Monthly Archives: July, 2013

Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement — Repost

There were two distinct times in my life at the Power Plant Kingdom where I went Head-to-Head (or tête-à-tête as they say in France) with a horde of spiders.  The second time I fought side-by-side with my trusty friend Scott Hubbard, that I knew wouldn’t desert me when things went from bad-to-worse (for some reason I find myself using a lot of hyphens-to-day).  The first battle, however, I had to face alone, armed only with a push broom and a shovel.

It all started a few months after I became a janitor at the power plant (in 1982).  I had received my Psychology degree at the University of Missouri and I was well on my way to becoming a certified “sanitation engineer” (as my Grandmother corrected me after I told her I was a janitor).

It actually came in handy having a Psychology degree.  Power Plant men would sometimes approach me when I was working by myself to stop and have a conversation that usually started like this:  “So, someone told me you are a Psychiatrist.”  I would correct them and tell them that I am a janitor and I only have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology which makes me a properly trained janitor able to sweep the floor in confidence that “I’m OK, and You’re OK.” (which was a joke lost on everyone at the plant except for Jim Kanelakos, who was also a janitor with a Masters in Psychology).  Then they would usually want to talk about problems they were having.  I would lean on my broom and listen.  Nodding my head slightly to show I was listening.  After a while the person would be done and thank me for listening and go on back to work.

The most important thing I learned while obtaining a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology was that Psychology is an art, not a science.  Though certain scientific methods are used in many areas, especially in Behavioral Psychology.  Being an art, means that the person must possess the talent for being a Psychologist.  This is as important as being properly trained.  So I never assumed the role of a real Psychologist, I rather tried my best to just be a friend.  I found that worked well.

As I mentioned, James Kanelakos was also a janitor at the Power Plant.  Which meant that between the 5 of us janitors and our leader Pat Braden, two of us not only had degrees, but both of them were in Psychology (with James having the Masters degree, and I as his pupil with the Bachelors).

Before I proceed with my battle with the spiders, I should mention a little about the dynamics of our Janitorial crew.

James Kanelakos was obviously Greek.  With a name like Kanelakos, it was rather obvious.  He looked the part also, with a graying moustache that made him look like a Greek sailor.  He never was a “True Power Plant Man” and he would be glad to hear me say that.  Instead he was a person that at the time acted as if he was buying his time at the plant waiting for something else to happen.

This picture reminds me of Jim Kanelakos.  I found it at Mobleyshoots.com

Though he never mentioned it, I know that he was also part Irish, and every now and then I would see the Irish come out.  He was a family man, and in that sense he reminded me of my own father (who was also part Irish).  He was only 35 years old at the time, but he acted as if he had lived longer.  He smoked a pipe like my father did.  As far as I know, he always remained married to his wife Sandy, and together they raised two children, a daughter and a son.  That was where his heart really was.

He made no secret that his family came before anything else.  Not that he would say it straight out to your face, but you could tell it in the way he interacted with others.  Like I said, Jim was there “buying his time”, changing his career at a time when he needed something… else.  Maybe to strengthen his priorities.  He said once that he left the office to go work outside.

Then there was Doris Voss.  She was an unlikely site to see in the Power Plant Palace (especially later when she became an operator).  She was a “Church-going Fundamentalist” who made it clear to me that Catholics, such as myself, were doomed to hell for various reasons.  I always enjoyed our… um… discussions.

I thought it was quite appropriate during Christmas when the janitors drew names from Jim’s Greek Sailor’s hat and I drew Doris’s name to give her a very nice leather-bound Catholic Version of the Family Bible.  I later heard her talking to Curtis Love about it in the kitchen.  He was telling her that she shouldn’t read it and she told him that it looked pretty much the same as hers and she didn’t see anything wrong with it.  Needless-to-say, I was rarely condemned to a regular Catholic’s fate after that.

A Bible like this with a Tassel hanging out of the bottom

Curtis Love, as I explained in the post called “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“, was very gullible.  It was easy to play a joke on Curtis.  Too easy.  He didn’t take them well, because he would rather believe what you were joking about before believing that you were joking at all.  Because of this, it never occurred to me to play a joke on Curtis.  Some how, though, it is hard to explain, Curtis reminded me of Tweedledee.  Or was it Tweedledum?

I think he reminded me more of the guy on the right… or maybe the left.

Then there was Ronnie Banks.  I talked about Ronnie Banks before in the post where Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost.  He was like a likable young bear standing up on his hind legs.  You could joke around with him and he was fun to be around.  He acted like he enjoyed your company.  Interestingly though, none of the people on our team would ever be classified as “True Power Plant Men”.  We were more like an odd assortment of Misfits.

Pat Braden was our lead Janitor.  He was by far the nicest person one could ever work for.  He constantly had a smile on his face.  He smiled when he talked, he smiled when he walked, and he especially smiled when he stood up from a chair and became dizzy from his blood pressure medicine.  He had a daughter at home that he really loved.  He reminded me of the goodhearted Red Skelton.

This Picture of Red Skelton reminds me of Pat Braden

Now back to the Spider Wars and the bugs in the basement.

When I first became a janitor, I was assigned to clean the Control room and to sweep half of the turbine room floor and the Control room elevator landings and stairs.  I always enjoyed being a janitor.  I first became a janitor when I was 15 years old Sophomore in High School working the night shift (from 11pm to 6am) at a Hilton Inn in Columbia, Missouri.

To me it was a dream job.  Sure, I couldn’t keep my own room cleaned, but put a push broom in my hand and pay me $2.50 an hour and I could clean all night.  When I began as a janitor at the power plant, I was making $5.15 an hour.  Double what I was making at the hotel cleaning the kitchen, the restaurant and the bar in the wee hours of the morning.

Anyway.  I went to work cleaning the control room like there was no tomorrow.  I would shampoo the carpet once each week.  I would clean on the top and the back of the Alarm Panel.  I know I made Ted Holdge real nervous once when I laid a vacuum cleaner on the top of the Main Electric Panel (That’s what I call it.  it was the Control panel where you synced up the unit when it was coming online) and I started vacuuming the top of it.  He actually jumped out of his chair in the Shift Supervisor’s office and stood there and watched me closely.  It obviously had never been cleaned before.  I was trying to get rid of a strange odor in the control room that eventually, I found out was years of burned coffee in the coffee maker in the break room.  I even had to scrub the walls in the kitchen to remove the odor from the entire control room.

Anyway.  I was getting to know the Control Room operators, and I was thinking that maybe someday when I had progressed past janitor and labor crew that one day I may become an operator also.

One day Pat Braden came to me and told me that I was going to have to move down to be the janitor of the Electric Shop.  There were many reasons.  The first was that Curtis wanted to be an operator and he thought that if he worked around them that they would get to know him and would want him to join their ranks.  The second reason was that for some reason, since Curtis had been the janitor of the Electric Shop he had been bitten twice by a brown recluse spider, which had invaded the janitor closet downstairs.  If he were to be bitten again, he might lose his job for being unsafe.

I didn’t mind.  Cleaning the Electric shop meant that I also was able to clean the Engineers Shack and the Brown and Root Building next to it.  I also decided that the main switchgear which was where the Janitor closet was located needed to be kept clean to cut down on the onslaught of the poisonous brown recluse spiders (which in Oklahoma is a regular house spider).

The Oklahoma house spider — The Brown Recluse.  Otherwise known at the “Fiddleback”

My first day as a Janitor in the Electric Shop as soon as I opened the door to the janitor closet, I could see why Curtis had been bitten by a Brown Recluse (not twice, but three times — the last time he didn’t tell Pat.  He showed me, but just went straight to the doctor for the required shots to counteract the poison.  Not wanting to lose his job).  The janitor closet was full of them.  They were all over the little 4 foot by 5 foot closet.

Thus began the first war on spiders at the coal fired power plant.  The closet was also being used to store Freon and other air conditioning equipment used by Jim Stevenson the Air Conditioning expert in the Electric Shop.  I decided then and there to move all the equipment out of the closet.  The spiders were practicing “Duck and Cover” drills all over this equipment so it had to go.

My main weapon against the spiders were my boots.  When I spied a spider, I stomped on it quickly.  I asked Pat Braden to order a case of insecticide to help me combat the spiders.  The next day he pulled a two-wheeler up to the closet with two cases and said, “Here is your order sir!” (picture Red Skelton saying that).

I had cleaned the shelves, the cabinet and the floor of the janitor closet, and there was no place for spiders to hide in there anymore.  Each morning when I arrived, there was always more spiders there.  3 or 4 at least waiting for me in the closet.  All Brown Recluse.

I surveyed the combat zone and realized that spiders were all over the main switchgear.  So I decided I was going to sweep the switchgear regularly and kill every spider I saw to wipe them out for good.

A picture of a clean switchgear. Picture 6 rows of switchgear like this

So I laid down floor sweep (cedar chips with red oil) to keep the dust down, and began at one corner and worked my way across the switchgear sweeping and killing spiders.  I kept a body count.  I taped a paper in the janitor closet to keep track of my daily kill.

I thought surely in a short time, I will have wiped out the spider population.  After sweeping the switchgear I laid down a blanket of Insecticide (equivalent to Agent Orange in Vietnam).  If I could kill any bugs that are around, the spiders would leave.  The insecticide didn’t kill the spiders.  they would just duck under the switchgear and then come out an hour later to be standing where I left them before.  So I kept stomping them out.

Every day, my body count was around 25 to 30 spiders and this number wasn’t going down.  That was when I discovered the Cable Spreader room…  I had been involved in mere child’s play before I walked down some steps at the tail end of the switchgear and opened one of the two doors at the bottom.

I cannot describe to you exactly what I saw, because nothing I say can put into words what was there.  I guess the best thing I can say is:  Armageddon.

There were two rooms.  One on each side at the bottom of some concrete steps.  They are called Cable Spreader rooms and are directly beneath the switchgear.  One side was unit one, the other was unit 2.  They are large rooms with cable trays lining the walls and across the room at regular intervals.  The floor was damp, and it was black, and it was alive.  There was a small path through the room where the operator would pass through “the gauntlet” once each shift as they muttered prayers that they not be eaten alive by the black oozing mass of bugs spiders and an occasional snake.

I knew what I had to do.  These two rooms and the cable tunnels that ran from there underneath the T-G building were the source of my daily trouncing of the meager few spiders that decided to explore the world above to see what was happening in the switchgear.  The real battle was down here in the trenches.

