The Broken Pulley
By Mel B.
Volume 49 Issue 1
Some years ago, I realized that much of the great staying power of the AA program is wrapped up in Step Ten: “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.” In my opinion, this Step suggests the daily practice of Steps Four through Nine and is designed to keep us from lapsing into complacency and self-righteousness.
Step Ten has saved me from more mistakes than I can count. But time and again, I’ve delayed taking this Step–because of pride and fear. One of my sneakiest evasions has simply been in posing as morally superior to the person I have wronged.
Since I’m more comfortable discussing past sins than those I’m committing today, I’ve talked recently about the time I broke the cast-iron pulley in the Detroit engine plant where I worked in 1952. I can find no better example of using the other person’s faults to gloss over my own mistakes–even when there’s no logical connection.
At the time of the broken-pulley incident, I was well into my second year of AA sobriety. For the first time in my life–and as a result of AA–I was doing the right things, such as getting to work on time and paying my way in life. AA sobriety had enabled me to graduate from alternating periods of homelessness and dependency to a steady life. I was grateful for my job in a clean factory with good benefits, and I even had a new car to drive to meetings.
Though I was getting along well with fellow workers, I was secretly critical of our foreman, Chris. His sin? Well, in my view he was a terrible bigot, particularly toward blacks who wanted to move into his all-white residential neighborhood. By contrast, I considered myself an exemplar of true racial tolerance. After all, I attended interracial AA meetings in Detroit and sometimes lunched with blacks in the company cafeteria. This, I imagined, demonstrated that I was far ahead of Chris and the older members of my family in social responsibility.
Aside from his racial views, Chris was an excellent boss. He understood production and had worked in the Detroit factories for thirty years or more. Surprisingly, he worked well with the blacks in the company. He was also fair and forgiving of mistakes, as he was the day I broke the pulley.
It went this way: In assembling special diesel engine units for our customers, our job was to install accessories on the basic engines received from the assembly line. This included installing drive pulleys onto the engine shafts. Performing such an installation one day, I was too impatient to find the wooden block that was usually used to tap the pulley into place, so I tapped directly with my hammer instead.
I had been able to get away with this several times before, but this time the worst happened–I broke the thin wall of the pulley groove. Since all expensive breakages like this had to be accounted for by the foreman, I reluctantly reported it to Chris.
I can still remember my embarrassment as Chris looked over the pulley and slowly shook his head. “How did it happen?” he asked. “Didn’t you use a wooden block to drive it on?”
My first thought was to lie about it–to say that I used the block but the hammer slipped and struck the thin part of the pulley anyway. The AA program, however, had given me enough honesty to sidestep such a lie, so I frankly admitted that I had been careless.
Chris sighed, wrote up the damaged part on the necessary scrap form, and then said curtly, “Under the contract, I could suspend you three days for this. But I’ll let it go this time. Just see that you do things the right way after this.”
I should have been relieved and grateful. There were other foremen in the plant who issued suspensions for such violations, so Chris was well within his rights. Even the union contract conceded the necessity for suspensions for negligent work. I was being let off gently.
But instead of being grateful, I felt furious and humiliated for the rest of the afternoon. And whenever the thought of the incident came back again, I also felt a resentment toward Chris. Sure I was guilty of breaking the pulley. But what right did he have to pass judgment on me in such a brusque manner when he was guilty of the far greater shortcoming of racial bigotry?
If this sounds like twisted reasoning, it certainly was. Chris’s racial bigotry or other personal faults had nothing to do with the issue of my work performance. In the matter of the broken pulley, Chris was 100 percent right and I was 100 percent wrong. When I broke the pulley, I had shortchanged the company and reduced the output in Chris’s section. He had every right to be upset. It was as simple as that, and I should have admitted it promptly.
That was nearly forty years ago. I worked for Chris only a few more months before joining the company where I was to work for thirty-three years, mostly in public relations. The broken-pulley incident became very minor in comparison with other work responsibilities that came later, and it may seem to have little to do with the business of living sober in AA. But as I view the matter now, it’s a great example of how the Tenth Step should have been employed, then and at all times when I was clearly wrong. My sobriety would have been far richer without this devious practice of mentally switching to the other person’s faults when I made serious mistakes.
I employed the same trick later on. One of my bosses in public relations and advertising was a heavy drinker; I let myself think of that whenever he criticized something I had done. Another boss was carrying on a secret liaison with his secretary, and I used this as an excuse for feeling secretly superior to him and even believing that he had no right to criticize my work. Later on, I worked directly for the company president on some projects. Despite the fact that he was one of the finest persons I ever knew, I found some faults in him that I remembered on the very few occasions when he pointed out a mistake I had made!
So it’s a good thing, today, to remind myself that all attempts to indict those who criticize me are simply the broken-pulley incident in new forms. The Tenth Step–like all of AA’s inventory steps–says nothing about the other person’s wrongs. The only issue I ever have to deal with is any wrong I have committed in thought or deed. And I am responsible for admitting and facing such wrongs, even though the others involved may have wrongs of their own which they are not admitting or facing.
This may seem to be a humiliating, one-sided arrangement. Why should I be the one who must always admit his wrong? But it is only foolish pride and fear that would make me ask such a question. In truth, I can only gain in being able to come to a quick understanding of my mistakes when they occur. Extending this principle to all my affairs, it sometimes helps me correct a bad practice or a proposal before it has time to result in further damage. In one case, it even helped me avoid a job change that would have been very costly.
If Chris were still with us today, I think I’d look him up and discuss that broken-pulley incident with him. I don’t know if his racial views would have changed over the years, but I’d stay off that subject. My aim would be only to tell him I appreciated working for him. He was a very competent foreman, and maybe he should have issued the three-day suspension.
But he did get his point across. I never broke another pulley.