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Mechanic with a Manicure

April 1, 2003

Her work polo is purple, and her long brown hair is held back from her face with lavender hair clips. But Christiana Martin can take an engine apart and put it back together as well as any guy. In fact, she can do just about any type of automotive repair.
April 1, 2003

Her work polo is purple, and her long brown hair is held back from her face with lavender hair clips. But Christiana Martin can take an engine apart and put it back together as well as any guy. In fact, she can do just about any type of automotive repair.

Christiana, better known as Chris at the Air Assault Auto Repair facility on the Fort Campbell Army post, has had her head under one hood or another for the last decade. The first female graduate of Austin Peay's automotive technology program, she's held almost every position at Fort Campbell's auto repair shops, from tool room attendant to service writer to parts sales clerk, to quality control mechanic.

Now, after working as assistant manager of the facility for seven years, she's serving as interim manager and has high hopes of reaching her 15-year goal of becoming manager.

It all started with a misbehaving turn signal.

"My turn signal wasn't working," Chris says, thinking back to a day in 1985. "And I'm very particular when I'm driving. I like to use my turn signals.

"I didn't have a lot of money, so I asked where I could go for a repair. A friend directed me to what was known as the Auto Craft Shop."

A combination self-service and full-service repair and parts store, the facility now called Air Assault Auto Repair is a place where do-it-yourselfers have access to a bay and every car repair tool imaginable. More important, they have access to automotive instructors with state-of-the- art equipment who guide them through the complex process of repairing their vehicles.

That first repair took Martin three hours. ("I had to take the steering wheel off," says Martin.)

At the end, though, Martin's turn signal wasn't just indicating left and right turns. It was pointing her in a new career direction: automotive technology.

She started hanging out at the shop and eventually got a job there as tool room attendant. "I watched people rebuild motors, do repairs," she says. "If an instructor was teaching someone something, I'd listen."

She learned a lot about tools and the various names for them. "People call tools by different names. They might want a pair of diagonal cutters. They'll say, 'Can I have some wire cutters?'

"And there are so many uses for each tool," she says. "But by the time I was done being the tool attendant, I knew exactly what people needed for each repair."

By 1996, the self-service operation had added a full-service repair shop with ASE- certified technicians, wrecker service and a full-line parts department, and the smell of opportunity was as thick as diesel fumes in a bus station. Martin caught the scent and began thinking about how she could be a part of the growth. "I wanted to show them I knew about the automotive world," she says.

Her business acumen was well documented. She had earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Austin Peay in 1992. All she needed was documentation of her technical skills.

She enrolled in the Austin Peay Center @ Fort Campbell's automotive technology program, which covered every system from air conditioning to suspension. Braking systems, electrical, transmissionsshe studied them all.

In less than two years, she had earned an associate degree in automotive technology and become the first woman to graduate from the program.

Of course, a diploma didn't assure immediate acceptance by male customers. "They'll come up to me and say, 'Can I talk to a mechanic?' I say, 'Well, what's your question. I might be able to help.'" And she usually is.

Phone calls are interesting too, she says. "My voice is kind of deep, my name is Chris and this is an automotive place. They usually think I'm a guy, so they're surprised when they come in."

They must have been really surprised back in 2001, when Martin became pregnant with her daughter, Chantelle. Never one to "sick out," she just switched to maternity pants and a bigger work shirt and kept going. "I didn't quit till the day the doctor induced labor," she says.

Pictures of now two-year-old Chantelle, nine-year old Victoria, and 12-year old Christopher gaze over Martin's right shoulder as she mans, er, sits behind, the desk in the manager's office. Though she still picks up a wrench fairly frequently, she also picks up her pen.

"Even though I'm working in a government facility, I'm running a business. We have to track incoming and outgoing money, justify new purchases. We have a business plan. A budget. I buy equipment and handle staffing."

She also handles chalk every now and then, teaching the basic auto repair class at the APSU Center @ Fort Campbell. “To me it is not even ‘work', because it's enjoyable to teach others something important like this,” she says.

Whether she's behind a desk, at a lectern or under a chassis, Martin is happy as long as she's dealing with cars. "The work is never boring," she says. "Automotive technology is a great field."