Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill

Revised 1/15/2022

Originally Posted March 9, 2012.

Not too long ago my wife mentioned that we need to paint the dining room.  The last time I helped her paint a room I was left with a splotch of white paint down the front of one of my favorite power plant shirts.  It looked like I had stood under a tree where a devious pigeon had dropped a well placed excrement.

Shirt with white paint to celebrate pigeon droppings

And like someone with dementia where one thought leads to another fairly unrelated topic, the thought of my Power Plant shirt with the paint drippings reminded me of the day when I came home from work as a summer help during the second summer of Power Plant Mania with little sparkling spatters of silver paint on my jeans (which I proudly wore for the next few years).  I had just finished my painting lessons with Aubrey Cargill.

I had the feeling it would be an interesting day when the first thing that Stanley Elmore asked me when I sat down for our morning meeting was, “Kelvin, are you afraid of heights?”  Well, since before that day I hadn’t been afraid of heights, I told him I wasn’t.  I decided not to mention that my name was really “Kevin”, since I thought he was only calling me “Kelvin” as a joke.

As a side note, Stanley called me Kelvin for most of the summer.  One day toward the end of my summer sojourn, when I was sitting in his office he looked at me, then glanced at the name on my hard hat and said, “Hey!  Your name is Kevin!  I’ve been calling you Kelvin all summer! Why didn’t you say something?”  Still thinking this was just part of the same joke he had been cultivating all summer I just shrugged and said, “That’s ok.  You can call me Kelvin if you want.  Just don’t call me late for supper.”

Back to the story where he asked me if I was afraid of heights:

Then Stanley, who liked most of all to joke around with people, started hinting through facial expressions of excitement (such as grinning real big and raising his eyebrows up to where his hair line used to be when he was younger) and by uttering sounds like “boy, well, yeah…. huh, I guess we’ll see” while shaking his head as if in disbelief.  He told me to get with Aubrey after the meeting because there was a job I needed to help him out with. (Ok.  I know.  Ending a terribly constructed sentence ending with a preposition – how about this instead:  He told me to talk to Aubrey after the meeting because I needed to help him out with a job).

Aubrey Cargill was our painter this summer.  He worked out of the garage that I worked out of the last 3 years of working as a summer help.  There was a paint room in the back of the garage on the side where the carpenter, Fred Hesser built cabinets and other great works of art.

Fred was the best carpenter I have ever met, as well as one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known.  He wasn’t in the category of Power Plant Man, as he didn’t involve himself in most of the power plant operations or maintenance, but to this day, Power Plant Men from all over Oklahoma can visit Sooner Plant on overhaul and admire the woodworking masterpieces created by Carpenter Fred many years earlier (this was the summer of 1980).

I had worked with Aubrey my first year as a summer help.  The garage hadn’t been built yet, and Aubrey had not been assigned as a painter, as both units were still under construction.  Aubrey was the same age as my father and in his mid-forties that first summer.

His favorite buddy was Ben Hutchinson.  Wherever one went, the other was not far away.  Throughout the first summer, the lake on the hill was still being filled by pumping water up from the Arkansas river.

Map of the Power Plant Lake

Map of the Power Plant Lake.  The power plant is on the northwest corner of the lake.  The Arkansas River is in the upper right corner of the map

Most of the last two weeks that summer I worked with Aubrey and Ben picking up driftwood along the dikes that were built on the lake to route the water from the discharge from the plant to the far side of the lake from where the water enters the plant to cool the condensers.  The idea is that the water has to flow all the way around the lake before it is used to cool the condenser again.  So, Ben and Aubrey took turns driving a big dump truck down the dike while I walked down one side of the dike around the water level and Aubrey or Ben walked down the other side, and we would toss wood up the dike into the dump truck.

A Ford Dump Truck

A Dump Truck

This was quite a throw, and often resulted in a big log being tossed up the dike just to hit the side of the dump truck creating a loud banging sound.  Anyway, when you consider that there are probably about 6 miles of dikes all together, it was quite a task to clean up all the driftwood that had accumulated in this man made lake.  After doing this for two weeks I learned the true meaning of the word “bursitis”.  When the truck bed was full, we would take it to a dump on the west side of the plant and dump it out.

After the morning meeting with Stanley Elmore I followed Aubrey into the carpenter shop.  He pointed to two buckets of paint that I was to carry, while he grabbed a canvas tool bag filled with large paint brushes and other painting tools and some white rope that looked like it had the seat of wooden swing on one end.

Aubrey nodded to Fred, and I understood by this that Fred had created the wooden swing that had four pieces of rope knotted through each of the corners of the seat and were connected to the main rope using some kind of small shackle.  When I asked Aubrey what that was, he told me that it is was a Boatswain Chair.  “Oh.” I think I said, “It looks like a swing.”  Like the picture below only homemade.

On the way to the boilers, we stopped by the tool room and I checked out a safety belt.  I could see Aubrey nodding at Bud Schoonover about my having to check out a safety belt, and what implication that had.  I of course preferred to think that my fellow employees would not purposely put me in harms way, so I went along acting as if I was oblivious to whatever fate awaited me.

We took the elevator on #1 Boiler to the 11th floor (which is actually about 22 stories up.  There are only 12 stops on the boiler elevator, but the building is really 25 stories to the very top.  So Power Plant men call the extra floors things like 8 1/2 when you get off the elevator where it says 8, and go up one flight of stairs.

Aubrey explained to me that we need to paint a drain pipe that is below us a couple of floors that goes down from there to just above floor 7 1/2 where it turns.  He said that he could paint the rest, but he needed my help to paint the pipe where it drops straight down, because there isn’t any way to reach it, except by dropping someone off the side of the boiler over a handrail and lowering them down to the pipe, and that turned out to be me.

He explained how the safety belt worked.  He said that I clip the lanyard in the ring at the top of the boatswain chair so that if I slip off the chair I wouldn’t fall all the way down, and then he could gradually lower me on down to the landing.

He didn’t explain to me at the time that the weight of my body free-falling three feet before coming to the end of the lanyard would have been a sufficient enough force to snap the white rope in half.  I guess he didn’t know about that.  But that was all right with me, because I didn’t know about it either — at the time.  We didn’t use Safety Harnesses at that time.  Just a belt around the waist.

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

A Safety Belt like this, only the black strap without all the extra padding

So as I tied the canvas bag to the bottom of the chair, I saw Aubrey quickly wrap the rope around the handrail making some sort of half hitch knot.  I wasn’t too sure about that so I asked Aubrey where he learned to tie a knot like that and he told me in the Navy.  That was all I needed to hear.  As soon as he told me he learned knot tying in the Navy, I felt completely secure.  I figured if anyone knew the right way to tie a knot it’s someone in the Navy.

I clipped the lanyard in the shackle at the top of the boatswain chair and headed over the handrail.  I situated the chair to where I had my feet through it when I went over and the chair was up by my waist.  As I lowered myself down, I came to rest on the boatswain chair some 210 feet up from the ground.

It is always windy in this part of Oklahoma in the summer, and the wind was blowing that day, so, I began to spin around and float this way and that.  That continued until Aubrey had lowered me down to the pipe that I was going to paint and I was able to wrap my legs around it and wait for my head to stop spinning.

Then Aubrey lowered down another rope that had a bucket of paint tied to it.   I began my job of painting the pipe as Aubrey had hold of the rope and was slowly lowering me down.  Luckily Aubrey didn’t have to sneeze, or wasn’t chased by a wasp while he was doing this.  Thinking about that, I kept my legs wrapped around the pipe pretty tight just in case Aubrey had a heart attack or something.

The pipe really did need painting.  So, I knew this wasn’t completely just a joke to toss me out on a swing in the middle of the air hanging onto a rope with one hand while attempting to paint a pipe with the other.  It had the red primer on it that most of the piping had before it was painted so it looked out of place with all the other silver pipes, but I couldn’t help thinking about Jerry Lewis in the Movie, “Who’s Minding the Store”.

Jerry Lewis is told to paint the globe on the end of a flagpole that is located out the window on a top floor of the building.  He begins by trying to climb out on the flagpole with a bucket of paint in his mouth with little success, but like Jerry, I figured it had to be done, so I just went ahead and did it  (So.  you may have noticed that was a very long sentence.  I just counted and there are 112 words – definitely a run-on sentence  – I have since cut the sentence into parts and even created a new paragraph all from that one run on sentence).

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Fortunately, I found out right away that I wasn’t afraid of heights, even at this height and under these conditions.  So, instead of fainting away, I just painted away and finally ended up on floor 7 1/2 which is right next to the Tripper Gallery.  I think I finished this a little after morning break.  I don’t think Aubrey wanted to stop for break just to lower me down and then have to start from the top again lowering me all the way down one more time holding onto a pipe that had wet paint on it.

This brings me to another point.  Notice where I landed.  Right next to the Tripper Gallery.  Power Plant ingenuity has a way of naming parts of the plant with interesting names.  The first time I heard that we were going to the tripper gallery to shovel coal (see the post Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal), I half expected to see paintings lining the walls.  It sounded like such a nice place to visit…. “Tripper Gallery”.  It sort of rolls off your tongue.  Especially if you try saying it with a French accent and spell Gallery like this:  Galerie.

The Tripper Gallery is neither eloquent nor French.  It is where the coal from the coal yard is dumped into the Coal Silos just above the Bowl Mills.  — Yes.  Bowl Mills.  I know.  It sounds like a breakfast cereal.  Almost like Malt-O-Meal in a bowl.

So, the Tripper Gallery is a long narrow room (hence the word Gallery), and there are two machines called Trippers that travels from one silo to the next dumping coal from the conveyor belt down into the coal silo, and when the silo is full, a switch is triggered (or tripped) which tells the machine to go to the next silo.  Since the switch “trips” and tells the machine to move, they call the machine the “Tripper”.

 

Here is a picture of a clean tripper gallery I found on Google Images

Here is a picture of a clean tripper gallery transporting grain or something other than coal I found on Google Images

I know.  That last paragraph didn’t have anything to do with painting the drain pipe.  But I thought since I mentioned the Tripper Gallery, I might as well explain what it is.  Anyway, when we returned to the shop I watched as Stanley Elmore went over to Aubrey to see how I did when I found out he was going to drop me over the side of the boiler in a wooden chair.  I could see that Aubrey gave him a good report because Stanley looked a little disappointed that this Power Plant Joke (even though essential), hadn’t resulted in visibly shaking me up.

Power Plant Christmas Story

Revised 1/8/2022

Originally posted on December 21, 2012:

There was a phase when I was in college (the first time) when I felt like writing poetry.  It was an after affect of my year struggling with a very advanced hyperthyroid when I was 15 and 16.  After a close brush with death, once I was on my way to a recovery, I found that I suddenly viewed life quite differently.

I suddenly found myself not so interested in being the science and math nerd that I was before, and now I was more interested in history and literature and the law.  This eventually led me to pick up a pen and write poetry.  My first attempt at poetry was to go in the bathroom in classroom buildings on the campus of Oklahoma University in Norman and write the proof for the quadratic formula on the wall in the stalls.  I would sign it “The Mad Quadratic Formula Writer”.

At this phase of my poetry writing skills, you can tell that I hadn’t completely given up on my interest in Math.  I was sitting in a calculus class one day when a fellow student sitting behind me saw me writing the proof for the quadratic formula on the desktop.  He said, “Hey!  Are you the Mad Quadratic Formula Writer?  I was just reading your proof in the bathroom on the second floor!”

To me the proof for the quadratic formula was pure poetry just like Math is a pure science.  Over the next few years, however, I managed to change my focus from writing Mathematical poetry and focused more on conventional poetic topics such as gnomes, trilobites and girls.  This leads me to the topic of Christmas Poetry.  By 1998 I had honed my feeble poetry skills to the point where I could make an acceptable version of a limerick about a gnome a fairy and two elves.

So in December, 1998 when my brother who was a full Colonel in the United States Marine Corp at the time before he retired sent me the following poem about Santa Claus visiting a Marine on the night before Christmas. I, in turn, sat down and in about 30 minutes wrote a poem about Santa Claus visiting the house of a Power Plant Man. Words flowed out as easily as Ralph writing about his wish to have a Red Rider BB gun.

