Monthly Archives: May, 2014

Power Plant Raven Comes Home to Roost — Repost

Originally posted May 3, 2013:

Diana Lucas entered the Electric Foreman’s office one morning at the Coal-fired Power Plant almost in a rage!  I didn’t understand why at first, and I also couldn’t quite tell if she was really in a rage, or if she was just excited about something, because she seemed to be both at once.  Which I guess is the case when one is in a rage, but there seemed to be a tint of amusement in her rage which was the cause of my confusion.

Bill Bennett our A Foreman had come to the shop a little earlier than usual that morning and was apparently waiting for Diane’s entrance, foreseeing her reaction.  Bill had hopped up out of his chair and immediately tried to explain to Diane (yeah, her name was Diana, but most called her Diane.  Well, actually, most everyone called her Dee).  Diana Brien (as she was later named) seemed a little more musical than Diane Brien.  Maybe it is just the Italian in me that likes to put vowels on the end of names.

Anyway, Diane was saying something like, she couldn’t believe that Bill had actually hired some particular person as a contract worker for our shop.  Bill responded to her by pointing out that he would be working for her this time.  If she wanted, she could have this guy doing the dirtiest and rottenest (rottenest?  really?  Is that a real word?) jobs.  This seemed to calm her down a little and the two of them walked out into the shop.

Charles Foster, one of the electrical foremen, and my closest friend turned to me and explained that Diana and some others in the shop (Ben Davis, and I think and even Andy Tubbs) had worked for this guy when they were working for Brown and Root building the plant.  He was a supervisor that was disliked by most of the people that worked for him because, well, according to Diana, he was some kind of slave driver.

Ok.  When I finally understood the rage emanating from the Lady ‘lectrician, I decided I would amble out into the shop to prepare for my day performing feats of electrical magic.  I also figured I would take a gander at the new figure of the old man leaning against the workbench to see the center of the conflict and to stare it in the face.  I figured if I had a good close look at him, I would be able to see inside his character.  I already disliked him before I walked out of the office after hearing that how he had treated my  mentors.

I know my memory of my first encounter with Bill Boyd is not what really happened, because in my mind I have embellished it and have rewritten it in order to include thoughts that came from deep within me.  So, even though I probably walked out into the shop and glanced over at this old codger standing there, picked up my tool bucket and walked out the door, I remember it quite differently….. This is how remember that moment (the one that really didn’t happen….. well, not exactly)….

In my mind I remember walking into the shop and noticing this tall lanky older man hunched over birdlike, almost like a raven, as his nose reminded me of a beak.  A cranky looking man.  He looked tired.  Worn out.  Like it was a struggle for him to take each breath.  I thought, “Ok.  This raven has come home to roost.  Only he doesn’t know what hornets nest he has just stepped into.”

Something like this man

Something like this man

Sure enough.  Bill Boyd was given one distasteful job after another.  At least, I think that was the intention.  He was tasked to sweep out the main switchgear and the other switchgears around the plant.  Anything that was repetitive and boring.  He worked away at his tasks without complaint.  Slowly and steadily.

I noticed that Bill Boyd was taking a lot of pride in his work no matter how menial the task was.  He was very meticulous.  A couple of years later when he came back to work for us again, he was working for me.  And at that time I had him cleaning out both of the Precipitator control cabinet rooms.

Not only did he clean the rooms to where you could eat on the floor, but he also opened each of the cabinets and vacuumed them out, and changed every one of the 4 inch square filters (2 in each of the 84 cabinets in each of the two rooms — for a total of 336) filters by cutting them out of sheets of blue and white filter material using a large pair of scissors.

Air Filter material like this

Air Filter material like this

Bill Boyd liked to tell stories about different jobs he had throughout his career.  He had worked in various places around the world.  He had held all types of jobs.  I think he helped build most of the important monuments that exist in the world today.  At least that might be the impression you might have by listening to him tell his stories.  I couldn’t disagree with him too much.  After all, he was working at the most monumental Power Plant of all time right then.  If he was lucky enough to do that, then I suspect that most of what he was saying was true.

