Originally posted on October 27, 2012:
I can’t say that the Coal-fired Power Plant located in the middle of the North Central Plains of Oklahoma had visitors on Halloween Night trick-or-treating looking for candy. I have mentioned before that we had an evil plant manager when I first arrived as a summer help at the plant that did what he could to make life miserable for his employees. That would sometimes send chills up your spine. I could tell you stories about the coffin houses on top of the precipitators. I already told you about the Bug Wars in the Basement (see: “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“), and even about the Boiler Ghost that ate Bob Lillibridge (See: “Bob Liilibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost“). Instead, I’ll tell a simple story about the Evil Plant Manager and his bees.
One time out of the blue when I was a summer help in 1980, the Plant Manager asked me in a suspiciously benevolent voice if I would stay after work to help him tend to his bees. You see. Eldon Waugh was a beekeeper. Beekeeping is a noble profession, and I admire their ability to make a good thing out of a seemingly bad situation. Sonny Karcher was a beekeeper. Sonny was a Hero of Mine. The plant grounds was a great place for bees because we had fields full of clover. But Eldon and bees? I have a slightly different take on it.
Bees are industrious workers that are single-minded. They each have their job, and they go about doing it. They are willing to give their life for their hive and in that way, are sort of unsung heroes. Or maybe bees do sing about their heroes and we just don’t know it. Maybe their buzzing away is at times a lament for those who have worked their wings away to the point that they are no longer able to contribute. Sort of reminds you of a Power Plant Man.
Since I was carpooling at the time and didn’t have my own car, Eldon said that he would drive me back to Stillwater and drop me off at the corner of Washington and Lakeview where I normally was let off, where I would walk up to the University Estates where my parents lived (and still do).
So I went to Eldon’s office when I finished work that day, and I followed him down to his pickup truck. We drove up by the coalyard where he had a trailer that had a bunch of white boxes lined up, which housed his beehives.
Eldon Waugh gave me a hood that beekeepers wear to keep the bees from finding out what the beekeeper really looks like so the bees don’t attack them later when they are flying by and realize that they are the person that keeps interrupting their beehive.
Eldon explained to me that when a bee stings you, you don’t grab the stinger and pull it out because that injects the bee’s venom into your body when you squeeze it. Instead you take a straight edge, like a knife or piece of thin cardboard or something similar and you scrape it off.
That’s when I realized that Eldon had only given me a hood. He hadn’t given me a full beekeeper suit like I would see on TV or in the neighborhood when I was young and some beekeeper came to collect a swarm of bees that had settled in a tree across the street from our house.
Eldon proceeded to open the beehive boxes and inspect them. He had me hold things while he was doing this. Like that the Queen was kept in a smaller box inside the bigger one that kept it from leaving. Somehow this reminded me of the ball of fire in the boiler that produced the steam that turns the turbine that makes the electricity at the plant. When he went to open one box he told me that this particular box had bees that were more troublesome than the other bees, and they liked to sting. “Ok.” I thought. “Thanks for letting me know.” Like that was going to help.
I had already resigned myself to the idea of being stung by a bee that was unhappy that the beekeeper had called an unscheduled inspection of the beehive when Eldon jumped back; Pulled off his hood and started batting around in the air. Sure enough. A bee had climbed up under his hood and had stung him on the back of the neck. I took a key out of my pocket and scraped the stinger off as he whimpered and pointed to where the stinger was jabbing him. The bee was on his collar making peace with his maker as I wiped him away.
Besides that one incident, the rest of the time went smoothly. Eldon inspected his beehives. It seemed like he was looking for mold or moisture or some such thing. He was satisfied. When we left he gave me a jar of his “Eldon Waugh” Honey that he used to sell at the Farmer’s Market in Stillwater. Then he drove me back to Stillwater.
There was something surreal about this experience, and in a few days, I was compelled to write a poem about it. This is not a poem about Beekeepers in General. This is a poem about Eldon Waugh, the Beekeeper as I saw him. I don’t know where I placed it, so I can’t quote it now, so I’ll remake it up the best I can. You have to excuse me, because I am not a poet (as you could tell with the Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost story), so bear with me. It is short:
Bees diligently gathering nectar,
Weaving honey for the hive.
Pouring life into their work,
Spending energy for queen to stay alive.
Beekeeper gives shelter to be safe,
Benevolent ruler over all.
Sharing fields of flowers of his making,
Protecting helpless and small.
When time to pay the dues,
Beekeeper expects all to comply.
If one tries to deny his share,
Sting him once and you will die.
Why is this a Halloween story? I know I speak harshly of Eldon Waugh and I know that when he went home he had a family like everyone else. I know that Bill Moler his assistant plant manager was the same way. If you met him at Church or somewhere else, he would treat you with the dignity that you deserved. Something happened to them when they drove through the plant gates (I felt), that made them think they were invulnerable and all powerful. Like Mister Burns in the Simpsons (as I was reminded this week).
It was Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton) in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 that said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men”. At this particular power plant, because it was so far removed from Corporate Headquarters and any other Electric Company departments, the situation allowed the Plant Manager to be an absolute ruler. There wasn’t anyone there to look out for the employees.
A union had come through when the power plant was first coming online trying to get the plant to vote to join the union. Many employees had worked for unions before, and they preferred the tyranny of the evil plant manager over the stifling corruption of the union.
I remember the first summer I was at the plant (in 1979) when everyone was abuzz about the union election. Some people thought it would stop this “absolute power” syndrome infesting the two top dogs. Those employees that had worked for unions warned the rest that to me sounded like joining a union was like selling their soul to the devil. Some had even left their former employers to escape what they referred to as the “manipulation of their morals”. It came down to voting for the lesser of two evils.
I would like to point out that Lord Acton said that Great men are almost “Always” bad. There are exceptions. There was one great liberating moment in Power Plant history at our plant that occurred in 1987 the day that our new plant manager arrived at our plant. His name is Ron Kilman.
Ron called the maintenance department to a meeting to introduce himself to us in the main break room. I remember that when he began speaking he told us a joke about himself. I don’t recall the joke, but I do remember the reaction of the room. I’m sure our reaction puzzled Ron, because we were all stunned. I gave Charles Foster a look that said, “I didn’t know Plant Managers could joke!” There must be some mistake. No rattling of chains. No “sacrifice your lives and families to provide honey for my table.” Ron was a rather likable person. It didn’t fit. What was he doing as a Plant Manager?
Throughout the almost 7 years that Ron was the plant manager, we were free from the tyranny of the “Beekeeper”. I have invited Ron to read my blog posts because he is one Plant Manger that even though he wasn’t one of the True Power Plant Men in the field showing their character daily by fighting dragons and saving fair maidens, he was our benevolent dictator that had the power to put his thumb down on the rest, but choosing “Might for Right” as King Arthur preferred.
Ok, so Ron Kilman doesn’t look exactly like King Arthur. That would be stretching it a little. Also… I’m sure some people found some reason to not like Ron Kilman through the years that he was Plant Manager. That would be because he made some unpopular decisions from time to time. That is the life of a Plant Manager.
When Ron first came to the plant, he really wanted to stay at the level of the regular working person. I believe that he meant it when he told us that. As the years went by, the demands of managing the large plant occupied so much of his time that little time was left to spend with the people he cared about. I remember him saying that his manager demanded him to be downtown in Corporate Headquarters so many days a week, and that left him little time at the plant.
He asked me what I thought would be a solution to this problem. I told him that I thought he should have a representative that would stay at the plant in his stead that would perform Plant activities and report to him directly. Sort of as an extension of himself. I was not thinking of his Assistant Plant Manager because he had his own job to do. I was sometimes taken aback when Ron would ask a question like that because it surprised me that he valued my opinion.
I will discuss Ron Kilman and why I believe that he is a man of great character in a later post. I only mention him here to show the contrast between Eldon Waugh and Ron. Both were in a position of ultimate power over their employees. One took the high road, and one took the low. Neither of them had ever been to Scotland as far as I know (ok. I had to add another rhyme… geez).
I also titled this post as a “Halloween Election” story. I told you the scary part… that was the story about the beekeeper, in case you forgot to be frightened by it. I also threw in the part about the Union Election as a meager attempt to rid the plant of total managerial tyranny. But the real reason I made this a story about an Election is because of the striking similarity between Ron Kilman and Mitt Romney.
My Gosh! Have any of you noticed this? Am I the only one that sees the resemblance? Notice the chin, the hairline and even the gray side burns.
Happy Halloween, and good luck with the next election.
