Work Boots Step Out of the Closet

“Come on you can tell me,” says Bobby. “Are you gay?”

Bobby is a machinist who usually works in the machine shop but today he is helping me change fixtures in the warehouse at the corporation yard. I’m the only electrician and sometimes I need a helper. There was no laborer available and I am up on a 16-foot ladder. 

The song by the Police, Every Breath You Take, is playing on the boom box he carries around with him. 

“This sounds like a song about stalking,” I say. “It’s a threat.” 

“Hmm, I never thought about it that way,” he says, “but I guess you’re right.”

I’ve been at the San Francisco Water Department for a few months and I’m getting along alright. Especially considering I’m the only tradeswoman there except for Amy, the only female plumber. Amy is out digging up the streets every day and so I rarely see her. Sometimes we convene a two-woman support group in the women’s restroom and it’s good to know she’s there.

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Working at a Water Department pump station. My shirt reads WOMEN WORKING

I think about how to answer Bobby. It kind of annoys me that he would just ask me like that. But on the other hand I appreciate his directness. I like Bobby and he’s as close to a friend as I have among the men, but I know if I give him any information about my private life it will be all over the yard within 24 hours. Do I want all the guys in all the shops to know?

“That’s none of your business,” I reply.

Yeah, I’m a lesbian and my lover is Del, who works at Park and Rec. We were both female firsts—she the first carpenter and I the first electrician to work for the city of San Francisco. Being the first is always a burden. You are aware that you set the stereotype for all the women who come after you. You feel the whole of womankind rests on your shoulders. You know you can’t make mistakes but of course you do, and then you imagine all of womankind suffers.

Del is five foot two and slender but you don’t see her as small. Her wiry gray hair gives her a couple more inches of height. She’s got broad shoulders and large hands. And she gets power from her low voice; she sings tenor with a gay chorus, the Vocal Minority.

Del and I don’t live together but I spend a lot of time at her apartment on Potrero Hill with its sweeping view of the bay and downtown. At my place on Bernal Hill I have a roommate, Sandy, another electrician. She’s messy and has a lot of stuff and a coke head girlfriend I don’t like. So I often stay with Del. Truth is I can’t stay away. I’m mad for her.

Since I got in to the trades, my lovers have been tradeswomen. I can’t resist a woman with a toolbelt. The first woman I fell in love with was a carpenter. They say you either fall in love with her or you want to be her. For me it was both. 

I watch my lover Nancy build a house. She wears dirty blue jeans and scuffed work boots. Sweat stains mushroom on her T-shirt, which reads Sisterhood is Powerful, under a women’s symbol with a fist in its center. Sweat drips from her nose and rolls down the side of her face. Her sun-bleached curly hair sticks out from under her hardhat.

Around her hips hangs the heavy leather carpenter’s belt. It has a metal ring for the hammer and slots for the tape measure and various other tools, and pouches for the nails of different sizes. A two-inch wide leather belt holds it around her ample hips. It’s helped by wide suspenders. She grabs a handful of nails and holds them with all the heads lined up in one direction, flips them down and pounds them in to the wood with great efficiency. Tanned arms bulge as she sinks nail after nail into the sill plate. She is focused and fast, the epitome of strength and ease. When she takes a break, she rolls a cigaret and lights it with a match put to her boot. She sucks in the smoke with obvious pleasure and even though I’m super allergic to smoke and it will set me off coughing, that is the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen. How could a gal not fall in love with this image of power, strength, purpose. 

I was smitten and I’ve been smitten by tradeswomen ever since. And they are the only ones who really understand what I go through at work. A person’s got to have a partner she can whine to when she gets home.

Lately it’s Del who’s been having trouble at work. Dick, her foreman at the carpentry shop, doesn’t like women or queers. He does everything he can to make her work life difficult. If it weren’t for Dick, Del would get along just fine. She loves the work, not the harassment. She once overhead him call her a dyke. That’s a word we lesbians have reclaimed and embraced but he meant it in the old fashioned derogatory way.

