While I worked as a janitor at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma the subject came up one Monday morning about the normal career path that janitors could take. We had already been told that the only place a janitor could advance to was the labor crew. We had been told that there was a company policy that came down from Oklahoma City that only allowed janitors to move to the labor crew before they could move on to another job like an Operator or Mechanic.
I had been trying to decide if I wanted to go the route of being an Operator or a Mechanic during my time as a janitor. That is, until Charles Foster asked me if I would be interested in becoming an Electrician. I had begun my studies to learn about being an electrician when there was an opening in the Electric Shop. Charles Foster and Bill Bennett petitioned to hire me for the position, but the verdict came down from above that according to Company Policy, a janitor could only advance from janitor to the labor crew. I didn’t have any expectation at the time of becoming an electrician given that I had no experience, so I wasn’t disappointed when Mike Rose was hired from outside the company. He was hired to help out Jim Stevenson with Air Conditioning and Freeze Protection.
The next revelation about our position as janitor at the plant (and I’m sure that Ron Kilman, our next plant manager, who reads this blog can testify that it really was company policy…. after all…. that’s what our plant manager told us. — Just kidding…. I know that it really wasn’t), was that when it became our turn to move from being a janitor to moving to the labor crew, if we didn’t move to the labor crew during the next two openings on the labor crew, then we would be let go. I mean… we would lose our job.
This revelation came about when Curtis Love was next in line to go to the labor crew and he was turned down. Larry Riley, the foreman of the labor crew had observed Curtis while we were being loaned to the labor crew during outages and he didn’t want him on the crew for um…. various reasons. After Curtis had been turned down, he was later told that if he didn’t move onto the labor crew when there was another opening, then the company had to fire him. It was company policy (so we were told…. from Corporate Headquarters).
I had been around the plant long enough to know at that point that when we were told that it was company policy that came down to us from Corporate Headquarters, that, unless it was in our binders called General Policies and Practices, then it probably wasn’t really company policy. It was more likely our evil plant manager’s excuse for not taking the responsibility himself and just telling us that this was the way it was, because he just said so….
Anyway… This caused a dilemma from an unlikely source on our team of janitors. Doris Voss became worried that if she didn’t move onto the labor crew, that she would lose her job. She was quite content at the time to have just stayed a janitor, but from this policy that had just come down from Corporate Headquarters, (i.e. The front corner office of our plant), she either had to go to the labor crew, or lose her job.
So, what Doris decided to do was to apply for the job of receptionist that had just been vacated by Grant Harned (see the post “Power Plant Carpooling Adventures with Grant Harned“). Doris applied for the job and her application was accepted. She moved on to work at the receptionist desk. I on the other hand was next in line behind Curtis Love. So, when he was turned down for the labor crew, I took his place.
As a side note, I talked Larry Riley into letting Curtis Love advance to the labor crew when there was another opening. I told him that I would let him work with me, and that I would take care of him. With that caveat, Larry agreed. You can read a couple of adventured I had with Curtis after he arrived on the labor crew by reading these posts: “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love” and “Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door“. Later, however, when I had moved on to be an electrician, Curtis was let go after having a vehicle accident and not reporting it right away.
What does this have to do with the EEOC shuffle? Well… about the time I have moved on to the labor crew, a new company-wide policy had been put in place for the internal “Employee Job Announcement Program”. Our power plant had some “irregularities” surrounding where our new employees were coming from. It seems that an inordinate amount of new employees were coming from Pawnee, and more particularly from a certain church. It was obvious to some that a more “uniform” method needed to be in place to keep local HR staff from hiring just their buddies.
Along with this, came a mandated that all external job announcements had to be sent to various different unemployment offices in a certain radius in order to guarantee that everyone that was interested had the opportunity to be informed about any new positions at the plant well in time to apply for it. That was, if the Internal job announcement program didn’t find any viable candidates within the company that was willing to take the job.
EEOC, by the way, means, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Around the same time that our plant had hired a “snitch” to go around an entrap unsuspecting employees into illegal activities , the EEOC had given us notice that we were not hiring enough women and American Indians as well as African Americans at the plant. Not only were we hiring enough, but we needed to have them spread out into a number of different jobs in the plant.
At the time the operators were 100% male. No women. The maintenance shop had a couple of women. The rest of the women at the plant were either clerks, working for the warehouse, or in the HR department…. Which all incidentally reported up to Jack Ballard our HR Supervisor. Well. Except for Yvonne Taylor in the Chemistry lab, and maybe someone that was on the testing team and of course Summer Goebel who was a Plant Engineer.
It wasn’t just women that were affected. We had to have an African American in Upper Management. Bill Bennett had become an A Foreman a few years earlier, and there was some discussion about whether they could promote him up one more level. He refused the offer. Later they decided that an A Foreman at our plant was high enough to be considered “upper management”.
American Indians were also a group of employees that needed to fill a certain quota. The Power Plant was located in North Central Oklahoma with many Indian Reservations surrounding it. I think we were supposed to have more than 10% American Indians employed at the plant. So the front office asked everyone to check to see if they were Indian enough to be considered. I think if you were 1/16th American Indian, you counted in the quota.
Some people were a little disturbed to be asked to report their racial status in order to fill a quota. Jerry Mitchell told me that he was Indian, but that he never had told anyone and he didn’t want to become a number, so he wasn’t going to tell them. I think we met our quota even without Jerry Mitchell and some others that felt insulted.
At the time, we had over 350 employees at the plant. That meant that we needed 35 women. I think we were closer to 25 when the push to hire more women went into effect.
The problem area that needed the most work was with the operators. Their entire organization had no women and they were told that they needed them. The problem was both structural and operational (yeah…. Operations had an operational problem…. how about that?).
There were two problems with hiring women to be operators. The first one was structural. The operators main base was the Control Room. That’s where their locker room was. That’s where their kitchen was. More importantly that’s where they could all stand around and watch Gene Day perform feats of magic by doing nothing more than standing there being…. well… being Gene Day!
There was only a Power Plant men’s locker room. There were no facilities for women. The nearest women’s rest / locker room was across the main plant in the office area, or downstairs in the Maintenance shop. This presented a logistical problem, especially on days when Gene Day made his special Chili or tortilla soup (Ok, I’m just picking on Gene Day…. We all know Gene never could cook. We loved him anyway).
Either way, there were times when taking a trek across the plant to make it to the nearest restroom was not acceptable. This was solved by building an additional rest / locker room in the control room for women operators. That problem was solved.
The operational problem inherent in operations was that they worked shift work. That is, each week, they shifted the hours they worked. Operators had to be working around the clock. So, one week, they would work from 7:00 am to 3:30 pm. Next week they may work from 3pm to 11:30pm, or from 11pm to 7:30am. The plant didn’t have any female applicants for a job where you had to work around the clock.
The EEOC said that wasn’t good enough. We needed to find women to work in operations. This was where Doris Voss became a person of interest.
Doris was asked if she would like to become an operator. Of course, she said no. She really still wanted to be a janitor, but was content being a receptionist. I’m not sure what she was told or was given, but she eventually agreed and moved over to become an operator. Another clerk, Helen Robinson was later coaxed into becoming an operator. Mary Lou Teeman was also hired into the Operations department. I don’t remember if she was a clerk before that, or if she was a new hire. — I do remember that she was the sweetest lady in operations.
Here is a picture that includes Doris Voss:
And here is Helen Robinson:
How is it that Charles Peavler showed up in two pictures? — Oh. Taken at different times. Note that Charles Peavler with the gray shirt in the front row is kneeling on one knee, but Larry Tapp with the blue shirt next to him is standing….. Hey. Larry Tapp may be short, but he’s one of the nicest guys in this picture. I have a story about those two guys on the right side of this picture. Merl Wright and Jack Maloy. I’ll probably include that as a side story in a later post.
With the addition of the three new female operators, the EEOC shuffle was satisfied. We had added a few new female employees from the outside world and everyone was happy. Julienne Alley was added to the Welding shop during this time. The entire maintenance crew would agree that their new “Shop” mother was the best of them all.
Originally Posted on November 24, 2012:
Pigeons were considered a nuisance at the Coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma. They left their droppings in the most unfortunate locations. Invariably, you would reach up to grab a rung on a ladder only to feel the cool squishiness of new fallen droppings. The Power Plant Men had a conflict when it came to pigeons. Most of the plant grounds are designated as a wildlife preserve and the electric company wanted to maintain a general acceptance of wildlife around the immediate plant as much as feasible. The pigeons, however, seem to have been taking advantage of the free rent space supplied by the boiler structures.
It was decided early on that we couldn’t poison the pigeons for various reasons. The main reason was that other non-pigeon entities may find themselves poisoned as well. Other birds may eat the poison, and other animals may eat the dead pigeons causing a poison pill that would work its way up the food chain.
It was decided that the plant would use live traps to catch the pigeons and then the trapped pigeons would be properly disposed of in an efficient and useful method. That is, all the live pigeons were given to a very thin eldery welder named ET. ET wasn’t his real name. I believe he received this name because he reminded you of ET from the movie.
Especially when he wasn’t wearing his teeth. ET was a small older African American man that you just couldn’t help falling in love with the first time you met him. He always wore a smile. He was lovable. He would take the pigeons home and eat them.
I realized what a great honor and responsibility it was when I was appointed by Larry Riley when I was on the labor crew to maintain the Pigeon live traps. To me, it was a dream job. What could be better on labor crew than going around the plant each day to check the five live traps we had at the time to see if we had trapped any pigeons.
This is a picture of a live trap for pigeons. You sprinkled some corn in the front of the live trap, and you poured corn inside the live trap to entice the pigeons to enter the trap. Once in, they couldn’t get out.
Unbeknownst (I just had to use that word… Un-be-knownst… I’ve said it a few times in my life, but have never had the occasion to actually use it when writing) anyway….. Unbeknownst to Larry Riley and the rest of the Power Plant Kingdom, a year and a half before I was appointed as the “Pigeon Trapper of the Power Plant Realm”, I had actually performed experiments with pigeons.
Ok. It is time for a side story:
One person that may have the occasion to read the Power Plant Man Posts, Caryn Lile (now Caryn Iber), who has been a good friend of mind since the second grade, actually was on my team of college students in my Animal Learning class in our senior year in college at the University of Missouri in Columbia. We had devised an experiment to test if we could teach pigeons to cooperate with each other.
My personal ultimate goal in the experiment (though I didn’t tell anyone) was to see if we could tell if pigeons actually cared for each other. The premise for the experiment was to create a situation where a pigeon would peck a button that would feed another pigeon in a nearby cage. The pigeon in the other cage could peck their button to feed the other pigeon. Caryn and I attempted various variations (is that redundant?) on our experiment to set up a situation where the pigeon would have to watch the other pigeon peck the button before they could eat, and visa-versa, but we never really reached our goal.
The pigeons would always figure out that all they had to do was both go wildly peck their buttons and both were fed. Our professor at the time was Dr. Anger. How is that for the name of a Psychology professor? Perfect! — I have said in previous posts that the head janitor at the power plant reminded me of Red Skelton, but Dr. Anger sounded just like Red Skelton. Just like him!
The first couple of weeks in Dr. Angers class, I found myself confused with his terminology. He used words that were not readily available in the old Red 1960 Webster’s Dictionary that I kept in my dorm room. I finally figured out the secret code he was using and the rest of the semester I understood his every word. This gave me a leg up in his class.
There were some words that Dr. Anger would use a lot. There were various drugs that he would talk about that caused different kinds of changes in learning patterns. The ones that he was most enamored with at the time were “Scopalamine”, “Dopamine” and “Norepinephrine” (pronounced Nor-rep-pin-efrin). I know these words well to this day because I still wake up in the middle of the night with a silent scream saying, “Scopalamine!!!” (prounounced “Sco-pall-a-meen”).
Caryn and I had discussed my obsession with Dr. Anger and my desire to hear him say the word “Scopalamine”. He said it in such a comical “Red Skelton Way” where his tongue was a little more involved in forming the words than a normal person, that just made a chill run up my spine.
I had noticed that Dr. Anger hadn’t used the word for a few weeks in class, and I just wanted to hear him say it one more time. So I devised different conversations with Dr. Anger to try to get him to mention the word “Scopalamine”. I asked Dr. Anger once if I could talk to him for a few minutes to ask him some questions.
I figured I could trick him into saying “Scopalamine” at least once before I graduated from college in order for the rest of my life to be complete. I remember telling Dr. Anger that I was interested in testing pigeons using different kinds of drugs to see how the drugs affected their learning abilities and what drugs would he suggest…. Of course, being the dumb college student that I was, as soon as I had spit out the question I realized how stupid it sounded.
Dr. Anger gave me a look like…. “Ok…. I know where this is going…. you just want to get your hands on drugs”…. Geez. I thought immediately when I saw the expression on his face, “Oh gee whiz. He thinks I’m asking this so that I can get my hands on some drugs….”
It didn’t bother me… because all I needed was for him to say “Scopalmine” once and the next 60 years of my life will have been fulfilled. So, I stayed with it. Unfortunately, there was no mention of “Scopalamine”. I left the meeting unfulfilled.
During our experiment, there came a time when we needed an extra pigeon. The only one available was one that Caryn Lile had tried to train during the first lab. Her team (which I was not on) during that experiment had this pigeon that did nothing but sit there. It never moved and never pecked the button. They would place it in the cage and try to get it to peck a button, but it just never understood that in order to make all those humans standing around smile, all he had to do was go to the button on the wall and peck it.
When I told Caryn that we needed to use that pigeon for our experiment she became slightly annoyed because they had spent weeks trying to teach this pigeon to peck a button. It was the only one left. We had to use their “bum” pigeon. She retrieved the pigeon from it’s cage in a two quart plastic pitcher (pigeons had a natural reflex which caused them to climb into a two quart pitcher automatically once you place it over their head and were glad to be held upside down as you carried them around).
She placed it in the cage and left to go back to make sure she had closed the cage in the other room. This gave me a few moments alone with the pigeon. I went to work to teach the pigeon to peck the button. I knew this pigeon had caused Caryn trouble, so I went straight to “Stage 3 Therapy”. I turned on a white light on the button and turned on a cross on the button as well, I waited a second, and then lifted the feeding tray. The tray stayed up for the regular 3 seconds. By the time the pigeon had looked up from gorging on grain, I had turned off the cross (or plus sign).
I waited a few seconds and turned the cross back on again… a couple of seconds later, I lifted the feeding tray and the pigeon went straight to eating. The cross was off again when the tray dropped. The third time was the charm. After watching the cross turn on, the pigeon went straight to pecking the grain in the tray, I knew at that point that I had him.
He was mine. The Manchurian Pigeon was all mine! Then I performed the clincher move on the pigeon. I turned on the cross on the white lit button but I didn’t lift the food tray. “What?” I could see the pigeon think… “The cross is on! Where is the food?!?! Hey button! What’s up?” — PECK! The pigeon pecked the button. Up went the food tray…. the food tray went back down… the pigeon pecked the button — up went the food tray…. etc.
Caryn walked back in the room and here was a pigeon pecking away at the button and eating away at the grain in the food tray. She asked me what happened to her pigeon. I smiled at her innocently and I said, “That IS your pigeon.” “No Way! This couldn’t be my pigeon! We spent weeks trying to teach this pigeon to peck that button! We came out on weekends! We even taped pieces of grain on the button to try to get the pigeon to peck the button, but it never would.” I could see the tears in her eyes welling up from thinking about the useless hours spent on something that only took me moments.
You see… I felt like I had a personal relationship with the pigeons. I understood them. The pigeons and I were one…. — yeah, right….. my faith in my abilities as “Pigeon Whisperer” was about to be tested. Anyway, the last day of our Animal Learning class consisted of our team sitting down with our professor in a meeting room to present our findings.
I explained to Dr. Anger that even though our experiments were successful, we didn’t show that the pigeons could actually cooperate with each other to keep both of them fed. I ended our meeting by saying to Dr. Anger that when we began our course, he had talked about different drugs and how they had different affects on learning. He had that suspicious look on his face again.
I went on explaining that he especially had talked about the drug “Scopalimine” many times. My teammates all looked at me as if they were saying to me, “No! Don’t! Don’t say it!!! I did anyway. I told Dr. Anger, “There is something about the way that you say ‘Scopalamine’ that I really adore. I have tried to trick you into saying it for the past couple of months, but nothing has worked. Before we leave, would it be possible to hear you say ‘Scopalamine’ just one more time?” Dr. Anger looked around at my other teammates who were all about to pass out as they were all holding their breath. Then he looked right at me and said, “Scopalamine! Scopalamine! Scopalamine!” Caryn couldn’t contain it anymore. She broke out in a nervous laughing jag. The other girl on our team, just sat their stunned that I would risk receiving a bad grade on such an important thesis. Dr. Anger and I both had a look of total satisfaction. I politely said, “Thank you”. My life since then has been “complete” knowing that the last word I have heard from Dr. Anger was “Scopalamine”. Ok. End of the long side story.
I told this story so that you would understand why I was eager to become the pigeon trapper of the Power Plant Realm. Pigeons and I were one…. Who could be a better pigeon trapper than me? I knew their every thoughts…. So, since I already told the long side story… I’ll try to keep the rest of the story shorter…. (I hope)
I was a decent pigeon trapper. I captured a couple of pigeons each day. I carefully put pieces of corn in a row up the the entrance of the trap where I had a small pile of corn inside to entice them to enter their last welfare apartment. Unfortunately, word had gotten out that the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was the perfect spa for pigeons. Carrier Pigeons had been sent out globally alerting pigeons as far as Rome that this Power Plant had more roosts than the Vatican! Just avoid the one dumb Labor Crew hand that had a few live traps set out….. Before long… This is what our plant looked like:
Around this time I had been sent to torment Ed Shiever in the Sand Filter Tank (see the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space by a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“) and the job of managing the Power Plant Pigeon Live Traps fell to Jody Morse. Jody was a janitor with Ed Shiever and joined the labor crew just before Ed. He had worked in the warehouse before becoming a company employee.
He liked to ramble as I did, but unlike myself, he was truly a real Power Plant Man. I remember leaving the confines of the Sand filter tank to return for lunch at the Labor Crew building in the coal yard only to hear that Jody Morse had caught 10 or 12 pigeons in one day. What? I could only catch one or two! How could Jody be catching 10 or 12?
This is when I realized the full meaning of the Aesop’s Fable: “The Wind and the Sun”. Ok. I know this post is longer than most. I apologize. I originally thought this would be short…. But here is another side story.
Here is the Aesop’s Fable, “The Wind and the Sun”:
“The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveler coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveler to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveler But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveler wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveler who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.”
Isn’t it a great story? Persuasion instead of force. This is what Jody had figured out with the pigeons. He had them lining up to go into the pigeon traps until they couldn’t fit any more. He had poured a heap of corn inside the trap and another heap of corn in front of the trap. I bow to Jody for his genius.
My arrogance had blinded me. My belief in my past experience had kept me from seeing the reality that was before me. I resolved from that time to live up to the expectations of my Animal Learning Professor Dr. Anger who had blessed me in May 1982 with words, “Scopalamine! Scopalamine! Scopalamine!” Aesop had the final lesson from our pigeon experiment. “Persuasion is much more effective than force.”
I suppose you’ve heard it said that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The same is true at the Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked for 20 years first as a summer help, then a janitor, a laborer and finally as an electrician. I did find out when I was a janitor, that even though they may not have been a free lunch, there was often a carefully prepared lunch for special occasions.
I have written about when I was an electrician where I would sit in the electric shop office during lunch and Charles Foster and I would sit and talk day after day about various topics throughout the years (See the post “Eating Power Plant Pickles, Peppers and Ice Cream“). He kept my lunch well-stocked with various types of vegetables throughout the year. It seemed to me that I had little to offer in the way of providing for the team.
The electric shop would occasionally have a special feast for no apparent reason. I would walk into the shop one day and find a big pot of beans soaking in water. They would soak the beans overnight. When I saw that big pot of beans, I knew that tomorrow the shop would be having a real bean feast. It was funny, but before becoming an electrician, the only place I had ever heard the phrase, “Bean Feast” was from Varuca in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
It was customary that when there was going to be a shop lunch that we would each bring something to go with it. We often had someone that made some Sun Tea. That is, they would put some tea in a big jar of water and put it outside so that it could bake in the hot summer sun until lunch.
I was pretty inept with coming up with some kind of casserole, and I didn’t have ready-made vegetable garden like Charles, so at first I didn’t know how I could contribute. As time went by, whenever we had a shop lunch, I could always be counted on to bring a tray of brownies. I knew how to bake brownies.
Sometimes, when it was the right season, and Andy Tubbs and Ben Davis and others had gathered enough fish that they had a lot left over, we would be treated to a fish fry. That was one of my favorite lunches. I could eat fish anytime.
Chili was another shop treat that I was always glad to see. It broke the monotony of the same lunch I ate every day. The shop used to make the best spicy hot chili.
Sometimes the Maintenance shop would cook hamburgers or something, usually because they wanted to do something for the people from other plants that were visiting during overhaul, or they were raising money for someone who was sick, or had some tragedy in their life like their house burned down or something. Power Plant Men were always on the lookout for someone to help. I always felt it was my duty to pitch in by eating as many hamburgers as I could.
For years, for lunch I either only brought a ham sandwich or I brought a couple of boiled eggs for lunch. I tried not to spend too much time putting my lunch together in the morning, so I went for the quick fix. For a year, each morning when I woke up, before taking my shower I went in the kitchen, put a couple of eggs in a pan of water, put them on the stove, and headed for the shower.
By the time I came out of the shower, the eggs were ready to come out of the pan and into my Little Playmate lunch box with my salt shaker and a couple of paper towels to be used as napkins for when I peeled them at lunch time. I had to put the shells somewhere….
When I was on the labor crew I used to be able to eat all day long and remain thin. When I arrived in the electric shop, the amount of physical activity was a lot less. I found that buying a cinnamon roll from the vending machine for morning and afternoon break was no longer a viable idea. My weight quickly went from 145 pounds to 163 in a few short months.
So, I could no longer eat like a Hobbit. I had to watch my weight. I stopped drinking Dr. Peppers and bought Diet Cokes instead. I limited myself to my one sandwich or a couple of boiled eggs and a fruit, and whatever vegetable treats Charles would give me. That still didn’t seem to help me keep my weight down, so I had to take other measures.
I began drinking Slim Fast for lunch every day. I would bring a half gallon of milk and keep it in the refrigerator and then I would use half of it each day for lunch mixing up a glass of Slim Fast. This helped keep me fairly…. um…. less Hobbit-like.
I don’t remember how many years I continued drinking Slim-Fast for lunch, but I’m sure it was a number of years. The same lunch every day. A glass of Slim Fast for lunch. — Yum…. um…. Yum…..
One day as lunch time was rapidly approaching, I went to the Ice Box to retrieve my carton of milk to mix my Slim-Fast. When I opened the refrigerator door, I didn’t see the carton of milk. I stopped and thought. I was sure I had left a half carton of milk there from the day before…. Someone had obviously taken my milk. That was unusual. I would trust just about everyone in the shop with my life (well, there were a couple of them in the lab that I had my doubts). Surely I could trust them all with my carton of milk.
So, as Andy, Ben and Diana came to the Work Table slash Lunch Table, I asked if anyone had seen my carton of milk that was in the refrigerator. Andy Tubbs replied that he had thrown it out that morning. He had seen that carton of milk sitting in there for months and had figured that it had gone bad a long time ago, so that morning he had poured it down the drain.
Semi-stunned, I explained that I had only put that milk carton in the refrigerator yesterday, and that I put a new one in there every two day. But at this point what could you do? Andy shrugged his shoulders. Said something like, “Oh Well…” I hobbled back to the office feeling a little downtrodden that I wasn’t going to be able to feast on my cool Malt Chocolaty glass of Slim-Fast like I had for the past 100 weeks…. Like I said… I was a “little” downtrodden about it.
I sat down in the office across from Charles and told him that my milk had been inadvertently tossed out. The only thing I had in my lunchbox at that point was my can of Slim-Fast. Maybe I had a spare pocket knife, some old hardhat stickers and a rosary, but nothing really edible as a backup.
I sat there for a couple of minutes when the office door opened up and Andy walked in with a plastic Tupperware bowl. It was filled with some meat and vegetables. He placed it down in front of me, and turned to walk out. — Power Plant Men….. That’s how they are. He had given me, what looked like the majority of his lunch to eat.
In the 20 years that I worked at the Power Plant, I had eaten all kinds of foods for the first time. From Squirrel to Deer Jerky. I think this was some kind of Deer Stew. I can tell you that of all the lunches I ate during that time, I can vividly remember eating that lunch. It was a Power Plant Man lunch fit for a king.
I guess I was feeling guilty that I never could really contribute anything more than just a tray of stale brownies for the team lunches, so I told the shop that the next day I was going to prepare a salad for them. Like at a salad bar. The idea didn’t seem to excite them too much. Most of them were Meat and Potato type people, as I was myself. But I thought I would surprise them.
