“Take a Note Jan” said the Supervisor of Power Production

Revised 6/26/2022

Originally Posted August 24, 2012:

I remember the first time Martin Louthan, the supervisor over all the power plants, came to the Power Plant to meet with all the Power Plant Men a couple of months before Unit 1 came on line in 1979. I don’t know what he expected when he arrived, but I don’t think he expected the greeting he received when the meeting began and he asked us what we all wanted to talk about.

There were about 200 Power plant Men all crowded into the break room. Some sitting and a lot standing, as there was no vacant leaning room against the walls. Martin Louthan began the meeting by saying that he wanted to come and meet with all the Power plant men every 6 months without the management in the room so that we could all speak freely. I don’t think that Martin actually thought the Power Plant Men would actually take him up on it. But they did.

Martin Louthan was from the Old School of Power Plant Men. He was what I would call a “Power Broker” Man. You can definitely tell that he had worked his way up through the ranks of Power Plant Politics and was very comfortable in his position as ruler of all the power plants. Martin had started as a Power Plant engineer and had spent time working at almost all of the power plants that had been built up to that time, including the Osage Plant that I had talked about in an earlier blog about the Power Plant Pioneers (Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace).

Once again I must remind the reader that the Power Plant Manager at the time, Eldon Waugh enjoyed ruling over his power plant kingdom and any time he could find a way to wield his power, he would. He had created many miscellaneous rules at the plant to demonstrate this authority. Most of which were designed to be a nuisance to the average employee under his domain.

When Martin Louthan asked the crowded room if anyone had anything to say while the plant manager and their own foremen were out of the room, the Power Plant Men took the opportunity to let loose a barrage of grievances against the Power Plant Manager and his assistant.

The main topic was the rule that no one could fish on plant grounds. The Power Plant Men had been told that Oklahoma City (Corporate Headquarters) had made a rule that no one could fish in the lake from the plant grounds. This included the discharge where the warm water went into the lake from the condenser, which was not far from the engineer’s shack parking lot where everyone had to park at the time. Martin acted surprised. He said he hadn’t heard of a rule like that.

Not being able to fish on plant grounds meant a long walk (about a mile) across an often muddy field

Sitting next to Martin Louthan was his secretary Janice Baker (Brady). Martin would say, “I’ll look into it. Take A note Jan! I’ll let you know what I find out.” Jan would write something down on her notepad. Then complaint after complaint kept coming, and Martin kept saying “Take a note Jan.” I remember Jan’s expression throughout the meeting. I couldn’t tell if it was one of wonder or a look of someone that was having writer’s cramp.

A notepad like this

A Power Plant notepad Jan may have been using

After a few more visits from Martin, “Take a note Jan” became a phrase at the plant for something that needed to be looked into, but we knew we would never hear about again. It wasn’t long before Martin’s 6 month meetings turned into yearly meetings, and then eventually, he stopped having meetings with the Power Plant Men all together.

The nail in the coffin of Martin Louthan’s meetings happened when I was on Labor Crew. Martin had his yearly meeting some time in the middle of the summer of 1983. I was on the labor crew that summer.

One of the main complaints that year was that the assistant plant manager and the plant manager were constantly lying to us about one thing and then another. Martin asked the Power Plant Men for an example. Well. No one could come up with one on the spot. It was something you knew when you heard it, but if you didn’t write them down, then the next day you were too busy keeping the plant operational to remember the troubles of the day before.

Martin Louthan told the Power Plant Men that if they didn’t have any examples, then he would not be able to take any action. So, Jan didn’t have to take a note about that.

The Labor Crew bore the brunt of the next rule that came down from up above, and we were told that it had come from Oklahoma City (which is where Corporate Headquarters is located). A lot of people on labor crew had been there for a long time. Some had been there for about 2 years since labor crew had been created and were looking for an opportunity to move into maintenance or become an operator.

The economy had slowed down during those years as we were still recovering from the high unemployment and the downturn in the oil market in Oklahoma. Reaganomics hadn’t kicked in full steam yet, so those people who would have migrated onto other jobs were staying put.

Finally it was announced that a new crew was going to be started at the plant. It would be the Testing crew. An excellent opportunity for some of the people to finally leave the labor crew where they seemed to be held captive during those years.

Unfortunately for most, it was soon made known that the new positions required that the person have a college degree. It didn’t matter in what, as long as they had one. That left Jim Kanelakos and I as the only two power plant men-in-training that were eligible. I had a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology, and Jim had a Masters of Arts in Psychology. — Go figure.

Together we would stand out in the front of the Labor Crew building analyzing the other Power Plant Men using all of our education to help us determine the motivation for each person. Jim might say, “Do you ever notice how Charles Peavler will go off to do coal cleanup and then you don’t see him until lunch when he comes back completely clean, and nothing seems to have been cleaned?”

I would respond by saying, “Yes, I wonder how he manages to keep so clean when he’s obviously doing twice the work, both cleaning up the reclaim and messing it all back up again. What drives a man to be so… um… Productive?”

Jim might respond by saying something like, “It is probably because he hates his father and this is his way of seeking revenge on him for all the times he made him clean his bedroom after his brother had messed it up.”

No. We really didn’t say that, but I’m sure we thought about it often enough.

Then came the clincher… It seems that when Eldon Waugh learned that requiring a college degree didn’t automatically disqualify ALL of the labor crew hands, a new rule came down. “No one already employed by the Electric Company could be considered for the job.” Again we were told, “This had come down from Oklahoma City.”

To compound the issue, a new program had been put in place just that summer called the Employee Application Program which included a new job announcement process that allowed everyone access across the company to apply for job openings anywhere in the company.

Now, this seemed like an obvious example that could be given to Martin Louthan. A perfect example of the Power plant men being lied to by the Plant Manager. Our A foreman Marlin McDaniel asked Jim Kanelakos and I to apply for the jobs. He wanted to have actual proof that the applications would not be considered even though we met the minimum qualifications.

We applied, and our applications were turned down. We went through the proper procedures and up the chain of command and asked the Supervisor of Maintenance Ken Scott to have a meeting with us to discuss the situation.

Ken listened to our grievance, and said that he would go talk to the assistant plant manager to find out what he could about the reason why we couldn’t be considered for the new testing jobs. He came back with the answer from Bill Moler, the assistant plant manager, that we could not be considered for the testing jobs because they were new positions, and no one that currently worked for the Electric Company could be considered for newly created positions. “This had come down from Oklahoma City.”

The labor crew as a group said that they wanted to have a meeting with Martin Louthan to talk about this. Ken came back and said that the next time that Martin Louthan was at the plant, he would meet with the labor crew.

Finally one day about a week later, at 4:00pm we were told that Martin Louthan was at the plant and that he would be willing to meet with us. The end of our day was at 4:30. We went up to the conference room and sat down with Martin to discuss the issue. Ken Scott sat in the meeting as an advocate stating exactly what he had been told, and what had happened.

As 4:40 rolled around, I was aware that I had three people in the car waiting for me to drive them home, and I reluctantly had to leave the meeting right after Martin Louthan told us that he had never heard of such a rule that if you worked for the company you couldn’t be considered for a job. He asked to have Bill Moler and Eldon Waugh brought into the meeting.

I had to hear what happened the next day because I missed the rest of the meeting. When Bill Moler and Eldon Waugh came into the meeting, Martin Louthan asked Eldon Waugh why he didn’t consider anyone at the plant for the new testing jobs.

Eldon (the plant manager) replied by saying, “We did consider people at the plant. (which was a lie)” Then Bill Moler (the assistant plant manager) replied, “No we didn’t.” Martin asked, “Well why not?” (Maybe with a little more flowery language than I am using). Bill Moler said, “Because you told us not to.” Martin then said, “No I didn’t!” Bill Moler responded by shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Then it must have been a misunderstanding.”

That was it. The meeting was over. The misunderstanding was cleared up, but by that time the new testing crew had already been hired, and it was all water under the bridge. The Labor Crew men were still stuck digging ditches and doing coal cleanup. Martin Louthan didn’t have anymore meetings with just the Power Plant Men without the management in the room after that.

Every now and then I wonder what Jan was really writing in her notebook whenever Martin said, “Take a Note Jan.” I do know that after the first meeting, we were allowed to fish at the discharge, but only if we wore our hardhats. Our families and friends however could not. Then after much back-and-forth with Oklahoma City it was decided that not only did we not need to wear our hardhat while fishing at the discharge, but we could even bring our family and friends with us as well.

Martin Louthan retired with the other Power Broker men in the 1987-88 downsizing. The next June during the summer of 1988, Jan Brady became known as Janice Louthan, as she had married Martin Louthan. Martin’s first wife had died in 1981.

Janice Louthan's Facebook picture

Janice Louthan’s Facebook picture

Martin lived 23 years after he retired from the Electric Company where he had worked for 40 years. He died in his home on November 29, 2010. Janice was most likely right there by his side. In my mind with her notepad handy, ready and willing to hear the words, “Take a note Jan” just one more time.

Take a look at Martin Louthan and tell me this guy doesn’t mean business…

Martin Louthan

Life and Death on the Power Plant Lake

Revised 6/18/2022

Originally posted on August 18, 2012:

I have just finished watching the movie “Godfather II” with my son.  Toward the end of the movie Fredo Corleone and Al are going fishing.  There is a scene where the motorboat in the boat house is lowered down into the water.  I have seen one boat house like this before where the boat is hoisted out of the water in the boat house so that it can be stored dry while hovering a few feet over the water.  The Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked as a summer help had a very similar boat house.

The Power Plant had a boat house because each month during the summer months the chemist had to go to various locations in the lake to take the temperature and a water sample.  He would take the water samples back to the chemist lab where they could be analyzed.  Each bottle was carefully labeled indicating where in the lake the sample was taken.  In order to take the samples out in the middle of the lake…. A motorboat was required.  Thus the need for the boat house.

The second summer as a Summer Help (before the boathouse was built) I was asked to go along on this journey with George Dunagan, a new chemist at the time.  Larry Riley usually manned the motor, as it was known that the motor for the boat had a tendency to cut out and die at random times and the best person that could be counted on to fix a stranded boat out in the middle of the lake was Larry Riley.  I know I always felt safe.

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

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him

I have seen Larry dismantle part of the motor out in the middle of the lake, clean a fuel filter and put the thing back together again with a minimum number of tools at his disposal.  I would sit patiently as the boat rocked back and forth with the waves (Oklahoma winds usually kept a steady flow of waves) waiting for Larry to repair the motor.  I didn’t have any fear of missing lunch because Larry was in the boat.  So, I would just sit and watch the ducks and other birds fly by or look into the water to see what I could see.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset across the lake

Larry would pull something out of the motor and say, “Well, look at that!  No wonder this thing died.”  Right on queue.  A few minutes later and he would start the boat up again and off we would go speeding across the lake.

During the time I was a summer help, there were various tragic events that took place.  One man committed suicide by drowning at the park while his sister and wife waited on the shore to tell whoever was first to arrive.  Summer Helps were there, but I was on an errand to Oklahoma City at the time and only heard about it when I returned.  He had wrapped himself up in some brush. Evidently, he was in some kind of legal trouble at the time and was expected to show up to serve jail time the following Monday.

