Originally posted March 1, 2013:
I thought my days of working with summer help was over when I joined the Electric Shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I had worked as a summer help for four summers while I was going to college to obtain a degree in Psychology. As I stated before, this helped me become a first rate janitor, as I was able to lean on my broom and listen to the problems of Power Plant Men that needed an ear to bend and to have the reassurance that they really didn’t have a problem. It was someone else’s problem.
When the second summer of my electrical career began, the electric shop was blessed to have Blake Tucker as a summer help. I had worked with Blake before when we were in the garage, and I had found him to be a man of character. I was glad to be working with him again. Not only was Blake a respectable person, he was also very smart.
Blake was going to the university to become an Engineer. Because of this, he was able to be in a higher class of summer help than I was ever able to achieve. As I mentioned in earlier posts, my first summer I was making all of $3.89 an hour. By the time I left to become a janitor, I had worked my way up to $5.14 an hour. After arriving in the Electric shop, my wages had quickly shot up to a little over $7.50. Blake was able to hire on as an engineer summer help which gave him the same wage that I was making.
Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, said that he had a difficult task that he thought the two of us could handle. We needed to go through the entire plant and inspect every single extension cord, and electric cord attached to every piece of equipment less than 480 volts. This included all drill presses, power drills, drop lights, coffee machines, water fountains, heat guns, electrical impact guns, refrigerators, hand held saws, sanders, grinders, and um…… er… it seems like I’m forgetting something. It’ll come to me.
Anyway. Each time we inspected something, we would put a copper ring around the cord with an aluminum tag where we had punched a number that identified the cord. Then we recorded our findings in a binder. We checked the grounding wire to make sure it was properly attached to the equipment. We meggared the cord to make sure that there were no shorts or grounded circuits. We made sure there were no open circuits and repaired any problems we found. Then once we had given it our blessing, we returned it to our customers.
We went to every office, and shop in the plant. From the main warehouse to the coal yard heavy equipment garage. Wheeling our improvised inspection cart from place to place, soldering copper rings on each cord we inspected.
One thing I have learned about working next to someone continuously for a long time is that you may not realize the character of someone up front because first impressions get in the way, but after a while, you come to an understanding. The true character of respectable people isn’t always visible right away (this was not true with Blake. I could tell very quickly when I first worked with him as a summer help that he was a good person. Work ethic tells you a lot about a person). Other people on the other hand, that are not so respectable, are usually found out fairly quickly.
Men of honor aren’t the ones that stand up and say, “Look at me! I’m a respectable person.” People that are dishonorable, usually let everyone know right away that they are not to be trusted. This isn’t always the case, but by studying their behavior their true character is usually revealed. I think it usually has to do with how ethical someone is. If they mean to do the right thing, then I am more inclined to put them in the honorable category. – Anyway…
Since Blake was studying Engineering, I took the opportunity during lunch to run some of my mathematical queries by him. Since I had been in High School, I had developed different “Breazile’s Theories”. They were my own mathematical puzzles around different numerical oddities I had run across. Like dealing with Prime number, Imaginary numbers and the Golden Ratio (among other things).
So, for part of the summer, we spent time on the white board in the office looking at different equations. There was no one else at the plant at the time that I could talk to about these things. – I mean… others just wouldn’t appreciate the significance of adding 1 to the golden ratio!
Anyway. I titled this post “…Summer Help Stories”, and all I have done so far is talk about how good it was to work with Blake Tucker. Well. A couple of years after Blake was our summer help, we were… well… I wouldn’t use the word “Blessed” this time. We were given a couple of other summer helps for the summer. One of them was a good worker that we enjoyed having around. His name was Chris Nixon. I won’t mention this other guy’s name in order to not embarrass him, but his initials were Jess Nelson.
Right away, you knew that you didn’t want to work with Jess. I worked with him once and I told my foreman Andy Tubbs that I didn’t want to work with him again because I felt that he was not safe. I was afraid he was going to get both of us killed. One reason may have been that I would have been fried in an electric chair for killing him after he did something really stupid.
Luckily Andy was accommodating. He allowed me to steer clear of Jess for the rest of the summer. We just had to watch out for him while he was in the shop. He was messing around most of the time, and had absolutely no work ethic. We couldn’t figure out how come he was allowed to stay after a while. Most people in the shop didn’t want to be around him.
I think Bill Bennett finally found a couple of electricians that would take him. He worked with O.D. McGaha and Bill Ennis on freeze protection. Since it was the middle of the summer, I think that was probably the safest place for him. it turned out that Bill Bennett had some pressure put on him to keep him in the electric shop instead of firing him outright because he was in the same fraternity in college that Ben Brandt, the Assistant Plant Manager at the time was in, and he was a “friend of the family.”
Anyway. The majority of the plant knew about Jess before the end of the summer (as I said before. Those people that are less honorable usually like to broadcast this to others). That’s why, when Jess “stepped into a pile” of his own making, all the Power Plant Men just about threw a big party. It seemed to them that Jess’s “Karma” had caught up with him.
Chris Nixon, the more honorable summer help, was from Stillwater, Oklahoma, and had actually gone to High School with my brother. Jess on the other hand lived in a different town in Oklahoma usually, but was living in Stillwater while he was working at the plant. I figure he was probably living in his fraternity house on campus though I don’t know that for certain.
Well. One morning the week before the last week of the summer before the summer help headed back to school, Jess came into the shop strutting around like a proud rooster. He was so proud of himself because he had been at a bar on the strip by the Oklahoma State University Campus and had picked up a “hot chick”. He had a tremendously good time, and he wanted everyone to know all about it….. (as less honorable people often do).
After everyone had to hear him crowing about it all morning, Chris Nixon sat down at the lunch bench and asked him about his date from the night before. Jess went into detail describing the person that he had picked up (or had been picked up by). After listening to Jess for a while, Chris came to a dilemma. He knew the person that Jess was talking about. After asking a few follow-up questions, Chris was sure that he knew the person that Jess had his intimate encounter with the night before. He finally decided he had to say something.
Some of you may have already guessed it, and if you are one of the power plant men from the electric shop at the time (that I know read this blog), you are already chuckling if you are not already on the floor. If you are one of those honorable electricians, and you are still in your chair, it’s probably because you are stunned with amazement that I would have ever relayed this story in an actual public post and are still wondering if I am really going to go on.
I said above that Chris Nixon knew this person. I didn’t say that Chris knew this girl, or even “woman”. Yes. That’s right. While Jess thought he was out with a hot blonde all night doing all sorts of sordid things that he had spent the morning bragging about, he was actually not with a woman at all. Oh my gosh! You have never heard the roar of silent laughter as loud as the one that was going through everyone’s mind when they heard about that one!
For those men that had been thinking that they wished they were young again while listening to Jess in the morning, they suddenly remembered why they had made the decision to keep on the straight and narrow when they were young.
It would have been more funny if it hadn’t been so pitiful. After being sick to his stomach, he became angry. He called up the local Braum’s to find out if a “person” meeting this description worked there as Chris had indicated. He wanted to go down there and kill him. Of course, he decided not to, but he did go home sick that day and didn’t show up the rest of the week.
He did show up the next week, and the female summer help that had been working in the warehouse had written a poem about their summer help experience which they shared to the entire maintenance group at a farewell lunch in which they made mention of Jess’s unfortunate encounter.
Some folks in the electric shop gave Jess their own “going away present” down in the cable spreading room. I wasn’t there, so I can’t speak to it with any accuracy, so I’ll just leave it at that. Luckily it was still kept clean after I had had the Spider Wars a few years earlier. See the post Spider Wars and Bugs In the Basement for more about that.
Well. We thought we had seen the last of this person. We were shocked when next summer rolled around and Jess returned to our shop as the summer help again. He had been a total waste of a helper the year before. The entire electric shop went into an uproar. Everyone refused to work with him because he was too unsafe. We had barely escaped several injuries the year before.
Bill, being the nice guy that he was, had given Jess a good exit review the year before, because he didn’t want him to have a mark on his record. Well, that had come back to bite him.
Both Charles Foster and Andy Tubbs, our two electrical B foremen at the time went to Bill Bennett and told him that he never should have agreed to have Jess come back when he knew that he was not a safe worker. Bill had received some pressure from above to re-hire this person, and Jess had made it clear the year before that he could do what he wanted because Ben was friends with his family. But with the total uprising, Bill had no choice but to go to Ben Brandt and tell him that he was going to have to let Jess go.
Talk about “awkward”. I’m sure this was a tough task for Bill. He always did his best to keep the peace and he took the “fall” for this. Ben was angry at him for hiring him in the first place (after applying a certain amount of pressure himself) only to have to let him go. Anyway, that was a much safer summer than the year before. That was the last attempt at hiring a summer help for the electric shop.
Comments from the original post:
Thanks, Kevin – good post.
I don’t remember Jess. But I enjoyed working with Ben. He was of fine character and always wanted to do the right thing. Personnel (Corporate Headquarters) made it extremely difficult to terminate anyone. I think they feared “unlawful discharge” lawsuits more than anything. We always preferred getting candid and objective evaluations from our Foremen before hiring rather than after (if possible).
