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.
In 1972, a junior in high school, she had already taken all the drafting classes her Los Angeles school offered. She’d been working with her father building a car so she took her father’s advice and enrolled in the welding class. The teacher said if she could fire up a torch she could stay in the class. It was a test no one else had to take. She was the only girl.
She took the class and got hooked on welding. The first year she excelled so much she was teaching the other students how to weld. By her senior year she was shirking all her other classes, spending days in the machine shop building projects. That year she won a national award from the Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation for TIG welding brass but she didn’t graduate high school. Joan Weir was a welding phenom.
That summer she got her first job. It was piecework building motorcycle accessories. She said, “They needed someone who could TIG (tungsten inert gas) weld. That was new technology back then. It’s an electric spark that comes out of a piece of tungsten, where you can weld ferrous and non-ferrous materials and it’s like a fine art because it’s a smaller weld you’re making.”
Again she was the only female on the job. “I was welding in a metal building where it was well over 90 degrees. I remember lifting my welding hood to find that my sleeve was on fire. I looked down the line and all the guys were just watching. They weren’t helping me. They just wanted to see me take my shirt off. Of course I had a T-shirt on underneath so it was so ridiculous.”
I first met Joan Weir in the late 1970s. With our mutual friend, Cheryl Parker, we bonded as some of the few early tradeswomen in the San Francisco Bay Area. Cheryl and I got into the electrical trade and Cheryl had attained the rank of Chief Building Inspector in the city of Richmond, California when she died of ovarian cancer in 1992. In 1976 Joan and Cheryl had traveled with a convoy of tradeswomen and their supporters to Los Angeles to petition the state government for affirmative action goals and timetables for women in construction apprenticeship.
“It was a great moment because we were standing up and talking about what we were experiencing and each one of us had a different story. We got the state of California to enact goals and timetables.”
I think of Joan as a Renaissance woman. She has been a general contractor, a carpenter, a plumber, a glass blower and many other things. But Joan is primarily a welder. She lost her career and nearly her life after being set up to blow up.
In 1980 Joan was working for US Steel in Pittsburg, California as a maintenance welder. To get the job she took a welding test.
“My test was so perfect that they could not refuse to hire me so their recourse was to put me in the ugliest location, which was the cold reduction department,” she said.
“It was located in a building a mile long. We had four mills that ran consecutively. The steel was brought in in large rolls and was run through each mill to make it thinner. Each roll was a ton maybe two tons at the very end. It was called cold reduction because heat was not being applied. Rollers compressed each sheet as it went through. Water and oil were the lubricants. Next-door was an acid dip where they would roll the big sheets of steel through acid to clean them. As a maintenance welder I led a team of two millwrights and two steamfitters. And jointly we would move on a weekly rotating basis from working days, swing, and graveyard shifts.
We kept the mill running 24/7. These machines were put under a lot of pressure and they would break. The millwrights were in charge of keeping the mill running and the pipefitters would fix any of the piping, which was typically hydraulic whether it was water or air. My job as the welder was to weld any metal part that broke and I also built anything that they would need to install.
It was up to the welder to determine the time length of the repair and if it exceeded three or four hours then they would shut down the mill and all the workers on the mill would be sent home. So it was imperative to not have that happen because the union required that if the worker had already worked four hours then they would get full pay even if sent home. That would cost big bucks. I must admit I always enjoyed saying ‘Nope send your guys home. It’s gonna take at least five or six hours to repair.’
The environment at the plant was extremely unsafe. Cranes carried the large steel rolls over people’s heads. Workers died on a regular basis from the hooks breaking or the roll getting loose. Large forklifts with large extended poles on them carried the rolls along where workers were walking. And because of the extreme noise you could be walking, turn, and not realize that a forklift was right there on top of you. People were hurt on a number of occasions while I worked there.
At US Steel in 1980 it felt like we were working back in the 30s and 40s. Workers were constantly being harassed in many different ways and if you were to go up against management you were likely to end up hurt or killed. That was known. That was just a given.
The United Steelworkers union covered everybody so if you had a problem with a co-worker the union couldn’t side with one worker or another so it didn’t feel like you had representation–especially as a woman.
I was the only woman welder in the plant, the whole steel industry in Pittsburg. I led a team–two very supportive pipefitters and then two millwrights who were not supportive. This one individual who was a short guy, white, Mormon, had a real issue taking orders from a woman. But I was the team leader and I got paid more.
The atmosphere in the cold reduction department was tense, unsafe and the work was really demanding. Also the air quality was really bad because we were stuck inside a building that had lots of water and oil mixed into the air we were breathing. We would get inside a mill, literally placing ourselves inside this big machinery, going down into the bowels of it. I never felt very safe going there because I knew this guy didn’t like me. I never expected him to do me physical harm but I worried that he might cause an accident.
