WHEN THE unthinkable happened, Bob Neugebauer learned what kind of man he is. In March, he was laid off from his job. Five days later, he started work somewhere else, thanks to careful planning.
"I wouldn't be much of a husband or father if I curled up in a ball and died," says Neugebauer. "It may not be exactly the job I thought I would have, but nobody said life would be easy."
Neugebauer had worked for Eastern Airlines for 24 years as a station agent before the company ceased operations early this year. Unemployed, and with a family to support, Neugebauer vowed never to be laid off again. He took a job as a guard at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup for $21,000, about two-thirds of his previous salary. To Neugebauer, 49, the job provides maximum security. "Airlines come and go," he says, "but there will always be prisoners."
His new job allows Neugebauer to keep his custom-built home, a four-bedroom rancher on three wooded acres in Sykesville. The house, situated on a quiet, leafy back road, overlooks pastoral Piney Run Lake in southern Carroll County. It is, he says, the perfect place to raise his two children.
"I didn't particularly want to lose the house," he says.
Neugebauer was paid $30,000 a year at Eastern. His wife, Karen, receives $19,000 as a teacher's aide in Baltimore County.
They met via the airline, where Karen was a flight attendant.
Neugebauer kept his Eastern memorabilia, accumulated over nearly a quarter-century of service: framed Eastern travel posters, drinking glasses and caps bearing the Eastern emblem.
"I still find it difficult to believe that Eastern is gone," he says. "It's almost like a bad dream."
Yet there was a sense of relief when the ax fell, he says.
"I felt a burden had been lifted off me," says Neugebauer. "I wasn't glad that it happened, but I was glad it was over with. I had to get on with my life."
Neugebauer started with Eastern in 1966 after leaving the Navy, where he served as an aircraft mechanic on a carrier stationed off the coast of Vietnam.
The Eastern job "was good while it lasted," he says. "It gave us travel benefits and a roof over our heads."
To protect that roof, Neugebauer began sniffing around the jomarket long before the airline's demise.
The company's troubles were no secret. Eastern's white-collar workers had made numerous concessions during the previous five years, including a 20 percent pay cut and reduced vacation time. Moreover, Neugebauer and others endured a five-month layoff during a strike in 1989.
"When the company is in a tailspin and can't pull out, that's a total lost feeling," he says.
Seven months before his layoff, Neugebauer passed a state test to become a correctional officer.
To Neugebauer, the plan made perfect sense.
"Not many people are lined up for these jobs, and there are no layoffs," he says. "There is room for advancement; I'm not always going to be turning keys. The retirement benefits are better, and with overtime, in a few years I can make more money than I did at Eastern."
Though he anticipated Eastern's closing, Neugebauer says it still came as a shock. From his post at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, he watched the last passenger plane leave for Atlanta after nightfall.
"I couldn't believe it was happening," he says. "I tried to prepare for it, financially and mentally, but it was still a rude awakening. I felt rejected, disappointed. We all walked around just looking at each other. We drank a few beers and said, 'This is history.' "
Except he couldn't kick the doldrums. "It's very draining, like being in mourning," he says. "My mind wouldn't let me get a good night's rest. I'd lie in bed and think, 'How am I going to pay the bills?'
"I know I wouldn't want to go through it again."
Five days after leaving Eastern, Neugebauer began his on-the-job training as a guard at the Maryland House of Correction at Jessup. He never considered applying for unemployment benefits.
"Kids need role models," he says of his children. "It's important they see you try to adapt, to take things in stride."
Though he's one of the older guards at the facility, Neugebauer says he can handle the job.
"Going into [the House of Correction] for the first time is a whole new ballgame," he says. "You're very apprehensive, very alert. I'm starting at the bottom and working up. I had to jump in with both feet and pay my dues."
Eventually, he hopes to be transferred to another correctional facility, the Central Laundry Pre-Release Unit in Sykesville, less than two miles from his home.
The decline in income has, for now, placed the Neugebauers in a financial pinch.
"We are biting into our savings," he concedes. "But we're trying not to touch the money we put aside for college and retirement.