I was “suspect” early in your story of where you were going. I remember the whole thing and for years looked at every guy working at Braums and wondered. . . . .? ” I hope this guy scooping my ice cream isn’t him.
Plant Electrician March 4, 2013
Yes. I believe the guy’s name was Terry.
Hi Kevin, I remember when that all happened. I ran into Chris Nixon last summer, he is working for the Payne County Sheriffs department.
Originally Posted March 2, 2012:
The first day I showed up at the Power plant to report to work as a new employee, it took me a little while to find the parking lot where I was supposed to park. There were construction people all over the place, large equipment being moved, and I had somehow turned my directions around 90 degrees when I came through the construction gate, so that I started heading up to the coal yard before I told myself that the little green shack I had past back by the main plant was probably where I needed to go (I never recovered from my perception of which way was north. I always felt like west was north, so I constantly had to stop and tell myself that the coal yard was north). So, having arrived in the parking lot about five minutes late, I was just in time to meet Steve Higginbotham the only other summer help during the summer of 1979. Well, there was one other guy, but he quickly joined a Brown and Root construction crew because he was a welder and they were getting paid a lot more than the $3.89 per hour the summer helps were blessed to receive.
So Higginbotham and I walked together into the main office that morning. He was about 35 years old with red hair, freckles and sort of reminded you of Margaret Thatcher only shorter with a more prominent forehead and wider chin and he had a Georgia accent.
He had worked as a Pinkerton guard at the plant before advancing to summer help. He explained it to me like this: ”If I get my foot in the door by being a summer help, they will be more likely to hire me as a permanent employee.” (somehow, I began to think that this probably wasn’t the best strategy for Steve to take. I thought perhaps a surprise attack would be more effective, where they don’t know you at all when they hire you). The company hired summer helps because there was a tax write-off for hiring college kids during the summer to give them a real life experience (I guess). Steve explained to me later that he really wasn’t going to college, but told them that he was going to go back to school to finish a degree so that they would hire him, but he really wasn’t going to do that. He drove an old Ford Ranchero (which is what inspired the El Camino). It was all beat up, and had the manual gear shift on the steering column, to give you an idea of how old it was. Below is a picture of one in good condition. His car however had dents, rust, and an assortment of trash in the back, and it squeaked when it hit a pothole as the car bounced on the springs.
I didn’t own a car and had just borrowed my family’s car to drive to the plant that day, so when Steve asked me if I would like to ride with him to work each day I jumped at the opportunity. I told him where I lived and he said that he would be by to pick me up in the morning.
I am the kind of person that likes to arrive at work at least 10 or 15 minutes early, so I was getting a little anxious the next morning when Steve didn’t show up. Finally, when I was about ready to ask my parents if I could borrow the car again, his beat up old car came puttering down the street… It turned out that Steve was the kind of person that likes to show up at least 5 minutes late each day…. Somethng I was going to have to get used to that summer. This is an important point in the story because those 5 minutes on one particular morning made all the difference in my outlook on what it meant to be working at a “Power” plant.
First, let me tell you a little more about Steve Higginbotham, just so you can appreciate his unusual character the way that I did. As an 18 year old summer help, not having had my encounter with Ramblin’ Ann until later, where I learned the fine art of rambling, I was amazed by the way Steve Higginbotham could talk and chew gum or sunflower seeds at the same time – all the time — non-stop. His open mouth would move in a circular motion while chewing and talking.
From the time he picked me up in the morning to the 25 mile ride to the plant, and until I arrived home in the afternoon, Steve Higginbotham was talking about something to someone and chewing either sunflower seeds or gum the entire time. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had been learning something, but I can’t think of one thing that he told me that was useful all summer. I think I paid him $15.00 each week for the privilege. Gas at the time was around 89 cents a gallon.
Twice each week we would sweep the entire maintenance shop from one end to the other. I would start going down one half, Usually the north side that has all the machine shop equipment, and Steve would start down the south side where the welders were. Invariably, he would catch an unsuspecting welder off his guard and start talking to him, and before you knew it, I had finished my side of the shop and was starting back the other way up the other side, where I would meet up with Steve and a half-dazed welder somewhere around the Welder’s lunch table, which was about 50 feet from the spot where Steve had started (I would say the shop is about 75 yards long) I didn’t mind, because I liked working and it felt good to look around at the clean floor and see that I had done something noticeable.
I had worked in a Hilton Inn restaurant as the night janitor when I was in High School, and the kitchen was almost as long as the maintenance shop. I would spend six hours each night sweeping and mopping the kitchen, and vacuuming the restaurant and bar. So, I always enjoyed sweeping the floor.
Mondays and Fridays were days where we would go to the soon-to-be park and pick up trash. The rest of the time I was able to work with the maintenance crews.
All the company employees at the power plant were fitted for a special set of earplugs that were made out of a Silly Putty looking material because there was going to be a ”Boiler Blowdown” on Unit 1 (which was just finishing construction). I suppose that most people (except the old timers) at the plant today have not experienced a boiler blowdown like the one that is done on a new power plant, since a new base unit hasn’t been built in a long time. We were told that when you hear the 2 minute warning make sure you put your earplugs in, because it is going to be really loud. We were reminded the day before to have our earplugs handy the following morning because that was when the blowdowns were going to start.
A boiler blowdown is when they run a big steam pipe right off of the high pressure section of the boiler and point it out off the side of the boiler and after they have built up the pressure as high as they can go without blowing the place apart, they flop open the valve and the steam is released quickly blowing out any unwanted material from the steam tubes, such as welding rods, tin cans, shoes, lunch boxes, a lost construction foreman, or anything else that was accidentally left in the steam pipes when they were assembled. I remember someone saying that they had a come-along go flying out of one once during a blowdown. The first blowdown was the loudest, and then after that they were slightly less forceful each time.
The next morning on the way to the plant, I could see steam shooting out of the boiler from about 10 miles away. As we pulled into the parking lot, the steam was shooting out about 100 yards from the big pipe on the side of the boiler creating a very loud rumbling sound that made your body shake all over. This is exactly how I remember what happened next….. I climbed out of the car and looked up at the large plume of steam shooting out of the boiler and I said to Steve, “Well, that’s pretty loud, but it’s not THAT loud!” Just at the exact moment that I finished that sentence, the ground started to shake, and my lunch box and hardhat went flying as my hands went to my head to cover my ears! I hit the ground and rolled sideways to see that the plume of steam that had been blowing out of the boiler had grown into a huge white roaring demon about 500 yards long as it reached directly over my head to the point where the condenser discharges water back into the lake behind me! The sound was so loud my whole body was shaking from the force, as we were directly in front of the steam pipe. It continued for about a minute or less and then abruptly shutdown back to the much smaller quieter plume of steam that had been there before.
I stood up, but my legs were all wobbly. I picked up my hard hat and lunch box and wobbled my way into the maintenance shop. My ears were ringing and I remember that I couldn’t hear very good and I was pretty upset about my possible loss of hearing. Then I wondered to myself why I hadn’t heard the two minute warning, and in my muted state I looked around at the mechanics standing around and my eyes settled on one person who was chewing on sunflower seeds or gum, and was talking to someone, though I couldn’t hear his voice – and I knew why! I couldn’t hear the 2 minute warning because we were 5 minutes late getting to work! We were always 5 minutes late! This bummed me out the rest of the day. As the day went by my hearing was returning, and by the time we were heading home, I could hear Higginbotham talking very clearly all the way to the house. Maybe this would have been a good time for the earplugs.
That night as I lay in bed, I could hear the boiler blowdown continuing 25 miles away every half hour or so. I thought about how much power it took to create that much force. It gave me a great respect for the power harnessed in the power plant and how it takes all that power and turns the majority of it into electricity to serve the state of Oklahoma.
One day, seemingly out of the blue, a van drove into the parking lot of the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. It was carrying some people that had come to our plant to perform drug tests on everyone in the plant. The test consisted of each one of us going into the Men’s rest room (or Women’s rest room, depending on the usual one you occupied) and peeing into a small bottle while someone stood behind you keeping their eye on you. This was the first time drug testing like this had taken place at the plant. A few years earlier, in order to find “druggies”, the “snitch” was hired to go around and try to coax people to go hide somewhere and do drugs with the snitch. I wrote about this in the post “Power Plant Snitch“.
This was different. The first time, it would obviously have been a case of entrapment to have someone come around and ask you to go to a janitor closet somewhere and smoke an illegal substance. Drug testing was more objective. If the drug test came up positive, you knew you were either guilty of taking illegal drugs or you were pregnant (or… maybe that was the other test). We had heard before that we may at any time be subjected to drug testing, so when the people showed up to actually do it, I don’t think many people were surprised.
For the most part, there were few people that had an issue with going into the bathroom and peeing in a small bottle. There were, however, a couple of exceptions. The person that I remember had the most problem with it was Diana Brien. She said that when she went in to try to pee in a bottle with someone watching her, she just couldn’t do it. I figured this must be a problem more with women then men. For one reason. Men are always standing there peeing into something with other people standing right next to them watching them.
Just today when I was at work peeing into the urinal at work, I turned to the right and said, “Hey Tom! How’s it going?” Tom said, ”Fine buddy! How are things with you?” I replied, “Oh, you know. I’m still here. That’s something.” We both nodded and went about our business. Something tells me the same thing doesn’t happen in the Women’s restroom.
