Advice from a seasoned GIA spouse: Get involved
In the June issue, Mabel Grotzinger did a fine job of outlining the challenges and frustrations of being a railroad spouse. In keeping with Mabel's promise to present some coping mechanisms for this lifestyle, I will 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'd been a single mom for eight years and 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. He 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 needed to rest 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 what really meant was that he had "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 among 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, Ariz. Although he was unaware of it at the time, this was a turning point in his career. 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 and railroad car and equipment damage.
In the next few weeks, Ken worked closely with his local chairman to develop a defense for his investigation. The day of the investigation, I called together a group of his railroad buddies for a surprise pizza party that night. It was fun and lighthearted, and Ken felt supported by these guys. One of them presented him with a plaque that read "General Motors Salesman of the Year."
Ken and the conductor were both dismissed following the investigation, but he filed and won an 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.
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 requires that he attend all four regional conventions. I usually accompany him to assist him and to represent the International GIA. Over the years, we have developed a large BLET "family" that we look forward to connecting with each summer. 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 day at the Eastern Union Meeting Association in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. I had been "plowed over" by a couple of large, rowdy dogs as Ken and I took our morning walk. I spent 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 "beaten 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 the 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 each one features invaluable opportunities to learn more about railroad life. It's a great way to take a trip with the family, and could be tax deductible if 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 may be surprised at what you can learn.
© 2005 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen