What makes me different is that I am different,” say Teresa Aquila. And is she ever.
On a typical day, Aquila spends her time tearing apart and fixing school buses. But when she’s not dressed in a pair of greasy overalls, she carries a gun tucked against her neatly pressed uniform and shiny badge- – – suddenly she’s Deputy Aquila for the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office.
Although only a Reserve, this petite brunette made headlines all the way to Mississippi for a heroic deed.
It happened on a warm afternoon in 1988 in Reno, Aquila along with a dozen other Patrol cars, chased after an armed fugitive in a high speed pursuit. She was in front of the fleeing suspect and tried to force him off the road. As the two cars met, the suspect fired a shot at Aquila which blasted a hole through her door. At first, she thought she had blown a tire. Moments later, however, her left leg throbbed with pain and she saw blood on her knee.
“I was mad now. This guy hurt me, now I was going to apprehend him,” she said. Aquila continued the pursuit until she found her wound bleeding seriously. Finally, she stopped and radioed for aid. The lone gunman later sped out of control near a patch of sagebrush in Sun Valley, Nevada. He then pulled the trigger and blasted away his own life.
Aquila was later released from the hospital in good condition. Her knee had been shattered by a piece of metal from her car door. After returning home from this thrilling episode, she was paid a hero’s welcome among friends and strangers. Her reaction? “I believe in Law Enforcement,” she said proudly.
Aquila 34, spent 12 years on the force, but most of her working life she’s labored as a mechanic while dealing with men breathing over her shoulders.
Her mechanical knack was first shown when she was a child. She recalls once repairing her cousin’s record player which had a broken needle. They didn’t make needles for it anymore. I looked at it and thought, “All it is is a little piece of metal; why couldn’t a nail work?” It probably wasn’t good for the record, but I filed it down thin and it worked.
As young Aquila’s knack for fixing and repairing began to bud, she began to wage war on her mother. “MY mom fought with me all the time, telling me to be indoors and act like a young lady.”
But her interest for learning mechanics continued. Soon she would spend her days tearing apart radios and lawn mowers so she could put them back together again.
After entering high school, Aquila realized she was different. Instead of chumming with other girls, she chose to hang out with the boys, tinkering with engines and fidgeting with levers and axles. When asked what she planned to do after graduating, she replied; “A cop or commercial artist.”
Aquila’s art teacher told her she had a bright future ahead as an artist and promised her a job at a commercial arts company. She later found her way into an apprentice position. One day while working in the shop, some equipment broke down. She asked to look at it and discovered a conveyor belt had slipped out of its track.
“I explained to them how to fix it. Suddenly they moved me out of the art department and stuck me downstairs near the machines. Every time I’d go in one direction, I’d always end up back in mechanics. It never failed. “
After her mother remarried, she moved to Los Angeles, where she landed a job at her stepfather’s ice cream company. It was there that she learned the ropes of repairing autos form a Samoan who greatly encouraged her. “I’d meet and talk with people who knew more than I did and pick their brains for everything they had. This is how my mechanical knowledge evolved- – – from other people educating me with their knowledge.”
Later, Aquila returned to Reno, Nevada where she dabbed in various mechanical jobs. She says that in every job she’s done, she’s been the first female. She was hired at Ralston Purina and became the first female mechanic in the company’s history. The company had to wire approval all the way to St. Louis.
However, after drawing bad vibes from her male colleagues, she quit and began to prowl the job market once again. After peddling auto parts behind a counter for a while, she applied at Porsche shortly after the prestigious company first opened its doors. She was hired the next day as a control technician, but also did mechanical work. After three and half years she quit because of stressful conditions brought on by a slipped disc in her back and sniffing chemicals which she said affected her health.
“The hardest task was to do my work perfectly as I could. I knew I was going to be in the spotlight. If I made a mistake, I knew it would be exploited more than anybody else’s.
Finally, in July 1987, Aquila’s misfortune ended and her reprieve came. Out of 52 applicants, she was hired as a bus mechanic for the Washoe County School District. Once more she was the only woman in the position. Today she helps maintain over 190 buses.
“In the job I have now the bosses couldn’t be any better- – they believe in me because I’m qualified for the job. I love what I’m doing because it comes natural.”
(Published July 25, 1989 in the Communicator Newspaper, Reno, Nevada)