Another tragedy which was very sad was when a man was swimming with his son on his shoulders out to the dock that was placed out in the water so that swimmers could swim out to it, when he had a heart attack while his daughter was waiting for them on the shore.  When the summer help arrived, the daughter told them that her father and brother just went under the water and never came up.  One of the Summer Help, David Foster jumped in and found them both drowned.  It was a traumatic experience for him, which I’m sure lives on in his memory to this day.  Both the father (which appeared to have had a heart attack) and his son had drowned.

Another man was fishing where the river pumps discharged into the lake.  This was a popular place to fish at a certain part of the day.  A large man had waded out into the water, and at some point fell over.  He could not swim (maybe because he had too much to drink) and was also drowned.

These tragic events were a constant reminder that water sports of all kinds have their dangers.  Following Safety rules is very important.  I believe that two of those 4 people would have not drowned if they had on a life preserver.

Another more humorous tragedy (depending on how you look at it) occurred not far from the boat ramp at the park located closer to Hwy 177.  The story as I heard it was that this stubborn farmer who had become rich when they found oil on his land (and I won’t mention his name, because I don’t remember it.  Heck.  I can’t even remember his initials, if you can believe that), had bought his first boat.  Not knowing much about boating, he wanted to make sure he was well equipped, so he attached the biggest motor he could buy to it.

He lowered it into water at the boat ramp at the park, and turned it around so that it pointed out into the lake.  Then he opened it up to full throttle.  The nose of the boat proceeded to point straight up in the air, and the boat sank motor first. The man swam over to the shore.  Climbed in his truck and drove away.  Leaving the boat on the floor of the lake.  Now… I figure that someone must have seen this happen, because I’m sure that the person didn’t go around telling everyone that he met what he had done… — That is, until he had a few beers in him… maybe.

I would like to tell you some more about George Dunagan, the chemist that went with us to take the water samples.  He looked like the type of person that would make a good Sergeant in the Army.  A solid facial structure, and a buzz haircut reminded me of the Sergeant Carter on the Gomer Pyle TV show.  Here is a picture of Sergeant Carter and George Dunagan when he was younger:

Sergeant Carter

George Dunagan

Or does he look more like Glenn Ford?

George was in his mid-40s when I first met him.  He was 4 months older than my father.  He went about his business as a man that enjoyed his job.  Occasionally, something might get under his craw, and he would let you know about it, but you always knew that he was the type of person that was looking out for you, even when you thought you didn’t need it.

I considered George a True Power Plant Chemist.  He was a genius in his own field.  When I was young and I worked around George, I felt like he was passionate about his job and that he wanted to teach it to others.  He would explain to me what the different chemical processes in the Water Treatment were doing.  He would take any opportunity to explain things in detail.  Some people would think that he was kind of grumpy sometimes, and sometimes they would be right.  He cared passionately about things that involved “right” and “wrong”.  When he saw something that he considered wrong, he rarely sat still.

I considered George to be a passionate teacher that loved to see others learn.  I made it a point to stop and nod my head like I was really listening when he was telling me something because I could see the joy in his face that knowledge was being bestowed upon someone.

As he took the water samples in the lake, he explained to me why he was doing what he was doing.  How the EPA required these for so many years to show that the lake was able to cool the power plant steam back to water without disturbing the wildlife that inhabited the lake (that the electric company had created).

At that particular time, they were still taking a baseline of how the water was with just one unit running.  Later when both units are running they would see how it held up by comparing the year before when no unit was running, then this year with one, and next year with two units.

I listened intently.  Not so much because the topic interested me.  I wouldn’t tell George that I was struggling to pay attention because the particulars about how he had to label each sample and put them in order in the box were not as interesting as things that came to my own imagination.  I imagined things like… “Wouldn’t it be neat if you could breathe under water?”  Or,  “If the boat tipped over, and we were in the middle of the lake, would I stay with the boat or try to swim to the shore….”  “Was that my stomach rumbling?  Am I getting hungry already?”  I would put my own imagination aside.

I listened intently, mainly because I could see that George would brighten up to find such an attentive pupil in the boat.  I was grinning inside real big to watch George with such a satisfied look.  I suppose inside as George was explaining the world of water temperature and bacteria growth, I was thinking, “I wonder if George used to be a Sergeant in the Army.”  “Does he teach his own children the same way he does me?”.  “I wonder what George did before he came here.  Was he a chemist somewhere else?”

At the beginning of this year I began writing this Power plant Man Blog because I felt a great need to capture on paper (well.  Virtual paper anyway), some stories about the people I was blessed to work with at the Power Plant.  Sonny Karcher, who I considered a good friend had died a couple of months earlier.  I needed to write about these men, because if I didn’t, I feared these stories would be lost to the world.  These are too great of men to just fade away into history without something being left behind to record at least some memorable events in their lives.  16 days after I wrote my first post this year (on January 18, 2012), George Dunagan died in the Ponca City Medical Center.

One thing I was not surprised to learn about George was that he used to be a teacher.  He had a Master Degree in Education and had taught at the Chilocco Indian School for 11 years before going to work at the power plant.  This explained why he seemed to go into the “Teacher” mode when he was explaining something.

 

I also learned that he was in the U.S. Navy where he enlisted in 1954.  This didn’t surprise me either.  As I mentioned above, George reminded me of the Sergeant Carter on Gomer Pyle, and not in the humorous way, but in the way he carried himself like someone in the military.  George Dunagan reached the rank of Master Sergeant in the Army Reserves where he retired in 1994, two years after retiring from the Power Plant life.

The movie Godfather II seemed to be about how one man struggled to build a secure home for his family and fellow countrymen through any means necessary, and about how his son destroyed his own family to the point where he was left completely alone with his family destroyed at the end.

Power Plant Men had their own struggles at home.  They were not immune to family strife any more than anyone else.  The nature of their work gave them a great sense of dignity and feeling of accomplishment.  This sense of dignity helps relieve some stress in the family unit.  To realize every day that the work that you perform directly impacts the lives of everyone that receives the electricity being produced at the Power Plant.

When something goes wrong and a base unit trips suddenly, the lights flicker in every school room, every store and every house of 2 million people reminding us that this fragile system is so stable because of the due diligence of True Power Plant Men with the sense to care as much as George Dunagan a True Power Plant Chemist.

Comment from previous repost:

  1.  

    Monty Hansen November 3, 2014

    Your story about George brought back warm memories of my own plant chemist, from long ago. “Chet Malewski”, a brilliant man in his own field, very kind, with a love of teaching and I was happy to soak up any knowledge he was willing to pass on. I took Chet fishing once & we spent the day in my boat. I find it amazing how much our power plant lives have paralleled. Chet resembled Albert Einstein in appearance.

Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door

Revised 6/12/2022

Originally published on May 25, 2012:

Either this was the luckiest day of my life, or a day where stupidity seemed to be my natural state of mind. This particular day occurred sometime during September 1983. The Main Power transformer for Unit 1 had shut down because of an internal fault during an exceptionally hot day during the summer and was being replaced.

While the unit was offline, while I was on the labor crew, I was asked to help out the electricians who were doing an overhaul on the Precipitator. The Precipitator takes the ash out of the boiler exhaust before it goes up the smokestack. Without it, you would see thick smoke, instead, you see only clear exhaust. At the time the electricians I worked with were Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers. I had already applied for a job in the electric shop and was waiting to see if I was going to be offered the job. This gave me the chance to show the electricians what a brilliant worker I was.

Bill Rivers told me to go in the precipitator and wipe down the insulators that held the wire racks in place. He showed me where they were. I wore a regular half-face respirator because the fly ash is harmful to inhale.

Half-face respirator

Just before I went in the precipitator door to begin wiping down the insulators using a Scotch Brite Pad, Bill Rivers pointed to my flashlight and said, “Don’t drop your flashlight in a hopper otherwise you will have to make sure that you get it out of the hopper before we go back online.” I told him I would be sure to hold onto my flashlight (noticing that Bill had a string tied to his flashlight which was slung over his shoulder) and I entered the precipitator door.

Yellow Flashlight similar to the one I carried

The inside of the precipitator was dark. 70 foot tall plates are lined up 9 inches apart. Wires hang down between the plates and when the precipitator is turned on, the wires are charged up to around 45,000 volts of electricity. The wires each have a 30 pound weight on the bottom to keep the wires straight, and the wires are kept apart and lined up by a rack at the bottom. One end of the rack which is about 25 feet long is held in place by an electrical insulator about 3 feet long. This is what I was supposed to clean. The light from the flashlight lit up the area around me because everything was covered with the fine white powder reflecting the light.

The first hopper I came to was full of ash up to the top of the hopper, but just below where the insulator was mounted to the edge of the hopper. So, I worked my way down to the ledge along the edge of the hopper and dangled my feet down into the ash as I prepared to wipe down the first of the four insulators on this particular hopper. Just as I began, the precipitator suddenly went dark as my flashlight fell from my hand and down into the hopper. — Oh boy, that didn’t take long.

Fly Ash Hoppers. Our hoppers were 12 foot by 12 foot at the top.

I sat there for a minute in the dark as my eyes grew accustomed to the small amount of light that was coming through the doors. After I could see again, I reached my hand into the ash to feel for my flashlight. The ash was very fluffy and there was little or no resistance as I flailed my hand around searching for it. I leaned over farther and farther to reach down deeper into the ash. I was at the point where I was laying down flat on the ledge trying to find the flashlight, and it was no where to be found.

I pulled myself over to the side edge of the hopper and dropped myself down into the ash so that I could reach over where I had dropped the light, but I was still not able to find it. At that point, I was leaning out into the hopper with only my one index finger gripping the ledge around the hopper (read that again…. one index finger was holding me up). I had a decision to make… I thought I would just bail off into the ash to see if I could find the flashlight, or I could give up and go tell Bill Rivers that I had done the one thing that he told me not to do, and in record time.

I don’t usually like to give up until I have exhausted every effort, so here was my dilemma. Do I let go and dive into this ash to retrieve my flashlight? Or do I leave the hopper and go tell Bill? I regretfully decided to go tell Bill. So, I climbed up out of the hopper, with my clothes covered with Ash (as we did not have fly ash suits at the time and I was wearing my coveralls). I made my way to the precipitator door and once I was outside, I determined which hopper I had been in when I dropped my flashlight.

I found Bill and told him that I had dropped my flashlight in a hopper full of ash. He told me to get the key for that hopper and open the door at the bottom and see if I could find the flashlight. Unlike the picture of the hoppers above, we had a landing around the base of the hoppers by the access door so you didn’t need a ladder to reach them.

Curtis Love had been watching the door of the precipitator for me while I was supposed to be wiping off the insulators. He came down with me, and we proceeded to open the access door at the bottom on the side of the hopper. When I opened the door both Curtis and I were swept backward as a stream of warm fly ash shot from the door. The ash fell through the grating to the ground below. We regained our footing and watched as a tremendous pile of ash grew below us. If the flashlight had come out of the doorway, it would have remained on the landing since it was too big to go through the grating, but it never came out.

After the ash had finished pouring out of the hopper as if it were water, I reached down into the remaining ash in the hopper to see if I could feel the flashlight. Still I was unable to find it. There was about 4 more feet from the doorway to the bottom of the hopper, so I emptied out as much ash as I could using my hard hat for a shovel. Then I pulled my body head first into the hopper and I reached down as far as I could in the bottom of the hopper, but I couldn’t find the flashlight.

So, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Curtis Love to hold onto my legs as I lowered myself down to the throat at the bottom of the hopper. I lowered myself down until I had half of my face laying in the ash. At this point only one of the two filters on my respirator was able to function as the other one was down in the ash. I reached my hand into the top of the feeder at the bottom of the hopper and with my finger tips I could just feel the flashlight. I had reached as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach far enough to grip the flashlight.

All of the sudden my head dipped down into the ash and my hand went around the flashlight. I was not able to breathe as my respirator (and my entire head) was completely immersed in ash. Everything went dark. I struggled to get up, as Curtis had let go of my legs and I had plunged head first into the bottom of the hopper.

I had one hand free as the other one held the flashlight. I used it to push against the opposite wall of the hopper to raise my head up out of the ash. I still couldn’t breathe as my respirator was now clogged solid with ash. When I tried to inhale, the respirator just gripped my face tighter. Finally with my one free hand pushing against the hopper wall to hold my head out of the ash, I reached up with the hand that held the flashlight and pushed against my respirator enough to break the seal around my face so that I was able to get a breath of air.

Then I quickly pulled myself out of the precipitator as I heard Curtis saying the mantra that I had heard one other time (as I indicated in the post about Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love). He was saying over and over again, “I’mSorry,I’mSorry, KevinI’mSorry, ThoseGuysWereTicklingMe. I’mSorry,IDidn’tMeanToLetGo,ITriedToHoldOn, butThoseGuysWereTicklingMe.”

Looking around I spied a few Labor Crew hands sneaking away. As this happened before when I was sandblasting in the sand filter tank when Curtis Love had turned off my air, this wasn’t the first encounter I had with Power Plant Men In-Training playing a Power Plant joke on me. I told Curtis to forget it. I had retrieved my flashlight and everything was all right. I was covered from head-to-toe with fly ash, but that washes off pretty easily.

It dawned on me then that when I had dropped the flashlight, it had sunk clear to the bottom of the hopper and down into the throat of the feeder at the bottom. If I had dived into the ash in the hopper from up above, I would have fallen right down to the bottom of the hopper and been engulfed in ash. My feet would have been pinned down in the feeder pipe, and that would have been the end of me. It probably would have taken many hours to figure out where I was, and they would have found only a corpse.

While I was hanging on the edge of the hopper with only the tip of my index finger gripping the ledge, I was actually considering letting go. There never would have been an electrician at the power Plant named Kevin Breazile. I never would have married my wife Kelly, and had my two children Elizabeth and Anthony. I would not be writing this story right now. If it had been left to my own stupidity, none of those things would have happened.

I believe it was my guardian angel that had talked me out of letting go (or had actually been standing on my finger). As stubborn as I was, and against my nature, that day I had decided to give up searching for my flashlight and seek help. That one momentary decision has made all the difference in my life.

Since that day I have had a certain appreciation for the things that happen to me even when they seem difficult at the time. I have lived a fairly stress-free life because each day is a gift. Currently I work in a stress-filled job where individual accomplishments are seldom rewarded. From one day to the next I may be laid off at any time. I still find a lot of satisfaction in what I do because it was possible that it never would have happened. I have been kept alive for a purpose so I might as well enjoy the ride.

I find a special love for the people I work with today, because they are all gifts to me. I try to pay them back with kindness… when that doesn’t work.. I try to annoy them with my presence… Just to say….. — I am still here!

Comments from previous repost:

  1. Dan Antion May 27, 2014

    Scary thought there at the end. Sounds like quick sand.

  2. Ron May 27, 2014

    I’m glad you chose to “give up” on going after a flashlight! There is a Proverb that says “There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof is the way death.” Sounds like you found one of those “ways”. To choose to find your flashlight and lose your life would be the ultimate bad choice. God, give us the wisdom to choose the way of life.

  3. A.D. Everard August 4, 2014

    Wow. So close! You have a book with all these adventures, you really do. I’m enjoying reading these pages very much. I’m so glad you survived to write them!

  4. inmytwisteddreams August 17, 2014

    You are a very good story teller! I was drawn in from the first sentence, and engulfed in your words until the last. Great Story! I mean, not so great at the time, but glad you brought it full circle in the end! I always say, “You must never hesitate” – a simple statement, whose words most might take for granted. As humans, it’s typically against our nature to trust our first (or gut) instinct, but as you know, it is there for a reason! Good story! 🙂

    ~Nikki

Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann

Revised 6/4/2022

Originally Posted on April 20, 2012.

The Coal Fired Power Plant where I was employed is out in the country and it supplies its own drinkable water as well as the super clean water needed to generate steam to turn the turbine.  One of the first steps to creating drinkable water was to filter it through a sand filter.  The plant has two large sand filters to filter the water needed for plant operations.

Similar to these Sand Filters only somewhat bigger.  If you look closely at the outside of the tank, you can see where the three sections of the tank are divided.

These are the same tanks I was in when I was Sandblasting under the watchful eye of Curtis Love which was the topic of the post about “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“.  Before I was able to sandblast the bottom section of the sand filter tank, Ed Shiever and I had to remove all the Teflon filter nozzles from the two middle sections of each tank.  Once sandblasted, the tank was painted, the nozzles were replaced, and the sand filter was put back in operation.

Ed Shiever and I were the only two that were skinny enough and willing enough to crawl through the small entrance to the tanks.  The doorway as I mentioned in an earlier post is a 12-inch by 18-inch oval.  Just wide enough to get stuck.  So, I had to watch what I ate for lunch otherwise I could picture myself getting stuck in the small portal just like Winnie the Pooh after he had eaten all of Rabbit’s honey.

Winnie the Pooh Stuck in Rabbit's Hole

Winnie the Pooh Stuck in Rabbit’s Hole

Ed Shiever was a janitor at the time and was being loaned to the labor crew to work with me in the sand filter tank.  Ed was shorter than average and was a clean-cut respectable person that puts you in the mind of Audey Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II.

For those power plant men that know Ed Shiever but haven’t ever put him and Audey Murphy together in their mind will be surprised and I’m sure agree with me that Ed Shiever looked strikingly similar to Audey Murphy at the time when we were in the sand filter tank (1983).

Audey Murphy

Before I explain what happened to Ed Shiever while we spent a couple of weeks holed up inside the sand filter tanks removing the hundreds of Teflon nozzles and then replacing them, I first need to explain how I had come to this point in my life when Ed and I were in this echo chamber of a filter tank.  This is where Ann Bell comes into the story.  Or, as my friend Ben Cox and I referred to her as “Ramblin’ Ann”.

I met Ramblin’ Ann when I worked at The Bakery in Columbia Missouri while I was in my last year of college at the University of Missouri.  I was hired to work nights so that I could handle the drunks that wandered in from nearby bars at 2 a.m.  Just up the street from The Bakery were two other Colleges, Columbia College and Stephen’s College which were primarily girls’ schools.  Ramblin’ Ann attended Stephen’s College.

She had this uncanny knack of starting a sentence and never finishing it.  I don’t mean that she would stop halfway through the sentence.  No.  When Ann began the first sentence, it was just molded into any following sentences as if she not only removed the periods but also any commas and spaces between the words.

She spoke in a seemly exaggerated Kentucky accent (especially when she was talking about her accent, at which point her accent became even more pronounced).  She was from a small town in Kentucky and during the summers she worked in Mammoth Cave as a tour guide (this is an important part of this story… believe it or not).

A normal conversation began like this:  “Hello Ann, how is it going?”  “WellHiKevin!Iamjustdoinggreat!IhadagooddayatschooltodayYouKnowWhatIMean? IwenttomyclassesandwhenIwenttomymailboxtopickupmymailIrealizedthatthistownisn’t likethesmalltownIcamefromin KentuckybecausehereIamjustboxnumber324 butinthetownwhereIcamefrom (breathe taken here) themailmanwouldstopbymyhousetogiveusthemailandwouldsay, “Hi Ann, how are you today?” YouKnowWhatImean? AndIwouldsay, “WellHiMisterPostmansirIamdoingjustgreattodayHowareYoudoing?”YouknowwhatImean? (sigh inserted here) SoItIsSureDifferentlivinginabigtownlikethisandwhenIthinkbackonmyclassesthatIhadtoday andIthinkabouthowmuchitisgoingtochangemylifeandallbecauseIamjustlearning somuchstuffthatIhaveneverlearnedbefore IknowthatwhenIamOlderandI’mthinkingbackonthisdayandhowmuchitmeanstome, IknowthatIamgoingtothinkthatthiswasareallygreatdayYouKnowWhatIMean?” (shrug added here)….

The conversation could continue on indefinitely.  So, when my girlfriend who later became my wife came to visit from Seattle, I told her that she just had to go and see Ramblin’ Ann Bell, but that we had to tell her that we only have about 15 minutes, and then we have to go somewhere else because otherwise, we would be there all night nodding our heads every time we heard “…Know What I Mean?”

My roommate Barry Katz thought I was being inconsiderate one day when he walked in our dorm room and I was sitting at the desk doing my homework and occasionally I would say, “Uh Huh” without looking up or stopping my work, so after sitting there watching me for a minute he asked me what I was doing and I told him I was talking to Ann Bell and I pointed to the phone receiver sitting on the desk.

I could hear the “You Know What I Mean”s coming out of the receiver and each time I would say, “Uh Huh”.  So, when he told me that wasn’t nice, I picked up the receiver and I said to Ramblin’ Ann, “Hey Ann, Barry is here, would you like to talk to him?” and I handed the phone receiver to him.

He sat down and asked Ann how she was doing…. 10 minutes or so and about 150 “Uh Huh”‘s later, Barry looked over at me and slowly started placing the receiver back on the desktop repeating “Uh Huh” every so many seconds.

Barry Katz, also known as Barry the Bicycle Man

Barry Katz, also known as Barry the Bicycle Man

Anyway.  The reason I told you this story about Ramblin’ Ann was because after a while I began to imitate Ann.  I would start ramblin’ about something, and it was almost as if I couldn’t stop.

If you have ever read the story about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll would transform into Mr. Hyde by drinking a potion.  But eventually he started turning into Mr. Hyde randomly without having to drink the potion.  Well, that is what had happened to me.  In some situations, I would just start to ramble non-stop for as long as it takes to get it all out…  Which Ed Shiever found out was a very long time.

You see, Ed Shiever and I worked in the Sand filter tanks for an entire week removing the nozzles and another week putting them back in.  the entire time I was talking non-stop to him.  while he just worked away saying the occasional “uh huh” whenever I said, “you know what I mean?”, though I didn’t say it as much as Ramblin’ Ann did.  I could never match her prowess because my lung capacity just wasn’t as much.

Ed Shiever was a good sport though, and patiently tolerated me without asking to be dismissed back to be a janitor, or even to see the company Psychiatrist…. Well, we didn’t have a company psychiatrist at the time.

It wasn’t until a few years later when Ronald Reagan went to visit Mammoth Cave during the summer, that this event with Ed Shiever came back to me.  You see… Ann Bell had been a tour guide at Mammoth Cave during the summer, and as far as I knew still was.  My wife and I both realized what this could mean if Ronald Reagan toured Mammoth Cave with Ann Bell as his tour guide.