It was no secret at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that I was Catholic. When I was a summer help and working on the labor crew, I wore a large crucifix under my tee shirt. I had worn the crucifix since I was 13 years old.
When I joined the electric shop I had to take it off. Electricians should not wear any kind of metal jewelry for the obvious reason that if it were to come into contact with a “hot” circuit, the effect would be the same as if I wrapped the live electric wire around my neck. In other words… I could easily have been electrocuted.
In place of the crucifix, I wore a Scapular instead. Wearing a cord around my neck was unsafe enough, but it didn’t take much for the cord to break away from the piece of cloth on either end.
So, as I said, most everyone at the plant knew that I was Catholic. It was common for someone to see the cloth with the picture on it sticking out the back of my tee shirt and ask me, “What is that around your neck with the postage stamp on it?” I usually hesitated to answer the question because I understood that living in Oklahoma where there was only a 5% Catholic population, the Catholic Church was greatly misunderstood and I really didn’t want to enter a lengthy discussion about why Catholics do what they do.
Diana Brien (my bucket buddy) helped me out one day when someone asked me why I wore the scapular, and I was hesitating trying to decide if they wanted a short answer or a long one, when Diana broke in and said, “It’s a Catholic thing.” I quickly agreed. “Yeah. It’s a Catholic thing. It reminds me to be good. I need all the reminders I can get. Sort of like ‘Catholic Protection’.”
Before I discuss what a Power Plant Catholic has to do with checking Cathodic Protection, let me just add that though I wasn’t the only Catholic at the plant, I was sort of the “Token” Catholic. Which meant, when someone wanted a straight answer about what the Catholic Church believes about any subject, I was the person that they turned to for answers.
Living in the midst of the Bible Belt, Monday mornings is when most of the questions would be asked. Preachers from various religions would occasionally say something during their Church service about Catholics and their “strange” beliefs. So, the next day, some would come to me to hear the other side of the story.
I will list a few questions…. “Why do Catholics say, ‘Hell Mary’?” “Is it true that the Pope has 666 on his Tiara?” “Is it true that Catholics are not able to say the entire ‘Our Father’?” “Are Catholics really against abortion because they need newborn babies to sacrifice in the basement of their Church?” “Is it true that Catholics can’t say for sure that they are going to heaven?” Aren’t Catholics cannibals by believing they are eating the real Body and Blood of Jesus?” “Don’t Catholics believe that they can do anything wrong they want because they know that they can just go to confession and have it forgiven?”
These are all actual questions I was asked when I was an electrician at the power plant. I understood why the Power Plant Men were asking me the questions, and I respectfully answered them. I would rather they felt comfortable asking me these questions than just going around thinking that I was some kind of barbaric pagan behind my back.
By feeling free to talk to me about being Catholic, I knew that I was respected by the Power Plant Men even though I was from a religion that they viewed as far from their own. There was one day when this became obvious to me.
I was on the second landing on Unit 2 boiler just about to enter the boiler enclosure when Floyd Coburn walked out. He was nicknamed “Coal Burner” partly because he was black, and partly because he worked in the coal yard for a long time, but mostly because his last name was Coburn which sounds la lot like Coal Burner. Someone figured that out one day, and called him that, and it stuck. When Floyd came out of the enclosure he stopped me. He tapped me on the arm and signaled for me to follow him.
We stepped out of the walkway a short distance and he held out his fist in front of me. Floyd was built like a wrestler. Actually, he was State Champion of the 148 lb weight class for 4A High Schools in Oklahoma in 1972 and 1973. This meant a lot because in Oklahoma, Wrestling was an important sport. He also had earned an associates degree at Rogers State College in Claremore.
Not once did I every hear Floyd Coburn brag about his accomplishments, or even mention them. I suspect that few people if any knew much about Floyd’s background because as much fun as he was to work with, he was very humble, as are most True Power Plant Men.
Floyd was grinning at me as if he was about to show me a trick or a joke or something. Then he opened his fist. In the middle of his palm he held a small crucifix. The size of one on a typical rosary.
When I saw the cross I looked up at Floyd and he was grinning ear-to-ear. I gave him a puzzled looked. Then he told me. “I found Jesus! I just wanted you to know. I know you would understand.”
I felt very privileged that Floyd felt like sharing his experience with me. I thanked him for letting me know. I patted him on the shoulder and we went on our way.
Throughout the years after that, Floyd would set me down every now and then and share how he was expanding his faith with Jesus. He finally became a minister and re-opened a Church in Ponca City where his family used to worship when he was a boy. Floyd was the Pastor of the Broken Heart Ministers Church.
I always felt blessed that he came to me to tell me about his journey. The last time I talked with Floyd Coburn was around Christmas, 2005. I had dropped in at the plant to say hello while I was visiting Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Floyd wanted to talk to me about the progress he was making as Pastor of the Church in Ponca City. He explained the troubles he was having and asked for my prayers. He felt as if the devil was fighting against him. I assured him I have always kept him in my prayers.
One day around the end of October 2006, I felt compelled to write to the plant about a Power Plant Man David Hankins, who had died after my first summer as a summer help in 1979. I have always remembered him on November 1, All Saints Day, because I know that he’s in heaven as he had a tremendous heart.
I hadn’t written to the plant for some time. When I did, I received a couple of e-mails back telling me that Floyd Coburn had died on August 25 during his son’s birthday party. He died of a sudden heart attack.
Though I felt very sorrowful for Floyd’s family because of the circumstance surrounding his death, I felt a great relief for Floyd. I know he had a great desire to be united with Jesus Christ.
So. Now that I discussed some of my experience as a Catholic at the Power Plant, let me tell you about Cathodic Protection (that is not a misspelling of ‘Catholic Protection’).
Have you ever noticed on a car battery how one post is more shiny, than the other post? Especially after it has been in your car for a while. It’s not real noticeable so you may not have realized it. The shiny post is the Cathode or Positive post. Well. Cathodic Protection is just that.
You see the main ingredient besides Power Plant Men at a Power Plant is Iron. The boilers are almost entirely made from the stuff. There are underground and above ground pipes running all over the place. Well. You can paint most of the iron that is above the ground to keep it from rusting, but it doesn’t work very well when you bury the pipes and structure in the dirt.
So, how do you protect your investment? The answer is by using Cathodic Protection. There is a grounding grid made of copper wires buried in the dirt that ties to all the metal objects around the plant grounds. This not only helps absorb things like lightening strikes, but it also allows for the seemingly miraculous anti-rust system known as “Cathodic Protection”.
This is how Cathodic Protection works… You bury a large piece of metal in the dirt and you tie a negative DC (direct current) power source to it. Then you tie the positive power to the grounding grid. By creating a positive charge on the boiler structure and the piping you inhibit rusting, while you enhance the corrosion on the large piece of buried metal with the negative charge.
A nifty trick if you ask me. The only thing about using cathodic protection is that you have to keep an eye on it because the large piece of buried metal will eventually need to be replaced, or the charge will need to be adjusted as it decays in order to protect all the other metal in the plant.
The Power Plant doesn’t just have one source for cathodic protection. There are numerous boxes placed around the plant that protected a specific set of equipment and buildings. So, when it came time to do Cathodic Protection checks, we would go to each station and take readings. If there were anomalies in the readings then someone would be alerted, and tap settings may be adjusted. In extreme cases, the large piece of metal would need to be replaced with a new one…. Though I never saw that happen.
Once I understood the concept of how Cathodic Protection worked I came to the conclusion that what Catholic Protection was doing for me, Cathodic Protection was doing for the Power Plant. It was helping to prevent corrosion.
If you don’t keep a close watch on how well your Cathodic Protection is doing, then you won’t realize when it needs to be re-calibrated. I have found the same thing applies with how well I am doing as a person. Sometimes I find I need to do a little adjustment to keep myself in line…
When checking a Cathodic Protection rectifier, when you use your multimeter to check the voltages, you have to put your leads and usually your hands into a container of transformer oil. This is somewhat messy and unpleasant. But we realize that it is something that just has to be done. We may wear latex disposable gloves to help keep our hands from soaking in the oil, but inevitably, I would end up dripping some on my jeans.
It’s the same way when trying to adjust myself to be a better person. It seems a little unpleasant at first, but you know it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s swallowing your pride. Sometimes it’s admitting that you are wrong. Sometimes it is just getting off your duff and stop being so lazy.
This is why I always felt so honored working with such True Power Plant Men. They were the ones that, even though they struggled in their individual lives like the rest of us, they always kept their mind on what was right and used that as a guide to make the right decisions.
