Monthly Archives: June, 2014

Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace — Repost

originally posted on June 30, 2012:

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

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

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

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

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

The old Osage Power Plant

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

A closer view of the Osage Plant

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

The stripped down Turbine Room floor of the Osage Power Plant

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

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

Hazardous Waste Barrel

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

A Conex Box

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

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

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

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

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

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

A Power Plant Pioneer – Gilbert Schwarz

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

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

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

Comments from Previous Post:

  1. Ron Kilman July 3, 2013:

    Thanks! I had not heard of Gilbert’s passing.
    Yes, the old plants had full pressures to the gauges in the control room (throttle, extractions, reheat (if any), even condenser vacuum). The funniest “gauge” I ever saw was at the Byng Power Plant (north of Ada). It was the plant MW output “gauge”. When the control room operator changed load, he would move the dial on the “gauge” (with his hand) and ring a buzzer. The men firing the boilers would hear the buzzer, look through the glass window at the new plant MW output, and change the firing rate on the boilers accordingly!

    1. Plant Electrician July 3, 2013:

      That’s a great story about the MW output gauge! This reminds me of the throttle control on large older ships. The round thing with the handle that the captain would turn to change the speed of the ship. This is really called an “Engine Order Telegraph” that rings a bell when the setting is changed so the Engine room knows to look at the new setting and then does what it takes to make the ship go faster or slower, or even to change from forward to reverse. In the movies it looks like it just happens automatically.

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Power Plant Law of the Hog

Power Plant Men learned about the “Law of the Hog” the first day they were introduced to the new “Quality Process”.  I recently wrote a post about how the Power Plant Men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma were trained to use various tools to help them formulate ideas quality improvement ideas at the plant in June, 1993.  See the post “A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“.  Even though we were hearing about the “Law of the Hog” for the first time, I recognized it right away.  I had seen it in action the previous November 3, 1992.

What better way to convince a room full of skeptical Power Plant Men that the Quality Process is about improving the conditions at the plant than by first telling them what they already know in such a way that from then on they believe you really do know what you’re talking about.  — I know.  That was a confusing sentence, so let me explain.  The instructor told us the story about “The Law of the Hog”.

This evidently was a story that had been going around since the late 70’s.  It had to do with a saw mill in Oregon.  This is the story the instructor told  us…

A group of quality consultants, or…  I think they called themselves Leadership consultants back then were visiting the saw mill because they evidently needed some help.  While the consultants were learning about how the plant operated, they  talked with the workers one-on-one and asked them how things were really done at the mill.  That’s when the workers told the consultant about “The Hog”.

The Hog is a grinder that takes scrap wood and grinds it up into sawdust.  The consultants had asked them how they worked with supervisors when they were “lacking” in leadership skills.  (I would say “evidently” again here, but I’ve already used that word three times.  And the last time was just now while explaining that I would like to use that word again, but… — I’ll have to think of another word…. let’s see… oh.  I know…. Apparently…).  Anyway, apparently, that was when they told the consultants about The Hog that lived in the shack off to one side of the main mill.

So, what happens is that when their supervisor uses a heavy hand to try to whip the workers into shape, the Hog is used for more than just chewing up scraps.  When the workers were treated with disrespect, then “The Law of the Hog” went into effect.  What happened then was that the workers would throw perfectly good pieces of wood into the Hog where it would be turned to dust (saw dust that is).  Since the supervisors were measured on their productivity which took a beating when good wood would be destroyed (Yeah.  I couldn’t help using the words Wood and Would together… And then using “Words”, “Wood” and “Would” all together while explaining my obsession).  So, the workers would pay the supervisor back each time he displayed inferior leadership skills.

A byproduct of bad leadership

A byproduct of bad leadership

Oh yeah.  The Power Plant Men knew all about that.  The guys at Muskogee, however, didn’t use such indirect methods.  They had one Assistant Plant Manager (I won’t tell you his name but I think his initials were  Morehouse.  well.  Something House anyway), that treated his men with a little more than disrespect, and was surprised one night when the front door to his house was blown off the hinges.  He was quickly reassigned to Oklahoma City.  But then I have always said that something is in the water in Muskogee.  See the post “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“.

When the Quality instructor was telling us the story about the “Law of the Hog” a few examples immediately entered my head.  Well, one was the Six Hour Rule.  I mentioned this in an earlier post where there was a complicated rule about how an employee could collect “black time” and double time when they were called out at night.  As management tried to manipulate the rule to the detriment of the employee, the opposite effect actually happened.  After trying to skimp on paying the double time the employee was accustomed to, that was the time when I made the most money from that rule.  See the post “Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rules“.

This leads us to a dark and stormy day at the Power Plant…. November 3, 1992.  The story actually begins the day before.  Unit 2 had been offline for a “more than” minor overhaul (I believe it was a six week overhaul instead of the usual 4 weeks).  I was the acting foreman for the crew that was working on the precipitator.  Terry Blevins normally was in charge of the Unit 2 Precipitator, but for this overhaul, Scott Hubbard and I were assigned to make all the necessary precipitator repairs.  The main reason was that new rapper controls were being installed, and Scott had a lot of experience doing this since he had installed them on Unit 1 already.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

At that time, Scott and I were like twin brothers.  Whatever he was doing… I had to be there to help.  Scott would work on the roof of the precipitator generally, while I worked inside.  We had been given some operators to help us along with a few contract workers to do the “grunt” work.  That is, when you would ask them to do something, they would usually reply with a low moaning grunty sort of sound (I just made up that word…. grunty.  It seemed to fit).

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway just in case any “Non-Precipitator Gurus” are reading this)…. in order to install the new digital rapper controls, a lot of wire had to be pulled and laid down on terminal blocks from some rapper cabinets to other cabinets across the precipitator.  When I say a lot, I mean somewhere over 10 miles of wire.  15 feet at at time.  — I was sure glad Scott was doing that while I was strolling away inside the precipitator quietly looking for plates out of alignment and broken wires dressed in my space suit.  For a better understanding of what a precipitator does, see the post “Moon Walk in A Power Plant Precipitator“.

I was not inside the precipitator on November 3, 1992, however, I had already finished up inside the precipitator by that time and I was working on the roof in cabinet 2G1 (on the southeast corner) on that day.  We had the radio on and I was sitting on my bucket listening to Rush Limbaugh throwing a fit (as he has been known to do from time-to-time).  None of our help was doing any work that day.  The “Law of the Hog” had come into play and a day of rest had been declared by the helpers.

I was working away laying down the wires on the terminal blocks inside the rapper cabinet while the rest of the crew (minus Scott Hubbard who was on the far side of the precipitator roof working in another cabinet) was sitting around dangling their feet from the walkway near my cabinet.  Merl Wright and Jim Kanelakos (two operators) were there along with three contract help.  During that day I spent a lot of time running back and forth between the office area and the precipitator roof.

Here is what happened:

On November 2, 1992, just before every one left for the day, the word came down that in the morning everyone was supposed to report to work at the usual 7:00 time.  We were scheduled to work until 7:00 in the evening.  A full 12 hour day, except for the 30 minutes for lunch (and three breaks).  The reason we had to be told to show up at seven o’clock in the morning was because November 3rd was election day.

It was the normal practice to let the Power Plant Men vote before they came to work in the morning.  We were being told that we were not supposed to vote in the morning and that we could leave early in the evening to go vote instead of voting in the morning.  We were told in no uncertain terms that if we went to vote in the morning, then the amount of time we were late getting to work would be the amount of time we would have to leave at the end of a normal working day.

Let me try to explain what this meant, because on the surface, it looks fairly reasonable.  Since the polls closed at seven in the evening when we would be leaving work, we could leave as early as we wanted in the evening to go vote in order to arrive in time before the polls closed.  There were two things fundamentally wrong with this solution from a Power Plant Man point of view, though from a Plant Manager point of view, it looked quite reasonable.

The first problem was that this was the election between George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton (Now you know why Rush Limbaugh was throwing a fit).  A very large turnout was expected, and a majority of the workers wanted to make sure and go to the polls to vote that day.  With that said, it would be hard to determine what would be a good time to leave the plant to go vote in order to stand in line and cast a vote before the polls closed.  Up to that time, polls had not been kept open later than their designated closing time, except to let people who were already waiting in line by the time the closing bell rang.

The second problem and the main problem was this….. Suppose a person did go vote in the morning…. It was a typical practice for the company to cover that person’s time and pay what was called “Black Time” while they went to vote in the morning.  In this case, the plant manager was telling us that we basically couldn’t go vote in the morning without being “punished”.  If the person waited and voted in the evening, they would lose their overtime which directly affects the bottom line on the home front.

Here is how the punishment would be administered….  If a person went to vote in the morning and was an hour late, and came in, say at eight o’clock instead of seven.  Then they would have to leave when they had completed a regular eight hour day.  That is, they would not receive any overtime that day.

Well.  this didn’t effect me, because I had already early voted a couple of weeks earlier.  I think Scott did too, when we realized we were going to be on overhaul working 12 hour days.  Scott Hubbard and I carpooled together, so we were always careful to coordinate our efforts.

So, guess what happened…. Yeah.  You guessed it…. especially if you knew Jim Kanelakos.  He knew an “injustice” when he saw it, and so, he wasn’t going to let this one slide.  He made sure to go vote the first thing in the morning, just like he had ever since he was old enough to vote.  He arrived at the plant around 9 o’clock.

When he arrived on the Precipitator roof he told me that he had voted that morning and that the line at the polls where he voted was down the block 15 minutes before they opened.  He said he didn’t care what anyone said, he was going to work until 7:00 that evening.  He said, “Just let anyone try to send me home early,” with a big grin on his face and his pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth…. Oh.  Let me remind you what Jim looked like:

This picture reminds me of Jim Kanelakos

This picture reminds me of Jim Kanelakos

This is a picture I found a few years ago on Google Images.  It looked like Jim, so I copied it.  Since then I have received a picture of the crew Jim was working on, so you can see an actual photo:

 

Jim Kanelakos in in the middle in the back (third from the left) with the red plaid shirt standing behind Vonzell Lynn

Jim Kanelakos in in the middle in the back (third from the left) with the red plaid shirt standing behind Vonzell Lynn

Well… When Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor came around asking if anyone had arrived late that morning, as acting foreman, what could I say?  I told him that Jim Kanelakos had come in two hours late.  Tom told me to send Jim home at 4:30.  He would get his black time for voting early, but he would not receive any overtime for the day.  I told Tom I would tell Jim.  I also told him that Jim had already said that he was going to stay until 7:00 and expected to receive the normal pay that he would have received if he had worked the entire day.

This sent Tom into a rage.  He wanted Jim taken off our crew and sent back to Operations right then and there.  He said that he disobeyed orders and if it was up to him, he would fire him.  I told Tom that we had a ton of work to do and that we needed everyone we could have until the overhaul was over.  If we sent Jim back to Operations for the remainder of the overhaul, we might not be able to finish our work.  We were working on a very tight schedule as it was.

I told Jim that Tom had told me to tell him to go home at 4:30 in the afternoon.  Jim just laughed.  He said he was going to go home at his regular time…. 7:00 pm.  I said, “Ok.  I am just telling you what Tom said.  I’m going to have to tell him your reply.”  Jim, who was my friend, said, “I know.  Do what you have to do.”

I went back to the electric shop and when I walked in the shop Denise Anson, the receptionist paged me on the Gray Phone.  She said I had a call.  I told her to send it to the electric shop office.  I was surprised when I answered the phone and Charles Campbell was on the other end of the line.  News travels fast….  He was an attorney in Stillwater.  He had heard that there was something going on at the plant that might have something to do with vote tampering.

I told him in detail what I knew about Jim Kanelakos and how he had went to vote in the morning after being told that he had to wait until the evening to vote, or he would be docked pay by missing out on scheduled overtime.  I knew that Charles Campbell, unlike some attorneys, was an upstanding citizen in the community and was in no way an ambulance chaser, but when he heard this, I could immediately hear the eagerness in his voice.  I had the impression by his remarks that if this panned out the right (I mean “the wrong”) way, he might be able to retire early.  We ended the conversation by him saying, “Let me know if you hear about anyone that doesn’t get to vote that wanted to because they left work too late.”  He was in total disbelief that the plant had made that policy.

Well, I found Tom Gibson in his office and I told him what Jim had replied to me.  Tom became even more furious.  (I only saw him this mad or his ears this red one other time… but that is another story).  He repeated that he was going to try to have Jim fired for being insubordinate.  This seemed to me to be unlike Tom who was always a very reasonable person.  I don’t think it was anything personal against Jim, I think there was just something about someone who blatantly (in his mind) had ignored a policy that had been clearly given to him the evening before.

I ended up in the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman’s office.  Ron, who took ultimate responsibility for the decision to tell the employees to not vote in the morning listened to Tom tell him what he thought about the whole thing.  I had been in Ron’s office not too long before this incident to tell him that someone had been hacking through our phone system and it surprised me that Ron wanted to find a way to resolve the issue without raising a ruckus or harming anyone, even the perpetrator.  See the post “Turning the Tables on a Power Plant Telephone Interloper“.  When Ron was questioning me about the issue about what to do with Jim, I could tell that Ron really wanted to resolve this issue with as little conflict as possible.

I told Ron that I had talked to my attorney in Stillwater about what was happening and that he was very anxious to find out if anyone either lost any money because they voted early, or they were not able to vote at the end of the day.  Ron said, “Well.  We made this decision yesterday afternoon without really thinking it through.  When the idea was suggested, it sounded like a good plan at the time.  Then today I went and checked to see what we have done in the past, and we have always let people go vote in the morning.”  Ron’s final decision was to let Jim continue working until seven o’clock and receive the proper black time for voting in the morning.  I let Jim know.

Everything would have been all right except for one thing…..  The Law of the Hog.  You see, I had spent considerable time going back and forth throughout the day between the precipitator roof and the office area discussing this topic with both parties involved.  The entire precipitator crew with the exception of Scott Hubbard, did absolutely no work the entire day.  They kept waiting to see what was going to happen.  We were now one day behind schedule.

Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy — Repost

Originally Posted on May 11, 2013:

If you crossed Walter Matthau with Howdy Doody you would come out with someone that would remind you of Bob Kennedy.  All right.  Bob Kennedy looked more like Walter Matthau than he did Howdy Doody, but I could tell that when Bob was younger, even though he didn’t have red hair and freckles, I could picture him as a little boy playing with his stick horse wearing a cowboy hat, and to me he would have looked a lot like Howdy Doody…

Walter Matthau

Walter Matthau

Howdy Doody

Howdy Doody

Cowboy Bob Kennedy on his stick horse

Cowboy Bob Kennedy on his stick horse

The day I first met Bob Kennedy I instantly fell in love with him.  He was an electrician at the Power Plant in Midwest City and I was there on overhaul for three months during the fall of 1985.  Bob was assigned to be our acting foreman while Arthur Hammond and I were there for a major overhaul on Unit 5. — Yeah.  Five.  They actually had 7, but all of them weren’t operational at the time.

Actually, I think it was Unit 4 that was a small generator that came from a submarine.  — Half of the plant was like a museum.  I used to park at the far end of the plant just so that I could walk through the museum each morning on my way to the electric shop.  I think years later they may have torn that part of the plant down, which should have been illegal since to me it easily was a historical monument.

I called this post “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy” because Bob was tall and when he walked he sort of lunged forward and walked as if he was a giant walking through a forest that was only knee deep to himself. Bob had been an electrician for over 35 years.  I know this because one of the phrases he would often say was, “I’ve been doin’ it this way for 35 years!”

He had some other phrases, that I will probably mention in a few minutes.  First I want to tell you about the relationship I had with Bob…. So, often in the morning after the morning steam horn would go off signalling that it was time to go to work (yeah… .isn’t that cool?  A horn powered by steam would go off when it was time to go to work!  My gosh… That horn alone was a monument of the 1930’s each morning when I heard it!),

Bob would come out of the office to where I was standing in the shop and say, “Kev.  Follow me.  I’ll show you what you’re goin’ ta be workin’ on today.  Then he would head for the door. I would follow along behind him.  I could tell that he preferred that I walk behind him.  When I would walk faster, he would spread his lanky legs even farther to keep me one step behind him… so I quickly assumed my place two paces behind Bob.

He would have these large strides when he walked that would cause his body to move in a left and right motion where his arms were swinging at his side.  I loved everything about Bob.  I loved the way he talked… I loved the way he walked… I wished that I could be a miniature Bob.  So, I started to imitate him.

As Bob would walk across the Turbine-Generator floor toward Unit 5 from Unit 7 (where the electric shop was located)), I would follow along two paces behind him trying my best to walk just like him.  I would make very long strides to match Bob’s.  I would swing my arms and lean left and right as I walked just like Bob.  Bob was my hero and I wanted to let everyone know that I loved Bob and I wanted to be as much like Bob as I possibly could.  So, as I walked I had a tremendous grin on my face.  My expression was full of the satisfaction of knowing that I was literally following in Bob’s footsteps!

Operators and other maintenance workers that would see us instantly understood my intentions as they would grin, or laugh, or fall down in a total convulsion of uncontrollable laughter, sharing in my elation of being a miniature Bob.

I wish I could say that my time with Bob was one of total contentment and joy at being a miniature Bob that had “done it this way for 35 years”, but there were some setbacks.  The first problem was that Arthur Hammond was with me on overhaul, and there was one major flaw in this combination….. Arthur liked to argue.  See my post from two weeks ago called “Power Plant Arguments With Arthur Hammond“.

Before I go into the contention part, I want to first tell you about my second best Bob Kennedy Phrase.  It is…. “I have a tool for that.”.  You see.  At this older gas plant where Bob Kennedy had spent the greater portion of his life, he had created a tool for just about every difficult job at the plant to make it easier.

Often in the morning when Bob would show me the job that I was going to be performing for the day, he would qualify it by saying, “I have a special tool for this.”  Then he would take me back to the shop, reach under one of the work benches and pull out a work of art that comprised of chains, levers, pulleys and specialized cables that would make s seemingly impossible job, possible. He had a tool for everything.

So, when Arthur and I realized that Bob had a tool for everything we came up with a song for Bob that went to the tune of Big John.  And old song about a guy named Big John that worked in a mine that collapsed one day.  If you are older than I am (52), then you may have heard it before.

In case you haven’t, here is a YouTube version of Big John sung by Jimmy Dean:

Now that you have listened to the song about Big John,  here is the song that Arthur and I devised about Bob Kennedy:

Big Bob…. Big Bob….

Every morning when  he showed up at the plant, You could see him arrive.

He was 6 foot 6, and weighed more than than 145.

Wore a chip on his shoulder

And kinda wobbly at  the hip.

Everyone knew he didn’t give a flip… That was Bob….

Big Bo ahh… ob… Big Bad Bob. Big Bob….

Bob didn’t say much ’cause he was quiet and shy,

He hummed and we hawed and we didn’t know why.

That was Bo ahh…. ob…. Big Bad Bob….

When he would say, “I’ve gotta job… for the two of you…

Follow me… and I’ll show you what to do…

” That was Bob…. Bahhh….ob… Big Bad Bob….

When somethin’ didn’t work, he would say real quick,

Just spit in the back and give it a kick,

That was Bob…. Baaahhh…ob…. Big Bad Bob.

When you’ve been doin’ it this way for 35 years,

It doesn’t matter what problem you’ve got sittin’ right here’s….

‘Cause I’m Bob…. Baaaah….ob…. Big Bad Bob…..

You see, I have a tool to fix it up just right,

Let me show you how it’s done.  I’ll show you the light….

That was Bob….. Baaaah…..ob… Big Bad Bob!

Arthur and I would sing or hum this song as we worked.  It made the day go by so fast that we wondered if Bob himself wasn’t warping time using some tool he kept under a workbench in the electric shop.

Like I said…. I love Bob, and I have since the day I met him, and I always will.  There came a day when there was contention in the ranks…. I saw it beginning when Arthur was arguing each day with Bob.   I think it had to do with the fact that Bob liked to argue also… and neither of them liked to lose an argument.  So, each morning, either Arthur or Bob would win the argument (which sounds a lot like a Dilbert moment today)….

My two friends whom I love dearly (to this day) quickly were at each other’s throats.  I didn’t realize how much until the morning of December 18, 1985, just before I left the shop and Bob Kennedy said to me… “That Arthur Hammond….  He sure can dish it out, but he just can’t take it”.  I walked straight from that conversation down to the the mezzanine level of unit 5 where Art was working on a motor.  The first thing he said to me was, “Bob sure can dish it out but he just can’t take it.”

At that point I told Art to just wait a minute.  There was something I had to do….  I went back to the shop and told Bob that there was something at the motor where we needed his help. As I was walking with Bob across the mezzanine and down to the motor, my heart was split in two.  Here were two of my friends at odds with each other…..  Two people whom I would spend the rest of my life praying for their happiness.  Yet they viewed each other as mortal enemies…

I had to figure that both of them were right in their own way, yet both of them were wrong about each other. So when Bob arrived at the motor I told them both (as if I had suddenly turned into their mother)….  A little while ago, Bob told me that ‘Art can sure dish it out, but he just can’t take it.’.  Then I walked down here and Art tells me the exact same thing about Bob.  Now…. what is going on here?  Bob?

Bob looked at the two of us like the time had finally come to let it all out…. he said, “Every time we have an argument about anything Art here runs to Ellis Rook complaining about me.  If he has something to say, he should come straight to me.  Not run to our supervisor!”

Art said,  “Now wait a minute!  It isn’t me that is running to Ellis Rook!  Ellis just spoke with me this morning about sending me back to the plant because I don’t get along with you (meaning Bob).   Each time we have an argument, you run to Ellis Rook.  Ellis has been telling me that he is thinking of sending me home because you can’t get along with me!  Bob had a shocked look on his face.

Playing the facilitator role, I asked Bob… “Is this so?”  Because I remembered that one day before (on December 17, 1985) when I had to leave for part of the day to get my blood test because I was going to be married (and in Oklahoma you still needed a blood test to be married)…. when I had returned, I met Ellis Rook (the electrical supervisor) in the elevator, he had asked me about Arthur Hammond.

