Monthly Archives: March, 2013

Personal Power Plant Hero — Charles Foster

When you think about it, you probably spend more time with your best friend than you ever did talking to your own father.  That is, unless your father is your best friend.  Charles Foster was my “Foster Father”.  Though I was grateful for his effort to bring me into the Electric Shop at the Coal-Fired Plant, when I had little to no electrical experience, that wasn’t the reason why we became such good friends.

When I moved into the electric shop from the labor crew, Charles Foster was my B Foreman.  He was my foreman for only the first year of the 18 years I spent as an electrician.  He was my friend from the first day I met him until… well… until the end of eternity.  I found that most of the electricians were more intelligent than others it seemed.  The shop had people that were Heroes in their own right.  Andy Tubbs, Craig Jones, Terry Blevins, Diana Lucas and Ben Davis were what I thought of as “Delta Force” Electricians.  They were sent to tackle the toughest of jobs because everyone knew that they would pour all they had into their work until the job was done.

Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers were the electronics buffs.  They would work on calibrating, programming and monitoring different plant systems.  These are the people that you went to when a piece of electronic equipment was on the fritz, and they would analyze, test and repair it with their endless drawers of all types of electronic parts.

There were some other electricians, such as Art Hammond, Bill Ennis, Jim Stevenson and Mike Rose that had their own special knowledge that made each of them unique (to be sure).  The other two foremen were Howard Chumbley and O.D. McGaha (prounounced:  Oh Dee Muh Gay Hay).

Charles Foster didn’t fall in the same category as the others.  He wasn’t the type of person to wire up a Boiler Water Circulating Pump, or run conduit up the side of the boiler.  Though he would do these tasks when the A-Team wasn’t around to do it.  He liked to work alone, or at least alongside one other person.  I felt lucky that Charles enjoyed working with me.

When I first joined the electric shop Charles made two things clear to me;  don’t call him Charlie and don’t make fun of his spelling.  He was sensitive about those two things.  I agreed, and I never did…. call him Charlie or make fun of his spelling.  Charles knew he had a problem with spelling, and there didn’t seem to be anything he could do about it.  So, I often checked over his work before he sent something.  — This was before Personal Computers were available in the office with spell checkers.

During my first electrical year (1984), Charles and I would sit in the Electric Shop Office during lunch and talk about movies we had seen.  We took turns relaying entire movies to each other.  We would start out by saying, “Have you seen “Karate Kid”?  Well you see, there was this boy who was moving to California with his mom from someplace in the east and….”

The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid

We quickly learned that we liked the same kind of movies and shows, and even more, we liked telling each other about them.  It seems that we spent years during lunch talking about one movie (or TV show) after the other.  I looked forward to just sitting with Charles and talking during lunch.

I noticed in the years that I worked at the Power Plant that, in general, Power Plant Men have the knack of thinking outside of the box.  Charles Foster was very good at doing this, and we would have discussions about all sorts of subjects.  From God and the Universe to time travel and gardening.  The more we talked, the more I came to realize that this man was brilliant.

Not “Newton” brilliant, but “Einstein” brilliant…. If you know what I mean….  Newton had a great mathematical mind and used that ability to become the father of Physics.  Einstein on the other hand used his ability to take an observation and mix it with his idea of reality to come up with something that seemed totally unrelated, but made sense nonetheless.  This was Charles.

So, what great plans did Charles come up with?  What plot to take over the world (as my current manager at Dell, Clay Worley accuses me of weekly)?  He became a good father to his son and daughter and a good husband to his wife Margaret.  All the things that are really important for the survival of mankind.

One day while Andy Tubbs and I were driving to the River Pump station to check the transformers during substation checks, we stopped along the roadside and I picked a stalk from a Cattail that was about ready to bloom.

A Power Plant Cattail

A Power Plant Cattail

The plan was to put it in Charles’ top right hand desk drawer.  The reason is that when handled just right, this brown furry “flower” (if you want to call it that) will literally explode into tens of thousands of tiny floating bits of fur.  Sort of like a dandelion does when it turns white, only more furry and much more numerous.  A thousand times more numerous.

When we arrived back in the shop, I walked into the office and told Charles that I had a present for him.  Holding the stalk in my hand I opened his drawer.  As Charles leaped out of his chair to stop me, I dropped the cattail into his drawer full of tools and odds and end parts, and it exploded into a huge ball of fur.  Cattail fur went flying around the room.

Charles was genuinely upset.  You see… It wasn’t bad enough that our clothes and hair and nose were being speckled with fur… Charles had allergies and this fur wasn’t helping.  So Charles hurried into the shop and wheeled the Shop Vac over to the door and unraveled the hose and plugged it in to vacuum out his drawer.

A Shop-Vac like this

A Shop-Vac like this

Charles was trying to vacuum up the mess in his drawer before the office became flooded with the fur.  He turned the vacuum on and turned around to put the end of the hose in the drawer.  As he turned, Andy quickly disconnected the hose from the intake and attached it to the outtake.  Notice the two holes on the front of the Shop-Vac.  The bottom one is to vacuum while the top hose connect actually blows out the air.

By the time Charles plunged the end of the hose into the drawer, it was blasting air from the hose which caused just the opposite effect that Charles was hoping for.  The entire room became so full of flying fur that any attempt to clean it up became impossible.  I couldn’t help it, I was over in the corner laughing at the situation that Charles found himself in….. Of course… I was standing in the middle of what looked like a heavy snowstorm.

After about 5 minutes some of the flying fur had settled on the floor and the entire floor in the office was covered with what seemed like about 2 inches of fur.  —  Ok.  So, I felt guilty about this.  I hadn’t thought about Charles’ allergies.  For the next 2 months (at least), each morning Charles would remind me that I was still supposed to feel bad about it by opening his drawer when he first came in, and blowing down into the drawer causing fur to stir up and fly around the room.  Yeah, it was remarkable that it lasted so long.

During a Major Overhaul, the electricians do alarm checks.  During this time, you go down the list of every alarm in the plant and test it to make sure it is still working as designed.  There are hundreds of alarms.  You take blueprints with you to go to every conceivable alarm on the unit that is down for overhaul.  Then while someone is sitting in the control room watching the alarm printout and the alarm monitors, the electrician will place a jumper across the apparatus that brings in the alarm and wait until the person in the control room acknowledges the alarm.

To do this job, you need to read the wire numbers on the print and match them with the wires on the terminal blocks.  Then you call the Control room on the radio and ask them if alarm so and so came in.  We found out quickly that we didn’t want Charles doing either of these two jobs.  Charles had the habit of reading the numbers out of order.  Instead of wire number 25496, he might read 24956.

I know that some of you recognize the signs that I have described about Charles.  I know that Charles felt a great frustration with his problem spelling and transposing numbers.  One night in 1992, I watched a movie on TV called “The Secret” with Kirk Douglas.

The SecretI wouldn’t normally have sat and watched a movie like this because it dragged on for a while and didn’t seem to have much of a plot.  What kept me glued to the TV was that the man in the movie played by Kirk Douglas was just like Charles except that he couldn’t read at all.  He was very smart and was trying to hide the fact that he just couldn’t read.

When his grandson began having the same problem, he realized he had to do something about it.  That was when he found out that he had Dyslexia.  There are different forms or degrees of Dyslexia, but I recognized right away that this was a story about Charles Foster.  I knew that his son Tim who was in High School at the time was having the same difficulty with spelling.

The next morning when I arrived in the Electric Shop Office I had to tell Charles right away (I couldn’t wait until our normal lunch time movie review) that I knew why he had so much trouble spelling and why he always jumbled his numbers around.  It was because he had Dyslexia.  I explained the movie to him.  As I was telling this to Charles I could see that he was beginning to understand…. everything fit.

I watched as Charles soaked in what I had just told him.  A lifetime of feeling like he had failed at the most simple of tasks were drying up before his eyes.  He had a condition that was not only common, but was also treatable in the sense that you could learn to improve using the correct techniques.  Just knowing why was good enough for Charles.  He had spent years coping and working around.  Now he knew why.  I will never forget that moment when I was sitting in the office smiling at Charles smiling back at me.

Charles Foster - A True Power Plant Hero!

Charles Foster – A True Power Plant Hero!

I mentioned above that Charles reminded me of Albert Einstein.  It is an interesting coincidence (or is it?) that the movie “The Secret” earned  the Einstein Award from the National Dyslexia Research Foundation in 1992.  It seems that Einstein, Charles Foster and Dyslexia go together.

God Bless you Charles and your wonderful family!

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Ken Conrad Dances With a Wild Bobcat — Repost

This post was originally posted on March 24, 2012:

I have just finished watching the movie “Born Free” with my son.  I had recorded it on DVR because I knew he liked watching Big Cats.  It reminded me of when Ken Conrad (A True Power Plant Man Extraordinaire) had become entangled with a Bobcat one day while performing his heroic Power Plant duties.

When a person usually puts the words power plant and Bobcat together in a sentence, one may easily come to the wrong conclusion that this is a story about a run-away little Bobcat scoop shovel, or what is professionally known as a Bobcat Skid-Steer Loader since these are an essential piece of equipment for any power plant or any work site for that matter (and are fun to drive and do wheelies):

This is not the type of Bobcat Ken had to Wrestle

In an earlier post entitled Indian Curse or Brown and Root Blunder I mentioned that in the years following the completion of the power plant, steps were taken to be extra kind to the plant’s nearest neighbor, the Otoe-Missouria Indian Reservation.  This story takes place on one of those days where the electric company was showing their true colors to the friends next door.

Every summer the Otoe-Missouria tribe would hold a Pow-Wow some time in June.  This is when the the Native Americans of this tribe come together as a time for a reunion where the culture of the tribe can be kept alive.  It spans over a number of days, and people come from all over with camping trailers and stay on the reservation and have a good time visiting.  You can learn more information about the tribe’s Pow-wow, culture and the benefits from the Casino (which was not there at this time.  Not even the Bingo Hall that used to bring in buses from all over the country) from web service that hosts news about the tribe:  http://www.otoe-missouria.com

The Power Plant helped out by mowing the areas around the Otoe-Missouria Reservation where the campers would park and a large open field where events could take place and large tents could be erected.  So, when I arrived at work in the morning I was instructed to fill a water and ice bucket, and get a box of cone cups, and bring my lunch.  This was because I may not be back for lunch as I was going to be the gopher for Jim and Ken that day while they mowed the area around the Otoe-Missouria Reservation.  Being a “Gopher” as most of you know means that you are the one that “Goes For” things.  So, if they need something back at the plant, then I hop in the truck and I go and get it.  This is fine for me, but I generally liked staying active all day, or else the day drags on.  So I grabbed some trash bags and my handy dandy homemade trash stabbing tool and put them in the back of the truck as well.

I followed Jim Heflin and Ken Conrad on the two shiny new Ford tractors with double-wide brush hogs down the highway with my blinkers on so people barreling down the highway from Texas on their way to Kansas at ungodly speeds would know enough to slow down before they ploughed into a brush hog like the one below:

brushhog

Almost Like this without the safety guards and just about as new

After we arrived at the reservation there was a man there that directed us to where we should mow and Ken and Jim went right to work.  They first mowed in the area where there were a lot of trees and areas to park campers and Jim and Ken worked their magic weaving in and out of the trees with these big mowers behind them just missing each tree, trash can, fire grill, building and vehicles that happened to be in their way (like the one I had driven there).

