Friday, April 4, 2008

On being 'the first girl' whatever

The LAPD is in the process of training its first female SWAT team member and I am hearing the predictable gnashing of teeth and rending of garments because the selection process has been changed. I agree. Ladies who want to pursue that line of work should be held to the same physical standards as the men. If my house were on fire I would much rather have burly 26-year-old men come put it out. For instance. But in spite of the fact that standards have been altered, (some say lowered, I wouldn't know) resulting in two women becoming part of the newest SWAT class, maybe we could give the ladies the benefit of the doubt until we see what they can do.

For ten years I was a welder and bridge carpenter for the Piledrivers union. That is some serious hard work. A large part of the job consisted of packing lumber. Sixteen-foot-long 2X4s. You were expected to carry at least two at a time, and trot with them. Or singlehandedly lift and carry 4X8 sheets of 3/8 inch plywood. All day. Or 50lb. sacks of grout, or 98lb sacks of cement. You get the picture. There were jackhammers and bottle racks and welding machinery to be operated and moved. Nothing was small and nothing was light. A lot of men couldn't hack it. To be female and do that work you have to be one motivated chimp. And I was. I'm also gigantic, but I still had to prove on every job that I was up to the work.

I preferred the men I worked with to the other women. The guys on my crews were pretty easy to please; they just didn't want to feel like they had to do all their job and half of mine. As soon as I demonstrated I was as strong as they were (or stronger -- heh, heh.) I was all right with them. There were only very few times I may have caused an existential crisis in some caveman. "If she's doing the same work as me, does that mean I'm not actually a man?" No, honey. That's not why. The male engineers were a hoot. We'd swap puns while the tradesmen would glower at us.

Female engineers were ... different. I got the distinct vibe off them that they thought I was low-wattage or I wouldn't be out here getting dirty and beat up. I have an engineer joke: What's the difference between Mechanical engineers and Civil engineers? Mechanical engineers design weapons and Civil engineers design targets. I didn't say it was a great joke. I do the setup with a male engineer and get to the punch OK. I do the same with a female engineer and she very patiently explains to me the difference. Oy. My 'sister' tradesmen were a problem, too. They were very happy with affirmative action and demanded they only be given the easiest work. I would usually get partnered up with them and spend a lyrical eight hours doing all the literal grunt work while getting a full dose of feminist rhetoric. The next time you drive by a construction site and there's a lady flagging traffic she's probably a journeyman carpenter making $35 an hour while a $15 apprentice is busting ass doing her job.

The most contentious relationships I had by far were with the wives and girlfriends of my coworkers, most of whom had never clapped eyes on me. And so it is that the ladies are being hardest on the female SWAT recruits. They haven't even made it out of training and the wives and girlfriends are squawking about how their men are at risk of being killed because of them. Very funny. I had one of those go-to-work-and-get-killed kind of jobs. I've participated in a few rescues and I've needed rescuing myself. The Coast Guard hires some really cute guys. Maybe a bigger fear is that they don't want their men spending all that time with women other than themselves. It was never a consideration for them before. The SWAT recruits can't help them there, any more than I could help my buddies, short of explaining to their women that however loathsome the men might be at home, I saw them at their filthiest, most disgusting, crudest, and least attractive. They didn't want me to do that.

So perhaps it would be better to wait and see if the ladies make it through training, and see what they can do. Fighting and lifting are more about physics than mass. Los Machos Tacos they're likely trying to apprehend won't take them seriously, and that works to their advantage in a big way. And maybe real life is less like The Shield and they aren't shopping for your Prince Charming. One of the side effects of proving yourself in a difficult field is men have to try a lot harder to impress you than they would the other women. I'm just saying.