A short story about a simple task that became anything but.
| Many Hands Make Light Work|
I was walking past the Chief gunner's office one afternoon after lunch, trying, and clearly failing, to look busy, when the chief gunner stuck his head out the door and called me in. He didn't ever call me for a chat so I knew I was either in trouble or about to get some extra work. Thankfully, this time, it was extra work and he pointed out to me a large aluminium pigeon-hole shelf he said he had acquired from somewhere.
He wanted it put up on the bulkhead in front of his desk but it was too large and so I was to first cut it in half then affix it to the bulkhead for him. The chief placed the large shelf in the corridor outside his office, laying a small hacksaw on top before giving me a smile and walking away. “See you later” he said, cheerily, displaying far more optimism than he really ought to have had.
I stood there staring at the shelf in the way men stare at flowers on valentines day when they turn up at the shop late and gaze forlornly at the last shabby looking bouquet lying in the wreckage, hoping in vain that it will turn into a dozen premium roses. After five minutes of hopeful contemplation, I accepted it wasn't going to cut itself in half and stepped forward, picking up the hacksaw. They say the lord works in mysterious ways and being atheist, I find that all biblical sayings have an atheist antonym but my atheist tendencies were severely challenged when, before I started trying to cut the shelf, I was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder.
I turned to find a member of the Chief Shipwright's party, Marine Enhinerering Mechanic (Mechanical) Brane, standing there in the corridor like a god sent miracle. The Chief Shipwright or “Chippy”, was a member of the engineering department who possessed a specialist knowledge of ship construction and repair although in peacetime, his department was mainly responsible for day to day repairs of more mundane objects like leaky taps, blocked toilets and so on. “What you doing, Mac?” He enquired with a smile. I liked MEM Brane. He always looked for the positive in a situation and this made him popular amongst the crew, especially as he always seemed happy to help. Although he didn't know it yet, he was about to test this cheerfully optimistic personality to destruction.
I explained the task in hand and showed him the pathetically small, junior hacksaw I had been given and asked if he had a bigger hacksaw more suited to the task and likely to take less than half a day to cut through the shelf. “I have something better than that mate.” He replied, raising my hopes of a chippy's party intervention. “Do you know what a cengar saw is?”
I replied that I didn't, having missed all of the engineering sections of my seamanship and gunnery training, adding that at school, in five years of “technological design” classes I had only managed to design and finish one project - a wooden puppet that was so poorly designed and constructed, the teacher had hung it from the classroom ceiling for a full year until the following winter when he burnt it in the class brazier to help heat the classroom, telling me it was a mercy killing. He explained that a cengar saw was an air powered tool that would cut through the shelf in seconds, like the proverbial hot knife through butter, with the minimum of effort, utilising twelve hundred strokes a minute. He told me that I would have seen the fire brigade using them to cut windscreens on cars when they were cutting people out after accidents. I hadn't actually witnessed any such scenes but I nodded in agreement anyway, not wishing to spoil the image he was attempting to portray to me.
Immediately I could see the benefit of such a tool though, and readily agreed to him providing me with it. The deal became even more attractive when he told me that the chippy wouldn't be happy with me using it and he would have to do the cutting. Getting the job done in half the time with someone else doing the work seemed to me to be win win. I leaned smugly against the bulkhead as he climbed back up the ladder to fetch the saw, a smile spreading across my face that was almost as lazy as me.
Momentarily, MEM Brane returned carrying a large yellow briefcase, slowly and gently placing it flat on the deck before opening it. We both looked at the saw, me curious and he lovingly, before he carefully removed it from the purpose built foam packing it was inserted into. The bond between a man and his tools was no more evident than here, as he cradled the saw in his arms like a newborn. This was obviously his favourite tool, his joy, his baby.
He assembled the saw quickly, demonstrating a definite in depth knowledge of the tool, explaining to me what he was doing as he went through each step. Evidently he was a professional who not only took pride in his job but enjoyed imparting his knowledge to others. Where engineering was concerned I reasoned, it was a labour of love for MEM Brane. He finished assembling the saw, connecting it to an air hose, the other end of which he connected to the tap of a high pressure air outlet on the deck next to the door of the office, opening the valve. He then donned a pair of safety goggles before nestling the saw in the crook of one arm, grasping the handle and gently squeezing the “trigger”.
Nothing happened. He obviously saw the disappointed look on my face and as he pushed his goggles up on his head, a puzzled expression spread across his. Behind him, another member of the engineering department walked past, stopping when he saw MEM Brane, holding up the saw, examining it for any visible evidence that might explain it's apparent non functioning state.
Ignoring me, he questioned his colleague. “What's the problem mate?” MEM Brane held up the saw like exhibit A in a court case, explaining what he had done and revealing that nothing had happened when he pulled the trigger. If this had been a car, we would have hooked the bonnet up and stood as a group, staring at the engine. It seemed to me that engineering, like many male oriented tasks, involved a lot of silent, ponderous staring.
