Monthly Archives: June, 2013

Importance of Power Plant Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance

The very last thing I ever learned in High School was the importance of Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance.  In fact, the entire senior class of 1978 at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri learned this lesson at the same time.  It was during the graduation ceremony in May while the students were walking across the stage to receive their diplomas.

I had already received mine and I was back in my seat sitting between Tracy Brandecker and Patrick Brier (we were sitting alphabetically.  My name is Breazile).  Pat was sitting on my left and Tracy was on my right.  We were grinning from ear-to-ear to be graduating.  My friends from the second grade, Mark Schlemper, Russell Somers and Brent Stewart had just walked across the stage in the gymnasium while a storm raged outside.  As my friend from the fifth grade forward, Matt Tapley  was walking across the stage there was a loud crack of thunder and the sound of an explosion as the lights went out.

Matt Tapley has albinism, giving him white hair and skin.  In his black robe, the entire class witnessed Matt’s head bobbing up and down in the faint light given off from the emergency lights to either side of the stage as he was bowing to his classmates.  We all clapped.  The clapping soon turned to laughter as the emergency lights quickly dimmed and went entirely out within a minute.

An emergency light

An emergency light

As we sat in total darkness waiting for some resourceful faculty member to make their way to the hidden fallout shelter in the basement of the school to retrieve the portable generator and a spotlight, I was amazed by how quickly the emergency lighting had failed.  The transformer to the school had been destroyed by the lightning strike so we finished the ceremony by the light of the large spotlight from the back of gym.  My thought was that the school is only 4 years old and already the emergency lighting is too old to stay lit long enough to even begin evacuating the building, if that was what we had intended to do.

Fast forward to the spring of 1984.  I had become an electrician a few months earlier.  As I was learning the electrical ropes, I learned the importance of Preventative Maintenance in a power plant setting.  The majority of an electrician’s job when I first joined the electric shop was doing “Preventative Maintenance”.  I have some horror stories of bad preventative maintenance that I will share much later.  I will point out now that most Americans know of some stories themselves, they just don’t realize that the root cause of these major failures were from a lack of preventative maintenance.

A power plant, like the emergency lights in the High School, has a battery backup system, only it is on a grand scale.  There are backup batteries for every system that needs to remain online when there is a total blackout of power.  These batteries needed to be inspected regularly.  We inspected them monthly.

At first, I had done battery inspections with various electricians.  Some people didn’t seem to take this task very seriously.  I remember that when I did the inspections with Mike Rose, he usually finished by taking a gallon of soda water (a gallon of water with a box of baking soda dissolved into it) and pouring it all over the batteries.

My bucket buddy, Diana Lucas (Dee), on the other hand, took a different approach.  We carefully filled each cell with just the right amount of distilled water.  Then she showed me how to meticulously clean any corrosion from the battery posts  using a rag soaked in the soda water, and then she would paint the area on the post where the corrosion was with No-Ox grease.

A jar of No-Ox Grease (No-Ox means No Oxide)

A jar of No-Ox Grease (No-Ox means No Oxide)

When I say batteries, you may think that I’m talking about batteries like you have in your car, or even in a large piece of equipment like a big dirt mover.  Some of the batteries were the size of a battery used in a large dozer or dirt mover:

A battery used in a large dozer

A battery used in a large dozer

Some of the batteries that we inspected were of this type.  They were usually hooked up to generators that could be started up in case all the power was out and we needed to start up a diesel generator.  However, this was just the puppies when it came to the Station Power Batteries.  These were some serious batteries:

The battery shown on the left is about the size of a small file cabinet

These are the type of UPS Station batteries used at the plant.  The battery shown on the left is about the size of a small file cabinet

As big as these batteries are, it takes 58 of them for each system to come up with a 130 volt circuit.  That’s right.  58 of these batteries all in a series.  The station batteries are all in rooms by themselves known as….  “Unit 1 and Unit 2 Battery rooms”.  Smaller station battery sets are found at different locations.  Today, those places include the relay house in the main substation, the Microwave room on the roof of #1 boiler.  The River pumps, the radio tower building, the coalyard switchgear, Enid Turbine Generators and the Co-Generation plant in Ponca City.  I’m sure I’m leaving some out.  Maybe a current electrician at the plant can remind me of the others in a comment below.  Each of these locations have approximately 58 station batteries.

While I was still a novice electrician, one morning in May I was told that I was going with Dee and Ben Davis to Enid to a Battery training class  at an electric company office where the manufacturer (C&D) was going to go over the proper maintenance of the station batteries.  Ben drove the pickup.  I remember sitting in the middle between Dee and Ben both going and coming back from our lesson on Battery Preventative Maintenance….

Interesting that Ben was sitting to my left and Dee to my right that day… just like Pat and Tracy during the graduation ceremony 6 years earlier to the month when we first learned the impact of bad preventative maintenance on backup batteries.  This time we were learning how to prevent the problem I had witnessed years before.  I don’t know why I draw parallels like that.  It just seem to make life a little neater when that happens.  I don’t remember Ben and Dee grinning ear-to-ear like Pat and Tracy were the night we graduated from High School, but I can assure you, I was the entire 45 minutes going to Enid and the 45 minutes going back to the plant.

Since I had been trained for battery maintenance, I suppose it was like Andy Griffith becoming the Permanent Latrine Orderly (PLO) in the movie “No Time For Sergeants”.  I was able to go to town inspecting all kinds of backup batteries.

Andy Griffith as Permanent Latrine Orderly in No Time for Sergeants grinning ear-to-ear

Andy Griffith as Permanent Latrine Orderly in No Time for Sergeants grinning ear-to-ear

Gene Roget (pronounced with a french accent as “Row Jay” with a soft J) was a contract electrician when I first became an electrician in the shop.  I wrote about him in the post New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop.  He was a great mentor that taught me a lot about how to be an electrician.  He taught me how to use all the different tools in my tool bucket.  He taught me how to bend conduit and make it come out the right length on both ends…

He especially taught me the importance of doing a “pretty” job when running wire or conduit or just rewiring a motor.  I remember Gene stopping one day when we were walking to the precipitator and he paused to look up at the transfer tower.  I asked him  where he was looking.  He said, “I’m just admiring the wonderful job someone did bending that set of conduit.  that’s a perfect job!  Just perfect!”

Anyway, Gene and I were given the task of checking all the batteries in the emergency lights throughout the plant.  It happened that the emergency lights at the plant were all about 5 years old.  Probably about the same age as the lights were in the high school the night of our graduation.  The lights in the plant had wet cells.  Which meant that you had to add distilled water to them like you do in your car, or in the station batteries.  This amounted to a pretty large task as there were emergency lights stationed throughout the plant.

We found many of the lights that would never have been able to light up enough to cause a cockroach to run for cover.  We took the bad ones back to the shop to work on them.  A lot of the batteries had gone bad because they had never been checked.  They have a built-in battery charger, and some of the chargers were not working.  I drew a wiring diagram of the charger so that we could troubleshoot them and replace components that had gone bad.

All of this was like a dream to me.  At the time I couldn’t think of any other place I would rather be.  I loved taking things that were broken and fixing them and putting them back into operation.  Eventually we decided to change the emergency light batteries to dry batteries.  Those didn’t need water.  We could pull out the six wet cells from each emergency light box and just plug the new batteries in place.  This made a lot more sense.  Who has time to go around regularly and check 50 or 60 emergency lights every 3 months?  Not us.  Not when we were trying to save the world.

Back to the Station Batteries:

Just to give you an idea of how important these batteries are, let me tell you what they are used for….  Suppose the power plant is just humming along at full power, and all of the sudden, the power goes out.  It doesn’t matter the reason.  When there is a blackout in a city, or a state, be assured, the power plant itself is in a blackout state as well.  After all, the power plant  is where the electricity is being created.

In the plant there is large equipment running.  The largest and most valuable piece of equipment by far in a power plant is the Turbine Generator.  The entire plant exists to spin this machine.  As big as it is, it spins at 3600 revolutions per minute, or 60 times each second.  In order to do that, oil has to be flowing through the bearings otherwise they would burn up almost instantly.  This would cause the generator to come to a screeching halt — and I mean “screeching!”

A turbine Generator Room at a nuclear plant with a waxed floor!

A turbine Generator Room at a nuclear power plant with a waxed floor!

So, in order to stop a turbine generator properly, when a unit is taken offline, once it has coasted to a smooth stop, the turbine has to be engaged to something called a “Turning Gear” which slowly rotates the turbine generator.  This is turned off only when the shaft has cooled down.  Without this, you might as well call General Electric and order a new one.

So, one of the most important things the station batteries do is run emergency oil pumps that engage immediately when the power is cutoff from the plant.  This allows the turbine generator and other important equipment throughout the plant to slowdown and come to a stop gracefully in case the power is instantly gone.

I will write a story later about a day when this happened at our plant.  The moments of confusion, and the quick decisions that had to be made to keep the unit 1 boiler from melting to the ground.  Rest assured that throughout this time, the emergency oil pumps had kicked in.  The station batteries did their job when they were called upon.  While the control room operators were performing their emergency tasks to the letter and the electricians were scrambling to come up with a workable solution to an unforeseen problem, the turbine-generator, the PA (Primary Air) fans, the FD (Forced Draft) Fans, the ID (Induction) fans were all coasting down as the groundwork was being laid to quickly restore power.

Someone in an office in the middle of Oklahoma City may have noticed their lights flicker for a moment.  Maybe they dimmed slightly…

If not for the proper maintenance of the power plant station batteries, the lights would have possibly gone dark.  Someone would have had to go looking for the portable generator and the spotlight.  Ceremonies in progress may have to continued under candlelight.

Belt Buckle Mania And Turkeys During Power Plant Man Downtime — Repost

Originally posted on June 23, 2012:

Power Plant Welders need a large stock of specialized Welding Rods. Mechanics need all sizes of wrenches, files, hones and calibers. Electricians need a good pair of side cutters, strippers, red, yellow, orange and blue wire nuts, butt splices and Electrical tape. Instrument and Controls need all kinds of transmitters, converters, pressure gauges, and PLCs. The one thing Every True Power Plant Man needed was a Stainless Steel, highly decorated, colorful and sturdy Belt buckle. A couple of post ago I talked about the machinist that were around in the beginning when I first arrived at the plant. I mentioned that any True Power Plant Machinist could create just about any part needed at the plant. One such piece of quality craftsmanship was the Oval Belt Buckle:

A plain example of an oval belt buckle

You see, When you take a Stainless Steal Pipe and you cut it at an angle, the resulting shape is an oval just right to make a belt buckle:

By cutting the end of the pipe at an angle you get the oval shape of the belt buckle

During those first couple of years when the machinists were correcting mistakes made by the manufacturers of all types of motors, pumps and fans, between jobs, a machinist had a little down time when they could let their lathes, mills, bandsaws and drills cool off some. It was during this time that the creativity of the machinists were revealed to the rest of the Power Plant Men. In those early days, even more than their hard hat stickers, the Belt Buckle was the status symbol of any Power Plant Man driving a pickup truck with a gun rack in the back window. Making the belt buckle in very high demand at the plant.