A firefighter was required to stand by while I was working, as my clothing would catch fire on a regular basis because of the oil that was constantly coating us. We got used to welding this way. You’d turn, stop welding, ask the fire guy to shoot you with water, he’d douse your clothes and you’d go back to welding again.
One night I was working graveyard so it was a small crew throughout the building. I was welding something up in my weld shop and had to go get some material and I came back to find this guy using my welding hood and welding on my bench. I shouted to him because of the loud machinery and he stopped, he put up the hood, and he back-fisted me. He hit me across my face so hard that I landed against my welding tanks and my hardhat split open.
Two of the other guys on my team came to see what happened. I was injured so the supervisor was called. He sent me home and he let my attacker stay on shift. I was told to come back the following morning for a meeting with the shop steward and the guy who physically attacked me. The shop steward just said that this was something we had to get over.
At that point I contacted an attorney and they told me to take whatever sick time I had and to get off site because it was not safe for me to be there. So I took my week’s leave and then I started calling in and saying that the environment was not safe for me to work in.
When I showed up for work again it was swing shift on Easter Sunday. There was an emergency. A pipe had bent and needed to be repaired. I had a new pipefitter working with me so we didn’t know each other. First I asked him if he had put the safety blocks in the line because this was a high-pressure hydraulic two-inch line. Then we climbed down the sheet steel that was in the way, down into this pit and I’m up to my knees in oil and hydraulic fluid. The pipe is above the hydraulic fluid. I’ve got my firefighter up above the pit and the pipefitter is down in the pit with me and we get ready to weld it up. I light my big oxy-acetylene rosebud torch to heat the pipe and all of a sudden somebody turns on the line, pressurizes it and there’s an explosion.
My head is literally right over the pipe when it explodes. I don’t realize I’m burnt all over my head with second and third degree burns. I scramble back up the torn up steel next to me to get to my acetylene set up to turn off those valves because I’m afraid of backfire in the lines. I see the pipefitter is burnt so I grab him to get him over to the safety shower and the safety shower doesn’t work. I see a water fountain and I get him to the water fountain and I get his hands into the water and he says ‘you’ve got to get yourself water’ and at that point I start to recognize how burnt I am.
We’re brought into the lunchroom. After 45 minutes or an hour, they finally get us to the hospital, which is unable to provide critical care. So they bring me back to the cold reduction plant. At that point my eyes are shut, I can’t see. My face doesn’t have skin on it.
Nobody responded or cared how badly I was hurt. The head of the department was there and he said that I should go home. They told me only to show up for a safety hearing the following morning. Then the guard, an African American man, looked at me and said ‘I will take you home.’ He risked his job going off shift leaving early to drive me home. When I got home my partner took me to Alta Bates hospital burn unit where they kept me for a week.
My lawyer and I went to a hearing with the EEOC. My face was still recovering from the burns but the hearing was simply about being hit by a co-worker on the job. It wasn’t about the explosion accident.
EEOC would have found in my favor but the EEOC officer asked me if I was going to take it to federal court and sue US Steel and not knowing any better I said yes. I didn’t understand that it would take five years to even get to court and I was going up against a major corporation. It would cost me and I was unemployed. So they found against me because they said if they’d found for me I couldn’t take it to court. So I lost my suit. And that ended my career in welding.
OSHA never found out about the accident. About a year later I was volunteering for Tradeswomen Inc. with Madeline Mixer at her Women’s Bureau office in the San Francisco federal building. Madeline took me down the hall to talk to the head of OSHA who was upset with me that I never contacted them. I didn’t know that I was responsible to contact them. So nothing ever happened to US Steel.
I never learned who turned the pressure back on. We all understood that US Steel was known for killing or maiming workers who complained. And that’s the way the industry ran back in those days.”
For many years after the accident, Joan looked like a reverse raccoon, her face red where the skin had burned off and white around her eyes, which had been protected by plastic safety glasses (they melted). Today, 39 years later, you can’t see the burns unless she points them out. Joan still loves welding and she uses her many skills at her current job working at a vineyard in Sonoma County. In her spare time she teaches beekeeping and building trades to women and girls. She lives in Santa Rosa with her wife Teresa Romaine, a retired painting contractor.
