A Power Plant Halloween Election Story
I can’t say that the Coal-fired Power Plant located in the middle of the North Central Plains of Oklahoma had visitors on Halloween Night trick-or-treating looking for candy. I have mentioned before that we had an evil plant manager when I first arrived as a summer help at the plant that did what he could to make life miserable for his employees. That would sometimes send chills up your spine. I could tell you stories about the coffin houses on top of the precipitators. I already told you about the Bug Wars in the Basement, and even about the Boiler Ghost that ate Bob Lillibridge. Instead, I’ll tell a simple story about the Evil Plant Manager and his bees.
One time out of the blue when I was a summer help in 1980, the Plant Manager asked me in a suspiciously benevolent voice if I would stay after work to help him tend to his bees. You see. Eldon Waugh was a beekeeper. Beekeeping is a noble profession, and I admire their ability to make a good thing out of a seemingly bad situation. Sonny Karcher was a beekeeper. Sonny was a Hero of Mine. The plant grounds was a great place for bees because we had fields full of clover. But Eldon and bees? I have a slightly different take on it.
Bees are industrious workers that are single-minded. They each have their job, and they go about doing it. They are willing to give their life for their hive and in that way, are sort of unsung heroes. Or maybe bees do sing about their heroes and we just don’t know it. Maybe their buzzing away is at times a lament for those who have worked their wings away to the point that they are no longer able to contribute. Sort of reminds you of a Power Plant Man.
Since I was carpooling at the time and didn’t have my own car, Eldon said that he would drive me back to Stillwater and drop me off at the corner of Washington and Lakeview where I normally was let off, where I would walk up to the University Estates where my parents lived (and still do).
So I went to Eldon’s office when I finished work that day, and I followed him down to his pickup truck. We drove up by the coalyard where he had a trailer that had a bunch of white boxes lined up, which housed his beehives.
Eldon Waugh gave me a hood that beekeepers wear to keep the bees from finding out what the beekeeper really looks like so the bees don’t attack them later when they are flying by and realize that they are the person that keeps interrupting their beehive.
Eldon explained to me that when a bee stings you, you don’t grab the stinger and pull it out because that injects the bee’s venom into your body when you squeeze it. Instead you take a straight edge, like a knife or piece of thin cardboard or something similar and you scrape it off.
That’s when I realized that Eldon had only given me a hood. He hadn’t given me a full beekeeper suit like I would see on TV or in the neighborhood when I was young and some beekeeper came to collect a swarm of bees that had settled in a tree across the street from our house.
Eldon proceeded to open the beehive boxes and inspect them. He had me hold things while he was doing this. Like that the Queen was kept in a smaller box inside the bigger one that kept it from leaving. Somehow this reminded me of the ball of fire in the boiler that produced the steam that turns the turbine that makes the electricity at the plant. When he went to open one box he told me that this particular box had bees that were more troublesome than the other bees, and they liked to sting. “Ok.” I thought. “Thanks for letting me know.” Like that was going to help.
I had already resigned myself to the idea of being stung by a bee that was unhappy that the beekeeper had called an unscheduled inspection of the beehive when Eldon jumped back; Pulled off his hood and started batting around in the air. Sure enough. A bee had climbed up under his hood and had stung him on the back of the neck. I took a key out of my pocket and scraped the stinger off as he whimpered and pointed to where the stinger was jabbing him. The bee was on his collar making peace with his maker as I wiped him away.
Besides that one incident, the rest of the time went smoothly. Eldon inspected his beehives. It seemed like he was looking for mold or moisture or some such thing. He was satisfied. When we left he gave me a jar of his “Eldon Waugh” Honey that he used to sell at the Farmer’s Market in Stillwater. Then he drove me back to Stillwater.
There was something surreal about this experience, and in a few days, I was compelled to write a poem about it. This is not a poem about Beekeepers in General. This is a poem about Eldon Waugh, the Beekeeper as I saw him. I don’t know where I placed it, so I can’t quote it now, so I’ll remake it up the best I can. You have to excuse me, because I am not a poet (as you could tell with the Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost story), so bear with me. It is short:
Bees diligently gathering nectar,
Weaving honey for the hive.
Pouring life into their work,
Spending energy for queen to stay alive.
Beekeeper gives shelter to be safe,
Benevolent ruler over all.
Sharing fields of flowers of his making,
Protecting helpless and small.
