When I first became an electrician at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, my foreman Charles Foster and I would sit each day at lunch and talk about movies we had seen. We would go into detail explaining each scene to each other so that when I actually watched a movie that Charles had described, I felt as if I had seen it already. In the years that followed, after we had described to each other just about every movie we could remember, we moved on to playing games.
Sure, there were those jokes we would play now and then, but I’m not talking about those. This was something different. One of the games that we played was Chess.
I brought a computerized chessboard to work one day that had pieces on a board that you pressed down when you wanted to move a piece, then you moved it and pressed down on the square where you placed the piece in order for the board to keep track where all the pieces were on the board.
This chessboard had 8 levels of difficulty when you played against the computer. Charles, Terry Blevins, Scott Hubbard and I were not really the competitive type. We were more of the team player types. So, when we played, we played against the computer as a team.
We would set the level of difficulty to the highest level, then as a team, we would spend a long time analyzing our moves. Sometimes we would discuss making our next move over several days. Actually, at the highest level, the computer would some times take up to 7 hours to decide what move to make. — This was when computers were still relatively slow.
We figured out that at level 8, the chessboard would think of all the possibilities for the next 8 moves. Once we realized that, then we knew that we had to think 9 moves ahead in order to beat it. So, you could see how together we would try several strategies that would put us ahead after we had basically forced the computer to make 9 moves… It wasn’t easy, but by realizing what we were dealing with, we were able to beat the chess computer on the highest level.
The game where we beat the computer on the highest level took us over 3 months to play and the four of us had teamed up against the computer in order to beat it. I remember that I would wake up in the morning dreaming about that game of chess when we were playing it and I would be anxious to go into the electric shop to try out a move that had popped in my mind when I was in the shower.
Once we were able to beat the chess board we went on to other things.
Diana Brien (my first and only “Bucket Buddy”) and I would buy Crossword puzzle magazines and when we were in a spot where we were waiting for an operator to arrive, or for a pump to finish pumping, etc.
We would pull out the crossword puzzle magazine and start working on them. If we weren’t doing crossword puzzles, we were doing Word Searches, or Cryptograms… more on them in a moment.
This kept our mine sharp, and just as Fat Albert and Cosby Kids used to say, “If you’re not careful, you might learn something before you’re through.”
I had bought some Crossword puzzles that had other types of puzzles in them. Some were pretty straightforward like Cryptograms. That is where you have a phrase where each letter of the alphabet has been changed to another letter of the alphabet, and you have to figure out what it says. So, for instance, an “A” may have been changed to a “D” and a “B” to a “Z” etc. So, you end up with a sentence or two that looks like gibberish, but it actually means something once you solve the puzzle.
We were becoming expert cryptogram puzzle solvers, when one day we ran into a short cryptogram that didn’t have many words. We tried solving this cryptogram for almost a week. Scott Hubbard was getting frustrated with me, because I would never give up and look at the answer in the back of the book. So, after he became so fed up with me, he finally looked in the back of the book and wrote the answer in the puzzle. The answer was this: “Red breasted Robin, Harbinger of Spring”
Now… how is someone supposed to figure out a puzzle like that? I had figured on the “ing” in Spring and Harbinger but since Harbinger was barely in my vocabulary to begin with, I was never going to solve this one… I’ll have to admit.
Regardless, I was upset with Scott for looking at the answer in the back of the magazine, so I ripped out all the answers from the magazine and threw them in the dumpster so we would never be able to look at them again….. Still…. I would probably be trying to figure out “Red breasted Robin, Harbinger of Spring” to this day if Scott Hubbard hadn’t looked in the back of the book. I just felt like I wasn’t getting my money’s worth if we looked at the answers…. Yeah. all $3.95 worth (pretty cheap entertainment).
So, I have a side story to go along with working Cryptograms….
In my later life I changed jobs and went to work at Dell in Texas. (It just so happened that the Puzzle Books we would buy were usually “Dell” puzzle books…. totally unrelated to the Dell Computer company where I worked). That’s not really the important part of the side story, but I thought I would throw that in for good measure.
Every so often, our department would have an offsite where some team building events were held in order to… well… build teams.
One particular team building event was held in a park in Round Rock Texas where we were assigned to teams and each team was assigned to their own picnic table. When the game began we were each given a poster board with some phrase on it… and guess what? It was a cryptogram!
I was the only person on my team that knew how cryptograms worked, though most had seen them in the newspaper below the crossword puzzle, no one on our team had ever tried solving them. As a team, we were supposed to solve the puzzle. The quote was fairly long, which made it easy for someone who had been obsessed with cryptograms for years…. — Myself.
I took one look at the puzzle and said…. “That word right there is “that” and I wrote in the word “that”. Then I began filling in all the letters that had “T”, “H” and “A”. I quickly found a couple of “The”s which gave me the “E”, then I had one three letter word that began with an “A” and ended with an “E” that could only be the word “Are”. Which gave me the letter “R”. I could see that there were a couple of places that ended in “ing”, so I quickly filled those in, and as quickly as we could write all the letters into the puzzle we were done.
My director, Diane Keating, happened to be on my team. When I first pointed to the word “That” and said, “That is the word ‘that'”, she said, “Wait, how can you tell?” I said, “Trust me. I know Cryptograms.” When we had finished the puzzle within about a minute and a half, we called the person over to check it and she was amazed that we had solved the puzzle so quickly.
That is the end of the side story, except to say that I give credit to the games that Power Plant Men Play for teaching me the fine art of solving Cryptograms. Our team came in first place…. needless to say after solving three cryptograms in a row.
There were other more complicated but equally fun types of anagram/cryptogram combination puzzles that I worked when we had worked all the cryptogram puzzles in the Dell Variety Magazines. Eventually Charles Foster and I were looking for something different. That was when Charles ordered a subscription to a magazine called “GAMES”.
This was a monthly magazine that was full of all sorts of new games. Today, I understand that this magazine is more about the Video Games that are out than puzzle sort of games. Each month we would scour the pages of the Game magazine looking for puzzles to conquer. We worked on those for about a year.
At one point in my days as an electrician, I wrote a Battleship game for my Sharp Calculator that was a two player game. We each had a battleship in a 100 x 100 grid, which you could move around. It was sort of like the Battleship game where on the commercial they would say, “You Sunk My Battleship!” Only, our ships could move and we only had one.
Each turn when you would plug in the coordinates to shoot at the other person’s ship, it would only tell you how much you missed by. Then you could plot it on a graph paper and try to figure out where the other person’s ship was. Even though it could move. If you were close, then it would damage the other ship, and it would slow down so it couldn’t move as fast.
When the next person took their turn, they could see if their ship had been damaged or sunk, or even had become dead in the water….
The person was randomly assigned a home base at the beginning of the game and they could go there to repair their ship and be given more ammo in case they were running low. If they did this more than twice, then the other guy would know because the circles they would draw on their graph paper would keep intersecting at that one point.
Anyway…. that was the calculator game I made that I played with Terry Blevins for a while.
While other Power Plant Men were playing “Rope the Bull” with an Iron rendition of a bull welders had created, some of us in the electric shop were playing different kinds of games. Puzzles.
I think the reason that electricians like puzzles so much is because a lot of what they do from day-to-day is solve puzzles. When something isn’t functioning and the electrician has to figure out why, they usually have to follow through a bunch of steps in order to figure out what exactly went wrong. Solving Circuit problems are a lot like the puzzles we were playing.
Sometimes they are like “Word Searches” where you are looking for needles in the haystacks. Sometimes they are like Cryptograms where a circuit has been wired incorrectly and you have to figure out which wire is supposed to go where. Sometimes you get so frustrated that you just wish you could look in the back of the book at the answer page. In real life, you don’t always have an answer page exactly.
Some of us may think that you can find all you need to know in the Bible, but there are different kinds of “Bibles” for different kinds of jobs. In the Electric Shop we had the National Electric Code. We had the Master Blueprints that showed us how things were supposed to be wired up. Some times we just had to wing it and try putting words in crossword puzzle that we knew might not be the right ones, but they were the best we had at the time.
I’m just glad that I spent that time working puzzles with my friends at the Power Plant. If solving puzzles together helps build a team, then we had the best darn team around!
Power Plant Men learned about the “Law of the Hog” the first day they were introduced to the new “Quality Process”. I recently wrote a post about how the Power Plant Men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma were trained to use various tools to help them formulate ideas quality improvement ideas at the plant in June, 1993. See the post “A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“. Even though we were hearing about the “Law of the Hog” for the first time, I recognized it right away. I had seen it in action the previous November 3, 1992.
What better way to convince a room full of skeptical Power Plant Men that the Quality Process is about improving the conditions at the plant than by first telling them what they already know in such a way that from then on they believe you really do know what you’re talking about. — I know. That was a confusing sentence, so let me explain. The instructor told us the story about “The Law of the Hog”.
This evidently was a story that had been going around since the late 70’s. It had to do with a saw mill in Oregon. This is the story the instructor told us…
A group of quality consultants, or… I think they called themselves Leadership consultants back then were visiting the saw mill because they evidently needed some help. While the consultants were learning about how the plant operated, they talked with the workers one-on-one and asked them how things were really done at the mill. That’s when the workers told the consultant about “The Hog”.
The Hog is a grinder that takes scrap wood and grinds it up into sawdust. The consultants had asked them how they worked with supervisors when they were “lacking” in leadership skills. (I would say “evidently” again here, but I’ve already used that word three times. And the last time was just now while explaining that I would like to use that word again, but… — I’ll have to think of another word…. let’s see… oh. I know…. Apparently…). Anyway, apparently, that was when they told the consultants about The Hog that lived in the shack off to one side of the main mill.
So, what happens is that when their supervisor uses a heavy hand to try to whip the workers into shape, the Hog is used for more than just chewing up scraps. When the workers were treated with disrespect, then “The Law of the Hog” went into effect. What happened then was that the workers would throw perfectly good pieces of wood into the Hog where it would be turned to dust (saw dust that is). Since the supervisors were measured on their productivity which took a beating when good wood would be destroyed (Yeah. I couldn’t help using the words Wood and Would together… And then using “Words”, “Wood” and “Would” all together while explaining my obsession). So, the workers would pay the supervisor back each time he displayed inferior leadership skills.