I had given up finding out any more about my mother’s admirer, Edna L. Then, looking through a box of family photos and letters that my brother Don had taken with him to Vancouver BC, I found another scrapbook made by my mother. This was mostly high school-era, 1920s-1930 (Flo had graduated in the class of 1929½). But Flo had tucked mementos from other decades into it. Among the high school graduation notices I was delighted to find another note from Eddie (as she sometimes signed her name) in her now familiar diminutive handwriting. It was an invitation to a party during the Columbus YWCA conference. It said:
In the Wick and Lauterbach den
On Wednesday night at half past ten
We hope you’ll join us for a spree
To give us one more Council memory
Then there is one of Eddie’s cute stick figure drawings—two skirted figures with F and E written underneath. At the bottom it says, “Just to be sure that my roommate will be here to act as co-hostess with me.” While they were roommates Eddie could never keep Flo at home it seems. It was written on the Neil House stationery and dated April 27, 1938.
I had found Eddie’s last name—Lauterbach—the one thing I’d been searching for in the scrapbooks, the one thing I needed in order to find out more about the woman with a crush on my mother! I was so happy I danced around the house singing her name.
Googling her name got me to the Edna A. Lauterbach scholarship fund for the education of nurses. She was a nurse who championed home care. Then I started making up stories. I imagined Edna was an important historical figure, an organizer. Perhaps she had been a speaker at the conference. I imagined she traveled around the country on speaking tours seducing women in every town. I wondered whether Eddie had had lots of lovers, or no lovers at all. Was she the archetype of the lonely lesbian who never found her mate? Was it hard to seduce women in the 1930s?
I wrote to the scholarship fund to see if they could provide more biographical information. The marketing director got right back to me saying it was a different person, as the age didn’t match up. This Edna Lauterbach was not even born until after the meeting in Columbus took place. Scratch her and all my associated fantasies.
Then Don and I got on the computer and looked at census records. We found an Edna R. Lauterbach, born in 1900 and died in August 1979 who lived her entire life in Brooklyn, NY, after 1930 in a 43-unit apartment house on 88th Street. I found pictures of the building, built in 1926, online. The apartments now sell in the million-dollar range, so I’m guessing the neighborhood was gentrified long ago. But when the Lauterbach family moved in, this would have been a working class neighborhood. Edna had two sisters, one named Gertrude. This was a deciding clue, as her sister Gertrude had been mentioned in one of the other notes found in Flo’s scrapbooks. Don found records for Edna in the 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 censuses. In all, she was single and living in the family home. By 1940 their father (a truck maker whose parents had emigrated from Germany) had died, but the three sisters were all still unmarried, in their thirties and living at home with their mother. A household of old maids! Perhaps all the sisters were lesbians.
According to the census, Edna worked in advertising. She was there for the Mad Men era, although she would have been 60 years old in 1960. I imagine her as the staid older secretary who runs interference for her philandering boss while correcting his spelling and grammar and making him look good. She may have worked in the industry until she retired, possibly at the same job. Had she remained a closeted lesbian all her life? Was she part of a lesbian subculture and if so, where was it centered? No doubt the environs of New York City afforded more possibilities than those of smaller towns. But I’m imagining big lesbo parties through the decades at the apartment on 88th Street in Brooklyn on the parents’ bowling nights.
It turns out Edna R. Lauterbach wasn’t anybody famous. I couldn’t even find a funeral notice for her, although we did learn that she is buried in the famous Brooklyn Greenwood cemetery with some 560,000 others. She was a workingwoman, a stenographer, who managed to keep a job through the Great Depression. In 1939 she worked in advertising 44 hours per week and 52 weeks in the year. Her income was $2040 that year.
Her parents were ethnically German and my guess is they were not Jewish. The YW is a Christian women’s organization, but it did work with Jewish groups against anti-Semitism and to prod the government to increase numbers of Jewish refugees allowed into the U.S. during the Nazi era. Jewish women did join the YW, but usually as members of the Biz-Pro groups or associated Jewish organizations.
Edna Lauterbach and my mother were two of the thousands of workingwomen who benefited from their membership in the Business and Professional Women’s organizations under the umbrella of the YWCA. One benefit was being able to make friends with other workingwomen from around the country.
Eddie surely had a giant crush on Flo and my heart aches as I read her letters. My mother never revealed that she’d had a sexual relationship with another woman but when I came out to her in the 1970s she did confess that she had known lesbians. And the name Edna Lauterbach is vaguely familiar to me. Did Flo tell me about her? I can’t remember. But it seems as if they kept up the friendship for some years at least. What was the nature of their relationship? They were certainly close friends, and possibly lovers, although I found no conclusive proof.
I have no evidence that they ever saw each other again after 1941 when Flo traveled to New York to visit Eddie. My mother returned to her hometown of Yakima, Washington where (after a stint in Europe with the Red Cross during WWII) she married, raised four kids and lived the rest of her life. Edna L. lived out her life in her family home on 88th Street in Brooklyn.
