From a Fascinating but Obscure Journal on American Industrial Physics

Chapter XXII: Oral Histories

Interview of Johnetta Green, Veterinarian Assistant from 1953-1984, Ford Motor Co.

Garth said that it was important to our research to have primates of all sizes, some that were over a hundred pounds and some that were smaller, around forty pounds or less. Precious was one of our smaller monkeys, part of AS Study 993-79: Findings of Forward Impact Crashes on Small Unharnessed Children. She was a long-tailed macaque with watery eyes, a trait that is common to her species but one made worse by an eye infection that she had when she arrived from the Detroit Zoo. For two weeks after her arrival, I placed antibiotic drops into her eyes. I did this four, maybe six times, each day. The darling never fought or even squirmed. Macaques are generally agreeable but she was so mild of temperament that Garth remarked, That one there is just precious, a comment that everyone in Automotive Safety agreed with and so the name stuck. But on the day that I prepared Precious for her final crash experiment, I couldn't bring myself to call her by that name.

It was early summer and the mosquitoes nipped and hovered. I walked with Precious from AS to the crash course behind Building D. She crouched in her metal cage and ate green grapes.

No matter how mild a test monkey is you best believe it can turn violent. They can sense danger and when that happens, watch out, all bets are off. Regina Coker--a vet assistant who wore nails that curved like ram's horns and that were painted a splendid shade of magenta--had her finger bit to the knuckle by a chimpanzee that got spooked by her nails. I expected no less from Precious, though she was silent as we walked to the courseway, her eyes focused, like a penitent, on the trees. Michigan summers are explosions of green and on that day the auto plant's landscape appeared as lush as a rainforest. The plant is situated where the Rouge and Detroit rivers meet and trees grow leafy from the rich soil.

River-Rouge is a city within a city. Precious looked around as if she understood its magnificence. She peered through the cage bars at the tractors hauling this and that and at the gunmetal smoke that plumed upward from Tool and Dye. There were a slew of buildings at River-Rouge and they sprawled for miles in each direction. The place had its own farmland and power plant. There was a complete railroad system and a fire department. It was possible to work there for decades, as I did, and never meet someone who had been there just as long.

In fact, I never saw Douglas when he worked nights at Assembly. I'd gotten him that job thinking it would keep him off the streets, away from the crazies. I worked the day shift, arriving as the sky eased its way to lavender. Garth liked me to be there early to feed and bathe the monkeys.

Strange how attached you can become to an animal. Each morning that I arrived, I'd look for Precious. She slept in a huddle with the other macaques. Like humans, they stayed in their clique, grooming each other, play-fighting, and at night sleeping together on the cage floor, their limbs touching and protecting each other. Garth said that I had a calm demeanor that the animals took to. You got what they call 'mother wit,' he told me.

Truth is I never have been a good mother. The last time I saw Douglas was in 1981 on the night that I put him out. He was on that stuff: all jittery and thin as a switch. He came in the house talking about job interviews and asking to borrow forty dollars to buy a shirt from Hudsons. Come on Ma help me out, he said, I won't get the job if you don't help me. He repeated this like an alarm and then grabbed me by the arms.

In my mind, I could see only three options--we could fight, I could call the police, or I could make Douglas leave. My son was a good foot taller than me and I'll admit I feared him a bit. When a woman thinks of fighting a man, she better have a weapon handy--hot grits, like Stevie Wonder's ex-wife, or a stove lid like Mrs. Breedlove in that Toni Morrison book. You got to knock a rascal out. I had neither one.

And I could never cause my child to go to jail so that eliminated option two. Get the hell out, I told Douglas. He stood there staring me full in my face until my top lip started to sweat. You know what, he said. What's that? I asked him. Fuck this shit. Then he left. Before he was gone, he stopped in my bedroom and rambled about, but I didn't go back there to check on him. I let him search for what he thought he might find.

When Precious and I got to Building D a new guard stood in front. She had a pretty brown face but her hair was frosted that brassy blond that the young girls liked. The Sunflowers is what I called these girls. You new? I asked her. No ma'am, she said.

How long you been here?

I been here three years but I'm new to this shift. She smiled.

I signed the clipboard and let her look at my badge. When she was satisfied we'd met the procedures she let me into the building for what we, in AS, called The March.

It was a long walk down a linoleum-tiled hallway that ran through the center of the building. At the end, a glass door led to the courseway. I made that walk plenty of times. To tell the truth, I was relieved that activists started protesting what we did, though it wasn't our studies that initially got their attention but an incident where our heaters malfunctioned one winter, heating up to over 100 degrees. When we found the monkeys the next day they had either perished or were suffering from kidney failure.

That was a tough day. It wasn't a job every person could do.

I understood what we were doing, though, what Garth was trying to accomplish. We were saving people's lives. We used primates in our research because they're just like us. The injuries they got in those crashes were the same injuries we would get. It used to piss me off when Douglas would degrade what I did, like my job didn't help to feed and clothe him when he was young. I did what I did for him. And I did it for science, too.

Still, I never liked thinking about what happened to the monkeys. I always said a quick prayer for an animal as I put the harness into place. The harness had four metal bars that splayed out like an X and in the middle was a knob that screwed the harness on tight. We'd put test monkeys inside a car three times before the final ride so they could get used to it. In my prayers, I'd ask that their suffering would not be long. I've said the same prayer for Douglas many, many times.

As I approached the courseway, Precious began rattling about in her cage and making a high-pitched noise. Uh-oh, I thought, this one's about to flip out. Sssh, I told her and handed her a grape. We stepped through the glass door that blazed white from the summer sun. You need help with this one? the test manager asked. Nah, she's a little one, I replied. I opened the cage and hoisted her delicate frame into my arms. Soon as I touched her, she calmed right down. She clutched my shirt in her fists. I gently pulled on her fingers to get her away from me and into the car's interior. Once she was in, she stood upright and was still.

The harness was like a door that swung from left to right. In the past, I'd swing it shut and turn the knob. Precious would always look at me as I twisted and twisted and twisted. It would take me a while to secure it because she was so tiny. That day we did not twist or swing, instead we just entered the car. Tennessee made child car seats mandatory the year after we published our study.

I remember wishing Precious had shown more fight, but in the end that wasn't her nature. She went into the car like she had on other occasions, as if we would see each other again.

About the author:

Renee's work appears in North American Review, Inkwell, African Voices, Voices from Leimert Park, and elsewhere. Her awards include a Cave Canem fellowship, a Voices of our Nations Arts fellowship, and a PEN Center Emerging Voices fellowship. She's taught creative writing to middle and high school students in Los Angeles and Phoenix. This fall, she will teach at Arizona State University.