Power Plant men were on the lookout for any kind of colored stone or odd shaped piece of metal that could be used to adorn their own specially machined belt buckle supplied by the Power Plant Machine Shop. Stainless Steel Nuts and small pieces of pipe were machined down to make ornamental designs to fit in the center of belt buckle. Copper pieces could be used to add color along with the colorful stones found lying about in the pasture.

The Machinist would carefully mill the pieces down to just the right thickness. The stainless steel oval cut from the pipe was carefully milled to give the proper curve to make the belt buckle just the right shape. Different types of epoxy was used as filler to hold everything in place. Even “Jewelers Rouge” was used to polish the belt buckle until it shined like silver and the stones as if they had been placed in a tumbler to give them the perfect smooth surface.

A block of Jewelers Rouge used for polishing Jewelry

I remember the day when Sonny Karcher asked me if I wanted to have my very own specially designed belt buckle. At the time I was not knowledgeable enough to realize the great treasure that was being offered to me for free. I just looked down at my skinny waist (it’s a wonder I can remember that many inches ago) and thought that it wouldn’t be easy to swing a Weed Wacker with a big oval belt buckle scraping across my abdomen, so I politely declined. If I had known better, I would have agreed, and taken my prize home to hang on the wall as memento of my early power plant days.

At the time there were a lot of things about the power plant men that I didn’t fully appreciate until years later. For instance, their generosity. They were always looking out for each other and if they found a bargain somewhere, they let everyone else in on it. That was one way you could tell a True Power Plant Man from the imitation wannabee’s.

During the first summer Ray Butler came up to me and said that a guy was selling 100 pound sacks of potatoes, and was wondering if I would go in on it with him, since he really only wanted 50 pounds. If I did, he would let me keep the gunny sack. I believe the 50 pounds of potatoes cost about $15. My mom had to figure out about 15 different ways to make potatoes, because we ate potatoes until they were growing out of our ears… (oh wait, that’s what you do when you don’t wash your ears properly). Anyway, before we were done with that bag of potatoes my dad and possibly even my brother and I were eating them raw like turnips as the Potato Gun hadn’t been invented yet.

A Spud Gun

Another time a peach orchard just up the road toward Marland Oklahoma was letting you go and pick your own peaches and buy them by the box full for a real good price, so after work, we all headed over to the peach orchard where the man that owned the orchard would drive you around the orchard in a trailer to where the ripe peaches were so that you could go around and pick all the peaches you wanted to take home.

In those early days, people could bring different types of produce and vegetables and other types of food products from their farms and sell them to their fellow power plant men for a good discount. That is, until the evil plant manager realized that it was taking money out of the Canteen Fund, which he felt was his own responsibility to make sure the coffers of the Canteen were always kept overflowing. — Until one year when they were going to show enough profit to have to pay taxes…

Anyway. The Canteen fund was used to purchase turkeys for the workers at Thanksgiving. One year when the fund didn’t have enough money to buy turkeys, the men at the power plant bailed the hay in the pastures that surrounded the north end of the lake, and sold the bails to pay for the turkeys. Then when Corporate Headquarters got wind of it, they insisted that the hay belonged to the Electric Company, and therefore could not be used to buy turkeys for the workers of just that one plant that had used their own money to fill the money box at the plant. And that was the end of the free turkeys for Thanksgiving. Kind of took the “Thanks” out of the giving… Needless to say, the hay wasn’t bailed much after that, it was just brush hogged like a right-of-way. I’m sure there is a Turkey out there somewhere that is grateful to Corporate Headquarters, but it isn’t the kind of mindless Turkey that cared more about messing with someone’s morale than about the efficiency of a Power Plant. It was amazing how much of a morale booster a free turkey can be. Just think about it. Here were Top Power Plant hands at the time making close to $20 an hour or $160 a day who went home with a big grin on their face just like Bob Cratchit when Ebenezer Scrooge gave him the Giant Goose for Christmas, so they could hear their own children say, “God Bless Us, every one!”

The Scrooge from Corporate Headquarters or was he?

Although, the truth be known, it was found out a few years later that the evil plant manager used the excuse that “It Came Down From Corporate Headquarters” often to make unpopular policies at our plant, where Corporate Headquarters was not aware that their good and friendly nature was being tarnished by a rogue plant manager in some distant Power Plant Land far far away up north in the wastelands of Oklahoma.

Anyway, I sometimes wonder how many power plant men that were around in the first days before both units went live still have one or more of those quality built belt buckles made exclusively by Power Plant Machinists for Power Plant Men. If so, they ought to take them down from the fireplace mantle or remove it from the glass case and dust it off and bring it to work some day just to show the New Generation X Power Plant newbies (or pups as we used to call them) what it was like living in the Power Plant Kingdom back when the great towering stacks were being raised, and the boilers were being built like skyscrapers out in the middle of the countryside.

Then they can gather them around by the boiler and open one of the small hatchways so that the orange glow of the fireball inside can illuminate the grating and the eager faces of the young power plant men waiting to hear the stories of brave men long ago who were rewarded with free turkeys at Thanksgiving. They can recall how proud they were to take the Free Turkeys home to their families all waiting eagerly by the window to watch as their father as he braved the Oklahoma west wind and dust storms to find his way to their door. Greeting them with hugs and the proud acknowledgement of how much the Electric Company appreciated their father enough to give his family one free turkey every year. Can you hear it? Is that my son by the fireplace? Did he just say what I thought he said? Yes. It was. He said, “God Bless Us, Every One!”

Comments from the Original Post:

  1. eideard June 23, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    I’ll bet there were folks who passed along tools when they retired, passed them along to the next generation or so in their own family.

    I still use a couple of fine screwdrivers that were my grandfather’s when he worked in the machine shop at Otis Elevator in Yonkers, NY.

    1. Plant Electrician June 26, 2012 at 3:20 pm

      I have a story about one such old tool that I will write about in a future post. :)

  2. jackcurtis July 7, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Yeah! I’ve inherited tools from earlier times now unavailable, replaced by newer power stuff that sometimes, won’t do what the older tool accomplished easily…

    1. Plant Electrician July 7, 2012 at 4:07 pm
      That is definitely what I experienced. I have a story about trying to destroy an old power drill so that we could purchase a new one.

A Slap in the Face at a Gas-fired Power Plant

Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”  Thanks to my high school math teacher Robert Burns, I have always admired Archimedes.  I remember the day he was talking about him in class, and he was explaining how Archimedes had sat down in the bathtub and when the water overflowed, and he suddenly realized how to calculate the volume of the king’s crown, he jumped out of the tub and ran down the street in his birthday suit yelling “Eureka!  Eureka!”  Meaning… I have found it!  I have found it!  I especially remember Mr. Burn’s eyes tearing up as he told this story.  To Mr. Burns, mathematics was an adventure.  He instilled this love into me.

So, how does a discussion about Archimedes tie into a story about a Gas-fired Power Plant in central Oklahoma?  Well it does, or it did, on December 19, 1985.

The day began with my drive from Oklahoma City, where I was staying, to Harrah, Oklahoma where I was on overhaul at a power plant called Horseshoe Lake Plant.  The lake must have been named Horseshoe Lake for the obvious reason that it was shaped like a Horseshoe as it wrapped around the north part of the plant.

I suppose this lake was originally used to cool the condenser water once the steam had been used to turn the turbine, but it was much too small to be used by the units that were in operation when I was at the plant.  Instead it was a Fish farm where Tilapia were raised.

A Power Plant Tilapia

A Power Plant Tilapia

I wrote about working at this plant on this overhaul in an earlier post called “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“.  This morning when I arrived, I figured I would be working in the shop repairing more of the older open-faced motors with their sleeve bearing and cambric insulation.  It started out that way.

An example of an old GE open-faced motor

An example of an old GE open-faced motor

One time during the morning, Ellis Rook, the electrical Supervisor came up to me and started talking to me about the ROLM phone computer.  He knew I had experience working on the Phone system.  I had been trained by the best even before I had gone to Muskogee to take a class.  Bill Rivers at our plant had taught me how to make “moves and changes” and how to troubleshoot the entire plant’s phone system without ever leaving the lab.

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

Anyway.  Ellis Rook told me about the problem they were having with the phone system that day.  He told me what had been done to try to fix the problem.  I was thinking of a few things I would try (even though I was still more of a Rookie than Ellis Rook — ok.  I couldn’t resist that one).  I had been an electrician in training for just over 2 years, which still made me a rookie.

I originally thought Ellis had approached me for ideas on how to fix the problem, so I was formulating some answers in my mind while he was going on… then he said, “What I do every time to fix any problem is just reboot the computer.” — ok.  He wasn’t seeking advice.  He was seeking approval.  So, I looked at him with as blank of a stare I could and just nodded and replied, “Well, that usually does it.”  — Nevermind that it took about 25 minutes for one of these old ROLM computers to reboot and during that time all communication with the outside world was cut-off.

This was when I remembered a story that Bob Kennedy had told me about Ellis Rook.

One day, he took another electrician with him to inspect the exciter collector rings on one of the units.  The exciter is connected to one end of the generator usually (though if I’m not mistaken, the exciter house was off to one side), and it spins at 3600 rpm.  It is not coincidental that this is 60 cycles per second, which is how fast the electricity alternates between positive and negative in your house.  This is exactly why the electricity alternates that fast.  Because that is how fast the turbine-generator is spinning.

Anyway, Ellis had taken a strobe light with him to go inspect the collector rings on the exciter because there was some indication that a fuse had blown on one of the collectors.  Using the strobe light, you could set it to blink at 3600 times per minute and the collector rings spinning at 3600 rpm would appear to stand still.

A typical strobe light

A typical strobe light

By slowly adjusting the rate that the strobe light was flashing, you could rotate the shaft slowly and inspect it just as if it was standing still, even though in reality it was still spinning at 3600 rpms (the same speed as the lawn mower in the post:  “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“).

After examining the shaft for a bit, they located the blown fuse.  When the fuse blew, a little indicator would stick out so it could easily be seen.  Ellis Rook slowly rotated the shaft around until the fuse was in a good position and then stopped the shaft from rotating by setting the strobe light to the exact same rate that the shaft was rotating.

