After I left the power plant and went to work for Dell on August 20, 2001, I wrote letters back to my friends at the plant letting them know how things were going. This is the third letter I wrote. Keep in mind that at the time, I didn’t intend on it being posted online when I originally penned this letter. So please ignore the bad grammar and the overuse of the word “Got”, “Get” or “Gotten”.
9/17/01 – Learning new things at Dell
I have been learning a lot of new things at Dell. I spend half of the day in “bootcamp”, ( a place where we learn a different computer language each day), and I spend the other half of the day working in my cubicle. They are teaching me a lot and I am grateful.
I found out today that I have been teaching them a lot too, without realizing it. When I first moved in my cubicle, I didn’t have a chair, so I did the most obvious thing. I went out to my car and got my tool bucket. I placed it in my cubicle and sat on it while I worked. It wasn’t until today when I received a chair that I found out that people around here don’t sit on tool buckets while they work. — They told me that I would have gotten a chair a couple of weeks ago, but that they were so intrigued by my use of a five gallon bucket that they thought they would hold off giving me a chair so they could study the benefits of working while sitting on a bucket.
Many of my cubicle mates have shown an interest in my style of writing code (that means, programming). They haven’t seen anyone splice code fragments together using wire nuts and a pair of strippers before. One guy down the way asked me what brand of dikes I liked best because he was going to go out and buy some after he saw me trimming some clip art with mine. Of course I told him that there was only ONE brand of dikes — Kleins.
I have also taught my fellow computer nerds the benefits of butt splices when copying and pasting computer code. With a good pair of crimpers and some electric tape, copying and pasting takes on a whole new dimension.
At first they thought I was just joking when I whipped out my electric tape and started wrapping up my code into a three-tier business model. Their first response was, “What kind of Duct tape is that?” (actually, I think they said, “Duck Tape”). I showed them how a properly wrapped piece of code wouldn’t short out the program causing it to crash.
They have shown me a few things too. I had to go get a can of skoal and keep it on my shelf. Whenever the monitor overheats, I whip it out, squish it around in my mouth for a few seconds and spit in the back of the monitor, and voila!!! (voila is french for, “There it is”).
They have also taught me that keeping a cowboy hat in your cubicle is a useful tool. Whenever someone yells, “Hey You!”, the first thing you do is toss your hat up over the cubicle, just in case someone is shooting a rubber band across the room. It is an old cowboy trick.
I call it a room, but where I work is really about the size of 4 basketball courts. Cubicles as far as you can see. Being tall is a great advantage (which I’m not). It changes your perspective from being in a maze to being in a wide open prairie. I think I saw Dilbert (or is it Dellbert?) working down on the far end the other day.
It is good to hear from you guys, I’ll talk to you soon,
After I left the power plant and went to work for Dell on August 20, 2001, I wrote letters back to my friends at the plant letting them know how things were going. This is the third letter I wrote. Keep in mind that at the time, I didn’t intend on it being posted online when I originally penned this letter.
9/7/2001 – Everything is fast in Texas – Dell Update
Hello everyone at Sooner Plant,
I miss you guys, when I find time to stop for a moment to get a drink of water, (from my sponge that I use to wipe the sweat from my brow). I am finally receiving my computers and stuff for my cubicle. I have been using a borrowed laptop from my manager up to now. I have two computers with two keyboards and monitors. I use both of them at the same time. — They are made by Dell by the way. — Since Compaq went out of business – :-) . With two computers I am able to program in two computer languages at the same time. On one computer I may be programming using C++ while on the other computer I am using JAVA, or composing an ASP page for the intranet. This is great!!! The next thing they are working on for us programmers is to put on headsets that connect directly to our brains so we can write programs in our sleep. I can’t wait!!! All these years I have been dreaming about all sorts of programs, and now they will finally be captured and made into something useful. — Things like: Birthday Phantom 2.0 !!!!
It is interesting to work in a place where security is such a big issue. You wouldn’t believe how many companies would like to know what Dell is doing. All sorts of security measures are taken to ensure that spies aren’t infiltrating our environment. Not only do they check all of our e-mail (like this letter), but they also filter out everything that is flushed down the toilet or spoken in a restaurant. There are actually spies from other companies that sit in restaurants and listen to Dell employees out to lunch. How do we know? Just say, “Do you know what my manager told me today?” And you will see people in nearby tables stop talking and lean in your direction.
The reason is similar to Sooner Plant’s position of being the best plant in the country. Dell is able to sell computers cheaper than any other computer company in the world, and only they know why. The secret to their whole success is ******SECURITY VIOLATION******** THIS PORTION OF THE E-MAIL HAS BEEN DELETED BY DELLSECURE—-IT CONTAINED PROPRIETARY INFORMATION. ******SECURITY VIOLATION******** Isn’t that neat? Who would have thought that the solution would have been so simple.
Well, I have to go, two big bouncer types just showed up at my cubicle tapping their feet with their arms crossed across their chest, and for some reason they don’t look too happy. — Did I say something wrong?????
Write to you later,
After I left the power plant and went to work for Dell on August 20, 2001, I wrote letters back to my friends at the plant letting them know how things were going. This is the first letter I wrote. Keep in mind that at the time, I didn’t intend on it being posted online when I originally penned this letter.
8/30/2001 – Working at Dell
Sooner Plant employees,
I thought I would drop you a line and let you know how things are going in Round Rock Texas.
First, and most importantly. I have learned how to drive like a Texan. I regularly and randomly swerve into other lanes. I pass only when there is a yellow line. I fly through yellow lights, (one note — I never noticed before, but at 98 miles an hour, when a yellow light turns red, it actually looks orange for a millisecond as it flies over your head). I fall asleep while waiting at red lights, and only wake up just in time to watch the green turn to yellow. To keep myself from getting bored, I play with the turn signals by turning them left and right and watching the little green arrows on the dashboard turn on and off. I can tell everyone else on the road is getting into what I am doing, because they keep cheering me on by honking their horns. It is really a friendly atmosphere on the road down here. People wave a lot. There is a lot of team spirit. They keep indicating that “We’re number one” with their hand gestures! — They have all made me feel real welcome.
Second. In Austin, I finally figured out why there are so few trees. It usually goes for a month or two without any rain, and then all at once it floods the whole countryside. It is only then that you realize that everyone ELSE has built an Ark in their backyard. — As you see them lifting up over the roofs of their houses. On Monday we had 5 1/2 inches of rain in about an hour. Today I think we’ve had another 4 inches.
Which reminds me. They also have all the mailboxes down at the corner where you use a key to get your mail. I thought it was for security, but it is really so they can secure the mailbox to keep them from floating down the river. I wondered why the neighbors had strings tied to the mailbox post, but it all made sense to me when the jugs on the end of the strings were floating in the temporary river, and the neighbors went floating by in their arks checking their jug lines for fish. These guys take advantage of every opportunity to get the best out of every occasion.
There are many other ways I have adapted to Texas life, but I will save that for another day. Let me know how things are going up there. I’ll write to you later.
I have now completed my fourth year of Power Plant Men Stories. During my first year (2012), I decided that this would be a four year journey where I would create one new story every week. With 208 unique Power Plant Posts.
I have succeeded. I have created one new Power Plant Man story each week, and each week I have re-posted the stories from the years before. My last new post was created last Saturday and is about the day I left the plant to change careers and go into IT at Dell in 2001.
