She still dreams of meeting someone who can take her away from the assembly line and back to being a housewife.
I was a housewife until five years ago. The best part was being home when my three kids came in from school. Their papers and their junk that they made from kindergarten on up—they were my total, whole life. And then one day I realized when they were grown up and gone, graduated and married, I was going to be left with nothing. I think there’s a lot of women that way, housewives, that never knew there were other things and people outside of the neighborhood. I mean the block got together once a week for coffee and maybe went bowling, but that was it. My whole life was being there when the kids came home from school.
I never disliked anything. It was just like everything else in a marriage, there never was enough money to do things that you wanted—never to take a week’s vacation away from the kids. If we did anything, it was just to take the car on Saturday or Sunday for a little, short drive. But there was never enough money. The extra money was the reason I decided to go out and get a job. The kids were getting older, needed more, wanted more, and there was just not enough.
See, I don’t have a high school diploma, so when I went to Boeing and put an application in, they told me not to come back until I had a diploma or a G.E.D. On the truck line they didn’t mind that I hadn’t finished school. I put an application in and got hired on the spot.
My dad works over at Bangor in the ammunition depot, so I asked him what it would be like working with all men. The only thing he told me was if I was gonna work with a lot of men, that I would have to listen to swear words and some of the obscene things, but still act like a lady, or I’d never fit in. You can still be treated like a lady and act like a lady and work like a man. So I just tried to fit in. It’s worked, too. The guys come up and they’ll tell me jokes and tease me and a lot of them told me that I’m just like one of the guys. Yet they like to have me around because I wear make-up and I do curl my hair, and I try to wear not really frilly blouses, see-through stuff, but nice blouses.
We had one episode where a gal wore a tank top and when she bent over the guys could see her boobs or whatever you call it, all the way down. Myself and a couple other women went and tried to complain about it. We wanted personnel to ask her to please wear a bra, or at least no tank tops. We were getting a lot of comebacks from the guys like, “When are you gonna dress like so-and-so,” or “When are you gonna go without a bra,” and “We wanna see what you’ve got.” And I don’t feel any need to show off; you know, I know what I’ve got. There were only a few women there, so that one gal made a very bad impression. But personnel said there was nothing they could do about it.
But in general the guys were really good. I started out in cab building hanging radio brackets and putting heaters in. It was all hand work, and at first I really struggled with the power screwdrivers and big reamers, but the guy training me was super neato. I would think, “Oh, dear, can I ever do this, can I really prove myself or come up to their expectations?” But the guys never gave me the feeling that I was taking the job from a man or food from his family’s mouth. If I needed help, I didn’t even have to ask, if they saw me struggling, they’d come right over to help.
I’ve worked in a lot of different places since I went to work there. I was in cab build for I don’t know how long, maybe six months, eight months. Then they took me over to sleeper boxes, where I stayed for about two-and-one-half years. I put in upholstery, lined the head liners and the floor mats. After that I went on the line and did air conditioning. When the truck came to me, it had hoses already on it, and I’d have to hook up a little air-condition-pump-type thing and a suction that draws all the dust and dirt from the lines. Then you close that off, put freon in, and tie down the line. Then I’d tie together a bunch of color-coded electrical wires with tie straps and electrical tape to hook the firewall to the engine. Sometimes I also worked on the sleeper boxes by crawling underneath and tightening down big bolts and washers. Next they sent me over to the radiator shop. I was the first woman ever to do radiators. That I liked. A driver would bring in the radiators and you’d put it on a hoist, pick it up and put it on a sling, and work on one side putting your fittings on and wiring and putting in plugs. Then they bounced me back to sleeper boxes for a while and finally ended up putting me in the motor department, where I am now. The motors are brought in on a dolly. The guy behind me hangs the transmission and I hang the pipe with the shift levers and a few other little things and that’s about it. Except that we have to work terribly fast.
I was moved into the motor department after the big layoff. At that time we were doing ten motors a day. Now we’re up to fourteen without any additional help. When we were down, the supervisor came to me and said we had to help fill in and give extra help to the other guys, which is fine. But the minute production went up, I still had to do my own job plus putting on parts for three different guys. These last two weeks have been really tough. I’ve been way behind. They’ve got two guys that are supposed to fill in when you get behind, but I’m stubborn enough that I won’t go over and ask for help. The supervisor should be able to see that I’m working super-duper hard while some other guys are taking forty-five minutes in the can and having a sandwich and two cups of coffee. Sometimes I push myself so hard that I’m actually in a trance. And I have to stop every once in a while and ask, “What did I do?” I don’t even remember putting parts on, I just go from one to the other, just block everything out—just go, go, go, go. And that is bad, for myself, my own sanity, my own health. I don’t take breaks. I don’t go to the bathroom. There’s so much pressure on me, physical and mental stress. It’s hard to handle because then I go home and do a lot of crying and that’s bad for my kids because I do a lot of snapping and growling at them. When I’m down, depressed, aching, and sore, to come home and do that to the kids is not fair at all. The last couple of days the attitude I’ve had is, I don’t care whether I get the job done or not. If they can’t see I’m going under, then I don’t care. And I’ll take five or ten minutes to just go to the bathroom, sit on the floor, and take a couple of deep breaths, just anything to get away.
