Power Plant Carpooling Adventures With Grant Harned

Revised 8/06/2022

Originally Posted on November 17, 2012:

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

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

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

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

Gary (Stick) McCain

Gary (Stick) McCain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It didn’t occur to me until after I first wrote the original post that years later, I too went to Oklahoma State University while I was working at the plant to obtain a degree from the Business College, Spears School of Business.  As with Grant, the Electric Company had no use for someone with my newfound skills, so I moved south to Round Rock, Texas to work for Dell.  I wonder if Grant was looking down giving me a thumbs up as I walked to the podium to get my diploma.

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

High School Picture of Grant Harned

Grant Harned looking more like I remember him

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

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

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

Power Plant Weir Boxes and other Beautiful Sites

Revised 7/30/2022

Originally Posted on November 10, 2012:

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

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

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

During the summer of 1980, when I began working the 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week to do the irrigation for the new grass we were trying to grow (see the post “When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays To Listen“). When I needed to be at work at 6 am each morning, I walked through the field at 5:15, the sky would just be at the point where you could vaguely see.

I didn’t bring a flashlight, so the first few weeks were more like feeling my way through the dark, looking for any clues to help guide me to the road and back to civilization. Luckily the cow (or bull) in the field didn’t seem to pay me any mind.

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

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

Queen Anne’s Lace in a field

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

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

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

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

The texture of the webs looked more like the webs in this picture from Australia, except the webs were carefully woven on each plant.:

spider-webs-cover-ground

Spider Webs covering the ground in Australia

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

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

The plant Weir Boxes look a lot like this

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

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

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

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

Weed Chopper

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

One with two handles like this one

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

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

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

A can of WD-40

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

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

A Muskrat

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

An otter

But it wasn’t quite like an otter either. It was furrier. and dark. Dee knew what it was after watching it for a minute. He told me. “That is a Mink”. My first thought was how does Dee Ball know what a Mink is? He sounded so definite.

To me Dee Ball, though he was in his early 40’s at the time, looked like an old farmer who had a hard life. He acted half-crazy part of the time, though he was always respectful and kind. At least he wasn’t mad at you very long for playing a joke on him.

So, later I went and looked it up, and you know what? He was right. He had told me that it was unusual for Minks to be this far south, and again I wondered how he knew so much about something that wasn’t even from around there. He said that the mink must have followed the Arkansas river on down to the lake.

Pointing toward the north with his finger… and tracing it down until he pointed at the lake…. (That way he could show me how he was processing the journey of the Mink to the lake). I thought maybe some ranger had put posters up around the lakes up north letting the animal life know that a new animal preserve had opened up in Northern Oklahoma where even a Mink could live in peace knowing they would be safe from hunters and trappers.

This is what we saw. An American Mink

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

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

The Cameras 2022 nesting season at Bartlesville nest  (I updated the video since the Sooner video seems to be replaced).

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

Bald Eagle Catching a Fish

What a beautiful site!

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

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

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

Power Plant Secrets Found During Daily Mail Run

Revised 7/23/2022

Originally Posted on November 2, 2012:

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

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

After that, I would drive the 17 miles back to the plant. This 45-mile journey along with the stops each day lasted about an hour.

This meant 1 hour each day, I wasn’t chopping weeds, or picking up rocks, or emptying the trash from the cans at the park or fixin’ flats. I was driving a company truck from place-to-place running errands.

As a Catholic, this gave me time to say all three sets of Mysteries of the Rosary (there were only three sets at that time) each day while on the job. A month and a half later when I became a janitor, it was decided that I would keep delivering and picking up the mail each day. Which suited me fine. I enjoyed the drive, and after I became a janitor, Pat Braden told me how to take the back road (County Road 170) from Red Rock to Highway 64 on the way to Morrison, which was a pleasant drive through the countryside.

After a couple of weeks of doing the Mail Run, it was decided that I could also be used to make runs to Oklahoma City once each week for the Warehouse to pick up parts at various locations throughout the Metro area. I was proud that I was being trusted to do this while still being a summer help. I was given a booklet of POs (Purchase Orders).

I found out POs were like a book of blank checks from the Electric Company that gladdened the hearts of vendors when they looked at me warily while they asked me how I was going to pay for the parts I was picking up.  They would gleefully reply, “Oh!  You have a book of PO’s from the Electric Company!”

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

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

Mustang Gas Fired Power Plant opened in 1950

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

Horseshoe Lake Power Plant Turbine Room in 1924

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

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

But enough about my own enjoyment. I know you really want to hear about the secrets I learned. They aren’t really secrets as much as they were insights or observations. You see, each morning I would go to the front office before I left to take lunch orders from Linda Shiever, Joan Wheatley and sometimes from Linda Dallas and Carolyn Olbert.

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

They would have me stop by the diner in Morrison to pick up an order for lunch. I would stop by the diner on the way into Morrison and give them their order, then on the way back out of town, I would pick it up. Then I would have to smell the aromatic food the rest of the way back to the plant.

