Poison Pill For Power Plant Pigeons — Repost

Originally Posted on November 24, 2012:

Pigeons were considered a nuisance at the Coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma.  They left their droppings in the most unfortunate locations.  Invariably, you would reach up to grab a rung on a ladder only to feel the cool squishiness of new fallen droppings. The Power Plant Men had a conflict when it came to pigeons.  Most of the plant grounds are designated as a wildlife preserve and the electric company wanted to maintain a general acceptance of wildlife around the immediate plant as much as feasible.  The pigeons, however, seem to have been taking advantage of the free rent space supplied by the boiler structures.

One Power Plant Pigeon

It was decided early on that we couldn’t poison the pigeons for various reasons.  The main reason was that other non-pigeon entities may find themselves poisoned as well.  Other birds may eat the poison, and other animals may eat the dead pigeons causing a poison pill that would work its way up the food chain.

It was decided that the plant would use live traps to catch the pigeons and then the trapped pigeons would be properly disposed of in an efficient and useful method.  That is, all the live pigeons were given to a very thin eldery welder named ET.  ET wasn’t his real name.  I believe he received this name because he reminded you of ET from the movie.

ET

Especially when he wasn’t wearing his teeth.  ET was a small older African American man that you just couldn’t help falling in love with the first time you met him.  He always wore a smile.  He was lovable. He would take the pigeons home and eat them.

I realized what a great honor and responsibility it was when I was appointed by Larry Riley when I was on the labor crew to maintain the Pigeon live traps.  To me, it was a dream job.  What could be better on labor crew than going around the plant each day to check the five live traps we had at the time to see if we had trapped any pigeons.

Pigeon Live Trap

This is a picture of a live trap for pigeons.  You sprinkled some corn in the front of the live trap, and you poured corn inside the live trap to entice the pigeons to enter the trap.  Once in, they couldn’t get out.

Unbeknownst (I just had to use that word… Un-be-knownst…  I’ve said it a few times in my life, but have never had the occasion to actually use it when writing) anyway….. Unbeknownst to Larry Riley and the rest of the Power Plant Kingdom, a year and a half before I was appointed as the “Pigeon Trapper of the Power Plant Realm”, I had actually performed experiments with pigeons.

Ok.  It is time for a side story:

One person that may have the occasion to read the Power Plant Man Posts, Caryn Lile (now Caryn Iber), who has been a good friend of mind since the second grade, actually was on my team of college students in my Animal Learning class in our senior year in college at the University of Missouri in Columbia.  We had devised an experiment to test if we could teach pigeons to cooperate with each other.

My personal ultimate goal in the experiment (though I didn’t tell anyone) was to see if we could tell if pigeons actually cared for each other.  The premise for the experiment was to create a situation where a pigeon would peck a button  that would feed another pigeon in a nearby cage.  The pigeon in the other cage could peck their button to feed the other pigeon. Caryn and I attempted various variations (is that redundant?) on our experiment to set up a situation where the pigeon would have to watch the other pigeon peck the button before they could eat, and visa-versa, but we never  really reached our goal.

The pigeons would always figure out that all they had to do was both go wildly peck their buttons and both were fed. Our professor at the time was Dr. Anger.  How is that for the name of a Psychology professor?  Perfect!  — I have said in previous posts that the head janitor at the power plant reminded me of Red Skelton, but Dr. Anger sounded just like Red Skelton.  Just like him!

Dr. Anger had the voice of Red Skelton

The first couple of weeks in Dr. Angers class, I found myself confused with his terminology.  He used words that were not readily available in the old Red 1960 Webster’s Dictionary that I kept in my dorm room.  I finally figured out the secret code he was using and the rest of the semester I understood his every word.  This gave me a leg up in his class.

There were some words that Dr. Anger would use a lot.  There were various drugs that he would talk about that caused different kinds of changes in learning patterns.  The ones that he was most enamored with at the time were “Scopalamine”, “Dopamine” and “Norepinephrine” (pronounced Nor-rep-pin-efrin).  I know these words well to this day because I still wake up in the middle of the night with a silent scream saying, “Scopalamine!!!” (prounounced “Sco-pall-a-meen”).

Caryn and I had discussed my obsession with Dr. Anger and my desire to hear him say the word “Scopalamine”.  He said it in such a comical “Red Skelton Way” where his tongue was a little more involved in forming the words than a normal person, that just made a chill run up my spine.

I had noticed that Dr. Anger hadn’t used the word for a few weeks in class, and I just wanted to hear him say it one more time.  So I devised different conversations with Dr. Anger to try to get him to mention the word “Scopalamine”. I asked Dr. Anger once if I could talk to him for a few minutes to ask him some questions.

I figured I could trick him into saying “Scopalamine” at least once before I graduated from college in order for the rest of my life to be complete. I remember telling Dr. Anger that I was interested in testing pigeons using different kinds of drugs to see how the drugs affected their learning abilities and what drugs would he suggest….  Of course, being the dumb college student that I was, as soon as I had spit out the question I realized how stupid it sounded.

Dr. Anger gave me a look like…. “Ok…. I know where this is going…. you just want to get your hands on drugs”…. Geez.  I thought immediately when I saw the expression on his face, “Oh gee whiz.  He thinks I’m asking this so that I can get my hands on some drugs….”

It didn’t bother me… because all I needed was for him to say “Scopalmine” once and the next 60 years of my life will have been fulfilled.  So, I stayed with it.  Unfortunately, there was no mention of “Scopalamine”.  I left the meeting unfulfilled.

During our experiment, there came a time when we needed an extra pigeon.  The only one available was one that  Caryn Lile had tried to train during the first lab.  Her team (which I was not on) during that experiment had this pigeon that did nothing but sit there.  It never moved and never pecked the button. They would place it in the cage and try to get it to peck a button, but it just never understood that in order to make all those humans standing around smile, all he had to do was go to the button on the wall and peck it.

When I told Caryn that we needed to use that pigeon for our experiment she became slightly annoyed because they had spent weeks trying to teach this pigeon to peck a button.  It was the only one left.  We had to use their “bum” pigeon. She retrieved the pigeon from it’s cage in a two quart plastic pitcher (pigeons had a natural reflex which caused them to climb into a two quart pitcher automatically once you place it over their head and were glad to be held upside down as you carried them around).

She placed it in the cage and left to go back to make sure she had closed the cage in the other room. This gave me a few moments alone with the pigeon.  I went to work to teach the pigeon to peck the button.  I knew this pigeon had caused Caryn trouble, so I went straight to “Stage 3 Therapy”.  I turned on a white light on the button and turned on a cross on the button as well, I waited a second, and then lifted the feeding tray. The tray stayed up for the regular 3 seconds.  By the time the pigeon had looked up from gorging on grain, I had turned off the cross (or plus sign).

I waited a few seconds and turned the cross back on again… a couple of seconds later, I lifted the feeding tray and the pigeon went straight to eating.  The cross was off again when the tray dropped. The third time was the charm.  After watching the cross turn on, the pigeon went straight to pecking the grain in the tray, I knew at that point that I had him.

He was mine.  The Manchurian Pigeon was all mine!  Then I performed the clincher move on the pigeon.  I turned on the cross on the white lit button but I didn’t lift the food tray. “What?”  I could see the pigeon think…  “The cross is on!  Where is the food?!?!  Hey button!  What’s up?” —  PECK!  The pigeon pecked the button.  Up went the food tray…. the food tray went back down… the pigeon pecked the button — up went the food tray…. etc.

Caryn walked back in the room and here was a pigeon pecking away at the button and eating away at the grain in the food tray.  She asked me what happened to her pigeon.  I smiled at her innocently and I said, “That IS your pigeon.” “No Way!  This couldn’t be my pigeon!  We spent weeks trying to teach this pigeon to peck that button!  We came out on weekends!  We even taped pieces of grain on the button to try to get the pigeon to peck the button, but it never would.”  I could see the tears in her eyes welling up from thinking about the useless hours spent on something that only took me moments.

You see…  I felt like I had a personal relationship with the pigeons.  I understood them.  The pigeons and I were one….  — yeah, right….. my faith in my abilities as “Pigeon Whisperer” was about to be tested. Anyway, the last day of our Animal Learning class consisted of our team sitting down with our professor in a meeting room to present our findings.

I explained to Dr. Anger that even though our experiments were successful, we didn’t show that the pigeons could actually cooperate with each other to keep both of them fed. I ended our meeting by saying to Dr. Anger that when we began our course, he had talked about different drugs and how they had different affects on learning.  He had that suspicious look on his face again.

I went on explaining that he especially had talked about the drug “Scopalimine” many times.  My teammates all looked at me as if they were saying to me, “No!  Don’t!  Don’t say it!!! I did anyway.  I told Dr. Anger, “There is something about the way that you say ‘Scopalamine’ that I really adore.  I have tried to trick you into saying it for the past couple of months, but nothing has worked.  Before we leave, would it be possible to hear you say ‘Scopalamine’ just one more time?” Dr. Anger looked around at my other teammates who were all about to pass out as they were all holding their breath.  Then he looked right at me and said, “Scopalamine!  Scopalamine!  Scopalamine!” Caryn couldn’t contain it anymore.  She broke out in a nervous laughing jag.  The other girl on our team, just sat their stunned that I would risk receiving a bad grade on such an important thesis.  Dr. Anger and I both had a look of total satisfaction.  I politely said, “Thank you”.  My life since then has been “complete” knowing that the last word I have heard from Dr. Anger was “Scopalamine”. Ok.  End of the long side story.

I told this story so that you would understand why I was eager to become the pigeon trapper of the Power Plant Realm.  Pigeons and I were one….  Who could be a better pigeon trapper than me?  I knew their every thoughts…. So, since I already told the long side story… I’ll try to keep the rest of the story shorter…. (I hope)

I was a decent pigeon trapper.  I captured a couple of pigeons each day.  I carefully put pieces of corn in a row up the the entrance of the trap where I had a small pile of corn inside to entice them to enter their last welfare apartment. Unfortunately, word had gotten out that the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was the perfect spa for pigeons.  Carrier Pigeons had been sent out globally alerting pigeons as far as Rome that this Power Plant had more roosts than the Vatican!  Just avoid the one dumb Labor Crew hand that had a few live traps set out…..  Before long… This is what our plant looked like:

Typical Power Plant Pigeon Convention

Around this time I had been sent to torment Ed Shiever in the Sand Filter Tank (see the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space by a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“) and the job of managing the Power Plant Pigeon Live Traps fell to Jody Morse. Jody was a janitor with Ed Shiever and joined the labor crew just before Ed.  He had worked in the warehouse before becoming a company employee.

