Monthly Archives: November, 2012

Marlin McDaniel and the Power Plant Mongoose

Marlin McDaniel caught my interest when he mentioned that he had a pet Mongoose in his office.  The only actual experience I had with a Mongoose had to do with a set of Hot Wheels that my brother and I had as kids.  In 1968 shortly after Hot Wheels came out, they had a pair of Hot Wheel cars that was advertised on TV.  Don “Snake” Prudhomme or Tom “Mongoose” McEwen.  Which do you want to be?

My brother and I had this pair of Hot Wheels.  the Snake and the Mongoose

My brother and I had this pair of Hot Wheels. the Snake and the Mongoose

Somehow I didn’t think Marlin McDaniel was talking about a fancy Matchbox car.  Especially since he said he kept it in a cage under his desk.  I knew the plant grounds was designated as a wildlife preserve, but at that time in my career, I thought that just meant that there were a lot of Construction Hands around that were still constructing the plant.

The Construction Hands that worked for Brown & Root were wild enough.  When they wanted a break from the hot sun, one of them would sneak on over to the gas station / convenience store just down the road and call the plant to report a bomb had been planted somewhere.  All the construction hands would have to report to the construction parking lot and wait until the all clear was called, which usually gave them the afternoon off.  —  That’s known as the “Law of the Hog”, which I will discuss in a much later post.

I had not been working at the coal-fired power plant very long my first summer as a summer help in 1979 before Mac (as we called Marlin McDaniel) asked me if I would like to be introduced to his mongoose.  I said, “All Right”.  Thinking…. I’m game… This sounds like a joke to me.

I don’t know if it was because I grew up with my brother and sister, where playing jokes on my sister was a mainstay of entertainment (not to mention a reason for having a close relationship with my dad’s belt, or my mom’s hair brush), but I seemed to be able to smell a joke a mile away.

So, I eagerly awaited to see what Mac actually meant by having a “Mongoose in a cage under his desk”.  You see, as I mentioned above.  I had never had a personal relationship with a regular goose let alone a French one.  Well.  “Mon goose” sounded French to me.  Like “ce qui est?”  “c’est mon goose”  —  Well.  I had a number of years of French, but I didn’t remember the French word for Goose… which is actually “oie”.

Since the actual nature of a real mongoose was lost to me through my own ignorance, I had no fear of meeting a mongoose in a case and actually wondered if it was furry if I might be able to pet it.  So when Mac took this small wire cage out from under his desk and showed it to me, I was not apprehensive that a real mongoose with razor sharp teeth and a terrible disposition was in the little hut in the middle of the cage with his tail sticking out.

Mac explained to me that he must be sleeping and that if he tapped on the cage a little it might wake him up.  He tapped the cage a couple of times when all of a sudden out leaped the mongoose.  I don’t mean that he jumped out of his hut.  I mean that he leaped completely out of the cage.  In one swift motion this ball of fur came flying out of the side of the cage, leaping over the top and  aiming toward my face.

I stepped out of the way and the mongoose landed on the ground in the office and it laid there.  To me, it looked like a squirrel tail with something attached to it.  I recognized right away that this was a joke that was supposed to make me jump in fear.  Only, Mac had never met my sister.  A leaping mongoose wasn’t half as scary as a raging sister that has just had a joke played on her.

I used to have a collection of wasp nest that I kept on my dresser shelves when I was young.  I had considered myself the “Fearless Wasp Hunter” as a kid.  Whenever I found a wasp nest, I just had to have it for my collection.

I had Wasps nests like this only minus the wasps

I had Wasps nests like this only minus the wasps

So, I was used to being chased by angry wasps as well.  I don’t know how many times they chased me down only to knock me head over heels when they caught be by slamming into me with their stingers.  They get rather peeved when you throw rocks at their home to try to knock the wasp nest off of the eave of a house.

That is why while I was on the labor crew in 1983 and we were on our way out to the dam in the crew cab I remained calm when a yellow jacket wasp flew in the window.

A crew cab is a pickup truck that has a full back seat.

A red crew cab like this only the bed of the truck was longer

A red crew cab like this only the bed of the truck was longer

I was sitting in the middle in the back seat.  Larry Riley skid the truck to a stop and everyone piled out of the truck.  Larry, Doretta, Ronnie, Jim and Bill all jumped out and went over the guard rail to escape the wrath of the wasp in the truck.  I remained in my seat and leaned forward so that I could see the front seat.  I picked up the stunned wasp by the wings and flicked it out the open door.  The others safely returned and we drove on.  —  that was me… The fearless wasp hunter.

Yellow Jacket Wasp

Yellow Jacket Wasp

Anyway, back to the Mongoose cage.  If you would like to learn how to make a trick mongoose cage all by your lonesome, you can go to this link:

How to build a Mongoose Cage

I only wish they had a picture of it.  As it turns out a Mongoose hunts Cobra.  Later in life I read a story to my daughter written by Rudyard Kipling called “Rikki Tikki Tavi” where a mongoose hunts down a cobra in a garden.  It was then that I remembered Mac’s mongoose in a cage and how I was too ignorant to know to be frightened.

