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Triss Stein Triss Stein

Girls With Tools

Triss Stein: Girls With Tools

Here's how I become a ship builder. A girl with tools. A real-life Rosie if you want to call me that, though my real name is Philomena.

After the war started, the government had a big campaign to get women to do men's work so the men could all go be soldiers or sailors.

I worked at my grandpa's grocery store then, taking cash and helping at the meat counter as they got short of men. I thought I was gonna die of boredom there. My face hurt from smiling all day.

Then I saw where I could apply at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was only a trolley ride away from home. And I could build ships. Repair ships. Use tools. Meet new people. So I said to my pop, who had worked there until he was disabled, and my oldest and bossiest brother, Vito, who was a foreman there, "Why didn't you tell me they're looking for women? I want to do my part!"

Vito said, "You've got to be kidding. No sister of mine is working with those roughnecks. Bad language and worse behavior. Not for you, toots. "

And my mama cried, and said, "It's dirty. You have to wear coveralls. You come home with grease in your nails. Not for my little girl."

My pop kept it simple. "Never. I'd rather see you dead."

"I don't care about the grease or the coveralls. Not the bad language, either."

Then Vito said, "Some things there are not right for you to see."

"What things? I don't believe you. You're just bossing me around like you always do."

He did look at me like he always does, like I'm a dumb child, and said, "Yeah? Last year, we had a ship come in where we found bodies below, sailors trapped when the ship got hit. They couldn't retrieve the bodies until we started taking the ship apart. You want that? The sights and the smells were worse than you can guess. Plenty of big, tough welders were sick right there on the dock." He grinned but not in a nice way. "You ready for that?"

Mama crossed herself and I know my face went white, just thinking about it, but I didn't give up.

"If you can do it, I can."

Then came the shouting and the tears and my threats to move in with some relatives. I was eighteen. They couldn't stop me. And mama tried to get me to talk to the priest from Sacred Heart. It went on for weeks.

But then my youngest, favorite brother Francis came home on leave after basic training. He couldn't tell us where he was being sent, but anyone who listened to the news on the radio could figure it was North Africa where there were big battles now.

My other brothers were already in. Mama prayed all the time in those days.

So there was Frankie, all decked out in his uniform, and the whole family was so proud. Mama already made a flag with the third blue star—one each for Frankie and m other brothers in the service—and pop hung it from a second floor window.

Mama ordered all of us, everyone, even pop, to stop our fighting while Frankie was home. He was going to have a good visit before he got on that troop ship! There were threats about the evil eye if anyone disobeyed, but I was so angry I didn't care. Evil eye, big deal! Even mama didn't really, truly, believe that stuff.

I told Frankie all about our fighting, and he told them. Boy, did he. He smacked the table and said if they want all the boys like him to come home, everyone had to pitch in and do what was needed. Then he looked at our folks and said, loudly, "What's the matter with you? You think you didn't raise a good girl? You think she would play the puttana?'

They all gasped when he said that.

Then he said, "And besides, I taught her a good uppercut, so she could take of herself if anyone tried anything. "

Mama finally said, "How you say no to the boy who's going overseas to the shooting?" I put in my application the next day, with Frankie escorting me downtown to do it.

Well, it was hard work, long hours, exhausting. And I was so proud to do it, something so real. Real tools. Real metal. Real big —really big—ships. It wasn't like making change all day and saying, "Hi, Mrs. So and So" and asking about her arthritis and yes, she needed her ration book for the sausage.

I liked my own paycheck too. I gave it to Mama, but I kept a little back. A girl needed nail polish, especially with my job. And a new hat once in a while.

The first day some guys stared and yelled rude remarks. I gave it right back, loud. Then I smacked my hands together, and got to work. You don't mess with a real Brooklyn girl who grew up in a house full of brothers.

