The Oddest Couple

He was thin, she was fat. He was passive, she was pushy. He's alive, she's dead.

But their relationship didn't sit well with Mike's family. "She had the right key at the right time to completely dominate his life," says Richard Wade. "The only people he was allowed to see were people she knew and liked."

"She was dishonest," says Elaine. "I felt she used Mike, in every sense that a man and woman can use and be used by one another."

According to Richard Wade, after Sonia moved in with Mike, he paid the bills for his trailer and for hers. Meanwhile, "she was taking her checks to buy raw diamonds and put money in the bank." Wade adds that he once snooped through some of Sonia's documents and discovered that she had $31,000 in her savings account.

Sonia certainly was financially savvy, and Mary Rachetts, chair of the local branch of the transportation union, estimates that Sonia and Mike earned almost $100,000 a year. "Money was her god," says co-worker Elenor Kohler. "Sonia was not a giver."

But if Mike was bothered by this, he kept it to himself. Marriage was a far-off thought. "To us, we were married," Mike says. And the couple didn't want any kids: "She was too big; we didn't think it was good."

Mike used to be heavy himself, but before the accident he had lost eighty pounds and was "pumped up, in really, really good shape," says Rachetts. "He'd go and work out every day after work."

That's probably what saved his life.

On February 14, 1990, Sonia was running three light engines west toward the roundhouse to be serviced. She was stationed in the trailing engine, riding in the cab on the left-hand side. Mike was standing on the steps of the lead engine, leaning off the grab irons on the right. It was noon. It was cold out, and snow had started to fall.

The curve where the two trains met is deceptive, and gauging clearance was difficult. Mike thought things were fine, and he leaned out to signal Sonia around the curve.

The first engines passed each other. The grab irons on the sides of the engines barely missed each other--by no more than six inches, says Wade.

"I thought I was in the clear," Mike says. He had only a few seconds to react when he realized that the trains were too close. The first engine on the stationary train "cleared the lead, didn't clear me," he says. "I was riding on the steps. I thought we had plenty of room to get by. I tried to return up the steps and fell off the engine."

A bolt holding the grab iron on the other engine hit him in the head. Then the grab iron itself hit him in the chest and spun him around. For a few seconds his body was rolled between the two consists. The tracks veered apart, and he fell to the ground.

The ambulance took him into Alliance, where one of his lungs collapsed. Doctors put Mike into a coma, and his memories are hazy. What he does know is this: "We shouldn't have been out there when we was, but we was."

The chopper stationed at the trauma center in Scottsbluff, one hour away, was grounded because of the weather. But a railroad worker offered to drive Mike to Scottsbluff, despite the dicey weather. After they got there, Mike's other lung collapsed. A priest was summoned to administer the last rites.

"They were pumping quarts of blood through me as fast as can be, like there was a hole in me," Mike says. His head was badly swollen. He caught a case of pneumonia that almost killed him. His kidneys threatened to fail. "They told Sonia that any little thing that happens, he's a goner," he remembers.

Few colleagues from the railyard visited. Friends say that Sonia's daughter, Tonia, never stopped by. Mike's father, Lloyd, came to visit from Tennessee, but the Grainger family's bad luck held: Lloyd had to be hospitalized for gallbladder surgery while he was there.

Sonia kept Mike going. "She told me she'd sing for me the whole time--'Hold On,' by Wilson Phillips," Mike says. "Every night in the ICU, every night she'd pat my hand...'Hold on, one more day,' she'd sing. She sang every day."

"If it wasn't for her, he'd have never made it," Rachetts says.
Mike thrashed around so much in his coma that doctors tied him down. Richard Wade says his brother-in-law was confused, disoriented and upset when he finally woke up. "He looked at me with those pitiful dog eyes and said, 'Untie me,'" he recalls. "So later that afternoon they took them off."

But after Mike emerged from his coma, cracks began to show in his even-tempered demeanor. "If you rattled him, he'd want to swear and say things he didn't mean," Rachetts says. Doctors put Mike "in a room on the fifth floor, strapped him down, made him very angry," Rachetts adds. "It was real difficult--he'd lost so much weight, he was so angry. He'd try to pull away from the bed. They had a terrible time getting him to eat."

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