Thoughts about a Manchurian Candidate Conspiracy came to mind as we could imagine the voice of Ann Bell echoing through the cave as a very excited Ramblin’ Ann explained to Ronald Reagan how excited she was and how much this was going to mean to her in her life, and how she will think back on this time and remember how excited she was and how happy she will be to have those memories and how much she appreciated the opportunity to show Ronald Reagan around in Mammoth Cave… with all of this echoing and echoing and echoing….

We had watched this on the evening news and it was too late to call to warn the President of the United States not to go in the cave with Ann Bell, so we could only hope for the best.  Unfortunately, Ronald’s memory seemed to be getting worse by the day after his tour of Mammoth Cave and started having a confused look on his face as if he was still trying to parse out the echoes that were still bouncing in his head.

Ronald Reagan trying to catch Ramblin' Ann taking a breath

Ronald Reagan trying to catch Ramblin’ Ann taking a breath

Of course, my wife and I felt like we were the only two people in the entire country that knew the full potential of what had happened.

So this started me thinking…  Poor Ed Shiever, one of the nicest people you could ever meet, had patiently listened to me rambling for two entire weeks in an echo chamber just like the President.  I wondered how much impact that encounter had on his sanity.  So, I went to Ed and I apologized to him one day for rambling so much while we were working in the Sand Filter tank, hoping that he would forgive me for messing up his future.

He said, “Sure, no problem.”  Just like that.  He was all right.  He hadn’t lost his memory or become confused, or even taken up rambling himself.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Ed Shiever had shown his true character under such harsh conditions and duress.

I’m just as sure today as I was then that if Ed Shiever had been with Audey Murphy on the battlefield many years earlier, Ed would have been standing right alongside him all the way across the enemy lines.  In my book, Ed Shiever is one of the most decorated Power Plant Men still around at the Power Plant today (well, he has retired since I first wrote this).

I finally found an actual  picture of Ed Shiever:

Ed Shiever 15 years later

Ed Shiever 15 years after the Ramblin’ Kev event

 

Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back

Revised 5/28/2022

Originally Posted on April 13, 2012:

There are some days you wish you could take back after making a grand decision that turns out to look really dumb when your decision fails. It is important to think outside the box to break new ground as long as you bring common sense along for the ride.

It seemed that during the days when I was a summer help, and even when I was a laborer on Labor Crew that in order to be promoted you had to come up with one grand idea that set you apart from the others and that also failed miserably.

It was said that the electrical supervisor there before Leroy Godfrey (I can see his face, but his name escapes me.  Jackie somebody), was promoted to that position after he caused the destruction of one of the Intake pump motors (a very large pump that can pump 189,000 gallons of water per minute).

To name a couple of minor “Faux Pas” (how do you pluralize that word? I don’t know — Faux Pauses?), let me start out with the least embarrassing and less dangerous and work my way to the most embarrassing and most dangerous of three different stories of someone thinking out of the box while leaving common sense somewhere behind and maybe wishing they could take back that day.

The first two stories both involve the Electrical Supervisors of two different Power Plants.

Tom Gibson, the Electrical Supervisor from our plant was trying to find a way to keep moisture out of the Bottom Ash Overflow Sump Pumps. This was a recurring problem that required a lot of man hours to repair. The bell shaped pump would have to be pulled, the motor would have to be disassembled and dried, and new seals would have to be put in the pump to keep it from leaking.

A Bottom Ash Overflow Sump Pump or BAOSP for Short

So, Tom Gibson decided that he was going to fill the motor and pump cavity with turbine oil. All electricians knew that oil used in turbines is an insulator so electrically it wouldn’t short anything out. But something in the back of your mind automatically says that this isn’t going to work.

I remember helping to fill the motor up with oil in the Maintenance shop and hooking up some motor leads from the nearby Maintenance shop 480 volt switchgear. Needless to say, as soon as the pump was turned on, it tripped the breaker and oil began leaking from the cable grommet.

That’s when common sense tells you that the all the oil causes too much drag on the rotor which will cause a 480 motor to trip very quickly. After removing some of the oil and trying it again with a larger breaker and still having the same result Tom was satisfied that this just wasn’t going to work.

The pump and motor was sent away to a nearby electric shop to be rewound and other ways were developed by the help of our top notch machinist genius Randy Dailey who came up with a positive air pressure way to keep water out of the Bottom Ash Overflow Sump Pump and motor (also known as the BAOSP). Not much harm done and Tom Gibson didn’t feel too bad for trying something that the rest of us sort of thought was mildly insane.

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

The next story was told to me by my dear friend Bob Kennedy when I was working at a Gas Powered Plant in Midwest City and he was my acting foreman and backed up by the rest of the electricians as they sat there nodding their heads as Bob told this story.

So I didn’t witness this myself. This one was a little more dangerous, but still thankfully, no one was hurt. Ellis Rooks, the Electrical Supervisor needed to bump test a 4200 Volt motor and wanted to do it in place (bump testing is when you switch something on and off quickly.  Usually to see which way it turns). For some reason he was not able to use the existing cables, maybe because that was the reason the motor was offline. Because one of the cables had gone to ground.

So, he decided that since the motor only pulled 5 to 10 amps he could use #10 wire (the size wire in your home) and string three of them (for the three phases of the motor) from the main High Voltage switchgear across the turbine room floor over to the motor. Now, most electricians know how many amps different size wires can generally handle. It goes like this: #14 – 15 amps, #12 – 20 amps, #10 – 30 amps, #8 – 50 amps and on down (smaller numbers mean bigger wires).

So, Ellis thought that since the motor only pulls around 5 amps, and he only wanted to bump the motor (that is, turn it on and off quickly) to watch it rotate, he thought that even though there was normally three 3 – 0 cables (pronounced three aught for 3 zeroes, very large wire designed for 200 amps) wired to the motor, this would be all right because he was only going to bump it.

This works when you are using is 120 or 220 volts

Needless to say, but I will anyway, when the motor was bumped, all that was left of the #10 wires were three black streaks of carbon across the turbine room floor where the wire used to exist before it immediately vaporized.

You see, common sense tells you that 4200 volts times 5 amps = 21,000 watts of power. However, the starting amps on a motor like this may be around 50 to 100 amps, which would equal 210 to 420 Kilowatts of power (that is, 420,000 watts or more than 2/5 of a Megawatt). Thus vaporizing the small size 10 wire that is used to wire your house.

I think until the day that Ellis Rooks retired he was still trying to figure out where he went wrong.  There must have been something defective with those wires.

All right. I have given you two relatively harmless stories and now the one about cracking the boiled egg in the boiler. This happened when I was still a janitor but was loaned to the Labor Crew during outages. When the boiler would come offline for an outage, the labor crew would go in the boiler and knock down clinkers and shake tubes to clean out clinkers that had built up around the boiler tubes in the intermediate pressure area of the boiler.

Clinkers are a hard buildup of ash that can become like large rocks, and when they fall and hit you on the head, depending on the size, can knock you to the floor, which makes wearing your hardhat a must. Your hardhat doesn’t help much when the clinkers falling from some 30 feet above hits you on your shoulder, so I always tried to suck my shoulders up under my hardhat (like a turtle pulling in his arms and legs) so that only my arms were left unprotected.

It wasn’t easy looking like a pole with no shoulders, but I tried my best. I think Fred Crocker the tallest and thinnest person on Labor Crew was the best at this.  This is the Reheater area of the boiler in the diagram below:

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

Before we could get into the boiler to start shaking tubes, the dynamiters would go in there first and blow up the bigger clinkers. So, for a couple of days some times, at the beginning of an overhaul, you would hear someone come over the PA system about every 20 minutes saying, “Stand Clear of Number One Boiler, We’re Gonna Blast!!!” This became so common to hear over the years that unless you were up on the boiler helping out, you didn’t pay any attention to it.

This is something that is only done at a Coal-fired Power Plant because Gas Plants don’t create Ash that turns into Clinkers. Maybe some Soot, I don’t know, but not Ash. Which brings to mind a minor joke we played on Reginald Deloney one day when he came from a gas plant to work on overhaul.  Reggie automatically reminded you of Richard Pryor.  He had even developed a “Richard Pryor” way of talking.

Richard Pryor trying to look like Reggie Deloney

Richard Pryor trying to look like Reggie Deloney

We were going to work on a Bowl Mill motor first thing, which is down next to the boiler structure in an enclosed area. We brought our roll-around large toolbox and other equipment over to the motor. Andy Tubbs and Diana Brien were there with Reggie and me. I think Gary Wehunt was there with us also.

When someone came over the PA system saying, “Stand Clear of Number Two Boiler, We’re Gonna Blast”, all of us dropped everything and ran for the door as if it was an emergency. Reggie, not knowing what was going on ran like the dickens to get out in time only to find us outside laughing at the surprised look on his face.

Like this

Like this

Anyway. That wasn’t the day that someone wished they could take back, but I thought I would throw that one in anyway so that now Reggie will wish that he could take back that day.

When I was loaned to Labor Crew, and we were waiting on the boiler for the dynamiters to blast all the large clinkers, the engineer in charge, Ed Hutchins decided that things would go a lot quicker if all the laborers would go into the boiler and shake tubes while the dynamiters were setting their charges (which wasn’t the normal procedure.  Normally we waited until the dynamiters were all done). Then we would climb out when they were ready to blast, and then go back in. So, we did that.

All 10 or so of us climbed into the boiler, and went to work rattling boiler tubes until we heard someone yell, “Fire In The Hole!!!” Then we would all head for the one entrance and climb out and wait for the blast.

The extra time it took to get all of us in the boiler and back out again actually slowed everything down. We weren’t able to get much work done each time, and everyone spent most of their time climbing in and out instead of working, including the dynamiters.

So Ed had another brilliant idea. What if we stayed in the boiler while the dynamite exploded? Then we wouldn’t be wasting valuable time climbing in and out and really wouldn’t have to stop working at all.

Of course, common sense was telling us that we didn’t want to be in an enclosed boiler while several sticks worth of dynamite all exploded nearby, so the engineer decided to prove to us how safe it was by standing just inside the entrance of the boiler with his ear plugs in his ears while the dynamite exploded.

The dynamiters at first refused to set off the charges, but after Ed and the labor crew convinced them (some members on the labor crew were anxious for Ed to try out his “brilliant idea”) that there really wouldn’t be much lost if the worst happened, they went ahead and set off the dynamite.

Needless to say…. Ed came wobbling his way out of the boiler like a cracked boiled egg and said in a shaky voice, “I don’t think that would be such a good idea.” All of us on the Labor Crew said to each other, “..As if we needed him to tell us that.” I think that may be a day that Ed Hutchins would like to take back. The day he learned the real meaning of “Concussion”. I think he was promoted shortly after that and went to work in Oklahoma City at Corporate Headquarters.

Comments from Original Post:

  • eideard April 21, 2012

    When you have pallets double-stacked, you should only move them about with a pallet jack. The bottom pallet – and whatever is stacked on it – is thoroughly supported. And even if the pallet jack is powered, you aren’t likely to get in trouble with rapid acceleration.

    As you would with a fork lift truck.