But some of the guys were helpful and nice, once they saw we girls were serious, and I made some girl friends, too. Then we got a new foreman who was not nice at all. He barked his orders, never wanted to show us anything, was rude to the guys and even worse to us girls. There was some secret crying, lots of days. He really, really did not want women on his crew and he let us know it. Every day. Every hour.

He was an Irish guy. Donelly. Looked it too, freckles and all. Us Italians, we were big at the Navy Yard. I don't know why, but lots of Italian men are ironworkers so maybe there's a connection to ship work. Being Irish, he wasn't part of the family, so to speak. Maybe it made him grouchy. That's what I thought at first, and I worked extra hard just to show him.

Finally, I'd had enough and I opened my big mouth. "I have three brothers in the service. Three! And a dozen cousins, first and second. Can you even count that high? And I'm doing my part right here 'cause the president says I should. You got a problem with it?"

I happened to have a wrench in my hand when I said it.

Dead silence. Then he laughed and most of the other guys laughed and behind his back a few gave me a thumbs up.

"Well, well. Look what we got here. A little baby patriot in lipstick! Pretty cute. Now everyone back to work. We got a ticking clock for this job."

A few days later, he sat down next to me at lunch break. Yikes.

"So you got brothers overseas? How are they doing?"

He caught me so off guard that I told him

"My oldest brother is safe. He's here at the yard and looks like for the duration."

"Like me."

"He was one of the guys from here who volunteered to go to Pearl Harbor to rebuild the bombed ships."

"Like me."

"But my next was already in the Navy." I waved my hand around to encompass the whole yard. "He grew up around ships cause our dad worked here. He's officially somewhere in the Pacific now." I had to swallow hard then, to keep talking. The news wasn't good.

"The other one is in England for now." I shook my head. "And my favorite is in the artillery. We're guessing he's on the way to North Africa. Where the Germans are."

I stopped talking, unable to say any more. He kind of chucked me under the chin and said, "So here you are, taking the place of three men. Good work."

A week later he stopped me as I was leaving and said, "We oughta step out sometime. You're cuter than me, but we're both single. Why not? You like to dance?"

Sure, I like to dance. Who doesn't? I didn't like him, not at all, but I faced facts. Men were scarce.

He turned out to be not a bad dancer, and not too grabby, if you get my point, and in the breaks, we talked about my brothers and my cousins, who were all over the map. A real map. My pop had a big one up on the kitchen wall with little pins for all the places the family was. Dark blue for Navy and Marines, green for Army, light blue for the Army Air Corps. Africa, Alaska, a Florida air base, islands in the Pacific we never heard of before. Hawaii. And one in Washington, keeping the generals safe.

Pop was from Naples, and mama too. They came here as kids, went right to work, got a house and a little vegetable garden and five kids who lived, and one who died. They were proud Americans and they were dead set on proving it every single day, what with Italy being an enemy and all. Besides the service flag, they put up the biggest American flag on the block. When they talked about Mussolini, they only used Italian. That's how I knew they were cursing him.

I told him all of this, different nights, and he nodded and listened and listened. I guess I needed someone to talk to, now that Frankie was off at the war. I couldn't even consider romance with him, and he didn't try too hard. I suppose we were friends. I didn't know you could be that with a guy.

One day I had to help my grandparents clean out the little extra room behind the store. All kinds of junk was needed for the war effort, like old pots and old rubber girdles and paper. My folks sent me over to lend a hand. On my one day off! But they needed my help and it was for a good cause, just like my job.

They had stacks of Italian newspapers. Grandpa used them to wrap tomatoes in the store. And stacks of magazines, too. They didn't read much English so they liked the ones with lots of photos. Grandpa couldn't explain why he kept them except he thought they'd come in handy sometime. Nona just clucked and brought more cookies into the back room while we worked.

A bundle of magazines from the last decade caught my eye. My childhood in pictures! I sprawled on the floor, leafing through them. Glamorous debutante parties and movie premieres, with women in furs and gowns and men in white tie. Adorable, dimpled Shirley Temple. Of course I remembered her! Handsome Errol Flynn, who I had seen in Robin Hood, and Clark Gable, taking off his shirt in It Happened One Night. I certainly had not seen that when it was new and I was only nine. He looked pretty good in the photo.

