Tiaras & Tools

Born on Easter morning, I was showered with bunnies and pink, frilly things. Surely this was an omen. My future was going to be filled with beauty pageants, ballet recitals, and Easter dresses galore. I would be the little princess every Southern mother felt she deserved. Mom would fuss over my hair and makeup and show me how to walk in heels. I’m 42, and I still can’t walk properly in those damn things.

I had been writing since I was very young, but as Fate would have it, I ended up with a mechanical aptitude that outshines most men. So much so that the U.S. military sought me out just as I was wrapping up my senior year of high school. The Army recruiter, a towering and intimidating man, said, “Your mechanical aptitude score is higher than all of the young men in your graduating class.”

I said nothing, terrified I would commit to something I’d regret. “We would like to offer you the opportunity to work on planes and tanks for the U.S. Army,” he said. I was thrilled and flattered, but I was sure my parents would frown upon enlistment. Instead, I made use of my skills in the family business.

My dad’s auto repair shop was a place filled with great memories that made for great stories. My journals were filled with them. I remember seeing, for the first time, the calendar with a sexy woman splayed across an antique car, thinking how pretty she was but also how silly she looked. Newspaper cutouts of quirky cartoons poked fun at anti-gun supporters that made me chuckle even though I had no idea at that time what they meant: “Guns kill people; spoons made me fat.” Broken parts met their fate in a fit of rage as they were humorously hurled across the garage like a Southern version of the Olympic shot put. But I was indifferent to all this and focused on the endless rows of tools that solved any mechanical issue. Within those walls, I had no restrictions. My imagination was free to build, destroy, repair, and invent—just like in my journals.

My brother has a mechanical ability that rivals MacGyver. He’s that guy who can build a space shuttle with a tampon and a pine cone. But he had zero interest in learning the family business and succeeding our father, as is the expectation for every young man in the South.

But what about young women? I feared a domesticated life filled with stretch marks, horrendous vinyl kitchen flooring, and parent/teacher meetings where I would be lectured because, “little Cody keeps using the F-word.”

Once in my twenties, I landed a new job as an industrial mechanic for a local, large-scale bakery, using the skills I had learned in my dad’s garage. My dad and brother surprised me with a bright, cherry-red Craftsman rolling toolbox. Dad took me to Sears to fill it with wrenches and power tools needed for my new job. While standing there with my tool list, listening to the elevator-type music playing throughout the store, it occurred to me that I had managed to dodge the obligatory shopping for clothes and shoes with my mother that happens when you land your first office job.

At this point, my mother had given up on her little princess. She had to settle for a tomboy with zero ability to navigate the complicated terrain of dating and no substantial interest in it anyway. Her dreams of tiaras and big hair were dashed.

I had been working at the bakery on the line for six months before applying for a position in maintenance. The amount of backlash I experienced to get the interview was like something out of the ‘40s or ‘50s. Women in the HR department tried to sabotage the application process by telling me I could not apply—that I had not fulfilled the six month probation period required before an employee could switch positions within the plant. I decided to approach the Plant Superintendent at the gym in the swimming pool (yes, in the pool). I asked him what I needed to do to apply for the job. He said, “Tell those ladies in HR I said you can apply.” Reluctantly, they handed over the paperwork but assured me that I would not get the job.

The interview questions were much like the ones on the ASVAB test that I took in high school. It was midnight, and I’d just wrapped up my shift in the plant as a line worker. The final question was, “What accomplishment in your life are you most proud of?”

I panicked. I mean who asks that! That is profound. That’s like asking me how to solve the water crisis in a developing country. Think. Think. Think. Fatigue was taking over. All I could think about was going to bed. But this was important. I knew my dad would be proud of me, but most importantly, I would be proud of me. It hit me. I replied, “I drive it every day!” The maintenance supervisor’s forehead wrinkled, and he said, “What do you mean?”

I took a deep breath and began to explain, “I bought a 1994 Toyota 4-Runner that hit a telephone pole on the passenger side.” Instead of a painting party where you invite all your buddies over to paint the interior of your house, I had a car dissection party where my buddies were asked to lift the vehicle body off the frame and place it to the side so I could focus on the frame only. I continued to use hand gestures to

indicate the physical process of placing one thing here and another thing over here and so on and so forth.