Mongoose and Cobra in mortal combat

Mongoose and Cobra in mortal combat

Mac, along with Sonny Karcher first introduced me to Power Plant Humor.  I brought some of this home with me.  The second summer after hearing Mac and others call our Hard hats “Turtle Shells”, I caught some box turtles in my parent’s backyard and painted hard hat names on them using my sister’s nail polish.  I had three turtles in the backyard labelled “Ken”, “Mac” and “Stan” for Ken Scott, Marlin McDaniel and Stanley Elmore.  I probably would have had more, but there were only 3 turtles that frequented our back patio.

I heard a rumor that Marlin McDaniel moved to Elberta, UT where he lives to this day.  I don’t know if it’s true.  I think he would be about 70 years old today.  He was a true Power Plant Machinist that didn’t fit too well as an A Foreman.

Especially since he had to deal with the Evil Plant Manager at the time.  He was bitter about his whole Coal-fired power plant experience since he wasn’t told the truth in the first place that prompted him to take the job at the plant.  So he left to go back to the plant where he came from.

The last time I talked to Mac he was in the gas-fired power plant in Midwest City standing behind a lathe machining away as happy as could be.

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

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

Actually, his expression looked like someone who was thinking about the next joke he was going to play, or story he was going to tell.  I maybe have mentioned it before,  Mac reminds me of Spanky from the “Little Rascals”.  I wish I could see him one more time.

Marlin McDaniel always reminded me of Spanky from Little Rascals

Marlin McDaniel was the spittin’ image of Spanky from Little Rascals

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Poison Pill for Power Plant Pigeons

Pigeons were considered a nuisance at the Coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma.  They left their droppings in the most unfortunate locations.  Invariably, you would reach up to grab a rung on a ladder only to feel the cool squishiness of new fallen droppings.

The Power Plant Men had a conflict when it came to pigeons.  Most of the plant grounds are designated as a wildlife preserve and the electric company wanted to maintain a general acceptance of wildlife around the immediate plant as much as feasible.  The pigeons, however, seem to have been taking advantage of the free rent space supplied by the boiler structures.

One Power Plant Pigeon

It was decided early on that we couldn’t poison the pigeons for various reasons.  The main reason was that other non-pigeon entities may find themselves poisoned as well.  Other birds may eat the poison, and other animals may eat the dead pigeons causing a poison pill that would work its way up the food chain.

It was decided that the plant would use live traps to catch the pigeons and then the trapped pigeons would be properly disposed of in an efficient and useful method.  That is, all the live pigeons were given to a very thin eldery welder named ET.  ET wasn’t his real name.  I believe he received this name because he reminded you of ET from the movie.

ET

Especially when he wasn’t wearing his teeth.  ET was a small older African American man that you just couldn’t help falling in love with the first time you met him.  He always wore a smile.  He was lovable. He would take the pigeons home and eat them.

I realized what a great honor and responsibility it was when I was appointed by Larry Riley when I was on the labor crew to maintain the Pigeon live traps.  To me, it was a dream job.  What could be better on labor crew than going around the plant each day to check the five live traps we had at the time to see if we had trapped any pigeons.

Pigeon Live Trap

This is a picture of a live trap for pigeons.  You sprinkled some corn in the front of the live trap, and you poured corn inside the live trap to entice the pigeons to enter the trap.  Once in, they couldn’t get out.

Unbeknownst (I just had to use that word… Un-be-knownst…  I’ve said it a few times in my life, but have never had the occasion to actually use it when writing) anyway….. Unbeknownst to Larry Riley and the rest of the Power Plant Kingdom, a year and a half before I was appointed as the “Pigeon Trapper of the Power Plant Realm”, I had actually performed experiments with pigeons.

Ok.  It is time for a side story:

One person that may have the occasion to read the Power Plant Man Posts, Caryn Lile (now Caryn Iber), who has been a good friend of mind since the second grade, actually was on my team of college students in my Animal Learning class in our senior year in college at the University of Missouri in Columbia.  We had devised an experiment to test if we could teach pigeons to cooperate with each other.

My personal ultimate goal in the experiment (though I didn’t tell anyone) was to see if we could tell if pigeons actually cared for each other.  The premise for the experiment was to create a situation where a pigeon would peck a button  that would feed another pigeon in a nearby cage.  The pigeon in the other cage could peck their button to feed to other pigeon.

Caryn and I attempted various variations (is that redundant?) on our experiment to set up a situation where the pigeon would have to watch the other pigeon peck the button before they could eat, and visa-versa, but we never  really reached our goal.  The pigeons would always figure out that all they had to do was both go wildly peck their buttons and both were fed.

Our professor at the time was Dr. Anger.  How is that for the name of a Psychology professor?  Perfect!  — I have said in previous posts that the head janitor at the power plant reminded me of Red Skelton, but Dr. Anger sounded just like Red Skelton.  Just like him!

Dr. Anger had the voice of Red Skelton

The first couple of weeks in Dr. Angers class, I found myself confused with his terminology.  He used words that were not readily available in the old Red 1960 Webster’s Dictionary that I kept in my dorm room.  I finally figured out the secret code he was using and the rest of the semester I understood his every word.  This gave me a leg up in his class.

There were some words that Dr. Anger would use a lot.  There were various drugs that he would talk about that caused different kinds of changes in learning patterns.  The ones that he was most enamored with at the time were “Scopalamine”, “Dopamine” and “Norepinephrine” (pronounced Nor-rep-pin-efrin).  I know these words well to this day because I still wake up in the middle of the night with a silent scream saying, “Scopalamine!!!” (prounounced “Sco-pall-a-meen”).

