Monthly Archives: May, 2013

Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door — Repost

Originally published on May 25, 2012:

Either this was the luckiest day of my life, or a day where stupidity seemed to be my natural state of mind. This particular day occurred sometime in September 1983. The Main Power transformer for Unit 1 had  shutdown because of an internal fault during an exceptionally hot day during the summer and was being replaced. While the unit was offline, while I was on the labor crew, I was asked to help out the electricians who were doing an overhaul on the Precipitator. The Precipitator takes the ash out of the boiler exhaust before it goes up the smoke stack. Without it, you would see thick smoke, instead, you see only clear exhaust. At the time the electricians I worked with were Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers. I had already applied for a job in the electric shop and was waiting to see if I was going to be offered the job. This gave me the chance to show the electricians what a brilliant worker I was.

Bill Rivers told me to go in the precipitator and wipe down the insulators that held the wire racks in place. He showed me where they were. I wore a regular half-face respirator because the fly ash is harmful to inhale.

Half-face respirator

Just before I went in the precipitator door to begin wiping down the insulators using a Scotch Brite Pad, Bill Rivers pointed to my flashlight and said, “Don’t drop your flashlight in a hopper otherwise you will have to make sure that you get it out of the hopper before we go back online.” I told him I would be sure to hold onto my flashlight (noticing that Bill had a string tied to his flashlight which was slung over his shoulder) and I entered the precipitator door.

Yellow Flashlight similar to the one I carried

The inside of the precipitator was dark. 70 foot tall plates are lined up 9 inches apart. Wires hang down between the plates and when the precipitator is turned on, the wires are charged up to around 45,000 volts of electricity. The wires each have a 30 pound weight on the bottom to take out the tension, and the wires are kept apart and lined up by a rack at the bottom. One end of the rack which is about 25 feet long is held in place by an electrical insulator about 3 feet long. This is what I was supposed to clean. The light from the flashlight lit up the area around me because everything was covered with the fine white powder reflecting the light.

The first hopper I came to was full of ash up to the top of the hopper, but just below where the insulator was mounted to the edge of the hopper. So, I worked my way down to the ledge along the edge of the hopper and dangled my feet down into the ash as I prepared to wipe down the first of the four insulators on this particular hopper. Just as I began, the precipitator suddenly went dark as my flashlight fell from my hand and down into the hopper. — Oh boy, that didn’t take long.

Fly Ash Hoppers. Our hoppers were 12 foot by 12 foot at the top.

I sat there for a minute in the dark as my eyes grew accustomed to the small amount of light that was coming through the doors. After I could see again, I reached my hand into the ash to feel for my flashlight. The ash was very fluffy and there was little or no resistance as I flailed my hand around searching for it. I leaned over farther and farther to reach down deeper into the ash. I was at the point where I was laying down flat on the ledge trying to find the flashlight, and it was no where to be found.

I pulled myself over to the side edge of the hopper and dropped myself down into the ash so that I could reach over where I had dropped the light, but I was still not able to find it. At that point, I was leaning out into the hopper with only my one index finger gripping the ledge around the hopper. I had a decision to make… I thought I would just bail off into the ash to see if I could find the flashlight, or I could give up and go tell Bill Rivers that I had done the one thing that he told me not to do, and in record time. I don’t usually like to give up until I have exhausted every effort, so here was my dilemma. Do I let go and dive into this ash to retrieve my flashlight? Or do I leave the hopper and go tell Bill? I regretfully decided to go tell Bill. So, I climbed up out of the hopper, with my clothes covered with Ash (as we did not have fly ash suits at the time and I was wearing my coveralls). I made my way to the precipitator door and once I was outside, I determined which hopper I had been in when I dropped my flashlight.

I found Bill and told him that I had dropped my flashlight in a hopper full of ash. He told me to get the key for that hopper and open the door at the bottom and see if I could find the flashlight. Unlike the picture of the hoppers above, we had a landing around the base of the hoppers by the access door so you didn’t need a ladder to reach them.

Curtis Love had been watching the door of the precipitator for me while I was supposed to be wiping off the insulators. He came down with me, and we proceeded to open the access door at the bottom on the side of the hopper. When I opened the door both Curtis and I were swept backward as a stream of fly ash shot from the door. The ash fell through the grating to the ground below. We regained our footing and watched as a tremendous pile of ash grew below us. If the flashlight had come out of the doorway, it would have remained on the landing since it was too big to go through the grating, but it never came out.

After the ash had finished pouring out of the hopper as if it were water, I reached down into the remaining ash to see if I could feel the flashlight. Still I was unable to find it. There was about 4 more feet from the doorway to the bottom of the hopper, so I emptied out as much ash as I could using my hard hat for a shovel. Then I pulled my body head first into the hopper and I reached down as far as I could in the bottom of the hopper, but I couldn’t find the flashlight.

So, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Curtis Love to hold onto my legs as I lowered myself down to the throat at the bottom of the hopper. I lowered myself down until I had half of my face laying in the ash. At this point only one of the two filters on my respirator was able to function as the other one was down in the ash. I reached my hand into the top of the feeder at the bottom of the hopper and with my finger tips I could just feel the flashlight. I had reached as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach far enough to grip the flashlight.

All of the sudden my head dipped down into the ash and my hand went around the flashlight. I was not able to breathe as my respirator (and my entire head) was entirely immersed in ash. Everything went dark. I struggled to get up, as Curtis had let go of my legs and I had plunged head first into the bottom of the hopper. I had one hand free as the other one held the flashlight. I used it to push against the opposite wall of the hopper to raise my head up out of the ash. I still couldn’t breathe as my respirator was now clogged solid with ash. When I tried to inhale, the respirator just gripped my face tighter. Finally with my one free hand pushing against the hopper wall to hold my head out of the ash, I reached up with the hand that held the flashlight and pushed against my respirator enough to break the seal around my face so that I was able to get a breath of air.

Then I quickly pulled myself out of the precipitator as I heard Curtis saying the mantra that I had heard one other time (as I indicated in the post about Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love). He was saying over and over again, “I’mSorry,I’mSorry, KevinI’mSorry, ThoseGuysWereTicklingMe. I’mSorry,IDidn’tMeanToLetGo,ITriedToHoldOn, butThoseGuysWereTicklingMe.”

Looking around I spied a few Labor Crew hands sneaking away. As this happened before when I was sandblasting in the sand filter tank when Curtis Love had turned off my air, this wasn’t the first encounter I had with Power Plant Men In-Training playing a Power Plant joke on me. I told Curtis to forget it. I had retrieved my flashlight and everything was all right. I was covered from head-to-toe with fly ash, but that washes off pretty easily.

It dawned on me then that when I had dropped the flashlight, it had sunk clear to the bottom of the hopper and down into the throat of the feeder at the bottom. If I had dived into the ash in the hopper from up above, I would have fallen right down to the bottom of the hopper and been engulfed in ash. My feet would have been pinned down in the feeder pipe, and that would have been the end of me. It probably would have taken many hours to figure out where I was, and they would have found only a corpse.

While I was hanging on the edge of the hopper with only the tip of my index finger gripping the ledge, I was actually considering letting go. There never would have been an electrician at the power Plant named Kevin Breazile. I never would have married my wife Kelly, and had my two children Elizabeth and Anthony. I would not be writing this story right now. If it had been left to my own stupidity, none of those things would have happened. I believe it was my guardian angel that had talked me out of letting go (or had actually been standing on my fingers). As stubborn as I was, and against my nature, that day I had decided to give up searching for my flashlight and seek help. That one momentary decision has made all the difference in my life.

Since that day I have had a certain appreciation for the things that happen to me even when they seem difficult at the time. I have lived a fairly stress-free life because each day is a gift. Currently I work in a stress-filled job where individual accomplishments are seldom rewarded. From one day to the next I may be laid off at any time. I still find a lot of satisfaction in what I do because it was possible that it never would have happened. I have been kept alive for a purpose so I might as well enjoy the ride.

I find a special love for the people I work with today, because they are all gifts to me. I try to pay them back with kindness… when that doesn’t work.. I try to annoy them with my presence… Just to say….. — I am still here!

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Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline.  The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators.  This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust.  The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”.  The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust.  When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air.

Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop.  These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator.  I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post:  Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant.  It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years.  You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant.  I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.

When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it.  He likes to get dirty.”  At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop.  Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning…  Now those words took on their full meaning.

I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning.  Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post:  Singin’ Along with Sonny Kendrick).  I was his chance to be from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey.  I had accepted that.  I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.

So, here I was…  One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post:  Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door).  Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers.  I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit.  Just a rain suit.

A man wearing a half faced respirator -- not me... just an image I found on Google Images

A man wearing a half faced respirator — not me… just an image I found on Google Images

Not a lot of protection….

I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul.  I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string.  I had  a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.

A notepad like this

A notepad like this

So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world.  It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon.  We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point.  We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.

Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart.  He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above.  At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me.  Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip.  There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.

Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip.  Then even lower.  About 10 feet above us.  A third clip.  — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It pays to Listen“),  then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….”  A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn.

Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate.  Every clip must be in their place.  Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so.  Ok.  I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 plates per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and  7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…

Bill explained….. Clean each insulator.  there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place.There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers.  there were 84 hoppers,   Great.  Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks….  Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof.  two on section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension hosue on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a ciip or broken.  Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force.  That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below.  Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each.  There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers.  In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.

Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates.  In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly.  There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers.   This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul.  Oh.  And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.

So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units).  Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator. For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators.  Some of my closest friends were precipitator components.  Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.

We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me.  I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment.  I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.

Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas….  I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home…. Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”.  I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash.  I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby…  Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it.  He apologized.  He explained that he meant it with affection.

At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it.  The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter.  That meant that they would infiltrate your filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs.  Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.

I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu.  This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so.  I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth.  I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.

I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator.  So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters.  They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles.  I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.

To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell.  The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors.  Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals….  Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.

You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate.  Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.

I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post:  A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff.  He said it had some kind of  a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….

He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell.  You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.

There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name).  She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical.  Unfortunately, we never found out what it was.  In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces.  This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.

I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of  an electron microscope.  I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one.  I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.

So, I just continued wearing the organic filters.  This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms.  Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator.  When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands.  They knew everything I did.

One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job.  One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma.  They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had.  They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.

Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be.  I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously.  No.  I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it.  I loved it.   I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.

I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator.  I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them.  Coaxing them.  Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job.  If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”.  Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7.  But they were each my friends in their own way.

You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?”  I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me.  I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.