I went to the store that evening and bought all kinds of things that I could use to make a salad bar. The next day, I brought bean sprouts, Alfalfa Sprouts, boiled eggs, a ham, some spinach, leaf lettuce and iceberg lettuce, some diced beets, broccoli, cauliflower, and about 4 different kinds of salad dressing.
Around 9:30 after our morning break, I began working on setting up the counter for lunch. I began by dicing up the ham….. Well… using a regular old knife to slice ham into little tiny cubes takes a lot longer than I thought it would. It turned out that by the time I had finished with the ham, and sliced up about 6 boiled eggs, and slicing up a pound of mushrooms and washed and prepared the lettuce, and cheese and beets and lemons (for squeezing) and everything to make it look like a real salad bar, it was already lunch time.
I think I surprised the electricians that day. I don’t think they were thinking that they were going to get anything more than a bowl of lettuce with some vinegar and oil. I did the best I could and they seemed to enjoy it. Being that they hadn’t really counted on my salad being a full blown lunch, I think many of them (or most of them) had went ahead and brought there regular lunch just in case.
I know this wasn’t a typical Power Plant Man Lunch. And it isn’t like I eat a lot of salads myself. I just thought it was something that I could do without having to cook a lot…. I mean… the ham was already cooked, and I knew how to boil eggs. So, I thought, what the heck. I’ll give it a try.
I wasn’t very good at showing my appreciation toward the electricians because….. well….. because I just was never much good at that. I only did something like that once that I can remember. The electricians on the other hand were constantly doing things to show their appreciation for others. At least there was that one day when the Power Plant Men “Ate My Lunch”!
Originally Posted on November 17, 2012. Added a new photo of Grant:
Louise Gates seemed reluctant to approach me to ask if I wanted to make a donation for flowers for Grant Harned’s funeral. Of course I did. He was a good friend of mine. We had many carpooling adventures before he left his job as the plant receptionist to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma where he died a little more than a year later in May 1984 in an automobile accident.
Thomas “Grant” Harned had obtained a degree in business from Oklahoma State University before accepting the job at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma. He told me that he thought that once he had his foot in the door that he would be able to advance up the HR chain until he worked his way into a business department downtown at Corporate Headquarters. Downtown is synonymous for Oklahoma City.
Like many struggling new Power Plant men such as Ed Shiever, Dale Hull and others, Thomas lived in a modest student rental apartment near campus. Grant lived on West Miller Avenue just off of Main Street in Stillwater. Soon after I had become a janitor and the summer helps I had been carpooling with had left, I began carpooling with Grant.
Grant was a tall thin man with sandy hair and a moustache that reminded me a lot of Gary McCain (also known as Stick). I have a picture of him around here somewhere that I found many years after his death when we were cleaning out the office that Louise Gates (now Kalicki) had obtained upon becoming the supervisor over HR. It is a picture of him sitting at the receptionist desk.
Louise gave me a picture of myself that had been taken when I was a janitor, and as I filed through the other pictures I found Grant’s photo. I knew no one else at the plant would want the picture as few knew him or even remembered him by that time. So I took it as well. Some day when I find where I have placed those pictures, I will post them. (I found the picture since I the original post).
As I mentioned, Grant was just out of the Business College at OSU and he was fired up, ready to make a difference. He had all sorts of ideas that he shared with me about how the plant and the company business processes could be improved.
He reminds me now of myself years later when I was carpooling with Scott Hubbard and Toby O’Brien and how I would talk about having smart electricity instead of the same dumb electricity we have had for the past 100 years. Except that Grant’s ideas were about business processes, where my ideas were about electrons moving through a conductor.
For Power Plant Men, carpooling is a way of getting into other Power Plant Men’s minds and understanding them from the inside out. Each day while driving back and forth from the plant you are basically locked into a confined space with one or more other individuals with nothing but your thoughts, or NPR or in the case of Dale Hull and Ricky Daniels… Beer.
In the case of Grant Harned, he soon became frustrated. He had graduated from school and wanted to make a difference somehow. And he wanted it to happen right away. He would tell Jack Ballard his ideas about how he thought things could change, and each time Jack would shoot it down.
I’m not saying that Grant had great business changing ideas that would change the way Power Plants all over the country operated. He just wanted to be listened to, and he didn’t understand that there were built-in reasons why we did it the way we did. The most important was that “We had been doing it this way for 35 years, and we’re not going to change it now.”
For some reason that rubbed Grant the wrong way. Maybe because he couldn’t help thinking outside the box. He obviously had trouble understanding the benefit of doing something the same way for 35 years. I guess he must have missed the class where “because I said so” was a solid business case.
Anyway. It is true that Power Plant business processes before Grant’s time and for a while after, were based on doing things the same way it has always been done. I suppose that is why electricity for all those years was the same boring thing…. 60 cycles (60 Hz or 50 Hz in Europe) Alternating Current. Regular Sine wave, perfectly generated. Each wave identical to each other. — But I’ll talk about electricity later. At this time I was still a janitor.
Grant finally decided that he was going to look for another job because he realized that he didn’t have a future at the power plant. He had been trained as a business person and there was little opportunity to display and cultivate his new found skills at a power plant in the middle of the countryside where everyone was content with the way things were.
Before he left, he gave me some cassette tapes that he used to play on the way to and from work. I kept them for years until I had worn them out listening to them in my car. Two of the tapes were The Rolling Stones, one of his favorite bands.
I said goodbye to Grant when he left, but I never forgot him. Each year on All Souls Day (November 2), I remember him and David Hankins. He, like most of the men I have carpooled with over the years was like a brother to me. Those that weren’t brothers, were fathers.
It didn’t occur to me until after I first wrote the original post that years later, I too went to Oklahoma State University while I was working at the plant to obtain a degree from the Business College, Spears School of Business. I wonder if Grant was looking down giving me a thumbs up as I walked to the podium to get my diploma.
I mentioned that I don’t know where I placed his Power Plant picture, but I do have other pictures (before I recently found it):
Evidently someone else remembers Grant as I do. I found these picture of him on a memorial site online. There is a comment there that says this of Grant: “Was known in school and by friends as Grant. He had a great sense of humor and would always make you laugh.”
I agreed with Grant. He really didn’t belong at the power plant. Power Plant life and culture at the time was not geared toward “continuous improvement” and Six Sigma. It was about coming home safely at night to your family and doing a good days worth of work and having something to show for it. He was young and ambitious.
I cherish the time I spent with Grant driving to and from work. I remember many of the conversations that we had. Many of them philosophical in nature. Some having to do with the regular questions people have about life and God. I know that he was being drawn toward something greater, and in the end I pray that he found it.
Most of us have watched the Alfred Hitchcock Thriller “The Birds” at least once in their life. When I was young it used to come on TV around Thanksgiving about the same time that Wizard of Oz would rerun. What a mix of movies to watch after eating turkey in one of our Italian relative’s house in Kansas City as I was growing up. During those years of sitting passively by watching the birds gang up on the humans, it never occurred to me that some day I might take part in my own private version of “Blackbird Wars” amid the playground equipment found in a typical Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
A tale like this is best starts out with the line, “It was a cold and windy night…” That was close. My story begins with, “It was a dark and cold winter morning…” Unit 1 was on overhaul. That meant that it was offline while we climbed inside the inner workings of the boiler, precipitator, Turbine and Generator in order to perform routine yearly maintenance. Being on overhaul also meant that we came to work earlier in the morning and we left later in the evening. Since it was in the middle of the winter, it also meant that we came to work in the dark, and we left for home in the dark…. These were dark times at the Power Plant for those of us on long shifts.
At this time in my career I was working on Unit 1 precipitator by myself. I had my own agenda on what needed to be done. Sometimes I would have contractors working with me, but for some reason, we had decided that we didn’t need them for this overhaul. Maybe because it was an extra long one and I would have plenty of time to complete my work before it was over.
I can remember grabbing my tool bucket and heading for the precipitator roof to begin my day of calibrating vibrators and checking rappers to make sure they were operating correctly. I was wearing my winter coat over my coveralls because it was cold outside. In Oklahoma, 20 degrees was pretty cold. 20 degrees in Oklahoma with 30 mile an hour winds gives you a pretty low wind chill…. which chills you to the bone.
I had a red stocking liner on my hardhat that wrapped around my forehead that kept my head warm.
All bundled up, I left the shop through the Turbine Room basement and headed toward the breezeway between Unit 1 and 2. I climbed the stairs up the Surge Bin Tower until I had reached the landing where you can go to either Unit 1 or 2 precipitator roofs. Using rote memory after having performed this same task every morning for the past month and a half, I turned toward Unit 1.
