“Anybody here drive a truck?” Francis Claypool never knew what possessed her to raise her hand that day on a San Diego airfield, or how, sitting in the cab of an 18-wheeler for the first time, she figured it out.
But her fear, panic and grit at that moment are a telling glimpse into a time when women jumped into the driver’s seat.
“A Mouthful of Rivets,” a history of women who did men’s work during World War II, offers 120 such glimpses.
Tonight at Auntie’s Bookstore, California author Nancy Baker Wise will read the oral histories of women who did both ordinary and extraordinary jobs during the war.
Among them: Spokane’s Betty Hennessy and Doris Berringer, who worked as a riveter and window dresser respectively.
“You wouldn’t think window dressing was a man’s job, but in those days it was, ” said Berringer, who designed, dressed and then drew advertisements for the 28 display windows at the Palace Department Store in downtown Spokane.
Wise, 73, and her daughter, Christy, 41, drew their book from the years after Pearl Harbor when women stepped into the work force - 2 million of them into war industries alone - to fill vacancies left by departing soldiers.
Christy Wise, a Washington, D.C. free-lance writer who worked as Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s deputy press secretary, said the book was inspired by her parents’ stories: how women staffed the student paper at Stanford University during the war and then stepped aside without protest when it ended.
“I was horrified by that,” Wise said from her D.C. home. “I envisioned they dropped everything mid-story and walked out.”
“Younger women view things from a different perspective,” her mother and collaborator said from her home near San Francisco. “The war years were rough. We wanted things back to normal. Companies had a moral if not legal obligation to return these jobs to men. That was an overwhelming directive.”
The two perspectives are reflected in chapters about what happened to the women after the war and how their children viewed the experiences.
But mostly, the book is a trip into these women’s daily lives, as foreign as any travel guide.
Picture women operating cranes who’d never been on a construction site. Or delivering milk, tiptoeing into sleeping households to leave it in the icebox and take the money left on top.
“That’s inconceivable today,” Christy Wise said. “I mean, can you imagine in my neighborhood?”
Funny, self-deprecating and competent, the women were invigorated by the social and professional contacts they made.
They also sometimes felt guilty about it. One woman never told her husband she was working in a shipyard - until he found her in filthy overalls one afternoon. Another never revealed she’d been an air traffic controller during the war.
The Wises, collaborating on cross-country phone calls made before 8 a.m., spent months advertising for and interviewing women. In the midst of their work, Nancy’s husband, and Christy’s father, died at age 70.
Work on the book all but stopped until eventually the project helped ease Nancy Wise’s grief.
Wise found such women as Doris Berringer, who, while her husband served in the Navy, moved herself and her young son in with her mother in Spokane. Berringer painted bombers until a bout with pneumonia forced her to find a different job, window dressing at the Palace for $15 a week.
“They got their money’s worth,” Berringer said. She did department store duties during the day and then went home at night to her mother’s kitchen where she drew sketches for newspaper advertisements.
Now nearly 80, Berringer still paints daily and evokes the energy of the women in the book.
“You take for granted what they did,” said Nancy Wise. “When you look back on it, at the resourcefulness and spirit of women at that time, it was astonishing.”
The Washington Post thought so. A review last month called the women in the book “so wonderful, so incredibly swell. This is how unusual `A Mouthful of Rivets’ is. It makes you actively proud to be an American woman.”
MEMO: Nancy Baker Wise will read at 7:30 tonight at Auntie’s, on the corner of Main and Washington. The reading is free and open to the public. For more information, call 838-0206.
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