First, here is the Marine story, and then after that, you can read the one about Santa and the Power Plant Man. Notice the similarities….

I made the title for the Marine Poem a link to the website where I found a recent copy of the Marine Christmas Story:

Marine’s ‘Twas the night before Christmas

By Nathan Tabor

‘Twas the night before Christmas, he lived all alone,

in a one-bedroom house made of plaster and stone.

I had come down the chimney with presents to give
and to see just who in this home did live.

I looked all about, a strange sight I did see,
no tinsel, no presents, not even a tree.

No stocking by mantle, just boots filled with sand,
on the wall hung pictures of far distant lands.

With medals and badges, awards of all kinds,
a sober thought came through my mind.

For this house was different, it was dark and dreary;
I found the home of a soldier, once I could see clearly.

The soldier lay sleeping, silent, alone,
curled up on the floor in this one bedroom home.

The face was so gentle, the room in such disorder,
not how I pictured a United States soldier.

Was this the hero of whom I’d just read?
Curled up on a poncho, the floor for a bed?

I realized the families that I saw this night,
owed their lives to these soldiers who were willing to fight.

Soon round the world, the children would play,
and grownups would celebrate a bright Christmas Day.

They all enjoyed freedom each month of the year,
because of the soldiers, like the one lying here.

I couldn’t help wonder how many lay alone,
on a cold Christmas Eve in a land far from home.

The very thought brought a tear to my eye,
I dropped to my knees and started to cry.

The soldier awakened and I heard a rough voice,
“Santa don’t cry, this life is my choice;

I fight for freedom, I don’t ask for more,
my life is my God, my Country, my Corps.

“The soldier rolled over and drifted to sleep,
I couldn’t control it, I continued to weep.

I kept watch for hours, so silent and still
and we both shivered from the cold night’s chill.

I didn’t want to leave on that cold, dark night,
this guardian of honor so willing to fight.

Then the soldier rolled over, with a voice soft and pure,
whispered, “Carry on Santa, It’s Christmas Day, all is secure.

“One look at my watch, and I knew he was right.
“Merry Christmas my friend, and to all a good night!”

Semper Fi

And now for the story where Santa visits the Power Plant Man!!!

Merry Christmas Power Plant Men
by Kevin Breazile

Twas the night before Christmas, as I flew through the snow,
To a house full of kids, wife, dog and Jay Leno.
I came down the chimney with presents to share,
And to see what kind of he-man actually lived there.

I looked all about, and oh what a sight!
Four kids in their beds, without much of a fight!
A dirty pair of jeans, and a shirt full of holes,
Boots full of coal dust, worn shoestrings and soles.

A hardhat was hung by the chimney to dry,
With safety stickers, scratches, and earplugs nearby.
I felt that something was stirring in my chest,
And I knew that this man was different from the rest.

I had heard about men like this from watching Roseanne,
But now I was in the house of a Power Plant Man!
I looked down the hallway and what should I see,
A tool bag hanging behind the Christmas tree.

As I approached it to look at his shiny side cutters,
I heard a strange sound, like a motor that sputters.
There on the recliner laid back as far as it can,
Lay the worn body of the Power Plant Man!

The hole in his sock showed a big toe that was callous,
From trudging all day through his Power Plant Palace.
His face was unshaven, his clothes were a mess,
He needed a shower, of that I confess.

I knew through the nation all people could stay,
Warm in their houses, all night and all day.
From the power that hummed at the speed of light,
And silently flowed through the houses at night.

Day after day, and year after year,
Blizzards and storms with nothing to fear.

As the Power Plant Man lay on his chair fast asleep,
I thought about others like him that work just to keep,
Our world safe from the cold and the heat and the night,
By keeping us warm, or cool and in light.

I looked in my bag for a gift I could give,
To the Power Plant Man who helps others to live.
I found that nothing seemed quite enough,
For the Power Plant Man had all “The Right Stuff”.

As I looked through my bag for the perfect choice,
I suddenly heard a muffled cigarette voice.
The Power Plant Man had stirred with a shock,
And all that he said was, “just leave me some socks.”

Then he rolled on his side, and scratched his behind,
And a tear swelled in my eye that left me half blind,
I knew that Power Plant Men were selfless inside.
They lived to serve others with courage and pride.

I pulled out some socks and put them under the tree,
Then I walked nimbly back to go up the chimney.

Before I rose to return to my sled,
I picked up his hardhat and placed it on my head.
It was then that I realized the soot on my brow,
Had come from his hardhat I put on just now.

I often get soot on my clothes and my face,
But tonight I had been blessed by the man in this place.

So as I flew through the night to finish my plan,
I took with me some of the soot from that Power Plant Man!

Simplify

Merry Christmas to all! And to all a Good Night!!!!

santa-claus3

Power Plant Safety is Job Number One

Revised 1/2/2022

Originally posted September 14, 2012:

Today in 2022 in the office environment where I work, whenever we begin a staff meeting, we always start by having a small safety talk.  Safety is always important, and you can imagine that if people who work in an office need to constantly be reminded of safety, you can imagine how important it is to be safe in a “pinch point ridden”, “back breaking”, “toe-stubbing”, “spontaneous combusting”, “toxic chemical filled”, “fall hazardous”, “ear piercing” (in the decibel sense, not the earring sense),  environment of a Power Plant.

I found out soon after I arrived at the Coal-fired power plant in Oklahoma the first summer I worked as a summer help that Safety was Job Number One.  I was given a hard hat and safety glasses the first day I was there, and I watched a safety film on how to lift with my legs and not with my back.  I thought the hard hat made me look really cool.  Especially with the safety glasses that looked like someone wore as a scientist during the 1950s.  Dark and square.

The first safety glasses we had didn’t have side shields

I used to keep a pair with me when I went back to school.  When I was a senior at the University of Missouri, Columbia, while working at the Bakery on Broadway, I kept a pair with me at all times, along with a hat that I had stol…um…. borrowed from my dad and always forgot to return. (In fact, I still have that hat to this day).

A hat just like this.  An Inspector Clouseau hat.

That way, whenever someone suspected who I was, I would put on my glasses and hat and people would think I was Clark Kent.  Anyway…. I diverge.  I never thought about it being an Inspector Clouseau hat until one winter morning in the parking lot at the plant Louise Gates (later Louise Kalicki) called me Inspector Clouseau.

The yellow hard hat made me confident that I was part of the blue collar working class.  Hard hats have a suspension system in them that make them look like it is riding too high on your head.  You soon get used to it, but for the first couple of weeks I kept bumping into things because my hardhat made me taller than I was used to being.

See? The hardhat looks like it is floating above this man’s head

It is because of this great suspension system that causes the hat to ride so high on someone’s head.  I learned about this not long after I arrived and Marlin McDaniel the A Foreman at the time told me to sort out of bunch of large steel chokers (or slings) in a wooden shack just inside the Maintenance shop by the door to the office elevator.

Ok. Not this big, but pretty large

While I was bending over picking up the chokers (I mean…. While I was lifting with my legs and not my back…) and hanging them on pegs I suddenly found myself laying on the ground.  At first I wasn’t sure what had happened because I hadn’t felt anything and it happened so fast.  It seemed that my legs had just buckled under me.

I soon realized that one of the large chokers that I had just hung on a peg a couple of feet above my head had fallen off and struck me square in the middle of the hard hat.  I was surprised by the force of the cable and how little I had felt.  I became a true believer in wearing my hardhat whenever I was working.  The steel rope had left a small gash across the hardhat that remained as a reminder to me of the importance of wearing my hardhat at all times.

Larry Riley used to comment to me that I didn’t need to wear it when we were in the truck driving somewhere.  Especially when I was sitting in the middle in the back seat of the crew cab and it made it hard for him to see anything through the rear view mirror other than a yellow hard hat sticking up to the top of the cab.

During my first summer at the plant (1979), I did witness how easy it was for someone to hurt their back.  I mean… really hurt their back.  I was helping to carry a very large 30 foot long section of a wooden extension ladder.  There were four of us.  Each on one corner.  I know that Tom Dean was behind me carrying one side of the back end.  I believe that Ben Hutchinson and Aubrey Cargill were on the other side of the ladder as we had been called from the job picking up driftwood on the dikes on the lake (see the post “Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill“).

As we were walking through the shop, Tom stepped on the floor drain just outside of the A Foreman’s office.  The drain cover was missing and a wooden piece of plywood had been put in its place to cover the hole.

A Cast Iron Floor drain cover similar to this was missing

Large equipment had driven over the plywood and it was smashed down into the drain making a slight indention in the middle of the floor.

When Tom stepped on the piece of wood, he lost his balance, and ended up spinning himself around as he tried to remain holding onto the ladder.  By doing this, he became slightly twisted, and at once he was in terrible pain.  Back pain.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this one event was a critical turning point in Tom Dean’s career at the power plant.  He was pretty well out the rest of the summer recuperating from the back injury.

The next summer when I returned to the plant, Tom was working in the tool room.  Obviously a step down from being a mechanic.  He was also very unhappy.  You could tell by looking at him that he had lost the proud expression that he had wore the summer before.

I don’t remember how long Tom worked at the plant after that.  I just know that it really made me sad to see someone’s life deteriorate during the snapshots that I had in my mind from the summer before to when I returned to see a man tortured not only by back pain, but by a feeling of inadequate self worth.  Hurting your back is one of the most common and most serious injuries in an industrial setting.  It is definitely a life changing event.

There were other tragedies during my time as a summer help and they didn’t necessarily have to do with something dangerous at work.  One summer there was a young man working in the warehouse and tool room.  His name was Bill Engleking (thanks Fred.  I didn’t remember his name in the original post).  The next summer I asked where he had gone, and I learned that one morning he had woke up and found that he had become completely blind.  It turned out that he had a very serious case of diabetes.  The sugar levels in his blood had reached such dangerous levels that it destroyed his optic nerves overnight.

Then there was one of the Electricians, Bill Ennis.  He would say that he was “Blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other one.”  He was actually blind in one eye completely, and the other eye he was color blind.  So, what he said was actually true.

It happened on occasion that people visiting the plant would be seriously hurt.  Everyone at the plant was trained in first aid, and Power Plant Men, being the way that they are, are always willing to do whatever it takes to help someone out in time of trouble.

One day during lunch, a man came to the plant to fill the unleaded gas tank on the side of the garage in front of the warehouse.  While he was reaching over the PTO (Power Take Off), His shirt sleeve caught in the spinning PTO shaft and broke his arm.

An example of a PTO shaft on a brush hog

I remember Mickey Postman explaining what happened.  His crew was eating lunch in the garage when they heard someone yelling for help.  When they ran out to see what had happened, they found the man tied up in the PTO with one bone from his arm sticking straight out in the air.  They quickly took care of him and treated him for shock as they waited for the Ambulance from Ponca City to arrive.

It is times like this that you wish would never happen, but you are glad that you had first aid training and you know what to do.  This person could easily have died from this injury if not for the quick action of Mickey Postman and the rest of his crew.  I believe other Power Plant Men that were there to help was Dale Mitchell, George Alley, Don Timmons and Preston Jenkins.  Mickey would know for sure.  I’ll leave it up to him to remind me.

Mickey Postman

I have illustrated these tragic events to demonstrate the importance of making Safety Job Number One.  The Power Plant Men didn’t have to be told by a safety video to know how important it was.  They all knew examples of tragedies such as these.

Each month the plant would have the Monthly Safety Meeting, and every Monday morning each crew would have their own safety meeting.  Safety pamphlets would be read, safety videos would be watched.  Campaigns would be waged to re-emphasize the importance of proper lifting techniques.  Everyone in the plant had to take the Defensive Driving course.