The Precipitator is a big box that takes the ash out of the exhaust from boiler. It drops the ash into hoppers where it is transported to the coalyard into large silos, where trucks haul it away to make concrete for roads and buildings. The precipitator roof is full of large transformers (84 of them), 168 vibrators that shake the 29568 high voltage wires in the precipitator, and 672 rappers that bang on the 7560 metal plates. The transformers are used to collect the ash using “static cling”. The rappers and vibrators are used to knock the ash into the hoppers.
The Precipitator roof is a very noisy place when all the rappers and vibrators are running. It is covered with a sheet metal roof. It wasn’t originally designed that way, but someone with foresight thought that it would be a great idea to insulate the precipitator roof. In doing so, they needed to add a roof to keep the insulation from being exposed to the weather.
It wasn’t noisy that morning as I reached the ladder and quickly tied my tool bucket to a rope hanging down from above. It was dark, and lonely and quiet. Well. There were some lights, but this morning, the light from the precipitator didn’t seem to shine much as I pulled myself up the ladder. When I reached the top I turned around and sat at the top of the ladder and began pulling my tool bucket up.
It was at that moment when I realized that something was much different than usual. I had spent a couple of years working on the precipitator roof and inside and I had become friends with each of the transformers, and I even knew the unique sounds of each of the vibrators. I could tell when a rapper wasn’t rapping correctly. There would be a slight sucking sound as the rapper was drawn up into the cylinder…. There was a slight pause, then it would drop onto an anvil that was connected to the plate rack. But this morning everything was turned off. Yet, I could feel that there was something wrong.
There was a strange hum. I was trying to place it as I grabbed each foot of rope and pulled my bucket closer. There was more than a hum… There was a weird muffled sound all around. I had a chill down my back as if I was being watched. I quickly grabbed the handle of the bucket and stood up and turned around. I was ready to spot whoever it was that was spying on me!
What I saw immediately sucked the breath out of me. The precipitator is 200 feet wide and 120 feet long. Every inch as far as I could see was black. Not just the equipment, but the air itself.
During the night a cold wave had moved into Oklahoma from the north. With it, it had brought a horde of blackbirds. Thousands upon thousands of them. They had found refuge from the cold blasting wind in the precipitator roof enclosure. Safe and warm and undisturbed….. That is, until I arrived.
It was as if the blackbirds had discovered me at the same time I had found them. They suddenly burst into a frenzy.
I stood there in wonder for a few moments watching the swirling mass of blackness obscuring what little light was given off by the 100 watt Mercury Vapor lights. As I began to move toward the walkway the flying mass of feathers parted so that the birds kept a safe distance from me. As I grabbed the rungs of the ladder, I suddenly realized why keeping an aviary at a Power Plant is not a good idea. A warm moist gooey mass squished between my fingers as I pulled myself up the ladder and onto the walkway.
I took a few steps to where a package of WypAlls was laying on the walkway and pulled out a couple of heavy duty sheets of durable wiping material:
I decided that I was going to try to chase the birds out of the shelter so I began waving a couple of rags around as I walked down the walkway. All it did was cause the birds to bunch up in corners away from me. They would circle back around behind me. So, when I reached the other end of the roof, I climbed down to one of the rapper control cabinets and powered it up.
The rappers and vibrators began their music. A medley of humming and clanking. I went to each of the 14 cabinets on the roof turning on each of them until the entire roof had risen to a symphony of buzzing and banging. Music to my ears. After wiping down a few places where I needed to work, I spent some time testing and taking notes so that I could make adjustments in the control cabinet after I had made my way around each rapper and vibrator in that area. Then I left for break.
The sun was now up and daylight was shining through the openings in the precipitator roof. When I returned from break the hoard of blackbirds had decided to continue their journey south.
There was one time when I was working as an electrician at the Power Plant where I felt close to being a bird myself. It was when I had to travel to the top of the 500 foot smoke stack to repair some equipment. I was not only at the top of the smokestack, but I was literally sitting on the edge of it and shimming my way around it.
Why me? Well. Our A Foreman, Bill Bennett summed it up like this…. “Have Kevin do it. He likes heights.” Sure. Just like he said I liked to get dirty, so put me in a coal bin to fix a proximity switch. Or, just like he said that I liked climbing in holes in the ground, so I was assigned the job of fixing all the manhole pumps at the plant. What could I say? At some point, he was right. I couldn’t argue with him. Especially since he would call me a “scamp” with such endearment (See the post “Tales of a Tall Power Plant A Foreman“).
Well. You learn something new every day when working at a power plant, and I sure learned something that day. Quite a few things. I already knew that inside the tall concrete smoke stack was another smoke stack made out of brick. The outer stack would sway in the strong Oklahoma wind, while the brick stack inside would remain steady. On a windy day, at the very top, the stack would sway as much as six inches.
On this particular day I rode on top of the stack elevator to the top so that I could climb up onto the rim where the lightning rods were placed about 6 feet apart around the top.
When the wind is blowing there is a certain amount of a difference in the electric potential at the top of the stack as there is on the ground, so you could hear a slight crackling sound around the lightning rods even though it was a clear sunny day. I was wearing a safety belt and as I stopped to work, I would clip the lanyard to the closest lightning rod knowing full well that if I decided to jump off the stack, the lightning rod would just bend and the lanyard would just slide off the end.
I was not in any mood to do any jumping that day. I was there to fix jumpers instead. You see, there is a metal cap on the top rim of the smoke stack. Actually, there is a metal rim on the top of both smoke stacks. The concrete one and the brick stack inside the concrete stack. And there was supposed to be a set of jumpers around the top of the stacks connecting the two metal caps together electrically. This way, if perchance a bolt of lightning hit the inside stack, then the electricity would be routed to the outer rim and down the large grounding cables to the ground grid 500 feet below.
As I shimmied around the top of the stack, I became aware that as far as I could see… clear to the horizon, there wasn’t anything higher than me. At first this threw me a little off balance, because I usually focused on other objects to help me keep my bearings. In this case, only the other smoke stack was as high as me. So, I focused on the rim where I was sitting and tried as hard as I could to ignore the fact that I was a tenth of a mile up in the air.
I removed the broken jumpers and replaced them with the new ones. I didn’t think these new jumpers would last long considering that as the stack swayed back and forth, it would quickly wear the jumpers in to. But, there was some regulation or something that said they had to be replaced, and so that was why I was there.
I noticed while I was working on the top of the stack that birds were flying around below me. Actually, most of them were way below me. Few birds would fly as high as the stacks, and they were usually the predatory types that liked to swoop down on unsuspecting pigeons below. It felt a little odd to be working and looking down at birds flying when it is so normal to look up to see birds. From up there, a large flock of birds like those in “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock didn’t look so intimidating. They were nothing but small dots far below.
Originally Posted on November 10, 2012:
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” A line from the movie Apocalypse Now, may come to mind when reading the title stating that the Power Plant has sites of beauty. Especially the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. What could you find of beauty at a Power plant with a coal pile, and large metal structures?
The answer is found almost everywhere you look. I have mentioned before that the plant property is largely a wildlife preserve. A large man-made lake was constructed on a hill to provide cooling water for the plant condenser. In the process a veritable Shangri-La was created where wildlife could live in peace and comfort protected by the Power Plant Humans that maintained the grounds.
The second and third summers that I worked at the plant as a summer help, in 1980 and 1981, in order to go to work each day, I left my parent’s house from the back door each morning. From there, I walked behind three houses, where I climbed over a barbed wire fence into a field. I crossed the field and came out onto the dead end of a dead end road, where I walked over to Lakeview Drive. From there I walked about a quarter mile to the corner of Washington where I would catch a ride with whoever I was carpooling with at the time.
During the summer of 1980, when I began working the 12 hour shifts 7 days a week to do the irrigation for the new grass we were trying to grow (see the post When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays To Listen). When I needed to be at work at 6 am each morning, when I walked through the field at 5:15, the sky would just be at the point where you could vaguely see. I didn’t bring a flashlight so the first few weeks were more like feeling my way through the dark, looking for any clues to help guide me to the road and back to civilization. Luckily the cow (or bull) in the field didn’t seem to pay me any mind.
As the summer progressed, my trek to the corner was a little lighter each day. until I could comfortably see where I was walking. I bring this up because on one particular morning I came across something that I have never forgotten, and I’m sure I will never see again. After climbing over the barbed wire fence and turning to go down toward the road, I found myself at the edge of a field of Queen Anne’s lace that was left over from the year before. That is, the dead stalks of Queen Anne’s Lace (very similar to Hemlock).
