Lately one of my old schools has been advertising on local television. The ad has a tag line, “World Class Education.” My mother likes to turn to me at that point and say, “You have a world class education!” I say, “Ha, ha.” What I ought to say is, “No, I AM a world class education.” Ha. Ha. The way I paid for my world class education started a little differently than most folks.
First, I should admit I used to be BOY CRAZY. Well, I was MORE boy crazy in my teen years than I am now. When I was in high school, I was good at Math and Science, and that set me apart from many of my female friends. I also liked the idea of going to a school that had a four to one male to female ratio. I liked those odds. Boy crazy!
When I got to school, I had to find a job to help pay my way. In those days, a fair percentage of people worked to pay their way through school. My school had a work-study program and job office. I went in and they asked what I knew how to do. I said, “Well, I know how to weld.” I did. I wasn’t brilliant, but I could do it. I did both arc and gas welding. The guy at the placement office got me a job at a defense contracting company that was affiliated with the school. It was really that simple. The first week at school I got a job as a welder.
My first day I showed up wearing jeans and a t-shirt. The boss of the welding shop looked at me doubtfully, but he took me outside and showed me two pieces of iron clamped together and he told me to tack them together with a two inch tack every six inches or so. I nodded my head and he handed me a pair of old stiff leather gloves and a helmet and pointed me at the welder (the machine welders use to weld). I did it. The chore he gave me was NOT difficult, but when I walked back into the shop fifteen minutes later and told him I finished, he acted surprised. He walked out with me and looked at what I had done. He said, “I’m Mr. Byrd.” That was the moment I realized I had passed the actual interview. Within an hour I was up on the mountain, lying on my back under a huge pipe (twelve feet in diameter), and running overhead beads to hold the pipe to a bracing iron. As far as I remember, that day was the worst I had on the job because my clothes did not protect me from all the little burns I got from bits of molten medal falling on me as I worked. My next day I showed up with new overalls and my own pair of gauntlet leather gloves.
I actually liked my welding job most of the time. I liked my boss, Mr. Byrd. It’s funny to think of that now, but he was a really nice man. He was near my father’s age. He didn’t try too hard to protect me, nor did he resent me as a young woman in an otherwise completely male workplace. It was there I experienced true sexual harassment and a near sexual assault, but that came later and is a story for another time.
What I’ve been thinking about lately is how what my parents taught me prepared me to face some difficult and lonely challenges as a welder. I worked three summers and two school years as a welder while I attended school. One of the things that made me successful as far as Mr. Byrd was concerned was that I didn’t have to be supervised. He would give me a job, and I would do it. I didn’t procrastinate. I got to work immediately. I took few breaks, and I only alerted him if something was REALLY a problem. I have been this way since my late teens, and it has to do with my parents telling me, “Who you are really shows when no one is looking.” That meant I would work as if GOD were my supervisor.
This lead to me being given the loneliest assignment of my life. That last summer I worked out there, the company had bid on and won an iron bridge that had been decommissioned and torn down. The big parts of it were brought to a little canyon that we all called “the bone yard.” There were all sorts of raw construction materials there that the company used to make specialized equipment and military targets for weapons testing. The bridge was in big pieces, with these I-beams with iron “ears” rivetted to them. My job that summer was to break down the pieces into usable smaller pieces. I took off the riveted ears and cut the I-beams to usable lengths. I used an acetylene cutting torch to do this job. I worked by myself. I cut iron four hours in the morning, took a lunch break, then cut iron four more hours in the afternoon.
The bone yard was the hottest place I ever worked. No breezes reached down into it, and the metal concentrated an industrial heat all around me, plus the torch was hot. After eight hours of doing that, I would walk from the school, where the work truck would drop the student workers, to a little house my roommate and I were watching for the summer.
Imagine that June, July, and August. Five days a week, eight hours a day, I was alone. I didn’t have a Walkman on the job (no earbuds for those who don’t understand). It was just me and the hot wilderness and sweat.
On the hottest day of that summer, I walked home and took my evening shower. I felt woozy, and I decided to take my pulse. I couldn’t find it. I thought, “I’m dead. I’m sitting in the shower, and I’m dead.”
It turned out I wasn’t dead. I was just badly dehydrated and exhausted. The next morning I felt fine and went right back to work. It is strange that this memory doesn’t seem so bad. In fact, I like thinking about those sweltering days and that bridge that I eventually dismantled all on my lonesome. I miss being that ridiculously strong woman. I had no idea at the time how rare it is to feel that physically powerful.
I puff-puff along and my ankles hurt now when I am on my feet for too long or go for a walk of slightly more than a mile, but there was a time when I was world class.