The Day the Skinny Lab Died

Ed Lull

Electrical engineering, a subject area we called Skinny, was not my strong suit at the Academy. I struggled with it academically, and had to work just to get a passing grade.

The final hurdle to clear was the practical exam we referred to as the Skinny Lab. The process that would be followed was this: as our section arrives at the lab, each of us would be handed a slip of paper with our individual assignment on it. We would be expected to go to our station, wire up whatever our assignment was, apply the power, and pray that it runs.

The night before, I studied with a few classmates, reviewing the half-dozen or so possibilities that our assignment could be. The final one I studied was, perhaps, the easiest - a shunt-wound motor. I acknowledged that my three greatest fears were: spiders, snakes, and 250-volts. Tomorrow, the last would be first.

As I walked into the lab the next morning, the prof handed me the dreaded assignment slip. Acting cool, I casually glanced at it - and saw Shunt-Wound Motor. Inwardly, my confidence surged. I went to my station and surveyed the equipment I had at my disposal. Go slow, I told myself, remembering that I was dealing with 250-volts.

By the time I completed my wiring, many of my smarter classmates had completed their projects, and the lab was filled with the music of dozens of whirring motors and generators. Ready to add my motor to the chorus, I confidently thrust my power lead into the 250-volt bus in the floor. A small lightning bolt leaped from the bus. The symphony went: rrrrrrrrrr - then silence. The lights went out; the profs ran from station to station to locate the problem, but everyone’s exam was over. I had blown the main circuit breaker for the building.

Fifty-some years later I was playing golf with another Academy alum about twenty years younger than I, when this incident came to my mind. I told him the story, and as I was finishing he was looking at me with a huge grin. “So you’re the one! When I went through that lab, the profs were still telling the story. All midshipmen have heard it.” Yep, I said, I’m the one that did it.

Later I was thinking that those who came after me never knew: I was selected to represent my classmates on the Brigade Honor Committee; led my company cross-country team plebe year; quarterbacked the company touch football team; pitched for the company softball team; was the final set 11th Company Commander. But they had all learned about the day the skinny lab died.

Walking down the 18th fairway, my stride took on a bit of a swagger - I thought: I am a legend.