Everybody seemed to like Bill Bennett. We didn’t like him because he possessed a profound knowledge in the field of electricity. No. We like him because he was a good person. Bill was a tall very thin black man that sort of reminded you of Bill Cosby.
Bill had a gruff cigarette voice as he was a chain smoker. Often he would say his first words to me when he came into the Electric Shop office for lunch each day in the same manner that Aunt Ester would say something to Fred Sanford. His lower jaw would jut out and he would shake his head with a look of total disgust… like this:
With this expression, Bill would often look at me and say, “You Scamp!” Dragging it out for the full effect. Nothing would bring a smile to my face faster than having Bill berate me by insulting my integrity as a person. He would also add on additional phrases like, “…You disgust me!” Or… “….you scum!” — I felt like Gomer Pyle by that point with a big grin on my face.
I just wish everyone could work for such a great guy at least once in their life.
I’m not saying that we didn’t have our disagreements throughout the years that he was our A Foreman at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I recognized that Bill had his way of viewing the world, and I had mine. And even though my way was always the right one, I realized he had a right to his view even when it was wrong.
At those times what could you do? Probably the same thing I would do. Fall on the ground kicking and screaming and then try to make your face turn blue by holding your breath. — That never seemed to change his mind though. Probably because I liked breathing too much and would find that it didn’t take long before I would develop an overwhelming urge to take another breath.
Anyway. After spending well over a thousand lunch times with Bill Bennett, just when I began to think that I had heard every story about Bill Bennett’s life that was imaginable, he would come up with another one.
I could tell you some stories about Bill where he was at the lowest point in his life. When he was an alcoholic at the point where he normally would have been fired from the electric company. Then someone gave him another chance for no other reason than because he understood human nature and cared about his fellow man.
You see. There are a number of people in the electric company throughout the years where they were at the low point in their lives. Sometimes people were there to give them a lift up from the gutter where they had fallen. At other times, they were cast aside mercilessly and forgotten because the company was priority. A useless and hypocritical attitude, I always thought, because what is electricity used for except to help mankind.
When Bill Bennett had reached this point in his life. Someone was there to help him out of the gutter. They brushed him off. Gave him some self dignity and “let it go”. Bill went on to become a good and compassionate person. I’m sure that those people in his life that helped him back then were the major force in reshaping his outlook on life. He was always fighting for the underdog. Once I understood that. I stopped my kicking and screaming, and picked myself up off of the floor.
So, I thought I would share a couple of my favorite stories about Bill.
When Bill was young, he lived in Oklahoma City, southeast of the capitol a couple of miles in the poor section of town. I could picture this story real well when he was telling it because my soon-to-be wife was living in this same area as she was attending Nursing School at the Oklahoma University Medical School.
Bill recounted this story: One day when he came home from school his dad gave him a little pet possum.
Bill was overwhelmed with happiness. This was like his one and only true friend. He took the possum with him wherever he went. After so many years I don’t remember what name Bill had given the possum, but it was something like “Fred”, so I’ll just call him Fred for the rest of the story.
Bill taught Fred tricks, and he would run up his arm and perch on his shoulder. Bill would walk around the neighborhood proud to have his pet possum Fred sitting on his shoulder. The two became inseparable.
When the summer was over, in the morning when Bill went to school he would have to leave Fred at home. He had a certain sound that he would make to call his possum. So, when he would walk in the door after returning home from school he would call Fred, and he would come out from under the sofa, or the bed, or wherever he had decided to hide for the day. Fred was pretty much a grown possum by this time.
One day Bill came home from school. He didn’t remember whether he had called Fred or not when he came home, but if he had, Fred didn’t answer. This wouldn’t have concerned Bill much since Fred may have just been playing Possum as Possums are apt to do from time-to-time. Anyway. Bill didn’t see Fred when he came home.
When it came time for dinner Bill sat down and his mom served him a nice hot bowl of stew. As dinner progressed, at one point the subject of the stew came up. Maybe one of Bill’s brothers and sisters said, “Hey mom. This is sure some good tasting stew! What is it?” That was the point in Bill’s life when he decided to become a chain smoker and an alcoholic…. well… not all at once… This was just the point that led him down that path.
You see. As Granny in the Beverly Hillbillies would say, “Go eat your Possum Stew Jethro”. Here is Granny running for Possum Queen:
That’s right. Bill Bennett’s mom had cooked his pet possum Fred for dinner. When he heard this he was stunned. He didn’t have the same expression that Jethro had when Granny called him to the dinner table, that’s for sure.
When he asked his parents how they could do that to his pet possum, his father replied, “Why did you think I gave that possum to you?” That was when the grim reality of life hit Bill right between the eyes. Sick to his stomach he left the dinner table. From that day onward, Bill never again ate possum stew.
This might seem like a humorous or cute story to some. To Bill, it changed his entire outlook on life. As I mentioned. He later became an alcoholic. Which even later, with the help of his wife and others, he overcame. Though it was gradual, if you trace his life back, I believe that the downward spiral began at this one crucial point in his life. With the intentional loss of the life of someone he loved.
When Bill would call me a scamp…. I sometimes felt that down inside he was still crying for Fred, and was talking to his father instead of me. I could see a hint of sorrow even in his humor. He knew he could take out his hidden frustration in our presence because Bill always knew that friends like Charles Foster and I would always be there smiling back at him.
Ok. That was one of the more serious stories of Bill’s life, but one that I often think about when I think about Bill. Let me tell you a more humorous story:
Bill Bennett worked for an electronics store at one point in his life before he found his true calling as a “Power Plant Man”. Part of this job included making house calls to work on the security system in homes.
The employees would use the company van to go on house calls. It had the necessary equipment to install and repair the security systems. It also had one curious item sitting on the dashboard. A garage door opener.
The garage door opener was a point of amusement for the employees as they would drive through a neighborhood on the way to someone’s house they would click the opener as they drove along looking around to see if it would open anyone’s door. No one knew where the opener had come from, but they thought that just by chance it might randomly open a garage door here or there.
So, here is Bill’s story:
One day he was on his way to do a job in a high-end neighborhood. As he was slowly making his way down the neighborhood street to his destination, he was clicking the garage door opener to see if it would open any doors. When all of a sudden he saw a few houses up ahead that a garage door was opening.
For a brief moment Bill was excited that he had found a garage door that opened. Then he realized that the garage door that was opening was the house where he was making the service call. “Oh No!” He quickly began clicking the garage door opener to try to close the garage door, but it wouldn’t close.
Bill sat in the van for a while desperately clicking the garage door opener praying that it would work to close the garage door, but it never did. finally he decided he would act as if he didn’t know anything about how the garage door opened and climbed out of the van.
He walked over to the garage and peered in, sheepishly saying, “Hello?” He was conscious that he was a lone lower class black man in a predominantly rich white neighborhood walking into someone’s garage in broad daylight. He took a few steps into the garage when the garage door began to close!
In order to make it out of the garage, Bill would have had to dodge under the closing door, so he just froze in place and awaited his fate.
A few moments later, the door to the house opened and a little old lady entered. Bill tried to explain that he didn’t know how the garage door had opened and that he only entered the garage to see if someone was there. She said she had seen his van coming down the street, and had opened the garage door from inside the house.
So, the garage door opener in the van hadn’t opened the door after all. It was just a major coincidence that Bill happened to be driving down the street clicking a garage door opener when an elderly lady (like Granny) had seen his van and opened her garage door only to have Bill think that he had opened the door. Or was it a coincidence?
Sometimes I feel that when a coincidence of this statistical improbability occurs that there is often an extraordinary intervention from above telling you something. I’m sure that this little scare taught Bill something and helped him progress on to the view of life that he had when I met him years later.
I have another very coincidental story about a true Power Plant engineer that was a major turning point in this person’s life that I will share in a couple of years from now. When you read that story it will be very clear that there is someone definitely looking out for poor souls like us.
Orignally Posted on October 12, 2012:
Two years before the movie Karate Kid came out at the movies in 1984, I had learned the secret of “Wax On, Wax Off”. One that made a significant difference to my Power Plant Janitorial Powers!
My Janitorial Master was Pat Braden. He is the same age as my father. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Pat Braden reminded me of a rounder version of Red Skelton:
Pat was one of the kindest people you would ever meet. He was the head janitor when I became a janitor at the Coal-Fired Power Plant. I had worked with him off and on during the 4 summers when I had worked as a summer help. So I was glad to actually be on his crew as one of the team.