Caryn and I had discussed my obsession with Dr. Anger and my desire to hear him say the word “Scopalamine”.  He said it in such a comical “Red Skelton Way” where his tongue was a little more involved in forming the words than a normal person, that just made a chill run up my spine.

I had noticed that Dr. Anger hadn’t used the word for a few weeks in class, and I just wanted to hear him say it one more time.  So I devised different conversations with Dr. Anger to try to get him to mention the word “Scopalamine”.

I asked Dr. Anger once if I could talk to him for a few minutes to ask him some questions.  I figured I could trick him into saying “Scopalamine” at least once before I graduated from college in order for the rest of my life to be complete.

I remember telling Dr. Anger that I was interested in testing pigeons using different kinds of drugs to see how the drugs affected their learning abilities and what drugs would he suggest….  Of course, being the dumb college student that I was, as soon as I had spit out the question I realized how stupid it sounded.  Dr. Anger gave me a look like…. “Ok…. I know where this is going…. you just want to get your hands on drugs”….

Geez.  I thought immediately when I saw the expression on his face, “Oh gee whiz.  He thinks I’m asking this so that I can get my hands on some drugs….”  It didn’t bother me… because all I needed was for him to say “Scopalmine” once and the next 60 years of my life will have been fulfilled.  So, I stayed with it.  Unfortunately, there was no mention of “Scopalamine”.  I left the meeting unfulfilled.

During our experiment, there came a time when we needed an extra pigeon.  The only one available was one that  Caryn Lile had tried to train during the first lab.  Her team (which I was not on) during that experiment had this pigeon that did nothing but sit there.  It never moved and never pecked the button.

They would place it in the cage and try to get it to peck a button, but it just never understood that in order to make all those humans standing around smile, all he had to do was go to the button on the wall and peck it.

When I told Caryn that we needed to use that pigeon for our experiment she became slightly annoyed because they had spent weeks trying to teach this pigeon to peck a button.  It was the only one left.  We had to use their “bum” pigeon.

She retrieved the pigeon from it’s cage in a two quart plastic pitcher (pigeons had a natural reflex which caused them to climb into a two quart pitcher automatically once you place it over their head and were glad to be held upside down as you carried them around).   She placed it in the cage and left to go back to make sure she had closed the cage in the other room.

This gave me a few moments alone with the pigeon.  I went to work to teach the pigeon to peck the button.  I knew this pigeon had caused Caryn trouble, so I went straight to “Stage 3 Therapy”.  I turned on a white light on the button and turned on a cross on the button as well, I waited a second, and then lifted the feeding tray.

The tray stayed up for the regular 3 seconds.  By the time the pigeon had looked up from gorging on grain, I had turned off the cross (or plus sign).  I waited a few seconds and turned the cross back on again… a couple of seconds later, I lifted the feeding tray and the pigeon went straight to eating.  The cross was off again when the tray dropped.

The third time was the charm.  After watching the cross turn on, the pigeon went straight to pecking the grain in the tray, I knew at that point that I had him.  He was mine.  The Manchurian Pigeon was all mine!  Then I performed the clincher move on the pigeon.  I turned on the cross on the white lit button but I didn’t lift the food tray.

“What?”  I could see the pigeon think…  “The cross is on!  Where is the food?!?!  Hey button!  What’s up?” —  PECK!  The pigeon pecked the button.  Up went the food tray…. the food tray went back down… the pigeon pecked the button — up went the food tray…. etc.

Caryn walked back in the room and here was a pigeon pecking away at the button and eating away at the grain in the food tray.  She asked me what happened to her pigeon.  I smiled at her innocently and I said, “That IS your pigeon.”

“No Way!  This couldn’t be my pigeon!  We spent weeks trying to teach this pigeon to peck that button!  We came out on weekends!  We even taped pieces of grain on the button to try to get the pigeon to peck the button, but it never would.”  I could see the tears in her eyes welling up from thinking about the useless hours spent on something that only took me moments.

You see…  I felt like I had a personal relationship with the pigeons.  I understood them.  The pigeons and I were one….  — yeah, right….. my faith in my abilities as “Pigeon Whisperer” was about to be tested.

Anyway, the last day of our Animal Learning class consisted of our team sitting down with our professor in a meeting room to present our findings.  I explained to Dr. Anger that even though our experiments were successful, we didn’t show that the pigeons could actually cooperate with each other to keep both of them fed.

I ended our meeting by saying to Dr. Anger that when we began our course, he had talked about different drugs and how they had different affects on learning.  He had that suspicious look on his face again.  I went on explaining that he especially had talked about the drug “Scopalimine” many times.  My teammates all looked at me as if they were saying to me, “No!  Don’t!  Don’t say it!!!

I did anyway.  I told Dr. Anger, “There is something about the way that you say ‘Scopalamine’ that I really adore.  I have tried to trick you into saying it for the past couple of months, but nothing has worked.  Before we leave, would it be possible to hear you say ‘Scopalamine’ just one more time?”

Dr. Anger looked around at my other teammates who were all about to pass out as they were all holding their breath.  Then he looked right at me and said, “Scopalamine!  Scopalamine!  Scopalamine!”

