In last month’s issue, Mabel Grotzinger did a fine job of outlining the challenges and frustrations involved when your spouse is employed by the railroad. In keeping with Mabel’s promise to present some coping mechanisms for this lifestyle, I want to share a few ideas I have found helpful over the last 17 years I have been married to Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) engineer, Ken Kroeger. When Ken and I met, I was a single mom with a 9-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son. Having been divorced for eight years, I was fairly independent and capable of handling many situations on my own, which of course is a good fit for a railroad wife. During the two years Ken and I dated before we married, I realized that putting up with the uncertainty of his non-existent schedule was a real headache. Invariably ended up being gone when we had made plans to attend functions together. After explaining to my circle of friends time after time that he had “planned on being here,” but was called out, or because he was going to be called out, many of them were starting to think that this railroad guy was some figment of my imagination.
What I did find, though, was that when Ken was in town and we socialized with other railroaders, I met some pretty nice people, even if they were somewhat of a different breed, with their own special language. I will never forget the first time one of Ken’s railroad buddies told me that “Ken died last night on the tracks, somewhere out in the desert on his way from Tucson to Yuma.” I was relieved to find out that meant that he had actually “died” on the hours of service law, not literally.
By the time Ken and I were married, in the Spring of 1989, I had met some very nice women who were also railroad spouses. One of them asked me to help organize a spouse’s support group so we could get together and socialize as well as talk about ways to cope with the lifestyle. At that time, we were unaware of the GIA. Our support group organized picnics and worked on projects to create more fraternization amongst the membership, something that seemed to be slipping away in these busy times.
In 1990, Ken was involved in a major derailment just outside of Yuma. Although he was unaware of it at the time, this was a turning point in his career. He called me from Yuma, where he was being held for questioning by company officers, the FRA, the NTSB, etc. I had never heard him so shaken up, and it was a couple of days before they let him come home. I was working at the appellate court at that time and I asked the judge if I could take a day off when Ken returned. I made arrangements to rent a cabin for the day on the infamous Mount Lemmon, about an hour-and-a-half drive from our home. We drove to the bottom of the mountain, where I pulled the car and told Ken to take a moment to breathe deeply and consciously leave all of the stress and worry about the week’s events behind him before we started up the mountain. We spent a lovely afternoon on the mountain and, although the ordeal was far from over, our brief get-away seemed to relax him. Inevitably, the railroad placed the blame on the crew for the loss of approximately $10 million worth of brand new General Motors automobiles, not to mention the track damage, railroad card damage, etc.
In the next few weeks, Ken worked closely with his local chairman to develop a defense for his investigation. He explained to me that, although he felt strongly that he was not at fault, he might be fired for the incident, and we would be without his income for awhile. I told him that I would support whatever decision he made, and we would figure out how to get by on the job insurance and my income. The day of the investigation, I called as many of his railroad buddies as I could inviting them over for a surprise pizza party that night. It was fun and lighthearted, and Ken felt supported by these guys. One of them even made him a plaque that read “General Motors Salesman of the Year.”
As predicted, Ken and the conductor were both dismissed following the investigation and filed an appeal. That was a dark time for him because his pride was shattered. Again he worked closely with his local chairman, and both the general and vice-general chairman to build a case for the appeal. He won that appeal and went back to running trains. That experience got him interested in becoming a union officer. In 1995, he became the Local Chairman for Division 28. I was excited to have him home more but soon found out he was even less available than before.
In 1997, Ken served as Chairman for the International Western Convention (IWC) to be held here in Tucson, Arizona, in May of 1998. During the planning stages, Ken encouraged me to get an auxiliary started and to serve alongside him as the GIA Chairperson for the convention. Guadalupe Auxiliary 28 was born in March of 1998, and we made plans for some educational seminars as well as some fun activities for the spouses at the IWC.
By now you may be asking yourself what all this has to do with coping and surviving as a railroad spouse. My point is that the way I have learned to cope is by becoming involved. In the beginning of our relationship, I resented the railroad because it kept Ken away from me and the kids. Ken now serves as a Special Rep and Coordinator of Education & Training with the National BLET. That position has afforded him the opportunity to travel to all four regional conventions each summer, and I usually accompany him, representing the International GIA. Over the years, we have a inherited a large BLET “family” that we look forward to connecting with each year. At each convention we make more new friends and this family continues to grow.
This summer I got a true taste of the support of my extended family when I suffered a broken ankle the morning of Registration at the Eastern Union Meeting Association (EUMA) in Saratoga Springs, New York. I had been “plowed over” by a couple of large, rowdy dogs as Ken and I took our morning walk. I ended up spending most of that day in the emergency room, but was able to attend the welcoming reception that evening. My BLET and GIA brothers and sisters all wished me well on the surgery I was to undergo the next day, and after spending a few days in the hospital, I was released in time to attend the banquet on the closing day of the convention. I was very moved by the cards and gifts I received that evening, and especially by the prayers and remembrances throughout the week. I was a little sad I hadn’t stayed for the band, when I learned that the disc jockey had been instructed to play “Who Let the Dogs Out” in my honor. Sorry I missed that one!
If you are feeling a little “beat up” by your role as a railroad spouse, my advice to you is this: You can’t beat ‘em so you might as well join ‘em. Get involved. If you don’t have a GIA in your area, take the initiative and start one. No one will understand your plight better than a group of other railroad spouses. Even if you can’t change some situations that frustrate you, at least you will have a place to share ideas on how to cope and what to do. Attend your regional meetings, they are for everyone, not just officers, and attend training sessions. It’s a great way to take a trip with the family, and could be tax deductible because it’s job-related. You too will feel that sense of “family” as you interact and connect with your BLET and GIA brothers and sisters, and you be surprised at what you might learn.