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

So, I could hear the plotting and scheming coming from Jack Ballard’s office each morning. He was the head of HR.  He was usually trying to figure out how to implement the latest dictate coming from the Plant Manager.

So, he would be throwing out suggestions about how to go about them. This used to stick in my craw, because nothing enraged me more at that time than to have management treat their employees in an underhanded way. I had my reasons for the rage that I felt, and maybe I’ll go into those sometime in a later post (See “Power Plant Snitch“).

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

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

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

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

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

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

You see… Vacation usually had to be scheduled well in advance, so a frugal, hardworking Power Plant Man will naturally save his floating holiday for an emergency. Just in case something comes up and they have to take an unplanned day off (or he has to go save his wife from their burning house and the plant manager won’t let him use black time — oh. That wasn’t this Plant Manager).

So, when it came down to the end of the year, and the floating holiday was still floating out there waiting to be taken, then the Power Plant Man would take it during the last 2 weeks of the year rather than lose it altogether. This just made sense. So, Jack had to come up with a solution that prevented this. (This was a number of years before vacation was allowed to carry over for the first 3 months of the following year).

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

I think this policy lasted a couple of years before someone forgot that they had made it, and things were back to normal (in that time many Power Plant Men in order to not feel cheated formulated in their minds that they really did want to take their floating holiday before they used their vacation – The psychological term for this is:  Cognitive Dissonance). It just fascinated me to hear how easily this band of vacation time bandits could manipulate the employee’s benefits on a whim. This type of time thievery (as I alluded to above) enraged me.

Time Bandits

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

On a more humorous note:

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

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

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

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

Cool Panoramic view of Morrison Oklahoma.

Naturally at the end of the year, the bank teller was missing as she was on her honeymoon for a couple of weeks. I think it was a Carnival Cruise or a trip to Branson to go to Silver Dollar City (No. That was someone else. I wish I could put a smiley face here).

Anyway. A couple of weeks after the New Year the bank teller returned, and as I followed them into the bank (as I did every morning), the one bank teller asked the newly married bank teller how everything went. The newlywed teller said that her new husband decided after about a week that he didn’t like being married so they decided to get a divorce.

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

Power Plant Lady of the Labor Crew

Revised 7/17/2022

Originally Posted on October 19, 2012:

In the Power Plant posts, I generally tend to focus on the Power Plant Men that taught their Power Plant culture to me while I was fortunate enough to grace the boilers and conveyors of the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the north central plains of Oklahoma. Every once in a while, during this journey there were True Power Plant Ladies that came along that took their place right alongside the Power Plant Men.

The Women generally held their own when it came to the amount of work, their tenacity, and even for some, their ability to hit a spittoon from 6 feet. — Ok. I made up the part about hitting a spittoon.  Everyone just used the floor drains for spittoons in the early days before they became responsible for cleaning them out themselves, after the summer help found more grass to mow. — The choice spitting material was…. Sunflower seed shells.

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

In the first few years, Leta Cates worked out of the welding shop (I believe… Well, she hung around there a lot), and later became a clerk. Then there was Opal Brien who was in the maintenance shop and worked in the garage one year when I was a summer help. Of course, there was Darlene Mitchell who worked in the warehouse with Dick Dale, Mike Gibbs and Bud Schoonover.

There was also Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), who was one of the Electric Shop A team superheroes.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Later came Julienne Alley that became the “Mom” of the welding shop. Some more came and went…. Especially the person that we referred to as “Mom” while I was on labor crew. Doretta Funkhouser.

I have mentioned before that the evil plant manager Eldon Waugh enjoyed manipulating his minion’s (oh… I mean employee’s) personal lives as much as he could get away with without stirring up trouble downtown. So, one of the rules he had put in place was that no one on the janitor crew could be considered for another position at the plant until they had first moved to the labor crew.

There even came a ruling later in 1983 (from Eldon and/or Bill Moler) that if it was your turn to go to Labor Crew, and you were not able to, or didn’t for some reason more than once, then you would lose your job as janitor altogether. That remained the case until Darrell Low was able to quickly move from janitor to Operator after Eldon had lost his control over the people on labor crew that he wanted to keep there, making the rule obsolete (I’m sure we had been told the rule had come from corporate headquarters anyway).

Once a person moved onto the labor crew, it was very rare they left to go to another position in the plant. They usually had to leave the company altogether or find a job at another plant in order to escape. This was especially true after the summer of 1982 when the oil boom went bust in Oklahoma making jobs harder to find, and less people left the plant to go somewhere else to work.  The phrase on the first Tuesday of every month was, “Did you see that line of cars outside the gate this morning?  Be lucky you have a job.”

So, when I finally made it to the labor crew, many of the team had been there for a very long time. Others, I had worked with before because we were janitors together. This included Ronnie Banks and Jim Kanelakos. Other members of the labor crew were Ron Luckey, Chuck Moreland, Fred Crocker, Bob Lillibridge, Tom Kelly, Bill Cook, Charles Peavler and Doretta Funkhouser. Larry Riley was our foreman.

