About a year after I had joined the electric shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, when it was my week to be the truck driver in Fall of 1984, I had an conversation with a contract electrician that I have never forgotten. It was with a guy named Mark Meeks. I have talked about him before in the post entitled, “Life Cycle of a Power Plant Lump of Coal“.
At the time, Mark was working as a contract help for the electric shop. He had been hired to help Mike Rose and Bill Ennis to work on Freeze Protection. I was driving him to the coal yard. He was telling me how he liked working on a job for a while and then he would move on to do another job working somewhere else.
I replied back that I liked having a job where no one had ever been laid off. The electric company had been in existence for about 70 years and had never had a downsizing. I noticed that when I said that, Mark paused and thought about what I said. I was not surprised when a few weeks later, Mark was hired as a plant electrician in the shop.
I’m not saying that no one was ever fired from a power plant. I’m just saying that there wasn’t a general downsizing where a group of people were laid off. After all. you can’t really ship the jobs overseas. Not when you want to provide electricity to Oklahoma City. So, as long as you did your job and showed up to work on time, you had job until it was time to retire. That type of job security sure felt good.
All good things have to come to an end at some point. Toward the end of 1986, Martin Louthan, the Superintendent over all the Power Plants, came to our plant to talk to us. He told us that when our plant was created, it was engineered so that it would accommodate 6 units. At the time we had two. He said that when they staffed the plant, they hired enough people to operate and maintain four units.
He explained that when the oil boom went bust in 1982, it changed everything. The demand for electricity dropped instead of increased as the company had projected. So, our power plant had too many employees for the foreseeable future. We were going to have to downsize. At the time we had over 350 employees.
I think we all knew that we had too many employees at the time. There was a lot of downtime when the maintenance crews had to look for something to do. There are innumerable “for instances” I could bring up. Like times when a team of welders had to go weld something at the train gate, which would normally take a couple of hours. Instead of having it done by lunch time, the crew would park their truck at the train gate, way out where no one would bother them, and listen to the radio for a week.
There were a lot of times like these where there just wasn’t enough work during a regular work week to keep everyone busy. Everyone seemed to have their own special place where they could go take a nap if they needed one. I think we all figured that they kept us all around because when it came time for overhaul, everyone was hard at work making all kinds of overtime. Anyway. We knew it was true. There were too many employees at our plant. Especially since we weren’t going to be expanding anytime soon.
So, here is how the company decided to downsize the company. They offered everyone a “Voluntary Separation Package.” (Or VSP as we refer to it at Dell where I work today – or I did when I originally wrote this post… Now I work at General Motors who just recently – in 2019 had a VSP of their own). They would give you so many weeks of pay for every year of service you had with the company. I don’t remember the exact amount. The employees had until a certain date to decide.
Employees that were over 55 years old would be able to take an early retirement package that would amount to a normal retirement if they had stayed until they had reached retirement age. Our retirement pension plan had grown large enough that it could comfortably absorb those who would early retire. You had until a certain date when you had to decide whether or not you would take the early retirement.
There was one caveat to the taking the Voluntary Separation Package or the early retirement. You had to decide to take one of these options before you were told if your permanent position with the company was going to be terminated at the end of the year. That is, if by the end of June, if you didn’t take the package, then in July if you were told that your position was being eliminated, then the package and retirement was no longer an option. So, if you doubted your “good standing” with the company, you probably would be inclined on taking the retirement package if you were old enough.
In the electric shop I think we had one person old enough to retire. Bill Ennis. He decided to stick it out and hope that his position would still be around. Bill was a good worker, so if that had anything to do with it, he was in good shape. Only one person in our shop decided to take the Voluntary Separation Package.
It broke my heart the day that Arthur Hammond told me he was going to take the package. He only had three years with the company, so his package wasn’t going to be that big, but there was a lump sum associated with it as well. I explained his decision in the post “Power Plant Arguments with Arthur Hammond“. Arthur was a dear friend of mine. I feared that he hadn’t thought this decision through. On one hand, he was used to moving from job to job like Mark Meeks as a Contract electrician. On the other hand, he was raising a family who would benefit from a stable income without having to move from place to place.
The one an only good thing about Arthur Hammond leaving was that Scott Hubbard moved to the electric shop in his place. This was fortunate for Scott because the testing team was not surviving the downsizing and his position was surely going away. I had a bias toward the testers from their inception because when I was on the labor crew, we had not been allowed to apply for the testing jobs. I was also biased because Scott was replacing my friend Arthur. I explained this in the post: “Take a Note Jan, Said the Supervisor of Power Production“. As it turned out, Scott and I became like brothers. We worked together for years, and carpooled most of the time after he joined the shop.
As a side note. I ‘fessed up to Scott one day while we were driving home from work…. He was driving, and I told Scott, “I just want you to know that when you first came to the electric shop. I didn’t like you. It wasn’t anything you did. I just didn’t like you because you were on the testing team.” When I told Scott that, I could tell that he was uncomfortable and that he felt hurt by what I was saying. He turned his head away from me. I went on…. “When I came to know you while we have worked together, I just want you to know that you have become one of my best friends. I am sorry that I had prejudged you. I just wanted to let you know. I’m glad we are on the same team.”
So, what does this have to do with Bif? Well, Lynn “Bif” Johnson and Mark Meeks were two of the few people left that were told on the “day of reckoning” that their jobs were going way.
I remember how our entire team was called up to the front office. We waited in Leroy Godfrey’s office. (He was early retiring). They called us one at a time to Bill Moler’s office (He was early retiring also). There we were told that who we would be working for.
Gary Wehunt had been sure that he was going to be axed. I think by that time we knew that the electric shop needed to downsize one more person. Gary was shocked when he was told he still had his job. He was going to be working for Andy Tubbs on the same team I was on. — Of course, in my own cocky 26 year old way, I never thought I would be let go.
Mark Meeks was told he would no longer be employed at the end of the year. The same was true for Bif Johnson. The company offered to help find a job somewhere in the company if there was position left vacant that needed a person with your skills. They also provided a service to help you create a resume and would help you find a job so that by the end of the year, you wouldn’t just be sent packing.
Mark called up some of his contract buddies and was soon on his way to another job. He had been a contract electrician for so long, this was “Situation Normal” (which is the first two words for the acronym “SNAFU”) for him. I thought it was ironic that he should be the one person from the electric shop that was laid off when I knew that the reason he had applied for the position in the first place was most likely because he thought he could be there until he retired, as we had discussed that day in the truck a couple of years earlier.
I later learned that before Leroy Godfrey early retired he had singled out Mark Meeks and had seen to it that he was the person that was going to be laid off because he had said something to Leroy one day that had annoyed him. Much like the comment I had made to Leroy one day when he went to Bill Bennett and told him to fire me. See the Post: “Chief Among the Power Plant Machinists ” As Bill Bennett explained. Leroy wanted to make sure that Mark was included in the downsizing. It was his gift to him.
So, what about Bif? With all the help offered by the company to find a new position and five months to find a new job, what happened to Bif? Well. Bif had the attitude that I had, though he is 10 years older than me. He had it in his mind that for some reason the plant couldn’t do without him…. or maybe it was more like the attitude I have at my current job. “I am going to stay here until you make me leave.” The last day of the year came around…. Bif was no longer working for the electric company.
It seems like there were two people at the plant at the end of the year that had their positions eliminated that decided to remain at the plant up until the last day of the year (Off hand, I have forgotten who the other person was). Neither of them had sought help from the company to find another position in the company or even outside the company. They were really only laid off because they chose to be. The company had offered them every opportunity.
There were a few lessons I learned from the different events that happened during this time. The first was that I shouldn’t dislike someone because of someone else’s decision. It wasn’t Scott Hubbard’s decision not to let labor crew hands apply for the testing positions. I saw the same thing happen at the gas plant in Harrah, Oklahoma when Mel Woodring became the foreman ahead of obviously more qualified electricians. The general feeling was to dislike Mel, but who was it that picked him? Mel didn’t have anything to do with that decision. He was a pawn in an effort to move him out of the Muskogee Plant.
The second was that no matter how much you think you are indispensable, you aren’t. We all knew the saying that if you want to find out how important you are, just put your hand into a bucket of water and pull it out and see what kind of hole you leave. That’s how important you are. — Well…. Archimedes would disagree with this assessment given that the water level in the bucket changed, but that wasn’t the point.
Third, Job Security? What’s that? A Power plant probably still has more job security than most other jobs.
The fourth lesson I learned was that when your friend has decided to make a dumb decision, no matter how much it is going to hurt them in the long run, after you have tried to convince them not to take that route, you have to stand by them as much as possible. I have had some friends in the past make really stupid decisions in their lives. No matter how dumb it is…. remain their friend. How much of a friend are you if you cut and run because of their bad decisions? Like my friend Bob Ray reminds me often…. “You can’t fix stupid.” No. You can’t. But you can be there to help when needed.
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Originally posted December 20, 2013. Added additional news about Richard at the bottom of the post:
I think it was while we were sitting in the lunch room eating lunch while I was still a janitor when the subject of harmonicas came up. Dick Dale must have asked me if I played a musical instrument, because that was my usual reply, “I play the harmonica… and the Jew’s Harp.” Just about everyone knows what a Harmonica looks like. I suppose most people in Oklahoma knows what a Jew’s Harp is. It’s that instrument you put in your mouth and you flip the little lever and it makes a vibrating twanging sound.
Dick Dale, worked in the warehouse, and we had been friends since my second year as a summer help. He told me that he always wanted to learn to play the harmonica. I told him I learned by just playing around on it. I never took lessons or used a harmonica book or anything.