He liked to ramble as I did, but unlike myself, he was truly a real Power Plant Man. I remember leaving the confines of the Sand filter tank to return for lunch at the Labor Crew building in the coal yard only to hear that Jody Morse had caught 10 or 12 pigeons in one day.  What?  I could only catch one or two!  How could Jody be catching 10 or 12?

This is when I realized the full meaning of the Aesop’s Fable:  “The Wind and the Sun”. Ok. I know this post is longer than most.  I apologize.  I originally thought this would be short….  But here is another side story.

Here is the Aesop’s Fable, “The Wind and the Sun”:

“The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveler coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveler to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveler  But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveler wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveler  who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.”

Isn’t it a great story?  Persuasion instead of force.  This is what Jody had figured out with the pigeons.  He had them lining up to go into the pigeon traps until they couldn’t fit any more.  He had poured a heap of corn inside the trap and another heap of corn in front of the trap. I bow to Jody for his genius.

My arrogance had blinded me.  My belief in my past experience had kept me from seeing the reality that was before me.  I resolved from that time to live up to the expectations of my Animal Learning Professor Dr. Anger who had blessed me in May 1982 with words, “Scopalamine!  Scopalamine! Scopalamine!”  Aesop had the final lesson from our pigeon experiment.  “Persuasion is much more effective than force.”

Power Plant Pigeons Wars Continue

Power Plant Pigeons actually believe that the entire reason Power Plants were built in the first place was to provide new rent-free Pigeon roosts for Power Plant Pigeons.  Large lakes are placed alongside the Power Plant so that the pigeons can spend their days frolicking away in the immense Pigeon Bird bath supplied by the electric company.  Fields of grain are planted throughout the power plant realm in order to provide a nutritional diet to Power Plant Pigeons.  Even men with bright yellow hardhats are supplied for pigeons to fly over and target practice their Power Plant Pigeon Poop dropping skills by aiming at the bright hardhat dots below.

One Power Plant Pigeon

One Power Plant Pigeon

I wrote about the pursuit to remove Power Plant Pigeons from the Power Plant Realm two years ago when I wrote the post “Poison Pill for Power Plant Pigeons“.  In that post I explained how we had put out live traps to capture Power Plant Pigeons by the use of live traps.  Jody Morse taught me that it was better to persuade than to try to force the pigeons into the live traps.

After I joined the electric shop, we came up with a few other ways to rid the area of pigeons.  This was more of a personal crusade, since I spent a lot of time working on the roof of the precipitator, which was a favorite haunt of Power Plant pigeons.  I had spent a lot of time with a broom sweeping up the Power Plant Pigeon leavings only to come back a few weeks later to find the entire area redecorated with artistic renditions of Salvadore Dali paintings of melting clocks.

See the resemblance?

See the resemblance?

One day when when Bill Bennett strolled into the electric shop…. well… “Strutted” is a better word to describe Bill Bennett’s type of strolling.  Bill was a skinnier version of a skinny Bill Cosby… for those of you who have not heard me mention him before….

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Anyway, Bill strutted into the electric shop carrying a box one day and brought it into the office.  He told me that he had ordered some equipment that was going to help me out on the precipitator roof with the pigeons.  He pulled a smaller box out of the big box and handed it to me.  It was a highly technical piece of equipment known as a Sonic Bird Repeller:

 

Sonic Bird Repeller

Sonic Bird Repeller

Bill had bought 8 of these.  Four for each precipitator.  They were guaranteed to keep the pigeons away.  Evidently they make a high pitched noise that you can’t hear, but the pigeons can and it annoys the heck out of them.  I thanked Bill for thinking about me..  I think I was so touched by his concern that I gave him a hug…. or… maybe that was for some other reason…. it’s been a while.  This was some time around 1989.

Anyway.  I took four of the boxes and headed for the precipitator roof to try them out.  On the way there I as I was thinking about the noise that these four bird repellers were going to make, I hoped that the birds were going to be able to hear the annoying sound emanating from the little speakers over the incredibly loud noises of vibrators buzzing constantly and the 672 rappers all banging away as 20 pound slugs of metal pounded their anvils in order to shake the ash from the plates inside the precipitator.

You see, the roof of the precipitator is one of the noisiest places on the Power Plant Planet next to all the steam lines pushing thousands of pounds of pressure of steam through them, or next to the large fans blowing air into and out of the boiler.  — Actually, the plant was a noisy place in general… so I just hoped that the bird repellers were going to be successful in their attempt to annoy the pigeons with their imperceptible buzzing noise, or whatever noise they made.

When I arrived on the roof, I placed the 4 sonic bird repellers in the four strategic positions on the roof in order to cover the widest area possible…. that is, toward the four corners where the four plug-ins were mounted on the coffin houses.  It was thoughtful of the construction hands to have placed those four receptacles just where I wanted to plug in the four sonic bird repellers ten years later.

I tried to see if I could hear anything when I turned them on, but I didn’t hear anything.  I figured that was a good thing since I wasn’t supposed to hear anything according to the instructions.  So, at least they passed the first test.  They didn’t interrupt the melodic symphony of rappers and vibrators as they beat and buzzed out their rendition of Brandenburg’s Concerto #3…. well, that’s what I liked to pretend anyway, since I had to spend hours at a time listening to them as I tested and adjusted rappers and vibrators as part of my normal Precipitator Roof Maintenance program.

I thought I would hang around for a while and do some adjustments on the rapper/vibrator cabinets while the pigeons all fled the scene in order to escape the atrocious sonic repellent rhapsody emanating from those four tyrannical jukeboxes I had just placed on the roof.  Glancing over my shoulder from time to time, I kept a watch on Fred and Mabel that were perched on one of the side beams not too far one of the Sonic Sound Machines.  They seemed to be more interested in what I was doing than being annoyed by the new song in town.

I could have swore that after a half hour or so, those two pigeons had developed a new way of bobbing their heads as they hid from me.  It was normal for the pigeons to climb along the beams overhead and periodically peak over the edge to see what I was up to.  I didn’t mind too much when their little heads were peering over the side, it was only when their tails waved over the side that I became attentive.  That was always a bad sign.  They did it so nonchalantly as if they were just trying to turn around on that narrow beam so they could head back in the other direction, but I knew better.

We kept the Sonic Repellers on the roof for about eight months.  I never really noticed a decrease in the pigeon population, but I do think a few operators changed their routine hangout to some other part of the boiler.  Even Glenn Morgan stopped hanging out around the transformers where he used to go hide when he was trying to “meditate” somewhere where he wouldn’t be disturbed.

I finally figured out that even though I couldn’t hear the sonic bird repellers they would give me a headache.  I don’t normally have headaches, so when I do, I know something out of the ordinary is happening…. such as I am being poisoned by Carbon Monoxide, or Curtis Love is telling me how sorry he is that he almost killed me again, or in this case…. I am working for a long period of time in the vicinity of one of the sonic bird repellers. After I figured that out, I would turn them off when I was working around them and my headaches would cease.

I suspected that when we were not on the precipitator roof, the smarter bunch of Power Plant Pigeons probably re-calibrated the repellers so that they would cause headaches in humans, so the pesky humans would leave the pigeons in peace.  They weren’t smart enough to figure out that all I had to do was unplug them temporarily.  So their backup plan was to drop special packages on my shoulder while I was working under tail causing me to forget to plug the sonic repellers back on when I left in a hurry to go wash up.

One Power Plant Pigeon

One of the more intelligent Power Plant Pigeons

After the failed and back-fired experiment with the Sonic Bird Repellers, Bill Bennett had another course of action up his sleeve.  He had contacted someone that was known as “The Bird Lady”.  She had her own company where she would go around and persuade pigeons (and other birds) to leave their roosts using another unconventional means that was deemed “less cruel” than feeding them to the welder ET who had moved to Muskogee anyway, and outright poisoning them (which was against company policy).

Her approach was to give them something more like “food poisoning” without killing them.  After first meeting her in Bill Bennett’s office, I followed her to her car in the parking lot.  She opened her trunk and took a bucket and filled it with grain from a larger tub.  then she took some kind of powder and poured it in the bucket.  Then she stirred the bucket of grain until the powder had worked its way throughout the grain.  She was wearing the same kind of gloves you would wear if you were doing dishes and didn’t want to get dishpan hands.

Like this except she only had two hands

Like this except she only had two hands

She explained that the powder contained her special mixture of cayenne peppers and other spices that would upset even the most hardened pigeon gizzard in the Power Plant Kingdom.  After they ate her grain, they would decide that the food around this establishment just isn’t up to code and they will fly away to find “greener pastures”.

I took her to the top of the precipitator and she poured some piles of grain not far from where I had tried the sonic bird repellers a couple of years earlier.  She didn’t want to place the grain out in the open where the regular songbirds and other flying beasties may eat it.

She came to the plant once each month for about 3 months, and that was about it.  The pigeons didn’t seem to like the grain that much, so they left it alone for the most part, except when they were in the mood for Mexican.

The third and final way that we tried Power Plant Pigeon Population Control was by the use of Pellet Guns.  Scott Hubbard and I were working on the precipitator roof during an overhaul and the pigeons were being extra pesky.  They would pick up twigs and small rocks and stuff and would drop them on our heads in an attempt to chase us away.  So, we decided to retaliate.  After all, one can only take so much abuse.

So, the next day, we brought our pellet guns from home to work with us and clandestinely carried them to the precipitator roof where we could shoot the birds that were pestering us.  I killed on with my first shot which really impressed Scott Hubbard, since I had never mentioned in all the years we carpooled together that I was a hunter (which I wasn’t).  That was just beginner’s luck.  Scott killed a few more pigeons that day, but not that many when you get down to it.

Daisy Pellet Rifle

Daisy Pellet Rifle

It didn’t take long for the pigeons to realize what we were up to, so they would just stay hidden on the beams over our heads.  This didn’t give us the opportunity to just take pot shots at them, and since we didn’t have all day to just stand around and wait for their little heads to peer over the side, and since their tails didn’t really contain any “shootable” material, we just left them alone for the most part.

So, we finally decided to do the next best thing than to try to run the pigeons off or kill them.  We decided to live with them.  I had a few discussions with some of their leaders about where they should NOT poop and I agreed that I would stop calling them names like “Poop Head” hence the names “Fred” and “Mabel”.  And after that we sort of got along a lot better.  This was a new skill I had learned after I realized that I had to do the same thing for a couple of upper management people at the plant.  If I could do it with them, certainly I could learn to get along with a group of Power Plant Pigeons.

I could end this story by saying that we lived happily ever after and maybe we did.  I will share a story about what happened once when the pigeons decided to just pack up and leave one day.  I can tell you.  The result was not pretty.  But that is a story for next year (which is only a little more than a month away).

