It seemed like a good idea at the time

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mark Murphy
  • 354th Maintenance Squadron commander
Jeff Foxworthy has nothing on my family. No kidding - this really happened.

I grew up in an old farmhouse. My older brother Joey and I lived upstairs, where the only source of electricity was a bare bulb hanging in the center of the room, to which we ran a spider web of extension cords.

Dad's an electrical engineer, so he decided to bring the upper half of the house into the 20th century by wiring it for electricity.

The only problem dad had was that he needed to find a path to run wiring from the basement up to the second floor. After deciding that my bedroom wall ran from the attic to the basement, he hatched a plan to shoot a rifle down the inside of the wall in order to find a place to run the wiring up from the basement.

Now, before you pass judgment, I need to point out that dad wasn't stupid. He waited until mom left the house for a few hours before implementing his plan.

When the day came, he sent Joey up into the attic with a flashlight, a radio, double ear protection and the same .22-caliber rifle he'd taken away earlier for accidentally shooting it in the house.

The attic was tight, dark and dusty; Joey had to hunch over precariously on the rafters, flashlight in one hand and rifle in the other, trying to shoot an invisible target through a gap four inches wide and several feet long. Dad and I took the other radio into the basement to watch for the bullet.

That's right. Our plan was to stand at the other end of the basement and watch for the bullet when it came out. Dad said it was OK because the basement had a dirt floor.

Dad keyed the radio and told Joey to fire. We heard a soft "pap" from far above us, but didn't see anything. We searched the ceiling for holes, but found none. Dad wasn't deterred. He concluded that the .22 obviously didn't have enough power to drill through the house's heavy wood construction.

However, repeated attempts with a .357 and a .44 Magnum didn't work, either. All it did was make a lot more noise. Dad was perplexed, but determined. He grabbed a .308 Winchester rifle and sent Joey up the ladder again. We knew that rifle would punch through railroad ties, and dad was confident that it would be the trump card to rewire the house.

Down in the basement, I stood behind Dad and put my fingers in my ears as he keyed the radio. The results were cataclysmic. "KAWHOOM!" roared the rifle, and the house shook to its foundations. The roar was immediately followed by the sounds of mass wreckage upstairs - things falling, crashing, clattering and banging.

Dad and I ran up the two flights of stairs. Joey was fine, but my bedroom wall had a two-foot long, foot-wide teardrop-shaped hole where the muzzle blast had blown all the plaster away from the wall's wooden structure. The dusty room smelled of gun smoke and plaster, and was covered in chunks of wall and the remains of everything that used to sit on the shelves that once hung on the wall.

Joey was coughing, and we wondered how dad was going to explain this to mom. Dad was debating what to do next, because the most powerful rifle we owned still hadn't penetrated through to the basement.

That's when I noticed something I hadn't seen before. I interrupted to say, "Dad, I don't think this wall goes to the basement."

Dad stopped in mid-sentence and looked at me, a little perturbed at the challenge to his engineering.

"Of course it does," he said dismissively, "It's the only wall here, and it runs behind the couch downstairs." He went back to his conversation.

"No, really," I persisted. "Look. Here's my bedroom wall, here's the hall, and here's the stairway wall. The bedroom wall doesn't run behind the couch - the stairway wall does. The two walls are offset by about three feet."

Dad glanced at the walls for a moment to decide how to get me to drop the issue, and a couple seconds later his face went completely white.

The wall we were shooting through ended above the living room, not the basement.

We raced downstairs to the living room in a panic. We all knew mom might abide structural damage, but if her floral print couch was shredded by small arms fire there'd be hell to pay.

Thankfully, the fates were kind to us that day. For whatever reason, none of the shots made it through the bottom of the wall. By some wild stroke of luck both the ceiling and the couch were intact.

At that point, dad decided to run the wiring up along a wall inside a closet, where he could easily drill a hole through to the basement. But the three of us formed a deeper bond on the day we shot the house.

I learned a lot more than just ballistics that day. I learned a lot of things about safety that I've seen proven true again and again.

How did this disaster happen? It began with somebody who got so locked into his own solution to a problem that he ignored warning signs to consider another path. It was perpetuated by two people who blindly deferred to the idea man rather than think critically and help him find a better way. And finally, all three got a bad case of tunnel vision that was only cured when the youngest and least experienced of the team saw something nobody had noticed.

If you're a leader, you need to realize that rank can be a problem. People may keep good input to themselves because they don't want to interrupt your flow or think you won't listen to them. You've got to reach out to those working for you and ask them directly for opinions. They'll generally come up with something you might not have considered.

If you're a follower, you owe it to leaders to help steer the train away from disaster, rather than shoveling more coal into the engine. You'll pay the price of disaster, too, so you have the right to say something to avoid it. And no matter whether you lead or follow, you need to avoid tunnel vision like the plague. If you can't see disaster coming, you won't avoid it.

Bad ideas can be just as contagious as good ideas. Think things through and be sure of which one you're dealing with before you get on board.