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.

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4 responses

  1. Great story! The manager at HLS was Hatley (with a “t”). Larry and I were good friends. He had flown airplanes some (as had I) so we swapped piloting adventures, some of which were actually true. Larry was a good guy.

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    1. Thanks Ron. I have corrected the spelling of Larry’s name. 🙂 I had the same impression of Larry Hatley in the short time I worked at the plant.

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  2. […] had been married (the day following my last day at Horseshoe Lake overhaul — see the post:  A Slap in the Face at a Gas-Fired Power Plant), and I had used every cent I had in the world to pay for our honeymoon.  I was even relying on […]

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