Insight is in the details

When I was 10, my Dad took me to his workplace for a day. I stapled handwritten yellow receipts to matching white order forms and filed them. I loved it. I learned nothing about civil engineering. But we had a nice flounder lunch in the cafeteria. Plus apple pie.

Those were the days of Dick and Jane books and stereotyped depictions of life. Nurses were always female, wearing pure white, to boot. Police and firefighters were men. Now? We have Take Your Offspring to Work day, during which anxious parents expose their toddler’s minds to career opportunities. And ads on the backs of buses show smiling, immaculately groomed 20-year-old women choosing to train in the construction industry. Fulfilling, perhaps. But they may not feel too perky after eight hours with a jackhammer. I’m just sayin’.

I came of age in the era of women’s rights and equal pay for equal work (oh, ha ha). I became a nurse – hey, I look good in white – and did my share to fight for women’s rights in the Maternity Room. Admittedly, I was still trying to get that shiny, Breck-girl look. Meanwhile, my friend Sandy 1.) joined the NRA at 7, earning sharpshooter status within a few years; 2.) joined the Army, in the first coed boot camp at Fort Dix; and 3.) made air traffic control her lifelong career. She was doing nontraditional work when it was still called “what’s-wrong-with-her-she’ll-never-get-a-husband-that-way.”

Lately, for fun, Sandy’s been practically reconstructing her house, alongside her husband, including re-vamping the foundation – Bobcat and all.

Sandy and I meet at a coffee shop.

“See, there’s all this crushed stone,” she explains.

Now, I am completely, 100 percent in favor of women doing “men’s” work, but she’s lost me in the details. I’m not proud of that. It’s just that lately, drooping body parts and my messed-up, peeling fingernails have been more of a focus than any lofty ideals I marched about with my fellow sisters back in the day.

“A lot of crushed stone. A lot of dirt,” she says. “Reminds me of some of those old Army projects.” She gets a faraway look.

I’m trying to look interested, or even like I know what she’s talking about, while I steal a glance at my crappy nails. Again, it’s no disrespect to my dear friend who is a real hero, a sweet, strong gal who’s crossed the gender barrier repeatedly, and with grace. But that $20 drug-store miracle cure for nails I recently bought? A big rip-off. My nails haven’t been the same since I worked as a “shipping guy,” digging into boxes of pamphlets for distribution. Every hour, I’d have a new nail casualty, to which my male shipping pal seemed, um, unsympathetic. I believe his words were, “Yeah, so?”

“Then, we shoveled the dirt back in by hand,” Sandy continues, “to save money on renting the Bobcat longer.”

Huh? Bobcat? In the military?

I look straight into her eyes while unobtrusively digging around next to me in my purse, aka The Black Hole, for my emery board.

“Yeah,” she says wistfully, “about eight feet.”

I picture a tall pile of dirt. I am so confused. And so close to that nail file.

“Around the entire house. And garage,” she says. “Hey – whatcha need?” She throws a look toward my purse. I should have known. With her military background, she’s not likely to miss much.

I feel the emery board beneath my fingers. It’s the nice, very fine kind, amazingly inexpensive at the grocery store.

“Wow,” I say, “All that dirt.” I wonder how to do this with ol’ Eagle Eyes watching.

“Yup. Took us two months. All day. Every day,” she says.

I slowly, carefully brace the file against a mess of crumpled grocery receipts and Starbucks napkins, edging and then rubbing my nail alongside the…

She shoots a look back at my purse. I drop the task and put both hands on the table. She must have been some soldier. She looks from my hands, now primly folded, to my eyes.

“And something else. In the Army?” she says, looking intent, head leaning forward. “Those days of boot camp? And later, in the field?”

“Yes,” I say, feeling like a schmuck. I so admire her, yet I can’t quit thinking about frivolous things. I’m letting down the cause. Now she’s even closer. Probably sees the saggy neck that apparently was my birthday gift to myself this year.

She reaches into her shirt pocket for her pen.

“When things got really bad,” she whispers, still closer.

I get a surge of renewed sisterhood.

“I’d steel myself against the inevitable,” she says, barely audible now.

“Yes?”

“I’d face the craziness life presented,” she says, “and do what I had to do.”

Ahhh. She needs to tell someone about her most difficult memories.

“Across the bridge – that specialty supply place…” She gets that far-off look again, then slides the piece of napkin toward me. She takes a quick look around, gives me the briefest of hugs, and heads out.

I look at the napkin. And then I get the message.

“Tough-Like-Steel clear base coat. $1.99.”

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