Caryn couldn’t contain it anymore.  She broke out in a nervous laughing jag.  The other girl on our team, just sat their stunned that I would risk receiving a bad grade on such an important thesis.  Dr. Anger and I both had a look of total satisfaction.  I politely said, “Thank you”.  My life since then has been “complete” knowing that the last word I have heard from Dr. Anger was “Scopalamine”.

Ok.  End of the long side story.  I told this story so that you would understand why I was eager to become the pigeon trapper of the Power Plant Realm.  Pigeons and I were one….  Who could be a better pigeon trapper than me?  I knew their every thoughts….

So, since I already told the long side story… I’ll try to keep the rest of the story shorter…. (I hope)  I was a decent pigeon trapper.  I captured a couple of pigeons each day.  I carefully put pieces of corn in a row up the the entrance of the trap where I had a small pile of corn inside to entice them to enter their last welfare apartment.

Unfortunately, word had gotten out that the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was the perfect spa for pigeons.  Carrier Pigeons had been sent out globally alerting pigeons as far as Rome that this Power Plant had more roosts than the Vatican!  Just avoid the one dumb Labor Crew hand that had a few live traps set out…..  Before long… This is what our plant looked like:

Typical Power Plant Pigeon Convention

Around this time I had been sent to torment Ed Shiever in the Sand Filter Tank (see the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space by a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann”) and the job of managing the Power Plant Pigeon Live Traps fell to Jody Morse.

Jody was a janitor with Ed Shiever and joined the labor crew just before Ed.  He had worked in the warehouse before becoming a company employee.  He liked to ramble as I did, but unlike myself, he was truly a real Power Plant Man.

I remember leaving the confines of the Sand filter tank to return for lunch at the Labor Crew building in the coal yard only to hear that Jody Morse had caught 10 or 12 pigeons in one day.  What?  I could only catch one or two!  How could Jody be catching 10 or 12?  This is when I realized the full meaning of the Aesop’s Fable:  “The Wind and the Sun”.

Ok. I know this post is longer than most.  I apologize.  I originally thought this would be short….  But here is another side story.  Here is the Aesop’s Fable, “The Wind and the Sun”:

“The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveler coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveler to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveler  But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveler wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveler  who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.”

Isn’t it a great story?  Persuasion instead of force.  This is what Jody had figured out with the pigeons.  He had them lining up to go into the pigeon traps until they couldn’t fit any more.  He had poured a heap of corn inside the trap and another heap of corn in front of the trap.

I bow to Jody for his genius.  My arrogance had blinded me.  My belief in my past experience had kept me from seeing the reality that was before me.  I resolved from that time to live up to the expectations of my Animal Learning Professor Dr. Anger who had blessed me in May 1982 with words, “Scopalamine!  Scopalamine! Scopalamine!”  Aesop had the final lesson from our pigeon experiment.  “Persuasion is much more effective than force.”

Power Plant Carpooling Adventures With Grant Harned

Louise Gates seemed reluctant to approach me to ask if I wanted to make a donation for flowers for Grant Harned’s funeral.  Of course I did.  He was a good friend of mine.  We had many carpooling adventures before he left his job as the plant receptionist to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma where he died a little more than a year later in May 1984 in an automobile accident.

Thomas “Grant” Harned had obtained a degree in business from Oklahoma State University before accepting the job at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma.  He told me that he thought that once he had his foot in the door that he would be able to advance up the HR chain until he worked his way into a business department downtown at Corporate Headquarters.  Downtown is synonymous for Oklahoma City.

Like many struggling new Power Plant men such as Ed Shiever, Dale Hull and others, Thomas lived in a modest student rental apartment near campus.  Grant lived on West Miller Avenue just off of Main Street in Stillwater.  Soon after I had become a janitor and the summer helps I was carpooling with had left, I began carpooling with Grant.

Grant was a tall thin man with sandy hair and a moustache that reminded me a lot of Gary McCain (also known as Stick).  I have a picture of him around here somewhere that I found many years after his death when we were cleaning out the office that Louise Gates (now Kalicki) had obtained upon becoming the supervisor over HR.  It is a picture of him sitting at the receptionist desk.

Louise gave me a picture of myself that had been taken when I was a janitor, and as I filed through the other pictures I found Grant’s photo.   I knew no one else at the plant would want the picture as few knew him or even remembered him by that time.  So I took it as well.  Some day when I find where I have placed those pictures, I will post them.

As I mentioned, Grant was just out of the Business College at OSU and he was fired up, ready to make a difference.  He had all sorts of ideas that he shared with me about how the plant and the company business processes could be improved.

He reminds me now of myself years later when I was carpooling with Scott Hubbard and Toby O’Brien and how I would talk about having smart electricity instead of the same dumb electricity we have had for the past 100 years.  Except that Grant’s ideas were about business processes, where my ideas were about electrons moving through a conductor.

For Power Plant Men, carpooling is a way of getting into other Power Plant Men’s minds and understanding them from the inside out.  Each day while driving back and forth from the plant you are basically locked into a confined space with one or more other individuals with nothing but your thoughts, or NPR or in the case of Dale Hull and Ricky Daniels… Beer.

In the case of Grant Harned, he soon became frustrated.  He had graduated from school and wanted to make a difference somehow.  And he wanted it to happen right away.  He would tell Jack Ballard his ideas about how he thought things could change, and each time Jack would shoot it down.