President Roosevelt looking a lot younger; the Empire State building going up in record time. Those men on those girders! Sad photos of farmers losing their homes, and World War 1 veterans living in shantytowns.

And then I hit stories that sent a chill up my back. Right here in New York there were real Nazis. Used to be. The Bund, they called it. I didn't know that. I was just a kid then, more concerned with saving pennies to buy comic books and staying on the nuns' good side.

Now those Nazi symbols made me sit up straight and look for more stories.

They had a giant rally in Madison Square Garden a little before the war began. How was that possible? And I wasn't a little girl then. I was in high school, in my own little bubble, I guessed, not caring about current events.

I paged through the photos from the rally, a new chill running down my spine. On the next page, there was a row of men saluting. In uniform. Shouting "Heil, Hitler!" They looked just like the Nazis in Germany we know now, too well, from newsreels.

The article said the organization fell apart when the war started, and their leader went to jail for some kind of fraud. But still. The enemy we were fighting so hard, giving our all, used to be right here, just a few miles from where I sat.

I looked again, and then the chill hit my whole body. I thought I saw Donelly in the front row.

Now this was when Mayor LaGuardia told us, often, to be on the alert for spies. In my house, whatever LaGuardia said was law.

He wasn't just trying to scare us, either. Volunteers patrolled the Long Island beaches, looking for U-boats offshore, and shockingly, they found some. A team of spies had been arrested in Manhattan. Posters everywhere reminded us about loose lips sinking ships. Actually, there was a reminder of it any day at work I happened to look up. The bridge was covered along the sides so no spy could look down and see the battleships and aircraft carriers we were building right there. We were building. We, including me.

And there he was, Donelly, working right next to me, seeing it all. And I realized, with my heart beating faster and faster, I had told him all about my brothers and cousins. Where they were. What they were doing.

Maybe the picture wasn't him. Maybe I was hysterical. Maybe I was just playing I was Nancy Drew. I was only eighteen. I still had all my Nancy Drews under my bed.

I took a deep breath. If I had blabbered to a wrong guy, it was my mess and it was up to me to fix it. I straightened my shoulders. I'd start by keeping a sharp eye on him. I could try to talk to him more. Maybe this fake friendship could work both ways. And I took that magazine with me.

With wide, innocent eyes, I confided in him that while I supported my brothers, I did not understand why we fought with Germany and Italy. The Germans were so civilized. Look at Beethoven! And Italy was my family's own country.

I forced myself to say the lies, looking right into his eyes.

"Yeah, it's tough," he said. "I'm half-German myself. Pretty strange to be at war with the homeland."

For a minute, I forgot he was not really my friend and laughed. "My nona told my brother Frankie that if he got to Naples with the Army, he should look up Uncle Leo. She gave him the address, too. Honest."

"You think he's going to Italy?"

And that's when I knew.

A few days later he gave me something. It was a badly printed pamphlet, all about why we fight. Yeah, well, I knew why. We all did. But this said we shouldn't be fighting and that we had the wrong friends.

"Maybe this will clear up some of your questions," was all he said.

But it didn't clear up anything. It was confusing and honestly? What I got from it made me feel creepy. Dirty. And scared. Who was he for real?

Did I need to tell someone. like Yard security? Or the FBI! I had a duty. But what if...? What if it's all innocent, and the photo was not him, and I got a co-worker in trouble for no reason? What then?

Before I told anyone, I decided I would have to get some proof. I followed him for a few nights to see what he was up to. I stuffed a light jacket in my work gear, so I could put on something different and blend into crowds, and a cute cloche hat that sort of hid my face.

First night, home to a Brooklyn boarding house. Next night, home. Next night, a movie, alone, Humphrey Bogart in All Through the Night, at a rundown theater near his home. What a boring life he led.

