No one knows more about having to put up with the antics of Summer Help than the Power Plant Man Jim Heflin. Though Jim wasn’t completely a True Power Plant Man, he was nevertheless certified as a Bonafide Caretaker of Summer Help Helpers. I understood after a couple of years of being a Summer Help myself that the reason that Summer Help were called by that name was because they really did indeed need help. Though some may think that this help could best be found in the company of a licensed Therapist, most of the time what they really needed was a good dose of Summer Help chores to keep them out of trouble and to teach them the fine art of labor in its most tedious and repetitious form.
Though I’m not sure, but it could have been Jim Heflin that talked Stanley Elmore into allowing the summer help to attach the signs to the barbed wire fence that surrounded the Electric Company property that enclosed the Power Plant itself as well as the lake that was built to be used as cooling water in the condenser. I say that because it didn’t seem like it was a long time after I had answered the phone one day in the garage and I found Jim Heflin’s wife on the other end of the line calling to talk to Jim that we were assigned to the task of installing the signs. Jim wasn’t in the shop at the time so she told me to tell Jim that his wife Brenda had called.
Well. It just so happened that my girlfriend at the time (who I later married and lived happily ever after) and I had a joke character that we would talk about named “Brenda Bulldog”. It is a long story to tell about Brenda Bulldog, so I’ll just say that it has to do with “Otto” in the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip, and his girlfriend “Polly Bulldog” who is always suspicious of another bulldog named “Brenda Bulldog”. I’m sure that you all have the same sort of characters that you talk about in your family… um… don’t you?
So, obviously, when she told me that her name was Brenda, I just had to respond as Otto would respond. So I said in a gruff but excited voice (rolling the “R” in the word Brenda in my throat), “Brenda Bulldog?!?” Jim’s Wife responded by asking what I had said, so I responded back exactly as I had the first time, “Brenda Bulldog?!?” Well, I guess she misunderstood my intentions because she sounded obviously disgruntled as she explained to me in no uncertain terms that she was not a bulldog. I answered back by insisting that this was, “Brenda Bulldog!” She repeated again that she was not a bulldog and told me to just tell Jim to call her at home when he returned to the garage.
When Jim came back from the Maintenance Shop I told him that his wife had called, and I added, “By the way. I called her “Brenda Bulldog”. I explained to him that I just couldn’t help it when I heard her name was Brenda, I just had to say “Brenda Bulldog”. I couldn’t help it. It just came out. He looked a little mystified by my explanation and quickly went into the office to call home.
I guess in hindsight, after having met Brenda in person it probably wasn’t a good idea to have called her “Brenda Bulldog”. First of all, not only did Jim Heflin have the face that reminded you of a likable Basset hound, but Brenda really did kind of remind you of a bulldog. If I had known that earlier, I am sure I would have insisted that she was Brenda Poodle. That would be the most logical response given the circumstance.
A couple of days later a pickup truck was backed up to the garage and in the back were bundles of thin metal signs. Each sign was about the size of a piece of paper. the sign was white and had red lettering. There were two different signs. One that indicated that this was the Property of the Electric company and that a person should only enter at designated areas. The other had a set of warnings or rules, which I can’t remember anymore.
There were 4,500 of each type of sign. It was our job to take the signs and to bolt them together with small nuts and bolts that were supplied in buckets. As we bolted them together we placed them in boxes and put them in the truck, where we went around the fence line surrounding the lake and the plant and every third section of fence (about 30 feet) we would mount the sign onto the barbed wire fence. It would take about 4,500 of each of the signs to completely cover the perimeter of the property.
In the back of my mind I could hear Jim Heflin say to Stanley Elmore after he hung up the call with his wife, “Stanley. Wouldn’t it be a good chore for the summer help to hang all those signs around the 25 mile perimeter of the electric company property?” And Stanley replying, “Jim! That’s a brilliant idea!”
So began the long trek of hanging signs. We had a small blue Mitsubishi Tractor that we used to travel around the fence line in areas where the truck couldn’t easily go.
It had a small trailer on the back of it that we would pile a bunch of sign assemblies (the two signs bolted together). Then we would walk or ride behind the tractor as we went from fence post to fence post mounting the signs evenly between the posts every third section.
This was a brilliant way to teach the young and inexperienced summer help the art of patience as well as the art of subservience. This way, later in life when the summer help became a Power Plant Man-in-Training, or even a mechanic or electrician and was asked to do something that may seem boring to the average citizen, all the summer help had to do was remember the time they had to hang 4,500 signs on barbed wire fences and even the most boring tasks seemed like an exciting ride on a roller coaster in comparison. For those power plant men who knew me as a janitor, now maybe they can understand how I could find so much enjoyment sweeping the turbine room floor (about the size of a football field) over and over with a red dust mop.