One day just at the end of the day when it was time to leave for the day, I walked out of the electric office into the shop and headed for the door.  Just as I passed Bill Boyd, he said rather forceably to Andy Tubbs, “What did you say?”  Andy said something back to him, and glancing back I saw that Bill had a surprised and confused look on his face.

So, as we were walking to the parking lot I asked Andy what he had said.  Andy said that he told Bill that his stories couldn’t be true.  Bill had asked him why he thought that.  Andy had replied, “Because if you did all the things you say you did, you would have to be 200 years old!”   I laughed at that.  I thought…. well…. he probably is.

So, Now that I have introduced you to Bill Boyd, here is the more interesting parts of the story of Bill Boyd’s tenure at the Power Plant Palace.  I have three small stories that I still often think about:

The first one is rather short, so I’ll start there….  I walked into the electric office one morning before it was time to begin my work day and sat in a chair.  Bill Boyd was already there sitting across the room from me, silently meditating….. well…. he might have been mildly snoring…. I don’t remember exactly.  Anyway.  There was just the two of us in the room.

I suddenly noticed that there was a strange ticking sound.  A very definite tick tick tick, like a pocket watch, only a little louder.  I rose from my chair and looked around the room trying to figure out what was ticking….  It’s strange to think about it, because right outside the east wall (no.  actually the north wall… I just always had my directions turned 90 degrees) of the office was the roaring steam pipes shooting high pressure steam into the turbines, creating the electricity that lit up the state of Oklahoma.

Even amid the roar of the steam pipes, I could hear this ticking.  I approached Bill, and sure enough.  Bill was ticking.  Looking at his trousers, and his shirt pocket, I didn’t see anything that looked like a chain that may have a pocket watch connected.

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

The thought of a time bomb went through my head.  I also had thoughts of being late, and thoughts of lunch, among other things…..

So, I returned to my seat, then I hollered out to him, “Bill!”  He stirred from his sleep, um… I mean, his morning meditation….  I continued, “Bill, you are ticking!”  Looking confused, he said, “What?”  I replied, “You are ticking.”  Bill asked, “You can hear that?”  I assured him I could.  He said, “Well, that’s my ticker.  My pacemaker.”

Whoa.  I was listening to his pacemaker from across the room!  Crazy!  So, after that I would hear his pacemaker all the time he was around.  I guess once I had tuned into the frequency, I couldn’t get it out of my head….  I sort of had it in the back of my head that I hoped that I didn’t hear it miss a beat….  I never did… it just kept on ticking.

The next story has to do with finding a buried cable.  Bill Bennett brought this specialized cable finder down to the shop one day and told us that we had to mark an underground cable that went from the main substation up to the front gate to a transformer.  Someone was going to be doing some digging in the area and they wanted to make sure they didn’t cut into this cable because it was the main station power to the substation relay house.

This cable finder had one piece that you placed on the ground above where you knew the cable was buried, and then you walked along with a sensor picking up the signal from the cable.

Sorry this picture is so small, but it shows the two pieces to the cable finder

Sorry this picture is so small, but it shows the two pieces to the cable finder

I was all excited to go try out our new fangled cable finder.  Unfortunately, we were trying to find a cable underneath some very high voltage lines leaving the substation, which rendered the sophisticated cable finder completely useless.  There was too much electrical interference from our surroundings.

So, after trying to find the cable all day without success, and upon returning to the shop disillusioned with our new toy, Bill Boyd said, “I can help you find the cable.”  As we wondered what he meant, he repeated, “I can find the cable for you.”

I don’t remember if it was Andy, or if I asked him just how he was going to do that.  Bill replied, “By using a divining rod.”  Huh?  A divining rod?  Yep.  He was serious.  The next day he came to work with two metal rods about 2 1/2 feet long, bent at one end so that you could hold them and they would point straight out in front of you.

So, I drove him over to the substation and Bill tried to use the divining rods to find the cable.  He paced back and forth holding the rods up by his face, with his shoulders hunched over like a vulture… or was it a raven?  After pacing back and forth for about 20 minutes he returned to the truck and said he couldn’t find the cable because the wind was blowing too hard.

