There were two distinct times in my life at the Power Plant Kingdom where I went Head-to-Head (or tête-à-tête as they say in France) with a horde of spiders. The second time I fought side-by-side with my trusty friend Scott Hubbard, that I knew wouldn’t desert me when things went from bad-to-worse (for some reason I find myself using a lot of hyphens-to-day). The first battle, however, I had to face alone, armed only with a push broom and a shovel.
It all started a few months after I became a janitor at the power plant (in 1982). I had received my Psychology degree at the University of Missouri and I was well on my way to becoming a certified “sanitation engineer” (as my Grandmother corrected me after I told her I was a janitor).
It actually came in handy having a Psychology degree. Power Plant men would sometimes approach me when I was working by myself to stop and have a conversation that usually started like this: “So, someone told me you are a Psychiatrist.” I would correct them and tell them that I am a janitor and I only have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology which makes me a properly trained janitor able to sweep the floor in confidence that “I’m OK, and You’re OK.” (which was a joke lost on everyone at the plant except for Jim Kanelakos, who was also a janitor with a Masters in Psychology). Then they would usually want to talk about problems they were having. I would lean on my broom and listen. Nodding my head slightly to show I was listening. After a while the person would be done and thank me for listening and go on back to work.
The most important thing I learned while obtaining a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology was that Psychology is an art, not a science. Though certain scientific methods are used in many areas, especially in Behavioral Psychology. Being an art, means that the person must possess the talent for being a Psychologist. This is as important as being properly trained. So I never assumed the role of a real Psychologist, I rather tried my best to just be a friend. I found that worked well.
As I mentioned, James Kanelakos was also a janitor at the Power Plant. Which meant that between the 5 of us janitors and our leader Pat Braden, two of us not only had degrees, but both of them were in Psychology (with James having the Masters degree, and I as his pupil with the Bachelors).
Before I proceed with my battle with the spiders, I should mention a little about the dynamics of our Janitorial crew.
James Kanelakos was obviously Greek. With a name like Kanelakos, it was rather obvious. He looked the part also, with a graying moustache that made him look like a Greek sailor. He never was a “True Power Plant Man” and he would be glad to hear me say that. Instead he was a person that at the time acted as if he was buying his time at the plant waiting for something else to happen.
Though he never mentioned it, I know that he was also part Irish, and every now and then I would see the Irish come out. He was a family man, and in that sense he reminded me of my own father (who was also part Irish). He was only 35 years old at the time, but he acted as if he had lived longer. He smoked a pipe like my father did. As far as I know, he always remained married to his wife Sandy, and together they raised two children, a daughter and a son. That was where his heart really was.
He made no secret that his family came before anything else. Not that he would say it straight out to your face, but you could tell it in the way he interacted with others. Like I said, Jim was there “buying his time”, changing his career at a time when he needed something… else. Maybe to strengthen his priorities. He said once that he left the office to go work outside.
Then there was Doris Voss. She was an unlikely site to see in the Power Plant Palace (especially later when she became an operator). She was a “Church-going Fundamentalist” who made it clear to me that Catholics, such as myself, were doomed to hell for various reasons. I always enjoyed our… um… discussions.
I thought it was quite appropriate during Christmas when the janitors drew names from Jim’s Greek Sailor’s hat and I drew Doris’s name to give her a very nice leather-bound Catholic Version of the Family Bible. I later heard her talking to Curtis Love about it in the kitchen. He was telling her that she shouldn’t read it and she told him that it looked pretty much the same as hers and she didn’t see anything wrong with it. Needless-to-say, I was rarely condemned to a regular Catholic’s fate after that.
Curtis Love, as I explained in the post called “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love”, was very gullible. It was easy to play a joke on Curtis. Too easy. He didn’t take them well, because he would rather believe what you were joking about before believing that you were joking at all. Because of this, it never occurred to me to play a joke on Curtis. Some how, though, it is hard to explain, Curtis reminded me of Tweedledee. Or was it Tweedledum?