    And the double stacked pallets are truck mirrors boxed for shipment to retailers. A couple hundred mirrors. And I dumped both pallets when I went to back up and turn into the warehouse aisle.
    :)

  • jackcurtis May 5, 2012

    Modern parables like these are much too good to waste! They should be included in every freshman Congressman’s Washington Welcome Kit when he first takes office and new ‘reminder’ versions again every time he wins an election. These are wonderful essays on unintended consequences, at which our Congress is among the best!

    Comments from Previous repost:

    1. John Comer April 28, 2014

      I worked with Ed on the Precipitator control replacement project (84 controls X 2) in 2006 I think. He was getting ready to retire at the time. He was a good engineer and a tough customer. I was working for the control supplier and those 168 controls were the first installation of a brand new control design. I had lead the design team for the controls and this was the culmination of our work. I spend more days and nights than I can remember going up and down the aisles of controls loading software fixes into the processors! Anyway, great people at the plant and great memories… including a rapper control cabinet that took the express route to the ground elevation from the precip roof! (ouch, it really is the sudden stop that gets you!)

      1. Plant Electrician April 28, 2014

        Thanks for the comment John! It’s good to hear about improvements to the Precipitator and the control rooms I used to call home.  I spend many weekends walking back and forth through those control rooms.

    2. A.D. Everard August 3, 2014

      OMG – The very thought of a group staying in the boiler when the dynamite went off! Thank goodness THAT didn’t happen. I felt the tension just reading that bit. I’m glad Ed came out of it all right.

Power Plant Safety As Interpreted by Curtis Love

Revised 5/21/2022

Original posted on January 28, 2012:

I vividly remember four events while working at the power plant where I was at the brink of death. I’m sure there were many other times, but these four have been etched in my memory almost 30 years later. Of those four memorable events, Curtis Love was by my side (so to speak) to share the wonder of two of those moments. This is a story about one of those times when you are too busy at the time to realize how close you came to catching that ride to the great power plant in the sky, until the middle of the night when you wake up in a cold sweat trying to catch your breath.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, safety is the number one priority at the power plant. But what is safe and what isn’t is relative. If you are the person that has to walk out onto a plank hanging out over the top ledge on the boiler like a diving board in order to replace a section of boiler tube before the boiler has cooled down below 160 degrees, you might not think it is safe to do that with only an extra-long lanyard tied to your waist and a sheer drop of 200 feet to the bottom ash hopper below (which I incidentally didn’t have to do as an electrician, but had to hear about after some other brave he-man had the privilege).

You might not think that this is safe. But the Equipment Support Supervisor who has spent too many years as an engineer behind his desk doesn’t see anything wrong with this as long as you don’t fall. So, he tells you to do it, just don’t fall.  His safety tip of the week was “Don’t Fall”.

Safety is also relative to the date when something occurs. In 1994 OSHA implemented new rules for confined spaces. A confined space is any place that’s hard to enter and exit, or a place where you might be trapped in an enclosure because of converging walls. So, before 1994, there were no safety rules specific to confined spaces.

No rules meant that when I was on labor crew in 1983 it was perfectly safe to crawl into a confined space and wind and twist your way around obstacles until the small oval door that you entered (18 inches by 12 inches) was only a distant memory as you are lying down in the bottom section of the sand filter tank with about 22 inches from the bottom of the section to the top requiring you to lie flat as you drag yourself around the support rods just less than 2 feet apart. Oh. While wearing a sandblast helmet while breathing air from the regular plant high pressure air supply…

Sand Blast Helmet

Sand Blast Helmet

and holding a sandblaster hose…

Sand Blast Hose

Sand Blast Hose

with a straight through Sandblast Nozzle….

Sand Blast Nozzle

Sand Blast Nozzle

Which means, the person sandblasting has no way of turning off the sand or the air on their own. If you wanted to turn off the sand, you had to bang the nozzle against the side of the tank and hope that the person outside monitoring the sandblaster was able to hear you above the roar of the Sandblaster and the Industrial Vacuum.

Sandblasting machine. Would run about 15 minutes before it would run out of sand.

Sandblasting machine. Would run about 15 minutes before it would run out of sand.

You also had a drop light that left you all tangled in wires and hoses that blew air on your face so that you could breathe and a 4 inch diameter vacuum hose that sucked the blasted sand and rust away, while the sandblaster blasts away the rust from all things metal less than a foot away from your face.  You had to keep the sandblast nozzle close to your face because the air is so full of dust, that you can only see about a foot in front of you while holding the drop light with the other hand next to the sandblast hose.

The air that blows through the sandblaster is hot, that you sweat profusely inside the heavy rain suit that you wear to protect the rest of you from sand that is ricocheting everywhere, but you don’t feel the heat as long as cool air is blowing on your face through your sandblast hood.

The week I spent lying flat trying to prop up my head while sandblasting the bottom section of both sand filter tanks gave me time to think about a lot of things…. which leads us to Curtis Love…. Not that it was Curtis Love that I was thinking about, but that he enters the story some time in the middle of this week. When I least expected it.

Similar to these Sand Filters only about twice the size

Similar to these Sand Filters only about twice the size. If you look closely you can see the seam around the bottom. Below that seam is where I was lying while sandblasting

Curtis Love was a janitor at the plant when I first joined the Sanitation Engineering Team after my four summers of training as a “summer help”. Curtis was like my mother in some ways (and in other ways not – obviously). He was always looking for something to worry about.

For instance, one Monday morning while we were sitting in our Monday Morning Janitor safety meeting and Pat Braden had just finished reading the most recent safety pamphlet to us and we were silently pondering the proper way to set the outriggers on a P&H Crane, Jim Kanelakos said, “Hey Curtis. Don’t you have your mortgage at the Federal Bank in Ponca City?” Curtis said, “Yeah, why?” Jim continued, “Well I heard this morning on the news that the bank was foreclosing on all of their home mortgages.”

Curtis said that he hadn’t heard that, but that as soon as it was 9:00 am he would call the bank to find out what he needed to do so that he wouldn’t lose his house. About that time I gave a report on the number of fiddleback spiders I had killed in the main switchgear the previous week (See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“). It seemed like no one was listening to my statistics as Doris Voss was still pondering the P&H Crane hand signals (or she was remembering the days 20 years earlier when she used to be a cheerleader  — based on the way she was moving her arm around), and Curtis was shuffling his feet in worry and Ronnie Banks was staring off into space, as if he was stunned that Monday was already here again, and Jim Kanelakos was snickering under his breath.

When the meeting was over and we were standing up, Jim told Curtis, “Hey Curtis. I was just kidding. The bank really isn’t foreclosing on their mortgages.” Curtis replied, “I don’t know. I better call them to check anyway.” Jim replied, “Curtis, I just made that up! I was playing a joke on you.” Curtis said, “I better check anyway, because it still is possible that they could be foreclosing on their mortgages”. So Jim just gave up trying to explain.

I had similar experiences with my mom when trying to explain to her why I still had the paper form that she asked me to fax over to the insurance commissioner’s office.  She kept insisting that I hadn’t really faxed the form if I still had it in my hand.  It didn’t help when I tried to explain that faxing and beaming Scotty up were two different things.

I know you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at me now, but there were only two of us at the plant that were small enough to crawl through the portal into the Sand Filter tanks (Ed Shiever and myself), because not only was it very tight, but the entry was so close to the edge of the building that you had to enter the portal by curving your body around the corner and into the tank.

I have tried to paint a of picture of the predicament a person is in when they are laying in this small space about 20 feet from the small portal that you have to crawl through. with their airline for the sandblast helmet, the sandblast hose, the drop light cord and the 4 inch vacuum hose all wound around the support rods that were not quite 2 feet apart in all directions. Because this is where I was when without my giving the signal (by banging the sandblast nozzle on the tank three times — like that song from Tony Orlando), the sand stopped flowing from the nozzle and only air was hissing loudly.

This meant one of two things. The sandblast machine had just run out of sand, or someone was shutting the sandblaster off because it was time for lunch. I figured it was time for lunch, because I didn’t think it had been more than 10 minutes since the sand had been refilled and amid the roaring blasts and the howling sucking vacuum hose (and the song “Knock Three Times” by Tony Orlando and Dawn playing in my head), I thought I had caught the sound of a rumbling stomach from time to time.

Industrial Vacuum used to suck out the sand as I was sandblasting

Industrial Vacuum used to suck out the sand as I was sandblasting

The next thing that should happen after the sand has blown out of the sandblast hose, is that the air to the sandblaster should stop blowing. And it did…. but what wasn’t supposed to happen, that did, was that the air blowing through my sandblast hood allowing me to breathe in this sea of rusty dust shut off at the same time!

While still pondering what was happening, I suddenly realized that without the air supply to my hood, not only could I not breathe at all, but my sweat-filled rain suit that I was wearing suddenly became unbearably hot and dust began pouring into my hood now that the positive pressure was gone.

I understood from these various signs of discomfort that I needed to head back to the exit as quickly as possible, as I was forced by the thick dust to hold my breath. I pulled my hood off of my head and everything went black. I had moved more than a foot away from the drop light.

I knew that the exit was in the direction of my feet on the far side of the tank, so I swung around a row of support rods and dragged myself along by the rods as quickly as I could go, unable to see or take a breath. Working my way around the drop light cable, the air hose, the sandblast hose and the vacuum hose as I pulled myself along trying to make out where the exit could be while following the tangle of hoses and electric cord. Luckily before I passed out from the lack of air, I had figured correctly and I found myself at the exit where in one motion I pulled myself out to fresh air and the blinding light of the day gasping for air.

Furious that someone had turned off my air, I ran out of the sand filter building to the sandblast machine where I found Curtis Love, of all people. Up to this point, Curtis had never had the privilege of operating the sandblaster and was not aware of the proper sequence to shutting down the machine…. without shutting off the air to my hood.

Incidentally, both the sandblaster and the air hose to the sandblast hood were being fed from the same regular plant air supply (which OSHA might have frowned upon back as far as 1983, and which caused you to blow black oily stuff out of your nose for a few days).

Needless to say, about the time that I came bolting out of the sand filter building Curtis had figured out that he had shut off the wrong valve. He was apologizing profusely in one long drawn out sentence….. “Kevin, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry….” I stopped myself short as my hands were flying toward the area where his neck would have been, if Curtis had a neck.

I looked over toward the crew cab parked nearby. It was full of hungry labor crew “he-men in training” all smiling and chuckling. At that moment I knew that both Curtis and I had been on the receiving end of what could be construed as a “power plant joke” (refer to the post about Gene Day to learn more about those:  “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“).

So, I spent the next 30 seconds as Curtis and I piled into the crew cab telling Curtis that is was all right, he didn’t have to feel bad about it. Evidently, someone had told Curtis how to shutdown the sandblaster, but failed to tell him exactly which valve to turn off when turning off the air to the sandblaster.

Needless to say. Lunch tasted extra good that day. Possibly the rusty dust added just the right amount of iron to my sandwich.

Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost

Revised 5/14/2022

This is a repost of a story that was Posted on January 21, 2012.  I rewrote it slightly and added a story to the bottom of it.