As a side note, because of the new changes in overtime rules, if I left the plant in the middle of the day, I wasn’t supposed to stay long enough to collect overtime.  Ellis Rook started to tell me that I shouldn’t have come back to work after getting my blood test, because I wasn’t eligible to work overtime after taking off part of the day.  After apologizing to him (humbly and profusely), he said, that it would be all right just this once… I figured it was because I was going to be married that Saturday on December 21, 1985. Ellis said that he had heard some bad things about Arthur and he was considering sending him back to our plant.

This would have been a terrible disgrace for Arthur and would have been on his permanent record as someone that wouldn’t be able to go on overhaul anymore. I assured Ellis that Arthur Hammond was the most upright of employees and that there wasn’t any reason to send him home.

So, I asked Arthur…. was it true that he had been going to Ellis Rook (the electrical supervisor) to complain about Bob each time they had an argument… Arthur assured the both of us that not only wasn’t it him, but that it was Bob that had been complaining to Ellis Rook about him each time they had an argument.  That was why he said Bob could dish it out, but he just couldn’t take it.

Bob replied, “It wasn’t me!  It was Arthur!  Every time we had an argument Ellis Rook would come to me and ask me about it.  That is how I know that Art has been running to Ellis complaining about me.  I would never tell Ellis about it!  I would deal with it directly with Art. Art said, Ellis Rook was asking me the same thing!

So, I asked…. How would Ellis know if neither of you went to him to complain?  I wouldn’t have told him…. This led us to the third person that was present during every argument….

You see, there was another electrician from the plant across town that was there every time Ellis came to Bob asking about Arthur after an argument… Let’s call it Mustang Plant (since that was the name).  In order not to embarrass him, I won’t tell you his name, but his initials are “Randy Oxley”. Randy Oxley desperately wanted to move from Mustang Plant to the plant in Midwest City… (all right… since I’m already naming names of plants, I might as well say “Horseshoe Plant”)…

For a time during this overhaul I spent a great deal of time in the electric shop working on motors.  Each day I would stand at a workbench disassembling motors, cleaning out their sleeve bearings (yeah.  these old motors at the old plant had sleeve bearings) and measuring them, and re-assembling them. During that time there were two things that I listened to.  The first thing was the radio….  At that time in history… the leading rock radio stations would play the top 20 songs only.  That meant that after listening to the top 20 songs, the only thing left to listen to was the top 20 songs all over again….  To me… It was like a nightmare.

The songs I listened to 100 times were songs like

“Say you Say Me” by Lionel Riche,

One More Night by Phil Collins:

Every Time you Go away by Paul Young:

We Built This City by Jefferson Starship:

Something in the Air Tonight by Phil Collins:

I’m sorry to do this to you, but this last song I know I must have listened to about 50 times as the top 20 played over and over again about every two hours as it has been drilled into my head.  I know.  I can feel the pity from every one of you who have just read this post.

Today I have “Something In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins on my iPod only because when I listen to it once each week it reminds me of the time I spent in the electric shop at Horseshoe plant working on those motors working around Reggie Deloney, Steven Trammell (otherwise known as ‘Roomie’), Paul Lucy, and the others that were there during that overhaul.

The second thing that I listened to while I was working on the motors in the electric shop was Randy Oxley. Randy was much like Steven Higginbotham, the summer help that I had worked with the first summer I had worked at our plant.  See…. “Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown“.  He liked to talk.

Randy didn’t consider me as an important asset, so he didn’t talk much to me.  He did,  however, talk to one of the Maintenance Supervisors, who happened to be his uncle.  You see… Randy wanted desperately to move from Mustang Plant to Horseshoe Plant.  There was an opening for the B Foreman at Horseshoe plant, and he figured that one of the men in the electric shop would surely get the new foreman opening, which would leave an opening for an electrician.

So Randy would try to butter up his uncle (His uncle was called “Kincade, or Campbell… or some such name).  He didn’t seem to care that I was standing right there carefully honing a sleeve bearing for an old GE motor.  He openly expressed his opinion.  It is only because of his blatant disregard for discretion that I don’t feel any guilt to pass on the conversation.

The one phrase that sticks in my mind is that Randy, while trying to convince his uncle that they should hire him in the electric shop at Horseshoe lake, said, “I am the best electrician at Mustang Plant.  The only problem is that I’m the only one that knows it!”

I’m not kidding….  “I am the best electrician at the plant… the problem is that I’m the only one that knows it….”

This became one of my favorite phrases of all time.  I couldn’t wait to share it with Arthur…. I told him… “I am the best darn BS’er of all time… the only problem is that I’m the only one that knows it…”  Art would say….  “I’m the best <bleeping> goof ball of all time… only I’m the only one that knows it…”  I know I had tears in my eyes from laughing so hard.

Actually, I use this phrase to also remind me to never get such a big head that I really think that I’m better at something than others think I am… because they usually know better than I do.

So, this brings us back to the Art and Bob Cage Fight….

It became obvious that both of them had become snookered.  Every time Art and Bob had argued about something and Randy Oxley was around, Randy would run up to Ellis’s office and tell him that Art and Bob were at each other’s throats.

Randy was trying to butter himself up to Ellis so that he would hire him when there was an opening in the electric shop.  Art and Bob each thought the other had run to Ellis complaining about the other….

That was when the other shoe dropped….

Many years before, when I was still a summer help, and when I was a janitor, there was an electrician at our plant named Mel Woodring.  Mel had decided that he didn’t have a future at our plant so he applied for a job at Muskogee.  Of course, Bill Bennett and Leroy Godfrey were glad to give him a glowing recommendation because they thought that when Mel left, it gave them an opportunity to hire someone that would…. let us say… fit their culture in a more effective manner.

Because I was a janitor at this time, I was not eligible to apply for an Electrical job, even though Charles Foster had become my mentor and had me begin taking electrical courses through the company.

I had worked the year before I was working with Bob Kennedy at the plant in Midwest City, Oklahoma at Muskogee plant around Mel Woodring.  I never worked directly with him, so I will just say that he met the expectations that had been set by my bucket buddy back home, Diana Brien.

Fast forward a year later to when I am on overhaul at Horseshoe plant…..  Steven Trammell, Bob Kennedy and a few other electricians that had spent many years at the plant, all thought they would be possible contenders for  new foreman’s job.  Any of them would have been excellent candidates.

To their stunned surprise… Mel Woodring from Muskogee was given the job!  To me, this was an obvious case of the “promote someone in order to get him out of the shop” syndrome.

It turned out that the foremen at Muskogee (John Manning), including our illustrious Don Spears, that I had the momentary lap dance with the year before (see, “Lap O’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant“), had decided to give Mel the highest rating possible so that he would get the job at Midwest City, thus relieving Muskogee from the burden that our plant had placed on them by suggesting that Muskogee transfer him from our plant.

Not only was the Horseshoe plant in a state of shock, but so was Randy Oxley.  This meant that there wasn’t going to be an opening in the electric shop, and all of his “schmoozing” had been for naught.

The last day of the overhaul was December 20, 1985, the day before my wedding.  I remember that Paul Lucy wanted me to go to a “gentleman’s club”(quite the oxymoron if you ask me) to celebrate and have a sort of a bachelor’s party….  I remember looking straight at Art Hammond right after Paul asked me, and Art shook his head and said…. “Don’t listen to him.  Do what is right.”  I assured Art that I had no intention of ruining the rest of my life the day before my wedding.

I went directly home.

The next day, Art Hammond was at my wedding with his wife.  It was, and still is, the most blessed day of my life.  Partly because Art was there at the reception dancing alongside me.  I was lucky that I didn’t have a black eye…  (which is another story)… and lucky that Art and Sonny Kendrick (who sang at my wedding) were there.  Of all of my friends at the power plant, they were the ones that came to my wedding reception of all the people my mom had invited from the plant.

Years later, I traveled with Bob Kennedy on a bus from his plant to Oklahoma City to visit the new Transmission Control Room and back.  We sat together and it was just like we had never been apart.  Bob talked… and I wished in my mind that I could be a miniature Bob walking behind him every  step of the way.

Today any time I have to take a big step for whatever reason…. Bob Kennedy immediately comes to mind.  I think about when Bob climbed out of that bus…  These words come to my mind….

Through the dust and the smoke of this manmade hell walked a giant of a man that ‘lectricians knew well…. Like a Giant Oak Tree, he just stood there all alone….Big Baaah…. ob…. Big Bad Bob…. Big Bob…..  Everyone knew it was the end of line for Big Bob….  Big Bad Bob….  An Electrician from this Plant was a Big Big Man… He was Big Bob!  Big Bad Bob!  Big Bob!

Belt Buckle Mania And Turkeys During Power Plant Man Downtime — Repost

Originally posted on June 23, 2012:

Power Plant Welders need a large stock of specialized Welding Rods. Mechanics need all sizes of wrenches, files, hones and calibers. Electricians need a good pair of side cutters, strippers, red, yellow, orange and blue wire nuts, butt splices and Electrical tape. Instrument and Controls need all kinds of transmitters, converters, pressure gauges, and PLCs. The one thing Every True Power Plant Man needed was a Stainless Steel, highly decorated, colorful and sturdy Belt buckle. A couple of post ago I talked about the machinist that were around in the beginning when I first arrived at the plant. I mentioned that any True Power Plant Machinist could create just about any part needed at the plant. One such piece of quality craftsmanship was the Oval Belt Buckle:

A plain example of an oval belt buckle

You see, When you take a Stainless Steal Pipe and you cut it at an angle, the resulting shape is an oval just right to make a belt buckle:

By cutting the end of the pipe at an angle you get the oval shape of the belt buckle

During those first couple of years when the machinists were correcting mistakes made by the manufacturers of all types of motors, pumps and fans, between jobs, a machinist had a little down time when they could let their lathes, mills, bandsaws and drills cool off some. It was during this time that the creativity of the machinists were revealed to the rest of the Power Plant Men. In those early days, even more than their hard hat stickers, the Belt Buckle was the status symbol of any Power Plant Man driving a pickup truck with a gun rack in the back window. Making the belt buckle in very high demand at the plant.

Power Plant men were on the lookout for any kind of colored stone or odd shaped piece of metal that could be used to adorn their own specially machined belt buckle supplied by the Power Plant Machine Shop. Stainless Steel Nuts and small pieces of pipe were machined down to make ornamental designs to fit in the center of belt buckle. Copper pieces could be used to add color along with the colorful stones found lying about in the pasture.

The Machinist would carefully mill the pieces down to just the right thickness. The stainless steel oval cut from the pipe was carefully milled to give the proper curve to make the belt buckle just the right shape. Different types of epoxy was used as filler to hold everything in place. Even “Jewelers Rouge” was used to polish the belt buckle until it shined like silver and the stones as if they had been placed in a tumbler to give them the perfect smooth surface.

A block of Jewelers Rouge used for polishing Jewelry

I remember the day when Sonny Karcher asked me if I wanted to have my very own specially designed belt buckle. At the time I was not knowledgeable enough to realize the great treasure that was being offered to me for free. I just looked down at my skinny waist (it’s a wonder I can remember that many inches ago) and thought that it wouldn’t be easy to swing a Weed Wacker with a big oval belt buckle scraping across my abdomen, so I politely declined. If I had known better, I would have agreed, and taken my prize home to hang on the wall as memento of my early power plant days.