Most of the time I didn’t know what I was going to write when I sat down, I just had a span of years that I wrote about each year, and I tried to make the stories fit into that time frame.
For the most part, these were all true stories. There are a lot of them that I didn’t include. Not because I didn’t wish to share them, but because they didn’t come to mind when I sat at the computer to write my post each week.
At this point, I will not regularly write a weekly post, however, I may share some e-mails that I sent to the plant after I moved to Texas and began working for Dell.
The first four years I worked for Dell, I wrote a letter regularly to my friends at the Power Plant. I have kept a copy of most of those, and some of them are worth sharing.
I found that my friend Dick Dale was right when he told me that it took one year for every five years of marriage to recover from a divorce. I had worked at the plant for 20 years, and after 4 years at Dell, I was finally able to move on.
I have been encouraged by many who read this blog to put at least some of these stories into a book. I am considering doing that as the posts on this blog will quickly be forgotten if they are not constantly re-posted.
The Men and Women I worked with at the Power Plant are people of such great character that I hope their stories will live on.
I have been blessed with the constant positive comments left by readers and I will miss hearing from all of you. Thank you for following my blog.
On average, each story was viewed over 600 times.
The most popular post of all time has been: “Fast and Furious Flat Fixin’ Fools Fight the Impact of the Canine Parvovirus” with over 5,600 views.
The second most popular post was “Switching in the Power Plant Substation Switchyard” with over 4,000 views.
The third, and one of my favorite posts is: “Ken Contrad Dances with a Wild Bobcat” with over 3,500 views.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 56,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 21 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
Originally posted December 27, 2014:
The Power Plant Men and Women knew that a major downsizing was going to occur throughout the company on Friday, July 29, 1994. The upper management had already experienced the preliminary stages of this particular downsizing since it started at the top. Over a four month period that started with an early retirement, it worked its way down the ranks until the actual Power Plant Men at the plant in North Central Oklahoma were going to be downsized on that one day.
The people that had taken the early retirement (which was available for anyone 50 years and older) had already left a couple of months earlier. Since the downsizing was being decided from the top down, we soon learned that our Plant Manager Ron Kilman would no longer be a Plant Manager. He was too young to take the early retirement. I believe he was 47 at the time.
The person taking Ron’s place was Bill Green, a guy that was old enough to take the early retirement, but decided to stay. Bill was 53 years old at the time. Perhaps he knew in advance that he had a secure position before the deadline to choose the early retirement.
The final week when the downsizing was going to take place, several things were happening that made the entire week seem surreal (this is a word that means — sort of weird and unnatural). I was spending the week in the old Brown and Root building because we were busy training everyone at the plant about Confined Space Safety and the OSHA regulations that we had to follow.
We had to have all the OSHA training completed by August 1 in order to avoid the fines that OSHA had given us back in April (See the post: “Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor“). We had formed a confined space rescue team and taken the required Confined Space training (see the post “Finding and Defining Power Plant Confined Spaces“). We were using the old training room in the old Brown and Root Building because we wanted it to be away from the plant area where the foremen wouldn’t be bothered while they were taking their class.
The first day of training, Ben Brandt the assistant plant manager was in the the class. He was going to be a plant manager at another plant, I think it was the plant in Seminole county.
I could tell that Ben was not interested in being in the training, and given all that was going down that week, I could see why. We would say something in the class about how you had to fill out your confined space permit and turn it in to the Control Room, and Ben would shake his head in disagreement as if he didn’t think that was ever going to happen…. Well, times were changing in more ways than one that week.
Tuesday afternoon was when things really began to get weird…. We knew that Friday would be the last day for a bunch of Power Plant Men, but we didn’t yet know who. During the previous downsizing in 1987 and 1988, we at least knew who was going to leave months before they actually had to leave. Now we were down to just a few days and we still didn’t know who had a job come August 1 (next Monday).
On Tuesday afternoon, one at a time, someone would be paged on the Gaitronics Gray Phone (the plant PA system) by one of the four foremen that had survived.
We were cutting the number of first line foremen in Maintenance from 13 down to 4 and getting completely rid of two levels of management. So, that we would no longer have an A foremen and a Supervisor over each group. So, we wouldn’t have a position like an Electric Supervisor or a Mechanical Maintenance Supervisor.
Our new foremen were Andy Tubbs,
and Mark Fielder.
All great guys!
So, when one of them would page someone on the Gray Phone, we knew that they were going to be asked to meet them upstairs in the main office somewhere. Then they were told that they had a position on that person’s team.
So, picture this scenario. About 160 of the original 218 employees were waiting to learn their fate that week (the rest had retired). It was late Tuesday afternoon when Alan Hetherington told us that they had already begun calling operators to the office to tell them they had jobs. They were not calling anyone to tell them that they didn’t have a job. So, when you heard someone’s name being called, then you knew they were safe (well…. safe is a relative term).
On Wednesday just before lunch, I was called to the office by Alan Kramer. He told me he was going to be my new foreman. I hadn’t really worried about it up to that point, because, well, I just figured that I was pretty well irreplaceable since there really wasn’t anyone else that would go climbing around inside the precipitators during overhauls, so they would want to keep me around for that reason alone.
With that said, it was at least a little less stressful to actually have been told that I did have a position. After all, I had caused so much trouble the previous few years (see 50% of the posts I have written to find out how), enough for some people to hold grudges against me. So, I did have this small doubt in the back of my head that worried about that.
Alan Kramer explained to me that we would no longer have teams for each area of expertise. We wouldn’t have teams of electricians or Instrument and Controls, or Testing, etc. We would be cross-functional teams. We would learn more about that next Monday.
When I returned to the Brown and Root building, the rest of the confined space team asked me if I had a job. I told them I did. At this point, all work at the plant seemed to have ceased. Everyone was waiting around to receive a call on the Gray Phone.
At first, we thought this was going to be like the first downsizing where each person was called to the office and told if they had a job or they didn’t have a job. By Wednesday afternoon, it became apparent that things weren’t working out that way. The only people being called to the office were people that were being told they did have a job. No one was being told if they didn’t.
Either this was a cruel joke being played on the Power Plant Men and Women, or the management hadn’t really thought about the consequences of doing this. It became apparent right away to everyone including those that had been told they had a position that this was a terrible way to notify people about their future. What about those that hadn’t been called to the front office? What were they supposed to think?
About half of the Power Plant Men had received the call, when it seemed that the calls had just stopped some time on Thursday morning. We had finished our last training session in the Brown and Root building and we were just meeting as a team to discuss our next steps in creating Confined Space rescue plans. We were not making much progress, as everyone was just sitting around in a mild state of shock staring into space.
Alan Hetherington had not been called, so he figured that he wouldn’t have a job after Friday. We discussed other people that were being left out. No one on Gerald Ferguson’s team at the coal yard had been called (which included Alan). We later heard that Gerald Ferguson, all distraught that his team had been wiped out was in disbelief that they had let his entire team go. He blamed it on the fact that his team had refused to participate in the Quality Process since it was deemed “voluntary”.
By Thursday afternoon, the stress became so bad for some that they had gone to Jim Arnold and asked him point blank if they had a job after Friday and he refused to say anything to them. Preston Jenkins became so stressed out that he had to go home early because he was too sick with stress.
