Can’t Believe I Did This

Last evening as Bob and I drove to pick up dinner; we were forced to drive slowly through one of many road construction projects.  As we passed by one flagger, I looked to my left and saw a very muscular man using a wet saw to cut the pavement.  I looked over at Bob, who was sitting on the passenger side and commented, “Wow, that’s the first wet saw I’ve seen for road projects.”  Bob responded with a question, “What’s a wet saw?”

When I turned 30 years old, Bob and I moved from Champaign, Illinois to the Nashville, Tennessee area.  I had just earned my bachelor’s degree and him his doctorate.  My major was communications with a specialty in TV and film production.  I wanted to become a film director.  So, when a graduate student convinced me that Nashville was to become the next Hollywood, he also encouraged me to move there if I could.  Thus, when Vanderbilt University offered Bob an associate professor position, he took it.

We visited Nashville, before moving there.  I had an interview with the Public TV station. A few hours before the interview, we walked into a bank and opened up an account.

When I asked the beefy account manager sitting behind the wooden desk where the downtown was, he leaned back his creaky chair, stuck a large cigar in his mouth and answered, “Why, honey, we don’t have a downtown.  We’re just an overgrown cow town.”  He spoke his words with a thick Southern drawl.  I immediately felt a sickening gnaw in my belly.

The year was 1979.  My thoughts, Did we just make a huge mistake by moving here?

I went to the interview and found out fast, that Nashville was indeed, still an overgrown cow town since no one seemed to know what to do with a woman with a degree.  The station manager offered me an administrative position.

Needless to say, I wasn’t only angry I had been invited to interview with the station for an admin job; I was insulted.  Looking back, I should have taken the position and worked my way into a production position.  However, when you’re young, you have no point of reference for considering doing that.

Once we finally moved to Nashville, I began looking for work.  I was faced with the same prejudice toward a degreed woman as I was earlier.  I was not at all happy.

After all, I had spent the first eight years of my life after leaving my parent’s home working administrative jobs.  I had then put myself through college only to find myself back at square one.  I was not going to take the defeat lying down!

One day, when Bob returned home from his job in academia, he found me sitting at the kitchen table looking through the yellow pages.  He asked me what I was doing.

My answer.  “Well, if no one will give me a college level job, then, by God, I’m going to find myself a man’s job!”

I was looking in the yellow pages and calling all the labor unions in the Nashville area.

I suppose, out of curiosity and to please the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which was putting pressure on the labor unions to hire women, I was interviewed by the Plumbers Union and the Electricians Union.  An apprenticeship with the Plumbers Union was six months away and one year away with the Electricians Union.  So, the next union I called was the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers.  They had an immediate opening.

The local union boss, Frog (yes, that was his name) was shocked when I showed up for my interview.  He could tell I was serious, so the next day we rode around to numerous job sites.  I’m sure he was trying to discourage me.  I wasn’t biting.  I was determined to earn more than minimum wage and learn a trade.  After all, who knew where it would lead?

A week later I showed up at my first job site.  That first day, I was glued to the foreman as he took me around the site.  I even had my brand new work boots christened as he spat a wad of chewing tobacco on my right boot.  I didn’t flinch!

Several days later, I was accepted as part of the scenery as I helped the head laborer build scaffolds, tote 8 and 12-inch blocks around the site and learn how to make mud which is the trade term for mortar.

Over those first few months, I outworked a young man who the foreman fired because I did his job and mine.  At least that’s what the head laborer told me.  He also told me I was the best worker he ever came across.  I never once allowed my being a female to hinder my abilities.  For example, as big, burly male laborers carried one 12-inch block at a time, I’d pick one up with my left arm, slap it against my hip, then pick up a second 12-inch block and slap it up against my right hip.  I was a hard worker.  I never wanted to be accused of being kept on the job because of the EEOC.  Instead, I was determined to earn my apprentice bricklayer’s hourly wage.  In the wake, I also earned a lot of respect from the males on the job.  I also learned a lot.

I learned about how males and females are socialized.  Too bad I wasn’t working toward a Ph.D. in Sociology, because what I learned would have become a hell of a thesis!

During my year as an apprentice bricklayer, I had a lot of strange things happen and was asked a lot of strange questions.  Here are just some of them.

A sheet-metal worker asked this question.  “What’s a nice girl like you doing working a man’s job?

I answered, “Trying to earn a decent living.”

He then asked, “Well, don’t you know that nice girls who work men’s jobs grow hair on their chests?”

“Oh, really?”  I answered.

“Yes, really.  What are you going to do when you grow hair on your chest?”

The unrehearsed answer just fell from my lips.  “Well, I guess I’ll just buy a razor and shave it off?”

He had no answer to that response.

Another time, I was confronted when I was working a rather unpleasant job helping to build smelting tanks for a zinc plant.  It was break time, so I was sitting by myself.  It was my first day on that job.  This young guy came over and introduced himself as Bubba.  I chuckled to myself because that seemed to be a common name in Tennessee.  It was a nickname for a brother, the family version of a brother.

He then asked me, “Are you married?”

I answered, “Yes.”

He then commented, “Well, your husband couldn’t love you very much.”

I mentally scratched my head and asked, “What do you mean?”

He tilted his head to one side, grinning like he thought he was giving a very intelligent answer.  “Well, any man who lets his wife do a man’s job, couldn’t love her very much.”