While on labor crew I was able to learn how to operate a backhoe. Though I never learned the backhoe magic of Larry Riley, I was able to scoop up bottom ash and dump it into the back of Power Plant Men’s pickup trucks that needed it to fill in the parts of their driveways that had washed out at home. The very first time I operated a backhoe, I noticed right away that the brakes didn’t operate very well. You really had to play with it in order to get backhoe to not roll forward.

Backhoe

Here is a picture of a Backhoe

That was ok, because I was just loading bottom ash from a pile into a dump truck, and I could just bump the backhoe right up against the dump truck and empty the scoop into the bed. That was working really well until while I was waiting for the dump truck to return after bringing the bottom ash to the place where it was dumping the ash, Jimm Harrison pulled up in a shiny new Dodge Pickup. I mean…. it was brand new! He backed up by me and signaled to me from inside his truck. I was waiting there with a scoop full of bottom ash (which is a gravelly looking substance) for the dump truck to return.

My first thought was oh boy…. I shouldn’t do this…. I can hardly stop this thing and I know I will probably run right into the side of Jimm’s new truck and he’s going to have a fit. So, I did the only thing I could do. I proceeded to drive around to the side of Jim’s truck to pour the load of ash into the bed of his truck.

Now… either it was Jimm’s guardian angel, or it was mine (protecting me from the bodily harm Jimm may have inflicted on me out of stress had I put a big dent in the side of his new truck) that stopped the backhoe just at the right spot, I’ll never know for sure. But something did. The backhoe for once stopped right where I would have liked it to stop, and I dumped the ash in the truck filling it to the brim. I waved to Jimm, and he drove away.

Later when I went back to the Coal Yard Maintenance building (where the Labor Crew called home) I saw Jimm in the office, so I went to talk to him. I smiled and said, “I hope I didn’t make you nervous dumping that ash in your truck.” Jimm said “No.” It didn’t bother him one bit. He said he knew I could handle it.

So, I told him that was the first time I had ever operated a backhoe and the brakes don’t work too well, and I wasn’t even sure if I could keep the backhoe from running into the side of his truck. I remember Jimm’s reaction. He said, “Ok, now I’m nervous.” Having done my task of passing my nervous energy over to Jimm, I went next door to the break room to enjoy my lunch.

You would think that with Doretta being the only woman on the crew, she would have had it much easier than the rest of us. She was about a 29-year-old lady that had a daughter at home. I know because she used to wear a shirt that had her daughter’s face on it. She was working to make a living like most everyone else on the labor crew. Doretta worked right alongside the rest of us when it came to Coal Cleanup, washing down the conveyor system using high pressure water hoses.

She worked next to me while we tied the rebar for the concrete floor of the new sandblast building that was going to be built behind the water treatment building. She worked with me in the sump pit between the precipitator and the smokestacks with the Honey Wagon Sewer company that was helping us suck out the crud from the bottom of the pit. (This was before we had bought our own Honey Wagon). They call it a “Honey Wagon”, because, well… it is used to suck out things like Outhouses. You know how much that smells like Honey…. right? Um… ok.

We finally bought a Honey Wagon like this

Most surprising to me, Doretta worked cleaning boiler tubes in the boiler when the unit was offline and we needed to shake tubes to knock out the ash, or even use crosscut saw blades welded end on end to cut through the ash packed in the boiler economizer section.

I’m talking about two man crosscut saws. Welded end-on-end

This lady was a survivor. That is how she struck me.

Most of the time Doretta worked with a smile on her face. In fact, she had a smile embedded on her face from years of smiling to the point that her eyes smiled. Even though (as I found out in the course of my time on the Labor Crew), Doretta had a very rough period earlier in her life, she hadn’t let it beat her down, and she was happy to be working on the labor crew, doing what most people would think was a thankless job.

It is true that when something needed to be typed, (Desktop computers were not available yet), Doretta would do the typing for Larry. She would also cut our hair. Being paid our modest salary (mine was $5.75 per hour at the time), we couldn’t afford to go to the barber every other week to have our hair trimmed, so Doretta would set up shop and one-by-one, we would go sit in the chair and she would cut our hair. Just like a mom would do.

I figured that since we were calling Doretta “Mom”, it only made sense that we would call Larry “Dad”. Larry’s reaction to my calling him “Dad” was more like Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker that he was Luke’s father. “Nooooooo!!!!” Except I was the little Darth Vader telling Larry I was his son…

The little Darth Vader from the Volkswagen commercial

Larry disowned me for a while as I have mentioned in an earlier post called “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“. He finally came around to admitting it when I continued calling him Dad. But he explained that he dropped me on my head when I was a baby and that was why I was so strange. So, Larry was our Labor Crew Dad, and Doretta was our Labor Crew mom.

It came to no surprise later when Doretta Funkhouser left the plant to become Doretta Riley. It seemed natural to me that my Labor Crew Mom and Dad would be married. I don’t know if that resolved the issue of my illegitimate Power Plant birth.