Negotiating homophobia and sexism at work is a balancing act for us. You just know that the foreman will use any excuse to lay you off. Del knows this too, that we women must always keep our cool in these situations, but sometimes she can’t help herself. She just loses her temper and then even she doesn’t know what she might do.

One time she held off an attacker with a hand saw. If you swing it at waist level, they can’t reach you. She swung the saw in a fit of rage, acting without thinking. In that case rage saved her ass, but mostly when this happens she leaves the confrontation feeling embarrassed that she could not control her emotions. She tells me I’m much better at not losing my cool and she ascribes her rage to her hot Italian blood. 

I first met Del at a tradeswomen confab when I was working with the Wonder Woman Electric collective in 1978, but we didn’t get together as lovers until 1982 while we were organizing the first national tradeswomen conference that took place in Oakland the next year. We had both been working construction downtown before starting to work for the city of San Francisco.

“I lost my temper today and now I might lose my job,” Del told me one evening when I got over to her place after work.

By that time she was remorseful. “Why do I always lose my temper? How do you manage to stay so cool?”

I think the answer lays in the ways we learned to respond to stress and abuse when we were growing up. She was a caretaker type and I was oblivious. Del says she always felt like she had antennae, that she was super aware of her surroundings. I, on the other hand, would put on virtual blinders and just continue pretending nothing was going on. This method of avoiding conflict has served me well in the trades. I pretend not to see and often I really don’t.

Soon after we got together I accompanied her to visit her family in Chicago. Right away I felt at home. They are huggers, and loud talkers, people who like to cook and eat big family meals and who live in their basements, never using the living room upstairs where couches are covered with plastic. Her mother is part of a big Italian clan—all sisters except for one brother who is treated like a king but drowned out by loud women.

“Here’s what happened,” she said. “I wanted to get my paycheck earlier in the day than Dick wanted to give it out. I had an appointment and was leaving at noon. He was being totally obnoxious about it and I got really mad at him. I said “fuck it” and walked out without the paycheck. Now he’s trying to fire me for swearing at him. I wasn’t swearing at him, it was a general fuck-it.  Anyway, just an excuse to fire me.” 

“I’m scared,” she admitted.

“What are you gonna do now?” I asked, concerned.

“I don’t have a plan except to wait to see what he does next. Maybe it won’t go anywhere.”

A few days later Dick upped the ante. He set up a kangaroo court with his supervisors and friends in the yard who sat Del down and questioned her. She had no representation or support. It was just a set up. 

That’s when Del went above the foreman’s head. We knew that the director of Park and Rec was an out gay man. Tom had gained a reputation as a respected department head who gave a shit about workers. He was also a player in the gay South of Market scene who (we heard) had tattoos all over his body. He always wore long sleeved shirts at work. 

“Tom was absolutely great when I told him the story and showed him the daily journal I’d kept about the harassment,” she said to me. Soon after that Dick was fired. 

Our gay ally had saved Del’s job, but what would have happened had he not been there?

“Are you out on the job,” she asked me later.

“Well, no. It’s none of their business.”

Del is a proponent of coming out at work. She says it’s better to give the guys the information so they will just stop gossiping about you. For women it might actually be a plus to be out. It’s a signal that you’re not interested in them romantically and you never will be, a good way to stop come-ons. Telling them you’re married with five kids works too.

At the tradeswomen conference she gave a workshop to help gay women come out. 

“If we all come out we won’t be alone,” she says. “We’ll be supporting our lesbian sisters.”

She quoted Harvey Milk: “Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.” 

Del was pissed when I admitted I wasn’t out on the job.“What!” She exclaimed. “You’re still in the closet at work! Don’t you see why it’s important for us all to be out? How can you leave me hanging out there on a limb? I almost lost my job!”

She had a good point—several good points. I thought about why I’d stayed closeted. It was easier. I didn’t want to risk the wrath and disdain of my co-workers. They weren’t really interested in my private life and I couldn’t care less about theirs. It was hard enough just being the only female on the job. You imagine the worst thing that could happen. They wouldn’t physically attack me. But they could refuse to work with me just as one white guy in the machine shop had refused to work with a black guy. They could refuse to talk to me, a trick men used on women all the time to get them to quit. They could fire me. I’d been hired on as a temporary worker with no employment rights. I wasn’t safe.

