Monthly Archives: April, 2012

Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?

It may not seem obvious what fighting dragons has to do with Power Plant Men but when I was a Power Plant Man in-training I was able to witness quite the battle between the Power Plant Men and a Dragon one night.  The main weapon they used was a Lance and the Dragon spewed hot scalding water in their faces as they stood against it to fell that foul beast!  The Hot fiery breath blowing two men off of a landing with one of them ending up hospitalized.

I was in training to be a Power Plant Man my first four years as a summer help.  The first summer I worked in the maintenance shop as a helper on different crews of mechanics.  The second summer (1980), however, was when I began learning the skills to become a Knight of the Power Plant Kingdom.  I was first introduced to my weapons of battle by Stanley Elmore when he attempted to train the fresh summer help crew by giving each of us a Weed Wacker:

The first feeble try at chopping weeds

We were driven to the road leading out to the dam. A three mile stretch of guard rails on both sides with weeds growing up around them and down the dike to the water.  Our job was to chop all of the weeds from there to the dam on both sides of the road.  And when we were done, there were plenty of other roadways that needed to be cleared.  Sort of Chain Gang style only without the chains.  Needless to say, we came back for break and all of our weed wackers were broken.  We were chopping large weeds, a lot of them full grown sunflowers taller than us.  The weed wackers just bent back and forth until they quickly fell apart.

So, Stanley went to the welders and had them weld the blades back on the weed wackers using angle iron.  This worked a little better, but the flimsy blades were no match for the thousands of sunflowers and thistles and small bushes.

An Army of Sunflowers invading the land

So Stanley did the next best thing.  The next day he brought us some heavy duty brush choppers that he had the welding shop reinforce, making them weigh about 15 pounds.

Our Weed Choppers were reinforced with extra metal on the blade and the handle

Armed with this I found that chopping Sunflowers became enjoyable.  With each swing of this heavy weight I could lay a sunflower down without missing a stride.  I was well on my way as squire of the Power Plant Knights.  Later Stanley gave us gas powered Industrial sized weed-eaters with saw blades.  The weed-eater attached to a harness so you could swing it back and forth all day mowing down the enemy.  I wore a face shield and ear muffs attached to my hardhat to guard against flying debris.  This was much like the helmets worn by knights, and probably as hot I’m sure as we cleared away miles and miles of roadway of weeds under the searing sun.

But nothing prepared me as much as one Saturday after shoveling coal since 8 in the morning until 5 in the evening during coal clean-up when we were told that the Number 1 Boiler had a large buildup of ash in the bottom ash hopper and the clinker grinder couldn’t break it up.  If we weren’t able to break it up quickly the boiler would have to come off line and we would stop producing electricity (as number 2 boiler was not yet online).   So, the Power Plant Men who had been shoveling coal since the break of day made their way to the bottom ash hopper under the boiler.

Some began building a scaffold (as if they had done this before).  Chuck Ross was in charge along with Cleve Smith and they had developed a plan where the Power Plant Men would stand on the scaffold back away from the hopper while someone would pop open the hopper door by standing off to one side (I think this was Cleve Smith) and one unlucky guy standing on the landing directly in front of the hopper door would guide a 30 foot lance into the portal and into the jaws of the dragon.  Once there, the he-men in the back would stab the rock hard bottom ash with all of their might as steaming hot water came gushing out the doorway.

I don’t remember if we drew lots or someone just said, “Let the summer help do it.” but I was the person chosen to stand directly in front of the door of the bottom ash hopper when it was knocked open as Cleve hit the latch with a sledge hammer.  I was told that water was going to come blasting out of the doorway, so be prepared, because it was important that I guide the lance into the portal so that it could be used to smash up the bottom ash clinkers enough to allow the clinker grinder to do it’s work.