When I was growing up, my dad knew how to play the harmonica, so we had one laying around the house all the time. So, one day when I was a kid, I picked it up and started playing with it. It took about five minutes before my older sister ran to my mom and complained about me making a racket. My mom told me to take it outside. So, I not only learned the harmonica by playing around with it, I was usually sitting alone in the woods while I was learning it. I have found that under these conditions, there is usually some basic part of the skill that is left out. So, I knew that my harmonica playing was never really up to snuff.
In the spring of 1983, I joined the labor crew, and I no longer ate lunch in the break room. I kept it in mind that Dick Dale wanted to learn to play the harmonica, so some time during the summer, I purchased a Hohner Marine Band Harmonica for him, and I began creating a song book with the songs that I knew how to play. I made up my own notation. The holes in the harmonica were numbered, so I wrote the numbers of the holes I would blow in, and put an arrow above the number pointing up or down to indicate whether I was blowing in the hole, or sucking the air through the hole.
During the summer I talked to Dick Dale a few times, and he was having trouble with his family. He was getting a divorce from his wife of fifteen years. He was pretty upset about that, because all along he thought he was happily married. This turned out not to be the case. In the process, Dick moved from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Ponca City. I was living in Stillwater at the time.
When winter came around, my friend Tim Flowers, who was a summer help for two summers at the plant, including the summer I was on the labor crew, came to visit me in Stillwater. I had bought a harmonica for him for Christmas, and I told him I wanted to go visit Dick Dale in Ponca City and take him his Harmonica for Christmas, along with the booklet I had handwritten (as we didn’t have computers back in those days….).
So, I called up Dick to make sure it would be all right if we dropped by for a little while. He was at home in his new house, and said he would be delighted if we came by. Dick knew Tim Flowers from the time he had been a summer help. While Tim and I were carpooling, Dick would be carpooling with Mike Gibbs, and sometimes on the way home, we would play car tag going down the highway.
One day after a Men’s Club dinner at the plant, while we were leaving, I was in the front of the line of cars heading for the main gate. In those days, there weren’t two separate gates (one for entering, and one for exiting). So, the one gate had to open almost all the way up before the person exiting could go through the gate.
When I pulled up to the gate, I pulled up on the entrance side, and Dick and Mike pulled up on the exit side. We had been racing with each other up to the main gate…. Dick was revving up the engine of his pickup truck which could easily outrun my little blue 1982 Honda Civic. I had to be more cunning to stay in front of Richard (yeah. I liked to call him Richard).
As the gate opened, I was on the side where I could go through the gate first. The way it worked was that as soon as I crossed the threshold of the gate, the gate would stop opening. then, as I went through it, I drove over to the exit side and ran over the closed loop of the gate, so that the gate closed again leaving Richard and Mike waiting behind the closed gate as we made our escape.
Of course, as soon as we were out on the main highway, it didn’t take long for Richard to make up the mile lead I had gained while he had to wait for the gate to close and re-open. So, the only way I could prevent him from passing me was by weaving over in the passing lane when he attempted to pass me, and then back again, when he returned to the right lane.
Eventually he was able to go around me, but from that day forward, whenever we were travelling home at the end of the day, and we were following each other, we would both meander back and forth across the highway on the way home…. when it was safe of course. Since we were out in the country, on a seldom traveled rode, that was usually not a problem. This came to an end when Richard moved to Ponca City.
When Tim Flowers and I arrived at Richard’s house in Ponca City that Christmas holiday, we surprised him when we handed him his very own harmonica with the booklet that I had written. He invited us inside and we sat for a while as I explained to him how the booklet worked. He said he appreciated it, and that he would work on learning how to play his harmonica so that we could play together.
We sat around and made terrible music together for a while. Then, because I didn’t want to impose on Richard too much, we left to go back to Stillwater. A couple of weeks later after the holiday, Richard said he had been practicing on the harmonica and he really appreciated the Christmas present.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but two and a half years later I was going to move to Ponca City after I was married, and my wife graduated from nursing school. That was when Dick Dale, Jim Heflin, Bud Schoonover and I began carpooling together (See the post: Carpooling with Bud Schoonover). At the time Dick said that he had hoped to get over the tragedy of his marriage by the end of the year. He had heard that it took a year to get over 5 years. Since he had been married for 15 years, he figured by the end of 3 years he should be feeling like he was over it.
The only other person at the plant that I can remember that ever heard me playing the harmonica was Arthur Hammond. He asked me one day in 1986 if I would bring my harmonica to work so that he could hear me play it. So, I did, and while we were driving down to the Arkansas River to check batteries, I played some “harmonica blues” for him. It was just stuff I was making up.
I had seen this movie called “Crossroads” with Ralph Macchio. In the movie Ralph’s character is trying to learn how to play the Blues guitar from an old and once famous blues musician. There are two things you learn as the movie unfolds. The first is that in order to really know how to play the blues, you had to have experienced a real “Blue” time in your life. So you had to play with the feeling that you had experienced. The second thing was that Ralph had to play his guitar against a contract guitar player chosen by the devil in order to save the old man’s soul.
So, what was I supposed to do? I had been blessed most of my life. I hadn’t really experienced any “real” blues. As Art was driving the pickup truck down to the river, I tried to dream up the bluest thoughts I could. I thought…. what if the world ran out of chocolate….. That would ruin everybody’s mood. I piped out a few sorrowful sounding notes on the harmonica to try and portray my disappointment living without chocolate….. that sounded kind of lame.
Then I thought, wasn’t I upset that one time when I was a summer help and I stayed over to help feed the foremen that were having a dinner in the break room and Pat Braden and I fed the foremen, and no one offered me any food, so I had to go hungry for a couple of hours before I could go home and eat some leftovers at home. I think I felt kind of blue that day….. so I cupped my hand over the harmonica, tilted my head to the side and tried to remember that painful time as I shook my hand up and down so that the harmonica would make the sad “whaaa whaa” sound.
I drummed up a few more sad thoughts, and I thought I was really floundering as my debut as a blues harmonica player, so I paused for a few minutes to try and make myself feel bad about doing such a poor job playing the harmonica hoping that it would help. Then Art said, “Hey. You are pretty good!” “What?” I thought, “Oh… That’s Art, trying to be polite.” “Thank you,” I said. Boy. How pitiful is that? Surely I should feel bad enough now to play some blues at least a little better….
Anyway, a mile or two later, I decided to give it up. I put the harmonica back in my pocket and told Art that was all I could do for now. Finally. We had some peace and quiet the rest of the way to the river. I remembered that my sister would always run screaming to my mom when I was younger and blew a few notes on the harmonica, and here Art patiently listened and even complimented my playing. Gee. What a true friend he was.
Later, Dick Dale remarried, and as far as I could tell, he was a much happier person a few years after that. I did what I could to help him. Though, I think at times I confused him a little. I will relay a story about that in a few weeks.
Richard Dale died at the age of 64 on Christmas Day, 2008. He can now be heard in concert in Heaven playing the mouth organ. Since I don’t play the regular harp, I hope one day to stand alongside him playing the Jew’s Harp. Richard’s Mother Maurine Dale joined him in Heaven last month (November, 2015) at the age of 98.
Originally posted December 28, 2013:
Times were changing in 1987 when the electric company in Oklahoma decided that they needed to downsize the company in order to change with the new business environment. I always seemed to think that the executives down at corporate headquarters in Oklahoma City knew that the old pioneers in charge of the Power Plants would be very difficult customers when it came to the new business model.
Like I said…. Times were changing. The digital era was being introduced to the power industry. We had already upgraded the precipitator controls to make them computerized. Other areas of the plant were going to be next. Especially the employees. Of course, none of us knew that quite yet, except Bill Rivers, who was a natural visionary, and he was gone.
Side story time:
I had always been interested in computers and programming from the time I was a sophomore in High School when I had just turned 15 years old. My friend Jesse Cheng had introduced me to one of the first programmable calculators, the HP-25.
This was the most wonderful Christmas present I had ever received. I literally felt myself fainting when I opened the present and found that I had been given a pair of cowboy boots, only to find an HP-25 calculator inside when I opened it up. Ralphie had nothing on me that day.
It was much like the Christmas Story with Ralphie. I had tried every with way to convince my parents that using a slide rule in High School was passe (pronounced “pass A”). All the other students in my advanced chemistry class were using calculators, and I was still stuck with my dad’s old circular slide rule. It was a pretty neat one, I’ll grant you that, but it just… well….. I could work things out on paper faster than I could use the slide rule.
I introduced my friend Jesse Cheng in the post “Why Do Power Plant Men Always Lose the Things They Love Most“. He had an HP-25 calculator and had loaned it to me to take a Chemistry test. He showed me how it used Reverse Polish Notation, which is different than a normal calculator, but more like a computer.
The calculator could be programmed with 49 steps. Because it had a stack built right into it, and the reason it used Reversed Polish Notation, we could create all sorts of games with just those 49 steps. The book that came with the calculator had a moon landing game. We made more sophisticated games, like one called Battleship.
Anyway. Because of this early exposure with actually programming something in a logical manner, I was eager to learn more about programming. During college, my calculator was often sitting on my desk in the dorm room running a long program to help me perfect a random number generator. Finally in my Junior year in college, my calculator was completely fried.
After I was married at the end of 1985, I began subscribing to a magazine called “Compute”. It had actual programs in it in Basic. I would read the programs to learn how it worked, but at that point, I didn’t own a computer, so all I could do was dream about writing programs.