At the time there were a lot of things about the power plant men that I didn’t fully appreciate until years later. For instance, their generosity. They were always looking out for each other and if they found a bargain somewhere, they let everyone else in on it. That was one way you could tell a True Power Plant Man from the imitation wannabee’s.

During the first summer Ray Butler came up to me and said that a guy was selling 100 pound sacks of potatoes, and was wondering if I would go in on it with him, since he really only wanted 50 pounds. If I did, he would let me keep the gunny sack. I believe the 50 pounds of potatoes cost about $15. My mom had to figure out about 15 different ways to make potatoes, because we ate potatoes until they were growing out of our ears… (oh wait, that’s what you do when you don’t wash your ears properly). Anyway, before we were done with that bag of potatoes my dad and possibly even my brother and I were eating them raw like turnips as the Potato Gun hadn’t been invented yet.

A Spud Gun

Another time a peach orchard just up the road toward Marland Oklahoma was letting you go and pick your own peaches and buy them by the box full for a real good price, so after work, we all headed over to the peach orchard where the man that owned the orchard would drive you around the orchard in a trailer to where the ripe peaches were so that you could go around and pick all the peaches you wanted to take home.

In those early days, people could bring different types of produce and vegetables and other types of food products from their farms and sell them to their fellow power plant men for a good discount. That is, until the evil plant manager realized that it was taking money out of the Canteen Fund, which he felt was his own responsibility to make sure the coffers of the Canteen were always kept overflowing. — Until one year when they were going to show enough profit to have to pay taxes…

Anyway. The Canteen fund was used to purchase turkeys for the workers at Thanksgiving. One year when the fund didn’t have enough money to buy turkeys, the men at the power plant bailed the hay in the pastures that surrounded the north end of the lake, and sold the bails to pay for the turkeys. Then when Corporate Headquarters got wind of it, they insisted that the hay belonged to the Electric Company, and therefore could not be used to buy turkeys for the workers of just that one plant that had used their own money to fill the money box at the plant. And that was the end of the free turkeys for Thanksgiving. Kind of took the “Thanks” out of the giving… Needless to say, the hay wasn’t bailed much after that, it was just brush hogged like a right-of-way. I’m sure there is a Turkey out there somewhere that is grateful to Corporate Headquarters, but it isn’t the kind of mindless Turkey that cared more about messing with someone’s morale than about the efficiency of a Power Plant. It was amazing how much of a morale booster a free turkey can be. Just think about it. Here were Top Power Plant hands at the time making close to $20 an hour or $160 a day who went home with a big grin on their face just like Bob Cratchit when Ebenezer Scrooge gave him the Giant Goose for Christmas, so they could hear their own children say, “God Bless Us, every one!”

The Scrooge from Corporate Headquarters or was he?

Although, the truth be known, it was found out a few years later that the evil plant manager used the excuse that “It Came Down From Corporate Headquarters” often to make unpopular policies at our plant, where Corporate Headquarters was not aware that their good and friendly nature was being tarnished by a rogue plant manager in some distant Power Plant Land far far away up north in the wastelands of Oklahoma.

Anyway, I sometimes wonder how many power plant men that were around in the first days before both units went live still have one or more of those quality built belt buckles made exclusively by Power Plant Machinists for Power Plant Men. If so, they ought to take them down from the fireplace mantle or remove it from the glass case and dust it off and bring it to work some day just to show the New Generation X Power Plant newbies (or pups as we used to call them) what it was like living in the Power Plant Kingdom back when the great towering stacks were being raised, and the boilers were being built like skyscrapers out in the middle of the countryside.

Then they can gather them around by the boiler and open one of the small hatchways so that the orange glow of the fireball inside can illuminate the grating and the eager faces of the young power plant men waiting to hear the stories of brave men long ago who were rewarded with free turkeys at Thanksgiving. They can recall how proud they were to take the Free Turkeys home to their families all waiting eagerly by the window to watch as their father as he braved the Oklahoma west wind and dust storms to find his way to their door. Greeting them with hugs and the proud acknowledgement of how much the Electric Company appreciated their father enough to give his family one free turkey every year. Can you hear it? Is that my son by the fireplace? Did he just say what I thought he said? Yes. It was. He said, “God Bless Us, Every One!”

Comments from the Original Post:

  1. eideard June 23, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    I’ll bet there were folks who passed along tools when they retired, passed them along to the next generation or so in their own family.

    I still use a couple of fine screwdrivers that were my grandfather’s when he worked in the machine shop at Otis Elevator in Yonkers, NY.

    1. Plant Electrician June 26, 2012 at 3:20 pm

      I have a story about one such old tool that I will write about in a future post. :)

  2. jackcurtis July 7, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Yeah! I’ve inherited tools from earlier times now unavailable, replaced by newer power stuff that sometimes, won’t do what the older tool accomplished easily…

    1. Plant Electrician July 7, 2012 at 4:07 pm
      That is definitely what I experienced. I have a story about trying to destroy an old power drill so that we could purchase a new one.

      Additional Comments from previous post:

      1. martianoddity June 27, 2013:

        I’ve never been inside a power plant, and I’ve never known anyone living in one. But you write so well and give such a great insight that I can see the environment and the personalities that worked at the Power Plants you worked at too.

        1. martianoddity June 27, 2013:

          By living I mean working… 😀 But maybe it wouldn’t be so bad living in one the way you’re describing them.

      2. Ron Kilman June 27, 2013:

        I never got an authentic belt buckle made by a Power Plant Man. But I did get a brass belt buckle for a company service award one time. I don’t wear that kind of belt anymore. Who knew one day I would need something to put under my motorcycle kick-stand when I park it on grass (keeps the stand from sinking in the dirt causing the bike to fall). That OG&E belt buckle works just great!

        1. Plant Electrician June 27, 2013:

          That’s Great!!! One of the many uses of a large belt buckle.

A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality

I don’t know if anyone of us knew what to expect  Tuesday morning June 1, 1993 when we were told to go to a meeting in the break room that was going to take all day.  We had just been off the previous day for Memorial Day.  We were supposed to be in some kind of training.  Everyone at the plant was going to have to go through whatever training we were having.  Training like this always seemed funny to me for some reason.  I think it was because the hodgepodge of welders, mechanics, machinists, electricians and Instrument and Controls guys seemed so out of place in their coal-stained worn out old jeans and tee shirts.

I remember walking into the break room and sitting down across the table from Paul Mullon.  He was a new chemist at the time.  He had started about 5 months earlier and we had become friends right away.  Scott Hubbard, Paul and I were carpooling buddies.  He always looked a lot younger than he really was:

Paul Mullon when he was 90 years old

My favorite picture of Paul Mullon when he was 90 years old

See how much younger he looks?  — Oh.  That’s what I would always say about Gene Day because he was always as old as dirt.  Even when he was young.  Paul is only four years older than I am, but he still looks like he’s a lot younger than 70.  Even his great great grand daughter is saluting him in this photo.  Actually.  I love Paul Mullon as if he was my own brother.  He still looks younger than my younger brother who is four years younger than I am.  People used to think that he was his own daughter’s boyfriend.

When our training began, the plant manager at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, Ron Kilman came in and told us that we were going to learn about the “Quality Process”.  He explained that the Quality Process was a “Process”, not a “Program” like the “We’ve Got The Power Program” we had a few years earlier.  This meant that it wasn’t a one time thing that would be over any time soon.  The Quality Process was something that we will be able to use the rest of our lives.

At this point they handed out a blue binder to each of us.  The title on the front said, “QuickStart – Foundations of Team Development”.  A person from a company called “The Praxis Group” (I think his name was Chris.  — I don’t remember for sure, but just for this post I’ll call him Chris).  Now, whenever I think about this guy, I think that his name was Chris Ogden, though, I know that wasn’t his name.  The reason I think about his last name being Ogden was because he was from Utah and either he was from Ogden, Utah, or someone else with his same name that was a member of CompuServe was from Ogden, Utah and he was from Provo, Utah.  — Strange how that happens.  (Maybe Ron Kilman who often reads these posts can remember his name will leave a comment below).  — At least I remembered Paul’s name…  He was my friend after all.  But you know how it is when you get older…

One of the first things Chris asked us to do was to break up into teams of four or five and we were asked to come up with 3 facts about ourselves.  Two of which were true and one that was false.  Then our team mates were asked to vote on which fact they thought was the false one.  The only one I remember from that game was that Ben Brandt had dinner with the Bill Clinton on one occasion when he was Governor of Arkansas.  — At least, I think that was what it was…  Maybe that was the fact that was false.

The purpose of this game was to get to know each other….  Well….  We had all been working with each other for the past 15 years, so we all knew each other pretty good by that time.  Except for someone new like Paul.  I think my false fact was that I had hitchhiked from Columbia, Missouri to New Orleans when I was in college.  — That was an easy one.  Everyone knew that I had hitchhiked to Holly Springs National Forest in Mississippi, not New Orleans.

Anyway, after we knew each other better, we learned about the different roles that members of our teams would have.  Our “Quality” teams were going to be our own crews.  Each team was going to have a Leader, a Facilitator, a Recorder, and if needed (though we never really needed one), a Logistics person.  The Logistics person was just someone that found a place where the team could meet.  We always just met in the Electric Shop office.  I wanted to be “Facilitator”.

We learned about the importance of creating Ground Rules for our Quality Meetings.  One of the Ground rules we had was to be courteous to each other.  Another was to “Be willing to change” (I didn’t think this really belonged as a “Ground Rule”.  I thought of it more as a “Nice to have” given the present company).  Another Ground Rule was to “Discuss – Don’t Lecture”.  One that I thought was pretty important was about “Confidentiality”.  We had a ground rule that essentially said, “What happens in a team meeting… Stays in the team meeting.”

I think all the Power Plant Quality Teams had the same “Mission Statement”.  It was “To Meet or Exceed our Customer’s Expectations”.  I remember that the person that was teaching all this stuff to us was really good at motivating us to be successful.  As we stepped through the “QuickStart” training manual, the Power Plant He-men were beginning to see the benefit of the tools we were learning.  There were those that would have nothing to do with anything called “Quality”, just because… well…. it was a matter of principle to be against things that was not their own idea.

When we began learning about the different quality tools that we could use to solve problems, I recognized them right away.  I hadn’t learned any “Quality Process” like Six Sigma at that time, but I had just graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans less than a month earlier with a Masters of Religious Education (MRE) where I had focused my courses on Adult Education.  Half of my classes were about Religious topics, and the other half was about how to teach adults.  The same methods  were used that we learned about in this training.

It just happened that I had spent the previous three years learning the same various quality tools that the Power Plant Men were being taught.  We were learning how to identify barriers to helping our customers and breaking them down one step at at time.  We also learned how to prioritize our efforts to break down the barriers by looking at where we had control and who we were trying to serve… such as ourselves or others.  I remember we tried to stay away from things that were “Self Serving.”