The wind in Oklahoma generally begins blowing about 8 o’clock in the morning during the summer, and doesn’t let up until…. well… until… maybe the end of the summer, if you’re lucky.  So, we went back to the shop.  Bill Bennett was waiting to see if he was successful.  Leroy Godfrey had bet that he would find the cable.  We said it was too windy.

The next morning when we were driving to work, I looked out in the field by the substation and there was Bill Boyd all by himself walking slowly along with the two metal rods sticking straight out from his face.

When I arrived at the shop, I jumped in the truck and headed out to the field.  Bill said that he found the cable.  It wasn’t where we originally thought.  It was about 25 yards over from there.  He showed me that as he walked over a certain spot that his rods moved from being straight out, to swing out to the side.  When he held the two rods farther apart, when he walked over the same spot, the rods came together.  Bill said.  The point where they cross is where the cable. is.

Ok.  I wasn’t really buying this.  I guess it must have showed on my face, or maybe I actually let out a snicker….. I’m not sure…  I suppose it was the look of disbelieve, because I’m not prone to snicker, even when confronted with total insanity.  So, Bill turned and handed the rods to me and said, “Try it.”

So I took the two rods in my hands:

Metal Diving rods

A similar pair of divining rods.  These are a lot shorter than the ones we used.  Maybe they just go off the end of the picture

I slowly walked forward with the two rods sticking out in front of me.  As I approached the spot where he had indicated the cable was buried the two rods parted until they became parallel with each other.  The left one pointing left, the right pointing right.  No Way!  I backed up, and as I did the rods came back together.  I moved forward again and they went apart!  I could hear the mild excited chuckling behind me.

We took a can of orange spray paint and made a mark on the ground.  then we moved about 20 feet away from that mark and did it again.  Sure enough… there it was again.  We marked the ground every 20 feet all the way up to the main gate.  And get this.  It even worked where the cable was buried under the railroad tracks.  I walked down the middle of the railroad track and could tell right where the cable was buried underneath it.

So, after that, I kept my own pair of divining rods in my garage.  Bill explained that you could bury a new pipe under the ground and you would not be able to find it, but after something runs through it, like water or electricity or even a wad of rags, you can find it using the divining rods.

One day a few years later, my brother was visiting my house when I lived out in the country and he brought up someone who claimed to use a divining rod to find something, and I told him that I had a divining rod and you can use it to find cables and sewer lines and water pipes with it.  — Of course, he had the same reaction I did, so we went out in the front yard and I told him how to hold them, and let him find out for himself.  It only takes once.  The result is so noticeable, it doesn’t leave any question in your mind when it happens.

Ok.  The last story….

It turned out that over the years as Bill Boyd would come to the plant as a contract worker, we came to be friends.  One day he invited me to his daughter’s recital at Oklahoma State University where she was playing the Cello in a chamber orchestra.  I was honored to be invited by him and my wife and I joined Bill and his wife as we listened to his daughter play.  One day he told me the story of when he was working in Germany in 1959 and he bought a Cornelius Ryan novel called The Longest Day.  After listening to his story, he told me that he wanted me to have the book.

The next day, he showed up to work with three books.  The first book was from 1959.  The next one was 1966, and the third one was 1974.  But you could tell they were all a set, and by the way that Bill Boyd held them, they were important to him.  So I accepted his gift with thanks.

The three books Bill Boyd gave me

The three books Bill Boyd gave me

I have kept books with care since the day that I received them, as I have kept my memory of Bill Boyd.  A true Power Plant Raven.

Comment from the original Post:

Ron Kilman  May 4, 2013

As a summer student at the Mustang Plant in 1967 I was a skeptic about the use of diving rods. In the “Results” office one of the Instrument Technicians showed me how they could locate pipes under the floor. I can’t remember which technician showed me this (Bud Gray, Leldon Blue, Montie Adams, or Kenneth Palmer), but I tried them myself – and they worked! I’ll never forget my surprise.

When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays to Listen — Repost

Originally Posted:  May 4, 2012.  I added some comments from the original post at the end of this post:

I wrote an earlier post about days some people would have liked to take back.  There was one day that I would like to take back.  It was the day Ken Conrad was teaching me how to setup and operate the two large water cannons that we used to irrigate the plant grounds.  During my second summer as a summer help (1980), when I had about 6 weeks left of the summer, I was asked to take over the watering of the plant grounds because Ken Conrad was needed to do other jobs and this was taking too much of his time.

