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GUEST COLUMN

Put a hand up and take your hat off to my dad

I don't mention my dad often in this column but, at age 72, he's a wealth of wisdom. Here, in his own words, is a classic Jay Earle story that always inspires me:

I was just 18 and fresh from training when I was assigned to Chief Petty Officer Charles Mitton's unit.

If you looked up 'Old Salt' in the dictionary, you'd find Chief Mitton. A crusty tail gunner, he'd had two planes shot out from under him, and was on the aircraft carrier Enterprise when the Japanese sunk it.

As chief, he made a practice of requesting volunteers for the grungier jobs.

Now, we weren't the most motivated group of guys. Most of us wound up in the Navy for lack of a better plan and we generally followed the 'never volunteer' rule. Since nobody ever came forward, Chief Mitton always had to select someone.

My best friend in the unit was a 17-year-old kid named Al Schwartz who dropped out of 10th grade to enlist. One day Al said, 'Earle, I think the chief asks for volunteers because he doesn't like to assign nasty jobs. I bet if we volunteered, he would find a way to repay us.'

I disagreed. 'Why would a tough guy like the chief be afraid to assign a bunch of low-lifes like us a dirty job?'

But Al was my friend, so I reluctantly agreed to go along with his plan. When the chief requested volunteers to cut the grass around the ammunition dumps, our hands went up. After hours in the scalding Virginia heat dragging a couple of old push mowers up and down seemingly endless hills of weeds, Al and I proudly told the chief, 'We're done!' His response was a curt, 'Thanks.' And that was it.

Undeterred - well, Al was undeterred - we volunteered twice more, for equally unpleasant duties, and all the chief said was, 'Thanks.'

I was ready to give up, but I agreed to volunteer once more. The next job was replacing several 100-pound airplane machine guns in under an hour so the plane could fly that night. Our haste and inexperience cost us several badly mangled fingers.

Upon completion, the chief took one look at our black and blue fingers and asked what we were up to with all this volunteering. Al leveled with him, saying, 'Chief, I don't think you actually like to assign the dirty jobs, so I figured if we volunteered you would find a way to cut us some slack.'

The chief didn't say anything for a long while and I swear I saw his eyes tear up.

I'm thinking, this guy has shot down Japanese planes with the tail of his own plane blown apart, and now he's about to cry because Schwartz has discovered he's actually a nice guy.

After a long pause, the chief said, 'You're right! Now take tomorrow off to let those fingers heal and, by the way, keep on volunteering.'

From then on we were the golden boys of the unit. The chief gave us plenty of tough jobs, but he also gave us jobs that got us extra time off. And he even invited us to the 'Old Gunner's Card Game.'

Al and I both eventually left the Navy, attending college on the GI Bill. We gradually lost touch, but I carried Al's lesson with me over a long and successful career. The benefits I reaped from seeing the boss's point of view are too many to list.

Al passed away recently and one of my biggest regrets is that I never thanked him for showing me what happens when you volunteer.

I doubt either of us would have guessed those two sweaty kids pushing mowers would go as far as we did. But thanks to Al's good sense and initiative, I learned a lesson I never forgot."

- Jay Earle

Lisa Earle McLeod is a nationally syndicated columnist and the author of "Forget Perfect" and "Finding Grace When You Can't Even Find Clean Underwear." Contact her or join her interactive blog at www.ForgetPerfect.com.

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