I have my own understanding of who I should be.  My wife may call it “stubbornness”, and that may be what it is.  I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again….  What was I going to do?  Give up?  How could I do that to a friend?  I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma.  That isn’t going to change who I am.”

Today I am called an IT Business Analyst.  I work for Dell  Computers.  It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world.  I see the same pattern.  When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job.  You become invaluable.  Almost unreplaceable.  People look to you for answers.  They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business.  I am glad to be able to serve them.

Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?”  Arnold replied, “Oh.  nothing anyone wants.”  (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators.  No.  I wouldn’t do that.  Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.

Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good.  His son, Tim Foster has taken his place.  One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator.  I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim….  I know Scott understands….

Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them….  Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness.   Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly…  Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good…  next row….

A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid — Repost

Originally Posted May 18, 2013. I added an interesting fact about George and the comments from the original post at the bottom:

George Pepple was the chemist at the plant when I first arrived in 1979.  His last name is pronounced  “Pep-Lee”.  A chemist plays an important role in a power plant.  The plant treats their own water and has it’s own sewage system.  The chemist spends their time with these activities.  They do other things like check ground water for contaminates, and lake water for bacteria, and a host of other things.  Hydrochloric Acid is used to balance the PH of the water.  As far as I know, George Pepple was the only one at the plant with a PhD, which gave him the title of Doctor.  No one called him Dr. Pepple (which sounds like a soda pop).  We either called him George or Pepple (Pep Lee) or both.  He had a sort of Einsteinian simplicity about him.  To me he was the perfect combination of Einstein and Mr. Rogers from “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”:

Albert Einstein

Mister Rogers

One other thing I would like to add about George was that he developed a special process for Cupric chloride leaching of copper sulfides.  This was a patented process (1982) which is now owned by the Phelps Dodge Corporation which is a copper and gold mining company.  As humble as George Pepple was, he never mentioned this to anyone at the plant as far as I know.

When he would page someone on the PA system (gray phones), he would always do it in a straight monotone voice. putting no accents on any of the words and he would always repeat his page twice.  Like this:  “PaulMullonLineOne.  PaulMullonLineOne.”

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Before I get to the point where George is dancing in the acid, I first need to tell you about Gary Michelson, since he had a role to play in this jig.  In an earlier post: In Memory of Sonny Karcher, A True Power Plant Man, I remarked that Sonny Karcher had told people when he introduced me to them that I was going to college to learn to be a writer (which wasn’t exactly true.  The writing part I mean…. I was going to college… and I am writing now), and then I was going to write about them.  In doing so, some people took me in their confidence and laid before me their philosophy of life.  Jerry Mitchell being one of them (as you can read in an earlier post about “A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“).  Jerry had filled me with his own sense of humility, where it was important to build true friendships and be a good and moral person.  His philosophy was one of kindness to your fellow man no matter what his station in life.  If there was someone you couldn’t trust, then stay clear of them.

Gary Michelson was another person that wished to bestow upon me his own personal wisdom.  We worked for about 3 days filtering the hydraulic oil in the dumper car clamps and in the coal yard garage.  While there, he explained to me why it was important to be the best in what you do.  If you are not number one, then you are nobody.  No one remembers who came in second.  He viewed his job performance and his station in life as a competition.  It was him against everyone else.  He didn’t care if he didn’t get along with the rest of the people in the shop because it is expected that other people would be jealous or resentful because he was superior to them.  According to Gary his family owned part of a uranium mine somewhere in Wyoming or Montana.  He thought he might go work for his father there, because truly, he was not a True Power Plant Man.  He reminded me slightly of Dinty Moore.  Like a lumber Jack.

Dinty Moore

As I mentioned in the post about the “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“, Gary Michelson had the title “Millwright”.  Which no one else in the shop seemed to have.  He had been certified or something as a Millwright.  Gary explained to me that a Millwright can do all the different types of jobs.  Machinist, Mechanic, Pipe fitter, etc.  I remember him spending an entire week at a band saw cutting out wedges at different angles from a block of metal to put in his toolbox.  Most mechanics at this time hadn’t been issued a toolbox unless they had brought one with them from the plant where they had transferred.  Gary explained to me that his “superiority was his greatest advantage.”  Those aren’t his words but it was basically what he was saying.  That phrase came from my son who said that one day when he was imitating the voice of a video game villain named Xemnas.

Filtering the hydraulic oil through the blotter press was very slow until we removed most of the filters.

An Oil Blotter Press Similar to the one we had, but our press did not have “NAKIN” written on it.

It was a job that didn’t require a lot of attention and after a while became boring.  That gave me more time to learn about Gary.  He filled the time with stories about his past and his family.  Since I hadn’t met Ramblin’ Ann at this point (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was not able to contribute my share.  In the middle of this job we were called away to work on a job in water treatment where a small pump needed to be re-installed.

During this time at the plant every pump, fan, mill and turbine were brought to the maintenance shop and disassembled, measured, cleaned, honed and reassembled before the plant was brought online.  This is called doing a “check out” of the unit.  The electricians would check every motor, every cable and every relay.  The Results team (Instrument and Controls as they were later called) would check out the instrument air, the pneumatic valves and the control logic throughout the plant.

Gary had me go to the tool room and get some rubber boots and a rain suit.  When we arrived at the water treatment building George Pepple was there waiting for us.  The pump was in place and only the couplings needed to be connected to the acid line.  Gary explained to me as he carefully tightened the bolts around the flange that you had to do it just right in order for the flange to seat properly and create a good seal.  He would tighten one bolt, then the bolt opposite it until he worked his way around the flange.  He also explained that you didn’t want to over-tighten it.

Pipe Flange

Anyway.  When he was through tightening the couplings I was given a water hose to hold in case some acid were to spray out of the connections when the pump was turned on.  After the clearance was returned and the operator had closed the breaker, George turned the pump on.  When he did the coupling that Gary had so carefully tightened to just the right torque using just the right technique sprayed a clear liquid all over George Pepple’s shoes.

Gary quickly reached for the controls to turn off the pump.  I immediately directed the water from the hose on George’s shoes while he began to jump up and down.  In last week’s post I explained that when I was working in the River Pump forebay pit shoveling sand, there was a point when I realized that I was covered from head to foot with tiny crawling bugs, and I felt like running around in circles screaming like a little girl (See “Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down By The River“).  If I had done that, I probably would have been singing the same song and dance that George Pepple was doing at that moment.  Because he indeed was screaming like a little girl (I thought).  His reaction surprised me because I didn’t see the tell tale signs of sizzling bubbles and smoke that you would see in a movie when someone throws acid on someone.  I continued hosing him down and after a minute or so, he calmed down to the point where he was coherent again.  He had me run water on his shoes for a long time before he took them off and put on rubber boots.

After hosing off the pipes, Gary took the coupling apart and put the o-ring in place that he had left out.

Rubber O-Ring

I made a mental note to myself.  — Always remember the o-ring.

Besides those two jobs, I never worked with Gary Michelson again.  When I returned the next summer Gary was no where to be found.  When I asked Larry Riley about it, he just said that they had run him off.  Which is a way of saying…  “He ain’t no Power Plant Man.”  George Pepple on the other hand was there throughout my career at the power plant.  He was a True Power Plant Man, PhD!  When George was around you knew it was always “A wonderful Day in the Neighborhood”.  When I would hear George Pepple paging someone on the Gray Phone (the PA system) in his own peculiar way, I would think to myself… “I like the way you say that.” (As Mr. Rogers used to say).  I will leave you with that thought.

Comments from the original post:

  1. neenergyobserver May 18, 2012

    Funny isn’t it, how the ones that are the best (in their own minds) do stupid stuff like forgetting the O-ring. Apparently they can’t see for all the jaw-flapping involved in patting themselves on the back. Not that I haven’t had a few days I’d rather not talk about too.

    1. Plant Electrician May 25, 2012

      Nebraska, if you think that was dumb, wait until you read the next post.

      1. neenergyobserver May 25, 2012

        Well, that was dumb, but not the dumbest either of us has seen. I’ll look forward to it.

  2. onelifethislife May 27, 2012

    You are master storyteller! I know nothing about power plants and I was right there with you. This was fantastic read! Thank you for sharing your work.

    1. Plant Electrician May 27, 2012

      Thank you for your kind words.

      1. onelifethislife May 27, 2012

        You are most welcome!!

  3. bryanneelaine May 28, 2012

    LOL @ “Dinty Moore”

GE Geriatric Gentleman and Power Plant Transformers

I remember the day when I walked into the Electric Shop office to begin the lunch break, and four guys from the T&D department (Transmission and Distribution) came in from the door leading to the Main Switchgear.  They were obviously worn out, and were complaining.  The first one said that he couldn’t believe that the guy from GE had made them work through morning break.  The second guy called him a slave driver.  The third guy replied that he couldn’t believe how that GE guy just kept on working from the crack of dawn without stopping all morning without even coming up for air.  The fourth guy just collapsed on one of the chairs.

I remember the name of the last guy.  His name was Foote.  I remember him because he was real proud of his heritage.  The first time I had met him, I asked him his name twice, because when he told me it was “Foote”, I wasn’t sure I heard correctly, so I asked him again.  I guess that he must has guessed what was going through my mind because he must have had the same reaction from a thousand other people in the past.  I figure that because my last name is Breazile (pronounced “Brazil”) and I have had many conversations with people explaining the origin of my name.

Anyway.  I don’t remember Foote’s first name because I think he only had initials for his first name on his hard hat, and I’m more of a visual person when it comes to memories.  I clearly remember his last.  If I remember correctly, one of his ancestors was a naval officer in the Civil War, though, I don’t remember for which side.  I guess it doesn’t really matter much now, since both sides were Americans, and both sides loved their country and the lives they knew — that they were fighting to hold onto or to change.

This reminds me of a side story that I must tell….  Years and years later in 1997, when I was on the Confined Space Rescue Team, one guy that was from North Dakota named Brent Kautzman was constantly being “harassed” for being a Yankee, because he came from a Northern State.  This was kind of a mute point to me, because I knew that North Dakota didn’t become a state until well after the Civil War.

Anyway, one day when Brent was trying to defend himself from the hardcore confederates of the group, he pointed out that the North won the Civil war.   A couple of other members disagreed, claiming that the South was going to “rise again”.  One of those that believed in the Confederate resurrection turned to me and asked me, as if I was the resident historian (well… I did have a college degree… and I did have a minor in History…. and I was known for telling the truth when it really came down to it),  “Kevin…. Did the north win the Civil War?”

