Shared Stories: Blueprints for Belle

During World War II, Belle Fluhart was a “cousin” of Rosie the Riveter. Trained as a skilled machinist by U.S. Electric Motors in Los Angeles, Belle moved to Seattle where her husband was stationed, and she ended up working on planes for Boeing. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Belle Fluhart

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, in July of 1921, I was born, the middle child of nine children. Seven of us were boys. My given name is Isabelle, but that’s too many syllables for all of those brothers, so my name became Belle very early.

Our family moved to California in 1928. I grew up during the Great Depression.

In 1941, I had been working as a waitress in a restaurant for about a year and a half. I had to be off work for two weeks with a bad case of tonsillitis and I had surgery to remove the tonsils.
When I returned to work, the restaurant owner explained that she’d had to replace me, and so there was nothing for me.

“But,” she said, “stay in touch in case something comes up.”

As I was walking through the restaurant, I heard someone call, “Belle, Belle.” I turned and saw one of my customers beckoning to me to come over to his table. I went over and greeted him.
He said, “What are you doing now?”  I explained what happened and that I would be looking for work.  

He said, “Why don’t you come over to U.S. Motors and work for us?”

I said, “I don’t know how to do any of the things you do over there.”

He said, “How do you know you don’t?”

I said, “I don’t know I don’t, but I don’t think I do.”

He said, “Come over to U.S. Motors and put in an application.” He handed me his business card and said, “You can put me down as a reference.”

After leaving the restaurant, I walked the few blocks over to U.S. Electrical Motors and put in my application including my customer’s name as a reference.

I was given many tests including aptitude, math, dexterity, etc., all of which I passed with flying colors.

The man in Personnel said, “If anything open up, we’ll call you.”  That didn’t seem very promising, so as I was going home, I stopped at every business I passed and made an application for work.

I was very late getting home. My sister-in-law called, “Why are you so late? Someone’s been calling every ten minutes all afternoon.” She gave me the number and I called.

It was U.S. Motors and they wanted me to come in the next day for an interview. As it turned out, my customer who had given me his card was one of the owners of the company and when asked if he knew me, he said, “Don’t let her get away.” It surprised me that the time for the interview was 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon.

When I arrived the next afternoon a portly, silver-haired gentleman named Tommy was introduced to me. As we were walking around the machine shop Tommy explained to me that, “So many of our young men are being taken in the draft, that we have to ask some ladies to help us, and you are the first.”

Tommy was swing shirt foreman of the machine shop. He asked if I could work the swing shift. I said, “Like what time to what time?”

He told me 4:30 in the afternoon to 3:00 in the morning.  “We work a ten-hour shift.”
I said, “Oh no, I couldn’t do that, I would have a way home.” 

He said, “We will see to it that you always have a way home.”

My answer was, “In that case, sure I can.”

“Then you will start tomorrow. You will need to wear very simple clothing and a snood over your hair. You will need to wear safety shoes. The man will be here tomorrow afternoon to fit you with safety shoes (steel-toed).”

That afternoon I found a nice blue and white pinstripe coverall with tab and rings on the waistband on each side so the waistband could be drawn in to fit beautifully. I also found a white blouse to wear under it, so the collar could be turned out over the coverall collar, and a snood for my hair. I bought two of everything.

Tommy was visibly pleased when I came in to work the next afternoon. The safety shoe man was there with three styles to choose from – two pairs of high tops and a pair of oxfords. Safety shoes are men’s shoes. I chose the oxfords and he settled on one size larger and wider than my regular size of 7AA. He said that after I stood in them for a while my feet would spread out. And he sure knew his business.

Tommy had been chosen to make a machinist of me. He started by teaching me to run the gear lapping machine where you mate a pinion to a gear, and run them together with lapping compound until the center distance between the shaft that the gear is on and the shank of the pinion are the exact distance.

Next he taught me to run the brooch. With this machine, you draw a long tool through a gear to cut an inside key way.

Behind this machine was a plywood partition with a little window in it. On the other side of it was a young man running a drill press. Only he wasn’t running the drill press. He was over at the window watching what was going on at the brooch machine. Whenever Tommy would ask me for a tool (I didn’t have any tools yet), the young man would say, “I have one here in my tool box, just reach over and help yourself.”

This young man later became my husband. We were married 61 years and 2 months before he passed away in 2004.

After teaching me these two simple machines, Tommy took me over and introduced me to a brand new precision cylindrical Landis grinder. It had just been uncrated. It was painted grey and was just beautiful. I fell in love with it.

Tommy started out teaching me to read blueprints and micrometers. And then he started teaching me how to set up the machine, and ultimately how to run it.

I became so proficient that Tommy would bring a part from the tool room, where they were creating a new tool. The dimension had to be exact, no tolerance. I would grind it down until I felt it just needed a little more, stop and “mic” it, then give it just that little bit, take the part out and “mic” it. Exact, every time. Tommy would say, “You and your micrometer eye.”

I was always surprised when I came in to work in the afternoon that all of the other machines were running. Just mine was down, and I pressed the button to turn it on. It never occurred to me that I was so good that they wouldn’t let anyone touch it, for fear they would do something to it.

The maintenance people took pride in keeping the machine clean and like new. Someone would come every night when the graveyard shift came on and ask me if my machine was okay and I would tell them it was terrific and thank them.

At almost 5’2”, 120 lbs., and twenty years old when I started, I looked like I was fourteen.  A few years later, at twenty-two, I still looked like a teenager, but I was the pride of the machine shop.
In 1943 I married the man I met when I first came to U.S. Motors.  Within just a few months, George’s number came up in the draft, and after basic training he was sent to Fort Lawton in Seattle.

George was born and raised on Queen Ann Hill in Seattle, so he was really going home.  George was in the transportation corps, and as one of the top three men in the diesel engineering class, he was kept on to be an instructor for incoming men.  We knew he would be there a while.

I moved to Seattle to be with him. I didn’t want to work like a boy, I wanted to work like a girl and wear pretty clothes.  But Boeing said that, “If you work anywhere in the Seattle area, you’ll work for us.”  So I was drafted by Boeing just like George was drafted into the army.

My time in Seattle was memorable, but that is another story.