The last summer I worked as a summer help in 1982 was the first summer that everyone was required to take the Defensive Driving course.  The course was being given by Nancy Brien, Nick Gleason and Ken Couri.  We learned a lot of defensive driving slogans like, “Is the Pass really necessary?”  “Slow down, ride to the right, ride off the road” (when an emergency vehicle is approaching), “Use the Two Second Rule” (Only, I think it was 3 seconds at that time).  “Do a Circle For Safety” etc….

The Defensive Driving Course we took when I was a summer help

The Defensive Driving Course we took when I was a summer help

My friend Tim Flowers and another summer help were carpooling during that time and we made signs with those slogans on them.  Then when we were driving home in my little Honda Civic, we would hold one of those signs up in the back window so that the Power Plant person that was following us home (Usually Dick Dale and Mike Gibbs) would wonder what it said, and would pull up closer to read the sign, and it would say, “Use the 3 second rule”, or “If you can read this, you are too close”.

That was when I began wearing my seat belt all the time.  Before that, it was not common for people to wear seat belts.  They only had the lap belt before that, and those weren’t the safest things in the world.  Especially since they would get lost inside the seat.  I attribute the Defensive Driving Course that I took while I was a summer help at the plant for my safe record as a driver.  There were a number of tips that I learned then, that I still use all the time today.

There is one advantage to wearing a hardhat that I didn’t realize until I left the power plant in 2001. It is that you never have to worry about hair loss on the top of your head.  Whenever you are outside at the plant, you always wear your hardhat and safety glasses.  When I changed jobs to become a software developer at Dell, I would find that just by walking down the street in the neighborhood in Texas, I would quickly develop a sunburn on the top of my head.

During the years of wearing a hardhat, I may have been losing my hair, but it never occurred to me.  Not until I had a sunburn on the top of my head.  I wondered at times if people would look at me funny if I showed up for work in my cubicle at Dell (when we had cubicles) wearing a yellow hardhat.  Oh, and a pair of super stylish safety glasses like those shown at the top of this post. — And um…. Steel Toed Boots!

You know when you are young, and I’m sure this has happened to all of you at one point in your life,  you dream that you get off of the school bus at your school in the morning only to find that you are still wearing your pajamas.  — Yeah.  I thought you would remember that one.  Well.  I still have dreams of showing up at my desk job wearing a hardhat and safety glasses.  I don’t realize it until I lift my hardhat up to wipe the sweat off of my brow, then I quickly look around to see if anyone noticed as I stuff the hardhat under the desk.

Comment from previous post:

Jack Curtis January 22, 2014:

The safety meetings, Defensive Driving, safety glasses… it was the same way for telephone men, too. And they jumped in whenever there were problems as well. It is striking to me, to see the differences in attitudes from one generation to another…

A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid

Revised 12/26/2021

Originally Posted May 18, 2012

As I have been inching toward retirement, I have begun to think about the people I would like to visit when I have the time.  Unfortunately, most of them are already dead so I will have to wait just a little longer before we can meet up again.  One such individual I am looking forward to visiting is the man that was the chemist at our power plant during the entire 20 years I worked there.

He was the one that taught me how to do the jig.  At least, he gave me one lesson once.  I’m not too sure it was intentional.  I’ll let you decide.

George Pepple was the chemist at the plant when I first arrived in 1979.  His last name is pronounced  “Pep-Lee”.  A chemist plays an important role in a power plant.  The plant treats their own water and has it’s own sewage system.  The chemist spends their time with these activities.

They do other things like check ground water for contaminates, and lake water for bacteria, and a host of other things.  Hydrochloric Acid is used to balance the PH of the water.  They make super clean water for the steam that turns the boiler.

As far as I know, George Pepple was the only one at the plant with a PhD (so the PhD spent his time testing the PH), which gave him the title of Doctor.  No one called him Dr. Pepple (which sounds like a soda pop).  We either called him George or Pepple (Pep Lee) or both.  He had a sort of Einsteinian simplicity about him.  To me he was the perfect combination of Einstein and Mr. Rogers from “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”:

Albert Einstein

Mister Rogers

One other thing I would like to add about George was that he developed a special process for Cupric Chloride leaching of copper sulfides.  This was a patented process (1982) which is now owned by the Phelps Dodge Corporation which is a copper and gold mining company.  As humble as George Pepple was, he never mentioned this to anyone at the plant as far as I know.

When he would page someone on the PA system (gray phones), he would always do it in a straight monotone voice. putting no accents on any of the words and he would always repeat his page twice.  Like this:  “PaulMullonLineOne.  PaulMullonLineOne.”

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Before I get to the point where George is dancing in the acid, I first need to tell you about Gary Michelson, since he had a role to play in this jig.  In an earlier post: In Memory of Sonny Karcher, A True Power Plant Man, I remarked that Sonny Karcher had told people when he introduced me to them that I was going to college to learn to be a writer (which wasn’t exactly true.  The writing part I mean…. I was going to college… and.. well… I am writing now), and that I was going to write about them.  In doing so, some people took me in their confidence and laid before me their philosophy of life.

Jerry Mitchell being one of them (as you can read in an earlier post about “A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“).  Jerry had filled me with his own sense of humility, where it was important to build true friendships and be a good and moral person.  His philosophy was one of kindness to your fellow man no matter what his station in life.  If there was someone you couldn’t trust, then stay clear of them.

Gary Michelson was another person that wished to bestow upon me his own personal wisdom.  We worked for about 3 days filtering the hydraulic oil in the dumper car clamps and in the coal yard garage.  While there, he explained to me why it was important to be the best in what you do.  If you are not number one, then you are nobody.  No one remembers who came in second.

He viewed his job performance and his station in life as a competition.  It was him against everyone else.  He didn’t care if he didn’t get along with the rest of the people in the shop (which he didn’t) because it is expected that other people would be jealous or resentful because he was superior to them.

According to Gary his family owned part of a uranium mine somewhere in Wyoming or Montana.  He thought he might go work for his father there, because truly, he was not a True Power Plant Man.  He reminded me slightly of Dinty Moore.  Like a lumber Jack.

Dinty Moore

As I mentioned in the post about the “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“, Gary Michelson had the title “Millwright”.  Which no one else in the shop seemed to have.  He had been certified or something as a Millwright.  Gary explained to me that a Millwright can do all the different types of jobs.  Machinist, Mechanic, Pipe fitter, etc.

I remember him spending an entire week at a band saw cutting out wedges at different angles from a block of metal to put in his toolbox.  Most mechanics at this time hadn’t been issued a toolbox unless they had brought one with them from the plant where they had transferred.  Gary explained to me that his “superiority was his greatest advantage.”  Those aren’t his words but it was basically what he was saying.  That phrase came from my son who said that one day when he was imitating the voice of a video game villain named Xemnas.

Filtering the hydraulic oil through the blotter press was very slow until we removed most of the filters.

An Oil Blotter Press Similar to the one we had, but our press did not have “NAKIN” written on it.

It was a job that didn’t require a lot of attention and after a while became boring.  That gave me more time to learn about Gary.  He filled the time with stories about his past and his family.  Since I hadn’t met Ramblin’ Ann at this point (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was not able to contribute my share.  In the middle of this job we were called away to work on a job in water treatment where a small pump needed to be re-installed.

During this time at the plant every pump, fan, mill and turbine were brought to the maintenance shop and disassembled, measured, cleaned, honed and reassembled before the plant was brought online for the first time.  This is called doing a “check out” of the unit.  The electricians would check every motor, every cable and every relay and alarm.  The Results team (Instrument and Controls as they were later called) would check out the instrument air, the pneumatic valves and the control logic throughout the plant.

Gary had me go to the tool room and get some rubber boots and a rain suit.  When we arrived at the water treatment building George Pepple was there waiting for us.  The pump was in place and only the couplings needed to be connected to the acid line.  Gary explained to me as he carefully tightened the bolts around the flange that you had to do it just right in order for the flange to seat properly and create a good seal.  He would tighten one bolt, then the bolt opposite it until he worked his way around the flange.  He also explained that you didn’t want to over-tighten it.

Pipe Flange

Anyway.  When he was through tightening the couplings I was given a water hose to hold in case some acid were to spray out of the connections when the pump was turned on.  After the clearance was returned and the operator had closed the breaker, George turned the pump on.  When he did, the coupling that Gary had so carefully tightened to just the right torque using just the right technique sprayed a clear liquid all over George Pepple’s shoes.

Gary quickly reached for the controls to turn off the pump.  I immediately directed the water from the hose on George’s shoes while he began to jump up and down.  In last week’s post I explained that when I was working in the River Pump forebay pit shoveling sand, there was a point when I realized that I was covered from head to foot with tiny crawling bugs, and I felt like running around in circles screaming like a little girl (See “Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down By The River“).

If I had done that, I probably would have been doing the same song and dance routine that George Pepple was doing at that moment.  Because he indeed was screaming like a little girl (I thought).  His reaction surprised me because I didn’t see the tell tale signs of sizzling bubbles and smoke that you would see in a movie when someone throws acid on someone.  I continued hosing him down and after a minute or so, he calmed down to the point where he was coherent again.  He had me run water on his shoes for a long time before he took them off and put on rubber boots.

After hosing off the pipes, Gary took the coupling apart and put the o-ring in place that he had left out.

Rubber O-Ring

I made a mental note to myself.  — Always remember the o-ring.

Besides those two jobs, I never worked with Gary Michelson again.  When I returned the next summer Gary was no where to be found.  When I asked Larry Riley about it, he just said that they had run him off.  Which is a way of saying…  “He ain’t no Power Plant Man.”

George Pepple on the other hand was there throughout my career at the power plant.  He was a True Power Plant Man, PhD!  When George was around you knew it was always “A wonderful Day in the Neighborhood”.  When I would hear George Pepple paging someone on the Gray Phone (the PA system) in his own peculiar way, I would think to myself… “I like the way you say that.” (As Mr. Rogers used to say).  I will leave you with that thought.

Since I originally wrote this post in 2012, George Pepple has died.  He died on October 28, 2019.  I was able to find his picture from his Obituary site.  Here it is.  See what I mean about a cross between Einstein and Mr. Rogers?  He almost always wore a smile and was loved by everyone.  When he was around, his smile was contagious.  I’m smiling now just thinking about him.

George Pepple

Comments from the original post:

  1.  

    neenergyobserver May 18, 2012

    Funny isn’t it, how the ones that are the best (in their own minds) do stupid stuff like forgetting the O-ring. Apparently they can’t see for all the jaw-flapping involved in patting themselves on the back. Not that I haven’t had a few days I’d rather not talk about too.

    1.  

      Plant Electrician May 25, 2012

      Nebraska, if you think that was dumb, wait until you read the next post.

      1. neenergyobserver May 25, 2012

        Well, that was dumb, but not the dumbest either of us has seen. I’ll look forward to it.

  2.  

    onelifethislife May 27, 2012

    You are master storyteller! I know nothing about power plants and I was right there with you. This was fantastic read! Thank you for sharing your work.

    1.  

      Plant Electrician May 27, 2012

      Thank you for your kind words.

      1. onelifethislife May 27, 2012

        You are most welcome!!

  3. bryanneelaine May 28, 2012

    LOL @ “Dinty Moore”

     

    Ron Kilman May 23, 2013

    Great story! Thanks,
    I remember George as – competent, consistent, happy, supportive, and a great “team player”.

Chief Among Power Plant Machinists

Revised 12/18/2021

Originally Posted on June 8, 2012.

The first week I worked at the power plant during the summer of 1979 was when I was assigned to sweep the floor of the maintenance shop (See the post Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown).  As I was making my way around each of the mills, drill presses, band saws and lathes, I swept my way around toward a man that was sitting at a lathe watching a stainless steel rod being molded into a work of art.

This man caught my attention because of the way he sat on his stool as if he was a very proud American Indian.  He was a heavy set man who peered out of the bottom of his bifocals watching the purple metal shavings flying off of the rod as he slowly and carefully turned a dial with his left hand.  As I approached his lathe, he turned to me and said, “Don’t worry about those shavings, I’ll sweep them up later.”