I don’t remember anyone referring to me as a bastard after that. at least not in relation to my questionable origin, and at least not directly to my face. Though I do know of a few people during the years that would have thought that would have been an appropriate title for me.

I remember on one occasion when we were hauling scaffolding up onto the boiler to prepare for an outage, and I was working with Doretta using the large wench on floor 8 1/2 (I think), when Doretta came back from checking something at the bottom of the boiler. She said something to me then that puzzled me for a while. I didn’t understand it at first, but later came to know why she said what she did.

This is the type of Wench Hoist we were operating, only ours was powered by high pressure air. Not electricity

She said that it made her mad that people were trying to get me fired, when I’m a decent person, while there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to stay. She was referring to the wrath of Waugh after we had embarrassed him in front of Martin Louthan when we had confronted them about not being allowed to be considered for the Testing jobs, (See the post “Take A Note Jan” said the Manager of Power Production“). Eldon was trying to dig up dirt on anyone that had caused his embarrassment and had targeted me as one person to fire.

What had happened when Doretta had gone down to the foot of the boiler was that one or more of the “Pseudo” Power Plant Men-in-training had made an insulting reference to the past hardships that Doretta experienced in her life. I wasn’t aware of this until Eldon and Bill Moler questioned me about it a few weeks later when I was called to the office to see if I knew anything about the incident.

When they told me what had been said I became visibly upset to the point that I could hardly respond. Not because I didn’t want to answer their questions (which I didn’t, because I knew they were on their witch hunt which included me as well), but because when I learned that a couple of people on our crew had gravely insulted someone that I deeply cared about.

I was both angry and upset. It was upsetting that someone would insult a struggling mother who was doing what she could to take care of her children only to be berated by others that worked closely with me.

After Doretta left the plant to marry Larry, I only saw her at a few Christmas Parties after that. She still had the same smile. I hope that she was able to find peace in her life, and that her family is doing well today. And that’s the story of my Labor Crew Mom and Dad.

Comments from the original post:

  1. Spent a little time on the picket line with the Navajo Local, District 65, in the Navajo Nation – when they were out on strike in 1987. Forget the lass’s name; but, the leader of the Local was a young Navajo woman, married with a couple of kids at home, who operated the biggest dragline at the Peabody Mine.

    Helluva skill.

  2. Gotta say, this is one of the more unusual blog posts I’ve seen in a while: different subject, funny, and well-written, too.

    Not my normal fare, but you’ve got a new follower… :)

  3. Your evocative stories return me to my years as a riveter… your subjects were the kind of people who built this country’s industry, I think. And I still think you have a book here…

Power Plant Men Fighting Fires for Fun

Revised 7/9/2022

Originally Posted October 5, 2012:

The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked first as a summer help, then as a janitor, a labor crew hand and finally as an Electrician is located about 20 miles north of Stillwater, Oklahoma.  It just so happened that Oklahoma State University in Stillwater has one of the leading Fire Protection and Safety schools in the country.  They offer Fire Service Training for companies who need to train their employees how to fight fires.  As a summer help I was fortunate enough to take the onsite training that they provided at the power plant about every other summer to train the employees how to put out difficult fires.

It does sound like a good idea considering that there was all this coal laying around that had the habit of spontaneously igniting into smoldering embers that could easily lead to a large raging ball of flames.  In fact, the Coal Yard heavy equipment operators had to drive their large dirt movers over and over the coal on the coal pile to pack it down because if it was exposed to too much air, it would develop hot spots that would turn into smoldering piles of coal that were nearly impossible to put out.

Dirt Mover full of coal

I have seen a spot smoldering on the coal pile where a water wagon would drench it with water over and over.  That only seemed to keep it from spreading as fast.  The only way to deal with it was to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn itself out.

You would think that the OSU Fire Training Service would do a good job of teaching the employees the proper use of the fire extinguishers, and they did.  The plant was loaded with Fire Extinguishers.  As a summer help and labor crew hand, we would have to do a monthly inspection of all the plant extinguishers to check their pressures and initial the inspection sticker showing that we had been by to check it.

This was a practice that would later change to once each quarter when the Power Plant Men were strung out too thin and the labor crew no longer existed.  Even later, the operators inspected them as they made their rounds, since they walked by them during their shifts anyway.

The plant had more than just the regular chemical fire extinguishers, it had the larger roll-around type in a few places as well:

More than what is needed in your average kitchen

The Fire Training Service trained us to use this as well.  Actually, they motivated us to go out and buy fire extinguishers to put in our own homes.  Which came in handy for me one year when an air condition repairman was using a blow torch in my house to cut out the cooling coils but forgot to take out the filter first.

The moment I saw him light up his torch, I pulled out the extinguisher from under the sink and set it on the counter.  As I watched him, he suddenly started jerking back and forth.  I figured something was up, so I pulled the pin, and when he was finally able to pull the burning filter out of the air duct, I was ready to blast it with the extinguisher.  So, I gratefully thank the electric company for properly training us to use the handy dandy fire extinguishers that you might use around the house.