When we had a big waxing job to do, we would schedule a weekend to come in and do it. That way we could wax an entire area without interruption. We could strip off the old wax with the stripping chemicals, then neutralize it, then add the sealer, and finally end up with waxing the floors with the best wax we could buy. As I mentioned in the post “How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic”, we used Johnson Wax’s best wax: Showplace.
We had been “certified” by Johnson and Johnson to wax floors properly. This included the proper buffing techniques once the wax had been applied and had properly dried. A properly waxed and buffed floor is shiny but not a slippery floor.
We decided to spend one weekend waxing the Engineering shack. It was a tin building like a Metal Butler Building that the inspectors from Corporate Headquarters would use when they had projects at the plant. In 1982, that was pretty well all of the time, as John Blake and Gene Titus were permanent residents of the Engineers Shack.
The floor in this building had a regular tile floor like you would see in an office building in the 1960’s. Just the plain square tiles. It looked like it had never been waxed before, and was probably built on the plant grounds long before the power plant existed. The floor had been worn out by the traffic over the years. This was one building that I was expected to keep swept and mopped as part of my daily janitorial responsibilities.
Our Janitor crew consisted of Pat Braden, Doris Voss, James Kanelakos, Ronnie Banks and Curtis Love (and myself of course). We had decided a couple of days before that for lunch we would eat baked onions. “Ok”, I thought. I knew we didn’t get paid much as janitors and we had to be frugal, but I didn’t really think that we were so bad off that we had to resort to eating onions for lunch. But since no one really asked me for my vote (which would have been to bring in some pizza from Ponca City), we were having baked onions for lunch.
We spent the morning removing all the furniture from the building, and then stripping the floor (even though it looked like it had never been waxed before). Then we mopped it a couple of times. By that time it was lunch time, and we headed up to the plant break room where Doris was just finishing up baking our um…. er….. onions. Yeah.. Baked Onions….
It turned out that these were Purple Onions. The ends had been cut off of them and butter and salt and pepper had been put on each end as they were wrapped up in tinfoil like a baked potato, and then baked in the oven just as if they were a baked potato.
Well. I was never one to complain about food, and I was determined not to show my lack of enthusiasm at the thought of eating an onion for lunch, so I sat down and put on my eager hungry expression as I waited for our feast. — Well. The joke was on me. As I began to eat the baked onion, I realized right away that it didn’t taste like any onion I had ever eaten. It was kind of sweet and…. well…. it was rather tasty! Power Plant Culture never ceases to amaze me.
Anyway, after I had eaten my share of onions, we were ready to go back to work waxing the engineers shack. We spent the rest of the day doing that and when we had decided that the wax had dried enough, we carefully brought the furniture back in and put everything back in order.
So, why am I boring you with all this detail about waxing the floor in a metal building that doesn’t even exist today? Well. I have told you now about the “Wax On” part. Now comes the “Wax Off” part. The second part of my training to becoming a Jedi Janitor (hmm… snuck in a Star Wars reference I see).
Here is what happened the next Monday when I wheeled the buffing machine out of the janitor closet in the Engineer’s shack. Gene Titus (who always reminded me of Jerry Reed):
and John Blake, both were very pleased with their new shiny floor. They looked like they were anxious to show it off to someone… anyone that would come by. I was about to really impress them (I thought) with my fine buffing skills that was really going to make their floor shine. So, they watched closely as I attached the red buffing pad on the bottom of the buffer:
I began at the far end of the room from the doors and began buffing…. The first thing I noticed was that the buffer was literally removing the wax from the floor. Yep. It was taking it right off. Wax On…. Wax Off…..
Normally John Blake was a likable sensible person. But when he saw me removing the wax from the floor he had a very concerned expression, and well, I perceived that a sort of extreme hatred was rising up in his demeanor…. I was glad that John was a quiet mild-mannered sort of person, otherwise, I think he would have walloped me one for ruining the floor that he was so proud of minutes before.
I began thinking to myself what I should do. After all. The floor really did need buffing, and buffing it was removing the wax. So as the buffer moved back and forth erasing the shine and bringing back the dull tiles, I thought as hard as I could muster my brain what I should do next….
I figured I would go ahead and buff the entire main room, as if I knew exactly what I was doing, not looking concerned. I don’t know if the confidence that I exhibited while removing the wax relaxed John just enough so that he could leave the building and continue his job, or if he actually stormed out in distress hoping to drown his sorrows in his morning cup of coffee…
When I finished the room with the red pad… I did what I would have done if the wax had buffed up correctly and had actually still existed on the floor…. I put the white pad on the buffer. I thought in my mind that the floor was probably so infiltrated with dust that we hadn’t done a proper job (if it was even possible) to clean the floor before applying the wax on Saturday.
So I thought I would try something that they hadn’t taught us in waxing class… I took a spray bottle and filled it with wax. Then I started in the same corner where I had begun removing the pride and glory of John Blake’s newly waxed dreams. I sprayed some wax and buffed it into the floor. As I guided the buffer back and forth with one hand, I sprayed the floor with the other. To my surprise, not only did it start to leave a shiny polished floor, but it left a polish that was much more clear than before. One that was almost like a mirror.
As I buffed the room from one end to the next, the entire room became brighter as the lights from the ceiling reflected from the hard polished wax. I was nearly finished with the room when John walked back in. He was immediately stunned by the brightly polished floor.
I could see his uncharacteristic desire to kill me melt away and his pleasure with his new Shangri La abode become immediately evident. John Blake from that moment on viewed me with the respect that most Power Plant janitors normally deserve.
I was so impressed with how well the floor looked when I was done, that I went to the Brown and Root building next door and did the same thing there.
I began to wonder what other uses I could make out of this discovery… Spraying wax on the floor and buffing it right in. It finally occurred to me that the floor cleaning machine that I used to clean the Turbine room floor might benefit by adding some wax to the mixture. It had the same type of red buffer pads on it.
So, after I had scrubbed the Turbine Generator floor using the regular detergent. I cleaned out the scrubber and put just water in there and about 1/2 gallon of wax. Then I went to try out my experiment. Sure enough…. The bright red Turbine Room floor began to glow. The bright lights overhead were clearly reflected off the floor. This was very successful.
So, my next test was to sweep off the turbine-Generators themselves with a red dust mop. Then spray watered down Johnson Wax directly on the dust mop and mop away on the turbine generators:
The Turbine Generators took on the same polished shine.
I distinctly remember one Power Plant Operator that gave me a very nice complement one day for keeping the T-G floor so nicely polished. His name was Michael Hurst. He was a True Power Plant Operator.
As a lowly janitor in a plant of heroes, I found that I was treated with the same respect as everyone else. I would never forget that complement from him because I could see his earnest sincerity.
A few years ago on December 19, 2008 Michael Hurst died in Oklahoma City. What was said about Michael after his death was this: “He had a great sense of humor and a big heart… Many have been blessed with his generosity and his genuine love for people.” I can include myself in this statement. I know that everyone shown in the picture above from Joe Gallahar (on the left) to Doris Voss (in the middle) to Pat Quiring (on the right) would agree with that testament about Michael.
There was another sentence after this one that stands on it’s own. One that is a sign of a True Power Plant Man. It was also said of Michael Hurst: “Above all else, the most important thing to him was his family.” Though I don’t have a picture of Michael’s immediately family. I believe that I have included a picture above of at least some of his extended family.
Everyone expects when they enter an elevator and push a button for the 3rd floor that when the doors open they will find themselves on the third floor. It doesn’t occur to most people what actually has to happen behind the scenes for the elevator to go through the motions of carrying someone up three stories. In most cases you want an automated system that requires as little interaction as possible.
I have found while working in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that some systems are better off with a little less than perfect automation. We might think about that as we move into a new era of automated cars, robot soldiers and automatic government shutdowns. Let me give you a for instance.
The coal trains that brought the coal from Wyoming all the way down to the plant would enter a building called “The Dumper.” Even though this sounds like a less savory place to park your locomotive, it wasn’t called a Dumper because it was a dump. It was called a Dumper because it “Dumped.” Here is a picture of a dumper:
The coal train would pull into this room one car at a time. I talked about the dumper in an earlier post entitled “Lifecycle of a Power Plant Lump of coal“. As each car is pulled into this building by a large clamp called the “Positioner” (How is that for a name? It is amazing how when finding names for this particular equipment they decided to go with the “practical” words. The Positioner positions the coal cars precisely in the right position so that after the car clamps come down on the car, it can be rotated upside down “Dumping” the coal into the hoppers below. No fancy names like other parts of the power Plant like the “Tripper Gallery” or the “Generator Bathtub” here.