Then Ellis said something that would go down in the Annals of History at Horseshoe Lake.  He told the electrician to change out the fuse.  —  Ok.  Stop and think about this for a minute.  The room where the collector rings are is normally dark, so all they can see is this turbine shaft in front of them and it looked like it was standing still.  Forget the roar of the spinning turbine and just chalk it up to a loud fan running.

Luckily the electrician wasn’t lulled into a false sense of security and didn’t put his hand forward to remove the fuse.  That would have  easily have been the last thing he would have ever done (as a live human being).  — There has to be a good murder mystery plot involving a strobe light.  I’m sure one of the great writers at WordPress can come up with one.  I can think of a couple myself.

Anyway, when Ellis Rook told me how he fixed the telephone computer problems by rebooting the computer, this story flashed through my mind for about 3 seconds.  I think I put my hands in my back pocket just for safe keeping.

Anyway.  I ate lunch in the electric shop office with my ol’ “Roomie” Steven Trammell, (We have called each other roomie from the time we were in Muskogee on overhaul in 1984.  See the post about Muskogee in the link above.  To this day, we call each other roomie, as we have kept in touch throughout the years).  While I was sitting there arguing with Art Hammond about something (See the post:  “Power Plant Arguments with Arthur Hammond“) I was reading an instruction manual about some electronic sensor that could tell you the percentage open a series of valves all in one little box.

Reggie Deloney had been working with the engineer on this valve detecting device for the past 4 weeks, and couldn’t get it to work.  The engineer asked me if I would look at it to see if I could figure out what was wrong with it, because it wasn’t working at all…. It would work every now and then, but then it would stop.

When I read the manual I noticed that there was a “common” in the circuitry and that Reggie and the engineer had assumed that the common was the same as the “ground”.  This usually isn’t true in electronic circuits as it is in regular electrical wiring.  So, I stood up from where I was lounging back reading the pamplet and lifted the common wire up so that it wasn’t touching the metal cart, and suddenly the valve indicator worked.

When Reggie returned from lunch, I excitedly told him what I had found.  He looked a little astonished, so I showed him.  He had only spent the last 4 weeks working on this.  So, I went into the shop and worked on another motor.

Later I walked into the office figuring that Reggie had told the good news to the engineer.  He was sitting there with the engineer scratching their heads still trying to figure out why the instrument still wasn’t working.  So, I picked up the wire so it wasn’t touching the cart, and said.  “See?  Works.”  Reggie with a very irritated voice said, “Yes!  You figured it out!”  He looked at me with a look that said, “Get out of here!”  So, I left.

Art, who was listening said, “I don’t think Reggie is ready to figure it out yet.”  Then I got it.  Oh.  I see…  It is nice and cool and clean in the office.  The engineer wasn’t going to figure it out on his own….   Just a week or so left of overhaul….

About that time, Bob Kennedy, my acting A Foreman told me to go with Bill Thomas and help him out.  Bill was from our plant and was a welder.  He was working out of our shop to help us out with any mechanical needs we had from welding to uncoupling pumps and fans and realigning motors and any other stuff.  Now… I know that Bill Thomas had a nickname.  But I usually called people by their real names, so I only remember him as Bill Thomas.  Maybe a Power Plant Man reading this post will remind me of Bill’s nickname.

This is where Archimedes comes into the story.

So, Bill Thomas had been working on a cooling water fan structure all morning single-handed lifting it up.  It weighed somewhere between 50 to 75 tons.  um… yes…. I think that is about it… about 100,000 pounds.  yet, Bill using nothing but the muscles in his arms and back had been lifting this monstrosity off of the ground.  Like Archimedes who lifted an entire ship out of the water once using a lever.

Bill was lifting the top round part off of the ground so that he could work under it.

Bill was lifting the top round part off of the ground so that he could work under it.

You see.  With True Power Plant Men, you really don’t ever hear that something “can’t” be done.  Bill had to work under this large round hunk of metal, so he had to pick it up. After spending two hours lifting it with only his two arms spinning a huge chain-fall, he had managed to lift the structure 2 inches from the ground. — well.  No one said anything about tossing it in the air… just lifting it off the ground.  He still had about 22 inches more to go.

This is a 3 ton chain-fall.  The one we were using was more than 10 times bigger

This is a 3 ton chain-fall. The one we were using was more than 10 times bigger

This was where I came in.  Did I tell you this plant was old?  Well it was.  They didn’t have a lot of electricity in this building we were in, and there wasn’t an electric hoist, so Bill had to pull a chain that went around a pulley that turned a shaft to a gearbox that would slowly (real slowly) lift something huge.  So, the Power Plant Men from this plant had created a “tool” to make this job faster.

Bill had pulled an air compressor over to the building and had hooked the air hose up to the special tool.

This is the exact size and type of air compressor

This is the exact size and type of air compressor

This was going to make his job much faster.  There was only once catch.  He needed an extra weight.  I was the extra weight that he needed.

You see.  The special tool was an air powered grinder.

An air powered grinder.  Only the one we used was much bigger

An air powered grinder. Only the one we used was much bigger

And it was mounted to a piece of plywood.  the grinding wheel had been replaced with a pulley.  The idea was to stand on the plywood and step on the lever that operated the grinder so that it would spin the pulley.  The chain for the chain-fall would fit through the pulley assembly.

Bill had asked the person that gave him this special tool what happens when the chain snags.  They said, that’s when you need the extra weight.  They explained to Bill that when two people are standing on the plywood, they will be able to overpower the grinder so that it can’t pull itself out from under them.  If there isn’t enough weight on the plywood, then if the chain snags, the special tool will slide across the floor and attempt to climb up to the top of the chain-fall until someone lets off of the lever that operates the grinder.

So.  I was the extra weight.  Not that I was all that big at the time.

Anyway.  The next thing I knew, I was standing on the plywood, and Bill was operating the large grinder with his foot and we were lifting the large cylinder off of the ground.  Before long we had it at least a foot up.  Bill had put some stops under the cylinder in case we had to set it down for some reason, it wouldn’t have to go all the way to the ground.

That’s when it hit me….  No.  I didn’t suddenly remember that I hadn’t had any chocolate for lunch (though, that would have been a tragedy).  No.  That is when as I was watching the chain spin through the pulley at breakneck speed, the chain suddenly went taut.  As the chain became snagged in the chain-fall, the chain whipped up, and before I could perceive what had happened I found myself lifted off of the ground and being thrown backward.

The chain had flew back and slapped me across the face, sending my hardhat flying and shattering my safety glasses.  I ended up on my back about 5 feet from where I had been standing.  Bill rushed to my side to check if I was all right.  I checked myself out and decided that I was going to be all right.

I told him I needed to go get another pair of safety glasses from the tool room.  he looked at my eyes and said.  “Boy.  That is really going to be a shiner tomorrow.”  Evidently, I was developing a black eye.  I was thinking… “Great!  And I’m getting married in two days.  I can just see my wedding pictures.”

I went to the tool room and checked out a new pair of safety glasses:

The first safety glasses we had didn't have side shields

The first safety glasses we had at the time

When I returned to the electric shop, Bill Thomas and Arthur were there.  Everyone was saying the same thing.  “Boy!  That is sure going to be a shiner tomorrow.”

A little while later, Ellis Rook came in the shop and said that Larry Hatley (the plant manager) wanted to talk to me.  So, I followed Ellis to the Plant Manager’s office.  Larry asked me if I was ok.  He wanted to know if I needed medical attention.  I assured him that I was all right.  My safety glasses had protected me.  They had been destroyed in the process, but I was just fine.  I think as I left I heard Larry say under his breath, “boy… that is going to be a shiner tomorrow.”

Well.  The next day (December 20, 1985)  when I showed up at work (my last day there for overhaul before leaving to be married the following day), everyone came around to look at my eye.  There wasn’t anything to see really.  Any swelling had gone down over the night, and my face was back to it’s regular… um…. tolerable self.

The people I worked with the fall of 1985 at Horseshoe Power Plant treated me like family while I was there.  That was the way it was when you worked with True Power Plant Men.  I cherish their memory.

Power Plant Invocations and Imitations of Sonny Karcher — Repost

Originally Posted on June 16, 2012:

I have mentioned before that Sonny Karcher was one of the first Power Plant Men that taught me how to work my way up the ladder of Power Plant Ingenuity (In the post titled, In Memory of Sonny Karcher A True Power Plant Man).  I used to come home from work after Steve Higginbotham dropped me off at the duplex where we were living at the time, and my family couldn’t wait to hear what Sonny Karcher had said or done that day.

Soon after I had arrived at the plant Sonny had just dropped me off at the front of the Maintenance shop where I was going to the tool room to get some tools for something we were going to work on.  Sonny was going to drive around behind the tool room in a yellow Cushman cart to pick up some larger equipment, and I was going to meet him there.  As he was backing out of the shop he suddenly made a motion with his left hand.  To me it looked like he was making the movement that someone would make if they were taking the lid off of a jar.  I thought this meant that he wanted me to do something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.

Various things went through my head, such as, I should get something to help remove lids from barrels.  Or I needed to look inside of a jar to find one of the parts I was going to pick up.  Nothing made much sense to me, so I waved for him to come back.  When he did, I asked him what he wanted me to do.  He asked me what I meant.  I told him that when he made that motion to open a jar, I couldn’t figure out what he wanted.  So he told me.   “I was just waving goodbye.”  He gave me a big smile and backed out of the shop again.  Each time Sonny Karcher waved goodbye, he used a different motion with his hand.  Sometimes he would look like he was twirling something on his finger.  Sometimes it seemed like he was trying to get something sticky off of his fingers.  Sometimes he just drew circles in the air with a couple of fingers.  Other times he looked like he was giving an awkward kind of salute.  Sonny made an art out of simple things like a wave goodbye.

That first summer it seemed like everyone was always munching on Sunflower seeds.  There were bags of sunflower seeds everywhere you looked.  Sonny already looked somewhat like a chipmunk with puffy round cheeks that formed from years of wearing a grin on his face.  They were extra prominent when his cheeks were full of sunflower seeds.  These were seeds still in their shells.

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

So, it was normal to see someone take a step back while standing around talking, turn their head and drop a few sunflower seed shells from their mouth into the floor drains that were spaced evenly across the maintenance shop floor.  There came a time when those drains had to be cleaned out because it seemed that every drain was packed solid full of sunflower seed shells.

Sunflowers weren’t the only items found in the drains, since chewing (or dipping) tobacco (such as Skoal) was used by a lot of the men in the Power Plant.

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums.... Never tried it myself.

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums…. Never tried it myself.

Cleaning out a drain full of sunflower seeds, dipping tobacco and spit was a job that might cause a lot of people to gag, and I know I had to fight it back at the time.  Most of the time I felt like I was having too much fun to get paid for working at the plant, but when it came time for cleaning out those drains, I felt like I was really working very hard for the $3.89 an hour that I was getting paid my first summer (1979) as a summer help.