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

One important thing that you learn about the little extinguishers in your house is that they don’t really go very far before they run out of chemicals.  So, you have to get the job done quickly while the fire is still small and manageable.

When I first heard that we were going to be trained to fight fires the second summer I was at the plant as a summer help, I was pretty excited.  Wow… Great!!!  Fight Fires!  That sounds fun.  A day of watching safety videos and playing with fire extinguishers.  I didn’t realize at the time that there was a reason why OSU Fire Training Service was the best fire training school in the radius of about 1,000 miles.

Sure.  We watched the training videos.  We learned all about proper fire extinguisher care and maintenance.  We heard stories about how small fires turned into raging infernos that burned companies right out of business.  One thing I remember is that some large percentage of companies that have a major fire are never able to recover to the point that they go completely out of business.

If you need the exact percentage, I suggest you call up the OSU School of Fire Protection and Safety.  They probably have the latest statistic printed on their school lunch napkins, because these guys eat, drink and sleep fire safety.

Then, after they had impressed us with their Fire Safety Prowess, they said, “Let’s take about a 15-minute break, and we will meet outside just north of the water treatment plant where we will resume your lessons.  Oh, and bring your rubber boots and maybe a rain suit.”  Rain Suit?  What?  It’s about 100 degrees outside.  “I wouldn’t mind getting a little wet”, I thought to myself. — The simpleminded summer help that I was at the time.

I would describe in detail to you how they had this obstacle course of staircases and pipes and other metal structures all sitting in a big tray.  It’s enough to say that it was quite a tangled mess of a contraption.

“Interesting.” I thought… Are we going to climb the staircase and shoot the fire from up above with our handy dandy fire extinguishers which were lined up in a row off to one side?  Climbing over pipes to fight a fire under the stairs maybe…  Do we get to use the big roll around fire extinguisher that was there too?  This looks like it might be fun.

That was when the fun began.  One of the trainers turned a valve, and then I noticed that there was a fairly large tank there also that was hooked up to the pipes that wound around the mocked-up structure of a stairway and other obstacles in the large tray.  As he turned the valve, what looked like diesel or kerosene like petroleum product came spraying out of various holes in the piping spraying everything in the tray drenching it with fuel.

This other guy had a long rod that he had lit like a large lighter only it was giant size, and after the fuel had been spraying out for a while, he lowered the flame down into the tray that now was beginning to fill up with some kind of oily substance.  He lit it and the flames quickly spread over the entire structure.  He had us go in groups of 4 people with fire extinguishers to try to put out the fire.  As their extinguishers ran out of fuel, others waiting behind would take their place trying to put out the fire.

We would chase the fire around the structure trying to put it out, but it wasn’t as easy as you would think.  If you didn’t completely suffocate it by hitting it from many different directions and in a pattern from one end to the other just right, the fire would dodge around the spray from the extinguishers to be right back where you started.  By the time we had used up all the extinguishers, we may have put the fire out about 3 times.

Rubber boots… I kept thinking…. my feet are getting hot…  You couldn’t hardly get close enough to the fire to use your fire extinguisher without getting your eyebrows singed.  I was always known for having long eyelashes, and I thought I could hear them sizzle as they brushed against my safety glasses.

That’s when they pulled the fire hose out of the fire box that was there next to the fire hydrant.  All over the plant grounds there were these red boxes.  They are lined up alongside the long conveyor belt from the coal yard to the plant (about 1/2 mile).  They were also lined up around the two silver painted million-gallon number 2 Diesel tanks.  They were just about everywhere you looked (come to think of it).

I remember Summer Goebel when she was a new plant engineer one time asked me when she had first arrived, “What are all those red boxes out there?” (She was pointing out the window of the Engineer’s office).  I told her they each contained fire hose and a valve wrench to open up the fire hydrant.  I neglected to add that they also provided great shade for all the Jack and Jill rabbits that inhabited the plant grounds, which doubled as a wildlife preserve.

An outdoor Power Plant fire hose cabinet and Metallic Rabbit shade tree

So, we were going to use the fire hose!  That sounded like more fun.  That is until the one guy said to the other guy (more using hand and face signals — like putting his thumb up and winking) “open ‘er up” — so, he was using “slang” hand and face signals…

That’s when the real training began.  First of all, we all backed up because as the flames grew on their structure, the heat literally talked directly to your legs and magically told them…. “Back up, or else…”  so, now that we were standing a good 50 feet away from the fire, we lined up in a row on the fire hose.

4 of us.  Four hefty Brawny Power Plant men… (well, 3 hefty brawny power plant men, and one scrawny little runt of a summer help who actually thought he could be measured alongside them), Isn’t that a bit much for this one 4-inch fire hose? (Or was it just 3 inches?).  There were two hoses actually being used.  One to create a wide barrier of water to protect us from the heat, and another hose to shoot water through the barrier into the fire.