With Power Plant Men, it is even more cordial than that. We tend to take showers in groups in one big community shower, where in the women’s locker room, they each had their own stall with a curtain. I only know because as an electrician, I had to go in there to change light bulbs.
The cordial nature of Power Plant Men in the shower came to my attention one day when I was a janitor cleaning out the bathroom in the Coalyard Maintenance building where the Labor Crew was housed. I remember hearing a conversation between Dale Mitchell and Chuck Morland as they were coming out of the shower. Dale told Chuck, “Gee Chuck, after seeing you, I have to question my manhood….” He went on to describe why. I won’t go into detail, but it had to do with Chuck Morland having a lot more “Manhood” than Dale had. You can probably guess that while I was around the corner mopping out the stalls where the toilets were, I was doing my best not to laugh out loud.
It literally took Dee all day to drum up enough nerve to go take the drug test. She kept drinking coffee, and water, but every time she had to go pee in front of the person from Corporate Headquarters, she froze up. By the end of the day, she had peed in the bottle, and it was over. Of the 250 employees, I don’t know if any were found to have been on drugs. After the warning, I wouldn’t have thought so. We were under the impression that if it was determined that you were on drugs, then they would take you to someplace where a more trustworthy test could be performed. If you were found to be on drugs, then we thought at that point that you would lose your job.
A few weeks before the drug tests began, when they were warning us that they were coming they said that if any of us had a drinking or a drug problem, they should come forward soon and ask for help. If you asked for help, then the company would provide services for you that would help you with your problem. If you later failed the drug test and you hadn’t asked for help, then you were going to be fired.
There was one person in our shop that we figured wasn’t going to be able to pass the drug test. That was Michael Rose. He drank so much that his blood alcohol level was normally high enough that if you were in an underground coal conveyor tunnel and the lights all went out, all you had to do was prick his finger and light it with your lighter, and you had a mini-torch until you were able to find your way out. When he passed the drug test it was pretty plain that either the test wasn’t worth a flip, or they weren’t testing for the type of alcohol Mike consumed.
In the following years, drug tests were supposedly administered by random. I will tell you why I say, “supposedly”. Some time after the initial drug test, one morning, our team was told to all get in a truck with our foreman and drive to Ponca City to a clinic and have a drug test taken. I think this was a blood test. It was done in such a rushed way, it was like they were on to someone, but didn’t want to just have that one person go take the test. That way, no one would be upset by being singled out to go take a drug test. At least that is what it seemed.
I remember our team all sitting there in the waiting room waiting to be tested. We each went in one at a time. When we were done, we drove back to the plant, and nothing was ever found (as far as we knew). I thought maybe this was the second level test because some anomaly had showed up on one of our initial tests. Anyway, it seems like all of us passed the second round of drug tests.
After that, about once ever year or two, a set of people would be randomly chosen from the plant to be drug tested. I know when most of those drug tests occurred because I was randomly chosen more times than not to be tested. In the next 10 years, I was tested at least 5 more times. So much so that I began to wonder why. It seemed as if every time there was a “random” drug test, I was chosen. I was usually with a different bunch of Power Plant Men, but each time I was there. Was I just so lucky? I am you know. I wrote a post about that. See “Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck“.
I may have just been paranoid, but it came as less of a surprise each time. The tests even became more sophisticated. Eventually, there was a chart on the side of the bottle you peed in. So, not only did it take your temperature, but it also measured your urine to see if you were trying to cheat the test.
I didn’t mind taking the tests. I figured it might as well be me than any of the other Power Plant Men. Why bother them? We were all clean.
It was when I was watching a movie once where someone sniffed some cocaine up their nose that an idea came to me as to why I might be singled out to take the drug test each couple of years. You see, I had the habit of wiping my nose with the back of my hand. Not because I had the sniffles, but because it was irritated all the time.
When I was in college I had my nose broken one night when a friend, Jeff Firkins and I were going for a walk in Columbia, Missouri. It was around two in the morning, and somehow we just ended up in Douglas Park spinning around on a merry-go-round.
My friends from Columbia who read this blog know that when you were Caucasian in the spring of 1980, it is not a clever idea to go play on the merry-go-round in Douglas Park at night. I seem to remember looking very Caucasian in 1980.
We were having so much fun that we didn’t mind when a couple of local park dwellers came and gave us a subtle hint that they wanted us to leave their turf. So, eventually, it ended with a scuffle in which I ended up with a broken nose. I knew that I had a cut across my nose from one guy’s ring, but I didn’t realize it was actually broken until many years later when an ear, nose and throat doctor x-rayed it and showed it to me.
I thought that because I was always rubbing my nose, then Louise Kalicki was suggesting to the drug testers that I would be likely candidate for sniffing something up my nose. I didn’t mind disappointing them each time. The nearest I came to sniffing something up my nose was when I worked in the bakery and I ate a lot of powdered donuts.
When I left the electric company in 2001, in order to go work for Dell, I had to take a drug test. I had to go to a local doctor in Stillwater, Oklahoma and have my blood drawn. Then that was the end of it. After working for Dell for 12 years, I have not been subjected to repeated drug testing. Working in a corporate environment is much different, however than working in a power plant.
I think it is much more of a factor when the Power Plant Men and Women that work in a Power Plant are on drugs. I certainly wouldn’t want to work around someone on drugs in a power plant. There are too many ways in which someone could be hurt or killed. Driving heavy equipment, or operating machinery that could crush you in a heartbeat, you want to make sure that the person in the driver’s seat is fully functional and aware.
There was only one time when I was at the plant where I can remember that someone was fired because they were on the job while they were intoxicated. It was an unfortunate case, because the poor guy had things going on in his life at the time that were only exacerbated by him losing his job. I think at one point, he became so low after being fired that someone described him as a bum roaming the streets of Tulsa.
I had only wished that it had been possible for him to kept his dignity and been offered help. I know those things aren’t always possible and there were other factors involved I’m sure. Just a side note. I believe that this man, whom I have always held in the highest regard, finally picked himself up by his bootstraps and regained his self respect.
As I mentioned earlier, Mike Rose passed his drug test that day, to everyone’s surprise. Even he was surprised. One weekend he had been called out to work to fix the air conditioner for the logic room. When Bill Bennett called Mike, Mike told him that he had been drinking and he wasn’t really fit to go to work at the moment. Bill assured him that it would be all right, if he could only go out and get the logic room air conditioner fixed quickly.
The logic room is the room that houses the plant computer that runs all the equipment in the plant (or it did at the time). It didn’t like being warm. If you can imagine the heat in the middle of the summer in Oklahoma. The plant operation was going to be jeopardized if something wasn’t done quickly. Jim Stevenson had already been fired because of the Snitch that I mentioned at the top of the post. So at the time, Mike was the only option available.
Mike went to work and found that the main relay to the air conditioning unit wasn’t picking up. So, in his inebriated state, he took a block of wood and pressed it against the lever that manually pushed the relay in, and closed the door on it so that the block of wood was pinned between the door and the lever. Keeping the air conditioner running. Needless to say, there was a legitimate reason why the relay wasn’t picking up, and by Monday morning the unit had burned up.
I think it was Leroy (or it may have been Tom Gibson) wanted to fire him right away for going to work drunk and destroying the air conditioner. Bill Bennett came to his rescue and pointed out that Mike had warned him before he came to work that he was drunk and Bill had assured him that it would be all right just this once. What could you say? I suppose shoulders were shrugged and life at the Power Plant went on as usual. I don’t think the drug testing ever amounted to anything. When someone was let go, it wasn’t because they had peed in a bottle.
Originally posted February 25, 2012. I added Larry’s Picture at the end:
When I first began working at the power plant (in 1979), one of the people I spent a good deal of time with was Larry Riley. I was 18 and knew very little about tools, equipment, power plants and how to speak in the Power Plant language. I quickly found out that in those early days, when the plant was still under construction, a lot of people turned to Larry Riley when they were faced with an obstacle and didn’t know how to approach it. Larry Riley was a 24 year old genius. I was amazed by his vast knowledge of seemingly disparate areas of expertise. When he was asked to do something, I never heard him say that he didn’t know how. He just went and did it. So, after I asked Larry how old he was, I asked him how long he had been at the plant. He hadn’t been there very long, but he had worked in the construction department before transferring to the power plant.
Larry Riley already at the age of 24 had a beat up hard hat full of hard hat stickers. One indicating that he was a certified industrial truck driver. I think he had about 5 safety stickers and various other hard hat stickers. He was a thin clean cut dark haired young man with a moustache that sort of reminded me of the Marlboro Man’s moustache. He walked like he had a heavy burden on his back and he was rarely seen without a cigarette in his mouth.