There then began a hushed,conference like conversation involving terms like “reducing valve” and “sprocket joint” and a mention of something ubiquitous to engineering that even I understood, “”WD-40” or “dubs” as it was called. The conference was apparently drawing more attention now as yet another engineer, spotting the two discussing the problem, stopped to share his apparent expertise in all matters “cengar”. He stood for a moment, listening intently, before announcing that he had experienced similar problems in the past with the cengar saw and he proceeded to share several more terms of engineering, demonstrating a detailed knowledge of multisyllabic engineering terms which were beyond my understanding and some degree of profanity which, though I understood perfectly, captivated me anyway. As he imparted his specialist knowledge, he occasionally pushed at the case on the floor with his foot, an affliction immediately noticed by MEM Brane who plainly disliked his carry cot being treated in such a manner and he bent down, moving it away from the assaulting feet of his colleague.
It occurred to me that though I was the customer in this transaction, I had been sidelined by the urgent need of engineering expertise and as yet another engineer stopped to join the gathering. Two of them went away and up the ladder and I heard their footsteps moving along the main drag overhead and quickly out of earshot as the conference before me continued apace, apparently with some disagreement as to how to proceed. I was about to question MEM Brane about what exactly was happening when I heard the returning hurried footsteps of the two engineers who had left moments before. As they came down the ladder, I saw that they were each carrying large metal toolboxes. They had also brought another engineer with them and I suddenly found myself stood very much on the outside of a circle of experts, all huddled together as if concealing a secret within their tight knit huddle. I thought how, with every passing minute and indeed engineer, the situation was beginning to resemble the story of the enormous turnip. Having been fully trained to pull on a rope in a professional manner, I could have contributed to that action instead of standing there for all the world like one of the spare parts the newly arrived engineers were clutching.
One more came down and joined them and there began a scene before me that resembled a hospital operating theatre with concerned men bent over the “patient” calling for various tools and equipment as others passed objects back and forth with a sense of urgency that belied the fact they were fixing a saw. All that was missing was the machine that goes “ping” and a nurse flitting back and forth, mopping the sweaty brows of the hunched participants and I watched closely, not really understanding what was happening but fascinated by the mechanics of the tense scene being played out before me. Eventually, it seemed, the operation was over and people began to stand up and clear the operating theatre, allowing MEM Brane to get to his feet, gingerly holding the newly repaired saw in his trembling hands. At his feet lay the detritus of a successful, emergency intervention. Rags, oil spills, left over nuts, bolts and washers along with empty, ripped plastic bags and a can of “dubs” littered the deck where the circle of engineers had carried out their emergency surgery.
One of the engineers bent down and plugged the newly fitted air hose to the supply tap and opened the valve, turning to MEM Brane. “Let 'er rip”. He added, proudly, standing back and waiting expectantly for the saw to burst into life, impressing the excited crowd with it's twelve hundred strokes a minute. MEM Brane glanced at me just before he squeezed the trigger. “
Watch this, mate.” He said confidently in his soft welsh brogue. “This is something else!”
The crowd of engineers seemed to lean forward in anticipation of witnessing the successful results of their labour as he pulled the trigger and when he did, it absolutely was something else. The saw made a very loud hissing noise as high pressure air seemed to rush out of it and then the beloved tool of MEM Brane jerked awkwardly into action, the movement of the blade barely perceptible, moving so slowly, it wasn't even achieving one stroke a minute let alone the much vaunted twelve hundred. The blade crawled along to its furthest point before a click heralded the start of its return journey and it began to recede back into the body of the saw at a similarly disappointing and agonisingly slow speed, like a tortoise retreating its head back into the protection of its shell.
At once, several opinions began to sound out as the watching crowd of engineers quarrelled about the possible cause of the apparent failure of the saw to achieve “optimum operating speed”, as they called it. I had once read a newspaper story about how a Rolls Royce car had broken down on the motorway and when contacted for comment, a spokesman for the highly regarded car manufacturer had stated that “Rolls Royce cars do not break down, they merely fail to proceed”. Obviously these engineers had attended the same school of PR. I would say the saw was broken. MEM Brane seemed to agree with me as he simply said “Sorry mate. It's tits up”. He looked and sounded devastated.
I understood this meant there would be no cengar saw and this also meant I would need to use the junior hacksaw left for me by the chief and I turned to pick it up. Once I turned round, it was obvious the Chief had returned whilst my attention was focused on the engineering master-class, completed the job himself and gone. Sitting on the deck outside the Chiefs office were now two smaller pigeon-hole shelves and a bent junior hacksaw that had clearly been used to cut them and judging by the twisted blade and the heat being given off by it, possibly at a speed far greater than twelve hundred strokes a minute. So much for progress. I began sweeping up the mess left by the obviously frenzied sawing whilst behind me, too many cooks continued to spoil the broth.