I started with a large box of Plastic Contractor bags, a box of floor sweep, a shovel and a push broom.  I attacked the room the same way I used to clean my own bedroom at home when I was growing up.  I started in one corner and fanned out.  Not letting anything past me.  always keeping a clear supply line back to the steps that led up to freedom and air up above.

At first I just took a large scoop shovel and scooped up the black mass of crawling and dead bugs and dumped them in a bag, until I had enough space to sweep the dust into a pile.  Then I attacked it again.  Occasionally a small snake would appear upset that I had invaded his space, and into the bag it would go.  Everything went in the bags.  The snakes, the bugs, the spiders and the grime.  There was actually a constant battle taking place down there that I was interrupting.  it was bug eat bug, spider eat bug and snake eat bugs and spiders wars.  Everything went in the bags.

I carefully hauled the bags out to the dumpster and out they went.  It took an entire day to clean one room.  Then the next day when I went back I completely cleaned it again.  This time paying more attention to making it livable.  I wanted these two rooms to be so clean that people could go down into these cool damp rooms in the hot summer and have a picnic down there and feel safe.  —  No one ever did though, but such is the life of a cable spreader room.

After that, each day I made my rounds of the switchgear, the cable spreader rooms and the cable tunnels killing any spider that showed it’s legs.  After the main battle in the two rooms and tunnels was over of countless spiders and bugs, I recorded about 230 spiders the next day by making my rounds.  The next day that dropped to around 150.  then 80, then 50 and on down.  Finally, when I was down to 3 or 4 spiders each day, I felt like the war was over and a weekly sweeping and daily walk-through would suffice to keep the switchgear safe.  This left the small janitor closet virtually free of spiders from that point.

The interesting twist of the entire battle against the spiders was that the electricians had seen my skills at Battle sweeping and some of them had become impressed.  They told me that I didn’t have to sweep their shop and the main switchgear because they took turns doing it.  I still felt that as the janitor, with my battle hardened push broom, by paying a little more attention to detail would do a slightly better job.

The electricians didn’t really volunteer to clean the shop.  Whoever was the truck driver for that week was supposed to clean the shop at least one time during the week.  At $5.15 an hour, I was more of a volunteer than someone that was hired to do this chore, and I enjoyed it.  So, eventually, Charles Foster (An Electrical Foreman) popped the question to me one day…. He asked me if I would think about becoming an Electrician.

That was something I hadn’t even considered until that moment.  The Electricians to me were the elite squad of Power Plant Maintenance.  Like the Results guys, but with a wider range of skills it seemed.  But that is a story for another time.

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Sky Climbing in the Dark with Power Plant Boiler Rats

I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day.  Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes…..  I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day.  It was often a surprise.  Sometimes the surprise was a wonder.  Sometimes it was well…. surreal.

This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before.  You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance.  Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.

As I said, we were on overhaul.  This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running.  The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler.  People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.

At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop.  I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1.  Changing their bearings and testing them.  Then putting them back in place.  The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop.  I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time.  He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months.  He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.

David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler.  Now.  when i was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul.  I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section.  You can read about these moments of mania in the posts:  “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.

During those times I knew that something was taking place in the superheat section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was.  You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead.  This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post:  “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“).  About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.

This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats.  These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline.  Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.

Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler.  That is the height of a 20 story building.  Yes.  That’s right.  The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building.  I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat.  Not a cute rat like this:

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Or even a normal rat like this:

Normal looking rat

Normal looking rat

No.  These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth.  More like this:

rat from kootation

rat picture taken from kootation.com

Yep.  Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer.  I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….

Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck.  He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.

If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.

A sky climber

A sky climber

You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler.  One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working.  That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet…  I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool.

So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went.  I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes.  As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor.  It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat.  This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.

Anyway, Up into the darkness we went.  The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride.  Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer.  Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff.  Some were resting.  Some were welding.  Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.

There were names for these rats.  One was called T-Bone.  Another was called ET.  There was a guy there called Goosman.  Another boiler rat was called Frazier.  I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis.  Oh.  Now I remember.  Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where john Brien was staring back at him.

There were many other boiler rats there from other plants.  They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark.  Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.

We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken.  I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor.  I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as i fell so as to miss any boiler rats below.  I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.

By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in.  Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.

I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened.  Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post:  “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.

I took out my multimeter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connect where the cable came into the box.  So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix.  The cord had been pulled by something (geez.  It was only hanging down 200 feet.  I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.

I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector.  It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it.  Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said.  I think it was Goosman talking to Opal.  He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”

That was it.  That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived.  Someone had a radio that was playing country music.  The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it.  I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other.  They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss.  The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction.  Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.

I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once.  I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986.  A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.

There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats.  A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me.  I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country.  When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies.  You bond to those around you in a unique way.

I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day.  They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help.  I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.

Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler.  Maybe a faint hint of country music.  I  knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories.  Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler.  I doubt anyone ever did.

A Day in the Life of Power Plant Man and the Sign Hangin’ Chain Gang — Repost

Originally Posted July 21, 2012:

No one knows more about having to put up with the antics of Summer Help than the Power Plant Man Jim Heflin.  Though Jim wasn’t completely a True Power Plant Man, he was nevertheless certified as a Bonafide Caretaker of Summer Help Helpers.  I understood after a couple of years of being a Summer Help myself that the reason that Summer Help were called by that name was because they really did indeed need help.  Though some may think that this help could best be found in the company of a licensed Therapist, most of the time what they really needed was a good dose of Summer Help chores to keep them out of trouble and to teach them the fine art of labor in its most tedious and repetitious form.

Though I’m not sure, but it could have been Jim Heflin that talked Stanley Elmore into allowing the summer help to attach the signs to the barbed wire fence that surrounded the Electric Company property that enclosed the Power Plant itself as well as the lake that was built to be used as cooling water in the condenser.  I say that because it didn’t seem like it was a long time after I had answered the phone one day in the garage and I found Jim Heflin’s wife on the other end of the line calling to talk to Jim that we were assigned to the task of installing the signs.  Jim wasn’t in the shop at the time so she told me to tell Jim that his wife Brenda had called.

Well.  It just so happened that my girlfriend at the time (who I later married and lived happily ever after) and I had a joke character that we would talk about named “Brenda Bulldog”.  It is a long story to tell about Brenda Bulldog, so I’ll just say that it has to do with “Otto” in the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip, and his girlfriend “Polly Bulldog” who is always suspicious of another bulldog named “Brenda Bulldog”.  I’m sure that you all have the same sort of characters that you talk about in your family… um… don’t you?

Otto from the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip

So, obviously, when she told me that her name was Brenda, I just had to respond as Otto would respond.  So I said in a gruff but excited voice (rolling the “R” in the word Brenda in my throat), “Brenda Bulldog?!?”  Jim’s Wife responded by asking what I had said, so I responded back exactly as I had the first time, “Brenda Bulldog?!?”  Well, I guess she misunderstood my intentions because she sounded obviously disgruntled as she explained to me in no uncertain terms that she was not a bulldog.  I answered back by insisting that this was, “Brenda Bulldog!” She repeated again that she was not a bulldog and told me to just tell Jim to call her at home when he returned to the garage.

When Jim came back from the Maintenance Shop I told him that his wife had called, and I added, “By the way.  I called her “Brenda Bulldog”.  I explained to him that I just couldn’t help it when I heard her name was Brenda, I just had to say “Brenda Bulldog”.  I couldn’t help it.  It just came out.  He looked a little mystified by my explanation and quickly went into the office to call home.

I guess in hindsight, after having met Brenda in person it probably wasn’t a good idea to have called her “Brenda Bulldog”.  First of all, not only did Jim Heflin have the face that reminded you of a likable Basset hound, but Brenda really did kind of remind you of a bulldog.  If I had known that earlier, I am sure I would have insisted that she was Brenda Poodle.  That would be the most logical response given the circumstance.

Kind of like this

A couple of days later a pickup truck was backed up to the garage and in the back were bundles of thin metal signs.  Each sign was about the size of a piece of paper.  the sign was white and had red lettering.  There were two different signs.  One that indicated that this was the Property of the Electric company and that a person should only enter at designated areas.  The other had a set of warnings or rules, which I can’t remember anymore.

There were 4,500 of each type of sign.  It was our job to take the signs and to bolt them together with small nuts and bolts that were supplied in buckets.  As we bolted them together we placed them in boxes and put them in the truck, where we went around the fence line surrounding the lake and the plant and every third section of fence (about 30 feet) we would mount the sign onto the barbed wire fence.  It would take about 4,500 of each of the signs to completely cover the perimeter of the property.

In the back of my mind I could hear Jim Heflin say to Stanley Elmore after he hung up the call with his wife, “Stanley.  Wouldn’t it be a good chore for the summer help to hang all those signs around the 25 mile perimeter of the electric company property?”  And Stanley replying, “Jim!  That’s a brilliant idea!”

So began the long trek of hanging signs.  We had a small blue Mitsubishi Tractor that we used to travel around the fence line in areas where the truck couldn’t easily go.

A tractor just like this

It had a small trailer on the back of it that we would pile a bunch of sign assemblies (the two signs bolted together).  Then we would walk or ride behind the tractor as we went from fence post to fence post mounting the signs evenly between the posts every third section.

This was a brilliant way to teach the young and inexperienced summer help the art of patience as well as the art of subservience.  This way, later in life when the summer help became a Power Plant Man-in-Training, or even a mechanic or electrician and was asked to do something that may seem boring to the average citizen, all the summer help had to do was remember the time they had to hang 4,500 signs on barbed wire fences and even the most boring tasks seemed like an exciting ride on a roller coaster in comparison.  For those power plant men who knew me as a janitor, now maybe they can understand how I could find so much enjoyment sweeping the turbine room floor (about the size of a football field) over and over with a red dust mop.

Like this only with a mop handle

Anyway, during our time while traversing the wilds along the fence line, it gave the summer help time to think.  I was working with a good friend of mine by the name of Tim Flowers.  We had become friends while I had attended Oklahoma University in Norman my first year in college (before going to Missouri University in Columbia for my last 3 years).  So, my fourth year as a summer help, Tim came to work alongside me.

Jim Heflin and Ken Conrad (as well as Opal Ward — or was it Opal Brien at the time) used to take turns shuffling us around the fence line.  When we were with Jim Heflin we would spend our time in the intellectual pursuit of inventing new “Burning Cat” jokes.  This was a skill I had picked up from my father who was a Veterinary Professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.  He had come home one day from work with the latest copy of a Veterinary journal.  In the journal was a set of “Burning Cat” jokes that he read to me.  I’m sure you must already know them.  There were jokes like, “Why did the Burning Cat cross the road?” “So that it could burn on the other side.”  Or “Knock, Knock”  “Who’s there?”  “Burning”, “Burning who?”  “Burning Cat.”  Or “What did one burning cat say to the other burning cat when he met him in a bar?”  “That’s silly.  Everyone knows that a burning cat can’t talk when they’re on fire.”