There is so much more I want to know about my mother’s admirer. Did she frequent the lesbian bars in Manhattan? Was she involved in the blooming lesbian feminist culture in the 1970s? Did she continue to be active in the YWCA? I do know that, even if she and my mother were lovers, the affair would have been long-distance and periodic. And perhaps Eddie’s attentions were not returned at all.
Dearest Eddie, I hope you found love in your lifetime. I hope you found a woman who could love you back.
Among the many questions I wish I could have asked my mother: When did you first have sex? Were you ever attracted to a woman?
We came of age at very different times. My mother turned 20 in 1933, the nadir of the Great Depression. I was 20 in 1969, the zenith of the Countercultural Revolution.
As close as we were, there were things her generation just didn’t talk about—private things. My generation talked about everything, even things that probably should have been kept private.
Whether or not my mother was ever attracted to a woman, I have found evidence that at least one woman was attracted to her. After I discovered the letters from Edna L., my mother’s ardent admirer, I searched in vain for her last name and any identifying information in Mom’s scrapbooks. They had roomed together in the Neil House Hotel in Columbus, Ohio for the national YWCA convention in April 1938. But “Eddie” (as she often signed her name) suggests in one note that they had met the previous year at a YW conference in Chicago.
“It has been fun to continue our friendship begun in Chicago (or even earlier) and I hope we shall be friends far into the future,” wrote Eddie.
I can’t imagine what Eddie means by “even earlier.” I didn’t think Flo had traveled east from Washington State before the Chicago trip, but I have one piece of evidence that suggests otherwise. She gave me a small painting and wrote on the back, “Bought at Dayton’s in Minneapolis in the 1930s. Sent to daughter Molly in San Francisco 2/82. Flo Martin.” So perhaps there had been previous meetings where they connected that Flo had not recorded in the scrapbooks. Had Flo and Eddie schemed for a year to room together in Columbus? They must have planned ahead at least.
So, my new obsession: Edna L. Reading her love notes to Flo warmed my heart and I began to identify with Eddie who slyly references “baths” and late-night “tuckin’ in” (her quotes, not mine). From reading her notes, I conclude she wanted to seduce my mother. Did she?
Some things I know about Eddie: She lived in New York. She was participating in the YWCA conference, so she could have been active in a Business and Professional Women’s Club, as was Flo, or in the YW. Chances are that Eddie was older than Flo, who was only 24 when they roomed together in Columbus. One clue I found in Eddie’s letters: they are literate with perfect spelling and punctuation. This suggests that she worked in an office and not a factory.
What did she look like? My mother’s scrapbooks from the 1930s are filled with pictures, but as far as I can tell there are none of Eddie or the YW conferences. But who knows? Flo didn’t caption anything in these early scrapbooks. In trying to imagine how Eddie looked, I could not even assume that she was white. Even in 1938, the YW strove to include racial minorities.
Participating in these conferences must have felt to my mother and her comrades like early feminist gatherings did to my generation of feminists. The meetings were focused on making institutional changes to give women and minorities more comprehensive rights. These women were leading a movement for social change, just as we did. The artifacts Flo saved in her scrapbooks show that many of these women built loving friendships with each other. The warmth expressed in their greetings illustrates deep feeling. From receipts she saved, I see they sent flowers to each other as thank yous, a practice I wish in retrospect my generation of feminist activists had adopted.
The Columbus conference was a continual round of meetings. In her love notes Eddie grumbles about not getting to see Flo back at the room until late at night.
“Aren’t we having a good time even though I have to sit up nights and wait for a chance to see you?”
“I certainly am enjoying being with you—even if I don’t have that opportunity ‘cept in the wee hours mostly, after I’ve tucked you in. I’ll be tuckin’ you in any minute now when you get back from your meeting on findings…”
Apparently the meetings went long into the night. Another participant noted, “Here’s to more 2am meetings.”
Flo had saved the banquet book from the YW convention and its inside covers were filled with inscriptions from attendees. Altogether there are 27 signatures. Nicknames were popular and they seem to have nicknamed Flo “Cricket.”
They all signed their full names, except Eddie who signed “Love—Eddie.” It’s an indication that their relationship was special, but disappointing for me because Eddie never signed her last name.
In the banquet book Eddie wrote: “Dearest Florence—You are one grand girl and a swell pal! These interludes of Council and Convention will always be happy memories because you shared them with me. I hope you’ll “bother” me “for years to come” and some day I’m coming to see you in the Northwest! Love—Eddie L.”
