When the ox is in the ditch, jump into the ditch and get it out!

My dad was one of the smartest guys I ever met…great technical skills as an engineer and musician and just plain good sense.  He taught me a lot.

One of the best lessons he ever gave me was the “Ox in the ditch” advice.  He told it to me throughout my life…until I completely understood it and until it actually guided my actions.  The basic premise is…if the ox is in the ditch, don’t look around for the person in charge of getting the ox out…jump in and get the ox out.  It is up to you and no job is beneath you.

I had many of great examples of people who were never taught this philosophy who I then ended up working with during my career.  By the way…they were few and far between…most places I worked were filled with “ox extractor”.  You didn’t even have to ask…they just jumped in and got the work done.  Not this one guy…he showed up for his first day of work as a 23 year old graduate of Notre Dame with a Masters degree in business.  The big boss had an important presentation that morning and, at the last minute, asked me to make a hundred copies of his presentation (no PowerPoint in those days).  I grabbed the new hire and headed for the copy machines.  We are standing there running copies and the new guys says…as glum as can be…”So this is why I bothered to get a Masters degree.”

He did not make it very far up the corporate ladder…just was not a great team player and always thought lots of jobs were beneath him.  I helped him choose another direction for his career…wanted him out of my team asap.

I bring this up because I just experienced a very unique couple of days in my life.  I am 71 years old.  Comfortably retired.  Living in Hawaii.  Enjoying every single day.  But you know what…we have an eruption going on.  It is a nasty and destructive eruption that is tearing through whole communities and taking homes and businesses.  Some of those homes and businesses are owned by good friends of mine.  So…knowing one of my friends was in the lava path, I joined up with four other friends…and then we joined up with a half dozen or so people I either did not know or barely knew…and we went about the job of getting the ox out of the lava path…evacuating a couple of homes and a business before the lava could take it (don’t know at this writing if the lava has overtaken the property or not…but it was damn close when we all evacuated).

Was I a key member of this team or a highly productive teammate…absolutely not…but I could help with a lot of chores and grab things for people and find things we needed to get out and keep a careful eye on the lava advance…so I was not entirely useless.  Most of the rest of the guys and gals just plain worked their butts off.  We dismantled big heavy dangerous things, got them to the ground and got them on trailers to take them out of harms way.  The work was long and hot and the air quality sucked (a technical term).  We could hear the lava exploding and puffing and cracking and feel the ground shake from time to time.  The emergency helicopters were low and almost directly above us…not a good sign…they were stationed right over the lava.

At one point we got word that a neighbors house was just about to be taken by the lava.  We abandoned our work and ran over to the neighbors house.  As I rounded the turn I was awestruck by what I saw…a ten foot high wall of lava pushing down 200 foot tall trees like they were tooth picks.  The lava was relentless…it just kept coming.  Everyone ran into the house and grabbed something.  When the back of the house came in contact with the lava and caught fire, some of our team was still running in the front of the house and pulling things out.  Last thing I saw saved…one of our guys ran over and took down the American flag and saved it from destruction.  We then stood back and watched the destruction for a few silent minutes…and then ran back to our job at our friends house to get it completed.  Our tears dried on the way back to work.

All this work went on for hours and hours over the course of several days (our friend had or has two sizable houses and a very sizable work yard with big equipment in it).  Not one time did I ever see an argument…or harsh words…or hard feelings…we just stayed focused on the work that needed to be done.  The young guys did most of the work and us older guys did what we could and no one ever got on us for the difference.  It was pretty damn remarkable. the women who were there jumped right into the fray…grabbing heavy furniture or boxes and getting them out of the house and onto a trailer.  I was damn proud to be part of that team.

When the situation got tense at the end…the lava was getting near and the volcanic gases were even closer…I looked at the end of the drive way and there was a County crew…and one of my great friends from this island…there to watch our backs and make sure we did not get trapped by the advance.  He showed up when we needed him…no call…just showed up….an ox extractor and a man who knows what the aloha spirt is all about.

When it was all said and done…we all just dispersed…some of us towing trailers…some of us headed home…a few of us headed to the airport for a sunset survey of the huge lava field by helicopter.  My camera and I were part of that last group…and the view from the air was breath taking, humbling…a mix of beauty and destruction.  I got a glimpse of our friends property and it was still standing…I hope that continues.

I never got to thank anyone for letting me be a small part of that ad hoc group.  I saw things I will probably never see again in my life.  Saw creation.  Saw destruction.  Saw people doing the right thing for a friend who has done so much for each of us over a long period of time.  I am proud to be an ox extractor.  Proud to live on the Big Island.  And proud of the diverse group of people who came together at just the right time to help a friend.  Aloha.