I shrugged my shoulder and said, “Well, it’s my job to sweep the shop, so, I can go ahead and do it.”  Tilting his head down so that he was looking at me through the top of his glasses, he stared for a moment, and then with a hint of a grin turned back to his work, as I proceeded to sweep up his shavings, as they were still flying off of the lathe.  I glanced up to see the name on his hardhat.  It said, “Ray Butler”.

Lawrence Hayes was the foreman over the machinists when I first arrived at the power plant, but Ray Butler was undoubtedly the Chief.  He was actually the Chief of the Otoe-Missouria Indian tribe, for a time, that was located just to the north and west of the plant grounds.  The Machinists I can remember from the first summer are Don Burnett, Johnnie Keys, Ray Butler and Lawrence Hayes.  Being a Machinist in a power plant is something that few people can pull off, but those that do, can create just about any metal part that is needed in the plant.

The machinists fascinated me when I first arrived at the plant in 1979 as a summer help.  One side of the entire maintenance shop was the machine shop and it was filled with all different kinds of machining equipment.  I recognized some of the equipment like the lathes, but other machines, like the mill, were something new.  Then there is  this very large lathe.  It was monstrous.  I wondered what kind of part would be machined with that big lathe (I believe that in the 20 years I worked at the plant, I saw this big lathe being used twice).

This is what the typical lathe looks like in a machine shop

Even though the power plant machinists came from very diverse backgrounds, they all have two important traits in common.  They are very patient and they are perfectionists.  During my first summer as a summer help both of the units were still under construction and the mechanics were busy going through the entire plant disassembling each piece of equipment and measuring it and cleaning it and putting it back together.  This was called:  “Check Out”.

Often they would find something that didn’t meet the Electric Companies specifications, so it would be sent to the machinist to fix.  Very precise measurements were being used, and if there was a 3 thousandth inch gap (.003), and the company wanted it to be no more than 2 thousandths of an inch (.002)…. then it was the job of the machinist to add a sleeve and machine the part down until it was precisely where it was supposed to be.

I learned very little about the lives of the machinists because they were always standing behind the lathes watching vigilantly as the metal shavings were flying off of the parts, but I did learn a few things about some of them.  First of all, each one of the machinists seemed to care about you right away.

Don Burnett, a tall and very thin man with a friendly face, worked in a Zinc Smelting plant before he had come to work at the power plant.  One time while he was working there, some molten zinc was accidentally poured down the back of his boot burning his heel.  It was then that he decided that he would start looking for a different line of work.  I went fishing with him and some other guys once, where he told me some more things about his life.  Then a few years later, he moved to the Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma, where I saw him a couple of times while on overhaul down there.

Johnnie Keys would be perfectly cast as a hillbilly.  He had a scruffy beard (this was before beards were no longer allowed in 1983 due to the problem with obtaining a seal on your respirator) and if you put an old leather hat on him, he would look like this:

Like this, only younger and with a shorter beard

Ok. Here’s and actual picture of Johnny Keys without the beard

When you ask Johnnie to create something for you, you can be sure that he will do his best.  One time years later when I was an electrician, I asked Johnnie if he could take a piece of Plexiglas and cut out 8 rectangles in it so that I could mount it in an electrical box so that a bunch of breakers could be accessed, without someone worrying about getting into the electricity.

This is the control box that was used for the vent fans that were installed around the turbine room floor.  As far as I know, it is still there today.  Anyway, Johnnie brought it back to the electric shop when he was finished and it was perfect.  He had a couple of holes in it so that I could put two standoffs to mount the Plexiglas in the box.

It just so happened that Leroy Godfrey the electrical supervisor was in the middle of a little war with the engineers because they hadn’t consulted him about the project, and so he was intent on making the job go way over budget.  I wasn’t exactly privy to this information at the time (or maybe I was because he also wanted us to run size 2 cable to all of the fans, even thought size 8 would have been just fine — size 2 is a lot bigger than size 8 and would have called for much bigger conduit).  Anyway, after I had mounted the Plexiglas to the back plate of the electric box using the standoffs, and it was sitting on the workbench, Leroy came up to me and looked at it.

Leroy Godfrey

He said right away, “Go have the machinists put some more holes in it so that you can add more standoffs to mount the Plexiglas.  Knowing full well that it didn’t need the extra mounting, I told Leroy that I believed that two standoffs will be fine because the entire assembly was going to be put in the electric box, where there wasn’t going to be much movement.

At that point I picked up the entire assembly with the breakers and all by the Plexiglas and bent the Plexiglas all the way around to where both ends were touching and shook the breakers up and down.  Then I put it back on the workbench and said,  “I am not going to tell the machinist to add more holes, this is perfect.”

I knew that Johnnie had worked very meticulously machining out the Plexiglas and I wasn’t going to bother him with meaningless revisions.  It was at that point where Leroy Godfrey decided that I must go.  He went into the office and told Bill Bennett that he wanted to fire me.  Bill Bennett calmed him down, and it wasn’t long after that Leroy and the other old school power plant men were early retired.  For more information about Leroy Godfrey see the post:  The Passing of an Old School Power Plant Man – Leroy Godfrey.

Lawrence Hayes was the foreman during my first summer at the plant and I remember one morning while he was working on the lathe next to the new foremen’s office.  He had a disturbed look on his face about something as he had a long metal rod in the lathe and was busy measuring it from different angles.  A little while later when I was passing by on the way to the tool room, Lawrence had Marlin McDaniel, the A Foreman out there and he was showing him something about the lathe.

Then some time just after lunch, Lawrence had a big wrench and was removing the mounting bolts from the Lathe, and later picked the entire thing up with the shop overhead crane and moved it down to the other end of the shop.  Over the next couple of days, the concrete where the lathe had been mounted was busted up and removed, and then re-poured, so that the mounting bolts were now properly aligned.  The enormity of this job made me realize that when these Power Plant Men knew what needed to be done to fix something, they went right ahead and did it, no matter how big the job was.

I have saved the Chief until last.  Ray Butler as I mentioned above was the Chief of the Otoe-Missouria India tribe.  They really called him “Chairman”, but I think I knew what the title really meant.

This is an actor trying to look like Ray Butler

As Ray Butler sat at a lathe or a mill working on a piece of metal, he always had the same expression.  His head was slightly tilted up so that he could see through the bottom of his bifocals and he had the most satisfied expression.  He looked as if he was watching a work of art being created before his eyes.

It didn’t matter what he was working on, he always had the same expression.  I mentioned above that the machinists (like all true power plant men), seemed to instantly care about you.  This seemed to be especially true with Ray Butler.  He was almost 7 years older than my own father.  He treated me as one of his sons.

When I had been at the plant three days of my third year as a summer help in 1981, on Wednesday May 13, I went to the break room to eat my lunch.  Ray came up to me and sat down across from me at the table.  He looked at me solemnly and told me that Pope John Paul II had just been shot.

He had heard it on the radio and knew that I was Catholic (as I wore a 4 inch crucifix around my neck tucked in my V-neck T-shirt).  He said that was all that he knew other than that they had taken him to the hospital.  I could see his concern when he told me this, and I could see that he was equally concerned that this holy man across the ocean had been shot.  I thanked him for letting me know.

Ray had served in the Navy during World War II and besides the time he spent in the Navy he spent most of his life from the time he was born until his death in 2007 in Oklahoma.  He was born (1928) and died (2007) in Red Rock just a few miles from where the power plant was built (our plant has a Red Rock address).  He went to high school in Pawnee.  Even though I have seen him upset at times, he was always a man at peace.

Ray retired in 1988 and the day that he left I met him on his way to the control room while I was on my way to the maintenance shop.  I told him that I wished him well on his retirement and I gave him a hug.

Ray Butler’s grave site

I didn’t see him again until a few years later when we had stopped by the Indian Reservation convenience store to buy gas for the company truck and when he saw me from inside the store, he came out to say hello and it was like meeting a close friend.  He gave me a hug and I got back in the truck and we left.  That was the last time I saw Ray Butler, but I know that if I wanted to visit with him again, I could just go take a stroll around the Pow-wow area of the Otoe-Missouria Reservation and he would not be far away.

This is where the Pow-wow is held today. The same field where Ken Conrad danced with the Bobcat years ago

Comment from the original Post:

  jackcurtis June 23, 2012

The old machinists I knew were a special breed; they were the High Priests of any shop where they were present…they started disappearing in favor of cheaper (and much less capable) machine operators when the computer-controlled production machines came in. After that, if you wanted a machinist, you’d likely have to import him; Americans didn’t seem to train for it anymore. I’ve always thought that a shame and a loss of something special that was important in making our industrial history…and a loss of a very interesting and accomplished breed of men. Thanks for resurrecting some of them!

 

Comments from first Repost:

  1.  

    Ron Kilman June 12, 2013:

    Good story, Kevin!

    I worked in 5 power plants in Oklahoma and I was constantly amazed by what the Machinists could do.

  2.  

    Monty Hansen August 15, 2013:

    Great Story, I remember the machinist from the plant where I started was EXACTLY as you describe, his name was Don Rogers and he was both, one of the most talented and kindest men I’ve ever met in my power plant career. I don’t remember every name from back then, but if you met Don, he left a great impression that was impossible to forget.

 

Comment from last year’s repost:

  1.  

    Dan Antion June 10, 2014

    I worked in a machine shop while in high school and we had an excellent machinist there. The shop made gun barrels and they had actually made some of the equipment themselves. Those men were artists and engineers.

Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal

Revised 12/11/2021

Originally posted on:  June 1, 2012

I was a junk collector when I was a boy.  I considered myself an inventor so I collected all sorts of odd objects just in case one day I might find a use for it.  I guess today you would call me a childhood prodigy hoarder.  A lot of the junk would end up in my bedroom which I shared with my younger brother.  Between the two of us, the room became so full of clutter that there was often no visible clear spot on the ground to step, and you either ended up scooting something over in order to walk, or you just stepped on the junk scattered over the floor.

When my mom told me to clean my room (a task that usually fell to me instead of my brother), I would go in my room and close the door, then standing in the corner, just behind the door, I would fan out from there clearing a spot that grew larger as I advanced forward.  I imagined that I was in a war, and this was a battle of attrition.  Everything that was clean was territory I had conquered while the pile of junk in front of me was the enemy being slowly defeated.

This idea came in handy when I was 15 years old and I became a night janitor at the Hilton Inn.  I swept and mopped the kitchen, which stretched about 50 yards behind banquet rooms, which sometimes needed to be vacuumed. Then I vacuumed the restaurant and bar and cleaned 4 bathrooms.  I did all this while I was alone, and I turned the lights on only in the area where I was working at the time, so off in the distance was usually dark.

In order to occupy my mind and make the task seem more pleasant, I thought about the job as if it was a war against me and the dirty floor that had taken over the place during the day since the night before when I left it all clean and shiny.  It helped to pass the time and gave me a constant feeling of accomplishment.

I remember distinctly the first time I had to do coal clean-up at the plant.  When I arrived that morning with Steve Higginbotham Marlin McDaniel came up to me and said I needed to go with some guys up to the Tripper Gallery.  Not knowing exactly what that meant, I thought maybe it was a room where they had pictures of past power plant men, and they needed us to sweep the floor.

When I went to the tool room, Ken Reece was standing there handing out shovels and paper masks (which today would be recognized as an N95 mask).  He grinned at me and said, “Oh, you’re going to have fun today.”  Feeling rather relieved that I was going to enjoy myself, I looked at the assortment of shovels.

Regular Shovel

Most of the shovels were fairly small.  About a foot wide and maybe 15 inches long.  Leaning against the wall apart from the others was a very large scoop shovel.  It looked like a shovel I had seen on my grandfather’s farm in a grain bin.  So, I grabbed that.

Scoop Shovel

I remember thinking as I picked it up, “I wonder why we need a shovel.”  Well.  Read some of my coal shoveling adventures below.

The first couple of years while I worked as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant, Coal Cleanup was performed on weekends by volunteer He-Men that wanted to make a few extra dollars.  As a summer help, I needed all the extra money I could make.  My wages during the first year (1979) were $3.89 an hour.

