Putting the Dirt Where It Belongs
I spent 9 months of my 18th year in Vietnam. Like former US Vice President Al Gore, I was part of the U. S. Army’s 18th Engineer brigade. Unlike him, I got very dirty. My job was to operate an earth mover to build roads. Vietnam’s roads were narrow. The job of my battalion (the 577th) was to make one of them wider.
We brought sand from a nearby mountainside to the building site. My equipment was both large and noisy. To communicate with us who operated it, sergeants standing on the ground used hand signals. Operators would watch for, interpret, and follow these orders. The signal to begin releasing the earth from the machine, spreading it as I drove along, was a closed hand struck against an open palm. When I saw that from some distance away I was expected to set things loose. Over time, operators and and sergeants would become accustomed to each other. Big signs became less necessary, and small ones sufficed.
Once I was away for a few days when a new sergeant came. Other operators had learned how he communicated. I hadn’t. On our first day of cooperation, there was a problem. Arriving with a load of earth, I drove towards him. When we could recognize each others’ faces, mine was confused and his was angry. His hand signals became large and emphatic. Without words he told me to stop and to climb down. Then, with no small amount of profanity, he inquired why I had not put the dirt where he wanted it. I said that I hadn’t seen his sign. Only then did I learn that his orders were not given with hands, but with eyeblinks. All of the other drivers already knew that.
There’s a bible story about a priest who met a woman with a problem. She had come to talk to God. He watched her and misinterpreted her body language. The result was that he accused her of being a drunk.
Musicians have to be careful about directors’ body language, that’s often the only way they can know what to do. Conductors must beware; a sneeze might be misinterpreted as an order of how to sing or play. Social workers pay attention to what clients say and also to how they dress and move. Things that don’t match can be meaningful. But guesses have to be checked or misinterpretation can result.
The priest in the bible story saw a woman praying silently, moving her lips. His misinterpretation resulted in an accusation. But he did something right. He spoke up. He learned that he was wrong, and what she needed.
Whether we are musicians, social workers, counselors, students, teachers, heavy equipment operators or voters, we need to check our interpretations with others. Maybe we’ll see what we’ve misunderstood. Maybe in learning another’s meaning and need, we’ll put the dirt where it belongs.
David Alexander resides in Holland, MI, where he recently retired after decades in Taiwan.