The first summer I worked as a summer help, whenever it rained, by the time you had walked from the Engineer’s Shack parking lot to the Welding Shop entrance, you felt like someone 10 feet tall.  Because the entire distance would turn into a pool of red mud and as you took each step, you grew taller and taller as the mud stuck to your feet.  Just before you entered, you could scrape your feet on a Boot Scraper

 to whittle you down to size so that you would fit through the doorway.  The entire main plant grounds would be nothing but mud because there wasn’t any grass.  It had all been scraped or trampled away while building the plant and now we were trying to grow grass in places where only weeds had dared to trod before.  When trucks drove into the maintenance garage, they dropped mud all over the floor.  It was the summer help’s job the first summer to sweep up the shop twice each week.  If it had been raining, I usually started with a shovel scraping up piles of mud.  So, I recognized the importance of growing grass quickly.

The day that Ken Conrad was explaining to me how to setup and operate the water cannons, I was only half paying attention.  I got it.  Roll out the plastic fiber fire hose, unhook the water cannon from the tractor, let out the cable.  turn it on the fire hydrant… Done….  That was all I heard.  What Ken was saying to me was a lot different.  it had to do with all the warnings about doing it the correct way.  I think in my mind I wasn’t listening because I was thinking that it really wasn’t all that difficult.

Water Cannon similar to ours only ours had another spool on it that held the fire hose

So, here is what happened the next morning when I went to setup the first water cannon to water the field just north of the water treatment plant up to the Million Gallon #2 Diesel Oil Tanks berms.  I thought… ok… Step one:  roll out the hose…  Hmmm… hook it up to the fire hydrant, and then just pull the water gun forward with the tractor and it should unroll the hose….  well.  my first mistake was that I hadn’t disengaged the spool so that it would turn freely, so when I pulled the tractor forward, off popped the connector on the end of the hose attached to the fire hydrant.  That’s when I remembered Ken telling me not to forget to disengage the spool before letting out the hose.  That’s ok.  Ken showed me how to fix that.  I beat on it with a hammer to knock out the clamp and put it back on the end of the hose after I had cut off a piece to have a clean end.  Disengaged the spool, and tried it again… Nope.  Pulled the end off again…  I was letting it out too fast.  That’s when I remembered Ken Conrad telling me not to let the hose out too fast or it would pull the end off.

After finally laying the hose out and hooking it up to the water cannon, I disconnected the water cannon from the tractor and hooked up the hose and began pulling the steel cable out of the cable spool by pulling the tractor forward.  Well, at first the water cannon wanted to follow me because you had to disengage that spool also, (as Ken had showed me).  So I thought I could just drag the water cannon back around to where it started, but that wasn’t a good idea because I ended up pulling off the connector on the fire hose again, only on the other end than before.  Anyway, after repairing the hose at least three times and getting everything in position twice, I was finally ready to turn on the water.

That was when things turned from bad to worse.  The first thing I did was turned on the fire hydrant where the water pressure instantly blew the hose out of the connector and water poured out into a big mud  puddle by the time I could turn it off.  then I remembered that Ken had told me to remember to make sure the screw valve was closed when you turned on the fire hydrant or else you will blow the end off of the hose….

So, I repaired the hose again, and reconnected it (standing in mud now).  Closed the screw-type valve and turned on the fire hydrant.  Then I opened the screw-type valve and the end of the hose blew off again…  Then I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me to make sure I open the valve slowly.  So I repaired the hose again and hooked everything up (while standing in a bigger mud puddle) and tried it again.

I opened the valve slowly and the water cannon began shooting water out as I opened the valve up further and further… until a hole blew out in the middle of the hose shooting water all over the tractor.  So I turned off the water again as I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me not to open the valve very far or it would start to blow holes in the hose.  I went and patched the hole the way that Ken Conrad has showed me and went back to try it again… walking through mud over to the fire hydrant, where there was an increasingly larger puddle.