A couple of guys manned the large roll around fire extinguisher.  Here is an actual picture of the OSU Training Service training a group of employees at a work site to fight fires to give you a picture of what we faced:

This is an actual picture of the OSU Fire Service training plant workers to fight fires.

Notice the two different types of sprays in the picture.  one very wide spray and a narrow spray.

Like I said, these guys aren’t called the best Fire Trainers because they have pretty pamphlets.  so, the first time I slipped in the mud, I thought… hmm… I suppose the rainsuit would have kept all that mud from coming into contact with my jeans, and my shirt and my ego.

Well, the most fascinating thing was that we could walk up real close to this intense fire and the wide spray of water sheltered us from the heat.

This is how you open the nozzle to create the wide barrier spray

Then with the large fire extinguisher on wheels, you could open it up on the fire by standing behind this barrier and shoot the chemicals right through the water onto the fire, and it would quickly and incredibly put out that tremendous fire when it was done right.  The other fire hose that was spraying through the barrier of water was used to cool everything down so that the fire didn’t spring right back up.  the water wasn’t going to put out an oil fire.

Anyway, not long after our first of many firefighting training sessions that we had throughout the years, the night that we were actually fighting the dragon in the boiler (See the Post, “Where do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today“), the Control Room came over the gray phone (PA system) saying that there was a fire on the turbine room floor.

A bunch of power plant he-men dropped the lance they were using to pierce the dragon and ran off to fight the fire.  It turned out to be a barrel full of oily rags that had spontaneously combusted.  The fire refused to go out for a long time.  It kept re-igniting until the contents had completely burned up.

I remained in the bottom ash area as I was still reeling from the steaming hot water that had been spewed all over me.  A little while later the men were back ready to grab the lance and go back to work on the boiler around 10pm (this after a full day of coal cleanup from 8am that morning).

The one important topic that they ingrained into our minds while we were taking the training was that you have to know when the fire is too big to fight.  We had learned what our equipment could do and what it couldn’t do.  So, we had the knowledge to realize that if the fire is too big, then it is time to get out of there and call the professionals.  The only problem was that the nearest professionals were about 20 minutes away.  A lot can burn down in that amount of time…. but that is a story for another time.  I see the grin on the power plant men’s faces.  They know what I am talking about. (For more see the post:  Destruction of a Power Plant God).

Comments from Previous Repost:

  1.  

    coffeegrounded  October 6, 2014

    I am extremely proud of my 2006 graduate of OSU’s Fire Protection program! My son-in-law went on to establish his own fire protection services company in Northern California.

    Go OSU!

    Very interesting article; thanks for sharing. I’m forwarding this post to my #1 son. Seeing this article and knowing the integrity of the program is gratifying and greatly appreciated. (My own parents lost their lives in a house fire.) Thanks for spreading the word on fire safety.

  2.  

    Ron Kilman October 7, 2014

    Great story and reminder. After your original post I checked our little fire extinguisher in our kitchen. The pressure gauge was still in the green but it was 10 years old. So we decided to see if it still worked. It did – emptied all the chemical with good pressure. We replaced it with a new one and my wife got some “hands on” experience. Thanks for the reminder.

How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic?

Revised 7/2/2022

Originally Posted on September 21, 2012:

Not long after I became a full time Power Plant employee after I had moved from being a janitor to the labor crew in 1983, I began carpooling with 3 other Power Plant employees.  An Electrician, Bill Rivers.  A Chemist, Yvonne Taylor, and one of the new members of the Testing team, Rich Litzer.  With such a diverse group, you can only imagine the types of topics that were discussed driving to and from work each day.

Bill Rivers usually talked about different absurdities that he encountered during his day as an electrician.  How one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing, leading sometimes to very funny results.  Yvonne Taylor would talk about her farm, and something called School Land Lease that she farmed, and how she had to deal with the bureaucracy and the constantly changing laws.  Rich Litzer would discuss how their newly formed team were learning new things at the plant and often had funny things to say about his encounters during the day.

Me?  Occasionally I would lift up my head from the book I was reading (if I wasn’t the driver), and ask, “Would anyone like to hear about the training that we received from Johnson & Johnson about how to properly wax a floor using their top-of-the-line wax, ShowPlace?”  that didn’t usually jump to the top of the list of most interesting stories.

The Best Floor Wax money can buy!

We did use ShowPlace wax by Johnson and Johnson, and they did send a representative to our plant to teach us backward Oklahoma hick janitors how to properly care for our plain tile hallways and offices.  Not the fancy tile like they have these days.  If you are over 60 years old, then it is probably the same type of tile that you had on the floors of your school if you went to the standard brick public elementary school like the one I used to attend.

The office area floors were sure shiny after we applied a healthy dose of ShowPlace on them.  The Johnson and Johnson rep. taught us how to properly buff the floor and showed us how a properly buffed floor that was really shiny was actually less slick than a badly waxed floor.