Oh yeah. The Power Plant Men knew all about that. The guys at Muskogee, however, didn’t use such indirect methods. They had one Assistant Plant Manager (I won’t tell you his name but I think his initials were Morehouse. well. Something House anyway), that treated his men with a little more than disrespect, and was surprised one night when the front door to his house was blown off the hinges. He was quickly reassigned to Oklahoma City. But then I have always said that something is in the water in Muskogee. See the post “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“.
When the Quality instructor was telling us the story about the “Law of the Hog” a few examples immediately entered my head. Well, one was the Six Hour Rule. I mentioned this in an earlier post where there was a complicated rule about how an employee could collect “black time” and double time when they were called out at night. As management tried to manipulate the rule to the detriment of the employee, the opposite effect actually happened. After trying to skimp on paying the double time the employee was accustomed to, that was the time when I made the most money from that rule. See the post “Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rules“.
This leads us to a dark and stormy day at the Power Plant…. November 3, 1992. The story actually begins the day before. Unit 2 had been offline for a “more than” minor overhaul (I believe it was a six week overhaul instead of the usual 4 weeks). I was the acting foreman for the crew that was working on the precipitator. Terry Blevins normally was in charge of the Unit 2 Precipitator, but for this overhaul, Scott Hubbard and I were assigned to make all the necessary precipitator repairs. The main reason was that new rapper controls were being installed, and Scott had a lot of experience doing this since he had installed them on Unit 1 already.
At that time, Scott and I were like twin brothers. Whatever he was doing… I had to be there to help. Scott would work on the roof of the precipitator generally, while I worked inside. We had been given some operators to help us along with a few contract workers to do the “grunt” work. That is, when you would ask them to do something, they would usually reply with a low moaning grunty sort of sound (I just made up that word…. grunty. It seemed to fit).
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway just in case any “Non-Precipitator Gurus” are reading this)…. in order to install the new digital rapper controls, a lot of wire had to be pulled and laid down on terminal blocks from some rapper cabinets to other cabinets across the precipitator. When I say a lot, I mean somewhere over 10 miles of wire. 15 feet at at time. — I was sure glad Scott was doing that while I was strolling away inside the precipitator quietly looking for plates out of alignment and broken wires dressed in my space suit. For a better understanding of what a precipitator does, see the post “Moon Walk in A Power Plant Precipitator“.
I was not inside the precipitator on November 3, 1992, however, I had already finished up inside the precipitator by that time and I was working on the roof in cabinet 2G1 (on the southeast corner) on that day. We had the radio on and I was sitting on my bucket listening to Rush Limbaugh throwing a fit (as he has been known to do from time-to-time). None of our help was doing any work that day. The “Law of the Hog” had come into play and a day of rest had been declared by the helpers.
I was working away laying down the wires on the terminal blocks inside the rapper cabinet while the rest of the crew (minus Scott Hubbard who was on the far side of the precipitator roof working in another cabinet) was sitting around dangling their feet from the walkway near my cabinet. Merl Wright and Jim Kanelakos (two operators) were there along with three contract help. During that day I spent a lot of time running back and forth between the office area and the precipitator roof.
Here is what happened:
On November 2, 1992, just before every one left for the day, the word came down that in the morning everyone was supposed to report to work at the usual 7:00 time. We were scheduled to work until 7:00 in the evening. A full 12 hour day, except for the 30 minutes for lunch (and three breaks). The reason we had to be told to show up at seven o’clock in the morning was because November 3rd was election day.
It was the normal practice to let the Power Plant Men vote before they came to work in the morning. We were being told that we were not supposed to vote in the morning and that we could leave early in the evening to go vote instead of voting in the morning. We were told in no uncertain terms that if we went to vote in the morning, then the amount of time we were late getting to work would be the amount of time we would have to leave at the end of a normal working day.
Let me try to explain what this meant, because on the surface, it looks fairly reasonable. Since the polls closed at seven in the evening when we would be leaving work, we could leave as early as we wanted in the evening to go vote in order to arrive in time before the polls closed. There were two things fundamentally wrong with this solution from a Power Plant Man point of view, though from a Plant Manager point of view, it looked quite reasonable.
The first problem was that this was the election between George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton (Now you know why Rush Limbaugh was throwing a fit). A very large turnout was expected, and a majority of the workers wanted to make sure and go to the polls to vote that day. With that said, it would be hard to determine what would be a good time to leave the plant to go vote in order to stand in line and cast a vote before the polls closed. Up to that time, polls had not been kept open later than their designated closing time, except to let people who were already waiting in line by the time the closing bell rang.
The second problem and the main problem was this….. Suppose a person did go vote in the morning…. It was a typical practice for the company to cover that person’s time and pay what was called “Black Time” while they went to vote in the morning. In this case, the plant manager was telling us that we basically couldn’t go vote in the morning without being “punished”. If the person waited and voted in the evening, they would lose their overtime which directly affects the bottom line on the home front.
Here is how the punishment would be administered…. If a person went to vote in the morning and was an hour late, and came in, say at eight o’clock instead of seven. Then they would have to leave when they had completed a regular eight hour day. That is, they would not receive any overtime that day.
Well. this didn’t effect me, because I had already early voted a couple of weeks earlier. I think Scott did too, when we realized we were going to be on overhaul working 12 hour days. Scott Hubbard and I carpooled together, so we were always careful to coordinate our efforts.
So, guess what happened…. Yeah. You guessed it…. especially if you knew Jim Kanelakos. He knew an “injustice” when he saw it, and so, he wasn’t going to let this one slide. He made sure to go vote the first thing in the morning, just like he had ever since he was old enough to vote. He arrived at the plant around 9 o’clock.
When he arrived on the Precipitator roof he told me that he had voted that morning and that the line at the polls where he voted was down the block 15 minutes before they opened. He said he didn’t care what anyone said, he was going to work until 7:00 that evening. He said, “Just let anyone try to send me home early,” with a big grin on his face and his pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth…. Oh. Let me remind you what Jim looked like:
This is a picture I found a few years ago on Google Images. It looked like Jim, so I copied it. Since then I have received a picture of the crew Jim was working on, so you can see an actual photo:
Well… When Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor came around asking if anyone had arrived late that morning, as acting foreman, what could I say? I told him that Jim Kanelakos had come in two hours late. Tom told me to send Jim home at 4:30. He would get his black time for voting early, but he would not receive any overtime for the day. I told Tom I would tell Jim. I also told him that Jim had already said that he was going to stay until 7:00 and expected to receive the normal pay that he would have received if he had worked the entire day.
This sent Tom into a rage. He wanted Jim taken off our crew and sent back to Operations right then and there. He said that he disobeyed orders and if it was up to him, he would fire him. I told Tom that we had a ton of work to do and that we needed everyone we could have until the overhaul was over. If we sent Jim back to Operations for the remainder of the overhaul, we might not be able to finish our work. We were working on a very tight schedule as it was.
I told Jim that Tom had told me to tell him to go home at 4:30 in the afternoon. Jim just laughed. He said he was going to go home at his regular time…. 7:00 pm. I said, “Ok. I am just telling you what Tom said. I’m going to have to tell him your reply.” Jim, who was my friend, said, “I know. Do what you have to do.”
I went back to the electric shop and when I walked in the shop Denise Anson, the receptionist paged me on the Gray Phone. She said I had a call. I told her to send it to the electric shop office. I was surprised when I answered the phone and Charles Campbell was on the other end of the line. News travels fast…. He was an attorney in Stillwater. He had heard that there was something going on at the plant that might have something to do with vote tampering.
I told him in detail what I knew about Jim Kanelakos and how he had went to vote in the morning after being told that he had to wait until the evening to vote, or he would be docked pay by missing out on scheduled overtime. I knew that Charles Campbell, unlike some attorneys, was an upstanding citizen in the community and was in no way an ambulance chaser, but when he heard this, I could immediately hear the eagerness in his voice. I had the impression by his remarks that if this panned out the right (I mean “the wrong”) way, he might be able to retire early. We ended the conversation by him saying, “Let me know if you hear about anyone that doesn’t get to vote that wanted to because they left work too late.” He was in total disbelief that the plant had made that policy.
Well, I found Tom Gibson in his office and I told him what Jim had replied to me. Tom became even more furious. (I only saw him this mad or his ears this red one other time… but that is another story). He repeated that he was going to try to have Jim fired for being insubordinate. This seemed to me to be unlike Tom who was always a very reasonable person. I don’t think it was anything personal against Jim, I think there was just something about someone who blatantly (in his mind) had ignored a policy that had been clearly given to him the evening before.
I ended up in the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman’s office. Ron, who took ultimate responsibility for the decision to tell the employees to not vote in the morning listened to Tom tell him what he thought about the whole thing. I had been in Ron’s office not too long before this incident to tell him that someone had been hacking through our phone system and it surprised me that Ron wanted to find a way to resolve the issue without raising a ruckus or harming anyone, even the perpetrator. See the post “Turning the Tables on a Power Plant Telephone Interloper“. When Ron was questioning me about the issue about what to do with Jim, I could tell that Ron really wanted to resolve this issue with as little conflict as possible.
I told Ron that I had talked to my attorney in Stillwater about what was happening and that he was very anxious to find out if anyone either lost any money because they voted early, or they were not able to vote at the end of the day. Ron said, “Well. We made this decision yesterday afternoon without really thinking it through. When the idea was suggested, it sounded like a good plan at the time. Then today I went and checked to see what we have done in the past, and we have always let people go vote in the morning.” Ron’s final decision was to let Jim continue working until seven o’clock and receive the proper black time for voting in the morning. I let Jim know.
Everything would have been all right except for one thing….. The Law of the Hog. You see, I had spent considerable time going back and forth throughout the day between the precipitator roof and the office area discussing this topic with both parties involved. The entire precipitator crew with the exception of Scott Hubbard, did absolutely no work the entire day. They kept waiting to see what was going to happen. We were now one day behind schedule.