Did Eddie ever visit the Northwest? There is nothing in my mother’s scrapbook to suggest that she did. But items she saved show that Flo visited Eddie in New York in 1941. There are menus from the Swiss Village Inn and Struppler’s (next to the Cordova 917 Grand Ave.) I found a cocktail napkin from Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Bar and Cocktail Lounge, “Meeting Place of the World.” She kept a newspaper article citing record heat in NYC, a humid 91 degrees on the hottest Sept. 10 in a decade. There’s also a receipt from Sweden House Inc. (Swedish decorative arts) at Rockefeller Center for $1.53 dated 9/10/41, and a receipt for a single person at the Taft Hotel, 7th Ave at 50th St. NYC, and a menu from the Taft Grill.
The Taft Hotel, a 22-story high-rise built in 1926, was one of New York’s premiere tourist hotels with 2000 rooms right on Times Square at Radio City in Midtown. My mother, a small-town gal from Yakima, Washington, must have been thrilled to stay in such a glamorous big city accommodations. I bet she had a great view from room 1045.
How could my mother afford this trip? Had she been saving pennies for three years while working full time and helping to support her family? I could never afford to stay in hotels as a young working person, nor could my family afford hotels when I was growing up. On vacations we drove to the Cascade Mountains and pitched a tent. When I traveled I always arranged to stay in the homes of friends or comrades. It made me wonder if Eddie had chipped in to pay for the room at the Taft Hotel. Or maybe Eddie sprang for the hotel while Flo paid for the train trip. Perhaps she and Eddie had been corresponding furiously for three years, planning this tryst.
Flo also saved a Christmas gift card in its envelope from Macy’s New York. It is signed “With much love to you, Wickie dear—Edna L.”
There’s another note on a card with a monogramed L with no date: “My best love to a very good pal—Edna L.”
Then there’s a note that reads “Florence dear—Just got tickets for Watch on the Rhine—only chance it seems—Gertrude (my sister) will be joining us—will call you about meeting for dinner & theater tomorrow night. Edie L. (The play, by Lillian Hellman, won the New York Drama Critics prize in 1941).
Did Flo travel to New York just to visit Eddie? I can’t find any evidence of meetings of the YWCA or Biz-Pro in NYC in September 1941. Did she stay in a hotel and not with Eddie because she and Eddie wanted a place to be alone?
From the evidence, it looks like Flo travelled to New York by herself. In those days you could take the North Coast Limited on the Northern Pacific Railway all the way from Yakima to Chicago. Then you transferred to the Pennsylvania Railroad for the final leg to New York. Of course, by this time Flo was a veteran train traveler, having already been to Chicago, Columbus and Minneapolis.
As much as I’ve fantasized about my mother’s lesbian affair, I think the evidence is mixed. It wasn’t just that Flo had had lots of boyfriends, or that she married a man. That’s a story many lesbians tell. While I never married a man, I spent a decade experimenting with heterosexual sex before I came out.
My mother definitely struggled with homophobia. As liberal as she was politically, Flo had difficulty accepting that my brother and I are gay. He came out first and she felt justifiably burdened by the widely accepted Freudian theory that mothers are responsible for sons’ homosexuality. Then, when I came out a few years later, she at first chalked it up to a phase I was going though. Could that be because she went through a lesbian “phase” herself?
I made up all sorts of sensational stories about Eddie and Flo from the information I found in the scrapbooks. But since Eddie’s last name remained unrecorded, I gave up learning any more about her. Whatever happened between Flo and Eddie, I’m sure my mother had to wrestle with her own internalized homophobia and that of the dominant culture. At that time, in the 1930s, homosexuality was highly stigmatized and even in the big city of New York, lesbians stayed closeted to protect their jobs and reputations, meeting mostly at private house parties.
There remains the possibility that Flo was deeply in denial about her attraction/affair. I have some evidence to support this theory. My mother’s sister, Ruth, also had gay children and, while much more politically conservative, Ruth took a stand when her Presbyterian church excluded gays. She was proud of her gay kids and publicly quit the church in support of them. But she complained to me that she could never get my mother to talk about the issue. She couldn’t understand why Flo, her closest sister, had shut her out, especially with regard to a subject they both shared. I never understood this. I just assumed it had to do with Flo’s avoidance of the personal like so many in her generation, but perhaps my mother feared that her own sexual past would be revealed.
Did Flo have an affair with Eddie? I’ll never know for sure. If she were still alive, I think I could ask her now. When she died in 1983 at the age of 70, I still felt restrained from asking personal questions that I knew she would refuse to answer. Then again, maybe she never would have revealed the truth. She believed some things are best kept private.
Rummaging through my mom’s scrapbooks from the 1930s I came across a packet of letters, a rare find. My mother saved minutiae from her life: bridge tallies, restaurant menus, cocktail napkins, greeting cards, dance cards, wedding invitations. But she saved almost no personal letters, although I know she wrote and received troves of them.