The company doesn’t care about us at all. Let me give you an example. When we were having all this hot weather, I asked them please if we couldn’t get some fans in here. Extension cords even, because some guys had their own fans. I wasn’t just asking for myself, but those guys over working by the oven. They’ve got a thermometer there and it gets to a hundred and fifteen degrees by that oven! They’ve got their mouths open, can hardly breathe, and they’re barely moving. So I said to the supervisor, “Why can’t we have a fan to at least circulate the air?” “Oh, yeah, we’ll look at it,” was as far as it went. We’re human. We have no right to be treated like animals. I mean you go out to a dairy farm and you’ve got air conditioning and music for those cows. I’m a person, and I don’t like feeling weak and sick to my stomach and not feel like eating. Then to have the supervisor expect me to put out production as if I was mechanical—a thing, just a robot. I’m human.
You know, I don’t even know what my job title is. I’m not sure if it’s trainee or not. But I do know I’ll never make journeyman. I’ll never make anything. I tried for inspection—took all the classes they offered at the plant, went to South Seattle Community College on my own time, studied blueprinting, and worked in all the different areas like they said I had to. I broke ground for the other girls, but they won’t let me move up. And it all comes down to one thing, because I associated with a black man. I’ve had people in personnel tell me to stop riding to work with the man, even if it meant taking the bus to and from work. I said no one will make my decisions as to who I ride with and who my friends are. Because you walk into a building with a person, have lunch with him, let him buy you a cup of coffee, people condemn you. They’re crazy, because when I have a friend, I don’t turn my back on them just because of what people think. What I do outside the plant after quitting time is my own business. If they don’t like it, that’s their problem. But in that plant I’ve conducted myself as a lady and have nothing to be ashamed of. I plant my feet firmly and I stand by it.
Early on, I hurt my neck, back, and shoulder while working on sleeper boxes. When I went into the motor department I damaged them more by working with power tools above my head and reaching all day long. I was out for two weeks and then had a ten-week restriction. Personnel said I had to go back to my old job, and if I couldn’t handle it I would have to go home. They wouldn’t put me anywhere else, which is ridiculous, with all the small parts areas that people can sit down and work in while they are restricted. My doctor said if I went back to doing what I was doing when I got hurt, I had a fifty-fifty chance of completely paralyzing myself from the waist down. But like a fool I went back. Some of the guys helped me with the bending and stooping over. Then the supervisor borrowed a ladder with three steps and on rollers from the paint department. He wanted me to stand on the top step while working on motors which are on dollies on a moving chain. I’d be using two presswrenches to tighten fittings down while my right knee was on the transmission and the left leg standing up straight. All this from the top step of a ladder on rollers. One slip and it would be all over. I backed off and said it wouldn’t work. By this time I’d gotten the shop steward there, but he didn’t do anything. In fact, the next day he left on three weeks’ vacation without doing anything to help me. I called the union hall and was told they’d send a business rep down the next day. I never saw or heard from the man.
Anyhow, I’m still doing the same job as when I got hurt. I can feel the tension in my back and shoulder coming up. I can feel the spasms start and muscles tightening up. Things just keep gettin’ worse and they don’t care. People could be rotated and moved rather than being cramped in the same position, like in the sleeper boxes, where you never stand up straight and stretch your neck out. It’s eight, ten, twelve hours a day all hunched over. In the next two years I’ve got to quit. I don’t know what I’ll do. If I end up paralyzed from the neck down, the company doesn’t give a damn, the union doesn’t give a damn, who’s gonna take care of me? Who’s gonna take care of my girls? I’m gonna be put in some moldy, old, stinkin’ nursing home. I’m thirty-seven years old. I could live another thirty, forty years. And who’s gonna really care about me?
I mean my husband left me. He was very jealous of my working with a lot of men and used to follow me to work. When I joined the bowling team, I tried to get him to come and meet the guys I worked with. He came but felt left out because there was always an inside joke or something that he couldn’t understand. He resented that and the fact that I made more money than he did. And my not being home bothered him. But he never said, “I want you to quit,” or “We’ll make it on what I get.” If he had said that I probably would have quit. Instead we just muddled on. With me working, the whole family had to pitch in and help. When I come home at night my daughter has dinner waiting, and I do a couple loads of wash and everybody folds their own clothes. My husband pitched in for a while. Then he just stopped coming home. He found another lady that didn’t work, had four kids, and was on welfare.
It really hurt and I get very confused still. I don’t have the confidence and self-assurance I used to have. I think, “Why did I do that,” or “Maybe I shouldn’t have done it,” and I have to force myself to say, “Hey, I felt and said what I wanted to and there’s no turning back.” It came out of me and I can’t be apologizing for everything that I do. And, oh, I don’t know, I guess I’m in a spell right now where I’m tired of being dirty. I want my fingernails long and clean. I want to not go up to the bathroom and find a big smudge of grease across my forehead. I want to sit down and be pampered and pretty all day. Maybe that wouldn’t satisfy me, but I just can’t imagine myself at fifty or sixty or seventy years old trying to climb on these trucks. I’ve been there for five years. I’m thirty-seven and I want to be out of there before I’m forty. And maybe I will. I’ve met this nice guy and he’s talking of getting married. At the most, I would have to work for one more year and then I could stay at home, go back to being a housewife.