When I worked on the labor crew, we used to have a lot of fun cleaning out the boiler.  Especially the economizer section where we had that three-foot crawl space in the middle where you had to lie flat with the hydraulic spreaders and the four-inch vacuum hose trying to suck out the chunks of ash clinkers before the crawl space filled up with ash.  After lying around in this wonderful environment for a day or so, one begins to look around for something to break the drone of the sucking sound of the vacuum and the swishing sound of the crosscut saws welded end on end as they rose and fell in a rhythmic beat propelled by Labor Crew He-men ten feet above this large bundle of Economizer tubes.

Diagram of a boiler – the Economizer is on the right side in blue

Bob Lillibridge was never in a bad mood when it came to cleaning the boiler.  His thin physique allowed him easy access to the crawl space.  The wild glare in his eye and cigarette smile kept everyone guessing what he would do next.  The texture of Bob’s face was like those bikers that have spent too many hours riding their Harleys through the desert without wearing a helmet.  Especially after working in the economizer for a week.

Ok. I'm over exagerating. Bob didn't have this many wrinkles

Ok. I’m over exaggerating. Bob didn’t have this many wrinkles

He was especially cheerful when we were able to work in the Economizer crawl space with Ronnie Banks.  Ronnie Banks, unlike Bob, was not wiry.  His stature was more like a thin black bear standing on his hind legs.  He sort of walked that way too.  I developed a song when Ronnie Banks and I worked together that went to the tune of the Lone Ranger theme (the William Tell Overture), that consisted of saying his name rapidly over and over again (like: Ronnie Banks Ronnie Banks Ronnie Banks Banks Banks).  It felt good to sing this song, and it seemed to amuse Ronnie Banks.

Bob on the other hand knew that Ronnie was highly claustrophobic.  So, he would let Ronnie crawl through the too small hole into the economizer, then would crawl in after him.  After they were in the entrance far enough, Bob would grab both of Ronnie’s legs and hug them as hard as he could.

This would send Ronnie into a Claustrophobic seizure where he would flail himself around wildly yelling unrecognizable words such as “Blahgruuuee” and “uuunnnhh-ope” and other similar pronunciations.  I think Bob Lillibridge just liked to hear Ronnie Banks speaking in tongues.

I have to admit it did give you a strange sort of spiritual high when you saw the smile of pure satisfaction on Bob’s face as his body flew by while he was hugging Ronnie’s legs that were spinning and twirling all round a crawl space that was only three feet high.

I think it was these kind of spiritual moments that gave me the dream to write a story about the day that Bob Lillibridge met the Boiler Ghost.  It went like this:

The Boiler Ghost

From the darkness of the boiler it came.

The Boiler Ghost, black, enormous, full of hate.

I watched with disbelief as it edged its way along.

Its eyes, red and piercing, with a stare of terror.

It glanced first this way and then that.

As its eyes passed through me I was filled with

Such a terrible fright that I felt near the point of death.

The massive head hung down between two pointed

Shoulder blades vulture-like.

The most terrifying thing of all was the gaping mouth

That hung open.

It was full of such a terrible darkness,

So dark and evil as if it were the gates of Hell.

Just then I noticed its eyes had fixed on Bob.

Bob Lillibridge.

He was pressed against the wall by the piercing stare,

His mouth open wide as if to scream.

Eyes bulging out in utter terror.

Mindless with pure fright.

I tried to scream, but felt such a choking force

I could make no noise.

With steady movement the monster advanced toward Bob.

Bob was white as ash staring into that dark empty mouth.

Smoke poured out of a flat nose on that horrid face.

It reached out a vile and tremendous hand

And grabbed Bob,

Who burst into flames at his touch.

In one movement he was gone.

Vanished into the mouth of pure darkness.

The Evil Ghost glanced first this way, then that,

And into the darkness of the boiler it went.

All was quiet,

The roar of the boiler told me I was safe once again.

Until the boiler ghost should decide to return.

I showed this poem to Bob after I had written it down.  He chuckled a little, but didn’t seem too amused by it.  Actually he looked a little worried.

Some time after I had written this poem and was actually on the labor crew (I had been on loan while I was a janitor when we were cleaning the economizer), we were in the bottom ash hopper at the bottom of the #2 boiler while it was offline.  There are two hoppers side-by-side, and we were breaking up some hard clinkers that had built up in there.  I had climbed over the one hopper where we were entering the hoppers to check something out, when all of the sudden someone started sandblasting the other hopper.

Now, these hoppers are quite large and you would have thought that someone sandblasting over on the other hopper wouldn’t really bother you if you were over in the other hopper, but I can assure you, that isn’t the case.  As I was only wearing a t-shirt and jeans, when the sandblast hose started blowing out sand, before I could climb over the hopper to try to escape, I was being pelted by sand.

It felt as if someone was just aiming the sandblast hose over the top of the hopper toward me (which could very well have been the case).  I searched around the hopper to find a place where I was being pelted the least, and then I just crouched there with my face against the side of the hopper to protect it.  Finally after 10 to 15 minutes (though it seemed more like an hour), the sandblast hose was turned off, and I was able to climb over the hopper and out the portal to fresh air.

I don’t think anyone even realized I was over in the other hopper when they decided to turn the sandblast hose on.  I just climbed out of there and went about my business just slightly bruised all over from being blasted by sand.  — It didn’t occur to me until just now that this is the hopper where I  had seen the Boiler Ghost climb out, and Bob was there that day, and may have even been the person holding the sandblast hose…

Later Bob was able to move off of the labor crew. I think he went to the welding shop. Then later during the 1987-88 reshuffle, I think he was told that he was going to have to go back to the labor crew, and that was too much for him after being on the labor crew so long before being able to move off. So, he left the plant. I never knew for certain what happened to Bob. I think he still lives somewhere around Pawnee, Oklahoma.

Comments from previous posts

  1. Ron Kilman 

    I never saw the boiler ghost – but I knew a “boiler jerk” once. He was an evil Plant Manager that would send Mechanics into a dangerously hot superheater/reheat section (off-line just a few hours) to start repairs. He’d also send in laborers to clean out bottom ash while clinkers were still falling.

    Like

  2. Plant Electrician 

    Yes. I have seen the those same two things. I have a post about working below the economizer cleaning the slag screens when the air was about 160 degrees and you had to wear long sleeves to keep from burning yourself when you touched something metal. I may have mentioned in that post about a guy that had to go weld a boiler tube in the high pressure section standing on a plank that was jutted out from the top shelf like a plank on a ship when the unit was only offline for a short amount of time. Crazy!

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew

Revised 5/7/2022

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012.

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were especially blessed by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.

I think he knew that I felt that way, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:

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

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

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young, I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins during the summer in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self-service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy.  You can see the house on the hill in the background

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a lifetime wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  Each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 while I was a janitor when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room personally and asked Biff Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shut down over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

Below the Economizer and above the air preheater in the diagram above.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.

As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Emergency Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp).  Anyway, I could go on and on.  Today it feels me with excitement just to say, “1A Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Emergency Lube Oil Pump “.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back online in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time because of the heat.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT and very windy.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a tee shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 160 degrees.  I was wearing my hard hat with a chin strap to keep it from blowing off because there was a strong hot wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.  This meant there was a steady stream of fly ash blowing on me.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

there is a SpongeBob Square Pants episode where he goes to visit his friend Sandy who is a squirrel who lives in a domed area under the ocean.  When he goes in there he suddenly becomes very dry.  —  That was me that day.

Sponge Bob Square Pants all dried up

Anyway, I threw the lanyard for my safety belt around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  Breathing slowly gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habanero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see through the cloud of ash) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon-based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I tried tightening them, but I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out every 10 minutes.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Biff said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross.  He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.

I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.

Comments from the previous repost:

  1. Jonathan Caswell August 12, 2014

    GLAD that you made it….even if the mallet didn’t!!!

    I can dig it. When I was hired for Security at one post…I really looked forward to working with and for that particular Supervisor who’d hired me. No such luck–she was gone in a month or two. THAT hurt! 🙂

  2. Ron Kilman August 13, 2014

    If the environment is too hot for a respirator to function properly in, it’s too hot for people to work in (if safety is actually job #1). I saw too many examples of “Get the Unit Back On is Job #1″.

Wax On Wax Off and Other Power Plant Janitorial Secrets

Revised 4/30/2022

Originally Posted on October 12, 2012:

Two years before the movie Karate Kid came out at the movies in 1984, I had learned the secret of “Wax On, Wax Off”. One that made a significant difference to my Power Plant Janitorial Powers!

The Student Learns from the Master…. “Wax On… Wax Off”

My Janitorial Master was Pat Braden. He is the same age as my father. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Pat Braden reminded me of a rounder version of Red Skelton:

This Picture of Red Skelton reminds me of Pat Braden

Pat was one of the kindest people you would ever meet. He was the head janitor when I became a janitor at the Coal-Fired Power Plant. I had worked with him off and on during the 4 summers when I had worked as a summer help. I was glad to actually be on his crew as one of the team.

When we had a big waxing job to do, we would schedule a weekend to come in and do it. That way we could wax an entire area without interruption. We could strip off the old wax with the stripping chemicals, then neutralize it, then add the sealer, and finally end up with waxing the floors with the best wax we could buy. As I mentioned in the post “How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic“, we used Johnson Wax’s best wax: Showplace.

The Best Floor Wax money can buy!

We had been “certified” by Johnson and Johnson to wax floors properly. This included the proper buffing techniques once the wax had been applied and had properly dried. A properly waxed and buffed floor is shiny but not a slippery floor.

Floor buffer, used to strip the wax off and buff the wax once it has been applied.  The black pad is used with the stripper.

We decided to spend one weekend waxing the Engineering shack. It was a tin building like a Metal Butler Building that the inspectors from Corporate Headquarters would use when they had projects at the plant. In 1982, that was pretty well all of the time, as John Blake and Gene Titus were semi-permanent residents of the Engineers Shack.

A simple metal building sort of like this. Only it was green.

The floor in this building had a regular tile floor like you would see in an office building in the 1960’s. Just the plain square tiles. It looked like it had never been waxed before and was probably built on the plant grounds long before the power plant existed. The floor had been worn out by the traffic over the years. This was one building that I was expected to keep swept and mopped as part of my daily janitorial responsibilities.

Our Janitor crew consisted of Pat Braden, Doris Voss, James Kanelakos, Ronnie Banks and Curtis Love (and me of course). We had decided a couple of days before that for lunch we would eat baked onions. “Ok”, I thought. I knew we didn’t get paid much as janitors and we had to be frugal, but I didn’t really think that we were so bad off that we had to resort to eating onions for lunch. But since no one really asked me for my vote (which would have been to bring in some pizza from Ponca City), we were having baked onions for lunch.

We spent the morning removing all the furniture from the building, and then stripping the floor (even though it looked like it had never been waxed before and there wasn’t anything to strip). Then we mopped it with neutralizer a couple of times. By that time, it was lunch time, and we headed up to the plant break room where Doris was just finishing up baking our um…. er….. onions. Yeah.. Baked Onions….

It turned out that these were Purple Onions. The ends had been cut off of them and butter and salt and pepper had been put on each end as they were wrapped up in tinfoil like a baked potato, and then baked in the oven just as if they were baked potatoes.

oh yum… a purple onion…

Well. I was never one to complain about food, and I was determined not to show my lack of enthusiasm at the thought of eating an onion for lunch, so I sat down and put on my eager hungry expression on my then skinny face as I waited for our (uh) feast. — Well. The joke was on me. As I began to eat the baked onion, I realized right away that it didn’t taste like any onion I had ever eaten. It was kind of sweet and…. well…. it was rather tasty! Power Plant Culture never ceases to amaze me.