I remember that it was around lunch time when I was standing in the middle of that field covered with mud  standing in what looked like a mud hole that pigs would just love, trying to repair a hole in the hose for the 3rd or 4th time that it dawned on me how different my morning would have been if I had only paid more attention to Ken when he was explaining everything to me the day before.   Finally around 1 o’clock I had water cannon on and it was shooting water out about 40 yards in either direction

Like this only without the grass

I spent that entire day making one mistake after the other.  I was beat by the time to go home.

After sleeping on it I was determined not to let the experience from the day before intimidate me.  I had learned from my mistakes and was ready to tackle the job of watering the mud in hopes that the sprigs of grass would somehow survive the 100 degree heat.  As a matter of fact, the rest of the next 6 weeks the temperature was over 100 degrees every day.

When I first took over for Ken, the watering was being done in three shifts.  I watered during the day, the other summer help watered in the evening and a fairly new guy named Ron Hunt watered during the late night shift (not the Ron Hunt of Power Plant Man Fame, but a guy that eventually moved to the plant in Midwest City and became an operator).  After two weeks, they did away with the night shift and I was put on 7 – 12s.  that is 7 days a week, 12 hour days.

I didn’t own a car so, I had to catch a ride with someone in the morning in order to be at the plant by 6am.  Then I had to catch a ride back to Stillwater in the evening when I left at 6:30pm each day of the week.  The Operators and the security guards worked out good for this.  I would ride to work in the morning with whichever operator was kind enough to pick me up at the corner of Washington and Lakeview (where I had walked from my parent’s house) and whichever security guard that was going that way in the evening.

I found out after a few days on this job that Colonel Sneed whose office was in the Engineer’s Shack was in charge of this job.  So he would drive by and see how things were going.  After a while I had a routine of where I would put the water cannons and where I would lay the Irrigation pipes.  He seemed to be well pleased and even said that I could go to work for him when I was done with this job.  I told him that I was going to go back to school in a few weeks and he said that he would be waiting for me the next summer.  Only Colonel Sneed, who was an older man with silver hair wasn’t there when I returned the next summer.  He had either retired or died, or both.  I never was sure.  I did learn a few years later that he had died, but I never was sure when.

Besides the first day on that job, the only other memorable day I had was on a Sunday when there wasn’t anyone in the maintenance shop, I remember parking the yellow Cushman cart out in the shade of 10 and 11 belts (That is the big long belt that you see in the power plant picture on the right side of this post) where I could see both water cannons and the irrigation pipes, watching dirt devils dance across the coal pile.  This was one of those days when the wind is just right to make dirt devils, and there was one after the other travelling from east to west across the coal pile.

A Dust Devil

The Security guard was on his way back from checking the dam when he stopped along the road, got out of his jeep and sat on the hood and watched them for 5 or 10 minutes.  For those of you who might not know, a dirt devil looks like a miniature tornado as it kicks up the dirt from the ground.  These dirt devils were actually “coal devils” and they were black.  They were lined up one after the other blowing across the the huge black pile of coal.

Then as the security guard on the hill and I were watching the coal pile, this long black finger came flying up from the coal pile reaching higher and higher into the sky twirling itself into one huge coal devil!  It traveled toward me from the coalyard and across the intake coming straight toward where I was.  It ended up going directly between the two smoke stacks which are each 500 feet tall.  This coal devil was easily twice the size of the smoke stacks.  Tall and Black.  After it went between the smoke stacks it just faded like dust devils do and it was gone.

Picture a dust devil this size but pure black

As the monstrous black coal devil was coming toward the plant, the security guard had jumped in his jeep and headed down to where I was parked.  He was all excited and asked me if I had seen how big that was.  We talked about the dust devils for a few minutes, then he left and I went back to watching the water cannons and irrigation pipes.  I had to wonder if that big coal devil hadn’t been created just for our benefit.  It seemed at the time that God had been entertaining us that Sunday by sending small dust devils across the coal pile, and just as they do in Fireworks shows, he had ended this one with the big grand Finale by sending the monster-sized coal devil down directly between the smoke stacks.  Some times you just know when you have been blessed by a unique experience.  We didn’t have cameras on cell phones in those days, and I’m not too quick with a camera anyway, but at least the guard was able to share that moment.