It wasn’t until Thanksgiving 1987 when I went to visit my ol’ friend Jesse Cheng in Columbia, Missouri who was interning as a medical doctor that I felt a sudden need to have a computer of my own. He had built a computer using a Heath Kit and we used it to play two computer games. One was called Starflight:
The other was called F15 Strike Eagle:
When I returned home I was pretty eager to buy a computer. Up until that time, every time my wife and I had gone to the mall, I always had stopped in the computer stores to look at the latest computers. I never had really considered buying one. But now, they had 20 megabyte hard drives! And you could play these terrific games like Starflight and F-15 Strike Eagle.
So, one day after we had left the mall, and my wife could see the look on my face, she finally said…. “Why don’t you go and buy one?” I asked her, “Are you sure? Because you know what is going to happen if I get a computer. I’ll be playing on it all the time.” She said, “No. I want you to go buy one.” So we turned around and went back to the mall.
That was the start of my journey into the world of computers.
End of Side Story.
As I explained in the post “Boppin’ with Bif during the Power Plant Downsizing“, the company offered an early retirement package for everyone 55 years old and older. They would give them full benefits to leave. This meant that our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey, as well as the assistant plant manager, Bill Moler and the Plant Manager, Eldon Waugh were all going to retire some time in August 1987.
We had a retirement party for Leroy Godfrey out in the country at Diana Brien’s house. A bunch of the electricians were there including Mark Meeks, who Leroy knew at the time was the one that was going to be laid off. Mark commented about that later when he was told that he was losing his job that Leroy had sat there and smiled at him while we were at the party. Mark knew Leroy didn’t like him, but hadn’t expected to be the one to go since everyone thought it would be Gary Wehunt, since he was the newest member in the shop.
I explained in the post, “The Passing of an Old School Power Plant Man — Leroy Godfrey” what Leroy’s management style was like. It was very top-down, if you know what I mean. It was like, “Because I told you so.” No need to explain anything. That was the world of Power Plant Management up to that point.
I think Corporate Headquarters realized that this needed to change in order for the company to compete in a world where electric companies could no longer count on the Corporation Commission to guarantee a sustainable electric rate or even a set number of customers. The world of electric power was changing rapidly and the company needed to move on from the mentality that it could be run like a “good ol’ boys” club.
It is easier to teach young dogs new tricks than older and crankier ones. It looked to me like this was a logical choice when looking back using hindsight. I think the company was making a bold move. I don’t think they really had much of a choice if they wanted to survive.
So, we had the main retirement party at the plant where people stood up and told stories about the old guys that were retiring. Nothing much happened there except the part where Leroy Godfrey’s daughter stood up and said that we just had to work with him, while she had to live with him… see the post about Leroy above for the full story about that.
Then the following Monday. I believe it was August 17, 1987, everyone was told to meet in the main break room for a meeting with our new management. That was when we were introduced to our new plant manager, Ron Kilman.
I remember a certain part of the meeting very well. Ron said something funny. It didn’t matter exactly what he said. I don’t even remember what it was. Probably something self-deprecating. I leaned over to Charles Foster, who had been my foreman for a while (on that day, it was officially Andy Tubbs). I said, “I didn’t know Plant Managers could tell jokes!”
Charles looked back at me and I raised my eyebrows and tilted my head while the corners of my mouth went down. — This was one of the signals I had learned while carpooling with Bud Schoonover when I needed to communicate with Dick Dale without saying anything out loud (see the post: Carpooling with Bud Schoonover“. This particular expression meant, “Maybe this won’t be such a bad thing.”
Ron Kilman remained the plant manager at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma for the next 7 years. The stories that I will post during this next year will all be at least partially from this time period. During this time, there were some decisions that Ron made that I applauded, and others that even he would admit he wished he hadn’t made.
All in all, I think that Ron has a good heart and that those times when he did make a rash decision, it was evident that he was falling back to his “management training” and not managing from his heart. Old School management training left a lot to be desired.
During the 7 years from 1987 to 1994, the power plant saw a lot of changes. Some I have alluded to already. Such as the move to computerize everything. The other was a total change in how management works. Or at least that was the attempt.
People were willing to step out of their regular day-to-day jobs and try new things that they thought would help the plant. Many of these things were successful. Some of them failed, but not so miserably as they would have if the earlier management had been around. The employees felt as if they had more of a say in how the plant ran instead of feeling like they were just a bunch of tools running around fixing things.
I have a quote from Ron Kilman that said it all one day after a catastrophe had occurred. It summed up his management style as opposed to his assistant manager, Ben Brandt. I will relay the exact story later, but for now I’ll just say that when Ben Brandt saw what happened, the first thing that he said was, “Who did this?” When Ron Kilman saw what had happened, the first thing he said was, “How can we prevent this from happening again?”
Ben’s approach was from the old school of thought. Blame and punish the culprit. Later when we were drastically changing the way process improvements took place, my favorite quote from Ben Brandt is, “I am the obstacle! We aren’t going to change because I say so.” We all had to agree. He was definitely the obstacle.
Ron’s approach was one more like a leader. “Let’s get the job done right.” Sure, he is human, so the decisions weren’t always perfect, but I think in general, he was leading where other people may have been dragging.
Well… I will say no more for now… I look forward to writing stories about this time period during this next year. I’m sure there are a lot of those at the plant just as eager to see how I portray the different events that took place during this time.
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Originally posted January 3, 2014:
After the reorganization at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma during 1987, a bunch of new faces showed up at the plant. I mentioned in last week’s post that we had a new plant manager, Ron Kilman (See Post: “From Pioneers to Power Plant Managers“). In that post I also mentioned that the PC age was rapidly growing and I had bought a computer of my own and was eager to learn more. The Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey had retired, and was replaced by a guy named Tom Gibson. Tom was a good supervisor who was willing to think out of the box.
Tom gave me one of my first assignments directly by calling me to his office. Well, Leroy had never really called me to his office before. When Leroy wanted to chew you out, he was happy to come down to the Electric Shop and do it, so I didn’t really know what to expect by being “called to his office”. Believe me… it wasn’t the last time he had “called me to his office.” But it was the most satisfying time. Mainly because this time, when I arrived, Tom’s face wasn’t beet red with anger like it was on one later occasion.
This is what Tom told me to do… He said that we needed to install computer terminals all over the plant. They had a chart where they wanted the terminals to go. There were about 15 locations all over the plant including the coalyard which was about 1/2 mile from the main plant. Along with those, there were a bunch of IBM Network printers that needed to be installed with the terminals.
Then Tom told me the best part. He wanted me to do it all myself. Then he told me an even better part…. He said, (and I quote) “I want you to learn everything you can about this computer stuff. I think it will come in handy.” As my friend Stephen Todd at Dell would say, “That was the ‘Keys to the Kingdom”. I told him I would be glad to do everything he asked.
That last part later came back to haunt Tom…. but he did tell me…. learn “everything” I could about the computer. When he was referring to “The Computer”, he was talking about the company mainframe, a Honeywell system that resided in Oklahoma City at Corporate Headquarters.
The Terminals I was going to install were called “Dumb terminals”. they weren’t computers, they were just monitors with a keyboard that connected directly to a switch back in the telephone room that was connected via a microwave link directly to Oklahoma City and the Honeywell system:
So, when I returned to the electric shop, I began my “hacker” apprenticeship. One that would later allow me to harass Gene Day in the Control Room, confuse Dick Dale in the warehouse, cause headaches for the IT department downtown, and finally cause the President of the Electric Company to personally call our Plant Manager Ron asking who was this guy Kevin Breazile! Hence the reason for Tom Gibson’s beet red face a few years later. But that is another story for another time.
I had two things right away that I had to figure out. How was I going to run cables from the telephone room in the office to each of the places around the plant that needed a computer terminal and what are these funny connectors and what do I need to do with them?
Ok, so I figured they plugged in the back of the terminal and then there was a Cat1 cable (no, not a Cat3, a Cat1) that plugged into that, and needed to plug into a jack in the wall that I was going to have to install. They called these funny connectors “Hoods”. The 25 pin Hoods that we used were blue. We had 9 pin hoods also that we used for the actual PCs that the clerks and the chemist were using. They had an emulator program to make them act like a dumb terminal:
In an early post called “Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck” I explained how I have always been cursed with being very lucky. Well, that’s what some may call it, but I prefer to believe that one of my best friends St. Anthony helps me out at certain times. Well, this was one time when I asked for his assistance. St. Anthony of Padua is considered the Patron Saint of lost items. So, I asked him to help me figure out how I was going to do all this work in a reasonable amount of time.
As is often the case, St. Anthony pointed me in the right direction. This particular day, he told me to tell my problem to Charles Foster. My close friend and one of the two Electric Shop foremen (not mine. I was working for Andy Tubbs). So, during lunch I told him what Tom Gibson told me to do, and showed him the blueprints where they wanted the terminals placed throughout the plant.
One of the places that needed a terminal was right there in the electric shop office. Charles looked around the office and said, “You know what? there used to be an old intercom system in this office that I think goes up to the telephone room. In fact, I think all the intercoms that were originally installed in the plant went to the telephone room.”
I vaguely remembered the intercoms when I was working as a summer help as there used to be an old box sitting in the garage when I worked for Stanley Elmore. They were later cut out and removed, because it wasn’t really practical and so it wasn’t used. Charles told me to start there, because there were intercoms everywhere. In the control room, the warehouse, and even in the coalyard! And definitely in the office area. This was just what I needed to hear. My work was already half done.
