I grew up in a railroad town; as a matter of fact the railroad founded the town. The Pennsylvania Railroad was the only employer within 28 miles. My father was a car inspector and most of my mother’s family worked in the shops repairing steam locomotives. My husband grew up in the same small town and his family worked for the railroad. They were conductors. Both of our fathers and grandfathers worked in the yard all of their working lives.
When Mike went to work for Penn Central as an engineer trainee I expected the same sort of life that I was used to from my life as I was growing up. I was in for a rude awaking. His first job was okay – he worked as a hostler moving engines in the engine house and he worked third shift so he was home every day.
My image of what railroad life was changed. I thought it was just the same as any 9 to 5 job. He went to engineer school and things changed rapidly all of the sudden he was on call, gone all the time at all hours of the night and for days at a time. This wasn’t what I expected, what happened to being home every day. It was a real reality check for me, but I made the best of it and tried to be supportive.
Railroad life is like no other when you live by the phone on call 24 / 7 holidays or not. It got to the point where we didn’t really know when there was a holiday because everything revolved around him and how many times out he was. These things were hard on him, but what about the family? I know in my home I became very independent. I raised the children pretty much on my own. When he was home it was difficult to share the discipline of the children. You handled all the emergencies because he was always on the other side of the state somewhere. I now I had to learn to handle household matters as well. I learned how to fix the plumbing, to get that pipe from leaking long enough untill he would get home. Mike got to the point where the first thing he would say when he got home was “what did you break now?” Instead of “hello,” this saying became a joke in the family. When the kids knew that dad was on his way home they would ask “what did you break now mom.”
Twenty-seven years latter he finally had a yard job. Those years of being on the road were hard on him and his family. The long hours on the road, staying in less than the greatest hotels, all these things were a part of railroad life. My husband spent 30 years of his life working for the railroad. This month he could have retired. But, he isn’t here to enjoy it. He passed away a year ago.
My GIA – now the BLET Auxiliary – friends have helped me cope with these things. When we get together we have this common bond, we understand all of the day to day issues in our railroad life. I don’t know what I would have done all those years without them and I thank them from the bottom of my heart. Some of my friends however, are experiencing this unexpected joy / rude awaking, in their lives. As wives we have spent 30 years dealing with the hours and not knowing when he would be home. All of the sudden there he is every day. Now what? I heard a wife say to her husband, “I am used to you being gone so many days a week now you are here. I have to cook every day, I don’t normally do this. If I want to eat maybe it would just be a salad. Now I must think of a meal because you are here.” Also when the husband is home we are used to being there we don’t go anywhere when he is home. Now that he is retired he never goes anywhere. What about me? Don’t I get the chance to be with my friends? They feel because he is home they must stay home with him.
I remember when Mike first took the yard job. We sat around the house for three months before we realized we had two regular days off. It took us that long just to get used to the idea we weren’t attached to the crew desk for two whole days. Once that set in we were gone every week somewhere.
The point is when you live the life of a railroad family there are certain things that seems normal. My father-in-law told me that when he retired he couldn’t sleep for the first few months worrying about the phone ringing and missing a call. Mom complained she didn’t know what to do with him. He was always in her way. All of the sudden he wanted to do the dishes. This was so out of character for him that the entire family thought he was crazy.
When our spouses decide to take the leap and retire we have to make all new changes. Our lifestyle is now what the rest of the world has been living like all along. We complain a lot about the railroad, we just didn’t realize what the lifestyle did to the wife as well. I just guess you can’t make a railroad wife happy.