When time to pay the dues,
Beekeeper expects all to comply.
If one tries to deny his share,
Sting him once and you will die.
Why is this a Halloween story? I know I speak harshly of Eldon Waugh and I know that when he went home he had a family like everyone else. I know that Bill Moler his assistant plant manager was the same way. If you met him at Church or somewhere else, he would treat you with the dignity that you deserved. Something happened to them when they drove through the plant gates (I felt), that made them think they were invulnerable and all powerful. Like Mister Burns in the Simpsons (as I was reminded this week).
It was Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton) in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 that said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men”. A Plant Manager at this particular power plant, because it was so far removed from Corporate Headquarters and any other Electric Company departments, allowed the Plant Manager to be an absolute ruler. There wasn’t anyone there to look out for the employees.
A union had come through when the power plant was first coming online trying to get the plant to vote to join the union. Many employees had worked for unions before, and they preferred the tyranny of the evil plant manager over the stifling corruption of the union.
I remember the first summer I was at the plant (in 1979) when everyone was abuzz about the union election. Some people thought it would stop this “absolute power” syndrome infesting the two top dogs. Those employees that had worked for unions warned the rest that to me sounded like joining a union was like selling their soul to the devil. Some had even left their former employers to escape what they referred to as the “manipulation of their morals”. It came down to voting for the lesser of two evils.
I would like to point out that Lord Acton said that Great men are almost “Always” bad. There are exceptions. There was one great liberating moment in Power Plant history at our plant that occurred in 1987 the day that our new plant manager arrived at our plant. His name is Ron Kilman.
Ron called the maintenance department to a meeting to introduce himself to us in the main break room. I remember that when he began speaking he told us a joke about himself. I don’t recall the joke, but I do remember the reaction of the room. I’m sure our reaction puzzled Ron, because we were all stunned. I gave Charles Foster a look that said, “I didn’t know Plant Managers could joke!” There must be some mistake. No rattling of chains. No “sacrifice your lives and families to provide honey for my table.” Ron was a rather likable person. It didn’t fit. What was he doing as a Plant Manager?
Throughout the almost 7 years that Ron was the plant manager, we were free from the tyranny of the “Beekeeper”. I have invited Ron to read my blog posts because he is one Plant Manger that even though he wasn’t one of the True Power Plant Men in the field showing their character daily by fighting dragons and saving fair maidens, he was our benevolent dictator that had the power to put his thumb down on the rest, but choosing “Might for Right” as King Arthur preferred.
Ok, so Ron Kilman doesn’t look exactly like King Arthur. That would be stretching it a little. Also… I’m sure some people found some reason to not like Ron Kilman through the years that he was Plant Manager. That would be because he made some unpopular decisions from time to time. That is the life of a Plant Manager.
When Ron first came to the plant, he really wanted to stay at the level of the regular working person. I believe that he meant it when he told us that. As the years went by, the demands of managing the large plant occupied so much of his time that little time was left to spend with the people he cared about. I remember him saying that his manager demanded him to be downtown in Corporate Headquarters so many days a week, and that left him little time at the plant.
He asked me what I thought would be a solution to this problem. I told him that I thought he should have a representative that would stay at the plant in his stead that would perform Plant activities and report to him directly. Sort of as an extension of himself. I was not thinking of his Assistant Plant Manager because he had his own job to do. I was sometimes taken aback when Ron would ask a question like that because it surprised me that he valued my opinion.
I will discuss Ron Kilman and why I believe that he is a man of great character in a later post. I only mention him here to show the contrast between Eldon Waugh and Ron. Both were in a position of ultimate power over their employees. One took the high road, and one took the low. Neither of them had ever been to Scotland as far as I know (ok. I had to add another rhyme… geez).
I also titled this post as a “Halloween Election” story. I told you the scary part… that was the story about the beekeeper, in case you forgot to be frightened by it. I also threw in the part about the Union Election as a meager attempt to rid the plant of total managerial tyranny. But the real reason I made this a story about an Election is because of the striking similarity between Ron Kilman and Mitt Romney.
My Gosh! Have any of you noticed this? Am I the only one that sees the resemblance? Notice the chin, the hairline and even the gray side burns.
Happy Halloween, and good luck with the next election.