I worked with Larry off and on throughout my years as a summer help and during that time Larry taught me the following things (to name a few): How to drive a tractor. How to mend a fence. How to bleed the air out of a diesel engine’s fuel line (which is more important than you would think). How to operate a brush hog (a large mower on the back of a tractor). How to free a brush hog from a chain link fence after you get one of the bat wings stuck in one. Tie rebar, and pour concrete and operate a Backhoe. I remember asking Larry why a backhoe was called a backhoe. I think Sonny Karcher was in the truck at the time. You would have thought I had asked what year the War of 1812 was fought! I’m sure you are all chuckling while reading this (especially all the power plant men). But for those of you who are as green as I was, I’ll tell you. A Backhoe is called a Backhoe because the Hoe is on the Back. Gee. Who would have thought?
Later when I was a full time employee and had worked my way from being a Janitor to being on the Labor Crew, Larry Riley became my foreman. At that point on occassion I would call him “Dad”. He would usually disown me and deny that he had anything to do with it. On occassion when he would own up to being my dad, he would admit that when I was real little I was dropped on my head and that’s why I acted so odd (though, I don’t know to what behavior he was referring).
There was this other guy at the plant the first summer I was there that had the unique title of “Mill Wright”. His name was Gary Michelson. He evidentally had gone to school, taken some tests and been certified as a Mill Wright and this probably brought him a bigger paycheck than the other regular workers as well as a much bigger ego. He would spend days at a time at a band saw cutting out metal wedges at different angles so that he would have them all in his pristine tool box. I worked with him a few times during my first summer as a summer help. I will probably talk more about Gary in a later post, but just to put it plainly… I could tell right away that he wasn’t a real “power plant man”. The rest of the power plant men I’m sure would agree with me. I wouldn’t have traded Larry Riley for ten Gary Michelsons unless I was trying to help some engineers change a light bulb (actually. I have met some good engineers along the way. Some of them very good. But they were not the norm. At least not those assigned to power plants).
I have mentioned some different things that Larry had taught me and if you remember, he was the person that I worked with on my second day at the plant when Sonny Karcher and Larry had taken me to the coalyard to fix the check valve (in my post about Sonny Karcher). There will always be one day that first comes to my mind when I think about Larry. This is what happened:
I drove a truck down to the Picnic area on the far side of the lake from the plant. Jim Heflin drove a Backhoe down there. I believe he was going to dig up some tree stumps that had been left over after the “engineers” in Oklahoma City had decided where to put all the trees in the area.
What the engineers in Oklahoma City did was this: They cut down all of the trees that were in the picnic area and planted new trees. Some of them not more than 15 or 20 feet away from a tree that had been there for 20 years and was a good size. So, there were a lot of stumps left over from the big hearty trees that had been cut down that needed to be removed so that the sickly little twigs that were planted there could prosper and grow without feeling inadequate growing next to a full grown he-man tree.
Anyway. I had climbed out of the truck and was making my way around the picnic area picking up trash and putting it in a plastic bag using a handy dandy homemade trash stabbing stick. As Jim was making his way across the “lawn” (I use the word “lawn” loosely, since the area was still fairly new and was not quite finished) when he hit a wet spot. The Backhoe was stuck in the mud. There wasn’t much I could do but watch as Jim used the hoe to try to drag himself out. He rocked the backhoe back and forth. Use the stabilizers to pick up the backhoe while trying to use the scoop to pull it forward. I would say he worked at it for about ten minutes (even though it seemed more like half an hour). Then it was time for us to head back to the plant to go to break.
Back at the plant, Jim told Larry about his predicament and asked him if he would help him get the backhoe out of the mud. Larry said he would come along and see what he could do. At this point, I was thinking that he would jump in the Wench Truck and go down there and just pull him out. Instead we just climbed in the pickup truck and headed back to the park (notice how it went from being a picnic area to a park in only three paragraphs?).
When we arrived, Larry climbed into the Backhoe after making his way across the vast mud pit that Jim had created while trying to free himself before. He fired up the Backhoe…. cigarette in mouth… then the most fascinating thing happened… using both feet to work the pedals, and one hand working the controls in the front and the other hand working the levers in the back, Larry picked up the backhoe using the scoop and the hoe and stabilizers and cigarette all simultaneously, he walked the backhoe sideways right out of the mud pit and onto dry land just as if it was a crab walking sideways. I would say it took no longer than three minutes from the time he started working the controls. Jim just looked at me in amazement. Patted me on the back, shook his head and said, “And that’s how it’s done.”
Now that I’m on the subject of Larry Riley on a backhoe, let me tell you another one. I have seen Larry digging a ditch so that we could run some pipe for irrigation. Now picture this. The bucket on the backhoe is digging a hole in the hard red clay of Oklahoma, and Larry suddenly stops and says….. “I think I felt something”. What? (I think) Of course you did, you are operating this machine that has the power to dig a big hole in the ground in one scoop like it was nothing and Larry said he felt something? He climbed off of the backhoe, jumped down into the ditch he was creating, kicked some clods of dirt around and lo and behold, he had just scraped clean a buried cable. He hadn’t broken it. He had come down on it with the bucket and had somehow “felt” this cable buried under all that dirt. I wonder what it felt like that told him he had encountered something that wasn’t just dirt. I think the entire labor crew just went down on one knee before his greatness for a moment of silence – all right, so we didn’t really. But we were somewhat impressed.
The one thing that makes Larry a True Power Plant Man with all the rest is that he performed acts of greatness like what I described above with complete humility. I never saw a look of arrogance in Larry’s face. He never spoke down to you and he never bragged about anything. To this day, I still picture Larry Riley working at the power plant working feats of magic that would amaze the rest of us as he thinks that he’s just doing another day’s work. That’s the way it is with True Power Plant Men.
Since I first created this post two years ago, I have found a picture of Larry Riley taken many years after this story:
A year after I joined the electricians in the electric shop, Howard Chumbley became my foreman. One day when we were talking about going to the old Osage Plant up the road to clean up a PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) spill, he explained that “In His Day” they used to clean their tools in a vat of transformer oil that was full of PCBs. I remember him telling us that it was normal for him to be up to his elbows in the stuff. They never thought it might be harmful. Now we were getting ready to go up to the old plant to clean up a small spill and I was going to have to suit up in a special hazardous waste suit. I wrote about our experience in the post: “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Rest“.
Now we know about the hazard of developing cancer by having PCBs in your system. Today we know a lot of things we didn’t know back then. We know that Asbestos causes Mesothelioma. We know that Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) destroy the ozone layer. We know that Twinkies are one of the few foods that will be around after a nuclear holocaust.
Years before I became an electrician, the Electric Company had stopped using oil with PCBs. There was still an effort to clean it up from the older plants. At the new coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma, we didn’t have a problem with PCBs. We had other problems. Some of which we didn’t know about (well, we knew something, just not so much) at the time.
A very prominent responsibility of mechanics and electricians was to clean oily equipment. Pumps and motors, breakers, fans, mills. All kinds of equipment. Almost everything was lubricated one way or another with oil. Solvent was used to remove the oil when the equipment needed to be cleaned.
We had a standard kind of solvent at our plant. I believe it was called “Standard Solvent 350″. See…. It was a Standard solvent. Even had the word Standard in the name. One of the key ingredients of this standard solvent is a solvent known as “Stoddard Solvent”. This solvent worked real good when cleaning up equipment like motors and pumps and other oily equipment. Many times we were “Up to our elbows” in this solvent.
We had a barrel in the corner of the electric shop close to the door to the main switchgear where we could put a motor and scrub it clean while solvent poured out of a flexible nozzle on the motor, your shirt, your pants, your work boots, and the floor. Some days during overhauls when we would work cleaning motors for 10 hours each day, I would come home from work drenched in solvent. My wife would make me take my clothes off in the utility room where I could put them directly into the washing machine where Oxydol could go to work on it right away.
When Ted Riddle and I were working for Willard Stark on an overhaul at the gas plant outside Mustang Oklahoma during the spring of 1986, Willard said one day that he wanted to show us something. I explained Willard’s situation at the plant in a post called “Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark“.
He was a good example of what I would call a “Contrarian.” That is, he seemed to buck the system often. He thought outside the box a lot. I realized this right way when we would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio during lunch. Every time Paul Harvey would say, “…Noon News and Comment” Willard would always finish the sentence by saying, “Mostly Comment.” I figured then that he had to be a contrarian, because who would ever think that Paul Harvey wasn’t the best person in the world to bring the News to our private little power plant world.
So, when Willard said he was wanted us to see something “with our own eyes”, I figured this was going to be something good. Probably some kind of secret place where you could hide and take a nap if the day wore on too long, or something like that. Well… It didn’t turn out to be that kind of “something”, but it was something.
Willard took a small metal pan and put some Stoddard Solvent in it. The old gas plant used straight Stoddard Solvent, unlike the more sophisticated Coal-fired plant where Ted Riddle and I normally worked. We walked out into the turbine-generator (T-G) floor. He placed the pan of solvent on the floor, took a WypAll (which is a strong paper rag) and dropped it into the pan:
Then he bent down and with his lighter, he lit the WypAll on fire. We watched as the flames grew higher and higher. Willard watched our expressions. We had been under the understanding that Solvent was not flammable. He explained that technically, Stoddard Solvent is not considered “Flammable”, but it is considered “Combustible”. Combustible means that it burns.
Stoddard Solvent doesn’t ignite fast enough to be considered “Flammable”. At least that’s the way Willard explained it to us. Willard said he wanted us to be aware of this fact when we have our bodies all soaked in solvent, that if we were to catch on fire for some reason, we were going to go up in flames just like that WypAll. We both appreciated the advice.