Power Plant Blackbirds and Smokestack Jumpers — Repost

Originally posted November 16, 2013:

Most of us have watched the Alfred Hitchcock Thriller “The Birds” at least once in their life.  When I was young it used to come on TV around Thanksgiving about the same time that Wizard of Oz would rerun.  What a mix of movies to watch after eating turkey in one of our Italian relative’s house in Kansas City as I was growing up.  During those years of sitting passively by watching the birds gang up on the humans, it never occurred to me that some day I might take part in my own private version of “Blackbird Wars” amid the playground equipment found in a typical Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

Blackbirds in Alfred Hitchcock's "Birds"

Blackbirds in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Birds”

A tale like this is best starts out with the line, “It was a cold and windy night…”  That was close.  My story begins with, “It was a dark and cold winter morning…”  Unit 1 was on overhaul.  That meant that it was offline while we climbed inside the inner workings of the boiler, precipitator, Turbine and Generator in order to perform routine yearly maintenance.  Being on overhaul also meant that we came to work earlier in the morning and we left later in the evening.  Since it was in the middle of the winter, it also meant that we came to work in the dark, and we left for home in the dark….  These were dark times at the Power Plant for those of us on long shifts.

At this time in my career I was working on Unit 1 precipitator by myself.  I  had my own agenda on what needed to be done.  Sometimes I would have contractors working with me, but for some reason, we had decided that we didn’t need them for this overhaul.  Maybe because it was an extra long one and I would have plenty of time to complete my work before it was over.

I can remember grabbing my tool bucket and heading for the precipitator roof to begin my day of calibrating vibrators and checking rappers to make sure they were operating correctly.  I was wearing my winter coat over my coveralls because it was cold outside.  In Oklahoma, 20 degrees was pretty cold.  20 degrees in Oklahoma with 30 mile an hour winds gives you a pretty low wind chill….  which chills you to the bone.

I had a red stocking liner on my hardhat that wrapped around my forehead that kept my head warm.

A red hardhat liner like the one I was wearing

A red hardhat liner like the one I was wearing

All bundled up, I left the shop through the Turbine Room basement and headed toward the breezeway between Unit 1 and 2.  I climbed the stairs up the Surge Bin Tower until I had reached the landing where you can go to either Unit 1 or 2 precipitator roofs.  Using rote memory after having performed this same task every morning for the past month and a half, I turned toward Unit 1.

The Precipitator is a big box that takes the ash out of the exhaust from boiler.  It drops the ash into hoppers where it is transported to the coalyard into large silos, where trucks haul it away to make concrete for roads and buildings.  The precipitator roof is full of large transformers (84 of them), 168 vibrators that shake the 29568 high voltage wires in the precipitator, and 672 rappers that bang on the 7560 metal plates.  The transformers are used to collect the ash using “static cling”.  The rappers and vibrators are used to knock the ash into the hoppers.

The Precipitator roof is a very noisy place when all the rappers and vibrators are running.  It is covered with a sheet metal roof.  It wasn’t originally designed that way, but someone with foresight thought that it would be a great idea to insulate the precipitator roof.  In doing so, they needed to add a roof to keep the insulation from being exposed to the weather.

It wasn’t noisy that morning as I reached the ladder and quickly tied my tool bucket to a rope hanging down from above.  It was dark, and lonely and quiet.  Well.  There were some lights, but this morning, the light from the precipitator didn’t seem to shine much as I pulled myself up the ladder.  When I reached the top I turned around and sat at the top of the ladder and began pulling my tool bucket up.

It was at that moment when I realized that something was much different than usual.  I had spent a couple of years working on the precipitator roof and inside and I had become friends with each of the transformers, and I even knew the unique sounds of each of the vibrators.  I could tell when a rapper wasn’t rapping correctly.  There would be a slight sucking sound as the rapper was drawn up into the cylinder…. There was a slight pause, then it would drop onto an anvil that was connected to the plate rack.  But this morning everything was turned off.  Yet, I could feel that there was something wrong.

There was a strange hum.  I was trying to place it as I grabbed each foot of rope and pulled my bucket closer.  There was more than a hum… There was a weird muffled sound all around.  I had a chill down my back as if I was being watched.  I quickly grabbed the handle of the bucket and stood up and turned around.  I was ready to spot whoever it was that was spying on me!

What I saw immediately sucked the breath out of me.  The precipitator is 200 feet wide and 120 feet long.  Every inch as far as I could see was black.  Not just the equipment, but the air itself.

During the night a cold wave had moved into Oklahoma from the north.  With it, it had brought a horde of blackbirds.  Thousands upon thousands of them.  They had found refuge from the cold blasting wind in the precipitator roof enclosure.  Safe and warm and undisturbed….. That is, until I arrived.

It was as if the blackbirds had discovered me at the same time I had found them.  They suddenly burst into a frenzy.

The Birds Movie Poster

More like The Birds Movie Poster

I stood there in wonder for a few moments watching the swirling mass of blackness obscuring what little light was given off by the 100 watt Mercury Vapor lights.  As I began to move toward the walkway the flying mass of feathers parted so that the birds kept a safe distance from me.  As I grabbed the rungs of the ladder, I suddenly realized why keeping an aviary at a Power Plant is not a good idea.  A warm moist gooey mass squished between my fingers as I pulled myself up the ladder and onto the walkway.

I took a few steps to where a package of WypAlls was laying on the walkway and pulled out a couple of heavy duty sheets of durable wiping material:

A package of an Important Power Plant Staple:  WypAlls!

A package of an Important Power Plant Staple: WypAlls!

I decided that I was going to try to chase the birds out of the shelter so I began waving a couple of rags around as I walked down the walkway.  All it did was cause the birds to bunch up in corners away from me.  They would circle back around behind me.  So, when I reached the other end of the roof, I climbed down to one of the rapper control cabinets and powered it up.

The rappers and vibrators began their music.  A medley of humming and clanking.  I went to each of the 14 cabinets on the roof turning on each of them until the entire roof had risen to a symphony of buzzing and banging.  Music to my ears.  After wiping down a few places where I needed to work, I spent some time testing and taking notes so that I could make adjustments in the control cabinet after I had made my way around each rapper and vibrator in that area.  Then I left for break.

The sun was now up and daylight was shining through the openings in the precipitator roof.  When I returned from break the hoard of blackbirds had decided to continue their journey south.

There was one time when I was working as an electrician at the Power Plant where I felt close to being a bird myself.  It was when I had to travel to the top of the 500 foot smoke stack to repair some equipment.  I was not only at the top of the smokestack, but I was literally sitting on the edge of it and shimming my way around it.

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

Why me?  Well.  Our A Foreman, Bill Bennett summed it up like this…. “Have Kevin do it.  He likes heights.”  Sure.  Just like he said I liked to get dirty, so put me in a coal bin to fix a proximity switch.  Or, just like he said that I liked climbing in holes in the ground, so I was assigned the job of fixing all the manhole pumps at the plant.  What could I say?  At some point, he was right.  I couldn’t argue with him.  Especially since he would call me a “scamp” with such endearment (See the post “Tales of a Tall Power Plant A Foreman“).

Well.  You learn something new every day when working at a power plant, and I sure learned something that day.  Quite a few things.  I already knew that inside the tall concrete smoke stack was another smoke stack made out of brick.  The outer stack would sway in the strong Oklahoma wind, while the brick stack inside would remain steady.  On a windy day, at the very top, the stack would sway as much as six inches.

On this particular day I rode on top of the stack elevator to the top so that I could climb up onto the rim where the lightning rods were placed about 6 feet apart around the top.

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks.  The boilers are half the height at 250 feet.

When the wind is blowing there is a certain amount of a difference in the electric potential at the top of the stack as there is on the ground, so you could hear a slight crackling sound around the lightning rods even though it was a clear sunny day.  I was wearing a safety belt and as I stopped to work, I would clip the lanyard to the closest lightning rod knowing full well that if I decided to jump off the stack, the lightning rod would just bend and the lanyard would just slide off the end.

I was not in any mood to do any jumping that day.  I was there to fix jumpers instead.  You see, there is a metal cap on the top rim of the smoke stack.  Actually, there is a metal rim on the top of both smoke stacks.  The concrete one and the brick stack inside the concrete stack.  And there was supposed to be a set of jumpers around the top of the stacks connecting the two metal caps together electrically.  This way, if perchance a bolt of lightning hit the inside stack, then the electricity would be routed to the outer rim and down the large grounding cables to the ground grid 500 feet below.

As I shimmied around the top of the stack, I became aware that as far as I could see… clear to the horizon, there wasn’t anything higher than me.  At first this threw me a little off balance, because I usually focused on other objects to help me keep my bearings.  In this case, only the other smoke stack was as high as me.  So, I focused on the rim where I was sitting and tried as hard as I could to ignore the fact that I was a tenth of a mile up in the air.

I removed the broken jumpers and replaced them with the new ones.  I didn’t think these new jumpers would last long considering that as the stack swayed back and forth, it would quickly wear the jumpers in to.  But, there was some regulation or something that said they had to be replaced, and so that was why I was there.

I noticed while I was working on the top of the stack that birds were flying around below me.  Actually, most of them were way below me.  Few birds would fly as high as the stacks, and they were usually the predatory types that liked to swoop down on unsuspecting pigeons below.  It felt a little odd to be working and looking down at birds flying when it is so normal to look up to see birds.  From up there, a large flock of birds like those in “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock didn’t look so intimidating.  They were nothing but small dots far below.

Alfred with his own smokestack and blackbird

Alfred with his own smokestack and blackbird

Comment from original post:

  1. Ron  November 16, 2013

    Great story!
    As I read this, it reminded me of the time (55 + years ago) I climbed the ladder with my “Royal Ambassador” leader into my church’s steeple. Then we pulled the “tool” up we had tied to the rope. Pigeons had chosen this location to raise their families. The inside of the steeple would become covered in pigeon poop and my help was requested to dispatch the birds (and clean up the steeple). The dispatching “tool” we used was a “Benjamin Pump” BB gun! We had a great time getting rid of the steeple poopers.

    Power plants are great places to make life-long memories. Thanks for posting yours!

Power Plant Carpooling Adventures With Grant Harned — Repost

Originally Posted on November 17, 2012:

Louise Gates seemed reluctant to approach me to ask if I wanted to make a donation for flowers for Grant Harned’s funeral.  Of course I did.  He was a good friend of mine.  We had many carpooling adventures before he left his job as the plant receptionist to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma where he died a little more than a year later in May 1984 in an automobile accident.

