Doing the Right Thing

Oct. 27, 2008
When you have a job with the word security in the description, you always have a higher calling to do the right thing.

My childhood home was a tiny, two-bedroom affair on a brick street. We had no garage—garages were a luxury for the wealthy neighbors whose homes backed to the alley. One of these well-to-do property owners decided to make extra money by parking his car on his lawn and renting out his two garage spaces. My father rented one to keep our car off the street.

The garage had a chicken-wire fence separating the two spaces. When I would enter our side to retrieve my bicycle, I used to snoop through the wire to see what the neighbor kept on his side. I was standing there musing over a collection of old car parts one afternoon when I heard my name called from the kitchen door.

“Yeah, Mom?” I called back, hoping it was not a call to duty.

“While you’re in the garage, get out the mower and take it over to Mrs. Flaherty’s and mow her grass. She’s in the hospital. You’ll need the clippers, too, because you have to trim the grass around the house and flower beds,” she replied. She then forcefully shut the door to let me know no quibbling or complaining would be tolerated.

Mrs. Flaherty didn’t mow her grass when she was feeling well, but that didn't matter. This was how nice neighbors behaved in our tight community. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I also knew I didn’t want to do it. I spent the next five minutes complaining to the spiders and crickets in the garage. It made me feel better, but it didn’t change the situation.

I grudgingly dragged the rusty reel mower out into the alley and went back for the can of oil Dad kept on the shelf. Powered mowers were only used in the more affluent sections of my town, and our postage-stamp lawn required about 20 minutes for a complete cut with this antique grass cutter. But Mrs. Flaherty’s yard was different. Not only did she have the largest yard on the block, she owned the lot next door on which no house had yet been built. I was in for several hours of sweaty manual labor.

I generously oiled the wheels and gears that rotated the curved blades, cursing the shiny pile of car parts that had kept me from getting away in time. I dragged my feet between the garage and Mrs. Flaherty’s yard and finally forced myself to confront the Herculean task before me.

I began by mowing the smaller yard around the house, hoping that my father would arrive home from work, see me shoving and dragging the old mower around her lawn, and offer to finish the vacant lot for me. Of course, I knew my father’s feelings on the subject: Hard work is good for the boy and preferable to aimless play or, God forbid, idleness.

As I finished a section along the side of the house, I saw my father’s green 1963 Ford Galaxie come down the street. I’d had a long time to write the script for this event. I grabbed my handkerchief and made an exaggerated swipe across my forehead as he cruised past. He smiled, waved, and drove on toward the alley.

I used my sweat-mopping routine as an opportunity to take a break. I looked over toward our house and stood leaning on the mower’s handle for several minutes, hoping to see him come across the front to finish the job. My relief did not come. I went on to attack the grass in the vacant lot, knowing that if I was going to wait for a miracle, I would be waiting right through dinner.

After another hour and a half of angling the mower from one corner of the lot to the other, I finally finished cutting the grass. I breathed a sigh of relief and began to drag the mower back toward the alley when I looked down and saw the clippers. The job wasn’t done.

For those of you who don’t remember the days before motorized string trimmers, grass in this era was most often tidied up around walkways, foundations and flowerbeds using handheld clippers. These looked like large scissors except that their blades crossed side-to-side. The operator was required to bend, sit, or lean down to the unruly growth, and then clip four-inch segments with each compression of the handles.

Inevitably, this process saddled me with painful blisters with each protracted use. Gloves? These were out of the question for a boy my age. The blisters were preferable to the ignominy of being seen by my peers wearing gardening gloves.

I stared at those clippers for several moments, feeling the sweat running down my sore back and the spongy weakness in my legs. I made a decision. I grabbed the clippers and made a cursory swipe at the flower beds in front of Mrs. Flaherty’s house. That was the view my father would have when he drove by the following morning. I then quickly ran the mower into the garage, dropped the clippers on a shelf and went into the house for dinner.

“You mother told me about poor Mrs. Flaherty,” my father said to me. “Did you finish mowing her lawn and the lot?”

“Yeah, Dad, I did.” I replied.

“Did you finish her trimming?” he asked.

“Yes, I trimmed,” I replied perfunctorily, hoping to avoid the complete, bald-faced lie.

“OK,” he said, changing the subject to the weather. I was saved. No more was to be said.

After dinner, my father went outside ostensibly to sit on the porch, and I meekly followed him out, hoping he would take his guitar. It was a nightly summer ritual. But instead of taking his favorite chair with his cup of coffee, he walked off the porch toward Mrs. Flaherty’s. My heart sank. I slunk away toward the alley, but before I could turn the corner I heard him call.

“Yes, Dad?” I said, moving slowly toward him, hoping he would notice the hitch in my gait from the long afternoon of effort.

“You tried to pull one over on me,” he said sternly, without turning to look at me. He stood rock still, eyes boring in on the untrimmed grass along the side of Mrs. Flaherty’s house. “You didn’t trim.”

“Yes, I did!” I protested, waving my hand along the flower beds in front to deflect his gaze. It didn’t work. He just kept looking at the work I had skipped. When he turned, he didn’t raise his voice or threaten me. My guilt was proven; the sentence for my deceit would come next.

“You will mow and trim Mrs. Flaherty’s property weekly for the rest of the summer. I will call her son who normally does it, and tell him you will take over this responsibility until I say you have finished. I will check it each week for quality and completeness. Now go get the trimmers and finish your job.”

I am always reminded of the price I had to pay that summer for trying to palm off a slovenly and incomplete job. After my father’s pronouncement, I didn’t hear anything more about the incident until I was released from my weekly engagement in late September. When it was all over, my father simply said, “Next time, do what’s right, and don’t cheat our friends and neighbors. You only cheat yourself.” Security practitioners and others with important safety occupations have a similar duty for completeness and accuracy, and above all, truthfulness. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there were many accusations among politicians, public officials, relief agencies and citizens of the Gulf States. Apparently, plans to evacuate a city like New Orleans existed, but the plans were not enacted. Public servants wrestled with laws, rules and regulations while politicians tried to deflect responsibility. It was a sorry display of sordid behavior by many highly compensated people.

You may not be charged with the safety of hundreds of thousands of people, but when you have a job with the word security in the description, you always have a higher calling to do the right thing. You can try to scrimp with short cuts, or even try to skate by on shoddy performance, praying you are never called upon in a crisis. But ultimately, something will happen, and people will be relying on your efforts for their safety and protection.

The punishment I had to endure that summer was brutal for a nine-year-old boy. I could see in Mrs. Flaherty’s kindly gaze when she came home from the hospital that she was aware a lesson was being taught. It’s best to learn these lessons early, then to endure the punishment that comes from knowing your professional integrity was found wanting when the chips were down. Besides, you are also cheating yourself.

John McCumber is a security and risk professional. He is the author of Assessing and Managing Security Risk in IT Systems: A Structured Methodology from Auerbach Publications. Mr. McCumber can be reached at [email protected].