We knew that Bill Green was the new plant manager.
Jim Arnold was the new Supervisor of Operations and Jasper Christensen was the Supervisor of Maintenance. It seemed to us as if the downsizing was being orchestrated by Jim Arnold, as he was the one going all over the plant on Thursday and Friday coordinating things.
When we came into the office on Friday morning, all the radios had been taken from the electric shop office. I was asked to go up to the logic room and shutdown the Gray phone system. It became clear that Jim Arnold didn’t want anyone listening to what was going on throughout the day.
It was normal having Highway Patrol at the plant, because they were the regular plant guards at the front gate, but today there were a lot of them, and they were in uniform. They were escorting people off of the plant grounds one at a time. We were told that we were not supposed to interact with people being escorted off of the plant grounds. We weren’t supposed to approach them to even say goodbye.
It took the entire day to escort people out of the plant this way. It was very dehumanizing that great Power Plant Men who we had all worked alongside for years were suddenly being treated as if they were criminals and were being escorted off of the plant grounds by armed Highway Patrolmen.
It was just as devastating for those that were left behind. This was a clear indication that those people treating our friends this way were going to be our new supervisors (not our immediate foremen) and that they had a warped sense of superiority. They may have justified their actions in their minds in order to sleep at night, but the reality was that at least one person involved in this extraction of humanity was relishing in his new found power.
No one had been more left behind than Ron Kilman who was too young to accept the retirement package.
He knew he didn’t have a future with the company for the past couple of months as this entire saga had been unfolding at the plant. During the early retirement party for those that were leaving before the slaughter took place, Ron (an avid airplane pilot) had worn a shirt that said, “Will Fly for Food”, which he revealed by opening his outer shirt while introducing some of the retirees. This had brought an applause that was reminiscent of the first day he had arrived some seven years earlier when he told a joke during his first meeting with the plant.
There were those at the plant that had reason to dislike Ron for specific decisions that he had made during his tenure at the plant. One that comes to mind (that I haven’t already written about) is when Ray Eberle’s house was on fire and he left the plant to go fight the fire and make sure his family was safe. Ron docked his pay for the time he was not on the plant grounds since he wasn’t a member of the voluntary fire department. Ron has admitted since that time that there were certain decisions he made while he was Plant Manager that he would have changed if he could.
I felt as if I understood Ron, and knew that he was a good person that wanted to do the right thing. I also knew there were times when a Plant Manager had to make unpopular decisions. I also knew from my own experience that Ron, like everyone else was just as much human as the rest of us, and would occasionally make a decision he would later regret. The times when Ron tried docking my pay after working long overtime hours, I just worked around it by taking vacation to keep my overtime and figured that he was playing the role of Plant Manager and following the rules the way he saw fit.
Some time shortly after lunch, Ron came into the electric shop office and sat down. This was the first time in those seven years that he had come just for a visit and it was on his last day working for the company. Ron just didn’t know what to do.
He explained that no one had told him anything. No one had officially told him to leave. No one had escorted him off of the plant grounds. He wasn’t sure how he was supposed to make his exit. Was he just supposed to go to his car and drive out the gate and never return? No one told him anything.
The way Ron Kilman was treated Friday, July 29, 1994, was a clear representation of the type of people that were left in charge next Monday morning on August 1. The entire plant knew this in their heart. As much grief that was felt by the people being escorted out of the gate after years of loyal service to their company, those that were left behind felt every bit of that grief.
This was the darkest day in the history of the Power plant in North Central Oklahoma. The Power Plant Men left behind by this experience were negatively effected for years after that day. There was a bitterness and sorrow that took a long time to recover in their hearts.
The worst part of the event was that it was so unnecessary. We understood that we had to downsize. We had accepted that some of us would be leaving. Each person at our plant had a level of decency that would accept the fact that when the time came for them to leave, they would hug their friends, say goodbye and with the help of each other, the rest would help them carry their stuff to their car and say goodbye.
We were all robbed of this opportunity. Everyone, even those left behind, were suddenly treated as if we were criminals. We had a “Black Friday” at the plant before, on February 15, 1985 (see the post “Power Plant Snitch“). This time the impact was ten times worse.
All I can say to those who made the decision to handle the layoff this way is: “Shame on you! What would your Mother think if she knew what you did?”
Originally posted December 28, 2013:
Times were changing in 1987 when the electric company in Oklahoma decided that they needed to downsize the company in order to change with the new business environment. I always seemed to think that the executives down at corporate headquarters in Oklahoma City knew that the old pioneers in charge of the Power Plants would be very difficult customers when it came to the new business model.
Like I said…. Times were changing. The digital era was being introduced to the power industry. We had already upgraded the precipitator controls to make them computerized. Other areas of the plant were going to be next. Especially the employees. Of course, none of us knew that quite yet, except Bill Rivers, who was a natural visionary, and he was gone.
Side story time:
I had always been interested in computers and programming from the time I was a sophomore in High School when I had just turned 15 years old. My friend Jesse Cheng had introduced me to one of the first programmable calculators, the HP-25.
This was the most wonderful Christmas present I had ever received. I literally felt myself fainting when I opened the present and found that I had been given a pair of cowboy boots, only to find an HP-25 calculator inside when I opened it up. Ralphie had nothing on me that day.
It was much like the Christmas Story with Ralphie. I had tried every with way to convince my parents that using a slide rule in High School was passe (pronounced “pass A”). All the other students in my advanced chemistry class were using calculators, and I was still stuck with my dad’s old circular slide rule. It was a pretty neat one, I’ll grant you that, but it just… well….. I could work things out on paper faster than I could use the slide rule.
I introduced my friend Jesse Cheng in the post “Why Do Power Plant Men Always Lose the Things They Love Most“. He had an HP-25 calculator and had loaned it to me to take a Chemistry test. He showed me how it used Reverse Polish Notation, which is different than a normal calculator, but more like a computer.
The calculator could be programmed with 49 steps. Because it had a stack built right into it, and the reason it used Reversed Polish Notation, we could create all sorts of games with just those 49 steps. The book that came with the calculator had a moon landing game. We made more sophisticated games, like one called Battleship.
Anyway. Because of this early exposure with actually programming something in a logical manner, I was eager to learn more about programming. During college, my calculator was often sitting on my desk in the dorm room running a long program to help me perfect a random number generator. Finally in my Junior year in college, my calculator was completely fried.
After I was married at the end of 1985, I began subscribing to a magazine called “Compute”. It had actual programs in it in Basic. I would read the programs to learn how it worked, but at that point, I didn’t own a computer, so all I could do was dream about writing programs.
It wasn’t until Thanksgiving 1987 when I went to visit my ol’ friend Jesse Cheng in Columbia, Missouri who was interning as a medical doctor that I felt a sudden need to have a computer of my own. He had built a computer using a Heath Kit and we used it to play two computer games. One was called Starflight:
The other was called F15 Strike Eagle:
When I returned home I was pretty eager to buy a computer. Up until that time, every time my wife and I had gone to the mall, I always had stopped in the computer stores to look at the latest computers. I never had really considered buying one. But now, they had 20 megabyte hard drives! And you could play these terrific games like Starflight and F-15 Strike Eagle.