I wasn’t really prepared when the door was knocked open.  First there was a loud boom as the door flew open and hit the side of the structure.  I was blown back against the handrail by hot water (The stairway came up the side then, not like it is today).  After gaining my footing, I was able to guide the lance through the door so the 6 or so he-men behind me could go to work thrusting the lance in, backing it out, and thrusting it back in all while I was guiding it so that it remained lined up with the doorway.  I also was not prepared for the hot water to turn into scalding hot water as the water level in the boiler hopper became lower.  The main hopper gate wasn’t able to close the first few times because of the clinkers, so all I could do was hope that I didn’t end up like a boiled egg by the time we were through.

After the door was closed, the operators went to work filling the hoppers back up with water, as Chuck and Cleve watched the Clinker grinder to see if it was able to crush the clinkers.  You could tell by looking at the shaft that would go one way, then stop and go the other way when it wasn’t able to crush the clinkers.

We repeated these steps over and over until the clinker grinder was finally able to function.  At one point when the hopper was being filled, everyone took off running when all of the sudden water was pouring out from up above all over the bottom area of the boiler.  I didn’t understand how that could have happened until someone explained to me that the bottom ash hopper sits underneath the boiler, but the boiler is suspended from the top and floats over the bottom ash hopper, and when the hopper was filled with water too high, it overflowed, and spilled out the space between the hopper and the boiler. (Remember the Bottom Ash Overflow Sump Pump from a previous post?  Well, it wasn’t working that night).

We all went up to the break room to take a break.  It was about 10 pm.  We were given big “atta boys” for saving the company tons of money because they didn’t have to shutdown the boiler to clear the hopper.  We waited around to see if they would send us home for the night.  A little while later, we found out that there was a section of ash that was still built up on the side of the boiler just above the hopper and they were afraid that if it were to fall into the hopper all at once, it would jam up the clinker grinder again and leave us in the same predicament as before.  So we went back to work trying to figure out how to knock down the shelf of hard ash piece at a time.

It turned out that if you shoot the ash with a fire hose, the ash would sort of explode because of the cold water hitting such a hot object.  So, a fire hose was used to knock down most of the ash shelf and it worked pretty good.  After a while there was only one more spot to knock down and we could all go home.  The only problem was that it was directly above the hatchway door on one side of the boiler, and it was too far across the boiler to hit it with the fire hose.  So Mike Vogle was called out (he was a new welder that hadn’t been at the plant too long at this point).  It was Mike’s job to weld the fire hose nozzle to the end of a long pipe (the second lance of the evening) so that it could be extended into the boiler far enough to shoot water on the ash shelf above the hatchway door on the far side.

At one point Chuck told me to go see how Mike was doing with the pipe, and I went to the welding shop and asked him how long it would be.  He told me not much longer, maybe 15 minutes.  I was on my way back to the boiler when I met Cleve Smith and Chuck Ross on their way back to the shop by way of the locker room.  So, I followed along behind them in the dark.  I told them Mike would be done in about 15 minutes and they said that it was all right because the ash was knocked down.  They didn’t need it anymore.  As they passed by the tool room back door, by the light from the window I could see blood running down the arms of both Chuck and Cleve.  So, I said, “Hey Chuck.  Do you know you’re bleeding?”  He replied that he did, and then I realized that both of them had been injured.  They both walked straight into the shower and Mike Grayson came in and explained to me that they had tried to knock down the ash from the hatchway directly underneath the shelf of ash, and when they did, the shelf broke loose and fell.  When that happened, it sent a blast of hot air through the doorway knocking Chuck and Cleve off of the landing as their arms went up to protect their faces.

Mike Grayson was my ride home.  We left shortly after the ambulance left to bring Chuck to the hospital in Stillwater.  It was close to 2 in the morning.  Mike was a new employee also.  We both sat silently in the truck on the way home numbed by the accident and worn out from shoveling coal and lancing the boiler, which we had started 21 hours before.  I was so tired I took Mike’s lunch box by mistake.  I was suprised when he called me the next morning and told me, but when I looked in the lunchbox, sure enough.  There was his worn Bible.  My dad drove me by his house near the hospital to exchange lunch boxes.  After that I went to visit Chuck in the hospital where he had both of his arms bandaged up.  Other than those burns, he was all right.

No one knows more than Chuck and Cleve that they paid dearly for not waiting for Mike Vogle to finish the nozzle extension.  Something happens when you’ve been up all day working hard, meeting one frustration after another.  When you are up at the crack of dawn, and it becomes past midnight, it is easy to let your guard down.  When fighting dragons, if you leave any opportunity for them to strike back they will.  We defeated the dragon that night, but not without its victims.  Chuck recovered and was quickly ready for the next battle.  All of those men that were there that night are heroes to me.  Today I don’t remember everyone that was there, but they were all on the list of True Power Plant Knights!

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

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

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

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

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

Ed Shiever was a janitor at the time, and was being loaned to the labor crew to work with me in the sand filter tank.  Ed was shorter than average and was a clean-cut respectable person that puts you in the mind of Audey Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II.  For those power plant men that know Ed Shiever, but haven’t ever put him and Audey Murphy together in their mind will be surprised and I’m sure agree with me that Ed Shiever looked strikingly similar to Audey Murphy at the time when we were in the sand filter tank (1983).

Audey Murphy

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

I met Ramblin’ Ann when I worked at The Bakery in Columbia Missouri while I was in my last year of college at the University of Missouri.  I was hired to work nights so that I could handle the drunks that wandered in from nearby bars at 2 a.m..  Just up the street from The Bakery were two other Colleges, Columbia College and Stephen’s College which were primarily girls schools.  Ramblin’ Ann attended Stephen’s College.  She had this uncanny knack of starting a sentence and never finishing it.  I don’t mean that she would stop halfway through the sentence.  No.  When Ann began the first sentence, it was just molded into any following sentences as if she not only removed the periods but also the spaces between the words.  She spoke in a seemly exagerated Kentucky accent (especially when she was talking about her accent, at which point her accent became even more pronounced).  She was from a small town in Kentucky and during the summers she worked in Mammoth Cave as a tour guide (this is an important part of this story… believe it or not).

A normal conversation began like this:  “Hello Ann, how is it going?”  “WellHiKevin!Iamjustdoinggreat!IhadagooddayatschooltodayYouKnowWhatIMean? IwenttomyclassesandwhenIwenttomymailboxtopickupmymailIrealizedthatthistownisn’tlikethesmalltownIcamefromin KentuckybecausehereIamjustboxnumber324 butinthetownwhereIcamefrom themailmanwouldstopbymyhousetogiveusthemailandwouldsay, “Hi Ann, how are you today?” YouKnowWhatImean? AndIwouldsay, “WellHiMisterPostmansirIamdoingjustgreattodayHowareYoudoing?”YouknowwhatImean?SoItIsSureDifferentlivinginabigtownlikethisandwhenIthinkbackonmyclassesthatIhadtoday andIthinkabouthowmuchitisgoingtochangemylifeandallbecauseIamjustlearning somuchstuffthatIhaveneverlearnedbefore IknowthatwhenIamOlderandI’mthinkingbackonthisdayandhowmuchitmeanstome, IknowthatIamgoingtothinkthatthiswasareallygreatdayYouKnowWhatIMean?”….

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

My roommate Barry Katz thought I was being inconsiderate one day when he walked in the room and I was sitting at the desk doing my homework and occasionally I would say, “Uh Huh” without looking up or stopping my work, so after sitting there watching me for a minute he asked me what I was doing and I told him I was talking to Ann Bell and I pointed to the phone receiver sitting on the desk.  I could hear the “You Know What I Mean”s coming out of the receiver and each time I would say, “Uh Huh”.  So, when he told me that wasn’t nice, I picked up the receiver and I said to Ramblin’ Ann, “Hey Barry is here, would you like to talk to him?” and I handed it to him.  He sat down and asked Ann how she was doing…. 10 minutes or so and about 150 Uh Huh’s later, Barry looked over at me and slowly started placing the receiver back on the desktop repeating “Uh Huh” every so many seconds.

Anyway.  The reason I told you this story about Ramblin’ Ann was because after a while I began to imitate Ann.  I would start ramblin’ about something, and it was almost as if I couldn’t stop.  If you have ever read the story about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll would transform into Mr. Hyde by drinking a potion.  But eventually he started turning into Mr. Hyde randomly without having to drink the potion.  Well, that is what had happened to me.  In some situations, I would just start to ramble non-stop for as long as it takes to get it all out…  Which Ed Shiever found out was a very long time.

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

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

It wasn’t until a few years later when Ronald Reagan went to visit Mammoth Cave during the summer, that this event with Ed Shiever came back to me.  You see… Ann Bell had been a tour guide at Mammoth Cave during the summer, and as far as I knew still was.  My wife and I both realized what this could mean if Ronald Reagan toured Mammoth Cave with Ann Bell as his tour guide.  Thoughts about a Manchurian Candidate Conspiracy came to mind as we could imagine the voice of Ann Bell echoing through the cave as a very excited Ramblin’ Ann explained to Ronald Reagan how excited she was and how much this was going to mean to her in her life, and how she will think back on this time and remember how excited she was and how happy she will be to have those memories and how much she appreciated the opportunity to show Ronald Reagan around in Mammoth Cave… with all of this echoing and echoing and echoing….

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

So this started me thinking…  Poor Ed Shiever, one of the nicest people you could ever meet, had patiently listened to me rambling for two entire weeks in an echo chamber just like the President.  I wondered how much impact that encounter had on his sanity.  So, I went to Ed and I apologized to him one day for rambling so much while we were working in the Sand Filter tank, hoping that he would forgive me for messing up his future.  He said, “Sure, no problem.”  Just like that.  He was all right.  He hadn’t lost his memory or become confused, or even taken up rambling himself.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Ed Shiever had shown his true character under such harsh conditions and duress.  I’m just as sure today as I was then that if Ed Shiever had been with Audey Murphy on the battlefield many years earlier, Ed would have been standing right alongside him all the way across the enemy lines.  In my book, Ed Shiever is one of the most decorated Power Plant Men still around at the Power Plant today.

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

There are some days you wish you could take back after making a grand decision that turns out to look really dumb when your decision fails.  It is important to think outside the box to break new ground as long as you bring common sense along for the ride.  It seemed that during the days when I was a summer help, and even when I was a laborer on Labor Crew that in order to be promoted you had to come up with one grand idea that set you apart from the others and that also failed miserably.

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

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

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

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

A Bottom Ash Overflow Sump Pump or BAOSP for Short

So, Tom Gibson decided that he was going to fill the motor and pump cavity with turbine oil.  All electricians knew that oil used in turbines is an insulator so electrically it wouldn’t short anything out.  But something in the back of your mind automatically says that this isn’t going to work.  I remember helping to fill the motor up with oil in the Maintenance shop and  hooking up some motor leads from the nearby Maintenance shop 480 volt switchgear.  Needless to say, as soon as the pump was turned on, it tripped the breaker and oil began leaking from the cable grommet.  That’s when common sense tells you that the all the oil causes too much drag on the rotor which will cause a 480 motor to trip very quickly.  After removing some of the oil and trying it again with a larger breaker and still having the same result Tom was satisfied that this just wasn’t going to work.  The pump and motor was sent away to a nearby electric shop to be rewound and other ways were developed by the help of our top notch machinist genius Randy Dailey who came up with a positive air pressure way to keep water out of the Bottom Ash Overflow Sump Pump and motor.  Not much harm done and Tom Gibson didn’t feel too bad for trying something that the rest of us sort of thought was mildly insane.

The next story was told to me by my dear friend Bob Kennedy when I was working at a Gas Powered Plant in Midwest City and he was my acting foreman.  So I didn’t witness this myself.  This one was a little more dangerous, but still thankfully, no one was hurt.  Ellis Rooks, the Electrical Supervisor needed to bump test a 4200 Volt motor and wanted to do it in place.  For some reason he was not able to use the existing cables, maybe because that was the reason the motor was offline.  Because one of the cables had gone to ground.  So, he decided that since the motor only pulled 5 to 10 amps he could use #10 wire and string three of them (for the three phases of the motor) from the main High Voltage switchgear across the turbine room floor over to the motor.  Now, most electricians know how many amps different size wires can generally handle.  It goes like this: #14 – 15 amps, #12 – 20 amps, #10 – 30 amps, #8 – 50 amps and on down (smaller numbers mean bigger wires).  So, Ellis thought that since the motor only pulls around 5 amps, and he only wanted to bump the motor (that is, turn it on and off quickly) to watch it rotate, he thought that even though there was normally a 3 – 0 cable (pronounced three aught for 3 zeroes, very large wire), this would be ok because he was only going to bump it.

This works when you are using is 120 or 220 volts

Needless to say, but I will anyway, when the motor was bumped, all that was left were three black streaks of carbon across the turbine room floor where the wire used to exist before it immediately vaporized.  You see, common sense tells you that 4200 volts times 5 amps = 21,000 watts of power.  However, the starting amps on a motor like this may be around 50 to 100 amps, which would equal 210 to 420 Kilowatts of power (or about 1/5  to 2/5 of a Megawatt). Thus vaporizing the small size 10 wire that is used to wire your house.

All right.  I have given you two relatively harmless stories and now the one about cracking the boiled egg in the boiler.  This happened when I was still a janitor but was loaned to the Labor Crew during outages.  When the boiler would come offline for an outage, the labor crew would go in the boiler and knock down clinkers and shake tubes to clean out clinkers that had built up around the boiler tubes in the intermediate pressure area of the boiler.  Clinkers are a hard buildup of ash that can become like large rocks, and when they fall and hit you on the head, depending on the size, can knock you to the floor, which makes wearing your hardhat a must.  Your hardhat doesn’t help much when the clinkers falling from some 30 feet above hits you on your shoulder, so I always tried to suck my shoulders up under my hardhat (like a turtle pulling in his arms and legs) so that only my arms were left unprotected.  It wasn’t easy looking like a pole with no shoulders, but I tried my best.  I think Fred Crocker the tallest and thinnest person on Labor Crew was the best at this.

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

This is something that is only done at a Coal-fired Power Plant because Gas Plants don’t create Ash that turns into Clinkers.  Maybe some Soot, I don’t know, but not Ash.  Which brings to mind a minor joke we played on Reginald Deloney one day when he came from a gas plant to work on overhaul.  We were going to work on a Bowl Mill motor first thing, which is down next to the boiler structure in an enclosed area.  We brought our large toolbox and other equipment over to the motor.  Andy Tubbs and Diana Brien were there with Reggie and I.  I think Gary Wehunt was there with us also.  When someone came over the PA system saying, “Stand Clear of Number Two Boiler, We’re Gonna Blast”, all of us dropped everything and ran for the door as if it was an emergency.  Reggie, not knowing what was going on ran like the dickens to get out in time only to find us outside laughing at the surprised look on his face.

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

When I was on Labor Crew, and we were waiting on the boiler for the dynamiters to blast all the large clinkers, the engineer in charge, Ed Hutchins decided that things would go a lot quicker if all the laborers would go into the boiler and shake tubes while the dynamiters were setting their charges.  Then we would climb out when they were ready to blast, and then go back in.  So, we did that.  All 10 or so of us climbed into the boiler, and went to work rattling boiler tubes until we heard someone yell, “Fire In The Hole!!!”  Then we would all head for the one entrance and climb out and wait for the blast.

The extra time it took to get all of us in the boiler and back out again actually slowed everything down.  We weren’t able to get much work done each time, and everyone spent most of their time climbing in and out instead of working, including the dynamiters.  So Ed had another brilliant idea.  What if we stayed in the boiler while the dynamite exploded?  Then we wouldn’t be wasting valuable time climbing in and out and really wouldn’t have to stop working at all.

Of course, common sense was telling us that we didn’t want to be in an enclosed boiler while several sticks worth of dynamite all exploded nearby, so the engineer decided to prove to us how safe it was by standing just inside the entrance of the boiler with his ear plugs in his ears while the dynamite exploded.  The dynamiters at first refused to set off the charges, but after Ed and the labor crew convinced them that there really wouldn’t be much lost if the worst happened, they went ahead and set off the dynamite.

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

A Power Plant Man becomes an Unlikely Saint

My wife came home from work one night in the early 90’s.  She was a charge nurse at the Stillwater Oklahoma Medical Center at the time.  She said that she was taking care of a patient that was one of the mostly saintly people she had ever met.  He was going to die soon and she thought I might know who he was because he used to work at the Power Plant.

When she gave me his name I was surprised to learn that he was on his deathbed, and yes.  I did know him.  I agreed with her.  He is and always had been a saintly person.  The funny thing was that very few people really knew him as well as I did.  Many people knew him enough to not think he would be classified in the “Saint” category, and I knew why this was also.  I knew him so well quite by chance when I first came to the plant, and I made a decision about how to answer a common question that was being asked of me at the time.

As a summer help it was known that I was a college student, so the obvious question was, why was I going to school, and what did I want to be.  I could tell this was a rowdy bunch of men that enjoyed their day at work, and so I told them that I wasn’t sure yet what my degree would be, but I thought I might like to become a writer.  I told them this hoping that they would bite where I could set the hook (in a fisherman sort of way), and they did.  The first person that asked me that question was Sonny Karcher, and when I told him that I thought I might be a writer, he took the bait and asked, “Are you going to write about us?”  At the time, I had no plans about doing that, but I thought if they thought so, then they might fill my ears with the unique wisdom each of them seemed to have.  So I answered, “I don’t know.  I haven’t thought about it, but I suppose I might.”

That’s all it took.  After that, every time Sonny introduced me to somebody, he would say, “This is Kevin.  He’s our new summer help.  He’s going to college to be a writer, and he’s going to write all about us!”  This produced the behavior I was hoping it would.  That was that a number of Power Plant Men took me “under their wing” and bestowed upon me their own particular wisdom.  For hours on end, as I worked with various men, they would tell me how things are in the world and how I should respond to them.  Their own particular Philosophy Of Life.

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

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

Maybe I will refrain just a little while longer to tell you a few things that this man told me.  It was obvious that he felt as if he was talking to me as a father would talk to a son.  He was only two years younger than my own father.  The one thing that sticks in my mind most is when he told me, “Kev, some day you may be a foreman or a supervisor running this plant, but always remember this…. Never forget where you came from.  Never forget that there was a time when you first began and knew nothing.  Don’t ever forget your friends.  Don’t forget who you really are.”  I have reminded myself of this often and made it part of my “Philosophy of Life”.

As an Aside comment, my mother tried to help me with this by referring to me as “My Son, The Janitor” when introducing me to someone for years after I had become an electrician.  I was always proud to be called a janitor, and I would not try to correct her, because even though I was an electrician, I believed I was also still a janitor.  Today, even though my title may be “Business Systems Analyst” working for Dell, I also still carry around in the back of my head the title of “Janitor”.

I wish I had a picture to share of this Power Plant Man (I have one somewhere, but I am not able to find it just now), because if you could see him, you would think… this guy?  His skin is darkened from smoking so heavily all his life.  Emphysema is what killed him while he was still relatively young.  His belly grew over the years to become larger than his stocky barrel chest.  His head nodded while he listened to you and especially when managers were talking as if he was laughing to himself because he knew what they were really saying.  His clothes were always clean, which left everyone with the impression that he never did any work.

I remember one day while we were inspecting the dumper (where the coal is dumped out of the railway cars), as it had not been in-service for very long and everything needed to be inspected.  I followed him down the stairway into the dumper going down into the darkness.  There were lights down there, but they didn’t give off much light because the coal dust absorbs the light instead of reflecting it.  So, you can shine a flashlight and it doesn’t fill the room with its glow as it might in a room painted with white paint.  To me the place was eerily unreal until I had been down there enough times to keep my bearings on where we were going.

Anyway, I followed him down into the dark damp dumper where every handrail, every light fixture and every step was covered with coal dust.  We had some wrenches and we were tight checking the rollers on the conveyors.  When we were finished we found ourselves at the ground level exit of #2 Conveyor.  I looked at this Power Plant Man and he didn’t have spot of coal on him.  I, on the other hand, was black from top to bottom.  My hardhat was black, my arms, my face, my jeans.  All black.  Then this Power Plant Man told me some more words from the wise…. “When you get to be good, you will remain as clean as I am.”  This had as much impact on me as when Master Po told Kwai Chang Caine (In the Kung Fu TV series) that when he can walk on the rice paper and not leave a trace, then he will be a Shaolin Monk.

It seemed impossible to me that he could have worked right alongside me, actually doing more work than I was doing, and he came out pristine while I came out looking like a bat out of hell (or Pigpen times ten).  But there it was.  So, for years whenever I worked in a coal handling area, his words always rang in my mind.  I considered it a challenge.  I realized that there were times when it would be impossible to come out clean, like when you are sandblasting a tank, or working inside the Precipitator wading through fly ash up to your waist.  But when doing my regular job, I made a real effort to remain as clean as possible.  It made me happy to think that others might think that I wasn’t working hard enough to be in the True Power Plant Man League because my clothes were clean, because to me, it was a tribute to my own Shaolin Master…. Jerry Mitchell.  Yes.  Power Plant Men…. Jerry Mitchell.

Before Jerry came to work at the power plant, he used to work on jet engines.  Like many genuine Power Plant Men, he was a leader in the field of mechanics.  I have a list as long as my arm of great men that work as Power Plant Men that are each near the top of the list of experts in their fields of knowledge.  Jerry was one of them.  He built the engine in the blue corvette that he used to drive to work each day.  He machined the parts himself.  It could go from 0 to 80 and back to 0 from the main gate to the highway  — how many yards is that? 200 yards maybe 300  He demonstrated it once to me.  He was wondering if I was interested in buying it because he knew I didn’t own a car.

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

I will give you a “for instance”…  One day as we pulled the truck up to the Maintenance Shop, Jerry told me to follow him and not say anything, just listen, because I was going to be shocked by the conversation that was about to take place.  I wondered how he knew as I walked up to an older man approaching a lady who was a Brown and Root construction hand (you could tell by the hardhat).  So I stood next to the man and listened.  He asked her how her night was last night and she began by describing the time she spent in a bar and she repeated the conversation she had with a man that was trying to pick her up.  Without going into too much detail, I will say that she ended the conversation with the man in the bar by saying that she was looking for a meal, not a snack, and proceeded to talk about another man in the bar and how she could tell that he was the kind of man she was looking for in more than descriptive terms.  She finished by telling the older man that the man she left with and her had a “Jolly good time” (my words, not hers) for at least 4 hours non-stop with more than enough details thrown in.  The older man was amused and hee-hawed about it slapping his knee in amusement.

Jerry nodded to me and we left.  We walked outside of the shop and Jerry asked me, “Have you ever heard anyone talk like that before?”  I admitted that I hadn’t.  Then he said, “That man that she was talking to is her father.”  I was thoroughly shocked and greatly disturbed.  I had just heard a flowing river of filth spew from this person’s mouth as she was talking to her own father, and his response was to be amused by it.  When Jerry told me this I looked at him in shock, and he looked back at me with his head nodding as it did often.  His face had the regular straight poker face he usually wore, but his eyes told me that he was very saddened by this.  He said he felt it was important for me to know.

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

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

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