We made it a goal to come up with at least one new burning cat joke every day.  This came in handy later on when I was in my last year in college and I became known as the “Burning Cat Man” in Columbia, Missouri as I would tell burning cat jokes to the workers at the Subway every time my friend Ben Cox and I would go there to eat a sub sandwich.  And then I would be introduced as “The Burning Cat Man” when customers would come in while we were there.

When we were with Ken Conrad we would think about more esoteric subjects like, “What does a cow think about while it is chewing it’s cud?”

Hmmm…. What does he think about?

We would go on and on speculating “Maybe the cow is meditating about the full meaning of life and whether or not the self is the center of his being or is it somewhere else, or is it just that he’s thinking that his ear itches and he can’t reach it with his tail.  He can only twitch it”  We would think about these things as we would be passing some cows standing opposite across the fence.   We would wonder if they stood around trying to think up jokes that would entertain themselves since they had to stand out in the hot sun all day.  Maybe they thought about burning cats, or even chickens crossing the road.

At first we couldn’t tell if Ken was even listening to us until one time, the tractor started to swerve a bit and he pulled it to a stop so that he could turn around and tell us that we were the strangest bunch of kids he had ever run across.  But I could tell that we had started him thinking about it.  I’m pretty sure that it was on his mind for quite a while.  “What is that cow thinking about?”  Every once in a while I knew that Ken Conrad had gained some enlightenment because he would suddenly turn to me and say, “Hey Sweet Pea!”  And then he would grin real big.  Yep.  He knew.  The meaning of life was within his grasp.

Anyway, long story short, before all the signs were hung by the barbed wire with care, I went up to the main office and asked Eldon Waugh if I could talk to him.  He was the plant manager.  The one I often have referred to as the “Evil Plant Manager”.  Mostly because I think he would have liked that title.  He worked so hard to obtain it.

I asked him if he had an opening at the plant because I would like to go to work there permanently.  He said there was a janitor position opening up and if it was all right with Ken Scott he would hire me.  So he paged Ken and asked him to come up to his office.  When he arrived, Eldon asked Ken if he thought they ought to hire me because I wanted to work at the plant full time.  Ken said that he would be happy to hire me on as a janitor.

I don’t know if Ken realized at the time how much trouble I would cause in the years that followed, because I always had come across as a fairly decent person up to that point.  So I don’t know if he ever regretted his decision.  I’m pretty sure that Eldon did and I know that Bill Moler regretted it when he returned from his summer vacation to find me standing in the janitor closet across from his office.  He was none too happy about it.  Especially since he considered it his job to do the hiring for people in the maintenance shop.  Bill knew that I had already expressed my willingness to open my mouth and reveal my innermost thoughts right to someone’s face at the most inappropriate moments.  I used to explain that I took after my Italian Mother who always spoke twice before thinking.

That was how I was able to escape the sign hangin’ chain gang and became the Janitor that I was always meant to be!  Years later the words had worn off of the signs, but the white signs were still hanging from those barbed wire fences for as long as I can remember.  Now that I think about it, I wonder what Jim Heflin was thinking when I became a janitor and he still had to tote babbling summer helps around the wilderness in the hot sun with an endless supply of Burning Cat Jokes.  Was he wishing that he had thought twice before he spoke about having us hang the signs?  Or maybe he didn’t and I just imagined that he was slightly upset all because I had said those two impulsive words….. “Brenda Bulldog!”

Placed on Light Duty at the Power Plant

In another profession being put on light duty may mean that you don’t have to work as hard as everyone else.  When an electrician is put on light duty it means something else entirely.  I think I calculated the number of lights at the plant and it was well over 10,000 light bulbs in the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Ideally you would think that everyone of the lights should be in good working order.

Electricians don’t call a light bulb a light.  The light is the fixture.  The bulb is called a “lamp”.  So, for the rest of this post I’ll call the light bulbs lamps.

You may think that it’s pretty straight forward to go change out lights (oh.  I mean… lamps), but it’s not.  You see, it isn’t like in your house where you have the regular light bulbs everywhere with just different shapes and wattage.  Sure, there were different Watts for the different lamps, but for a good number of the lights, they varied by voltage as well.   Not only that, but these lamps were different types of lights.  Most of which are not incandescent (well… now that the government has seen fit to force the lighting industry to stop making incandescent lamps altogether, I guess it wouldn’t seem odd to the younger folks).

A descriptive picture of an Incandescent lamp found at www.techlinea.com

A descriptive picture of an Incandescent lamp found at http://www.techlinea.com

In the office areas and places like the main switchgear 4 foot fluorescent lamps were used.  Each 4 foot fluorescent lamp is 40 watts.  Just because it is 40 watts, it doesn’t mean that the voltage is low.  It can take up to 650 volts to start up a fluorescent lamp.  A Fluorescent lamp actually has a gas in it that causes a coating on the glass to glow when a current flows across the gas.

A fluorescent Lamp

A fluorescent Lamp

Besides the typical fluorescent lamps, the majority of the rest of the lamps in the plant were various sizes of Mercury Vapor lamps.  (now replaced with Sodium Vapor).

Before you become all twisted about using Mercury Vapor to light up a power plant because of the environmental impact, I think I should point out that even though a fluorescent lamp is filled with an inert gas like argon, it is mixed with Mercury vapor as well, and the phosphorous coating on the glass has mercury in it also.  So, if you have fluorescent lamps in your house…. Well, there you go.  And you know those lamps that are used to replace your old incandescent light bulbs….. Yep… and they have other kinds of hazardous metals as well.

The thing about using Fluorescent lamps and Mercury Vapors and Sodium Vapor lamps is that they all use different voltages.  So, in order for them to start up and stay running, the voltages have to change from the start up voltage to the operating voltage.  Each lamp has it’s own transformer designed just for that one type of lamp.  It is placed in the light fixture for the lamp.

You can tell this is a 100 Watt Mercury Vapor lamp because of the 10.  If it had a 25, then it would be a 250 watt lamp.   Following the same logic if it has a 75 on it, then it is a 75 watt lamp..... oh...well.. the logic is there somewhere

You can tell this is a 100 Watt Mercury Vapor lamp because of the 10. If it had a 25, then it would be a 250 watt lamp. Following the same logic if it has a 75 on it, then it is a 75 watt lamp….. oh…well.. the logic is there somewhere

If the light glows blue, then it is mercury vapor.  If it is orange then it is a sodium light.  Your street lights are the same way.  Well.  Now there is also Halogen lamps which shine white.

Besides these different type lamps, we also had some super special lights.  We have the flashing lights on the smoke stack and the red blinking light on the top of the radio tower.  The lights that flash on the smoke stacks are really flashbulbs.

A flash tube used in a smoke stack beacon that can easily be seen 50 miles away at night.  Especially when the day time setting is still on

A flash tube used in a smoke stack beacon that can easily be seen 50 miles away at night. Especially when the day time setting is still on

Our smoke stacks are 500 feet tall with beacons at the 250 foot level and the 500 foot level.  Not only did you have to change out the bulb, but you often had to change out the large capacitors and the circuit boards that had been fried by a passing lightning storm.

You may have heard that with the older style Television sets that had a picture tube (before the flat screen TVs came around), that you could electrocute yourself by taking the cover off the back of the TV and working on it, even though you unplugged the set from the wall before you started.  A few movies used this in the plot.  Robert T. Ironside even used it once in an episode during the first season.

Well.  The Stack lights are like that.  When we opened up the light fixture to work on the flash tube or the circuits inside the first thing you did was take a metal rod with a wooden handle and a wire attached with a clip on the end and clipped the wire to the handrail.  Then turning your head the other way, you placed the metal rod across each of the large capacitors in the box.   Invariably, one of the capacitors would let out a loud pop that would echo across the lake…. oh, and leave your ears ringing.

Once the voltage was discharged from all the capacitors, you knew it was safe to go to work fixing the light.  The lights had a day and a night mode, and the difference was how many times the flash tube flashed when it discharged.  What I mean to say is that it wasn’t just one flash.  It is really a series of flashes closely timed to look like one flash.  The number of flashes and the timing between the flashes determine how bright the flash is.

At night the flash was much dimmer because it didn’t need to be so bright.  When it was stuck in the day mode at night the farmers for a 30 mile radius would be calling saying they can’t sleep because every 6 seconds their bedroom would light up as the smoke stack lights would blink.

The Lake on a hill with the power plant in the distance at sunset

The Lake on a hill with the power plant in the distance at sunset

I thought I would just put that picture in there so you could see how pretty the plant looked from across the lake at sunset.  To me it looked like a big ship on the horizon.

I mentioned above that there was a radio tower that had a light on it that needed to be changed when it burned out.  The actual lamp looked a lot like a regular incandescent bulb in your house, but it was different.  It was designed just for this job.  It didn’t burn out very often.  Ok.  I can see your look of disbelief, so here is a picture of one:

A radio tower light bulb

A radio tower light bulb

Yeah, looks just like something in your house.  Doesn’t it?

Anyway.  I changed out the light at the top of our radio tower which is only about 200 feet tall.  It looked like the following picture:

Our tower was like this only it didn't have a safety pole up the side for a lanyard.

Our tower was like this only it didn’t have a safety pole up the side for a lanyard.

I had to climb to the top of this tower to replace the red flashing light.  I was by myself when I did it.  Bill Bennett handed me the bulb that had been specially ordered and asked me if I would do it.  If not, they could call Oklahoma City and have the line crew come down and change it.  I told him I could do it.  The tower wasn’t that tall, and I had shimmied around the top of the smoke stack before at 500 feet with only a slight urge to panic.

I changed the lamp out without incident.  I know that some people have a much more interesting job changing these lights out than I had.  Our radio tower was only 200 feet tall.  Here is a video of someone that had to climb a tower 1768 feet high.  You can see the beacon when they reach the top of this radio tower:

Ok.  That is crazy!  Wouldn’t dropping someone from a helicopter onto the tower using a safety line be safer?