This jumped to $5.84 an hour when I worked on the weekend, so you can imagine the thrill I had at receiving a paycheck that included the extra money made by doing “Coal Cleanup”.  Another great advantage to doing coal cleanup on the weekends was that I was able to carpool with different people.

So, during the first summer instead of just riding to work with Steve Higginbotham (See the post “Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy late for the Boiler Blowdown“), I caught a lot of rides with real Power Plant Men like Dale Hull, David Hankins, Jerry Mitchell, Preston Jenkins and Marlin McDaniel (Yeah.  Marlin McDaniel or Mac as an A Foreman would volunteer for coal cleanup some times.  Maybe it was when we were short a few people).  Incidentally, after our first encounter with “Coal Cleanup” Steve Higginbotham decided to leave his job and find something a little less “physical”.

Coal Cleanup became important during the second half of the first summer because Unit 1 was getting ready to go online.  There was a major flaw in the Coal Conveyor logic when the conveyors first started conveying coal from the coal pile to the coal silos just above the bowl mills.  What would happen was the same thing that happens if someone were to fall down at the top of a crowded escalator going up.  Everyone behind that person would be shoved right on top of them if there wasn’t an emergency stop button to stop the escalator.

Non Power Plant Escalator

All the conveyors had a safety cord alongside the entire length that could be pulled to stop the conveyor in an emergency, but this was something different.

To give you an idea… once the coal on the coal pile has been fed onto either Belts 4, 5, 6 or 7, from there the coal is dropped onto either belt 8 or 9.  That carries the coal up to the coal Crusher which has a bin above the crusher that can be filled with coal.  If the bin gets too full, then conveyor 8 and/or 9 would stop.  When that happens, belts 4, 5, 6 or 7 should stop also…. only they didn’t.

Belts 8 and 9 continued dumping coal into the crusher bin until it filled up and then coal fell out all over the top of the crusher tower around belts 8 and 9 until the coal tripped the belt by hitting the safety cord on the side of the belt.  Belts 4, 5, 6 and 7 continued dumping coal onto belts 8 and 9, which caused the coal to backup and spill out all over the floor until the coal piled up high enough to trip the safety cord on the side of the belt (the safety cord was about 3 feet above the ground).

In the picture of the power plant on the side of this post, there is one long conveyor that goes from the coal yard to the plant.  It is about 1/2 mile long.  This is where belts 10 and 11 carry the coal from the crusher, which crushes the coal down from big pieces the size of baseballs down to the size of walnuts.

The long belts 10 and 11 were like these only they are in a metal enclosure so the coal didn’t spill out on the ground.

At the top of the Transfer tower the coal from belts 10 and 11 are dumped onto belts 12 and 13 which carry the coal up to the Surge Bin Tower where the coal is dumped into the Surge bin.  When the Surge Bin fills up, it stops belts 12 and/or 13 and it should also stop belts 10 and 11 and the feeders that feed the coal into the crusher at the bottom of the crusher bin… only they didn’t.

They continued dumping coal into the Surge bin, which filled up and spilled coal all over the surge bin until belts 12 and 13 tripped, at which point, coal began spilling out all over the transfer tower filling up both floors of the transfer tower with tons of coal (literally tons of coal).  The same thing would happen at the bottom of Belt 10 and 11, where the crusher feeders kept feeding coal down to belts 10 and 11, which spilled out all over the bottom floor of the crusher tower.

I have worked in the transfer tower where the coal was higher than the windows and you had to bend over because your head would hit the ceiling on the floor at the foot of belt 12 and 13.  It was almost dangerous enough to picture yourself sliding down the pile of coal and slipping right out one of the windows (which had been broken out by the pile of coal).  To give you an idea of what this felt like, it was then a straight drop of 150 feet to the concrete below.

If that doesn’t seem like enough coal spills, then picture this…  The coal from the Surge Bin tower fed onto belts 14, 15, 18 and 19 which in turn fed onto belts 16 and 17, 20 and 21.  These last 4 belts were in what was called the “Tripper Gallery”.  These 4 belts would dump coal into 12 coal silos (6 on each unit) that would feed the bowl mills. These are big silos about 5 stories tall.

The same thing would happen to these belts leaving piles of coal at the bottom of the surge bin in the surge bin tower and all along the tripper gallery because when the coal silos were full, the tripper was supposed to move to the next silo and dump coal until it was full, and keep moving until all the silos were full.  Only, the tripper wasn’t working correctly, so it wouldn’t detect that the silo was full so the belt would keep dumping coal and would end up spilling coal all over the entire tripper gallery which runs about 100 feet or so.

So, our first experience with doing coal cleanup was like being on a chain gang where we shoveled coal from morning until night trying to clean up these 15 or so major coal spills from the Trippers on back to the the first belts 4, 5, 6 and 7 by shoveling the coal back onto the conveyor while it was running.  In some cases, we had to shovel the coal away from the belt before the belt could even run (as was the case with belts 12 and 13).  So, you can imagine how shoveling coal one scoop at a time made it seem like you were not getting anywhere fast.  3 or 4 men could all be shoveling on one pile of coal for 30 minutes and not even make a noticeable dent in the pile.  The bigger scoop shovel came in handy.

Even though each scoop of coal was heavier, it seemed more satisfying to see the bigger dent in the pile of coal with each shovelful.  I remember one day after we had shoveled coal all day from morning until late at night only to come back into work the next morning to the new piles of coal just as big as the ones we had shoveled the day before.  Once we had cleaned everything up they started up the conveyors again only to have it do the same thing as before.

After 2 years of volunteer coal cleanup which was becoming less volunteer and more rotational since the list of volunteers was growing smaller, Ray Butler pointed out that it didn’t make much sense to pay a first class machinist overtime to shovel coal when you could create a labor crew and pay them bottom dollar to do coal cleanup all the time, as well as other dirty jobs that no one really wanted to do (such as suck out sewage pits and other sump pits around the plant).

That was when the Labor crew was formed.  While I was in my 3rd year as a summer help (1981).  Bill Cook was a summer help then that stayed on as a labor crew hand at the end of the summer.  By the 4th summer as summer help, the only time we did coal cleanup was when there was a major spill, which was only a couple of times all summer.

I will write later about coal cleanup with Dale Hull.  I also remember doing coal-cleanup with Preston Jenkins one weekend.  I hadn’t carpooled with him to work, but I caught a ride back to Stillwater with him because my ride left at the end of a full day, and I decided to stay behind to add a few extra dollars to my bank account.  We left a couple of hours later around seven o’clock.

I climbed into the back of Preston’s Camaro.  I apologized for being so dirty, as I was covered from head-to-toe in coal-dust and my clothes were soaked with coal-dust permeated sweat.  Preston said that he didn’t mind.  I soon found out why.

When I climbed into the backseat of his car, I noticed that the upholstery that covered the seat back of the back seat was stained with some blackish-brownish um…. something.  Anyway.  I decided to sit on the passenger side of the back seat instead of behind the driver side because that side wasn’t nearly as stained.  As we drove down the highway toward home, I quickly learned why the seat back was so stained.

Being the “good-ol’ boy” that Preston was, when he climbed into the car, he took out his can of Skoal and put a pinch between his cheek and gums:

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums.... Never tried it myself.

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums…. Never tried it myself.

As we flew down the highway like a Texan heading for Stillwater, Preston would lean his head out the window and squirt out a wad of spit.  It would dance in the air like a little fairy just before it would be sucked into the back window of his car and splat against the seat back of the back seat.  Yep that explained it all right.  I always wondered if he knew, never having to sit in the back seat of his own car.

During the first summer when I was able to catch a ride with David Hankins a couple of times.  He was the crane operator at the time and drove a black Trans Am.  He was a black man with a very broad chest that never seemed to tire while doing coal cleanup.  From the first day he always treated me with great respect which in turn gave me a great respect for him.  I had him classified as a true Power Plant Man.

The second summer when I had been back at the plant for a couple of weeks, one day when Jim Heflin and I were going somewhere in a yellow Cushman cart, I asked Jim why I hadn’t seen David Hankins around.

A Cushman Cart Like this only Yellow

Jim (who hadn’t been at the plant the first summer) stopped the cart in the middle of the road and looked at me very solemnly and told me that David Hankins had died in a car accident in the spring.  He had been going home from a Men’s Club event when he was killed.  Because of this, alcoholic beverages were no longer allowed at Men’s Club events.  As with all the people I have worked with at the power plant, I keep David Hankins in my memory and I often think about him to this day.  David Hankins was a True Power Plant Man.

Comments from the original Post:

  1. neenergyobserver June 1, 2012 as 6:28 pm

    We’ve lost so many friends over the years, in the plants and on the line, especially when they were relaxing on their way home. You, and David’s family have my very belated condolences.

    Somebody, somewhere, needs to teach engineers a course on Conveyor Logic 101, I’ve seen the same thing happen in nearly every plant (from automotive, rarely, to meat packing, often) I’ve been in. Or they could, just for once in their life, shut their pie-hole and listen to people like you and me.

    1. Plant Electrician June 1, 2012 at 11:39 pm

      Thanks Nebraska.

      We were often exhausted while driving home from work when we had been working a lot of overtime. It was a wonder sometimes that we were able to keep the car on the road.

      My uncle Bill Breazile worked for the Utility company in Nebraska City where someone closed a breaker while he was working on a line. He was in the hospital for about 6 months healing from his burns. This was about 30 years ago. He has since passed away. It takes a special person to be a lineman. Putting their life on the line every time they reach out to do their job.

      1. neenergyobserver June 2, 2012 at 10:42 am

        Not that different from you. It’s all about planning your work, and doing it right, and safely. You and I know that 480 will kill you just as quick as 7200 if you get careless. That’s why almost all (old) linemen and electricians are in some sense stolid and unexcitable.

  2. jackcurtis July 14, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    Industrial America returns in stories and comments in places like this, from the only place it still exists: the minds of those who were part of it. Industrial America was a giant; those who manned it were giant tamers and it seems to me, very much the special breed illuminated in these posts…

    Comment from last repost:

    1. Dan Antion June 3, 2014

      I remember a time when I would have chose the bigger shovel, perhaps in the early 70’s. I was moving steel in a manufacturing plant. Carrying three bars on each shoulder seemed better than the two they suggested. We finished earlier, had to do other work, but somehow it felt better. Thanks for another interesting story and a wake-up call to younger days. Thanks also for the explanations. I love mechanical things and I get the impression that these plants are one big mechanical adventure.

A Power Plant Man Becomes An Unlikely Saint

Revised 12/04/2021

Originally Posted on April 7, 2012:

As I inch toward retirement, the question that was asked of me back when I was 18 and when I had just arrived at the power plant comes back to my mind and I wonder if I ever really found an answer.  The question was, “What are you going to be?”  If I had know what I was really going to be, I would have replied, “A pain in the neck”.  Now that I’m well into my 60s, I am beginning to think that I might not ever find the answer to that question.  Maybe it’s the wrong question to ask.  A more appropriate question may have been, “What are you going to do with your life?”

My wife came home from work one night in the early 90’s.  She was a charge nurse at the Stillwater Oklahoma Medical Center at the time.  She said that she was taking care of a patient that was one of the mostly saintly people she had ever met.

My first reaction to this statement was surprise.  I thought my wife had met a number of saintly people in her life, including myself (well.  She never came out an actually told me that she thought I was saintly, but by her nicknames for me such as “rascal” and “rotten”, I just surmised…).  So, this must be one really saintly person she was talking about. He was going to die soon and she thought I might know who he was because he used to work at the Power Plant.

When she gave me his name I was surprised to learn that he was on his deathbed, and yes.  I did know him.  I agreed with her.  He is and always had been a saintly person.  The funny thing was that I felt that very few people really knew him as I did.

Many people knew him enough to “not” think he would be classified in the “Saint” category, and I knew why this was also.  I knew him so well quite by chance when I first came to the plant, and I made a decision about how to answer a common question that was being asked of me at the time.

