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Use the right tool for the job

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

The Admiral taught me to make sure I always had and used the right tool to get a job done. If you did not have the right tools, he said, there was a good chance you would “screw things up.” So, I learned to be patient and get the right tools for the job.

This is a series of sea stories about what I learned from an Admiral as his aide more than 30 years ago. This lesson might have more practical application at home than at work, but it is important, nonetheless. I used the lessons I learned from the Admiral at work and at home.

The admiral's father's car in Jersey

Near the end of my tenure with the Admiral, we were very close. There were days and times when he really did treat me more like a son than an Aide.

One day he mentioned that his father had an old 4 door 1980 green Buick Skylark in New Jersey that he was not using. The Admiral wanted to know if I wanted to buy it. I had a new burgundy Nissan 240SX at the time, and the thought of a second junker car for the Maine winters was a great idea.

The Admiral was going to drive down and get it and wanted to offer it to me.

I agreed that I wanted it, and we decided on a nominal price. The plan was to get that car and for me use it during the winter over the salt and snow-covered roads and store my 240 in an old chicken barn that was rented out for winter car storage.

We drove down to New Jersey one day, picked up the car, and got it back to Maine. The car had been parked for some time, so it needed new tires and some standard maintenance.

The Admiral was an automobile tinkerer. He had a beautiful old red convertible that he had worked on and brought out of the garage on Maine summer days to take Janie for a ride.

The Naval Air Sation had an auto body shop with several bays that could be rented by the hour so you could do self-service maintenance on your vehicle. He told me we could go there one evening and work on the Buick. We were going to replace some hoses that looked like they were dry rotting, change the oil and all the filters, and replace all the fluids.

The standard maintenance was easy, changing the oil and fluids, but replacing one of the radiator hoses was giving us a fit. I was trying very hard to use a crescent wrench and a pair of needle nose lock pliers to loosen a clamp that was not cooperating at all. The crescent wrench kept popping off the nut on the bracket that held the hose in place.

Clearly, getting frustrated and after a while with scrapes on my knuckles that were bleeding, I was about to quit. “Dammit. This one won’t come loose, Admiral,” I said.

He had been patiently watching me for some time. Sensing my frustration he said, “Mark, it’s important when you do a job, any job, that you always make sure you have and use the right tools. Otherwise, you might get hurt, waste your time, or break what you are working on.”

“And none of those are good options.”

“Now, get rid of the crescent wrench and the needle nose pliers. Go get the large and small socket wrenches and let’s get the right size socket for each nut. Also, get the can of Liquid Wrench and a couple of rags out of my car.”

We sprayed the bracket and nut with Liquid Wrench, and he said, “Okay, now wait 10 minutes. Let’s go get a Coke out of the machine.”

Ten minutes later and after a few sips of a cold can of Coke, he said: “Now, wipe off the bracket with the rags and figure out the right size sockets.”

“Here, cover your knuckles with the rag as you use the socket wrench.”

Step by step, I did as he said. Within about 5 minutes, I had the nuts loosened and was able to pull off the old hose.

I think I bought the car for $300 and used it all winter.

It was a great Maine winter car, and the heater spooled up quickly. I loved that car.

Over a year later when I transitioned to the Navy Reserve and left Maine, I drove the car all the way down Interstate 95 to Naval Air Station, Jacksonville, where it stayed on base as my Navy Reserve car for 14 years!

Always sitting there when I arrived late on a Friday night for a reserve weekend was the Admiral’s father’s green Buick Skylark. I called it the Green Hornet. I had a Green Hornet lunchbox as a kid growing up. I thought that was a fitting name. The car was green, but nothing like a hornet, more like a frog.

I was in the reserve P-3 squadron in Jax from 1991 to 2005 and used the car every month. When I was not there, it sat in the squadron parking lot waiting for me. I think I changed the battery once during that time. I was also able to store some Navy stuff and tools in the truck, so it served as a self-storage unit.

Near the end of its life, the heat and humidity of Jacksonville started to take its toll on the Green Hornet. The beige fabric covering the interior ceiling started to come down swooping into the car like a low hanging cloud. I tried to use some upholstery glue spray sold at an auto parts shop just for that purpose. Apparently, I wasn't the only one with this problem. It worked for a few months, but could not beat the Jax heat.

There were times when I got there late on a Friday night for my reserve weekend, and I would drive to the hotel with my left hand on the steering wheel and my right hand holding the fabric up over my head so I could see. I eventually just cut it out leaving an orangey sponge-like material on the car's ceiling.

Lessons Learned

Impatience and not using the right tool usually leads to delays, setbacks, failures, and even injuries. The practical application of this rule is valid not only for car maintenance, but also for tasks in the yard, the kitchen, and handy-man jobs around your home.

Years later in my home's garage, I forgot the rule. I was trying to get a nail out of 2x4 for a project I was working on. It was lodged in there pretty good, and I could not find my large hammer. So, I got a crowbar and started yanking hard on the nail, leveraging my whole body weight back and forth on the crowbar, pulling the crowbar towards me.

Just as the nail was coming lose, the crowbar popped off the nail and hit me right above my nose, breaking my eyeglasses and putting a nice one inch cut right in the middle of my forehead,

"Dammit," I said. That hurt!

I rubbed my forehead, and my hand was covered in blood. The small cut started to bleed profusely, the blood running over my broken eyeglasses.

Great! Just great!

Of course, with all the blood, it looked worse than it was, but it did give me quite a headache. I decided after some icing and compression that I had to go to the Emergency Room where I got three stitches.

There the young ER doctor asked me: “How did this happen?”

“I hit myself in the head with a crowbar,” I said.

“That’s a first,” she said.

The next few days, I looked like Frankenstein with the three stitches and bruising right above my nose on my forehead.

When I left Jacksonville in 2005, I drove the Green Hornet to a junkyard. They said the car had no value, but they would "take it off my hands." So, I pulled off the license plate and left it there. It had served its purpose very well.

Be patient. Get the right tools for the job.

I have paused many times since then to get the right tool.

That's the story of the Admiral's father's car. Next, I will talk about the value of saying thank you and the Admiral's wife's fur coat.

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TD Smyers
TD Smyers

I felt a certain sadness and nostalgia reading this one, shipmate!

Thanks for the awesome lesson!

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