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Dancing at 10 MPH

Live to Believe

Sitting in the lobby of Dunn Bros. Coffee in Rapid City, SD, I found myself ruminating over the past three years. Over nine years ago, I celebrated effective workmanship and reaching the goal of helping produce over 500,000 ATVs. The next day, we received the news our plant was closing. 

In 2007, businesses began to scale back production as the economy slowed. Some were able to see the crash coming and took evasive and effective action to keep their boats floating and company alive. Arctic Cat was like many others who took that approach.

And so it begins....

Times of recession bring fear. Fear of the unknown and fear of tomorrow ruled those days. Many of those I had learned to love and appreciate had enjoyed positive employment for over 20 years at this one location. It was a small town and the impact of closure hit extremely hard as it did all across the United States as we entered the second worst recession in American history. 

For myself, I had recently purchased a house in town with my fiance and children. This would enable the children easy access to their father living only a few blocks away. It was a picture perfect set-up with a great school and they would have easy access to both parents at any time.

We were scheduled to marry a year later, but advanced the date by an entire year to enable those we had shared years of our professional lives to attend. With this closure and uncertainty looming, we felt it was best to have a big celebration anyway, not only for us but also for our closest friends and family. This alone proved to be the best decision at the time.

The party was held on November 3, 2007, in celebration of our marriage on Halloween. Since our wedding had been relegated to only our closest of friends and family, the party had to be quite the bash and as enjoyable as possible for all the attendants. Appropriately themed, our newly congealed family arrived as vampires and our guests ranged from nuns to the tooth fairy. Those were the fun times watching ice molds of faces floating in the red punch and the red jello hands be effectively nibbled.

Laughter, gore, and too much food filled the evening's festivities. My new husband loved to cook and insisted we do all the food ourselves. It was something he loved and our home was filled with great smells for days preceding and too many leftovers in the days following. 

He focused on the entree foods while I leaned into the sides and non-alcoholic drinks. My daughter spent hours rolling Tootsie Rolls into tiny cartoon dog poop, it was the most talked-about treat of the evening. We were high on life.

The VFW was a perfect location for such an event offering a cash bar and helped us support the organization. The celebration lasted well into the next day. Every RSVP respondent received a disposable camera to record the events. After developing the film, there were many moments I will never remember but are forever recorded in history. Our elation of the evening ended upon our return home to find all our canned food labels removed and rice in our bed. Even though we ended up crashing at a friend's house, our private party continued. That was the last big celebration we attended as a family.

After the fallout from the news, the job hunt was on. We each searched desperately for positions in other local companies to no avail. Since we were both in the warehouse distribution department, our time was extended long after that of most of our counterparts. 

Running final inventory reports and loading what remained of miscellaneous parts onto trucks headed for Minnesota. This enabled us to keep a close eye on the various local, if you can call a 100-mile radius local, classifieds. For weeks, this was futile considering the other fifty people freshly on the job market in such a small town. As the time drew near to the completion of our jobs, the stress levels rose until the day I answered an ad from a newspaper based 75 miles southeast for a job 75 miles northwest of our home in Madison, South Dakota.

I had recently interviewed for another manufacturing company in town with great success. It was my ex-husband's former employer. In the midst of a quickly diminishing job and recent wedding, my ex-husband had decided he didn't want to live down the street from us. 

Having found a lady from Watertown, she convinced him their future was to return to her hometown and raise their children. Of those children, they decided that only the natural child between he and I was worthy to move with them leaving her half-sister he had adopted, with me. 

Our goals clashed and fortunately, the judge ruled in my favor for the girls to remain together with me. He had already relinquished physical custody of one child under the guise of unable to handle.

The local company hadn't offered me a position as of yet but were quite promising with an offer for my ex-husband's old supervisor position. That same week another potential employer called to set up an interview. The interview was arranged for a Tuesday, 75 miles northwest of our home. Due to the sparse population of South Dakota, 75 miles was not unreasonable for a one-way commute. As we drove north, I had no expectations, only hope for a better tomorrow.

For my 30th birthday, we had purchased a 2000 Pontiac Firebird in a beautiful emerald color in the convertible model. Smooth and sleek, our faces were bright with elation. My new husband had taken the day to drive me to Huron, SD, simply because I was so nervous. 

"Black Betty" blared on the radio as we left my interview. The interviewer assured me they would extend an offer by Friday. I was blindly confident I would hear back from them by the end of the week. My soul could relax even though I knew the kids wouldn't be too happy if we were to move.

Thursday brought a call from the local industry extending a job offer. They were offering me a starting position anticipating training for all the departments. This meant gearing me up for management. With that call, I requested if I could get back to them by Friday as I still had not heard from the company in Huron.