I didn’t begin this post expecting to say that much about Stoddard Solvent, but just in case you were really wondering what it is, maybe this picture will explain it to you:
I hope that cleared it up for you.
The solvent I really wanted to talk about was one that was used more exclusively in the electric shop. It is called Trichloroethylene 1.1.1. You see, a lot of equipment that we cleaned in the electric shop needed to be cleaned spotless. Solvent 350 would leave a film when it dried. So, in the electric shop when we needed to clean something with electric contacts we would use something called “Electro Contact Cleaner”:
This was very expensive compared to the regular solvent. So, I was surprised when Ben Davis and I first went on an overhaul in Muskogee, and they had this exact same contact cleaner in 55 gallon barrels:
I remember John Manning showing us a few of these barrels that they had ordered for the overhaul. I think my jaw dropped. By my calculation, one barrel like this would cost over $3,000.00. I figured if it was in cans, it would have cost three times that amount. The advantage of using Contact cleaner was that it dried clean. It didn’t leave a residue.
Trichloroethylene 1.1.1 was like that. It didn’t leave a residue when it dried. I think this will become obvious to you when you see what it really is:
You can see right off the bat that this is going to dry clean… I mean…. it’s obvious… right?
Anyway. This stuff evaporated quickly so when you were up to your elbows in this solvent, it felt cool because it would evaporate causing a cooling effect. It had a very peculiar smell. It also made you feel a little dizzy when you were using it. Especially when you had to breathe in a lot of in a confined area. Having fans blowing on you seemed to make it worse, because it would increase the evaporation rate filling the air with more solvent.
It was known at the time that Trichloroethylene would destroy your liver when it gets into your blood stream. There was no quicker way of injecting the solvent into your blood stream than by inhaling it. Finally OSHA decided that this solvent was no longer safe to be used in a plant setting. It could only be used in small quantities like “White Out”.
Gee… Who remembers White Out?
The last time I heard about white out was in a blonde joke about someone using white out on the computer monitor. Who types anymore on a typewriter? I think anyone today that would choose to type on a typewriter would be the type of person that would prefer a typewriter eraser over white out.
I take that back. The last time I heard about White Out was on a show like 60 Minutes where they were showing young kids in Panama or another Central American country being hooked on tubs of White Out. They would sit around all day taking quick whiffs from a tub of White Out. — Why? Because it contained Trichloroethylene and it would give you a buzz.
My dad, a Veterinary professor at Oklahoma State University had told me about the dangers of Trichloroethylene around the time I told him about Bill McAlister using WD-40 on his elbows to ease the pain of his arthritis. Sonny Karcher had asked me to talk to my dad about it to see if he knew why WD-40 would help Arthritis.
My father (I’ll call him Father in this paragraph, because in this paragraph, he’s being more “sophisticated”) told me that WD-40 had the same chemical in it that Veterinarians used on horses to help their joints when they hurt. Then he warned me that the solvent in WD-40 soaks right into your skin and when it does it carries other toxic chemicals into your body than just the arthritis lineament. So, he told me to tell Sonny not to use it often.
So, anyway, we had to find a replacement for Trichloroethylene. Tom Gibson and Bill Bennett went to work ordering samples of other kinds of solvents that salesmen were saying would be a good replacement. One of the first that we tried was called Orange Solvent. It had a real nice Orange smell. Sort of like drinking Tang.
It had a couple of problems. First, I would be more inclined to drink it since it smelled so good, and I was a fan of Tang at the time.
The second problem with the Orange Solvent was that it didn’t seem to clean very well. We were used to something cutting the oil and contact grease quickly. the Orange Solvent didn’t cut the mustard (so to speak).
One day during overhaul at our plant, Bill Bennett gave us a barrel of some new kind of solvent. It was supposed to be comparable in it’s cleaning ability to Trichloroethylene (could you imagine Red Skelton trying to say that word?)
Bill wanted Andy Tubbs and I to use the new solvent on the main power transformer main bus connectors. They are normally covered with No-Ox Grease so this would be a good test.
So, Andy and I carried the large extension ladder out to the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer and leaned it up against the back side. We climbed up to the open hatchways and climbed in. We hung a small yellow blower in the doorway to blow fresh air on us.
Andy and I had everything setup and we were ready to work. We both just fit in the small area with the large bus work between us. We began using our rags soaked in the new solvent on the silver plated bus. I don’t remember how well the solvent cleaned the bus. I just remember thinking that this solvent sure did evaporate quickly. Especially with the blower fan right next to us.
I also remember looking over at Andy crouched across from me. He was looking down at the bus. Then his entire body seemed to swivel around as if he was on some kind of swing which caused him to tilt up the side of the enclosure. I watched his face, and he seemed to be saying something to me, only I couldn’t make it out.
I think I said something like “Huh?” Then about that time all kinds of brightly lit flowers were circling around my head and my arms seemed to be floating in front of me. I heard Andy say with a slur, “We better get out of here…” His voice sounded like it was in a pipe…. Well, we sort of were sitting in a pipe… He started to move toward the hatchway.
I remember briefly thinking that I was just fine enjoying the interesting scenery. By now there were bright lights streaming toward me from all sides. Then I thought. ”No. I better leave.” So, I struggled to pull myself into the hatchway. It was big enough that we could both pull ourselves out together.
I began climbing down the ladder head first. It was about 15 feet to the ground. I was completely out of the hatch with my body completely upside down on the ladder before I decided that it would be better if I turned over and went down feet first. Somehow I managed to swing my feet down and around without falling off the ladder. I think Andy was pretty much in the same predicament as I was.
Once we were on the ground, we hobbled into the electric shop and sat down. We told Bill Bennett that this was not a good solvent to use. I don’t even want to remember what the name of the solvent was. If I mentioned it, someone may put it in some tubs of white out and sell it to kids in Panama, because Trichloroethylene had nothing on this.
I suppose we finally found a replacement solvent. Though, I don’t remember what it was. All I do know is that it was quite an adventure trying to find one. Maybe we just used a lot of Electro contact cleaner after that.
Like Howard Chumbley, who told stories about being up to his elbows in transformer oil made with PCBs, I can now tell my fellow teammates at work, “Yeah. I remember the days when we were up to our elbows in Trichloroethylene. Never gave it a second thought.” Only, their reaction would be a little different than ours were in the electric shop office. They might raise their eyes up from their computer monitors and look across the cubicle at me for a moment. Then give me a look like “there goes that crazy guy that used to work in a power plant again. Hasn’t he told us that story about 50 times already?” Well…. That solvent and stuff. It makes you forget things…. I can’t remember what I have already said.
Originally Posted on February 15, 2013:
My first job, where I wasn’t working for myself, was when I was 14 years old and I became a dishwasher in a German Restaurant called Rhinelanders in Columbia Missouri. It felt good feeding dishes through the dishwasher, and scrubbing pots and pans because I knew that in the scheme of things I was helping to feed the customers the best German food in a 60 mile radius. Later when I went to work for the Hilton Inn as a dishwasher, I was serving a lot more people as they would host banquets with 100′s of people at one time. After that I went to work for Sirloin Stockade as a dishwasher, busboy and finally a cook. The number of people that would go through that restaurant in one day dwarfed the number of people we would serve at the Hilton Inn.
Nothing prepared me for the massive amount of people whose lives are touched each day by a Power Plant Electrician! Or any Power Plant employee for that matter. Our plant alone could turn the lights on for over one million people in their homes, offices and factories. As a summer help mowing grass and cleaning up the park each week removing dirty diapers and rotting fish innards it never really had the impact that becoming an electrician did.
Part of the routine as an electrician was to do preventative maintenance on equipment to keep things in good working order. We performed substation inspections, emergency backup battery checks. We changed brushes on the generator exciter, performed elevator inspections and checked cathodic protection to make sure it was operational. At certain times of the year we would check out the plant freeze protection to make sure the pipes weren’t going to freeze come winter. I also worked on maintaining the precipitator equipment. All of these things were needed to keep the plant running smoothly, but, though they were each fun in their own way, they didn’t have the impact on me that fixing something that was broken did. (ok. two paragraphs ending in the word “did”… what does that tell you?).
I used to love getting a Maintenance Order that said that something was broken and we needed to go fix it. It may have been a motor that had a bad bearing, or a cooling system that had shutdown, or the Dumper that dumped the coal trains had quit working. One of my “speci-alities” (I know. I misspelled that on purpose), was working on elevators. – I will save my elevator stories for later.
When I was working on something that was broken, I could see more clearly how my job was related to keeping the lights on throughout the area of Oklahoma where our company served the public. Depending on what you were working on, one wrong slip of the screwdriver and “pow”, I could make the lights blink for 3 million people. I will talk more about certain events that happened throughout the years that I worked at the plant where things that happened at the plant were felt throughout our electric grid. Sometimes even as far away as Chicago and Tennessee. There was a “club” for people that shut a unit down. It was called the “500 Club”. It meant that you tripped the unit when it was generating 500 or more Megawatts of power. I can say that “luckily”, I never was a member of that club.