I pulled the cables out from under the desk where they had been cut and checked them out. There were definitely enough cable pairs to do the job. In most places I had to install both a terminal and a printer, so I had a lot of dual wall jacks just for this job:
There were some places where the intercom system didn’t go where I needed to install either a dumb terminal or at least connect a computer. So, I was looking for any kind of alternate way to install the jack without having to run cables all the way from the telephone room to these locations. So, I went out and bought a book about networking so that I could learn more about what was really going on. If I had bought it a few years later it might have been called “Dumb Terminals for Dummies”, but the Dummies books hadn’t come around yet.
I have since thrown that book away after using it for years to prop up the corner of our sofa bed for the times when my mom would come and visit and she would sleep on the bed, only it had a broken bracket, and the Networking book was just the right thickness to level the bed…. But there was one page in the book that I found that allowed me to hook up dumb terminals in places where there was only a phone line.
You see. When the phone lines were run throughout the plant, they used a three pair cable. Well. A phone really only uses two wires (or one pair). so, this left 4 more wires not doing anything. The only problem was that the dumb terminal used 4 pair, or 8 wires…
So, when I was reading the networking book, I ran across a diagram that made me stop and stare. I like to think that I was holding a half eaten apple in my hand and I had just taken a bite when I stopped mid-bite and stared. It would have been a nice picture to remember sort of like when the apple fell on Newton’s head. Only we didn’t have cellphones with cameras in those days, so no one was around to take my picture. The diagram I saw was this:
What? This showed 4 of the wires are nothing but grounds…. The network cable only really uses 4 of the 8 wires. Which means I only needed two pair. And guess what? The phone lines run all over the plant were 3 pair with only one pair being used! So, I was able to install the computer jacks right next to the telephone jacks and use the same cable that the telephone was using, and they all tied back to the telephone room where the main computer switch was located that connected to the Mainframe computer back in Oklahoma City through something called a Memotec X.25 Modem.
So, now that I have gone through all this detail to tell you how I was able to quickly install all these terminals and printers around the plant in a way as if it is exciting (because it is to me). I know that many of you are so bored out of your gourd that you have already stopped reading before you have reached this sentence…. I suppose those of you that are still following along are wondering “Why?”
Why would we want to install all these dumb terminals throughout a power plant that connected to the Honeywell Mainframe down at Corporate Headquarters? Well. It was because all the plant operators, mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians, instrument and controls and heavy equipment operators were going to start using it to do stuff. Yeah. All of us were being introduced to the computer age. From the janitor on up.
Each printer had 4 character ID that identified it, so if you were looking at a work order on the terminal, you could choose to print it. You just had to know the 4 character number and you could print the work order out on any computer in the company. Usually, this meant, you wanted to use the printer that was closest to you. But if you wanted to print something out for the warehouse, as long as you knew their printer ID, you could send them a printout of some part that you wanted them to retrieve for you. Then call them up and tell them you printed something out on their printer.
Ok. So the average Joe didn’t see much benefit, but it did get them used to seeing computer monitors all over the place, which at least helped them in the future when the real computers showed up. Right now, they were just “Dumb Terminals” and that’s what a lot of the operators and maintenance people thought… they are just dumb…
I, on the other hand was in hog heaven. You see. I had called downtown to the IT department and asked to get a user name so that I could log directly into the mainframe. After all, my supervisor Tom had told me to learn “everything” I could about “this computer”. So, I took him up on it. I quickly was learning UNIX commands, though at the time, I didn’t know that’s what they were called.
I began learning the Computer language called “A” before I realized there was a “B” language and a “C” language, and that C was the one that was really used at the time. As it turned out the mainframe had manuals for everything right on it. That is how I was able to cause so much trouble the next few years.
Oh, and one more interesting thing I discovered on the mainframe. It had this interesting feature called “Email”. Yeah. Only, after figuring out how to pull up a list of all the emails on the system I found that there was only a handful of people that actually had e-mail addresses. So, the only person I would email on the mainframe was an engineer named Craig Henry.
I had met him briefly once, but in the next few years, he was a valuable source of information. Email seemed like a great idea, but what good was it if there was only a few people you could send an email?
As for Craig Henry… As Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains in Casablanca, “This is the beginning of a Beautiful Friendship.” Come to think of it… Craig Henry sort of reminds me of Claude Rains… I must admit, I learned a lot more from him than he ever learned from me.
Originally posted on January 11, 2014:
Up front, I would like to clarify the title so that those who are quickly perusing articles looking for something salacious won’t have to read too far before they realize this isn’t what they are seeking. The word “Boner” in this headline refers to a “joke” played on a Plant Engineer by the name of George Bohn at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. When I was a boy we had a joke book called the “Omnibus Book of Boners”. Most of my life I never thought about the word “Boner” as having another meaning. Which, after this joke was played might have explained the expression on George’s face.
In an earlier Post “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” I explained that when playing a Power Plant joke, the longer it takes to play a simple joke, the better the effect. I think the reason for this is that when the person realizes that a joke has been played on them by a fellow Power Plant Man and even though it was simple, the person went through the effort over a long period of time, just to make you smile for a moment. Then you know that this person must truly be a good friend. Who else would waste countless hours on someone over days, weeks, or even months, just to make someone smile once?
Well…. Bohn’s Boner lasted for over six months! Yeah. Six months, at least.
I saw the opportunity arise one day after we had received a new hard drive for precipitator computer for Unit 2. We had the computers for a couple of years after we went to digital controls in the precipitator before the hard drive crashed. This happened to be a project that George Bohn had managed. He was the project manager and had overseen the installation of the precipitator controls, which included the two precipitator computers in the control room. One for each unit. They sat around behind the big control panel that you see when you watch an older movie about a Power Plant Control Room, like the China Syndrome.
Anyway, each of the computers had 30 Megabyte hard drives. Yeah. You heard that right! 30 Megabytes. That’s not a typo. Not Gigabytes… nope. Megabytes. Just this morning at Dell, I received an e-mail with a file attached that was over 30 Megabytes in size (Thanks Norma). I’m talking about an IBM AT computer:
Well, the Unit 2 precipitator computer was used to monitor all of the 84 control cabinets in the Precipitator control room. It indicated how much voltage and amperage were on each cabinet, as well as the spark rate, and the setting on each cabinet. It was really a great step up. I’m sure today you can probably do that from your phone while you are sitting in a movie theater just before they tell you to silence your “Cell Phone Now” and stop texting your neighbor. Back then, it was amazing.
All the operator had to do was go over to the computer, pull up the screen (this was before Windows, but the program was running by default), and type the keyboard command to tell it to print and “voila”, it would print out all that information. The operator could look at it to see if there was a problem, and if not, he just saved it with all the other reports he was supposed to create during his shift.
Believe it or not. Before this time, the operator actually walked up to all of the 84 cabinets on each unit and looking at meters on the cabinet wrote down the voltage and amperage of each cabinet on a form. You can imagine how much happier they were to be able to print it all out in the control room. Hours and hours saved each week.
So, when the 30 Megabyte hard drive crashed George Bohn ordered a new hard drive from the IT department in Oklahoma City. A couple of weeks later, we received the new hard drive from the city. George gave it to me and asked me to install it in the computer.
When I installed the hard drive, I found that it had already been formatted. All I had to do was install the program and we were good to go. I backed up the program from the Unit 1 computer and copied it onto the new hard drive using a floppy disk. Yeah. Programs were a lot smaller then. A 360 Kilobyte floppy disk was all that was needed to hold the entire Precipitator program.
I noticed right away that instead of being the 30 Megabytes we had expected, there was only 20 Megabytes on the drive. That was all right with me. 20 Megabytes would be enough so that we didn’t have to back anything up very often.
As I was installing the program and testing it, and going through the code figuring out how to change Unit 1 to Unit 2, I had an idea…. At the command prompt, I typed “D:” and hit enter. You know what I was checking, right? D colon, and enter…..
sure enough. there was a D drive on this hard drive. Another 20 Megabytes were on this partition. You see. This was actually a 40 Megabyte hard drive that had been partitioned as two 20 megabyte drives.
It was at this point that I thought I would play a little joke on George. I figured he would come and look at this computer and at first he would find that the new hard drive was only a 20 Megabyte drive instead of the 30 Megabyte drive that he had ordered. I also figured that like me, he would think about it for a minute and then check to see if there was an extra partition and would find the extra drive.
So I thought I would leave him a little present. I went to D Drive and at the command prompt (gee… the only thing you had was a command prompt. You didn’t even call it a command prompt then. You called it a DOS prompt) that looked like this: D:> I typed – “label d: Bohns Boner” For all you older DOS people, you know what this did, right? It labeled the D drive volume name “Bohns Boner”. At the time I think we were on DOS 4.0 or something close to that. The volume length was limited to 11 characters and Bohns Boner took exactly 11 characters. The label couldn’t be longer than that.
Now, all I had to do was call up George Bohn, tell him I had installed the hard drive in the precipitator computer and it was up and running and go to the electric shop and wait for him to come down with a smile on his face over the name of the second drive on the computer. So I did. I told Charles Foster and Terry Blevins.
After the reorganization, Tom Gibson, our Electric Supervisor had decided that Terry Blevins would maintain the precipitator on Unit 2, and I would maintain Unit 1, which was great for me, because I was no longer working on both of them by myself. So, Charles and I were waiting for George to arrive in the electric shop office. It didn’t take long.