As I think of my answer, I can’t help but marvel at how it just spilled from my lips, “Well, let me tell you something, Bubba.  No one lets me do anything!

He shut up and walked away.

It wasn’t long before I was learning my trade, bricklaying.  In fact, it was during the winter months that, because I would show up at jobs men would stay home from due to the cold or snowy weather, I began working an indoor job.  The Ford glass plant needed some new assembly line ovens built for tempering glass.

I was sitting inside one of these ovens stuffing fiberglass in the slots between the bricks.  I wore a surgical mask because I knew how dangerous breathing in the fiberglass was.  Of course, thinking it marked them as weenies, the men refused to wear the mask.

As I was stuffing away, the foreman walked up to the side opening and told me one of the journeymen bricklayers invited me upstairs to help him lay bricks around an arch.  I was flattered, so up I went.  He talked me through the process and when I was finished; he complimented me on my ability to learn fast and do a professional job.

About a half hour later, a second journeyman stopped by where I was once again stuffing fiberglass and said, “That arch looks like a journeyman laid those bricks!”

That job at the glass plant wasn’t without its lessons and a good laugh I’m able to chuckle to myself over.

I was charged with working the wet saw one day.  I was cutting the very heavy, non-porous bricks for the journeymen.  At one point, a tall, John Wayne type male laborer walked up and asked me to cut ten bricks at 8 and 3/8 inches.  To myself, I panicked.

Now, I’m going to share my chuckle with you.

You see, I was raised during the 1950’s-1960’s as a typical girl.  I was taught that girls are good at spelling and English.  They are incompetent at math.  Thus, I spent my entire life scared to death of the ruler.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The ruler, i.e., the straight strip of plastic, wood, metal, or other rigid material, typically marked at regular intervals, to draw straight lines or measure distances.

I knew where the ¼, ½, and the ¾ marks were, but I had no idea what all the other marks on the ruler were, and I was always afraid to ask someone because I didn’t want to look like an idiot.

So, here I was, with John Wayne standing over me smirking at me as I took my time setting up the saw and talking to myself in my head.

I thought, Don’t panic, Maribeth.  You’re smart.  You can figure this out close enough so that the bricks are not sent back.   When you get home tonight, ask Bob to explain all the other marks.

As I took my time, John Wayne asked, “What’s the matter, honey.  Do you need some help?”

Again, my mouth said words I never contemplated saying as I answered him.

“No, I’m just making sure I set the saw up properly.  Besides, I’m not your honey!”

I disarmed him sufficiently that he never uttered another word.  He also never called me honey again; and, the bricks never came back.

That evening, I asked Bob.  “I know this sounds stupid.  But, can you tell me what all these marks are between the numbers, other than the ¼, ½, and ¾ marks?”

Bob gently explained, never making me feel like the idiot I always feared being accused of being.

My answer was, “Are you kidding me?  This is what I’ve been afraid of asking all my life?”  I then began laughing.

That was a big lesson in how the genders were socialized back in the fifties and sixties.

A year later and with a muscular body built like a rock, I was on my last job.  It was summer.

I did much better working out in the frigid cold than in the heat of the summer.  Fair skin doesn’t get along with the sun; and, so, I got physically ill a few times.

I was on the wall all the time at that point, and, the company I currently worked for was rumored to have me in mind for promotion to become a job estimator.  In fact, when I announced my resignation, the company owner did his best to try and convince me to stay.  However, I had had enough of brick laying and the construction industry.

The last straw for me was the day I walked out of a Johnny-on-the-Spot and was cheered and whistled at by a crew of roofers on the roof of a Catholic school.  It was the same day, the female principal, an elderly nun, came out into the heat to meet the female bricklayer.  It was August, and it was as hot as Haddies.  I was done, as later that day I became ill from the blistering heat.

I can’t say I regret having done that for a living.  In fact, I’m rather proud of my genuine chutzpah.  I learned a lot that year.  I learned about myself, about how females are socialized and I learned how to lay bricks.  If I want to build a brick wall, for example, I could build it.  I still have my trowel.   My lessons learned also helped me during my career in the food industry.  I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind and, later, when I worked as a meat field specialist for the Kroger Company, I was able to earn the respect of all the macho meat managers I supervised.  When I ran a large region for McCormick and Company of spice fame, I wasn’t afraid to call up a CEO of a company I called on and give him/her my thoughts on how to improve sales on my brand.  I did indeed learn to express my chutzpah, and, most of all, I learned how to lay bricks!  I could help build a brick house!


Filed under Maribeth Shanley, writing

3 responses to “Can’t Believe I Did This

  1. Well, good for you, Maribeth! You are full of surprises! My dad taught me a lot about electrical work and slate laying. Maybe we can work on a project together! 🙂

    • Wouldn’t that be fun. You are full of surprises as well. Love the belly dancing. Bet it’s good for the belly muscles! I really wanted to become an electrician but the wait was too long. Working construction gave me the confidence to install a ceiling fan with a light fixture several years ago. That was a job. 🙂

  2. Bricklaying is a great skill to have. I hate the way gender so often determines a person’s course in life – praise be it seems to matter less and less. I know a lot more women now work in the harder manual jobs and it’s great. You have my unqualified admiration, if only because bricklaying and plastering are two great blindspots in my own life.

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