Sometimes it the best way to learn is to watch as someone else fails. I learned how to be a supervisor by watching my first supervisor in the military. I worked in a sheet metal and welding shop at Travis Air Force base in windy Fairfield California. At the time I was just an Airman, lowest of the working class in the Air Force. The shop was run by civilians that worked for the military so in effect we all had two bosses. My military boss was quite a good leader and managed to motivate the military staff to do just about anything he asked and enjoy the job at the same time. This was quite different in regards to our civilian foreman. He is the one that taught me the most.
I knew that I wouldn’t like him from the first moment I met him. He is one of those people who lengthen their name in an effort to sound young. His name was Jim Gunther. He was about five foot tall skinny little man with a salt and pepper comb over and big bushy eyebrows. He insisted that everyone call him Jimmy. His other endearing personality trait was that his voice modulated with his level of anger. When he was relaxed (rarely) his voice was that of an average 12 year old boy. When he got angry the volume and pitch would rise until only dogs and bats could hear him. He spent most of his time in his office and only came out to complain about cleanliness, bad language, the smell of cigarette smoke, or offer suggestions on how to better bend sheet metal. He was nearly incompetent at metalworking and had a deep inferiority complex combined with a palpable disdain for any physical labor. I learned early that many of my co-workers sometimes used subtle methods to express their feelings.
Orientation and processing took up my first week at Travis; this seemed to make Jimmy, I’m sorry, Mr. Gunther, really angry. It was obvious that he thought that military duties, outside of banging tin, were a waste of time and an excuse to goof off.
On the last day of orientation I had to complete a training exercise on the use of NBC protective clothing and the gas mask. NBC stands for Nuclear Biological Chemical, basically a complete suit that you wear to protect from potential nastiness that may be dished out by the some cold war communist power bent on taking over the free world. Well, that’s what we were told in 1984. Anyway, some of the other guys in my shop were due to go through the same training, so I was not completely among strangers. This training really pissed off Jimmy since his work force was, for this one day, cut in half. I am sure he suspected all of us were in a pool hall drinking beer and laughing at him.
The last part of the NCB training was the confidence chamber. This was a box the size of a bus where we all lead inside wearing our uniforms and a gas mask, the goal was to test to see if we put on and correctly sized our gas masks. Once inside they closed the door and turned on the gas. The gas was CS tear gas. Tear gas is made up of tiny sharp particles that irritate the eyes and mucus membranes. I knew my mask worked well because I was not in any distress. This was quite gratifying, but was still anxious to get out. Then the sergeant told us to take off our masks, which we did with out hesitation. Gas masks are uncomfortable and difficult to breathe through. The gas was still in the chamber. While tearing, choking and coughing we fumbled out the door into the tarmac. “Face into the wind and shake your cloths and hair to get the particles off” the instructor suggested. The others in my shop didn’t do any such thing. They simply took me aside and said “let’s head back to the shop”. I didn’t understand why, but they seemed to know what they were doing, besides Jimmy wanted us back to work as soon as we were done with out training and not to stop off for anything. I hate to think of what he thought we were going to do.
So we reported directly to his office. The four of us stood in his office scratching our heads and ruffling our cloths while he talked on the phone. It was then that I realized what my co-workers were doing; they were liberally dusting the microscopic sharp particles off their uniforms and out of their hair into Jimmy’s office. When he finally got off the phone we pleaded to him to please let us go back to our dorm rooms and change cloths and shower because of the NBC class. He said no and told us to get to work. We left his office while vigorously ruffling our uniforms and hair then closed the door behind us. It was nearly lunch so we worked for a bit then hit the showers. Jimmy wasn’t so lucky. He stayed in his office and toughed it out while tearing and blowing his nose the rest of the day. He refused to leave his CS contaminated office. By the end of the day he looked like hell. Puffy red eyes, runny nose, and red faced from coughing. To this day I have no idea if he made the connection between us and his discomfort, seemed pretty obvious to us, but he could have been that dense.
This became a pattern over the next year. He would stay in his office for a while, then come out and piss off his workers. Then something would happen and he would hide in his office for a few weeks. I can’t imagine that this could go on for a long period of time with out some disastrous consequences.
A week or so later he blew him self up lighting the pilot light in the shop furnace. No, he didn’t get seriously injured; he just lost his eyebrows and part of his comb over. No one in the shop would admit to any misdeeds related to the shop furnace, it may have been an accident. Looking back to how we treated Jimmy makes me a little sad. I don’t remember him being that bad to me, but then again I was just an airman and probably not worth his wrath. I do clearly remember how Jimmy looked with no eyebrows and a screwed up comb over. My co-workers though this was hilarious and reminisced often about this with others. It almost makes me wish I witnessed the event.
I think I learned more from Jimmy about how to be a good leader than all the other supervisors combined. Well, maybe not a good leader, but one that doesn’t get screwed periodically by his subordinates. I don’t know what ever happened to Jimmy, I was stationed at Travis AFB for only a year before getting orders to England. I never went back to visit.
Thanks Jimmy I learned a lot.
Sorry about gassing you in your office.
I hope your eyebrows grow back.