George came in the office and said, “Did you see that they only gave us a 20 Megabyte hard drive instead of a 30 Megabyte drive. (Oh. So, he hadn’t found the second partition). I replied, “Yeah. I noticed that.” George was a little perturbed that he didn’t get what he ordered. He said he was going to contact them and have them send us a 30 Megabyte drive. We had paid for it. I told him that he should. Especially since we had paid for it (keeping a straight concerned look on my face).
Anyway, a couple of weeks went by and there was no new hard drive, and George hadn’t said anything more about it. I thought he might have eventually found the second drive, but then he would say something like “I can’t believe they didn’t send us the right hard drive” and I would know that he still hadn’t figured it out.
One day the operators came to me and pulled me aside and asked me if there was some way when they were on the night shift if they could use the precipitator computer to create documents. At this time PCs were pretty sparse. The only good computers in the control room were these two precipitator computers and the Shift Supervisor’s office. the Precipitator computers just sat there monitoring the precipitator all the time, even when no one cared.
The plant had purchased so many licenses to use Word Perfect, a word processor that was the “in thing” before Windows and Word came around. So, I installed Word Perfect for them on the extra drive on the Unit 2 precipitator computer. That is, Bohns Boner. I explained to them that they could only use it when George Bohn was not around, because he didn’t know the drive existed and I wanted him to find it himself someday.
Everyone agreed. All the Control Room operators that were at all interested in creating documents, like Jim Cave and Dave Tarver and others, knew about Bohns Boner, and knew that it was a secret.
The Control room had a laser printer installed next to the Shift Supervisor’s office so they could print out Clearances and have them look nice. They had some new Clearance system they installed, and this came with it. So, the next question was… Is there a way we can print our documents out using the Laser Printer instead of the clunky Dot Matrix printer tied to the Precipitator computer?
I ordered a 50 foot Printer cable (I paid for it out of my own pocket) and kept it coiled up under the small desk where the precipitator computer sat and explained that they could just disconnect the dot matrix printer on the back of the computer and plug the other end into the Laser Printer and they could print out nice neat looking documents. But… They had to do it at night or when they were sure that George Bohn was not around because he still didn’t know the extra drive existed. Everyone agreed. They would have to string the printer cable across the Control Room floor to reach the laser printer.
Like I said earlier. this went on for well over 6 months. It seemed like almost a year. Then one day, George Bohn came down to the Electric Shop office while Charles and I were sitting there for lunch. He said that he had asked Oklahoma City about the hard drive again, and they had insisted that they had sent the correct hard drive to our plant. Then we could see a light go on in his head. He said, “Do you suppose that they partitioned the disk into two drives?” (Bingo! He had figured it out). I said, “Could be.”
Charles and I sat there and looked at him while we ate our lunch. The cherry tomatoes Charles had given me tasted especially good with my ham and cheese sandwich that day. I knew that we were finally only minutes away from the end of the joke we had been playing on George for the past so many months. George leaned back in the chair with his thin long legs stretched out and his hands behind his head. I could tell he was thinking about it.
Then he rose from his chair and headed out the door. Charles and I smiled at each other. We both waited. A few minutes later George came back in the office. He had found Bohns Boner. You see. When you went to a drive back then on the command prompt, the first thing you would see was the volume name. So as soon as he typed the D colon and enter, it would have said “Bohns Boner”.
George sat down in a chair. He didn’t say anything. He just sat there with a straight face as if he didn’t know what to think. I thought…. well, he is an Engineer. Maybe he doesn’t know what to do when Power Plant Men play jokes on them. He looked like he couldn’t decide whether to be upset or glad that we had an even bigger hard drive than he ordered. I don’t know if he ever figured out that the longer the joke takes, the more we liked him.
I guess George felt foolish that it took him so long to find that extra drive. I suppose he might have thought he knew me well enough that if there had been an extra drive on the computer, when he first mentioned it, I would have told him that it was partitioned into two drives, so he didn’t give it a second thought. I guess he didn’t know me as well as he thought.
Anyway, after that, he never said anything about the operators using the computer for other uses than monitoring the precipitator, which was always a problem before. George never mentioned the hard drive again. I don’t remember now if I later changed the volume name on the drive. It seemed like not long after the computers were upgraded from the IBM AT to something like a XT 286.
Oh. I had another joke I played on George. The other one lasted for years, and he never figured it. I will write about that one later. That one wasn’t so much of a joke as it was out of necessity. I won’t say anymore about it now. You’ll have to wait at least another week or two.
Originally posted January 17, 2014. I added more to the story:
When I first moved to Ponca City in 1986 I carpooled each day to the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma with Dick Dale, Jim Heflin and Bud Schoonover (See the post: “Carpooling Adventures with Bud Schoonover“). Dick Dale had moved to Ponca City a couple of years earlier after his divorce. He didn’t want to continue living in Stillwater where he felt as if everyone knew about his tragic situation. We had been friends from the first day we met (which is often the case with Power Plant Men) when I was a summer help working out of the garage and he worked in the tool room and warehouse.
I wrote about Dick Dale this past Christmas, when I talked about his situation (See the post: “Harmonizing with Dick Dale on Power Plant Christmas Harmonicas“). I knew that even though it was a few years later, Richard was still feeling the impact from this emotional trauma. One day I found the opportunity to play a “Power Plant” joke on him that I thought might help lift his spirits.
I recently wrote another post about how I had installed dumb terminals around the plant so that regular workers would be able to access the mainframe computer downtown in Corporate Headquarters in order to see their work orders, or look up parts in the warehouse, etc. (See the post: “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“). In most places where I installed terminals, I also installed large IBM printers that printed using continuous feed paper.
For those of you who remember, at first most dot matrix printers would feed paper from a box underneath them. they had holes down both sides of the paper where the sprockets would rotate and paper would come rolling out the top of the printer.
Ok. Here is a quick one paragraph side story…
One day when my son was 5 years old, we had to wait a while in an airport. We were sitting in a row of seats at the gate waiting. My son kept popping up slowly, jerking as he rose, from behind the row of seats and would lay over the seat back and end up head down on the chair. After doing this a few times, my wife Kelly who was becoming slightly annoyed asked him what he was doing. He said, “I’m paper coming out of the printer”. Of course, this cracked us all up.
Anyway, back to the story. By the time I had to add the dumb terminals and printers to the Garage and Warehouse, I had already been playing around on the mainframe learning all sorts of ways to get into trouble. — Well, what else was I going to do during lunch while Charles Foster and I talked about movies and stuff? I had a personal user account on the mainframe that basically gave me “God Access”. They didn’t really have anything like “Network Security” back then. — This was 1988.
Back then, we also didn’t have anything called “Email” either. It wasn’t until 1989 that CompuServe first offered real Internet e-mail to its users. When we wanted to send something to someone in the company, we either printed it out and put in an intra-company envelope and sent it by “snail” mail, or we could find out what printer they used and get the ID for the printer and send it to them. It was a code like: P1234.
Well. I had been playing with this text editor on the Honeywell mainframe called FRED. This stood for FRiendly EDitor. For those of you who know UNIX, this was pretty much the same as the VI Editor found on UNIX mainframes. The commands were the same. Today, users of Microsoft Word would be horrified to find out what you had to go through to create a document back then.
I had been practicing using this editor, and found that by using the special escape codes for the printer, I could create documents that would come out looking pretty neat. So, I had created some templates that would make it look like I was printing a Memo from some mainframe program. That was about the time that I installed the printer in the garage.
So, I created a big long document that would print out on the garage printer as soon as I connected the printer to the network. It went on and on about how the printer wasn’t happy about being placed in such a dusty environment and how it refused to be cooperative until it was moved to a cleaner place. It would spit out a bunch of sheets of paper, printing protest after protest.
Then it ended up by saying that if it wasn’t moved right away, it was going to shut down in 10 minutes and it started counting down by 30 second intervals. Then at the last minute, it counted down by 15 seconds until it counted down the last 10 seconds by feeding a sheet of paper for each second while it was counting… then it paused at the last second. Finally, it printed out at the end a concession that since it was obviously not going to be moved to someplace cleaner, it might as well give up and be cooperative.
When I installed the printer in the office in the automotive garage, I knew it would take about 30 seconds to connect the first time, and by that time, I was outside making my way back to the electric shop. By the time I arrived back in the electric shop Charles Patten, the foreman in the garage was calling me on the gray phone. The gray phone is the plant PA system:
Of course, I knew why. I answered the phone and Charles told me that something was wrong with the printer. It kept shooting paper out of it and wouldn’t stop. He had even turned it off, but when he turned it back on, it still kept feeding paper out. I told him that sounded pretty strange to me and I would be right over to see what was going on. I took my time returning to the garage giving the printer time to throw it’s tantrum.
By the time I returned, the printer had stopped ranting about being installed in a dirty environment and had given up it’s protest. Charles said that it finally stopped. I walked over to the printer and took the pile of hundred or so pages that it had printed out, and tore them off the printer and walked out with them. I don’t even know if Charles had paid any attention to what the printer was saying.
I think I was the only person that knew that I had just “attempted” to play a joke on Charles. After all, as the paper was feeding out it was carefully collecting into a nice stack in front of the printer on the floor, and unless someone picked up the stack and looked at it, they wouldn’t know that anything was even printed on it. So, in this case, the joke may have been on me. But then again, Power Plant Men are like that. If they figure a joke is being played on them, then they figure out how to turn it around so that the joker is the one that has the joke played on them. Maybe that was the case here. Charles Patten was probably one of the most intelligent foremen at the plant, so it was possible.