The envelopes are all addressed to Miss Florence Wick and marked on the outside: “Via the usual route,” “To be read on Friday,” “To be read on Saturday” and “To be read on Sunday.” Carefully opening the tattered envelopes, I found hand-written notes on stationery from the Neil House Hotel in Columbus, Ohio. They looked to me like love notes—from a woman named Edna L.
Haven’t we had fun with meetings and parties and “baths” and rushin’ ‘round! And what am I going to do without you when you are gone? You will just have to come to New York sometime soon so we can share some other experiences….
Love and a hug—Edna L.
What did she mean “baths”? OMGoddess! I had to call my brother Don immediately.
“Flo had an affair with a woman! I have proof!” I blurted. Perhaps I could have approached the delivery of this information differently, building up to the climax with more suspense. My brother’s lack of excitement revealed my failure.
“You’re making up things again.” He could have added, “just like Dad.” Our father was an accomplished teller of tales, amusing but not to be believed.
My wife Holly was equally suspicious. I hadn’t realized I’d built such a reputation for exaggeration. No one believed me. I just had to revel in my discovery alone.
I delved further, looking for more information about Edna L. I read the letters over. Edna sometimes signed her name Eddie or Edie, but she never included her last name. I love that she called herself Eddie, a definite lesbian cue. She illustrated the notes with endearing stick figure drawings. From the letters I learned that Eddie and Flo had roomed together at the national YWCA council meeting in Columbus. Eddie had written the notes during their time together and given them to Flo to be opened each day on the train ride home to Washington State. How romantic!
I read through all the accompanying articles and programs about the national YWCA council meetings that Flo had attended in Chicago and Columbus in 1937 and 1938, but I couldn’t find any mention of Eddie. I looked at every picture in the two scrapbooks. Flo had devoted two pages of one scrapbook to pictures of a woman who had died, kind of a shrine. The pictures show Flo and the friend on a camping trip in the mountains. The woman’s death photo, showing her body lying on a coffin-like bed, is in an envelope pasted in the scrapbook, but there is not a single clue as to who she was. I pulled up the photos to see if there was anything written on the reverse side. Nothing.
The woman in the photos looked rather morose. Could the dead woman be Eddie? Did Eddie kill herself after Flo spurned her advances? Reading the letters, I can see she was clearly smitten, but there’s no indication that Flo felt the same. I let my imagination run wild. My poor mother! She must have felt terrible guilt. No wonder she left no clues about the identity of the dead woman.
My brother seemed slightly more interested in this new theory and he agreed to help me research the dead woman’s identity. We found one clue in a picture that decisively ties the dead woman to Flo’s hometown Biz-Pro group, and from her letters we know that Eddie was from New York, so I had to abandon my romantic story about Eddie. However, I’m holding onto the suicide theory until we can identify the dead woman. I can totally see how my adorable young mother might have inspired unrequited love.
PreScript: The New York Times published my tribute to Carla in its year-end “The Lives They Loved” section:
I was delighted to be asked to eulogize Carla at a memorial for her at the Bayview Opera House on July 23, which would have been her 57th birthday. The Opera House is just now reopening after a restoration which Carla, as head of the Mayor’s Office on Disability, had a big part in. Her office provided vital funding for disability access, and now wheelchair users can enter through the front door. Here’s what I said about Carla.
Carla Johnson was my bestie. I loved her. I introduced her to her wife Anna. Carla and I worked together as building inspectors through the 90s; we worked on each other’s old houses for decades (of course we had permits for everything). Together we negotiated the prejudices we faced as women in the building trades. There were many. Still are.
From the time she made her first cutting board in high school shop class, Carla Johnson wanted to be a carpenter. She quit school at Cal to follow her dream and didn’t finish college till years later. She became a builder, working for small contractors and for a women’s carpentry collective called Seven Sisters Construction.
In those days, it wasn’t easy for women to get training (still isn’t). Carla learned the carpentry trade by reading. She told me she would just ask at the end of every day, “What are we doing tomorrow?” Then she would go home and open her carpentry books and the first thing the next morning she’d start throwing the terminology around. “So, we’re going to put the joists 16 inches on center, right. We’re going to start with the header joist.” She was assigned to be crew boss because she was the one who consistently showed up on time.
Later, she did maintenance on Victorian buildings for a property management company. She got a lot of love from tenants for keeping the systems going. She was a skilled locksmith. She could rehang a door that had been kicked in before the tenants got home from work. She could jerry rig the boiler so tenants would have hot water till the boiler repairperson could get there. Carla loved old buildings. She loved old houses, old trucks, old things. Things with some history in them.