After watching their skill with the mowers for a while I stepped out of the truck, now certain that I wouldn’t be hit with a flying rock because the mowers had moved a safe distance from me.  I began walking around picking up some trash.  While Ken and Jim mowed the rest of this area, I helped the man move some large logs and picnic tables and things like that around the campsite.

When Ken and Jim had finished the camping area they moved over the the large field at the edge of the campground, and I drove the truck over there and watched as they both circled around and around making smaller circles each time staying opposite of each other like they were doing a synchronized dance with the mowers.

I was standing in the back of the truck leaning against the cab watching them when I noticed that Jim began waving one hand up in the air much like a cowboy would do while riding on a bronco to keep their balance.  His head began bobbing and I wondered if he was all right.  Then I saw what had happened.  A very large cat that looked like a grown mountain lion came darting out of the tall brush and ran in front of Jim’s tractor and headed for the trees that lined the far side of the field.  As excited as I could tell Jim was by this, he didn’t miss a beat with his mowing, and only lifted his hardhat long enough to wipe his head with a rag.  Then he kept on mowing as if nothing else had happened.  Maybe because he was in complete shock and auto-pilot had kicked in.

As Jim circled around, Ken came around to the spot where Jim had just been mowing.  Unlike Jim, Ken did not start to wave his hand as a cowboy on a bronco.  Instead he jumped up in his seat while shutting down his mower and jumped off into the tall brush.  He began running around in circles.  At this point Jim had seen what Ken was doing, so he shutdown his mower also.  I had jumped off of the truck and ran toward where Ken was dancing.  Jim came huffing and puffing up to me and asked me if I had seen that huge mountain lion run in front of him.  I nodded to him and ran over to Ken who at this point was standing still as if frozen.

As we approached, Ken signaled for us to stay back, so we slowed down and watched him as we came slowly closer.  Ken wasn’t moving his feet, but he was slowly swiveling his body around looking into  the brush.  Then like Tom Sawyer he bent down quickly and reached into a pile of mowed grass that had piled up near where he was standing.  By this time we were close enough to see what was down on the ground that Ken had grabbed.  He was holding down a kitten.  It was a baby Bobcat.  You could tell by the short tail  (a bob-tail cat):

Like this one only a little younger but not by much

Ken had hold of the bobcat with both hands.  One at the scruff of his neck and the other above his hind legs.  He began lifting up the cat from the ground, and it was hissing and went wild trying to bite and scratch Ken.  At this point the man from the reservation had come over, because he had also seen the very large bobcat run from the field and had watched Ken dancing in the grass.  Ken asked him “What do I do now?”  He had caught the baby bobcat, and now realized that he couldn’t let go of it without serious bodily injury (bringing to mind the phrase “Having a tiger by the tail”).

We all became aware that somewhere close by the mother was watching us from the trees.  Jim remarked that he didn’t know bobcats could grow that big and the man assured him that there are a number of large bobcats on their reservation that he had seen.  He suggested that he could get a five gallon bucket and Ken could throw the cat in the bucket while he put a wire screen over the top so that it couldn’t jump out and scratch or bite them.

We walked back to the camping area and the man came out of a small building and had some screen material and a board.  Then Ken standing there sort of like Frankenstein with his arms straight out in front of himself (to keep from being mauled), asked a couple of times exactly what they were planning on doing, so that he would get it right.  The man said that he should throw the cat into the bucket and he would quickly put the board over the top.  Then he could put the screen over the board and take the board out and tie the screen on the top with some wire.

So that’s what Ken did.  He quickly threw the cat into the bucket as the man slammed the board on top.  It looked like it happened so fast that I was surprised to find that while the cat was quickly being ejected from Ken’s hands and being propelled into the bucket, it had enough speed to reach around with one of its paws and cut a gash down the side of Ken’s hand.

After that, I drove Ken back to the plant to get bandaged up and so that he could show everyone what he had caught.  He was very proud of his wound and he seemed to grow even taller than his normal tall thin self.  It seemed to take about 15 seconds before everyone in the plant knew that Ken had caught a bobcat as they were all making a trip over to the garage to have a peek at him.  Ken said he was going to take it home and then decide what he was going to do with it.

I drove Ken back to the reservation to get his tractor as Jim had finished mowing the field.

The following day we learned that when Ken arrived at his house there was someone there already waiting for him to see his wild new pet.  Yes.  Most of you have been waiting for the other shoe to drop on this story.  An Oklahoma Park Ranger.  Who informed Ken that he had received 8 calls from different people at the plant letting him know that one Power Plant Hero Ken Conrad was in possession of a wild bobcat caught on an Indian Reservation (of all places — I say that because that is federal property, possibly making it a federal crime).  And Ken could be in for a very serious legal entanglement.  Ken told the ranger that he was only going to show it to his family then bring it back to the reservation and let it go.  The Park Ranger (not usually portrayed as a lenient character) offered to take the bobcat back himself.

Needless to say.  Ken was not very pleased with his fellow campers the next morning when he arrived at work.  He kept saying… “You just can’t tell who your friends are. They all came over here acting like my buddies then they ran off to call the ranger.”  By that time I had worked around the power plant men for one entire summer and this was my second.  I knew that the Real Power Plant Men would have known that Ken would do the right thing and wouldn’t have called the ranger.  Ken was right though, some of them were imposters.  I knew there were some people at the plant who would have felt it was their duty to call the ranger, and I never considered them power plant men in the first place.  Ken Conrad, however, has always lived up to my expectations as a Real Power Plant Man!

It’s funny what comes to mind when you sit down to watch a movie on a Friday night.

After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests

I have found that elevators have a way of equalizing personal differences when there are just two of you alone in an elevator.  It is one of the few places in a Power Plant where no one is watching or listening (usually) to what is said between two parties.  Once the doors open, it is difficult to convince others what has happened because there is only one other witness.  Depending on your position, this can be either a good thing or a bad thing.

Soon after I became an electrician I was introduced to “Elevator Maintenance”.  The Power Plant has 7 elevators.  One that goes to the main office area.  One that goes to the Control Room.  Two for the boilers.  Two for the Smoke Stacks and one that takes you to the top of the Fly Ash Hoppers in the coal yard.

The office and boiler elevators were made by Montgomery.  These each had to be inspected regularly to keep them running safely.  If not, then the plant ran the risk of having people stuck in the elevators for a period of time, which is never a good situation.

There were times when people were stuck in the plant elevators.  I may devote an entire post to that subject at some time.  Today I’m more interested in the people that inspect the elevators and the effects that elevator inspections had on them.

I didn’t think about it for a long time, but one day when I was walking by a person that I worked with at Dell, Jeremy Tupa, stopped and said, “I still get chills thinking about what you used to do at the Power Plant.”  I didn’t know what he was referring to until he reminded me.  He said, “When you had to drop test the elevators.”

Oh yeah.  I guess to some people that must seem kind of scary.  To the people that actually perform that activity, they do things to their mind to convince themselves that everything is safe.  Well.  Besides that, when following all the safety precautions, it really is a safe activity (see.  I’m still doing it).

When drop testing an elevator, you load the elevator with more weight than what the elevator is designed to carry.  Usually by bringing a few pallets of sandblasting sand by forklift to the elevator and then piling them in the elevator until you have reached the desired weight for a drop test.

A clean Elevator Shaft

A clean Elevator Shaft.  The plant elevator shaft was always full of coal dust and just dirt.

Once the elevator is weighed down, you climb on top of the elevator and manually operate the elevator using the inspection controls until you have raised it up a couple of floors.  Then someone up in the penthouse releases the brake so that the elevator free falls.

Once the elevator obtains a certain speed, a tripping device located in the penthouse rolls over and locks, that causes a locking device on the elevator to engage, which sets the “dogs”.  The dogs are clamps that dig into the railing that the elevator uses as sort of a track to go up and down without shaking back and forth.

Once the tripping mechanism in the penthouse is operated.  it cuts the power to the elevator.  Once the dogs are set, there is a loud bang and the elevator isn’t going anywhere.  It comes to an instant stop.

Performing a drop test in an elevator shaft seems rather routine, and it is more trouble resetting everything and filing the track smooth again where the dogs dug in creating a notch, than it is to actually perform the drop test.

The Smoke Stack elevators are a lot more fun.

The smoke stack elevators are these Swedish made three man elevators made by a company named Alimak.  They operate like a roller coaster does when it is cranking its way up the first hill.  The weight limit for these elevators is much lower obviously, since they only hold 3 people.

I could usually load a few large anchors and maybe an Engineer or two in the stack elevator and run it up 50 feet or so and perform the drop test.  In order to perform a drop test on a stack elevator (notice how I use the word “perform” as if this was a work of art…. well… in a way it was), you had to disengage a governor first.  The governor would prevent a free-falling stack elevator from just flying to the bottom by engaging a secondary brake when the governor sensed that the elevator was moving too fast.

After installing the special governator (like Arnold Schwarzenegger) to keep the governor from engaging, using a large screwdriver or small prybar (meaning that the large screwdriver also functions as a small prybar), the brake is released allowing the elevator to free fall to the ground or well, until the elevator sensed it was moving way too fast and locked up.

A typical Stack Elevator.  Not the same brand as ours.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

Did I mention that these activities are performed while standing on top of the stack elevator?  Yeah.  Right out in the open.  The entire elevator inspection was done standing on top of the elevator.  That was how you inspected the railing and tight checked all the bolts all the way up and down the 500 foot stack elevator rail.

A large Allen Wrench with a permanent cheater bar was used to tight check the rail bolts.

Large Allen Wrench

Large Allen Wrench without a cheater bar

One time before I was an electrician, when Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien) was pulling down on an allen bolt with the cheater bar, Jerry Day, who was with her, pressed the button to lower the elevator down to the next bolt and left Diana hanging in mid-air 100’s of feet above the ground!

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

Needless to say, the experience of hanging onto a large Allen wrench stuck in a bolt 100’s of feet up a smoke stack, left Diana a little scarred.  Diana is a tough Power Plant Woman of the highest degree and I used to perform the elevator inspections with her.  She would go up the smoke stack on the top of the elevator, but I generally did the tight check on the bolts and let her run the buttons.

This is all just a teaser to the real story behind this post…

In the fall of 1984 Ben Davis and I went to Muskogee on a major overhaul.   While I was there, part of the time I lived in a trailer with a guy from Horseshoe Lake named Steve Trammell.  To this day, (and Steve does read these posts) we have always referred to each other as “roomie”.

While at Muskogee Ben and I worked out of the electric shop located next to the main switchgear for Unit 6.  The Muskogee electricians we worked around were, John Manning, the B Foreman, Jay Harris, Richard Moravek, David Stewart and Tiny.

Tiny would be the one standing in the back

Tiny would be the one standing in the back

All of the electricians Ben and I worked with were great Power Plant Men, and I will write a post later about our experience there.  For now, I am just going to focus on one person.  David Stewart.  Why?  Because he inspected the stack elevators at Muskogee, like I did at Sooner Plant.

I don’t know exactly how the conversation was started because I walked into it in the middle when I entered the Electric foreman’s office to eat my lunch.  David was semi-arguing with the rest of the he-men in the room.  The argument centered around this:  David Stewart was convinced that if you were in an elevator and everything failed and it was falling to the ground, if you jumped up as hard as you could at the last moment, you would be all right.