But I promised my lover I would come out.

My electric “shop” was a windowless closet next to the machine shop office where my boss, Manuel, and a secretary worked. They were always trying to get me to fill in when she was out sick, which happened with regularity. I had made the mistake of answering truthfully when they’d asked if I could type. I’d refused and I hadn’t relented even when Dave, the auto shop foreman cried crocodile tears as he tried to type with hands missing several of their fingers. Somehow the guy was still able to work on trucks. But that was men’s work.

One day Manuel made a reference to my husband. That was my opening. I hadn’t had to wait long. 

“I don’t have a husband,” I said. “I’m gay.”

When you come out to them, men are either totally shocked or they tell you they knew all along. Manuel was shocked, but he recovered quickly. 

I didn’t have to tell anyone else. Word got around the yard. I heard one of the machinists, a religious nut, had moved me into the hated category. But he was someone I could avoid. 

Bobby was cool. “I knew it,” he said.

Plumber Seduction

Feminary: a lesbian feminist magazine of passion, politics & hope, was a publishing venture sponsored by the San Francisco Women’s Centers in the 1980s. It was a beautiful collective work of art and I was delighted for this story to appear next to those of revered lesbian writers in Vol 14, 1985.

 

The Good Co-worker

Here’s another story from Tradeswomen Magazine, published in 1997. Like all my fictional stories, it’s autobiographical. I was working as a maintenance electrician out of the San Francisco Water Department corporation yard. The photos are of  women building a house in Florida.

Women Run Screaming

Archiving during the pandemic shutdown–it’s a pastime of lots of us old folks. I admit to feeling nostalgic as I box up historic files and read through past Tradeswomen Magazines. The quarterly magazine was published for nearly two decades, the 80s and 90s, and it tells the story of our movement for equity in nontraditional jobs. Of all my writings published in the magazine, the short fiction still resonates best. Here’s a story from the Spring, 1987 issue.

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Celebrating Beltane and May Day

Dear Friends,

Emerging from the chrysalis—a month and a half of  coronavirus lockdown and spine surgery recovery—it feels like a brand new day. In Sonoma County residents are now allowed to walk or bike (but not drive) to a park. Keep your mask on.

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A trailer parked on my block

I’m one of those people who finds it difficult to sit in one place and concentrate on anything for any length of time. I always knew I had a very short attention span. Holly thinks maybe I have undiagnosed ADHD. Anyway being flat on my back and having to concentrate on recovery from surgery has helped me if not to focus better at least to understand my problem better. I was pretty happy listening to novels especially when I was in the first stage of recovery and could barely get in and out of bed. As I recovered I felt more and more like multitasking, as if I actually could pick up my iPad and read Facebook posts while I’m listening to a book. Not! I can work on a jigsaw puzzle and listen to a book at the same time. Holly says that’s because you’re using different parts of the brain. Don’t try do two tasks that require words at the same time.

So I have been trying to practice doing one thing at a time. Then, reading the Audubon newsletter, I learned about bird sitting. It’s easy. You just sit and listen and watch and use all your senses to experience birds. I expanded this concept to pollinators. Bee sitting.

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Our pollinator garden

One sunny April day after I was able to walk around and sit outside in a zero gravity chair, I spent an hour or so just watching pollinators. The air was full of flying and floating things. Filaments of spider web, falling blossoms, puffs of seeds and insects moved through the air in the soft breeze. Honeybees populated the orange and the apple tree. The native bees went for the native plants. Bee segregation! Our pollinator garden starts blooming early. The native carpenter bees and bumblebees especially love the red salvia. And there are all these other little pollinators that may or may not be bees, the kind that fly in squares turning quickly at right angles, the tiny gnats that circle endlessly around each other. I was surprised at how many bugs I couldn’t identify.

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First strawberries. Eaten by a wild animal that night.