Power Plant Lady of the Labor Crew
In the Power Plant posts, I generally tend to focus on the Power Plant Men that taught me their Power Plant culture while I was fortunate enough to grace the boilers and conveyors of the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the north central plains of Oklahoma. Every once in a while during this journey there were True Power Plant Ladies that came along that took their place right alongside the Power Plant Men, and generally held their own when it came to the amount of work, their tenacity, and even for some, their ability to hit a spittoon from 6 feet. — Ok. I made up the part about hitting a spittoon. Everyone just used the floor drains for spittoons in the early days before they became responsible for cleaning them out themselves, after the summer help found more grass to mow. — The choice spitting material was…. Sunflower seed shells.
In the first few years, there was Leta Cates who worked out of the welding shop (I believe… Well, she hung around there a lot), and later became a clerk. Then there was Opal Brien who was in the maintenance shop and worked in the garage one year when I was a summer help. Of course, there was Darlene Mitchell who worked in the warehouse with Dick Dale, Mike Gibbs and Bud Schoonover. There was also Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), who was one of the Electric Shop A team super heroes. Later came Julienne Alley that became the “Mom” of the welding shop. Some more came and went…. Especially the person that we referred to as “Mom” while I was on labor crew. Doretta Funkhouser.
I have mentioned before that the evil plant manager Eldon Waugh enjoyed manipulating his minion’s (oh… I mean employee’s) personal lives as much as he could get away with without stirring up trouble downtown. So, one of the rules he had put in place was that no one on the janitor crew could be considered for another position at the plant until they had first moved to the labor crew.
There even came a ruling later in 1983 (from Eldon and/or Bill Moler) that if it was your turn to go to Labor Crew, and you were not able to, or didn’t for some reason more than once, then you would lose your job altogether. That remained the case until Darrell Low was able to quickly move from janitor to Operator after Eldon had lost his control over the people on labor crew that he wanted to keep there, making the rule obsolete (I’m sure we had been told the rule had come from Corporate headquarters anyway).
Once on the labor crew, it was very rare that anyone left this crew to go to another position in the plant. They usually had to leave the company altogether, or find a job at another plant in order to escape. This was especially true after the summer of 1982 when the oil boom went bust in Oklahoma making jobs harder to find, and less people left the plant to go somewhere else to work.
So, when I finally made it to the labor crew, many of the team had been there for a very long time. Others I had worked with before because we were janitors together. This included Ronnie Banks and Jim Kanelakos. Other members of the labor crew were Ron Luckey, Chuck Moreland, Fred Crocker, Bob Lillibridge, Tom Kelly, Bill Cook, Charles Peavler and Doretta Funkhouser. Larry Riley was our foreman.
While on labor crew I was able to learn how to operate a backhoe. Though I never learned the backhoe magic of Larry Riley, I was able to scoop up bottom ash and dump it into the back of Power Plant Men’s pickup trucks that needed it to fill in the parts of their driveways that had washed out at home. The very first time I operated a backhoe, I noticed right away that the brakes didn’t operate very well. You really had to play with it in order to get backhoe to not roll forward.
That was ok, because I was just loading bottom ash from a pile into a dump truck and I could just bump the backhoe right up against the dump truck and empty the scoop into the bed. That was working real good until while I was waiting for the dump truck to return after bringing the bottom ash to the place where it was dumping the ash, Jim Harrison pulled up in a shiny new Dodge Pickup. I mean…. it was brand new! He backed up by me and signalled to me from inside his truck. I was waiting there with a scoop full of bottom ash (which is a gravelly looking substance) for the dump truck to return.
My first thought was oh boy…. I shouldn’t do this…. I can hardly stop this thing and I know I will probably run right into the side of Jim’s new truck and he’s going to have a fit. So, I did the only thing I could do. I proceeded to drive around to the side of Jim’s truck to pour the load of ash into the bed of his truck. Now… either it was Jim’s guardian angel, or it was mine (protecting me from the bodily harm Jim may have inflicted on me out of stress had I put a big dent in the side of his new truck) that stopped the backhoe just at the right spot, I’ll never know for sure. But something did. The backhoe for once stopped right where I would have liked it to stop and I dumped the ash in the truck filling it to the brim. I waved to Jim, and he drove away.