Then one night after our shift, he got on a whole series of trains and I had to work hard to keep up. We came back out to a sidewalk in Yorkville. That's a long way from home. In fact I has never been there.

I had to ignore the fragrant German bakeries and restaurants I passed, keeping my eyes firmly on Donelly. It would have been a whole lot easier if he hadn't covered his red hair with a gray fedora but I managed to track him weaving through the crowds on the sidewalks.

Finally, he went into a little cafe, a dump, really, on a little side street, and sat in the back. I muttered bad words to myself, cause there was no way I could follow him in and not get spotted. No way I could explain being so far from home.

I stood in front, trying to look casual and what's that long word. Nonchalant. Too bad there was no bus stop to explain my loitering.

People went in and out, but not many. I got some funny looks from passersby, but most were just hurrying home from work, coming off the 2nd Avenue El.

Then someone showed up who looked vaguely familiar, a middle-aged man, in a suit, carrying a German newspaper. Well, that was not so unusual. It was Yorkville, the German-American part of the city. But. But.

I pulled my hat way down and took a quick peek, trying to see if he met someone.

Another man went in and I saw, with another quick peek, that they sat with Donelly and seemed deep in discussion. A meeting of some kind.

By then, I started to be scared. I turned, fast, and walked toward the El. I didn't know if it was the best way to get home and I didn't care. It was the nearest. I could disappear, fast, into a packed car.

My hat went into my bag; I shook my hair loose and added a little beret. My light jacket was exchanged for the one that matched my skirt. I almost ran up the steps to the train, and then, safe in the crowded car, I took the magazine out and saw what I was hoping not to see. There were the faces of the two men who went into the cafe. I dropped the magazine as if it burned my fingers, and didn't relax at all until I was home.

The next day Vito and I worked the same shift for the first time in a while. He came by the house every morning to walk me to the trolley. Because I couldn't possibly find my way there alone. Right.

But the truth? Sometimes a girl needs a big brother, and he was the only one of mine that was around.

So I told him I was scared of Donelly.

He turned red and said, "What did he try? I'll kill him if he did anything!"

"No. Golly. You think the neighborhood boys don't have extra hands? I can take care of that. No. Something different."

And I spilled everything. Even my Yorkville trip.

He grabbed me and just about shook me right there on the sidewalk.

"What the ..." He stopped, took a deep breath, tried to get control. "What the heck do you think you were doing? Don't you know those guys are dangerous?"

"It was a public street! Not too late! Plenty of people coming from work! I'm not a baby, ya know."

He took his hands down. "You're an ignorant kid. They were like a mob, the Bund. People got beat up. You gotta stop these games."

"It's not a game. And I need to tell the FBI." I may have weakened the impact, when I added, "So there."

He just said, "You leave it alone. I'll be keeping my eye on you."

What could he do? I asked myself. Nothing. I was going to ignore him.

I tried my wide-eyed innocent approach again with Donelly. I was interested in his pamphlet, I said. I needed to get more understanding, I said. I hated myself, but I did it. Playing a part, like Barbara Stanwyck.

And he bit.

"Let's take in a drink after work, ok? I know a nice quiet bar, real near. Serious talk and a coupla beers?"

Yes, I said. Sure, I said. I even choked out a "Looking forward." He smiled and walked away, not soon enough or far enough for me.

I went, though. Of course I did. Cleaned up after our shift as well as I could. Bundled the coveralls into a shopping bag. Put on my high heels and some lipstick. Took off my headscarf and brushed my curls back in, took a deep breath and said a prayer.

We walked up Flushing Avenue toward the bars that clustered outside the Yard, but then he turned up a tiny side street. What the heck? It looked dark and empty. I was surprised, but he said, "It's not far and I know the owner."

I couldn't see a single store, bar, restaurant. In fact, the street seemed empty even of people. Just as I was getting nervous, he grabbed my arm, very tight. "What are you up to?"