Two years ago we had a great population of carpenter bees. The females are big and shiny black, the males smaller with a smidge of yellow. A tub full of purple flowers bloomed near where I like to sit on the patio and my purple hair was constantly being dive-bombed by purple-loving bees. Then last year the bee population declined. I saw one maybe two carpenter bees and we began to wonder if they had been living in the old original redwood fence from 1948 that we had replaced the year before. My brother Don told me that when they remodeled their house in Olympia they destroyed the carpenter bees’ home in the exterior trim on their building. That year and some years after their apple orchard did not get pollinated and had no apples. So I’m delighted that the carpenter bees have returned. 

I plan to celebrate Beltane bee sitting. 

Sending virtual hugs to you all. Take care of yourselves.

Surgery Spring

Dear Readers,

My regular pagan holiday post comes in the form of a (late) diary. Here are the first four entries.

March 30, 2020

In what might be seen as supremely good timing, considering the pandemic lockdown, I have spent the spring equinox (March 19) and the advent of this new season recovering from spine surgery. Now at the end of March I’m still mostly lying in bed flat on my back so I am speaking into my phone to tell you the story. I’m thinking installments.

I was scheduled for the surgery on March 12 at Oakland Kaiser Hospital. The surgeon was the same one who worked on me three years ago when I had surgery on my lower spine, Timothy Huang.

Good friends know that I have been complaining about pain in my right arm for years now. According to the actuarial tables I can expect to live to be 82, twelve more years. The prospect of living with worsening pain was depressing and prompted me to seek relief. After years of pain killers (we call ibuprofen vitamin I around our house) I finally got Kaiser to give me an MRI. The expression on the doctor’s face when she saw the picture disturbed me. Even I could see that my spinal cord was being crushed by deteriorating bones in my neck. The doctor said “Don’t fall down. Trauma could result in paralysis.” I began to consider what life might be like as a quadriplegic. 

My cervical spine was a mess. Nerves were being pinched, my spinal cord was permanently damaged, vertebrae four through seven are worn down to the bone. I was told it could only get worse not better. So surgery was a no brainer. Oh I looked forward to it.

Including photos from our backyard garden, my savior during this recovery/pandemic period.

April 2, 2020

It’s April now and I’m feeling better three weeks after my surgery. I’m still spending quite a bit of time lying on my back but I’ve been getting up and around a lot more.

Here’s the next chapter of my surgery story. 

Holly and I went to a pre-op meeting with the surgeon about a week before the scheduled surgery. We drove to Oakland Kaiser looking forward to hearing what they were planning to do to me.

I was tested and found to have a good strength and reflexes. My worst symptom was the pain in my right arm and hand. We looked at the MRI together and the surgeon said “This won’t get better; it will only get worse.” He said it wasn’t the result of a particular injury, just long term wear and tear. I thought of all those hours spent working over my head looking up at light fixtures as an electrician.

Lying in bed I can smell the orange blossoms right outside my window

We learned that spinal cord tissue is less resilient than nerve tissue. The most pressing problem was not the nerve pain in my arm but the compression of my spinal cord, even though that was not as painful. He recommended first tackling the spinal cord compression. To do that they would open the back of my neck, cut the vertebrae, crack them open and screw small plates in. That gives the spinal cord more room. He said this surgery might not feel like a big improvement. It’s more to hold the decline. The basic surgery is called laminoplasty, essentially decompression. 

To repair the nerve damage that creates pain in my arm he said they would have to go in from the front of my neck. Sometimes they do both operations all at once but they would like to do just the back, wait six months and see how much improvement there is before surgery from the front, which is much more risky. 

Why hadn’t I felt more pain in my neck I wondered. The surgeon said that because the deterioration had been gradual over time my body just got used to it. Also we know that I have a high tolerance for pain. I guess this is a good thing.

The surgery was a week away and I was glad that we’d been able to get an appointment so soon. I wanted to get it over with.