Anyway, back to Dick Dale. I installed the printer in the warehouse and Dick Dale, Darlene Mitchell, Mike Gibbs and Bud Schoonover were happy to be connected to the Inventory program on the mainframe….. um… yeah. sure they were…… especially Bud.
Bud Schoonover was the person that when it was his turn to run the tool room would not give you something if it was the last one. So, if I needed a flashlight and it was the last one, and I asked Bud for a flashlight, he would say that he couldn’t give it to me. Why? You might ask. Well, he would explain that if he gave the last one away, he would have to order some more. Bud didn’t like ordering things on the computer. So, in order to keep from having to order anything he simply didn’t give away the last one of any item.
Anyway. I decided one Monday during my regular lunch time computer educational moments to send a letter over to the warehouse printer addressed to Dick Dale. It was from an anonymous woman. The letter sounded like it was from someone that really had a thing for Richard and remembered how they used to work together. It also mentioned other people, like Mike Gibbs and Pat Braden and about how they used to hang around each other.
Since this was a fictitious character, I could say anything I wanted, but I wanted to put it in a time period back when I was still a summer help. Well… It wasn’t long before Dick Dale called me on the gray phone (no. I won’t post another picture of the gray phone here. I think you get the idea). He asked me to come over to the warehouse.
When I arrived, Richard showed me the letter. He was excited about it. He was trying to figure out who it could be. He thought about the people that had moved from the plant to Corporate Headquarters and wondered if it was one of them. I thought for a little while, and I couldn’t come up with who it might be (obviously), since it was me.
The next day at lunch I sent another letter to his printer. I mentioned more about the “old days” working at the plant. On the way home Richard showed it to me. I could tell that he was really excited about this. I held back my smile, but inside it felt real good to see that Richard had finally come back to life. For the past couple of years, he had been so down. Now some woman was paying attention to him, and actually was telling him that she had always liked him.
Darlene Mitchell sent a letter to the printer ID I had sent in the letter to Richard, saying the following:
Dear Ghost Writer,
This has been the most exciting thing that’s happened in the warehouse in a long time. We await your messages. Dick is really trying hard to figure this out, and if you don’t give him a little hint, his little old brains are going to get fried.
He also requests that you send his messages to his printer only, that way I won’t be able to send my message back. He takes all the fun out of everything. P)24 is his number, and if you can’t get a response out of him, I’ll be glad to put my two cents in.
I’m sure Dick would like to see you too. Maybe we can get him headed in your direction, if you tell me where that is.
So, long, see you in the funny papers.
<end of message>
On Thursday Richard called me and asked me to come over to the warehouse. He showed me the letter he had received that day. He said he was too excited. He just had to find out who it was that was sending him these letters. He said that since I knew everything there was to know about computers (a slight exaggeration), he asked me to see if I could find out where the letters were coming from.
I told him I would do what I could to see if I could track down who was sending the letters. On the way home that day, he asked me if I had any luck. I told him I was still looking into it. I told him I thought there might be a way to find a log somewhere that would tell me.
So, after lunch on Friday I walked over to the warehouse. When I entered, I signaled to Richard that I wanted to talk to him. — Remember. Richard and I had developed facial signals while carpooling with Bud Schoonover so that all we had to do was glance at each other and we instantly knew what each other was saying…
Richard and I stepped outside of the warehouse where we could be alone. He asked me if I had found the person sending him the letters. I told him I had (I knew I had to do this right or I would lose a good friend, so I said), “Yes. I have.”
I could see the look of excitement in his face. So I looked straight at him and I said, “I have been sending these letters to you.” He was stunned. He said, “What?” I said, “Richard. I have been sending them to you.”
I could see that he was very disappointed. After all. No two people could read each other’s expressions better than me and Richard. We practiced them every day. The corners of his mouth went down. The middle went up. Edges of the eyes went down. Eyes began to water. Yep. He was disappointed to say the least.
I told him I was sorry to get his hopes up. I put on the saddest look I could muster. Inside I wasn’t so sad. Actually I was pretty happy. I knew this was a tough moment for Richard, but he had spent an entire week flying high. For the first time in a long time, Richard had hope. A couple of hours of disappointment was well worth this past week.
I patted him on the back and he turned to walk back into the warehouse despondent. I went back to the electric shop.
As for my part, I continued sending Dick Dale printed messages from time to time. Just goofy messages like the following:
Sometimes when I type letters I find that the words I use are not always the typical type that I would use if I wrote a letter. The letters that I make when I write a letter aren’t the type of letters that I use when I type a letter. When I write a letter, the letters in the words are sometimes hard to distinguish, but the letters I type when i’m typing a letter are the type of letters that stand out clearly and uniformly. I can’t really say that when I type I’m right, or when I write I’m right, because I usually type a different type of letter than I write when I’m writing a letter. I typically use a different type of words when I’m typing than I use when I’m writing, so I really can’t say that writing is right when a typical typed letter is just as right as writing. That is just the type of person I am.
After a few more days, Darlene Mitchell and Dick Dale began sending me letters indicating that the warehouse workers had been taken hostage, and they had a list of hostage demands. I would write back to them. The hostage letters and my replies would make up an entire blog post just by themselves.
So, what followed this episode? Well. Within a few weeks Dick Dale had attended an event at the Presbyterian Church in Ponca City where he met a very nice woman, Jill Cowan. He began dating her, and within the year they were married on November 13, 1988.
I like to think that I had given him the kick in the pants that he needed at the time that he needed it. For that one week where he had hope, he believed that someone else really cared for him (which I really did, just not in the way he was thinking). If he could believe that, then maybe it could really be true, even if in this case it turned out to only be one of his best friends.
I know that Dick Dale lived happily ever after. As I mentioned earlier, I wrote a post about Dick Dale about a time when I gave a Christmas present to Dick Dale, Christmas 1983. Well. as it turned out, my friend Richard was presented to Saint Peter at the gates of Heaven 25 years later on Christmas Day, 2008, 20 happy years after his marriage to Jill. I don’t really miss him. He is always with me in my heart to this day.
Originally posted January 24, 2014:
Reorganizations naturally shuffle things around. People are generally resistant to change and don’t like to find that their routine has been changed without having their input on how to make things better. When the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma went through a downsizing and reorganization in the latter part of 1987, my job changed slightly. Personally, I was grateful for the changes.
Before the reorganization, I had inherited both the precipitators (the large boxes at a power plant that take the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler). This meant that every overhaul, I knew what I was doing. I was working on and in the precipitator. This was generally a dirty and thankless job.
After the reorganization, however, Terry Blevins was assigned to work on the Unit 2 precipitator, while I worked on Unit 1. I will go into this in more detail later, but for this post, I’ll just point out that this meant that when Unit 2 was on an overhaul (that means the unit is taken offline for one to three months in order to fix and repair things that can only be done while it is offline) I wasn’t automatically assigned to the precipitator. So, I could work on other things.
Before the reorganization, Sonny Kendrick had the title “Electric Specialist”. After the reorganization we no longer had a specialist. I’m not sure exactly why. I know that at Muskogee, they still had a specialist in the electric shop. — I will talk about him next year (the specialist at Muskogee). Anyway, I know that Sonny, at the time, was not too happy about his change in job title. I don’t blame him. I would be too.
One of the things that the Electric Specialist did during overhauls was test tripping relays. Now that we no longer had a specialist, that was left up to whomever…. The first electricians, besides Sonny, that were assigned to relay testing was Ben Davis and myself. I had started doing it on my own and after about a week, Ben Davis was assigned to help me out.
We were on a major overhaul on Unit 2 and it had been decided that we were not only going to test the regular super-high voltage breaker relays, we were also going to test all the 480 volt switchgear relays for Unit 2, as well as the intake and coalyard switchgears. I don’t remember if we made it to the river pump switchgear, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Once we started, there was no stopping us.
When I first was told to test the relays, Bill Bennett (our A foreman) told me to have Sonny tell me how to do them. So, I walked into the lab and told Sonny that Bill had told me to ask him to help me learn how to test the protective relays on the switchgear. Sonny, not looking too happy, grabbed a small stack of manuals, walked out into the main switchgear with me, and said, “Here is the relay test set. Here are the manuals that tell you how to hook up the test set and test them.” He turned and walked away…. I was sort of hoping for a more intimate lesson…
I knew the reason Sonny was so upset. Later I learned why he would be as upset as he was to not be able to test the protective relays. It was because when you test, clean and adjust protective relays you have an immediate rush of satisfaction that you have just done something very important. Let me just say quickly (because in another post I will expound upon this), a protective relay is what keeps motors from blowing up. It is what prevents blackouts from happening across the nation. Without properly calibrated protective relays, a power company is just asking for a disaster (or… well….. their insurance company is, because they are the ones that usually end up paying for the damage — which I will also talk about in a later post).
I thought the relay test set that Sonny showed me was the neatest thing I had seen so far in the electric shop. There were two boxes that hooked together with an umbilical cord. They had dials, switches, connectors, meters and a digital readout down to the millisecond. That is, you can read the time to trip a relay down to the one thousandth of a second.
I only wish that I had a bigger picture of this relay test set so that you could admire it as much as I did. Even today it gives me goosebumps! Ok. I can imagine those relay technicians that read this blog are looking at this and thinking…. “What kind of piece of junk is this?” Hey (as Mark Fielder used to say), this was my “baby” (only he was referring to the precipitator).
So, back to the story at hand…
Even though I was having a heck of a fun time trying to figure out how to perform these relay tests by reading these manuals about the different kinds of relays, I was glad when Ben Davis was assigned to work with me. I don’t know if he had worked on relays before, but he seemed to know just what to do to hook up the test set and make things easier.