I’m not saying that Grant had great business changing ideas that would change the way Power Plants all over the country operated.  He just wanted to be listened to, and he didn’t understand that there were built-in reasons why we did it the way we did.  The most important was that “We had been doing it this way for 35 years, and we’re not going to change it now.”

For some reason that rubbed Grant the wrong way.  Maybe because he couldn’t help thinking outside the box.  He obviously had trouble understanding the benefit of doing something the same way for 35 years.  I guess he must have missed the class where “because I said so” was a solid business case.

Anyway.  It is true that Power Plant business processes before Grant’s time and for a while after, were based on doing things the same way it has always been done.  I suppose that is why electricity for all those years was the same boring thing…. 60 cycles (60 Hz or 50 Hz in Europe) Alternating Current.  Regular Sine wave, perfectly generated.  Each wave identical to each other.  — But I’ll talk about electricity later.  At this time I was still a janitor.

Sine wave shows how the voltage (and current) changes in Alternating Current electricity

Grant finally decided that he was going to look for another job because he realized that he didn’t have a future at the power plant.  He had been trained as a business person and there was little opportunity to display and cultivate his new found skills at a power plant in the middle of the countryside where everyone was content with the way things were.

Before he left, he gave me some cassette tapes that he used to play on the way to and from work.  I kept them for years until I had worn them out listening to them in my car.  Two of the tapes were The Rolling Stones, one of his favorite bands.

I said goodbye to Grant when he left, but I never forgot him.  Each year on All Souls Day (November 2), I remember him and David Hankins.  He, like most of the men I have carpooled with over the years was like a brother to me.  Those that weren’t brothers, were fathers.

I mentioned that I don’t know where I placed his Power Plant picture, but I do have other pictures:

High School Picture of Grant Harned

Grant Harned looking more like I remember him

Evidently someone else remembers Grant as I do.  I found these picture of him on a memorial site online.  There is a comment there that says this of Grant:  “Was known in school and by friends as Grant. He had a great sense of humor and would always make you laugh.”

I agreed with Grant.  He really didn’t belong at the power plant.  Power Plant life and culture at the time was not geared toward “continuous improvement” and Six Sigma.  It was about coming home safely at night to your family and doing a good days worth of work and having something to show for it.  He was young and ambitious.

I cherish the time I spent with Grant driving to and from work.  I remember many of the conversations that we had.  Many of them philosophical in nature.  Some having to do with the regular questions people have about life and God.  I know that he was being drawn toward something greater, and in the end I pray that he found it.

Power Plant Weir Boxes and other Beautiful Sites

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”  A line from the movie Apocalypse Now, may come to mind when reading the title stating that the Power Plant has sites of beauty.  Especially the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  What could you find of beauty at a Power plant with a coal pile, and large metal structures?

The answer is found almost everywhere you look.  I have mentioned before that the plant property is largely a wildlife preserve.  A large man-made lake was constructed on a hill to provide cooling water for the plant condenser.  In the process a veritable Shangri-La was created where wildlife could live in peace and comfort protected by the Power Plant Humans that maintained the grounds.

The second and third summers that I worked at the plant as a summer help, in 1980 and 1981, in order to go to work each day, I left my parent’s house from the back door each morning.  From there, I walked behind three houses, where I climbed over a barbed wire fence into a field.  I crossed the field and came out onto the dead end of a dead end road, where I walked over to Lakeview Drive.  From there I walked about a quarter mile to the corner of Washington where I would catch a ride with whoever I was carpooling with at the time.

During the summer of 1980, when I began working the 12 hour shifts 7 days a week to do the irrigation for the new grass we were trying to grow (see the post When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays To Listen).  When I needed to be at work at 6 am each morning, when I walked through the field at 5:15, the sky would just be at the point where you could vaguely see.  I didn’t bring a flashlight so the first few weeks were more like feeling my way through the dark, looking for any clues to help guide me to the road and back to civilization.  Luckily the cow (or bull) in the field didn’t seem to pay me any mind.

As the summer progressed, my trek to the corner was a little lighter each day. until I could comfortably see where I was walking.  I bring this up because on one particular morning I came across something that I have never forgotten, and I’m sure I will never see again.  After climbing over the barbed wire fence and turning to go down toward the road, I found myself at the edge of a field of Queen Anne’s lace that was left over from the year before.  That is, the dead stalks of Queen Anne’s Lace (very similar to Hemlock).

I’m sure you have all seen Queen Anne’s Lace at one time or other if you have ever been in a field in the summer, as it is found everywhere in the United States.

Queen Anne’s Lace in a field

The Queen Anne’s Lace I saw was all dead, so the field was full of stalks that looked like this:

The ground was literally covered with these stalks, so that it blanketed the entire section of the field.  Across the top of every one of the thousands of stalks where the head of the plant formed a kind of bowl shape, a spider had weaved a blanket of web on each plant.  The webs were all highlighted with morning dew as the sun had just enough light to brighten the dew on the webs so that the field appeared as if it had a magic blanket of silk laid across the top of it.

When I came to the edge of the field of Queen Anne’s stalks all covered with dew covered webs I just stood there in amazement.  I knew that I was going to be the only person to ever view this beautiful site.  So, I tried to absorb as much of it into my brain as I could.  I realized that God had the thousands of tiny spiders work through the night weaving these webs and that He had materialized the dew softly across the field.