Thomas “Grant” Harned had obtained a degree in business from Oklahoma State University before accepting the job at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma.  He told me that he thought that once he had his foot in the door that he would be able to advance up the HR chain until he worked his way into a business department downtown at Corporate Headquarters.  Downtown is synonymous for Oklahoma City.

Like many struggling new Power Plant men such as Ed Shiever, Dale Hull and others, Thomas lived in a modest student rental apartment near campus.  Grant lived on West Miller Avenue just off of Main Street in Stillwater.  Soon after I had become a janitor and the summer helps I had been carpooling with had left, I began carpooling with Grant.

Grant was a tall thin man with sandy hair and a moustache that reminded me a lot of Gary McCain (also known as Stick).  I have a picture of him around here somewhere that I found many years after his death when we were cleaning out the office that Louise Gates (now Kalicki) had obtained upon becoming the supervisor over HR.  It is a picture of him sitting at the receptionist desk.

Louise gave me a picture of myself that had been taken when I was a janitor, and as I filed through the other pictures I found Grant’s photo.   I knew no one else at the plant would want the picture as few knew him or even remembered him by that time.  So I took it as well.  Some day when I find where I have placed those pictures, I will post them. (I found the picture since I the original post).

Grant Harned answering the phone at the plant while he worked as the receptionist.

Grant Harned answering the phone at the plant while he worked as the receptionist.

As I mentioned, Grant was just out of the Business College at OSU and he was fired up, ready to make a difference.  He had all sorts of ideas that he shared with me about how the plant and the company business processes could be improved.

He reminds me now of myself years later when I was carpooling with Scott Hubbard and Toby O’Brien and how I would talk about having smart electricity instead of the same dumb electricity we have had for the past 100 years.  Except that Grant’s ideas were about business processes, where my ideas were about electrons moving through a conductor.

For Power Plant Men, carpooling is a way of getting into other Power Plant Men’s minds and understanding them from the inside out.  Each day while driving back and forth from the plant you are basically locked into a confined space with one or more other individuals with nothing but your thoughts, or NPR or in the case of Dale Hull and Ricky Daniels… Beer.

In the case of Grant Harned, he soon became frustrated.  He had graduated from school and wanted to make a difference somehow.  And he wanted it to happen right away.  He would tell Jack Ballard his ideas about how he thought things could change, and each time Jack would shoot it down.

I’m not saying that Grant had great business changing ideas that would change the way Power Plants all over the country operated.  He just wanted to be listened to, and he didn’t understand that there were built-in reasons why we did it the way we did.  The most important was that “We had been doing it this way for 35 years, and we’re not going to change it now.”

For some reason that rubbed Grant the wrong way.  Maybe because he couldn’t help thinking outside the box.  He obviously had trouble understanding the benefit of doing something the same way for 35 years.  I guess he must have missed the class where “because I said so” was a solid business case.

Anyway.  It is true that Power Plant business processes before Grant’s time and for a while after, were based on doing things the same way it has always been done.  I suppose that is why electricity for all those years was the same boring thing…. 60 cycles (60 Hz or 50 Hz in Europe) Alternating Current.  Regular Sine wave, perfectly generated.  Each wave identical to each other.  — But I’ll talk about electricity later.  At this time I was still a janitor.

Sine wave shows how the voltage (and current) changes in Alternating Current electricity

Grant finally decided that he was going to look for another job because he realized that he didn’t have a future at the power plant.  He had been trained as a business person and there was little opportunity to display and cultivate his new found skills at a power plant in the middle of the countryside where everyone was content with the way things were.

Before he left, he gave me some cassette tapes that he used to play on the way to and from work.  I kept them for years until I had worn them out listening to them in my car.  Two of the tapes were The Rolling Stones, one of his favorite bands.

I said goodbye to Grant when he left, but I never forgot him.  Each year on All Souls Day (November 2), I remember him and David Hankins.  He, like most of the men I have carpooled with over the years was like a brother to me.  Those that weren’t brothers, were fathers.

It didn’t occur to me until after I first wrote the original post that years later, I too went to Oklahoma State University while I was working at the plant to obtain a degree from the Business College, Spears School of Business.  I wonder if Grant was looking down giving me a thumbs up as I walked to the podium to get my diploma.

I mentioned that I don’t know where I placed his Power Plant picture, but I do have other pictures (before I recently found it):

High School Picture of Grant Harned

Grant Harned looking more like I remember him

Evidently someone else remembers Grant as I do.  I found these picture of him on a memorial site online.  There is a comment there that says this of Grant:  “Was known in school and by friends as Grant. He had a great sense of humor and would always make you laugh.”

I agreed with Grant.  He really didn’t belong at the power plant.  Power Plant life and culture at the time was not geared toward “continuous improvement” and Six Sigma.  It was about coming home safely at night to your family and doing a good days worth of work and having something to show for it.  He was young and ambitious.

I cherish the time I spent with Grant driving to and from work.  I remember many of the conversations that we had.  Many of them philosophical in nature.  Some having to do with the regular questions people have about life and God.  I know that he was being drawn toward something greater, and in the end I pray that he found it.

Power Plant Janitor John Fry Standing Guard as Floors Dry

John Fry had a peculiar way of standing in front of the bathroom door in the electric shop after he had mopped the bathroom floor as he waited for the floor to dry.  It was as if he was a sentry on duty in front of the Buckingham Palace in London because he would stand so still.  I would amuse myself by picturing him dressed in the red Beefeater uniform standing at attention at the bathroom door at a coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

 

Guard at Buckingham Palace

Guard at Buckingham Palace

Only John wasn’t carrying a rifle, he was holding his broom handle.  He would hold the handle of the broom so that it was parked just behind his right ear.  His head would be slightly bent forward and the expression on his face was one of deep thought.  John didn’t speak much.  I wondered if he had ever been a guard or a soldier.  It would have had to been during the Vietnam War if he had given his age.  He was born in 1947.

I always admired John who was doing the job I used to do when I was a janitor at the plant when I had first become a full time employee after four years of working as a summer help.  Like the tourists in London, I would do subtle things to try to distract John from his stalwart sentinel position without actually talking to him.  I didn’t think would be fair to actually use words, because John, being the polite person that he was would break out of his guardian stance to say “Hello” or answer a question if I had posed one.

One day while John was standing watch over the wet bathroom floor, I silently came up alongside him with my own broom and I put the handle behind my ear just like him and tried to stand with the same interesting posture John used.  I stood there for a few minutes waiting to see if John would respond to me.  There was something peaceful about standing next to John meditating on the water evaporating from the tiles behind us.  The wooden handle placed behind the ear, pressed up against the side of the head added a sort of stability.

He just continued standing watch.  He may have had a slight smile, I’m not sure.  When John smiled, it was usually very subtle.  It was more in the eyes than on the mouth and since I was only looking out of the corner of my eye, I couldn’t really tell.  I didn’t wait until the floor completely dried before I left.  I still had to be an electrician, and I only had a few minutes to spare before I had to continue on my way.

The other interesting feature about John was that he didn’t turn  his head.  It was as if he was wearing an invisible neck brace.  So, when he walked by, if you said “Hi John”, he might put up one hand as a slight wave, and mutter “Hi” back, but he wouldn’t turn his head toward you, unless he happened to be coming straight in your direction.  He was generally looking at the floor a few feet in front of him when he walked.  He would walk sort of hunched over as if he was looking for a small lost item on the ground.

I took this to mean that John had some sort of surgery on the vertebrae in his neck that fused them together so that they were immobile preventing him from looking this way or that.  He was built like a boxer and looked the part, so I would imagine that in his earlier days, John was in a boxing ring exchanging blows with someone until he had to stop because of the injuries to his spine that could only be mended by fusing his neck into a permanent position of a Buckingham Palace Guard.

It was a pastime of mine to imagine what the Power Plant Men did before they ended up spending their days creating electricity for half the state of Oklahoma.  That was until I had the opportunity to ask them and find out what they really did.  As I mentioned, I pictured John Fry as a boxer before he became the bathroom Beefeater.

I pictured Johnny Keys as being someone who lived in the Arkansas Ozarks making Mountain Dew from a still up in the hills before he became a machinist.

Johnny Keys

Johnny Keys

You would understand that image better if you had seen him before they disallowed the wearing of beards on the plant ground.  When Johnny had a beard he looked more like this:

Like this, only younger and with a shorter beard

Like this, only younger and with a shorter beard

I don’t even want to mention the number of Power Plant Men I pictured as used car salesmen before I knew them better.  Ok.  All right.  I won’t tell you their names, but one of them has the initials:  “Gene Day”.

There were a number of Power Plant Men that looked like they were Sergeants in the Army or Navy.  Some that come to mind are

George Dunagan:

George Dunagan

George Dunagan

Steve Blansett:

 

Steve Blansett

Steve Blansett

Randy Dailey:

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

and Jim Arnold:

Jim Arnold in all of his awesomeness

Jim Arnold in all of his awesomeness

Then there is the group of Mad Scientists.  You know the type…  They look so normal, but you can tell that in their spare time they are playing with chemicals, or coming up with new Physics equations in order to puzzle those fortunate enough to take a college Physics course….

Before I knew what this group actually did for a living before they arrived at the plant, I immediately thought…. Mad Scientist:

Byron Hoeltzel:

 

Byron Hoeltzel

Byron Hoeltzel

Jasper Christensen:

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

Charles Foster:

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

and lastly Merl Wright:

Merl Wright

Merl Wright

 

Then there was the group of people that looked like they were in a Hard Rock Band.  They were easy to categorize since they all wore dark glasses….  Or maybe they did that because they worked in the welding shop…

There’s Larry Riley:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him.  He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley on  2nd Guitar

Dave McClure:

Dave McClure

Dave McClure on Drums

Earl Frazier:

Earl Frazier

Earl Frazier on lead guitar

Kerry Lewallen:

Kerry Lewallen

Kerry Lewallen on Bass Guitar

Noe Flores:

Noe Flores

Noe Flores on Trumpet

George Clouse:

George Clouse

George Clouse lead singer

and Junior Meeks:

Rod Meeks

Rod (Junior) Meeks stumbling around in the background

Ok.  Maybe in their spare time, they also doubled as a biker gang.

Then there was the more simple jobs… For instance, Danny Cain probably worked in a donut shop (which coincidentally… I did):

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

And also Coincidentally, Danny always liked Donuts.