My last story about being on light duty at a power plant is about when Ted Riddle and I were working at the gas-fired power plant near Mustang, Oklahoma.  I talked about the time that Ted and I worked at this plant in the post “Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark

While we were there after they found out that we were electric conduit running fools, they gave us all sorts of jobs running conduit all over the plant.  One job they showed us was in an area that was dark.  All the lights were out in this area.  The foreman explained where the light bulbs were kept.  They were just the regular incandescent lights like the normal lights you would have in your house.

Well… Ted and I had both been put on Light Duty at our plant, and we knew that when we went to change out one light, we were supposed to change out all the lights.  So, Ted and I each grabbed a box and a ladder and headed up to the boiler enclosure to change lights.

After lunch, the foreman came running up to us yelling, “What did you do?  You used up all of the light bulbs!”  Well.  Yes.  We had used up the lights, but now when you go up on the boiler you can see where you are going.  The foreman then explained to us  that this little plant didn’t have the same kind of budget that the new big plants had.  They couldn’t afford to just go around replacing all the lights whenever they burned out.  They only put in a light when someone has to work in that area.  We had lit the entire place up like a Christmas tree.

Ok.  Take a note Jan… Don’t replace all the lights if they are incandescent.

Ok (again), that wasn’t quite the last story.  Let me tell you some more about replacing Fluorescent lamps in our Coal-fired power plant.  When we were placed on Light Duty, we would grab a couple of boxes of 30 lamps from the pallet in the main switchgear and go to work.

In the main switchgear the lights were up high, so we used a 10 foot ladder with a stand on the top of it (No.  I don’t mean like a Deer stand…. geez… Power Plant men…. always thinkin’ ’bout huntin’).  Actually it is called a Platform ladder:

This is a 6 foot platform ladder.  Ours was 10 foot and very wobbly

This is a solid 6 foot platform ladder. Ours was 10 foot and very wobbly

I didn’t like using this wobbly ladder when I was by myself.  besides being wobbly, the thing weighed a ton.  So, I would take a smaller ladder and put it on top of the breaker cabinets and climb on top of them.  The only problem here was that I couldn’t get directly under the lights, so I would end up reaching out to one side to change a light while I was standing on a ladder on top of a seven foot cabinet.  Not a pretty sight if someone safety minded walked in.

I felt safer doing this than standing way up in the air on a 10 foot wobbly platform ladder.  I always had the feeling that if I sneezed, the ladder would topple over.

When we were done changing out fluorescent lamps, we usually had a stack of boxes of burned out lamps.  We couldn’t just throw them in the dumpster because they were a safety hazard as they were.  We had to break each bulb.  We found that we could take a box of 4 foot fluorescent lamps and back the truck over it and it would let out a low but loud boom that sounded like a cannon going off.

The ingenious electricians invented a bulb busting barrel where you slid one 4 foot bulb into a tube and then lifted a handle quickly, and it would explode the lamp in the safe confines of the metal barrel.  The end of the lamp may at times come shooting out the end of the tube, so you never wanted to be standing to that side of the barrel.  I would show you a picture of one, but I’ve never found another one like it.

So, if you were into breaking glass, this was the best part of being placed on Light Duty.  After a hard day of changing out lamps all over the plant, you could stand around in front of the electric shop and slide the lamps down a tube like mortar shell and pull the rod and…. Boom! A puff of Mercury Vapor released into the atmosphere a small cloud of dust…. repeat.

Fast And Furious Flat Fixin’ Fools Fight the Impact of the Canine Parvovirus — Repost

Original Posted on July 13, 2012:

Three of the four years that I was a summer help working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant, I worked out of the garage.  Not only were we responsible for mowing the grass and cleaning up the park areas around the lake, we were also the Automotive Garage.  That is, we changed the oil and other fluids, charged dead truck batteries and washed the pickup trucks that were used at the plant and various other truck related jobs.  We also Fixed Flat Tires.

Something had happened the first summer when I worked out of the garage that greatly impacted the need for us to fix flats fast and furious.  It was a disease that was rapidly killing dogs in Oklahoma during the summer of 1980.  It was known as the Canine Parvovirus.  We had a puppy at home named Oreo that died that summer from this disease.  By the time the dog showed the symptoms of the disease, it was just about too late to save the life of the dog.  This leads me to introduce you to Doug House  (No, not Dog House.  I know you were thinking that because I had just mentioned the Parvovirus killing dogs and you may have thought I misspelled Dog).

It was Doug House that taught me the fine art of “Fixin’ Flats”.  Doug House and Preston Jenkins had been hired because of their automotive skills more so than their Power Plant Man Prowess.  Doug House was a few years older than my dad and his son was about the age of my younger brother.  He was from Louisiana.  He didn’t have a Cajun accent or anything like that (or maybe he did and I just didn’t know it).  He sounded like an interesting mix between Winnie The Pooh and Frosty The Snowman (if you can imagine that).  So, those power plant men that remember Doug, listen to these two voices and think of Doug (and I don’t mean Jimmy Durante who is singing the Frosty the Snowman song.  I mean the guy that asks “What’s a lamp post?”):

Winnie the Pooh

Watch the Video Here:

Frosty The Snowman

Watch the video here:  

The Power Plant was still under construction when I started working in the garage (my second summer) and this meant that there were plenty of nails, screws welding rods and other pieces of shrapnel strewn over the roadways, giving ample opportunity for flat tires.  We would often come into work in the morning to find one of the operators’ trucks that had developed a flat tire during the night shift parked in front of the garage waiting patiently for the flat to be fixed.

It seemed like the garage was filled with all the latest equipment for automotive maintenance, however, the flat fixing tools were mostly manual.  We did have air powered tools so that we could quickly remove the lug nuts from the tire.  From there we would add air to the flat tire so that it was pressurized enough to find the leak.  Then we would put it in a half barrel trough full of soapy water to see if we could see the air leaking, blowing soap bubbles.  Once the leak was found and marked with a yellow paint pen, the wheel was placed on a special stand that was used to remove the tire from the rim called a “Tire Dismounter”.

The stand used to remove the tire from the wheel

So, I became a Flat Fixin’ Fool.  And during the three summers that I worked repairing flats, I became pretty fast.  I loved fixing flat tires.  We used patches the first two years instead of plugs, which means that we fixed the flat from the inside of the tire by placing a patch over the hole inside the tire using special patches and rubber cement.

Tire Patch Kit

It wasn’t until the third summer working in the garage that I learned about plugs when my dad and I brought my uncle’s wheel to a garage to repair a leak and I was all ready to watch the repairman take the tire off of the wheel and repair it.  But instead, as soon as he found the hole, he just reached up to a shelf, pulled this black worm looking gooey thing and splashed some rubber cement on it and jammed it in the hole using some small kind of awl. Then took out his big pocket knife and cut off the part sticking out and handed the tire back to us and said, “No Charge”.  I was shocked.

Tire Plug Kit

My first thought was that I couldn’t figure out why someone wouldn’t go through all the fun of wrestling with the tire to remove it from the rim, then clamping it down so that you could easily reach the hole inside the tire with a wire brush so you could buff the spot clean, and then applying the patch and rolling over it with another special Tire Patch rolling pin.  My second thought was, “Why don’t we have those at the plant?”

So when I arrived for my last summer as summer help a couple of weeks later, I asked Stanley Elmore why we didn’t use Tire Plugs.  The next thing I knew, we had them.  Trucks could practically line up outside with their flat tires and you could run up to them with an air hose, fill the tire up with air, spray some soapy water on it until you found the hole, pulled out the nail and jammed a plug in it.  Take out your pocket knife, cut off the tail sticking out, and then yell “Next!”  At least that is what I dreamed about doing.  There was a little more work when it actually came down to it.

So, what does all this have to do with Canine Parvovirus?  You see, the Jackrabbit population in Oklahoma was being controlled by the ever elusive wily coyote.

No. Not this one. Real Coyotes.

The coyotes had caught the parvovirus and were being destroyed almost to the point of distinction by 1980.  The Coal-Fired Power Plant ground in north central Oklahoma became a veritable Shangri-la for Jackrabbits.  The plant grounds are in the middle of a wildlife preserve created by the Electric Company that not only made the wildlife preserve, but the entire lake where all sorts of animals lived.  None were more proliferate than the Jackrabbits.

Genuine Flying Jackrabbit found at http://www.richard-seaman.com

I learned a lot about wildlife working at this power plant.  For instance, This may be a picture of a Jack Rabbit, but Larry Riley could tell at 75 yards whether or not it was a Jack Rabbit or a Jill Rabbit.  Yep.  That’s what they called the female Jackrabbit.  There were Jack and Jill Rabbits.  I couldn’t tell the difference, but then half the time while Larry was pointing out a rabbit to me I not only couldn’t tell if it was a male or female, I couldn’t even see the rabbit because it was camouflaged in the dirt and weeds.

So, at this point you are probably wondering, “What does the multiplication of jackrabbits have to do with fixing flat tires?”  I was recently reminded by one of the most stellar of Power Plant Men Shift Supervisors, Joe Gallahar (notice how his name is only one letter away from “Gallahad” as in “Sir Galahad”), that the night crew of operators that brave the weather better than any mail carrier ever did, as one of their formidable duties had to perform Jackrabbit Roundup while riding three-wheel All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs).

A Honda Three-wheeler used by Power Plant Men in 1980

It was important that the Jackrabbits not become too complacent around humans in this wholesale bliss, so the operators obviously felt it was their duty to see that they received their proper quota of daily (or nightly) exercise by being chased by ATVs.  There were enough thorny plants spread around the grassless dirt that inevitably at least one three-wheeler would end up with a flat tire by the end of the night.  And that is how the Canine Parvovirus impacted the flat fixin’ focus of the garage crew.  Fixing three-wheeler balloon tires was a slightly different animal altogether, plugs didn’t work as well on these tires, but the patches did.

I seem to remember another Power Plant A-Foreman that reads this post that used to take his three-wheeler out by the blowdown water ponds during lunch time and hone his skills maneuvering around the berm surrounding the two ponds.  His tires often needed a quick patch job later in the day.  We later went to Four-Wheelers as the added stability proved to be a much needed safety improvement.

There was also a clandestine group of Coyote hunters at the Power Plant, though I didn’t know it at the time.  Before (and many years after) the Parvovirus took its toll on the Coyotes, a group of Coyote Hunters would patrol the wilderness looking for signs of the highly elusive coyote.  I first realized something was up years later when I was a passenger in a company truck on our way to the river pumps when the driver slowed the truck down to a crawl as he looked out the window at something in the middle of the road.  He put the truck in park, climbed out and picked something up next to the truck.  He showed it to me.  It was fecal matter left behind by some creature.  Andy Tubbs was sure it was Coyote Dung and he wanted it for some reason.