But anyway, back to Sonny.  I remember one evening when I came home after working with Sonny during the day, and we were sitting around the dinner table eating supper when my dad said something surprising.  I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember what my response was.  It came out before I thought what I was saying, and I said it with the same surprised smile Sonny would have.  I replied,  “Well S–t the bed!”  With a heavy emphasis on each word.  That was a common phrase that Sonny used, and it was his response to anything surprising.  Needless to say, I don’t normally use four letter words that have to be edited out of a post.  It was just the matter of fact way that Sonny would use that phrase that made it seem all right to say at the time.  If I remember correctly, both my mom and my dad stared at me for a second in disbelief, then broke out laughing as they had never heard that particular phrase.  It was kind of like hearing “…Bless his heart” for the first time used following an obvious insult.

In the year 1990 the Power Plant had a program that they called, “We’ve Got the Power”.  I will talk more about this in a later post, so I will just say that it was a program where we broke up into teams and tried to find ways to save the company money.  But long before “We’ve Got the Power”, there was Sonny Karcher.  He was often trying to figure out how we could make electricity cheaper, or even come up with other ways of making a profit.

One day Sonny asked me this, “Kev, your smart because you learn things from all those books at school so tell me this… someone said the other day that diamonds are made out of coal.  Is that true?”  I told him it was.  Then he said, “Well, what if we had one of those big dirt movers full of coal drive over some coal a bunch of times, would we be able to make diamonds?”

Dirt Mover full of coal

I told him that wouldn’t work because it takes a lot more pressure to make a diamond.  So, he asked me if it would work if we put some coal on the railroad track and we let an entire train full of coal run over it.  Would it make a diamond then?  I assured him that even that wouldn’t make a diamond.  He accepted it and just said, “Well, it’s too bad since we have that big pile of coal there, we ought to be able to come up with some way of making them into diamonds.

Another time when we were cleaning out the fish baskets at the intake (a job as smelly as it sounds) next to the 4 big intake pumps.  These are the pumps that pump around 189,000 gallons of water per minute each.  Sonny told me how big those pumps were and how much water they pumped.  Then he said, “You know, that entire boiler is there just to make steam to turn the turbine to make electricity.  It seems to me that we could just take these four pumps and have them pump water through the turbine and have it turn the turbines, then we wouldn’t need those big boilers.  Why don’t we do something like that?”  I assured Sonny that we would never be able to make enough electricity to make up for the electricity it took to turn the pumps that were pumping the water.  He shook his head and said that it just seemed to him that those pumps could turn that turbine pretty fast.

One day I watched as Sonny watched another Power Plant man walk into the shop with a new type of lunch box.  It was an Igloo Little Playmate.

One exactly like this.  These were a new kind of lunch box at the time.

Sonny immediately went out and bought one.  The next week he came to work with his shiny new Little Playmate lunch box.  I admit.  I went and bought one myself a few weeks later.  But this was the beginning of a trend that I noticed with Sonny.  I began to notice that Sonny seemed to pick one item from each of the people he admired, and went and bought one for himself.  Or he would pick up a phrase that someone else would say, and would start using that.  At first I thought it might just be a coincidence, so I started to test my hypothesis.  When I would see something new that Sonny brought to work, I would look around to see who else had one of those, and sure enough.  Someone close by would have one.  Then I would hear Sonny talk a certain way.  His accent would change and he would say something like he was imitating someone else, and usually I could tell right away who talked like that and knew that Sonny had borrowed that phrase from that person.

Some may think that this would be annoying, but I think with Sonny it was an act of endearment.  It was his way of connecting with those people that he admired.  Sonny had a small yellow orange Ford truck and I figured that someone else must have a truck like that, so I started looking all around for one like it.  It took me a couple of weeks, but one morning while we were carpooling are way to the power plant, we came up behind the same kind of truck that Sonny had on its way to the plant.  It was green instead of yellow, but it was undoubtedly the same model of truck.  It was owned by Ken Reece, who was the manager over the tool room and warehouse.

Sonny imitated a voice that had me puzzled for a while.  I had checked out all the Power Plant Men around trying to figure out who Sonny was imitating.  Every once in a while Sonny would change his way of talking when he was making a point where he would let his lower lip come forward and work its way left and right as he talked, and he would close one eye more than another and talk in a strange sort of a southern drawl.  I just knew he was imitating someone because it was so different than just the regular Sonny.

Finally, one day when I was walking through the shop I heard someone in the welding area talking just like Sonny would talk when he used that voice.  There was no mistake.  That had to be the person.  I could hear every inflection in his voice and it had to be the voice that Sonny was imitating because it had been much more honed and refined to give just the right effect.  So, I changed the course I was travelling so that I could make my way around to the welders to see who it was that was talking like that.

There in the middle of the welding shop was a heavier set man standing in the middle of a group of welders telling a story.  Everyone was listening to him quietly just as if it was story time at the library.  So, I stopped and watched.  This man wasn’t wearing an Electric Company hard hat.  He was wearing a Brown and Root hard hat, which indicated that he worked for the construction company that was building the plant.  This guy was undoubtedly a master storyteller.  When it came to the climactic part of the story, the bottom of his mouth would stick out with his lip moving left and right and left again, and one eye was partially closed to show the intensity of the situation and the drawl would intensify.  Finally.  I had found the man that Sonny Karcher had admired enough to take one of his favorite traits and connect it to himself.  I could see why Sonny admired him so much.  He had everyone within listening distance captivated by his story.

This Brown and Root hand soon became an employee of the Electric Company within a couple of weeks after I left at the end of the summer (on September 9, 1979).  This heavier set person was still working at the plant when I first posted this story last year, but has since retired. He was one of this country’s leading Turbine mechanics and he can still tell a story like no one else.  He is no longer as heavy.  He is rather thin in comparison.  He improved his health after realizing that if he really loved his family, he needed to take better care of himself.  I consider this True Power Plant Man, Ray Eberle, to be a dear friend of mine.  I have never met anyone that looked more like my own grandfather than Ray.  Not that he was that much older.  No.  He looked almost exactly like my grandfather looked when he was Ray’s age.  There was no nicer man than my dad’s dad, and there is no nicer Power Plant Man than Ray Eberle.

In Pursuit of the Power Plant Gai-tronics Gray Phone Ghost

When I first watched the movie “The Goonies”, I recognized right away that the script was inspired from another Pirate treasure movie I had watched when I was a child. I have never seen the movie again, and it was probably a made for TV movie or something that has been lost in the archives years ago. I’m sure that Steven Spielberg when he was growing up must have been inspired by this movie when he wrote the script to Goonies, because this was a movie that had inspired us when we were young.

The Goonies looking at the treasure map

The Goonies looking at the treasure map

You see… In the movie I had watched as a kid, some children that were trying to save their family or an old house or something similar to the Goonies story, found a clue to where a Pirate treasure was buried.  The clue had something to do with a “crow’s nest”.  It turned out that the model of a ship that had been sitting on the mantle piece in the old house had another clue in the pole holding the crow’s nest.  This clue had holes in the paper, and when held up to a certain page in a certain book, it gave them another clue to where there was a hidden passageway.  Which led them one step closer to the treasure.

Anyway.  As a child, this inspired us (and I’m sure a million other kids) to play a game called “Treasure Hunt”.  It was where you placed clues all around the house, or the yard, or the neighborhood (depending on how ambition of a treasure hunt you were after), with each clue leading to the other clue, and eventually some prize at the end.

Why am I telling you this story about this movie that I watched when I was a child?  Well, because I felt this same way all over again when I became an electrician at a coal-fire power plant out in the country in north central Oklahoma.  Here is why.

I used to carpool to work from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the power plant 25 miles north of town with another electrician named Bill Rivers.  He had kept urging me to become an electrician along with Charles Foster, who had suggested that I take some electric courses to prepare for the job.  Once I became an electrician, Charles Foster, my foreman, would often send me with Bill Rivers to repair anything that had to do with electronics.  Bill Rivers was good at troubleshooting electronic equipment, and well, he was generally a good troubleshooter when he wasn’t getting himself into trouble.

I remember the morning when Charles told me to get with Bill to go fix the incessant humming that was coming over the PA system…. “What?” I asked him.  “I can’t hear you over the loud hum coming over the PA system.”  — No not really… We called the Gai-tronics PA system the “Gray Phone” because the phones all over the plant where you could page people and talk on 5 different lines was gray.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

I walked into the electric lab where Bill Rivers was usually hanging out causing Sonny Kendrick grief.  I hadn’t been in the electric shop very long at this point.  I think it was before the time when I went to work on the Manhole pumps (see the post Power Plant Manhole Mania).  There was an electric cord going from a plug-in on the counter up into the cabinet above as if something inside the cabinet was plugged in…. which was true.  I asked Bill what was plugged in the cabinet and he explained that it was the coffee maker.

An old Coffee pot like this

An old Coffee pot like this

You see, our industrious plant manager had decided that  all coffee at the plant had to come from the authorized coffee machines where a dime had to be inserted before dispensing the cup of coffee.  This way the “Canteen committee” could raise enough money to…. uh…. pay for the coffee.  So, all rogue coffee machines had to go.  There was to be no free coffee at the plant.

So, of course, the most logical result of this mandate was to hide the coffee maker in the cabinet in case a wandering plant manager or one of his stooges were to enter the lab unexpectedly.  Maintaining the free flow of coffee to those electricians that just had to silently protest the strong arm tactics of the Power Plant Coffee Tax by having a sort of… “Tea Party”  or was it a “Coffee Party”.

I told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him fix the hum on the gray phones.  Bill Rivers said, “Great!  Then let us play a game.  let’s call it, ‘Treasure Hunt’.”

Bill reached up in one of the cabinets and pulled out a blue telephone test set.  I’m sure you must have seen a telephone repairman with one of these hanging from his hip. ” Oh boy.”  I thought. “A new toy!”

Telephone Test Set

Power Plant Telephone Test Set

I grabbed my tool bucket from the shop and followed Bill Rivers out into the T-G basement.  This is a loud area where the steam pipes carry the steam to the Turbine to spin the Generator.  It is called T-G for Turbine Generator.  Bill walked over to a junction box mounted near the north exit going to unit 1.  He explained that except for the gray phones in the Control-room section of the plant, all the other gray phones go through this one junction box.

Bill said that the game was to find the Gray Phone ghost.  Where is the hum coming from?  He showed me how the different cables coming into this one box led to Unit 1, Unit 2, the office area and the coal yard.  I just had to figure out which way the hum came from.  So, I went to work lifting wires off of the terminal blocks.  We could hear the hum over the gray phone speakers near us, so if I were to lift the right wires, we should know right away that I had isolated the problem.