Not really wanting to hurt the feelings of my southern friends, and also wanting to stand by Brent who was really correct about the outcome of the Civil War, I replied with the following explanation:  “Yes.  The North must have won the war.  Otherwise the South never would have let all the carpetbaggers from the North come down there and steal their property and their dignity.”  Brent was satisfied, and the southerners had to agree with my logic.  They still insisted that the South would rise again.  I couldn’t argue with them about that…. It has never ceased to amaze me how bigotry can be passed down so easily.

With that said, I would say that the Power Plant Men that I worked with that believed that the “South would rise again!”  didn’t really understand what that meant.  I say that because they never would have given a thought that the men that they worked with that were African American such as Floyd Coburn, or Bill Bennett, were nothing less than members of their own families.  I know that they each personally loved these men with all their hearts.  I thought it was more of a nostalgic feeling than a desire to see the return of slavery or even the bigotry that crippled the southern states for decades after the Civil War.

End of the Side Story…. Back to the worn out T&D workers.

By the sound of it, I figured that this guy from GE (General Electric) that had come to work on one of the Main Auxiliary Transformers on Unit 2 that had a problem with the Tap Changing Mechanism, was some kind of slave driver.  Some hard line guy that wanted to work our employees to the brink of exhaustion because he wanted to be done with the repairs as quickly as possible so that he could  move on to some  more important work.  You see.  For this job,  GE had called on one of the top Main Power Transformer Geniuses in all the country to work on this transformer.

The T&D guys sat there for a while and then walked out into the shop to eat their lunch.  Shortly after that, the slave driver from GE came in the back door….  In stepped a man that immediately reminded me of Arthur Fielder from the Boston Pops.

Arthur Fielder from Boston Pops

Arthur Fielder from Boston Pops

He sat down…. opened his brown paper bag.  Pulled out his sandwich.  Carefully unwrapped it and began to eat.  Charles Foster and I were sitting there watching him.  After hearing the horror stories from the T&D crew, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to engage this seemingly mad man in conversation, so I waited a while.   I ate some cherry tomatoes and Banana peppers that Charles brought for me each day…. and with each bite, I took a bite out of my ham sandwich.  Then I looked over at “Arthur Fielder….”  (I don’t remember his real name).

Finally, I decided that this slave driver in sheep’s clothing (well, an old frail man costume really), might come up with some interesting conversation so I asked him….  “Say, old man…. how old are you anyway?”   He looked up from the total enjoyment of his sandwich, and with food still un-swallowed said, “I’m 83.”

“83?”  — Either I said that or Charles did… because we were both stunned by his answer…..  “Yep…  They called me out of retirement to work on this transformer.  Seems I’m the only one that knows how to fix ’em.  But I’m teachin’ your fellows how to do it so they don’t have to call me again.”

Charles and I were so flabbergasted by his reply that we couldn’t leave it alone.  One of us (Charles and I were always on the same wavelength, so usually when one of us spoke, it was what we were both thinking)… So, one of us asked….  “You’re retired and they called you up to work on this transformer!?!?  Are you such a Transformer guru that you were the only one they could send?”  (hmm… must have been me…. I don’t think Charles would have used the word “Guru”.  He would have used something like “expert” or “talented” or maybe “genius”).  He said, “Yep.  They paid me enough that I agreed to take a week away from my wife to come here to take care of business.  It would have to take a lot to take me away from my Jenny.”

Then this feeble old man with the white moustache explained that he didn’t like to be away from home.  Every night since when he was young he has played the piano for two hours. — Wait… I wasn’t sure if I heard that right, so I asked him…. “What?  You play the piano for two hours… every night!?!?”  (notice… already I have used “!?!?” twice in one post… just goes to show you how surprised I was to run across this man).  He reaffirmed what he said, “Yeah.  I had to find a place that had a piano, so I could sit in the lobby and play it before I go to bed.  I can’t sleep well unless I have played the piano first.

After that, he began to tell us about his career in the Music Industry.  He had played for many Big Band orchestras in the past.  He talked about playing with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman.  Names that I had learned from my Aunt Pam Sorisso in Kansas City that gave me an Eight Track Tape of Big Band music when I was in College that I used to listen to often.  I had become a fan of Big Band and had a great respect for these Big Band Leaders.

Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman

Tommy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey

Here sitting in front of me was one of the geniuses of the Big Band era in the electric shop at a Coal-fired Power Plant in the middle of North Central Oklahoma.  All I could think of was, “Who woulda thought it?”  Though I was impressed as all get out… I tried to act calm….. I wanted to jump up with a piece of paper and ask him for his autograph….

This old guy suddenly had all my respect.  It cracked me up to think that this 83 year old man was out performing the younger T&D workers.  He was running them ragged.  He explained that he didn’t like to stop for break.  It made the day go a lot faster if he just kept working until he had to stop.  He wouldn’t stop for lunch if all the workers hadn’t just dropped all their tools and left.

It amazed me even more that this man who was a big band musician of the highest caliber had ended up working for GE  Not only had he worked for GE, but he had become the ultimate authority in large transformer repair.  I mean…. How cool is that?

I can’t tell you how much I instantly fell in love with this guy.  He had talked and talked about his days as a big band piano player.  What really came out of his conversation what just how much he loved his wife.  The two things he loved in the entire world was his wife and to play the piano.  He said there was nothing more soothing than playing the piano.  As he walked off to go back to work at the end of lunch… the only thing I could think of was one of my Big Band favorites….  Louis Armstrong….

For those people who stopped to really think about it…. This truly is….. A Wonderful World!

Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River — Repost

Originally posted May 11, 2012:

The Power Plant sits on a hill where you can see it 20 miles away looming in the distance.  The lake that provides cooling water for the plant is also built on a hill.  If the Electric Company had waited for the rain to fill up the lake we would still be waiting 34 years later.  Fortunately the Arkansas River flows near the plant below the Kaw Lake dam near Ponca City and before it runs into the Keystone Lake near Tulsa.  There are 4 large pumps alongside the river in a fenced in area that draws water from the river and sends it a mile up a hill where it pours into the lake.  It is a beautiful lake and most of the area around the lake is a wildlife preserve.  A part of the area around the lake is reserved for hunting.

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

Bald Eagles and Pelicans make this lake their home in the winter.  During the winter months you can watch a web cam of a bald eagle’s nest on the lake.  http://www.suttoncenter.org/pages/live_eagle_camera

I have included this map so that you can see the layout.  the wide blue line in the upper right corner is the Arkansas river.

Map of the Power Plant Lake

The River Pump station is off the edge of this map.

During my second summer as a summer help at the Power Plant I was assigned to be the “gopher” for a maintenance crew that was going to be working down by the river for a week.  Being a “gopher” means that you drive back and forth between the plant and the river bringing (in other words: “go for”) tools, supplies, food, water, and anything else that the Power Plant Men may need while they were working at the river.

At first I wasn’t aware of what job the Power Plant Men crew were assigned.  I just knew it was down by the river.  I towed a large air compressor behind the flatbed truck and a lot of air hoses and air powered tools.  Then I watched as the men began to setup the equipment.  At one point Ray Butler who was overseeing the job asked me to go back to the plant and get a Y-connector for the air hoses and some more hose.

Air Hose Y-Connector

I drove back to the plant and when I returned I was standing there with the coupling in my hand watching the men dragging air hoses down into the river, someone asked me to help them move something.  So I laid the Y-connector on the top of the Air Compressor.  Thinking that would be a safe out of the way place for it.  When I did that, it fell down into a cavity that was about 6 inches wide and 5 feet deep where there was the air intake for the compressor.  It was too deep to reach it.  You can see the air intake section on the front of this air compressor:

This is the exact size and type of air compressor

After trying to figure out how to take off the front grill of the compressor to retrieve the connector and not seeing an easy way, I told Dale Hull what I had done.  He just smiled (well… Dale Hull had a perpetual smile or grin on his face anyway), and he went over to a tool box and pulled out a spool of wire.  After cutting some off and fashioning a hook on the end, he quickly snagged the connector and pulled it right out.  Honestly when I saw him start fishing for that coupling I thought to myself that this wasn’t going to work and I was resigned to driving back to the plant again for another one.  It’s too hard to hook something that far down with that flimsy wire.  I was surprised and relieved when he quickly pulled it out with little effort.  Maybe he had a lot of practice doing this.  In True Power Plant Man fashion, there was no ridicule.  From the moment I told him I had dropped the connector, he went to work as if it was his job, not doing anything to attract attention.  Until this moment, Dale Hull and I were the only two that knew that I had dropped that connector into the compressor housing.  Even though I already had, I marked him down again in my book as a True Power Plant man.

Dale Hull was one of those surprise mechanics that had a lot more skill than you would think by looking at him.  He reminded me of John Ritter.  The actor on “Three’s Company”.  I carpooled with him a lot during the first and second summer and one thing that stood out in my mind was that he had over 100,000 miles on his car and still had the original tires.  He did his own wheel alignments.  I spent many hours alongside Dale on weekends doing coal cleanup.  I helped him move one time from one apartment to the other.  I remember that he had his own set of precision machining tools.

John Ritter looking like Dale Hull in 1980

When I carpooled with him and Ricky Daniels, we would go to the gas station just north of the plant where Dale and Ricky would purchase some beer to drink on the way home.  At this time, the place was crowded with construction hands that were still building the plant.  I would sit in the back seat and watch the back of the heads of Ricky and Dale who, after a long hot day at work were relaxing by drinking beer and trying to stay awake until they reached Stillwater.  I would see Dale’s head bobbing up and down as he would struggle to stay awake.  Every day it was the same.  We always made it safely home.  I don’t know if it was the Novena to St. Jude that I was saying in the back seat or it was Dale’s ability to drive while nodding off to sleep or both.

Anyway.  Back to the river.

In the river just below the surface of the water next to the River Pump Forebay there are 4 “coffin houses” where the water can flow into the pump forebay where it is then pumped up to the lake.  The 4 coffin houses (which get their name because they are rectangular shaped boxes that put you in mind of coffins) are mounted on one large concrete slab.  The Power Plant Men were setting everything up so that they could drill holes in the concrete slab which was about 4 feet under water.

Why were they drilling holes in the concrete slab?  According to the EPA, it was required that the Electric Company continuously monitor the temperature of the water in the river at the point where the water enters the intake into the forebay area (As if the electric company was somehow going to be able to change the temperature of the water). So they were mounting a thermometer out in the middle on the concrete slab at the bottom of the river.

