When I first arrived to my command in the Navy, I made a terrible mistake. I explained to one of my superiors that I had construction skills from work I did prior to enlisting, and as a result, I was immediately put in charge of fixing anything and everything that broke in my department. I became the unofficial handyman for my entire enlistment.
It was very frustrating for me. I had chosen my trade as a Navigator because I was interested in cartography. I had wanted to use mathematics to prepare nautical charts for a living, with my mind, instead of breaking my back with physical labor, as I had done before. So, that unofficial title of handyman cast a shadow over my military experience, like a storm cloud at sea, because any laborious job that had to get done was piled onto my back – without any regard for my mind. I felt intellectually diminished and unappreciated, because even if it was necessary to the mission for me to fix everything, that wasn’t what I had signed up for.
As frustrating as this all was for me though, I was able to find a silver lining while under that storm cloud. Because of my unofficial title, I was able to obtain my prized possession: a multifaceted hand tool – or, my “Gerber.”
My brother had had a Gerber when he served in the Coast Guard, so I already admired and desired the tool. But for me to get one would have been logistically complicated, because Navigators weren’t issued construction tools. So, I appealed to my superiors and told them that because of all the maintenance I was responsible for I deserved a pair. Thankfully, they eventually agreed, and I was issued the greatest tool any unlucky handyman could ask for (off the books, of course). Now, I still own and love my Gerber, but there are two specific memories that come to mind, whenever I reflect upon all of this.
The first memory is how I would aimlessly walk around my ship, Gerber in hand, looking as angry as I possibly could. The strategy was to dodge being tasked with anything by a superior, with my Gerber and my demeanor conveying: “I’m already fixing something, so don’t even ask.” It was like acting, and I got pretty good at it. But I couldn’t have pulled it off without the greatest prop in the business, my Gerber.
And the second memory, which is one of my proudest moments in life, is how I slept through my alarm one morning while we were undergoing critical pre-deployment inspections. Now usually I would have been in serious trouble, but as I flew to work, fast as I could, it came to me: “THE GERBER!” As soon as I parked, I took my Gerber and used its file-blade to carve grease out from under the axel and wheel-well of my car. I then took the grease and wiped it all over my face, uniform, and hands. I ran up to my office, kicked open the door, and stepped in. I was panting and looking like I had just struck oil, and my superiors just stared at me in silence from their office chairs. They never even asked me what happened. Eventually one of them mumbled something like, “Go ahead and take an early lunch, Rader. Just report back by 2pm.” I didn’t say a word. I just stepped out, hit the showers to wash off the grease, and went back to sleep in my rack. It was my finest hour.
I did eventually beat the system and become the head cartographer of my department, but I still spent my nights with my Gerber in hand, fixing all of the things that no one else could. Because of memories like these, though, of outsmarting people who disregarded my mind, the time I spent under that storm cloud of labor becomes more and more peaceful as my memories get older, because I know now that I wouldn’t have these memories, or my Gerber, if I hadn’t been the handyman. So, if I had to do it all again, I guess I wouldn’t change a thing – well, maybe I would wait a while before bragging about my construction skills, but that’s it.
Nicholas Bryan Rader joined the Navy at 19 and spent his four-year enlistment as a Quartermaster, or Navigation Specialist, onboard the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76). He was deployed three times, first, in 2006, to support Operation Iraqi Freedom, in the Persian Gulf. The 2007 Surge sent him to South Korea for my second deployment. Then he returned to the Middle East in 2008, for his third deployment, where he operated in the Gulf of Oman to support Operation Enduring Freedom. He exited the Navy in 2009, and has been studying English literature ever since.