Walking into my soon-to-be former employer's location, the sky was dark with the wind biting at my face. Winter in South Dakota could be brutal. I knew that if I didn't hear from Huron today, I continue residing in Madison and life would go on as normal; the Universe didn't find that appealing. 

Lunch came along and I was finally able to check my phone. There it was! The call I had been anticipating. Following the prompts of the voicemail I called the human resources department. I didn't know what to expect on the other end, only that they would let me know either direction. 

Marlene was the supervisor of human resources based in Sioux Falls. Her prompt response had my nerves on edge as she spoke confidently into the phone. “Crystal, I'd like to say thank you for coming to Huron for your interview. I understand you live in Madison.”

“Good Morning, thanks for calling me back. Yes, I live in Madison,” my heart attempting to burst from my chest.

“You do understand this job would require you to be on call 24 hours a day and to be able to be to work within two hours of your call, correct?'

“Yes, ma'am. We've been discussing how it would work and if I were to get the job, we would seek residence in Huron.”

“Great, I just want to make sure you have a full understanding of how important this detail truly is. With that, I would like to offer you a position as a conductor with the DME,” she exhaled. In retrospect, I'm certain she'd heard yes many times before to only get a negative result later.

I could barely breathe. There it was! The offer was in my lap and without hesitation, “I would love to come work for you” spewed out of my mouth without any consideration of my family. We had discussed it but were no closer to a definite decision than any other time.

“Excellent! Welcome to the DME. I'm sure you will find it quite interesting. You'll be hearing from the local manager of train operations for your training schedule. I look forward to tracking your progress.” She said her good-bye and quickly hung up the phone.

My body shook with excitement! I could barely breathe. The call I had anticipated followed by the call I had to make to reject the offer from the local company. I had turned down $13 an hour for $20 an hour as a starting wage. As I jumped around in excitement, I almost slipped on the ice and my friend commenced to laughing. She could tell from the door I had been offered the job and I'd be moving to Huron. The rest of the day was filled with joyous laughter and elation. Now to tell the husband.

February was a month of transition. On the eighth, I was released from my job in Madison and on the 11th began classroom training in Sioux Falls, SD, to become a railroad conductor. Others had been searching for months to find a comparable job in the same location. Fortunately for us, my husband had also secured a job in Huron. I was to spend my first two weeks of training sitting in a classroom learning the rules of the trade and just how important all those rules would be to my well-being.

As those days went by, those 20 pounds of rules were browbeaten into my head. The rules seemed simple enough, the lingo was the challenge. My class was 15 people of which 11 were new just as myself with three getting re-certified on those particular rule books. Having never encountered a trainman, I went into the job blind wondering if I could make the cut. There was only one other lady in the class full of men, only there to learn the rules but not to work as a conductor. Almost nine years later, only two of the new hires remain in the industry.

Selling our home in Madison proved to be a struggle but I couldn't continue to live in Madison and commute to Huron when my call to work would come in. The life of a trainman is not glamorous or predictable as a greenhorn. 

In 2008, the several necessary rules regarding a person's hours of service (time restriction on a train) and rest times (time required for the company to not contact me between shifts) had not been established. I could be gone for 36 hours and only home for eight. Living one and one half hours away from the railroad depot did not support a good rest cycle. At the time, the railroad was still allowed to call me within six hours of my last shift regardless of how long the previous shift had been.

My training continued for 16 weeks with the final classroom time located in Bettendorf, Iowa. That week found Iowa caught in a nasty ice storm that almost shut down I-80. Braving the storm, I drove my Firebird to save on gas. Successful completion of the final testing and I was on my way back to South Dakota to finalize my hours. Just days after the ice storm on my way to retrieve my children from their dad, a deer launched herself from the ditch too late for me to positively respond. The collision resulted in my beautiful car falling victim to yet another statistic confirming why South Dakota's insurance rates remain higher than national average.

Our house sat empty and our friends were losing touch with me. I was working nights, weekends, and holidays, barely seeing my children much less my husband. Our solution to the traveling was to purchase a house in Huron with a construction loan and delayed payments for a year. The hope was during that time, our house in Madison would sell. Little did we know, it never would.

My day finally came to become a certified conductor in early June. With this status came another blow from the railroad life. I was being forced to work at a terminal over 120 miles away because I was the youngest person in the ranks and still the only female. Hardship came and went, we found yet another solution to the issue. Instead of trying to pay for three residences, we bought a camper as I would only be required to stay for three months during the summer.