For a time she had her own business, Carla’s Custom Care Construction. No doubt she worked on the homes of some of you in this room. Then she got a civil service job working as a carpenter at the Department of Public Works where she felt privileged to work on City Hall and other historic public buildings.
I didn’t meet Carla till after the saw accident that mangled her left hand and changed her life. It was shocking that such an accident could happen to her. She was the most risk-adverse safety-conscious person I ever met (a trait that sometimes drove her friends crazy).
She told me she couldn’t even remember the date it happened in 1992, which she said is a good thing for people with PTSD. She lost her little finger and she suffered through many long surgeries to repair her ring finger, and a year of rehab. She was disabled. She couldn’t earn a living as a carpenter anymore.
She told me the first thing that her workers comp attorney said to her when she got out of the hospital was, “I want to tell you about this new law that just went into effect.” Her employer had an obligation under Title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide her with a reasonable accommodation–to place her in a job where she could still use the skills without the tools. That’s how she came to work at the Department of Building Inspection. Carla was happy when she was assigned to the Castro as a district inspector. She always loved working with “my people.”
One job of a building inspector is to perfect the art of saying no, not always an easy thing to do, especially if you’ve been on the receiving end as a contractor who has to do the job over after you fail inspection. Carla, with her quiet thoughtful demeanor, could say no and make you feel grateful for her advice.
She developed a reputation as a stickler for the building code’s technical details. Competent contractors who played by the rules liked her. Sloppy mechanics with poor workmanship hated her. Stairs are required by code to be the exact same height for a reason. Varying stair heights can cause falls. Carla carried a measuring tape and she used it. Our friend Nina Saltman just now told me about a job she ran that failed Carla’s inspection because it was a quarter inch off. She is not the only one who tells that story.
Carla became an expert on disability access. And she became a skillful advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. At DBI she saved us taxpayers money by resolving disability issues out of court. Then she moved over to the Mayor’s Office on Disability and she eventually was promoted to head that department.
When Carla called me to tell me she had just been diagnosed with stage IV metastasized breast cancer, I said, “I’m coming over now.” I ran the five blocks to find Carla and Anna standing in front of their house conferring.
“I need help,” Carla said when I got there.
“Anything,” I said, grateful there was something I could do to help my sick friend.
“I need you to get up on the roof.” She wanted me to accompany her to check whether the roofers who worked on the house next door damaged her roof. This was so very Carla. She wouldn’t be able to rest until she made sure her roof was sound.
Carla was fascinated by the details of city government. She would entertain herself during nights of insomnia by watching commission meetings on the public TV channel. I will especially miss talking about city government and politics with Carla over a beer at the Wildside or the Lucky Horseshoe. It was a topic that bored our wives and most friends.
Carla was the kind of civil servant all citizens want working for us, who understands she is there to make our lives better. But at heart she was a carpenter, a builder. She built a life that impacted so many of us, she built institutions, she built buildings, she built a marriage, a home, a neighborhood, lasting relationships.
We marvel at her legacy. And now those of us who are left must do the maintenance.
My wife Holly and I just returned from a cruise to the Caribbean. I know, it seems like a pretty bourgeois activity, but this was a lesbian cruise with Olivia, a company that commandeers whole ships so lesbians can commune with each other, be ourselves and be out. Our ship, the Westerdam of Holland Line (owned by Carnival Cruise Lines), is one of the “balcony-laden floating condominiums” with stories of ocean-view staterooms. Cruise ships don’t have to be as seaworthy or built as strongly as ocean liners, which actually sail across oceans. Cruise ships sail in and out of the same port, and about a third of all cruises leave and return to ports in Florida, as did ours. I was ecstatic to be sailing with 1900 lesbians and figured there were probably many tradeswomen sisters among us.
We Meet a Sister Electrician
One day at breakfast Holly overheard a woman talking about her work as an electrician. Finally, another tradeswoman! We joined her table immediately. Her name is Stephanie Jackson, she’s from Mobile, Alabama, and she works maintenance at a steel plant in the hot dip section where steel is dipped in zinc. She’s the only woman in her trade working there. She said she was married and having trouble paying bills when she got a job at a power plant through an affirmative action program. After working there for several years and training men who would then be promoted while she was denied journey status, she decided to look for work elsewhere (that power plant was later destroyed by Hurricane Katrina). She worked construction for several years—not her cup of tea—and then got the maintenance job at the steel plant. I was thankful my wife is good at eavesdropping.