Then there was Ronnie Banks. I talked about Ronnie Banks before in the post where Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost. He was like a likable young bear standing up on his hind legs. You could joke around with him and he was fun to be around. He acted like he enjoyed your company. Interestingly though, none of the people on our team would ever be classified as “True Power Plant Men”. We were more like an odd assortment of Misfits.
Pat Braden was our lead Janitor. He was by far the nicest person one could ever work for. He constantly had a smile on his face. He smiled when he talked, he smiled when he walked, and he especially smiled when he stood up from a chair and became dizzy from his blood pressure medicine. He had a daughter at home that he really loved. He reminded me of the goodhearted Red Skelton.
Now back to the Spider Wars and the bugs in the basement.
When I first became a janitor, I was assigned to clean the Control room and to sweep half of the turbine room floor and the Control room elevator landings and stairs. I always enjoyed being a janitor. I first became a janitor when I was 15 years old working the night shift (from 11pm to 6am) at a Hilton Inn in Columbia, Missouri.
To me it was a dream job. Sure, I couldn’t keep my own room cleaned, but put a push broom in my hand and pay me $2.50 an hour and I could clean all night. When I began as a janitor at the power plant, I was making $5.15 an hour. Double what I was making at the hotel cleaning the kitchen, the restaurant and the bar in the wee hours of the morning.
Anyway. I went to work cleaning the control room like there was no tomorrow. I would shampoo the carpet once each week. I would clean on the top and the back of the Alarm Panel. I know I made Ted Holdge real nervous once when I laid a vacuum cleaner on the top of the Auxiliary Control Panel (That’s what I call it. it was the Control panel where you synced up the unit when it was coming online) and I started vacuuming the top of it. He actually jumped out of his chair in the Shift Supervisor’s office and stood there and watched me closely. It obviously had never been cleaned before. I was trying to get rid of a strange odor in the control room that eventually, I found out was years of burned coffee in the coffee maker. I even had to scrub the walls in the kitchen to remove the odor from the entire control room.
Anyway. I was getting to know the Control Room operators, and I was thinking that maybe someday when I had progressed past janitor and labor crew that one day I may become an operator also.
One day Pat Braden came to me and told me that I was going to have to move down to be the janitor of the Electric Shop. There were many reasons. The first was that Curtis wanted to be an operator and he thought that if he worked around them that they would get to know him and would want him to join their ranks. The second reason was that for some reason, since Curtis had been the janitor of the Electric Shop he had been bitten twice by a brown recluse spider, which had invaded the janitor closet downstairs. If he were to be bitten again, he might lose his job for being unsafe.
I didn’t mind. Cleaning the Electric shop meant that I also was able to clean the Engineers Shack and the Brown and Root Building next to it. I also decided that the main switchgear which was where the Janitor closet was located needed to be kept clean to cut down on the onslaught of the poisonous brown recluse spiders (which in Oklahoma is a regular house spider).
My first day as a Janitor in the Electric Shop as soon as I opened the door to the janitor closet, I could see why Curtis had been bitten by a Brown Recluse (not twice, but three times — the last time he didn’t tell Pat. He showed me, but just went straight to the doctor for the required shots to counteract the poison. Not wanting to lose his job). The janitor closet was full of them. They were all over the little 4 foot by 5 foot closet.
Thus began the first war on spiders at the coal fired power plant. The closet was also being used to store Freon and other air conditioning equipment used by Jim Stevenson the Air Conditioning expert in the Electric Shop. I decided then and there to move all the equipment out of the closet. The spiders were practicing “Duck and Cover” drills all over this equipment so it had to go.
My main weapon against the spiders were my boots. When I spied a spider, I stomped on it quickly. I asked Pat Braden to order a case of insecticide to help me combat the spiders. The next day he pulled a two-wheeler up to the closet with two cases and said, “Here is your order sir!” (picture Red Skelton saying that).
I had cleaned the shelves, the cabinet and the floor of the janitor closet, and there was no place for spiders to hide in there anymore. Each morning when I arrived, there was always more spiders there. 3 or 4 at least waiting for me in the closet. All Brown Recluse.
I surveyed the combat zone and realized that spiders were all over the main switchgear. So I decided I was going to sweep the switchgear regularly and kill every spider I saw to wipe them out for good.
