To Err is Human

Let me begin by stating that this is a column that many of my fellow fire service writers would not write. However, I am doing this because it is the right thing for me to do. There is no getting around it. When you screw up you must apologize. That has been my way for a long time now. You do not hide, neither do you make excuses or seek to place the blame on someone else. No, when you make a mistake you apologize. Since my most recent screw up was of the major league variety, so it is that my apology must also rise to the level of the occasion.

Well my friends, I guess by now you are thinking that 'good old' Harry has really fouled up. Here goes my friends, let me tell you a little tale about a personal mistake I made the other day. I was supposed to deliver a very special speech for my friend Dayna Hilton on Wednesday, June 29 at the National Fire Academy.

It was my assignment to create and deliver a remembrance for her late fire safety sidekick, Sparkles. It was an engagement which I willingly accepted. It was an event to which I looked forward with a great of pride and excitement. However, it was an event at which I never appeared.

My friends, I simply screwed up. I had the wrong date on my calendar. For some reason when Dayna told me that it was to occur on June 29, my brain registered June 30 and that is what I put on all of my calendars. That is what I told my wife Jackie (She, who must be obeyed). I even reserved a room at the Marriott Courtyard in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania so that I would not have a long drive on the day of the event.

I wrote the speech and sent it to Dayna for her approval. Her message told me that she liked it a lot. I edited it, tweaked it, broadened it and narrowed it down. You know, all of the stuff that one should do when editing any important message. I placed it in plastic page protectors and assembled a very nice looking loose-leaf binder.

Dayna took the time to send me a PDF file with the program for the event. Now pay attention my friends, because here is where the depth and range of my personal mistake begins to manifest make itself. I printed out the program, placed it in the plastic page protector and put it in the loose-leaf notebook. What I failed to do was read the program.

Had I read the program, I would have noted (since I do understand a bit about the English language) that the date was June 29, 2011, not June 30. I would have made this discovery in sufficient time to alter my travel plans and arrive where I was supposed to be. But I did not. Therefore the ill-fortunes of fate were fed by my feral intransigence.

So there I was, sitting in my favorite recliner in the air conditioned luxury of the living room of the Carter Family Estate in beautiful, downtown Adelphia, New Jersey when I received a phone call from a friend asking me where I was. I politely informed him that I was sitting on my butt watching an old movie on the Turner Classic Movie network. He then suggested that there was somewhere else that I should be. It suddenly dawned on me that he was referring to the event in Emmitsburg, Maryland. I said no, it was on the 30th and checked my calendar. I went and check my calendar just to be sure.

It was then that I got another call which I quickly answered. It was from my friend and fellow Firehouse magazine writer Susie Nicol. She said that Dayna wanted to know where I was and how long it would take me to get to Emmitsburg. I told her that if I changed clothes quickly and did not catch any red lights that I was about four hours away. It was then that the magnitude of my screw began to well up in my mind's eye.

My friends, in this instance it was I who created all of the errors which led to me do something that I had never done before in my thirty plus years as a public speaker. I was not standing in front of the podium where my butt was supposed to be. Now please bear in mind that I have spoken in more than 30 states across our nation and in three Canadian provinces and that I had never missed a gig before.

For this I am sorry and I want Dayna to know this. Hence, this is the reason I have chosen the public nature of this my mea culpa. But how does one recover from a mistake of this magnitude? You cannot un-make a mistake. You can never recover the time lost in the midst of making a mistake. You cannot un-right the wrong of your error. Neither can you ever alter the hurt of the ill feelings which you have caused. However, what you can do, if you are very lucky, is to profit from your mistakes and seek never to make them again (if such a thing is possible). It is then important to share what you have learned so that others can avoid the mistake you have made.

Let me suggest that each of us has a well spring of experience from which we can draw the drafts of wisdom which we officer as advice. Let me suggest that experience is nothing more than our collective list of personal mistakes. What makes experience so important is that we have hopefully understood our errors and worked to take corrective actions. Those corrected actions form the basis of what we offer as examples of our experience.

As an educator, I work to share the lessons learned from the living of my life. In that way, it is my hope that I might be able to help you to avoid the mistake I have made on my journeys along the road of life. In this case, the list of lessons is not really as long as you might imagine. Here are my thoughts on how to address the error of my ways in this instance. I am suggesting that: 1. You and I have to listen better. 2. You and I must be sure to ask questions and then verbally repeat what you understand to be the answers. 3. You and I must be sure to write things down and then recite them back to the person who said them to you. 4. When you think you are done, go over things one more time.

I have been working on the first point for more than thirty years now. As you can now see more clearly, I still haven't gotten it right. Let me assure you that I shall continue my quest to become a better listener.

As part of this quest to become a better listener, I will ask more questions and then repeat the answers I receive. In this way, I will hope to avoid missing what the person was attempting to tell me. If I repeat what I think I heard and it was not correct, hopefully my communications partner will tell me of my error and then provide a proper response to head me in the proper direction.

Once this clarification process has been completed, I will write down the information in all of the appropriate places. The information will go on my office and home kitchen calendars. Then I will add it to my business workbook. In this way I will hopefully reinforce the proper dates, places, acts, actions, and activities I am supposed to undertake.

When all of the previous steps have been completed, I will pause and ask myself if I understand what has happened and what is expected of me. In this way I will attempt to leave nothing to chance in the future. I am hopeful that I have learned something important from this major-league error on my part.

Let me offer a really important piece of advice. You must never attempt to hide your mistakes. I say this to you, because nothing ever remains a secret for long in the fire service. That is my lesson for you today. Let me also thank my friends down at the National Fire Academy, Glenn Gaines, Ken Farmer, Wayne Powell and Mike Weller, who stepped forward to make up for my failure to appear.

Once again, I hope Dayna can find it in her heart to forgive the unintentional error of a grey-haired, 47-year veteran of the American Fire Service. It was not my first mistake, neither will it be my last, but I want you all to know that I will try to be better. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Read the news article Sparkles Remembered for Teaching Children.