Fortunately, it was summertime while our Huron house was under construction. This enabled the girls to spend more time away from home especially with all the noise and interruptions. Having successfully managed our dilemma, another reared its head.

During the roof replacement over the kitchen, it had been left open without any protection from the elements. An oversight of the construction company, that evening the kitchen ceiling fell in where we had all our items stored while the bedrooms were being reconstructed. The rain came pouring into the house damaging most of our few belongings. The contractor agreed to replace the ceiling and install custom lighting at no charge in an attempt at restitution.

My return to Huron after being forced to Pierre, SD, couldn't come fast enough. Our bills were falling behind and I couldn't understand where the money was going. I worked almost 60 hours per week and my husband worked regular hours for the kids. It just didn't make sense. My oldest was poking her nose into the local hockey team and I couldn't find the money. The Madison house didn't help matters.

Our friends were no longer the same including the ones we had left behind. He had new friends through work and I was slowly making new friends despite my social awkwardness; the two never mingled. I was becoming more suspicious of our finances and the excuses. Our house in Huron was finally repaired and it was time to refinance. We pulled together the required money by letting the payment on the Madison house slide. It seemed all we could do. Unbeknownst to me, that wasn't the leak in the basket.

Spring rolled around and another school year down. My time away from home was high and it was with his support, holding the stable predictable job, he would willingly handle the children and their activities. My expectations and my time away from home were incompatible. I knew it was my job that kept us from falling behind while he had changed jobs three times. My gut began its dance, a feeling I couldn't shake.

My nights were typically spent away from home and I expected him to be home with me on the few we shared together. He tended to stay away more and more. I was returning from work within 24 to 36 hours and finding the kids hanging out at home alone. They'd always say he went to his friend's house. Being the observant 12-year-old, my daughter told me that sometimes he would come home smelling like burnt grass. My heart dropped to the floor.

My husband had found new friends who chose the high life and not the legal version. I'd found the hole in our finances quite by accident. After her reveal, I began asking other questions about his friend. It turned out most of the time I was gone, he'd leave them home alone and the friend would sometimes visit. Fortunately, I had chosen to begin the “trust your gut” speech a few years prior with my kids. She didn't trust his friend I had never met.

Increasing suspicions, the phone checking commenced. Yet another blow to our marriage, I had deep animosity towards any type of drug use since he was a former methamphetamine user. He had promised and I had bought into that promise he was no longer interested in any sort of drug use. He loved me and I loved him, I had once been confident in that belief.

And yet, here my life was unraveling at the seams. The woman on the other end confirmed my deepest fear; he had been out with different friends smoking and drinking the night away as he slept peacefully in our bed. My bottle had long been stuffed with distrusting my own intuition, it could not handle anymore. Our first massive argument ensued.

Our old friends constantly texted me when the weekends were approaching asking about my plans. My plans were never in their favor. My weekends were filled with fishing while waiting for my phone to ring. My friendships were limited and I was as isolated as ever. What I didn't know was their requests were being met by my husband who had agreed to not visit them without me. One particular weekend found me driving home on a Saturday morning, finding an empty house.

The calling began with no response. I couldn't enter the house as my ex-husband was installing our new central air system and would immediately start asking questions. My mind was a blur. How could this be happening to me? I had done all the things the right way I knew how. But it wasn't enough. The construction in the house created too much noise for sleep, I crashed in the minivan I drove until it was too hot for sleep.

No answer to the phone calls until around 7pm claiming his phone had died while out fishing. Post divorce, I found out he had spent the evening with the same friends as from our wedding night.

Only a few short months later in 2009, I had left for work on a beautiful sunny day. I had been told I would be taking a train to Tracy, Minnesota, for the first part of our trip. Taking a train east meant I expected to be away from home for about 36 hours. 

Kissing my husband goodbye, I believed we were on solid ground. My return home within twelve hours was yet another gut punch. He was nowhere to be found. It was a good thing the kids were away at their dad's. With each question, his lies dug him deeper. 

Common sense says, “when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” He did neither.

Learning he was 112 miles away smoking it up with “an old friend,” I couldn't take it anymore. I found myself bawling in the driveway of a friend whom I didn't believe was home. The following days unspooled the threadbare yarn of what was left of our marriage completely. 

It was then I began to cut him out of my life. Between managing an unforgivable work environment and wondering how I'd handle the kids alone, I knew I'd just have to push through. One week later, we sat down and had the talk with the children who couldn't understand what was going on but who were already veterans of divorce.

Having given the chance to reconcile and get square, he refused. It was my one line he had gladly crossed more times than I know. He blamed me for his heartache after I forced him out of the house. 