Our pandemic crafts table. Holly colors while I work on the puzzle

April 5, 2020

It’s been nearly four weeks since my spine surgery and I’m feeling ever so much better. I still spend many hours lying on my back listening to podcasts and novels on my phone, but I’ve been sitting up more, taking little walks and sitting in the sun in the garden. I’m not ready yet to be a planter. Holly is doing that. But I actually pulled some weeds yesterday. Like three weeds. Still it felt like one small step for woman.

Here’s chapter three of my surgery story.

Our Oakland Adventure. March 11, 2020.

We planned to drive to Oakland the day before my surgery. Holly had reserved a motel room near Kaiser hospital where she could stay while I was recovering. I would be staying in the hospital for at least a couple of nights so Holly would have a place to park and a real bed within walking distance.

We thought we would probably have to be at the hospital at 6 AM. Isn’t that always the way it goes? But we found out the day before that we wouldn’t have to arrive till noon the day of surgery so we would have 24 hours in Oakland California. Just like in one of those travel magazines. In this case we would just experience the half mile around the Kaiser hospital. I resolved to be a tourist. 

By this time the coronavirus was here in the Bay Area and we all knew it but there wasn’t a lockdown yet and, while some people were wearing masks on the street, most of us were not. We were just anxious. I had already been sheltering in place for the past month because I didn’t want to get any virus that would compromise my surgery.

Holly and Linda practicing social distancing in the front yard.

We ate dinner that night at a newish Mexican place just up from Kaiser on Piedmont Avenue, the upscale walking and shopping street. We tried to social distance by sitting in the outdoor patio area. It would be my last meal in a restaurant for weeks, maybe months (maybe years?).

At the corner of Piedmont and MacArthur waiting for the light to change a young Chinese man asked us a question. We didn’t understand and so had him repeat it. 

“Are you lesbians?”

“Yes,” we said, a little surprised at the bold question.

Then he explained by telling a story about his grandmother and something about style or fashion. 

“Is your grandmother a lesbian?”

No that wasn’t it. He smiled politely. We decided his grandmother likes lesbian fashion and style. She must be about our age—old. I imagined she must be in China. He knew English but his accent was so thick we couldn’t understand. We smiled as we parted, amused at our flannel shirt fashion plate status.

Kaiser hospital sits at the confluence of Broadway, MacArthur and Piedmont streets, a dividing line between two very different neighborhoods.

I have spent a lot of time on Piedmont Avenue because I often visit my friend Pat who lives near there. But I have never spent time on the MacArthur side. Our motel on MacArthur was only half a mile west of the hospital but a world apart from Piedmont on the east side with its restaurants, shops, movie theater, and sidewalks packed with pedestrians.

Our hospital hotel

Wide, commercial MacArthur had been known as a haven for hookers, and while we didn’t see a single hooker, we soon realized our hotel had been part of that scene. We could see it had undergone a recent renovation with new paint. But check-in was accomplished through a barred window. 

Our room had a new paint job and the bed was perfectly comfortable. Yet the barred windows didn’t open. And we could see that the door had suffered a break-in. The card lock was secured on the inside with electrical tape. I tried to imagine what had prompted breaking down the door. Had someone died in there?

In the morning there was no coffee in the lobby. No lobby. We hiked the half-mile to the closest coffee shop, a Starbucks in the hospital, where we watched a diverse population of hospital workers come and go, start their shifts. Oakland Kaiser seemed endlessly interesting and we would get to know some of the staff in the coming days.

April 9, 2020

I can’t believe I’m on chapter 4 and I haven’t even gotten to the surgery yet. But this is it!

Many of the nurses at Kaiser were men. And the guy who was my pre-op nurse told me he had worked as an ironworker before studying to be a nurse. He worked in San Francisco, he said, before OSHA made you tie off when you walked on those big I-beams. Yeah, I thought. Working without safety measures. It’s a dick thing. Anyway I got all excited because he was a construction worker brother. I told him I had worked construction and I told him about the new ironworker union‘s pregnancy leave policy which we tradeswomen are all very proud of. That didn’t interest him and he showed his hand when he said, “Women were given all the easy jobs.” I told the story to another construction worker friend of mine, a sprinkler fitter, and she said, “Hell there are no easy jobs in the ironworkers. They’re all hard. That’s one of the hardest trades there is.” She had worked on some construction jobs with our friend Fran Kraus, one of the first women ironworkers. Fran was assigned to place and weld steel stairs, a job that requires smarts and precise planning. Few of the men were capable and that’s why they gave the job to Fran. Maybe they thought it was easy, but it was not. And I thought of a few women ironworkers I know who worked in San Francisco. None of them would’ve wanted easy work. It was bullshit, but I think typical of the prejudicial thinking of our male coworkers. Sigh.