So, one day after we had left the mall, and my wife could see the look on my face, she finally said…. “Why don’t you go and buy one?” I asked her, “Are you sure? Because you know what is going to happen if I get a computer. I’ll be playing on it all the time.” She said, “No. I want you to go buy one.” So we turned around and went back to the mall.
That was the start of my journey into the world of computers.
End of Side Story.
As I explained in the post “Boppin’ with Bif during the Power Plant Downsizing“, the company offered an early retirement package for everyone 55 years old and older. They would give them full benefits to leave. This meant that our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey, as well as the assistant plant manager, Bill Moler and the Plant Manager, Eldon Waugh were all going to retire some time in August 1987.
We had a retirement party for Leroy Godfrey out in the country at Diana Brien’s house. A bunch of the electricians were there including Mark Meeks, who Leroy knew at the time was the one that was going to be laid off. Mark commented about that later when he was told that he was losing his job that Leroy had sat there and smiled at him while we were at the party. Mark knew Leroy didn’t like him, but hadn’t expected to be the one to go since everyone thought it would be Gary Wehunt, since he was the newest member in the shop.
I explained in the post, “The Passing of an Old School Power Plant Man — Leroy Godfrey” what Leroy’s management style was like. It was very top-down, if you know what I mean. It was like, “Because I told you so.” No need to explain anything. That was the world of Power Plant Management up to that point.
I think Corporate Headquarters realized that this needed to change in order for the company to compete in a world where electric companies could no longer count on the Corporation Commission to guarantee a sustainable electric rate or even a set number of customers. The world of electric power was changing rapidly and the company needed to move on from the mentality that it could be run like a “good ol’ boys” club.
It is easier to teach young dogs new tricks than older and crankier ones. It looked to me like this was a logical choice when looking back using hindsight. I think the company was making a bold move. I don’t think they really had much of a choice if they wanted to survive.
So, we had the main retirement party at the plant where people stood up and told stories about the old guys that were retiring. Nothing much happened there except the part where Leroy Godfrey’s daughter stood up and said that we just had to work with him, while she had to live with him… see the post about Leroy above for the full story about that.
Then the following Monday. I believe it was August 17, 1987, everyone was told to meet in the main break room for a meeting with our new management. That was when we were introduced to our new plant manager, Ron Kilman.
I remember a certain part of the meeting very well. Ron said something funny. It didn’t matter exactly what he said. I don’t even remember what it was. Probably something self-deprecating. I leaned over to Charles Foster, who had been my foreman for a while (on that day, it was officially Andy Tubbs). I said, “I didn’t know Plant Managers could tell jokes!”
Charles looked back at me and I raised my eyebrows and tilted my head while the corners of my mouth went down. — This was one of the signals I had learned while carpooling with Bud Schoonover when I needed to communicate with Dick Dale without saying anything out loud (see the post: Carpooling with Bud Schoonover“. This particular expression meant, “Maybe this won’t be such a bad thing.”
Ron Kilman remained the plant manager at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma for the next 7 years. The stories that I will post during this next year will all be at least partially from this time period. During this time, there were some decisions that Ron made that I applauded, and others that even he would admit he wished he hadn’t made.
All in all, I think that Ron has a good heart and that those times when he did make a rash decision, it was evident that he was falling back to his “management training” and not managing from his heart. Old School management training left a lot to be desired.
During the 7 years from 1987 to 1994, the power plant saw a lot of changes. Some I have alluded to already. Such as the move to computerize everything. The other was a total change in how management works. Or at least that was the attempt.
People were willing to step out of their regular day-to-day jobs and try new things that they thought would help the plant. Many of these things were successful. Some of them failed, but not so miserably as they would have if the earlier management had been around. The employees felt as if they had more of a say in how the plant ran instead of feeling like they were just a bunch of tools running around fixing things.
I have a quote from Ron Kilman that said it all one day after a catastrophe had occurred. It summed up his management style as opposed to his assistant manager, Ben Brandt. I will relay the exact story later, but for now I’ll just say that when Ben Brandt saw what happened, the first thing that he said was, “Who did this?” When Ron Kilman saw what had happened, the first thing he said was, “How can we prevent this from happening again?”
Ben’s approach was from the old school of thought. Blame and punish the culprit. Later when we were drastically changing the way process improvements took place, my favorite quote from Ben Brandt is, “I am the obstacle! We aren’t going to change because I say so.” We all had to agree. He was definitely the obstacle.
Ron’s approach was one more like a leader. “Let’s get the job done right.” Sure, he is human, so the decisions weren’t always perfect, but I think in general, he was leading where other people may have been dragging.
Well… I will say no more for now… I look forward to writing stories about this time period during this next year. I’m sure there are a lot of those at the plant just as eager to see how I portray the different events that took place during this time.
Comments from the original post:
Comments from the last repost:
Originally posted December 29, 2012:
Each year at a Power Plant there are two times when the Power Plant Men are invited to a banquet. There is the Service Award Banquet and the Christmas Party. The Christmas Party was a chance to meet the spouses and children of the other Power Plant Men and Women. Unlike the Service Award Banquet where you could only bring one other person, the Christmas Party allowed you to bring your entire family. Interestingly, this became a point of conflict for those few at the top when I was a new full time power plant worker.
The first year I was able to attend the Power Plant Christmas Party was after I had become a Janitor in 1982. I had graduated from college with a degree in Psychology (which made me a much better janitor) and at the end of my fourth summer as a summer help, I was able to hire on full time to begin the rest of the 19 remaining years with the company. I received my free turkey for Thanksgiving and another one for Christmas.
The farmers that worked at the plant had baled the hay on their own time from the fields surrounding the lake and we used that money to buy the turkeys. That was, until Corporate Headquarters (or maybe it was just the evil plant manager), found out about it and decided that this money belonged to the entire company, and so, in future years, instead of making a profit, the company had to hire people to cut the grass, paying tens of thousands of dollars each year with only an expense instead of a profit to show for it… and no Turkeys. See the post: Belt Buckle Mania and Turkeys During Power Plant Man Downtime for a more complete description of this example of Corporate Efficiency gone awry.
Since I was making a total of $5.15 per hour, I was still living at home with my parents. So, when they asked me how many guests I would be bringing to the Christmas Party, I told them 2 guests and myself. On the night of the Power Plant Christmas Party I showed up at the Oklahoma State University Student Union Banquet room in Stillwater Oklahoma with my Mother and Father. As we walked into the banquet room, I noticed a strange expression on both Jack Ballard’s and Linda Dallas’s faces (The two heads of HR at the plant). It was one of surprise and yet at the same time, slightly indignant.
I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It was as if they were smiling while greeting the guests as they came in, but when looking at my parents, they both seemed as if they had just swallowed something distasteful and were trying to pretend that they hadn’t. I thought for the moment that they were just in awe of my parents. After all, my dad was an important Veterinary Professor at the University, and my mom, well… She had the slight resemblence of Queen Victoria, and probably a lot of her disposition. Though she was on her good behavior that night.
Actually, Queen Victoria’s face almost looks like Marlin McDaniels in drag. I’m sure those Power Plant men that remember Marlin can see the resemblence. If you just look at only the face. I’ll bet Marlin is related to the Queen.
The Christmas party generally had one of the Power Plant Men dressed up as Santa Claus. This was usually Glen Morgan from the Instrument and Controls department (known as the “Results” department at the time). He best fit the suit.