Comments from the original post:
The very last thing I ever learned in High School was the importance of Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance. In fact, the entire senior class of 1978 at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri learned this lesson at the same time. It was during the graduation ceremony in May while the students were walking across the stage to receive their diplomas.
I had already received mine and I was back in my seat sitting between Tracy Brandecker and Patrick Brier (we were sitting alphabetically. My name is Breazile). Pat was sitting on my left and Tracy was on my right. We were grinning from ear-to-ear to be graduating. My friends from the second grade, Mark Schlemper, Russell Somers and Brent Stewart had just walked across the stage in the gymnasium while a storm raged outside. As my friend from the fifth grade forward, Matt Tapley was walking across the stage there was a loud crack of thunder and the sound of an explosion as the lights went out.
Matt Tapley has albinism, giving him white hair and skin. In his black robe, the entire class witnessed Matt’s head bobbing up and down in the faint light given off from the emergency lights to either side of the stage as he was bowing to his classmates. We all clapped. The clapping soon turned to laughter as the emergency lights quickly dimmed and went entirely out within a minute.
As we sat in total darkness waiting for some resourceful faculty member to make their way to the hidden fallout shelter in the basement of the school to retrieve the portable generator and a spotlight, I was amazed by how quickly the emergency lighting had failed. The transformer to the school had been destroyed by the lightning strike so we finished the ceremony by the light of the large spotlight from the back of gym. My thought was that the school is only 4 years old and already the emergency lighting is too old to stay lit long enough to even begin evacuating the building, if that was what we had intended to do.
Fast forward to the spring of 1984. I had become an electrician a few months earlier. As I was learning the electrical ropes, I learned the importance of Preventative Maintenance in a power plant setting. The majority of an electrician’s job when I first joined the electric shop was doing “Preventative Maintenance”. I have some horror stories of bad preventative maintenance that I will share much later. I will point out now that most Americans know of some stories themselves, they just don’t realize that the root cause of these major failures were from a lack of preventative maintenance.
A power plant, like the emergency lights in the High School, has a battery backup system, only it is on a grand scale. There are backup batteries for every system that needs to remain online when there is a total blackout of power. These batteries needed to be inspected regularly. We inspected them monthly.
At first, I had done battery inspections with various electricians. Some people didn’t seem to take this task very seriously. I remember that when I did the inspections with Mike Rose, he usually finished by taking a gallon of soda water (a gallon of water with a box of baking soda dissolved into it) and pouring it all over the batteries.
My bucket buddy, Diana Lucas (Dee), on the other hand, took a different approach. We carefully filled each cell with just the right amount of distilled water. Then she showed me how to meticulously clean any corrosion from the battery posts using a rag soaked in the soda water, and then she would paint the area on the post where the corrosion was with No-Ox grease.
When I say batteries, you may think that I’m talking about batteries like you have in your car, or even in a large piece of equipment like a big dirt mover. Some of the batteries were the size of a battery used in a large dozer or dirt mover:
Some of the batteries that we inspected were of this type. They were usually hooked up to generators that could be started up in case all the power was out and we needed to start up a diesel generator. However, this was just the puppies when it came to the Station Power Batteries. These were some serious batteries:
As big as these batteries are, it takes 58 of them for each system to come up with a 130 volt circuit. That’s right. 58 of these batteries all in a series. The station batteries are all in rooms by themselves known as…. “Unit 1 and Unit 2 Battery rooms”. Smaller station battery sets are found at different locations. Today, those places include the relay house in the main substation, the Microwave room on the roof of #1 boiler. The River pumps, the radio tower building, the coalyard switchgear, Enid Turbine Generators and the Co-Generation plant in Ponca City. I’m sure I’m leaving some out. Maybe a current electrician at the plant can remind me of the others in a comment below. Each of these locations have approximately 58 station batteries.
While I was still a novice electrician, one morning in May I was told that I was going with Dee and Ben Davis to Enid to a Battery training class at an electric company office where the manufacturer (C&D) was going to go over the proper maintenance of the station batteries. Ben drove the pickup. I remember sitting in the middle between Dee and Ben both going and coming back from our lesson on Battery Preventative Maintenance….
Interesting that Ben was sitting to my left and Dee to my right that day… just like Pat and Tracy during the graduation ceremony 6 years earlier to the month when we first learned the impact of bad preventative maintenance on backup batteries. This time we were learning how to prevent the problem I had witnessed years before. I don’t know why I draw parallels like that. It just seem to make life a little neater when that happens. I don’t remember Ben and Dee grinning ear-to-ear like Pat and Tracy were the night we graduated from High School, but I can assure you, I was the entire 45 minutes going to Enid and the 45 minutes going back to the plant.
Since I had been trained for battery maintenance, I suppose it was like Andy Griffith becoming the Permanent Latrine Orderly (PLO) in the movie “No Time For Sergeants”. I was able to go to town inspecting all kinds of backup batteries.
Gene Roget (pronounced with a french accent as “Row Jay” with a soft J) was a contract electrician when I first became an electrician in the shop. I wrote about him in the post New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop. He was a great mentor that taught me a lot about how to be an electrician. He taught me how to use all the different tools in my tool bucket. He taught me how to bend conduit and make it come out the right length on both ends…
He especially taught me the importance of doing a “pretty” job when running wire or conduit or just rewiring a motor. I remember Gene stopping one day when we were walking to the precipitator and he paused to look up at the transfer tower. I asked him where he was looking. He said, “I’m just admiring the wonderful job someone did bending that set of conduit. that’s a perfect job! Just perfect!”
Anyway, Gene and I were given the task of checking all the batteries in the emergency lights throughout the plant. It happened that the emergency lights at the plant were all about 5 years old. Probably about the same age as the lights were in the high school the night of our graduation. The lights in the plant had wet cells. Which meant that you had to add distilled water to them like you do in your car, or in the station batteries. This amounted to a pretty large task as there were emergency lights stationed throughout the plant.
We found many of the lights that would never have been able to light up enough to cause a cockroach to run for cover. We took the bad ones back to the shop to work on them. A lot of the batteries had gone bad because they had never been checked. They have a built-in battery charger, and some of the chargers were not working. I drew a wiring diagram of the charger so that we could troubleshoot them and replace components that had gone bad.
All of this was like a dream to me. At the time I couldn’t think of any other place I would rather be. I loved taking things that were broken and fixing them and putting them back into operation. Eventually we decided to change the emergency light batteries to dry batteries. Those didn’t need water. We could pull out the six wet cells from each emergency light box and just plug the new batteries in place. This made a lot more sense. Who has time to go around regularly and check 50 or 60 emergency lights every 3 months? Not us. Not when we were trying to save the world.
Back to the Station Batteries:
Just to give you an idea of how important these batteries are, let me tell you what they are used for…. Suppose the power plant is just humming along at full power, and all of the sudden, the power goes out. It doesn’t matter the reason. When there is a blackout in a city, or a state, be assured, the power plant itself is in a blackout state as well. After all, the power plant is where the electricity is being created.
In the plant there is large equipment running. The largest and most valuable piece of equipment by far in a power plant is the Turbine Generator. The entire plant exists to spin this machine. As big as it is, it spins at 3600 revolutions per minute, or 60 times each second. In order to do that, oil has to be flowing through the bearings otherwise they would burn up almost instantly. This would cause the generator to come to a screeching halt — and I mean “screeching!”
So, in order to stop a turbine generator properly, when a unit is taken offline, once it has coasted to a smooth stop, the turbine has to be engaged to something called a “Turning Gear” which slowly rotates the turbine generator. This is turned off only when the shaft has cooled down. Without this, you might as well call General Electric and order a new one.
So, one of the most important things the station batteries do is run emergency oil pumps that engage immediately when the power is cutoff from the plant. This allows the turbine generator and other important equipment throughout the plant to slowdown and come to a stop gracefully in case the power is instantly gone.
I will write a story later about a day when this happened at our plant. The moments of confusion, and the quick decisions that had to be made to keep the unit 1 boiler from melting to the ground. Rest assured that throughout this time, the emergency oil pumps had kicked in. The station batteries did their job when they were called upon. While the control room operators were performing their emergency tasks to the letter and the electricians were scrambling to come up with a workable solution to an unforeseen problem, the turbine-generator, the PA (Primary Air) fans, the FD (Forced Draft) Fans, the ID (Induction) fans were all coasting down as the groundwork was being laid to quickly restore power.
Someone in an office in the middle of Oklahoma City may have noticed their lights flicker for a moment. Maybe they dimmed slightly…
If not for the proper maintenance of the power plant station batteries, the lights would have possibly gone dark. Someone would have had to go looking for the portable generator and the spotlight. Ceremonies in progress may have to continued under candlelight.
When I think back about the Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with for the 20 years I spent working at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I still see them as they were back when I first knew them. I was able to see them come to work each day willing to give all they had in order to keep the plant running smoothly. I would find out sometimes that behind their stoic behavior of heroism was a person bearing enormous pain.
I will not go into the private lives of each of the Power Plant Men and the personal struggles in their lives beyond those that we all shared at the plant. Some were bearing such enormous pain that all the Power Plant Men and Women shared their pain. Others bore their pain in silence leaving the rest of us oblivious to the grief as they sat next to you in the truck or beside you tightening bolts, or checking electric circuits.
I remember a time when one of my best friends seemed to be acting short tempered for a while. I figured something was eating at him. Finally after almost a year he confided in me what had been going on in his personal life, and it broke my heart to think of the pain this person had been experiencing all along, while I had been annoyed at his quick temper.
It is an eye opening experience when the person I talked to every single day at work is being torn apart with worry and I didn’t even have a clue. Well, the clues were there only I was too blind to see.
I began this post on a rather ominous note because one of the great Power Plant Men of his day, Larry Riley, died this past Wednesday, June 24, 2015.
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my Power Plant Friend Bud Schoonover passing away. (See the post: “Dynamic Power Plant Trio — And Then There Was One“). I mentioned some of the special times we had while we carpooled back and forth to Ponca City, Oklahoma. I knew Bud was getting along in years, so when I heard about his death, I was not surprised. I immediately pictured him back together again with Richard Dale, our travelling companion.