Later when I went back to the Coal Yard Maintenance building (where the Labor Crew called home) I saw Jim in the office, so I went to talk to him. I smiled and said, “I hope I didn’t make you nervous dumping that ash in your truck.” Jim said “No.” It didn’t bother him one bit. He said he knew I could handle it. So I told him that was the first time I had ever operated a backhoe and the brakes don’t work too well, and I wasn’t even sure if I could keep the backhoe from running into the side of his truck. I remember Jim’s reaction. He said, “Ok, now I’m nervous.” Having done my share of passing the nervous energy over to Jim, I went next door to the break room to enjoy my lunch.
You would think that with Doretta being the only woman on the crew, she would have had it much easier than the rest of us. She was about a 29 year old lady that had a daughter at home. I know because she used to wear a shirt that had her daughter’s face on it. She was working to make a living like most everyone else on the labor crew. Doretta worked right alongside the rest of us when it came to Coal Cleanup, washing down the conveyor system using high pressure water hoses.
She worked right alongside me while we tied the rebar for the concrete floor of the new sandblast building that was going to be built behind the water treatment building. She worked with me in the sump pit between the precipitator and the smoke stacks with the Honey Wagon Sewer company that was helping us suck out the crud from the bottom of the pit. (This was before we had bought our own Honey Wagon). They call it a “Honey Wagon”, because, well… it is used to suck out things like Outhouses. You know how much that smells like Honey….. right? Um… ok.
Most surprising to me, Doretta worked cleaning boiler tubes in the boiler when the unit was offline and we needed to shake tubes to knock out the ash, or even use crosscut saw blades welded end on end to cut through the ash packed in the boiler economizer section.
This lady was a survivor. That is how she struck me.
Most of the time Doretta worked with a smile on her face. In fact, she had a smile embedded on her face from years of smiling. Even though (as I found out in the course of my time on the Labor Crew), Doretta had a very rough period of her life, she hadn’t let it beat her down, and she was happy to be working on the labor crew, doing what most people would think was a thankless job.
It is true that when something needed to be typed, (Desktop computers were not available yet), Doretta would do the typing for Larry. She would also cut our hair. Being paid our modest salary (mine was $5.75 per hour at the time), we couldn’t afford to go to the barber every other week to have our hair trimmed, so Doretta would set up shop and one-by-one, we would go sit in the chair and she would cut our hair. Just like a mom would do.
I figured that if we were calling Doretta “Mom”, it only made sense that we would call Larry “Dad”. Larry’s reaction to my calling him “Dad” was more like Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker that he was Luke’s father. “Nooooooo!!!!” Except I was the little Darth Vader telling Larry I was his son…
Larry disowned me for a while as I have mentioned in an earlier post called “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley”. He finally came around to admitting it when I continued calling him Dad. But he explained that he dropped me on my head when I was a baby and that was why I was so strange. So, Larry was our Labor Crew Dad, and Doretta was our Labor Crew mom.
It came to no surprise later when Doretta Funkhouser left the plant to become Doretta Riley. It seemed natural to me that my Labor Crew Mom and Dad would be married. I don’t know if that resolved the issue of my illegitimate Power Plant birth. I don’t remember anyone referring to me as a bastard after that. at least not in relation to my questionable origin, and at least not directly to my face. Though I do know of a few people during the years that would have thought that would have been an appropriate title for me.
I remember on one occasion when we were hauling scaffolding up onto the boiler to prepare for an outage, and I was working with Doretta using the large wench on 8 1/2 (I think), when Doretta came back from checking something at the bottom of the boiler. She said something to me then that puzzled me for a while. I didn’t understand it at first, but later came to know why she said what she did.
She said that it made her mad that people were trying to get me fired, when I’m a decent person, while there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to stay. She was referring to the wrath of Waugh after we had embarassed him in front of Martin Louthan when we had confronted them about not being allowed to be considered for the Testing jobs, (See the post “Take A Note Jan” said the Manager of Power Production”). Eldon was trying to dig up dirt on anyone that had caused his embarassment and had targetted me as one person to fire.
What had happened when Doretta had gone down to the foot of the boiler was that one or more of the “Pseudo” Power Plant Men-in-training had made an insulting reference to the past hardships that Doretta experienced in her life. I wasn’t aware of this until Eldon and Bill Moler questioned me about it a few weeks later when I was called to the office to see if I knew anything about the incident.