He would hand out gifts to the Children. I remember that every now and then when they were trying to plan the Christmas event, the topic of gifts for the children would come up. Some believed that it wasn’t really fair to give gifts to the children since not everyone had children, and some were not married at all. Usually the gifts for the children won over the dissenters. Someone would point out that Christmas was really all about the Children in the first place, and when they would take a vote, the children would receive their gifts.
I found out what Jack’s and Linda’s expressions were for the following year. I was in the electric shop when they asked how many people I would be brining to the Christmas party and I told them that I was going to bring 3 guests and myself. My girlfriend had moved from Seattle, Washington to Norman, Oklahoma to work toward a degree in Nursing at Oklahoma University. I was going to bring her along with my parents to the Christmas party that year.
A couple of days later I was asked to go up to the front office. Jack Ballard wanted to talk to me about something. When I arrived in his office, he explained to me that I was not able to bring my parents to the Christmas Party. I asked why that was and he explained that I could only bring a date or my immediate family. I told him I was still living at home and that my parents are my immediate family. He went on to explain that if they let me take my parents, then other people might want to bring their parents as well. This would open up a whole can of worms.
Yeah, well, a can of worms… no, we wouldn’t want to do that. Finally Jack said that I could bring my parents, or I could bring a date, but I couldn’t bring both. Ok. I was somewhat upset since I had already told my parents the date of the party and my dad was really looking forward to meeting with the Power Plant Men as he did the year earlier. He had a lot of fun talking with real people instead of the pretentious professors he usually met with. There wasn’t any way I was not going to bring my girlfriend. I wanted everyone to meet her. More importantly. I wanted Kelly to meet everyone I was always talking about.
There was another reason why I thought that the “front office” didn’t want my parents to go to the Christmas Party. It had to do with the relationship the Assistant Plant Manager had with my father. Bill Moler liked to keep his role at work and his role away from the plant completely separate (for good reason). I felt that this was the same reason he was disturbed when he came back from summer vacation to find me already hired as a janitor. This was only a thought and a feeling. I never had any real reason to believe this was what was behind Jack’s concern over my parents going to the Christmas party. Either way it was a Party Pooper.
So in 1983, my parents stayed home, and I went to the Christmas Party with my girlfriend Kelly. I think she was so impressed with the Power Plant People that two years later, almost to the day, we were married.
We sat with Arthur Hammond and his wife and children. Arthur was a new electrician. He had become a plant electrician on the same day that I did. I will talk more about him in future posts. We had a fun time. You couldn’t really help but have a fun conversation with Arthur Hammond. Espeically if you are part Italian like myself. Arthur liked to argue. That is one reason we got along so well.
Fast forward 10 years. The Christmas Party in 1993 was held in Ponca City. My daugther Elizabeth was 3 years old. Bud Schoonover, at the age of 58, was chosen to be Santa Claus that year. Now…. Not only is Bud Schoonover the best size to fit the Santa Claus suit, but he also was so shy when the children came up to sit on his lap for him to hand the presents to them that it gave him a hidden sort of dignity that the children perceived as being very “Santa” like. My daughter was convinced that this Santa Claus was not like the Mall Santas. This was the real Santa Claus. For years Elizabeth was convinced that Bud Schoonover was the real Santa.
Because Bud was so shy, his cheeks had turned cherry red. He couldn’t do anything but smile and look with wonder at the children as they came up to him and he handed them their gifts. My daughter had picked up on the genuine look of wonder that Bud expressed as she sat on his lap looking into his eyes.
Bud Schoonover really had transformed himself into the Genuine Santa Claus for that one half hour. I could confidently tell Elizabeth when she asked me on the way home if that was the real Santa Claus that I thought that he really was. Bud confided in me when he told me that he was literally scared to death the entire time.
Six months later, Bud Schoonover retired from the Power Plant during the “early retirement” stage of a downsizing. He was truly missed by everyone that knew him. I have written about Bud before, and I will write about him again. You can learn more about his personality by reading: Carpooling With Bud Schoonover
I was considered the one that “got away”. Power Plant Men don’t normally leave the Power Plant to go work somewhere else unless they are retiring, being laid off, or for some other compelling reason. I freely walked away of my own accord August 16, 2001. I left a job where I could have worked until the day I retired to step out into the unknown. But… that was the way I had arrived on May 14, 1979, 22 years earlier.
Just as I had driven onto the plant grounds those many years ago, unsure what I was going to encounter, I was now leaving the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to change my career and become an IT programmer for Dell Computers in Round Rock Texas. When I arrived my first day at the plant, I had no idea what I was stepping into… The day I left I was in the exact same boat.
So far, I have gone through my life accepting whatever happens as something that happens for a reason. With that in mind, I have the belief that whatever the future holds, I just need to hang in there and everything will work out for the best, even though it may not seem like it at the time. Let me tell you about this experience….
I had accepted the job offer from Dell early in January. My start date had been set for June 4, 2001. They were giving me $3,000 for moving expenses to move down to Round Rock when I finished college in May. I was being hired as an undergraduate college hire. I would be starting at a slightly smaller salary than my base salary as an electrician.
I was taking a considerable cut in salary when you consider the overtime that an Power Plant electrician racked up in a year. I figured I was starting at the bottom of the ladder in my new job, where I was pretty well topped out at the plant with no opportunity to advance in sight. Maybe in a few years my salary would catch up and surpass what I made as an electrician.
For about 10 weeks, we drove down to the Austin area and look for a house on the weekends. It became apparent soon after our house hunting began that the cost of houses was somewhat higher than they were in Stillwater Oklahoma. We finally had a contract on a house in Round Rock, just 10 minutes away from the main Dell campus.
While we were looking for a house in the Round Rock area, we kept hearing on the radio that Dell was laying off thousands of employees. The Internet bubble had burst and the drop in sales of computers was taking a toll on the company. Every time I called the recruiter, I would find that they had been laid off and I had been assigned a different recruiter. This was disheartening to say the least.
Here I was in a perfectly secure job as an electrician at the Power Plant and I was leaving it to go work for a company that was in the middle of laying off employees. My wife Kelly and I had been saying one Novena after the other that we make the correct decision about what we should do, and we had chosen Dell Computer. It just seemed like the right place to go. So, we decided to just go along with it.
We prayed the Infant Of Prague Novena every day that we made the right choice.
I gave the plant a 3 month notice that I would be leaving in June. We had timed the purchase of the house in Round Rock for Friday, June 1. I would start work the following Monday. Dell was going to send me my moving expenses on May 4th, one month before my job would begin.
On the morning of Thursday, May 3rd, our realtor in Stillwater called and said she had a contract to sell our home in Stillwater and was going to head out to our house for us to sign. I had stayed home that morning for that reason. We were expecting her to arrive at 9:00 am.
At 8:30 I received a call from Dell computers that went something like this….. “Kevin, I am calling to inform you that your offer for employment has changed. Your first day will no longer be June 4, but will be August 20 (2-1/2 months later). The good news is that you still have a job with Dell, it just doesn’t start until August.”
Since I was expecting the moving expenses the following day on May 4, I asked the recruiter about that. He said that since my start date was moved to August, I wouldn’t receive the moving expenses until July. I told him that I was in the middle of buying a house in Round Rock and that I was counting on that money. He said he would see what he could do about that.