I wasn't faking my surprise.

He repeated it and I stuttered something.

"I saw you following me. What the hell? So either you've got a hell of a crush on me, or you are one nosy little girl."

"Yes, yes." I tried to remember how to do the wide-eyed look. "A crush. Yes." I stammered it out. "Maybe it was immature of me to follow, but I...I wanted to be near..."

He grinned. Not a nice grin. "You're crazy about me? Yeah? So here we are, alone in the dark." He was edging me toward an empty, overgrown lot. "So prove it, baby." One arm was tight around me, and the other hand was where I sure didn't want it. As je dragged me down behind the bushes he muttered in my ear, "You think I don't know? I saw that magazine. I know what you're up to." His grip got tighter with every word. "I faithfully serve the Fatherland, you stupid American child."

What could I do? I did just what my brothers taught me.

My high heel into his instep, a knee where it would hurt the most. And when he doubled over, I hit him with my purse, where they made me keep a metal screwdriver, just in case I needed a weapon sometime when I worked the night shift.

He screamed, staggered back, tripped and fell. And then he was very quiet. The only sound was my hard breathing.

I was shaking and couldn't think. Running away felt like a good idea but my legs seemed to have turned into spaghetti.

I couldn't hear his breathing at all. Was he knocked out? Dead? I sure wasn't getting close enough to check.

I have no idea how long I was there. Time seemed to stop. The next sound I heard was my name, a whisper.

It was Vito.

I turned and fell into his arms, sobbing. He patted my back and said, "You gotta stop crying and tell me what happened."

I did my best to explain. He stepped fearlessly to the body on the ground, bent over, checked things and turned back to me. "He's dead. Looks like he hit his head on this little wall here."

"He's dead? I killed him? I..."

"You were defending yourself."

He was calm about it. I was not.

"We have to do something. Something. Call the police. Call... I don't know..."

"Are you crazy? He's dead. He had it coming. Leave this to me."

"No, but..."

"Leave this to me! I'm going to hide him now under these bushes, make a few calls for help at the first booth I find, and get you on a trolley. Can you get home? Don't talk to anyone! Don't even look at anyone! Be invisible. You got that?"

I was shaking too hard to argue. I got it. I got myself home, I let myself in, crawled into bed without waking anyone, and that was that.

Donelly didn't show up to work the next day, and no one knew what to do about it, but we were a good team. We did our work without his supervision and next day, there was a new foreman.

At Sunday dinner, Vito gave me a look over the roast chicken that said as loud as words, "Keep quiet about that night." And then he said, "Pass the gravy my way." So I did. Passed the gravy and kept quiet.

There were always rumors at the Yard. Sure, it was the size of a small city but people know people, made friends, had family, dated. There was one going around, that another ship with dead sailors was in dry dock.

Everyone who heard about it was horrified at what those poor young men went through. Anyone with a sailor brother, like me, couldn't get it out of their heads. That's why it took me several days to connect it to Vito saying, "I'll take care of it."

When I confronted him he denied everything. He'd never helped me that night. He'd never disposed of Donelly's body. We'd never been on that lonely street. He especially denied the second rumor, that they found a body in the ship's hold that was not weeks old, was not decayed, was not dressed, had no i.d.

Some of the guys on our team wondered about Donelly's sudden disappearance. They asked the higher ups, who had no answers for them. The answer I had, I kept to myself. I didn't go up the official chain; I had a friend who worked in the security office.

She said the body they found didn't match Donelly's fingerprints, but that his fingerprints on record didn't match his name. She couldn't explain it, she just overheard it. Kind of overheard. Through an eager ear at an office door not quite closed, was what I guessed.

I tried to tell Vito all of this, and pry some answers out of him, but he just shook his head.

"Sometimes a brother has to watch out for his kid sister. Ya know? You better leave it at that."

"Girls With Tools" first appeared in the anthology Bound by Mystery (2017) from Poisoned Pen Press

© Triss Stein