I spent four years preparing for life after college. That’s what every student does, prepares for the after-life, the much anticipated career. The 7:30 am classes that no god fearing, authority respecting, sleep deprived individual should ever have to be subjected to were finished. The 7:30 pm labs that wreaked havoc on my dinner hour and social life were a thing of the past. The professors who insisted on surnames and the TA’s who insisted on no names had become irrelevant overnight. My diploma was proof of my identity.
Finally I had arrived. I was a quality engineer in one of the most respected nuclear weapons facilities in the country. And while I was certainly by my own estimation an engineer of great quality, by my earlier reference of quality engineer I meant that was my title. My department was responsible for ensuring that the specifications for all parts were accurate, so that each part was, and I quote, “fit for its intended use”, the definition of quality. As an inexperienced young engineer, I had no idea what a challenge this assignment would be.
“How so,” you may ask. Well let’s put it like this. We were the caboose of a very long train. There was the development division, the fabrication division, the assembly division, and several others division preceding the quality division or caboose. And just like mama, if the caboose wasn’t happy, nobody was happy. When all of the other divisions were done doing what they do, our division determined whether a shipment went out or stayed home, depending on whether parts were properly fabricated and assembled or not. If parts failed inspection there could be national ramifications. Really.
So, one fateful day, my department boss decides to send me to an important manufacturing meeting of department heads and division managers concerning an urgent shipment that needed to go out immediately, but was in danger of being delayed. As usua,l I was the only female in a room full of diminished-testosterone men, and the only minority in a majority packed meeting. As the agenda was put forth, a heated discussion ensued concerning a botched schedule, and budgets that were busted and suggestions on what could be done to get back on schedule. Someone offered up the question, “Where are the parts anyway?” I looked at my inventory report and realized the parts were in the Quality division because a certain percentage of them had failed inspection. I suddenly had great clarity on why my boss had sent me to this meeting. I was the sacrificial lamb to buy time.
But if he thought they were going to spare me because of my youthful glow, newly permed curls and size 4 power suit he was wrong. And I knew it. Once it was confirmed that I was representing the Quality division, all eyes were on me as the head of the assembly division—known to be a hard-nosed jerk--lit into me with full fury. “If you don’t get those blankety blank parts approved and get them approved yesterday I will come down there myself and get every blankety blank person responsible for the blank parts fired before they can say a blanket blank word.” It was the most embarrassing day of my life. I remember it like yesterday and it was over 25 years ago. I think even some of the tough-guy men felt sympathy for me and that made it even worse. Suddenly all eyes that had been on me were looking everywhere else. They were probably thinking, better her than me. I’m sure, in times past, they had had their turn, but probably had an explosive expletive filled rebuttal. As the heat went from my head down to my toes, all I could do was stare at the assembly manage and will myself not to cry. I even prayed to God to please help me not to cry in front of these old codgers. I knew my career would be over if those tears betrayed me. I couldn’t even trust myself to blink. I could feel the moisture pooling and just when I thought I had lost the battle, somehow my eyeballs managed miraculously to soak up the tears. This seemed like forever but was probably only a minute or two; at least that’s what I tell myself all these years later. When I saw the tears were not going to spill, I calmly gave him my spiel concerning the importance of quality parts and the need for the fabrication and manufacturing departments to check dimensions and do quality work before it’s deposited in our inventory so our job can be done in a timely effective manner without delaying shipments and causing last minute hysterics. These were probably not my exact words, but you get the picture. I heard myself talking and saying words that made sense—another miracle. I later relayed the message to my boss, the gist of it anyway, and although we did not make shipment that week, we all survived. I even got a raise that year, so in the end life was good. In the moment, things seem dire, but this and other embarrassing times have taught me to think outside of the moment, in order to get through the moment. Anticipate the raise, therein lies hope.