I will pause here while you re-read the last sentence………..

While you are thinking this thought over, watch the following Pink Panther video from 1968 called, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Pink on YouTube.  Especially from 4 minutes and 15 seconds  to 30 seconds into the film:

At first I thought that this was an ingenious joke that David was playing on everyone in the office because everyone was falling for it (I had actually used this technique before in my own jokes).  They were all trying to explain to David why it was impossible to jump up in a falling elevator at the last moment and you would be all right.  The more I listened, the more I came to realize that David was convinced that this was so.

I took David aside and tried to explain to him that according to the law of gravity and acceleration that you would be falling too fast to be able to jump high enough to make any difference to your falling fate.  I presented him with the formula for acceleration and showed him that if you even fell from about 50 feet, you would be crushed.

final velocity = Square root of the initial velocity squared plus 2 times acceleration times distance.  With Gravity having an acceleration of 9.81 meters per second and 50 feet being just over 15 meters…

I showed him that his final velocity would be about 17 meters per second, which is equivalent to about 38 miles an hour straight into the ground.  From only a 50 foot fall.  It didn’t phase him.  He was so certain it would work.  — I understood.  This was his way of coping with doing a drop test on the stack elevator.  His mind had convinced him that all he had to do was jump up in the case that the elevator safeties failed.

Fast Forward 5 months.  It was in April of 1985 when a man from the Swedish Elevator company would come around and do our yearly stack elevator inspection.  During this inspection he told me that we needed to remove the top gear rail from the railing.

The reason was that on a stack in Minnesota,  when all the safeties had failed on an elevator, it didn’t stop going up.  It went all the way to the top and off the top of the railing and fell to it’s doom.  By removing the top gear section, the elevator wouldn’t be able to go high enough to go over the top of the railing.

Anyway, while we were inspecting the elevator I asked him if he would be going to the Muskogee power plant after ours, and he said he would.   He knew David Stewart and would most likely be working with him on the Muskogee Stack Elevators.

So, I told him the story that David really believed that he had convinced himself that he could jump up in a falling elevator at the last moment and he would survive.  So I convinced the elevator inspector to tell everyone about how they need to remove the top gear section, but that it doesn’t really matter, because it is a proven fact that all you  have to do is jump up in the elevator at the last moment and you will be all right.

Fast Forward another year.  It was now April 1986….  The elevator inspector and I were up on the stack elevators tight checking all the bolts when I remembered about David.  So I asked him, “Hey, did you ever do anything with David and jumping up in the elevator?”

He responded with, “Yeah I did!  And until the moment that I had said anything I thought you were playing a joke on me, but here is what happened….  We were all sitting in the electric shop office eating lunch and I told them just like you said.  When I got to the part where you could  just jump up in the elevator and you would be all right, David jumped out of his chair and yelled ‘See!!!  I told you!!!’  It was only then that I believed your story.  Everyone in the room broke out in a roar of laughter.”  — As much as I love David Stewart, I was glad that the joke was performed with perfect precision.

Now for the clincher….  — Oh.  You thought that was it?  So, let me explain to you one thing about drop testing the stack elevator…  The elevator doesn’t go up and down like regular elevators with cables and rails and rollers.  It uses one gear on a central rail that has notches to fit the gear.

The stack elevator had a rail with notches like this only it was a lot stronger

The stack elevator had a rail with notches like this only it was a lot stronger

The gear is heavy duty as well as the rail.  You can count on it not breaking.  The gear was on a shaft that was tied to the braking mechanism, the governor and the motor through a gearbox.   The ultimate clincher is this…  The gear… The only thing holding the entire elevator up and the only thing tied to any kind of a brake had one pin in it that kept it from rotating on the shaft.  One pin.  In mechanical terms, this is called a Key:

A hardened steel Key used to keep a gear or coupling from rotating on a motor shaft

A hardened steel Key used to keep a gear or coupling from rotating on a motor shaft

Everything else on the stack elevator can fail and the elevator will not fall, but if this pin were to fail…. the elevator would free fall to the ground.  Thinking back, I must have explained this to Jeremy Tupa, my coworker at Dell back in 2004 when we worked together.  It made such an impact on him that I would drop test an elevator that was completely held up by only this one pin.  This is the weakest link in the chain.

I know that every now and then I wake up either from a claustrophobic fit because Curtis Love just shut my air off (see the Post:  Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love) or while I’m taking a flying leap off of the stack elevator.  If only I could have the confidence that David had.  If only I could believe that jumping up at the last moment would save me.

Actually, I can picture jumping up and a hand reaching down to grab me and pulling me up… only it pulls me on up to heaven.  That’s when I’ll know the truth.  David was right.  Just jump up as hard as you can.  Jump and know that you will be safe.  God will catch you.

The Passing of an Old School Power Plant Man – Leroy Godfrey — Repost

Originally Posted March 16, 2012.  Leroy Godfrey passed from this earth on March 9, 2012:

One of the most ornery men I have ever met in power plant life was the Electrical Supervisor at the Power Plant named Leroy Godfrey.  Compared to the Power Plant Heroes of my day, the old school Power Plant Men were from a different breed of character that I would describe more as Power Broker Men.  They worked in a culture of total rule much the way dictators and despots rule their people.  They expect immediate respect before they elicit any behavior worthy of respect.  Their position spoke for itself.  They generally wore a frown on their face that has been embedded in their facial feature permanently.  This was pretty much what I thought about Leroy Godfrey when I first met him.

My first real encounter with Leroy Godfrey was when I joined the electric shop as an electrician.  I quickly realized that to my benefit, I was a pawn in a game that was constantly being played between Leroy Godfrey and the Assistant Plant Manager and the Plant Manager.  For reasons that I will relate in a later post, Bill Moler the Assistant Plant Manager and the Plant Manager Eldon Waugh did not want me to be promoted from a Laborer to an Electrician.  As soon as Leroy Godfrey realized this, he did everything in his power to make sure I was the person chosen to fill that position.  It didn’t matter to Leroy if I was the best qualified (which I turned out to be based on performance ratings), or that I had less seniority than most everyone else on the labor crew.

I first considered becoming an electrician when I was a janitor and Charles Foster an Electrical B Foreman asked me if I would be interested, because I liked to clean things and a lot of what an electrician does is clean things (believe it or not… in a power plant).  I was thinking at the time that I was probably going to try to be an operator before Charles asked me that question.  So, I started preparing myself by taking correspondence electrical courses offered by the company and a house wiring course at the Vo-Tech.

To make a much longer story short (as the details belong to another story), I was selected to fill the vacancy in the Electric Shop.  Then I found myself under the rule of Leroy Godfrey, who was happy as a lark that I made it to the electric shop because he had won a major victory in exerting his power over his fellow power brokers, but you couldn’t tell that by looking at him.  Leroy had a constant scowl on his face.   He looked like he was mad at the world.  Sometimes you would walk up to him and start talking to him and he would just walk away without saying a word as if he didn’t care to hear what you had to say.   Here is his picture that shows his expression when he knows he has just won the current round of whatever game he is playing at the time.

Leroy Godfrey

I was the type of person that was very blatantly honest when I didn’t know something.  I was not a seasoned electrician when I joined the shop and I didn’t pretend that I was.  I looked to my fellow crew mates to teach me everything I needed to know and they did an excellent job.  The people on my crew were all real Power Plant Men (and Lady) of the New school of thought.  Once after I had been an electrician for a couple of years (2 years and 2 months to be more exact), Leroy asked me to go to the shop and get the Ductor because he wanted to test the generator shaft during an overhaul.  When I asked him where the Ductor was and what did it look like, he stood there in amazement at my stupidity.  He asked me over and over again to make sure he had heard me right that I didn’t know what the Ductor was.  I answered him plainly.  “No.  I don’t know what the Ductor is.  But I’ll go get it.”  He said he couldn’t believe that anyone in his electric shop wouldn’t know what a Ductor was.  That is just a taste of the his management style.  Actually, it turned out that I had used the Ductor before, but I didn’t remember the name.  To me it was a very precise ohm meter (a milli-ohmmeter).

This is the picture of a new ductor.  We had a very old model.

I could go on about different instances that took place to illustrate how Leroy managed his employees, but it isn’t really the main point of this post.  It is important, I believe, to understand why the old school culture was the way it was.  Leroy was very smart.  He had more raw knowledge and understanding in his little finger than the plant manager and the assistant plant manager put together.  Based on that, today you would have thought that he would be in a plant manager position making all the important decisions.

That is not how the system worked while Leroy was moving up in the ranks.  In the era when the old school of thought prevailed, the electric company could run as inefficiently as it wanted, and it was guaranteed a 10% profit, based on revenue minus expenses and depreciation.  There was little incentive to improve plant operations other than to at least maintain the capital assets by spending at least as much as depreciation on capital projects.  In this environment people were promoted into higher positions based on friendship more so than ability.  So, if you were someone’s roommate in college (and we all knew examples of this), it didn’t matter if you knew anything other than how to sign your name at the bottom of a requisition, you could eventually make your way up to plant manager or even higher as long as your roommate was one step higher than you.

To someone with brains such as Leroy Godfrey, this was very frustrating.  Here he was the Electrical Supervisor at a power plant with the two people above him who used political games to make major decisions.  Leroy, of course, could out maneuver them based on brain power alone, and would take great pleasure in constantly proving them wrong whenever they made a decision without consulting him first.  I could always tell when Leroy was happiest.  It was when he had the biggest scowl on his face.  I suppose it was because he was getting ready to checkmate his opponents.

I found out later by Bill Bennett our A foreman that the reason that Leroy would act like he wasn’t listening to you was because he was deaf in one ear.  If you were standing on one side of him, he couldn’t hear you.  So, you could be standing there talking away, and Leroy would just walk away as if he didn’t hear you, and that would be the reason.

Something happened on July 2, 1982 that changed the power plant world.  Especially in Oklahoma.  History will record it as July 5, but it was known in the financial world after the market closed on Friday July 2.  This was the failure of the Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma City.  It was the beginning of the end of the Oil Boom of the late 70’s after the oil crisis of the mid and later 70’s.  Suddenly the future demand for electricity turned downward and for many years to come there would be a surplus of electricity on the market.  What made it worse was that there were laws put in place to help up and coming co-generation plants that were still on the books (Such as PURPA, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978) in which small co-generation companies could feed off of the large electric companies guaranteeing their success at the detriment to the major electric companies.

During the years that followed, the electric company found that they had to compete for the electricity they sold.  This is where the new school of power plant men began to shine.  They had been cultivating their culture at our plant for years trying to prove their worth, not aware and not really caring that it was “who you knew” and how much you were liked by the person making the decision that determined your promotion to a higher position.  The new power plant men had become experts in their fields and took pride in their work.

The board of directors of the electric company must have known that the old school employees would not cooperate with the new way of thinking, because by 1987 they decided to early retire anyone over 55 years old, and then layoff employees where the company had over compensated based on their earlier estimates of growth.  A first in the history of the Electric company.

This is when Leroy and the other old school power broker men were given an incentive to early retire.  At the retirement party people stood up and said things about the different retirees.  Usually just funny things that may have happened to them over the years.  Leroy’s daughter Terri stood up and said that she understood what the electricians must have gone through working for Leroy because, remember, she had to LIVE with him!  We laughed.