Hence the use of Air powered tools.  🙂  It wouldn’t have worked well with electric tools.  I remember Power Plant He-men like Bill Gibson standing out in the river (the water had been lowered by lowering the output of Kaw Dam about 20 miles upstream) taking a deep breath, and dropping down into the water.  A few moments later a rush of bubbles would come blasting out of the water as he operated the air operated power drill.  Each time someone went under the water, they had to find the hole they were drilling, put the bit back in it, and try to drill some more of the hole all while holding their breath.  A lot of times they came up laughing because once they started drilling they couldn’t see anything because bubbles were flying in their face.  Needless to say, the 10 or so holes they had to drill took almost an entire week.

Of course, they had to take time out for cookouts and swimming in the river.  Fortunately there were no Power Plant Women down there at the time, because when it came time for lunch, a group of men in nothing but their skivvies would take a dip in the river.

When they were through there was a thermocouple mounted at the bottom of the river with a cable that led up the bank and into a small galvanized metal building that housed a recorder that took one month to make a full revolution recording the temperature of the water.

Thermocouple – detects temperature using the voltage between two different types of metal

Temperature Recorder

There was one other time when I worked for a week at the river.  It was when I was on labor crew and we had to shovel the sand out of the river pump forebay.  This is a concrete pit about 30 feet deep.  Animals would fall in there from time to time and drown, so usually there was usually a rotting dead possum and a dead bird or two floating in the murky water when the pumps weren’t running.

A P&H crane would lower a large bucket into the pit and a couple of us would shovel sand into it until it was full, then the crane would take it up and dump it out, then lower it back down again for some more sand.  We would be standing in the water or on a pile of sand shoveling sand all day.  I remember my first day doing that, after a while I looked down to see that there were little tiny bugs crawling all over under the hair on my arms.  I called them weevils because they weeved around the hairs on my arms.  I quickly realized that my entire body was covered with these little crawling bugs.  They really weren’t weevils, because those are much bigger than the tiny bugs that were crawling all over me.    They put me in the mind of flea larva.

Flea Larva

My first reaction was to panic, run around in circles screaming like a little girl.  Instead I resigned myself to these bugs and just kept on working. They weren’t biting me.  I think they were just looking for a way out of the pit.  You climbed in and out of the pit using a ladder permanently mounted on the concrete wall.  When it was lunch time I would take a dip in the river, clothes and all to wash them all off.

It’s a  funny thought now to think that after I became an electrician a trip to the river pumps always felt like a vacation.  Maybe because we were outside of the normal plant grounds.  There usually weren’t any supervisors around.  There was wildlife.  There was a river you could play in if you felt the need.  I never found myself working less while I was there, it just seemed enjoyable to have a change in scenery.

Anyway.  I don’t think the EPA every really cared what the temperature of the river was, they just wanted us to go through the exercise of measuring it.  But that is how that lake ended up on the top of that hill.  The water is used to cool the steam in the condenser in the Power Plant.  The fish and the birds also enjoy it and all the wildlife around the lake.  All made possible by the diligent maintenance of the Power Plant Men.

Comments from the original post:

  1. rjdawarrior May 17, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    Loved it! The pictures really brought the whole story to life. You have a way with words that in trigs me.

    My favorite part was the flea larva, I could just see you out there in a field full of testosterone, running around in a panic screaming like a little girl…..

    Thanks for the enjoyment of the employment RJ

    1. Plant Electrician May 17, 2012, at 5:21 pm

      Thanks RJ, No matter how I try to forget it… I still remember it all too well. :)

Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy

If you crossed Walter Matthau with Howdy Doody you would come out with someone that would remind you of Bob Kennedy.  All right.  Bob Kennedy looked more like Walter Matthau than he did Howdy Doody, but I could tell that when Bob was younger, even though he didn’t have red hair and freckles, I could picture him as a little boy playing with his stick horse wearing a cowboy hat, and to me he would have looked a lot like Howdy Doody…

Walter Matthau

Walter Matthau

Howdy Doody

Howdy Doody

Cowboy Bob Kennedy on his stick horse

Cowboy Bob Kennedy on his stick horse

The day I first met Bob Kennedy I instantly fell in love with him.  He was an electrician at the Power Plant in Midwest City and I was there on overhaul for three months during the fall of 1985.  Bob was assigned to be our acting foreman while Arthur Hammond and I were there for a major overhaul on Unit 5. — Yeah.  Five.  They actually had 7, but all of them weren’t operational at the time.

Actually, I think it was Unit 4 that was a small generator that came from a submarine.  — Half of the plant was like a museum.  I used to park at the far end of the plant just so that I could walk through the museum each morning on my way to the electric shop.  I think years later they may have torn that part of the plant down, which should have been illegal since to me it easily was a historical monument.

I called this post “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy” because Bob was tall and when he walked he sort of lunged forward and walked as if he was a giant walking through a forest that was only knee deep to himself. Bob had been an electrician for over 35 years.  I know this because one of the phrases he would often say was, “I’ve been doin’ it this way for 35 years!”

He had some other phrases, that I will probably mention in a few minutes.  First I want to tell you about the relationship I had with Bob…. So, often in the morning after the morning steam horn would go off signalling that it was time to go to work (yeah… .isn’t that cool?  A horn powered by steam would go off when it was time to go to work!  My gosh… That horn alone was a monument of the 1930’s each morning when I heard it!),

Bob would come out of the office to where I was standing in the shop and say, “Kev.  Follow me.  I’ll show you what you’re goin’ ta be workin’ on today.  Then he would head for the door. I would follow along behind him.  I could tell that he preferred that I walk behind him.  When I would walk faster, he would spread his lanky legs even farther to keep me one step behind him… so I quickly assumed my place two paces behind Bob.

He would have these large strides when he walked that would cause his body to move in a left and right motion where his arms were swinging at his side.  I loved everything about Bob.  I loved the way he talked… I loved the way he walked… I wished that I could be a miniature Bob.  So, I started to imitate him.

As Bob would walk across the Turbine-Generator floor toward Unit 5 from Unit 7 (where the electric shop was located)), I would follow along two paces behind him trying my best to walk just like him.  I would make very long strides to match Bob’s.  I would swing my arms and lean left and right as I walked just like Bob.  Bob was my hero and I wanted to let everyone know that I loved Bob and I wanted to be as much like Bob as I possibly could.  So, as I walked I had a tremendous grin on my face.  My expression was full of the satisfaction of knowing that I was literally following in Bob’s footsteps!

Operators and other maintenance workers that would see us instantly understood my intentions as they would grin, or laugh, or fall down in a total convulsion of uncontrollable laughter, sharing in my elation of being a miniature Bob.

I wish I could say that my time with Bob was one of total contentment and joy at being a miniature Bob that had “done it this way for 35 years”, but there were some setbacks.  The first problem was that Arthur Hammond was with me on overhaul, and there was one major flaw in this combination….. Arthur liked to argue.  See my post from two weeks ago called “Power Plant Arguments With Arthur Hammond“.

Before I go into the contention part, I want to first tell you about my second best Bob Kennedy Phrase.  It is…. “I have a tool for that.”.  You see.  At this older gas plant where Bob Kennedy had spent the greater portion of his life, he had created a tool for just about every difficult job at the plant to make it easier.

Often in the morning when Bob would show me the job that I was going to be performing for the day, he would qualify it by saying, “I have a special tool for this.”  Then he would take me back to the shop, reach under one of the work benches and pull out a work of art that comprised of chains, levers, pulleys and specialized cables that would make s seemingly impossible job, possible. He had a tool for everything.

So, when Arthur and I realized that Bob had a tool for everything we came up with a song for Bob that went to the tune of Big John.  And old song about a guy named Big John that worked in a mine that collapsed one day.  If you are older than I am (52), then you may have heard it before.

In case you haven’t, here is a YouTube version of Big John sung by Jimmy Dean:

Now that you have listened to the song about Big John,  here is the song that Arthur and I devised about Bob Kennedy:

Big Bob…. Big Bob….

Every morning when  he showed up at the plant, You could see him arrive.

He was 6 foot 6, and weighed more than than 145.

Wore a chip on his shoulder

And kinda wobbly at  the hip.

Everyone knew he didn’t give a flip… That was Bob….

Big Bo ahh… ob… Big Bad Bob. Big Bob….

Bob didn’t say much ’cause he was quiet and shy,

He hummed and we hawed and we didn’t know why.

That was Bo ahh…. ob…. Big Bad Bob….

When he would say, “I’ve gotta job… for the two of you…

Follow me… and I’ll show you what to do…

” That was Bob…. Bahhh….ob… Big Bad Bob….

When somethin’ didn’t work, he would say real quick,

Just spit in the back and give it a kick,

That was Bob…. Baaahhh…ob…. Big Bad Bob.

When you’ve been doin’ it this way for 35 years,

It doesn’t matter what problem you’ve got sittin’ right here’s….

‘Cause I’m Bob…. Baaaah….ob…. Big Bad Bob…..

You see, I have a tool to fix it up just right,

Let me show you how it’s done.  I’ll show you the light….

That was Bob….. Baaaah…..ob… Big Bad Bob!

Arthur and I would sing or hum this song as we worked.  It made the day go by so fast that we wondered if Bob himself wasn’t warping time using some tool he kept under a workbench in the electric shop.

Like I said…. I love Bob, and I have since the day I met him, and I always will.  There came a day when there was contention in the ranks…. I saw it beginning when Arthur was arguing each day with Bob.   I think it had to do with the fact that Bob liked to argue also… and neither of them liked to lose an argument.  So, each morning, either Arthur or Bob would win the argument (which sounds a lot like a Dilbert moment today)….

My two friends whom I love dearly (to this day) quickly were at each other’s throats.  I didn’t realize how much until the morning of December 18, 1985, just before I left the shop and Bob Kennedy said to me… “That Arthur Hammond….  He sure can dish it out, but he just can’t take it”.  I walked straight from that conversation down to the the mezzanine level of unit 5 where Art was working on a motor.  The first thing he said to me was, “Bob sure can dish it out but he just can’t take it.”

At that point I told Art to just wait a minute.  There was something I had to do….  I went back to the shop and told Bob that there was something at the motor where we needed his help. As I was walking with Bob across the mezzanine and down to the motor, my heart was split in two.  Here were two of my friends at odds with each other…..  Two people whom I would spend the rest of my life praying for their happiness.  Yet they viewed each other as mortal enemies…

I had to figure that both of them were right in their own way, yet both of them were wrong about each other. So when Bob arrived at the motor I told them both (as if I had suddenly turned into their mother)….  A little while ago, Bob told me that ‘Art can sure dish it out, but he just can’t take it.’.  Then I walked down here and Art tells me the exact same thing about Bob.  Now…. what is going on here?  Bob?