When they told me what had been said I became visibly upset to the point that I could hardly respond. Not because I didn’t want to answer their questions (which I didn’t, because I knew they were on their witch hunt which included me as well), but because when I learned that a couple of people on our crew had gravely insulted someone that I deeply cared about, I was both angry and upset. It was upsetting that someone would insult a struggling mother who was doing what she could to take care of her children only to be berated by others that worked closely with me.
After Doretta left the plant to marry Larry, I only saw her at a few Christmas Parties after that. She still had the same smile. I hope that she was able to find peace in her life, and that her family is doing well today. And that’s the story of my Labor Crew Mom and Dad.
Wax On Wax Off and Other Power Plant Janitorial Secrets
Two years before the movie Karate Kid came out at the movies in 1984, I had learned the secret of “Wax On, Wax Off”. One that made a significant difference to my Power Plant Janitorial Powers!
My Janitorial Master was Pat Braden. He is the same age as my father. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Pat Braden reminded me of a rounder version of Red Skelton:
Pat was one of the kindest people you would ever meet. He was the head janitor when I became a janitor at the Coal-Fired Power Plant. I had worked with him off and on during the 4 summers when I had worked as a summer help. So I was glad to actually be on his crew as one of the team.
When we had a big waxing job to do, we would schedule a weekend to come in and do it. That way we could wax an entire area without interruption. We could strip off the old wax with the stripping chemicals, then neutralize it, then add the sealer, and finally end up with waxing the floors with the best wax we could buy. As I mentioned in the post “How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic”, we used Johnson Wax’s best wax: Showplace.
We had been “certified” by Johnson and Johnson to wax floors properly. This included the proper buffing techniques once the wax had been applied and had properly dried. A properly waxed and buffed floor is shiny but not a slippery floor.
We decided to spend one weekend waxing the Engineering shack. It was a tin building like a Metal Butler Building that the inspectors from Corporate Headquarters would use when they had projects at the plant. In 1982, that was pretty well all of the time, as John Blake and Gene Titus were permanent residents of the Engineers Shack.
The floor in this building had a regular tile floor like you would see in an office building in the 1960’s. Just the plain square tiles. It looked like it had never been waxed before, and was probably built on the plant grounds long before the power plant existed. The floor had been worn out by the traffic over the years. This was one building that I was expected to keep swept and mopped as part of my daily janitorial responsibilities.
Our Janitor crew consisted of Pat Braden, Doris Voss, James Kanelakos, Ronnie Banks and Curtis Love (and myself of course). We had decided a couple of days before that for lunch we would eat baked onions. “Ok”, I thought. I knew we didn’t get paid much as janitors and we had to be frugal, but I didn’t really think that we were so bad off that we had to resort to eating onions for lunch. But since no one really asked me for my vote (which would have been to bring in some pizza from Ponca City), we were having baked onions for lunch.
We spent the morning removing all the furniture from the building, and then stripping the floor (even though it looked like it had never been waxed before). Then we mopped it a couple of times. By that time it was lunch time, and we headed up to the plant break room where Doris was just finishing up baking our um…. er….. onions. Yeah.. Baked Onions….
It turned out that these were Purple Onions. The ends had been cut off of them and butter and salt and pepper had been put on each end as they were wrapped up in tinfoil like a baked potato, and then baked in the oven just as if they were a baked potato.
Well. I was never one to complain about food, and I was determined not to show my lack of enthusiasm at the thought of eating an onion for lunch, so I sat down and put on my eager hungry expression as I waited for our feast. — Well. The joke was on me. As I began to eat the baked onion, I realized right away that it didn’t taste like any onion I had ever eaten. It was kind of sweet and…. well…. it was rather tasty! Power Plant Culture never ceases to amaze me.
Anyway, after I had eaten my share of onions, we were ready to go back to work waxing the engineers shack. We spent the rest of the day doing that and when we had decided that the wax had dried enough, we carefully brought the furniture back in and put everything back in order.
So, why am I boring you with all this detail about waxing the floor in a metal building that doesn’t even exist today? Well. I have told you now about the “Wax On” part. Now comes the “Wax Off” part. The second part of my training to becoming a Jedi Janitor (hmm… snuck in a Star Wars reference I see).