To put it in perspective.  Leroy worked almost his entire adult live at that point for the power company.  Over 34 years.  — During the years under the old school plant manager and assistant plant manager at our plant Leroy had to face one abuse after another.  To name just one instance, the plant manager conspired to discredit Leroy’s best friend to the point that he was fired in disgrace, just so that Leroy would be friendless and have to turn to them for friendship (to give you an understanding as to why I often refer to the plant manager as the “evil plant manager”).  This was known to us because while the plant manager was planning this with a hired undercover “snitch”, he was taping the conversations, which were later used in court to clear Leroy’s best friend Jim Stevenson (See last Friday’s Post:  Power Plant Snitch).

Can you imagine the stress this puts on a person that then has to go home at night and be a supportive husband and father?  Leroy lived another 24 years after he retired from the company.  That is a long time to overcome the bitterness left over from the abuse Leroy took from the Manager and Assistant Manager at the plant.

There are two things that make me believe that Leroy was finally able to find the great peace and dignity in his life that all good Power Plant Men deserve.  First, it is the loving words of his daughter Terri who many years ago, couldn’t resist “feeling our pain”. ” Daddy/Poppy, your love will forever live within us. Thank you for setting such a decent moral tone and instilling your high standards in us.”

Secondly, I know now where Leroy’s greatest love has always been.  He didn’t measure himself by how high he could rise in the totem pole of managerial positions in a power company.  He didn’t need to prove his self worth by how much the plant depended on his knowledge.

I believe that he had one main goal in life and once that goal was fulfilled, he had no other reason to remain.  You see, just two weeks prior to Leroy Godfrey’s death, his wife Lydia had passed away on February 22, 2012.  Enough said.  Leroy’s heart and soul is right where it has always belonged and where it remains for eternity.  Alongside his wife Lydia.

Lydia Godfrey

Power Plant Snitch

Seventeen years before Harry Potter captured the Snitch in the movie “Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone”, the Coal-fired Power Plant in north central Oklahoma was plagued by a similar elusive snitch.  Unlike the snitch in Harry Potter, which was a small ball with wings that held a special secret only revealed in the last moments of the last Harry Potter Book (and movie) “The Deathly Hallows”, the Power Plant snitch had a more sinister character.

The Snitch from Harry Potter, "The Sorcerer's Stone"

The Snitch from Harry Potter, “The Sorcerer’s Stone”

The Power Plant Snitch reminded me once again of the phrase that “Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.”  I had experienced this phenomenon only a few years earlier when I was in High School and my father was a victim of this type of corruption.  This made me especially abhorrent of deceit and dishonesty in the workplace.  This was the reason why I had become so upset while I was a janitor and I learned a little “lie” that Jack Ballard had cooked up to force the employees to use their floating Holiday first (See the post Power Plant Secrets Found during the Daily Mail Run).

You see, in the Lone Power Plant stationed out in the middle of the country, a plot had been hatched by the Evil Plant Manager that rivaled a James Bond conspiracy to take over the world.  Only in this case, it was a conspiracy to take over the personal dignity of honest, descent Power Plant Men.  Men who said their prayers each night when they went to bed.  Men who went to work each day to provide for their children.  Men who held God and country in the highest esteem.

As I mentioned above, I had seen this abuse of power before when I was in High School.  It had affected my personality in a way that I became instantly angry at the site of dishonesty.  This was something I had to learn to deal with throughout the years as I interacted with men of less than honorable dignity.  In order to understand why, I will divert into a side story:

My parents had kept their financial difficulties and other stress out of our lives while I was in Junior High and High school back in the mid ’70’s.  They didn’t tell me that my father, who was listed in the top 20 Veterinarians in the world, and among the top 5 bird specialists, was being targeted by the Dean and his minions at the University of Missouri Veterinary College.

I remember that my mother was introducing new foods to our palate, such as Lentils and other types of rice and bean dishes.  She had even gone to work as a secretary at Stephen’s College to make ends meet.  At the same time, I had traveled with my dad when I was 13 to Europe where I met Veterinarians around the world that all greeted my father as if he were some kind of king.

I remember walking down the road on the way to Liverpool from the University (a 5 mile walk) where a group of bird specialists from around the world were meeting to determine the universal Latin names of every part of the bird’s anatomy (which at that point had not been defined).  The Veterinarian walking with me from India told me after I had made some offhand comment about my father said, “You don’t realize who your dad is.  In India, your dad is the Father of Physiology!  Your dad wrote the bible of Veterinary Physiology used around the world!”I knew the book he was referring to.  He had worked for three years day and night writing this book.  Collaborating with renown Veterinarians around the world to compile a comprehensive book of Veterinary Physiology.   The first of it’s kind.  Before, you could only find the Physiology of a Pig, or the Physiology of a Dog.  My dad had created a masterpiece that included an all-encompassing Veterinary Physiology in one book.

My Dad's book

My Dad’s book

I say this, not to lift my father on a higher pedestal than  he already is, but to put in perspective, how an important person such as James E. Breazile, DVM was treated by the “Evil Dean” of the Veterinary College at the University of Missouri in 1974 and until the day he resigned on January 16, 1978.  Actually, the day my father brought the gold bound copy of the book home and presented it to my mother, she stopped talking to him for about a month for the first time in her life (for a totally unrelated reason which I may relay in a future post).  Though the publishing company made a lot of money for years after this book was published, the total amount my dad received for his years of work totaled no more than $10,000 over a three year period.

Anyway.  To make a long story short, (because I could go on for days about this), my father was not able to get a job at any another University in the United States, because he had tried to bring the corruption of the leaders of the Veterinary School (who had been stealing money from the University through bogus expense reports) to light, only to be told by the Chancellor of the University at the time, Herbert Schooling, “Boys will be boys.”  It was just like the moment when Saruman told Gandalf, “We must join with him!”

Saruman Tells Gandalf that he must join with the forces of evil in the Lord of the Rings

Saruman Tells Gandalf that he must join with the forces of evil in the Lord of the Rings

It was only because my father had worked for Oklahoma State University before, when I was very young, that they didn’t need  “permission” from University of Missouri to hire him, and take the multi-million dollar contracts that he had with Purina (and other businesses that had funded their electron microscope and other expensive scientific equipment at the time) with him, that we were able to escape the firewall that had been placed around my father’s career (ok.  that sentence is long enough for an entire paragraph).

Anyway (again)…. I can’t let this story go until I give you the moment that was the “clincher” for me.  The moment that I finally believed that my mother and my father hadn’t just gone off their rocker and become extremely paranoid living in a “James Bond” world….

My father (secretly) obtained a job from the Oklahoma State University in the Veterinary College.  He was to start on January 9, 1978 with tenure (meaning that he couldn’t be fired without a really good reason).  One week before he was going to resign from the University of Missouri.   As usual, Oklahoma State University would begin classes one week before the University of Missouri after Christmas break.

During Christmas break (when I was a senior in High School), we would sneak into my father’s office at the Vet School in Columbia Missouri to remove his books and personal items from his office.  We would go to this office at 10 o’clock at night after the school was closed for the night.  At this point, I believed that both my mom and my dad had gone off their rocker and I was already planning on going through the phone book to find them a good Psychologist, or a priest to help them out.

Until Sunday morning, January 1, 1978.  New Years Day.  My mother and I were on our way to an early morning Church service at Our Lady Of Lourdes.  My mom said that she thought it would be safe to drop by the Veterinary school and pick up some of dad’s things from his office (Dad had already left for Stillwater, Oklahoma to deliver a load of books and personal belongings).

As we pulled into the parking lot at the Veterinary College, my mom told me that I couldn’t go in because that was “Brown’s” car on the parking lot.  — She had names for the different “bad guys” in the department.  The Dean was “Whitey”.  There was an older lady professor named “Brown”.  Then there was the one that I recognized the most…. “McClure”.

I told my mom… “Look.  It’s 9 am on Sunday morning.  New Year’s Day.  She was insistent that “Brown” was in the building.  Then finally she told me.  “Ok.  go downstairs (where my father’s office was) and look around.  If no one is there, then grab some of his books.”

Then one of the most bizarre moments of my life occurred.  I still remember every detail.  It was like I had gone into a dream where fantasy suddenly became reality.  I entered the dark building using my father’s key.  Immediately turned left and went down the stairs into the darkness.  I had to feel my way down the stairs, holding onto the handrail.

As I stepped into the subterranean hallway, I turned north toward my father’s office.  I immediately stopped.  About 50 yards ahead of me I could see two offices next to each other with their doors open and their lights on.  The rest of the hallway was totally dark as we were below ground.  Having been a “spelunker” in my youth, the darkness didn’t bother me, however, the the existence of lights ahead were a total surprise.

I briskly walked down the hallway past the two doors.  In the first office a lady was sitting at a desk.  In the second, a man.  I quietly walked on by.  Then I turned around and walked passed the door where the man was sitting and stopped between the two doors.  I could tell that both the man and the woman were talking on the phone.  After listening for a moment I could tell that they were talking to each other, though I couldn’t hear what they were saying.

As a seventeen year old High School student, I suddenly realized that everything my mother and father had been saying for the past 5 years had been true.  All the bugs found in my dad’s phone.  All the threatening notes.  The reason why he hadn’t received a raise in 5 years… All made sense!  These guys were crazy!

I walked south to the stairway and turned around and looked back.  “Brown” (the lady), was standing in the hallway with her hands on her hips like Professor Umbridge in Harry Potter!

Professor Umbridge Holding her wand

Professor Umbridge Holding her wand

I stood there for a second looking at her silhouetted against the light from her office, knowing that she couldn’t tell who I was in the darkness.  then I darted up the stairs.  Ran outside to the car.  Jumped in the driver’s seat of the Pontiac Station Wagon and told my mom what I had seen.

My mom explained to me that this was “Brownie”.  They talk on the phone so that no one can say that they have been seen talking together.  You see…. they are supposed to be at a conference or some other “official” business this weekend so they can claim expenses.  That is why “Whitey” can live in a big ranch south of town on his measly salary.  This is what my father had told the Chancellor of the University who told him that “boys will be boys”.

I didn’t know whether to lean over and kiss my mom when I suddenly realized that the list of insane people didn’t include my mother and father, or to peel out of the parking lot before Professor Umbridge made it up the stairs!  Anyway.  On News Years Day 1978 I had a totally new perspective on life.  I can tell you that for certain.

To finish up with this side (non Power Plant) story…. in 1980 when Barbara Uehling became the Chancellor at the University of Missouri (from Oklahoma University, where I had attended school two years before), she began to clean house.  I remember the day I learned that she had fired “Whitey” the dean of the Veterinary school.

I woke from my sleep very early in the morning.  It was my father from Stillwater, Oklahoma.  He had received a call from Iowa State from a Veterinarian, Deiter Delman, who had told him that they had just fired Whitey the Dean of the Veterinary College at Missouri.  I told dad that was great, and I crawled back to my bed to finish my nightly ritual of sleep.

Moments later I was woken by another phone call.  One of my professors from the College of Psychology Dr. Wright had called me.  He said, “I have some news that your father will probably like to know.  It is really top secret!  I said, “Does it have to do with “Whitey” being fired?  In my head I could see Dr. Wright’s one fake eye spinning around in his head  like Professor Moody in Harry Potter (even though he hadn’t been thought of yet).

Professor Moody... Or is it Professor Wright in the MU Psychology Department?

Professor Moody… Or is it Professor Wright in the MU Psychology Department?