Similar to this, but the webs were finer making them look like little blanket on each plant

I knew I couldn’t remain there all morning and there was no way around the quilt of webs, so I finally had to bring myself to walk through the masterpiece.  I mention this moment in my Power Plant life because you never know where something of great beauty is going to show up.

This brings us back to the plant where there are hidden places around the lake called Weir Boxes.  Those who regularly work with Weir Boxes use them to measure the water flow through an irrigation system.  The plant used weir boxes to measure the amount of leakage from the various dams around the main lake and an auxiliary lake used as a holding pond for water before being released to the lake once it is tested for purity.

The plant Weir Boxes look a lot like this

The flow rate can be measured by the amount of water flowing through the V shaped notch.  When the lake was first built it was important to monitor the 6 weir boxes located around the lake to make sure the dams were stable and were not leaking.  The water that leaked through the dam was generally routed through the weir boxes that were placed at the foot of the dry side of the dam by the use of a kind of “french drains” that were put in place when the dam was built.

As a summer help, when it came time each month for the weir boxes to be checked, we would get in a pickup with some industrial sized Weed Eaters in the back and head for a trip around the lake.  We would locate each weir box, and clean out any weeds or brush around them.  Then we would mow a path through the weeds from the road to the weir boxes so the person coming by to inspect the weir box wouldn’t have to walk through the high brush to the box, possibly stepping on snakes and other native scary creatures.

When we did this task, it was usually the first thing we did in the morning.  I know to Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, he loved the smell of Napalm in the morning, but I was more partial to the smell of freshly shredded weeds and grass.  It was the only cool part of the day.  It was only going to get hotter and sticker from there.  So, I have always had a pleasant memory of doing Weir Box detail.

This reminds me of a trick that Stanley Elmore, the foreman over the summer helps, taught me.  Since we would spend days on end going down a roadside with either a heavy duty weed wacker

Weed Chopper

Or an Industrial Weed Eater strapped onto a shoulder harness chopping weeds all day:

One with two handles like this one

Stanley told me that in order to keep the mosquitoes away, you eat a banana in the morning before you leave the shop.  For some reason by eating the banana, the mosquitoes would leave you alone.  I worked like a charm, and I made sure that my mom had a stock of bananas in the house for my lunch each morning.  It wasn’t until I was in the electric shop that it was discovered that Avon had a skin oil product that repelled mosquitoes while leaving your skin soft and plush and nice smelling at the same time.  It is called:  “Skin So Soft”.

So now the secret is out why the Big Brawny He-man Power Plant Men smell so good and have such Beautiful Skin (no.  I’m just kidding.  They don’t really have beautiful skin — believe me!).  It later became marketed as an insect repellent.  It is still that way today.  I suspect that the secret ingredient in Skin So Soft is Banana Oil.

Another trick that Bill McAllister taught me was that when Arthritis is bothering you, you just spray some WD-40 on your joints and rub it in, and it fixes it right up.

A can of WD-40

I told my dad a Veterinary Professor at Oklahoma State University about this.  He told me that WD-40 had the same solvent in it that was used by veterinarians to rub medication on horses that helps the medication absorb into the animal.  He warned that using WD-40 on your joints to lubricate your arthritic joints may make them feel better, but at the same time it pulls in the other chemicals found in the product that you wouldn’t want in your body.

The first summer when I was a summer help and I was in a truck driving around the perimeter of the new lake, that was still being filled, with Dee Ball looking for anything unusual, we spied what at first looked like a Muskrat near the edge of the water.

A Muskrat

Dee stopped the truck and climbed out to get a closer look.  A Muskrat looks somewhat like a big rat and sort of like a beaver.  What we were seeing looked more like an otter than a beaver.

An otter

But it wasn’t quite like an otter either.  It was more furry. and dark.  Dee knew what it was after watching it for a minute.  He told me.  “That is a Mink”.  My first thought was how does this Dee Ball know what a Mink is?  He sounded so definite.  To me Dee Ball, though he was in his early 40’s at the time, looked like an old farmer who had a hard life.  He acted half crazy part of the time, though he was always respectful and kind.  At least when he wasn’t mad at you for playing a joke on him.

So, later I went and looked it up, and you know what?  He was right.  He had told me that it was unusual for Minks to be this far south, and again I wondered how he knew so much about something that wasn’t even from around there.  He said that the mink must have followed the Arkansas river on down to the lake.  Pointing toward the north with his finger… and tracing it down until he pointed at the lake…. (that way he could show me how he was processing the journey of the Mink to the lake).  I thought maybe some ranger had put posters up around the lakes up north letting the animal life know that a new animal preserve had opened up in Northern Oklahoma where even a Mink could live in peace knowing they would be safe from hunters and trappers.

This is what we saw.  An American Mink

I remember Dee telling me that it was the tail of the mink that gave it away.

I have mentioned in the Post about Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down By The River that Bald Eagles migrate to the Power Plant every winter.  This brings bird watchers to the lake to watch the Eagles.  There is a link to view an Eagle’s nest on the Web.

The Cameras on Sooner Lake North of Stillwater

I have had the privilege along with the other Power Plant Men to watch these majestic birds, the symbol of the strength of our nation, each winter while I worked at the plant.  I have seen a bald eagle swoop down onto the lake and grab a fish from the water.

