Friday, August 26, 2016

The Minute You Think You Want to Stop: Stop Thinking

By Helen N. Harris, resident at Wesley Palms Retirement Community

LET ME APOLOGIZE for dictating this story for you instead of writing it myself. A few years ago, when I was in my late 80s, I got run over on a ski slope by an out-of-control snowboarder. The injury to my right hand still impedes me from writing. But the story is the same however it is conveyed. 

When I was a school girl my first choice was to become a doctor, but the chances of being accepted into medical school was not possible for a girl born in 1922 who was not the daughter of a doctor. Math was easy for me, so it is hardly surprising that I gravitated in the direction of engineering. That was not a destination without obstacles, but it is one I am very glad I pursued.

I grew up in Massachusetts where both my father and my mother had emigrated from Poland. They met and married in the USA and had three children. I was the only girl, and the youngest, with two older brothers. As seems to have been the pattern of that era my Dad worked in the shipyards in Quincy during World War I, and later in Lawrence, Mass, and my mother worked as a weaver in the mills. They worked hard to make sure their children would have easier lives than they had experienced. They made certain that my two brothers were college graduates, but my father was unconvinced that a girl needed a higher education. That did not deter me from following my own course. Don't misunderstand, he never stood in my path. It was just that he didn't feel that education was as important for a girl as it was for his boys.

After graduating from the University of Massachusetts I was awarded a scholarship to participate in an Aeronautical Engineering study project at the Uptown Campus of New York University which was all-male. About twenty of those chosen for this program in the early days of World War II were women. We were segregated in separate classes from the men. We were not permitted in the laboratories. It was only after the men had graduated and left the campus that we were allowed to enter the lab and see the actual aircraft engine we had previously only viewed in photos in books.

After completing this course of study I was employed by Chance Vought Aircraft in Stratford, Connecticut, just across the Sound from New York. Apparently for security reasons a decision was made to move such facilities from the New York area. Since Texas-financiers owned a major portion of Chance Vought, the company was relocated in Grand Prairie near Dallas. Next I was recruited by General Dynamics in San Diego, where I spent the rest of my career.

Over the years women were gradually more accepted in the profession, and a female engineer is not such a curiosity, but those of us who pioneered in this field never had it easy. Nevertheless, I always enjoyed working with men. With men you could face off in serious arguments about the right way to approach a problem, and then quickly put all the disagreement behind and work together harmoniously. I found women with less education had more of a tendency to hold grudges. That would not be true today.

I also found, for many years, that I had a hard time getting an office stenographer to type up my reports. There seemed to be a quiet resentment about my position and a sense that, as a woman, I should be typing my own reports. None of the above, however, justifies the way women have been denied opportunity to follow their dreams and prove their abilities to achieve. 

My husband and I were both avid skiers. He was more skilled at the art than I, but his excellence spurred me on to get better year by year. I skied my entire adult life, becoming a master racer. That has somewhat been the story of my life. I gave up skiing after I broke my T-12 vertebra and was not permitted to have surgery for a right hip because I was over ninety years of age.

Never give up. Always persevere. Stay the course whatever the obstacles. Never let a challenge go unanswered. If there is any message I would like to leave to the generations that follow, that would be it. Keep smiling, and follow you dream.

The Minute You Think You Want to Stop: Stop Thinking is an excerpt from Aging As An Art Form: Through the Eyes Of Residents of Wesley Palms by Wesley Palms resident Don McEvoy. The book contains 50 stories, experiences and life lessons either self-written or told to Don through interviews.

Don McEvoy is storyteller, former pastor and civil rights activist. Aging as an Art Form is available from Outskirts Press and Proceeds from the book benefit the residents of Wesley Palms.

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