On Wednesday night when I was contacted by a number of Power Plant Men and Women who all wanted me to know right away that Larry had passed away, I was suddenly hit with a wave of shock. I was overwhelmed with grief. I broke out in tears.
Larry had been important to me from the very first day I worked in the Power Plant. I worked with Larry and Sonny Karcher before I worked with anyone else. My original mentors have both passed away now.
Of the 183 Power Plant Stories I have written thus far, the story about Larry Riley was one of the first stories I couldn’t wait to tell others. You can read it here: “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“.
Through my first years at the Power Plant Larry was there looking out for me when he had no other reason to do so than that he cared for others. Some pseudo-Power Plant Men mocked him secretly for being a noble person. Others didn’t have a clue what lengths Larry went to help out a person in need.
Since Larry’s death I have heard a couple of stories that Power Plant Men wanted to share with me about how Larry helped them out when there was no where else to turn. Stories I heard for the first time. I encourage any Power Plant Men who knew Larry to leave a comment below about him.
Larry was one of those people who used to bear his pain in secret. He did the same thing with his love for others. I had mentioned in the post about the Genius of Larry Riley that “…he performed acts of greatness … with complete humility. I never saw a look of arrogance on Larry’s face. He never spoke down to you and he never bragged about anything.”
Though Larry did his best to conceal it, there was always a hidden sort of sadden about him. Since he had the wisdom and knowledge well beyond his years when he was only 24 years old, I figured he must have had a rough childhood that caused him to grow up quickly. He was humped over as if he carried a burden on his back. I thought maybe his sadness grew out of that experience. Of course, I was only guessing.
After I first posted the story about Larry Riley, I was told by a Power Plant Man that Larry had been forced to accept an early retirement because he had a drinking problem. The Plant Manager was kind enough to let him retire instead of outright firing him, which would have caused him to lose his retirement benefits.
When I heard that Larry was no longer at the plant and under what circumstances he left, my heart sank. The sadness that Larry Riley had been trying to hide all those years had finally caught up with him in a big way and his world came crashing down.
I know that I am more like an “armchair observer” in the life of Larry Riley. There were family members and friends that I’m sure were devastated by Larry’s downfall in a lot more ways than one. Where I sit back and idolize the Power Plant Men as heroes, others are down in the trenches coming face-to-face with whatever realities happen in their lives.
Where others may look at Larry as a failure for developing a drinking problem that brought him to his knees, True Power Plant Men know full well that Larry Riley has a noble soul. He has always been meant for greatness.
In the post about my last day on the Labor Crew, I wrote the following about Larry, who was my foreman while I was on the Labor Crew (see the post: “Last Days as a Power Plant Labor Crew Hand“): “…Most of all, I knew I was going to miss Larry Riley… Larry was a hero to me. I love him dearly and if I had ever had an older brother, I would have liked someone with the character and strength of Larry Riley. He remains in my prayers to this day.”
I know I am not the only person that remembers Larry the way I do. When Larry died this past Wednesday, as soon as the Power Plant Men found out, several of them sent me e-mails, and reached out to me on Facebook to let me know. I think some of them wanted me to share Larry’s greatness with the rest of the world through this post.
As I felt the outpouring of grief from the Power Plant Men, I was overwhelmed by their sorrow. I happened to be sitting alone in a hotel room in Detroit, Michigan when I first found out. My phone kept buzzing (as I had it on vibrate) as one-by-one Power Plant Men sent messages letting me know of Larry’s death. I could feel the sadness hanging over my phone like a fog.
As each message buzzed my phone, my sorrow over Larry’s death grew until I had to just sit on the corner of the bed and cry. I have never felt more sorrow over the death of a Power Plant Man than I did for Larry Riley.
As I pictured Bud Schoonover meeting up again with Richard Dale after Peter open the gate for him, I pictured Larry Riley somewhat differently. I envisioned him walking down a dirt road by himself.
In my mind this is what I saw:
As Larry walks away from me down the road humped over with bad posture, struggling to take each step, in pain from the cancer that killed him, seemingly alone, he pauses suddenly. From the distance in my vision, I can’t quite tell why. He turns to one side.
Almost falling over, as he walks like an old man to the edge of the road where the ditch is overgrown with weeds, he stumbles down into the brush. Thinking that Larry has had a mishap, I move closer.
Suddenly I see Larry re-emerge. This time standing more upright. Alongside Larry is another Power Plant Man. I recognize his gait, but his back is turned so I can’t tell for sure who he is. He is much bigger than Larry. Larry has his arm across the man’s back holding him up as the other Power Plant Man has his arm wrapped around Larry’s neck as Larry pulls him up onto the road.
The two continue walking down the road toward the sun rising on the horizon. The Saints Go Marching On.
This is the Larry Riley I knew.
His funeral service will be held on his 61st birthday, July 3, 2015.
I know that those who really knew Larry will take a moment of silence to remember him. Not for the sorrow that he felt through his life as I originally felt when I heard of his death, but take a moment of silence to remember a great man. One who secretly inspired others toward goodness. A man who went out of his way to lift up someone who had fallen along the side of the road. My personal hero: Larry Wayne Riley.
Originally posted June 21, 2014. I updated dates and added some new things.
I don’t know if anyone of us knew what to expect Wednesday morning January 13 , 1993 when we were told to go to a meeting in the break room that was going to take all day. We were supposed to be in some kind of training. Everyone at the plant was going to have to go through whatever training we were having. Training like this always seemed funny to me for some reason. I think it was because the hodgepodge of welders, mechanics, machinists, electricians and Instrument and Controls guys seemed so out of place in their coal-stained worn out old jeans and tee shirts.
I remember walking into the break room and sitting down across the table from Paul Mullon. He was a new chemist at the time. He had just started work that day. We became friends right away. Scott Hubbard, Paul and I were carpooling buddies. He always looked a lot younger than he really was:
See how much younger he looks? — Oh. That’s what I would always say about Gene Day because he was always as old as dirt. Even when he was young. Paul is only four years older than I am, but he still looks like he’s a lot younger than 70. Even his great great grand daughter is saluting him in this photo. Actually. I love Paul Mullon as if he was my own brother. He still looks younger than my younger brother who is four years younger than I am. People used to think that he was his own daughter’s boyfriend.
When our training began, the plant manager at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, Ron Kilman came in and told us that we were going to learn about the “Quality Process”. He explained that the Quality Process was a “Process”, not a “Program” like the “We’ve Got The Power Program” we had a few years earlier. This meant that it wasn’t a one time thing that would be over any time soon. The Quality Process was something that we will be able to use the rest of our lives.
At this point they handed out a blue binder to each of us. The title on the front said, “QuickStart – Foundations of Team Development”. A person from a company called “The Praxis Group”, Rick Olson from Utah (when I originally posted this last year, I couldn’t remember his name. Then I found my Quality book and it had Rick’s name in it). I had looked Rick Olson up to see if he was a member of CompuServe and there was Rick Olson from Ogden, Utah. When I asked him if he was from Ogden, he told me he was from Provo, Utah.
One of the first things Rick asked us to do was to break up into teams of four or five and we were asked to come up with 3 facts about ourselves. Two of which were true and one that was false. Then our team mates were asked to vote on which fact they thought was the false one. The only one I remember from that game was that Ben Brandt had dinner with the Bill Clinton on one occasion when he was Governor of Arkansas. — At least, I think that was what it was… Maybe that was the fact that was false.
The purpose of this game was to get to know each other…. Well…. We had all been working with each other for the past 15 years, so we all knew each other pretty good by that time. Except for someone new like Paul. I think my false fact was that I had hitchhiked from Columbia, Missouri to New Orleans when I was in college. — That was an easy one. Everyone knew that I had hitchhiked to Holly Springs National Forest in Mississippi, not New Orleans.
Anyway, after we knew each other better, we learned about the different roles that members of our teams would have. Our “Quality” teams were going to be our own crews. Each team was going to have a Leader, a Facilitator, a Recorder, and if needed (though we never really needed one), a Logistics person. The Logistics person was just someone that found a place where the team could meet. We always just met in the Electric Shop office. I wanted to be “Facilitator”.
We learned about the importance of creating Ground Rules for our Quality Meetings. One of the Ground rules we had was to be courteous to each other. Another was to “Be willing to change” (I didn’t think this really belonged as a “Ground Rule”. I thought of it more as a “Nice to have” given the present company). Another Ground Rule was to “Discuss – Don’t Lecture”. One that I thought was pretty important was about “Confidentiality”. We had a ground rule that essentially said, “What happens in a team meeting… Stays in the team meeting.”
I recently found a list of the Quality teams that were formed at our plant. Here is a list of the more interesting names and which team it was: Barrier Reliefs (that was our team — Andy Tubbs team). Rolaids (Ted Holdges team). Elmore and the Problem Solvers (Stanley Elmore’s team… of course). Spit and Whittle (Gerald Ferguson’s Team). Foster’s Mission (Charles Foster’s team). Sooner Elite (Engineer’s team). Boiler Pukes (Cleve’s Smith’s Welding crew I believe). Quality Trek (Alan Kramer’s Team). Designing Women (Linda Dallas’s Team). There were many more.
I think all the Power Plant Quality Teams had the same “Mission Statement”. It was “To Meet or Exceed our Customer’s Expectations”. I remember that the person that was teaching all this stuff to us was really good at motivating us to be successful. As we stepped through the “QuickStart” training manual, the Power Plant He-men were beginning to see the benefit of the tools we were learning. There were those that would have nothing to do with anything called “Quality”, just because… well…. it was a matter of principle to be against things that was not their own idea.
Later they gave us a the main Quality binder that we used for our team meetings:
When we began learning about the different quality tools that we could use to solve problems, I recognized them right away. I hadn’t learned any “Quality Process” like Six Sigma at that time, but I was about to graduate from Loyola University in New Orleans in a couple of months with a Masters of Religious Education (MRE) where I had focused my courses on Adult Education. Half of my classes were about Religious topics, and the other half was about how to teach adults. The same methods were used that we learned about in this training.
