In 1973, America was in a state of flux. A cease-fire was declared in Vietnam, and exhausted troops were on their way home. The World Trade Center opened in Manhattan. Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd had just been released, and the Watergate Scandal was sweeping the nation.
That same year, in a tiny corner of West Texas, 19-year-old Christene Gonzales watched the sweltering days of another El Paso summer creep in to her quiet desert town and settle like a dust cloud. Like many teenagers fresh out of high school, she was taking classes at her local university, yet was at a loss with what to do with herself.
One afternoon she sat with her mother in the local restaurant – a hot spot for those employed at the railroad – pondering her future. Gonzales’ mother planted the seed of going to work for the railroad. Initially, she suggested that her daughter become a locomotive fireman.
Even though Gonzales’ bloodline was thick with railroader heritage extending back several generations, she was “completely clueless” about train operations. When the discussion veered toward the possibility of becoming a locomotive engineer, Gonzales thought, “What the heck!”
She applied, interviewed (during the course of which she was asked some unusual questions, including whether she could explain the principles of a pulley system) and was hired. Her training began in May of 1973 and finished in early 1974.
Gonzales’ first day on the job was quickly approaching. She remained calm and collected, unaware of the rest of the world’s fascination with what was about to take place. Unbeknownst to her, Gonzales was about to become the first female locomotive engineer for the Santa Fe Railway. Her mother asked if she minded the media being present for her first day.
“I’m amazed at how naïve I was. I remember seeing my mom and dad and grandparents, who had driven up to see me take off for the first time! I couldn’t comprehend why it was such a big deal,” she recalled.
Best foot forward
Christene Gonzales’ career was off and rolling, literally. Her first assignment was in Socorro, N.M.
“I always tried to put my best foot forward. I had a lot to learn. I had to study hard and pay attention. You had to be on top of your game at all times,” says Gonzales.
Working for the railroad became something of a passion for her, and it also brought Robert Aldeis into her life. He was a conductor/brakeman also working in El Paso. In 1980, they were married, and the birth of their daughter, Desiree, became the catalyst that would inspire Gonzales (now Aldeis) to seek a life beyond the front end of a locomotive.
“The restroom situation was not ideal,” she says. “Men had locker rooms and bathrooms. I had morning sickness and no bathroom!” Christene Aldeis requested a leave of absence. “I thought the world revolved around running trains. I didn’t know there were other roads open.”
After the birth of her second daughter, Ashley, in 1985, Aldeis was growing impatient. She had returned to railroading but yearned to be what she describes as “mother of the year.” She took a second brief sabbatical. Around this time, the Santa Fe Railway developed a reserve board, not unlike the U.S. Military’s Reserves, due to the surplus of firemen. Employees were chosen in accordance with seniority and placed on reserve. They were on call, at the railroad’s discretion, and still received a regular paycheck. The situation was perfect for Aldeis and her growing family. She continued serving the railroad from a reservist’s perch while doing things that “moms do” for the next few years.
Once her girls were off to school, it was time for Aldeis to yet again find something to do with herself. Over the years, she developed a passion and fascination for railroad safety. She remembers looking out the window of her locomotive at the pedestrians below and occasionally questioning the reasoning behind their behavior – placing things on or walking aimlessly on the tracks. She was and is a staunch believer in railroad education.
Operation Lifesaver Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to the elimination of railroad-related collisions and fatalities through education and awareness, was just the place for to expand her horizons once more. She volunteered for the first time in 1989.
Then, in 1995, the BNSF merger occurred, and not long after, in 1997, Aldeis applied for and became a field safety support manager. She was later promoted to regional manager, Field Safety Support.
Aldeis continued to reside and work in her hometown of El Paso, where she led safety classes for industrial truck and school bus drivers and reviewed private crossings that were redundant or had alternate access as part of BNSF’s crossing-closure program. She also presented Operation Lifesaver workshops to law enforcement agencies, emergency responders and other organizations.
Her life today is a culmination of passion and dedication. The career path she chose was often the road less traveled. Through hard work and determination, she is proud to say she worked for the railroad in one fashion or another for over 35 years.
“It was certainly something, to take off on that train with everyone watching you and knowing you did it,” she recalls. “And knowing your hard work was starting to pay off.”
Christene Aldeis retired from BNSF in 2012.