and disc one of the fields.  I arrived home, hooked the discs up on the Cub tractor, and grabbed the orange gas can my grandfather had in the back of the shed.  I removed the gas cap, climbed up on the belly mower and filled the tank as I had many times before.  Cap placed back on the tank, and the now empty gas can placed along the side wall of the shed with the other empty cans.  Back at the tractor, foot went on the right rear tire, and I propelled myself into the driver’s seat.  Pulled out the choke, foot on the clutch, and turned the ignition key expecting the engine to roar to life as usual.  Instead, the engine whimpered, began sputtering, the tractor shook with the vibrations, and the engine continued coughing before succumbing to silence.  Attempts to restart proved futile, so I descended from the driver’s seat, lifted the hood, and checked to see if the gas line had become detached.  Finding nothing, I walked to a back field where my grandfather was collecting pine straw from a small thicket of trees to provide extra cover for some of the my grandmother’s plants by the house.

We climbed in the four wheel cart he had been using, and he drove back to the shed.  Immediately he noticed the orange gas can along the side wall.  He calmly asked if I had filled the tractor’s tank with gas.  I replied, “Yes Sir.”  He asked “with what,” and I pointed to the orange can.  I could see his muscles tensing, and either anger or frustration building.  He did not yell or explode, but stated firmly that I had poured diesel into the tractor and now someone needed to drain the tank and clean out the lines.  He told me to walk home, get my Dad’s tow chain and either get one of the other tractors or bring the truck to pull the tractor under some nearby trees while he got some wrenches.  As I walked, I kicked quite a few rocks, but I still don’t know if it was from anger or frustration.  That can had always contained gas along with green ones while diesel was stored in the red cans.  When you put the snout into the tank, how could anyone know the difference?

I had just unhooked the tow chain from the tractor, when my grandfather walked up with a tool box.  I was aggravated, and it showed.  In part it was at me because I knew I had made a mistake, but honestly could not think of a way I could have avoided it.  The additional work did not thrill me, and maybe I felt hurt or disrespected by my grandfather.  I really don’t know because even today, I really can’t explain let alone identify my feelings at the time.  I was about to speak, and probably would have said something I would have regretted, but my grandfather stopped before I could start.  He simply stated, we had two jobs, and I had first choice.  I could start working on the tractor or I could start painting a G or a D on the different gas cans as he pulled a can of spray paint from his overalls.  He explained that a few days earlier, one of the red diesel cans began leaking, so had used the older orange can to store what was left in that diesel can.  He knew, but of course I didn’t have any way of knowing, and he was not going to repeat his mistake so that’s why we had the spray job as well.

Even though I knew the paint job would be quick, I gave the excuse that I hated to paint, which is actually true and started working on the tractor.  My grandfather finished his painting well before I had completed the work on the tractor, but he stayed out there, talked about baseball, and occasionally walked over to the tractor and said that looks good.  More than a few times, he said that he had a little trick for removing a hard to access bolt, screw, or repositioning a line, and talked me through it or demonstrated.  Night had fallen when the task had been completed, and I worked the field the following morning before heading to school.

I learned a lot more than the results of pouring diesel in a gas engine that afternoon and night.  I learned more than simple identification.  I learned about perspectives of putting yourself in the place of the other person.  I learned about character and accepting that often blame is shared.  I learned that regardless of cause, some things had to be repaired and whether or not you had any hand in the damage you had a responsibility.  I learned that strength can be displayed more from being gentle than from being forceful.  I learned about respect and what the concept really means.  I have since learned that even though I did not have an iota at that stage in my life, I have reaped benefits from  the magnitude of the multiple lessons taught, remembered, and later applied as the result of mistakes on my part.  I learned about life, but am only now realizing how little I really know, and how blessed I am to have had lessons of both past and present to help compensate for my many weaknesses.