It just happened that I had spent the previous three years learning the same various quality tools that the Power Plant Men were being taught. We were learning how to identify barriers to helping our customers and breaking them down one step at at time. We also learned how to prioritize our efforts to break down the barriers by looking at where we had control and who we were trying to serve… such as ourselves or others. I remember we tried to stay away from things that were “Self Serving.”
We learned how to do something called a “Barrier Walk”. This was where we would walk around the plant almost as if we were looking at it for the first time to find barriers we hadn’t noticed before. We also learned how to brainstorm ideas by just saying whatever came to our minds no matter how silly they may sound without anyone putting anyone down for a dumb idea. Rick called each barrier that your customer encountered a “SPLAT”. Our goal was to reduce “SPLAT”s. I think at one point we even discussed having stickers that said “SPLAT” on them that we could put on barriers when we located them.
When we implemented a quality idea, we were taught to do a “Things Gone Right, Things Gone Wrong” exercise so that we could improve future projects. This had two columns. On one side you listed all the good things (which was generally fairly long), and on the other, all the things that went wrong (which was a much shorter list). This was done so that we could consider how to avoid the things that didn’t work well.
We learned how to make proposals and turn them into a team called “The Action Team”. I was on this team as the Facilitator for the first 6 months. Sue Schritter started out as our Action Team Leader. The other Action team members in the beginning were: Richard Allen, John Brien, Jim Cave, Robert Grover, Phil Harden, Alan Hetherington, Louise Kalicki, Bruce Klein, Johnnie Keys, Kerry Lewallen, Ron Luckey and George Pepple.
The Power Plant Men learned that there were five S’s that would cause a proposal to fail.
One of those was “Secrecy”. If you are going to propose something that affects others, then you have to include them in the decision making up front or else even if you think it’s a great idea, others may have legitimate reasons for not implementing it, and you would have wasted your time.
The second was “Simplicity”. It follows along with Secrecy in that if you just threw the idea together without considering all the others that will be affected by the change, then the proposal would be sent back to you for further study.
The third was “Subjectivity”. This happens when something just sounds like a good idea. All the facts aren’t considered. The solutions you may be proposing may not be the best, or may not even really deal with the root of a problem. You might even be trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist, or is such a small problem that it isn’t worth the effort.
The fourth was “Superficiality”. This happens when the outcomes from the proposal are not carefully considered. Things like, what are the long term effects. Or, What is the best and worst case of this proposal… Those kind of things are not considered.
The last one is “Self-Serving”. If you are doing this just because it benefits only your own team and no one else, then you aren’t really doing much to help your customers. Most likely it may even be causing others an inconvenience for your own benefit.
I know this is becoming boring as I list the different things we learned that week in 1993. Sorry about that. I will cut it short by not talking about the “Empowerment Tool” that we learned about, or even the importance of Control Charts and go right to the best tool of them all. One that Power Plant Men all over can relate to. It is called the “Fishbone Diagram”.
There are few things that Power Plant Men like better than Fishing, so when we began to learn about the Fishbone diagram I could see that even some of the most stubborn skeptics couldn’t bring themselves to say something bad about the Fishbone diagram. Some were even so enthusiastic that they were over-inflating the importance (and size) of their Fishbone diagrams! — This along with the Cause and Effect chart were very useful tools in finding the root cause of a problem (or “barrier” as we referred to them).
All in all, this was terrific training. A lot of good things were done as a result to make things more efficient at the plant because of it. For the next year, the culture at the plant was being molded into a quality oriented team. This worked well at our particular plant because the Power Plant Men employed there already took great pride in their work. So, the majority of the crews fell behind the effort. I know of only one team at the coal yard where the entire team decided to have nothing to do with it.
When training was done, I told Rick that I thought that his company would really benefit by having a presence on the Internet. As I mentioned in last week’s post “Turning the Tables on a Power Plant Interloper” During this time the World Wide Web did not have browsers and modems did not have the bandwidth at this point, so CompuServe was the only service available for accessing the Internet for the regular population.
I asked Rick if he had heard about CompuServe. He said he had not heard of it. I told him that I thought the Internet was going to be the place where training would be available for everyone eventually and he would really benefit by starting a “Quality” Forum on CompuServe, because there wasn’t anything like that on the Internet at the time. I remember the puzzled look he gave me as he was leaving. I realized he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. Few people knew about the Internet in those days….
I have a number of stories about how the Quality Process thrived at the Power Plant over the next year that I will share. I promise those stories will not be as boring as this one.
Originally posted June 21, 2013:
Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Thanks to my high school math teacher Robert Burns, I have always admired Archimedes. I remember the day he was talking about him in class, and he was explaining how Archimedes had sat down in the bathtub and when the water overflowed, and he suddenly realized how to calculate the volume of the king’s crown, he jumped out of the tub and ran down the street in his birthday suit yelling “Eureka! Eureka!” Meaning… I have found it! I have found it! I especially remember Mr. Burn’s eyes tearing up as he told this story. To Mr. Burns, mathematics was an adventure. He instilled this love into me.
So, how does a discussion about Archimedes tie into a story about a Gas-fired Power Plant in central Oklahoma? Well it does, or it did, on December 19, 1985.
The day began with my drive from Oklahoma City, where I was staying, to Harrah, Oklahoma where I was on overhaul at a power plant called Horseshoe Lake Plant. The lake must have been named Horseshoe Lake for the obvious reason that it was shaped like a Horseshoe as it wrapped around the north part of the plant.
I suppose this lake was originally used to cool the condenser water once the steam had been used to turn the turbine, but it was much too small to be used by the units that were in operation when I was at the plant. Instead it was a Fish farm where Tilapia were raised.
I wrote about working at this plant on this overhaul in an earlier post called “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“. This morning when I arrived, I figured I would be working in the shop repairing more of the older open-faced motors with their sleeve bearing and cambric insulation. It started out that way.
One time during the morning, Ellis Rook, the electrical Supervisor came up to me and started talking to me about the ROLM phone computer. He knew I had experience working on the Phone system. I had been trained by the best even before I had gone to Muskogee to take a class. Bill Rivers at our plant had taught me how to make “moves and changes” and how to troubleshoot the entire plant’s phone system without ever leaving the lab.
Anyway. Ellis Rook told me about the problem they were having with the phone system that day. He told me what had been done to try to fix the problem. I was thinking of a few things I would try (even though I was still more of a Rookie than Ellis Rook — ok. I couldn’t resist that one). I had been an electrician in training for just over 2 years, which still made me a rookie.
I originally thought Ellis had approached me for ideas on how to fix the problem, so I was formulating some answers in my mind while he was going on… then he said, “What I do every time to fix any problem is just reboot the computer.” — ok. He wasn’t seeking advice. He was seeking approval. So, I looked at him with as blank of a stare I could and just nodded and replied, “Well, that usually does it.” — Nevermind that it took about 25 minutes for one of these old ROLM computers to reboot and during that time all communication with the outside world was cut-off.
This was when I remembered a story that Bob Kennedy had told me about Ellis Rook.
One day, he took another electrician with him to inspect the exciter collector rings on one of the units. The exciter is connected to one end of the generator usually (though if I’m not mistaken, the exciter house was off to one side), and it spins at 3600 rpm. It is not coincidental that this is 60 cycles per second, which is how fast the electricity alternates between positive and negative in your house. This is exactly why the electricity alternates that fast. Because that is how fast the turbine-generator is spinning.
Anyway, Ellis had taken a strobe light with him to go inspect the collector rings on the exciter because there was some indication that a fuse had blown on one of the collectors. Using the strobe light, you could set it to blink at 3600 times per minute and the collector rings spinning at 3600 rpm would appear to stand still.
By slowly adjusting the rate that the strobe light was flashing, you could rotate the shaft slowly and inspect it just as if it was standing still, even though in reality it was still spinning at 3600 rpms (the same speed as the lawn mower in the post: “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“).
After examining the shaft for a bit, they located the blown fuse. When the fuse blew, a little indicator would stick out so it could easily be seen. Ellis Rook slowly rotated the shaft around until the fuse was in a good position and then stopped the shaft from rotating by setting the strobe light to the exact same rate that the shaft was rotating.
Then Ellis said something that would go down in the Annals of History at Horseshoe Lake. He told the electrician to change out the fuse. — Ok. Stop and think about this for a minute. The room where the collector rings are is normally dark, so all they can see is this turbine shaft in front of them and it looked like it was standing still. Forget the roar of the spinning turbine and just chalk it up to a loud fan running.
Luckily the electrician wasn’t lulled into a false sense of security and didn’t put his hand forward to remove the fuse. That would have easily have been the last thing he would have ever done (as a live human being). — There has to be a good murder mystery plot involving a strobe light. I’m sure one of the great writers at WordPress can come up with one. I can think of a couple myself.
Anyway, when Ellis Rook told me how he fixed the telephone computer problems by rebooting the computer, this story flashed through my mind for about 3 seconds. I think I put my hands in my back pocket just for safe keeping.
Anyway. I ate lunch in the electric shop office with my ol’ “Roomie” Steven Trammell, (We have called each other roomie from the time we were in Muskogee on overhaul in 1984. See the post about Muskogee in the link above. To this day, we call each other roomie, as we have kept in touch throughout the years). While I was sitting there arguing with Art Hammond about something (See the post: “Power Plant Arguments with Arthur Hammond“) I was reading an instruction manual about some electronic sensor that could tell you the percentage open a series of valves all in one little box.
Reggie Deloney had been working with the engineer on this valve detecting device for the past 4 weeks, and couldn’t get it to work. The engineer asked me if I would look at it to see if I could figure out what was wrong with it, because it wasn’t working at all…. It would work every now and then, but then it would stop.
When I read the manual I noticed that there was a “common” in the circuitry and that Reggie and the engineer had assumed that the common was the same as the “ground”. This usually isn’t true in electronic circuits as it is in regular electrical wiring. So, I stood up from where I was lounging back reading the pamplet and lifted the common wire up so that it wasn’t touching the metal cart, and suddenly the valve indicator worked.
When Reggie returned from lunch, I excitedly told him what I had found. He looked a little astonished, so I showed him. He had only spent the last 4 weeks working on this. So, I went into the shop and worked on another motor.