Bald Eagle Catching a Fish

What a beautiful site!

The plant itself has a beauty of its own.  When you visit the plant at night, you find that it takes on a surreal atmosphere.  The same hissing of steam through the pipes is heard.  The same vibration of the boiler and the bowl mills can be felt.  But the plant lights up like a ship on the ocean.

The lake on the hill with the Power Plant in the distance at sunset

You can’t see the light here, but if you ever travel from Stillwater to Ponca City during the night, you see what looks like a huge ship lit up floating above the landscape off in the distance.  It is truly a beautiful site.

Power Plant Secrets Found During Daily Mail Run

Mid-July of my fourth summer as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1982, Stanley Elmore came back from the office area while I was working fixing a flat tire in the garage.  He shook his head as in disbelief… which was Stanley’s normal way of saying that he either had some interesting news to tell you, or that he was playing a joke on you and was about to set you up for something.  He told me that I was one lucky person.  I had been chosen to do the Mail Run each morning for the rest of the summer.

What this meant was that each morning about 8:30 I would drive the Plant Manager’s pickup truck to Red Rock about 5 miles away to get the mail from our Post Office Box there.  From there I would drive to Morrison, 23 miles away to go to the Post Office to pick up the plant mail at our box there, and then to the Morrison Bank to cash checks for Petty Cash and make any other transactions that were needed at the plant.  After that, I would drive the 17 miles back to the plant.  This 45 mile journey along with the stops each day lasted about an hour.

This meant 1 hour each day, I wasn’t chopping weeds, or picking up rocks, or emptying the trash from the cans at the park, or fixin’ flats.  I was driving a company truck from place-to-place running errands.  As a Catholic, this gave me time to say all three sets of Mysteries of the Rosary (there were only three sets at that time) each day while on the job.  A month and a half later when I became a janitor, it was decided that I would keep delivering and picking up the mail each day.  Which suited me fine.  I enjoyed the drive, and after I became a janitor, Pat Braden told me how to take the back road (County Road 170) from Red Rock to Highway 64 on the way to Morrison, which was a pleasant drive through the countryside.

After a couple of weeks of doing the Mail Run, it was decided that I could also be used to make runs to Oklahoma City once each week for the Warehouse to pick up parts at various locations throughout the Metro area.  I was proud that I was being trusted to do this while still being a summer help.  I was given a booklet of POs (Purchase Orders), which I found out was like a book of blank checks from the Electric Company that gladdened the hearts of vendors when they looked at me warily while they asked me how I was going to pay for the parts I was picking up.

I was 21 years old at the time and had a Commercial Chauffeur’s license,  but I looked closer to 16.  So, vendors were surprised to see that I was carrying the cherished book of POs for the Electric Company.  To them it was better than cash.  With it, I could have a vendor load a $20,000 item onto the back of the flatbed truck by signing a slip of paper, tearing it out of the booklet and handing it to them.  I was honored that the company trusted me with this job.

This was a long time before GPS systems were in cars, so I relied on Dick Dale and Mike Gibbs to give me directions and tell me the most efficient routes around Oklahoma City to go to the various stops on my route.  These trips also took me to various plants in the area.  I was able to go to the Power Plant north of Mustang on the West side of Oklahoma City

Mustang Gas Fired Power Plant opened in 1950

and the plant at Horseshoe Pond (or was it a Lake?) on the East side of town.

Horseshoe Lake Power Plant Turbine Room in 1924

I even made a trip to Konawa once to the Power Plant there.

Seminole Power Plant at night outside of Konawa Oklahoma. This picture was found at: http://www.redbubble.com/people/harrietrn/works/1425122-seminole-power-plant

But enough about my own enjoyment.  I know you really want to hear about the secrets I learned.  They aren’t really secrets as much as they were insights or observations.  You see, each morning I would go to the front office before I left to take lunch orders from Linda Shiever, Joan Wheatley and sometimes from Linda Dallas and Carolyn Olbert.  They would have me stop by the diner in Morrison to pick up an order for lunch.  I would stop by the diner on the way into Morrison and give them their order, then on the way back out of town, I would pick it up.  Then I would have to smell the aromatic food the rest of the way back to the plant.

While waiting for Linda and Joan to decide whether they wanted the Chicken Fried Steak, or  the Hot Roast Beef Sandwich, I would stand there listening to the conversations that were taking place. Having grown up around my mom’s Italian family in Kansas City, I had learned to listen to 3 or more conversations simultaneously while pretending not to be paying attention to any one of them.

So, I could hear the plotting and scheming coming from Jack Ballard’s office each morning.  He was usually trying to figure out how to implement the latest dictate coming from the Plant Manager.  So, he would be throwing out suggestions about how to go about them.  This used to stick in my craw, because nothing enraged me more at that time than to have management treat their employees in an underhanded way.  I had my reasons for the rage that I felt, and maybe I’ll go into those some time in a later post.

One particular topic I remember was when Jack Ballard was trying to figure out how to keep employees from taking any time off for Christmas.  Eldon Waugh (or did it come from Corporate Headquarters?   Yeah… right), had an edict that no one could take vacation around Christmas because if they did, they would probably leave town, and if they did that, and the plant had an emergency, then there wouldn’t be enough people available to call.