Here is what happened the next Monday when I wheeled the buffing machine out of the janitor closet in the Engineer’s shack. Gene Titus (who always reminded me of Jerry Reed):
and John Blake, both were very pleased with their new shiny floor. They looked like they were anxious to show it off to someone… anyone that would come by. I was about to really impress them (I thought) with my fine buffing skills that was really going to make their floor shine. So, they watched closely as I attached the red buffing pad on the bottom of the buffer:
I began at the far end of the room from the doors and began buffing…. The first thing I noticed was that the buffer was literally removing the wax from the floor. Yep. It was taking it right off. Wax On…. Wax Off…..
Normally John Blake was a likable sensible person. But when he saw me removing the wax from the floor he had a very concerned expression, and well, I perceived that a sort of extreme hatred was rising up in his demeanor…. I was glad that John was a quiet mild-mannered sort of person, otherwise, I think he would have walloped me one for ruining the floor that he was so proud of minutes before.
I began thinking to myself what I should do. After all. The floor really did need buffing, and buffing it was removing the wax. So as the buffer moved back and forth erasing the shine and bringing back the dull tiles, I thought as hard as I could muster my brain what I should do next….
I figured I would go ahead and buff the entire main room, as if I knew exactly what I was doing, not looking concerned. I don’t know if the confidence that I exhibited while removing the wax relaxed John just enough so that he could leave the building and continue his job, or if he actually stormed out in distress hoping to drown his sorrows in his morning cup of coffee…
When I finished the room with the red pad… I did what I would have done if the wax had buffed up correctly and had actually still existed on the floor…. I put the white pad on the buffer. I thought in my mind that the floor was probably so infiltrated with dust that we hadn’t done a proper job (if it was even possible) to clean the floor before applying the wax on Saturday.
So I thought I would try something that they hadn’t taught us in waxing class… I took a spray bottle and filled it with wax. Then I started in the same corner where I had begun removing the pride and glory of John Blake’s newly waxed dreams. I sprayed some wax and buffed it into the floor. As I guided the buffer back and forth with one hand, I sprayed the floor with the other. To my surprise, not only did it start to leave a shiny polished floor, but it left a polish that was much more clear than before. One that was almost like a mirror.
As I buffed the room from one end to the next, the entire room became brighter as the lights from the ceiling reflected from the hard polished wax. I was nearly finished with the room when John walked back in. He was immediately stunned by the brightly polished floor.
I could see his uncharacteristic desire to kill me melt away and his pleasure with his new Shangri La abode become immediately evident. John Blake from that moment on viewed me with the respect that most Power Plant janitors normally deserve.
I was so impressed with how well the floor looked when I was done, that I went to the Brown and Root building next door and did the same thing there.
I began to wonder what other uses I could make out of this discovery… Spraying wax on the floor and buffing it right in. It finally occurred to me that the floor cleaning machine that I used to clean the Turbine room floor might benefit by adding some wax to the mixture. It had the same type of red buffer pads on it.
So, after I had scrubbed the Turbine Generator floor using the regular detergent. I cleaned out the scrubber and put just water in there and about 1/2 gallon of wax. Then I went to try out my experiment. Sure enough…. The bright red Turbine Room floor began to glow. The bright lights overhead were clearly reflected off the floor. This was very successful.
So, my next test was to sweep off the turbine-Generators themselves with a red dust mop. Then spray watered down Johnson Wax directly on the dust mop and mop away on the turbine generators:
The Turbine Generators took on the same polished shine.
I distinctly remember one Power Plant Operator that gave me a very nice complement one day for keeping the T-G floor so nicely polished. His name was Michael Hurst. He was a True Power Plant Operator.
As a lowly janitor in a plant of heroes, I found that I was treated with the same respect as everyone else. I would never forget that complement from him because I could see his earnest sincerity.
A few years ago on December 19, 2008 Michael Hurst died in Oklahoma City. What was said about Michael after his death was this: “He had a great sense of humor and a big heart… Many have been blessed with his generosity and his genuine love for people.” I can include myself in this statement. I know that everyone shown in the picture above from Joe Gallahar (on the left) to Doris Voss (in the middle) to Pat Quiring (on the right) would agree with that testament about Michael.
There was another sentence after this one that stands on it’s own. One that is a sign of a True Power Plant Man. It was also said of Michael Hurst: “Above all else, the most important thing to him was his family.” Though I don’t have a picture of Michael’s immediately family. I believe that I have included a picture above of at least some of his extended family.