A typical coal train has 110 cars full of coal when it enters the dumper. In the picture of the dumper above if you look in the upper left corner you will see some windows. This is the Dumper Control Room. This is where someone sits as each car pulls through the dumper and dumps the coal.
Not long after the plant was up and running the entire operation of the dumper was automated. That meant that once put into motion, the dumper and the controls would begin dumping cars and continue operating automatically until the last car was through the dumper.
Let me try to remember the sequence. I know I’ll leave something out because there are a number of steps and it has been a while since I have been so fortunate as to work on the dumper during a malfunction… But here goes…
I remember that the first coal car on the train had to positioned without the positioner because… well….. the car directly in front of the first car is, of course, the locomotive. Usually a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Engine.
Before I explain the process, let me show you a picture of the Positioner. This the machine that pulls the train forward:
The automation begins after the first or second car is dumped. I’ll start with the second car just finishing the process as it rolls back up right after dumping the coal… The car clamps go up.
- The rear holding arm (that holds the car in place from the entrance side of the dumper) lifts up out of the way.
- The Positioner begins pulling the entire train forward.
- Electric eyes on both end of the dumper detect when the next car has entered the dumper.
- The Positioner adjusts the position of the coal car to the exact position (within an inch or two) by backing up and pulling forward a couple of times.
- The Holding arm on the back end comes down on the couplings between the two train cars one back from the car that is going to be dumped.
- The four car clamps come down on the train car at the same time that the dumper begins rotating.
- The Positioner clamp lifts off of the train car couplings.
- Water Sprayers come on that are attached to the top of the dumper so that it wets the coal in order to act as a dust suppression.
- The Positioner travels back to the car clamp between the car that was just emptied before and the car in front of it.
- As the train car rotates to the desired angle. (I think it’s about 145 degrees), it begins slowing down.
- When the car has been rotated as far as desired it comes to a stop.
- The Dumper pauses for a few seconds as all the coal is dumped from the coal car.
- The Positioner moves back and forth until it is in just the right position for the positioner arm to lower onto the couplings between the cars.
- The Sprayers turn off.
- The Dumper begins returning to an upright position.
- The Positioner arm lowers down onto the clamps between the coal cars.
- Once the car is upright the dumper stops rotating.
- The 4 car clamps go up.
- The Holding arm goes up. And the process is repeated.
This is a beautiful process when it works correctly. Before I tell you about the times it doesn’t work correctly, let me tell you about how this process was a little…uh… too automated…
So. The way this worked originally, was that once the automated process was put into operation after the second car had been dumped, all the dumper control room operator had to do was sit there and look out the window at the coal cars being dumped. They may have had some paperwork they were supposed to be doing, like writing down the car numbers as they pulled through the dumper. It seems that paperwork was pretty important back then.
Each car would pull through the dumper… The coal would be dumped. The next car would be pulled in… etc.
Well. Trains come from Wyoming at any time of the day. Train operators were paid pretty well, and the locomotive engineers would come and sit in the control room while the train was being dumped. Often (more often than not it seemed) the trains would pull into the dumper in the middle of the night. Coalyard operators were on duty 24 by 7.
So, imagine this…. Imagine Walt Oswalt… a feisty sandy haired Irishman at the dumper controls around 3 in the morning watching 110 cars pull through the dumper. Dumping coal…. One after the other. I think the time it took to go from dumping one car to the next was about 2 1/2 minutes. So it took about 3 1/2 hours to dump one train (I may be way off on the time… Maybe one of the operators would like to leave a comment below with the exact time).
This meant that the dumper operator had to sit there and watch the coal cars being slowly pulled through the dumper for about 3 hours. Often in the middle of the night.
For anyone who is older than 25 years, you will remember that the last car on a train was called a Caboose. The locomotive engineers called it a “Weight Car”. This made me think that it was heavy. I don’t know. It didn’t look all that heavy to me… You decide for yourself:
Back in those days, there was a caboose on the back of every train. A person used to sit in there while the train was going down the tracks. I think it was in case the back part of the train accidentally became disconnected from the front of the train, someone would be back there to notice. That’s my guess. Anyway. Later on, a sensor was placed on the last car instead of a caboose. That’s why you don’t see them today. Or maybe it was because of something that happened one night…
You see… it isn’t easy for Walt Oswalt (I don’t mean to imply that it was Walt that was there that night.. well… it sounds like I’m implying that doesn’t it…. I use Walt when telling this story because he wouldn’t mind. I really don’t remember who it was) to keep his eyes open and attentive for 3 straight hours. Anyway… One night while the coal cars were going through the dumper automatically being dumped one by one… there was a point when the sprayers stopped spraying and the 4 car clamps rose, and there there was a moment of pause, if someone had been there to listen very carefully, they might have heard a faint snoring sound coming from the dumper control room.
That is all fine and dandy until the final car rolled into the dumper. You see… One night…. while all the creatures were sleeping (not even a mouse)… the car clamps came down on the caboose. Normally the car clamps had to be raised to a higher position to keep them from tearing the top section off of the caboose.
If it had been Walt… He woke when he heard the crunching sound of the top of the caboose just in time to see the caboose as it swung upside down. He was a little too late hitting the emergency stop button. The caboose rolled over. Paused for a moment as the person manning the caboose came to a rest on the ceiling inside… then rolled back upright all dripping wet from the sprayer that had meant to keep down the dust.
As the car clamps came up… a man darted out the back of the caboose. He ran out of the dumper…. knelt down… kissed the ground… and decided from that moment on that he was going to start going back to church every Sunday. Ok. I exaggerate a little. He really limped out of the dumper.
Needless to say. A decision had to be made. It was decided that there can be too much automation at times. The relay logic was adjusted so that at the critical point where the dumper decides to dump a coal car, it had to pause and wait until the control room operator toggled the “Dump” switch on the control panel. This meant that the operator had to actively decide to dump each car.
As a software programmer…. I would have come up with another solution… such as a caboose detector…. But given the power that was being exerted when each car was being dumped it was probably a good idea that you guaranteed that the dumper control room operator actually had his eyeballs pointed toward the car being dumped instead of rolled back in his head.
I leave you with that thought as I go to another story. I will wait until another time to talk about all the times I was called out at night when the dumper had failed to function.
This is a short story of durability…
I walked in the electric shop one day as an electrician trainee in 1984 to find that Andy Tubbs had taken an old drill and hooked it up to the 480 volt power source that we used to test motors. Ok. This was an odd site. We had a three phase switch on the wall with a fairly large cable attached with three large clips so we could hook them up to motors that we had overhauled to test the amperage that they pulled to make sure they were within the specified amount according to their nameplate.
I hesitated a moment, but I couldn’t resist…. I had to ask, “Andy…. Why have you hooked up that old drill to 480? (it was a 120 volt drill). He replied matter-of-factly (Factly? Can I really say that in public?), “I am going to burn up this old drill from the Osage Plant (See “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Rest” for more information about Osage Plant) so that I can turn it in for a new one.
Ok. I figured there must be a policy somewhere that said that if you turned in a burned up tool they would give you a new one. I knew that Bud Schoonover down at the toolroom was always particular about how he passed out new tools (I have experienced the same thing at my new job when trying to obtain a new security cable for my laptop).
Anyway. Andy turned the 480 volts on and powered up the drill. The drill began whining as it whirled wildly. Andy stood there holding up the drill as it ran in turbo mode for about five minutes. The drill performed like a champ.
After showing no signs of burning itself up running on 480 volts instead of 120 volts, Andy let off of the trigger and set it back on the workbench. He said, “This is one tough drill! I think I’ll keep it.” Sure. It looked like something from the 1950’s (and it probably was). But, as Andy said, it was one tough drill. On that day, because of the extra Durability of that old Pioneer Power Plant Drill, Andy was robbed of a new variable speed, reversible drill that he was so craving.
Originally Posted October 5, 2012:
The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked first as a summer help, then as a janitor, a labor crew hand and finally as an Electrician is located about 20 miles north of Stillwater, Oklahoma. It just so happened that Oklahoma State University in Stillwater has one of the leading Fire Protection and Safety schools in the country. They offer Fire Service Training for companies who need to train their employees how to fight fires. As a summer help I was fortunate enough to take the onsite training that they provided at the power plant about every other summer to train the employees how to put out difficult fires.