The best suggestion that Ben had right off the bat was that we should be listening to the radio while we were working. This might have been a preventative measure after the first couple of days to prevent the same situation from occurring that happened to Ed Shiever when he and I were trapped inside a confined space for a couple of weeks (See the post: “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“). Either way, it was a great idea.
You wouldn’t think that inside a switchgear 20 miles from the nearest town with a radio station, that we would have any reception on a little transistor radio, but we were able to manage. It seemed that we had to be a little creative at times with the antenna in certain locations, but, like I said. We managed.
My perception of Ben Davis up to this point was that he was a “Good-ol’ boy”. That is, a country music type Oklahoman that had grown up in Shidler, Oklahoma where the major attraction in the town was the High School. To my surprise, I quickly found out that he was a connoisseur of Rock and Roll.
It wasn’t until I was in college before I realized that the easy listening station I had been listening to on our family radio at home while I was growing up was playing rock and roll songs using an orchestra with violins and clarinets instead of electric guitars. I learned from my dorm mates all about groups like Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles (yeah… can you believe it? I mean. I knew “Hey Jude”, “Let it Be” and a few others, but most of the Beatles I thought were instrumentals normally played on violins with a man waving a wand) and many others. When I found out about “Rock and Roll”, I had to go out and buy dozens of 8-track tapes, as fast as I could find them.
So, here was Ben Davis. Even better than the “Good Ol’ Boy” that I already thought he was. And he loved classical rock and roll. I can only say that the next month and a half while we tested relays all over the plant, were one of the best times I have ever spent in my life! He knew all the 60’s and 70’s rock and roll bands.
As each song would come on the radio, we would guess (well, I was guessing most of the time…. most of the time Ben already knew), what the name of the song was and the name of the band. So, not only were we doing one of the most satisfying jobs at a power plant, but I was also have a lot of fun with Ben listening to the radio! Who would have thought it? No wonder Sonny was upset he wasn’t testing relays this overhaul.
I could go on about all the different bands and their backgrounds that I learned from Ben during that overhaul, but (unlike me), you probably already know all that stuff. It never ceases to amaze me how many holes I have in my education until one is staring at me in the face.
This reminds me of a side story, and I apologize if I have told this before…. I don’t think I have….
After the Reorganization, and after I moved to Stillwater from Ponca City, Scott Hubbard (and Toby O’Brien) and I began carpooling. One morning as we were listening to NPR, Scott Hubbard mentioned something about a “cur”. I asked him, “What’s a cur?” Well, he had the exact same reaction when 11 years earlier I had asked my friends in college at Oklahoma University, Tim Flowers and Kirby Davis, “What’s an orgasm?” — See how little holes in your education can make a big impact?
Just so you don’t get caught in the same predicament… A “Cur” is a mongrel dog. Scott Hubbard couldn’t believe that someone that read the dictionary for fun wouldn’t know what a “cur” was. What the heck? I didn’t grow up in Oklahoma! — end of side story… which really isn’t a side story, since it was about a Power Plant Man — Scott Hubbard. He probably knew what a “cur” was before he could walk. — I know I haven’t told that story before! I would have remembered that.
I’m not going to go on about all the fun that I had with Ben Davis testing protective relays. I enjoy my memories, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear all about how much I looked up to this Power Plant Hero. The only thing I will add is that the time I spent with Ben during that overhaul has been etched into my memory as one of the most enjoyable times of my life. So, I’ll go onto the next step in our Protective Relay story….
A few years later, in 1993, Sonny Kendrick and Ben Davis and I were sent to “Advanced Protective Relay Maintenance” training in Dallas, Texas. I remember this time so well, I remember the address where we were went. It was at 4271 Bronze Way, Dallas, Texas. It was hosted by the same company that made that wonderful test set I pictured above. The AVO Multi-Amp Corporation.
I brought my wife Kelly and my three year old daughter Elizabeth with me. They stayed at the hotel during the day and played in the swimming pool, while I went to class.
The classes lasted four days, Monday through Thursday. That was where I learned that even though I thought our relay test set was the coolest piece of equipment in the electric shop, it turned out to be archaic by “Protective Relay Maintenance” standards. Not that it didn’t do the job…. So, in order to train us properly, they let us use our own old test set during the training so that we could see how to properly test really advanced relays such as Distant Relays, Syncro-verifier relays, Negative Sequence Relays,directional distance relays and Pilot Wire relays. — These are relays that are found in a large substation that trips high voltage lines that run long distances across the country. — I can tell you’re jealous. — Well.. I imagine it anyway. Knowing what I know now.
So, why drag you all the way to Dallas for this story? There’s a reason.
time for a second side story:
You see. Tim Flowers, whom I mentioned above, knew not too long after he met me that I have the knack of running into people that I know (or should have known in this case), would love this story. You see, I met Tim and Kirby at Oklahoma University and they drove with me to Columbia Missouri in 1979 (along with my brother Greg) when I went to register for classes at Missouri University when I decided to go back to school in my home town.
When we arrived in the town, we were hungry after driving for 8 hours straight from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Columbia, Missouri… so we stopped at Godfather’s Pizza. As we walked in, there was a girl and a guy standing at the counter ordering a pizza. The pretty girl (Pamela Ramsey) with long red hair turned and saw me. She immediately came toward me saying “Kevin Breazile!!!! You owe Me!!! Slightly shocked and pleased, I said, “What for?” She reminded me that I never gave her the pictures that were taken during the Senior Prom. You see. I had taken her to the Senior Prom.
Later I explained that this happens to me a lot. I meet people that I know in the oddest places (even though this wasn’t so odd, since I had grown up in Columbia). It was just that this was the first person we had seen since we entered town. From that point on, Tim (who later worked as a summer help at the power plant) expected that everywhere we went we would run into someone I knew….
End of the second side story. I’m sorry that this is making the post a little longer than usual. I know you have to get back to work….
So, back to the relay training course in 1993 that Ben Davis, Sonny Kendrick and I were taking in Dallas…. On Wednesday night during the training there was a dinner held in a small banquet room in the hotel. Well… of course I had to take my wife and my daughter. So here we were sitting around this table at dinner with the rest of the class of about 10 other non-Sooner Plant employees….
I decided to talk to the guy next to me. He said something back and my wife Kelly asked him, “Where in New Jersey are you from?” She had picked up on a New Jersey accent. He said, Well.. I work in the east for a company called Ebasco, but I’m really from the Midwest. (oh. That was my territory). So I asked a follow-up question. “Where in the Midwest are you from?” He said, “From Missouri.” — Oh. I thought. This is interesting. So was I.
I asked a follow-up question. “Where in Missouri are you from?” He answered…. “Columbia, Missouri.” (What? Where I had grown up?)…. So, I asked a second follow-up Question…. “What High School did you go to?” With a curious look the man answered….. “Rockbridge High School…” (Man!!! the same one as me!!!)…. The third follow-up question….. “What year did you graduate?” Now, looking really suspicious… he said, “1978”. Trying to contain my excitement… I replied….. “Oh… so, you graduated from Rockbridge High School the same year I did….”
What are the odds? There were 254 students in our graduating class. This guy who currently lived somewhere in the east is sitting next to me at a dinner of about 10 people attending Advanced Protective Relay Training in Dallas, Texas where neither of us are from, and we both graduated from the same school back in Columbia, Missouri 15 years earlier! His name is Randy Loesing. He was working for a company called Ebasco at the time. He said, “I thought I recognized you! I just wasn’t sure.” I didn’t recognize him at all until I went back home and looked in my yearbook.
It turned out that he kept in touch with two of my oldest friends from the second grade, Mark Schlemper and Brent Stewart. So we talked about them. What an incredible coincidence. Like I may have mentioned before. It happens to me all the time. It turns out that an old friend of mine from the 3rd grade in Columbia, Missouri that I used to go to his house when we were stamp collectors and had a stamp collecting club, lives 5 miles south of me today in Round Rock Texas (He’s in Pflugerville).
Russell Somers lives in the same direction and just about the same number of miles as when we were kids. Not only that, but he worked at Dell while I was working at Dell (though I didn’t know it at the time). He has an older daughter and a younger son, just like me only younger. The same is true for another 3rd grade friend that I graduated from Rockbridge Highschool and the University of Missouri with, Caryn Lile (now Caryn Iber) who lives in Wisconsin. She has a daughter and a son the same age as my kids. She was living in Tulsa when I was living in Stillwater, Oklahoma. — Like I said… happens to me all the time.
Tim Flowers realized this odd phenomenon in college. I had told him earlier that my father told me that if I was every stranded somewhere that I could look up the local Veterinarian and tell him that I was the son of Dr. James Edward Breazile, and they would help me. So, when we were hiking in the mountains in Colorado and we met a man walking along a trail in the middle of nowhere above Estes Park near the Great Divide, when I told him who I was, he gave us a curious look…. then divulged his most intimate secrets of his life and where he had stashed his most values possessions, Tim told me later. “I really thought he was going to know who you were when he gave us that funny look.” I replied. “I think he did..”
I again apologize for the length of this post. It is rare that I ramble on this long. I can thank Ramblin’ Ann for the ability to Ramble so well. I can thank Ben Davis for recognizing a rambling situation and replacing it with a rock and roll learning opportunity. As I said earlier. One of the most enjoyable times I have spent in my entire life is the time I spent with Ben Davis testing Protective Relays! Bless you Ben and I pray for you, your wife, your son and your daughter on the way to work each morning.