The True Power Plant Electricians, Andy Tubbs and Ben Davis were the “fearless Coyote Hunters”, who were on a constant vigil for Coyotes.  This also gave them a chance to give their Greyhounds an opportunity to stretch their legs and get some exercise as a trapdoor to the large wooden box in the back of the truck was sprung open and the Greyhounds went to work chasing down the coyotes and bringing them back to the truck waiting for them at the next mile section.  Stretched Coyote skins were sometimes hung up in front of the cooling fans on the main power transformer to dry.

Here is a motivational video of a man named John Hardzog (Not a Power Plant Man) that hunts Coyotes with Greyhounds:

http://video.nytimes.com/video/2010/04/26/sports/1247467638442/coyote-vs-greyhound-one-man-s-sport.html

Anyway.  the last I heard about Doug House was that he had moved back to Louisiana and is still there to this day.  I don’t really know what he’s doing these days as he would be in his low 80’s.  I do know that I enjoyed the sport that he taught me, and that was how to be a “Flat Fixin’ Fool”.

Another Interesting factoid is that by the time I finished writing this blog, it became July 14, 2012.  Bill Moler, the Assistant Plant Manager during the time that I was a summer help became 80 years old today (now 81. Since this post was originally posted a year ago).

Power Plant Lock Out – Tag Out or Just Tag Out

All safe electricians worth their salt know about OSHA regulation 1910.147(c)(3).  Only Power Plant electricians have learned more about OSHA regulation 1910.147(a)(1)(ii)(C).  Section 147 has to do with locking out and tagging a power source in order to protect the employees working on the circuit.  147(a)(1)(ii) says that Power plants are exempt from section 147.  In other words, if you are working in a power plant it is all right to have a less stringent lock-out/tag-out procedure in place than if you didn’t work in a power plant.

One of the first things I learned from Charles Foster, my foreman when I became an electrician was how to remove the “heaters” from a breaker relay in order to protect myself from an “unauthorized” operation of the breaker.  That means…. in case someone accidentally turned on the breaker and started up the motor or whatever else I was working on.  “Heaters” are what we called the overloads that trip a 480 volt breaker when the circuit uses more power than it is supposed to be using.  They are called heaters, because they literally “heat up” in order to trip the breaker.

typical 480 volt overload heaters

typical 480 volt overload heaters

Charles Foster told me the following story about my bucket buddy Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien):

Dee was wiring up a sump pump at the bottom of the coal dumper.  The motor had been taken out while the pump had been repaired.  Once back in place Dee was sent to wire it back up.  The proper clearance had been taken to work on the motor.  That is, she had gone to the Shift Supervisor’s office in the Control Room to request a clearance on the motor.  Then later she had witnessed the operator opening the 480 volt breaker and place the clearance tag on the breaker.

A typical Clearance Tag.  Our tags had the word "Clearance" at the top

A typical Clearance Tag. Our tags had the word “Clearance” at the top.  We called them a “Hold Tag”

the tag is signed by the Shift Supervisor and is only to be removed by an operator sent by the Shift Supervisor.  It is place through a slot in the handle on the breaker that keeps the breaker from closing unless the tag is removed first…. well… that’s the theory anyway.

Dee had just finished hooking the three leads in the junction box together with the cable coming into the box using two wrenches.  She reached down into her tool bucket that she was using as her stool to get some rubber tape to begin wrapping the connections.  The three bare connections were sticking out in front of her face.

A large vertical pump motor

A large vertical pump motor

The Junction box is the box on the right side of this motor.  At this point the cover would be off and the wires would be sticking straight out.  As she reached into the bucket, the motor turned on and began running.

Startled, Dee stopped what she was doing.  I suppose she also pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming.  Then I suppose she checked her diaper to make sure it was still dry.  Then I suppose she may have said a few choice words whether anyone was around to hear them or not.  Maybe not all in that order.

For those of you who don’t realize what this meant.  It meant that if the motor had started running about 5 to 10 seconds later, someone, some time later may have made their way down to the west end of the dumper sump only to find one charred Diana Lucas (who never would have later become Diana Brien).  They might not have recognized her at first.  I can assure you.  It wouldn’t have been pretty.

You see… someone had removed the Hold Tag and purposely started up the motor totally disregarding the clearance.  I won’t mention any names, but his initials were Jerry Osborn.

So, after Charles told me this story, he showed me what to do to prevent this from ever happening to me.

Charles and I went to the Shift Supervisor’s office to take a clearance on a motor.  Then we followed the operator to the breaker and watched him open the breaker and put the tag on the handle.  Then we signed something and the operator left.

After the operator left, Charles told me to open the breaker and slip the hold tag through the slot in the door so that the door could open without removing the tag.   I followed his directions.

Once the door was open, he told me to remove the three heaters on the bottom of the relay and hide them at the bottom of the breaker  box.

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom.  That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater

480 volt relay with the 3 heaters at the bottom. That white square is an overload reset button. in front of the first heater

You see… with the heaters removed, even if someone were to close the breaker and try to start the motor, the electricity would never leave the breaker box because I had just created an open circuit between the relay and the wires going to the motor.

Well… If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it.  No.  I’m not going to change subjects and start talking about making it illegal to own guns.

Anyway, there is always a chance for something to go wrong.  The Peter Principle demands it.  So, at one point, someone forgot to replace the heaters in the relay before returning their clearance.  When the motor was tested for rotation, it didn’t work.  At that point the electrician knew that they had forgotten to re-insert the heaters.  So, they had to return to the breaker to install the heaters before the motor would run.

This didn’t set well with the Shift Supervisor, who has supreme power at the power plant…. well… besides the janitor who had total control over the toilet paper supply.  Technically we were not going around the hold tag by removing the heaters because they were downstream from the breaker handle which cut off the power to the relay.  The Shift Supervisor on the other hand believed that the hold tag included everything in the breaker box, including the relay and heaters (which really was stretching it).

An argument ensued that pitted the shift supervisors and the supervisor of operations, Ted Holdges with the electricians.  Ted argued that we should not be removing the heaters to keep ourselves from becoming electrocuted accidentally when someone inadvertently removes a hold tag and turns the breaker on and starts up a motor.  Electricians on the other hand argued that if we were going to be exposed to the possibility of being electrocuted, we would rather not work on any circuit.  Without being completely assured that we would not occasionally be blown to pieces when someone or something accidentally caused the circuit to become hot, we concluded it wasn’t worth it.

So, a compromise was reached.  We could remove the heaters, but they had to be put in a plastic bag and attached to the hold tag on the outside of the breaker.  That way, when the clearance was returned, not only were the heaters readily available the operator would know to contact the electrician to re-install the heaters.  The electricians didn’t really like this alternative, but we agreed.  We were assured that there wasn’t any way that a breaker was going to be turned on and operated with the heaters in them when someone was actually working on a circuit.

Fast forward three years.  1992.

Bill Ennis and Ted Riddle were working on replacing a large electric junction box on the stack out tower.  The Stack Out Tower is the tower that pours the coal out on the coal pile.  Halfway up this tower there is a large junction box where most of the electric cables passed through going to the top of the tower.  Bill Ennis had taken a clearance on a number of motor and control breakers.

Bill returned from lunch one day to work on the junction box, removing the old cables.  Putting new lugs on them and placing them in the new junction box. As he began working, he decided to take out his multimeter and check the wires he was about to work on….

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

Bill was surprised to find that one set of cables were hot.  They had 480 volts on them.  Everything in this box should have been dead.  I suppose he pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.  Then I suppose he checked his diaper to make sure it was still dry.  Then I suppose he said a few choice words that Ted may have heard if he was standing close by.

What had happened was that there had been two clearances on this one particular motor.  One of the electricians had returned his clearance, and had installed the heaters that were in the plastic bag on the front of the breaker and the motor had been tested for rotation and put back in service.   The operator had taken both clearances off of the breaker by mistake.

Ok.  It was time for another meeting.  Something had gone wrong.  If it had not been for the guardian angels of both Diana Brien and Bill Ennis, at this point we would have had at least two dead electricians, and believe me…. I know that when an operator had later climbed the stack out tower to check the equipment, if he had run across the body of Bill Ennis… it definitely wouldn’t have been pretty (even on a good day).

I attended this meeting with Ted Holdges as did most of the electricians.  I began by telling Ted that when we had met three years earlier I was newly married and wouldn’t have minded so much if I was killed by being electrocuted because I was young and only had a wife who knew how to take care of herself.  But now it was different.  I had a little girl at home and I need to be around to help her grow up.

Ted looked surprised by my remark.  I had just told him the way I felt about this whole situation.  The argument that we were making was that we should be able to place locks on the breakers just like OSHA demanded from the other industries.  We had demonstrated that we didn’t have a system that would protect us from human error.  We needed something that definitely kept us safe.

We told Ted that even if we had locks, and for some reason the breaker just had to be closed and the electrician had forgotten to remove his lock, the shift supervisor could keep a master key in his office to remove the lock.  He finally agreed.  His problem was a loss of control.  The thought was that the Shift Supervisor had ultimate power.

If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it.  No.  I’m not going to change subjects and talk about socialized healthcare and how it destroys all concepts of quality and privacy.

So, as electricians, we weren’t really happy with this situation.  We had a secret weapon against human error.  Sure we would place a lock on the breaker.  But after the operator would leave, before we placed our lock on the breaker, we might just open up the breaker box and remove the entire face off of the relay.  It was similar to removing the heaters only it was bigger.  It completely opened the circuit no matter what.

I hadn’t really planned on talking about this next story for a couple more years, but I’ll tell it now because it fits with this story.

In the month of May, 2001.  I had already given my notice to leave the plant to work for Dell as a software developer.  I was asked to work on a job with my old bucket buddy Diana Brien.

The problem was that there was a grounded three phase circuit up on the Surge Bin tower.  It had been tracked down to the dust collectors located below the surge bin conveyor floor.

Dee and I walked up to the Gravimetric feeder deck to look at the breaker to make sure it was turned off.  It had a Danger tag on it that had been placed by the Shift Supervisor.

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

A typical Danger tag used at the plant

The breaker was open and the message on the tag said “Do not close this breaker.  The circuit is grounded”.

Ok.  We walked up to the surge bin tower through the counter weight room for belts 18 and 19.  We opened up the big junction box that fed the power to the two large dust collector motors on the landing behind us.  After taking the cover off of the box, I took out my multimeter and checked the circuit.