It does sound like a good idea considering that there was all this coal laying around that had the habit of spontaneously igniting into smouldering embers that could easily lead to a large raging ball of flames. In fact, the Coal Yard heavy equipment operators had to driver their large dirt movers over and over the coal on the coal pile to pack it down because if it was exposed to too much air, it would develop hot spots that would turn into smouldering piles of coal that were nearly impossible to put out.
I have seen a spot smouldering on the coal pile where a water wagon would drench it with water over and over. That only seemed to keep it from spreading as fast. The only way to deal with it was to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn itself out.
You would think that the OSU Fire Training Service would do a good job of teaching the employees the proper use of the fire extinguishers. the plant was loaded with Fire Extinguishers, and they did. As a summer help and labor crew hand, we would have to do a monthly inspection of all the plant extinguishers to check their pressures an initial the inspection sticker showing that we had been by to check it. This was a practice that would later change to once each quarter when the Power Plant Men were strung out too thin and the labor crew no longer existed. Even later, the operators inspected them as they made their rounds, since they walked by them during their shifts anyway.
The plant had more than just the regular chemical fire extinguishers, it had the larger roll-around type in a few places as well:
The Fire Training Service trained us to use this as well. Actually, they motivated us to go out and buy fire extinguishers to put in our own homes. Which came in handy for me one year when an air condition repairman was using a blow torch in my house to cut out the cooling coils but forgot to take out the filter first.
The moment I saw him light up his torch, I pulled out the extinguisher from under the sink and set it on the counter. As I watched him, he suddenly started jerking back and forth. I figured something was up, so I pulled the pin, and when he was finally able to pull the burning filter out of the air duct, I was ready to blast it with the extinguisher. So, I gratefully thank the electric company for properly training us to use the handy dandy fire extinguishers that you might use around the house.
One important thing that you learn about the little extinguishers in your house is that they don’t really go very far before they run out of chemicals. So, you have to get the job done quickly while the fire is still small and manageable.
When I first heard that we were going to be trained to fight fires the second summer I was at the plant as a summer help, I was pretty excited. Wow… Great!!! Fight Fires! That sounds fun. A day of watching safety videos and playing with fire extinguishers. I didn’t realize at the time that there was a reason why OSU Fire Training Service was the best fire training school in the radius of about 1,000 miles.
Sure. We watched the training videos. We learned all about proper fire extinguisher care and maintenance. We heard stories about how small fires turned into raging infernos that burned companies right out of business. One thing I remember is that some large percentage of companies that have a major fire are never able to recover to the point that they go completely out of business.
If you need the exact percentage, I suggest you call up the OSU School of Fire Protection and Safety. They probably have the latest statistic printed on their school lunch napkins, because these guys eat, drink and sleep fire safety.
Then, after they had impressed us with their Fire Safety Prowess, they said, “Let’s take about a 15 minute break, and we will meet outside just north of the water treatment plant where we will resume your lessons. Oh, and bring your rubber boots and maybe a rain suit.” Rain Suit? What? It’s about 100 degrees outside. I wouldn’t mind getting a little wet I thought to myself. — The simpleminded summer help that I was at the time.
I would describe in detail to you how they had this obstacle course of staircases and pipes and other metal structures all sitting in a big tray. It’s enough to say that it was quite a tangled mess of a contraption.
“Interesting.” I thought… Are we going to climb the staircase and shoot the fire from up above with our handy dandy fire extinguishers which were lined up in a row off to one side? Climbing over pipes to fight a fire under the stairs maybe… Do we get to use the big roll around fire extinguisher that was there too? This looks like it might be fun.
That was when the fun began. One of the trainers turned a valve, and then I realized that there was a fairly large tank there also that was hooked up to the pipes that wound around the mocked up structure of a stairway and other obstacles in the large tray. As he turned the valve, what looked like diesel or kerosene some petroleum product came spraying out of various holes in the piping spraying everything in the tray drenching it with fuel.
This other guy had a long rod that he had lit like a large lighter only it was giant size, and after the fuel had been spraying out for a while, he lowered the flame down into the tray that now was beginning to fill up with some kind of oily substance. He lit it and the flames quickly spread over all the structure. He had us go in groups of 4 people with fire extinguishers to try to put out the fire. As their extinguishers ran out of fuel, others waiting behind would take their place trying to put out the fire.
We would chase the fire around the structure trying to put it out, but it wasn’t as easy as you would think. If you didn’t completely suffocate it by hitting it from many different directions and in a pattern from one end to the other just right, the fire would dodge around the spray from the extinguishers to be right back where you started. By the time we had used up all the extinguishers, we may have put the fire out about 3 times.
Rubber boots… I kept thinking…. my feet are getting hot… You couldn’t hardly get close enough to the fire to use your fire extinguisher without getting your eyebrows singed. I was always known for having long eyelashes, and I thought I could hear them sizzle as they brushed against my safety glasses.
That’s when they pulled the fire hose out of the fire box that was there next to the fire hydrant. All over the plant grounds there were these red boxes. They are lined up alongside the long conveyor belt from the coal yard to the plant (about 1/2 mile). They were lined up along around the two silver painted million gallon number 2 Diesel tanks. They were just about everywhere you looked (come to think of it).
I remember Summer Goebel when she was a new plant engineer one time asked me when she had first arrived, “What are all those red boxes out there?” (she was pointing out the window of the Engineer’s office). I told her they each contained fire hose and a valve wrench to open up the fire hydrant. I neglected to add that they also provided great shade for all the Jack and Jill rabbits that inhabited the plant grounds, which doubled as a wild life preserve.
So, we were going to use the fire hose! That sounded like more fun. That is until the one guy said to the other guy (more using hand and face signals — like putting his thumb up and winking) “open ‘er up” — so, he was using “slang” hand and face signals…
That’s when the real training began. First of all, we all backed up because as the flames grew on their structure, the heat literally talked directly to your legs and magically told them…. “back up, or else…” so, now that we were standing a good 50 feet away from the fire, we lined up in a row on the fire hose.
4 of us. Four hefty Brawny Power Plant men… (well, 3 hefty brawny power plant men, and one scrawny little runt of a summer help who actually thought he could be measured alongside them), Isn’t that a bit much for this one 4 inch fire hose? (or was it just 3 inches?). There were two hoses actually being used. One to create a wide barrier of water to protect us from the heat, and another hose to shoot water through the barrier into the fire.
A couple of guys manned the large roll around fire extinguisher. Here is an actual picture of the OSU Training Service training a group of employees at a work site to fight fires to give you a picture of what we faced:
Notice the two different types of sprays in the picture.
Like I said, these guys aren’t called the best Fire Trainers because they have pretty pamplets. so, the first time I slipped in the mud, I thought… hmm… I suppose the rainsuit would have kept all that mud from coming into contact with my jeans, and my shirt and my ego.
Well, the most fascinating thing was that we could walk up real close to this intense fire and the wide spray of water sheltered us from the heat.
Then with the large fire extinguisher on wheels, you could open it up on the fire by standing behind this barrier and shoot the chemicals right through the water onto the fire, and it would quickly and incredibly put out that tremendous fire when it was done right. The other fire hose that was spraying through the barrier of water was used to cool everything down so that the fire didn’t spring right back up. the water wasn’t going to put out an oil fire.
Anyway, not long after our first of many fire fighting training sessions that we had throughout the years, the night that we were actually fighting the dragon in the boiler (See the Post, “Where do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today“), the Control Room came over the gray phone (PA system) saying that there was a fire on the turbine room floor.
A bunch of power plant he-men dropped the lance they were using to pierce the dragon and ran off to fight the fire. It turned out to be a barrel full of oily rags that had spontaneously combusted. The fire refused to go out for a long time. It kept re-igniting until the contents had completely burned up.
I remained in the bottom ash area as I was still reeling from the steaming hot water that had been spewed all over me. A little while later the men were back ready to grab the lance and go back to work on the boiler around 10pm (this after a full day of coal cleanup from 8am that morning).
The one important topic that they ingrained into our minds while we were taking the training was that you have to know when the fire is too big to fight. We had learned what our equipment could do and what it couldn’t do. So, we had the knowledge to realize that if the fire is too big, then it is time to get out of there and call the professionals. The only problem was that the nearest professionals were about 20 minutes away. A lot can burn down in that amount of time…. but that is a story for another time. I see the grin on the power plant men’s faces. They know what I am talking about.
Pickles and Ice Cream usually makes one think of things other than Coal-Fired Power Plants, but when I think of Pickles, peppers or Ice Cream, my first thoughts are of the Electric Power Plant where I used to work. The place where I spent 20 years of my life in North Central Oklahoma. I suppose I have Charles Foster to thank for that.