Anyway, after I had eaten my share of onions, we were ready to go back to work waxing the engineers shack. We spent the rest of the day doing that (and burping onions) and when we had decided that the wax had dried enough, we carefully brought the furniture back in and put everything back in order.

So, why am I boring you with all this detail about waxing the floor in a metal building that doesn’t even exist today? Well. I have told you now about the “Wax On” part. Now comes the “Wax Off” part. The second part of my training to becoming a Jedi Janitor (hmm… snuck in a Star Wars reference I see).

Here is what happened the next Monday when I wheeled the buffing machine out of the janitor closet in the Engineer’s shack. Gene Titus (who always reminded me of Jerry Reed):

Jerry Reed trying to look like Gene Titus

and John Blake, both were very pleased with their new shiny floor. They looked like they were anxious to show it off to someone… anyone that would come by. I was about to really impress them (I thought) with my fine buffing skills that was “really” going to make their floor shine. So, they watched closely as I attached the red buffing pad on the bottom of the buffer:

The black buffing pad is for stripping the wax. The red one is for normal heavy buffing and the white one is for polishing

I began at the far end of the room from the doors and began buffing…. The first thing I noticed was that the buffer was literally removing the wax from the floor. Yep. It was taking it right off. Wax On…. Wax Off…..  I realized that for all our stripping and neutralizing, we hadn’t taken into account the years of dirt and grime that was embedded in the tiles.

Normally John Blake was a likable sensible person. I had carpooled with him for two summers when I was a summer help.  But when he saw me removing the wax from the floor he had a very concerned expression, and well, I perceived that a sort of extreme hatred was rising up in his demeanor…. I was glad that John was a quiet mild-mannered sort of person, otherwise, I think he would have walloped me one for ruining the floor that he was so proud of minutes before.

I began thinking to myself what I should do. After all. The floor really did need buffing, and buffing the floor was removing the wax. So as the buffer moved back and forth erasing the shine and bringing back the dull tiles, I thought as hard as I could muster my brain what I should do next….

I figured I would go ahead and buff the entire main room, as if I knew exactly what I was doing, not looking concerned. I don’t know if the confidence that I exhibited while removing the wax relaxed John just enough so that he could leave the building and continue his job, or if he actually stormed out in distress hoping to drown his sorrows in his morning cup of coffee…

When I finished the room with the red pad… I did what I would have done if the wax had buffed up correctly and had actually still existed on the floor…. I put the finer white pad on the buffer. I thought in my mind that the floor was probably so infiltrated with dust that we hadn’t done a proper job (if it was even possible) to clean the floor before applying the wax on Saturday.

So I thought I would try something that they hadn’t taught us in waxing class… I took a spray bottle and filled it with wax mixed with some water. Then I started in the same corner where I had begun removing the pride and glory of John Blake’s newly waxed dreams. I sprayed some wax and buffed it into the floor. As I guided the buffer back and forth with one hand, I sprayed the floor with the other. To my surprise, not only did it start to leave a shiny polished floor, but it left a polish that was much more clear than before. One that was almost like a mirror.

A plain power plant spray bottle like this

As I buffed the room from one end to the next, the entire room became brighter as the lights from the ceiling reflected from the hard polished wax. I was nearly finished with the room when John walked back in. He was immediately stunned by the brightly polished floor.

I could see his uncharacteristic desire to kill me melt away and his pleasure with his new Shangri-La abode become immediately evident. John Blake from that moment on viewed me with the respect that most Power Plant janitors normally deserve (though I had just stumbled on this accidentally).

I was so impressed with how well the floor looked when I was done, that I went to the Brown and Root building next door and did the same thing there.

I began to wonder what other uses I could make out of this discovery… Spraying wax on the floor and buffing it right in. It finally occurred to me that the floor cleaning machine that I used to clean the Turbine room floor might benefit by adding some wax to the mixture. It had the same type of red buffer pads on it.

We had a Clarke Floor scrubber similar to this one

So, after I had scrubbed the Turbine Generator floor using the regular detergent. I cleaned out the scrubber and put just water in there and about 1/2 gallon of wax. Then I went to try out my experiment. Sure enough…. The bright red Turbine Room floor began to glow. The bright lights overhead were clearly reflected off the floor. This was very successful.

This is a picture of the red turbine room floor, only not with the nice wax job. After I had waxed it, you could see the light bulbs in the floor

So, my next test was to sweep off the turbine-Generators themselves with a red dust mop. Then spray watered down Johnson Wax directly on a clean dust mop and mop away on the turbine generators:

Like this only with a mop handle

The Turbine Generators took on the same polished shine.

I distinctly remember one Power Plant Operator that gave me a very nice complement one day for keeping the T-G floor so nicely polished. His name was Michael Hurst. He was a True Power Plant Operator.

Michael Hurst is the second Brave Power Plant Operator on the right

As a lowly janitor in a plant of heroes, I found that I was treated with the same respect as everyone else. I would never forget that complement from him because I could see his earnest sincerity.

A few years ago on December 19, 2008 Michael Hurst died in Oklahoma City. What was said about Michael after his death was this: “He had a great sense of humor and a big heart… Many have been blessed with his generosity and his genuine love for people.”

I can include myself in this statement. I know that everyone shown in the picture above from Joe Gallahar (on the left) to Doris Voss (in the middle) to Pat Quiring (on the right) would agree with that testament about Michael.

There was another sentence after this one that stands on it’s own. One that is a sign of a True Power Plant Man. It was also said of Michael Hurst: “Above all else, the most important thing to him was his family.” Though I don’t have a picture of Michael’s immediately family. I believe that I have included a picture above of at least some of his extended family.

I have recently (2020) found a picture with Pat Braden:

Pat Braden  (left) with Dick Dale and Mike Gibbs

Comment from previous post:

  1. Ron  October 16, 2013:

    Thanks, Kevin.
    Did you know that (years ago) John Blake’s dad was Manager of Power Production (Generation Dept. in those days)? I remember Martin Louthan and other “old” Power Plant Men speak of “Mr. Blake” with respect.

    1. Plant Electrician  October 16, 2o13:

      I didn’t know that. I do know that everyone seemed to treat John with respect. Which he deserved in his own right. We carpooled together my second summer as a summer help with Stanley Elmore.

Comment from previous repost

  1. Dan Antion October 14, 2014

    My father managed a bowling alley when I was young. I remember large mops, all kinds of pads and rags and a buffing machine. Before he would let me use the machine on the alleys, he had me do the lobby floor. He not only inspected my work, he watched my technique. This brought back some of those memories, thanks.

Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement

Revised 4/23/2022

Originally posted July 27, 2012:

There were two distinct times in my life at the Power Plant Kingdom where I went Head-to-Head (or tête-à-tête as they say in France) with a horde of spiders.  The second time I fought side-by-side with my trusty friend Scott Hubbard, that I knew wouldn’t desert me when things went from bad-to-worse (for some reason I find myself using a lot of hyphens-to-day).  The first battle, however, I had to face alone, armed only with a push broom and a shovel (and some large plastic trash bags).

It all started a few months after I became a janitor at the power plant (in 1982).  I had received my Psychology degree at the University of Missouri, and I was well on my way to becoming a certified “sanitation engineer” (as my grandmother corrected me after I once told her I was a janitor).

It actually came in handy having a Psychology degree.  Power Plant men would sometimes approach me when I was working by myself to stop and have a conversation that usually started like this:  “So, someone told me you are a psychiatrist.”  I would correct them and tell them that I am a janitor and I only have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology which makes me a properly trained janitor able to sweep the floor in confidence knowing that “I’m OK, and You’re OK.” (Which was a joke lost on everyone at the plant except for Jim Kanelakos, who was also a janitor with a Master’s in Psychology).

Then they would often want to talk about problems they were having.  I would lean on my broom and listen.  Nodding my head slightly to show I was listening.  After a while the person would finish and thank me for listening and go on back to work.

The most important thing I learned while obtaining a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology was that Psychology is an art, not a science.  Though certain scientific methods are used in many areas, especially in Behavioral Psychology.  Being an art, means that the person must possess the talent for being a Psychologist.  This is as important as being properly trained.  So I never assumed the role of a real Psychologist, I rather tried my best to just be a friend.  I found that worked well.

As I mentioned, James Kanelakos was also a janitor at the Power Plant.  Which meant that between the 5 janitors and our leader Pat Braden, two of us not only had degrees, but both of them were in Psychology (with James having the Masters degree, and I as his pupil with the Bachelors).

Before I proceed with my battle with the spiders, I should mention a little about the dynamics of our Janitorial crew.

James Kanelakos was obviously Greek.  With a name like Kanelakos, it was rather obvious.  He looked the part also, with a graying moustache that made him look like a Greek sailor.  He never was a “True Power Plant Man” and he would be glad to hear me say that.  Instead he was a person that at the time acted as if he was biding his time at the plant waiting for something else to happen.

This picture reminds me of Jim Kanelakos.  I found it at Mobleyshoots.com

Though he never mentioned it, I know that he was also part Irish, and every now and then I would see the Irish come out.  He was a family man, and in that sense he reminded me of my own father (who was also part Irish, or so I thought before DNA tests came out).  He was only 35 years old at the time, but he acted as if he had lived longer.  He smoked a pipe like my father did.  As far as I know, he always remained married to his wife Sandy, and together they raised two children, a daughter and a son.  That was where his heart really was.

He made no secret that his family came before anything else.  Not that he would say it straight out to your face, but you could tell it in the way he interacted with others.  Like I said, Jim was there “biding his time”, changing his career at a time when he needed something… else.  Maybe to strengthen his priorities.  He said once that he left the office to go work outside.

Then there was Doris Voss.  She was an unlikely site to see in the Power Plant Palace (especially later when she became an operator).  She was a “Church-going Fundamentalist” who made it clear to me that Catholics, such as myself, were doomed to hell for various reasons.  I always enjoyed our… um… discussions.

Can you pick Doris Voss out of the lineup?

I thought it was quite appropriate during Christmas when the janitors drew names from Jim’s Greek Sailor’s hat and I drew Doris’s name to give her a very nice leather-bound Catholic Version of the Family Bible.  I later heard her talking to Curtis Love about it in the kitchen.  He was telling her that she shouldn’t read it and she told him that it looked pretty much the same as hers and she didn’t see anything wrong with it.  Needless-to-say, I was rarely condemned to a regular Catholic’s fate after that.

A Bible like this with a Tassel hanging out of the bottom

Curtis Love, as I explained in the post called “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“, was very gullible.  It was easy to play a joke on Curtis.  Too easy.  He didn’t take them well, because he would rather believe what you were joking about before believing that you were joking at all.  Because of this, it never occurred to me to play a joke on Curtis.  Somehow, though, it is hard to explain, Curtis reminded me of Tweedledee.  Or was it Tweedledum?

I think he reminded me more of the guy on the right… or maybe the left.