Anyway, during our time while traversing the wilds along the fence line, it gave the summer help time to think. I was working with a good friend of mine by the name of Tim Flowers. We had become friends while I had attended Oklahoma University in Norman my first year in college (before going to Missouri University in Columbia for my last 3 years). So, my fourth year as a summer help, Tim came to work alongside me.
Jim Heflin and Ken Conrad (as well as Opal Ward — or was it Opal Brien at the time) used to take turns shuffling us around the fence line. When we were with Jim Heflin we would spend our time in the intellectual pursuit of inventing new “Burning Cat” jokes. This was a skill I had picked up from my father who was a Veterinary Professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. He had come home one day from work with the latest copy of a Veterinary journal. In the journal was a set of “Burning Cat” jokes that he read to me. I’m sure you must already know them. There were jokes like, “Why did the Burning Cat cross the road?” “So that it could burn on the other side.” Or “Knock, Knock” “Who’s there?” “Burning”, “Burning who?” “Burning Cat.” Or “What did one burning cat say to the other burning cat when he met him in a bar?” “That’s silly. Everyone knows that a burning cat can’t talk when they’re on fire.”
We made it a goal to come up with at least one new burning cat joke every day. This came in handy later on when I was in my last year in college and I became known as the “Burning Cat Man” in Columbia, Missouri as I would tell burning cat jokes to the workers at the Subway every time my friend Ben Cox and I would go there to eat a sub sandwich. And then I would be introduced as “The Burning Cat Man” when customers would come in while we were there.
When we were with Ken Conrad we would think about more esoteric subjects like, “What does a cow think about while it is chewing it’s cud?”
We would go on and on speculating “Maybe the cow is meditating about the full meaning of life and whether or not the self is the center of his being or is it somewhere else, or is it just that he’s thinking that his ear itches and he can’t reach it with his tail. He can only twitch it” We would think about these things as we would be passing some cows standing opposite across the fence. We would wonder if they stood around trying to think up jokes that would entertain themselves since they had to stand out in the hot sun all day. Maybe they thought about burning cats, or even chickens crossing the road.
At first we couldn’t tell if Ken was even listening to us until one time, the tractor started to swerve a bit and he pulled it to a stop so that he could turn around and tell us that we were the strangest bunch of kids he had ever run across. But I could tell that we had started him thinking about it. I’m pretty sure that it was on his mind for quite a while. “What is that cow thinking about?” Every once in a while I knew that Ken Conrad had gained some enlightenment because he would suddenly turn to me and say, “Hey Sweet Pea!” And then he would grin real big. Yep. He knew. The meaning of life was within his grasp.
Anyway, long story short, before all the signs were hung by the barbed wire with care, I went up to the main office and asked Eldon Waugh if I could talk to him. He was the plant manager. The one I often have referred to as the “Evil Plant Manager”. Mostly because I think he would have liked that title. He worked so hard to obtain it.
I asked him if he had an opening at the plant because I would like to go to work there permanently. He said there was a janitor position opening up and if it was all right with Ken Scott he would hire me. So he paged Ken and asked him to come up to his office. When he arrived, Eldon asked Ken if he thought they ought to hire me because I wanted to work at the plant full time. Ken said that he would be happy to hire me on as a janitor.
I don’t know if Ken realized at the time how much trouble I would cause in the years that followed, because I always had come across as a fairly decent person up to that point. So I don’t know if he ever regretted his decision. I’m pretty sure that Eldon did and I know that Bill Moler when he returned from his summer vacation to find me standing in the janitor closet across from his office, he was none too happy about it. Especially since he considered it his job to do the hiring for people in the maintenance shop. Bill knew that I had already expressed my willingness to open my mouth and reveal my innermost thoughts right to someone’s face at the most inappropriate moments. I used to explain that I took after my Italian Mother who always spoke twice before thinking.
That was how I was able to escape the sign hangin’ chain gang and became the Janitor that I was always meant to be! Years later the words had worn off of the signs, but the white signs were still hanging from those barbed wire fences for as long as I can remember. Now that I think about it, I wonder what Jim Heflin was thinking when I became a janitor and he still had to tote babbling summer helps around the wilderness in the hot sun with an endless supply of Burning Cat Jokes. Was he wishing that he had thought twice before he spoke about having us hang the signs? Or maybe he didn’t and I just imagined that he was slightly upset all because I had said those two impulsive words….. “Brenda Bulldog!”