Learning from my mentor.

April 13, 2006

Throughout my career, I’ve benefited by working with people who have helped me grow and learn. I first took a job with the D.C. Everest Area School District because I wanted to work with Al Wheeler, then the Assistant Superintendent of Schools. His reputation as an outstanding educator made me confident that he would be an excellent mentor during my first principalship. I was right. For years I boasted to friends that I worked for “the best boss in Wisconsin.”

Now, I’m green as grass in a new job and I feel a little old to be learning the ropes in a new career, living in a different culture, halfway around the world from Wisconsin. I tell myself that it’s only natural that I’ll make mistakes. In the past, I’ve always tried to learn from my errors. I’ve even boasted that “I rarely make the same mistake twice.”

Bomb clearance workers don’t have the luxury of learning from their own mistakes. Now, neither do I. I don’t do clearance work. I’m the glorified “bean counter,” or manager, in this place. But, like the villagers who live here, I spend a lot of time in land that’s never been cleared of unexploded ordnance; every day I see leftover bullets, bombs, rockets and shells that are dangerous if mishandled. I don’t want to be the cause of an accident, so I ask a lot of questions and copy the behavior of the experienced hands. Fortunately, I’m learning the ropes from the best people in the business. Once again, I have an excellent mentor.

Every year, at the Marathon County Historical Society, we show the extraordinary documentary Bombies. In that film, the “authority” and “resident expert” is a retired British airman named Paul Stanford. I’m proud to say that Paul is now my guide and teacher here at Phoenix Clearance Limited. I do what Paul tells me to do. He’s patient with my questions. Paul’s in his eleventh year of bomb removal in Laos and possesses knowledge you can’t find in any book. I replay his advice over and over in my mind.

From time to time, I’ll share with readers the wisdom that Paul imparts. For starters, here is his opinion about whether big bombs are more dangerous than small bombs:

“Big bombs or small bombs. They’re all the same. It doesn’t make any difference how far over the field they scatter you. You’ve got to treat them all the same.”

On an acceptable margin of error:

“You’ve got to get it right. First time; every time.”

On the skills needed to do his job:

“Anyone can blow something up. The trick is to not blow yourself up, or blow up somebody else.”

We are finding ordnance on almost every parcel of land where we send clearance crews to look for it. In the months ahead, I’ll have ample opportunity to learn more about unexploded ordnance (UXO) and how it impacts the lives of the Lao people. I plan to share what I learn with students, teachers and other visitors to this site. It won’t be my knowledge that I’ll be passing on, but the wisdom of the professionals I work with. I hope the experience is as stimulating for my readers as it is for me.

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