Power Plant Men Fighting Fires for Fun
The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked first as a summer help, then as a janitor and finally as an Electrician is located about 20 miles north of Stillwater, Oklahoma. It just so happened that Oklahoma State University in Stillwater has one of the leading Fire Protection and Safety schools in the country. They offer Fire Service Training for companies who need to train their employees how to fight fires. As a summer help I was fortunate enough to take the onsite training that they provided at the power plant about every other summer to train the employees how to put out difficult fires.
It does sound like a good idea considering that there was all this coal laying around that had the habit of spontaneously igniting into smouldering embers that could easily lead to a large raging ball of flames. In fact, the Coal Yard heavy equipment operators had to driver their large dirt movers over and over the coal on the coal pile to pack it down because if it was exposed to too much air, it would develop hot spots that would turn into smouldering piles of coal that were nearly impossible to put out.
I have seen a spot smouldering on the coal pile where a water wagon would drench it with water over and over. That only seemed to keep it from spreading as fast. The only way to deal with it was to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn itself out.
You would think that the OSU Fire Training Service would do a good job of teaching the employees the proper use of the fire extinguishers. the plant was loaded with Fire Extinguishers, and they did. As a summer help and labor crew hand, we would have to do a monthly inspection of all the plant extinguishers to check their presures an initial the inspection sticker showing that we had been by to check it. This was a practice that would later change to once each quarter when the Power Plant Men were strung out too thin and the labor crew no longer existed.
The plant had more than just the regular chemical fire extinguishers, it had the larger roll-around type in a few places as well:
The Fire Training Service trained us to use this as well. Actually, they motivated us to go out and buy fire extinguishers to put in your own homes. Which came in handy for me one year when an air condition repairman was using a blow torch in my house to cut out the cooling coils but forgot to take out the filter first. The moment I saw him light up his torch, I pulled out the extinguisher from under the sink and set it on the counter. As I watched him, he suddenly started jerking back and forth. I figured something was up, so I pulled the pin, and when he was finally able to pull the burning filter out of the air duct, I was ready to blast it with the extinguisher. So, I gratefully thank the electric company for properly training us to use the handy dandy fire extinguishers that you might use around the house.
One important thing that you learn about the little extinguishers in your house is that they don’t really go very far before they run out of chemicals. So, you have to get the job done quickly while the fire is still small and manageable.
When I first heard that we were going to be trained to fight fires the second summer I was at the plant as a summer help, I was pretty excited. Wow… Great!!! Fight Fires! That sounds fun. A day of watching safety videos and playing with fire extinguishers. I didn’t realize at the time that there was a reason why OSU Fire Training Service was the best fire training school in the radius of about 1,000 miles.
Sure. We watched the training videos. We learned all about proper fire extinguisher care and maintenance. We heard stories about how small fires turned into raging infernos that burned companies right out of business. One thing I remember is that some large percentage of companies that have a major fire are never able to recover to the point that they go completely out of business. If you need the exact percentage, I suggest you call up the OSU School of Fire Protection and Safety. They probably have the latest statistic printed on their school lunch napkins, because these guys eat, drink and sleep fire safety.
Then, after they had impressed us with their Fire Safety Prowess, they said, “Let’s take about a 15 minute break, and we will meet outside just north of the water treatment plant where we will resume your lessons. Oh, and bring your rubber boots and maybe a rain suit.” Rain Suit? What? It’s about 100 degrees outside. I wouldn’t mind getting a little wet I thought to myself. — The simpleminded summer help that I was at the time.
I could describe in detail to you how they had this obstacle course of staircases and pipes and other metal structures all sitting in a big tray. “Interesting.” I thought… Are we going to climb the staircase and shoot the fire from up above with our handy dandy fire extinguishers which were lined up in a row off to one side? Climbing over pipes to fight a fire under the stairs maybe… Do we get to use the big roll around fire extinguisher that was there too? This looks like it might be fun.
That was when the fun began. One of the trainers turned a valve, and then I realized that there was a fairly large tank there also that was hooked up to the pipes that wound around the mocked up structure of a stairway and other obstacles in the large tray. As he turned the valve, what looked like diesel or kerosene some petroleum product came spraying out of various holes in the piping spraying everything in the tray drenching it with fuel.