Bob looked at the two of us like the time had finally come to let it all out…. he said, “Every time we have an argument about anything Art here runs to Ellis Rook complaining about me.  If he has something to say, he should come straight to me.  Not run to our supervisor!”

Art said,  “Now wait a minute!  It isn’t me that is running to Ellis Rook!  Ellis just spoke with me this morning about sending me back to the plant because I don’t get along with you (meaning Bob).   Each time we have an argument, you run to Ellis Rook.  Ellis has been telling me that he is thinking of sending me home because you can’t get along with me!  Bob had a shocked look on his face.

Playing the facilitator role, I asked Bob… “Is this so?”  Because I remembered that one day before (on December 17, 1985) when I had to leave for part of the day to get my blood test because I was going to be married (and in Oklahoma you still needed a blood test to be married)…. when I had returned, I met Ellis Rook (the electrical supervisor) in the elevator, he had asked me about Arthur Hammond.

As a side note, because of the new changes in overtime rules, if I left the plant in the middle of the day, I wasn’t supposed to stay long enough to collect overtime.  Ellis Rook started to tell me that I shouldn’t have come back to work after getting my blood test, because I wasn’t eligible to work overtime after taking off part of the day.  After apologizing to him (humbly and profusely), he said, that it would be all right just this once… I figured it was because I was going to be married that Saturday on December 21, 1985. Ellis said that he had heard some bad things about Arthur and he was considering sending him back to our plant.

This would have been a terrible disgrace for Arthur and would have been on his permanent record as someone that wouldn’t be able to go on overhaul anymore. I assured Ellis that Arthur Hammond was the most upright of employees and that there wasn’t any reason to send him home.

So, I asked Arthur…. was it true that he had been going to Ellis Rook (the electrical supervisor) to complain about Bob each time they had an argument… Arthur assured the both of us that not only wasn’t it him, but that it was Bob that had been complaining to Ellis Rook about him each time they had an argument.  That was why he said Bob could dish it out, but he just couldn’t take it.

Bob replied, “It wasn’t me!  It was Arthur!  Every time we had an argument Ellis Rook would come to me and ask me about it.  That is how I know that Art has been running to Ellis complaining about me.  I would never tell Ellis about it!  I would deal with it directly with Art. Art said, Ellis Rook was asking me the same thing!

So, I asked…. How would Ellis know if neither of you went to him to complain?  I wouldn’t have told him…. This led us to the third person that was present during every argument….

You see, there was another electrician from the plant across town that was there every time Ellis came to Bob asking about Arthur after an argument… Let’s call it Mustang Plant (since that was the name).  In order not to embarrass him, I won’t tell you his name, but his initials are “Randy Oxley”. Randy Oxley desperately wanted to move from Mustang Plant to the plant in Midwest City… (all right… since I’m already naming names of plants, I might as well say “Horseshoe Plant”)…

For a time during this overhaul I spent a great deal of time in the electric shop working on motors.  Each day I would stand at a workbench disassembling motors, cleaning out their sleeve bearings (yeah.  these old motors at the old plant had sleeve bearings) and measuring them, and re-assembling them. During that time there were two things that I listened to.  The first thing was the radio….  At that time in history… the leading rock radio stations would play the top 20 songs only.  That meant that after listening to the top 20 songs, the only thing left to listen to was the top 20 songs all over again….  To me… It was like a nightmare.

The songs I listened to 100 times were songs like

“Say you Say Me” by Lionel Riche,

One More Night by Phil Collins:

Every Time you Go away by Paul Young:

We Built This City by Jefferson Starship:

Something in the Air Tonight by Phil Collins:

I’m sorry to do this to you, but this last song I know I must have listened to about 50 times as the top 20 played over and over again about every two hours as it has been drilled into my head.  I know.  I can feel the pity from every one of you who have just read this post.

Today I have “Something In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins on my iPod only because when I listen to it once each week it reminds me of the time I spent in the electric shop at Horseshoe plant working on those motors working around Reggie Deloney, Steven Trammell (otherwise known as ‘Roomie’), Paul Lucy, and the others that were there during that overhaul.

The second thing that I listened to while I was working on the motors in the electric shop was Randy Oxley. Randy was much like Steven Higginbotham, the summer help that I had worked with the first summer I had worked at our plant.  See…. “Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown“.  He liked to talk.

Randy didn’t consider me as an important asset, so he didn’t talk much to me.  He did,  however, talk to one of the Maintenance Supervisors, who happened to be his uncle.  You see… Randy wanted desperately to move from Mustang Plant to Horseshoe Plant.  There was an opening for the B Foreman at Horseshoe plant, and he figured that one of the men in the electric shop would surely get the new foreman opening, which would leave an opening for an electrician.

So Randy would try to butter up his uncle (His uncle was called “Kincade, or Campbell… or some such name).  He didn’t seem to care that I was standing right there carefully honing a sleeve bearing for an old GE motor.  He openly expressed his opinion.  It is only because of his blatant disregard for discretion that I don’t feel any guilt to pass on the conversation.

The one phrase that sticks in my mind is that Randy, while trying to convince his uncle that they should hire him in the electric shop at Horseshoe lake, said, “I am the best electrician at Mustang Plant.  The only problem is that I’m the only one that knows it!”

I’m not kidding….  “I am the best electrician at the plant… the problem is that I’m the only one that knows it….”

This became one of my favorite phrases of all time.  I couldn’t wait to share it with Arthur…. I told him… “I am the best darn BS’er of all time… the only problem is that I’m the only one that knows it…”  Art would say….  “I’m the best <bleeping> goof ball of all time… only I’m the only one that knows it…”  I know I had tears in my eyes from laughing so hard.

Actually, I use this phrase to also remind me to never get such a big head that I really think that I’m better at something than others think I am… because they usually know better than I do.

So, this brings us back to the Art and Bob Cage Fight….

It became obvious that both of them had become snookered.  Every time Art and Bob had argued about something and Randy Oxley was around, Randy would run up to Ellis’s office and tell him that Art and Bob were at each other’s throats.

Randy was trying to butter himself up to Ellis so that he would hire him when there was an opening in the electric shop.  Art and Bob each thought the other had run to Ellis complaining about the other….

That was when the other shoe dropped….

Many years before, when I was still a summer help, and when I was a janitor, there was an electrician at our plant named Mel Woodring.  Mel had decided that he didn’t have a future at our plant so he applied for a job at Muskogee.  Of course, Bill Bennett and Leroy Godfrey were glad to give him a glowing recommendation because they thought that when Mel left, it gave them an opportunity to hire someone that would…. let us say… fit their culture in a more effective manner.

Because I was a janitor at this time, I was not eligible to apply for an Electrical job, even though Charles Foster had become my mentor and had me begin taking electrical courses through the company.

I had worked the year before I was working with Bob Kennedy at the plant in Midwest City, Oklahoma at Muskogee plant around Mel Woodring.  I never worked directly with him, so I will just say that he met the expectations that had been set by my bucket buddy back home, Diana Brien.

Fast forward a year later to when I am on overhaul at Horseshoe plant…..  Steven Trammell, Bob Kennedy and a few other electricians that had spent many years at the plant, all thought they would be possible contenders for  new foreman’s job.  Any of them would have been excellent candidates.

To their stunned surprise… Mel Woodring from Muskogee was given the job!  To me, this was an obvious case of the “promote someone in order to get him out of the shop” syndrome.

It turned out that the foremen at Muskogee (John Manning), including our illustrious Don Spears, that I had the momentary lap dance with the year before (see, “Lap O’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant“), had decided to give Mel the highest rating possible so that he would get the job at Midwest City, thus relieving Muskogee from the burden that our plant had placed on them by suggesting that Muskogee transfer him from our plant.

Not only was the Horseshoe plant in a state of shock, but so was Randy Oxley.  This meant that there wasn’t going to be an opening in the electric shop, and all of his “schmoozing” had been for naught.

The last day of the overhaul was December 20, 1985, the day before my wedding.  I remember that Paul Lucy wanted me to go to a “gentleman’s club”(quite the oxymoron if you ask me) to celebrate and have a sort of a bachelor’s party….  I remember looking straight at Art Hammond right after Paul asked me, and Art shook his head and said…. “Don’t listen to him.  Do what is right.”  I assured Art that I had no intention of ruining the rest of my life the day before my wedding.

I went directly home.

The next day, Art Hammond was at my wedding with his wife.  It was, and still is, the most blessed day of my life.  Partly because Art was there at the reception dancing alongside me.  I was lucky that I didn’t have a black eye…  (which is another story)… and lucky that Art and Sonny Kendrick (who sang at my wedding) were there.  Of all of my friends at the power plant, they were the ones that came to my wedding reception of all the people my mom had invited from the plant.

Years later, I traveled with Bob Kennedy on a bus from his plant to Oklahoma City to visit the new Transmission Control Room and back.  We sat together and it was just like we had never been apart.  Bob talked… and I wished in my mind that I could be a miniature Bob walking behind him every  step of the way.

Today any time I have to take a big step for whatever reason…. Bob Kennedy immediately comes to mind.  I think about when Bob climbed out of that bus…  These words come to my mind….

Through the dust and the smoke of this manmade hell walked a giant of a man that ‘lectricians knew well…. Like a Giant Oak Tree, he just stood there all alone….Big Baaah…. ob…. Big Bad Bob…. Big Bob…..  Everyone knew it was the end of line for Big Bob….  Big Bad Bob….  An Electrician from this Plant was a Big Big Man… He was Big Bob!  Big Bad Bob!  Big Bob!

When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays to Listen — Repost

Originally Posted:  May 4, 2012.  I added some comments from the original post at the end of this post:

I wrote an earlier post about days some people would have liked to take back.  There was one day that I would like to take back.  It was the day Ken Conrad was teaching me how to setup and operate the two large water cannons that we used to irrigate the plant grounds.  During my second summer as a summer help (1980), when I had about 6 weeks left of the summer, I was asked to take over the watering of the plant grounds because Ken Conrad was needed to do other jobs and this was taking too much of his time.