We learned how to do something called a “Barrier Walk”.  This was where we would walk around the plant almost as if we were looking at it for the first time to find barriers we hadn’t noticed before.  We also learned how to brainstorm ideas by just saying whatever came to our minds no matter how silly they may sound without anyone putting anyone down for a dumb idea.  Chris called each barrier that your customer encountered a “SPLAT”.  Our goal was to reduce “SPLAT”s.  I think at one point we even discussed having stickers that said “SPLAT” on them that we could put on barriers when we located them.

When we implemented a quality idea, we were taught to do a “Things Gone Right, Things Gone Wrong” exercise so that we could improve future projects.  This had two columns.  On one side you listed all the good things (which was generally fairly long), and on the other, all the things that went wrong (which was a much shorter list).  This was done so that we could consider how to avoid the things that didn’t work well.

We learned how to make proposals and turn them into a team called “The Action Team”.  I was on this team as the Facilitator for the first 6 months.  Sue Schritter started out as our Action Team Leader.

The Power Plant Men learned that there were five S’s that would cause a proposal to fail.

One of those was “Secrecy”.  If you are going to propose something that affects others, then you have to include them in the decision making up front or else even if you think it’s a great idea, others may have legitimate reasons for not implementing it, and you would have wasted your time.

The second was “Simplicity”.  It follows along with Secrecy in that if you just threw the idea together without considering all the others that will be affected by the change, then the proposal would be sent back to you for further study.

The third was “Subjectivity”.  This happens when something just sounds like a good idea.  All the facts aren’t considered.  The solutions you may be proposing may not be the best, or may not even really deal with the root of a problem.  You might even be trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist, or is such a small problem that it isn’t worth the effort.

The fourth was “Superficiality”.  This happens when the outcomes from the proposal are not carefully considered.  Things like, what are the long term effects.  Or, What is the best and worst case of this proposal…  Those kind of things are not considered.

The last one is “Self-Serving”.  If you are doing this just because it benefits only your own team and no one else, then you aren’t really doing much to help your customers.  Most likely it may even be causing others an inconvenience for your own benefit.

I know this is becoming boring as I list the different things we learned that week in 1993.  Sorry about that.  I will cut it short by not talking about the “Empowerment Tool” that we learned about, or even the importance of Control Charts and go right to the best tool of them all.  One that Power Plant Men all over can relate to.  It is called the “Fishbone Diagram”.

Fishbone Diagram

Fishbone Diagram

There are few things that Power Plant Men like better than Fishing, so when we began to learn about the Fishbone diagram I could see that even some of the most stubborn skeptics couldn’t bring themselves to say something bad about the Fishbone diagram.  Some were even so enthusiastic that they were over-inflating the importance (and size) of their Fishbone diagrams!  — This along with the Cause and Effect chart were very useful tools in finding the root cause of a problem (or “barrier” as we referred to them).

All in all, this was terrific training.  A lot of good things were done as a result to make things more efficient at the plant because of it.  For the next year, the culture at the plant was being molded into a quality oriented team.  This worked well at our particular plant because the Power Plant Men employed there already took great pride in their work.  So, the majority of the crews fell behind the effort.  I know of only one team at the coal yard where the entire team decided to have nothing to do with it.

When training was done, I told Chris (or was it Craig Brown…), that I thought that his company would really benefit by having a presence on the Internet.  As I mentioned in last week’s post “Turning the Tables on a Power Plant Interloper”  During this time the World Wide Web did not have browsers and modems did not have the bandwidth at this point, so CompuServe was the only service available for accessing the Internet for the regular population.

I asked Chris if he had heard about CompuServe.  He said he had not heard of it.  I told him that I thought the Internet was going to be the place where training would be available for everyone eventually and he would really benefit by starting a “Quality” Forum on CompuServe, because there wasn’t anything like that on the Internet at the time.  I remember the puzzled look he gave me as he was leaving.  I realized he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.  Few people knew about the Internet in those days….

I have a number of stories about how the Quality Process thrived at the Power Plant over the next year that I will share.  I promise those stories will not be as boring as this one.

A Slap in the Face at a Gas-fired Power Plant — Repost

Originally posted June 21, 2013:

Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”  Thanks to my high school math teacher Robert Burns, I have always admired Archimedes.  I remember the day he was talking about him in class, and he was explaining how Archimedes had sat down in the bathtub and when the water overflowed, and he suddenly realized how to calculate the volume of the king’s crown, he jumped out of the tub and ran down the street in his birthday suit yelling “Eureka!  Eureka!”  Meaning… I have found it!  I have found it!  I especially remember Mr. Burn’s eyes tearing up as he told this story.  To Mr. Burns, mathematics was an adventure.  He instilled this love into me.

So, how does a discussion about Archimedes tie into a story about a Gas-fired Power Plant in central Oklahoma?  Well it does, or it did, on December 19, 1985.

The day began with my drive from Oklahoma City, where I was staying, to Harrah, Oklahoma where I was on overhaul at a power plant called Horseshoe Lake Plant.  The lake must have been named Horseshoe Lake for the obvious reason that it was shaped like a Horseshoe as it wrapped around the north part of the plant.

I suppose this lake was originally used to cool the condenser water once the steam had been used to turn the turbine, but it was much too small to be used by the units that were in operation when I was at the plant.  Instead it was a Fish farm where Tilapia were raised.

A Power Plant Tilapia

A Power Plant Tilapia

I wrote about working at this plant on this overhaul in an earlier post called “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“.  This morning when I arrived, I figured I would be working in the shop repairing more of the older open-faced motors with their sleeve bearing and cambric insulation.  It started out that way.

An example of an old GE open-faced motor

An example of an old GE open-faced motor

One time during the morning, Ellis Rook, the electrical Supervisor came up to me and started talking to me about the ROLM phone computer.  He knew I had experience working on the Phone system.  I had been trained by the best even before I had gone to Muskogee to take a class.  Bill Rivers at our plant had taught me how to make “moves and changes” and how to troubleshoot the entire plant’s phone system without ever leaving the lab.

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

Anyway.  Ellis Rook told me about the problem they were having with the phone system that day.  He told me what had been done to try to fix the problem.  I was thinking of a few things I would try (even though I was still more of a Rookie than Ellis Rook — ok.  I couldn’t resist that one).  I had been an electrician in training for just over 2 years, which still made me a rookie.

I originally thought Ellis had approached me for ideas on how to fix the problem, so I was formulating some answers in my mind while he was going on… then he said, “What I do every time to fix any problem is just reboot the computer.” — ok.  He wasn’t seeking advice.  He was seeking approval.  So, I looked at him with as blank of a stare I could and just nodded and replied, “Well, that usually does it.”  — Nevermind that it took about 25 minutes for one of these old ROLM computers to reboot and during that time all communication with the outside world was cut-off.

This was when I remembered a story that Bob Kennedy had told me about Ellis Rook.

One day, he took another electrician with him to inspect the exciter collector rings on one of the units.  The exciter is connected to one end of the generator usually (though if I’m not mistaken, the exciter house was off to one side), and it spins at 3600 rpm.  It is not coincidental that this is 60 cycles per second, which is how fast the electricity alternates between positive and negative in your house.  This is exactly why the electricity alternates that fast.  Because that is how fast the turbine-generator is spinning.

Anyway, Ellis had taken a strobe light with him to go inspect the collector rings on the exciter because there was some indication that a fuse had blown on one of the collectors.  Using the strobe light, you could set it to blink at 3600 times per minute and the collector rings spinning at 3600 rpm would appear to stand still.

A typical strobe light

A typical strobe light

By slowly adjusting the rate that the strobe light was flashing, you could rotate the shaft slowly and inspect it just as if it was standing still, even though in reality it was still spinning at 3600 rpms (the same speed as the lawn mower in the post:  “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“).

After examining the shaft for a bit, they located the blown fuse.  When the fuse blew, a little indicator would stick out so it could easily be seen.  Ellis Rook slowly rotated the shaft around until the fuse was in a good position and then stopped the shaft from rotating by setting the strobe light to the exact same rate that the shaft was rotating.

Then Ellis said something that would go down in the Annals of History at Horseshoe Lake.  He told the electrician to change out the fuse.  —  Ok.  Stop and think about this for a minute.  The room where the collector rings are is normally dark, so all they can see is this turbine shaft in front of them and it looked like it was standing still.  Forget the roar of the spinning turbine and just chalk it up to a loud fan running.

Luckily the electrician wasn’t lulled into a false sense of security and didn’t put his hand forward to remove the fuse.  That would have  easily have been the last thing he would have ever done (as a live human being).  — There has to be a good murder mystery plot involving a strobe light.  I’m sure one of the great writers at WordPress can come up with one.  I can think of a couple myself.

Anyway, when Ellis Rook told me how he fixed the telephone computer problems by rebooting the computer, this story flashed through my mind for about 3 seconds.  I think I put my hands in my back pocket just for safe keeping.

Anyway.  I ate lunch in the electric shop office with my ol’ “Roomie” Steven Trammell, (We have called each other roomie from the time we were in Muskogee on overhaul in 1984.  See the post about Muskogee in the link above.  To this day, we call each other roomie, as we have kept in touch throughout the years).  While I was sitting there arguing with Art Hammond about something (See the post:  “Power Plant Arguments with Arthur Hammond“) I was reading an instruction manual about some electronic sensor that could tell you the percentage open a series of valves all in one little box.

Reggie Deloney had been working with the engineer on this valve detecting device for the past 4 weeks, and couldn’t get it to work.  The engineer asked me if I would look at it to see if I could figure out what was wrong with it, because it wasn’t working at all…. It would work every now and then, but then it would stop.

When I read the manual I noticed that there was a “common” in the circuitry and that Reggie and the engineer had assumed that the common was the same as the “ground”.  This usually isn’t true in electronic circuits as it is in regular electrical wiring.  So, I stood up from where I was lounging back reading the pamplet and lifted the common wire up so that it wasn’t touching the metal cart, and suddenly the valve indicator worked.

When Reggie returned from lunch, I excitedly told him what I had found.  He looked a little astonished, so I showed him.  He had only spent the last 4 weeks working on this.  So, I went into the shop and worked on another motor.

Later I walked into the office figuring that Reggie had told the good news to the engineer.  He was sitting there with the engineer scratching their heads still trying to figure out why the instrument still wasn’t working.  So, I picked up the wire so it wasn’t touching the cart, and said.  “See?  Works.”  Reggie with a very irritated voice said, “Yes!  You figured it out!”  He looked at me with a look that said, “Get out of here!”  So, I left.

Art, who was listening said, “I don’t think Reggie is ready to figure it out yet.”  Then I got it.  Oh.  I see…  It is nice and cool and clean in the office.  The engineer wasn’t going to figure it out on his own….   Just a week or so left of overhaul….

About that time, Bob Kennedy, my acting A Foreman told me to go with Bill Thomas and help him out.  Bill was from our plant and was a welder.  He was working out of our shop to help us out with any mechanical needs we had from welding to uncoupling pumps and fans and realigning motors and any other stuff.  Now… I know that Bill Thomas had a nickname.  But I usually called people by their real names, so I only remember him as Bill Thomas.  Maybe a Power Plant Man reading this post will remind me of Bill’s nickname.

This is where Archimedes comes into the story.