Then there was the all around nice looking guys who would serve you in a restaurant or bag your groceries like Mike Gibbs:

Mike Gibbs

Mike Gibbs

or Brent Kautzman that reminded me of one of those guys that modeled fancy shirts in a J.C. Penny’s Catalog:

 

Brent Kautzman

Brent Kautzman

Ok…. I think you get my point…. Sort of like the songs I would hear whenever I was around these guys like I had discussed in the post “Power Plant Music To My Ears” I also categorized the Power Plant Men into various previous jobs… Larry Riley used to say that it was a good idea for me to not be idle because when I was, I would come up with the goofiest (my word, not his) things to do.  I suppose he was right.

Anyway, I want to get back to John Fry.  You see… my thought about John being an ex-boxer that could no longer box because of a neck injury gave me a sad feeling when I looked at John.  I never really knew if he was married, though I didn’t think so.  I knew he had a younger brother that lived in Stillwater, while John lived in Ponca City.  Besides that, John’s life was a mystery to me.

So, today when I decided to write about John, I looked him up online to see what I could find.  I found that he had died at the age of 58 years old on May 10, 2006 while working as a Warehouse Inventory Clerk.  I couldn’t find an obituary.  It seems that the Trout Funeral Home that handled his funeral either didn’t keep records that far back, or they just didn’t have anything to say about it.

I learned that the Sunset Baptist Church had a service for John but I couldn’t find anything about his funeral there either.  Actually, I couldn’t even find the cemetery where he was buried.  There is one John Fry in the IOOF cemetery in Ponca City, but I am not able to tell if that is him or not.  It seems to me that John, whose brother had died 4 years earlier may have been alone.

I wish I knew more.  Maybe someone at the plant can fill me in.  Maybe I have the wrong John Fry and John is still around.

As a terrific Power Plant Man Janitor who held his post each day while the floor was drying, I want him to receive the honor that he deserves.  I want him to know that there is a group of men that honored his service and respected his life.  If I had his picture, I would display it here.  The only picture I have is the one I carry in my memory.

Why Do Power Plant Men always Lose the Things they Love the Most? — Repost

Originally posted November 9, 2013:

One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards.  My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service.  There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.

A Circuit board with Electronic components

A Circuit board with Electronic components

I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs.  Like I said.  It was really fun.

I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having.  Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing.  He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.

Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job.  Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application.  I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about.  He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.

I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….

I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School.  He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri.  We immediately became friends when we met.  We both enjoyed the same things.  The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.

I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games.  So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me.  We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.

One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.

Risk Board Game

Risk Board Game

Jesse was beating us so bad that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn.  Then his mother called us for dinner.

Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice.  When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal.  Chili.  So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!”  I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.

After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home.  On the way home my brother started to chuckle.  I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!” in his head.  It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.

So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say.  We would just yell out, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!!”  It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.

When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory.  I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!!!”

Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm.  He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived.  The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?”  When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.”   When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was.  I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse!  You’re my friend!”

So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!”  No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine.  It’s poetry to my ears.  Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.

End of Side Story….

So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most?  Well… because all good things had to come to an end.  Electronic circuit boards included.

When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it.  They just aren’t used much anymore.  Everything has gone digital.  Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips.  It just isn’t quite the same.

So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant.  By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors.  We were programming chips.  Now the circuit boards looked more like this:

A digital Circuit Board

A digital Circuit Board

Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using.  We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor.  We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing.  When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.

A heat gun like this

A heat gun like this

There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit…  Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.

Well.  Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun.  We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.

A bearing heater

A bearing heater

The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature.  No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit.  Oh well….

When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor.  The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant.  They were made from genuine Asbestos.  I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves.  Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing.  You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well…  They were taken away.  Not deemed safe for use by humans.

In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”.  That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.

Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator.  Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface.   But…. I wouldn’t know about that.  I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.

Old Crank Telephone

Old Crank Telephone

A manual crank megger was similar….

Megger with a Crank

Megger with a Crank

Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing.  We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places.  Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards.  I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.

An induction Bearing Heater

An induction Bearing Heater

This heater didn’t even get hot.  The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.

The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.

As for the volt-ohm meters.  Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter.  I dare say.  It was a step up from the old Simpson meter.  A lot safer also:

Like this.  Ok.  So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

And the Safety belt?  Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body.  So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

So… you see…  What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs.  Real Power Plant Men I mean.  So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss.  They lose those things they hold dear.  Yeah.  They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had.  I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.

So.  That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most.  Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing.  Power plant Men just change right along with it.  But sometimes it hurts a littl

Comments from original post:

  1. Ron   November 9, 2013

    Great story, Kevin.
    When I transferred to the Seminole Plant, one of my jobs was to do the “daily sheets”. For each generating unit I calculated total MW, steam flow, gas burned, average temperatures and pressures, etc. We were privileged to have the first non-mechanical calculators in an OG&E Power Plant. The old calculators (I used at Mustang and Horseshoe Lake) were mechanical – motors, gears, shafts, levers, dials, and more gears. They made cool sounds when you hit the “Total” key. They even had a unique smell too. We paid $900 for each Monroe calculator in 1970. They didn’t make any noises. They didn’t give off any scent, either. But they were much faster, smaller, and lighter. I missed the old mechanicals. I still have the Post slide rule I used at OU too.

  2. Eve MEL Thomson November 9, 2013

    Sadly, change is progress. I used a blackboard, now it’s a white board!

  3. Wendell A. Brown November 11, 2013

    I loved your post, change comes in our lives but hopefully in our lives we blossom and become better for it, and always cherish the memories. I smiled a thousand times while reading it and will always remember “Jessie come eat your chili! Blessings!

  4. Jack Curtis November 13, 2013

    Change, yes…but it’s more than that. Old time craftsmen involved a lot of themselves in their work. I remember men who grabbed a wire to determine the voltage on it. A lot of work was done by feel, a sort of extra sense that craftsmen developed on the job. Projects came out right because they knew what was intended and how to make it happen that way. They were an important link in the chain of production.

    Now so much work is untouched by human hands; merely moved along by button-pushers who have replaced true craftsmen. An old time carpenter or electrician could do things today’s replacements never dream of. Cabinet makers and machinists are gone, replaced by machine operators. Much is no doubt gained, but so much is lost…

    An average man in those days, was pretty competent with his hands, expected to have a list of skills and competencies…and that’s gone, too.

 

Power Plant Weir Boxes and other Beautiful Sites — Repost

Originally Posted on November 10, 2012:

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” A line from the movie Apocalypse Now, may come to mind when reading the title stating that the Power Plant has sites of beauty. Especially the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. What could you find of beauty at a Power plant with a coal pile, and large metal structures?

The answer is found almost everywhere you look. I have mentioned before that the plant property is largely a wildlife preserve. A large man-made lake was constructed on a hill to provide cooling water for the plant condenser. In the process a veritable Shangri-La was created where wildlife could live in peace and comfort protected by the Power Plant Humans that maintained the grounds.

The second and third summers that I worked at the plant as a summer help, in 1980 and 1981, in order to go to work each day, I left my parent’s house from the back door each morning. From there, I walked behind three houses, where I climbed over a barbed wire fence into a field. I crossed the field and came out onto the dead end of a dead end road, where I walked over to Lakeview Drive. From there I walked about a quarter mile to the corner of Washington where I would catch a ride with whoever I was carpooling with at the time.

During the summer of 1980, when I began working the 12 hour shifts 7 days a week to do the irrigation for the new grass we were trying to grow (see the post When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays To Listen). When I needed to be at work at 6 am each morning, when I walked through the field at 5:15, the sky would just be at the point where you could vaguely see. I didn’t bring a flashlight so the first few weeks were more like feeling my way through the dark, looking for any clues to help guide me to the road and back to civilization. Luckily the cow (or bull) in the field didn’t seem to pay me any mind.

As the summer progressed, my trek to the corner was a little lighter each day. until I could comfortably see where I was walking. I bring this up because on one particular morning I came across something that I have never forgotten, and I’m sure I will never see again. After climbing over the barbed wire fence and turning to go down toward the road, I found myself at the edge of a field of Queen Anne’s lace that was left over from the year before. That is, the dead stalks of Queen Anne’s Lace (very similar to Hemlock).

I’m sure you have all seen Queen Anne’s Lace at one time or other if you have ever been in a field in the summer, as it is found everywhere in the United States.

Queen Anne’s Lace in a field

The Queen Anne’s Lace I saw was all dead, so the field was full of stalks that looked like this:

The ground was literally covered with these stalks, so that it blanketed the entire section of the field. Across the top of every one of the thousands of stalks where the head of the plant formed a kind of bowl shape, a spider had weaved a blanket of web on each plant. The webs were all highlighted with morning dew as the sun had just enough light to brighten the dew on the webs so that the field appeared as if it had a magic blanket of silk laid across the top of it.

When I came to the edge of the field of Queen Anne’s stalks all covered with dew covered webs I just stood there in amazement. I knew that I was going to be the only person to ever view this beautiful site. So, I tried to absorb as much of it into my brain as I could. I realized that God had the thousands of tiny spiders work through the night weaving these webs and that He had materialized the dew softly across the field.

Similar to this, but the webs were finer making them look like little blanket on each plant

I knew I couldn’t remain there all morning and there was no way around the quilt of webs, so I finally had to bring myself to walk through the masterpiece. I mention this moment in my Power Plant life because you never know where something of great beauty is going to show up.

This brings us back to the plant where there are hidden places around the lake called Weir Boxes. Those who regularly work with Weir Boxes use them to measure the water flow through an irrigation system. The plant used weir boxes to measure the amount of leakage from the various dams around the main lake and an auxiliary lake used as a holding pond for water before being released to the lake once it is tested for purity.

The plant Weir Boxes look a lot like this

The flow rate can be measured by the amount of water flowing through the V shaped notch. When the lake was first built it was important to monitor the 6 weir boxes located around the lake to make sure the dams were stable and were not leaking. The water that leaked through the dam was generally routed through the weir boxes that were placed at the foot of the dry side of the dam by the use of a kind of “french drains” that were put in place when the dam was built.

As a summer help, when it came time each month for the weir boxes to be checked, we would get in a pickup with some industrial sized Weed Eaters in the back and head for a trip around the lake. We would locate each weir box, and clean out any weeds or brush around them. Then we would mow a path through the weeds from the road to the weir boxes so the person coming by to inspect the weir box wouldn’t have to walk through the high brush to the box, possibly stepping on snakes and other native scary creatures.

When we did this task, it was usually the first thing we did in the morning. I know to Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, he loved the smell of Napalm in the morning, but I was more partial to the smell of freshly shredded weeds and grass. It was the only cool part of the day. It was only going to get hotter and sticker from there. So, I have always had a pleasant memory of doing Weir Box detail.