Professor Moody… I mean Dr. Wright…. said, “What?  How do you know?  This is “Top Secret?”  the meeting was over just minutes ago?  I told him that Dr. Middleton had called Dr. Delman, who had immediately called my father, who had already called me moments ago.  — To put this in perspective…… The whole world knew within minutes.  I wrote a letter to the Chancellor Barbara Uehling explaining the events that I knew about.  She wrote back saying that the Provost would be looking into the additional names I had given her.

End of side story…..

Back to the Power Plant Snitch… (I can tell… this has already become a long post and is probably going to break my record of the longest post of all time).

In September 1984, not one year after I had joined the electric shop, Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, came down to the electric shop (which was normal.  Since he ate lunch with us every day).  This time, he locked the doors.  The door to the Turbine room, the door to the main switchgear and the front door…. — all locked.  He said,  “What is said here doesn’t go outside this shop.”

Ok…. We all went instantly into “serious” mode.  Bill explained that there was something up with the grubby looking janitor (I’m sorry… I don’t remember what name he was assuming to use at the time  — I’ll call him “Bonzo” from now on).  The janitor “Bonzo” had been neglecting his duties as a janitor, so Pat Braden (the lead janitor) had gone to Marlin McDaniel to have him fired.  Marlin McDaniel had gone to the Assistant Plant Manager, Bill Moler to start the process of firing “Bonzo”.

Marlin McDaniel (who had been my A foreman while I was a Janitor and on Labor crew after Chuck Ross had left) was told by Bill Moler that he was not going to fire “Bonzo” under any circumstance.  It didn’t matter to him that he wasn’t doing his job.  Marlin was told to forget about it and not bring it up again.

Bill Bennett told every person in the electric shop…. “Keep clear of this guy.  I don’t know what is going on, but something is definitely wrong.”  At that point everyone in the Electric shop knew that “Bonzo” was a snitch.  Don’t talk to the Snitch…. Ok… from now on I’ll refer to “Bonzo” as the “Snitch”.

I know I have bored all of you by the personal story of my father and the trials that he went through, so I’ll try to keep this short:  I knew a year and three months ago when I first started writing about the “Goodness” of the Power Plant Man that I would eventually come to this story.  I know that the Power Plant men that read this blog knew that this story had to eventually be written.  So, here it is.

Through unforeseen circumstances… and I attribute it to my Guardian Angel who has kept me out of serious trouble up to this point, I was called to Oklahoma City by my girlfriend Kelly Burgess (who ten months and 11 days later became my wife and is ’til death do us part) on February 10, 1985.  I called in to Howard Chumbley on February 11 and told him I would not be able to make it to work that day.  I would be taking my floating holiday.

The following Monday morning when I had climbed into Bill River’s Station wagon at the bowling alley where we met, with Rich Litzer and Yvonne Taylor and we were on our way to work, I learned about what had happened the Friday before.  The day that would forever be referred to at the plant as “Black Friday.”

Bill Rivers explained the entire scenario to me during the 25 minute drive to the plant.  I can’t say that I was in tears because my system had gone into shock and I was zombified by each new revelation.  If I could have cried, I would have.  My system had just gone into shock.  All emotion had shut down.

Bill explained to me that on Friday morning (February 11, 1985), a plant-wide meeting had been held.   Everyone at the plant had been informed that a drug and theft ring at the plant had been found and eliminated.  This included one lady who was a janitor.  A machinist named Dink Myers.  The Lead Janitor Pat Braden and two of the Electricians  Craig Jones and Jim Stevenson.

Drug and Theft ring?  Really?  At our Power Plant?

Except for the female janitor (I can’t even remember her name), I had a personal relationship with every other person on this list (whether they knew it or not).  I never worked directly with Craig Jones, but as an electrician, I did know that everyone held him in the highest esteem.  I later found out that Dink Myers was a distant relation of mine when two years later I attended my grandfather’s funeral.  Jim Stevenson was a close friend to the point that I used to give him Swedish Massages that would ease the pain of his rampant Eczema.  Pat Braden…. Well.  Pat Braden.. my Janitor lead.  I loved him most of all.

I invited Pat Braden to sit next to my wife and I at my wedding 10 months later, even though the Evil Assistant Plant Manager would be serving as a deacon in the wedding ceremony (he didn’t come.. I understood why). Next to Charles Foster, Pat Braden was my next dearly beloved friend.  — Other Power Plant Men, such as Mickey Postman and Ed Shiever, share in my total love for Pat Braden to this day.  — Not that I have asked them… I just know… They used to work for this saint.

Here is what had happened…..

Eldon Waugh (the evil plant manager) had heard from a study that came out early in 1984 that 10% of a typical workforce were either on drugs or were robbing their employer.  I know.  I had read the same study.  The company had hired the snitch to become a janitor at the best power plant in the country to infiltrate their troops and bring out the worst in them.

I distinctly remember the snitch walking into the electric shop once as I was walking out…. He paused… looked at me as if to say something, then went on….  (– my interpretation…. “oh… a victim….”…. Guardian angel response…. “This isn’t the droids you are looking for…”)  He went on without saying a word.

These aren't the droids you ar looking for ( Star Wars -- A New Hope

These aren’t the droids you ar looking for (Star Wars — A New Hope)

So the Snitch nailed a good friend of mine, Jim Stevenson…. I remember in January just before the verdict came down….. Leroy Godfrey had gone on a frenzied hunt for the portable electric generator.  It had turned up missing….  Everyone in the shop was sent to look for it…  After a day of searching, when it was time to go home…. I remember that as we were walking out the door to the parking lot that Jim Stevenson said, “They are never going to find the generator.”  Bill Ennis asked, “Why Not?”  Jim answered,. “Because their snitch has it.  If they are going to let a crook like that work here, they are going to have to live with the consequences.  He took the generator.”

For the next couple of weeks after “Black Friday” lawyers came from Oklahoma City and interviewed people that had worked with Jim Stevenson and Craig Jones.  I was in a quandary.  I knew if they asked me about this situation I would have to tell them what Jim Stevenson had said.  Jim had been fired for helping the snitch load the generator in the back of his truck months earlier.  The funny thing was… I was the only one in the shop that they didn’t interview.  I had never been on Jim’s crew, so I wasn’t on their list.  At that point, if they didn’t ask me, I wasn’t going to volunteer.

The thing about this whole event was that it was setup from the beginning….  The Snitch asked Jim if he would help him lift the generator into the back of his truck…. This by itself was nothing out of the ordinary, since people could “check out” the generator for their personal use.

Portable Generator

Portable Generator

Jim had known that the Snitch had taken the portable generator and said to Bill Ennis that if they wanted to keep scum around like that, then they should incur the cost of that decision.  What Jim didn’t know was that he was being secretly taped while he was being entrapped into loading the generator into the back of the Snitch’s truck.  Jim reminded me of Dabney Coleman:

Dabney Colement reminds me of Jim Stevenson

Dabney Colement reminds me of Jim Stevenson

I won’t go much into the stories of Dink Myers, who shared a joint with the Snitch in the locker room, and Craig Jones who pulled up some “hemp” on the road to the river pumps to swap for a “stolen knife set” (though he didn’t know they were stolen) since these were “no-brainer” stupid moments in the life of young Power Plant Men… but I will defend Pat Braden…. The most honest and loving of souls (and again… I apologize for the length of this post).

In previous posts I have mentioned that Pat Braden reminded me of Red Skelton.

This Picture of Red Skelton reminds me of Pat Braden

This Picture of Red Skelton reminds me of Pat Braden

Today, when I want to reminisce about Pat Braden.  All I have to do is watch an old episode of Red Skelton.  As kind as Red Skelton was in real life… there was Pat Braden.  If you don’t know about Red Skelton… Google him….  He was a sincere soul…  He was a soul-mate to Pat Braden.

This is how Pat Braden was fired…… The snitch came to him one day and asked for the key to the closet so that he could get the VCR….. Weeks later, the VCR turned up missing and Pat was asked if he knew where the VCR went.  He didn’t know.  When I was a janitor I used to do go to Pat on a weekly basis and ask for the key to closet for the VCR.  I had to regularly move it to the control room or the Engineer’s shack for training sessions. It was just part of our regular job and Pat Braden would have not thought twice about it.

As it turned out, the snitch had taken the VCR from the closet and had brought it straight to Bill Moler, the Assistant Plant Manager and handed it to him and told him that he had stolen it  (even though technically, it hadn’t been stolen).  Then about a month later, Bill sent out the request to find the VCR.  At that point, Pat, who was the same age as my father (It’s funny, but a lot of people at the plant were the same age as my father), and on blood pressure medication that made his head swim when he stood up, didn’t remember anyone taking the VCR four weeks earlier…   So, he was included in the “Theft and Drug ring at Sooner Plant on February 11, 1985”.

The story about Jim Stevenson is almost as tragic, though he had enough money to take the Electric Company to court.  Pat’s income of $10 an hour didn’t quite leave him in a position to complain about being unjustly fired.

As the Tape recorder tapes revealed about Jim Stevenson (yeah… Like Watergate)… The evil Plant Manager, Eldon Waugh had told the Snitch to specifically target Jim Stevenson.  The way it was explained in the recording between Eldon Waugh and the Snitch (as recorded by Jack Ballard, the head of HR at the Plant at the time), if Jim Stevenson were gone, then Leroy Godfrey’s only friend would be gone… Then Leroy would have to turn to Bill Moler or Eldon for friendship…..  I want to continue printing periods as you ponder this thought…..

So…. Eldon and Bill had Jim Stevenson fired as part of a bogus “Drug and Theft” ring so that Leroy Godfrey would be their friend?…..  How bizarre is that?  You know… I can put this all in writing because it all became public knowledge when it became part of a trial between Jim Stevenson and the Electric Company a year later.  The s**t hit the fan on January 23, 1986 when Bill Moler and Eldon Waugh were attending Jack Ballard’s funeral.

Immediately after the graveside services were finished in Ponca City at the Odds Fellows Cemetery, Jim’s lawyer hit them both with a Subpoena to appear in court…  The lawyer wanted to make sure the trial took place in Kaw County. A year later, these two individuals and the company settled out of court.  Both the Plant Manager and the Assistant Plant Manager were “early retired”  which opened the door for a new era of Power Plant Management.  Jim Stevenson walked away with an undisclosed sum of money that was at least six digits.

Pat?  I found out a few years later that my wife had been working with Pat in Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Ponca City.  One day after, we had moved to Stillwater, and Kelly was talking to a friend from Ponca City, the subject of Pat Braden came up.  When she had hung up the phone, I asked her, “Pat Braden who?”  When she explained that she had worked with a security guard named Pat Braden in Ponca City, and that he was the nicest guy you would ever meet.  He cared about one thing in life and that was his daughter… I knew she was talking about our Pat Braden.

Everyone that ever met this kind soul was touched by him.  It was ironic that my wife Kelly had worked with Pat for a couple of years at the hospital and I didn’t even have a clue.  I knew that Pat must have known…. After all…. I was the only Breazile in the phone book in Ponca City at the time.  From what I understand… Pat is still around in Ponca City doing something….. Jim Stevenson still runs “Stevenson Refrigeration Services”.  Both of these are honorable men.

Note that the True Power Plant Men mourned their loss for years after this event.  A certain amount of “innocence” or “decency” had been whittled away.  That is until 1994 rolled around….. But…. That is another story for a much later time….

Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill — Repost

Originally Posted March 9, 2012.  I have added some pictures and slightly edited:

I had the feeling it would be an interesting day when the first thing that Stanley Elmore asked me when I sat down for our morning meeting was, “Kevin, are you afraid of heights?”  Well, since before that day I hadn’t been afraid of heights, I told him I wasn’t.  Then Stanley, who liked most of all to joke around with people, started hinting through facial expressions of excitement (such as grinning real big and raising his eyebrows up to where his hair line used to be when he was younger) and by uttering sounds like “boy, well, yeah…. huh, I guess we’ll see” while shaking his head as if in disbelief.  He told me to get with Aubrey after the meeting because there was a job I needed to help him out with.

Aubrey Cargill was our painter.  He worked out of the garage that I worked out of the last 3 years of working as a summer help.  There was a paint room in the back of the garage on the side where the carpenter, Fred Hesser built cabinets and other great works of art.  He was the best carpenter I have ever met, as well as one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known.  He wasn’t in the category of Power Plant man, as he didn’t involve himself in most of the power plant operations or maintenance, but to this day, Power Plant Men from all over Oklahoma can visit Sooner Plant on overhaul and admire the woodworking masterpieces created by Carpenter Fred many years earlier.

I had worked with Aubrey my first year as a summer help.  The garage hadn’t been built yet, and Aubrey had not been assigned as a painter, as both units were still under construction.  Aubrey was was the same age as my father and in his mid-forties that first summer.  His favorite buddy was Ben Hutchinson.  Whereever one went, the other was not far away.  All during the first summer, the lake on the hill was still being filled by pumping water up from the Arkansas river.

Most of the last two weeks that summer I worked with Aubrey and Ben picking up driftwood along the dikes that were built on the lake to route the water from the discharge from the plant to the far side of the lake from where the water enters the plant to cool the condensers.  The idea is that the water has to flow all the way around the lake before it is used to cool the condenser again.  So, Ben and Aubrey took turns driving a big dump truck down the dike while I walked down one side of the dike around the water level and Aubrey or Ben walked down the other side, and we would toss wood up the dike into the dump truck.

A Ford Dump Truck

A Dump Truck

This was quite a throw, and often resulted in a big log being tossed up the dike just to hit the side of the dump truck creating a loud banging sound.  Anyway, when you consider that there are probably about 6 miles of dikes all together, it was quite a task to clean up all the driftwood that had accumulated in this man made lake.  After doing this for two weeks I learned the true meaning of the word “bursitis”.

After the morning meeting with Stanley Elmore I followed Aubrey into the carpenter shop, where he pointed to two buckets of paint that I was to carry, while he grabbed a canvas bag filled with large paint brushes and other painting tools and some white rope that looked like it had the seat of wooden swing on one end.  Aubrey nodded to Fred, and I understood by this that Fred had created the wooden swing that had four pieces of rope knotted through each of the corners of the seat and were connected to the main rope using some kind of small shackle.  When I asked Aubrey what that was, he told me that it is was a Boatswain Chair.  “Oh.” I think I said, “It looks like a swing.”

On the way to the boilers, we stopped by the tool room and I checked out a safety belt.  I could see Aubrey nodding at Bud Schoonover about my having to check out a safety belt, and what implication that had.  I of course preferred to think that my fellow employees would not purposely put me in harms way, so I went along acting as if I was oblivious to whatever fate awaited me.

We took the elevator on #1 Boiler to the 11th floor (which is actually about 22 stories up.  There are only 12 stops on the boiler elevator, but the building is really 25 stories to the very top.  So Power Plant men call the extra floors things like 8 1/2 when you get off the elevator where it says 8, and go up one flight of stairs.

Aubrey explained to me that we need to paint a drain pipe that is below us a couple of floors that goes down from there to just above floor 7 1/2 where it turns.  He said that he could paint the rest, but he needed my help to paint the pipe where it drops straight down, because there isn’t any way to reach it, except by dropping someone off the side of the boiler over a handrail and lowering them down to the pipe, and that turned out to be me.

He explained how the safety belt worked.  He said that I clip the lanyard in the ring at the top of the boatswain chair so that if I slip off the chair I wouldn’t fall all the way down, and then he could gradually lower me on down to the landing.  he didn’t explain to me at the time that the weight of my body free-falling three feet before coming to the end of the lanyard would have been a sufficient enough force to snap the white rope in half.  I guess he didn’t know about that.  But that was ok for me, because I didn’t know about it either — at the time.  We didn’t use Safety Harnesses at that time.  Just a belt around the waist.

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

So as I tied the canvas bag to the bottom of the chair, I saw Aubrey quickly wrap the rope around the handrail making some sort of half hitch knot.  I wasn’t too sure about that so I asked Aubrey where he learned to tie a knot like that and he told me in the Navy.  That was all I needed to hear.  As soon as he told me he learned knot tying in the Navy, I felt completely secure.  I figured if anyone knew the right way to tie a knot it’s someone in the Navy.

I clipped the lanyard in the shackle at the top of the boatswain chair and headed over the handrail.  I situated the chair to where I had my feet through it when I went over and the chair was up by my waist.  As I lowered myself down, I came to rest on the boatswain chair some 210 feet up from the ground.

It is always windy in this part of Oklahoma in the summer, and the wind was blowing that day, so, I began to spin around and float this way and that.  That continued until Aubrey had lowered me down to the pipe that I was going to paint and I was able to wrap my legs around it and wait for my head to stop spinning.

Then Aubrey lowered down another rope that had a bucket of paint tied to it.   Then I began my job of painting the pipe as Aubrey had hold of the rope and was slowly lowering me down.  Luckily Aubrey didn’t have to sneeze, or wasn’t chased by a wasp while he was doing this.  Thinking about that, I kept my legs wrapped around the pipe pretty tight just in case Aubrey had a heart attack or something.

The pipe really did need painting.  So, I knew this wasn’t completely just a joke to toss me out on a swing in the middle of the air hanging onto a rope with one hand while attempting to paint a pipe.  It had the red primer on it that most of the piping had before it was painted so it looked out of place with all the other silver pipes, but I couldn’t help thinking about Jerry Lewis in the Movie, “Who’s Minding the Store” where Jerry Lewis is told to paint the globe on the end of a flagpole that is located out the window on a top floor of the building, and he begins by trying to climb out on the flagpole with a bucket of paint in his mouth with little success.  But like Jerry, I figured it had to be done, so I just went ahead and did it.

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Fortunately, I found out right away that I wasn’t afraid of heights, even at this height and under these conditions.  So, instead of fainting away, I just painted away and finally ended up on floor 7  1/2 which is right next to the Tripper Gallery.  I think I finished this a little after morning break but I don’t think Aubrey wanted to stop for break just to lower me down and then have to start from the top again lowering me all the way down one more time.

This brings me to another point.  Notice where I landed.  Right next to the Tripper Gallery.  Power Plant ingenuity has a way of naming parts of the plant with interesting names.  The first time I heard that we were going to the tripper gallery to shovel coal, I half expected to see paintings lining the walls.  It sounded like such a nice place to visit…. “Tripper Gallery”.  It sort of rolls off your tongue.  Especially if you try saying it with a French accent.

The Tripper Gallery is neither eloquent nor French.  It is where the coal from the coal yard is dumped into the Coal Silos just above the Bowl Mills.  — Yes.  Bowl Mills.  I know.  It sounds like a breakfast cereal.  Almost like Malt-O-Meal in a bowl.  So, the Tripper Gallery is a long narrow room (hence the word Gallery), and there are two machines called Trippers that travels from one silo to the next dumping coal from the conveyor belt down into the coal silo, and when the silo is full, a switch is triggered (or tripped) which tells the machine to go to the next silo.  Since the switch “trips” and tells the machine to move, they call the machine the “Tripper”.

I know.  That last paragraph didn’t have anything to do with painting the drain pipe.  But I thought since I mentioned the Tripper Gallery, I might as well explain what it is.  Anyway, when we returned to the shop I watched as Stanley Elmore went over to Aubrey to see how I did when I found out he was going to drop me over the side of the boiler in a wooden chair.  I could see that Aubrey gave him a good report because Stanley looked a little disappointed that this Power Plant Joke (even though essential), hadn’t resulted in visibly shaking me up.

From Power Plant Rags To Riches

There is one item that all Oklahoma power plant men carry with them almost every day.  Whether they are electricians working on a motor, a mechanic pulling a pump, or an operator making his rounds.  All of them carry and use this one item.  It is so important that, without it, it would be difficult for the maintenance shop to function properly.

This item of course is a rag from the Chief Wiping Cloth Rag Box:

Every Power Plant Man uses Chief Wiping Cloths on a daily basis

Every Power Plant Man uses Chief Wiping Cloths on a daily basis

As an electrician, I used rags all the time.  Whether I was working on a breaker, doing battery inspection, elevator maintenance or just looking for a clean place to sit my back side, I had to have a rag from the box of Chief Wiping Cloths.  Chief Wiping Cloths come from the Oklahoma Waste & Wiping Rag Company in Oklahoma City.

When I was on the labor crew, I dirty all the time.  I was doing coal clean-up, digging ditches, pouring concrete, shoveling bottom ash and wading through fly ash.  I had little reason to stay clean or to clean things.  My life was full of dirt and grime.  I was always dirty, so much so that when I went into the electric shop in 1983 and Bill Bennett was talking to Charles Foster about who should repair the Manhole pump motors, Bill told Charles, “Let Kevin do it.  He enjoys getting dirty.”

I didn’t argue with Bill, because, well…. what was the point.  But as an electrician, I not only had desired to have a cleaner job, but I also wished to fulfill Jerry Mitchell’s prophesy that “When I become as good as him, I will be able to remain clean even in the face of “Coal Dust and Fly Ash” (See the post A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint).  The boxes of rags were my opportunity.

So, when I left to go on a job, I would always grab at least a couple of rags from the box and put them in my tool bucket and at least one hanging out of my back pocket.  That way, if I needed to plop down on the ground to unwire a motor too low to sit on my bucket, I could sit on a rag on the coal dust covered ground instead.  This helped my goal of remaining as clean as possible.

It’s funny that years later I should miss the boxes of rags that I used to use to do my job.  There was more to it than just the rags I used to wipe my hands, battery posts, greasy bearings, breaker parts and my nose.  You see, these rags were made from recycled clothes.  Yes.  They were sterilized for our use, but these were from recycled clothes.

Actually, the Oklahoma Waste and Wiping Rag Company, founded in 1940, was one of the largest purchasers of donated clothing in the country.  That meant that many of the rags we used in the rag box were actually worn by someone.  Sure, a lot of the rags came from defective clothing from factories, but some of the rags had been clothes actually worn by a person.

As odd as it may sound, while I was grabbing rags from the rag box, I was thinking (at times… it wasn’t like it was an obsession with me), that these rags may have been worn by someone for years before ending up covered with bearing grease by my hand and tossed into a proper Fire protection trash can.

Trash cans like this were used because they prevented oily rags from burning down the shop when they would spontaneously combust

Trash cans like this were used because they prevented oily rags from burning down the shop when they would spontaneously combust

So, anyway….. Thinking about how these rags were possibly once worn by people throughout the United States, I felt that some of the rags had a specific connection to some unknown person somewhere.  So, I would actually go through the rag box looking for pieces of rags that I felt had been worn by someone before.  You know (or maybe you don’t), rags that had an aura around them like someone had once had a “personal relationship” with them.