So, Bill Thomas had been working on a cooling water fan structure all morning single-handed lifting it up.  It weighed somewhere between 50 to 75 tons.  um… yes…. I think that is about it… about 100,000 pounds.  yet, Bill using nothing but the muscles in his arms and back had been lifting this monstrosity off of the ground.  Like Archimedes who lifted an entire ship out of the water once using a lever.

Bill was lifting the top round part off of the ground so that he could work under it.

Bill was lifting the top round part off of the ground so that he could work under it.

You see.  With True Power Plant Men, you really don’t ever hear that something “can’t” be done.  Bill had to work under this large round hunk of metal, so he had to pick it up. After spending two hours lifting it with only his two arms spinning a huge chain-fall, he had managed to lift the structure 2 inches from the ground. — well.  No one said anything about tossing it in the air… just lifting it off the ground.  He still had about 22 inches more to go.

This is a 3 ton chain-fall.  The one we were using was more than 10 times bigger

This is a 3 ton chain-fall. The one we were using was more than 10 times bigger

This was where I came in.  Did I tell you this plant was old?  Well it was.  They didn’t have a lot of electricity in this building we were in, and there wasn’t an electric hoist, so Bill had to pull a chain that went around a pulley that turned a shaft to a gearbox that would slowly (real slowly) lift something huge.  So, the Power Plant Men from this plant had created a “tool” to make this job faster.

Bill had pulled an air compressor over to the building and had hooked the air hose up to the special tool.

This is the exact size and type of air compressor

This is the exact size and type of air compressor

This was going to make his job much faster.  There was only once catch.  He needed an extra weight.  I was the extra weight that he needed.

You see.  The special tool was an air powered grinder.

An air powered grinder.  Only the one we used was much bigger

An air powered grinder. Only the one we used was much bigger

And it was mounted to a piece of plywood.  the grinding wheel had been replaced with a pulley.  The idea was to stand on the plywood and step on the lever that operated the grinder so that it would spin the pulley.  The chain for the chain-fall would fit through the pulley assembly.

Bill had asked the person that gave him this special tool what happens when the chain snags.  They said, that’s when you need the extra weight.  They explained to Bill that when two people are standing on the plywood, they will be able to overpower the grinder so that it can’t pull itself out from under them.  If there isn’t enough weight on the plywood, then if the chain snags, the special tool will slide across the floor and attempt to climb up to the top of the chain-fall until someone lets off of the lever that operates the grinder.

So.  I was the extra weight.  Not that I was all that big at the time.

Anyway.  The next thing I knew, I was standing on the plywood, and Bill was operating the large grinder with his foot and we were lifting the large cylinder off of the ground.  Before long we had it at least a foot up.  Bill had put some stops under the cylinder in case we had to set it down for some reason, it wouldn’t have to go all the way to the ground.

That’s when it hit me….  No.  I didn’t suddenly remember that I hadn’t had any chocolate for lunch (though, that would have been a tragedy).  No.  That is when as I was watching the chain spin through the pulley at breakneck speed, the chain suddenly went taut.  As the chain became snagged in the chain-fall, the chain whipped up, and before I could perceive what had happened I found myself lifted off of the ground and being thrown backward.

The chain had flew back and slapped me across the face, sending my hardhat flying and shattering my safety glasses.  I ended up on my back about 5 feet from where I had been standing.  Bill rushed to my side to check if I was all right.  I checked myself out and decided that I was going to be all right.

I told him I needed to go get another pair of safety glasses from the tool room.  he looked at my eyes and said.  “Boy.  That is really going to be a shiner tomorrow.”  Evidently, I was developing a black eye.  I was thinking… “Great!  And I’m getting married in two days.  I can just see my wedding pictures.”

I went to the tool room and checked out a new pair of safety glasses:

The first safety glasses we had didn't have side shields

The first safety glasses we had at the time

When I returned to the electric shop, Bill Thomas and Arthur were there.  Everyone was saying the same thing.  “Boy!  That is sure going to be a shiner tomorrow.”

A little while later, Ellis Rook came in the shop and said that Larry Hatley (the plant manager) wanted to talk to me.  So, I followed Ellis to the Plant Manager’s office.  Larry asked me if I was ok.  He wanted to know if I needed medical attention.  I assured him that I was all right.  My safety glasses had protected me.  They had been destroyed in the process, but I was just fine.  I think as I left I heard Larry say under his breath, “boy… that is going to be a shiner tomorrow.”

Well.  The next day (December 20, 1985)  when I showed up at work (my last day there for overhaul before leaving to be married the following day), everyone came around to look at my eye.  There wasn’t anything to see really.  Any swelling had gone down over the night, and my face was back to it’s regular… um…. tolerable self.

The people I worked with the fall of 1985 at Horseshoe Power Plant treated me like family while I was there.  That was the way it was when you worked with True Power Plant Men.  I cherish their memory.

Comment from original post:

  1. Ron Kilman June 22, 2013:

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

Power Plant Invocations and Imitations of Sonny Karcher — Repost

Originally Posted on June 16, 2012:

I have mentioned before that Sonny Karcher was one of the first Power Plant Men that taught me how to work my way up the ladder of Power Plant Ingenuity (In the post titled, In Memory of Sonny Karcher A True Power Plant Man).  I used to come home from work after Steve Higginbotham dropped me off at the duplex where we were living at the time, and my family couldn’t wait to hear what Sonny Karcher had said or done that day.

Soon after I had arrived at the plant Sonny had just dropped me off at the front of the Maintenance shop where I was going to the tool room to get some tools for something we were going to work on.  Sonny was going to drive around behind the tool room in a yellow Cushman cart to pick up some larger equipment, and I was going to meet him there.  As he was backing out of the shop he suddenly made a motion with his left hand.  To me it looked like he was making the movement that someone would make if they were taking the lid off of a jar.  I thought this meant that he wanted me to do something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.

Various things went through my head, such as, I should get something to help remove lids from barrels.  Or I needed to look inside of a jar to find one of the parts I was going to pick up.  Nothing made much sense to me, so I waved for him to come back.  When he did, I asked him what he wanted me to do.  He asked me what I meant.  I told him that when he made that motion to open a jar, I couldn’t figure out what he wanted.  So he told me.   “I was just waving goodbye.”  He gave me a big smile and backed out of the shop again.  Each time Sonny Karcher waved goodbye, he used a different motion with his hand.  Sometimes he would look like he was twirling something on his finger.  Sometimes it seemed like he was trying to get something sticky off of his fingers.  Sometimes he just drew circles in the air with a couple of fingers.  Other times he looked like he was giving an awkward kind of salute.  Sonny made an art out of simple things like a wave goodbye.

That first summer it seemed like everyone was always munching on Sunflower seeds.  There were bags of sunflower seeds everywhere you looked.  Sonny already looked somewhat like a chipmunk with puffy round cheeks that formed from years of wearing a grin on his face.  They were extra prominent when his cheeks were full of sunflower seeds.  These were seeds still in their shells.

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

So, it was normal to see someone take a step back while standing around talking, turn their head and drop a few sunflower seed shells from their mouth into the floor drains that were spaced evenly across the maintenance shop floor.  There came a time when those drains had to be cleaned out because it seemed that every drain was packed solid full of sunflower seed shells.

Sunflowers weren’t the only items found in the drains, since chewing (or dipping) tobacco (such as Skoal) was used by a lot of the men in the Power Plant.

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums.... Never tried it myself.

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums…. Never tried it myself.

Cleaning out a drain full of sunflower seeds, dipping tobacco and spit was a job that might cause a lot of people to gag, and I know I had to fight it back at the time.  Most of the time I felt like I was having too much fun to get paid for working at the plant, but when it came time for cleaning out those drains, I felt like I was really working very hard for the $3.89 an hour that I was getting paid my first summer (1979) as a summer help.

But anyway, back to Sonny.  I remember one evening when I came home after working with Sonny during the day, and we were sitting around the dinner table eating supper when my dad said something surprising.  I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember what my response was.  It came out before I thought what I was saying, and I said it with the same surprised smile Sonny would have.  I replied,  “Well S–t the bed!”  With a heavy emphasis on each word.  That was a common phrase that Sonny used, and it was his response to anything surprising.  Needless to say, I don’t normally use four letter words that have to be edited out of a post.  It was just the matter of fact way that Sonny would use that phrase that made it seem all right to say at the time.  If I remember correctly, both my mom and my dad stared at me for a second in disbelief, then broke out laughing as they had never heard that particular phrase.  It was kind of like hearing “…Bless his heart” for the first time used following an obvious insult.

In the year 1990 the Power Plant had a program that they called, “We’ve Got the Power”.  I will talk more about this in a later post, so I will just say that it was a program where we broke up into teams and tried to find ways to save the company money.  But long before “We’ve Got the Power”, there was Sonny Karcher.  He was often trying to figure out how we could make electricity cheaper, or even come up with other ways of making a profit.

One day Sonny asked me this, “Kev, your smart because you learn things from all those books at school so tell me this… someone said the other day that diamonds are made out of coal.  Is that true?”  I told him it was.  Then he said, “Well, what if we had one of those big dirt movers full of coal drive over some coal a bunch of times, would we be able to make diamonds?”

Dirt Mover full of coal

I told him that wouldn’t work because it takes a lot more pressure to make a diamond.  So, he asked me if it would work if we put some coal on the railroad track and we let an entire train full of coal run over it.  Would it make a diamond then?  I assured him that even that wouldn’t make a diamond.  He accepted it and just said, “Well, it’s too bad since we have that big pile of coal there, we ought to be able to come up with some way of making them into diamonds.

Another time when we were cleaning out the fish baskets at the intake (a job as smelly as it sounds) next to the 4 big intake pumps.  These are the pumps that pump around 189,000 gallons of water per minute each.  Sonny told me how big those pumps were and how much water they pumped.  Then he said, “You know, that entire boiler is there just to make steam to turn the turbine to make electricity.  It seems to me that we could just take these four pumps and have them pump water through the turbine and have it turn the turbines, then we wouldn’t need those big boilers.  Why don’t we do something like that?”  I assured Sonny that we would never be able to make enough electricity to make up for the electricity it took to turn the pumps that were pumping the water.  He shook his head and said that it just seemed to him that those pumps could turn that turbine pretty fast.

One day I watched as Sonny watched another Power Plant man walk into the shop with a new type of lunch box.  It was an Igloo Little Playmate.

One exactly like this.  These were a new kind of lunch box at the time.

Sonny immediately went out and bought one.  The next week he came to work with his shiny new Little Playmate lunch box.  I admit.  I went and bought one myself a few weeks later.  But this was the beginning of a trend that I noticed with Sonny.  I began to notice that Sonny seemed to pick one item from each of the people he admired, and went and bought one for himself.  Or he would pick up a phrase that someone else would say, and would start using that.  At first I thought it might just be a coincidence, so I started to test my hypothesis.  When I would see something new that Sonny brought to work, I would look around to see who else had one of those, and sure enough.  Someone close by would have one.  Then I would hear Sonny talk a certain way.  His accent would change and he would say something like he was imitating someone else, and usually I could tell right away who talked like that and knew that Sonny had borrowed that phrase from that person.

