Everyone knows what teamwork is. We have been inculcated with the doctrine and importance of teamwork since we were children.

Some examples of teamwork, which readily jump to mind, are basketball teams, baseball teams, football teams, NASCAR pit crews, and relay teams. All these teams have a unifying factor that most people would say is an obvious essential to any definition of teamwork: these teams all pull together to achieve a desired goal. You will never see a relay runner grab the baton and take off across the infield or a water polo player suddenly begin to swim the ball to the goal they are defending.

Recently I decided to binge watch every episode (452) of an old TV classic, “Death Valley Days.” Somewhere along this journey were a couple episodes, which actually talked about the “Twenty Mule Teams,” and I learned a lot about these mule teams. This piqued my curiosity to know more, and I was not disappointed in what I discovered.

Mules are not stubborn. They are just too smart to do something stupid. Mules have an abundance of common sense and a natural self-preservation from harm. Mules get their physical prowess from horses and their intelligence from donkeys in a rare genetic triumph, which bestows the best qualities from each contributing breed in severable desirable ways.

The ore train itself was comprised of two freight wagons 16 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 6 feet deep, weighing 7800 pounds each, empty. A third tanker wagon holding 1200 gallons of water brought up the rear. An 80-foot logging chain was used to hitch the first 9 pair of mules. Six categories of mules made up the mule team. The “leaders” were the first pair. Intelligent and large, they knew their names and responded to the input of a jerk line from a Driver 9 teams back. The next 10 mules comprised the “swing” team. All they needed to know were the commands “stop” and “pull.” Following them were the “sixes” and “eights” and “pointers.” These were highly intelligent and highly trained beasts. They knew their names and could respond individually to orders from the driver; it is their function on which I wish to elaborate. The final pair were the “wheelers,” the largest and strongest pair; they also knew their names and were responsible to begin the movement of the wagon train. They were the only ones hitched to the tongue of the wagon, which of course gives direction to the 7’ tall wheels. Two humans went along, a driver (commonly called a “Muleskinner”) who used both verbal instruction and the rein with a 22’ whip for sound effects, and a “Swamper” who cared for the animals and rode the second wagon to put on the brakes on downgrades so the Team wouldn’t be overrun.

The entire assemblage weighed about 73,200 pounds and stretched a whopping 180 feet, nearly 2/3 the length of a football field! There was one mule for each 3,660 pounds! Quite impressive numbers indeed. The route was 172 miles from Furnace Creek, CA, in Death Valley to Mojave, CA. It has steep stretches and some substantial corners to maneuver. How does this team, assembled on a chain, pulling a heavy load, change directions, and go around several hairpin turns?

If they all pulled in the same direction, they would eventually pull the wagon right into the valleys, and the mules would be swept off a cliff on inside turns or into the embankment on outside turns. One way would result in death, the other way disaster.

Here’s how they did it: Some of the mules had an even more highly developed sense of self-preservation than a normal mule. These mules, the sixes and the eights, were perfectly suited to be trained to actually jump the logging chain and pull in an entirely different direction than the swing team and the leaders. They were also trained to pull while sidestepping. The pointers performed the same function differently as they actually “pointed” the wheelers to the desired direction of the wagons. 

The sixes, eights, and pointers had to go against their natural inclination, break formation, jump over a chain, counter the movements of the 12 mules in front of them, and either pull towards the embankment or towards a precipice! At any given time, up to four different directional forces were acting to get the freight wagons to proceed in the direction they had to go. Even though this breaks every normal definition of teamwork, everyone working together in the same direction to the finish line, it fits perfectly with the goals of teamwork as it pertains to achieving their goals successfully.

There’s a lesson I learned from this example of teamwork, which pertains to our Ahavas Israel community as members of a Kehilla: not everyone has to be pulling in the same direction at the same time to have success as a team. Walking in lock step with a group can even destroy the way the group needs to work to progress successfully from one point to another.

Finally, as intelligent beings, like the more intelligent mules, we should not be afraid to jump the chain and walk in another direction to reach our goals. It is my sincere hope that as a Congregation all of our members will realize the many ways we can work together as a team for the greater good, even if it means that at times we may seem to be walking alone towards our destination.

Vice President,

Doug de Lange

Ahavas Israel Board Member