Ok, so a broken elevator doesn’t directly impact the operation of the plant, but it was, during more than one occasion, a life threatening situation considering that a few times the elevator would pick the most opportune time to stall between 200 and 225 feet up the elevator shaft full of elderly visitors that were touring our flagship Power Plant on their way back down from experiencing the great view of the lake from the top of the boiler. (I know. My college English Professor would have a heyday with that run-on sentence). — actually, that sentence was so long, I think I’ll make it the only sentence in the entire paragraph, — well, except for my comments about it….
Charles Foster, my foreman and best friend, took me up to the top of the boiler soon after I became an electrician and showed me the “Elevator Penthouse”. I know. ”Elevator Penthouse”… Sounds like a nice place…. Well. It wasn’t bad after you swept out the dead moths, beetles and crickets that had accumulated since the last Elevator Inspection. It was a noisy room on the top of the elevator shaft where the elevator motor buzzed as it pulled the elevator up and let it down. Stopping on floors where someone had pushed a button.
I told you earlier that my elevator stories will be in a later post, so for this story, I’ll just say that Charles set me down on my tool bucket (which doubled as my portable stool and tripled as my portable trash can), in front of a panel of about 100 relays all picking up and dropping out as the elevator made its way up and down. He told me to study the blueprints that hung on the side of the panel and watch the relays until I understood how it all worked.
So, one afternoon, I sat there for about 4 hours doing nothing but watching relays light up and drop out. On the other side of that panel were the main relays. There were relays there we called “Christmas Tree” relays because they looked like a fir tree. I made some notes on a piece of paper about the sequence that the relays would pick up and drop out that I kept in my wallet. I used those notes years later (in 2000) when I was writing task lists in SAP (our Enterprise Resource Planning computer system) on how to troubleshoot the elevator controls. Anyway, that was how I learned all about how elevator logic works. You know what? It is just like writing a computer program using computer code. It is basically a set of instructions with rules built-in, only it was done with relays.
Well. Back to helping humanity…. So, usually when we were working on something that was broken there was an operator somewhere that was waiting for the equipment to be repaired so that they could go on with their job. Sometimes the Shift Supervisor would be calling us asking us periodically when we were going to be done because they were running low on coal in the silos and were going to have to lower the load on the units if we didn’t hurry up. It was times like that when you fixed the kill switch on the side of the 10 or 11 conveyor that supply the coal to the plant from the coalyard that you really understood just where you stood with your fellow man.
I am writing about this not because I want to pat myself on the back. Though I often did feel really proud as I returned to the truck with my tool bucket after coming down from a conveyor after fixing something. I would feel like taking a bow, though I was often by myself in situations like that when I wasn’t with my “bucket buddy”. At least the Shift Supervisor and the control room operators were very grateful when you would fix something critical to keeping the plant operating at full steam (and I mean that literally…. The electricity is made by the steam from the boiler that turned the turbine that spun the generator).
No. I am writing about this because it would hit home to me at times like these how much each of us depend on each other. We all know about how important it is to have a police force keeping order and having fire fighters and paramedics on standby to rush to protect families in time of distress. People in jobs like those are as obvious as the soldiers that protect our nation.
I think the majority of us have a much bigger impact on the rest of society than we realize. I think the Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with never gave it much thought. Like the person washing dishes in a restaurant, they didn’t look at themselves as heroes. But they are (I know… Sentence fragment). Each day they moved through an environment where a boiler ghost could reach out and grab them. They distinctively know that they are standing next to a dragon that could wake up at any moment and blast them from the face of the earth, but they don’t let it deter them from the immediate job at hand.
When the boilers were being brought on line for the first time in 1979 and 1980, when you walked through the boiler area, you carried a household straw broom with you that you waved in front of you like someone knocking spider webs out of the way (I called it searching for the boiler ghost). It was explained to me at the time that this was done to detect if there was steam leaking from the pipes. If steam was leaking from some of the pipes, you wouldn’t be able to see it, but if you stepped into the flow of the steam, it could cut you in half before you even realized there was something wrong. When the steam hit the broom, it would knock the broom to the side, and you would know the leak was there. Kind of like the canary in the mine.
I remember one day when everyone was told to leave Unit 1 boiler because during an emergency, the entire boiler was at risk of melting to the ground. If not for the quick action of brave Power Plant Men, this was avoided and the lights in the hospitals in Oklahoma City and the rest of Central Oklahoma didn’t blink once. The dragon had awakened, but was quickly subdued and put back in its place.
I entitled this post “Serving Mankind Power Plant Style”, but isn’t that what we all do? If we aren’t serving Mankind, then why are we here? Today I have a very different job. I work at Dell Inc., the computer company. Our company creates computers for people around the world. We create and sell a computer about once every 2 seconds. At the electric company we had about 3,000 people that served 3 million. At Dell, we provide high quality computers for a price that allows even lower income families to enter the computer age. Computers allow families to connect with each other and expand their lives in ways that were not even conceived of a few years ago.
Even though I spend my days serving my internal customers at Dell, I know that in the big scheme of things along with over 100,000 other employees, I am helping to impact the lives of over a billion people worldwide! I wouldn’t be able to do much if down the road the brave men and women at a Power Plant weren’t keeping the lights on. It is kind of like the idea of “Pay it Forward.”
So, the bottom line of this post is… All life is precious. Whatever we do in this life, in one way or other, impacts the rest of us. We go through life thinking that we live in a much smaller bubble than we really do. The real bubble that we live in is this planet and just like every cell in our body is in some way supported by the other cells, it is that way with us. Don’t discount what you do in life. It may seem insignificant, but the smile you give to someone today will be “paid forward” and will impact every one of us.
Comments from the Original Post:
Far too few understand this, very well said, my friend.
Ron Kilman February 16, 2013 at 7:20 am
I remember one time at the Seminole Plant when we had a steam leak on a Unit 2 throttle valve. You could hear it (over the roar of the turbine room) but you couldn’t see it (superheated steam is invisible). Martin Louthan and Ralph McDermott found the leak with a “red rag” on the end of a broomstick.
Life is precious, or it’s just another commodity, right? And that’s right down the center of the Left/Right divide…
Abortion debates sit astride that divide; healthcare is now crossing it as government undertakes how much to spend on various age groups.
Another side of it provided the sense of responsibility that led Power Plant Men to sacrifice and risk when those were needed. At one time, those attitudes would have been taken for granted, normal and to be expected… something that comes clear in all the Power Plant stories.
Originally posted on February 18, 2012.
I worked at Sooner Coal-fired power plant about a month during the summer of 1979 before I heard about the Indian curse that had been placed on the plant before they started construction. It came up by chance in a conversation with Sonny Karcher and Jerry Mitchell when we were on our way to the coalyard to do something. I was curious why Unit 1 was almost complete but Unit 2 still had over a year left before it was finished even though they both looked pretty much identical. When I asked them that question I didn’t expect the answer that I received, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to hear about an Indian Curse. It did explain, however, that when we drove around by Unit 2. Sonny would tense up a little looking up at the boiler structure as if he expected to see something.
The edge of the plant property is adjacent to the Otoe-Missouria Indian Tribe. It was said that for some reason the tribe didn’t take too kindly to having a huge power plant larger than the nearby town of Red Rock taking up their view of the sunrise (at least until the tax revenue started rolling in from the plant building the best school in the state at the time). So it was believed that someone in the Indian tribe decided to place a curse on the plant that would cause major destruction. I heard others say that the plant was built on Holy Indian Burial ground. At the time it seemed to me that this was a rumor that could easily be started and very hard to prove false. Sort of like a “Poltergeist” situation. Though, if it was true, then it would seem like the burial site would most likely be located around the bottom of Unit 2 boiler (right at the spot where I imagined the boiler ghost creeping out to grab Bob Lillibridge 4 years later. See the post Bob Liliibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost).
I am including an aerial picture of the immediate plant grounds below to help visualize what Jerry and Sonny showed me next.
This is a Google Earth Image taken from their website of the power plant. In this picture you can see the two tall structures; Unit 1 on the right with Unit 2 sitting right next to it just like the two boilers that you see in the picture of the plant to the right of this post. They are each 250 feet tall. About the same height as a 25 story building. Notice that next to Unit 2 there is a wide space of fields with nothing there. The coalyard at the top is extended the same distance but the coal is only on the side where the two units are. This is because in the future 4 more units were planned to be built in this space. Sooner Lake was sized to handle all 6 units when it was built. But that is another story.
At the time of this story the area next to Unit 2 between those two roads you see going across the field was not a field full of flowers and rabbits and birds as it is today. It was packed full of huge metal I-Beams and all sorts of metal structures that had been twisted and bent as if some giant had visited the plant during the night and was trying to tie them all into pretzels.
Sonny explained while Jerry drove the truck around the piles of iron debris that one day in 1976 (I think it was) when it was very windy as it naturally is in this part of Oklahoma, in the middle of the day the construction company Brown and Root called off work because it was too windy. Everyone had made their way to the construction parking lot when all of the sudden Unit 2 boiler collapsed just like one of the twin towers. It came smashing down to the ground. Leaving huge thick metal beams twisted and bent like they were nothing more than licorice sticks. Amazingly no one was killed because everyone had just left the boilers and were a safe distance from the disaster.