As a summer help it was known that I was a college student, so the obvious question was, why was I going to school, and what did I want to be when I graduated.  I could tell this was a rowdy bunch of men that enjoyed their day at work, and so I told them that I wasn’t sure yet what my degree would be (which was true), but I thought I might like to become a writer.  I told them this hoping that they would bite where I could set the hook (in a fisherman sort of way), and they did.

The first person that asked me that question was Sonny Karcher, and when I told him that I thought I might be a writer, he took the bait and asked, “Are you going to write about us?”  At the time, I had no plans about doing that, but I thought if they thought so, then they might fill my ears with the unique wisdom each of them seemed to have and as a side bonus be more friendly toward me.  So I answered, “I don’t know.  I haven’t thought about it, but I suppose I might.”

That’s all it took.  After that, every time Sonny introduced me to somebody, he would say, “This is Kevin.  He’s our new summer help.  He’s going to college to be a writer, and he’s going to write all about us!”  This produced the behavior I was hoping it would.

That was that a number of Power Plant Men took me “under their wing” and bestowed upon me their own particular wisdom.  For hours on end, as I worked with various men, they would tell me how things are in the world and how I should respond to them.  Their own particular Philosophy Of Life.

At the time I really had not considered writing about my experiences at the power plant, but now that I am much older and the wisdom of these great men seem to be dying away, I thought that it would be a good idea to put these out there on the Internet where nothing ever really goes away.

I have refrained from mentioning the name of this Unlikely Saint until now because I think that if I mentioned it up front some Power Plant Men would read it and think I was just tremendously off my rocker and not read any further.  So I prefaced my story with how I came to know this particular Power Plant Man enough to understand what my wife was saying when she told me about this Saint on the general medical (3rd) floor of the Stillwater Medical Center.

Maybe I will refrain just a little while longer to tell you a few things that this man told me.  It was obvious that he felt as if he was talking to me as a father would talk to a son.  He was only two years younger than my own father.

The one thing that sticks in my mind most is when he told me, “Kev, some day you may be a foreman or a supervisor running this plant, but always remember this…. Never forget where you came from.  Never forget that there was a time when you first began and knew nothing.  Don’t ever forget your friends.  Don’t forget who you really are.”

I have reminded myself of this often and made it part of my own  “Philosophy of Life”.  Years later when I became an electrician, he stopped by the electric shop and reminded me once again.

As an aside comment, my mother tried to help me with this by referring to me as “My Son, The Janitor” when introducing me to someone for years after I had become an electrician.  I was always proud to be called a janitor, and I would not try to correct her, because even though I was an electrician, I knew inside that I was also still a janitor.  My mom was saying that because she wanted me to go back to school and become a doctor who would be able to take care of her in her old age and she thought by insulting my occupation, that I would be more inclined to do that.

Today, even though my title may be “Business Systems Analyst” working for Dell (and now Senior Software Engineer working for General Motors), I also still carry around in the back of my head the title of “Janitor”.  My dad had told me when I was young that two of the most important people in his office are the secretaries and the janitors.  At that time I almost had changed my life’s ambition of working in the sewers like Norton on the Honeymooners to becoming a janitor right then and there.

I wish I had a picture to share of this Power Plant Man (I have one somewhere, but I am not able to find it just now), because if you could see him, you would think… this guy?

This Power Plant Man brings Hercules to mind, though, he didn't look anything like him

This Power Plant Man brings Hercules to mind, though, he didn’t look anything like him

His skin was darkened from smoking so heavily all his life and the fact that he was Native American.  Emphysema is what killed him while he was still relatively young.  His belly grew over the years to become larger than his stocky barrel chest.  His head nodded as if he had a touch of Parkinson’s disease while he listened to you and especially when managers were talking as if he was laughing to himself because he knew what they were “really” saying.  His clothes were always clean, which left everyone with the impression that he never did any work.

I remember one day while we were inspecting the dumper (where the coal is dumped out of the railway cars), as it had not been in-service for very long and everything needed to be inspected.  I followed him down the stairway into the dumper going down into the darkness.

There were lights down there, but they didn’t give off much light because the coal dust absorbs the light instead of reflecting it.  So, you can shine a flashlight and it doesn’t fill the room with its glow as it might in a room painted with white paint.  To me the place was eerily unreal until I had been down there enough times to keep my bearings on where we were going.

Anyway, I followed him down into the dark damp dumper where every handrail, every light fixture and every step was covered with coal dust.  We had some wrenches and we were tight checking the rollers on the conveyors.  When we were finished we found ourselves at the ground level exit of #2 Conveyor.  I looked at this Power Plant Man and he didn’t have spot of coal on him.  I, on the other hand, was black from top to bottom.  My hardhat was black, my arms, my face, my jeans.  All black with coal dust.

Then this Power Plant Man told me some more words from the wise…. “When you get to be good, you will remain as clean as I am.”  This had as much impact on me as when Master Po told Kwai Chang Caine (In the Kung Fu TV series) that when he can walk on the rice paper and not leave a trace, then he will be a Shaolin Monk.

Master Po teaches Kwai Chang Caine about the ways of the force

Master Po teaches Kwai Chang Caine about the ways of the force

It seemed impossible to me that he could have worked right alongside me, actually doing more work than I was doing, and he came out pristine while I came out looking like a bat out of hell (or Pigpen times ten).  But there it was.

So, for years whenever I worked in a coal handling area, his words always rang in my mind.  I considered it a challenge.  I realized that there were times when it would be impossible to come out clean, like when you are sandblasting a tank, or working inside the Precipitator wading through fly ash up to your waist.  But when doing my regular job, I made a real effort to remain as clean as possible.

It made me happy to think that others might think that I wasn’t working hard enough to be in the True Power Plant Man League because my clothes were clean, because to me, it was a tribute to my own Shaolin Master…. Jerry Mitchell.  Yes.  Power Plant Men…. Jerry Mitchell. (I hear people shutting down their laptops in dismay).

Before Jerry came to work at the power plant, he used to work on jet engines.  Like many genuine Power Plant Men, he was a leader in the field of mechanics.  I have a list as long as my arm of great men that work as Power Plant Men that are each near the top of the list of experts in their fields of knowledge.  Jerry was one of them.

He built the engine in the blue corvette that he used to drive to work each day.  He machined the parts himself.  It could go from 0 to 80 and back to 0 from the main gate to the highway  — how many yards is that? 200 yards maybe 300  He demonstrated it once to me.  He was wondering if I was interested in buying it because he knew I didn’t own a car as I had to bum a ride wherever I went.

I think that I realized the true character of Power Plant Men from Jerry, because he had very little tolerance for those impostors that hung around Power Plant Men looking for a way to belittle them, or spread rumors to hurt their reputations, etc. because nothing bothers a pseudo-He-man like a True Power Plant Man, because it is like turning on a bright light and watching the roaches scurry away.  Jerry could tell their character a mile away.

I will give you a “for instance”…  One day as we pulled the truck up to the Maintenance Shop, Jerry told me to follow him and not say anything, just listen, because I was going to be shocked by the conversation that was about to take place.  I wondered how he knew in advance as I walked up to an older coal yard foreman approaching a lady who was a Brown and Root construction hand (you could tell by the hardhat).

So I stood next to the man and listened.  He asked her how her night was last night and she began by describing the time she spent in a bar and she repeated the conversation she had with a man that was trying to pick her up.  Without going into too much detail, I will say that she ended the conversation with the man in the bar by saying that she was looking for a meal, not a snack, and proceeded to talk about another man in the bar and how she could tell that he was the kind of man she was looking for in more than descriptive terms.

She finished by telling the older man that the man she left with and her had a “Jolly good time” (my words, not hers) for at least 4 hours non-stop with more than enough details thrown in.  The older man was amused and hee-hawed about it slapping his knee in amusement.

Jerry nodded to me and we left.  We walked outside of the shop and leaned against the pickup.  Jerry asked me, “Have you ever heard anyone talk like that before, let alone a lady?”  I admitted that I hadn’t.  Then he said, “That man that she was talking to is her father.”

I was thoroughly shocked and greatly disturbed.  I had just heard a flowing river of filth spew from this person’s mouth as she was talking to her own father, and his response was to be amused by it.  When Jerry told me this I looked at him in shock, and he looked back at me with his head nodding as it did often.  His face had the regular straight poker face he usually wore, but his eyes told me that he was very saddened by this.  He said he felt it was important for me to know.

I have often kept that poor old man and his lost soul of a daughter in my prayers.  This man worked in the plant until the 1987-88 downsizing.  Whenever I would see him working in the coal yard, I would remember that I needed to add him and his daughter to my prayers.

So in ending I will say this about Jerry Mitchell, as I say with all the True Power Plant Men I know.  I have always considered Jerry a good friend.  Jerry was always a good friend to me, and I know that he is a Saint in Heaven today.  He never spoke a religious word in the years that I knew him, but I know that his large barrel chest held a tremendous heart.

When I think of Jerry today, I remember riding to Stillwater with him in his blue Corvette.  As we drove by a row of trees in a creek bottom he suddenly said, “What is that noise?  Do I hear Cicadas?”  I said, “Yeah, sounds like it.”  He replied, “I haven’t heard Cicada in years!  After working around Jet engines for so long I could no longer hear the sound of bugs.  My hearing is returning!”  That was the only time I saw Jerry’s expression change from his constant straight face to a complete smile of satisfaction.  I am 100% sure by the time Jerry made it to Heaven he was able to hear the harps very clearly.

Experiencing Maggots, Mud and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball

Revised 11/26/2021

Originally Posted March 30, 2012:

Have you noticed that some people are so proud of their middle name that they prefer to be called by that name instead of their first name, like Andy Tubbs, who is really Carl Andy Tubbs? Others don’t really care for their first name, so they go by a nickname like Sonny Karcher who is really Clarence Karcher. Others would rather you didn’t know their middle name because it doesn’t seem to fit the rest of their name or their personality.

I used to think that Dee Ball’s mom decided to call him Dee Ball because that way it would be easy for him to spell when he had to spell it in school.  Another person I thought had a similar experience was O D McGaha (pronounced Mc Gay Hay).  The O and the D were his first and middle names.  They weren’t abbreviations, so there is no period after them.  His name wasn’t Odie, it was just O D.

Later in life, out of curiosity, I decided to look into Dee Ball’s background a little more closely, since I was writing this post mainly about him and he seemed reluctant to discuss his middle name one time when I asked him about it when I was a new summer help at the plant.  I found out that Dee’s middle name is Theron.  The only other person I know with a name like that was Charlize Theron, an actress.  Neither of us knew about Charlize Theron at the time since she was only 3 years old during the summer of 1979.

I suppose if someone knew that Dee’s middle initial was a T, they probably would have nicknamed him Tee Ball.

Anyway, enough about middle names.  Let me move on to the story about Mud, Maggots and Motor Vehicles and what it all has to do with Dee Theron Ball.

I learned very quickly my first summer as a summer help at the power plant that one of the worst smells a human being can experience is the smell of rotting fish and maggots with a dash of smoldering dirty diapers thrown in for spice.  During the summer of 1979, every Monday and Friday I would go with Dee Ball down to the two park areas with plastic bags and my Handy Dandy Homemade trash stabber to clean up where the fishermen had been fishing.

There were a few trash cans out there that we would load into the back of the truck and haul off to the junkyard located at the perimeter of our main plant grounds.  There was always a well baked pile of fish guts and soiled and soaked disposable baby diapers flowing over the top of the trash cans.  Most of which had been baking in the hot sun for at least a day or two, and sometimes all week.  The diapers came from families that came to swim in the swimming area.  At that time they had piled some sand in one area and put some buoys out in the water to keep the boats away and tied a raft out away from the shore a short distance.

It is so hard to describe the actual smell of this conglomeration of waste materials and maggots the size of grubs that I can only come close by describing the effect that it had on me when I had to inhale a whiff.

Well Fed Power Plant Maggots

I am sure that if I had ever wretched up my breakfast, it could only have made matters better.  My own immune system kicked into autopilot and I was generally left holding my breathe not because the smell was so terrible, but because my auto-immune system had decided that it was better to suffocate than to suffer the intake of another breath.