Some may think that this would be annoying, but I think with Sonny it was an act of endearment.  It was his way of connecting with those people that he admired.  Sonny had a small yellow orange Ford truck and I figured that someone else must have a truck like that, so I started looking all around for one like it.  It took me a couple of weeks, but one morning while we were carpooling are way to the power plant, we came up behind the same kind of truck that Sonny had on its way to the plant.  It was green instead of yellow, but it was undoubtedly the same model of truck.  It was owned by Ken Reece, who was the manager over the tool room and warehouse.

Sonny imitated a voice that had me puzzled for a while.  I had checked out all the Power Plant Men around trying to figure out who Sonny was imitating.  Every once in a while Sonny would change his way of talking when he was making a point where he would let his lower lip come forward and work its way left and right as he talked, and he would close one eye more than another and talk in a strange sort of a southern drawl.  I just knew he was imitating someone because it was so different than just the regular Sonny.

Finally, one day when I was walking through the shop I heard someone in the welding area talking just like Sonny would talk when he used that voice.  There was no mistake.  That had to be the person.  I could hear every inflection in his voice and it had to be the voice that Sonny was imitating because it had been much more honed and refined to give just the right effect.  So, I changed the course I was travelling so that I could make my way around to the welders to see who it was that was talking like that.

There in the middle of the welding shop was a heavier set man standing in the middle of a group of welders telling a story.  Everyone was listening to him quietly just as if it was story time at the library.  So, I stopped and watched.  This man wasn’t wearing an Electric Company hard hat.  He was wearing a Brown and Root hard hat, which indicated that he worked for the construction company that was building the plant.  This guy was undoubtedly a master storyteller.  When it came to the climactic part of the story, the bottom of his mouth would stick out with his lip moving left and right and left again, and one eye was partially closed to show the intensity of the situation and the drawl would intensify.  Finally.  I had found the man that Sonny Karcher had admired enough to take one of his favorite traits and connect it to himself.  I could see why Sonny admired him so much.  He had everyone within listening distance captivated by his story.

This Brown and Root hand soon became an employee of the Electric Company within a couple of weeks after I left at the end of the summer (on September 9, 1979).  This heavier set person was still working at the plant when I first posted this story last year, but has since retired. He was one of this country’s leading Turbine mechanics and he can still tell a story like no one else.  He is no longer as heavy.  He is rather thin in comparison.  He improved his health after realizing that if he really loved his family, he needed to take better care of himself.  I consider this True Power Plant Man, Ray Eberle, to be a dear friend of mine.  I have never met anyone that looked more like my own grandfather than Ray.  Not that he was that much older.  No.  He looked almost exactly like my grandfather looked when he was Ray’s age.  There was no nicer man than my dad’s dad, and there is no nicer Power Plant Man than Ray Eberle.

Comments from the re-post:

  1. Ron Kilman June 19, 2013:

    The Janitors at Seminole showed me how the PPM (Power Plant Men) were spitting their tobacco juice inside I-beam webs, in tight corners, and other hard to clean spots. They asked me to put out a memo asking the spitters to just spit out in the middle of the floor so they could clean it up much easier, which I did. I can’t remember for sure, but it seems like the puddles of stinky gross slime around the Plant tailed off for a while.

    Good story, Kevin. I hadn’t thought about Ray Eberle for a long time. He was a super turbine man I always enjoyed being around. I just remember his competence and his positive attitude.

  2. Monty Hansen August 17, 2013:

    It’s both amusing, and comforting to know the same things happen at powerplants everywhere, we went through a “sunflower seed phase” which plugged the drains & the plant finally came up with a “NO MORE SUNFLOWER SEEDS” rule!

Turning the Tables on a Power Plant Telephone Interloper

When discussing Telephones at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I have to remember that some of my readers have a completely different perspective of telephones than me.  My children grew up probably never seeing a real rotary dial phone except in movies or old TV shows.  It might be a little hard for them to imagine a telephone being a possible murder weapon.  Telephones have come a long way since I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s.

A Rotary Dial Telephone

A Rotary Dial Telephone

When you turned the dial on a Rotary phone you put your finger int he hole on the number you want to dial and then you swing it around until your finger bumps up against the metal bracket.  When you pull you finger out of the hole, the phone sends a rapid succession of pulses to the telephone company telling them what number you just dialed.  It was very… well…. tedious and manual…. and not even electronic.  It was electric signals and switches.  “Mechanical” is the word I think I’m trying to say.

Even the way you received a dial tone was by sending something called a “Ring-to-ground” signal to the telephone company.  That would happen when you would lift the receiver off the hook.  There are only two wires used to communicate in an old phone and only one of those had voltage on it.  when you ground that wire (called the “Ring”) momentarily, the phone company would then send a dial tone to your phone.

You could actually do this on a dead phone line at times when the phone company had shut off your service.  On an old pay phone, when the proper coin was inserted in the phone, the coin itself was used to ground the ring wire, thus telling the telephone company to send the dial tone, allowing you to use the phone.  In 1983 there was a movie called “Wargames”.

Wargames Starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy

Wargames Starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy

I had learned about how these telephones worked from Bill Rivers just before going to watch this movie.  During the movie Matthew Broderick’s character needed to make a phone call at a pay phone but didn’t have a coin.  By taking the mouthpiece off of the transmitter, and using a metal pop top he found on the ground, he was able to ground the “ring” wire to the pay phone, and he received a dial tone.  There was a good ol’ boy sitting behind me in the movie theater that said, “You can’t do that!”  — Being the newly educated smart (-alec) guy I was, I turned around and said, “Yeah.  You really can.”

Anyway.  This isn’t a story so much about how old phones work.  I just wanted to bring the younger readers back-to-date on phones since now they don’t really call them telephones anymore.  It is more like, “Smart Phone” and “Cell Phone”, “Mobile Phone” or just “Phone”.  The phone in the house isn’t even referred to as a telephone.  We now call them “Home Phone” to distinguish them from the actual phones that we use.

Anyway, when I joined the electric shop in 1983, I learned about the phone system.  We didn’t use the older Rotary Dial phones at the plant.  We were one step up.  We had “Touch Tone” Phones.

A Power Plant Touch Tone Phone

A Power Plant Touch Tone Phone

As I have mentioned in previous posts, we had our own telephone computer at the Power Plant.  It was called a ROLM phone system.  See the post “A Slap In the Face at a Gas-fired Power Plant“.

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer – I like showing this picture of the Phone computer

To give you an idea of the technology used by this phone system, you connected to it using a “teletype” terminal that you connected to a telephone by clipping the receiver in a cradle.  Then you dialed the phone computer.  When you connected, it was at 300 Baud.  Think of 300 bytes per second, only using audio…. like a fax machine. — It was like connecting using a modem.  300 baud meant that when it typed out the results on the paper that scrolled out the top, you could watch it as it slowly printed out each line.  The maximum speed of the terminal was 300 baud.

 

This is the TI Silent 700 Terminal.  We used this exact model of Teletype terminal at the Power Plant

This is the TI Silent 700 Terminal. We used this exact model of Teletype terminal at the Power Plant

In this picture you can see the cradle in the back where the phone receiver would fit in those two rubber cups.

After many years of going to the lab to connect to the telephone computer to make changes and to monitor the telephone traffic, in 1992 I decided to bring my 8088 computer to work and set it on the desk in the electric shop.  We didn’t have our own computer yet.  At that time the only people that had computers were office workers and the Shift Supervisor.  We had started a computer club and having a computer in the shop was a big help.  I had just replaced this computer at home with a 486.

This is a Leading Edge computer.  My father had this one.  An earlier version than the 8088 that I was using.

This is a Leading Edge computer. My father had this one. An earlier version than the 8088 that I was using.

I had a modem on my computer, so I tried connecting to the telephone computer, and it worked!  So, sometimes during lunch when Charles Foster and I were sitting there talking about movies we had seen eating vegetables from his garden, I would connect to the ROLM computer and just watch the call log.  I could see whenever someone was dialing in and out of the plant.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

We had a special call in number into the plant that allowed you to make “trunk” calls.  This is another term you don’t hear much anymore.  You see….. for the younger readers (again)…. long distant calls used to cost a lot of money.  You would be charged by how many minutes you were on the call.  During the day, it could be as high as $3.00 a minute to call across the country.  Amazing huh?  Because today, most of you with cell phones and even your land lines (which are rarely real land lines anymore) long distant phone calls are now free with your phone plan.

Yeah, if you wanted to call someone in the next town over, you would have to pay a fee for every minute you were on the call…. That was when AT&T had a monopoly on the phone lines in the United States.  Sure, you only payed $7.00 each month for your phone, but you could only call people in your immediate area or you would be charged extra.

A Trunk line gave you access to a much wider area.  The Electric company had a trunk line that gave them access to most of Oklahoma.  You could dial into a local number that would connect you to the company phone system.  Then after entering the correct password number, you could dial access numbers that would take you to another office location in the electric company.  Once on that phone system, you could dial  to get an outside line, and then dial a local number in that area.

Our plant had three access numbers that allowed you to dial out locally to Stillwater, Ponca City and Pawnee.  This was useful when a foreman needed to call people out to work.  They could dial into the plant, then back out to one of these other towns and then dial the local phone number of the crew member they were trying to reach without incurring a personal charge on their phone line.

So, here I was in 1992 during lunch watching the phone traffic in and out of the plant (not exactly NSA style, but sort of), when I saw something unexpected.  A long string of numbers showed up.  Someone had dialed in on the Stillwater trunk, then dialed out on the Oklahoma City trunk, from there they placed a long distance call to phone number in the same area code.  The prefix on the phone number was familiar to me.  It was a Ponca City phone number.   I had lived in Ponca City for three years when I had been married, from 1986 to 1989.  I knew a Ponca City phone number when I saw one.

I thought this was odd, because it wouldn’t be normal for someone to dial from Stillwater through out plant to Oklahoma City only to call a Ponca City phone number when they could have dialed the local Ponca City access code.  Then they wouldn’t have had to make a long distance call which bypassed our trunk call system causing the electric company to be billed for the long distance telephone call.

At the time I was a CompuServe user.  This was when the World Wide Web was in it’s infancy.  I was still using a DOS computer.  When I connected to the Internet, it was either by using my dad’s Internet account from Oklahoma State University where I would use Telnet to access a bunch of mainframe computers all over the country, or I would use the DOS-based version of CompuServe.  CompuServe was the king of Internet access before America Online came around and seemingly overnight made CompuServe obsolete.

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

In 1992, CompuServe had a service where you could look up phone numbers and find out whose number it was.  Imagine that!  Yeah.  That was one of the neatest features on CompuServe!  That and getting stock quotes.  — Like I said…. There was no “www.whitepages.com” online.  The only catch to using the reverse phone number feature, was that it was like making a long distance call.  It cost money.  You were charged by the minute for using the CompuServe reverse telephone number service, with the least amount being a dollar.

So, I bit the bullet and accessed the Phone Number lookup section of CompuServe.  I quickly typed in the number.  When the name and address of the user popped up, I quickly hit “Print Screen”, and then exited the service.  My fee came to $1.00, but at least I knew what number had been dialed in Ponca City.

Charles, Scott Hubbard and I were a little excited by the time Terry Blevins walked into the electric shop office after lunch was over, I told him what I had seen.