This reminds me of a trick that Stanley Elmore, the foreman over the summer helps, taught me. Since we would spend days on end going down a roadside with either a heavy duty weed wacker

Weed Chopper

Or an Industrial Weed Eater strapped onto a shoulder harness chopping weeds all day:

One with two handles like this one

Stanley told me that in order to keep the mosquitoes away, you eat a banana in the morning before you leave the shop. For some reason by eating the banana, the mosquitoes would leave you alone. I worked like a charm, and I made sure that my mom had a stock of bananas in the house for my lunch each morning. It wasn’t until I was in the electric shop that it was discovered that Avon had a skin oil product that repelled mosquitoes while leaving your skin soft and plush and nice smelling at the same time. It is called: “Skin So Soft”.

So now the secret is out why the Big Brawny He-man Power Plant Men smell so good and have such Beautiful Skin (no. I’m just kidding. They don’t really have beautiful skin — believe me!). It later became marketed as an insect repellent. It is still that way today. I suspect that the secret ingredient in Skin So Soft is Banana Oil.

Another trick that Bill McAllister taught me was that when Arthritis is bothering you, you just spray some WD-40 on your joints and rub it in, and it fixes it right up.

A can of WD-40

I told my dad a Veterinary Professor at Oklahoma State University about this. He told me that WD-40 had the same solvent in it that was used by veterinarians to rub medication on horses that helps the medication absorb into the animal. He warned that using WD-40 on your joints to lubricate your arthritic joints may make them feel better, but at the same time it pulls in the other chemicals found in the product that you wouldn’t want in your body.

The first summer when I was a summer help and I was in a truck driving around the perimeter of the new lake, that was still being filled, with Dee Ball looking for anything unusual, we spied what at first looked like a Muskrat near the edge of the water.

A Muskrat

Dee stopped the truck and climbed out to get a closer look. A Muskrat looks somewhat like a big rat and sort of like a beaver. What we were seeing looked more like an otter than a beaver.

An otter

But it wasn’t quite like an otter either. It was more furry. and dark. Dee knew what it was after watching it for a minute. He told me. “That is a Mink”. My first thought was how does this Dee Ball know what a Mink is? He sounded so definite. To me Dee Ball, though he was in his early 40’s at the time, looked like an old farmer who had a hard life. He acted half crazy part of the time, though he was always respectful and kind. At least when he wasn’t mad at you for playing a joke on him.

So, later I went and looked it up, and you know what? He was right. He had told me that it was unusual for Minks to be this far south, and again I wondered how he knew so much about something that wasn’t even from around there. He said that the mink must have followed the Arkansas river on down to the lake. Pointing toward the north with his finger… and tracing it down until he pointed at the lake…. (that way he could show me how he was processing the journey of the Mink to the lake). I thought maybe some ranger had put posters up around the lakes up north letting the animal life know that a new animal preserve had opened up in Northern Oklahoma where even a Mink could live in peace knowing they would be safe from hunters and trappers.

This is what we saw. An American Mink

I remember Dee telling me that it was the tail of the mink that gave it away.

I have mentioned in the Post about Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down By The River that Bald Eagles migrate to the Power Plant every winter. This brings bird watchers to the lake to watch the Eagles. There is a link to view an Eagle’s nest on the Web.

The Cameras on Sooner Lake North of Stillwater

I have had the privilege along with the other Power Plant Men to watch these majestic birds, the symbol of the strength of our nation, each winter while I worked at the plant. I have seen a bald eagle swoop down onto the lake and grab a fish from the water.

Bald Eagle Catching a Fish

What a beautiful site!

The plant itself has a beauty of its own. When you visit the plant at night, you find that it takes on a surreal atmosphere. The same hissing of steam through the pipes is heard. The same vibration of the boiler and the bowl mills can be felt. But the plant lights up like a ship on the ocean.

The lake on the hill with the Power Plant in the distance at sunset

You can’t see the light here, but if you ever travel from Stillwater to Ponca City during the night, you see what looks like a huge ship lit up floating above the landscape off in the distance. It is truly a beautiful site.

Finding and Defining Power Plant Confined Spaces

OSHA defines a confined space as a place with restricted access, or a place like a hopper with converging walls where you can get stuck.  When the supervisors at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma were asked to identify the confined spaces their workers had to work in, there were a few spaces that ended up on the list that made some wonder if they had just picked up a case of lice…. In other words, they began to scratch their heads.

Earlier I wrote a story about when a person was engulfed in ash in a Precipitator hopper and almost died, (See the post “Tragedy Occurs During a Power Plant Safety Meeting“).  This led to an investigation by OSHA a man from OSHA (See the post “OSHA Man Cometh“).  Then we were fined and were given a list of tasks that we had to perform by August 1, 1994 (See the post “Power Plant Men Being Summoned by the Department of Labor“).  One of those tasks was to create a Confined Space Rescue Team.

The first task for the Rescue team was to put signs on all the confined spaces with a warning that this was a confined space and that you weren’t supposed to go in there unless you have a Confined Spaces Entry Permit.

Confined Space Sign

Confined Space Sign

After that, the Confined Space Rescue Team was was tasked with developing rescue plans for each confined space.

One of the confined spaces on the list that was supplied by the supervisors at the plant was the Battery Room in the Main Switchgear.  This was added to the list by Tom Gibson who was the Electric Supervisor for the plant.  According to OSHA’s definition of a confined space, a room like the Battery Room, which you entered by walking through a regular door, didn’t meet the definition of a Confined Space even when trying to stretch the definition in imaginary directions.

 

The battery shown on the left is about the size of a small file cabinet

The battery rooms had batteries the size of the big one on the left

Tom Gibson explained that he wanted to add the Battery Rooms to the list because he thought that a dangerous conditiono could arise in the battery room if the ventilation fans failed and there was a build up of toxic gases from the batteries and someone walked in there and passed out.  They would need to be rescued just as if they were in a confined space.

So, the Battery Room went on the list…. but the Confined Space Rescue Team decided that we weren’t going to create a rescue plan with much detail.  We decided that we would just need to open the door and turn on the vent fan.  Later, we were able to remove the battery room from the list.

It is interesting how some people come up with their  justification for bending the definition of something like a confined space in order that the room would be considered a more hazardous place than normal.  There were other ways to make this point besides trying to fit the big rectangular door into the size of a manhole cover.

When we put together the Confined Space Rescue Team, we had the Safety Task Force send out a intra-company letter to each person asking them if they would like to join the Confined Space Rescue Team.  We wanted to get a good cross-section of people from different skill sets.  I thought we did pretty good.

I can’t remember every one of the original member, but those that I can remember are:

Alan Hetherington, Jimmie Moore, Mike Vogle, Randy Dailey, Ray Eberle, Thomas Leach, Paul Mullon, George Clouse, myselft and um…. I can’t remember the last one.  Maybe one of you can remind me.

Once we  had the list, the first thing we had to do was to be properly trained as a Confined Space Rescue Team.  A company in Dallas, Texas was hired to come to our plant to train us to become Confined Space Rescuteers (I just made that word up… Sort of like Mouseketeers).

While we were taking the training, the trainers kept calling the lead trainer “Dad”, so we began to wonder if this was a family affair.  The leader of the training team was much older than the others, and he did treat the young trainers like a father.  At one point when one of the trainers was trying to get the lead trainer’s attention, he kept saying, “Dad!  Dad!” just like a little kid would try to ask their dad if they could go outside now and play.  The rest of us just kept looking at each other like…. yeah… he’s their dad.

It turned out that Dad was really just his initials.  His name is David A. David, so they just called him Dad.  I thought that was pretty neat and fitting since he did treat them all like he was their dad.  When I later moved to Texas, I found that David David is a rather popular name down here.  It seems like people named David David own a number of car dealerships in the Dallas area.

We were given special rescue harnesses to wear that was a lot like a regular safety harness, except the place where you clip on to the rope is down at your waist instead of up by your chest.  This put the point where you are suspended at the center of your weight (if you are built like your average rescuer… I mean, you don’t have a shape like Santa Claus…. which, if you did, you were probably more likely to be a rescuee instead of a rescuer).

Confined Space Rescue Harness

Confined Space Rescue Harness

With the focal point in the center of your body, you could easily swing upside down, lay flat or sit straight up.  It was pretty neat.  You have probably seen someone wearing one of these before….  Tom Cruise demonstrated this technique in the first Mission Impossible movie:

 

Tom Cruise  in Mission Impossible using a rescue harness -- well sort of...

Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible using a rescue harness — well sort of…

We learned a lot of lessons in the Confined Space Rescue Team Training that I have never forgotten.  One important statistic was that somewhere around 70 percent of people that die in confined spaces are would be rescuers.

If you stop and think about this number for a moment, it is rather shocking (if true).  This meant that more people died trying to rescue someone from a confined space than actual original victims.

The reason this happens is because when someone in a confined space is found to have passed out, people tend to rush in there to pull them out, not realizing that the reason the person passed out was because there was some sort of toxic gas or a lack of oxygen in the confined space that caused the first victim to pass out.

I remember a tragedy when I was going to college at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri around the year 1980.  I think it was at the Rolla campus where agriculture researchers had a large pit sort of like a deep empty swimming pool where they were doing some kind of experiment.

One of the people working on the project passed out in the bottom of the pit.  Three other people in the area rushed down there to help the person.  When they climbed down the ladder to help, each of them passed out, and all four of them ended up dead.  There was some sort of poison gas that settled down in the pit that was fatal.

We knew then that it was important that we become properly trained as confined space rescuers.  We have a culture in the United States to want to help someone in trouble. In some circumstances, a person could even be held liable if they don’t come to someone’s aid in an emergency.  It is called a “Duty To Rescue”.

The problem with rushing into a confined space to rescuse someone is that you may actually be putting more lives at risk if you are not properly trained.  The first tool we used when we arrived at a confined space was an Air Monitor.

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

We checked the quality of the air in a confined space for 4 different conditions.  First, there had to be enough Oxygen (20.9% hopefully).  Not too much Carbon Monoxide, No Hydrogen Sulfide (smells like rotten eggs, only if you smell it briefly and then the smell goes away, it could be because it deadens the receptors in your nostrils making you think you’re safe when you’re not — that’s why you need to use a monitor instead of just your nose).  Lastly, we check for an explosive atmosphere. In order to make sure we aren’t crawling into some place that is ready to explode.

The first skill we learned was to tie knots.  We actually spent a lot of time learning about knot tying.  We had to be able to tie them while wearing rescue gloves.  Those are leather gloves that keep you from burning your hand when you are feeding a rope through your hands.

Some of the Rescue knots we learned how to tie were the Figure 8, the Figure 8 on a Bite, and a Figure 8 Follow Thtrough.  We also learned to tie a Prusik Knot that could be used to climb right up another rope like you were going up steps.

