My Skills Even Famous at the Pentagon


My Skills Even Famous at the Pentagon

By Wendell Abern

Photo by Karen Gonzalez

Dear Readers,

        I made it through high school and college without having to change one flat tire or repair any broken item around our house. My mechanical ineptitude did not get exposed until I joined the Navy. To those of you who may have missed some of my incomparable exploits in previous columns, I list here but a few:

        Norfolk, Virginia. My first day on active duty in the Navy. I joined the sailors lining the gangplank leading up to my first ship, the heavy cruiser USS Albany. I showed my Naval ID to the Officer of the Deck, who ordered me to “report to the Executive Officer forthwith.”

         “What?! Er … what, sir? What have I done?”

         “You’ll find out when you get there. Leave! Now!”

         I staggered there, terrified. At the Executive Officer’s door, I saluted, my arm shaking uncontrollably. He looked me up and down, grinning sardonically.

         “Well,” he said, “Lucky me. I get to meet face-to-face with the sailor who’s the talk of the Pentagon.”

         “What? What?”

         “At ease,” he said, grin now smug. “Sit down.”

         I sat down, quivering.

         “Sailor,” he said, “You took four different tests in basic training, so the Navy will know where to assign you. Best score on any test, a 75; average score, a 45. You did very well on three of them. On the Mechanical Test, you scored a 9.”

         “It was a hard test,” I said.

         “Sailor, in the 38 years the United States Navy has been administering these tests, no one has ever scored in single digits on any test. The United States Navy does not recognize nine as a score, and has ordered me to re-administer this test the minute you board ship.”

         And with that, he handed me a copy of the Mechanical Test, which I labored over for one hour – timed by an hourglass. I handed it to the XO; he took out a stencil, placed it over my answers and scored it.

         In genuine awe, he said, “You did it again.”

         “It was just as hard this time,” I said.

         And suddenly, magically, everything aboard the U.S.S. Albany became the personal property of the Executive Officer.

         “You stay away from my radar shack!” he ordered.

         “I – I wasn’t intending to hang out there a lot.”

         “I catch you anywhere near my engine room, I’ll throw you in the brig for three days!”

         “I – I’m not a big fan of engines.”

         I was assigned to the Personnel Office to work on the ship’s newspaper and handle other publicity chores. Outstanding! I was even blessed with a beautiful new electric typewriter.

         I was not permitted to change the typewriter ribbon.

         Boston. After a half-year Mediterranean cruise, my ship was ordered to Boston for eight months in drydock. My wife joined me; we had been married for about a year, and we came to love Boston as much as our home town, Chicago. We loved New England. We loved the fact I didn’t have to go to sea again for seven months. We were a very happy couple when we settled into an inexpensive apartment near Harvard.

         Attempting to impress my young wife, I decided to install a wall can opener in our tiny kitchen … which required drilling holes to secure the bracket on the wall, which would then hold the opener.

         However, I hung the bracket upside down.

         I drilled more holes. But aligned them wrong for the bracket. I drilled more holes. By the time we left Boston, that kitchen wall looked like the site of the Valentine’s Day Massacre.  We slinked out of town in the middle of the night.

         Chicago. We had been married for thirteen years when we bought a house. Beautiful home. Nice ‘burb. Two young kids. Great school a block away.

         By this time, of course, my wife had realized I was the last person in the world who should be a homeowner. Whenever anything broke around the house, the first thing she did was swear the kids to silence lest I try to fix it.

         Then, one weekend while she was visiting her sister in Ohio, I decided to surprise her and build a bookcase for our living room. My friend at work, Dennis, had told me he had assembled one in 20 minutes. Took me four hours.

         When my wife came home, I proudly displayed my handiwork.

         She smiled, thanked me and gave me a nice hug.

         “I really appreciate this,” she said. “But there’s one thing I think you’ll have to fix, The way you’ve constructed it, the books will be facing the wall.”

         My neighbor (great with his hands) chuckled and re-assembled it for me in twenty-five minutes.

        Sunrise, Florida. We moved to a condo. By this time, I had learned to never touch anything that needed assembling, installation, re-installation, mending, polishing or repairing.

         One day, talking with a bridge partner, I mentioned I wanted to have my den walls painted.

         “Kevin!” she exclaimed with a smile. “Kevin Gallagher. Greatest handyman in South Florida. He’s handled any problem I’ve ever had. Plumbing, electrical, painting, you name it, he can fix it. And he’s very reasonable.”

          I called Kevin. He came at the time we’d agreed. Very unusual for Florida. We agreed on a reasonable fee. Took him one hour to paint my den walls, just as he’d said. Very unusual for Florida.

         Then Kevin asked me if I’d like him to install Roku on my TV set.

         “What’s Roku?”

         “A streaming device. Gives you Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, a whole bunch of channels. A kit costs maybe $30.”

         “Let’s do it.”

         He hooked me up in thirty minutes.

         Then, last week, my Roku remote died. I replaced batteries. Still dead. I called Kevin.

         “You probably just need a new stick. These remotes aren’t built to last a long time. Or, you could just get a new Roku kit.”

         I decided on a whole new kit. Another $30.

         I took one look at the directions and called Kevin.

         “I think I can put in the batteries,” I said.

         Kevin chuckled. He’s on his way as I write this. I wonder if I should brag about once being famous at the Pentagon.

Cantankerously Yours,

Wendell Abern

Wendell Abern can be reached at