Monday, June 20, 2011
The Girls At DOE
I hated to leave my job after my divorce in 1979, but I wanted to live near my family. I moved back to Kentucky where I accepted a position at the U. S. Department of Energy near Paducah. The job paid well. And I had great benefits, which were very important to me. I had a young daughter to raise.
I had to wait months after I was hired; they had to thoroughly check me out. After my Q Clearance came through, I was fingerprinted and ready to go.
On my first day, my supervisor introduced me to the clerical staff. They were all smiles, welcoming me, offering to help in any way they could. As we chatted amicably, my supervisor told me most of the women had begun working there right out of high school. Many of their fathers and some mothers were working there. Some had grandparents who retired from the company. "You'll fit right in with the girls at DOE, Brenda," he said, "They're one big happy family!"
As soon as he headed back to his office, the women's smiles disappeared. Then they did a group-turn and scurried away. I was taken aback, but I didn't think too much about it. I had a new job to learn.
At lunchtime, several rushed by my desk on their way to the cafeteria. Others trotted into the conference room with their brown paper bags. I looked up and smiled, expecting to be invited to join them, but they all ignored me. Except one. She threw me a dirty look over her shoulder.
The conference room was less than six feet from my desk, so I could hear every word they were saying: Well, la-de-dah! So she worked up north! Did y'all hear that northern accent? They all cackled.
I was shocked. I had never had trouble getting along with co-workers. Or anyone else, for that matter. What on earth had I done to cause such animosity? I was a new employee. I didn't know them and they didn't know me. I told myself things would get better.
I was wrong.
As time passed, they seldom spoke to me. If I asked a question, they gave me short answers and walked away. Other times, they gave me wrong answers and snickered among themselves when my supervisor brought my work back for corrections.
I began going to the men when I had questions. They were very helpful and gave me all the information I needed to get my work done correctly. That infuriated them: What a flirt! She just can't leave the men alone!
I dined alone in the cafeteria for a few days, and then I began lunching at my desk as I read a book, trying to block out the gossip in the conference room: That new girl is snooty! All she does is read books and ignore us!
By the time I had been with the company for six months, I had earned a healthy raise. But I had had enough. I began ignoring them. Which went totally against my grain; I was raised to be kind and considerate.
Shortly thereafter, a new employee was hired. Anna was a young college graduate from Iowa who had just moved to Paducah with her new husband. Sadly, they treated her as they had treated me. I introduced myself on her first day and told her to come to me if she needed help. We became good friends, much to the chagrin of the girls at DOE.
Anna left in tears after two months on the job. She was replaced by the sister-in-law of a cousin of one of the girls at DOE.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that they were like clannish mountain people who saw me as an outsider. Maybe even a threat. My supervisor was right; they were one big happy family who refused to let anyone in who wasn't related to, or associated with, someone in the company. (I never told them my father helped build the plant and worked there for several years before leaving. He had tried to talk me out of taking the job. "I think it's dangerous to work in that place," he said.)
I hung on for another six months at Union Carbide before landing a better job in Paducah. A huge weight dropped from my shoulders and I felt as light as a feather the day I left. I have never been back. A dark feeling of dread washes over me just driving by the road that leads to the plant.
All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley