Monthly Archives: June, 2012

Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace

Somewhere today there is a young man named Cameron Powell whose grandmother has recently died and who has a Great Grandmother named Dolores.  A kind and gentle lady.  If this young man were able to ask his great grandmother about his great grandfather he would hear the tale about a peaceful and kind man that made those who worked with him smile and enjoy their day.  He lived his life in love with Dolores and his daughter and the very people that he worked with each day.  All you had to do was walk in the same room as Howard Chumbley and a smile would come across your face instantly.

You see.  While I was in my first years as a summer help at the Coal Fired Power Plant learning from the True Power Plant men of my day, 15 miles north of the plant along the Arkansas River was another plant.  This plant was being operated by the Power Plant Pioneers of an earlier time.  While we had the latest technological advancements that were available in 1974 when our plant was designed, the Osage plant was using old mechanical instruments that measured actual pressures and temperatures.  What this meant was that when if the pressure gauge registered 1000 pounds of pressure, it was because the pipe that was connected to the back or bottom of the gauge had 1000 lbs of pressure on it.  I don’t know.  They may have had a regulator on there that cut the pressure down to a safer range.  That would seem crazy to anyone today to think that behind the Control Panel in the Control Room were pipes that ran from different steam pipes all over the plant to the gauges on the Control board, so that the Control Room operators could operate the plant correctly.

The Power Plant Men that worked in these early Generating Stations were subjected to dangerous chemicals and conditions though it was the best they knew at the time.  Asbestos insulation covered the steam pipes.  Turbine oil with PCBs were used to clean their tools.  Howard Chumbley explained to me one day that they used to wash their tools in Turbine oil up to their elbows in what was now known to contain the dangerous chemical PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyls).  A funny fact I found out later was that there was a temperature probe in the river just downstream from the plant taking the temperature of the water just like Sooner Plant (See the Post about Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River).

When the old Osage Plant closed in the early 1980s, that was when I first learned about it.  This was because some of the pioneer power plant men came to work at our plant.  Howard Chumbley became an Electical foreman and Gilbert Schwarz came to our plant as the superintendent of operations.  Two gray haired men, both with a kind of slow peaceful look on their face.  Howard had a smaller build with soft wavy gray hair.  He could have been a professor at Harvard if you put a pipe in his mouth and a turtleneck sweater.  Of course, that would not have been fitting for Howard. Gilbert was tall and had the look of a cowboy or a farm hand.  I understand that he enjoyed working on the farm.

One year after I became an electrician in November 1984, Howard Chumbley became my foreman.  It was less than a year after that  when Howard retired.  During the short time he was my foreman we took a trip up to the Osage Plant.  It was named Osage because the Osage Indian Nation Territorial boundary is directly across the river from the plant.  The plant itself actually sat adjacent to the Ponca Indian Tribe just outside of Ponca City.  The day we went to the plant, Diana Brien. a Power Plant Electrician and I loaded a special hazardous material containment barrel into the truck and I was given a special suit that I was to wear that would cover me from head to toe while I cleaned up a PCB spill.  A smaller plant transformer had been removed from the old plant and there had been a slow leak under it that left a tar like substance on the concrete where the transformer had stood.  As Howard, Diana and I approached the plant and I spied it for the first time.  This is what I saw:

The old Osage Power Plant

As we drove closer I had a better look at the plant as we drove around the other side:

A closer view of the Osage Plant

It was definitely an old abandoned power plant.  We took the barrel out of the back of the truck and hauled it inside on a two wheel dolly (or two-wheel hand truck, as it is often called).  When we entered the abandoned plant we walked across the turbine room floor:

The stripped down Turbine Room floor of the Osage Power Plant

I could see where equipment used to stand that had been sold for scrap or stolen by vandals.

When we arrived at the oil spill I was surprised by how small of a spot it was.  It couldn’t have been more than one square foot.  I put on the rubber suit with it’s rubber hat, rubber boots and a full face respirator and rubber gloves.  I took a putty knife and scraped up the tar-like substance and placed it in special bag that had a special seal on it.  When I had scraped up the thick stuff, I poured  trichloroethane solvent (which is no longer used due to the dangerous fumes that damaged your liver) on the spot and scrubbed it with a wire brush.   Then I took a Scotch Brite pad and scrubbed the floor until the spot was much cleaner than the concrete around it.  Everything I had used went into the special barrel.  The bags of tar, the Scotch Brite pad, the wire brush the putty knife and the rags I had used to wipe everything up.  Then as I took off my suit, every piece of the rubber suit including the full face respirator went into the barrel.  Once everything was in the barrel, the special lid was placed on top and it was bolted shut.  A Hazardous Waste sticker was placed on the barrel and the time and date and what was in the container was written on it.

Hazardous Waste Barrel

We took the barrel back to the plant and it was placed in a hazardous waste Conex Box that was later buried when it was full of different types of hazardous waste from all over Oklahoma.

A Conex Box

A few years after Howard Chumbley retired, so did Gilbert Schwartz.  Gilbert was the Superintendent over the Operators so I didn’t work around Gilbert and I knew very little about him.  However, later when I was married and living in Ponca City, I would see him at the Catholic Church in Ponca City where he was a member of the Knights of Columbus. He would nod and say hi to me whenever he saw me.

Both Howard and Gilbert were in the military.  I know that Howard Chumbley was in the Navy during World War II and that Gilbert Schwarz was in the Korean War.  Growing up I noticed that older men that had served in the armed forces seemed to have light gray hair.  Especially if they had been in the Navy.  I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence.  Aubrey Cargill was that way also (See the post about Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill).

In 1998, Howard Chumbley died unexpectedly when he was admitted to the hospital in Ponca City with a broken arm.  The hospital in Ponca City had a bad reputation (or Mortality Rate, as some might say).  People didn’t want to go there if there was anyway to avoid it.  The hospital in Stillwater was the preferred hospital in this area of Oklahoma.

I only met Dolores Chumbley on two occasions and they were both at Christmas or Award banquets.  She seemed the perfect spouse for Howard as she appeard kind and peaceful as well.  I’m sure they had a happy life together.  I do not have a picture of Howard.  I wish I did.  His demeanor reminds me of my Mother-In-Law.  We have a picture of her in our hallway and the words below the picture say this:  “Be Kind”.  I would say that this is what Howard was all about.  Everything about Howard was kindness.  I was glad to have known him.

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

This past week on June 24, 2012 Gilbert Schwarz died at the age of 83.  He lived a long and happy life as did Howard.  There was something about these Power Plant Pioneers that gave them a strange sort of peace.

A Power Plant Pioneer – Gilbert Schwarz

I never found the source of this peace for sure.  I suppose it was their long and happy marriages with their loving and supportive wives.  Howard had a daughter that he was always very proud to discuss.  She was a teacher somewhere close to Tulsa.  She recently died of Cancer on January 4.  That was 2 days after I wrote my first Power Plant Man post (Why Santa Visits Power Plant Men) at the beginning of this year.

Gilbert never had a child of his own, but his nieces and nephews meant a lot to him throughout his life and he was active in their lives as they grew up.  I suppose if the Power Plant Pioneers were anything like the True Power Plant Men of my day, then they found a lot of peace in the friendships that they had with their fellow Power Plant Men locked away behind the Main Gate that they had to drive through each day on the way to work.  Once you drive through that gate and enter into the Power Plant Kingdom, there is a certain peace that you feel knowing that what you will do that day will directly affect the lives of millions of people in the state of Oklahoma.

These Pioneers of the early days willingly put themselves at risk working around equipment that did not have the safeties and guards that we have today to supply the electricity to the State.  I don’t know if there are anymore of these brave Pioneers left from the Osage Plant.  Gilbert was the last one that I knew about.  If you happen to find one of these men some day, don’t miss the opportunity to talk to him.  I am sure they would be proud to tell you of the days that they spent being Pioneers of the Power Plant World.  You should be able to recognize them.  You can pick them out in a crowd.  They are the mild peaceful looking old men treating the people around them with respect.

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Belt Buckle Mania And Turkeys During Power Plant Man Downtime

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:

A plain example of an 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:

By cutting the end of the pipe at an angle you get the oval shape of the 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.

A block of Jewelers Rouge used for polishing Jewelry

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.

A Spud Gun

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!”

The Scrooge from Corporate Headquarters or was he?

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 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!”

Power Plant Invocations and Imitations of Sonny Karcher

I have mentioned before that Sonny Karcher was one of the first Power Plant Men that taught me how to work my way up the ladder of Power Plant Ingenuity (In the post titled, In Memory of Sonny Karcher A True Power Plant Man).  I used to come home from work after Steve Higginbotham dropped me off at the duplex where we were living at the time, and my family couldn’t wait to hear what Sonny Karcher had said or done that day.

Soon after I had arrived at the plant Sonny had just dropped me off at the front of the Maintenance shop where I was going to the tool room to get some tools for something we were going to work on.  Sonny was going to drive around behind the tool room in a yellow Cushman cart to pick up some larger equipment, and I was going to meet him there.  As he was backing out of the shop he suddenly made a motion with his left hand.  To me it looked like he was making the movement that someone would make if they were taking the lid off of a jar.  I thought this meant that he wanted me to do something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.

Various things went through my head, such as, I should get something to help remove lids from barrels.  Or I needed to look inside of a jar to find one of the parts I was going to pick up.  Nothing made much sense to me, so I waved for him to come back.  When he did, I asked him what he wanted me to do.  He asked me what I meant.  I told him that when he made that motion to open a jar, I couldn’t figure out what he wanted.  So he told me.   “I was just waving goodbye.”  He gave me a big smile and backed out of the shop again.  Each time Sonny Karcher waved goodbye, he used a different motion with his hand.  Sometimes he would look like he was twirling something on his finger.  Sometimes it seemed like he was trying to get something sticky off of his fingers.  Sometimes he just drew circles in the air with a couple of fingers.  Other times he looked like he was giving an awkward kind of salute.  Sonny made an art out of simple things like a wave goodbye.

That first summer it seemed like everyone was always munching on Sunflower seeds.  There were bags of sunflower seeds everywhere you looked.  Sonny already looked somewhat like a chipmunk with puffy round cheeks that formed from years of wearing a grin on his face.  They were extra prominent when his cheeks were full of sunflower seeds.  These were seeds still in their shells.  So, it was normal to see someone take a step back while standing around talking, turn their head and drop a few sunflower seed shells from their mouth into the floor drains that were spaced evenly across the maintenance shop floor.  There came a time when those drains had to be cleaned out because it seemed that every drain was packed solid full of sunflower seed shells.

Sunflowers weren’t the only items found in the drains, since chewing (or dipping) tobacco (such as Skoal) was used by a lot of the men in the Power Plant.  Cleaning out a drain full of sunflower seeds, dipping tobacco and spit was a job that might cause a lot of people to gag, and I know I had to fight it back at the time.  Most of the time I felt like I was having too much fun to get paid for working at the plant, but when it came time for cleaning out those drains, I felt like I was really working very hard for the $3.89 an hour that I was getting paid my first summer (1979) as a summer help.

But anyway, back to Sonny.  I remember one evening when I came home after working with Sonny during the day, and we were sitting around the dinner table eating supper when my dad said something surprising.  I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember what my response was.  It came out before I thought what I was saying, and I said it with the same surprised smile Sonny would have.  I replied,  “Well S–t the bed!”  With a heavy emphasis on each word.  That was a common phrase that Sonny used, and it was his response to anything surprising.  Needless to say, I don’t normally use four letter words that have to be edited out of a post.  It was just the matter of fact way that Sonny would use that phrase that made it seem all right to say at the time.  If I remember correctly, both my mom and my dad stared at me for a second in disbelief, then broke out laughing as they had never heard that particular phrase.  It was kind of like hearing “…Bless his heart” for the first time used following an obvious insult.

In the year 1990 the Power Plant had a program that they called, “We’ve Got the Power”.  I will talk more about this in a later post, so I will just say that it was a program where we broke up into teams and tried to find ways to save the company money.  But long before “We’ve Got the Power”, there was Sonny Karcher.  He was often trying to figure out how we could make electricity cheaper, or even come up with other ways of making a profit.

One day Sonny asked me this, “Kev, your smart because you learn things from all those books at school so tell me this… someone said the other day that diamonds are made out of coal.  Is that true?”  I told him it was.  Then he said, “Well, what if we had one of those big dirt movers full of coal drive over some coal a bunch of times, would we be able to make diamonds?”

Dirt Mover full of coal

I told him that wouldn’t work because it takes a lot more pressure to make a diamond.  So, he asked me if it would work if we put some coal on the railroad track and we let an entire train full of coal run over it.  Would it make a diamond then?  I assured him that even that wouldn’t make a diamond.  He accepted it and just said, “Well, it’s too bad since we have that big pile of coal there, we ought to be able to come up with some way of making them into diamonds.

Another time when we were cleaning out the fish baskets at the intake (a job as smelly as it sounds) next to the 4 big intake pumps.  These are the pumps that pump around 189,000 gallons of water per minute each.  Sonny told me how big those pumps were and how much water they pumped.  Then he said, “You know, that entire boiler is there just to make steam to turn the turbine to make electricity.  It seems to me that we could just take these four pumps and have them pump water through the turbine and have it turn the turbines, then we wouldn’t need those big boilers.  Why don’t we do something like that?”  I assured Sonny that we would never be able to make enough electricity to make up for the electricity it took to turn the pumps that were pumping the water.  He shook his head and said that it just seemed to him that those pumps could turn that turbine pretty fast.

One day I watched as Sonny watched another Power Plant man walk into the shop with a new type of lunch box.  It was an Igloo Little Playmate.

One exactly like this

Sonny immediately went out and bought one.  The next week he came to work with his shiny new Little Playmate lunch box.  I admit.  I went and bought one myself a few weeks later.  But this was the beginning of a trend that I noticed with Sonny.  I began to notice that Sonny seemed to pick one item from each of the people he admired, and went and bought one for himself.  Or he would pick up a phrase that someone else would say, and would start using that.  At first I thought it might just be a coincidence, so I started to test my hypothesis.  When I would see something new that Sonny brought to work, I would look around to see who else had one of those, and sure enough.  Someone close by would have one.  Then I would hear Sonny talk a certain way.  His accent would change and he would say something like he was imitating someone else, and usually I could tell right away who talked like that and knew that Sonny had borrowed that phrase from that person.

Some may think that this would be annoying, but I think with Sonny it was an act of endearment.  It was his way of connecting with those people that he admired.  Sonny had a small yellow Ford truck and I figured that someone else must have a truck like that, so I started looking all around for one like it.  It took me a couple of weeks, but one morning while we were carpooling are way to the power plant, we came up behind the same kind of truck that Sonny had on its way to the plant.  It was green instead of yellow, but it was undoubtedly the same model of truck.  It was owned by Ken Reece, who was the manager over the tool room and warehouse.

Sonny imitated a voice that had me puzzled for a while.  I had checked out all the Power Plant Men around trying to figure out who Sonny was imitating.  Every once in a while Sonny would change his way of talking when he was making a point where he would let his lower lip come forward and work its way left and right as he talked, and he would close one eye more than another and talk in a strange sort of a southern drawl.  I just knew he was imitating someone because it was so different than just the regular Sonny.

Finally, one day when I was walking through the shop I heard someone in the welding area talking just like Sonny would talk when he used that voice.  There was no mistake.  That had to be the person.  I could hear every inflection in his voice and it had to be the voice that Sonny was imitating because it had been much more honed and refined to give just the right effect.  So, I changed the course I was travelling so that I could make my way around to the welders to see who it was that was talking like that.

There in the middle of the welding shop was a heavier set man standing in the middle of a group of welders telling a story.  Everyone was listening to him quietly just as if it was story time at the library.  So, I stopped and watched.  This man wasn’t wearing an Electric Company hard hat.  He was wearing a Brown and Root hard hat, which indicated that he worked for the construction company that was building the plant.  This guy was undoubtedly a master storyteller.  When it came to the climactic part of the story, the bottom of his mouth would stick out with his lip moving left and right and left again, and one eye was partially closed to show the intensity of the situation and the drawl would intensify.  Finally.  I had found the man that Sonny Karcher had admired enough to take one of his favorite traits and connect it to himself.  I could see why Sonny admired him so much.  He had everyone within listening distance captivated by his story.

This Brown and Root hand soon became an employee of the Electric Company within a couple of weeks after I left at the end of the summer (on September 9, 1979).  This heavier set person is still working at the plant today and is one of this country’s leading Turbine mechanics and he can still tell a story like no one else.  He is no longer heavy.  He is rather thin.  He improved his health after realizing that if he really loved his family, he needed to take better care of himself.  I consider this True Power Plant Man, Ray Eberle, to be a dear friend of mine.  I have never met anyone that looked more like my own grandfather than Ray.  Not that he was that much older.  No.  He looked almost exactly like my grandfather looked when he was Ray’s age.  There was no nicer man than my dad’s dad, and there is no nicer Power Plant Man than Ray Eberle.

Chief Among Power Plant Machinists

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

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

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

Even though the power plant machinists came from very diverse backgrounds, they all have two important traits in common.  They are very patient  and they are perfectionists.  The first summer as a summer help both of the units were still under construction and the mechanics were all busy going through the entire plant disassembling each piece of equipment and measuring it and cleaning it and putting it back together.  Often they would find something that didn’t meet the Electric Companies specifications, so it would be sent to the machinist to fix.  Very precise measurements were being used, and if there was a 3 thousandth inch gap (.003), and the company wanted it to be no more than 2 thousandths of an inch (.002)…. then it was the job of the machinist to add a sleeve and machine the part down until it was precisely where it was supposed to be.

I learned very little about the lives of the machinists because they were always standing behind the lathes watching vigilantly as the metal shavings were flying off of the parts, but I did learn a few things about some of them.  First of all, each one of the machinists seemed to care about you right away.  Don Burnett, a tall and very thin man with a friendly face, worked in a Zinc Smelting plant before he had come to work at the power plant.  One time while he was working there, some molten zinc was accidentally poured down the back of his boot burning his heel.  It was then that he decided that he would start looking for a different line of work.  I went fishing with him and some other guys once, where he told me some more things about his life.  Then a few years later, he moved to the Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma, where I saw him a couple of times while on overhaul down there.

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

Like this, only younger and with a shorter beard

When you ask Johnnie to create something for you, you can be sure that he will do the best he can.  One time years later when I was an electrician, I asked Johnnie if he could take a piece of plexiglass and cut out 8 rectangles in it so that I could mount it in an electrical box so that a bunch of breakers could be accessed, without someone worrying about getting into the electricity.  This is the control box that was used for the vent fans that were installed around the turbine room floor.  As far as I know, it is still there today.  Anyway, Johnnie brought it back to the electric shop when he was finished and it was perfect.  He had a couple of holes in it so that I could put two standoffs to mount the plexiglass in the box.

It just so happened that Leroy Godfrey the electrical supervisor was in the middle of a little war between the engineers because they hadn’t consulted him about the project, and so he was intent on making the job go way over budget.  I wasn’t exactly privy to this information at the time (or maybe I was).  Anyway, after I had mounted the plexiglass to the back plate of the electric box using the standoffs, and it was sitting on the workbench, Leroy came up to me and looked at it.  He said right away, “Go have the machinists put some more holes in it so that you can add more standoffs to mount the plexiglass.  Knowing full well that it didn’t need the extra mounting, I told Leroy that I believed that two standoffs will be fine because the entire assembly was going to be put in the electric box, where there wasn’t going to be much movement, and I picked up the entire assembly with the breakers and all by the plexiglass and bent it all the way around to where both ends  of the plexiglass were touching and shook the breakers up and down.  Then I put it back on the workbench and said,  “I am not going to tell the machinist to add more holes, this is perfect.”  I knew that Johnnie had worked very meticulously machining out the plexiglass and I wasn’t going to bother him with meaningless revisions.  It was at that point where Leroy Godfrey decided that I must go.  He went into the office and told Bill Bennett that he wanted to fire me.  Bill Bennett calmed him down, and it wasn’t long after that Leroy and the other old school power plant men were early retired.

Lawrence Hayes was the foreman at the time and I remember one morning while he was working on the lathe next to the foremen’s office.  He had a disturbed look on his face about something as he had a long metal rod in the lathe and was busy measuring it from different angles.  A little while later when I was passing by on the way to the tool room, Lawrence had Marlin McDaniel, the A Foreman out there and he was showing him something about the lathe.  Then some time just after lunch, Lawrence had a big wrench and was removing the mounting bolts from the Lathe, and later picked the entire thing up with the shop overhead crane and moved it down to the other end of the shop.  Over the next couple of days, the concrete where the lathe had been mounted was busted up and removed, and then re-poured, so that the mounting bolts were now properly aligned.  The enormity of this job made me realize that when these Power Plant Men knew what needed to be done to fix something, they went right ahead and did it, no matter how big the job was.

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

This is an actor trying to look like Ray Butler

As Ray Butler sat at a lathe or a mill working on a piece of metal, he always had the same expression.  His head was slightly tilted up so that he could see through the bottom of his bifocals and he had the most satisfied expression.  He looked as if he was watching a work of art being created before his eyes.  It didn’t matter what he was working on, he always had the same expression.  I mentioned above that the machinists (like all true power plant men), seemed to instantly care about you.  This seemed to be especially true with Ray Butler.  He was almost 7 years older than my own father.  He treated me as one of his sons.

When I had been at the plant three days of my third year as a summer help in 1981, on Wednesday May 13, I went to the break room to eat my lunch.  Ray came up to me and sat down across from me at the table.  He looked at me solemnly and told me that the Pope had just been shot.  He had heard it on the radio and knew that I was Catholic.  He said that was all that he knew other than that they had taken him to the hospital.  I could see his concern when he told me this, and I could see that he was equally concerned that this holy man across the ocean had been shot.  I thanked him for letting me know.

Ray had served in the Navy during World War II and besides the time he spent in the Navy he spent most of his life from the time he was born until his death in 2007 in Oklahoma.  He was born and died in Red Rock just a few miles from where the power plant was built.  He went to high school in Pawnee.  Even though I have seen him upset at times, he was always a man at peace.   He retired in 1988 and the day that he left I met him on his way to the control room while I was on my way to the maintenance shop.  I told him that I wished him well on his retirement and I gave him a hug.  I didn’t see him again until a few years later when we had stopped by the Indian Reservation convenience store to buy gas and when he saw me he came out to say hello and it was like meeting a close friend.  He gave me a hug and I got back in the truck and we left.  That was the last time I saw Ray Butler, but I know that if I wanted to visit with him again, I could just go take a stroll around the Pow-wow area of the Otoe-Missouria Reservation and he would not be far away.

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

Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal

It is true that for the first couple of years while I worked as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant that Coal Cleanup was performed on weekends by volunteer He-Men that wanted to make a few extra dollars.  Of course, as a summer help, I needed all the extra money I could get.  My wages during the first year (1979) were $3.89 an hour.  This jumped to $5.84 an hour when I worked on the weekend, so you can imagine the thrill I had at receiving a paycheck that included the extra money made by doing “Coal Cleanup”.  Another great advantage to doing coal cleanup on the weekends was that I was able to carpool with different people.  So, during the first summer instead of just riding to work with Steve Higginbotham, I caught a lot of rides with real Power Plant Men like Dale Hull, David Hankins Jerry Mitchell and Marlin McDaniel (Yeah.  Marlin McDaniel as an A Foreman would volunteer for coal cleanup some times.  Maybe it was when we were short a few people).

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

Escalator

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

To give you an idea… once the coal on the coal pile has been fed onto either Belts 4, 5, 6 or 7, from there the coal is dropped onto either belt 8 or 9.  That carries the coal up to the coal Crusher which has a bin above the crusher that can be filled with coal.  If the bin gets too full, then conveyor 8 and/or 9 would stop.  When that happens, belts 4, 5, 6 or 7 should stop also…. only they didn’t.  Belts 8 and 9 continued dumping coal into the crusher bin until it filled up and then coal fell out all over the top of the crusher tower around belts 8 and 9 until the coal tripped the belt by hitting the safety cord on the side of the belt.  Belts 4, 5, 6 and 7 continued dumping coal onto belts 8 and 9, which caused the coal to backup and spill out all over the floor until the coal piled up high enough to trip the safety cord on the side of the belt.

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

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

At the top of the Transfer tower the coal from belts 10 and 11 are dumped onto belts 12 and 13 which carry the coal up to the Surge Bin Tower where the coal is dumped into the Surge bin.  Now when the Surge Bin fills up, it stops belts 12 and/or 13 and it should also stop belts 10 and 11 and the feeders that feed the coal into the crusher at the bottom of the crusher bin… only they didn’t.  They continued dumping coal into the Surge bin, which filled up and spilled coal all over the surge bin until belts 12 and 13 tripped, at which point, coal began spilling out all over the transfer tower filling up both floors of the transfer tower with tons of coal.  The same thing would happen at the bottom of Belt 10 and 11, where the crusher feeders kept feeding coal down to belts 10 and 11, which spilled out all over the bottom floor of the crusher tower.  I have worked in the transfer tower where the coal was higher than the windows and you had to bend over because your head would hit the ceiling on the floor at the foot of belt 12 and 13.  It was almost dangerous enough to picture yourself sliding down the pile of coal and slipping right out one of the windows (which had been broken out by the pile of coal).  To give you an idea of what this felt like, it was then a straight drop of 150 feet to the concrete below.

If that doesn’t seem like enough coal spills, then picture this…  The coal from the Surge Bin tower fed onto belts 14, 15, 18 and 19 which in turn fed onto belts 16 and 17, 20 and 21.  These last 4 belts were in what was called the “Tripper Gallery”.  These 4 belts would dump coal into 12 coal silos (6 on each unit) that would feed the bowl mills. These are big silos about 5 stories tall.  The same thing would happen to these belts leaving piles of coal at the bottom of the surge bin in the surge bin tower and all along the tripper gallery because when the coal silos were full, the tripper was supposed to move to the next silo and dump coal until it was full, and keep moving until all the silos were full.  Only, the tripper wasn’t working correctly, so it wouldn’t detect that the silo was full so the belt would keep dumping coal and would end up spilling coal all over the entire tripper gallery which runs about 100 feet or so.

So, our first experience with doing coal cleanup was like being on a chain gang where we shoveled coal from morning until night trying to clean up these 15 or so major coal spills by shoveling the coal back onto the conveyor while it was running.  In some cases, we had to shovel the coal away from the belt before the belt could even run (as was the case with belts 12 and 13).  So, you can imagine how shoveling coal one scoop at a time made it seem like you were not getting anywhere fast.  3 or 4 men could all be shoveling on one pile of coal for 30 minutes and not even make a noticeable dent in the pile.  That is why when I went to the tool room to choose a shovel, instead of picking a regular shovel, I picked a large scoop shovel used to scoop grain.

Scoop Shovel

Regular Shovel

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

After 2 years of volunteer coal cleanup which was becoming less volunteer and more rotational since the list of volunteers was growing smaller, Ray Butler pointed out that it didn’t make much sense to pay a first class machinist overtime to shovel coal when you could create a labor crew and pay them bottom dollar to do coal cleanup all the time, as well as other dirty jobs that no one really wanted to do (such as suck out sewage pits and other sump pits around the plant).  That was when the Labor crew was formed.  While I was in my 3rd year as a summer help (1981).  Bill Cook was a summer help then that stayed on as a labor crew hand at the end of the summer.  By the 4th summer as summer help, the only time we did coal cleanup was when there was a major spill, which was only a couple of times all summer.

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

The second summer when I had been back at the plant for a couple of weeks, one day when Jim Heflin and I were going somewhere in a yellow Cushman cart, I asked Jim where David Hankins was.

Like this only Yellow

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