The first summer I worked as a summer help, whenever it rained, by the time you had walked from the Engineer’s Shack parking lot to the Welding Shop entrance, you felt like someone 10 feet tall.  Because the entire distance would turn into a pool of red mud and as you took each step, you grew taller and taller as the mud stuck to your feet.  Just before you entered, you could scrape your feet on a Boot Scraper

 to whittle you down to size so that you would fit through the doorway.  The entire main plant grounds would be nothing but mud because there wasn’t any grass.  It had all been scraped or trampled away while building the plant and now we were trying to grow grass in places where only weeds had dared to trod before.  When trucks drove into the maintenance garage, they dropped mud all over the floor.  It was the summer help’s job the first summer to sweep up the shop twice each week.  If it had been raining, I usually started with a shovel scraping up piles of mud.  So, I recognized the importance of growing grass quickly.

The day that Ken Conrad was explaining to me how to setup and operate the water cannons, I was only half paying attention.  I got it.  Roll out the plastic fiber fire hose, unhook the water cannon from the tractor, let out the cable.  turn it on the fire hydrant… Done….  That was all I heard.  What Ken was saying to me was a lot different.  it had to do with all the warnings about doing it the correct way.  I think in my mind I wasn’t listening because I was thinking that it really wasn’t all that difficult.

Water Cannon similar to ours only ours had another spool on it that held the fire hose

So, here is what happened the next morning when I went to setup the first water cannon to water the field just north of the water treatment plant up to the Million Gallon #2 Diesel Oil Tanks berms.  I thought… ok… Step one:  roll out the hose…  Hmmm… hook it up to the fire hydrant, and then just pull the water gun forward with the tractor and it should unroll the hose….  well.  my first mistake was that I hadn’t disengaged the spool so that it would turn freely, so when I pulled the tractor forward, off popped the connector on the end of the hose attached to the fire hydrant.  That’s when I remembered Ken telling me not to forget to disengage the spool before letting out the hose.  That’s ok.  Ken showed me how to fix that.  I beat on it with a hammer to knock out the clamp and put it back on the end of the hose after I had cut off a piece to have a clean end.  Disengaged the spool, and tried it again… Nope.  Pulled the end off again…  I was letting it out too fast.  That’s when I remembered Ken Conrad telling me not to let the hose out too fast or it would pull the end off.

After finally laying the hose out and hooking it up to the water cannon, I disconnected the water cannon from the tractor and hooked up the hose and began pulling the steel cable out of the cable spool by pulling the tractor forward.  Well, at first the water cannon wanted to follow me because you had to disengage that spool also, (as Ken had showed me).  So I thought I could just drag the water cannon back around to where it started, but that wasn’t a good idea because I ended up pulling off the connector on the fire hose again, only on the other end than before.  Anyway, after repairing the hose at least three times and getting everything in position twice, I was finally ready to turn on the water.

That was when things turned from bad to worse.  The first thing I did was turned on the fire hydrant where the water pressure instantly blew the hose out of the connector and water poured out into a big mud  puddle by the time I could turn it off.  then I remembered that Ken had told me to remember to make sure the screw valve was closed when you turned on the fire hydrant or else you will blow the end off of the hose….

So, I repaired the hose again, and reconnected it (standing in mud now).  Closed the screw-type valve and turned on the fire hydrant.  Then I opened the screw-type valve and the end of the hose blew off again…  Then I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me to make sure I open the valve slowly.  So I repaired the hose again and hooked everything up (while standing in a bigger mud puddle) and tried it again.

I opened the valve slowly and the water cannon began shooting water out as I opened the valve up further and further… until a hole blew out in the middle of the hose shooting water all over the tractor.  So I turned off the water again as I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me not to open the valve very far or it would start to blow holes in the hose.  I went and patched the hole the way that Ken Conrad has showed me and went back to try it again… walking through mud over to the fire hydrant, where there was an increasingly larger puddle.

I remember that it was around lunch time when I was standing in the middle of that field covered with mud  standing in what looked like a mud hole that pigs would just love, trying to repair a hole in the hose for the 3rd or 4th time that it dawned on me how different my morning would have been if I had only paid more attention to Ken when he was explaining everything to me the day before.   Finally around 1 o’clock I had water cannon on and it was shooting water out about 40 yards in either direction

Like this only without the grass

I spent that entire day making one mistake after the other.  I was beat by the time to go home.

After sleeping on it I was determined not to let the experience from the day before intimidate me.  I had learned from my mistakes and was ready to tackle the job of watering the mud in hopes that the sprigs of grass would somehow survive the 100 degree heat.  As a matter of fact, the rest of the next 6 weeks the temperature was over 100 degrees every day.

When I first took over for Ken, the watering was being done in three shifts.  I watered during the day, the other summer help watered in the evening and a fairly new guy named Ron Hunt watered during the late night shift (not the Ron Hunt of Power Plant Man Fame, but a guy that eventually moved to the plant in Midwest City and became an operator).  After two weeks, they did away with the night shift and I was put on 7 – 12s.  that is 7 days a week, 12 hour days.

I didn’t own a car so, I had to catch a ride with someone in the morning in order to be at the plant by 6am.  Then I had to catch a ride back to Stillwater in the evening when I left at 6:30pm each day of the week.  The Operators and the security guards worked out good for this.  I would ride to work in the morning with whichever operator was kind enough to pick me up at the corner of Washington and Lakeview (where I had walked from my parent’s house) and whichever security guard that was going that way in the evening.

I found out after a few days on this job that Colonel Sneed whose office was in the Engineer’s Shack was in charge of this job.  So he would drive by and see how things were going.  After a while I had a routine of where I would put the water cannons and where I would lay the Irrigation pipes.  He seemed to be well pleased and even said that I could go to work for him when I was done with this job.  I told him that I was going to go back to school in a few weeks and he said that he would be waiting for me the next summer.  Only Colonel Sneed, who was an older man with silver hair wasn’t there when I returned the next summer.  He had either retired or died, or both.  I never was sure.  I did learn a few years later that he had died, but I never was sure when.

Besides the first day on that job, the only other memorable day I had was on a Sunday when there wasn’t anyone in the maintenance shop, I remember parking the yellow Cushman cart out in the shade of 10 and 11 belts (That is the big long belt that you see in the power plant picture on the right side of this post) where I could see both water cannons and the irrigation pipes, watching dirt devils dance across the coal pile.  This was one of those days when the wind is just right to make dirt devils, and there was one after the other travelling from east to west across the coal pile.

A Dust Devil

The Security guard was on his way back from checking the dam when he stopped along the road, got out of his jeep and sat on the hood and watched them for 5 or 10 minutes.  For those of you who might not know, a dirt devil looks like a miniature tornado as it kicks up the dirt from the ground.  These dirt devils were actually “coal devils” and they were black.  They were lined up one after the other blowing across the the huge black pile of coal.

Then as the security guard on the hill and I were watching the coal pile, this long black finger came flying up from the coal pile reaching higher and higher into the sky twirling itself into one huge coal devil!  It traveled toward me from the coalyard and across the intake coming straight toward where I was.  It ended up going directly between the two smoke stacks which are each 500 feet tall.  This coal devil was easily twice the size of the smoke stacks.  Tall and Black.  After it went between the smoke stacks it just faded like dust devils do and it was gone.

Picture a dust devil this size but pure black

As the monstrous black coal devil was coming toward the plant, the security guard had jumped in his jeep and headed down to where I was parked.  He was all excited and asked me if I had seen how big that was.  We talked about the dust devils for a few minutes, then he left and I went back to watching the water cannons and irrigation pipes.  I had to wonder if that big coal devil hadn’t been created just for our benefit.  It seemed at the time that God had been entertaining us that Sunday by sending small dust devils across the coal pile, and just as they do in Fireworks shows, he had ended this one with the big grand Finale by sending the monster-sized coal devil down directly between the smoke stacks.  Some times you just know when you have been blessed by a unique experience.  We didn’t have cameras on cell phones in those days, and I’m not too quick with a camera anyway, but at least the guard was able to share that moment.

I began this post by explaining why it is important to listen to a Power Plant Man when he speaks and ended it with the dust devil story.  How are these two things related?  As I pointed out, I felt as if I had been given a special gift that day.  Especially the minute it took for the monster coal devil to travel almost 1/2 mile from the coal yard through the smoke stacks.  It may be that one moment when a Power Plant Man speaks that he exposes his hidden wisdom.  If you aren’t paying close attention, you may miss it.  I did Ken Conrad an injustice the day he explained how to run the irrigation equipment and it cost me a day of pure frustration, but the real marvel was that as I made each mistake I could remember Ken telling me about that.  He had given me a full tutorial of the job I was about to do.  How many people would do that?  If I had only been listening, I would have heard Ken telling me much more than how to do the job.  I would have seen clearly how Ken cared enough about me to spend all the time it took to thoroughly teach me what he knew.

That is the way it is with True Power Plant Men.  Ken could have said, “roll out the hose, pull out the cable,, turn the water on”, but he didn’t.  he went through every detail of how to make my job easier.  I may have felt blessed when the monster coal devil flew between the stacks, but it was that day a couple of weeks earlier when Ken had taken the time and showed his concern that I had really been blessed.  I didn’t recognize it at the time.  But as time goes by and you grow older, the importance of simple moments in your life come to light.  My regret is that I didn’t realize it in time to say “Thank You Ken.”  If I could take back that day, I would not only listen, I would appreciate that someone else was giving me their time for my sake.  If I had done that.  I’m sure I would have ended the day by saying, “Thank you Ken.”

 

  1. Comments from the original post:

    1. Ken reminds me of m

    Ken reminds me of my dad, who, though not a power plant man per se (he was an electrical engineer, that’s pretty close,right?), would give us way more details than we thought we needed. And now I see myself doing it to my grandson (age 11), who is likely to roll his eyes and say, “I already know that!”, when I know darn well he doesn’t. Then I try to resist doing the “I told you so” dance when he finds out he doesn’t already know that. Unfortunately, he does not resist doing the dance when we find out that he did, in fact, already know it!

    1. That’s great! Thanks for sharing that.

  2. I like your blog because the stories are always substantial. I takes a while to take in all the flavor of it, like sampling a fine meal or a rich pastry. I do dislike the visual theme, but I think it forces me to concentrate on the content of the story.

    1. Thanks Zen, I understand your feelings. A coal-fired power plant is hardly a normal setting. It was built way out in the country because no one really wants one in their backyard. It was the place I called home for many years. I know that when I left I took with me silicon-based ash, a couple of pounds of coal dust and asbestos particles in my lungs. I will not be surprised the day the doctor tells me that I have mesothelioma. I realized after I left, that it wasn’t the place, it was the people that were so dear to me that I called “home”.