I began this post by explaining why it is important to listen to a Power Plant Man when he speaks and ended it with the dust devil story.  How are these two things related?  As I pointed out, I felt as if I had been given a special gift that day.  Especially the minute it took for the monster coal devil to travel almost 1/2 mile from the coal yard through the smoke stacks.  It may be that one moment when a Power Plant Man speaks that he exposes his hidden wisdom.  If you aren’t paying close attention, you may miss it.  I did Ken Conrad an injustice the day he explained how to run the irrigation equipment and it cost me a day of pure frustration, but the real marvel was that as I made each mistake I could remember Ken telling me about that.  He had given me a full tutorial of the job I was about to do.  How many people would do that?  If I had only been listening, I would have heard Ken telling me much more than how to do the job.  I would have seen clearly how Ken cared enough about me to spend all the time it took to thoroughly teach me what he knew.

That is the way it is with True Power Plant Men.  Ken could have said, “roll out the hose, pull out the cable,, turn the water on”, but he didn’t.  he went through every detail of how to make my job easier.  I may have felt blessed when the monster coal devil flew between the stacks, but it was that day a couple of weeks earlier when Ken had taken the time and showed his concern that I had really been blessed.  I didn’t recognize it at the time.  But as time goes by and you grow older, the importance of simple moments in your life come to light.  My regret is that I didn’t realize it in time to say “Thank You Ken.”  If I could take back that day, I would not only listen, I would appreciate that someone else was giving me their time for my sake.  If I had done that.  I’m sure I would have ended the day by saying, “Thank you Ken.”

 

  1. Comments from the original post:

    1. Ken reminds me of m

    Ken reminds me of my dad, who, though not a power plant man per se (he was an electrical engineer, that’s pretty close,right?), would give us way more details than we thought we needed. And now I see myself doing it to my grandson (age 11), who is likely to roll his eyes and say, “I already know that!”, when I know darn well he doesn’t. Then I try to resist doing the “I told you so” dance when he finds out he doesn’t already know that. Unfortunately, he does not resist doing the dance when we find out that he did, in fact, already know it!

    1. That’s great! Thanks for sharing that.

  2. I like your blog because the stories are always substantial. I takes a while to take in all the flavor of it, like sampling a fine meal or a rich pastry. I do dislike the visual theme, but I think it forces me to concentrate on the content of the story.

    1. Thanks Zen, I understand your feelings. A coal-fired power plant is hardly a normal setting. It was built way out in the country because no one really wants one in their backyard. It was the place I called home for many years. I know that when I left I took with me silicon-based ash, a couple of pounds of coal dust and asbestos particles in my lungs. I will not be surprised the day the doctor tells me that I have mesothelioma. I realized after I left, that it wasn’t the place, it was the people that were so dear to me that I called “home”.

  3. I’ve served time with similar folk, people who had more time for a kid learning a job than the kid had for them. Two things stuck besudes an entirely differnet evaluation of those people over time…first one was the old (now): “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you know that ain’t so.” And the ohter was, remembering the old guys who pad patience with you along the way, it’s always like remembering your parents and you pay it forward…(and I still think you have a book in you)

Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rules

Last week I mentioned in the post “Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes” that Jim Padgett called me at 2:15 am one morning to tell me that the coal dumper was broken and he needed for me to come out to the plant to work on it.  You may have wondered why a plant electrician living in North Central Oklahoma would answer the phone in the middle of the night when it most certainly meant that they would have to crawl out of bed and go to work to fix something that was broken.  Why not just roll over and pretend that the phone never rang?

You see… I knew when the phone rang that it was the power plant, because in the 20 years that I worked at the plant, just about every time the phone rang after midnight it meant that I would have to get dressed, and drive 30 miles to the plant to work on something that was most likely going to be in a dusty dirty place.  You could always count on the coal train dumper switchgear being covered with coal dust.  That was the usual point of failure past the “witching hour”.

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

I suppose I could say there were two reasons why a Power Plant Man would answer the phone.  One was that they were just all around nice guys and they wanted to help out any chance they could.  The other reason was because of the pay.