I hung up the phone and looked at Kelly who was standing there watching my face go from a normal tan to a red glow, then an ashen color all in the matter of 20 seconds. I explained to her that Dell said I still had a job, but it wouldn’t start until August.
The Realtor was going to be arriving in about 20 minutes for us to sign to sell our house. Everything was in motion. It took Kelly and I about 5 minutes to discuss our options before we decided that since we had been praying to make the right choice, we were going to go with this new development.
I called Louise Kalicki, our HR supervisor at the plant and told her that Dell had moved my start date from June 4 to August 20, and I wondered if I could stay on the extra two and a half months. I was surprised that she had an answer for me so quickly, but here is what she said, “We can keep you on until August 17, but after that date, we will no longer have a job for you.” I thanked her, and hung up the phone.
Our realtor arrived with the contract for us to sign to sell our house with five acres. When she walked in the kitchen, I told her what had just happened 1/2 hour earlier. I could see the sick look on her face after she had worked so hard for so many months to find a buyer for our house. Here I was telling her that Dell was postponing my hire date.
When I came to the part about where we decided to go ahead with our plans and sell the house and move to Round Rock, I could see all the tension that had been building up behind her ever increasing bulging eyes suddenly ease off. We signed the papers and our house was set to be sold on June 29. I had to swing a loan for the month where I bought the house in Round Rock and I sold my house in Stillwater (and hoped that the house was actually sold on time).
A few hours later I received a call from the Dell recruiter saying that he had pulled a few strings and I was going to receive my moving expenses the following day. The following week after that, the recruiter that had helped me had been laid off as well.
When my final day had arrived on August 16 (I was working 4 -10s, and my last work day that week was Thursday), I was given a going away party (see the post “Power Plant Final Presentation“). The party was over around 1:30 and I was free to leave.
I said my goodbye’s to my friends in the office area and went down to the electric shop to gather up the rest of my things and leave. Scott Hubbard asked me if he could trade his Multimeter with me since I had a fancy True RMS Multimeter and he was still using an older version. So, I traded him, and picked up my tool bucket and headed for the parking lot.
As I approached my car, I could see that Diana Brien was out there waiting for me to leave. She gave me a Chocolate Chip Cookie the size of a pizza and said she wanted to say goodbye to me and tell me that she had enjoyed being my bucket buddy all those years. I told her I was going to miss her and everyone else in the shop.
With that I climbed in my car and drove away.
When I was selling my house outside Stillwater, I thought that the thing I was going to miss the most was the wide open spaces where we lived. Our house was on a hill in the country overlooking the city of Stillwater. We had an Atrium in the living room where you could sit and look at the city lights at night and watch thunderstorms as they blasted transformers around the town.
I was moving into a neighborhood where the house next to ours was no more than 15 feet away. I thought I’m really going to miss this house…. I thought that until the moment I drove out of the parking lot at the Power Plant.
Then it suddenly hit me…. What about my family? What about all those people I have just left behind? When am I ever going to see them? The thought of missing my house never entered my mind from that moment on. It was replaced by the great pain one feels when they pack up and walk away from their family not knowing if you will ever see them again.
My heart was still back there with the Power Plant Men and Women I left behind.
The seven hour drive from the plant to Round Rock Texas was a blur. I knew that I had just closed one door and stepped into an entirely new world. I didn’t even know if I would like being a programmer when it came down to it. I had always just been a hacker and I knew I had a lot of holes in my knowledge. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be any good at my job.
To make that long story short, I have never regretted my move to Round Rock Texas. I have just gone with the flow knowing that whatever happens, it happens for a reason. After 12 1/2 years working at Dell, I changed jobs again to work for General Motors in their IT department where I am currently working with the Onstar team.
My friends at Dell asked me the past few years… “Are you going to write about us like you do with the Power Plant Men?” My reply to that question was “I don’t know… Maybe I will. I haven’t thought about it.”
That was the same thing I told Sonny Karcher the first day I arrived at the Power Plant and he asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated college. I told him. “I don’t know. I was thinking about becoming a writer.” His next question was, “Are you going to write about us?” I replied, “Maybe I will. I haven’t thought about it.”
Originally posted December 20, 2014:
When my children were young and the season was right and I had finished telling them all the Gene Day stories, when they were in just the right Christmas spirit, I would tell them about the Power Plant Christmas Star and how it would shine brightly over Ponca City, Oklahoma around Christmas time, calling shepherds and Power Plant Operators to come and see what technological miracle had taken place on Bonnie Drive on the North End of the thriving community known as Ponca City (Did I actually make an entire paragraph out of one sentence? — Geez. This is why my English Teacher was always slapping my hand — Catholic school…. you can imagine how that was).
The story actually begins way before the Christmas season starts, but some time after Christmas decorations have gone up in Target and Wal-Mart. That is, some time after Halloween, but before Thanksgiving. November, 1984 was the first time I had a hint that something big was going to be happening soon. At the time, I had been an electrician for one year, and since that time, a new machinist had arrived at the plant named Randy Dailey. We thought he looked a lot like Barney Fife, only he seemed to be a lot smarter. Here is a picture of the two. See what you think.
Ok. I admit it. that’s not really Randy Dailey. That really is Barney Fife’s Smarter Brother. Here is a real picture of Randy Dailey:
I happened to be walking through the machinist shop at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma on my way to the tool room when I noticed a big pile of large cans stacked up next to the large press. These cans were about the size of a large can of beans.
The labels had been removed from all the cans, so I couldn’t tell if they were beans, corn, Hawaiian Punch, or what. Only Randy Dailey knew for sure. He had set up some sort of assembly line where he was punching holes through these cans in the shapes of stars and Christmas trees, and I don’t even remember what else. Ginger Bread Men maybe…. Hopefully Randy will comment at the bottom of this post to answer the unanswered questions about the can decorations and not leave a comment about how I look more like Barney Fife than he does and how he actually looks more like Cary Grant.
One could only imagine what Randy was going to do with hundreds of cans with Christmas designs punched out around them. I know that one could only imagine that, because I was one. No one else seemed puzzled about the cans, so I pretended not to be puzzled also. It seemed to work, because no one stopped me on the way to the tool room to ask me about the puzzled look on my face. Which was surprisingly not that uncommon since I walked around a lot puzzled by a great many things.
I figured that some day all this can punching (as opposed to cow punching which is something entirely different) would some day make sense to me. Each year, Randy would do the same thing. He would fill the machine shop with cans and then proceed to punch Christmas Trees and stars into them. It finally made sense to me two years later. After I had moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma.
My wife and I were sitting around one night in our luxurious two bedroom, one bath, one dog house in Ponca City trying to decide what to do for our first wedding anniversary.
I suggested that we try to solve the riddle of the Randy Dailey Christmas cans. My wife was not at all surprised, because during our wedding night a year earlier I had made up a story called “Barney Frumpkin, the Christmas Pumpkin”, so, solving a riddle like Randy Dailey’s Christmas Cans seemed right up my alley and in no way out of the ordinary.
Ok. Here is a side story about Barney Frumpkin the Christmas Pumpkin. Keep in mind that I just whipped this one out off the top of my head and it was 30 years ago tomorrow (December 21, 1985):
Once upon a time there was a pumpkin patch out in the country by a small town.
Each year the people from the town would go out to the pumpkin patch to pick out a pumpkin before Halloween,
in order to make Jack-O-Lanterns and/or Pumpkin Pie.
