Developing Basic Courtesy for Life: Showing up on Time

When I joined the U.S. Army, I was sent to Basic Combat Training at Fort Benning, Georgia. BCT is a non-stop physical and mental trial, accentuated by the use of authority to enforce discipline. Although BCT is decades past, my persistent memory to this day is of Drill Sergeant Harrison. Tall, strong, big, and black – a real tough guy. He was a man with enormous leadership presence and from whom I learned a lifetime lesson which I passed to my sons: The basic courtesy of showing up on time.

When our 40-man platoon had to arrive at any area on the base, Drill Sergeant Harrison demanded that we get there wayyyy ahead of time. When the last couple of guys would be running up to the platoon’s formation, you’d hear it loud and clear – “If you’re five minutes EARLY, darn it, YOU’RE LATE!” It was intimidating as heck and I heard that, no exaggeration, hundreds of times. And there was retribution for anyone who was four minutes early, agony for those “on time.”

That phrase and that ethos stuck in my mind long after leaving Fort Benning. Hence, from their earliest years, my boys heard that phrase incessantly. I carefully explained to them my badass Drill Sergeant and the reason for his call to action. In fact, it was Dad’s first “saying” and rightly so. Because consider: What is a pretty common scene with Dads and sons? Going somewhere.

And that’s why all four of us would bellow it in the countless situations in which kids have To Be Somewhere. We’d yell it as we headed to school and practices and on errands. I explained to them that being early encourages responsibility, allows for last-minute disruptions, and it makes an impression on everyone. Being early shows respect and pinpoints an individual who is organized. Being early for anything allows you to see how situations are shaping up and gives a kid a sense of calm before whatever event he is attending heats up. There’s no anxiety in being early. It makes you ready.

My three sons learned the corollary – that being late is rude. Period. Not being punctual reveals laziness and selfishness. Being tardy prompts excuses. Being late, in fact, becomes habitual.

Hence, being early became habitual; we delighted in it. The boys and I would arrive early for Everything – for school, practices, birthday parties and bar mitzvahs, a drop off at a friend’s house or a pick-up. In fact, the Nelligan’s were always early. our sphere of acquaintances, we were known for this, and sometimes we’d get some easy chiding.

“Hey guys,” I told them, “this is as simple as it gets. How do you feel about that big-time loser coming into a classroom when everyone is already in their seats, or running up to practice when everyone’s already on the field? Or waiting for a friend to show up at a movie?”

Then one day, because life never fails to instruct, it happened. The four of us were in the school auditorium for an evening function. The program had already begun and the Principal was jabbering away. And then the Adler family showed up, making a scene with the noise of the heavy doors opening and the scraping of chairs while sitting down.

Afterward, we were standing around and Mr. Adler, whom I knew from school and the neighborhood, walked up and asked if he’d missed anything, saying “We were late getting here because we’re always so d*mn busy.” I paused a beat, ensuring the boys were listening, and replied with as much control as I could, “Yeah, I hear you. Well, I guess the Nelligan’s are just lucky. We’re never busy.” Adler gave me a pained look and moved away.

My three sons looked at me with wide-eyes and grins; they couldn’t believe I’d actually said that with a straight face and pulled it off. They were too polite to laugh but when we got into the car later, they were howling. The old man had thrown the long bomb.

Of course, they were aware our family had as much going as any other family. Equally important, they knew their goof-ball Dad was crazy and bold enough to say this to an adult.  Years afterward, we always joked about Mr. Adler and how just totally busy the Adlers were and how that made them always late to everything, which they were. It was the perfect example of an excuse, by an adult, no less, about being late.

As exemplified by being late, individuals become addicted to excuses. And if a person lives with excuses about the little things, chances are they graduate to excuses about bigger things. Being ahead of time, not on time, is the simplest thing to manage. It requires no skill, no brains. “Guys!” I would tell them, “If we can’t pull this off, how are we going to follow through on tough stuff?!”

Over the years, there was hardly a week where the phrase wasn’t uttered a half dozen times. That’s because, as I said, with Dads and kids, there is always somewhere to be. You are always arriving. The greatest joy was my 6-year-old son yelling the signature phrase and kids and parents looking on in puzzlement.

There was another slogan Drill Sergeant Harrison used that became a family punchline. When the boys and I would see kids and parents show up late at some event, while we were already there and ready for anything, we’d say loudly to each other, “And when you’re LATE, darn it, YOU’RE WRONG!”


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