Even though working at the power plant was perhaps one of the best jobs in the neighborhood (being the only job in the neighborhood, since the plant ground consisted of its own neighborhood out in the middle of nowhere), that didn’t mean that the pay was especially lucrative.  That is, if a Power Plant Man had to rely on their base pay alone.  So, in order to help the Brave Men and Women of Power Plant Fame along, many opportunities were provided for working overtime.

But think about this.  What if, when I answered the call to save the day (uh… I mean the night) and spent 35 minutes driving out to the plant only to fix the problem in fifteen minutes?  Then I would spend another 35 minutes driving back home with my clothes all full of coal dust, only to be paid a measly 15 minutes of over time?  Even at double time, that would only be 30 minutes of pay.

Early in the life of this particular plant, it became apparent that something had to be done to motivate the heroic masters of Power Plant Maintenance to make the long lonely drive down Highway 177 at the wee hours of the morning.  So, certain methods were devised to coax the restful souls to the phones when they rang.  Once they answered the phone, then sheer guilt was enough to drag them out of the sack.  It was that moment when the phone first began to ring, before the reasoning part of the brain kicked in and the more base reflexes such as those that were out to make an extra buck reacted instinctively that needed to be targeted.

So Black time was introduced to the plant.  Black time had probably been around long before the plant came into existence, but it came in handy when someone had to be called out in the middle of the night.  Black time was the time that a person would be paid even though they didn’t actually work during that time.  So, when a Power Plant Man was called out in the middle of the night, they would be guaranteed at least two hours of overtime even though they may only work for 15 minutes.

This would help defray the cost of gas and time for driving both ways to and from the plant.  Anything from 7:30 pm to 7:00 am  was paid as double-time.  That is two times the normal base salary.  So, two hours at double time came out to four hours of pay, or as much pay as someone would make for half of a day at work.  That was some incentive for disturbing a Power Plant Man from their pleasant dreams of adventuring through the Power Plant Kingdom where the rule was always “Might For Right”. — Well, at least that’s what I was dreaming some of the time when the phone rang.

If Black Time wasn’t enough, it was taken a step further when the six hour rule was introduced.  The Six Hour Rule was added on fairly early on in the life of the Power Plant and went through a few variations when I was working at the plant.  When it was first introduced, it came across as if someone downtown had made the decision that when someone is disturbed from their sleep during certain hours of their sleep cycle, it directly impacted their safety.  Hence the Six Hour Rule was born.

Originally it worked like this….  The hours of midnight to 6:00 am were considered the prime sleeping hours for Heroic Power Plant Men.  During this time, it was deemed that all Power Plant Men should be tucked in their beds dreaming of ways to work safely during the next day at work.  Whenever this time period was disturbed, then the Electric Company should provide the loyal Power Plant Man for answering the call of duty during a time of early morning emergency by giving him back the same number of hours in black time so that he could go home and continue his all-important dreams and regeneration.

 

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

So, if I had been called out at one o’clock in the morning to work on something, and it took me two hours to fix it, then I could come into work two hours later in the morning.  The first two hours of my regular work day would be payed as “Black Time”.  — Makes sense… right?  Two hours of work…. Come in two hours late in the morning…. black time…  Easy to calculate.

This provided a pretty good incentive for going out to work in the middle of the night.  First, you would get at least 2 hours of double time.  Second, you would be able to make up for lost sleep by coming in late in the morning without having to lose any pay.  You could also come in at the regular time and leave early in the afternoon if you wanted.

Well… That lasted for a few years, then the rules for the 6 hour rule began to change.  Originally, even if the job was only 15 minutes, the least amount of black time that you would get was 2 hours.  After all, it was an hour of driving for the large majority of the Power Plant Men that lived in a civilized village of more than 50 people.  Later, the Six Hour Rule was changed so that only the actual time worked would count for the six hour rule.

This meant that if I drove all the way out to the plant to work on something that only took 15 minutes, then I could only come in 15 minutes late then next morning, even though I had spent at least an hour and 45 minutes away from my dreams of serving nobly in the Power Plant Palace.  In that case the six hour rule didn’t apply anymore.  I figured that someone who was short-sighted had come up with that idea.  I’ll explain why in a few minutes.

