Elinor Otto picked up a riveting gun in World War II, joining the wave of women taking what had been men's jobs. These days she's building the C-17.
Elinor Otto braces her slight frame and grips the riveting gun with both hands, her bright red hair and flowered sweater a blossom of color in Long Beach's clanking Boeing C-17 plant.
Boom, boom, boom.
She leans back as the gun's hammer quickly smacks the fasteners into place.
Then she puts the tool in a holster and zips around a wing spar to grab a handful of colorful screw-on backs, picking up another gun along the way to finish them off. Her movements are deft and precise.
"Don't get in her way, she'll run you over," a co-worker says with a smile.
Otto finishes a section of fasteners, looks up and shrugs.
Just another day at the office for a 93-year-old "Rosie the Riveter" who stepped into a San Diego County factory in 1942 — and is still working on the assembly line today.
Otto is something of a legend among her co-workers on the state's last large military aircraft production line. And her legend is growing: She was recently honored when Long Beach opened Rosie the Riveter Park next to the site of the former Douglas Aircraft Co. plant, where women worked during World War II.
"She says, 'We can do it!' and I'm doing it!" Otto says, flexing her thin arm and laughing, mimicking the iconic poster.
If she were younger, she jokes, she would look at herself now and wonder, "What's that old bag still doing here?"
But Otto seems to have more energy than those half a century younger.
"I wish I was in as gooda shape as she's in at my age," says fellow structural mechanic Kim Kearns — who is 56.
Otto is out of bed at 4 a.m. and drives to work early to grab a coffee and a newspaper before the 6 a.m. meeting. In the Boeing lot, she parks as far from the plant as possible so she can get some exercise. Every Thursday, she brings in cookies and goes to the beauty parlor to have her hair and nails touched up after her shift ends.
"She's an inspiration," says Craig Ryba, another structural mechanic. "She just enjoys working and enjoys life."
Otto was beautiful, with bright blue eyes and dark hair piled high, when she joined a small group of women at Rohr Aircraft Corp. in Chula Vista during World War II. The bosses threatened to give demerits to the men who stood around trying to talk to her — so Otto's suitors left notes for her in the phone booth, where she called her mother every day.
Back then, everyone worked for the war effort, Otto says, so they didn't think much of their jobs — it was tough to find good ones. World War II was all-consuming, with product rationing and scrap metal collections, and men leaving for the war.