So I laid down floor sweep (cedar chips with red oil) to keep the dust down, and began at one corner and worked my way across the switchgear sweeping and killing spiders. I kept a body count. I taped a paper in the janitor closet to keep track of my daily kill.
I thought surely in a short time, I will have wiped out the spider population. After sweeping the switchgear I laid down a blanket of Insecticide (equivalent to Agent Orange in Vietnam). If I could kill any bugs that are around, the spiders would leave. The insecticide didn’t kill the spiders. they would just duck under the switchgear and then come out an hour later to be standing where I left them before. So I kept stomping them out.
Every day, my body count was around 25 to 30 spiders and this number wasn’t going down. That was when I discovered the Cable Spreader room… I had been involved in mere child’s play before I walked down some steps at the tail end of the switchgear and opened one of the two doors at the bottom.
I cannot describe to you exactly what I saw, because nothing I say can put into words what was there. I guess the best thing I can say is: Armageddon.
There were two rooms. One on each side at the bottom of some concrete steps. They are called Cable Spreader rooms and are directly beneath the switchgear. One side was unit one, the other was unit 2. They are large rooms with cable trays lining the walls and across the room at regular intervals. The floor was damp, and it was black, and it was alive. There was a small path through the room where the operator would pass through “the gauntlet” once each shift as they muttered prayers that they not be eaten alive by the black oozing mass of bugs spiders and an occasional snake.
I knew what I had to do. These two rooms and the cable tunnels that ran from there underneath the T-G building were the source of my daily trouncing of the meager few spiders that decided to explore the world above to see what was happening in the switchgear. The real battle was down here in the trenches.
I started with a large box of Plastic Contractor bags, a box of floor sweep, a shovel and a push broom. I attacked the room the same way I used to clean my own bedroom at home when I was growing up. I started in one corner and fanned out. Not letting anything past me. always keeping a clear supply line back to the steps that led up to freedom and air up above.
At first I just took a large scoop shovel and scooped up the black mass of crawling and dead bugs and dumped them in a bag, until I had enough space to sweep the dust into a pile. Then I attacked it again. Occasionally a small snake would appear upset that I had invaded his space, and into the bag it would go. Everything went in the bags. The snakes, the bugs, the spiders and the grime. There was actually a constant battle taking place down there that I was interrupting. it was bug eat bug, spider eat bug and snake eat bugs and spiders wars. Everything went in the bags.
I carefully hauled the bags out to the dumpster and out they went. It took an entire day to clean one room. Then the next day when I went back I completely cleaned it again. This time paying more attention to making it livable. I wanted these two rooms to be so clean that people could go down into these cool damp rooms in the hot summer and have a picnic down there and feel safe. — No one ever did though, but such is the life of a cable spreader room.
After that, each day I made my rounds of the switchgear, the cable spreader rooms and the cable tunnels killing any spider that showed it’s legs. After the main battle in the two rooms and tunnels was over of countless spiders and bugs, I recorded about 230 spiders the next day by making my rounds. The next day that dropped to around 150. then 80, then 50 and on down. Finally, when I was down to 3 or 4 spiders each day, I felt like the war was over and a weekly sweeping and daily walk-through would suffice to keep the switchgear safe. This left the small janitor closet virtually free of spiders from that point.
The interesting twist of the entire battle against the spiders was that the electricians had seen my skills at Battle sweeping and some of them had become impressed. They told me that I didn’t have to sweep their shop and the main switchgear because they took turns doing it. I still felt that as the janitor, with my battle hardened push broom, by paying a little more attention to detail would do a slightly better job.
The electricians didn’t really volunteer to do it. Whoever was the truck driver for that week was supposed to clean the shop at least one time during the week. At $5.15 an hour, I was more of a volunteer than someone that was hired to do this chore, and I enjoyed it. So, eventually, Charles Foster (An Electrical Foreman) popped the question to me one day…. He asked me if I would think about becoming an Electrician.
That was something I hadn’t even considered until that moment. The Electricians to me were the elite squad of Power Plant Maintenance. Like the Results guys, but with a wider range of skills it seemed. But that is a story for another time.