Elinor Otto, 93, in the living room of her home in Long Beach CA
There are things that I believe in, passionately. Our suppressed labour history is one. Let’s remember the people who REALLY built this country… not the lazy investors, not the loudmouth pundits, not the greasy preachers, not the gladhanding salesmen, not the smarmy pols. A hat-tip to our moms and pops, to our babas and dedes… who walked the picket lines and stood up to the bosses so that we could have a good life.
My thanks to the Cabinet member who sent this on… a big hug, dear… it took me a while to post it, but I DON’T forget! Be good…
Elinor Otto picked up a riveting gun in World War II, joining the wave of women taking previously male-only jobs. These days she’s building the C-17. She braces her slight frame and grips the riveting gun with both hands, her bright red hair and flowered sweater a blossom of colour in Long Beach’s clanking Boeing C-17 plant. Boom, boom, boom. She leans back as the gun’s hammer quickly smacks the fasteners into place. Then, she puts the tool in a holster and zips around a wing spar to grab a handful of colourful screw-on backs, picking up another gun along the way to finish them off. Her movements are deft and precise. A co-worker says with a smile, “Don’t get in her way, she’ll run you over”. Otto finishes a section of fasteners, looks up, and shrugs, “That’s it”. It’s just another day at the office for a 93-year-old “Rosie the Riveter” who stepped into a San Diego County factory in 1942… and still works on the assembly line today.
Otto is something of a legend among her co-workers on the state’s last large military aircraft production line. Her legend is growing… recently, Long Beach honoured her when it opened Rosie the Riveter Park next to the site of the former Douglas Aircraft plant, where women worked during World War II. Otto said, “She says, ‘We can do it!’ and I’m doing it!” flexing her thin arm and laughing, mimicking the iconic poster. She joked, if she were younger, she’d look at herself now and wonder, “What’s that old bag still doing here?” Yet, Otto seems to have more energy than those half-a-century younger. Fellow structural mechanic Kim Kearns… who’s 56… said, “I wish I was in as good a shape as she’s in at my age”. Otto’s out of bed at 04.00, for she drives to work early to grab a coffee and a newspaper before the 06.00 meeting. In the Boeing lot, she parks as far from the plant as possible so that she can get some exercise. Every Thursday, she brings in cookies, and she goes to the beauty parlour to have her hair and nails touched up after her shift ends. Craig Ryba, another structural mechanic, said, “She’s an inspiration. She just enjoys working and enjoys life”.
Otto was beautiful, with bright blue eyes and dark hair piled high, when she joined a small group of women at Rohr Aircraft in Chula Vista CA during World War II. The bosses threatened to give demerits to the men who stood around trying to talk to her… so, Otto’s suitors left notes for her in the phone booth, where she called her mother every day. Back then, Otto said that everyone worked for the war effort, so, they didn’t think much of their jobs… it was tough to find good ones. World War II was all-consuming, with product rationing and scrap-metal collections, and men leaving for the war. Otto joined the war effort with her two sisters, one who worked alongside her at Rohr, the other a welder in a Bay Area shipyard. She was newly single with a young son.
Otto, who had to board her son out during the week, said, “During those days, we could hardly find an apartment that would let you rent with kids. My goodness, they’re going to go to war someday and they can’t even live in an apartment. It cost 20 dollars a week, and it was hard because I made 65 cents an hour”. At the plant, she’d make the others laugh at how fast she could rivet, she said, quickly moving her hands and stomping her feet to demonstrate. The men resented the women at first… the bosses banned smoking and they had to keep their shirts on… they doubted that the girls could get the job done, saying, “It turned out we worked better than them, faster, because they were so sure of themselves”. On the days that they didn’t feel like going in, she and the girls would put Rosie the Riveter by the Four Vagabonds on their 78 phonograph. They’d sing and bop along to the music to get themselves motivated and out the door.
All the day long,
Whether rain or shine,
She’s a part of the assembly line.
She’s making history,
Working for victory,
Rosie… BRRRR… the Rivet-er.
Days after the war ended, Otto and other women were let go as the men returned home. She said, “They needed us at one time, and when the war was over, they let us go. That’s how it was”.
Thousands of women flocked to California to work at aircraft factories during the war. The first wave was mostly single women, but wives, mothers, groups of friends and sisters followed. It was tough work, with the challenge of finding child care and the pressures of a society shaken by war and changing norms, according to Long Beach Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske, who wrote Rosie the Riveter in Long Beach. Schipske said that after a hard day’s work, men and even other women would sometimes harass Rosies if they went home in their dirty pants or overalls instead of changing into a skirt and sweater. Schipske pointed up, “It’s an interesting struggle that women went through just simply because they were trying to do something to help end the war. It was an incredible amount of work they had to do”. Interest in Rosies peaked in the 1970s and ’80s, as people rediscovered the “We Can Do It” poster; it became a symbol of the women’s movement. Now, families are becoming more aware of relatives’ contributions during the war.
Grandson John Perry, 43, said that a year ago, Otto would’ve said that working during the war was no big deal. However, as more people talk to her about her history, he said, the more that she realises she that really did something important. He said that he told his grandmother, “You’ve saved American lives and you’ve been saving American lives your whole life. It’s a powerful story, a positive story, and one hell of a tribute to the female work force”. Growing up, Perry said that his grandmother taught him etiquette and culture when he was shuttling back and forth between parents. When he wrote letters to her, she corrected his spelling in neat red pen and sent them back. He noted, “As long as her eyes are open, she’s going”.
After the war ended, Otto tried other jobs, but sitting in an office drove her nuts… she hates being still. Car-hopping worked out until roller skates became part of the uniform. She said, “I’d a broke my neck, skating and holding food! No, no, no”. So, she worked for Ryan Aeronautical in San Diego CA for 14 years, until they laid her off. At a party nearly a year later, a girlfriend told her to get to Los Angeles as fast as she could. Douglas Aircraft was hiring women for the first time since the war. A car-full of women left for Long Beach that night, she said, and they hired them right away.
In its heyday, Otto says, the C-17 plant was fully staffed, with a parking lot so big that workers put flags on their cars to find them in the sea of vehicles. Long Beach was a hub of production during the war and after, but in the decades since, the aerospace industry in the city shrank as demand for military aircraft fell. In mergers over those years, Douglas became McDonnell Douglas, which later joined with Boeing. However, as the production at the C-17 plant dwindled and operations became more mechanised, “It was kinda like trimming back the bushes, you can see your neighbour again”, Kearns said of meeting Otto a decade ago… after having worked at the same plant for more than 20 years. Ryba said, “She tells us not to treat her any different. She works that job just like any of us and sometimes maybe better”.
Over the years, her crew was supportive of Otto, who remarried and eventually divorced. Last year, when her son died, they surprised her by attending the graveside service. So many people showed up for her that she thought there was another funeral coming, she says with a tear in her eye and a squeeze of Kearns’ hand. On 12 September, the Air Force ended its 32-year relationship with the Long Beach plant as it received its 223rd and final cargo jet. Foreign sales are few and small, but they’ll keep the plant running until late 2014. Boeing will soon decide about the future of the production. The great-grandmother says she would like to retire soon as well, but she refuses to become a couch potato (“Gotta keep moving!”). She worked so long for economic reasons… she cared for her mother and son for years… but also because of her endless energy. She said with a laugh, “When I go to heaven, I hope God keeps me busy!”
23 September 2013
Los Angeles (CA) Times