Gray Phone Speaker

Power Plant Gray Phone Speaker

We determined that the noise was coming from Unit 1.  So we took the elevator halfway up the boiler to another junction box, and then another where we traced the problem to a gray phone under the surge bin tower.  It took 4 screws to remove the phone from the box.  When I did, I could clearly see the problem.  The box was full of water.  Water had run down the conduit and into the phone box.

Bill Rivers told me that now that we found the problem, we wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again, so we drilled a small weep hole in the bottom of the box, snd we took plumbers putty and stuffed it into the top of the conduit where it opened into a cable tray.

A tub of Power Plant Plumbers Putty

A tub of Power Plant Plumbers Putty

The box would fill with water when the labor crew would do coal cleanup.  On labor crew we would spray the entire surge bin tower down with high powered water hoses to wash off all the coal dust.  Each time, some water would end up going down the conduit into the gray phone until it grounded the circuit enough to cause a hum.

Bill and I continued searching throughout the plant for phones that were causing a hum.  Most were caused by water in the box.  Some were caused by circuits that had gone bad.  Those we took to the electric shop lab where we played a different kind of treasure hunt.  — Let’s call it…. Finding the bad component.  It reminded me of an old video game I had bought for my brother for Christmas that winter when I gave him  an Intellivision (so I could play with it).  It was the latest greatest video game console at the time.

An Intellivision Game Console

An Intellivision Game Console

I had given my brother a game called “Bomb Squad”.  Where you had a certain amount of time to diffuse a bomb by going through a circuit board cutting out components with some snippers.  If you cut the wrong connection, you had to hurry up and solder it back on before the bomb blew up.

Bomb Squad.  It even talked to you and a siren went off if you were going to blow yourself up.

Bomb Squad. It even talked to you and a siren went off if you were going to blow yourself up.

That’s what we were doing with the Gray Phones.  We were testing the different components until we found one that wasn’t working correctly.  Then we would replace that transistor, or capacitor, or resistor, or diode, and then test the phone by plugging it in the switchgear gray phone box and calling each other.

I have a story later about someone using this technique while fixing gray phones, only he would call himself on the gray phone where I would call Bill and Bill would call me.  Someone misinterpreted this and thought the person was trying to make everyone think he was more important because he was always being paged, when he was only paging himself.  He was removed from fixing gray phones for this reason, even though he was only person at the plant in Mustang Oklahoma that knew a transistor from a capacitor.

So, why am I going on about a seemingly boring story about fixing a hum on a PA system?  I think it’s because to me it was like a game.  It was like playing a treasure hunt.   From the day I started as an electrician, we would receive trouble tickets where we needed to go figure something out.  We had to track down a problem and then find a solution on how to fix it.  As I said in previous posts, it was like solving a puzzle.

Each time we would fix something, someone was grateful.  Either the operator or a mechanic, or the Shift Supervisor, or the person at home vacuuming their carpet, because the electricity was still flowing through their house.  How many people in the world can say that they work on something that impacts so many people?

Well… I used to feel like I was in a unique position.  I was able to play in a labyrinth of mechanical and electrical equipment finding hidden treasures in the form of some malfunction.  As I grew older, I came to realize that the uniqueness was limited only to the novelty of my situation.  If you took all the power plant men in the country, they could probably all fit in one large football stadium.  But the impact on others was another thing altogether.

The point I am trying to make is that it was obvious to me that I was impacting a large portion of people in the state of Oklahoma by helping to keep the plant running smoothly  by chasing down the boiler ghosts and exorcising the Coalyard demons from the coal handling equipment.  Even though it isn’t so obvious to others, like the janitor, or the laborer or the person that fills the vending machine.  Everyone in some way helps to support everyone else.

A cook in a restaurant is able to cook the food because the electricity and the natural gas is pumped into the restaurant by others.  Then the cook feeds the mailman, who delivers that mail, that brings the check to the person waiting to go to the grocery store so they can buy food that was grown by some farmer who plowed his field on a tractor made in a huge tractor factory by a machinist after driving there in a car made by a manufacturer in Detroit who learned how to use a lathe in a Vocational school taught by a teacher who had a degree from a university where each day this person would walk to class during the winter snow wearing boots that came from a clothes store where the student had bought them from a store clerk that greeted people by saying “Good Morning!  How are you today?”  Cheering up all the people that they met.

I could have walked into the lab and told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him find the hum in the PA system and he could have responded by saying, “Oh really?  Good luck with that!”  Instead he said, “Let’s go play a game.  ‘Treasure Hunt!”  This attitude had set the stage for me as a Power Plant Electrician:  “Let’s go have some fun and fix something today!”  Where would that cook have been today if the power had gone out in his restaurant that morning all because an attitude had gotten in the way….. I wonder…

Chief Among Power Plant Machinists — Repost

Originally Posted on June 8, 2012:

Lawrence Hayes was the foreman over the machinists when I first arrived at the power plant, but Ray Butler was undoubtedly the Chief.  He was actually the Chief of the Otoe-Missouri Indian tribe, for a time, that was located just to the north and west of the plant grounds.  The Machinists I can remember from the first summer is Don Burnett, Johnnie Keys, Ray Butler and Lawrence Hayes.  Being a Machinist in a power plant is something that few people can pull off, but those that do, can create just about any metal part that is needed in the plant.

The machinists fascinated me when I first arrived at the plant in 1979.  One side of the entire maintenance shop was the machine shop and it was filled with all different kinds of machining equipment.  I recognized some of the equipment like the lathes, but other machines, like the mill, were something new.  Then there is  this very large lathe.  It was monstrous.  I wondered what kind of part would be machined with that big lathe.

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

Even though the power plant machinists came from very diverse backgrounds, they all have two important traits in common.  They are very patient  and they are perfectionists.  During my first summer as a summer help both of the units were still under construction and the mechanics were all busy going through the entire plant disassembling each piece of equipment and measuring it and cleaning it and putting it back together.  This was called:  “Check Out”.  Often they would find something that didn’t meet the Electric Companies specifications, so it would be sent to the machinist to fix.  Very precise measurements were being used, and if there was a 3 thousandth inch gap (.003), and the company wanted it to be no more than 2 thousandths of an inch (.002)…. then it was the job of the machinist to add a sleeve and machine the part down until it was precisely where it was supposed to be.

I learned very little about the lives of the machinists because they were always standing behind the lathes watching vigilantly as the metal shavings were flying off of the parts, but I did learn a few things about some of them.  First of all, each one of the machinists seemed to care about you right away.  Don Burnett, a tall and very thin man with a friendly face, worked in a Zinc Smelting plant before he had come to work at the power plant.  One time while he was working there, some molten zinc was accidentally poured down the back of his boot burning his heel.  It was then that he decided that he would start looking for a different line of work.  I went fishing with him and some other guys once, where he told me some more things about his life.  Then a few years later, he moved to the Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma, where I saw him a couple of times while on overhaul down there.

Johnnie Keys would be perfectly cast as a hillbilly.  He had a scruffy beard (this was before beards were no longer allowed in 1983 due to the problem with obtaining a seal on your respirator) and if you put an old leather hat on him, he would look like this:

Like this, only younger and with a shorter beard

When you ask Johnnie to create something for you, you can be sure that he will do the best he can.  One time years later when I was an electrician, I asked Johnnie if he could take a piece of plexiglass and cut out 8 rectangles in it so that I could mount it in an electrical box so that a bunch of breakers could be accessed, without someone worrying about getting into the electricity.  This is the control box that was used for the vent fans that were installed around the turbine room floor.  As far as I know, it is still there today.  Anyway, Johnnie brought it back to the electric shop when he was finished and it was perfect.  He had a couple of holes in it so that I could put two standoffs to mount the plexiglass in the box.

It just so happened that Leroy Godfrey the electrical supervisor was in the middle of a little war between the engineers because they hadn’t consulted him about the project, and so he was intent on making the job go way over budget.  I wasn’t exactly privy to this information at the time (or maybe I was).  Anyway, after I had mounted the plexiglass to the back plate of the electric box using the standoffs, and it was sitting on the workbench, Leroy came up to me and looked at it.  He said right away, “Go have the machinists put some more holes in it so that you can add more standoffs to mount the plexiglass.  Knowing full well that it didn’t need the extra mounting, I told Leroy that I believed that two standoffs will be fine because the entire assembly was going to be put in the electric box, where there wasn’t going to be much movement, and I picked up the entire assembly with the breakers and all by the plexiglass and bent it all the way around to where both ends  of the plexiglass were touching and shook the breakers up and down.  Then I put it back on the workbench and said,  “I am not going to tell the machinist to add more holes, this is perfect.”  I knew that Johnnie had worked very meticulously machining out the plexiglass and I wasn’t going to bother him with meaningless revisions.  It was at that point where Leroy Godfrey decided that I must go.  He went into the office and told Bill Bennett that he wanted to fire me.  Bill Bennett calmed him down, and it wasn’t long after that Leroy and the other old school power plant men were early retired.

Lawrence Hayes was the foreman at the time and I remember one morning while he was working on the lathe next to the foremen’s office.  He had a disturbed look on his face about something as he had a long metal rod in the lathe and was busy measuring it from different angles.  A little while later when I was passing by on the way to the tool room, Lawrence had Marlin McDaniel, the A Foreman out there and he was showing him something about the lathe.  Then some time just after lunch, Lawrence had a big wrench and was removing the mounting bolts from the Lathe, and later picked the entire thing up with the shop overhead crane and moved it down to the other end of the shop.  Over the next couple of days, the concrete where the lathe had been mounted was busted up and removed, and then re-poured, so that the mounting bolts were now properly aligned.  The enormity of this job made me realize that when these Power Plant Men knew what needed to be done to fix something, they went right ahead and did it, no matter how big the job was.

I have saved the Chief until last.  Ray Butler as I mentioned above was the Chief of the Otoe-Missouria India tribe.  They really called him “Chairman”, but I think I knew what the title really meant.

This is an actor trying to look like Ray Butler

As Ray Butler sat at a lathe or a mill working on a piece of metal, he always had the same expression.  His head was slightly tilted up so that he could see through the bottom of his bifocals and he had the most satisfied expression.  He looked as if he was watching a work of art being created before his eyes.  It didn’t matter what he was working on, he always had the same expression.  I mentioned above that the machinists (like all true power plant men), seemed to instantly care about you.  This seemed to be especially true with Ray Butler.  He was almost 7 years older than my own father.  He treated me as one of his sons.

When I had been at the plant three days of my third year as a summer help in 1981, on Wednesday May 13, I went to the break room to eat my lunch.  Ray came up to me and sat down across from me at the table.  He looked at me solemnly and told me that Pope  John Paul II had just been shot.  He had heard it on the radio and knew that I was Catholic.  He said that was all that he knew other than that they had taken him to the hospital.  I could see his concern when he told me this, and I could see that he was equally concerned that this holy man across the ocean had been shot.  I thanked him for letting me know.