We learned to tie a Water Knot if we needed to extend the lengths of straps.  Other knots were the Girth Hitch, the Double Fisherman’s knot, butterfly knot, and the right way to tie a square knot to make sure that you don’t end up with a granny knot and have your knot slip right off the end of the rope.

Rescue Knots

Rescue Knots

During the Confined Space course, we had to be able to tie these knots not only wearing our gloves, but we had to tie them behind our backs in the dark.  After all, it was explained to us, that when  you are rescuing people from a confined space crawling on your stomach wearing an SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus), you will not be able to see the knots you have to tie in order to pull someone safely out of the hole.

Man wearing an SCBA

Man wearing an SCBA

The trainers would inspect our knots and they had to be perfect, or he would take them apart and we would have to do them again.  You couldn’t have one rope croxxing over another where it shouldn’t be, even if the knot was correct.  The knot had to be picture perfect.”

“Dad” and the training company had a big black trailer that had a big metal maze where they could fill it with smoke.  Then, they would put a safety manequin in the trailer somewhere and we would have to go in there wearing our safety equipment and rescue the dummy in the smoky dark maze during a hot summer day when it was about 100 degrees outside.

The most important thing we learned during that class was that even though our instinct is to go in and be a hero and rescue someone in trouble, we have to realize that the majority of the time when a person goes in a confined space to rescue someone they are retrieving a dead body.

The importance of this lesson is that it’s not worth risking the lives of the Confined Space Rescue Team when the person being rescued is most likely dead already.  We needed to remember the statistic that 70% of people that die in confined spaces are would be rescuers.

As long as we kept that in mind, when the time came for us to dive right in and pull someone out, we would take the time to do it right and do it safely.  What good is trying to rescue someone only to have our fellow rescuers die alongside the original victim?

Telling Time Power Plant Man Style — Repost

Originally posted November 1, 2013:

You would think that telling time is a pretty universal past time.  I used to think that myself.  That is, until I went to work at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I first went to work there in 1979 as a summer help.  I noticed something was different when I walked into the office to meet the Assistant Plant Manager, Bill Moler and the clock on his wall looked kind of funny.  I had to stare at it for a moment before I realized what it meant:

24 hour clock

24 hour clock

The Power Plant Men called it Military Time because many of them had been in the military during the Vietnam War and had learned to tell time using this type of clock.  When we filled out our timecards at the end of the day we put 0800 to 1600  Well.  I put in the colons like this:  8:00 to 16:00 but that wasn’t the real Power Plant Man way to do it.

That wasn’t the only thing I learned about Power Plant Man time.  Power Plant Men keep time in other ways.  One of those ways, though it involves a clock, the time being observed isn’t the time of day.  Instead it centers around five events.

Startin’ Time, Morning Break, Lunch Time and Afternoon Break and Quitin’ Time.  A Power Plant Man’s day revolves around these events.

The moment Startin’ Time begins, the Power Plant Men are looking forward to Morning Break.  They schedule their efforts around this event.  That is, if they need to do a certain job that would run them into Morning Break, then they figure out something else to do, and push that event out until Morning Break is over.

In General, Morning Break would begin at 9:30 (Oh.  I mean 0930 — pronounced “Oh Nine Thirty”).  It was supposed to be 15 minutes long, but in order to make sure you didn’t miss your break, you usually headed toward the shop 15 minutes early.  Then by the time you headed back out the door to and returned to your work, another 10 to 15 minutes went by.  Essentially stretching morning break from 15 minutes to 40 to 45 minutes.

This was especially true in the early days of the Power Plant.  The Power Plant Men’s culture evolved over time so that the actual time spent on their 15 minute break probably shortened from 45 minutes to 30 minutes.

The idea that the employees weren’t spending every moment of their day when not on break working just confounded Plant Managers, such as the “Evil Plant Manager” that I often talk about.  Our first plant manager was so tight, when he worked at a gas plant in Oklahoma City, he was known for taking rags out of the trash and putting them back in the rag box because they weren’t dirty enough.

Now that I work at Dell as a Business Systems Analyst (and since I first wrote this post, I have changed jobs and now work for General Motors) after many years of working for great managers and not-so-great managers, I am always relieved when I find that a new manager doesn’t measure you by how many hours you are sitting at the computer, but by your results.

For those that looked closely at the performance of the Power Plant Men at our particular plant, they would find that when a job needed to be done, it would be done… on time.  The bottom line was that when you treat the employees with respect, they go the extra mile for you.

“Quitin’ Time” was always an interesting time.  From the first day that I arrived as a summer help (1979) until the day I left 22 years later (2001), Even though “Quitin’ Time” was at 4:30 (or 1630, later changing to 1730), it really began at 4:00 (or 1600, pronounced “sixteen hundred”).

at 4:00, a half hour before it was time to go out to the parking lot and drive home, everyone would return to the shop, where they would spend the next 30 minutes cleaning up and filling out their daily timecard.  The timecard was, and probably still is, a sheet of paper.

A Daily timecard similar to this

A Daily timecard similar to this

Amazing huh?  You would think with the way things are that paper timecards would have disappeared a long time ago.  I could be wrong about that.  If it is any different at the plant today, I’ll encourage one of them to leave a comment below updating me.

There are other ways that Power Plant Men tell time.  Sure, they know that there are seasons, like Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring.  But it is more likely that in their minds the Power Plant Men are thinking more like this…. Instead of Summer, they would think that this is “Peak Load”.  That is, the units need to stay operational because the citizens of this country are in dire need of air conditioning.

Instead of Fall, there are two thoughts running through a Power Plant Man’s mind…. Hunting Season and the start of “Overhauls”.

As hunting season nears, many Power Plant Men are staking out their territories and setting up their deer stands.  Some are out practicing with their bows as Bow Season starts first before you can use a rifle.  The Plant staff didn’t like their employees taking off Christmas vacation, and did everything they could to keep you in town during the holiday.   But when it came down to it… The real time to worry was during hunting season.

An Overhaul is when you take one of the units offline to work on things that you can’t work on when it is running.  the main area being inside the boiler.  When overhauls come around, it is a chance for working a lot of overtime.  The pay is good especially if you get to go to another plant to work because then you not only get to work 10 or 12 hour days, but you receive a Per Diem of somewhere from $28.50 to $35.00 each day depending on how far back you want to look.

I don’t know what the Per Diem is today.  I’m sure it must be much higher.  Plus you get driving time back and forth each week, and you also receive mileage!  So, you can see why Power Plant Men were often very anxious to go away on  overhaul.

Overhaul season ran from the Fall into the Spring.  It is during that time when the electric company could take a couple of units offline at a time because the electric demand wasn’t so high.

Another season that many Power Plant Men counted on was “Fishing Season”.  It wasn’t like the other seasons, because it kind of ran into a lot of the others.  If the weather was right, and the rain was right and the Missus was all right with it… Then it was fishing season.  There were different types of fishing.  In the electric shop, “Noodling” was popular.  That is when you reach under the rocks in a river and feel around for a fish and then end up catching it with your bare hands.

Here is a picture I found on Google Images of someone that noodled an over-sized catfish

Here is a picture I found on Google Images of someone that noodled an over-sized catfish

Another timekeeping tool used by Power Plant men was “Pay Day”.  It came around every two weeks.  After a while everyone was on direct deposit, so it wasn’t like they were all waiting around for someone to actually hand them a paycheck.  Many did plan their trips to the mall or to the gun shows in Oklahoma City around Pay Day.  It was common to live from paycheck to paycheck.

If you worked in the coalyard, then you calibrated your clock by when the next coal train was going to roll into the dumper.  There was generally a steady stream of coal trains coming and going.  When a coal train was late, or even early, then I think it seemed to throw some coalyard hands into a state of confusion.  But, then again, now that I think about it…. Walt Oswalt usually did seem to be in a state of confusion.  — I’m just joking of course….. Well… you know…

If you were a Control Room Operator, then you were in a sort of Twilight Zone, because there really was only one small window in the entire Control room and that was only so that you could look through a small telescope at the Main Power Substation in case…. well… in case you were bored and you needed to be reassured that the world still did exist out there.

In the control room, there were clocks, but the control room operators had a lot more pretty lights to look at back then.  Here is my favorite picture of a Power Plant Control Room (not the one where I worked):

I love this picture!

I love this picture!

See all those lights?  Now everything is on the computer.  That way if some foreign terrorist group decides they want to shut down the electric grid, all they have to do is hack into the system and down it goes.  They couldn’t do that when the control room looked like this.

It seemed that being in the control room was out of time.   It didn’t matter what time of the day you went in the control room.  In the morning, the afternoon, even at two in morning.  It always seemed the same.  There were always two control room operators sitting or standing at their posts.  The Shift Supervisor was sitting in his office, or was standing somewhere nearby.  Other operators were walking in and out going on their rounds.  I think the Control Room operators only knew that it was time to go home because the next shift would show up to take their place.

Electricians on the other hand, had their own kind of timekeeping.  Well, not all of them… ok…. well… maybe just me…. I used an oscilloscope a lot when I was working on the precipitator controls, and so very small amounts of time meant a lot to me.  For instance… The regular 60 cycle electricity in your house goes from zero to about 134 volts and then back to zero about every 8 and 1/3 thousands of a second (or .00833333…).

I used an Analog oscilloscope like this until we were given a new Digital one where you could zoom in and do all sorts of neat things.

I used an Analog oscilloscope like this until we were given a new Digital one where you could zoom in and do all sorts of neat things.

I will talk about it later, but when you are testing tripping relays, even as little as one thousandth of a second can be important.  So, telling time with an oscilloscope can vary widely.

Then there were those timekeeping Power Plant Men that kept time by how long it was going to be to retirement.  It was more of a countdown.  I remember one Power Plant Man saying that he only had 21 more years and then he was outta there.  An even more sad story was when Charles Lay at Muskogee who was 63 asked me to figure out his retirement because he wanted to retire in 2 years.  Well….. sad to say… He had only been working there for 3 or so years, so his retirement package wasn’t going to be much and had never put anything into a 401k or an IRA.

Those who spent their lives working at the plant were able to retire with great benefits.  It wasn’t like a union with all the healthcare and stuff, but the company did offer a very good retirement plan for those that had been there for the long haul.  I suppose at this point they are measuring time in terms of their lifetime.

What it boils down to is that some Power Plant Men measured their life one-day-at-a-time, while others just looked at the entire time of their life as one time.  Some looked forward to a time when they would be able to rest, while others enjoyed their work each day.