I’d had my hair shaved into a cool newfangled cut right before I went into surgery but it wasn’t short enough. A woman came in to cut the back of my hair even shorter and she did a pretty good job. She shaved it right across the back from ear to ear and so now I have an even cooler haircut. Then I got the blue net over my head.

My radical new haircut

The surgery room was shining bright, full of stainless steel. Five or six gowned workers, including the surgeon Tim Huang, surrounded me with smiling faces. Whenever they come in to give you medication or do anything nurses and doctors always ask you your name and your birthdate. Well I can remember that but when they wheeled me into surgery they asked me my name, my birthdate and what operation I was getting. I was flummoxed. I have not even tried to memorize the medical description of my surgery. I said “neck” and they said that was good enough. And after that I don’t remember anything more.

Here is what the written operative procedures said: Cervical laminoplasty, 3 or more levels; Cervical posterior instrumentation, 2-5 levels; Cervical far lateral discectomy or foraminotomy, 2 levels; Cervical laminectomy for decompression, 2 levels. Now why wasn’t I able to remember that?

Belated Imbolc Greetings

Dear Readers,

I forgot to post my regular pagan holiday greeting and here it is almost spring equinox! Since I wrote this, buds have broken in Santa Rosa. Our mini fruit orchard is at the end of its bloom and we’re seeing a few pollinators buzzing the yard. Goldfinches are chattering melodiously and a few other birds visit as well. Nature touches us with a tinge of hope. Sending virtual hugs (because, Coronavirus pandemic. Sigh.) –Molly

Imbolc 2020

If you celebrate the Lunar new year, happy new year! It just occurred to me that I first learned about Tet from the Vietnam War. The Tet Offensive, launched in the wee hours of Jan. 30, 1968, against the American invaders is what I think of when I think of Tet. How sad. Forever associating the Vietnamese new year holiday with war is a curse of my generation.

Here in Santa Rosa Holly and I are celebrating the pagan holiday of Imbolc on February 1. To me Imbolc marks the start of spring (even though it’s technically still winter) and the most beautiful season here. Hillsides have turned a hallucinogenic green, like the artist had only one color left in her palette. Today is sunny and 60 degrees. I can see that the sweet peas I planted in December are sprouting and the greens are producing tender new leaves. The artichokes have spread their giant gray-green leaves out into the garden and a black-eyed susan planted last spring still flowers. Poppies and bulbs are sprouting up all over. The neighbor’s lemon is full of bright yellow fruit but our orange has a smaller crop this year. I’m continually amazed that these citrus trees can thrive in this climate. But it’s only gotten down below freezing a couple of times this winter, and not for long. We’ve had plenty of rain this season but only one atmospheric river.

On Imbolc we shall ceremoniously mount the bird house on its pole (we took it down last fall after rats started nesting there). Last year we watched titmice (they are little gray birds) fledge from the house and we hope the parent pair will return again. We love watching birds though our picture window but this winter there are many fewer birds than last year.

This is very disturbing to us. What has caused the drastic decrease in bird activity? Are there more bird-killing cats in the neighborhood? (friends, please keep your cats indoors. They are the number one enemy of wild bird populations). No doubt climate change plays a role. Another factor might be the death of the mature sycamore tree in our neighbor’s yard. The backyard house, which had a reputation as a drug house, was condemned, remodeled and sold to a new owner who promptly cut down the huge tree. We thought perhaps the insurance company required it, a frequent demand now in fire country. But we learned that wasn’t the reason. According to neighbors the tree was in bad shape (although it looked good from our yard). The drug-addled previous owner had used it for target practice. Yikes! The removal of the tree, along with all the living things on and in it, saddened us. The Western Sycamore, Platanus racemosa is native to California and we felt it belonged here in our neighborhood.