I wrote about Charles earlier this year in the post “Personal Power Plant Hero – Charles Foster“. In that post I explained about how Charles and I would sit in the electric shop office at lunch time talking about movies that we had seen. We would take turns telling each other about the movies in such great detail that when it came time for me to actually watch “Mrs. Doubtfire” for the first time, I felt as if I had seen it before as Charles had explained every scene to me in technicolor.
The other thing that we would do during lunch, of course, was eat lunch. Being that naturally boring person that I am, I would usually bring the same ham sandwich to work each day. Day-in and day-out, I would eat a ham sandwich, and an apple, or some other kind of fruit depending on the time of year.
If it hadn’t been for Charles I never would have experienced the finer side of Power Plant Lunch Time. Charles was an avid gardener. He had a very large garden between his house and the road where he lived out in the country.
People from Pawnee, Oklahoma would judge the world economic situation just by taking a ride out in the country to take a look at how Charles’ garden was coming along. Between Charles Foster and the Farmer’s Almanac, there was little guesswork left.
I was the beneficiary of this little piece of the Garden of Eden amid the arid Oklahoma prairie. Though I never came to take it for granted, every day when I opened my lunch box to retrieve my ham sandwich with American Cheese and a bit of Miracle Whip to keep the bread from sliding off, I would be given an extra treat from one of the kindest people I know. Charles would hand me something special from his garden.
Cherry Tomatoes were a common, but always special treat.
I include this perfect photo of a cherry tomato by Shelley Hourston because this is the kind of cuisine I was subjected to on a regular basis. I almost suspect that Shelley stopped by Charles’ garden to find this tomato. It makes the question about whether the cherry tomato is a fruit or a vegetable a moot point. The real answer is that it is a feast.
Growing up as a boy in Columbia, Missouri during the 1970’s I was spoiled when it came to Dill Pickles. The best Dill pickles that money could buy could be found in Central Missouri. I don’t remember the brand. They may not even exist today. I remember the ingredients on the jar very clearly. Cucumbers, Vinegar, Salt, Dill.
Today it is hard to find a jar of Dill Pickles that actually has dill in them. I think that you shouldn’t be able to label a jar of pickles as Dill Pickles unless they are pickled with dill.
Where’s the Dill?
Why am I so picky? Well. Because besides this one company in Missouri that had only the 4 main ingredients, the only other place I found a true American Dill Pickle was in the Power Plant electric shop office in North Central Oklahoma during lunch. Not only did Charles make his pickles from the cucumbers he grew in his garden, but he pickled them with the fresh dill that he also grew in his garden.
I realize I have digressed. I will climb down off of the pickle barrel now and continue with the important part of this story… um… ok… I mean.. I’ll continue talking about food. One summer Charles let me come over to his house and pick cucumbers and pickle them right there in his kitchen. We scrubbed them clean, put them in the jars with some dill sprigs. Brought the vinegar just to a boil and then poured it in the jars, and sealed them shut. — Best pickles ever. Four ingredients.
Besides being granted the best pickles and tomatoes around each day for lunch, when the right season came around Charles would bring peppers. I don’t mean the large bell peppers. I mean the thin hot peppers. Like this:
At times Charles would bring in some very small peppers where I would take one little nibble of the pepper then a couple of bites of ham sandwich just to go with it. I became so used to eating hot peppers that at home I would buy a large jar of whole jalapeno peppers just to eat like pickles. Since I’m really going to town showing pictures tonight I tried to find a large jar of whole jalapenos, but I couldn’t find one. My mouth started watering while I was searching for jalapeno on Google Images.
While I am on the subject of peppers, I will mention that many years later, when I was “sequestered” with Ray Eberle for three years working on SAP (this is another story for a later time), he introduced me to the wonderful taste of Habanero sauce on my ham sandwich. Yeah…
Like Charles Foster, Ray would bring in a bottle of Habanero sauce every day and let me soak my ham sandwich with it. After that, I stopped buying jars of jalapenos and started using Habanero salsa for my chips at home.
On an even farther note…. one day when I was working on some homework for a course I was taking at the University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, my daughter, Elizabeth took one of the tortilla chips from my plate and dipped it in the Habanero salsa bowl I had sitting in front of me. Without looking up, I said, “I wouldn’t do that.” Not sure what I meant, she put the chip in her mouth.
After the brief moment of complete unbelief that her mouth from the jaw down had just disintegrated, she started making strange sounds as she ran to the kitchen to try to find some relief. I told her not to drink any water, that only makes it worse. I told her that the only way to fix this situation is to keep eating chips. You see…. drinking water just washes all that hot stuff into every crevice in your mouth and throat. Eating chips absorbs the heat and carries it to safety.
When I was young at one point in my life, an ice cream truck used to come through the neighborhood selling ice cream and candy. It seemed like one of those fun times when you are a child that just seems to go away when you are older. Today there is an ice cream truck that goes through our neighborhood and when I watch the children that live next door all run outside to catch it, it brings back those memories.
So, imagine my surprise when an ice cream truck for adults showed up at the plant one day. I didn’t even know they existed. Charles had to explain it to me. We were walking by the break room in the office area and this man was handing boxes to the janitor, who was stashing them in a freezer. Charles asked me how much money I had on me, as we quickly headed for the office elevator.
On the way down Charles explained that we had just seen the Swan Man! The Swan man? I asked him what that meant. He explained that the Swan man traveled around the countryside delivering all kinds of food to people so that they didn’t have to go to the grocery store. Ok….. I thought. Sounds reasonable… When we reached the ground floor, we walked out of the building and there parked at the end of the sidewalk was this truck:
Wow! An Ice cream truck for adults!!! We stood around for a few minutes and when the man returned to his truck Charles and I gave him some money and we bought two boxes of Ice Cream sandwiches! Who would have thought that you could stand in the middle of the parking lot at a Power Plant in the middle of nowhere, 20 miles from the nearest city of any size, and buy ice cream from an Ice Cream Truck? I certainly never thought that would happen until it did.
Years later, when I was driving through the countryside on the way to my house outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma I spied a Schwan man driving his truck down the country road. I drove up behind him and started honking at him. My daughter, who was about 9 at the time, asked me what I was doing. I told her that she would see…. My son sitting in the back seat asked if we were going to get in trouble. I assured him that we weren’t.
After about a mile of me honking and blinking my lights at him, the Schwan man pulled over. I walked over to him. Looked at him rather seriously as he climbed out of the truck and said, “Do you have a box of Ice cream sandwiches for sale?” At that point, he put his brass knuckles back in his pocket, and re-holstered his pistol. Looked back at me with a straight face. Paused, Thought for a moment. Then said, “Sure!” He opened one of those side doors. Pulled out a box.
I handed him some money. Then returned to my car and drove home. On the way home I explained to Elizabeth about the Schwan man and about how he travels around the countryside bringing food to people. So, of course he wouldn’t mind selling me a box of Ice Cream sandwiches.
Anyway, back at the plant. After Charles and I figured out the Schwan Man’s schedule, we knew what day he was going to show up, so we made sure to have enough cash in our pockets to get a couple of boxes so that we could keep them in the freezer in the electric shop. It seemed like we had to eat them rather fast because our freezer wouldn’t keep them frozen hard and after a while they would get pretty soft. That was our story anyway. We didn’t want them to melt. Now. Would we?
So, thanks to Charles Foster we were able to eat like Kings in our Power Plant Palace. When Sonny Karcher, years ago used to say the phrase from a country song, “I’m just an old chunk of coal, but I’m going to be a diamond some day,” (a song by John Anderson) he was right in more ways than one. We would stagger back to the electric shop after working on a coal conveyor on the long belt, all covered with coal dust. Go in the bathroom and wash up… plop ourselves down on the chair in the office. Open our lunch boxes… and have a feast fit for a king!