As more information surfaced, it was the best decision. It was my regret we'd moved our wedding forward a year by this point. He blamed my job and I accepted it. Hindsight, he was an adult all along responsible for both his choice to stray and how he defined love.

Life without him was just short of unbearable. My children were already getting themselves up for school and could lightly handle domestic things. They were still quite young at 11 and 12 years old with having to stay home alone many nights while I worked. 

One night, as I lay in the Tracy motel attempting to rest, my phone jingles with a Huron police officer on the other end. The kids' father was driving to Huron to get them and there was nothing I could do.

That week before Thanksgiving found me without my kids and with only my job remaining loyal. In my hopes of transparency, I had shared with their father my soon-to-be second ex-husband was headed out the door. 

I shared most of the details looking for some sort of support that I had made the right decision. Their father's actions proved futile in his having physical custody of the kids. South Dakota law said they were old enough to be home alone on a limited basis. After Thanksgiving, they were promptly returned, much to their happiness.

Shortly after this incident, I rushed into a relationship with a man who was fifteen years my senior. That driveway I had attempted to hide in found him home and a welcoming change to the drama of my home life. More of a situation of convenience, we had enough in common to satisfy the relationship requirements and make their father happy. Moving into his home, space was limited but not terribly uncomfortable. 

I then commenced to renting out the Huron house unaware of the headache landlords so often suffered.

One tenant after another, each one seemed worse than the last. The low ceiling leading up the stairs to the two bedrooms became a huge detriment to most potential tenants. The ceiling height would not allow any box springs up the stairs over full size. With this downfall, there was great difficulty finding tenants who were interested. 

Of those that were, they weren't ready to be responsible. At the point just prior to my return, the tenants had refused to pay rent, partied on the roof and broke a piano. This was just a minor detail compared to the $900 water bill and cigarette butts in the back of the toilet.

Life with the new man was pleasant enough. We enjoyed each other's company and frequently placed on the same jobs as a matter of convenience. What I didn't know was shortly after we met, he had begun to drink again after being sober for twenty years. 

His maturity was alluring, he seemed to have his life together. Pseudo-country living was great. Just outside of town, large yard, and a gravel road little traveled. Life was good...for a while. As I became more comfortable in my own skin, he became less accepting.

As we both knew it would, our relationship came to an end in late 2011. The kids and I moved back into the Huron house as I was finishing training to become a locomotive engineer. The DME had changed ownership in 2009 to become part of the Canadian Pacific. Their intention was to break into the coal fields of Wyoming despite the presence of the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern dominating the traffic. Becoming an engineer brought its own troubles and yet again, shortly after my official certification, I was forced to Pierre.

Knowing what Pierre had to offer, I knew I would have some sort of stability if I took a permanent position. What I didn't want was to attempt to pay for two residences so my children could remain in the same school. My journey to Pierre began with a roommate with each of us on opposing shifts. I split the rent with another engineer while my kids finished the 2011-2012 school year and realized what had to be done.

As May came to a close, I informed the kids the best option for us would be for all of us to move to Pierre. They'd have to change schools and hockey teams but it would mean I would be home with them more often. I'd return to the loathsome realm of landlordship but it was worth it to me to have them close. 

My roommate had secured a job in another state helping the transition for the kids to move forward smoothly. The transition to the new hockey team wasn't as smooth as they would now be playing for their previous biggest rival.

Life was able to smooth out and I was able to escape the negativity Huron was too eager to share. My children were finally with me all the time. They attended school just across the river and the hockey rink was two blocks away. Life was pretty good when I could get a tenant who paid rent on time and not break the sink. 

We all adjusted and fell into a fairly smooth routine even though I was required to purchase another vehicle for my daughter to drive. Fortunately, driver's licenses are issued at 14 years old in South Dakota; another perk of living in an agricultural state.

August of 2013 found me running a train early in the day headed towards Philip, South Dakota, on 10mph track. Like any other day, we had to do work at Fort Pierre and meet another train down the line. Just like any other day, we followed the rules. 

Owned by the Canadian Pacific at the time and many management changes later, our “any other day” found us having violated one of those 20 pounds of rules. It was this day, my life path was to be uprooted and a new seed planted. Admitting to our mistake left my conductor unemployed and found me in the same condition 20 days later.

Sitting in re-certification training on August 28, rehashing hazmat was just as boring as it ever was. It was the biannual re-certification everyone was required to attend. My world revolved around work and my position as the only female locomotive engineer on this territory. I worked for the railroad. 

From the time I had started in 2008, there had been no other female applicants make the cut. My pride in my job and position was quite high until I returned a voicemail I had received. At 2:00pm I found myself unemployed and unable to breathe.