I didn’t understand that reasoning, since OD McGaha had spent almost his entire life within a 3 county radius around the plant.  Sonny Karcher would be right down the road decorating a little Christmas Tree in his front lawn.  Actually, most everyone would just like to stay home and spend some quiet time with their family.  If some of us wanted to take a trip to go visit family, well.  So Be It.

This was before I had realized the full extent that Eldon went to make life miserable for his worker bees (see the Post “A Halloween Power Plant Election Story for a more complete understanding of “Worker Bees”).  Eldon (or was it Corporate Headquarters) had already declared that no one was able to use vacation the last two weeks of the year.

So, what was the problem?  The problem was that we had something called, “Floating Holiday”.  It used to be used for Good Friday in the earlier days, but then later was changed to one Floating Holiday, which meant that you could take it any time throughout the year.  This included some time during the last two weeks of the year since it wasn’t “technically” vacation.  Which was once too often for the Plant Manager and Jack Ballard (the head of Human Resources at the plant).

I guess that either they didn’t think that the employees would buy the idea that Corporate Headquarters would make a rule that said you couldn’t take your floating holiday around the time of a real holiday (Christmas), so they had to come up with a way to keep the employees from even having one extra day during those last two weeks, in case we would get it in our heads to drive to Oklahoma City to do some Christmas shopping.  So something had to be done about it.

Luckily (or maybe not so luckily), Linda Shiever was taking her sweet time that day coming up with the money to pay for her lunch so that I was able to hear a good 5 minutes of the conversation between Jack Ballard, Sharon Lance and Linda Dallas as they brainstormed a way to prevent the atrocious act of worker bees thinking they should have more than the one or two days allotted them for the Yuletide season.

You see… Vacation usually had to be scheduled well in advance, so a frugal, hardworking Power Plant Man will naturally save his floating holiday for an emergency.  Just in case something comes up and they have to take an unplanned day off (or he has to go save his wife from their burning house and the plant manager won’t let him use black time — oh.  That wasn’t this Plant Manager).  So, when it came down to the end of the year, and the floating holiday was still floating out there waiting to be taken, then the Power Plant Man would take it during the last 2 weeks of the year rather than lose it altogether.  This just made sense.  So, Jack had to come up with a solution that prevented this. (This was a number of years before vacation was allowed to carry over for the first 3 months of the following year).

The final solution was that Corporate Headquarters would come up with a Policy that said that the Floating Holiday had to be used first before vacation could be used.  — No.  I’m not kidding.  That way the Floating Holiday would not be available at the end of the year.  I heard this being formulated from the mouth of Jack Ballard.  Once he said it, it was like a window in the ceiling of his office opened up overhead and a ray of sunshine shown down on his desk and you could hear angels singing, “aahhhhhhhh”.  They knew they had found their solution.

I think this policy lasted a couple of years before someone forgot that they had made it, and things were back to normal.  It just fascinated me to hear how easily this band of vacation time bandits could manipulate the employee’s benefits on a whim.  This type of time thievery (as I alluded to above) enraged me.

Time Bandits

Those of us that were at the plant during that time know to what end this group finally met their fate.  I will discuss it in much greater detail in a later post that involves someone that the plant employees referred to as “The Snitch”.  This story about the Floating Holiday is just a minor prelude of things to come in the following years.

On a more humorous note:

One morning when I went into the Plant Manager’s office to pick up the Pickup Truck Key, Bill Moler, the Assistant Plant Manager, entered the office with a big grin on his face and said that he finally found out why Indian Electric kept sending us an electric bill.  Of course, Bill wasn’t paying the bill.  Why would one Electric Company pay another electric company, just because they kept sending them a bill?

The answer came when the electricians had traced the sudden loss of electric power to the street lights in the Park areas on the south side of the lake.  The power had been disconnected at the electric pole.  The fuses had been removed.  Upon further inspection, it was found that the electric poles did not belong to this Electric Company, it belonged to Indian Electric.  They had turned off the electricity because our Electric Company had failed to pay their Electric Bill!

That is a funny irony that was not lost on Bill Moler.  He was laughing about it all morning.  An electric company that had their power cut off because they failed to pay their electric bill.  How embarrassing is that?

Other interesting things happened on my trips to the Post Office and the Morrison Bank.  Each morning I would arrive at the Morrison Bank just as they were opening at 9:00.  One bank teller would be telling the other bank teller about her new boyfriend (around September).  This later turned into a fiancee (in October).  Then for a couple of months she would be discussing the impending wedding that was going to take place at the end of the year.

Cool Panoramic view of Morrison Oklahoma.  Click this picture to see a blow up of it.  Click the Back button to return to this page

Naturally at the end of the year, the bank teller was missing as she was on her honeymoon for a couple of weeks.  I think it was a Carnival Cruise or a trip to Branson to go to Silver Dollar City (No.  That was someone else.  I wish I could put a smiley face here).  Anyway.  A couple of weeks after the New Year the bank teller returned, and as I followed them into the bank (as I did every morning), the one bank teller asked the newly married bank teller how everything went.  The newlywed teller said that her new husband decided after about a week that he didn’t like being married so they decided to get a divorce.

Ok.  I have to smile when I think about that one.  There must be a punchline to a joke here somewhere.  Like how many times does an Okie get married over Christmas?  More times than they can take vacation…. Or something like that.