I would take these rags and I would “pseudo-dress up” in them.  So, if it was a rag made out of a pair of pants, I would tuck it in my belt and I would carry it that way until I needed it.  In a weird way (and I know… you are thinking a “really weird” way), I would feel connected to the person that had worn this piece of clothing in the past.  I felt as if I was honoring their piece of cloth just one last time before I stained it with coal dust, fly ash, or snot, just one last time.

And in my even weirder way, I would sort of pray for that person, whoever they may be.  I would even, kind of, thank them for the use of their old clothes (I know, I stretched the English Language in those last two sentences to meet my unusual need).

I have a picture in my mind of myself standing on the platform of the 6A Forced Draft Fan at Muskogee in the fall of 1984 (one year after becoming an electrician), dressing myself up in pieces of clothing from the rag box, all giddy because I had found enough pieces to make an entire outfit made of half male and half female clothing.  Ben Davis, who was on overhaul at Muskogee with me from our plant is shaking his head in disbelief that he had to work with such a goof.  Not exactly sure who he has been assigned to work with… — I actually felt sorry for Ben.  I knew I was a normal person.  The trouble was… I was the only person that knew it.

Levity is healthy.  And at times when stress is at its greatest, levity is a way back to sanity.  Just today I was invited to a conference call to discuss something that I was working on, and when I was done, I stayed on the line even though I was no longer needed.  As I listened, one  person on the other end was remarking about how he enjoyed his team so much because they were able to crack up and reduce the stress by being humorous.

A friend of mine, and fellow teammate Don McClure  who had invited me to the call was coming up with one “one-liner” after the other.  They were “spot-on” and very funny (as he usually is — ok.  He’s going to correct me on the “usually” part).  But he said one thing that hit home with me.  He said that he had been in the Hot-seat so long that he had to put on a  pair of Asbestos underwear.

This, of course, made me immediately think of the asbestos gloves we used to wear in the electric shop before Asbestos had been formerly outlawed.  We had an old pair of asbestos gloves from Osage Plant ( to find out more about the Osage Plant read about it in the post Pioneers Of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace).

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Along with the rags in the rag box, when I used to put on the asbestos gloves I used to think of Howard Chumbley (who died on August 4, 1998 at the age of 70), at the age of 24 working at the Osage Plant, before his hair turned to gray and then to white, wearing these same gloves while he pulled a bearing off of a heater and slapped it onto a motor shaft.

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

It gave a special meaning to motor repair.  Even though Howard retired from plant life in 1985, for years I could put on his old pair of asbestos gloves and feel like I was stepping into his young shoes.  I would think… If only I could be a true “Power Plant Man” like Howard….   I love Howard with all my heart, and today, I have never met a better human being than him.

Note that in the picture of Howard’s gravestone it says that he was an EM3 in the Navy.  This is an “Electrician’s Mate 3rd Class”.  There is no way I was ever going to measure up to Howard.  He was a hero to his country and a man of great integrity and humility.  If I had saved up all the nice things I had done in my life and done them all on one day, I may have slightly resembled Howard on a regular day.  Just like Jim Waller that I had discussed in my last post… Only Men of the greatest integrity measure up to be “True Power Plant Men”.

This made changing the bearings on a motor almost a sacred event to me.  I don’t know if the other electricians felt what I felt, but there was something about placing those gloves on my hands that seemed to transform me for a moment into someone noble.  I never mentioned it to them (which was odd, because I was usually in the habit of telling them every little crazy thought that entered my head).

I remember at break time one day Margie Belongia (who was a plant janitor at the time) telling me in 1981 when I was a summer help, that she wanted to go to hell because that was where all of her friends would be.  I asked her at the time how she was so certain that being in hell guaranteed that she would be able to be with her friends, and she was taken aback by my question.  “What do you mean?  Why wouldn’t I be with my friend?” — I responded, “Suppose in hell you are alone.  With no one but yourself.”  I think I unnerved her by my response. She said that she had never considered that.  She had counted on being with her friends.  They had all decided that was the way it was going to be.

At any rate.  I kept her thought in my mind.  I hope every day that someday I will be able to walk up behind Howard Chumbley (not in hell of course) and just stand there and listen to him tell stories about when he worked at the old Osage Plant, and how he used to be up to his elbows in oil that contained PCBs and never thought twice about it.  Or how he played a harmless joke on someone dear to him, and he would laugh….

Howard was my foreman for only about 5 months before he retired.  I remember sitting in the electric shop office for a year and a half during lunch listening to him tell his stories.  He would grin like Andy Griffith and laugh in such a genuine way that you knew that his heart was as pure as his manners.

Andy Griffith in this picture reminds me of Howard Chumbley

Andy Griffith in this picture reminds me of Howard Chumbley

To this day I know that I have never been richer than I was when I was able to sit in the shop and listen to Howard Chumbley pass on his life experience to us.  Even years later when I was able to slip on the pair of Asbestos Gloves worn by him years earlier I could feel that I was following in his footsteps.  Just the thought of that would make me proud to be an Electrician in a Power Plant.

I used to imagine that the Chief on the Chief rag boxes knew the history of all the pieces of rags in the box.  When I moved to Texas in 2001, I used some sturdy Chief rag boxes when I was packing to leave.  They are sturdy boxes.  Just this past year, we threw away the last Chief rag box that contained Christmas decorations in exchange for plastic tubs. Even though it seems like a little thing.  I miss seeing the Chief on those boxes of rags.

The chief on the Chief Rag Boxes

The chief on the Chief Rag Boxes

Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy late for the Boiler Blowdown — Repost

Originally Posted March 2, 2012:

The first day I showed up at the Power plant to report to work as a new employee, it took me a little while to find the parking lot where I was supposed to park.   There were construction people all over the place, large equipment being moved, and I had somehow turned my directions around 90 degrees when I came through the construction gate, so that I started heading up to the coal yard before I told myself that the little green shack I had past back by the main plant was probably where I needed to go (I never recovered from my perception of which way was north.  I always felt like west was north, so I constantly had to stop and tell myself that the coal yard was north).  So, having arrived in the parking lot about five minutes late, I was just in time to meet Steve Higginbotham the only other summer help during the summer of 1979.  Well, there was one other guy, but he quickly joined a Brown and Root construction crew because he was a welder and they were getting paid a lot more than the $3.89 per hour the summer helps were blessed to receive.

So Higginbotham and I walked together into the main office that morning.  He was about 35 years old with red hair, freckles  and sort of reminded you of Margaret Thatcher only shorter with a more prominent forehead and wider chin and he had a Georgia accent.

Steve Higginbotham had an uncanny resemblence to Margaret Thatcher

Steve Higginbotham had an uncanny resemblence to Margaret Thatcher

He had worked as a Pinkerton guard at the plant before advancing to summer help.  He explained it to me like this:  “If I get my foot in the door by being a summer help, they will be more likely to hire me as a permanent employee.”  (somehow, I began to think that this probably wasn’t the best strategy for Steve to take.  I thought perhaps a surprise attack would be more effective, where they don’t know you at all when they hire you).  The company hired summer helps because there was a tax write-off for hiring college kids during the summer to give them a real life experience (I guess).  Steve explained to me later that he really wasn’t going to college, but told them that he was going to go back to school to finish a degree so that they would hire him, but he really wasn’t going to do that.  He drove an old Ford Ranchero (which is what inspired the El Camino).  It was all beat up, and had the manual gear shift on the steering column, to give you an idea of how old it was. Below is a picture of one in good condition.  His car however had dents, rust, and an assortment of trash in the back, and it squeaked when it hit a pothole as the car bounced on the springs.

Like this only more beat up

I didn’t own a car and had just borrowed my family’s car to drive to the plant that day, so when Steve asked me if I would like to ride with him to work each day I jumped at the opportunity.  I told him where I lived and he said that he would be by to pick me up in the morning.

I am the kind of person that likes to arrive at work at least 10 or 15 minutes early, so I was getting a little anxious the next morning when Steve didn’t show up.  Finally, when I was about ready to ask my parents if I could borrow the car again, his beat up old car came puttering down the street…  It turned out that Steve was the kind of person that likes to show up at least 5 minutes late each day…. Somethng I was going to have to get used to that summer.  This is an important point in the story because those 5 minutes on one particular morning made all the difference in my outlook on what it meant to be working at a “Power” plant.

First, let me tell you a little more about Steve Higginbotham, just so you can appreciate his unusual character the way that I did.  As an 18 year old summer help, not having had my encounter with Ramblin’ Ann until later, where I learned the fine art of rambling, I was amazed by the way Steve Higginbotham could talk and chew gum or sunflower seeds at the same time — all the time — non-stop.  His open mouth would move in a circular motion while chewing and talking.

Food of choice in the Power Plant Maintenance Shop

Food of choice in the Power Plant Maintenance Shop

From the time he picked me up in the morning to the 25 mile ride to the plant, and until I arrived home in the afternoon, Steve Higginbotham was talking about something to someone and chewing either sunflower seeds or gum the entire time.  It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had been learning something, but I can’t think of one thing that he told me that was useful all summer.  I think I paid him $15.00 each week for the privilege.  Gas at the time was around 89 cents a gallon.

Twice each week we would sweep the entire maintenance shop from one end to the other.  I would start going down one half,  Usually the north side that has all the machine shop equipment, and Steve would start down the south side where the welders were.  Invariably, he would catch an unsuspecting welder off his guard and start talking to him, and before you knew it, I had finished my side of the shop and was starting back the other way up the other side, where I would meet up with Steve and a half-dazed welder somewhere around the Welder’s lunch table, which was about 50 feet from the spot where Steve had started (I would say the shop is about 75 yards long)  I didn’t mind, because I liked working and it felt good to look around at the clean floor and see that I had done something noticeable.

I had worked in a Hilton Inn restaurant as the night janitor when I was in High School, and the kitchen was almost as long as the maintenance shop.  I would spend six hours each night sweeping and mopping the kitchen, and vacuuming the restaurant and bar.  So, I always enjoyed sweeping the floor.

Mondays and Fridays were days where we would go to the soon-to-be park and pick up trash.  The rest of the time I was able to work with the maintenance crews.

All the company employees at the power plant were fitted for a special set of earplugs that were made out of a Silly Putty looking material because there was going to be a “Boiler Blowdown” on Unit 1 (which was just finishing construction).  I suppose that most people (except the old timers) at the plant today have not experienced a boiler blowdown like the one that is done on a new power plant, since a new base unit hasn’t been built in a long time.  We were told that when you hear the 2 minute warning make sure you put your earplugs in, because it is going to be really loud.  We were reminded the day before to have our earplugs handy the following morning because that was when the blowdowns were going to start.

A boiler blowdown is when they run a big steam pipe right off of the high pressure section of the boiler and point it out off the side of the boiler and after they have built up the pressure as high as they can go without blowing the place apart, they flop open the valve and the steam is released quickly blowing out any unwanted material from the steam tubes, such as welding rods, tin cans, shoes, lunch boxes, a lost construction foreman, or anything else that was accidentally left in the steam pipes when they were assembled.  I remember someone saying that they had a come-along go flying out of one once during a blowdown.  The first blowdown was the loudest, and then after that they were slightly less forceful each time.