January saw us down at Courthouse Square for the Women’s March (smaller this year) and the impeachment rally. Plenty of people in Sonoma County have political anger issues. I’ve been writing postcards to voters all over the country at local postcard writing parties hosted by a few activist women. This at least makes us feel better and provides a sense of community with like-minded folks. We resist the onset of fascism any way we can. If there is an Imbolc goddess I implore her to help us now.

Sending new year greetings to all.

In the Wake of the Weinstein Conviction

I’ve been going through my collection of Tradeswomen magazines (published by volunteer tradeswomen 1981-1999) and thinking about how much of what we wrote still has relevance today. We started writing and talking about sexual harassment before the term was even in the mainstream lexicon and before we had any legal backing. We were truly foremothers in this fight, and our persistence has paid off in improved industry standards and better working conditions for women in the construction trades. Here’s a story we published in 1983.

Death and Birth on the Farm

“Do you remember killing chickens?” I asked my brother Don. 

“Are you kidding? I killed, gutted and plucked hundreds of chickens. Nasty job.”

“ Yeah, I remember holding the headless chickens to keep them from flopping around as blood spurted from the necks, and stuffing them in the haystack as they bled out, and I remember the plucking station behind the barn, dipping each chicken into a bucket of hot water, then pulling off the feathers. That was a tiresome job. But I don’t have a memory of wielding the axe. Though I must have. I wasn’t squeamish and I always wanted to try everything. I must have done it.”

Living with animals on our little three-acre farm in Yakima, Washington taught us much about life and death. Animals were born, and sometimes we got to be part of that. And animals died, sometimes by our hand. Sometimes we ate them.

Tim, Don, me and Terry with Shetland ponies

As I remember we only ever had one sheep. The word for a motherless lamb is bummer, and that’s what we named the lamb. My father bought him at a livestock auction. We loved Bummer. He was so darned cute. We fed him with a bottle and got pretty tight with that wooly guy. But I guess lambs, as they mature, like butting their heads against things. The thing became my little brother Terry, who, at four, was no match for the strong animal two or three times his weight. Technically, sheep are no longer lambs when they reach one year in age. After that they are classified as adults, or mutton—that is if they are to be eaten. Bummer was mutton. And when he was served up to us as stew, we kids looked across the table at each other wondering how to respond to the invitation to eat our friend? 

Terry, the four-year-old, may have been too young to understand. Tim, six and a half, refused to eat one bite of Bummer. Don and I, nine and eleven, with adult stoicism, gamely dug in. The meat was fatty and tough, the taste gamey, not at all pleasant. We looked at our parents who were not able to disguise their own distaste. It turns out mutton is not very good, unless maybe you’re a Basque shepherd. In some parts of the world it’s probably a delicacy.

Don and Gus

Gus the goose died by stomping. Don saw the whole thing. Gus enjoyed teasing the horses, following behind and snapping at their fetlocks. This seemed like a particularly suicidal pastime to me, the horsewoman. But I did know that to avoid being kicked you come up along the side, touch the horse’s hindquarters so as not to surprise her and walk close in to her body. The horse can’t get enough power to complete a kick and maybe Gus had discovered this. Maybe the bird delighted in frustrating the huge animals. But Gus pushed his luck with one horse too far. She wheeled around and came down on him with a front hoof. We didn’t eat Gus. We buried him in a gander grave.

We saw chicks hatch, the births of kittens and puppies, but I only ever saw the birth of one horse. It was awesome. I was seven and in second grade. Bonnie the Shetland pony mare had given birth to many foals and so perhaps she was not bothered by human presence. But all other horses on the farm were born out in the far end of the pasture in the middle of the night.

Just after the birth. It was awesome.