Ray had served in the Navy during World War II and besides the time he spent in the Navy he spent most of his life from the time he was born until his death in 2007 in Oklahoma.  He was born and died in Red Rock just a few miles from where the power plant was built.  He went to high school in Pawnee.  Even though I have seen him upset at times, he was always a man at peace.   He retired in 1988 and the day that he left I met him on his way to the control room while I was on my way to the maintenance shop.  I told him that I wished him well on his retirement and I gave him a hug.  I didn’t see him again until a few years later when we had stopped by the Indian Reservation convenience store to buy gas and when he saw me he came out to say hello and it was like meeting a close friend.  He gave me a hug and I got back in the truck and we left.  That was the last time I saw Ray Butler, but I know that if I wanted to visit with him again, I could just go take a stroll around the Pow-wow area of the Otoe-Missouria Reservation and he would not be far away.

This is where the Pow-wow is held today. The same field where Ken Conrad danced with the Bobcat years ago

Comment from the original Post:

  jackcurtis June 23, 2012

The old machinists I knew were a special breed; they were the High Priests of any shop where they were present…they started disappearing in favor of cheaper (and much less capable) machine operators when the computer-controlled production machines came in. After that, if you wanted a machinist, you’d likely have to import him; Americans didn’t seem to train for it anymore. I’ve always thought that a shame and a loss of something special that was important in making our industrial history…and a loss of a very interesting and accomplished breed of men. Thanks for resurrecting some of them!

Power Plant Phrases Fit for Mixed Company (almost)

Great people in history are known for their great quotes.  Take Albert Einstein for instance.  We automatically think of the one most famous thing that Einstein said whenever we hear his name.  We think of “E equals M C squared.” (which explains the direct relationship between energy and matter).

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

In more recent history, we have Gomer Pyle saying:  “Golly”, only it was drawn out so that it was more like “Go-o-o-o-llyyyyyy” (which expresses the improbable relationship between Gomer and the real Marines).

Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle on the virge of exclaiming his favorite word

Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle on the virge of exclaiming his favorite word

Then there was the famous line by officer Harry Callahan when he said…. “Go Ahead.  Make My Day!” (which demonstrates the exact relationship showing how guns don’t kill people.  People kill people).

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry

Even more recently, we heard the famous words of Arnold Jackson while talking to his brother when he said, “What you talkin’ ’bout Willis?” (which supports the commonly held understanding that ‘Inquiring minds want to know”).

Gary Coleman as Arnold in Different Strokes

Gary Coleman as Arnold in Different Strokes

Great people are known for their great quotes.

This is true in the power plant kingdom as well.  I have passed on the imcomparable wisdom of Sonny Karcher in the post:  Power Plant Innovations and Imitations of Sonny Karcher.  When you told him something that he found totally amazing, he would look you right in the eye with an expression of total amazement and would say, “Well….. S__t the bed!” (only, he would include the word “hi” in the middle of that first word).

I had to run home and try it on my parents during dinner one night when I first heard this as a summer help…. at first they were too proud of me to speak.  When they couldn’t contain their amazement any longer, they both burst out into laughter as I continued eating my mashed potatoes.

When I became an electrician, I belonged to a group of wise souls with a multitude of quotes.  I would stare in amazement as I tried to soak them all into my thick skull.  Every once in a while one would squeeze in there and I would remember it.

When talking about the weather, Diana Lucas (later Brien, formerly Laughery) would say, “Chili today, Hot Tamale”.  I know there were a lot more like that one.

I invite any power plant men that remember these phrases to leave a comment at the bottom of this post with a list of phrases used, because I liked to forget them so that the next time I would hear them, it would be like hearing them for the first time all over again.

Andy Tubbs would say something like “Snot me.  Statue” (I am not sure if I am even saying that right…).  I know that Andy had a dozen other phrases like this one.

There was an old man named John Pitts that used to work at the old Osage Plant.  I wrote about this plant in an earlier Post called Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace.  He would come out to our plant to work out of the electric shop on overhaul to make a few extra dollars.

One day at the end of the day, when we were all leaving for the parking lot, Andy Tubbs stepped out of the door shaking his head as if in disbelief.  He had a big grin on his face, so I asked him why.

Andy said that he had asked John Pitts “What d’ya know.”  John had said something that didn’t make sense, so Andy had asked him what he had said.  I asked Andy what John had said.  Andy told me that John Pitts had said, “It takes a big dog to weigh a ton.”  When this confused Andy, he asked him for clarification, and John had replied, “Well.  You asked me what I know, and I know that it takes a big dog to weigh a ton.” —  You can mark that one down as a famous quote from John Pitts.

Our A foreman was a tall thin black man named Bill Bennett.  He would walk into the electric shop office during lunch and sit down next to me.  He would look at me with a look of total disgust.  Shaking his head with disappointment, he would say to me…. “You Scamp!”  He might throw in another line like, “You disgust me.” (with the emphasis on the word “disgust) or he might say “You slut.”  It was times like these that I knew that Bill really cared about me.  I mean… he wouldn’t say those things to just anybody.

Bill accidentally said that last phrase to Diana when she had walked into the room just after he had graced me with those words.  She stood there for about one second stunned that Bill had said that to her, then she turned around and walked right back out.

I asked him what he had said, because his back was to me at the time, and he had said it under his breath like he had to me and I couldn’t hear what he said…. but I did catch the look on Diana’s face, and it wasn’t a happy expression.

He told me, and he said he probably just made a terrible mistake.  I’m sure once Diana thought about it twice she would have realized that this was Bill’s way of passing on his endearment toward you.

Charles Foster was my foreman for my first year as an electrician trainee.  He was my friend for all 18 years I spent as an electrician.  I had the habit when I was trying to think about something of starting my sentence with the word “Well….” and then pausing.  Charles would invariably finish my thought with “…that’s a deep subject.”

The first time, my reaction was like Andy’s when John Pitt told him that it took a big dog to weigh a ton.  I said, “What?”  He replied.  “Well….   That’s a deep subject.”  Ok.  I know….  I’m slow.

Each morning when Charles would walk into the electric shop office, or when I would walk in and Charles would already be there, I would say, “good morning.”  Charles would say, “Mornin’ Glory.”  In the time I was in the electric shop, I must have heard that phrase over 1,000 times.

One time we were on a major overhaul on Unit 1, and we were doing check out on all the alarms in the plant that weren’t specific to Unit 2.  When you do that, you go to the various devices and mimic sending the alarm by either activating a device or putting a jumper across the contacts that would send in the alarm.

In order to perform this task, we found early on that there were two people in the shop that you couldn’t assign to this job.  One person was Bill Ennis.

Bill Ennis was a middle aged (ok.  well… older) fellow that owned a Coast-To-Coast store in Perry, Oklahoma.

Gee.  This might be a picture of the actual store.  Bill's store had a motel associated with it just like this one.

Gee. This might be a picture of the actual store. Bill’s store had a motel associated with it just like this one.

The reason you couldn’t assign Bill to do alarm checks was best put by Bill Ennis himself.  He said it like this.  “I’m blind in one eye, and I can’t see out of the other.”  This was Bill’s famous power plant quote.  What he meant was that he was color blind in one eye and he was literally blind in the other.  So, he really was “blind” in one eye, and couldn’t see out of the other.

In order to do alarm checks, you needed to be able to locate wires some times by color.  Well… Green and red both look the same to Bill Ennis.

If you are not color blind, you can see a number 62 in this picture.

If you are not color blind, you can see the number 62 in this picture.

If you are color blind, this is what you see.

So, you see, that wouldn’t be good.

The other person you didn’t want to have doing alarm checks was Charles Foster.  As we found out later, this was because he has Dyslexia.  So, even if he could read the 62 in the picture above, he might see it as a 26.

During alarm checks one person has to stay in the control room and watch the alarm monitor and the alarm printouts.  So, as we would send in alarms to the control room the person in the control room would reply to us telling us which alarms came in.  He would read the number on the screen or the printout.

In the spring of 1986, the person that was elected to sit in the control room all day and watch the alarm panel was Gary Wehunt.  He was new at the plant, and didn’t know his way around much, so it was easier for him to perform this job.

The only problem was that Gary had a habit of not paying attention.  He would either be daydreaming or he would be talking to someone in the control room about something other than the benefits of having a reliable alarm monitoring system.

So, while Dee (Diana), Andy and I were running around the plant sending alarms into the control room, we would be sitting there waiting for a response from Gary telling us what alarms he received.  When he wouldn’t reply, we might call on the radio…. Gary, did you get an alarm?

Gary would always reply the same way.  “Just now came in.”  Well… we knew it didn’t take that long for an alarm to come into the control room, as the control room needed to know immediately when there was an alarm.  So, some times we would send the same alarm about 20 times in a row one right after the other waiting for Gary to tell us that he received the alarm.

Finally we would just have to key the radio to call Gary, and he would jump in there and say, “Just now came in.”  We had about 2,000 alarms to check, and you want to be able to move from alarm to alarm rapidly once you finally make it to a position where there are a number of alarms in the same area.  But this was slowing us down.

We tried different ways to “remind” Gary that we needed to know immediately when the alarms came in, and we needed to have him give us the number of the alarm as well.  But all during the overhaul, we would receive the same response from Gary…. “Just now came in.”

The last phrase that I will mention was said by Mike Rose.  He was an Englishman that had moved to the U.S. from Canada where he had worked with the railroad.  He pointed out that a Diesel engine is really an electrical generator.  A diesel engine on a train is really pulling the train using electricity generated by a turbine generator turned by a diesel engine.

I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I remember the phrase well, as it became a well used phrase in our shop after we heard it for the first time from Mike Rose.  The phrase was, “Ain’t my mota.”  (in this case “mota” is a slang word for motor).

So, Mike was replying to a comment that some motor was not working properly, or had burned up all together by saying “Ain’t my mota.”  Which meant, “it isn’t my worry.”  Actually, this was pretty much Mike’s philosophy of life altogether.

Art Hammond and I would jokingly use the phrase, “Ain’t my mota.”  When faced with an obvious task that was our worry.  We might stop in the middle of our work and look at one another and say, “Well…. It ain’t my mota.”  then continue working away.

When I was working in Global Employee Services Support at Dell, where I work today, during a particular project our project team had come up with the phrase, “Nobody’s gonna die.”  Which meant that when we go live with our project, if something goes wrong, everything will be all right, because… “Nobody’s gonna die.”  Meaning that it isn’t going to be so bad that we can’t fix it.