Later I walked into the office figuring that Reggie had told the good news to the engineer. He was sitting there with the engineer scratching their heads still trying to figure out why the instrument still wasn’t working. So, I picked up the wire so it wasn’t touching the cart, and said. “See? Works.” Reggie with a very irritated voice said, “Yes! You figured it out!” He looked at me with a look that said, “Get out of here!” So, I left.
Art, who was listening said, “I don’t think Reggie is ready to figure it out yet.” Then I got it. Oh. I see… It is nice and cool and clean in the office. The engineer wasn’t going to figure it out on his own…. Just a week or so left of overhaul….
About that time, Bob Kennedy, my acting A Foreman told me to go with Bill Thomas and help him out. Bill was from our plant and was a welder. He was working out of our shop to help us out with any mechanical needs we had from welding to uncoupling pumps and fans and realigning motors and any other stuff. Now… I know that Bill Thomas had a nickname. But I usually called people by their real names, so I only remember him as Bill Thomas. Maybe a Power Plant Man reading this post will remind me of Bill’s nickname.
This is where Archimedes comes into the story.
So, Bill Thomas had been working on a cooling water fan structure all morning single-handed lifting it up. It weighed somewhere between 50 to 75 tons. um… yes…. I think that is about it… about 100,000 pounds. yet, Bill using nothing but the muscles in his arms and back had been lifting this monstrosity off of the ground. Like Archimedes who lifted an entire ship out of the water once using a lever.
You see. With True Power Plant Men, you really don’t ever hear that something “can’t” be done. Bill had to work under this large round hunk of metal, so he had to pick it up. After spending two hours lifting it with only his two arms spinning a huge chain-fall, he had managed to lift the structure 2 inches from the ground. — well. No one said anything about tossing it in the air… just lifting it off the ground. He still had about 22 inches more to go.
This was where I came in. Did I tell you this plant was old? Well it was. They didn’t have a lot of electricity in this building we were in, and there wasn’t an electric hoist, so Bill had to pull a chain that went around a pulley that turned a shaft to a gearbox that would slowly (real slowly) lift something huge. So, the Power Plant Men from this plant had created a “tool” to make this job faster.
Bill had pulled an air compressor over to the building and had hooked the air hose up to the special tool.
This was going to make his job much faster. There was only once catch. He needed an extra weight. I was the extra weight that he needed.
You see. The special tool was an air powered grinder.
And it was mounted to a piece of plywood. the grinding wheel had been replaced with a pulley. The idea was to stand on the plywood and step on the lever that operated the grinder so that it would spin the pulley. The chain for the chain-fall would fit through the pulley assembly.
Bill had asked the person that gave him this special tool what happens when the chain snags. They said, that’s when you need the extra weight. They explained to Bill that when two people are standing on the plywood, they will be able to overpower the grinder so that it can’t pull itself out from under them. If there isn’t enough weight on the plywood, then if the chain snags, the special tool will slide across the floor and attempt to climb up to the top of the chain-fall until someone lets off of the lever that operates the grinder.
So. I was the extra weight. Not that I was all that big at the time.
Anyway. The next thing I knew, I was standing on the plywood, and Bill was operating the large grinder with his foot and we were lifting the large cylinder off of the ground. Before long we had it at least a foot up. Bill had put some stops under the cylinder in case we had to set it down for some reason, it wouldn’t have to go all the way to the ground.
That’s when it hit me…. No. I didn’t suddenly remember that I hadn’t had any chocolate for lunch (though, that would have been a tragedy). No. That is when as I was watching the chain spin through the pulley at breakneck speed, the chain suddenly went taut. As the chain became snagged in the chain-fall, the chain whipped up, and before I could perceive what had happened I found myself lifted off of the ground and being thrown backward.
The chain had flew back and slapped me across the face, sending my hardhat flying and shattering my safety glasses. I ended up on my back about 5 feet from where I had been standing. Bill rushed to my side to check if I was all right. I checked myself out and decided that I was going to be all right.
I told him I needed to go get another pair of safety glasses from the tool room. he looked at my eyes and said. “Boy. That is really going to be a shiner tomorrow.” Evidently, I was developing a black eye. I was thinking… “Great! And I’m getting married in two days. I can just see my wedding pictures.”
I went to the tool room and checked out a new pair of safety glasses:
When I returned to the electric shop, Bill Thomas and Arthur were there. Everyone was saying the same thing. “Boy! That is sure going to be a shiner tomorrow.”
A little while later, Ellis Rook came in the shop and said that Larry Hatley (the plant manager) wanted to talk to me. So, I followed Ellis to the Plant Manager’s office. Larry asked me if I was ok. He wanted to know if I needed medical attention. I assured him that I was all right. My safety glasses had protected me. They had been destroyed in the process, but I was just fine. I think as I left I heard Larry say under his breath, “boy… that is going to be a shiner tomorrow.”
Well. The next day (December 20, 1985) when I showed up at work (my last day there for overhaul before leaving to be married the following day), everyone came around to look at my eye. There wasn’t anything to see really. Any swelling had gone down over the night, and my face was back to it’s regular… um…. tolerable self.
The people I worked with the fall of 1985 at Horseshoe Power Plant treated me like family while I was there. That was the way it was when you worked with True Power Plant Men. I cherish their memory.
Comment from original post:
Originally posted on June 23, 2012:
Power Plant Welders need a large stock of specialized Welding Rods. Mechanics need all sizes of wrenches, files, hones and calibers. Electricians need a good pair of side cutters, strippers, red, yellow, orange and blue wire nuts, butt splices and Electrical tape. Instrument and Controls need all kinds of transmitters, converters, pressure gauges, and PLCs. The one thing Every True Power Plant Man needed was a Stainless Steel, highly decorated, colorful and sturdy Belt buckle. A couple of post ago I talked about the machinist that were around in the beginning when I first arrived at the plant. I mentioned that any True Power Plant Machinist could create just about any part needed at the plant. One such piece of quality craftsmanship was the Oval Belt Buckle:
You see, When you take a Stainless Steal Pipe and you cut it at an angle, the resulting shape is an oval just right to make a belt buckle:
During those first couple of years when the machinists were correcting mistakes made by the manufacturers of all types of motors, pumps and fans, between jobs, a machinist had a little down time when they could let their lathes, mills, bandsaws and drills cool off some. It was during this time that the creativity of the machinists were revealed to the rest of the Power Plant Men. In those early days, even more than their hard hat stickers, the Belt Buckle was the status symbol of any Power Plant Man driving a pickup truck with a gun rack in the back window. Making the belt buckle in very high demand at the plant.
Power Plant men were on the lookout for any kind of colored stone or odd shaped piece of metal that could be used to adorn their own specially machined belt buckle supplied by the Power Plant Machine Shop. Stainless Steel Nuts and small pieces of pipe were machined down to make ornamental designs to fit in the center of belt buckle. Copper pieces could be used to add color along with the colorful stones found lying about in the pasture.
The Machinist would carefully mill the pieces down to just the right thickness. The stainless steel oval cut from the pipe was carefully milled to give the proper curve to make the belt buckle just the right shape. Different types of epoxy was used as filler to hold everything in place. Even “Jewelers Rouge” was used to polish the belt buckle until it shined like silver and the stones as if they had been placed in a tumbler to give them the perfect smooth surface.
I remember the day when Sonny Karcher asked me if I wanted to have my very own specially designed belt buckle. At the time I was not knowledgeable enough to realize the great treasure that was being offered to me for free. I just looked down at my skinny waist (it’s a wonder I can remember that many inches ago) and thought that it wouldn’t be easy to swing a Weed Wacker with a big oval belt buckle scraping across my abdomen, so I politely declined. If I had known better, I would have agreed, and taken my prize home to hang on the wall as memento of my early power plant days.
At the time there were a lot of things about the power plant men that I didn’t fully appreciate until years later. For instance, their generosity. They were always looking out for each other and if they found a bargain somewhere, they let everyone else in on it. That was one way you could tell a True Power Plant Man from the imitation wannabee’s.
During the first summer Ray Butler came up to me and said that a guy was selling 100 pound sacks of potatoes, and was wondering if I would go in on it with him, since he really only wanted 50 pounds. If I did, he would let me keep the gunny sack. I believe the 50 pounds of potatoes cost about $15. My mom had to figure out about 15 different ways to make potatoes, because we ate potatoes until they were growing out of our ears… (oh wait, that’s what you do when you don’t wash your ears properly). Anyway, before we were done with that bag of potatoes my dad and possibly even my brother and I were eating them raw like turnips as the Potato Gun hadn’t been invented yet.
Another time a peach orchard just up the road toward Marland Oklahoma was letting you go and pick your own peaches and buy them by the box full for a real good price, so after work, we all headed over to the peach orchard where the man that owned the orchard would drive you around the orchard in a trailer to where the ripe peaches were so that you could go around and pick all the peaches you wanted to take home.
In those early days, people could bring different types of produce and vegetables and other types of food products from their farms and sell them to their fellow power plant men for a good discount. That is, until the evil plant manager realized that it was taking money out of the Canteen Fund, which he felt was his own responsibility to make sure the coffers of the Canteen were always kept overflowing. — Until one year when they were going to show enough profit to have to pay taxes…
Anyway. The Canteen fund was used to purchase turkeys for the workers at Thanksgiving. One year when the fund didn’t have enough money to buy turkeys, the men at the power plant bailed the hay in the pastures that surrounded the north end of the lake, and sold the bails to pay for the turkeys. Then when Corporate Headquarters got wind of it, they insisted that the hay belonged to the Electric Company, and therefore could not be used to buy turkeys for the workers of just that one plant that had used their own money to fill the money box at the plant. And that was the end of the free turkeys for Thanksgiving. Kind of took the “Thanks” out of the giving… Needless to say, the hay wasn’t bailed much after that, it was just brush hogged like a right-of-way. I’m sure there is a Turkey out there somewhere that is grateful to Corporate Headquarters, but it isn’t the kind of mindless Turkey that cared more about messing with someone’s morale than about the efficiency of a Power Plant. It was amazing how much of a morale booster a free turkey can be. Just think about it. Here were Top Power Plant hands at the time making close to $20 an hour or $160 a day who went home with a big grin on their face just like Bob Cratchit when Ebenezer Scrooge gave him the Giant Goose for Christmas, so they could hear their own children say, “God Bless Us, every one!”