Dee Ball didn’t seem to mind too much and I just took it to mean that his older and wiser soul had learned to dampen the effect through the use of cigarettes and maybe something between his cheek and gums.  I wasn’t too sure how old Dee Ball was when I first met him, but later figured out that he was around 40.  His hardhat looked like it was about that old.  Though I would have guessed he was a little older.

His body was thin and worn out.  Wrinkles were already appearing around the edges of his face.  He had light blue eyes that you wouldn’t notice unless he was excited, and then his eyebrows would go up and reveal a set of wide blue eyes.  He wasn’t excited in general, but he was what some would call…. “jumpy”.  Meaning that if you grabbed his knee and hollered at the same time he would have jumped right out of the window of a moving truck.

In later years during my summer help experience, I seem to remember Ken Conrad doing that to him.  After Dee pretty near jumped out of his clothes, Ken Conrad would get such a kick out of it that he would almost fall over laughing, which would make me laugh at Ken for being so goofy.

Winch Truck

Dee taught me the fine art of using a winch truck like the one shown above, only ours was Electric Company Orange.  The first day we went to the park to clean-up trash that summer, after lunch, we returned with the Winch Truck.  That was my first experience being a passenger in a larger truck with Dee, and it was one I will never forget.

Not because there was some great tragedy, or we saw a huge deer walk across the highway in front of us or anything grandiose like that.  But because as we were driving down the highway and neither of us were talking I suddenly became aware of a new and different “puttering” sound.  At first I wasn’t sure if I had heard it at all because it was so low and almost in tune with the truck motor.

Listening to it more intently I could ascertain that the sound was from somewhere inside the cab of the truck.  So without being too obvious I began taking inventory of the front seat.  It sounded like it was coming from somewhere between Dee and I, but there wasn’t anything there.  The truck was fairly new and clean.  As I began to examine Dee, I realized that the puttering sound was emanating from Dee’s mouth.  He was making a puttering motor-like sound as a small boy would make as he plays with his toy trucks.

When we arrived at the park I asked Dee what he had done before he had moved to the Power Plant (you may notice that I asked that of just about everyone I worked with), and he told me he used to be a truck driver for the electric company.  I had the idea that he still wished he was back in a big rig rolling down the highway.

Though Dee was just four years younger than my own father, I often felt like I was watching a young boy in an older man’s body.  Dee enjoyed doing very simple things, and like Sonny Karcher who had told me that what he like most in life was to mow grass, I understood Dee without him having to say another word.  He liked to drive trucks.

With those thoughts still rolling around in my mind when Dee backed the truck up to an old trunk laying on the ground of what used to be a pretty good sized tree, I began wondering if Dee Ball knew what he was doing.  He turned the Winch on and had unhooked it from the back of the truck and was throwing slings around this big trunk laying longways behind the truck.

I had never seen anyone use a winch truck other than a tow truck picking up the front end of a car to tow it away.  So, I stood back and observed.  Dee hopped back and forth much like a leprechaun, running the winch motor one way, then the other, and walking back to adjust the slings.

Then as neat as it could, the tree trunk lifted up on one end and with Dee Ball at the controls, he lowered the front end down on the back of the truck.  Letting some slack loose, Dee moved the slings around the back end of the trunk and began pulling the winch in.  As he did this, the large trunk came to rest on the bed of the truck.  Learn something new every day.

Dee Ball loved to drive trucks, but unfortunately, he had the worst luck when it came to driving them anywhere.  Here are my personal experiences on three occasions.  The first one was while we were in the park and I was walking around picking up trash, and Dee was slowly driving a pickup across the grass watching me and looking around for things that we might need to do while we were there, when all of the sudden he said, “huh, seems like I ran into something.”  So, he tried backing up.  No.  That didn’t work.  He was stuck on something.  so, he rocked the truck back and forth a couple of times, and when he couldn’t break free, he turned the truck off and went around front to see what had snagged him.

It turned out that he had run over a tree stump sticking up about two feet.  It was in some brush, so you couldn’t see it unless you looked closely.  I mentioned in an earlier post about Larry Riley (See the post Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley) that the engineers in Oklahoma City had decided exactly where the trees needed to be, so they had cut down all the trees in the area and planted new ones.

Well.  This was one of those trees that was unfortunate enough to have been there before the park was built.  The stump was stuck between the front bumper and the radiator.  Unfortunately, in his fervor to release the truck from this nemesis, he had smashed and punctured the radiator and some yellow green fluid was squirting from a tiny hole.

As this was our only transportation, we were sort of stuck.  So, I looked around and about a mile away down at the corner of the lake where highway 177 and 15 East meet, there was an electric company construction crew putting up a large metal High Voltage Electric Pole.

High Voltage Power Pole

Dee asked me if I would run over there and ask them if we could borrow a saw.  At the time, the lake level was a probably 3 feet below being full, which meant that the park area was somewhat larger than it is now, and you could walk all the way from the park to the electric pole without having to hop over the barbed wire fence that lined the plant property.   So, I jogged on over there and they were glad to help.  They drove me back and we were able to free the truck from the stump.  We took the truck back to the shop and removed the radiator and had it sent to a radiator repair shop in Ponca City.

The second memorable event (well, chronologically, this was the first) having to do with trucks and Dee Ball was when Dee and I were sent to Oklahoma City to pick up new trucks from a large electric company vehicle garage.  We were driven by another person who dropped us off.  We drove the new trucks back to the plant.

I was in a flat bed truck.  This was like driving a U-Haul truck, as you couldn’t see through the rear view mirror because there was a black plate in the back window.  It was a thrilling experience trying to maneuver through Oklahoma City traffic in a vehicle where I couldn’t see who was in the right lane because my mirror wasn’t set correctly.  It wasn’t until I was off the Interstate and making my way through Perry Oklahoma before I felt like I could relax.

I returned to the plant about one hour after I had left the garage.  Time went by, and Dee Ball didn’t appear.  Another hour went by and still no Dee. He had been driving the large dump truck that Aubrey Cargill, Ben Hutchinson and I used later to pick up driftwood from the dikes (See the post: “Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill“).

Finally around 3 hours after I arrived, Dee drove the new dump truck into the shop.  The most obvious problem was that the “O” was missing from “FORD” and there was a dent in it’s place that ran down the front of the truck.  It turned out that Dee had been driving down the highway and his cigarette fell down onto the seat between his legs and disappeared under him.  As he was flailing around trying to find his cigarette, he had run off the side of the Interstate and hit a reflector post like they have to warn you where the edge of the road is by an exit.

The third memorable event having to do with trucks was when Dee Ball and I had been to the park to pick up trash and on the way back to the plant a quick cloudburst had come by and dumped some rain on us.  When we went to the junkyard to dump out the trash, we made it down into the junkyard all right, but when it came time to leave, the truck couldn’t make it up the road because the mud was too slick on the road and the crew cab  just slipped and slid back and forth.

So, I ended up literally building a rock road for Dee to drive on up the hill (this was when you actually had to go out the construction gate and back in another gate to get to the junkyard).  While I was finding rocks and putting them under the back wheels of the truck, Dee would back up and take a run up the hill while I was behind pushing him with all my might.

Finally after well over 1/2 hour and cutting into our lunch time, the truck was finally free.  Unfortunately for me, I had been pushing the truck up the hill while placing myself behind one of the back wheels, which meant that I was covered from head to toe with the mud that had been flinging up from the back tire.  When we returned to the shop, I just walked into the shower and hosed myself off, clothes and all.

I wasn’t with Dee during other times, like when he took our new crew cab and while leaving the park, turned too soon after exiting the front gate and dented the side of the back door on the fence post.  Or when…… Well.  I could go on.  Needless to say, by my third summer as a summer help, there was a standing order that Dee Ball was not allowed to drive a vehicle.

Two years after that, while I was a janitor, I was walking over to the Engineering shack to sweep and mop when I saw Dee Ball come around the corner in a forklift.  He was on his way to fill it up with Diesel.  As I saw him pull up to the pump I thought to myself, “Oh, I see they are letting Dee Ball drive again.”  After I had mopped the floors in the engineering shack, I headed back to the main plant, there was a winch truck pulling the forklift out of the soft ground where Dee had parked it to top off the Diesel and where it had become stuck.  It put a big smile on my face for some reason.

It looked like this, but definitely wasn’t this Brand

During my first and second summer while I worked with Dee Ball, at times he would stop by a large equipment building that was located out in a field by the dam where the discharge from the river pumps poured water into the lake.  Dee told me that when the plant is completed they would split the garage and have a separate yard crew.  He had been told that this was going to be his shop.

The place was big enough to hold a number of large tractors with brush hogs.  It was run down though, and was probably used when they were building the lake and dam for the heavy equipment to be repaired and parked.  Dee had been told that if he came to work at the Power Plant that he would be made the head of the yard crew.

I came to learn that a lot of people were told stories like that from the Assistant Plant Manager when he was trying to coax people to move their homes north to this power plant out in the middle of nowhere.  Dee was never made the head of the yard crew, and the yard crew was never separate from the garage.  Dee was always pleasant and courteous and was always a joy to work with.  Even when I ended up covered in mud.  I will always consider him a good friend.

Indian Curse or Brown and Root Blunder

Revised 11/20/2021

Originally posted on February 18, 2012.

We had a meeting the other day where I work and the chief of the Choctaw tribe was being interviewed.  This is Native American Heritage Month, and we were celebrating it by having events like this.  Our CIO (Chief Information Officer) is Cherokee and he was being interviewed along with the Chief from the Choctaw Tribe.

This reminded me of the days when I first became a summer help at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

I worked at Sooner Coal-fired power plant about a month during the summer of 1979 before I heard about the Indian curse that had been placed on the plant before they started construction.  It came up by chance in a conversation with Sonny Karcher and Jerry Mitchell when we were on our way to the coal yard to do something.

I was curious why Unit 1 was almost complete but Unit 2 still had over a year left before it was finished even though they both looked pretty much identical.  When I asked them that question I didn’t expect the answer that I received, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to hear about an Indian Curse.  It did explain, however, that when we drove around by Unit 2. Sonny would tense up a little looking up at the boiler structure as if he expected to see something.

Sonny Karcher

The edge of the plant property is adjacent to the Otoe-Missouria Indian Tribe.  It was said that for some reason the tribe didn’t take too kindly to having a huge coal-fired power plant larger than the nearby town of Red Rock taking up their view of the sunrise (at least until the tax revenue started rolling in from the plant, building the best school in the state at the time).  So it was believed that someone in the Indian tribe decided to place a curse on the plant that would cause major destruction.

I heard others say that the plant was built on a Holy Indian Burial ground.  At the time it seemed to me that this was a rumor that could easily be started and very hard to prove false.  Sort of like a “Poltergeist” situation.  Though, if it was true, then it would seem like the burial site would most likely be located around the bottom of Unit 2 boiler (right at the spot where I imagined the boiler ghost creeping out to grab Bob Lillibridge 4 years later.  See the post Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost).

I am including an aerial picture of the immediate plant grounds below to help visualize what Jerry and Sonny showed me next.

This is a Google Earth Image taken from their website of the power plant.  In this picture you can see the two tall structures; Unit 1 on the right with Unit 2 sitting right next to it just like the two boilers that you see in the picture of the plant to the right of this post.  They are each 250 feet tall.  About the same height as a 25 story building.

Notice that next to Unit 2 there is a wide space of fields with nothing there.  The coal yard at the top is extended the same distance but the coal is only on the side where the two units are.  This is because in the future 4 more units were planned to be built in this space.  Sooner Lake was sized to handle all 6 units when it was built.  But that is another story.

At the time of this story the area next to Unit 2 between those two roads you see going across the field was not a field full of flowers and rabbits and birds as it is today.  It was packed full of huge metal I-Beams and all sorts of metal structures that had been twisted and bent as if some giant had visited the plant during the night and was trying to tie them all into pretzels.