Angry, distraught, crushed. It crushed my soul worse than either of my divorces; a blow to my very soul. What was I going to tell my children? How would I survive? My world was in shambles for a week while I attempted to understand. 

Having had some foresight and union involvement, I had maxed out my job insurance in the event something like this were to happen. Having a clean safety record, it was impossible for me to understand why this had happened to me. I had to find solace that I still had my kids and this short term support from both the railroad retirement board and from the union I was an officer for.

Trusting the union to take my case to the review board, I continued to serve as an officer to the union and began my journey into reading inspirational books. One step further, I sought personal development classes to begin to learn about myself. Prior to that day, I had been OK with continuing as a locomotive engineer spending my days on 10 mile per hour track. Within only a few weeks, the Canadian Pacific had publicly decided to sell their South Dakota portion of track.

At thirty days beyond my termination, my case went before the review board and was denied. I resolved myself to continue my studies and maybe my chairman would be able to get my job back at the 60-day review. I had caught a movie called The Secret by Rhonda Byrne from 2006 on Netflix. 

This movie brought me into the realization I was creating my own woes and always had. With this shift in perspective, I turned inward for myself.

The process of learning what I wanted and why I wanted it was challenging at best. I had never really thought that deeply about myself or where I wanted to be in five years. I was so caught up in being a locomotive engineer, there really wasn't time to do anything else with my erratic schedule. 

But now, I had time to contemplate. It started with a dream board and progressed. Once I had settled on what I wanted to see and steered away from the how, I dreamed and dreamed big. I wanted to own the railroad.

At the 90-day review, I was again found not fit to be employed by the Canadian Pacific. The time limit on my funds was approaching quickly. It was soon revealed there was a new owner of the property and they were having townhall meetings across the state. 

I had no job and I was the secretary of the union so, to help my fellow brother, I attended three of the four offered across the state. It was the last one I hesitated to attend.

With only thirty minutes to decide, I hopped in my car and took off to Rapid City. I sat at a table working up the notes from the previous two meetings of that day. I wanted to make sure I didn't miss anything and the brothers were as informed as possible. 

As I sat alone, typing feverishly before the next meeting, a gentleman in a suit approached me. With an easy smile, he inquired of my purpose, quickly mentioning he had seen me at three of the meetings. Our interaction quickly revealed he was the one responsible for my timely demise and that he was also the one who had instructed a subordinate to rehire me after sixty days. 

It had already been six months, a long but revealing six months.

The meeting in Rapid City and my conversation with this gentleman from the Canadian Pacific had been more productive than any of the review boards. Our exchange ended with a job offer and a place with the CP to ensure I was able to be part of the new owner's initial hiring group. Leaving the meeting that day, I knew I was the only one responsible for my advancement and demise and it was always in my hands.

Through my sharing of my utopian railroad, I found myself soon being interviewed for a company I had merely dreamed up. I spent my days looking out the locomotive window not thinking about what a beautiful view but that I owned that view. 

I had already signed up, passed all the tests, and interviews to remain a locomotive engineer on the 10 mph track. It was after a long 12-hour day I received a call from my local manager. His message was clear: if I still wanted a chance at a management position, the guy to decide would be at my terminal in thirty minutes.

My six long months had found me building my own confidence. Renewing myself and restoring faith in my own abilities. I had dreamed of a railroad with the very qualities the new owners already possessed. Here was my chance, after my dreaming, to step towards that dream. Was this really happening? Yes and that interview was in thirty minutes.

I had spent a week, while I was off, creating this railroad. It was to have a round logo with orange, black, white, and yellow. I had used an antelope as the focal point and created a mission statement to be the most reliable and customer friendly railroad in the country. I knew my company would not sell off any parts of it, viewed as a growing empire. The management would be local to give the best customer service. It would be the example by which others designed themselves. I would be the new face of railroading as I placed myself as the top figurehead.

As I pulled up to the depot, I was met by two smiling men in casual attire. One was our new general manager who was to commence the interview, the other, a gentleman specializing in the computer software the company was about to implement. My heart was calm. 

The last six months had revealed the Universe appreciates speed and I jumped at the chance. The interview was smooth and I was offered a new position within what was to become the newest railroad in the United States in June of 2014.

A year to the date of my termination, I found myself on a plane from Jacksonville, Florida. I was returning from the training center at the expense of the company. I was a new trainmaster and this company proved their belief in my potential. 

It was on that day, August 28, 2014, I cried again. This company edified all I had dreamed. Here it was in shining glory. The colors, the company purpose, the growth potential all by an established company I had never heard of.

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