The next morning on the way to the plant, I could see steam shooting out of the boiler from about 10 miles away.  As we pulled into the parking lot, the steam was shooting out about 100 yards from the big pipe on the side of the boiler creating a very loud rumbling sound that made your body shake all over.  This is exactly how I remember what happened next…..  I climbed out of the car and looked up at the large plume of steam shooting out of the boiler and I said to Steve, “Well, that’s pretty loud, but it’s not THAT loud!”  Just at the exact moment that I finished that sentence, the ground started to shake, and my lunch box and hardhat went flying as my hands went to my head to cover my ears!  I hit the ground and rolled sideways to see that the plume of steam that had been blowing out of the boiler had grown into a huge white roaring demon about 500 yards long as it reached directly over my head to the point where the condenser discharges water back into the lake behind me!  The sound was so loud my whole body was shaking from the force, as we were directly in front of the steam pipe.  It continued for about a minute or less and then abruptly shutdown back to the much smaller quieter plume of steam that had been there before.

I stood up, but my legs were all wobbly.  I picked up my hard hat and lunch box and wobbled my way into the maintenance shop.  My ears were ringing and I remember that I couldn’t hear very good and I was pretty upset about my possible loss of hearing.  Then I wondered to myself why I hadn’t heard the two minute warning, and in my muted state I looked around at the mechanics standing around and my eyes settled on one person who was chewing on sunflower seeds or gum, and was talking to someone, though I couldn’t hear his voice  —  and I knew why!  I couldn’t hear the 2 minute warning because we were 5 minutes late getting to work!  We were always 5 minutes late!  This bummed me out the rest of the day.   As the day went by my hearing was returning, and by the time we were heading home, I could hear Higginbotham talking very clearly all the way to the house.  Maybe this would have been a good time for the earplugs.

That night as I lay in bed, I could hear the boiler blowdown continuing 25 miles away every half hour or so.  I thought about how much power it took to create that much force.  It gave me a great respect for the power harnessed in the power plant and how it takes all that power and turns the majority of it into electricity to serve the state of Oklahoma.

Power Plant Electric Shop Summer Help Stories or Rooster Eats Crow

I thought my days of working with summer help was over when I joined the Electric Shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  I had worked as a summer help for four summers while I was going to college to obtain a degree in Psychology.  As I stated before, this helped me become a first rate janitor, as I was able to lean on my broom and listen to the problems of Power Plant Men that needed an ear to bend and to have the reassurance that they really didn’t have a problem.  It was someone else’s problem.

When the second summer of my electrical career began, the electric shop was blessed to have Blake Tucker as a summer help.  I had worked with Blake before when we were in the garage, and I had found him to be a man of character.  I was glad to be working with him again.  Not only was Blake a respectable person, he was also very smart.

Blake was going to the university to become an Engineer.  Because of this, he was able to be in a higher class of summer help than I was ever able to achieve.  As I mentioned in earlier posts, my first summer I was making all of $3.89 an hour.  By the time I left to become a janitor, I had worked my way up to $5.14 an hour.  After arriving in the Electric shop, my wages had quickly shot up to a little over $7.50.  Blake was able to hire on as an engineer summer help which gave him the same wage that I was making.

Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, said that he had a difficult task that he thought the two of us could handle.  We needed to go through the entire plant and inspect every single extension cord, and electric cord attached to every piece of equipment less than 480 volts.  This included all drill presses, power drills, drop lights, coffee machines, water fountains, heat guns, electrical impact guns, refrigerators, hand held saws, sanders, grinders, and um…… er… it seems like I’m forgetting something.  It’ll come to me.

Anyway.  Each time we inspected something, we would put a copper ring around the cord with an aluminum tag where we had punched a number that identified the cord.  Then we recorded our findings in a binder.  We checked the grounding wire to make sure it was properly attached to the equipment.  We meggared the cord to make sure that there were no shorts or grounded circuits.  We made sure there were no open circuits and repaired any problems we found.  Then once we had given it our blessing, we returned it to our customers.

A Hand cranked Megger made by the same company, only newer than the ones we had

A Hand cranked Megger made by the same company, only newer than the ones we had

We went to every office, and shop in the plant.  From the main warehouse to the coal yard heavy equipment garage.  Wheeling our improvised inspection cart from place to place, soldering copper rings on each cord we inspected.

One thing I have learned about working next to someone continuously for a long time is that you may not realize the character of someone up front because first impressions get in the way, but after a while, you come to an understanding.  The true character of respectable people isn’t always visible right away (this was not true with Blake.  I could tell very quickly when I first worked with him as a summer help that he was a good person.  Work ethic tells you a lot about a person).  Other people on the other hand, that are not so respectable, are usually found out fairly quickly.

Men of honor aren’t the ones that stand up and say, “Look at me!  I’m a respectable person.”  People that are dishonorable, usually let everyone know right away that they are not to be trusted.  This isn’t always the case, but by studying their behavior their true character is usually revealed.  I think it usually has to do with how ethical someone is.  If they mean to do the right thing, then I am more inclined to put them in the honorable category.  — Anyway…

Since Blake was studying Engineering, I took the opportunity during lunch to run some of my mathematical queries by him.  Since I had been in High School, I had developed different “Breazile’s Theories”.  They were my own mathematical puzzles around different numerical oddities I had run across.  Like dealing with Prime number, Imaginary numbers and the Golden Ratio (among other things).

The spirals created by the center of a sunflower create a spiral in the proportion of the Golden Ratio.  The Golden Ratio is:1 plus the square root of 5 divided by 2.

The spirals created by the center of a sunflower create a spiral in the proportion of the Golden Ratio. The Golden Ratio is:1 plus the square root of 5 divided by 2.

Golden_ratio_formula

So, for part of the summer, we spent time on the white board in the office looking at different equations.  There was no one else at the plant at the time that I could talk to about these things.  — I mean… others just wouldn’t appreciate the significance of adding 1 to the golden ratio!

Anyway.  I titled this post “…Summer Help Stories”, and all I have done so far is talk about how good it was to work with Blake Tucker.  Well.  A couple of years after Blake was our summer help, we were… well… I wouldn’t use the word “Blessed” this time.  We were given a couple of other summer helps for the summer.  One of them was a good worker that we enjoyed having around.  His name was Chris Nixon.  I won’t mention this other guy’s name in order to not embarrass him, but his initials were Jess Nelson.

Right away, you knew that you didn’t want to work with Jess.  I worked with him once and I told my foreman Andy Tubbs that I didn’t want to work with him again because I felt that he was not safe.  I was afraid he was going to get both of us killed.  One reason may have been that I would have been fried in an electric chair for killing him after he did something really stupid.

Luckily Andy was accommodating.  He allowed me to steer clear of Jess for the rest of the summer.  We just had to watch out for him while he was in the shop.  He was messing around most of the time, and had absolutely no work ethic.  We couldn’t figure out how come he was allowed to stay after a while.  Most people in the shop didn’t want to be around him.

I think Bill Bennett finally found a couple of electricians that would take him.  He worked with O.D. McGaha and Bill Ennis on freeze protection.  Since it was the middle of the summer, I think that was probably the safest place for him.  it turned out that Bill Bennett had some pressure put on him to keep him in the electric shop instead of firing him outright because he was in the same fraternity in college that Ben Brandt, the Assistant Plant Manager at the time was in, and he was a “friend of the family.”

Anyway.  The majority of the plant knew about Jess before the end of the summer (as I said before.  Those people that are less honorable usually like to broadcast this to others).  That’s why, when Jess “stepped into a pile” of his own making, all the Power Plant Men just about threw a big party.  It seemed to them that Jess’s “Karma” had caught up with him.

Chris Nixon, the more honorable summer help, was from Stillwater, Oklahoma, and had actually gone to High School with my brother.  Jess on the other hand lived in a different town in Oklahoma usually, but was living in Stillwater while he was working at the plant.  I figure he was probably living in his fraternity house on campus though I don’t know that for certain.

Well.  One morning the week before the last week of the summer before the summer help headed back to school, Jess came into the shop strutting around like a proud rooster.  He was so proud of himself because he had been at a bar on the strip by the Oklahoma State University Campus and had picked up a “hot chick”.  He had a tremendously good time, and he wanted everyone to know all about it….. (as less honorable people often do).

Rooster

After everyone had to hear him crowing about it all morning, Chris Nixon sat down at the lunch bench and asked him about his date from the night before.  Jess went into detail describing the person that he had picked up (or had been picked up by).  After listening to Jess for a while, Chris came to a dilemma.  He knew the person that Jess was talking about.  After asking a few follow-up questions, Chris was sure that he knew the person that Jess had his intimate encounter with the night before.  He finally decided he had to say something.

Some of you may have already guessed it, and if you are one of the power plant men from the electric shop at the time (that I know read this blog), you are already chuckling if you are not already on the floor.  If you are one of those honorable electricians, and you are still in your chair, it’s probably because you are stunned with amazement that I would have ever relayed this story in an actual public post and are still wondering if I am really going to go on.

I said above that Chris Nixon knew this person.  I didn’t say that Chris knew this girl, or even “woman”.  Yes.  That’s right.  While Jess thought he was out with a hot blonde all night doing all sorts of sordid things that he had spent the morning bragging about, he was actually not with a woman at all.   Oh my gosh!  You have never heard the roar of silent laughter as loud as the one that was going through everyone’s mind when they heard about that one!

For those men that had been thinking that they wished they were young again while listening to Jess in the morning, they suddenly remembered why they had made the decision to keep on the straight and narrow when they were young.

It would have been more funny if it hadn’t been so pitiful.  After being sick to his stomach, he became angry.  He called up the local Braum’s to find out if a “person” meeting this description worked there as Chris had indicated.  He wanted to go down there and kill him.  Of course, he decided not to, but he did go home sick that day and didn’t show up the rest of the week.

He did show up the next week, and the female summer help that had been working in the warehouse had written a poem about their summer help experience which they shared to the entire maintenance group at a farewell lunch in which they made mention of Jess’s unfortunate encounter.

Some folks in the electric shop gave Jess their own “going away present” down in the cable spreading room.  I wasn’t there, so I can’t speak to it with any accuracy, so I’ll just leave it at that.  Luckily it was still kept clean after I had had the Spider Wars a few years earlier.  See the post Spider Wars and Bugs In the Basement for more about that.

Well.  We thought we had seen the last of this person.  We were shocked when next summer rolled around and Jess returned to our shop as the summer help again.  He had been a total waste of a helper the year before.  The entire electric shop went into an uproar.  Everyone refused to work with him because he was too unsafe.  We had barely escaped several injuries the year before.

Bill, being the nice guy that he was, had given Jess a good exit review the year before, because he didn’t want him to have a mark on his record.  Well, that had come back to bite him.

Both Charles Foster and Andy Tubbs, our two electrical B foremen at the time went to Bill Bennett and told him that he never should have agreed to have Jess come back when he knew that he was not a safe worker.  Bill had received some pressure from above to re-hire this person, and Jess had made it clear the year before that he could do what he wanted because Ben was friends with his family.  But with the total uprising, Bill had no choice but to go to Ben Brandt and tell him that he was going to have to let Jess go.

Talk about “awkward”.  I’m sure this was a tough task for Bill.  He always did his best to keep the peace and he took the “fall” for this.  Ben was angry at him for hiring him in the first place (after applying a certain amount of pressure himself) only to have to let him go.  Anyway, that was a much safer summer than the year before.  That was the last attempt at hiring a summer help for the electric shop.