Anyway, I digress.  Waxing floors is usually something that I tend to ramble about when I have an audience that shows interest in it (which I’m still trying to find).  Since I can’t see your expression, I can only suspect that you would like to hear more about Power Plant floor waxing techniques, so I just might indulge you later on in this post after I have talked about the three other people in the car.  See the post “Wax On, Wax Off and Other Power Plant Janitorial Secrets“.

When it was my turn to drive to work, everyone had to climb into my 1982 Honda Civic:

A 1982 Honda Civic

A 1982 Honda Civic

Bill Rivers was about 10 years younger than my father and I know he had at least 6 children (I think).  Maybe more.  He told me once that even he lost count.  Before he came to work at the Power Plant, he lived in Columbia, Missouri (while I had lived there, coincidentally), and worked at a Tool and Die manufacturing plant.

He worked so much overtime that one day he came home and sat down to eat dinner and sitting across from him at the table was a young boy that he didn’t recognize.  He figured that he was a friend one of his own kids had invited to supper, so he asked him, “What’s your name?”  Come to find out, it was one of his own children.

Bill had spent so little time at home that he didn’t even recognize his own child because his children were growing up and he was missing it.  Mainly because he worked so much overtime.  That was when Bill decided to move to Oklahoma and go to work at the power plant.  Probably at the same time when I had moved to work there also and was still going back to Columbia to finish college before becoming a full-fledged bona-fide Power plant Janitor.

Bill Rivers always seemed to be having fun, and usually at the expense of someone else.  He was constantly playing jokes on someone, and his most common target was Sonny Kendrick, the Electrical Specialist.  Sonny was somewhat gullible, and so, Bill would weave some very complicated stories together to draw Sonny’s attention and string it along until Sonny was totally believing something preposterous.

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny wasn’t gullible like Curtis Love was gullible.  Sonny knew that Bill Rivers was always trying to pull something over on him.  So, Bill would just see how far along he could string Sonny until Sonny realized that everything Bill was saying was just made up in his head.  — Then Bill Rivers would spend the rest of the week chuckling about it.  Which usually aggravated Sonny to no end.

Sonny Kendrick was the only Electrical Specialist at the plant.  I suppose he had some electronics training that allowed him to hold that honored position.  His real name is Franklin Floyd Kendrick.  I first met Sonny when I was the janitor for the Electric Shop.

People would call him “Baby Huey”.  Since I didn’t know who Baby Huey was, I just figured that it was some character that reminded them of Sonny.  So, when I had the opportunity, I looked up Baby Huey (this was a number of years before the Internet).  I still wasn’t sure why, unless they were talking about a different Baby Huey:

I didn’t really get the connection, unless it had something to do with the diaper or the facial expression

Bill Rivers had a son that was in High School at the time, and he had the same Algebra teacher that my brother Greg had when he was trying to learn Algebra.  The teacher had a real problem teaching algebra to high school students, and Bill asked me if I would tutor his son in Algebra.

When I first met Bill’s son, (I think his name was either Jerard or Bryan, I don’t remember now – well, that’s not too surprising considering even Bill Rivers forgot his name once), his life ambition was to graduate from High School and work as a mechanic in an auto garage and drive motorcycles.  I tried to show him how interesting and fun Algebra and Math in general could be, so each time I went to meet with him, I would bring him either a math puzzle or a book with a story about a mathematician, or a neat Mathematical oddity… such as imaginary numbers, and things like that.

Later, long after Bill had moved to another Power Plant in Konawa, Oklahoma, I saw Bill, and he told me that he his son was working toward becoming a dentist.  I don’t know if he was ever able to fulfill his dream, but when I visit Oklahoma, I keep my eye out for a guy on a motorcycle with a Dentist symbol on the back of his Harley Davidson jacket.  Because that would probably be him.

The Dental Symbol. it would probably look good on a Harley Jacket, don’t you think?

Anyway, while the four of us were carpooling together, the person that did the most talking was Yvonne Taylor.  Now, I like Yvonne Taylor.  I liked her a lot.  But she was the main reason why I was never able to practice my Ramblin’ Ann rambles (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space With a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“) because she was usually in the midst of exercising her right to ramble as well.

Since she was my elder, (almost my mother’s age), I always let her go first, which usually meant there wasn’t much of a chance for anyone to go second.  I finally just decided this would be a great time to read.  So, I started reading books about different sorts of religions around the world.  With the Bhagavad Gita being one of my favorite ones.

I always had a certain attraction to Yvonne, because she had a son named Kevin (which is my name), and a daughter named Kelley (My girlfirend’s name at the time was Kelly, now she is my wife).  And her son and daughter were about the same age as my future wife, and I were.

In the midst of rambles emanating from Yvonne, I would look up every time I would hear, “Kelley said this, or Kevin said that….”  She did say one thing one time that I have always remembered, and I have tried to follow.  Yvonne said that you never want to buy a house that is West of the place where you work.  Especially if it is any distance away.