The next phase of the Six Hour Rule came a few years after that…  It was decided that after a person had been called out at night to fight the good fight, as soon as they left the plant, the six hour rule would start counting down.  Let me explain this in a little more detail….

Say, I were called out to work in the middle of the night, and I worked from 1:00 am to 3:00 am (two hours).  Then I left to go home at three.  The hours start counting down so that by 5:00 am, the time I had spent at the plant were no longer valid, and I was expected to show up at work at the regular time. 8:00 am.  Okay.   So, in more and more cases (it would seem), the six hour rule would be made meaningless.

So, with this rule in place, if I was called out at midnight, and worked until 4:00 am, for a total of 4 hours, then by 8:00 am when I was supposed to be back at work all of the four hours would have ticked off and I would have no black time.  I would have to show up at 8:00 am.  See how that was supposed to basically take the six hour rule and make a joke out of  it?  (Or so, someone thought).

As most attempts at being underhanded without actually just coming out and telling us that it was decided that the Honorable Power Plant Men no longer needed their six hours of prime sleeping time to work safely the next day, the opposite effect was the result.  Kind of like raising the minimum wage to help the workers, when you put more people out of work.

When the six hour rule was changed to count down from the time you left the plant, was when I made the most money from the six hour rule.  I racked up loads of black time from this change as well as most Power Plant Men that were called out before Morning Prayers (Lauds).  Here is how and why:

Suppose the phone rings and it is 1 o’clock in the morning.  You decide to answer it and get called out to work on something that takes 15 minutes.  You finish the job some time around 2:15 am (because, after all, you had to drive all the way out to the plant).  What should you do now?  If you go back home and go to bed, then because of the way the 6 hour rule worked, you would certainly have to come back to work at 8 o’clock.  — hmm…  You will still have collected 2 hours of double time.  That’s something.

24 hour clock

24 hour clock

Look at the alternatives.  What if you went to the shop and worked on some other tasks while you were already there?  For Power Plant Maintenance Men, there is always something that needs to be fixed.  You may even ask the Shift Supervisor, “While I’m here, is there anything else you want me to work on?”  Shift Supervisors just love having their own personal maintenance man in the middle of the night eager to help.  There is always something they could find that needs fixing.

So, instead of turning around and going home, invariably, after the 15 minute job was over, I would end up doing other jobs for the Shift Supervisor until morning.  Well, once 6:00 am rolled around, it was really too late to drive home and then wait an hour and drive back.  So, I would just stay until 8.

Now look what happened!  Instead of 2 hours of double time, I worked from 2:00 to 8:00 with all but the last hour at double time, the last hour at time and a half.  That comes to 11 1/2 hours of my base salary.  Compare that to the 4 hours I would have received for 2 hours of double time.

But here is the best part.  8:00 rolls around.  We have our morning meeting.  Since I worked for 4 hours of the special 6 hours from midnight to 6, I get to leave at noon and get paid black time for the rest of the day.

What fun!  Every time the six hour rule was reigned in to reduce black time it produced more black time.  And how was that safer?  The final tweaks to the 6 hour rule before it was basically abolished a few years later came during the fall of 1991.  I’m not saying that this alone was the reason, but in 1992, the Power Plant had the highest Accident Rate since 1983.  Somewhere around 23 accidents.  Given that in 1983, we had 50% more employees, 1991 had a much higher accident rate.

The number of call-outs in the early hours of the morning were not as common as I may have made them out to be.  So, I don’t mean to claim that the change in the six hour rule was ever the cause of even one additional accident.  I studied all the accidents that happened that year, and even though some of them were the result of fatigue, it was usually because they had worked an extra long shift – over 12 hours, and were injured because they were tired.  Not because they were affected by the six hour rule.

Even though the six hour rule changes didn’t directly cause any particular accident that year, it was a symptom of an overarching problem.  A certain apathy toward safety had crept into the plant.  The previous years, we had an excellent safety record.  One of our best years was in 1987.  I believe we had only 3 accidents that entire year.  None of them serious.

I will discuss Safety in various other posts, so I won’t belabor the point now.  The point I wanted to make from this post was that by focusing on the bottom line, or some other performance metric without putting your most important asset first (The Power Plant Man), almost always guarantees the opposite results.