I’m sure you have all seen Queen Anne’s Lace at one time or other if you have ever been in a field in the summer, as it is found everywhere in the United States.
The Queen Anne’s Lace I saw was all dead, so the field was full of stalks that looked like this:
The ground was literally covered with these stalks, so that it blanketed the entire section of the field. Across the top of every one of the thousands of stalks where the head of the plant formed a kind of bowl shape, a spider had weaved a blanket of web on each plant. The webs were all highlighted with morning dew as the sun had just enough light to brighten the dew on the webs so that the field appeared as if it had a magic blanket of silk laid across the top of it.
When I came to the edge of the field of Queen Anne’s stalks all covered with dew covered webs I just stood there in amazement. I knew that I was going to be the only person to ever view this beautiful site. So, I tried to absorb as much of it into my brain as I could. I realized that God had the thousands of tiny spiders work through the night weaving these webs and that He had materialized the dew softly across the field.
I knew I couldn’t remain there all morning and there was no way around the quilt of webs, so I finally had to bring myself to walk through the masterpiece. I mention this moment in my Power Plant life because you never know where something of great beauty is going to show up.
This brings us back to the plant where there are hidden places around the lake called Weir Boxes. Those who regularly work with Weir Boxes use them to measure the water flow through an irrigation system. The plant used weir boxes to measure the amount of leakage from the various dams around the main lake and an auxiliary lake used as a holding pond for water before being released to the lake once it is tested for purity.
The flow rate can be measured by the amount of water flowing through the V shaped notch. When the lake was first built it was important to monitor the 6 weir boxes located around the lake to make sure the dams were stable and were not leaking. The water that leaked through the dam was generally routed through the weir boxes that were placed at the foot of the dry side of the dam by the use of a kind of “french drains” that were put in place when the dam was built.
As a summer help, when it came time each month for the weir boxes to be checked, we would get in a pickup with some industrial sized Weed Eaters in the back and head for a trip around the lake. We would locate each weir box, and clean out any weeds or brush around them. Then we would mow a path through the weeds from the road to the weir boxes so the person coming by to inspect the weir box wouldn’t have to walk through the high brush to the box, possibly stepping on snakes and other native scary creatures.
When we did this task, it was usually the first thing we did in the morning. I know to Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, he loved the smell of Napalm in the morning, but I was more partial to the smell of freshly shredded weeds and grass. It was the only cool part of the day. It was only going to get hotter and sticker from there. So, I have always had a pleasant memory of doing Weir Box detail.
This reminds me of a trick that Stanley Elmore, the foreman over the summer helps, taught me. Since we would spend days on end going down a roadside with either a heavy duty weed wacker
Or an Industrial Weed Eater strapped onto a shoulder harness chopping weeds all day:
Stanley told me that in order to keep the mosquitoes away, you eat a banana in the morning before you leave the shop. For some reason by eating the banana, the mosquitoes would leave you alone. I worked like a charm, and I made sure that my mom had a stock of bananas in the house for my lunch each morning. It wasn’t until I was in the electric shop that it was discovered that Avon had a skin oil product that repelled mosquitoes while leaving your skin soft and plush and nice smelling at the same time. It is called: “Skin So Soft”.
So now the secret is out why the Big Brawny He-man Power Plant Men smell so good and have such Beautiful Skin (no. I’m just kidding. They don’t really have beautiful skin — believe me!). It later became marketed as an insect repellent. It is still that way today. I suspect that the secret ingredient in Skin So Soft is Banana Oil.
Another trick that Bill McAllister taught me was that when Arthritis is bothering you, you just spray some WD-40 on your joints and rub it in, and it fixes it right up.
I told my dad a Veterinary Professor at Oklahoma State University about this. He told me that WD-40 had the same solvent in it that was used by veterinarians to rub medication on horses that helps the medication absorb into the animal. He warned that using WD-40 on your joints to lubricate your arthritic joints may make them feel better, but at the same time it pulls in the other chemicals found in the product that you wouldn’t want in your body.
The first summer when I was a summer help and I was in a truck driving around the perimeter of the new lake, that was still being filled, with Dee Ball looking for anything unusual, we spied what at first looked like a Muskrat near the edge of the water.
Dee stopped the truck and climbed out to get a closer look. A Muskrat looks somewhat like a big rat and sort of like a beaver. What we were seeing looked more like an otter than a beaver.
But it wasn’t quite like an otter either. It was more furry. and dark. Dee knew what it was after watching it for a minute. He told me. “That is a Mink”. My first thought was how does this Dee Ball know what a Mink is? He sounded so definite. To me Dee Ball, though he was in his early 40’s at the time, looked like an old farmer who had a hard life. He acted half crazy part of the time, though he was always respectful and kind. At least when he wasn’t mad at you for playing a joke on him.
So, later I went and looked it up, and you know what? He was right. He had told me that it was unusual for Minks to be this far south, and again I wondered how he knew so much about something that wasn’t even from around there. He said that the mink must have followed the Arkansas river on down to the lake. Pointing toward the north with his finger… and tracing it down until he pointed at the lake…. (that way he could show me how he was processing the journey of the Mink to the lake). I thought maybe some ranger had put posters up around the lakes up north letting the animal life know that a new animal preserve had opened up in Northern Oklahoma where even a Mink could live in peace knowing they would be safe from hunters and trappers.
I remember Dee telling me that it was the tail of the mink that gave it away.
I have mentioned in the Post about Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down By The River that Bald Eagles migrate to the Power Plant every winter. This brings bird watchers to the lake to watch the Eagles. There is a link to view an Eagle’s nest on the Web.
I have had the privilege along with the other Power Plant Men to watch these majestic birds, the symbol of the strength of our nation, each winter while I worked at the plant. I have seen a bald eagle swoop down onto the lake and grab a fish from the water.
What a beautiful site!
The plant itself has a beauty of its own. When you visit the plant at night, you find that it takes on a surreal atmosphere. The same hissing of steam through the pipes is heard. The same vibration of the boiler and the bowl mills can be felt. But the plant lights up like a ship on the ocean.
You can’t see the light here, but if you ever travel from Stillwater to Ponca City during the night, you see what looks like a huge ship lit up floating above the landscape off in the distance. It is truly a beautiful site.
One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards. My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service. There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.
I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs. Like I said. It was really fun.
I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having. Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing. He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.
Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job. Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application. I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about. He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.
I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….
I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School. He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri. We immediately became friends when we met. We both enjoyed the same things. The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.
I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games. So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me. We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.
One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.
Jesse was beating us so bad that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn. Then his mother called us for dinner.
Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice. When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal. Chili. So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.
After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home. On the way home my brother started to chuckle. I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” in his head. It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.
So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say. We would just yell out, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!” It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.
When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory. I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!!”
Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm. He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived. The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?” When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.” When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was. I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse! You’re my friend!”
So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine. It’s poetry to my ears. Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.
End of Side Story….
So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most? Well… because all good things had to come to an end. Electronic circuit boards included.
When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it. They just aren’t used much anymore. Everything has gone digital. Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips. It just isn’t quite the same.
So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant. By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors. We were programming chips. Now the circuit boards looked more like this:
Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using. We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor. We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing. When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.
There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit… Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.
Well. Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun. We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.
The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature. No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit. Oh well….
When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor. The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant. They were made from genuine Asbestos. I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.
Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves. Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing. You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well… They were taken away. Not deemed safe for use by humans.
In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”. That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.
Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator. Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface. But…. I wouldn’t know about that. I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.
A manual crank megger was similar….
Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:
It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing. We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places. Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?
I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards. I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.
This heater didn’t even get hot. The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.
The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:
They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.
As for the volt-ohm meters. Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter. I dare say. It was a step up from the old Simpson meter. A lot safer also:
And the Safety belt? Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body. So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.
So… you see… What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs. Real Power Plant Men I mean. So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss. They lose those things they hold dear. Yeah. They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had. I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.
So. That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most. Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing. Power plant Men just change right along with it. But sometimes it hurts a little.
Originally Posted on November 2, 2012:
Mid-July of my fourth summer as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1982, Stanley Elmore came back from the office area while I was working fixing a flat tire in the garage. He shook his head as in disbelief… which was Stanley’s normal way of saying that he either had some interesting news to tell you, or that he was playing a joke on you and was about to set you up for something. He told me that I was one lucky person. I had been chosen to do the Mail Run each morning for the rest of the summer.