I’d asked to meet with the chief stationary engineer and had received a formal confirmation note on Holland stationery, sealed and signed by the International Guest Relations Associate. Stephanie came with me to meet the engineer. He is Dutch from Rotterdam. Most of the crew is Philippine and Malaysian. We started in the control room where we asked general questions about the ship. It was built in 2004 in Italy, where most of these cruise ships are built. These ships are also built in a few other places in the world, but none are built in the U.S. and none are built in the Netherlands. Too expensive, said our engineer. Some of the new ships will hold over 6000 passengers, but Holland ships are smaller. The Westerdam is built for a maximum of 2,200 passengers. The crew numbers about 800.
We Get to See the Guts of the Ship
Then we started down the metal stairs, Stephanie and I uttering exclamations of wonder periodically. Whoa! First we visited the shops: upholstery, carpentry, electrical, machine. These were the cleanest shops I had ever seen. The ship has a crew of eight electricians, with two people just charged with changing light bulbs. Lighting is slowly being changed over from incandescent and fluorescent to LED and new ships are manufactured with LED systems. Next we saw the bakery where bakers were weighing dough and prepping rolls for baking. Stephanie asked if she could take their picture and I could tell they had big smiles under their masks. The ovens and equipment are all electric, generated from the diesel engines and transformed down to 120/230 VAC. We saw the storerooms and staging area for deliveries. There are rooms for everything, including a florist’s refrigerator, which doubles as a morgue and must be emptied if someone on the ship dies. Presumably all the unrefrigerated flowers are then used to make a funeral wreath. Or maybe the remaining living passengers all get extra bouquets.
Engines, Transformers, Scrubbers
The electrical system and most of the other systems work like a big building except everything is way more efficient. We saw the engine rooms where 11,000VDC is generated. Then it’s transformed to 960VAC 3 phase. I didn’t take notes, so may be misremembering some of these numbers, but they were voltages neither of us electricians had ever worked with. The ship has four generators, plus an emergency generator, and five big transformers. There are two kinds of diesel used; the heavy diesel is used while out to sea, but it’s essentially refined on the ship using centrifugal force! One kind of fuel is heated and the other is cooled and the equipment doesn’t always react well to that changeover, which occurs with regularity. Because of a California law (thank you CA!), the diesel products of combustion must be scrubbed before being put into the air, so scrubbers were added after this ship was built. We also saw a jet engine, which is used only in Alaska because the Alaska law requires that zero smoke be emitted. However, even though it doesn’t make smoke, the engine is twice as polluting and the fuel is much more expensive. It’s quite beautiful to look at though. The Azipod propulsion system developed in Finland automatically guides the ship.
What Happens to My Poop?
The HVAC system is enormous and also super efficient. Heat exchangers create condensation, which is then pumped to the laundry. And the ship makes its own potable water from seawater, which is compressed, heated and then condensed! I can testify it tastes fine. U.S. health regulations require the addition of a small amount of chlorine. Then we got to the vacuum toilet system. When you flush, a powerful vacuum pump sucks up the contents of the toilet. Don’t flush while you are still sitting! We are cautioned not to put anything but paper and the waste from our bodies into the toilets or they will get backed up. Then a plumber will have to fish out the thing or push it further into the system where it is retrieved. Other waste can’t be left in the system because the ship treats its effluent with digestive bacteria. The effluent can be dumped in the ocean only when it reaches a high level of refinement. There are three levels, and three distances from shore that it can be dumped. (We are always level A, says the engineer proudly). The treated water that results is clean enough to drink, but there’s a rather unappetizing smell so we are not required to drink it. Whew! Other waste on the ship is recycled and we visited the garbage center where workers were dumping the contents of our wastebaskets onto a stainless steel table, sorting every bit of our garbage. Food waste is ground up and dumped in the ocean. Plastic is compacted and taken ashore. Paper is shredded and burned on ship. So remember, some worker must handle whatever disgusting thing you dump in the trash.
Every Day Something Breaks
There were so many systems I fear I’m forgetting them. I was surprised to learn that even large complicated maintenance projects take place at sea. But since cruise lines operate their ships 52 weeks a year in order not to lose money, maintenance must take place at sea. Every day something breaks, said the engineer. On this day technicians were designing a system to reduce problems from changing the two types of diesel fuel. We learned that the Westerdam will be in dry-dock next year and then will sail a different route.
Holly and I had a fine time at sea and now we’re very happy to be back on solid land (we both got a bit seasick). I loved meeting so many interesting women, but meeting Stephanie, another electrical geek, and touring the guts of the ship with the chief engineer was the highlight of the cruise for me. I hope to connect up with her again at the Women Building Nations Conference in Chicago April 28-May 1.
I’ll be posting more about the cruise on our travel blog: travelswithmoho.wordpress.com.