I believe it was when she lived in Michigan, she had to drive a long way East every day, and the sun was glaring in her eyes all the way to work.  Then when she had to drive home going West in the evening, the sun was glaring in her eyes as it was going down.  So, when you live West of your workplace, you have to drive with the sun in your eyes every day, both ways, and you just pray and pray for rain or at least a cloudy day.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Yvonne’s husband, Pat, had a dad with last name Taylor (obviously), and his mom’s Maiden Name was Songer.  My Grandmother’s last name is Taylor (by marriage), and my wife Kelly has a grandmother whose maiden name was Songer.  So, there was that as well.

Unfortunately for Yvonne, was that by the time we arrived at the plant in the morning, she was usually slightly hoarse.  I don’t know if it was the morning air… or maybe… it could have possibly been the rambling….  So, when she would have to page someone on the PA system (The Gaitronics Gray Phone), she sounded a little bit like the wicked witch.  Just like some clothes can cause someone to look fatter than other clothes, the Gray Phone system had a tendency to make one’s voice more “tinny” than it actually is.  Especially if your voice is hoarse, and high pitched already.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

So, whenever I heard Yvonne paging someone and I was in the Electric shop or with the janitor crew, I would say, “Yvonne just has the sexiest voice I’ve ever heard.  I can’t hardly Stand it!!”  Those who were hearing me for the first time would give me a look like I must be crazy.  And well…  who knows for sure?  I think the Electricians knew for sure.

Rich Litzer lived just up the street from me, so I would drive by his house and pick him up, or I would park my car at his house, and we would take his car, and we would meet Bill Rivers and Yvonne Taylor at the local Bowling Alley, since it was on the main drag out of town on Washington Street in Stillwater, Oklahoma. (Which is still there to this day).

Rich was a great guy to carpool with because he usually had a lighthearted story to tell about something that happened at home, or we would talk about something else equally not serious.  Later he was relocated at a different plant, and I didn’t see him for a long time.

Then one day, Rich and Ron Madron came down to Austin, Texas (where I live now) after I had moved down to work for Dell, to go to a school or conference, and I was able to meet them for dinner.  That was the last time I saw Rich or Ron, and that was about 9 or 10 years ago (now 20 years).

At this point I was going to rambl… I mean…. talk more about how we used to wax the floor when I was a janitor, however,  I have decided to leave that for another post “Wax On, Wax Off and other Power Plant Janitorial Secrets“.

Today when I finally found out that the post I was going to write was about my carpooling with Bill Rivers, Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer, I went to the Internet and looked up the latest news on my old friends.  To my surprise, I found that Yvonne’s husband Patrick, died on September 12, just 9 days ago.

I don’t think I ever met Patrick in person, however, I used to hear about his daily activities for the 2 1/2 years from October 1982 through December 1985 when I used to carpool with Yvonne.  Learning about Patrick’s death has saddened me because I know how much Yvonne loved and cared for Patrick.  I know she has four sons and two daughters that are there to comfort her.  I offer Yvonne my condolences and I wish her all the best.

Yvonne Taylor’s husband the past 52 years, Patrick Taylor

Comment from Previous Post:

  1.  

    Ron  September 25, 2013:

    Great story, Kevin! I’ll bet you didn’t know I used to run a floor scrubber-/polisher. Yep – at the big TG&Y store in Shepherd Mall (OKC). I helped in opening the store in 1964 and continued working there for a couple of years as a “Stock Boy”.

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

Revised 6/26/2022

Originally Posted August 24, 2012:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A notepad like this

A Power Plant notepad Jan may have been using

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janice Louthan's Facebook picture

Janice Louthan’s Facebook picture

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

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

Martin Louthan

Life and Death on the Power Plant Lake

Revised 6/18/2022

Originally posted on August 18, 2012:

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

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

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

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

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him

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

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset across the lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sergeant Carter

George Dunagan

Or does he look more like Glenn Ford?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Comment from previous repost:

  1.  

    Monty Hansen November 3, 2014

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

Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door

Revised 6/12/2022

Originally published on May 25, 2012:

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

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

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

Half-face respirator

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

Yellow Flashlight similar to the one I carried

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments from previous repost:

  1. Dan Antion May 27, 2014

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

  2. Ron May 27, 2014

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

  3. A.D. Everard August 4, 2014

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

  4. inmytwisteddreams August 17, 2014

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

    ~Nikki

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

Revised 6/4/2022

Originally Posted on April 20, 2012.

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

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

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

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

Winnie the Pooh Stuck in Rabbit's Hole

Winnie the Pooh Stuck in Rabbit’s Hole

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

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

Audey Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barry Katz, also known as Barry the Bicycle Man

Barry Katz, also known as Barry the Bicycle Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ronald Reagan trying to catch Ramblin' Ann taking a breath

Ronald Reagan trying to catch Ramblin’ Ann taking a breath

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

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

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

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

I finally found an actual  picture of Ed Shiever:

Ed Shiever 15 years later

Ed Shiever 15 years after the Ramblin’ Kev event