Needless to say this shook people up and those that had heard of an Indian Curse started to think twice about it. Brown and Root of course had to pay for the disaster, which cost them dearly. They hauled the pile of mess off to one side and began to rebuild Unit 2 from the ground up. This time with their inspectors double checking the torque (or tightness) of every major bolt.
This brings to mind the question… If a 250 foot tall boiler falls in the prairie and no one is injured… Does it make a sound?
In the years that followed, Sooner Plant took steps to maintain a good relationship with the Otoe Missouria tribe. Raymond Lee Butler a Native American from the Otoe Missouria tribe and a machinist at the plant was elected chief of their tribe (or chairman as they call it now). But that (as I have said before) is another story.
Comment from Earlier Post:
iI was there the day unit 2 fell, I was walking to the brass shack, just came down from unit 2 when we noticed the operator of the Maniwoc 5100 crane did not secure the crane ball to the boiler or the crane to keep it from swaying in the wind. I kept watching the crane ball slamming into the steel causing the boiler to sway and within a minute I watched it fall from 50 yards away and took off running,the whole unit was going up quick because B&R were behind schedule,and the most of the steel hadn’t been torqued yet by the bolt up crew.
There has been reports on the news this week about someone who has been shooting transformers in PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) substations in California. It is interesting that the national news is picking up this story now even though the FBI has been investigating similar attacks since December, and even earlier attacks against PG&E as early as last April, 2013.
These reports always catch my attention because back in the early 1990′s, the electric company where I worked in Oklahoma had their own episode when a shooter was going around shooting at substation transformers, and high voltage electric lines. At that time it was OG&E, not PG&E that was being plagued by someone that seemed to be randomly attacking the electric grid.
Back in early 1993, the first transformer that was shot by a high powered rifle using armor piercing bullets was in the middle of Stillwater Oklahoma near the Pizza Hut on Perkins Road. It is easy to remember the location, because it later became very significant when it came down to finding out who might be responsible.
Much like the reaction in California this week, everyone was alerted to keep a watch for anyone acting suspicious near substations and high voltage electric lines.
I enjoy watching a TV show called Forensic Files. It shows how important facts are collected that finally lead to a conviction of someone who has murdered someone. It is amazing how so many clues are left behind that can be used to prove who is the guilty person.
I suppose the main point that I walk away with after watching a show like this is that criminals are generally pretty stupid. Especially the really smart ones. I guess it’s because if they were really smart, then they wouldn’t have turned to a life of crime in the first place. Maybe it’s like the lazy people that work harder avoiding work than they would if they just did their job.
Of course, working at the Power Plant during this time meant that we were all put on a kind of “high alert”. We were extra suspicious of cars parked down side roads near our plant. Our security guards doubled up a little on their rounds on the lookout for someone suspicious. In a weird way it brought me back to when I was a dishwasher one summer at the Sirloin Stockade in Stillwater.
When I first moved to Stillwater in the Spring of 1978, right out of High School, I went to work as a dishwasher/busboy/cook at the local Sirloin Stockade franchise restaurant. This is not the newer company Sirloin Stockade that is on Perkins road today. No. This one was on the Strip next to the Oklahoma State University campus. It was privately owned.
One night during that summer there was a mass murder committed at a Sirloin Stockade in Oklahoma City after the restaurant had closed. All of the employees had been forced into the freezer and they were all shot in the head. At the time, no one knew the motive. It could have been that the murderer (or murderers) could have been upset with Sirloin Stockades in general.
For the rest of the summer, the manager Ken Low, who also managed a hamburger joint up the street for the same owner, would leave the Sirloin Stockade when the restaurant was just closing at 9:00 to go close the other restaurant. He would leave a young 17 year old boy in charge of closing up the restaurant and getting it ready for when it opened the next morning. Yeah…. That was me.
I didn’t think it was a coincidence that Ken had suddenly gained a lot of confidence in my ability to handle closing the entire restaurant all by myself the same week that the Sirloin Stockade Massacre happened in Oklahoma City. Ken was a friend of mine and I understood him well enough.
Me. I was fearless anyway. I always seemed to be missing that gene. So, I just felt that if some murderer came busting in the back door, I would, of course, defend myself by using the handle of the broom I was using to sweep the floor. Well. I was 17. So, of course I was invincible.
The same question was being asked about the person that was shooting the transformers and high voltage lines. It seemed as if he had a grievance with the electric company. So, when a witness had seen a man going down a remote country road in the same area where a high voltage electric line was shot, and a sketch of a possible suspect was created, they turned to the employees for help.
I wasn’t much help because I lack the imagination to take a composite drawing and extrapolate it into a person that I know. If someone were to draw a picture of me and ask me who I thought it was, I probably wouldn’t have a clue. I guess I lack that gene also.
Other Power Plant Men thought they knew who the drawing depicted. It reminded them of a former employee at the Power Plant. His name was Clyde Bateman. When others told me that, I thought, “Yeah. I suppose it could be him.”
Clyde had been a chemist at the plant. He had been fired a year or two before. It wasn’t that he wasn’t doing his job well. His problem was that some days he just wouldn’t show up for work without leaving any word. It would have been all right if he would have called the plant to let his manager, George Pepple know that he wasn’t going to be able to make it that day. He just wouldn’t say anything until he returned.
Clyde had been given the appropriate number of warnings and was told that if he didn’t show up to work again without leaving word that he wouldn’t be in, he was going to be fired. So, the next time that happened, he was “let go”. No one likes that to happen, because you know that there is some underlying reason for such odd behavior, but we had to keep the plant running, and when you rely on a certain number of employees to keep it going, what can you do?
This by itself wouldn’t make one suspicious that he might turn into someone that would flip his lid and start shooting at electric company assets. The psychological profile looked more like a Timothy McVeigh type character. For those of you who are from other countries that read this blog, Timothy McVeigh was a “homegrown” terrorist that decided to blow up a Federal Building in the middle of Oklahoma City one day (along with a number of other accomplices, some of which have never been identified), and he needlessly killed a lot of innocent people.
I didn’t know Clyde that well, so when others suggested that it might be Clyde, I was skeptical. Then, as the investigation went forward, I learned that Clyde was more like Timothy McVeigh than I had realized. — Well. At the time, no one had heard of Timothy McVeigh, since that hadn’t happened yet.
Power Plant Men that knew him said that he owned some land behind our power plant and he would go out there at times and blow things up. He like high powered rifles and all that. I thought that might be an indication, but it still didn’t convince me. I also liked to blow things up and I would enjoy shooting high powered rifles if I had the opportunity. I’m sure many Power Plant Men would enjoy doing the same.
Remember. This was back when it was still all right to play cowboys and Indians, and cops and robbers. This was before eating your Pop-Tart until it was in the shape of gun was never given a second thought. You could even take a Cowboy doll onto a plane with a tiny 1/2 inch plastic gun in the holster without being afraid that the TSA would take it away.
Anyway. It was later discovered that Clyde Bateman lived in a trailer park behind the Braum’s on Perkins Road in Stillwater.
This was important because his trailer was only about 250 yards from the first transformer that had been shot. Ok. With all the other things, this finally convinced me. They were on the right track. I think the OSBI (Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation) was on his trail and were keeping close tabs on him. It seems like they even asked us at the plant to not try to contact him or let him know that he was a suspect.
Scott Hubbard, a True Power Plant Electrician was out inspecting the equipment in the substation one day when he noticed a hole in one of the 345KV breaker operating arm enclosures. Scott thought it looked a lot like a bullet hole, so he alerted the control room. The control room contacted the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department to come out and look at it.
Sure enough. It was a bullet hole. The OSBI recovered the bullet from inside the pipe. Luckily where the bullet had entered, it had missed hitting anything that would have damaged the equipment. If the shooter had been a lineman, or an electrician, or from the T&D department, he would have not shot the part that he did. It looked like a critical part if you didn’t know better. So, the shooter was not familiar with the equipment he was shooting. That was clear.
Not only that, but there were much worse targets in the area that would have caused real damage. So, luckily this was not someone who did a lot of homework. It was interesting that the first transformer was only a block away from where Clyde lived, and the last shot was at the plant where he used to work.
The breaker was at a spot where he would have had to know to park on a dirt road a mile away and walk across a field to get the shot that he did. All the plant employees knew that road well. It was where the public had to go if they wanted to fish in the discharge channel where the warm water exits the condensers. The fish like it there.
With all that said, Clyde Bateman was due in court in Ponca City on August 11, 1993. Not for being the shooter that everyone was looking for, but for another offense. I don’t remember exactly what it was. He never showed up. Clyde took his own life that morning. After that day, there were no more shootings associated with this particular shooter. it was understood by the employees at the plant that the matter was behind us now. Business was back to usual.
I mentioned earlier that Clyde turned out to be more of a Timothy McVeigh type than we had originally thought. I didn’t mean that he was that way because he liked guns, because any self respecting Power Plant Man knows that if you care about your family and want to keep them safe, that a handy firearm is the best way to stop an intruder.