I’ll leave you with the words from one of Sonny’s favorite songs the first summer I worked as a summer help back in 1979:
Hey I’m just an old chunk of coal but I’m gonna be a diamond some day
I’m gonna grow and glow till I’m so blue pure perfect
I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face
I’m gonna kneel and pray every day last I should become vain along the way
I’m just an old chunk of coal now Lord but I’m gonna be a diamond some day
I’m gonna learn the best way to walk gonna search and find a better way to talk
I’m gonna spit and polish my old rough edged self till I get rid of every single flaw
I’m gonna be the world’s best friend gonna go round shaking everybody’s hand
I’m gonna be the cotton pickin’ rage of the age I’m gonna be a diamond some day
Now I’m just an old chunk of coal…
Here’s Johnny Cash singing the song:
Originally Posted September 28, 2012:
Yesterday at 8:12pm (CDT) the 10,000th person visited the Power Plant Man site. With only 39 posts, that is an average of 256 views per post. That may seem a lot since I have only 67 followers (at the time of this re-post, I now have 29,850 views with 178 followers). The truth is that most people come to this site by accident. They are usually searching for something that I have mentioned, and once they read one, they often read two or three more before going on their way. I will not stand on my laurels because if I have learned one thing from Power Plant Men, and the Power Plant Safety Process is that, when you become comfortable doing a dangerous job, that is when an accident is most likely to happen.
Isn’t that when a young driver seems to become careless? They drive carefully for the first couple of months when they have just learned how to drive, and then when they feel confident about their driving ability, they begin to cut safety corners, and the next thing you know an accident occurs. That was one lesson we learned in our Defensive Driving Course.
In the spring of 1986, while I was an electrician at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I went with another electrician, Ted Riddle, to work on a Major Overhaul for three months in Oklahoma City at a Power Plant just North of Mustang. While we worked there, we would eat lunch with a man well into his 50’s that was our acting foreman for the overhaul. His name was Willard Stark. During lunch we would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio. When Paul would mention a date back 20 years in the past, Willard would be able to tell us what he was doing on that day, many years earlier. I was fascinated by his ability. I will probably talk about Willard more in a later post, but today, I mention him only because of his ability to remember what happened on dates long gone by.
Now, when that I am almost the same age as Willard was then, I am beginning to see that certain dates hold a special significance. The more memorable the experience, either for the good or the bad, and I seem to remember what day it happened. That leads me to one of the memorable dates in my past life at the Power Plant. The particular date was July 15, 1980. I was working at the power plant during my second summer when I was normally working out of the garage. But Stanley Elmore had told me to go to the Maintenance Shop and get with Ray Butler, because he was going to have me do some cleaning up around the shop.
When I arrived, Ray told me to go over and wait with this new hand that they had just hired the day before, and he would be over there in a few minutes when he finished what he was doing. I walked over to the young man (I say young, but he was 6 years older than I was. He was 25) named Kerry Lewallen. I introduced myself to him, and we waited together for a few minutes until Ray came over and told us to get a forklift and move some crates that were nearby over to the Warehouse, and then meet him there to help build some shelves in the warehouse to store the larger material on pallets.
The reason I remember this day so well was because of what happened right after Ray walked away. Kerry looked at me and asked me if I wanted to drive the forklift. Well. I really did want to drive the forklift, because I thought it would be fun, but from my experience at the plant, I noticed that people like Larry Riley had a Hard Hat Sticker that said: “Certified Operator Industrial Powered Trucks”. So, I explained to Kerry that I wasn’t Certified to drive a forklift. Kerry had only worked there one day before that day, and even though he probably had a lot of experience driving a forklift (as most Power Plant Men did), he didn’t feel comfortable driving the forklift either.
So, we waited for Ray to come back and Ray asked if we were going to go get the forklift. Then Kerry said something that I have never forgotten, and that I have used repeatedly throughout my career at the Power Plant, as well as my current career. He explained to Ray, “I would like to, but I haven’t been circumcised to drive the forklift.” I watched Ray as he listened, and I noticed a very faint smile as he realized what Kerry meant to say. Ray agreed, and said he would take care of it. I believe that was the day he took us to the warehouse and circumcised both of us to drive the forklift right then and there.
I couldn’t wait to get home and show my parents. As you can see, I was so proud of my new hardhat sticker, I didn’t put it on my hardhat, I just brought it home and framed it and hung it on the wall. That was July 15, 1980. It was kind of like my “Come to Jesus” moment in my Power Plant journey.
Kerry Lewallen, as it turned out was a great welder, as were all the True Power Plant Welders. He stayed on at the plant to become one of the True Power Plant Men that worked side-by-side with the other great welders in the boilers welding boiler tubes, or in the bowl mill welding inside them in the tremendous heat that mere mortals like myself found totally unbearable.
As with Jerry Mitchell, my wife came home one day and told me about this very nice person that she worked with as a Nurse in the Stillwater Medical Center. She described her as being a very honest and pleasant person to work with. She also told me that she was married to someone that worked at the Power Plant. Her name was Vicki Lewallen, Kerry’s wife.
Through the years, there were many opportunities where we received Hardhat stickers. Most of them were safety related. Each year we would receive a safety sticker, if we hadn’t had an accident. It would indicate how many years in a row it has been that we have been accident free. I received my last safety sticker the last day I worked at the Power Plant during my going away party.
I didn’t place this on a hardhat either. Well. I was walking out the door leaving my hardhat behind (so to speak). I don’t remember how long the Plant Manager Eldon Waugh had worked for the electric company, (about 40 years) but just a couple of months before he retired, while driving back to the plant from Oklahoma City, he took an exit off of I-35 behind a semi-truck. The truck stopped on the ramp realizing that he had taken the wrong exit and proceeded to back up. He ran into the company truck that Eldon was driving causing an accident. This was enough to ruin Eldon’s perfect safety record just months before he retired. The thought was that Eldon should not have pulled up so close to the truck, or have kept the truck in line with the driver’s side mirror so that he knew he was there.
Throughout the years that I worked at the plant we would have different Safety programs or initiatives that would help to drive our safe behavior. Since back injuries were a major concerned, we would watch films about lifting properly. Since we worked with heavy equipment we would watch videos about people being injured while working with dozers, and other big tractors. One video that we watched was called: “Shake Hands With Danger”. You can watch it here on YouTube:
This is a classic Safety film shown at the Power Plant periodically. I always thought we should have been provided with popcorn when we watched these. Harry in this film reminds me of a cross between Ken Conrad and Darrell Low. The “Old timer” reminds me of Mike Lafoe. I could go on.
When our new plant manager Ron Kilman arrived after Eldon Waugh, he had us watch a film where there was a fatal race car accident. When they looked more closely at the accident, it turned out that there were many things that had to happen wrong that led up to the accident. When an accident occurs on the race track, a Yellow Flag is raised, and everyone gets in line and takes it slow around the track until the accident is cleared. In the movie, the thought was that it would have been helpful if the yellow flag had come out each time someone was about to do something wrong “Before” the accident happened.
The foremen at the plant were given yellow flags to put on their desks as a reminder to see yellow flags whenever you see something that has the potential to be dangerous. We were even given yellow flag stickers to put on our hardhat. — By now, you probably know what I did with mine. Yep. I have it right here. I keep it by my bedside as a reminder:
At one point during the years at the plant, we created a Safety Task Force. When Bill Gibson was the head of the Task Force, he used his Safety imagination to come up with some customized Hardhat Safety Stickers that people at our plant would appreciate. One of the more patriotic Hardhat Safety Stickers looked like this:
I didn’t receive one of the stickers that he came up with that I really liked because I was away at the time on an overhaul when they were being handed out. Many years later, when I mentioned it to the guys at the plant in an e-mail, I was given a stack of them by Randy Dailey the next time I visited the plant. Randy Dailey the Plant Machinist that was known as “Mister Safety” himself. Thanks to Randy Dailey I am able to show you a hardhat safety sticker that was created based on a particular phrase that was going around the plant at the time:
That really says it all doesn’t it. The real truth about Power Plant Men. They really do care about each other. The close bond between the Power Plant Men is what kept us safe. In the “Shake Hands with Danger” at one point, it mentions that each person should “Watch out for the other guy.”
That is how our plant remained as safe as it did throughout the years that I was there. When I received the Hardhat Safety Sticker for working 20 years without an accident, it wasn’t because I was always being safe in every job I was doing, because that wasn’t always true. It was because there were enough Power Plant Men and Women looking out for me that decreased my odds of being injured by decreasing the number of times that I would end up doing something stupid and getting myself hurt or killed.
So, not only do I thank all the True Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with throughout those years, but so does my wife and my two children. One little mistake at the wrong time. One extra time of Shaking Hands with Danger, and I might not have come home one day from work. It was more than luck that kept me safe. I thank each and everyone of the Power Plant People that I worked with throughout my career for watching out for the other guy.
NOTE: After posting this last year, Ron Kilman, the plant manager at our plant from 1988 to 1994 sent me a picture of his Hard hat. I thought I would post it here so you can see it:
Ron said he stacked his Yearly safety stickers on top of each other as you can see.