This one particular year, there was one pumpkin in the patch named Barney Frumpkin.
He had heard from the other pumpkins that the farmer had been talking to someone and said,
“Tomorrow the people from the town will be here to pick their own special pumpkin, so I want everything to be just perfect.”
All the pumpkins were excited about being chosen by a family, but none were as excited as Barney Frumpkin.
Barney stretched and stretched himself as much as he could to try to stand out as a very special pumpkin.
He could imagine himself shining bright orange among the green vines.
When the day finally arrived, Barney was as excited as he could be as children and parents walked through the pumpkin patch,
Each family looking for their own special Halloween Pumpkin.
As each family came near to Barney, he would wish as hard as he could wish that this would be the family for him.
Each time throughout the day, as each family walked by Barney, none of them so much as gave him a second glance.
Toward the end of the day, as the crowds began to thin, Barney suddenly came to the realization that he was all alone.
No one had chosen him to be their special Halloween Pumpkin.
What Barney didn’t know was that he had a very large black spot on one side that made him look like he was rotten.
As the sun set that day, Barney was left all alone in the pumpkin patch.
All the other pumpkins had been picked and carried away.
Barney Frumpkin sat in the patch and cried.
No one heard him except you and I.
As each day began, the sun was lower in the sky and the nights became colder.
Soon there was snow on the ground that left Barney Frumpkin rather wrinkled and dry.
Barney felt as if the world had left him behind and he wanted to die.
So, he just laid there in the withered pumpkin patch sinking slower into the ground.
Shivering in the snow one night, he thought he could hear songs coming from the village.
In the distance people were singing carols of happiness and joy.
In the darkness Barney felt as if his life was coming to an end.
Then suddenly Barney became aware of a different sound.
The sound of someone humming quietly to their self.
Unknown to Barney, it was an evil witch making her way through the pumpkin patch.
Back to the hovel she would call home if she had a heart.
The people of the town called her a witch and she had no friends.
As she approached Barney, the moon peered out from behind a cloud to take a look.
The witch was about to step on Barney Frumpkin when the moonlight appeared.
The witch stopped in her tracks and looked down at the shriveled pumpkin at her feet.
The one with the large black spot on the side.
She had never seen such a wonderful site in all the days of her life.
It was the perfect pumpkin laying right there in front of her!
Without hesitation, the witch carefully picked up the pumpkin.
She smiled a smile that was so big that the cloud covering the rest of the moon scurried away,
Allowing the moonlight to brighten up the pumpkin patch.
The witch hugged Barney Frumpkin with as much care as she could muster.
She carefully carried him home to her hovel which would now become a home.
Barney was so surprised that for a while he was in shock.
He wasn’t sure what had happened because suddenly everything had turned dark.
It wasn’t until he saw the fire in the fireplace that he realized that someone had taken him home.
The witch set Barney on a table close to the fire where Barney could look around the room.
Standing close by, he saw the witch leaning toward him.
Barney Frumpkin had never seen such a beautiful site!
Barney Frumpkin, the Christmas Pumpkin and the Witch lived happily ever after.
End of Side Story. Back to the mystery about Randy Dailey and his Christmas cans.
So, I went to the kitchen and took the phone book out of the drawer and looked up Randy’s address…. hmm…. Bonnie Drive. In 1986, we didn’t have the World Wide Web, so I couldn’t Google the address. So, I looked in the middle of the phone book to where they had inserted maps of the town, and found the street.
Kelly and I climbed into our car and drove north up Union Street to Lora Street and over to Bonnie Drive. The mystery of the Christmas Cans was immediately solved even before we had turned the corner. The entire neighborhood was lit up. Randy’s Christmas Cans were lined up and down both sides of the street, up and down each drive way on the block and each can had a light shining in it so that you could see the punched out Christmas Trees and Stars shining brightly.
Randy’s house was easy to see halfway up the street because it was all lit up.
You can see the Flag Pole in the front and the Ham Radio tower in the backyard. Well, the Ham Radio tower had a large star on the top of it, and there were strings of lights coming down on all sides. The entire street was lit up with Christmas lights and those in front of Randy’s house had a light show going that was fantastic. Randy had programmed the lights himself. The Nativity Scene on the front lawn was like none I had ever seen before. I wish Randy would send me a picture of it (I would put it in this post).
So, the Christmas story that I told my Children went something like this:
The Evil Plant Manager (Eldon Waugh) had issued a decree that no Christmas Lights would be visible on the plant grounds. And the Power Plant Men were distraught. Then there were unknown sounds coming from the machine shop. They went, “Punch, Punch, Punch. Zing. Punch, Punch, Punch, Zing…” Like that.
Cans were quietly being donated while the lone Power Plant Elf (Randy Dailey) punched out designs on cans. Careful to keep them hidden where the Evil Plant Manager wouldn’t see them. Which was easy, because he never dared to stroll through any shop where work might be happening.
Then when Christmas Eve came, and the Operators were keeping watch over the boilers at night, An Angel of the Lord appeared to them and said, “Lo! Climb to the top of Unit 2 Boiler and look yonder North toward Ponca City!”
And Lo! When the Power Plant Operators and any other Shepherds that happened to be nearby (the cattlemen were all tucked in their beds with visions of Salt Licks dancing in their heads. Apparently, cattlemen don’t need to keep watch at night like Shepherds do.. unless they are trying to catch cow tippers).
Anyway, the Operators and any other shepherds that happened to be nearby climbed up the 250 stairs (or took the elevator), and gazed upon the Conoco Oil Refinery lighting up the night sky, they became puzzled.
Then the Angel said, “No. Over that way.” And Lo! The Power Plant Men of Operator Fame gazed upon a Star shining brightly in the night! With streams of light coming down in a fantastic light show specially programmed for the occasion to elicit maximum emotions.
And the Angel said unto the Power Plant Men and any stray Shepherds, “Be not afraid! I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people! Know that today, this very power plant has supplied the electricity to power The Star of Ponca City! To honor the baby Jesus that was born 2,000 years ago in the town of Bethlehem! The Son of God!”
When the Angel of God had left them, the Power Plant Men said to one another, “Let us go to Ponca City (during our midnight lunch break) and see Randy Dailey’s Christmas Star and all the magical Christmas Cans for ourselves!”
So, they hurried off to their pickup trucks and created a convoy of Ford and Chevy’s and an occasional GMC and Dodge Ram and raced up Highway 177 to Ponca City. Arriving at Randy’s house, they found the Nativity Scene of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus and they were amazed! They spread the word to all the Power Plants letting them know how important it was to keep the Star of Ponca City burning for all to see. Then they all returned back to work.
And now you know…. The rest of the Story! Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Good Night!
Originally posted December 20, 2013. Added additional news about Richard at the bottom of the post:
I think it was while we were sitting in the lunch room eating lunch while I was still a janitor when the subject of harmonicas came up. Dick Dale must have asked me if I played a musical instrument, because that was my usual reply, “I play the harmonica… and the Jew’s Harp.” Just about everyone knows what a Harmonica looks like. I suppose most people in Oklahoma knows what a Jew’s Harp is. It’s that instrument you put in your mouth and you flip the little lever and it makes a vibrating twanging sound.
