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From the Journal of a Female Mechanic

By Wanda James

I peered down the dark, slick, double barrels. The blast came. I blinked furiously. Nasty carburetors, I thought. I shifted my weight onto my belly and leaned farther over the engine. My steel-toed work boots dangled off the ground, and my coveralls bunched uncomfortably around my waist One size fits all. Yeah, right.

“Excuse me, sir, can you see what the problem is?”

I considered. I could ignore or confront. I confronted.

His face reddened. “I didn’t … a female mechanic … there’s nothing wrong with it …” I just smiled.

"Carburetor needs adjusting. Nothing major.” Comforting words, but not to this customer. He peered beyond me, searching for a bona fide (male) mechanic.

“You’ll be…?” His words trailed off.

“Shucks, yeah, if she don’t run, I’ll give her what-for. An’ when my parole’s up, I’ll drive ’em, too. Kidding,” I added, heading to Parts.

I adjusted; he paced. I was a quack delivering his first-born child.

“Relax,” I muttered to myself. Curiosity I could handle. Mistrust I couldn’t.

I did have positive customers. Some claimed that females are more conscientious. One elderly lady asked if my mother knew what I was doing. She patted my cheek and tipped me a dollar.

I was apprehensive about applying for the first all-female apprenticeship class in my city. It turned out only half of us graduated; that number dwindled to four who actually pursued a job.

Finding a shop foreman willing to take us was first on the to-do list. Denting the armor of the all-male crews was next. The work itself was last.

Somehow, I found myself sweet-talked into enrolling. Men were leaving the trade in droves, they said, making them sound like ants fleeing a hot barbecue. Why? Technology. Veterans couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep up. They believed in brute force. Now “bull” work was obsolete and computers ruled. No more grease monkeys. Then reality bit.

Were my classmates lifting heavy, filthy, tires? Did they go to bed bruised? Did their nails get clean? Did their ears burn from taunts and jokes? What the hell had I gotten myself into?

We were duped. Maybe the job was easier in a super-garage in a larger metropolis. Maybe I fell asleep during the information session, missing vital points. I just knew that removing front beams, balljoints, and transmissions required brute force. Wheel alignments meant crawling on cold, often wet, cement. Removing exhaust systems required torches — torches that sent sparks flying onto exposed skin. I hurt everywhere. I always had a fresh wound under a not-so-fresh bandage.

At first, I was angry about being misled, but I was not entirely innocent. I had worked around machinery with my father, and I knew engine parts and body parts were incompatible.

I was only slightly prepared for spending hundreds of dollars on tools. And I wasn’t prepared for the “crank ’em out, right or wrong” attitude. Diagnosis? No time. Re and Re: remove and replace. Customer’s waiting.

I got myself an attitude. My co-workers tested me. Was I strong enough? Was I easily offended? Would I pay my dues?

I worked, keeping tongue in cheek, even though sometimes I had to bite it. I became “one of the boys” in the blue coveralls.

Do I recommend this trade to women? Yes, if it’s an informed choice. Forewarned is forearmed. It’s a challenging career. There’s pride in meeting that challenge. There is a wonderful sense of accomplishment. The hapless apprentice stage doesn’t last forever. You gain a wealth of knowledge, and here’s hoping wealth of another variety. You’ve made the cut, despite everything. You can face any customer and say, “I’ll be the technician working on your vehicle.” And say it with pride.