We never had a cow. My father, nostalgic for his country childhood, wanted one but my mother drew the line. She knew who would end up with the job of milking while my father stayed out drinking with his buddies. But Dad did get a calf. The calf was wild but Dad committed to its domestication. You couldn’t get close to the calf after he was let out into the pasture so Dad sat down in the middle of the pasture and didn’t move. The curious calf moved closer to get a better look. Dad sat there like a meditating Buddhist monk for maybe an hour. Finally the calf came up to him.

The calf grew up to be a handsome Hereford, the cattle breed Dad had raised on his family’s South Dakota ranch (the farm’s address was Hereford Rte, SD). Dad hired out the slaughtering. That steer was shot, then hung up on a tripod and slaughtered right there in the pasture where he had first encountered Dad. Do I need to add that we ate him? Cousin Gail recalls two calves fattening up in the field. “When it was time to slaughter, the one waiting his turn seemed to recognize his fate. Oh, the bawling, rolling eyes, and frantic attempts to escape the fence. Too much for a city gal,” she said.

My illustration for Mom’s story

My brother Don, the poultryman, raised many different breeds of chickens and exotic poultry including peafowl (the males are peacocks, the females peahens). Neighborhood dogs would form packs and could take down a calf or a goat. When one of our dogs misbehaved he was immediately put down, even as my brothers protested. One night a pack dug into the peafowl pen and killed all its residents. We buried them in the rose garden. Afterward my mother dreamed that the roses bloomed as peacock feathers. She wrote the story. I penned the illustration. Don couldn’t remember if we ever ate peafowl, but he did research the prospect and learned that it’s quite common in India.

Brother Tim told me of the deaths of animals that came to the farm after I had left home. A goat was killed by a falling tree after my mother wished him dead for trashing her flower garden.

There was a pregnant sow, traded for some treasure, who gave birth to eight piglets. I was given some of the resulting meat, which I shared with my collective college household. Best pork I’ve ever tasted.

At one time Dad and the boys raised rabbits. Tim remembers that they multiplied quickly. When skinned they looked like human bodies. The story goes that Dad had such trouble killing them, he had to give it up.

We were used to animals dying on the farm, but the death of a foal took on greater significance and resulted in my teenage existential crisis.

My mare, Barbie Q, the color of the sauce, was another livestock auction rescue. She had been orphaned at three days of age when her mother was killed by a dove hunter. The little sorrel filly cost my father $30. She was in bad shape as a result of neglect, with a case of mange and a number of other disorders.

Barbie Q about one year old

We sometimes called on a large animal vet named Dr. Heffernan, but, as my dad had done on the farm in South Dakota, we doctored our animals ourselves. My dad had an animal husbandry book from the 1940s that we studied. I remember having to give Barbie injections for some ailment. I had to stand back and throw the needle into her hindquarters, like a dart. I didn’t always get it in the first time.

Barbie survived and grew into a mare with excellent conformation. We knew that her mother had been a registered Quarter Horse. Barbie was small, only 14-2 hands high, easily mounted bareback by my 12-year-old self. I took charge of Barbie’s training, teaching her to lead, setting the saddle on her back and riding her for the first time. We trained in the small pasture, repeating figure eights and practicing changing leads. I showed her in 4-H shows and fairs.

My first time in the saddle on Barbie

I was 13 when I won an essay contest sponsored by a woman who bred Arabian horses: “Why I want to breed my mare to your Arabian stallion.” The combination of Quarter Horse and Arabian genes resulted in a filly who exhibited the best of both breeds. She was a bay with a white star on her forehead and three white socks.

Barbie was a good mother and the filly was healthy. One day when she was about three months old I noticed her putting her head in a funny position. She pointed her nose to the sky and didn’t seem able to move her head. We consulted our old vet book. The common name for tetanus is lockjaw. There was no cure.

Barbie Q and her foal just before she died

The filly was in agony. We called the vet who came out, laid her down and injected her with whatever they use to kill horses. A flood of urine told me she was dead. Ever the stoic, I didn’t cry. 

But I was shaken. By that time I was already struggling with the contradictions inherent in christian doctrine. The foal’s death inspired me to abandon a religion whose god commands men to have dominion over all the earth and its animals and who allows beautiful beings to die before their time.