Dick Dale, worked in the warehouse, and we had been friends since my second year as a summer help. He told me that he always wanted to learn to play the harmonica. I told him I learned by just playing around on it. I never took lessons or used a harmonica book or anything.
When I was growing up, my dad knew how to play the harmonica, so we had one laying around the house all the time. So, one day I as a kid, I picked it up and started playing with it. It took about five minutes before my older sister ran to my mom and complained about me making a racket. My mom told me to take it outside. So, I not only learned the harmonica by playing around with it. I was usually sitting alone in the woods while I was learning it. I have found that under these conditions, there is usually some basic part of the skill that is left out. So, I knew that my harmonica playing was never really up to snuff.
In the spring of 1983, I joined the labor crew, and I no longer ate lunch in the break room. I kept it in mind that Dick Dale wanted to learn to play the harmonica, so some time during the summer, I purchased a Hohner Marine Band Harmonica for him, and I began creating a song book with the songs that I knew how to play. I made up my own notation. The holes in the harmonica were numbered, so I wrote the numbers of the holes I would blow in, and put an arrow above the number pointing up or down to indicate whether I was blowing in the hole, or sucking the air through the hole.
During the summer I talked to Dick Dale a few times, and he was having trouble with his family. He was getting a divorce from his wife of fifteen years. He was pretty upset about that, because all along he thought he was happily married. This turned out not to be the case. In the process, Dick moved from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Ponca City. I was living in Stillwater at the time.
When winter came around, my friend Tim Flowers, who was a summer help for two summers at the plant, including the summer I was on the labor crew, came to visit me in Stillwater. I had bought a harmonica for him for Christmas, and I told him I wanted to go visit Dick Dale in Ponca City and take him his Harmonica for Christmas, along with the booklet I had handwritten (as we didn’t have computers back in those days….).
So, I called up Dick to make sure it would be all right if we dropped by for a little while. He was at home in his new house, and said he would be delighted if we came by. Dick knew Tim Flowers from the time he had been a summer help. While Tim and I were carpooling, Dick would be carpooling with Mike Gibbs, and sometimes on the way home, we would play car tag going down the highway.
One day after a Men’s Club dinner at the plant, while we were leaving, I was in the front of the line of cars heading for the main gate. In those days, there weren’t two separate gates (one for entering, and one for exiting). So, the one gate had to open almost all the way up before the person exiting could go through the gate.
When I pulled up to the gate, I pulled up on the entrance side, and Dick and Mike pulled up on the exit side. We had been racing with each other up to the main gate…. Dick was revving up the engine of his pickup truck which could easily outrun my little blue 1982 Honda Civic. I had to be more cunning to stay in front of Richard (yeah. I liked to call him Richard).
As the gate opened, I was on the side where I could go through the gate first. The way it worked was that as soon as I crossed the threshold of the gate, the gate would stop opening. then, as I went through it, I drove over to the exit side and ran over the closed loop of the gate, so that the gate closed again leaving Richard and Mike waiting behind the closed gate as we made our escape.
Of course, as soon as we were out on the main highway, it didn’t take long for Richard to make up the mile lead I had gained while he had to wait for the gate to close and re-open. So, the only way I could prevent him from passing me was by weaving over in the passing lane when he attempted to pass me, and then back again, when he returned to the right lane.
Eventually he was able to go around me, but from that day forward, whenever we were travelling home at the end of the day, and we were following each other, we would both meander back and forth across the highway on the way home…. when it was safe of course. Since we were out in the country, on a seldom traveled rode, that was usually not a problem. This came to an end when Richard moved to Ponca City.
When Tim Flowers and I arrived at Richard’s house in Ponca City that Christmas holiday, we surprised him when we handed him his very own harmonica with the booklet that I had written. He invited us inside and we sat for a while as I explained to him how the booklet worked. He said he appreciated it, and that he would work on learning how to play his harmonica so that we could play together.
We sat around and made terrible music together for a while. Then, because I didn’t want to impose on Richard too much, we left to go back to Stillwater. A couple of weeks later after the holiday, Richard said he had been practicing on the harmonica and he really appreciated the Christmas present.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but two and a half years later, I moved to Ponca City after I was married, and my wife graduated from nursing school. That was when Dick Dale, Jim Heflin, Bud Schoonover and I began carpooling together (See the post: Carpooling with Bud Schoonover). At the time Dick said that he had hoped to get over the tragedy of his marriage by the end of the year. He had heard that it took a year to get over 5 years. Since he had been married for 15 years, he figured by the end of 3 years he should be feeling like he was over it.
The only other person at the plant that I can remember that ever heard me playing the harmonica was Arthur Hammond. He asked me one day in 1986 if I would bring my harmonica to work so that he could hear me play it. So, I did, and while we were driving down to the Arkansas River to check batteries, I played some “harmonica blues” for him. It was just stuff I was making up.
I had seen this movie called “Crossroads” with Ralph Macchio. In the movie Ralph’s character is trying to learn how to play the Blues guitar from an old and once famous blues musician. There are two things you learn as the movie unfolds. The first is that in order to really know how to play the blues, you had to have experienced a real “Blue” time in your life. So you had to play with the feeling that you had experienced. The second thing was that Ralph had to play his guitar against a contract guitar player chosen by the devil in order to save the old man’s soul.
So, what was I supposed to do? I had been blessed most of my life. I hadn’t really experienced any “real” blues. As Art was driving the pickup truck down to the river, I tried to dream up the bluest thoughts I could. I thought…. what if the world ran out of chocolate….. That would ruin everybody’s mood. I piped out a few sorrowful sounding notes on the harmonica to try and portray my disappointment living without chocolate….. that sounded kind of lame.
Then I thought, wasn’t I upset that one time when I was a summer help and I stayed over to help feed the foremen that were having a dinner in the break room and Pat Braden and I fed the foremen, and no one offered me any food, so I had to go hungry for a couple of hours before I could go home and eat some leftovers at home. I think I felt kind of blue that day….. so I cupped my hand over the harmonica, tilted my head to the side and tried to remember that painful time as I shook my hand up and down so that the harmonica would make the sad “whaaa whaa” sound.
I drummed up a few more sad thoughts, and I thought I was really floundering as my debut as a blues harmonica player, so I paused for a few minutes to try and make myself feel bad about doing such a poor job playing the harmonica hoping that it would help. Then Art said, “Hey. You are pretty good!” “What?” I thought, “Oh… That’s Art, trying to be polite.” “Thank you,” I said. Boy. How pitiful is that? Surely I should feel bad enough now to play some blues at least a little better….
Anyway, a mile or two later, I decided to give it up. I put the harmonica back in my pocket and told Art that was all I could do for now. Finally. We had some peace and quiet the rest of the way to the river. I remembered that my sister would always run screaming to my mom when I was younger and blew a few notes on the harmonica, and here Art patiently listened and even complimented my playing. Gee. What a true friend he was.
Later, Dick Dale remarried, and as far as I could tell, he was a much happier person a few years after that. I did what I could to help him. Though, I think at times I confused him a little. I will relay a story about that in a few weeks.
Richard Dale died at the age of 64 on Christmas Day, 2008. He can now be heard in concert in Heaven playing the mouth organ. Since I don’t play the regular harp, I hope one day to stand alongside him playing the Jew’s Harp. Richard’s Mother Maurine Dale joined him in Heaven last month (November, 2015) at the age of 98.