A wish for that fumble-fingered Hawaiian guy
I have total sympathy for the poor, fumble-fingered guy who wreaked chaos on Hawaii Saturday when he accidentally pushed the button that sent out a text message to every resident’s cell phone saying a ballistic missile attack was underway.
On a much smaller but equally klutzy scale, I know the miserable embarrassment he’s feeling.
My day in humiliation infamy came in 1992 when, out of sheer desperation and no other choices, the members of an elementary school PTA near Austin, Texas, scraped the bottom of the officer barrel and elected me president. We raised a little money that year and bought a popcorn-popping machine so we could reward classes with popcorn parties whenever the teachers said their students deserved one.
I volunteered to serve up the first party when Mrs. Fulton’s fourth-grade class pulled off some kind of extraordinary accomplishment. I can’t remember what it was, and actually, Mrs. Fulton wasn’t the teacher’s real name. But anyway ...
As I remember (and, believe me, I try not to), she asked me to come on a November Friday afternoon that turned out to be a dark and dreary day as the cold, steady rain that had fallen most of the week continued, turning the school’s big lawn and playground into a field of deep, sticky mud.
I arrived at the school in our family minivan and unloaded my kids’ big red wagon that hauled all the stuff I would need: soft drinks, popcorn to be popped, oil, salt, cups, bags and ice. I wheeled the popcorn popper and the wagon down to the fourth-grade hallway, parked outside Mrs. Fulton’s classroom and went to work, hoping to have enough popcorn popped and bagged so that everything would be ready during the students’ upcoming last class period of the day.
I’m a terrible cook, in every regard. So those who know me won’t be surprised to know that I burned the first batch. Ugh. Nothing smells worse than burned popcorn! But I’d brought along trash bags, and without making too much of a mess on the floor, I managed to dump the black, smoldering mess into a bag and get back to work. With my one misstep out of the way, I quickly reheated the big popper again and was popping away, imagining the joy I would bring to those deserving students, when the classroom door suddenly swung open and slammed against the wall. An angry, red-faced Mrs. Fulton stood in the doorway, beckoning to her students. She saw me and snarled, “I can’t believe they’re doing this today.”
I had no idea who was doing what or why she was upset with them, but she obviously was. Then all the other classroom doors banged open, and the other teachers seemed equally upset. All the students started filing out of the classrooms, passing by me, single-file, in orderly lines. And then, to my surprise, they headed outside into the rain!
I thought I must have misunderstood the time I was supposed to come and somehow had mistakenly arrived at recess time. But that was strange because I knew, from my own two kids’ whining, that the students hadn’t had recess outside all week due to the awful weather.
But there they all went, out the doors and into the pouring rain and sticky mud.
Finally my own daughter came by. “Mama! We’re having a fire drill!” she said excitedly as she passed me.
A fire drill? Today? I wondered.
Just then Mr. Swaim, the gray-haired principal, came rushing down the hallway, arms flying as he slid around the corner on the shiny, slick tile.
“Mrs. Jones!” he hollered. “You’ve parked under the smoke detector!”
He yanked the cord out of the wall, grabbed the push bar on the popcorn popper, wheeled it down the hall and disappeared out the doors leading to the playground. Somehow, as I had bagged up the loudly popping corn cascading out of the sizzling popper, I hadn’t heard the fire alarms blaring inside the classrooms.
Stunned, a few minutes later I stood by the red wagon of party supplies as the muddy, bedraggled students – all 300-plus of them – came back into the building and walked by me with their teachers, leaving the previously shiny floor tracked with a roadway of wet, brown, messy footprints.
“I’m so sorry,” I whimpered to the kids and teachers as they passed by – and to Mr. Swaim when he returned with the rain-sprinkled popcorn popper.
I stood there looking at my feet as he pulled out his handkerchief and wiped the rain off his face. I expected him to bawl me out and say there would be no more classroom popcorn parties and I was banned from the building forever. Instead, he did the most wonderful thing. He shoved his handkerchief back in his hip pocket and looked at me, shaking his head. And then he laughed.
What a gift that was to me that day when I felt as low as a slime-licking slug. (He told me later he believed he was actually crying hysterically and I mistook it for laughing.)
He politely asked me to please pay more attention to where I parked the popcorn popper whenever the PTA was hosting a classroom party. And as I stopped by the office to apologize again on my way out of the school – after hosting a delayed but successful fourth-grade popcorn party – he actually had a gift for me: a kid-size firefighter’s hat and a little red flashing light to put on top of the popcorn machine.
On Saturday, the news reports of Hawaii’s missile-launch texts showed residents and tourists scurrying for shelter, many of them sending teary-eyed good-bye messages to their loved ones. Most of those interviewed were still rattled – and many were angry to have been put through such an unnecessary scare, especially because it took 38 minutes for the government to send out the “false alarm” correction message.
One woman told the reporter, “Heads should roll!”
I’m sorry for all those folks. What a terrifying thing to go through.
But most of all, I’m sorry for the wretched, lame-brained public employee who, according to authorities, simply pushed the alert-message button by accident. I hope that guy has someone in his life who, despite the chaos, can manage to share with him the invaluable gifts Mr. Swaim gave me on my terrible day.
The gift of forgiveness. And laughter.