When I think about time, I realize that an infinite number of things can take place each second.  Yet, a lifetime can go by without ever grasping what is important and what is fleeting.  When I think back at the time that I spent working at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, what I feel is that I was blessed by the presence of such great men and women and it was time well spent.

Comments from Original Post:

  1. Ron   November 2, 2013:

    Time ran backwards on one clock at the Seminole Plant. Bob Henley (Seminole Plant Electrical Supervisor) rewired his office clock motor to run in reverse! You had to mentally reverse the clock face to read the time. If you noticed the smallest “hand” tracking seconds was moving counter-clockwise, that gave you a clue. Bob was a unique Power Plant Man.

  2. Roomy:   November 5, 2013:

    If you will remember we were working with guys from the Korean, Vietnam & WW2 back then. As for the time cards, what a mess, some like me do direct entry into SAP and some put it on a spreadsheet that the timekeeper can cut & paste. Yes, there are some that still do timecards every day!!!! I would like to relate a little more but it is almost lunch time!! Maybe after my final break I can pass on more info. Later

Power Plant Secrets Found During Daily Mail Run — Repost

Originally Posted on November 2, 2012:

Mid-July of my fourth summer as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1982, Stanley Elmore came back from the office area while I was working fixing a flat tire in the garage. He shook his head as in disbelief… which was Stanley’s normal way of saying that he either had some interesting news to tell you, or that he was playing a joke on you and was about to set you up for something. He told me that I was one lucky person. I had been chosen to do the Mail Run each morning for the rest of the summer.

What this meant was that each morning about 8:30 I would drive the Plant Manager’s pickup truck to Red Rock about 5 miles away to get the mail from our Post Office Box there. From there I would drive to Morrison, 23 miles away to go to the Post Office to pick up the plant mail at our box there, and then to the Morrison Bank to cash checks for Petty Cash and make any other transactions that were needed at the plant. After that, I would drive the 17 miles back to the plant. This 45 mile journey along with the stops each day lasted about an hour.

This meant 1 hour each day, I wasn’t chopping weeds, or picking up rocks, or emptying the trash from the cans at the park, or fixin’ flats. I was driving a company truck from place-to-place running errands. As a Catholic, this gave me time to say all three sets of Mysteries of the Rosary (there were only three sets at that time) each day while on the job. A month and a half later when I became a janitor, it was decided that I would keep delivering and picking up the mail each day. Which suited me fine. I enjoyed the drive, and after I became a janitor, Pat Braden told me how to take the back road (County Road 170) from Red Rock to Highway 64 on the way to Morrison, which was a pleasant drive through the countryside.

After a couple of weeks of doing the Mail Run, it was decided that I could also be used to make runs to Oklahoma City once each week for the Warehouse to pick up parts at various locations throughout the Metro area. I was proud that I was being trusted to do this while still being a summer help. I was given a booklet of POs (Purchase Orders), which I found out was like a book of blank checks from the Electric Company that gladdened the hearts of vendors when they looked at me warily while they asked me how I was going to pay for the parts I was picking up.

I was 21 years old at the time and had a Commercial Chauffeur’s license, but I looked closer to 16. So, vendors were surprised to see that I was carrying the cherished book of POs for the Electric Company. To them it was better than cash. With it, I could have a vendor load a $20,000 item onto the back of the flatbed truck by signing a slip of paper, tearing it out of the booklet and handing it to them. I was honored that the company trusted me with this job.

This was a long time before GPS systems were in cars, so I relied on Dick Dale and Mike Gibbs to give me directions and tell me the most efficient routes around Oklahoma City to go to the various stops on my route. These trips also took me to various plants in the area. I was able to go to the Power Plant north of Mustang on the West side of Oklahoma City

Mustang Gas Fired Power Plant opened in 1950

and the plant at Horseshoe Pond (or was it a Lake?) on the East side of town.

Horseshoe Lake Power Plant Turbine Room in 1924

I even made a trip to Konawa once to the Power Plant there.

Seminole Power Plant at night outside of Konawa Oklahoma. This picture was found at: http://www.redbubble.com/people/harrietrn/works/1425122-seminole-power-plant

But enough about my own enjoyment. I know you really want to hear about the secrets I learned. They aren’t really secrets as much as they were insights or observations. You see, each morning I would go to the front office before I left to take lunch orders from Linda Shiever, Joan Wheatley and sometimes from Linda Dallas and Carolyn Olbert. They would have me stop by the diner in Morrison to pick up an order for lunch. I would stop by the diner on the way into Morrison and give them their order, then on the way back out of town, I would pick it up. Then I would have to smell the aromatic food the rest of the way back to the plant.

While waiting for Linda and Joan to decide whether they wanted the Chicken Fried Steak, or the Hot Roast Beef Sandwich, I would stand there listening to the conversations that were taking place. Having grown up around my mom’s Italian family in Kansas City, I had learned to listen to 3 or more conversations simultaneously while pretending not to be paying attention to any one of them.

So, I could hear the plotting and scheming coming from Jack Ballard’s office each morning. He was usually trying to figure out how to implement the latest dictate coming from the Plant Manager. So, he would be throwing out suggestions about how to go about them. This used to stick in my craw, because nothing enraged me more at that time than to have management treat their employees in an underhanded way. I had my reasons for the rage that I felt, and maybe I’ll go into those some time in a later post.

One particular topic I remember was when Jack Ballard was trying to figure out how to keep employees from taking any time off for Christmas. Eldon Waugh (or did it come from Corporate Headquarters? Yeah… right), had an edict that no one could take vacation around Christmas because if they did, they would probably leave town, and if they did that, and the plant had an emergency, then there wouldn’t be enough people available to call.

I didn’t understand that reasoning, since OD McGaha had spent almost his entire life within a 3 county radius around the plant. Sonny Karcher would be right down the road decorating a little Christmas Tree in his front lawn. Actually, most everyone would just like to stay home and spend some quiet time with their family. If some of us wanted to take a trip to go visit family, well. So Be It.

This was before I had realized the full extent that Eldon went to make life miserable for his worker bees (see the Post “A Halloween Power Plant Election Story” for a more complete understanding of “Worker Bees”). Eldon (or was it Corporate Headquarters) had already declared that no one was able to use vacation the last two weeks of the year.

So, what was the problem? The problem was that we had something called, “Floating Holiday”. It used to be used for Good Friday in the earlier days, but then later was changed to one Floating Holiday, which meant that you could take it any time throughout the year. This included some time during the last two weeks of the year since it wasn’t “technically” vacation. Which was once too often for the Plant Manager and Jack Ballard (the head of Human Resources at the plant).

I guess that either they didn’t think that the employees would buy the idea that Corporate Headquarters would make a rule that said you couldn’t take your floating holiday around the time of a real holiday (Christmas), so they had to come up with a way to keep the employees from even having one extra day during those last two weeks, in case we would get it in our heads to drive to Oklahoma City to do some Christmas shopping. So something had to be done about it.

Luckily (or maybe not so luckily), Linda Shiever was taking her sweet time that day coming up with the money to pay for her lunch so that I was able to hear a good 5 minutes of the conversation between Jack Ballard, Sharon Lance and Linda Dallas as they brainstormed a way to prevent the atrocious act of worker bees thinking they should have more than the one or two days allotted them for the Yuletide season.

You see… Vacation usually had to be scheduled well in advance, so a frugal, hardworking Power Plant Man will naturally save his floating holiday for an emergency. Just in case something comes up and they have to take an unplanned day off (or he has to go save his wife from their burning house and the plant manager won’t let him use black time — oh. That wasn’t this Plant Manager). So, when it came down to the end of the year, and the floating holiday was still floating out there waiting to be taken, then the Power Plant Man would take it during the last 2 weeks of the year rather than lose it altogether. This just made sense. So, Jack had to come up with a solution that prevented this. (This was a number of years before vacation was allowed to carry over for the first 3 months of the following year).

The final solution was that Corporate Headquarters would come up with a Policy that said that the Floating Holiday had to be used first before vacation could be used. — No. I’m not kidding. That way the Floating Holiday would not be available at the end of the year. I heard this being formulated from the mouth of Jack Ballard. Once he said it, it was like a window in the ceiling of his office opened up overhead and a ray of sunshine shown down on his desk and you could hear angels singing, “aahhhhhhhh”. They knew they had found their solution.

I think this policy lasted a couple of years before someone forgot that they had made it, and things were back to normal. It just fascinated me to hear how easily this band of vacation time bandits could manipulate the employee’s benefits on a whim. This type of time thievery (as I alluded to above) enraged me.

Time Bandits

Those of us that were at the plant during that time know to what end this group finally met their fate. I will discuss it in much greater detail in a later post that involves someone that the plant employees referred to as “The Snitch”. This story about the Floating Holiday is just a minor prelude of things to come in the following years.

On a more humorous note:

One morning when I went into the Plant Manager’s office to pick up the Pickup Truck Key, Bill Moler, the Assistant Plant Manager, entered the office with a big grin on his face and said that he finally found out why Indian Electric kept sending us an electric bill. Of course, Bill wasn’t paying the bill. Why would one Electric Company pay another electric company, just because they kept sending them a bill?

The answer came when the electricians had traced the sudden loss of electric power to the street lights in the Park areas on the south side of the lake. The power had been disconnected at the electric pole. The fuses had been removed. Upon further inspection, it was found that the electric poles did not belong to this Electric Company, it belonged to Indian Electric. They had turned off the electricity because our Electric Company had failed to pay their Electric Bill!

That is a funny irony that was not lost on Bill Moler. He was laughing about it all morning. An electric company that had their power cut off because they failed to pay their electric bill. How embarrassing is that?

Other interesting things happened on my trips to the Post Office and the Morrison Bank. Each morning I would arrive at the Morrison Bank just as they were opening at 9:00. One bank teller would be telling the other bank teller about her new boyfriend (around September). This later turned into a fiancee (in October). Then for a couple of months she would be discussing the impending wedding that was going to take place at the end of the year.

Cool Panoramic view of Morrison Oklahoma. Click this picture to see a blow up of it. Click the Back button to return to this page

Naturally at the end of the year, the bank teller was missing as she was on her honeymoon for a couple of weeks. I think it was a Carnival Cruise or a trip to Branson to go to Silver Dollar City (No. That was someone else. I wish I could put a smiley face here). Anyway. A couple of weeks after the New Year the bank teller returned, and as I followed them into the bank (as I did every morning), the one bank teller asked the newly married bank teller how everything went. The newlywed teller said that her new husband decided after about a week that he didn’t like being married so they decided to get a divorce.

Ok. I have to smile when I think about that one. There must be a punchline to a joke here somewhere. Like how many times does an Okie get married over Christmas? More times than they can take vacation…. Or something like that.

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