What this meant was that each morning about 8:30 I would drive the Plant Manager’s pickup truck to Red Rock about 5 miles away to get the mail from our Post Office Box there. From there I would drive to Morrison, 23 miles away to go to the Post Office to pick up the plant mail at our box there, and then to the Morrison Bank to cash checks for Petty Cash and make any other transactions that were needed at the plant. After that, I would drive the 17 miles back to the plant. This 45 mile journey along with the stops each day lasted about an hour.
This meant 1 hour each day, I wasn’t chopping weeds, or picking up rocks, or emptying the trash from the cans at the park, or fixin’ flats. I was driving a company truck from place-to-place running errands. As a Catholic, this gave me time to say all three sets of Mysteries of the Rosary (there were only three sets at that time) each day while on the job. A month and a half later when I became a janitor, it was decided that I would keep delivering and picking up the mail each day. Which suited me fine. I enjoyed the drive, and after I became a janitor, Pat Braden told me how to take the back road (County Road 170) from Red Rock to Highway 64 on the way to Morrison, which was a pleasant drive through the countryside.
After a couple of weeks of doing the Mail Run, it was decided that I could also be used to make runs to Oklahoma City once each week for the Warehouse to pick up parts at various locations throughout the Metro area. I was proud that I was being trusted to do this while still being a summer help. I was given a booklet of POs (Purchase Orders), which I found out was like a book of blank checks from the Electric Company that gladdened the hearts of vendors when they looked at me warily while they asked me how I was going to pay for the parts I was picking up.
I was 21 years old at the time and had a Commercial Chauffeur’s license, but I looked closer to 16. So, vendors were surprised to see that I was carrying the cherished book of POs for the Electric Company. To them it was better than cash. With it, I could have a vendor load a $20,000 item onto the back of the flatbed truck by signing a slip of paper, tearing it out of the booklet and handing it to them. I was honored that the company trusted me with this job.
This was a long time before GPS systems were in cars, so I relied on Dick Dale and Mike Gibbs to give me directions and tell me the most efficient routes around Oklahoma City to go to the various stops on my route. These trips also took me to various plants in the area. I was able to go to the Power Plant north of Mustang on the West side of Oklahoma City
and the plant at Horseshoe Pond (or was it a Lake?) on the East side of town.
I even made a trip to Konawa once to the Power Plant there.
But enough about my own enjoyment. I know you really want to hear about the secrets I learned. They aren’t really secrets as much as they were insights or observations. You see, each morning I would go to the front office before I left to take lunch orders from Linda Shiever, Joan Wheatley and sometimes from Linda Dallas and Carolyn Olbert. They would have me stop by the diner in Morrison to pick up an order for lunch. I would stop by the diner on the way into Morrison and give them their order, then on the way back out of town, I would pick it up. Then I would have to smell the aromatic food the rest of the way back to the plant.
While waiting for Linda and Joan to decide whether they wanted the Chicken Fried Steak, or the Hot Roast Beef Sandwich, I would stand there listening to the conversations that were taking place. Having grown up around my mom’s Italian family in Kansas City, I had learned to listen to 3 or more conversations simultaneously while pretending not to be paying attention to any one of them.
So, I could hear the plotting and scheming coming from Jack Ballard’s office each morning. He was usually trying to figure out how to implement the latest dictate coming from the Plant Manager. So, he would be throwing out suggestions about how to go about them. This used to stick in my craw, because nothing enraged me more at that time than to have management treat their employees in an underhanded way. I had my reasons for the rage that I felt, and maybe I’ll go into those some time in a later post.
One particular topic I remember was when Jack Ballard was trying to figure out how to keep employees from taking any time off for Christmas. Eldon Waugh (or did it come from Corporate Headquarters? Yeah… right), had an edict that no one could take vacation around Christmas because if they did, they would probably leave town, and if they did that, and the plant had an emergency, then there wouldn’t be enough people available to call.
I didn’t understand that reasoning, since OD McGaha had spent almost his entire life within a 3 county radius around the plant. Sonny Karcher would be right down the road decorating a little Christmas Tree in his front lawn. Actually, most everyone would just like to stay home and spend some quiet time with their family. If some of us wanted to take a trip to go visit family, well. So Be It.
This was before I had realized the full extent that Eldon went to make life miserable for his worker bees (see the Post “A Halloween Power Plant Election Story” for a more complete understanding of “Worker Bees”). Eldon (or was it Corporate Headquarters) had already declared that no one was able to use vacation the last two weeks of the year.
So, what was the problem? The problem was that we had something called, “Floating Holiday”. It used to be used for Good Friday in the earlier days, but then later was changed to one Floating Holiday, which meant that you could take it any time throughout the year. This included some time during the last two weeks of the year since it wasn’t “technically” vacation. Which was once too often for the Plant Manager and Jack Ballard (the head of Human Resources at the plant).
I guess that either they didn’t think that the employees would buy the idea that Corporate Headquarters would make a rule that said you couldn’t take your floating holiday around the time of a real holiday (Christmas), so they had to come up with a way to keep the employees from even having one extra day during those last two weeks, in case we would get it in our heads to drive to Oklahoma City to do some Christmas shopping. So something had to be done about it.
Luckily (or maybe not so luckily), Linda Shiever was taking her sweet time that day coming up with the money to pay for her lunch so that I was able to hear a good 5 minutes of the conversation between Jack Ballard, Sharon Lance and Linda Dallas as they brainstormed a way to prevent the atrocious act of worker bees thinking they should have more than the one or two days allotted them for the Yuletide season.
You see… Vacation usually had to be scheduled well in advance, so a frugal, hardworking Power Plant Man will naturally save his floating holiday for an emergency. Just in case something comes up and they have to take an unplanned day off (or he has to go save his wife from their burning house and the plant manager won’t let him use black time — oh. That wasn’t this Plant Manager). So, when it came down to the end of the year, and the floating holiday was still floating out there waiting to be taken, then the Power Plant Man would take it during the last 2 weeks of the year rather than lose it altogether. This just made sense. So, Jack had to come up with a solution that prevented this. (This was a number of years before vacation was allowed to carry over for the first 3 months of the following year).
The final solution was that Corporate Headquarters would come up with a Policy that said that the Floating Holiday had to be used first before vacation could be used. — No. I’m not kidding. That way the Floating Holiday would not be available at the end of the year. I heard this being formulated from the mouth of Jack Ballard. Once he said it, it was like a window in the ceiling of his office opened up overhead and a ray of sunshine shown down on his desk and you could hear angels singing, “aahhhhhhhh”. They knew they had found their solution.
I think this policy lasted a couple of years before someone forgot that they had made it, and things were back to normal. It just fascinated me to hear how easily this band of vacation time bandits could manipulate the employee’s benefits on a whim. This type of time thievery (as I alluded to above) enraged me.
Those of us that were at the plant during that time know to what end this group finally met their fate. I will discuss it in much greater detail in a later post that involves someone that the plant employees referred to as “The Snitch”. This story about the Floating Holiday is just a minor prelude of things to come in the following years.
On a more humorous note:
One morning when I went into the Plant Manager’s office to pick up the Pickup Truck Key, Bill Moler, the Assistant Plant Manager, entered the office with a big grin on his face and said that he finally found out why Indian Electric kept sending us an electric bill. Of course, Bill wasn’t paying the bill. Why would one Electric Company pay another electric company, just because they kept sending them a bill?
The answer came when the electricians had traced the sudden loss of electric power to the street lights in the Park areas on the south side of the lake. The power had been disconnected at the electric pole. The fuses had been removed. Upon further inspection, it was found that the electric poles did not belong to this Electric Company, it belonged to Indian Electric. They had turned off the electricity because our Electric Company had failed to pay their Electric Bill!
That is a funny irony that was not lost on Bill Moler. He was laughing about it all morning. An electric company that had their power cut off because they failed to pay their electric bill. How embarrassing is that?
Other interesting things happened on my trips to the Post Office and the Morrison Bank. Each morning I would arrive at the Morrison Bank just as they were opening at 9:00. One bank teller would be telling the other bank teller about her new boyfriend (around September). This later turned into a fiancee (in October). Then for a couple of months she would be discussing the impending wedding that was going to take place at the end of the year.
Naturally at the end of the year, the bank teller was missing as she was on her honeymoon for a couple of weeks. I think it was a Carnival Cruise or a trip to Branson to go to Silver Dollar City (No. That was someone else. I wish I could put a smiley face here). Anyway. A couple of weeks after the New Year the bank teller returned, and as I followed them into the bank (as I did every morning), the one bank teller asked the newly married bank teller how everything went. The newlywed teller said that her new husband decided after about a week that he didn’t like being married so they decided to get a divorce.