Like this.  Ok.  So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

The big copper bus was dead (that means, there was no electricity present).

So, Dee and I worked on locating the grounded circuit.  I had just removed the cover to the junction box on one of the motors while Dee was removing some wires from the control panel when  Larry Tapp arrived on the landing through the same route we had taken from the gravimetric feeder deck.

Larry asked us what we were doing.  We told him we were tracking down the ground on the Dust Collectors.  Larry looked surprised.

You see… Larry explained that he had just come from the Gravimetric feeder deck where he had just closed the breaker for the dust collectors.  This particular breaker didn’t have a relay, as it was controlled by the control panel where Dee had been working.

So, I rechecked the copper bus with my multimeter and it was hot.  480 volts hot.

I had just been looking through my tool bucket for two wrenches to remove a piece of the bus work just to make sure the ground wasn’t in the box itself when Larry had arrived.  In other words, if Larry had arrived 5 to 10 seconds later, he would have probably arrived to find Dee looking down at my body, stunned that I had just been electrocuted by a circuit that we had just tested and found dead.

If you don’t learn by history you are bound to repeat it.

You see… there is a difference between a Hold Tag and a Danger Tag.  A hold tag is placed on a breaker after someone has requested a clearance by signing a form in the Shift Supervisor’s office in the control room.  A Danger tag can be placed and removed at anytime by the person that placed the tag on the breaker.

So, I personally wrote this up as a “near” accident.  We could have wiped our brow, pinched ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming.  We could have checked our diaper to make sure it was still dry and then Dee could have said a few choice words that Larry Tapp would have agreed with (I have always had a mental block against expressing myself in that manner…. I found other ways).  And we could have left this incident as a secret between Larry, Dee and I.

I thought it was a good time to remind the electricians throughout power production to follow the clearance procedures when working on high voltage circuits.  Sure.  Dee, Bill Ennis and I have powerful guardian Angels looking out for us…. but gee… I think we should be expected to look out for ourselves.  So, I wrote up this incident to warn the rest of the team….. If we don’t learn from history, we are bound to repeat it.

I met with my roomie Steven Trammell, a month and a half later in Perkins Restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma to discuss his performance plan.  I was a 360 Degree Assessment Counselor and my favorite roommate from 17 years earlier had chosen me to review his performance appraisal.   During this meeting I asked Steven, who had driven from Harrah, Oklahoma from another power plant to meet with me, if he had read the near accident report about the dust collector at our plant.

My roomie told me that he had, and that he thought it seemed to unduly blame the electrician.  I told him I was the electrician and that I wrote the report.  After 18 years of being an electrician, I had become so relaxed in my job that I had become dangerous to myself and others.  So, after I did a cause-effect analysis of the near accident, most of the cause had come from my own belief that I could circumvent clearance procedures and save time and still believe that I was being safe.

On my drive back to the plant after the meeting with my favorite roomie of all time, I had time to think about this…. I was going to be leaving the power plant in a little over a month to work for Dell as a programmer.  I knew this when I had been negligent with the Danger tag.  I could have caused the death of both Dee and I.  I will sure be glad to be in Texas.  — Only..  I will miss my friends most of all.

I leave the Power Plant with this one thought…. If you don’t learn from history, you are bound to repeat it.  I mean it… This time I really do.

Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator — Repost

Originally posted on July 6, 2012:

I suppose that many parents while raising their children would hear them say, “Dad, can you read that story to us again about the pirates that go to the island to find the treasure but Jim Hawkins fights them single-handed?”  Or their children might say to their mother, “Will you tell us the story again about how you met daddy?”  In my household, my children would say, “Dad, tell us another story about how you played a joke on Gene Day when you were working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in Oklahoma?  Those are always the best!”

As I pointed out in my third post this year called “Power Plant Humor And Joking With Gene Day” the first time I met Gene Day, I could tell that he was the type of person that would take a joke well, or so I thought….  One of the favorite stories my daughter would like for me to tell her as she was growing up was the one where I had created a Psychological Profile of Gene Day, who at that time, an Auxiliary Operator.

It began one day when I was leaving the electric shop through the Turbine Generator (T-G) building ground floor.  A very noisy location as large steam pipes wound around under the Turbines where the steam caused a rumbling or whining sound.  It was normal when walking through this area to reach up to the ear plugs that were draped over your shoulders and put them in your ears because the decibels were dangerously high if you were exposed earplugless too long.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

I stepped from the landing leading from the electric shop and started toward number 1 boiler when I spied Gene Day making his way around the  first floor of the T-G building inspecting equipment and marking his documents indicating that they were operating correctly.  As I saw him turn toward my direction I quickly dodged behind the nearest metal pillar (I-Beam).  I peaked my head out from behind the pillar and took out the notepad that was in my back pocket, and the pen from my vest pocket pocket protector.

A pocket protector is a must for electricians and computer nerds who need a place to keep their small tools.

Gene saw me and gave me a suspicious look as I began feverishly writing in my notepad while looking from my notepad back to Gene and then back to what I was writing.  After I had done this for about 10 seconds or so, I put my pad away, my pen back in the pocket protector and strolled away toward unit 1 to continue my work.

A notepad like this

It happened that this particular week was Gene’s week to monitor the equipment in the T-G building, so throughout the week he would be making his way somewhere around the T-G building with his clipboard in hand.  Each time I encountered him I would do the same thing.  I would visibly hide behind a beam and write notes in my notepad.  I saw Gene rather frequently during the week because the majority of the time, I left the electric shop by going through the T-G room to one of the boilers and then to the precipitators, where I spent most of my time working at this time in my career (but that is another story for a later time).

Each time, Gene would watch me suspiciously knowing that I was just messing with him, but not exactly sure what I was “up to”.  At the time, I wasn’t sure either.  So I just wrote down what I saw Gene doing, that way, if he ran over and grabbed my notepad from me, it wouldn’t say anything other than what I saw.

It had happened at the plant a few years earlier when I was a janitor that the company had hired an efficiency expert to monitor the employees at the plant.  He would walk around the plant with a stopwatch observing the employees.  When he saw them he would write notes on his clipboard.  It became very unnerving because you would walk around the corner and there he would be standing writing something down about you.

I went to the Assistant Plant Manager Bill Moler and told him that this creepy guy keeps showing up in the main switchgear by the janitors closet.  And every time he sees me, he writes something down.  I told Bill that it really bothered me.  He explained that he is an efficiency expert and he has a certain path that he takes throughout the day and takes a snapshot of what the workers are doing at that moment and writes it down.  By doing that he calculates how efficient we are.  It seemed pretty silly to me, because most mechanics when they saw him coming put their tools down and did nothing while he walked by until he was out of sight again.

When I was on the labor crew a few weeks later, and I was blowing coal dust off of all the I-Beams above the bowl mills with a high pressure air hose, I looked down, and through my fogged up goggles I could see this guy standing directly under me.  I was about 50 feet above him crawling across an I-Beam with the air hose blowing black dust everywhere.  He had crossed my barrier tape to go into the bowl mill area to see how efficient I was being.

This is the type of barrier tape I was using. It is made of woven plastic fibers.

I was so mad I turned off my air hose, climbed down the wall Spiderman-like (no.  not head first) and went straight into the A-Foreman’s office and told Marlin McDaniel that the Efficiency Expert had crossed my barrier tape and was standing directly under me as I was blowing down the beams with air.  It turned out that the Efficiency Expert had gone upstairs to complain that some guy in the bowl mill had dumped a bunch of coal dust on him while he was monitoring him from below.  Evidently, he wasn’t expert enough to know you weren’t supposed to cross someone’s barrier tape without permission, as was indicated on the caution tags that were tied to the barrier tape.  From that point on, the efficiency expert (now in lowercase) had to be accompanied by someone from the plant to make sure he wasn’t breaking any safety rules and putting himself at harm.

Long side story short, we turned out to be so efficient, people came from all over the world to study us.  Somebody downtown hired the efficiency expert full time, but later he was laid off during the first downsizing.  He reminds me of a person on an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation where this guy  Lieutenant Commander Remmick comes aboard the Enterprise and he walks around inspecting everything and asking everyone questions that make them uncomfortable and at the end asks Picard if he could come work on the Enterprise.  He looked so much like him, that I thought maybe our efficiency expert went to Hollywood to become an actor.

Lieutenant Commander Remmick

Back to Gene Day.  I suppose the thought of the efficiency expert may have been going through my mind as I was taking notes about Gene Day at work.  Like I said, at the time, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it.

It finally came to me on Thursday morning.  This was the last day that Gene was going to be on the day shift, so I figured I might as well do something about it.  So when I entered the shop that morning, I sat down at the desk of my foreman Andy Tubbs and began to write.  The title at the top of the page was:  “The Psychological Profile of Gene Day”.

Using the notes I had taken during the week, I wrote things like the following:  “Gene Day walks around the Turbine Generator building with a clipboard in his hand trying desperately to look like he’s doing something important.  He constantly hopes that someone is watching him because he dislikes doing so much work to act busy for no reason.  At times Gene Day gets paranoid and believes that he sees people spying on him from behind every corner (especially I-Beams).  Sometimes Gene Day stands in the middle of the T-G floor staring up into space as if he forgot what he was supposed to be doing.”  I’m sure I wrote more, but I don’t remember everything… but I do remember the second from the last sentence.  I will save that for a couple of paragraphs from now.

I took my Psychological Profile of Gene Day and went up to the Control Room.  I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Gene had just walked over toward the break room behind the Auxiliary Control Panel so I walked over by the Shift Supervisor’s office and I leaned against the top of the large Blue Monitor and placed the Psychological Profile on the top of the monitor in front of me.

Less than a minute later Gene came walking around behind me and seeing the paper on the top of the monitor came up behind me and looked over my shoulder and began to read…..  He wasn’t trying to hide the fact that he was reading the paper, and I obviously knew he was there, and the title in large bold letters did say, “The Psychological Profile of Gene Day”.  So, he read on.

I heard a few chuckles as he read through my interpretation of what he had done during the week.  Then he came to the “Second from the Last Sentence”, as I could hear him reading quietly in my ear…  The sentence read, “Gene Day sneaks up behind people and reads their private material over their shoulder!”  —  Bingo!  I had him!  When he read that he grabbed me by the throat and started to Throttle me!  Shaking me back and forth.  This would have been a humdinger of a joke at that point, but I had one more sentence up my sleeve… ur… I mean on the paper….