Then there was Ronnie Banks.  I talked about Ronnie Banks before in the post where Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost.  He was like a likable young bear standing up on his hind legs.  You could joke around with him and he was fun to be around.  He acted like he enjoyed your company.  Interestingly though, none of the people on our team would ever be classified as “True Power Plant Men”.  We were more like an odd assortment of Misfits.

Pat Braden was our lead Janitor.  He was by far the nicest person one could ever work for.  He constantly had a smile on his face.  He smiled when he talked, he smiled when he walked, and he especially smiled when he stood up from a chair and became dizzy from his blood pressure medicine.  He had a daughter at home that he really loved.  He reminded me of the goodhearted Red Skelton.

This Picture of Red Skelton reminds me of Pat Braden

Now back to the Spider Wars and the bugs in the basement.

When I first became a janitor at the plant, I was assigned to clean the Control room and to sweep half of the turbine room floor and the Control room elevator landings and stairs.  I always enjoyed being a janitor.  I first became a janitor when I was a 15 year old Sophomore in High School working the night shift (from 11pm to 6am) at a Hilton Inn in Columbia, Missouri.

To me it was a dream job.  Sure, I couldn’t keep my own room cleaned, but put a push broom in my hand and pay me $2.50 an hour and I could clean all night.  When I began as a janitor at the power plant, I was making $5.15 an hour.  Double what I was making at the hotel cleaning the kitchen, the restaurant and the bar in the wee hours of the morning.

Anyway.  I went to work cleaning the control room like there was no tomorrow.  I would shampoo the carpet once each week.  I would clean on the top and the back of the Alarm Panel.  I know I made Ted Holdge (Supervisor of Operations) real nervous once when I laid a vacuum cleaner on the top of the Main Electric Panel (That’s what I call it.  it was the Control panel where you synced up the unit when it was coming online) and I started vacuuming the top of it.

He actually jumped out of his chair in the Shift Supervisor’s office and stood there and watched me closely.  It obviously had never been cleaned before.  I was trying to get rid of a strange odor in the control room that I eventually found was years of burned coffee in the coffee maker in the break room.  I even had to scrub the walls in the kitchen to remove the odor from the entire control room.

Anyway.  I was getting to know the Control Room operators, and I was thinking that maybe someday when I had progressed past janitor and labor crew that one day I may become an operator also.

One day Pat Braden came to me and told me that I was going to have to move down to be the janitor of the Electric Shop.  There were many reasons.  The first was that Curtis wanted to be an operator and he thought that if he worked around them that they would get to know him and would want him to join their ranks and he had more seniority than I did, so he had first pick.

The second reason was that for some reason, since Curtis had been the janitor of the Electric Shop he had been bitten twice by a brown recluse spider, which had invaded the janitor closet downstairs.  If he were to be bitten again, he might lose his job for being unsafe.  So, the thinking was that it would be better for someone new to move down there and be bitten instead.

I didn’t mind.  Cleaning the Electric shop meant that I also was able to clean the Engineers Shack and the Brown and Root Building next to it.  Curtis also decided I needed to keep the job of cleaning the T&G room which is about the size of two football fields.  Except now, I was going to have to clean all of the turbine room floor instead of just half of it.  I also decided that the main switchgear which was where the Janitor closet was located needed to be kept clean to cut down on the onslaught of the poisonous brown recluse spiders (which in Oklahoma is a regular house spider).

The Oklahoma house spider — The Brown Recluse.  Otherwise known at the “Fiddleback”

My first day as a Janitor in the Electric Shop as soon as I opened the door to the janitor closet, I could see why Curtis had been bitten by a Brown Recluse (not twice, but three times — the last time he didn’t tell Pat.  He showed me, but just went straight to the doctor for the required shots to counteract the poison.  Not wanting to lose his job).  The janitor closet was full of them.  They were all over the little 4 foot by 7 foot closet.

Thus began the first war on spiders at the coal fired power plant.  The closet was also being used to store Freon and other air conditioning equipment used by Jim Stevenson the Air Conditioning expert in the Electric Shop.  I decided then and there to move all the equipment out of the closet.  The spiders were practicing “Duck and Cover” drills all over this equipment so it had to go.

My main weapon against the spiders were my boots.  When I spied a spider, I stomped on it quickly.  I asked Pat Braden to order a case of insecticide to help me combat the spiders.  The next day he pulled a two-wheeler up to the closet with two cases of bug spray and said, “Here is your order sir!” (Picture Red Skelton saying that).

I had cleaned the shelves, the cabinet and the floor of the janitor closet, and there was no place for spiders to hide in there anymore.  Each morning when I arrived, there was always more spiders there.  3 or 4 at least waiting for me in the closet.  All Brown Recluse.

I surveyed the combat zone and realized that spiders were all over the main switchgear.  So I decided I was going to sweep the switchgear regularly and kill every spider I saw to wipe them out for good.

A picture of a clean switchgear. Picture 6 rows of switchgear like this

So I laid down floor sweep (cedar chips with red oil) to keep the dust down, and began at one corner and worked my way across the switchgear sweeping and killing spiders.  I kept a body count.  I taped a paper on the wall in the janitor closet to keep track of my daily kill.  My first day I killed over 240 spiders.

I thought surely in a short time, I will have wiped out the spider population.  After sweeping the switchgear I laid down a blanket of Insecticide (equivalent to Agent Orange in Vietnam).  If I could kill any bugs that are around, the spiders would leave.  The insecticide didn’t kill the spiders.  they would just duck under the switchgear and then come out an hour later to be standing where I left them before.  So I kept stomping them out.

Every day, my body count was around 25 to 30 spiders and this number wasn’t going down.  That was when I discovered the Cable Spreader rooms…  I had been involved in mere child’s play before I walked down some steps at the tail end of the switchgear and opened one of the two doors at the bottom.

I cannot describe to you exactly what I saw, because nothing I say can put into words what was there.  I guess the best thing I can say is:  Armageddon.

There were two rooms.  One on each side at the bottom of some concrete steps.  They are called Cable Spreader rooms and are directly beneath the switchgear.  One side was unit one, the other was unit two.  They are large rooms with cable trays lining the walls and across the room at regular intervals.  The floor was damp, and it was black, and it was alive.

There was a small path through the room where the operator would pass through “the gauntlet” once each shift as they muttered prayers that they not be eaten alive by the black oozing mass of bugs spiders, mice and an occasional snake.

The can of bug spray in my hand seemed completely useless.  I knew what I had to do.  These two rooms and the cable tunnels that ran from there underneath the T-G building were the source of my daily trouncing of the meager few spiders that decided to explore the world above to see what was happening in the switchgear.

The real battle was down here in the trenches.  Each room was full of tens of thousands of spiders.  Piles of alive and dead bugs.  Skeletal remains of a few field mice who had strayed into the abyss.

I started with a large box of Plastic Contractor bags, a box of floor sweep, a shovel and a push broom.  I attacked the room the same way I used to clean my own bedroom at home when I was growing up.  I started in one corner and fanned out.  Not letting anything past me.  always keeping a clear supply line back to the steps that led up to freedom and fresh air up above.

At first I just took a large scoop shovel and scooped up the black mass of crawling and dead bugs and dumped them in a bag, until I had enough space to sweep the dust into a pile.  Then I attacked it again.  Occasionally a small snake would appear upset that I had invaded his space, and into the bag it would go.

Everything went in the bags.  The snakes, the bugs, the spiders and the grime.  There was actually a constant battle taking place down there that I was interrupting.  it was bug eat bug, spider eat bug and snake eat bugs and spiders wars.  Everything went in the bags.

I carefully hauled the bags out to the dumpster and out they went.  It took an entire day to clean one room.  Then the next day when I went back I completely cleaned it again.  This time paying more attention to making it livable.

I wanted these two rooms to be so clean that people could go down into these cool damp rooms in the hot summer and have a picnic down there and feel safe.  —  No one ever did though, but such is the life of a cable spreader room.  Years later Tom Gibson setup a sort of a greenhouse down there.

After that, each day I made my rounds of the switchgear, the cable spreader rooms and the cable tunnels killing any spider that showed it’s legs.  After the main battle in the two rooms and tunnels was over of countless spiders and bugs, I recorded about 230 spiders the next day by making my rounds.

The next day that dropped to around 150.  then 80, then 50 and on down.  Finally, when I was down to 3 or 4 spiders each day, I felt like the war was over and a weekly sweeping and daily walk-through would suffice to keep the switchgear safe.  This left the small janitor closet virtually free of spiders from that point.

The interesting twist of the entire battle against the spiders was that the electricians had seen my skills at “Battle Sweeping” and some of them had become impressed.  They told me that I didn’t have to sweep their shop and the main switchgear because they took turns doing it.  I still felt that as the janitor, with my battle hardened push broom, by paying a little more attention to detail would do a slightly better job.

The electricians didn’t really volunteer to clean the shop.  Whoever was the truck driver for that week was supposed to clean the shop at least one time during the week.  At $5.15 an hour, I was more of a volunteer than someone that was hired to do this chore, and I enjoyed it.  So, eventually, Charles Foster (An Electrical Foreman) popped the question to me one day…. He didn’t get down on one knee when he asked me, but either way, he asked me if I would think about becoming an Electrician.

That was something I hadn’t even considered until that moment.  The Electricians to me were the elite squad of Power Plant Maintenance.  Like the Results guys, but with a wider range of skills it seemed.  But that is a story for another time.

Since I originally posted this, I have written the post about the second war with spiders with Scott Hubbard by my side.  So, if this post wasn’t enough for you… read this one:  “Power Plant Spider Wars II The Phantom Menace“.  For a more tame story about spiders try this one:  “Power Plant Spider in the Eye“.

Comments from the previous post:

  1. standninthefire July 28, 2014

    I (a science major in college) always had a running debate with my psychology friends that psychology wasn’t really science. Granted, I only said that to get into a debate about the subject but I think you’re spot on when you say that psychology has an “art” component to it. It’s a combination of both but I think that the better psychologists are the ones who master the art.

  2. mpsharmaauthor July 29, 2014

    I didn’t think I would ever voluntarily read about spiders, but I have been proven wrong. Thank you for reminding me to never say never 🙂

  3. Jonathan Caswell July 29, 2014

    SPIDERS, BUGS AND BASEMENTS…OH MY!!!!

  4. Jim  July 29, 2014

    This has been some of the most enjoyable reading I’ve done for a looooong time 🙂

  5. sacredhandscoven October 21, 2014

    OMGosh, my skin is STILL crawling and I don’t think it will stop for a few decades! Your story reminds me of that scene in the Indiana Jones second movie where the girl had to reach into the bugs and pull the lever to save Indy’s life. If it had been me, he’d a been a goner! If anything has more than 4 legs it needs to stay away from me! I cannot imagine going through that cleaning job.

  6. Willow River January 28, 2015

    Good Lord, this is like reading a horror novel! I swear, if I had been anywhere near that sort of situation, you’d find me huddled up in some corner far away trying not to scream while I cry. This story only strengthens my belief that spiders are, to put it lightly, PURE EVIL!!! You, sir, are a very, very brave soul, and I salute you. From way over here, away from the spiders.

  7. iltorero February 7, 2015

    Curtis was bitten by Brown Recluse twice? They inflict some of the grossest wounds I’ve ever seen. We’ve got them in Maine, but they’re rare.