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The case of the shy mechanics

The saga of the fastidious Saudi Arabian sailors has provoked hot midnight debates among all salts who have ever sailed the seven seas, or even Lake Erie. It seems that 520 members of the Royal Saudi Navy - being trained at Virginia's Little Creek naval base to operate 13 American-built patrol boats just purchased by their country - have shown a distinct reluctance to soil their hands on the sophisticated machinery.

''You guys keep on doing it,'' one of them was quoted as saying to US Navy specialists, who were turning to with tools and oily rags and all the messy rest of it.

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Frustrated in his attempts at show-and-tell, one American instructor told New York magazine: ''The Saudis are pretty caste-conscious, and most everything they do is delegated.''

Perhaps this explanation is correct, and not just the Royal Saudi Navy but the whole world is about to end, not with a bang but a whimper: ''We don't do windows.'' But we doubt this, with every ounce of optimism in us.

A civilian contractor involved in the program conceded that when the time comes to ferry the patrol boats to the Middle East, the Saudis ''may just hire a whole American crew and fly back themselves.'' But in place of the caste theory, he offered another explanation: ''You're getting guys out of the desert, and water is kind of foreign to them.''

We are a bit more persuaded by this second speculation. If the roles were reversed and that US Navy patrol boat expert, quoted earlier, were asked to bed down a camel, we can imagine him responding to his Saudi tutors: ''You guys keep on doing it.''

Still, this cultural preference for ''ships of the desert'' does not quite clear up the mystery of the shy mechanics.

Nor can we agree with an admiring old Navy veteran who keeps shaking his head and telling us: ''Classiest case of goldbricking I've ever seen!''

Our hunch, based on personal experience, goes like this. The dirty little secret of clean hands is mechanical illiteracy. Just as people who cannot read will say to those who can, ''You guys keep on reading - I'm listening,'' so people who cannot repair will say to those who can: ''You guys keep on doing it - I'm watching.''

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It is too humiliating to confess in public to certain rudimentary forms of incompetence.

We have to admit that the laughter of a two-year-old, watching us try to nail down tongue-in-groove floor boards, kept a hammer out of our very clean hands for more than a year.

It is not contempt but awe, we believe, that keeps Saudi pinkies off the patrol-boat equipment.

Who wants to sit down and strum ''Chopsticks'' in the presence of Vladimir Horowitz?

Give the situation a little time, we say. The Royal Saudi Navy is only 22 years old. But the seafaring tradition goes back to Sinbad the sailor, shipping out of Baghdad - a make-do guy second only to Odysseus. Furthermore, Sinbad established a precedent for on-the-job training: ''So quoth I to him, 'Furnish me with some wood,' which being brought, I sought me a clever carpenter and sitting by him showed him how. . . .'' This is straight from ''The Arabian Nights.''

We're sure of it. Once back in the Gulf the Sinbads of the Saudi Royal Navy will get out the socket wrenches and the grease-monkey rags and the wiring diagrams and figure out what makes everything hum, all by themselves.

We have only one piece of advice for them: Don't go near the maintenance manuals. It is our experience that all maintenance manuals are written (and translated) in a crypto-language that could reduce Albert Einstein to mechanical illiteracy in the face of a vacuum cleaner, to say nothing of a patrol boat.

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