Ok. I have to smile when I think about that one. There must be a punchline to a joke here somewhere. Like how many times does an Okie get married over Christmas? More times than they can take vacation…. Or something like that.
You would think that telling time is a pretty universal past time. I used to think that myself. That is, until I went to work at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I first went to work there in 1979 as a summer help. I noticed something was different when I walked into the office to meet the Assistant Plant Manager, Bill Moler and the clock on his wall looked kind of funny. I had to stare at it for a moment before I realized what it meant:
The Power Plant Men called it Military Time because many of them had been in the military during the Vietnam War and had learned to tell time using this type of clock. When we filled out our timecards at the end of the day we put 0800 to 1600 Well. I put in the colons like this: 8:00 to 16:00 but that wasn’t the real Power Plant Man way to do it.
That wasn’t the only thing I learned about Power Plant Man time. Power Plant Men keep time in other ways. One of those ways, though it involves a clock, the time being observed isn’t the time of day. Instead it centers around five events.
Startin’ Time, Morning Break, Lunch Time and Afternoon Break and Quitin’ Time. A Power Plant Man’s day revolves around these events.
The moment Startin’ Time begins, the Power Plant Men are looking forward to Morning Break. They schedule their efforts around this event. That is, if they need to do a certain job that would run them into Morning Break, then they figure out something else to do, and push that event out until Morning Break is over.
In General, Morning Break would begin at 9:30 (Oh. I mean 0930 — pronounced “Oh Nine Thirty”). It was supposed to be 15 minutes long, but in order to make sure you didn’t miss your break, you usually headed toward the shop 15 minutes early. Then by the time you headed back out the door to and returned to your work, another 10 to 15 minutes went by. Essentially stretching morning break from 15 minutes to 40 to 45 minutes.
This was especially true in the early days of the Power Plant. The Power Plant Men’s culture evolved over time so that the actual time spent on their 15 minute break probably shortened from 45 minutes to 30 minutes.
The idea that the employees weren’t spending every moment of their day when not on break working just confounded Plant Managers, such as the “Evil Plant Manager” that I often talk about. Our first plant manager was so tight, when he worked at a gas plant in Oklahoma City, he was known for taking rags out of the trash and putting them back in the rag box because they weren’t dirty enough.
Now that I work at Dell as a Business Systems Analyst after many years of working for great managers and not-so-great managers, I am always relieved when I find that a new manager doesn’t measure you by how many hours you are sitting at the computer, but by your results.
For those that looked closely at the performance of the Power Plant Men at our particular plant, they would find that when a job needed to be done, it would be done… on time. The bottom line was that when you treat the employees with respect, they go the extra mile for you.
“Quitin’ Time” was always an interesting time. From the first day that I arrived as a summer help (1979) until the day I left 22 years later (2001), Even though “Quitin’ Time” was at 4:30 (or 1630, later changing to 1730), it really began at 4:00 (or 1600, pronounced “sixteen hundred”).
at 4:00, a half hour before it was time to go out to the parking lot and drive home, everyone would return to the shop, where they would spend the next 30 minutes cleaning up and filling out their daily timecard. The timecard was, and probably still is, a sheet of paper.
Amazing huh? You would think with the way things are that paper timecards would have disappeared a long time ago. I could be wrong about that. If it is any different at the plant today, I’ll encourage one of them to leave a comment below updating me.
There are other ways that Power Plant Men tell time. Sure, they know that there are seasons, like Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring. But it is more likely that in their minds the Power Plant Men are thinking more like this…. Instead of Summer, they would think that this is “Peak Load”. That is, the units need to stay operational because the citizens of this country are in dire need of air conditioning.
Instead of Fall, there are two thoughts running through a Power Plant Man’s mind…. Hunting Season and the start of “Overhauls”.
As hunting season nears, many Power Plant Men are staking out their territories and setting up their deer stands. Some are out practicing with their bows as Bow Season starts first before you can use a rifle. The Plant staff didn’t like their employees taking off Christmas vacation, and did everything they could to keep you in town during the holiday. But when it came down to it… The real time to worry was during hunting season.
An Overhaul is when you take one of the units offline to work on things that you can’t work on when it is running. the main area being inside the boiler. When overhauls come around, it is a chance for working a lot of overtime. The pay is good especially if you get to go to another plant to work because then you not only get to work 10 or 12 hour days, but you receive a Per Diem of somewhere from $28.50 to $35.00 each day depending on how far back you want to look.
I don’t know what the Per Diem is today. I’m sure it must be much higher. Plus you get driving time back and forth each week, and you also receive mileage! So, you can see why Power Plant Men were often very anxious to go away on overhaul.
Overhaul season ran from the Fall into the Spring. It is during that time when the electric company could take a couple of units offline at a time because the electric demand wasn’t so high.
Another season that many Power Plant Men counted on was “Fishing Season”. It wasn’t like the other seasons, because it kind of ran into a lot of the others. If the weather was right, and the rain was right and the Missus was all right with it… Then it was fishing season. There were different types of fishing. In the electric shop, “Noodling” was popular. That is when you reach under the rocks in a river and feel around for a fish and then end up catching it with your bare hands.
Another timekeeping tool used by Power Plant men was “Pay Day”. It came around every two weeks. After a while everyone was on direct deposit, so it wasn’t like they were all waiting around for someone to actually hand them a paycheck. Many did plan their trips to the mall or to the gun shows in Oklahoma City around Pay Day. It was common to live from paycheck to paycheck.
If you worked in the coalyard, then you calibrated your clock by when the next coal train was going to roll into the dumper. There was generally a steady stream of coal trains coming and going. When a coal train was late, or even early, then I think it seemed to throw some coalyard hands into a state of confusion. But, then again, now that I think about it…. Walt Oswalt usually did seem to be in a state of confusion. — I’m just joking of course….. Well… you know…
If you were a Control Room Operator, then you were in a sort of Twilight Zone, because there really was only one small window in the entire Control room and that was only so that you could look through a small telescope at the Main Power Substation in case…. well… in case you were bored and you needed to be reassured that the world still did exist out there.
In the control room, there were clocks, but the control room operators had a lot more pretty lights to look at back then. Here is my favorite picture of a Power Plant Control Room (not the one where I worked):
See all those lights? Now everything is on the computer. That way if some foreign terrorist group decides they want to shut down the electric grid, all they have to do is hack into the system and down it goes. They couldn’t do that when the control room looked like this.
It seemed that being in the control room was out of time. It didn’t matter what time of the day you went in the control room. In the morning, the afternoon, even at two in morning. It always seemed the same. There were always two control room operators sitting or standing at their posts. The Shift Supervisor was sitting in his office, or was standing somewhere nearby. Other operators were walking in and out going on their rounds. I think the Control Room operators only knew that it was time to go home because the next shift would show up to take their place.
Electricians on the other hand, had their own kind of timekeeping. Well, not all of them… ok…. well… maybe just me…. I used an oscilloscope a lot when I was working on the precipitator controls, and so very small amounts of time meant a lot to me. For instance… The regular 60 cycle electricity in your house goes from zero to about 134 volts and then back to zero about every 8 and 1/3 thousands of a second (or .00833333…).
I will talk about it later, but when you are testing tripping relays, even as little as one thousandth of a second can be important. So, telling time with an oscilloscope can vary widely.
Then there were those timekeeping Power Plant Men that kept time by how long it was going to be to retirement. It was more of a countdown. I remember one Power Plant Man saying that he only had 21 more years and then he was outta there. An even more sad story was when Charles Lay at Muskogee who was 63 asked me to figure out his retirement because he wanted to retire in 2 years. Well….. sad to say… He had only been working there for 3 or so years, so his retirement package wasn’t going to be much and had never put anything into a 401k or an IRA.
Those who spent their lives working at the plant were able to retire with great benefits. It wasn’t like a union with all the healthcare and stuff, but the company did offer a very good retirement plan for those that had been there for the long haul. I suppose at this point they are measuring time in terms of their lifetime.
What it boils down to is that some Power Plant Men measured their life one-day-at-a-time, while others just looked at the entire time of their life as one time. Some looked forward to a time when they would be able to rest, while others enjoyed their work each day.
When I think about time, I realize that an infinite number of things can take place each second. Yet, a lifetime can go by without ever grasping what is important and what is fleeting. When I think back at the time that I spent working at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, what I feel is that I was blessed by the presence of such great men and women.