  3. I’ve served time with similar folk, people who had more time for a kid learning a job than the kid had for them. Two things stuck besudes an entirely differnet evaluation of those people over time…first one was the old (now): “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you know that ain’t so.” And the ohter was, remembering the old guys who pad patience with you along the way, it’s always like remembering your parents and you pay it forward…(and I still think you have a book in you)

Power Plant Raven Comes Home to Roost

Diana Lucas entered the Electric Foreman’s office one morning at the Coal-fired Power Plant almost in a rage!  I didn’t understand why at first, and I also couldn’t quite tell if she was really in a rage, or if she was just excited about something, because she seemed to be both at once.  Which I guess is the case when one is in a rage, but there seemed to be a tint of amusement in her rage which was the cause of my confusion.

Bill Bennett our A Foreman had come to the shop a little earlier than usual that morning and was apparently waiting for Diane’s entrance, foreseeing her reaction.  Bill had hopped up out of his chair and immediately tried to explain to Diane (yeah, her name was Diana, but most called her Diane.  Well, actually, most everyone called her Dee).  Diana Brien (as she was later named) seemed a little more musical than Diane Brien.  Maybe it is just the Italian in me that likes to put vowels on the end of names.

Anyway, Diane was saying something like, she couldn’t believe that Bill had actually hired some particular person as a contract worker for our shop.  Bill responded to her by pointing out that he would be working for her this time.  If she wanted, she could have this guy doing the dirtiest and rottenest (rottenest?  really?  Is that a real word?) jobs.  This seemed to calm her down a little and the two of them walked out into the shop.

Charles Foster, one of the electrical foremen, and my closest friend turned to me and explained that Diana and some others in the shop (Ben Davis, and I think and even Andy Tubbs) had worked for this guy when they were working for Brown and Root building the plant.  He was a supervisor that was disliked by most of the people that worked for him because, well, according to Diana, he was some kind of slave driver.

Ok.  When I finally understood the rage emanating from the Lady ‘lectrician, I decided I would amble out into the shop to prepare for my day performing feats of electrical magic.  I also figured I would take a gander at the new figure of the old man leaning against the workbench to see the center of the conflict and to stare it in the face.  I figured if I had a good close look at him, I would be able to see inside his character.  I already disliked him before I walked out of the office after hearing that how he had treated my  mentors.

I know my memory of my first encounter with Bill Boyd is not what really happened, because in my mind I have embellished it and have rewritten it in order to include thoughts that came from deep within me.  So, even though I probably walked out into the shop and glanced over at this old codger standing there, picked up my tool bucket and walked out the door, I remember it quite differently….. This is how remember that moment (the one that really didn’t happen….. well, not exactly)….

In my mind I remember walking into the shop and noticing this tall lanky older man hunched over birdlike, almost like a raven, as his nose reminded me of a beak.  A cranky looking man.  He looked tired.  Worn out.  Like it was a struggle for him to take each breath.  I thought, “Ok.  This raven has come home to roost.  Only he doesn’t know what hornets nest he has just stepped into.”

Something like this man

Something like this man

Sure enough.  Bill Boyd was given one distasteful job after another.  At least, I think that was the intention.  He was tasked to sweep out the main switchgear and the other switchgears around the plant.  Anything that was repetitive and boring.  He worked away at his tasks without complaint.  Slowly and steadily.

I noticed that Bill Boyd was taking a lot of pride in his work no matter how menial the task was.  He was very meticulous.  A couple of years later when he came back to work for us again, he was working for me.  And at that time I had him cleaning out both of the Precipitator control cabinet rooms.

Not only did he clean the rooms to where you could eat on the floor, but he also opened each of the cabinets and vacuumed them out, and changed every one of the 4 inch square filters (2 in each of the 84 cabinets in each of the two rooms — for a total of 336) filters by cutting them out of sheets of blue and white filter material using a large pair of scissors.

Air Filter material like this

Air Filter material like this

Bill Boyd liked to tell stories about different jobs he had throughout his career.  He had worked in various places around the world.  He had held all types of jobs.  I think he helped build most of the important monuments that exist in the world today.  At least that might be the impression you might have by listening to him tell his stories.  I couldn’t disagree with him too much.  After all, he was working at the most monumental Power Plant of all time right then.  If he was lucky enough to do that, then I suspect that most of what he was saying was true.

One day just at the end of the day when it was time to leave for the day, I walked out of the electric office into the shop and headed for the door.  Just as I passed Bill Boyd, he said rather forceably to Andy Tubbs, “What did you say?”  Andy said something back to him, and glancing back I saw that Bill had a surprised and confused look on his face.

So, as we were walking to the parking lot I asked Andy what he had said.  Andy said that he told Bill that his stories couldn’t be true.  Bill had asked him why he thought that.  Andy had replied, “Because if you did all the things you say you did, you would have to be 200 years old!”   I laughed at that.  I thought…. well…. he probably is.

So, Now that I have introduced you to Bill Boyd, here is the more interesting parts of the story of Bill Boyd’s tenure at the Power Plant Palace.  I have three small stories that I still often think about:

The first one is rather short, so I’ll start there….  I walked into the electric office one morning before it was time to begin my work day and sat in a chair.  Bill Boyd was already there sitting across the room from me, silently meditating….. well…. he might have been mildly snoring…. I don’t remember exactly.  Anyway.  There was just the two of us in the room.

I suddenly noticed that there was a strange ticking sound.  A very definite tick tick tick, like a pocket watch, only a little louder.  I rose from my chair and looked around the room trying to figure out what was ticking….  It’s strange to think about it, because right outside the east wall (no.  actually the north wall… I just always had my directions turned 90 degrees) of the office was the roaring steam pipes shooting high pressure steam into the turbines, creating the electricity that lit up the state of Oklahoma.

Even amid the roar of the steam pipes, I could hear this ticking.  I approached Bill, and sure enough.  Bill was ticking.  Looking at his trousers, and his shirt pocket, I didn’t see anything that looked like a chain that may have a pocket watch connected.

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

The thought of a time bomb went through my head.  I also had thoughts of being late, and thoughts of lunch, among other things…..

So, I returned to my seat, then I hollered out to him, “Bill!”  He stirred from his sleep, um… I mean, his morning meditation….  I continued, “Bill, you are ticking!”  Looking confused, he said, “What?”  I replied, “You are ticking.”  Bill asked, “You can hear that?”  I assured him I could.  He said, “Well, that’s my ticker.  My pacemaker.”

Whoa.  I was listening to his pacemaker from across the room!  Crazy!  So, after that I would hear his pacemaker all the time he was around.  I guess once I had tuned into the frequency, I couldn’t get it out of my head….  I sort of had it in the back of my head that I hoped that I didn’t hear it miss a beat….  I never did… it just kept on ticking.

The next story has to do with finding a buried cable.  Bill Bennett brought this specialized cable finder down to the shop one day and told us that we had to mark an underground cable that went from the main substation up to the front gate to a transformer.  Someone was going to be doing some digging in the area and they wanted to make sure they didn’t cut into this cable because it was the main station power to the substation relay house.

This cable finder had one piece that you placed on the ground above where you knew the cable was buried, and then you walked along with a sensor picking up the signal from the cable.

Sorry this picture is so small, but it shows the two pieces to the cable finder

Sorry this picture is so small, but it shows the two pieces to the cable finder

I was all excited to go try out our new fangled cable finder.  Unfortunately, we were trying to find a cable underneath some very high voltage lines leaving the substation, which rendered the sophisticated cable finder completely useless.  There was too much electrical interference from our surroundings.

So, after trying to find the cable all day without success, and upon returning to the shop disillusioned with our new toy, Bill Boyd said, “I can help you find the cable.”  As we wondered what he meant, he repeated, “I can find the cable for you.”

I don’t remember if it was Andy, or if I asked him just how he was going to do that.  Bill replied, “By using a divining rod.”  Huh?  A divining rod?  Yep.  He was serious.  The next day he came to work with two metal rods about 2 1/2 feet long, bent at one end so that you could hold them and they would point straight out in front of you.

So, I drove him over to the substation and Bill tried to use the divining rods to find the cable.  He paced back and forth holding the rods up by his face, with his shoulders hunched over like a vulture… or was it a raven?  After pacing back and forth for about 20 minutes he returned to the truck and said he couldn’t find the cable because the wind was blowing too hard.

The wind in Oklahoma generally begins blowing about 8 o’clock in the morning during the summer, and doesn’t let up until…. well… until… maybe the end of the summer, if you’re lucky.  So, we went back to the shop.  Bill Bennett was waiting to see if he was successful.  Leroy Godfrey had bet that he would find the cable.  We said it was too windy.

The next morning when we were driving to work, I looked out in the field by the substation and there was Bill Boyd all by himself walking slowly along with the two metal rods sticking straight out from his face.

When I arrived at the shop, I jumped in the truck and headed out to the field.  Bill said that he found the cable.  It wasn’t where we originally thought.  It was about 25 yards over from there.  He showed me that as he walked over a certain spot that his rods moved from being straight out, to swing out to the side.  When he held the two rods farther apart, when he walked over the same spot, the rods came together.  Bill said.  The point where they cross is where the cable. is.

Ok.  I wasn’t really buying this.  I guess it must have showed on my face, or maybe I actually let out a snicker….. I’m not sure…  I suppose it was the look of disbelieve, because I’m not prone to snicker, even when confronted with total insanity.  So, Bill turned and handed the rods to me and said, “Try it.”

So I took the two rods in my hands:

Metal Diving rods

A similar pair of divining rods.  These are a lot shorter than the ones we used.  Maybe they just go off the end of the picture

I slowly walked forward with the two rods sticking out in front of me.  As I approached the spot where he had indicated the cable was buried the two rods parted until they became parallel with each other.  The left one pointing left, the right pointing right.  No Way!  I backed up, and as I did the rods came back together.  I moved forward again and they went apart!  I could hear the mild excited chuckling behind me.

We took a can of orange spray paint and made a mark on the ground.  then we moved about 20 feet away from that mark and did it again.  Sure enough… there it was again.  We marked the ground every 20 feet all the way up to the main gate.  And get this.  It even worked where the cable was buried under the railroad tracks.  I walked down the middle of the railroad track and could tell right where the cable was buried underneath it.

So, after that, I kept my own pair of divining rods in my garage.  Bill explained that you could bury a new pipe under the ground and you would not be able to find it, but after something runs through it, like water or electricity or even a wad of rags, you can find it using the divining rods.