When the project was over we were given tee-shirts that said on the back, “Nobody Died”.  This phrase reminds me of Mike Rose’s phrase “Ain’t my Mota.”

I tried to remember any phrases I came up with myself, but I’m either just not that creative, or I have just “forgotten more than I ever knew” (which is an actual phrase used by my mother once).  I was more into singing songs like Richard Moravek, when he would sing “Nestle’s makes the very best Chocolate” with Jay Harris at the Muskogee Power plant each morning before going to work.

I would break out into song by belting out the Brady Bunch song, or the Beverly Hillbillies, or some such thng.  I would also make some songs up like the one about Ronnie Banks on the Labor Crew to the tune of the William Tell Overture (The Lone Ranger galloping song for the more western educated readers)…. by singing, “Ronnie Banks, Ronnie Banks, Ronnie Banks, Banks, Banks.”

Or I would sing the Wizard of Oz like this.  “We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz, because because because because…. because because because because…”  No… no great quotes from me.

Ok.  I do remember borrowing a phrase from the movie, “Trouble with Angels.” with Haley Mills, when she would say, “Another Brilliant Idea.”

Trouble With Angels

Trouble With Angels

Only when I said it, it was usually for a very sarcastic reason….  For instance, (and I will write about this much later), I remember announcing on the radio on an open channel one day that this was “Another one of Jasper’s ‘Brilliant’ Ideas”  I was called to his office later that day, but as you will see when I write that much later post, that it turned out it wasn’t because of the remark I had made on the channel I knew he was monitoring (much to my surprise).

Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal — Repost

Originally posted on:  June 1, 2012.  I added a story about Preston Jenkins:

The first couple of years while I worked as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant Coal Cleanup was performed on weekends by volunteer He-Men that wanted to make a few extra dollars.  As a summer help, I needed all the extra money I could get.  My wages during the first year (1979) were $3.89 an hour.  This jumped to $5.84 an hour when I worked on the weekend, so you can imagine the thrill I had at receiving a paycheck that included the extra money made by doing “Coal Cleanup”.  Another great advantage to doing coal cleanup on the weekends was that I was able to carpool with different people.  So, during the first summer instead of just riding to work with Steve Higginbotham, I caught a lot of rides with real Power Plant Men like Dale Hull, David Hankins Jerry Mitchell, Preston Jenkins and Marlin McDaniel (Yeah.  Marlin McDaniel as an A Foreman would volunteer for coal cleanup some times.  Maybe it was when we were short a few people).

Coal Cleanup really became important during the second half of the first summer because Unit 1 was getting ready to go online.  There was a major flaw in the Coal Conveyor logic when the conveyors first started conveying coal from the coal pile to the coal silos just above the bowl mills.  What would happen was the same thing that happens if someone were to fall down at the top of a crowded escalator going up.  Everyone behind that person would be shoved right on top of them if there wasn’t an emergency stop button to stop the escalator.


All the conveyors had a safety cord alongside the entire length that could be pulled to stop the conveyor in an emergency, but this was something different.

To give you an idea… once the coal on the coal pile has been fed onto either Belts 4, 5, 6 or 7, from there the coal is dropped onto either belt 8 or 9.  That carries the coal up to the coal Crusher which has a bin above the crusher that can be filled with coal.  If the bin gets too full, then conveyor 8 and/or 9 would stop.  When that happens, belts 4, 5, 6 or 7 should stop also…. only they didn’t.  Belts 8 and 9 continued dumping coal into the crusher bin until it filled up and then coal fell out all over the top of the crusher tower around belts 8 and 9 until the coal tripped the belt by hitting the safety cord on the side of the belt.  Belts 4, 5, 6 and 7 continued dumping coal onto belts 8 and 9, which caused the coal to backup and spill out all over the floor until the coal piled up high enough to trip the safety cord on the side of the belt.

In the picture of the power plant on the side of this post, there is one long conveyor that goes from the coalyard to the plant.  It is about 1/2 mile long.  This is where belts 10 and 11 carry the coal from the crusher, which crushes the coal down from big pieces the size of baseballs down to the size of walnuts.

The long belts 10 and 11 were like these only they are in a metal enclosure so the coal didn’t spill out on the ground.

At the top of the Transfer tower the coal from belts 10 and 11 are dumped onto belts 12 and 13 which carry the coal up to the Surge Bin Tower where the coal is dumped into the Surge bin.  Now when the Surge Bin fills up, it stops belts 12 and/or 13 and it should also stop belts 10 and 11 and the feeders that feed the coal into the crusher at the bottom of the crusher bin… only they didn’t.  They continued dumping coal into the Surge bin, which filled up and spilled coal all over the surge bin until belts 12 and 13 tripped, at which point, coal began spilling out all over the transfer tower filling up both floors of the transfer tower with tons of coal.  The same thing would happen at the bottom of Belt 10 and 11, where the crusher feeders kept feeding coal down to belts 10 and 11, which spilled out all over the bottom floor of the crusher tower.  I have worked in the transfer tower where the coal was higher than the windows and you had to bend over because your head would hit the ceiling on the floor at the foot of belt 12 and 13.  It was almost dangerous enough to picture yourself sliding down the pile of coal and slipping right out one of the windows (which had been broken out by the pile of coal).  To give you an idea of what this felt like, it was then a straight drop of 150 feet to the concrete below.

If that doesn’t seem like enough coal spills, then picture this…  The coal from the Surge Bin tower fed onto belts 14, 15, 18 and 19 which in turn fed onto belts 16 and 17, 20 and 21.  These last 4 belts were in what was called the “Tripper Gallery”.  These 4 belts would dump coal into 12 coal silos (6 on each unit) that would feed the bowl mills. These are big silos about 5 stories tall.  The same thing would happen to these belts leaving piles of coal at the bottom of the surge bin in the surge bin tower and all along the tripper gallery because when the coal silos were full, the tripper was supposed to move to the next silo and dump coal until it was full, and keep moving until all the silos were full.  Only, the tripper wasn’t working correctly, so it wouldn’t detect that the silo was full so the belt would keep dumping coal and would end up spilling coal all over the entire tripper gallery which runs about 100 feet or so.

So, our first experience with doing coal cleanup was like being on a chain gang where we shoveled coal from morning until night trying to clean up these 15 or so major coal spills by shoveling the coal back onto the conveyor while it was running.  In some cases, we had to shovel the coal away from the belt before the belt could even run (as was the case with belts 12 and 13).  So, you can imagine how shoveling coal one scoop at a time made it seem like you were not getting anywhere fast.  3 or 4 men could all be shoveling on one pile of coal for 30 minutes and not even make a noticeable dent in the pile.  That is why when I went to the tool room to choose a shovel, instead of picking a regular shovel, I picked a large scoop shovel used to scoop grain.

Scoop Shovel

Regular Shovel

Even though each scoop of coal was heavier, it seemed more satisfying to see the bigger dent in the pile of coal with each shovelful.  I remember one day after we had shoveled coal all day from morning until late at night only to come back into work the next morning to the new piles of coal just as big as the ones we had shoveled the day before.

After 2 years of volunteer coal cleanup which was becoming less volunteer and more rotational since the list of volunteers was growing smaller, Ray Butler pointed out that it didn’t make much sense to pay a first class machinist overtime to shovel coal when you could create a labor crew and pay them bottom dollar to do coal cleanup all the time, as well as other dirty jobs that no one really wanted to do (such as suck out sewage pits and other sump pits around the plant).  That was when the Labor crew was formed.  While I was in my 3rd year as a summer help (1981).  Bill Cook was a summer help then that stayed on as a labor crew hand at the end of the summer.  By the 4th summer as summer help, the only time we did coal cleanup was when there was a major spill, which was only a couple of times all summer.

I will write later about coal cleanup with Dale Hull.  I also remember doing coal-cleanup with Preston Jenkins one weekend.  I hadn’t carpooled with him to work, but I caught a ride back to Stillwater with him because my ride left at the end of a full day, and I decided to stay behind to add a few extra dollars to my bank account.  We left a couple of hours later around seven o’clock.

I climbed into the back of Preston’s Camaro.  I apologized for being so dirty, as I was covered from head-to-toe in coal-dust and my clothes were soaked with coal-dust permeated sweat.  Preston said that he didn’t mind.  I soon found out why.

When I climbed into the backseat of his car, I noticed that the upholstery that covered the seat back of the back seat was stained with some blackish-brownish um…. something.  Anyway.  I decided to sit on the passenger side of the back seat instead of behind the driver side because that side wasn’t near as stained.  As we drove down the highway toward home, I quickly learned why the seat back was so stained.

Being the “good-ol’ boy” that Preston was, when he climbed into the car, he took out his can of Skoal and put a pinch between his cheek and gums:

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums.... Never tried it myself.

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums…. Never tried it myself.

As we flew down the highway like a Texan heading for Stillwater, Preston would lean his head out the window and squirt out a wad of spit.  It would dance in the air like a little fairy just before it would be sucked into the back window of his car and splat against the seat back of the back seat.  Yep that explained it all right.  I always wondered if he knew, never having to sit in the back seat of his own car.

It was during the first summer when I was able to catch a ride with David Hankins a couple of times.  He was the crane operator at the time and drove a black Trans Am.  He was a black man with a very broad chest that never seemed to tire while doing coal cleanup.  From the first day he always treated me with great respect which in turn gave me a great respect for him.  I had him classified as a true Power Plant Man.

The second summer when I had been back at the plant for a couple of weeks, one day when Jim Heflin and I were going somewhere in a yellow Cushman cart, I asked Jim why I hadn’t seen David Hankins around.

A Cushman Cart Like this only Yellow

Jim (who hadn’t been at the plant the first summer) stopped the cart in the middle of the road and looked at me very solemnly and told me that David Hankins had died in a car accident in the spring.  He had been going home from a Men’s Club event when he was killed.  Because of this, alcoholic beverages were no longer allowed at Men’s Club events.  As with all the people I have worked with at the power plant, I keep David Hankins in my memory and I often think about him to this day.  David Hankins was a True Power Plant Man.

Comments from the original Post:

  1. neenergyobserver June 1, 2012 as 6:28 pm

    We’ve lost so many friends over the years, in the plants and on the line, especially when they were relaxing on their way home. You, and David’s family have my 9very belated) condolences.

    Somebody, somewhere, needs to teach engineers a course on Conveyor Logic 101, I’ve seen the same thing happen in nearly every plant (from automotive, rarely, to meat packing, often) I’ve been in. Or they could, just for once in their life, shut their pie-hole and listen to people like you and me.

    1. Plant Electrician June 1, 2012 at 11:39 pm

      Thanks Nebraska.

      We were often exhausted while driving home from work when we had been working a lot of overtime. It was a wonder sometimes that we were able to keep the car on the road.