Clyde was an activist. I found this out only today when I decided to write about him. I found a very interesting case that the U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit ruled on only two and a half months after Clyde’s death. You see, Clyde had filed a complaint against the Federal Government alleging that the entire body of federal environmental laws were unconstitutional, because its enactment allegedly exceeded the authority granted in the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, and lacked any other source of constitutional support. The District Court had ruled that Clyde had no standing. So he appealed it to the US Appeals Court.
The Appeals court ruled unanimously that Clyde didn’t have any standing to bring this complaint against the Federal Government because (no… not that he was already dead) he hadn’t demonstrated that he was injured by the law. They didn’t rule that he was wrong about his complaint, only that he didn’t have any standing to file the complaint.
So, as Paul Harvey would have said, “Now you know the rest of the story.” If you want to read more about the Appeal Courts decision, you can find it here: ”Clyde Bateman v United States of America“
Originally posted on February 9, 2013:
The phone rang Saturday morning on March 17, 1984. Since we didn’t have caller ID at that time, I had to pick up the phone to tell who was on the other end. It was my foreman Charles Foster. He said he needed to go out to the plant to do some switching in the substation and he needed someone to help him. I had been an electrician for all of 5 months and this was the first time I had been involved with switching in the substation.
When I arrived at the plant 30 minutes later, the operators in the control room were busy putting Unit 1 online. Charles Foster had brought along his son Tim Foster. Tim was about 10 years old at the time. The operators didn’t have any certified switchmen available, and so the Shift Supervisor, Jim Padgett gave the go ahead for me to go with Charles and act as the “secondary” switchman. That is, I was the one that read and re-read the instructions while Charles would actually crank the switches.
Here is a picture of a typical substation you might run across:
I found this picture on the Department of Labor website. The Main substation at the power plant was much bigger than this one. Half of the substation was the 189,000 volt substation the other half was the 345,000 volt substation. For the particular switching that we were doing that day, we were in the 189 KV end of the substation. This is where Unit 1 fed power to the world.
This was my first experience doing something in the substation other than sub inspections and Transfer Trip and Carrier tests. I was a little surprised when Charles closed one of the air break switches and there was a loud crackling sound as an arc of electricity jumped from one switch to the next. Charles told me that was nothing. Just wait until I close the main switch from the transformer on Unit 2 in the 345 KV sub up the hill.
He was right. Later when I first opened that switch, it drew an arc about 3 feet long before it broke the circuit with a loud pop. You could hear the echo of the booming arc as the sound bounced off the nearby hills…..um…. if there had been hills… It was pretty flat…. being Oklahoma and all. I suppose it was bouncing off of the Power Plant and maybe some trees off in the distance. Well. Anyway. It did echo for a while.
After my first experience in the substation, I decided that substations were one of the neatest places to be. I later became certified as a switchman (multiple times, as you had to renew your certification every 2 or 3 years). Eventually becoming a Switchman trainer. Later when I was with my girlfriend, and even after she became my wife, and we would drive by a substation, I had to be careful not to run off the road since I was usually straining my neck to get a closer look at the substation.
This would result in Kelly become agitated (jokingly of course) that I was paying more attention to the substations than her. To this day, when we pass a substation, my wife Kelly will still let out a “hmmph” when I exaggeratedly ogle a passing substation. I mean…. Can you blame me?
Well. Throughout the years, Substation switching became more an more safe. When I first began switching, we would just wear High Voltage rubber gloves and maybe a face shield. Later we had to wear an Arc Flash Protective suit just in case something blew up:
One time one of the switches broke and exploded in the 345 KV substation and we found a large piece of insulator 200 yards away. This suit wasn’t going to protect you from that. It was only going to keep you from being burned if there was a flash explosion.
In the early 1990′s there was what was known as the “EMF Scare”. That was the belief that the high voltage electric lines caused Leukemia. It was true that children in cities that lived near high voltage electric lines had a higher risk of having Leukemia than the general population. It also happened that these High Voltage lines ran right down major roadways, so that these same children were breathing a lot more exhaust from the cars and trucks on the road than your average person also.
Anyway. When we worked in the substation we all knew that we were being bathed in electricity. If I took my volt meter and dropped one end to the ground and held the other end up by my head, it would peg my meter out at 1000 volts. One day in the evening when it was time to go home, Scott Hubbard and I were delayed because a fuse block had burned up in a breaker panel in the 345 KV substation.
It was drizzling at the time, so you could hear the electricity about 30 feet above our heads crackling and popping. Scott and I were standing behind the pickup truck looking for spare parts in my tool bucket and I had poured out some nuts, bolts and screws onto the bed of the truck. As we were sifting through them looking for the parts we needed, both of us were thinking that I must have had some metal shavings mixed in with the nuts and bolts. When we would move them around we kept feeling like we were being stabbed by metal shavings….. It turned out that it was just sparks jumping from the truck to our fingers.
10 years after my first encounter in a substation, while I was on the Confined Space Rescue team, we had to be out at the plant at night because some people were working in the condenser and the Confined Space Rescue team had to be on site. So, while we were there, we were doing things like cleaning up shop and stuff. Ray Eberle was working with me, and he asked me if I had ever heard about holding up a fluorescent light in a substation and having it glow.
I told him that I had, and it does glow. We went to the electric shop where I retrieved a couple of new 4 foot fluorescent lamps and we headed to the 345 KV substation around midnight.
When we arrived, we climbed out of the truck, and I demonstrated how just by holding the fluorescent tube upright, it would light up:
Ray was fascinated by this, and was noticing how the tube would light up from the point where you were holding the tube on up. As he was experimenting with this new found knowledge, there was an odd popping sound that would occur about every 5 seconds. I was standing there watching Ray in the dark. Ray finally asked me…. “Where is that popping sound coming from?” I pointed down to his shoes and said. “There are sparking jumping from you shoe down to the ground.”
Looking down at his shoe in the dark, Ray could see about an inch long spark jumping from his shoe down into the large gravel we were standing on. He was startled by this and decided that he had enough scientific lessons for one night. So, we climbed back in the truck and headed back to the plant.
Anyway. During the time that we were having this EMF scare (EMF by the way stands for Electromotive Force), there had been some movie or a 60 Minutes episode on TV about it and it was causing a stir. So, people from Corporate Headquarters were going around trying to educate us about it. One way they did this was to show us how low the levels of EMFs were in the plant.
Well. You can’t convince an electrician that we aren’t constantly being bathed in electricity when we are out in the substation, because we all knew better. This guy came around with a special EMF gun just to show us how the plant was safe… We had a meeting where the engineers agreed that we hardly had any EMFs in the plant. The highest EMFs were found in a drill that mounted horizontally using an electromagnet.
When I heard this, I became skeptical of these findings. And the horizontal drill made me even more suspicious. Not that I minded the EMFs. I found them rather refreshing. They seemed to line up all my thought bubbles in my brain so that I could think better. Kind of like “magnet therapy”.
Then a couple of weeks later my suspicions were verified. Doug Link came down to the electric shop with a guy from Oklahoma City that was going to go with me out to the Substation to measure the EMF levels. — OK. I thought…. Let’s see what happens now… Because I already knew the EMF levels in the Substation just my licking my finger and sticking it in the air…
The guy from Corporate Headquarters took out a roller with a handle much like you would have to measure long distances. Only this had a couple of probes sticking out from either side horizontally. — Now…. Horizontally is the key, and that’s why when they said the Horizontal drill had the most EMFs in the plant, I became suspicious in the first place.
You see…. EMFs have direction. The two probes on the instrument that the man was wheeling around the substation were parallel with the high voltage lines. Therefore, you wouldn’t measure EMFs between the two probes. If the probes had been turned vertically (up and down), I am sure that the voltage (and the EMFs) would have blown the circuitry in the instrument. I say that because the guy that was wheeling this thing around the substation was being very careful not to tilt it one way or the other.
My suspicions were further confirmed when we were in the relay house looking at the results from when he circled the large transformer between the 189 and the 345 subs, and there was a large spike in EMFs at one spot. When we went to look at that spot, it was at the point where the high voltage bus turned down to go into the transformer…. Just like the Horizontal drill…. The direction was across the probes. You see…. EMFs are perpendicular to the flow of electricity. Or straight down from an overhead line. I mean… duh. You had to hold the fluorescent light upright to make it glow….
Well. I thought…. What do I do? Here is a guy trying to pull the wool over our eyes to make us believe that there aren’t any EMFs out there. I felt insulted. On the other hand, I didn’t care about the EMFs. I liked the EMFs. So, after looking at Doug Link straight in the eyes with an astonished look of disbelief that this guy thought we were so gullible to believe this magic act, I decided to let it go. Let him think he relieved our worry that didn’t exist in the first place. Why ruin his day. He had to drive 70 miles back to Corporate Headquarters. Why should he go all that way back thinking that he failed in his mission? So, all I could do was smile.
Anyway. Tim Foster, the 10 year old boy that was with his father, Charles Foster the first time I went to the substation to go switching, later grew up and became an electrician himself. Not only did he become an electrician, but he became an electrician in the same electric shop where his father had worked for 30 years. He works there to this day, and I’m sure that Tim now has an occasion to go switching in the same substation where I first met him. Bathing in the same EMFs. Feeling the same thrill when you open a 345 KV air switch with a loud Pop!