One day a few years later, my brother was visiting my house when I lived out in the country and he brought up someone who claimed to use a divining rod to find something, and I told him that I had a divining rod and you can use it to find cables and sewer lines and water pipes with it.  — Of course, he had the same reaction I did, so we went out in the front yard and I told him how to hold them, and let him find out for himself.  It only takes once.  The result is so noticeable, it doesn’t leave any question in your mind when it happens.

Ok.  The last story….

It turned out that over the years as Bill Boyd would come to the plant as a contract worker, we came to be friends.  One day he invited me to his daughter’s recital at Oklahoma State University where she was playing the Cello in a chamber orchestra.  I was honored to be invited by him and my wife and I joined Bill and his wife as we listened to his daughter play.  One day he told me the story of when he was working in Germany in 1959 and he bought a Cornelius Ryan novel called The Longest Day.  After listening to his story, he told me that he wanted me to have the book.

The next day, he showed up to work with three books.  The first book was from 1959.  The next one was 1966, and the third one was 1974.  But you could tell they were all a set, and by the way that Bill Boyd held them, they were important to him.  So I accepted his gift with thanks.

The three books Bill Boyd gave me

The three books Bill Boyd gave me

I have kept books with care since the day that I received them, as I have kept my memory of Bill Boyd.  A true Power Plant Raven.

Where Do Knights of the Past Go To Fight Dragons Today — Repost

Originally posted on April 27, 2012:

It may not seem obvious what fighting dragons has to do with Power Plant Men but when I was a Power Plant Man in-training I was able to witness quite the battle between the Power Plant Men and a Dragon one night.  The main weapon they used was a Lance and the Dragon spewed hot scalding water in their faces as they stood against it to fell that foul beast!  The Hot fiery breath blowing two men off of a landing with one of them ending up hospitalized.

I was in training to be a Power Plant Man my first four years as a summer help.  The first summer I worked in the maintenance shop as a helper on different crews of mechanics.  The second summer (1980), however, was when I began learning the skills to become a Knight of the Power Plant Kingdom.  I was first introduced to my weapons of battle by Stanley Elmore when he attempted to train the fresh summer help crew by giving each of us a Weed Wacker:

The first feeble try at chopping weeds

We were driven to the road leading out to the dam. A three mile stretch of guard rails on both sides with weeds growing up around them and down the dike to the water.  Our job was to chop all of the weeds from there to the dam on both sides of the road.  And when we were done, there were plenty of other roadways that needed to be cleared.  Sort of Chain Gang style only without the chains.  Needless to say, we came back for break and all of our weed wackers were broken.  We were chopping large weeds, a lot of them full grown sunflowers taller than us.  The weed wackers just bent back and forth until they quickly fell apart.

So, Stanley went to the welders and had them weld the blades back on the weed wackers using angle iron.  This worked a little better, but the flimsy blades were no match for the thousands of sunflowers and thistles and small bushes.

An Army of Sunflowers invading the land!

So Stanley did the next best thing.  The next day he brought us some heavy duty brush choppers that he had the welding shop reinforce, making them weigh about 15 pounds.

Our Weed Choppers were reinforced with extra metal on the blade and the handle

Armed with this I found that chopping Sunflowers became enjoyable.  With each swing of this heavy weight I could lay a sunflower down without missing a stride.  I was well on my way as squire of the Power Plant Knights.  Later Stanley gave us gas powered Industrial sized weed-eaters with saw blades.  The weed-eater attached to a harness so you could swing it back and forth all day mowing down the enemy.  I wore a face shield and ear muffs attached to my hardhat to guard against flying debris.  This was much like the helmets worn by knights, and probably as hot I’m sure as we cleared away miles and miles of roadway of weeds under the searing sun.

But nothing prepared me as much as one Saturday after shoveling coal since 8 in the morning until 5 in the evening during coal clean-up when we were told that the Number 1 Boiler had a large buildup of ash in the bottom ash hopper and the clinker grinder couldn’t break it up.  If we weren’t able to break it up quickly the boiler would have to come off line and we would stop producing electricity (as number 2 boiler was not yet online).   So, the Power Plant Men who had been shoveling coal since the break of day made their way to the bottom ash hopper under the boiler.

Some began building a scaffold (as if they had done this before).  Chuck Ross was in charge along with Cleve Smith and they had developed a plan where the Power Plant Men would stand on the scaffold back away from the hopper while someone would pop open the hopper door by standing off to one side (I think this was Cleve Smith) and one unlucky guy standing on the landing directly in front of the hopper door would guide a 30 foot lance into the portal and into the jaws of the dragon.  Once there, the he-men in the back would stab the rock hard bottom ash with all of their might as steaming hot water came gushing out the doorway.

I don’t remember if we drew lots or someone just said, “Let the summer help do it.” but I was the person chosen to stand directly in front of the door of the bottom ash hopper when it was knocked open as Cleve hit the latch with a sledge hammer.  I was told that water was going to come blasting out of the doorway, so be prepared, because it was important that I guide the lance into the portal so that it could be used to smash up the bottom ash clinkers enough to allow the clinker grinder to do it’s work.

I wasn’t really prepared when the door was knocked open.  First there was a loud boom as the door flew open and hit the side of the structure.  I was blown back against the handrail by hot water (The stairway came up the side then, not like it is today).  After gaining my footing, I was able to guide the lance through the door so the 6 or so he-men behind me could go to work thrusting the lance in, backing it out, and thrusting it back in all while I was guiding it so that it remained lined up with the doorway.  I also was not prepared for the hot water to turn into scalding hot water as the water level in the bottom ash hopper became lower.  The main hopper gate wasn’t able to close the first few times because of the clinkers, so all I could do was hope that I didn’t end up like a boiled egg by the time we were through.

After the door was closed, the operators went to work filling the hoppers back up with water, as Chuck and Cleve watched the Clinker grinder to see if it was able to crush the clinkers.  You could tell by looking at the shaft that would go one way, then stop and go the other way when it wasn’t able to crush the clinkers.

We repeated these steps over and over until the clinker grinder was finally able to function.  At one point when the hopper was being filled, everyone took off running when all of the sudden water was pouring out from up above all over the bottom area of the boiler.  I didn’t understand how that could have happened until someone explained to me that the bottom ash hopper sits underneath the boiler, but the boiler is suspended from the top and floats over the bottom ash hopper, and when the hopper was filled with water too high, it overflowed, and spilled out the space between the hopper and the boiler. (Remember the Bottom Ash Overflow Sump Pump from a previous post?  Well, it wasn’t working that night).

We all went up to the break room to take a break.  It was about 10 pm.  We were given big “atta boys” for saving the company tons of money because they didn’t have to shutdown the boiler to clear the hopper.  We waited around to see if they would send us home for the night.  A little while later, we found out that there was a section of ash that was still built up on the side of the boiler just above the hopper and they were afraid that if it were to fall into the hopper all at once, it would jam up the clinker grinder again and leave us in the same predicament as before.  So we went back to work trying to figure out how to knock down the shelf of hard ash piece at a time.

It turned out that if you shoot the ash with a fire hose, the ash would sort of explode because of the cold water hitting such a hot object.  So, a fire hose was used to knock down most of the ash shelf and it worked pretty good.  After a while there was only one more spot to knock down and we could all go home.  The only problem was that it was directly above the hatchway door on one side of the boiler, and it was too far across the boiler to hit it with the fire hose.  So Mike Vogle was called out (he was a new welder that hadn’t been at the plant too long at this point).  It was Mike’s job to weld the fire hose nozzle to the end of a long pipe (the second lance of the evening) so that it could be extended into the boiler far enough to shoot water on the ash shelf above the hatchway door on the far side.

At one point Chuck told me to go see how Mike was doing with the pipe, and I went to the welding shop and asked him how long it would be.  He told me not much longer, maybe 15 minutes.  I was on my way back to the boiler when I met Cleve Smith and Chuck Ross on their way back to the shop by way of the locker room.  So, I followed along behind them in the dark.

I told them Mike would be done in about 15 minutes and they said that it was all right because the ash was knocked down.  They didn’t need it anymore.  As they passed by the tool room back door, by the light from the window I could see blood running down the arms of both Chuck and Cleve.  So, I said, “Hey Chuck.  Do you know you’re bleeding?”  He replied that he did, and then I realized that both of them had been injured.

They both walked straight into the shower and Mike Grayson came in and explained to me that they had tried to knock down the ash from the hatchway directly underneath the shelf of ash, and when they did, the shelf broke loose and fell.  When that happened, it sent a blast of hot air through the doorway knocking Chuck and Cleve off of the landing as their arms went up to protect their faces.

Mike Grayson was my ride home.  We left shortly after the ambulance left to bring Chuck to the hospital in Stillwater.  It was close to 2 in the morning.  Mike was a new employee also.  We both sat silently in the truck on the way home numbed by the accident and worn out from shoveling coal and lancing the boiler, which we had started 21 hours before.

I was so tired I took Mike’s lunch box by mistake.  I was surprised when he called me the next morning and told me, but when I looked in the lunchbox, sure enough.  There was his worn Bible.  My dad drove me by his house near the hospital to exchange lunch boxes.  After that I went to visit Chuck in the hospital where he had both of his arms bandaged up.  Other than those burns, he was all right.

No one knows more than Chuck and Cleve that they paid dearly for not waiting for Mike Vogle to finish the nozzle extension.  Something happens when you’ve been up all day working hard, meeting one frustration after another.  When you are up at the crack of dawn, and it becomes past midnight, it is easy to let your guard down.  When fighting dragons, if you leave any opportunity for them to strike back they will.  We defeated the dragon that night, but not without its victims.  Chuck recovered and was quickly ready for the next battle.  All of those men that were there that night are heroes to me.  Today I don’t remember everyone that was there, but they were all on the list of True Power Plant Knights!

Comments from the original Post:

That was awesome! I love Dragons :) but I love sunflowers so I was sad to here they were slaughtered.

  1. Thanks Warrior, We just cut the sunflowers down to size… they were back before we knew it. Shining like the sun.

  • I really like how you’ve likened the work you men did to fighting dragons. In its essence it’s pretty much the same thing. :-P It takes courage, resourcefulness and teamwork.
    I really enjoyed reading this story!

  • Thanks for the ride to the industrial past…
    I was a Telephone Man in the day that too had meaning. Those and many other occupations meant something we seem to have lost along the way: It was important to be a MAN, something one had to live up to…and work was a serious challenge to be attacked and mastered, not a necessary evil imposed upon us.
    You paint a memorable picture of another time and bring history to life, a very good work indeed.