Sonny explained while Jerry drove the truck around the piles of iron debris that one day in 1976 (I think it was) when it was very windy as it naturally is in this part of Oklahoma, in the middle of the day the construction company Brown and Root called off work because it was too windy.  Everyone had made their way to the construction parking lot when all of the sudden Unit 2 boiler collapsed just like one of the twin towers.

It came smashing down to the ground.  Leaving huge thick metal beams twisted and bent like they were nothing more than licorice sticks.  Amazingly no one was killed because everyone had just left the boilers and were a safe distance from the disaster.  I thought that if this was an Indian curse, then it was a very well thought out one.  After all,  a billion dollar structure came crashing to the ground and not one person was killed.  That’s a pretty targeted curse if you ask me.

Needless to say this shook people up and those that had heard of an Indian Curse started to think twice about it.  Brown and Root of course had to pay for the disaster, which cost them dearly.  They hauled the pile of mess off to one side and began to rebuild Unit 2 from the ground up.  This time with their inspectors double checking the torque (or tightness) of every major bolt.

This brings to mind the question…  If a 250 foot tall boiler falls in the prairie and no one is injured… Does it make a sound?

In the years that followed, Sooner Plant took steps to maintain a good relationship with the Otoe Missouria tribe.  Raymond Lee Butler a Native American from the Otoe Missouria tribe and a machinist at the plant was elected chief of their tribe (or chairman as they call it now).  But that (as I have said before) is another story which you may read here:  Chief Among Power Plant Machinists.  During one summer we had an encounter with a bobcat, which you may read here:  Ken Conrad Dances with a Wild Bobcat.

Comment from Earlier Post:

eddie hickman March 20, 2013

I was there the day unit 2 fell. I was walking to the brass shack, just came down from unit 2 when we noticed the operator of the Maniwoc 5100 crane did not secure the crane ball to the boiler or the crane to keep it from swaying in the wind. I kept watching the crane ball slamming into the steel causing the boiler to sway and within a minute I watched it fall from 50 yards away and took off running, the whole unit was going up quick because B&R were behind schedule, and the most of the steel hadn’t been torqued yet by the bolt up crew.

In Memory of Sonny Karcher – Power Plant Man

Added a new beginning on 11/11/2021

This was originally posted on January 7, 2012

I remember on January 12, 1980 I had decided that November 11, 2011 was going to be a very special day for me.  For almost 32 years I waited for that day to arrive.  If I had been paying more attention at the time, I should have realized that it was going to be a day walking down memory lane as well as a day of death.

My roommate, Mark Sarmento in the private dorm “Mark Twain’s Residence Hall” at the University of Missouri in Columbia had just returned from his Christmas holiday and he had quite the tale to tell me as soon as he walked in the door.  He told me a story about how his friend had told him over the holiday that he kept seeing the numbers 1111 (eleven eleven) or 111 (one eleven).  It kept showing up at the oddest places.  Too often to just be a coincidence.  Then a few days later after Mark’s friend had told him about seeing all the ones, he died suddenly when he had a seizure while taking a shower.

Mark had just been to his friends funeral the day before on (get this) January 11 (1/11).  Mark returned from his vacation and now Mark was seeing the numbers 1111 and 111 everywhere.  I have to admit that over the next semester, Mark had some very interesting encounters with these two numbers.  Even to the point where he was on flight 111 when he went home for spring break.  He wondered what this could mean.

To me, I knew what it meant.  I had decided that day in January 1980 that no matter where I was or what I was doing, I was going to find Mark Sarmento and give him a call on November 11, 2011 at 11:11am (or 11/11/11 11:11).  You can see now why I was looking forward to that day.  It went off without a hitch.  I called his company and told the receptionist that I was an old friend of Mark’s and I have been waiting 32 years to call him on this day.  I had called him at 10:11 since he was in the Eastern Time Zone while I was in the Central  Time Zone.  He called me back an hour later, at 11:11.

Two days later, a power plant man sent me an email informing me that Sonny Karcher had died on November 11, 2011 (11/11/11).  I wondered if it was at the same time I was talking to Mark on the phone.  I had met my roommate Mark Sarmento exactly 111 days after I had met Sonny Karcher.  Another interesting coincidence.

It wasn’t my idea to go work at a power plant for a summer job in 1979.  My dad called me in my dorm room one night during the Spring Semester at Oklahoma University in Norman Oklahoma before I decided to go back to Missouri.  I had figured I would go back to working in a restaurant during the summer as that had been my “go to” job in the past.

Dad said that a fellow Deacon from the Catholic Church in Stillwater, who was the assistant plant manager had asked him if I would be interested in being a summer help at a new power plant the electric company was building 25 miles north of Stillwater.  Without giving it much thought, I told him, “Sure”.  Not really knowing at the time that my simple answer to that question sent me on a journey that lasted for over 22 years.

The next Monday after school was over, I took my mom’s station wagon and drove north out of Stillwater on Hwy 177.  It wasn’t until I topped the hill just before Bill’s corner that I realized that this was actually happening.  I had figured up to that point that someone was going to change their mind, and I would go back to Sirloin Stockade and work for my old manager Ken Low.  But, “No.”  This was actually happening.

Now, 42 years later, I cherish the memories of the days I spent working at the plant as a summer help during the summers of 1979 through 1982, when I became a full time Janitor at the plant.  I later worked my way into the Labor Crew, and eventually ending up in the Electric Shop, where I was an electrician for 18 years.

When I heard the sad news of the death of my very first mentor at the plant, Sonny Karcher on 11/11/11 (November 11, 2011), I wished I had been able to attend his funeral.  I did reserve some amount of time that night when I heard about his death to remember the times I have spent with Sonny.  All of them good, as Sonny was always pleasant to be with even when he was mad about something.  Here are some of the first and last things I remember:

When I first worked at the Sooner power plant the summer of 1979, The first two mechanics I worked with were Sonny and Larry Riley.  They taught me how things worked at the plant at that time.  Both of the units were still under construction, so there was no electricity being generated.

The first job we were to work on was on my second day at the plant, since the first day was taking a safety class, and getting my hard hat and safety glasses and getting fitted for ear plugs. We were supposed to work on a stuck check valve in the dumper sump pump pit.  Not only did I not know what a check valve was, I wasn’t too sure what was meant by a dumper sump, though I did recognize the word “pump”.

It took us about an hour to take the truck to the coal yard, as a coal yard foreman Richard Nix had the key and wasn’t going to give it to us until one of his hands was ready to go with us.  So we sat in the truck parked in the north entrance of the maintenance shop for almost an hour.  When the guy was finally ready, and he had climbed in the back of the pickup, it turned out that he only needed to go as far as the parking lot… about 200 yards away (as the parking lot was at the Engineer’s shack at the time).  We dropped him off and drove up to the coal yard, and made our way down belt 2 to the sump pump pit at the tail end of the belt.

We tested the pump and saw that the water would run back into the sump once the pump stopped running.  So, it was determined that the check valve was stuck.  We drove back to the plant and took the morning break. That’s when I learned that a check valve keeps the water from running backward down a pipe.

About an hour later, Sonny told me to go to the tool room and get the following items (which I thought was a joke, because he gave me such a strange list of tools that I didn’t recognize):   Two ¾ box ends (pronounced “three quarter box ends”), One four foot soft choker, a ¾ ton come-along, a ¾ shackle, a two foot steel choker a large flat bastard file, a large channel lock, and two pry bars (I did recognize Pry Bars and shackle, which I believed was thrown in there just to make the list sound legitimate).  – I wrote down the list, because I recognized right away that a joke was being played on me and I was going to play right along.

So, I went to the tool room and when I saw Bud Schoonover (a very large tall and easy going man at the time) I wondered if he was perchance the large flat bastard file that was on my list.  I thought maybe when I came to “Flat Bastard File” on my list, he would fly into a rage and pick me up by the neck and throw me to the ground (unlikely, I know, but at that time, I didn’t know what to expect).  I told him, “I need a ¾ come-along (I thought I would choose the most ridiculous item on the list first, just to get on with the punch line of the joke…).

Well.  Bud turned around, walked to the back wall, took a come-along off the top of a pallet full of what appeared to be a bunch of junk, and laid it across the tool room gate window (The tool room was still being “organized” at the time and the gate was actually a window in A foreman’s office next to the tool room).  — not the regular gate that has been in the tool room for the past 35 years.

So, I asked for two ¾ box ends (this was before anyone had been issued toolboxes by the way, that’s why we had to go to the tool room for these things).  Well, you know the rest of this part of the story.  These are all legitimate items, and I learned a lot that day and the next few weeks about the names of various tools.  I kept that list in my wallet for over 10 years until it finally disintegrated as a reminder to myself of when I first came to the plant, and how much I didn’t know then.

So, Larry, Sonny and I went up to the coal yard, and went down to the tail end of #2 belt and removed the check valve from the discharge pipe and brought it back to the maintenance shop to repair.  When we returned, we went to lunch.  During lunch Sonny told me about how he was hired at Sooner plant.

He said he lived a few miles down the road and had heard that someone was building a lake up on top of the hill he could see from his property.  So, he went on over to see who was dumb enough to build a lake on top of a hill, and while he was looking around Orville Ferguson came up to him and asked him if he was looking for a job.

Sonny said that he liked to mow grass, and Orville said that he would hire him to mow grass then.  Sonny said, if I remember correctly, that he was hired at the same time that Linda Shiever, the timekeeper, was hired and that they were the first two new hires at the plant.  The rest were already company employees that had transferred there.

After lunch we went down to the shop and took the check valve apart and what do you know….  There was a piece of coal stuck in the check valve keeping it open.  We cleaned it up and put it back together.  When we were finished, we took our afternoon break.  After break we drove back up to the coal yard and went down to the tail end of #2 Conveyor belt and put the check valve back in the discharge pipe.  When we returned to the maintenance shop, we returned the tools to the tool room and filled out our time cards.  A day’s worth of work cleaning a check valve.

I did many other things that first summer, since Sooner Plant didn’t have a yard crew yet and that was what a typical non-educated summer help usually did, I worked most of the time in the maintenance shop bouncing around from crew to crew helping out.  I also did a lot of coal cleanup (especially on weekends), since the conveyor system didn’t work correctly when they started it up when they were starting to fire up unit 1.  See the post “Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal“.

The second day before I left at the end of the summer to go back to school, I worked again with Larry Riley and Sonny Karcher to fix the exact same check valve.  This time we jumped in a truck (we had a lot more trucks now…. Which is another story — See the post: “Experiencing Maggots, Mud and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball“), went to the coal yard, went down #2 tunnel to the tail end of #2 Conveyor, pulled out the check valve, removed the piece of coal, put the check valve back in, went back up to the truck and back to the maintenance shop just in time for morning break. Sooner Plant had improved a lot in the short three months I worked that summer.

I worked many years with Sonny Karcher in the garage, and fixing coal handling equipment, and just about anything else.   He finally left the plant to go mow grass, when after a battle to move to the garage from coal yard maintenance to mow grass, he was told that he was going to have to go back to the coal yard to be a coal yard mechanic, because he was real good at that and they just needed him up there.  So he left the plant.

He talked to me about it before he went, that’s how I know what was on his mind.  He said, “Kev, you remember when you first came here and I told you how they hired me to mow grass?  Well, that’s what I want to do.  Mow grass.  So I’m going to have to go back home and do just that.”

After that, the only times I remember seeing Sonny was when he was mowing grass down at Bill’s corner, with a smile on his face waving at the Sooner plant employees on their way home from work.

During the summer of 2018, while I went through Stillwater on my way to Columbia Missouri to attend my 40th High School Reunion, I took a couple of days visiting friends from the plant.  I went to the Morrison Cemetery hoping to find Sonny Karcher’s grave.  I was not able to find it.  I searched other nearby cemeteries including the Sumner cemetery close to his house, and I was never able to find his grave.

Regardless, I can see Sonny talking to St. Peter at the gates of heaven now…..  The only words I can hear Sonny saying is, “I like to mow grass”… and St. Peter nodding with approval and points out that they have a lot of green pastures as he lets him through the gates.

Sonny Karcher

Sonny Karcher