Today when I hear any of the hundreds of rock and roll songs come on the radio that we listened to that month and a half, I can see us testing the relays, looking off into space saying, “Rolling Stones?” “No. Steve Miller Band?” Really? I thought Browneyed Girl was sung by the Rolling Stone! It turned out that the version that we listened to was from the creator of the song, Van Morrison. Who would have thought that he would sound so much like Mick Jagger. I can see Ben saying… I see what you mean… it kind of sounds like Mick Jagger.
As an add on to this story…
I now work at General Motors in Austin Texas. My best friend in High School was a guy named Jesse Cheng (I have mentioned him in other posts, especially in reference to the phrase “Jesse! Come get your Chili!). He was two years older than me, and throughout the years we would lose track of each other and then reconnect. He went to Yale to become an Engineer, then to the University of Missouri to become a Medical Doctor, then to Harvard to earn a Masters in Public Health and Epidemiology.
It turns out that we both now work at General Motors where he works in Arlington Texas as a Medical Director and I work in IT in Austin. We can IM (Instant Message) each other whenever we want, and we talk now at least once every week.
Originally posted February 8, 2014:
After the downsizing in 1987 some new engineers were assigned to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I wasn’t used to an engineer actually pausing to listen to what I was saying. I remember the first time I said something sort of out of the ordinary and Doug Link stopped and asked me why I thought that. The usual response was to roll their eyes as if I was some dumb electrician that almost knew how to lace my boots correctly… Ok… Lacing your boots isn’t as easy as it looks…. especially when you put them on in the dark in the morning before you leave the house.
Now, before you think “Front to Back and Back to Front” has to do with lacing up my boots, you are mistaken.
Back to Doug Link. I was surprised when he actually stopped and asked me to explain myself. I know I had said something that had sounded a little bombastic, but what I believed to be true anyway. So, I sat down and explained it to him. It was something that ran contrary to what a person might think was logical. Once I explained it to him, he said he understood what I meant. — Wow. What kind of new engineers are they breeding out there (I thought). Well he did go to Missouri University at the same time I did, we just didn’t know each other at the time.
Another engineer that showed up at the plant was Toby O’Brien. Even the maintenance department recognized right away that Toby would listen to you. Not only would he listen to the crazy rantings of an electrician like me, but he would also ask advice from mechanics! And… (now brace yourself for this) Welders! I believe that if he could corner a janitor, he probably would have listened to them as well…. because… well… I was just a janitor pretending to be an electrician, and he listened to me all the time.
So, what does this all have to do with “Front to Back and Back to Front”? Well. Almost nothing. Except that these new engineers knew about a secret that we were all keeping from George Bohn, another engineer that I talked about in the post “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer” In that post we had kept from George that the computer had an extra drive partitioned on the hard drive for a while. In this post, I will talk about a much more significant secret (at least in George’s eyes).
With the reorganization Terry Blevins worked on one precipitator and I worked on the other.
For those of you who don’t know, the precipitator is what takes the “smoke” out of the exhaust from the boiler so that it can be collected in hoppers and sent up to the coalyard to silos where trucks would come and haul it away to make highways.
The electric Supervisor Tom Gibson thought that a little competition would be good between the two teams to see who could make their precipitator work the best. Only it didn’t work out that way. Terry had one way of doing things and I had a completely opposite way of approaching a problem. Terry would study a problem. Analyze it, and do everything he could to understand what was going on. Then he would go out and make a major change. I on the other hand would make incremental small changes and observe the effects. Then work toward what seemed to work best.
Between the two of us approaching a problem from completely different points of view, we were able to come up with solutions that apart I don’t think either of us would have ever thought about. So, we became a team instead.
Now for the boring part of the story. I am going to explain Back to Front….. With the new digital controls, we could set up the controls so that each of the 84 precipitator transformers could be backed down one KV (kilovolt) at a time in order from the front cabinets to the back ones. Then it would start from the front again backing the power on the cabinets down slightly each time. — I know this is boring. The front of the precipitator is where the exhaust enters the precipitator. The back is where the exhaust leaves the precipitator.
The cabinets would do this until the amount of ash going out of the smoke stack hit a certain limit that was 1/4 of the legal limit (the legal limit was 20% opacity. So, we controlled the cabinets to keep the opacity at 5%). Opacity is the amount of light that is blocked by the ash coming out of the smokestack.
Well, if the opacity went too high (say 6.5%) the back cabinets would start powering all the way back up, and it would work its way toward the front of the precipitator from the back until the opacity went down below the set limit. — sound good? Well… after running this way for a while we realized that this wasn’t so good.
What ended up happening was that the front cabinets which normally collected 90% of the ash were always powered down and the back cabinets were powered up, because they would power up each time the opacity would spike. So the ash collection was shifted from the front to the back. This meant that if there was a puff of ash going out of the stack, it probably came from the back of the precipitator and there wasn’t anything that could be done to stop it.
We asked George if we could reverse the Front to Back powering down of the cabinets so that it went from Back to Front. That way the back of the precipitator would be powered down most of the time and the front would be powered up. This would keep the back half of the precipitator clean and if there was a need to power them up because of some disturbance in the boiler, the back of the precipitator would be in good shape to handle the extra ash.
George, however, insisted that since the EPA had tested the precipitator with the new controls when they were setup to go from front to back, we couldn’t risk changing it, or the EPA could come back and make us put scrubbers on the plant. We were grandfathered into not needing scrubbers and we didn’t want to go through that mess and cost that would have raised electric rates for everyone.
This was frustrating because we could easily see that every hour or so we would be sending big puffs out of the smokestack on the account of the inherent flaw of backing the cabinets down using a Front to back method. Even though we knew the engineers would blow their top if they found out, we called the EPA one day and asked them about it. The EPA said they didn’t care as long as the precipitator wasn’t physically being altered and we were adjusting the controls to maximize operations.
So, one day when I was in the Precipitator Control Room, I walked over the main processor unit in the middle of the room where the seven sections of 12 cabinets each plugged in. I took the A row cable and swapped it with G. I took B and swapped it with F, C and swapped it with E. D I just left it where it was since it was in the middle.
Then I walked to each Cabinet in a section and swapped the eeprom chip from cabinet 1 and put it in 12. And from cabinet 2 and put it in 11, and so on. Without leaving the precipitator control room, I had just changed the order of the cabinets backing down from “Front to Back” to “Back to Front”. As far as the control room was concerned, nothing changed (unless you looked closely at the voltages on the cabinets on the computer. The front cabinets usually were around 30kv while the back were closer to 45kv).
So, now that the cabinets were backing down from back to front, everything worked a lot smoother. No more hourly puffs and wild power swings as cabinets were released. As long as George didn’t know, he was happy. The precipitator suddenly was working very well. So well in fact that one winter while the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator was using only 70 Kilowatts of power and the opacity was well below the 5% threshold.
The space heaters in the precipitator control room were using over 120 kilowatts of power. More than the entire precipitator. This is important because normally the precipitator used more power than any other piece of equipment in the plant. It was not unusual before we had the back down working for one precipitator to use 3 Megawatts of power. That is 3,000 Kilowatts.
Then one day in 1992 an electrical engineer Intern (who later became a full time engineer) came in the precipitator control room with George Bohn while we were calibrating the cabinets one at a time. George began explaining to Steve Wilson how the precipitator controls worked. We were in the front section (G row). George introduced Steve to us and started explaining to him about the back down and how it worked.
Just then, the cabinet that he was showing him powered up. — oops. This was a front row cabinet and in George’s mind, they should be the last to power up. He looked around and could see that the cabinets in F row were still powered down. I thought, “The jig is up.” George said, “That’s not right! That shouldn’t happen!” (Ok George. We’ve only been doing this for 3 years and you are just now noticing?).
So, I asked him what the problem was (knowing full well). He explained that the cabinet in G row had just powered up. — You could tell when a cabinet was powered down because a certain light in the lower left corner of the display would be on. I looked at the cabinet and the Primary current limit light was lit. Obviously not in the back down mode.
So, I said this, “George, this cabinet still is in the back down mode. You just can’t tell because it is also hitting the primary current limit and both lights won’t light up at the same time.” — Geez… I thought…. would he believe this hair brain explanation? George nodded. Then he went on to explain to Steve what I just said to him as if it was something he knew all the time (even though I sort of just made it up).
A short time after Steve and George left, I found Steve and explained to him that we really do power down the precipitator from back to front instead of front to back, because front to back doesn’t work, and I explained to him why it works better and why we don’t tell George Bohn. Steve was another sensible engineer that knew how to listen and learn. I enjoyed the little time I spent working with him.
Well…. The efficiency of the precipitators caught the attention of EPRI (the Electric Power Research Institute), and they wanted to come and study our precipitator controls. Not only the back down feature we were using but also a pulse capability that Environmental Controls had that allowed you to power off for so many electric pulses and then power on again.
So, when the EPRI scientists showed up to test our precipitators for a couple of weeks trying the different modes of operation, I knew that it was important for them to really understand how we were operating the precipitators. So, after George had taken them to the computers in the control room and explained the back to front back down mode. I took them aside one at a time and explained to them that even though the computer looked like it was backing down from front to back, it was really backing down from back to front.
I explained to them why we had to do it that way, and I also explained to them why we didn’t let George know about it. They all seemed to understand, and for the next two weeks no one from EPRI let the cat out of the bag.
To this day I don’t think George knew that we had swapped the direction of the back down from “front to back” to “Back to front”. At least not until he reads this post.
Comments from the original post:
Originally Posted February 14, 2014:
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.
end of side story.
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, most 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“