Although, the truth be known, it was found out a few years later that the evil plant manager used the excuse that “It Came Down From Corporate Headquarters” often to make unpopular policies at our plant, where Corporate Headquarters was not aware that their good and friendly nature was being tarnished by a rogue plant manager in some distant Power Plant Land far far away up north in the wastelands of Oklahoma.
Anyway, I sometimes wonder how many power plant men that were around in the first days before both units went live still have one or more of those quality built belt buckles made exclusively by Power Plant Machinists for Power Plant Men. If so, they ought to take them down from the fireplace mantle or remove it from the glass case and dust it off and bring it to work some day just to show the New Generation X Power Plant newbies (or pups as we used to call them) what it was like living in the Power Plant Kingdom back when the great towering stacks were being raised, and the boilers were being built like skyscrapers out in the middle of the countryside.
Then they can gather them around by the boiler and open one of the small hatchways so that the orange glow of the fireball inside can illuminate the grating and the eager faces of the young power plant men waiting to hear the stories of brave men long ago who were rewarded with free turkeys at Thanksgiving. They can recall how proud they were to take the Free Turkeys home to their families all waiting eagerly by the window to watch as their father as he braved the Oklahoma west wind and dust storms to find his way to their door. Greeting them with hugs and the proud acknowledgement of how much the Electric Company appreciated their father enough to give his family one free turkey every year. Can you hear it? Is that my son by the fireplace? Did he just say what I thought he said? Yes. It was. He said, “God Bless Us, Every One!”
Comments from the Original Post:
eideard June 23, 2013 at 4:57 pm
I’ll bet there were folks who passed along tools when they retired, passed them along to the next generation or so in their own family.
I still use a couple of fine screwdrivers that were my grandfather’s when he worked in the machine shop at Otis Elevator in Yonkers, NY.
Plant Electrician June 26, 2012 at 3:20 pm
I have a story about one such old tool that I will write about in a future post.
jackcurtis July 7, 2012 at 1:41 pm
Yeah! I’ve inherited tools from earlier times now unavailable, replaced by newer power stuff that sometimes, won’t do what the older tool accomplished easily…
Plant Electrician July 7, 2012 at 4:07 pmThat is definitely what I experienced. I have a story about trying to destroy an old power drill so that we could purchase a new one.
Additional Comments from previous post:
My friends will tell you that I tend to not take things too seriously. It seems that the more serious the situation, the more I joke around about it. I know that this drives some people up the wall sometimes. Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, used to call me “rascal” and maybe that was because I was one. That was the way life seemed to be for the majority of the people at the Power Plant. One of the funniest days in my life happened when Corporate Headquarters learned a thing or two about not taking things too seriously.
Eight Power Plant Men had been assigned to work in Corporate Headquarters for a ten week period. I wrote about the reason for this in the post: “Do Power Plant Men and Corporate Headquarters Mix?” I also wrote a post about how the Power Plant Men played one joke after the other on Kent Norris the entire time. See the post: “Corporate Executive Kent Norris Meets Power Plant Men“. We know that the entire floor of corporate headquarters was kept in a slightly disturbed state as they were constantly hearing the “hee-hawing” coming from our over-sized cube where they had put us in a corner of the building hoping to isolate the ruckus we were making constantly.
We didn’t make enemies of our victi… uh.. I mean “our friends” when we played jokes. We tried to do them in such a way that they would appreciate the thought and ingenuity that went into each joke we played on them. On the other hand, passerby’s and those that worked within earshot had to endure the constant uproar of laughter. They were missing out on all the fun, and we were just being a bother.
I think that’s why we received the initial reaction we did when we arrived at an SAP banquet during the last week we were going to be at Corporate Headquarters. The banquet was being held in a banquet room in a hotel on the west side of Oklahoma City. We had all carpooled in a couple of cars and arrived at the same time.
When we walked into the banquet room, we could see right away that we didn’t fit in. No one had told us that we were supposed to wear a suit…. well, it wouldn’t have mattered if they had, we still would have arrived in our blue jeans and tee shirts. At least our clothes were clean. I didn’t have one coal dust stain on my entire shirt.
We were told where we were supposed to sit. The Power Plant Men were directed to a large circular table in the back middle of the room. We figured they didn’t want us close to podium in case someone was going to be taking pictures of the speakers. This was an appreciation lunch for the SAP project teams. We were only a small group compared to the rest of the room.
During the lunch, recognition was given to the different SAP teams. We were mentioned for having completed our tasks two weeks early and had been given additional work and had completed that as well. All together, we had rewritten over 140,000 warehouse part descriptions so they would fit in SAP and would be easily “searchable”. We stood up and bowed and everyone applauded.
I think up to that point, the rest of the room had thought that the people sitting at our table was going to be providing the entertainment and that we were all “in costume”. Once they realized that we were Power Plant Men, their gaze turned from “anticipation” to “curiosity”. When a bunch of Power Plant Men are all sitting at one table and there is food involved, we can become quite a spectacle.
After the lunch was over and recognition and awards were given, an interesting man stood up and started to speak. He seemed like a rather goofy person and while he spoke he kept playing with a paper cup. Popping it up in the air and catching it… or accidentally not catching it and having to go pick it up. I thought he was becoming rather annoying as he kept distracting us from his boring words of wisdom because he kept playing with this stupid paper cup.
After a minute, he mentioned that there are lots of things you can do with a paper cup to entertain yourself. You can pop it up in the air and try to catch it. You can turn it over on a desk and beat it like a drum. You can put in over your mouth and suck in to create a suction and walk around with the cup stuck to your face in order to impress your coworkers. You can talk into it and sound like Darth Vader. You can tie a string between two paper cups to make a telephone.
Ok. That was a little more interesting than the speech he had been making. I began formulating in my mind how I might play a trick on Gene Day using a paper cup telephone when I returned back at the plant.
I borrowed this picture from a fellow WordPress blogger: “The B.S. Report”
This person’s name turned out to be Stephen Kissell and he is a “motivational speaker”. I had heard about Motivational Speakers by watching Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live as the Motivator who lived in a van down by the river. See the following short YouTube video for my conception of a Motivational Speaker:
for those who can’t view the video from the video above can click here: “Matt Foley Down by the River”
Anyway, Steve Kissell was dressed about the same way as Chris Farley in that skit. It was definitely mismatched clothing. I wondered if he lived in a van down by the river as well.
Then Stephen said that he needed some people from the audience to come up and help him with something. He had the names of some people he would like to help him. Obviously, someone had given these names to him in order to make the next “skit” he was going to perform turn out best. He called up three people, a couple of well dressed and prim and proper ladies and a man. They looked like they were the upper class stuck up types which, as it turned out was essential for this to play out properly.
Then Steve explained that in projects, in order to complete large task, you just have each person do smaller tasks, and when you put them all together, you can actually perform something great. So he asked each one to do one little task when he tapped on his paper cup.
I don’t remember the exact tasks, but they were simple like shrug your left shoulder, and then your right, or squat down and then stand back up. Little things like that.
Then after he had instructed each person what they should do, he tapped out a tune on the paper cup and they each performed their simple tasks over and over until he stopped.
After trying that a few times, he added other little tasks to each person one at a time. The result was that after a while he had each of them performing a real goofy dance that made them all look silly dressed up in their finest clothes dancing around like kids.
There was something so funny about the way Stephen Kissell had set this up that everyone was laughing their hearts out. The laughter was so thunderous that it sounded like one loud roar. I thought I was going to lose my lunch. I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe.
This guy who had stood up and begun by annoying his audience (which was my philosophy as well… See the post: “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“) had turned them into driveling piles of laughter after 10 minutes. Up to that point, I hadn’t laughed that hard since I had seen the movie “Gus” when I was a boy.
Ok. Here is a side story about the movie “Gus”.
In 1976, when I was 15 years old, my brother (who was 11) and I went to the movies to see a Disney movie called “Gus” about a donkey who can kick a football through the goal post and ends up on a football team. It starred Don Knotts and Tim Conway, two comedians who were masters of slap stick comedy. This was still back when the movie theaters were large and there was only one theater in the building. — Yeah. They would only show one movie at a time. Amazing. Huh?
Anyway, there is a scene in a grocery store where they are chasing the donkey down the aisles trying to catch him. The comedy had built up so much that by that point the entire audience of children were laughing so hard that the sound was deafening. You literally could not hear anything but a loud constant roar. I remember that I could hardly breathe I was laughing so hard.
I suppose it is a little like the Kennedy/Nixon debate… When you heard it on the radio, Nixon won the debate, but when you saw it on Television, Kennedy won the debate… I say that because fast forwarding 10 years, in 1986, I had the opportunity to watch Gus on TV. I couldn’t wait to relive the hilarious moment in the Grocery store.
When the moment finally arrived, it came and went and I didn’t really see much humor in it at all. It was just Don Knotts and Tim Conway fumbling around acting goofy. I couldn’t understand what had been so funny in the movie theater when the entire theater had erupted with such intense laughter. I guess you just had to be there in the movie theater at the time. Whatever it was didn’t translate to the TV.
I talked to my brother about it a few years later when he brought up the same topic. He said he had rented the movie Gus and had insisted that his four children sit and watch it all together as they ate popcorn. They all sat around and watched the movie and my brother Greg said, “it wasn’t funny at all.” He couldn’t figure it out.
End of Side Story
I heard that same statement a few years later when I had said something at Dell and my manger thought it was so funny that she went and repeated it to our director. When she did, she said it didn’t sound funny at all when she said it. The truth is, it’s not always what you are saying… it’s how you say it. The inflection in your voice and the expression on your face. Pausing at just the right time.
When we had all been sufficiently slain in the spirit of Stephen’s humor, and the banquet was over, we were all given a copy of Stephen’s book “Surviving Life With Laughter”.
We were also given a copy of a second Steve Kissell book:
In Steve Kissell’s books, he tells stories and jokes that you can use or modify to fit the type of job you may be in at the moment. This was something that Power Plant Men already knew how to do well, but always appreciated a good joke.