      My uncle Bill Breazile worked for the Utility company in Nebraska City where someone closed a breaker while he was working on a line. He was in the hospital for about 6 months healing from his burns. This was about 30 years ago. He has since passed away. It takes a special person to be a lineman. Putting their life on the line every time they reach out to do their job.

      1. neenergyobserver June 2, 2012 at 10:42 am

        Not that different from you. It’s all about planning your work, and doing it right, and safely. You and I know that 480 will kill you just as quick as 7200 if you get careless. That’s why almost all (old) linemen and electricians are in some sense stolid and unexcitable.

  2. jackcurtis July 14, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    Industrial America returns in stories and comments in places like this, from the only place it still exists: the minds of those who were part of it. Industrial America was a giant; those who manned it were giant tamers and it seems to me, very much the special breed illuminated in these posts…

A Power Plant Day to Remember

There seem to be some days of the year where every few years, I am not surprised to learn something out of the ordinary has happened.  Almost as if it was a personal holiday or anniversary for some unknown reason.  One of those days of the year for me is June 25.  It is 2 days before my sister’s birthday and another grade school friend of mine….  It is a few days after the beginning of summer…. It is exactly 6 months or 1/2 year from Christmas.  We sometimes jokingly refer to June 25 as the “anti-Christmas”.

June 25 was the date my son was born.  Exactly 14 years later to the day, Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett both died on the same day, as well as a relative of mine.

Farrah Fawcett

Farrah Fawcett

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

A day my son remembers well.  He told me that we went out to eat at Logan’s Roadhouse for dinner, and reminds me of the people that died on that day.  He has a detailed memory of his 14th birthday and what we did during the day on June 25, 2009.

June 25 exactly 10 years to the day before my son was born, I have a very vivid memory of the events that took place that day.  Because the events of this day are often in my mind, I will share them with you.  It was a day where I spent some time with a True Power Plant Man, met a true hero and dealt with the emotions of two great tragedies.  The day was June 25, 1985.

I had been an electrician at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma for a little over a year and a half, which still made me an electrical apprentice at the time.  Surprisingly, that morning Bill Bennett told me that he wanted me to go with Ben Davis to Enid to find a grounded circuit.  He said that it would be a good opportunity to learn more about the auxiliary generators that were in Enid Oklahoma.  They were peaking units that we would use only during high demand days during the summer.

The reason I was surprised was because I didn’t normally get to work with Ben.  I had worked with him the previous fall at the Muskogee Power Plant when we were on “Overhaul”. You can read about that “adventure” in the post: “Lap O’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant“.  Ben wasn’t on my crew in the electric shop, so we rarely ever worked with each other.

Ben and I loaded some equipment into the back of the Ford Pickup and climbed into the truck.  Ben was driving.  The normal route to  take to Enid would be to go south on Highway 177 and then go west on the turnpike straight to Enid.  Ben had worked at Enid a lot in the past, and over the years, had taken different routes for a change of scenery, so he asked me if I would mind if we took a different route through the countryside.  It was a nice sunny morning and it was early enough that the heat hadn’t kicked in, so we took the scenic route to Enid that morning.

I remember going by an old farmhouse that over 12 years later, Ray Eberle shared a horror story about.  I remember the drive.  We were pretty quiet on the way.  We didn’t talk much.  Ben was usually a quiet person, and I didn’t think he would appreciate my tendency to ramble, so I just smiled and looked out the window.  I was glad that I was with Ben and that I was given the opportunity to work with him.  I looked up to him.  To me he was one of the True Power Plant Men that gave you the confidence that no matter how bad things may become… everything would be all right, because men like Ben were there to pull you out of the fire when you needed a helping hand.

When we arrived in Enid, it was nearing the time that we would normally take a break.  Ben asked if I minded if we stopped by Braum’s to get something for breakfast.  Of course, I didn’t mind.  I have always had a special affinity for food of any kind.  Braum’s has an especially good assortment of delicious meals…. and deserts.

Braum's is a great place to go for a Chocolate Malt and a Burger.  It is only found around Oklahoma and the surrounding states not too far from the Oklahoma border.

Braum’s is a great place to go for a Chocolate Malt and a Burger. It is only found around Oklahoma and the surrounding states not too far from the Oklahoma border.

We pulled into the Braum’s Parking lot and Ben parked the pickup toward the far end away from any other cars.  Somewhere where we could watch it as we ate.  I climbed out of the truck and walked toward the entrance.  As I passed the handicap parking space next to the front door, I noticed a white Lincoln parked there with a license plate embossed with a Purple Heart.

On like this, on this one didn't belong to Sam

One like this, only this one didn’t belong to Sam

When I saw this license plate, I wondered who it belonged to in the in restaurant.  When I walked in, I immediately knew.  There was the hero sitting in the corner booth.  There were two elderly men sitting there drinking their coffee.  I had wanted to buy them breakfast, but it looked like they had already eaten.  I went up to the counter and ordered a sausage biscuit and a drink.  Then I walked back around by their table.  I paused and looked at them.  I smiled….

I wanted to say, “Is that your white car parked right out there?”  After one of them said yes, I wanted to say, “Thank you for serving our country.”  For some reason I didn’t say anything.  I just smiled at the two of them and sat down two booths down the row from them.  I’m not usually one for keeping my mouth shut when something comes to mind, but that morning, I kept quiet.  This is one of the reasons I think about this day often.  Whenever I see a purple heart on a license plate, I think of the two elderly heroes sitting in Braum’s that morning on June 25, 1985.

After eating our breakfast we left Braum’s at 9:30 and Ben drove us to the Auxiliary Generators so that we could find the grounded circuit and repair it.  There were some other chores we were going to work on, but that was the most interesting one.  Ben had worked on enough grounded circuits in this mini-power plant to know that the first place to look was in a mult-connector, where cables came into the control room and connected to the cables that led to the control panels.

a multi-pole connector like this only bigger.

a multi-pole connector like this only bigger.

Ben was right.  We quickly found the grounded wire in the connector and did what we could to clear it.  As we were finishing this up, the phone rang.  The phone was in the garage, and we were in a control room that was like a long trailer parked out back.  A bell had been placed outside of the garage so that people working on the generators or in the control room could hear the phone ringing.  Ben went to answer it while I finished insulating the connector and connecting the circuit back up.

After a few minutes, Ben came back into the control room and told me that we needed to go back to the plant.  He explained that on June 25, 1985 at 9:30 his father had a heart attack in Shidler, Oklahoma.  They weren’t sure of his condition, but it didn’t look good.  They were going to life-flight him to Tulsa.  I immediately knew how he felt.

Life Flight from Tulsa

Life Flight from Tulsa

I remember the morning in my dorm room in college when my mother called me to tell me that my own father had a heart attack and that he was in the hospital in Stillwater, Oklahoma and was being life-flighted to Tulsa.  I called up one of my professors at the College of Psychology and told him that I wouldn’t be attending class that morning.  He told me he would pass it on to the other professors.  Later, when I was in Tulsa, many professors from the University of Missouri in Columbia sent flowers to him in the hospital in Tulsa.

I remember grabbing a small suitcase, throwing some clothes in it and going straight to my car and driving the 345 miles to Tulsa.  It is a long drive.  It becomes an even longer drive under these circumstances.  That is why as we were driving back to the plant, and Ben was going faster and faster down the highway, I understood him completely.  I was praying for the safety of his father and the safety of the two of us.

Ben had expected that by the time we made it back to the plant that his father would be on his way to Tulsa.  I suppose he figured that he would go to Shidler and pick up his mother and any other family members and would head to Tulsa.  Unfortunately, when we walked into the electric shop, he found out that his father was still in Shidler.  No Life Flight would be coming for him.  Not for a while at least.

You see, another event had taken place at 9:30 on June 25, 1985.  Let me explain it to you like this….. When Ben and I walked out of the Braum’s in Enid, Oklahoma that morning, directly down the road from this Braum’s 100 miles east, just outside of a town named Hallett, an electrical supplies salesman was driving from Tulsa to our power plant in North Central Oklahoma.  He was on the Cimarron Turnpike going west.

The salesman looked to the south and he saw something that was so bizarre that it didn’t register.  It made no sense.  There was a herd of cattle grazing out in a pasture, and while he was watching them, they began tumbling over and flying toward him.  He said it was so unreal his mind couldn’t make any sense out of it.  Suddenly his car went skidding sideways off the road as a deafening roar blasted his car.  He came safely to a stop and just sat there stunned by what had just happened.

Looking to the south, the salesman could see a large mushroom cloud rising in the distance.  Something that looked like a nuclear explosion.  After composing himself for a few minutes, he drove back onto the road and continued on his way to the plant, not sure what had happened.  Upon arriving at the plant, he learned (as did the rest of the employees at the plant) that a fireworks plant had exploded in Hallett, Oklahoma.  Here is an article about the explosion:  “Fireworks Plant Explosion Kills 21 in Oklahoma“.  This was a tragedy much like the West Texas Fertilizer explosion on April 17, 2013 at 8 pm.

What this tragedy meant for Ben was that there wasn’t going to be a Life Flight from Tulsa for his father.  They had all been called to Hallett for the tragedy that had occurred there.  I believe that Ben’s father survived the heart attack from that day.  It seemed like he was taken by ambulance instead.

The timing of these events made me think about Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

Obi Wan Kenobi

Obi Wan Kenobi

When Darth Vader was trying to persuade Princess Leia to tell him where the rebel base was hidden he blew up her home planet.  When this happened Obi Wan Kenobi was on the Millenium Falcon with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.  Obi Wan felt the sudden loss of life in the universe when the planet exploded.

This made me wonder….. what about Ben’s father?  Had Ben’s father experienced some hidden distress from the sudden tragedy of what happened 60 miles almost directly south of Shidler?  The timing and location is interesting.  Ben and I were almost due west, and Ben’s Father was almost due North of Hallett that morning when the explosion took place.

Even if it was all coincidental, I have made it into something that is important to me.  Don’t most of us do that?  Where were you when the Murrah Building was bombed on April 19, 1995 at 9:02 am?  What were you doing that morning?  I will write about that morning much later.  Where were you on the morning of September 11, 2001 at 8:46 am?  I remember where I was sitting and what I was doing at that moment.  On June 25, 1985 at 9:30 am.  I know what I was doing at that moment.  Our break was over.  Ben and I walked out of Braum’s, climbed into the Pickup truck and made our way to the Auxiliary Generators.

That one day, I had the opportunity to spend some time with a True Power Plant Man, Ben Davis.  I spent some time sharing his grief for his father and his mother.  I met an elderly hero that had been wounded while serving his country.  We all grieved for the loss of young lives from the explosion at the fireworks plant in Hallett.   June 25, 1985.