This other guy had a long rod that he had lit like a large lighter only it was giant size, and after the fuel had been spraying out for a while, he lowered the flame down into the tray that now was beginning to fill up with some kind of oily substance. He lit it and the flames quickly spread over all the structure. He had us go in groups of 4 people with fire extinguishers to try to put out the fire. As their extinguishers ran out of fuel, others waiting behind would take their place trying to put out the fire.
We would chase the fire around the structure trying to put it out, but it wasn’t as easy as you would think. If you didn’t completely suffocate it by hitting it from many different directions and in a pattern from one end to the other just right, the fire would dodge around the spray from the extinguishers to be right back where you started. By the time we had used up all the extinguishers, we may have put the fire out about 3 times.
Rubber boots… I kept thinking…. my feet are getting hot… You couldn’t hardly get close enough to the fire to use your fire extinguisher without getting your eyebrows singed. I was always known for having long eyelashes, and I thought I could hear them sizzle as they brushed against my safety glasses.
That’s when they pulled the fire hose out of the fire box that was there next to the fire hydrant. All over the plant grounds there were these red boxes. They are lined up alongside the long conveyor belt from the coal yard to the plant (about 1/2 mile). They were lined up along around the two silver painted million gallon number 2 Diesel tanks. They were just about everywhere you looked (come to think of it). I remember Summer Goebel when she was a new plant engineer one time asked me when she had first arrived, “What are all those red boxes out there?” (she was pointing out the window of the Engineer’s office). I told her they each contained fire hose and a valve wrench to open up the fire hydrant. I neglected to add that they also provided great shade for all the Jack and Jill rabbits that inhabited the plant grounds, which doubled as a wild life preserve.
So, we were going to use the fire hose! That sounded like more fun. That is until the one guy said to the other guy (more using hand and face signals — like putting his thumb up and winking) “open ‘er up” — so, he was using “slang” hand and face signals…
That’s when the real training began. First of all, we all backed up because as the flames grew on their structure, the heat literally talked directly to your legs and magically told them…. “back up, or else…” so, now that we were standing a good 50 feet away from the fire, we lined up in a row on the fire hose. 4 of us. Four hefty Brawny Power Plant men… (well, 3 hefty brawny power plant men, and one scrawny little runt of a summer help who actually thought he could be measured alongside them), Isn’t that a bit much for this one 4 inch fire hose? (or was it just 3 inches?). There were two hoses actually being used. One to create a wide barrier of water to protect us from the heat, and another hose to shoot water through the barrier into the fire. A couple of guys manned the large roll around fire extinguisher. Here is an actual picture of the OSU Training Service training a group of employees at a work site to fight fires to give you a picture of what we faced:
Like I said, these guys aren’t called the best Fire Trainers because they have pretty pamplets. so, the first time I slipped in the mud, I thought… hmm… I suppose the rainsuit would have kept all that mud from coming into contact with my jeans, and my shirt and my ego.
Well, the most fascinaing thing was that we could walk up real close to this intense fire and the wide spray of water sheltered us from the heat.
Then with the large fire extinguisher on wheels, you could open it up on the fire by standing behind this barrier and shoot the chemicals right through the water onto the fire, and it would quickly and incredibly put out that trememdous fire when it was done right. The other firehose that was spraying through the barrier of water was used to cool everything down so that the fire didn’t spring right back up. the water wasn’t going to put out an oil fire.
Anyway, not long after our first of many fire fighting training sessions that we had throughout the years, the night that we were actually fighting the dragon in the boiler (See the Post, “Where do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today”), the Control Room came over the gray phone (PA system) saying that there was a fire on the turbine room floor. A bunch of power plant he-men dropped the lance they were using to pierce the dragon and ran off to fight the fire. It turned out to be a barrel full of oily rags that had spontaneously combusted. The fire refused to go out for a long time. It kept re-igniting until the contents had completely burned up.
I remained in the bottom ash area as I was still reeling from the steaming hot water that had been spewed all over me. A little while later the men were back ready to grab the lance and go back to work on the boiler around 10pm (this after a full day of coal cleanup from 8am that morning).
The one important topic that they engrained into our minds while we were taking the training was that you have to know when the fire is too big to fight. We had learned what our equipment could do and what it couldn’t do. So, we had the knowledge to realize that if the fire is too big, then it is time to get out of there and call the professionals. The only problem was that the nearest professionals were about 20 minutes away. A lot can burn down in that amount of time…. but that is a story for another time. I see the grin on the power plant men’s faces. They know what I am talking about.