As I was waivering (is that a word?) back and forth between life and death I managed to eke out something like:  “Wait!  There’s More!”….  Gene Day let up on me a little and looked down at the page and read the last sentence…… It read….. “Gene Day tries to strangle people who are only trying to help him by creating his Psychological Profile.”  That was all it took.  Another perfect joke played on Gene Day, and I was able to live to tell about it.  When Gene read that he was stunned into dismay.  Giggling as hard as he could he retreated shaking his head in defeat.

Now, I know that Gene reads these posts, and he may remember this story a little differently, and I’ll give him that  because Gene is older than dirt and his memory isn’t that good.  But I was the one that was being strangled, and I still have a vivid image of those few moments.  Not only do I, but so do my children, who will one day tell their children, who will say, “Mommy, will you tell us that story again about how Grandpa was strangled by Gene Day that time in the Control Room at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in Oklahoma?”

Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark

We were working for an “Acting” foreman named Willard Stark during an overhaul at the plant outside Mustang, Oklahoma the spring of ’86.  Willard seemed much older than he was.  I would have guessed he was in his late 60’s or early 70’s, but it turned out he was only in his mid to lower 50’s.  I found out why as the overhaul unfolded.

I heard some slight grumblings from a few in the shop when Bill Bennett told me that I was going to the plant near Mustang, Oklahoma that spring.  I suppose it was because since I had become an electrician in the Fall of 1983, this was already going to be my third overhaul away from our plant, and all of them ended up being major overhauls.

The reason others were grumbling about this was because when you were able to go on a an extended overhaul at another plant, it meant that you were going to earn not only a lot of extra overtime, but you also received travel time, mileage and a per diem (a daily amount of money for expenses).  I believe at the time the Per Diem rate was $32.00 each day.  This was supposed to pay for your hotel room and your meals while you were away from your family.  We lived in trailers to cut down on costs.   Others believed that I had received more than my share of the piece of this pie.

I had been sent on every available overhaul since just before I had reached my first year as an electrician.  So, by this time, most people would have saved up quite a sum of money.  I, however, was making around $7.50 my first year, and by the time 1986 had rolled around, I was still making just under $10.00 an hour.  So, overtime amounted to $14.50 an hour.  When you compared this to the first class electricians that were making around $19.00 an hour at the time, they would have been making $28.50 an hour overtime.  This was about twice what I was making.  So, I was a cheap date.

On December 21, 1985 I 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 paychecks I was receiving while I was away to finish paying for it.  So, it helped to come back and find that we were on a major overhaul at our plant on Unit 1 doing the 5 year checkout.  Then finding that I was going to a major overhaul at the plant in Mustang, Oklahoma where I could live with my wife in her apartment in Oklahoma City while she finished her last semester to obtain her nursing degree from Oklahoma University.

I went on the overhaul with Ted Riddle.  Ted was hired into the electric shop the previous summer.  He wasn’t on my crew so I hadn’t worked much with him.  He was a farmer that had an electric background.  He was a bigger man that I was and had a good sense of humor.  He had a steady temper and didn’t let much bother him.  He would laugh at things that might bother others.

I appreciated working with Ted, because his steady mood helped to teach me that blowing my top about little things did little to help the situation.  So, for this overhaul, I decided that I would try to emulate Ted Riddle by keeping up with his easy-going-ness (I know…. the dictionary couldn’t find that one).  Bob Kennedy was on this overhaul as well.  He had been my acting foreman during the  overhaul at Horseshoe Lake.  I had described our relationship in the post:  “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“.  I was glad to be working with Bob again.

As I mentioned, Willard Stark was our acting foreman.  For those that don’t know…. an acting foreman is someone that normally isn’t a foreman, but is appointed to lead a crew for a particular job.  These men usually are the best foremen to work for, because they haven’t attended any official “manager training”.  This usually made them better foremen, as the manager training had a tendency to destroy one’s character and moral integrity.  — I never could figure that one out.  Some people came back unscathed, but others came back with PTMD (Post-Traumatic Manager Disorder).

The plant at Mustang was the smallest gas-fired power plant that had people permanently working there.  It had some smaller units that they wouldn’t run when the newer larger units weren’t running because the water treatment plant (that creates the boiler water) used more power than the small units could generate.  — That amazed me.  So, while we were there, I don’t think any of the units were running so they didn’t have to run the water treatment plant.

Willard Stark had spent a good portion of his life working at the plant and had a lot of stories about our plant manager and assistant manager.  He had been an electrician when Bill Moler had first come to the plant as a new green electrician like me.  I enjoyed sitting during lunch in Mark Thomas’s electric lab as Willard told us stories.  Willard had an incredible memory.  He could remember what he was doing on any specific day decades before.

We would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio during lunch, and whenever Paul would say, “….noon news and comment.”  Willard would always finish the sentence by saying “…mostly comment.” I had spent a good part of my childhood listening to Paul Harvey on the radio because when I was young, we always had a radio playing in the house and the car.  So, Paul Harvey’s voice was always a comfort to me.  I was saddened a few years ago when he passed away.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality.  No one will ever fill his shoes.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality. No one will ever fill his shoes.

Working with Ted Riddle cracked me up.  He would notice things that I was totally oblivious to.  For instance, one day while we were working, Ted asked me if I ever noticed how Bob Kennedy drinks water out of his jar.  I told him I hadn’t noticed.  You see, Bob had this jar that looked like a pickle jar that he brought to work each day filled with water.  During lunch, he would drink out of this jar.  Ted said, “Watch Bob during lunch today.  Tell me what you think.”

So as I was sitting next to Bob during lunch listening to Paul Harvey, and Willard Stark telling us what he did on any particular date in the past that Paul Harvey might mention, I kept one eye on Bob.  As Bob lifted his jar to his mouth I watched as he began to drink.  I immediately knew what Ted had wanted me to see.

As Bob took a drink, he  slowly tilted the jar up until the water reached his mouth.  As the jar was being tilted, Bob’s upper lip would reach way into the jar as far as it could, quivering in anticipation of a cool drink of fresh water.  The upper lip of a camel came to my mind.

Bob Kennedy's upper lip reaching into the water jar...

Bob Kennedy’s upper lip reaching into the water jar…

With all my might, I struggled to keep a straight face as I turned my head slowly to look over at Ted who had a grin from ear-to-ear….. ok.  I’ll show you the picture of Andy Griffith again that I included in my post from last week, just so you can see what I saw when I looked over at Ted:

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

I think I almost choked on my ham sandwich as I swallowed while trying to keep my composure.

Another day while Ted and I were cleaning ignitors on the shop work bench Ted asked me if I had noticed what Randy Oxley and Jimmy Armafio were working on.  I told him I hadn’t noticed.  Ted said that if he’s not mistaken Randy Oxley has been coming into the shop all morning with the same piece of conduit.  He bends it, then cuts a little off the end and re-threads it.

So, the next time Randy came into the shop I noticed he had a piece of  one and a half inch conduit in his hand.  It was about 3 1/2 feet long and had a couple of bends in it.  Randy hooked the conduit up in the large conduit bender and using his measuring tape carefully lined it up.  He bent the conduit a little, then put it in the bandsaw and cut off a few inches.  Then he put it in the vice on the work bench and proceeded to thread the end of the conduit.  Then Jimmy and Randy left.

Ted said that if he wasn’t mistaken, that’s the same piece of conduit Randy has been working on all morning.  So, as we continued the boring job of cleaning the 30 or so ignitors piled on our workbench, I told Ted about the time I was at the plant at Horseshoe Lake and Randy had told a Mechanical A foreman Joe Balkenbush (I think his first name was Joe), who was Randy’s uncle on his mom’s side, that Randy was the best electrician at the plant at Mustang, only he was the only one that knew it.  I mentioned this meeting and the reason for it in the post:  “Bobbin Along with Bob Kennedy” (See the link above).

Sure enough, a little while later, Randy came back to the shop with the same piece of conduit and performed the same procedure of bending, cutting and threading and scadoodling.  A little while later the electrical B foremen came out into the shop (I can’t remember his name for the life of me… I can see his face), and asked us if we knew how to run conduit.  We assured him that we did.  I had been thoroughly trained by Gene Roget and Ted, well, as it turned out, Ted was a crackerjack conduit hand.

The foremen took us up onto the boiler and asked us if we could run some conduit from one place to another.  He sounded apologetic when he asked if that would be all right.  We assured him it was no problem.  We would get right on it.  On the way back to the shop, as we were coming down from the boiler, Ted tapped my shoulder and pointed down to the bottom of a light fixture.  He said, “Hey!  Isn’t that the piece of conduit that Randy has been working on all morning?”  Sure enough.  There is was.  He finally bent it and cut it to fit!

Well… The rest of this part of the story is that instead of running back and forth to the shop to bend and cut and thread conduit, Ted and I grabbed a conduit stand, and the appropriate tools and hauled them up on the boiler.

Conduit threader stand

Rigid Conduit threader stand

We carried about 40 foot of conduit up there and began bending, cutting and threading and mounting the conduit.  We finished just before lunch.  As I mentioned above, Ted was a heck of a conduit person.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  We carried all the equipment back to the shop.

After lunch Ted and I went back to cleaning ignitors.  The foreman saw us out of the window of the office and came out and asked us why we weren’t working on the conduit.  When we told him we were done, he had a look of disbelief.  He left the shop (to go check out our work).  Ted and I smiled at each other.   A little while later the foreman returned with the electric supervisor.

The electric supervisor asked us if we wouldn’t mind working on some more jobs to run conduit.  Ted told him that we were there to do whatever they needed.  I nodded in agreement.  During the rest of the overhaul we worked to repair broken conduit, pull wire and install new conduit where needed.

Mark Thomas, the electric specialist, that was about my age, asked if he could use us to pull and mount some new controls.  He said he wouldn’t let the others in the shop touch it because he would just have to follow through and redo it when they were done.  So, we did that also.

I had mentioned in an earlier post called Resistance in a Coal-fire Power Plant that Bill Rivers had been given a bum deal when another person had accused him of cutting off the leads of electronic components so that no one could check them to see if they were really bad (which doesn’t make any sense given that you could still check them no matter how short the leads are).  Well, I found that the same situation had existed in this plant.

There was this one guy that sat in the electric shop Lab (not the same electric shop lab where Willard and Mark Thomas hung out), working on Gray Phones all day.  Ted had asked me if I had noticed how many gray phone boxes were missing gray phones (gray phones are the PA system in a plant.  You could go to any one of them and page someone).

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Ted would point to empty gray phone boxes as we walked through the plant.  He told me that they have one electrician that doesn’t do anything else but sit in the electric lab working on gray phones.  That is all he does.  When we asked Willard about it, he told us this story.