I found that Stephen Kissell is still out there 19 years spreading good humor to the corporate world and the rest of humanity. If you’re in the need of a motivational speaker. You may consider looking up Stephen. Or…. you may find him living in a van down by the river!
As my readers know, I have written a number of posts about Power Plant Humor, See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“. Humor is the best motivator I have found to keep people on track and not get too carried away with details. I have learned this by working with the Power Plant Men over the years.
The most solid advise I remember from the “Pre-Cana” sessions (a program you have to go through in order to be married in the Catholic Church) we had with the priest when my wife and I were preparing to be married was “Always keep your sense of humor”. So, when the situation looks hopeless, and there doesn’t appear to be a viable solution available, that is the time to take a step back in your mind and look for the humor in the situation.
It has always been important that true Power Plant Men not play jokes on another person in a way that would end up hurting them. Whenever that would inadvertently happen, then a sincere apology would definitely have to follow and some sort of retribution. Usually, sharing your Squirrel Stew with them during lunch was an appropriate form of retribution for any joke gone awry.
Even though we played one joke after the other on Kent Norris, after 12 weeks of torment, he still remained friends with the Power Plant Men. I heard from him a week after we left when Kent sent a letter to me through intra-company mail. He returned my name tag to me…. I have kept this letter with the name tag since that day in 1996 as a reminder of the days we spent torturing Kent with humor:
Originally posted June 13, 2014:
When discussing Telephones at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I have to remember that some of my readers have a completely different perspective of telephones than me. My children grew up probably never seeing a real rotary dial phone except in movies or old TV shows. It might be a little hard for them to imagine a telephone being a possible murder weapon. Telephones have come a long way since I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s.
When you turned the dial on a Rotary phone you put your finger int he hole on the number you want to dial and then you swing it around until your finger bumps up against the metal bracket. When you pull you finger out of the hole, the phone sends a rapid succession of pulses to the telephone company telling them what number you just dialed. It was very… well…. tedious and manual…. and not even electronic. It was electric signals and switches. “Mechanical” is the word I think I’m trying to say.
Even the way you received a dial tone was by sending something called a “Ring-to-ground” signal to the telephone company. That would happen when you would lift the receiver off the hook. There are only two wires used to communicate in an old phone and only one of those had voltage on it. when you ground that wire (called the “Ring”) momentarily, the phone company would then send a dial tone to your phone.
You could actually do this on a dead phone line at times when the phone company had shut off your service. On an old pay phone, when the proper coin was inserted in the phone, the coin itself was used to ground the ring wire, thus telling the telephone company to send the dial tone, allowing you to use the phone. In 1983 there was a movie called “Wargames”.
I had learned about how these telephones worked from Bill Rivers just before going to watch this movie. During the movie Matthew Broderick’s character needed to make a phone call at a pay phone but didn’t have a coin. By taking the mouthpiece off of the transmitter, and using a metal pop top he found on the ground, he was able to ground the “ring” wire to the pay phone, and he received a dial tone. There was a good ol’ boy sitting behind me in the movie theater that said, “You can’t do that!” — Being the newly educated smart (-alec) guy I was, I turned around and said, “Yeah. You really can.”
Anyway. This isn’t a story so much about how old phones work. I just wanted to bring the younger readers back-to-date on phones since now they don’t really call them telephones anymore. It is more like, “Smart Phone” and “Cell Phone”, “Mobile Phone” or just “Phone”. The phone in the house isn’t even referred to as a telephone. We now call them “Home Phone” to distinguish them from the actual phones that we use.
Anyway, when I joined the electric shop in 1983, I learned about the phone system. We didn’t use the older Rotary Dial phones at the plant. We were one step up. We had “Touch Tone” Phones.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, we had our own telephone computer at the Power Plant. It was called a ROLM phone system. See the post “A Slap In the Face at a Gas-fired Power Plant“.
To give you an idea of the technology used by this phone system, you connected to it using a “teletype” terminal that you connected to a telephone by clipping the receiver in a cradle. Then you dialed the phone computer. When you connected, it was at 300 Baud. Think of 300 bytes per second, only using audio…. like a fax machine. — It was like connecting using a modem. 300 baud meant that when it typed out the results on the paper that scrolled out the top, you could watch it as it slowly printed out each line. The maximum speed of the terminal was 300 baud.
In this picture you can see the cradle in the back where the phone receiver would fit in those two rubber cups.
After many years of going to the lab to connect to the telephone computer to make changes and to monitor the telephone traffic, in 1992 I decided to bring my 8088 computer to work and set it on the desk in the electric shop. We didn’t have our own computer yet. At that time the only people that had computers were office workers and the Shift Supervisor. We had started a computer club and having a computer in the shop was a big help. I had just replaced this computer at home with a 486.
I had a modem on my computer, so I tried connecting to the telephone computer, and it worked! So, sometimes during lunch when Charles Foster and I were sitting there talking about movies we had seen eating vegetables from his garden, I would connect to the ROLM computer and just watch the call log. I could see whenever someone was dialing in and out of the plant.
We had a special call in number into the plant that allowed you to make “trunk” calls. This is another term you don’t hear much anymore. You see….. for the younger readers (again)…. long distant calls used to cost a lot of money. You would be charged by how many minutes you were on the call. During the day, it could be as high as $3.00 a minute to call across the country. Amazing huh? Because today, most of you with cell phones and even your land lines (which are rarely real land lines anymore) long distant phone calls are now free with your phone plan.
Yeah, if you wanted to call someone in the next town over, you would have to pay a fee for every minute you were on the call…. That was when AT&T had a monopoly on the phone lines in the United States. Sure, you only payed $7.00 each month for your phone, but you could only call people in your immediate area or you would be charged extra.
A Trunk line gave you access to a much wider area. The Electric company had a trunk line that gave them access to most of Oklahoma. You could dial into a local number that would connect you to the company phone system. Then after entering the correct password number, you could dial access numbers that would take you to another office location in the electric company. Once on that phone system, you could dial to get an outside line, and then dial a local number in that area.
Our plant had three access numbers that allowed you to dial out locally to Stillwater, Ponca City and Pawnee. This was useful when a foreman needed to call people out to work. They could dial into the plant, then back out to one of these other towns and then dial the local phone number of the crew member they were trying to reach without incurring a personal charge on their phone line.
So, here I was in 1992 during lunch watching the phone traffic in and out of the plant (not exactly NSA style, but sort of), when I saw something unexpected. A long string of numbers showed up. Someone had dialed in on the Stillwater trunk, then dialed out on the Oklahoma City trunk, from there they placed a long distance call to phone number in the same area code. The prefix on the phone number was familiar to me. It was a Ponca City phone number. I had lived in Ponca City for three years when I had been married, from 1986 to 1989. I knew a Ponca City phone number when I saw one.
I thought this was odd, because it wouldn’t be normal for someone to dial from Stillwater through out plant to Oklahoma City only to call a Ponca City phone number when they could have dialed the local Ponca City access code. Then they wouldn’t have had to make a long distance call which bypassed our trunk call system causing the electric company to be billed for the long distance telephone call.
At the time I was a CompuServe user. This was when the World Wide Web was in it’s infancy. I was still using a DOS computer. When I connected to the Internet, it was either by using my dad’s Internet account from Oklahoma State University where I would use Telnet to access a bunch of mainframe computers all over the country, or I would use the DOS-based version of CompuServe. CompuServe was the king of Internet access before America Online came around and seemingly overnight made CompuServe obsolete.
In 1992, CompuServe had a service where you could look up phone numbers and find out whose number it was. Imagine that! Yeah. That was one of the neatest features on CompuServe! That and getting stock quotes. — Like I said…. There was no “www.whitepages.com” online. The only catch to using the reverse phone number feature, was that it was like making a long distance call. It cost money. You were charged by the minute for using the CompuServe reverse telephone number service, with the least amount being a dollar.
So, I bit the bullet and accessed the Phone Number lookup section of CompuServe. I quickly typed in the number. When the name and address of the user popped up, I quickly hit “Print Screen”, and then exited the service. My fee came to $1.00, but at least I knew what number had been dialed in Ponca City.
Charles, Scott Hubbard and I were a little excited by the time Terry Blevins walked into the electric shop office after lunch was over, I told him what I had seen.
When I told Terry the name of the person that had received the long distance call, he recognized the name right away. When I gave him the address, he was sure he knew who it was. The phone number belonged to the Music Director at the Ponca City High School. His son was attending college in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Well, that sort of cinched it. We had a pretty good idea who had made the call. It was a college student calling home, who had been given the phone number most likely by a fellow student who knew the code to call home in Oklahoma City. So, the only local access code this guy knew was how to dial through our plant to Oklahoma City and back out where he was free to make a long distance call home.
Armed with this knowledge, I headed up to the front office. I went straight to the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman’s office. I told Ron what I had found. I explained in detail how the person had dialed from Stillwater into our plant and then to Oklahoma City and out and then placed a long distance call to Ponca City leaving us with the phone bill. Since it was the middle of the day, the cost of a long distance call was not cheap.
I told Ron that I had used CompuServe to lookup the phone number and found that Terry had said that it belonged to the Music Director at the Ponca City High School and that he had a son in college in Stillwater. I was all ready to pounce on this guy. This was a fraudulent use of the telephone service and there were some pretty strict laws then about stealing long distance from someone else.
Ron, being the more level-headed of the two of us thought about it for a minute and said, “What would be the best way to stop this from happening?” — Oh. Well. I was so intent on catching the culprit, I hadn’t thought about that angle…. “Well….” I said, “We could change the pass code used to log into our phone system. We would just have to tell our supervisors what the new number is.”
Ron asked me what it would take to do that. I told him I could do it in two minutes. We quickly settled on a new 4 digit pass code and I left his office and returned to the electric shop and made the change essentially turning the tables on the Telephone Interloper. I suppose the college student in Stillwater was lucky that our plant manager at the time was the type to forgive and forget.
Three years later the entire electric company phone system was replaced by a new AT&T computer which was managed by AT&T. As you can tell… Technology just keeps moving forward making seemingly really neat new inventions quickly obsolete.