My dad’s business started as a rebuild shop for wrecked cars, so every car I have ever owned was a rebuilt wreck.The motor sat in one area of the garage with the transmission in another. I worked on each portion of the project one part at a time. The old frame was slowly stripped, and the brake lines and other driveline parts moved over to the new frame in preparation to return the body to its proper place.

Normal projects typically take weeks. The Toyota project took eight months.

As I made my way into the plant just after getting my new position, a woman from human resources at another plant approached me in the hallway. I had never seen her before. She stuck out her hand and said, “Thank you.” Slowly, I lifted my hand to shake hers and reluctantly replied, “You’re welcome.” For what? I had no idea at the time. Years later I understood what my supervisor had done. He had decided to take a chance. He knew I could do the job and made a point to tell me so despite the struggles that could be ahead.

I was sitting in the breakroom one day having lunch when a middle-aged, male line worker spoke up, “Your headlights are on.” I looked down at my chest. Yep. My breasts were healthily pointing the way. I calmly looked back and replied, “You are just jealous that your wife’s don’t work anymore.” He got up and left immediately. It was an “aha” moment. I learned to deal with everyone the same way. I used the negativity to push me to learn more and do what the naysayers could not. I worked in this position as a line mechanic for three years while I attended college part-time.

Not long after I had assumed my role as a mechanic, two female mechanics from a different plant visited me and welcomed me aboard. It was obvious from the get-go that these women were both considered one of the guys. One was a much older, gruff woman who had the demeanor of Clint Eastwood. I’m pretty sure she ate nails for breakfast and shit tacks. The other was openly lesbian and everyone respected her for it. Both were characters with a great sense of humor and quickly became my allies.

Despite the occasional lewd comment by an older man at the bakery, I was harassed by more women than men—even in my own garage. One day I heard a female customer enter the garage office and speak to my dad. I waited for them to enter the garage before I greeted her. I kept looking at her anticipating a conversation to walk her through what all I had done, but she would never make eye contact. Speaking only to my dad, it was clear that my role was unacceptable. I was supposed to be doing something more appropriate like hosting Tupperware parties or selling Amway—who knows.

I had no desire to be a medical professional, a K-12 teacher, or a business executive. I wanted to be a writer. Turning wrenches was a means to an end—or so I thought. My job as a line mechanic was eventually cut due to downsizing. I returned to school full-time. In order to make the same amount of money, I had to take on several jobs, including returning to work in my dad’s garage.

One day after work, I entered the local newspaper and asked to speak to the managing editor. The woman at the front desk stared dumbfounded at my attire. Clearly, a red bandana and greasy work clothes were not the norm. I had woken up and realized that I had a duty to myself to pursue a writing career. She reluctantly sent me to the editor. His coke-bottle glasses made his eyes look enormous. He, too, stared, puzzled by my presence. After an awkward pause, I blurted out, “I want to write for you.” This was followed by more awkward pauses and more staring. He asked a few questions and as soon as we had established my beat, I had my first assignment.

This was the start to a journey that would lead me through both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree at UTC and into a role as a professional journalist. Throughout and following college, I had to learn how to deconstruct my upbringing and what I perceived as my future and reunite them in a way that made sense to me.

Recently, my 4-year old niece watched me change the brakes on my truck. She stood beside me patiently. You could tell her little wheels were turning. She said, “Bethie, I want to be like you.” I’m pretty sure there were onions in the room. Tears. Lots of tears.

I couldn’t be prouder of her. There might be a tiara in her future, but she’s already making up her mind about who she is and who she wants to be. I don’t think I have to worry about her life journey being filled with people telling her she can’t. She already knows she can.

Beth Miller grew up in the Ocoee River area in Tennessee and attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She has been guiding mountain bike trips on the Tanasi Trail System in Ocoee since 2006. Each year she hikes a section of the Appalachian Trail hoping to complete it before she is pushing up daisies.