Mark Thomas used to work on all the gray phones, and kept them all running in good order.  When Mark worked on a gray phone, sometimes to make sure it is working, he would page himself.  Just to make sure that part worked.  I understood this.  When I was working on gray phones with Bill Rivers, he would page me, or I would page him, just to test it.  If you were working by yourself, it would make sense that you would page yourself instead of bugging someone else several times a day while you went from one gray phone to the next.

Anyway, people accused Mark Thomas of trying to make himself more important by making others think that he was being paged all the time by paging himself.  Now, anyone with any sense would know how lame of an idea that is.  I mean, anyone would recognize Mark Thomas’s voice.  The plant wasn’t that big.  There weren’t that many people working there.  Everyone knew everyone else.  Mark was obviously just working on gray phones.

So, after the foreman accused him of trying to promote his self importance by paging himself several times a day, Mark said, “Fine!  Let someone else work on the gray phones!”  Mark was by far the most intelligent person at the plant.  He obviously didn’t need to artificially promote his reputation by making a fool of himself.

So, they gave the job of gray phone maintenance to someone that didn’t understand electronics.  They even bought an expensive gray phone test set to help him out.  So each day he would sit in the lab smoking his pipe staring at an ever-growing pile of gray phones.  At one point, Ted and I offered to fix them all for him.  He said, “That’s ok.  It keeps me in the air conditioning.

I know in later times, Mark Thomas went on to greater successes within the company.  I believe that Willard stayed around until there was a downsizing and he was able to early retire.

I mentioned at the beginning that Willard looked a lot older than he really was.  Willard brought this to my attention.  He showed me a picture of himself a few years earlier.  It was of him standing by a car wearing a suit.  He reminded me of an actor from an old movie, though, I can’t remember the actor’s name at the moment.

Willard said that in the past few years he aged rapidly.  It happened when the previous foreman had retired.  Willard had seniority in the shop and had been at the plant most of his life.  He knew what he was doing, and had filled in as foreman many times.  He really expected to become the foreman.  Nevertheless, they gave the job to someone from somewhere else who didn’t know the plant, or even much about being a foreman.

This upset Willard so much that he said he just gave up.  He said the stress from that experience aged him.  Mark Thomas agreed.  Mark had his own encounter with this attitude when he decided to retreat to his lab off and away from the electric shop.  Willard and Mark, the two electricians that really knew what they were doing at the plant had sequestered themselves in their own hideaway where they would sit each day listening to Paul Harvey at lunch and biding their time until the next phase of their life came around.

Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace — Repost

original posted on June 30, 2012:

Somewhere today there is a young man named Cameron Powell whose grandmother has recently died and who has a Great Grandmother named Dolores.  A kind and gentle lady.  If this young man were able to ask his great grandmother about his great grandfather he would hear the tale about a peaceful and kind man that made those who worked with him smile and enjoy their day.  He lived his life in love with Dolores and his daughter and the very people that he worked with each day.  All you had to do was walk in the same room as Howard Chumbley and a smile would come across your face instantly.

You see.  While I was in my first years as a summer help at the Coal Fired Power Plant learning from the True Power Plant men of my day, 15 miles north of the plant along the Arkansas River was another plant.  This plant was being operated by the Power Plant Pioneers of an earlier time.  While we had the latest technological advancements that were available in 1974 when our plant was designed, the Osage plant was using old mechanical instruments that measured actual pressures and temperatures.  What this meant was that when the pressure gauge registered 1000 pounds of pressure, it was because the pipe that was connected to the back or bottom of the gauge had 1000 lbs of pressure on it.  I don’t know.  They may have had a regulator on there that cut the pressure down to a safer range.  That would seem crazy to anyone today to think that behind the Control Panel in the Control Room were pipes that ran from different steam pipes all over the plant to the gauges on the Control board, so that the Control Room operators could operate the plant correctly.

The Power Plant Men that worked in these early Generating Stations were subjected to dangerous chemicals and conditions though it was the best they knew at the time.  Asbestos insulation covered the steam pipes.  Turbine oil with PCBs were used to clean their tools.  Howard Chumbley explained to me one day that they used to wash their tools in Turbine oil up to their elbows in what was now known to contain the dangerous chemical PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyls).  A funny fact I found out later was that there was a temperature probe in the river just downstream from the plant taking the temperature of the water just like Sooner Plant (See the Post about Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River).

When the old Osage Plant closed in the early 1980s, that was when I first learned about it.  This was because some of the pioneer power plant men came to work at our plant.  Howard Chumbley became an Electical foreman and Gilbert Schwarz came to our plant as the superintendent of operations.  Two gray haired men, both with a kind of slow peaceful look on their face.  Howard had a smaller build with soft wavy gray hair.  He could have been a professor at Harvard if you put a pipe in his mouth and a turtleneck sweater.  Of course, that would not have been fitting for Howard. Gilbert was tall and had the look of a cowboy or a farm hand.  I understand that he enjoyed working on the farm.

One year after I became an electrician in November 1984, Howard Chumbley became my foreman.  It was less than a year after that  when Howard retired.  During the short time he was my foreman we took a trip up to the Osage Plant.  It was named Osage because the Osage Indian Nation Territorial boundary is directly across the river from the plant.  The plant itself actually sat adjacent to the Ponca Indian Tribe just outside of Ponca City.  The day we went to the plant, Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien). a Power Plant Electrician and I loaded a special hazardous material containment barrel into the truck and I was given a special suit that I was to wear that would cover me from head to toe while I cleaned up a PCB spill.  A smaller plant transformer had been removed from the old plant and there had been a slow leak under it that left a tar like substance on the concrete where the transformer had stood.  As Howard, Diana and I approached the plant and I spied it for the first time.  This is what I saw:

The old Osage Power Plant

As we drove closer I had a better look at the plant as we drove around the other side:

A closer view of the Osage Plant

It was definitely an old abandoned power plant.  We took the barrel out of the back of the truck and hauled it inside on a two wheel dolly (or two-wheel hand truck, as it is often called).  When we entered the abandoned plant we walked across the turbine room floor:

The stripped down Turbine Room floor of the Osage Power Plant

I could see where equipment used to stand that had been sold for scrap or stolen by vandals.

When we arrived at the oil spill I was surprised by how small of a spot it was.  It couldn’t have been more than one square foot.  I put on the rubber suit with it’s rubber hat, rubber boots and a full face respirator and rubber gloves.  I took a putty knife and scraped up the tar-like substance and placed it in special bag that had a special seal on it.  When I had scraped up the thick stuff, I poured  trichloroethane 1.1.1 solvent (which is no longer used due to the dangerous fumes that damaged your liver) on the spot and scrubbed it with a wire brush.   Then I took a Scotch Brite pad and scrubbed the floor until the spot was much cleaner than the concrete around it.  Everything I had used went into the special barrel.  The bags of tar, the Scotch Brite pad, the wire brush the putty knife and the rags I had used to wipe everything up.  Then as I took off my suit, every piece of the rubber suit including the full face respirator went into the barrel.  Once everything was in the barrel, the special lid was placed on top and it was bolted shut.  A Hazardous Waste sticker was placed on the barrel and the time and date and what was in the container was written on it.

Hazardous Waste Barrel

We took the barrel back to the plant and it was placed in a hazardous waste Conex Box that was later buried when it was full of different types of hazardous waste from all over Oklahoma.

A Conex Box

A few years after Howard Chumbley retired, so did Gilbert Schwartz.  Gilbert was the Superintendent over the Operators so I didn’t work around Gilbert and I knew very little about him.  However, later when I was married and living in Ponca City, I would see him at the Catholic Church in Ponca City where he was a member of the Knights of Columbus. He would nod and say hi whenever he saw me.

Both Howard and Gilbert were in the military.  I know that Howard Chumbley was in the Navy during World War II and that Gilbert Schwarz was in the Korean War.  Growing up I noticed that older men that had served in the armed forces seemed to have light gray hair.  Especially if they had been in the Navy.  I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence.  Aubrey Cargill was that way also (See the post about Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill).

In 1998, Howard Chumbley died unexpectedly when he was admitted to the hospital in Ponca City with a broken arm.  The hospital in Ponca City had a bad reputation (or Mortality Rate, as some might say).  People didn’t want to go there if there was anyway to avoid it.  The hospital in Stillwater was the preferred hospital in this area of Oklahoma.

I only met Dolores Chumbley on two occasions and they were both at Christmas or Award banquets.  She seemed the perfect spouse for Howard as she appeared kind and peaceful as well.  I’m sure they had a happy life together.  I do not have a picture of Howard.  I wish I did.  His demeanor reminds me of my Mother-In-Law.  We have a picture of her in our hallway and the words below the picture says:  “Be Kind”.  I would say that this is what Howard was all about.  Everything about Howard was kindness.  I was glad to have known him.

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

This past week on June 24, 2012 Gilbert Schwarz died at the age of 83.  He lived a long and happy life as did Howard.  There was something about these Power Plant Pioneers that gave them a strange sort of peace.

A Power Plant Pioneer – Gilbert Schwarz

I never found the source of this peace for sure.  I suppose it was their long and happy marriages with their loving and supportive wives.  Howard had a daughter that he was always very proud to discuss.  She was a teacher somewhere close to Tulsa.  She recently died of Cancer on January 4.  That was 2 days after I wrote my first Power Plant Man post (Why Santa Visits Power Plant Men) at the beginning of this year.

Gilbert never had a child of his own, but his nieces and nephews meant a lot to him throughout his life and he was active in their lives as they grew up.  I suppose if the Power Plant Pioneers were anything like the True Power Plant Men of my day, then they found a lot of peace in the friendships that they had with their fellow Power Plant Men locked away behind the Main Gate that they had to drive through each day on the way to work.  Once you drive through that gate and enter into the Power Plant Kingdom, there is a certain peace that you feel knowing that what you will do that day will directly affect the lives of millions of people in the state of Oklahoma.

These Pioneers of the early days willingly put themselves at risk working around equipment that did not have the safeties and guards that we have today to supply the electricity to the State.  I don’t know there are a few of these brave Pioneers left from the Osage Plant.  Gilbert was the last of the older men that I knew about.  If you happen to find one of these men some day, don’t miss the opportunity to talk to him.  I am sure they would be proud to tell you of the days that they spent being Pioneers of the Power Plant World.  You should be able to recognize them.  You can pick them out in a crowd.  They are the mild peaceful looking old men treating the people around them with respect.