Terry Blevins

Terry Blevins

When I told Terry the name of the person that had received the long distance call, he recognized the name right away.  When I gave him the address, he was sure he knew who it was.  The phone number belonged to the Music Director at the Ponca City High School.  His son was attending college in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Well, that sort of cinched it.  We had a pretty good idea who had made the call.  It was a college student calling home, who had been given the phone number most likely by a fellow student who knew the code to call home in Oklahoma City.  So, the only local access code this guy knew was how to dial through our plant to Oklahoma City and back out where he was free to make a long distance call home.

Armed with this knowledge, I headed up to the front office.  I went straight to the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman’s office.  I told Ron what I had found.  I explained in detail how the person had dialed from Stillwater into our plant and then to Oklahoma City and out and then placed a long distance call to Ponca City leaving us with the phone bill.  Since it was the middle of the day, the cost of a long distance call was not cheap.

I told Ron that I had used CompuServe to lookup the phone number and found that Terry had said that it belonged to the Music Director at the Ponca City High School and that he had a son in college in Stillwater.  I was all ready to pounce on this guy.  This was a fraudulent use of the telephone service and there were some pretty strict laws then about stealing long distance from someone else.

Ron, being the more level-headed of the two of us thought about it for a minute and said, “What would be the best way to stop this from happening?”  — Oh.  Well.  I was so intent on catching the culprit, I hadn’t thought about that angle….  “Well….”  I said, “We could change the pass code used to log into our phone system.  We would just have to tell our supervisors what the new number is.”

Ron asked me what it would take to do that.  I told him I could do it in two minutes.  We quickly settled on a new 4 digit pass code and I left his office and returned to the electric shop and made the change essentially turning the tables on the Telephone Interloper.  I suppose the college student in Stillwater was lucky that our plant manager at the time was the type to forgive and forget.

Three years later the entire electric company phone system was replaced by a new AT&T computer which was managed by AT&T.  As you can tell… Technology just keeps moving forward making seemingly really neat new inventions quickly obsolete.

In Pursuit of the Power Plant Gai-tronics Gray Phone Ghost — Repost

Originally Posted June 14, 2013:

When I first watched the movie “The Goonies”, I recognized right away that the script was inspired from another Pirate treasure movie I had watched when I was a child. I have never seen the movie again, and it was probably a made for TV movie or something that has been lost in the archives years ago. I’m sure that Steven Spielberg when he was growing up must have been inspired by this movie when he wrote the script to Goonies, because this was a movie that had inspired us when we were young.

The Goonies looking at the treasure map

The Goonies looking at the treasure map

You see… In the movie I had watched as a kid, some children that were trying to save their family or an old house or something similar to the Goonies story, found a clue to where a Pirate treasure was buried.  The clue had something to do with a “crow’s nest”.  It turned out that the model of a ship that had been sitting on the mantle piece in the old house had another clue in the pole holding the crow’s nest.  This clue had holes in the paper, and when held up to a certain page in a certain book, it gave them another clue to where there was a hidden passageway.  Which led them one step closer to the treasure.

Anyway.  As a child, this inspired us (and I’m sure a million other kids) to play a game called “Treasure Hunt”.  It was where you placed clues all around the house, or the yard, or the neighborhood (depending on how ambition of a treasure hunt you were after), with each clue leading to the other clue, and eventually some prize at the end.

Why am I telling you this story about this movie that I watched when I was a child?  Well, because I felt this same way all over again when I became an electrician at a coal-fire power plant out in the country in north central Oklahoma.  Here is why.

I used to carpool to work from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the power plant 25 miles north of town with another electrician named Bill Rivers.  He had kept urging me to become an electrician along with Charles Foster, who had suggested that I take some electric courses to prepare for the job.  Once I became an electrician, Charles Foster, my foreman, would often send me with Bill Rivers to repair anything that had to do with electronics.  Bill Rivers was good at troubleshooting electronic equipment, and well, he was generally a good troubleshooter when he wasn’t getting himself into trouble.

I remember the morning when Charles told me to get with Bill to go fix the incessant humming that was coming over the PA system…. “What?” I asked him.  “I can’t hear you over the loud hum coming over the PA system.”  — No not really… We called the Gai-tronics PA system the “Gray Phone” because the phones all over the plant where you could page people and talk on 5 different lines was gray.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

I walked into the electric lab where Bill Rivers was usually hanging out causing Sonny Kendrick grief.  I hadn’t been in the electric shop very long at this point.  I think it was before the time when I went to work on the Manhole pumps (see the post Power Plant Manhole Mania).  There was an electric cord going from a plug-in on the counter up into the cabinet above as if something inside the cabinet was plugged in…. which was true.  I asked Bill what was plugged in the cabinet and he explained that it was the coffee maker.

An old Coffee pot like this

An old Coffee pot like this

You see, our industrious plant manager had decided that  all coffee at the plant had to come from the authorized coffee machines where a dime had to be inserted before dispensing the cup of coffee.  This way the “Canteen committee” could raise enough money to…. uh…. pay for the coffee.  So, all rogue coffee machines had to go.  There was to be no free coffee at the plant.

So, of course, the most logical result of this mandate was to hide the coffee maker in the cabinet in case a wandering plant manager or one of his stooges were to enter the lab unexpectedly.  Maintaining the free flow of coffee to those electricians that just had to silently protest the strong arm tactics of the Power Plant Coffee Tax by having a sort of… “Tea Party”  or was it a “Coffee Party”.

I told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him fix the hum on the gray phones.  Bill Rivers said, “Great!  Then let us play a game.  let’s call it, ‘Treasure Hunt’.”

Bill reached up in one of the cabinets and pulled out a blue telephone test set.  I’m sure you must have seen a telephone repairman with one of these hanging from his hip. ” Oh boy.”  I thought. “A new toy!”

Telephone Test Set

Power Plant Telephone Test Set

I grabbed my tool bucket from the shop and followed Bill Rivers out into the T-G basement.  This is a loud area where the steam pipes carry the steam to the Turbine to spin the Generator.  It is called T-G for Turbine Generator.  Bill walked over to a junction box mounted near the north exit going to unit 1.  He explained that except for the gray phones in the Control-room section of the plant, all the other gray phones go through this one junction box.

Bill said that the game was to find the Gray Phone ghost.  Where is the hum coming from?  He showed me how the different cables coming into this one box led to Unit 1, Unit 2, the office area and the coal yard.  I just had to figure out which way the hum came from.  So, I went to work lifting wires off of the terminal blocks.  We could hear the hum over the gray phone speakers near us, so if I were to lift the right wires, we should know right away that I had isolated the problem.

Gray Phone Speaker

Power Plant Gray Phone Speaker

We determined that the noise was coming from Unit 1.  So we took the elevator halfway up the boiler to another junction box, and then another where we traced the problem to a gray phone under the surge bin tower.  It took 4 screws to remove the phone from the box.  When I did, I could clearly see the problem.  The box was full of water.  Water had run down the conduit and into the phone box.

Bill Rivers told me that now that we found the problem, we wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again, so we drilled a small weep hole in the bottom of the box, snd we took plumbers putty and stuffed it into the top of the conduit where it opened into a cable tray.

A tub of Power Plant Plumbers Putty

A tub of Power Plant Plumbers Putty

The box would fill with water when the labor crew would do coal cleanup.  On labor crew we would spray the entire surge bin tower down with high powered water hoses to wash off all the coal dust.  Each time, some water would end up going down the conduit into the gray phone until it grounded the circuit enough to cause a hum.

Bill and I continued searching throughout the plant for phones that were causing a hum.  Most were caused by water in the box.  Some were caused by circuits that had gone bad.  Those we took to the electric shop lab where we played a different kind of treasure hunt.  — Let’s call it…. Finding the bad component.  It reminded me of an old video game I had bought for my brother for Christmas that winter when I gave him  an Intellivision (so I could play with it).  It was the latest greatest video game console at the time.

An Intellivision Game Console

An Intellivision Game Console

I had given my brother a game called “Bomb Squad”.  Where you had a certain amount of time to diffuse a bomb by going through a circuit board cutting out components with some snippers.  If you cut the wrong connection, you had to hurry up and solder it back on before the bomb blew up.

Bomb Squad.  It even talked to you and a siren went off if you were going to blow yourself up.

Bomb Squad. It even talked to you and a siren went off if you were going to blow yourself up.

That’s what we were doing with the Gray Phones.  We were testing the different components until we found one that wasn’t working correctly.  Then we would replace that transistor, or capacitor, or resistor, or diode, and then test the phone by plugging it in the switchgear gray phone box and calling each other.

I have a story later about someone using this technique while fixing gray phones, only he would call himself on the gray phone where I would call Bill and Bill would call me.  Someone misinterpreted this and thought the person was trying to make everyone think he was more important because he was always being paged, when he was only paging himself.  He was removed from fixing gray phones for this reason, even though he was only person at the plant in Mustang Oklahoma that knew a transistor from a capacitor.

So, why am I going on about a seemingly boring story about fixing a hum on a PA system?  I think it’s because to me it was like a game.  It was like playing a treasure hunt.   From the day I started as an electrician, we would receive trouble tickets where we needed to go figure something out.  We had to track down a problem and then find a solution on how to fix it.  As I said in previous posts, it was like solving a puzzle.

Each time we would fix something, someone was grateful.  Either the operator or a mechanic, or the Shift Supervisor, or the person at home vacuuming their carpet, because the electricity was still flowing through their house.  How many people in the world can say that they work on something that impacts so many people?

Well… I used to feel like I was in a unique position.  I was able to play in a labyrinth of mechanical and electrical equipment finding hidden treasures in the form of some malfunction.  As I grew older, I came to realize that the uniqueness was limited only to the novelty of my situation.  If you took all the power plant men in the country, they could probably all fit in one large football stadium.  But the impact on others was another thing altogether.

The point I am trying to make is that it was obvious to me that I was impacting a large portion of people in the state of Oklahoma by helping to keep the plant running smoothly  by chasing down the boiler ghosts and exorcising the Coalyard demons from the coal handling equipment.  Even though it isn’t so obvious to others, like the janitor, or the laborer or the person that fills the vending machine.  Everyone in some way helps to support everyone else.

A cook in a restaurant is able to cook the food because the electricity and the natural gas is pumped into the restaurant by others.  Then the cook feeds the mailman, who delivers that mail, that brings the check to the person waiting to go to the grocery store so they can buy food that was grown by some farmer who plowed his field on a tractor made in a huge tractor factory by a machinist after driving there in a car made by a manufacturer in Detroit who learned how to use a lathe in a Vocational school taught by a teacher who had a degree from a university where each day this person would walk to class during the winter snow wearing boots that came from a clothes store where the student had bought them from a store clerk that greeted people by saying “Good Morning!  How are you today?”  Cheering up all the people that they met.

I could have walked into the lab and told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him find the hum in the PA system and he could have responded by saying, “Oh really?  Good luck with that!”  Instead he said, “Let’s go play a game.  ‘Treasure Hunt!”  This attitude had set the stage for me as a Power Plant Electrician:  “Let’s go have some fun and fix something today!”  Where would that cook have been today if the power had gone out in his restaurant that morning all because an attitude had gotten in the way….. I wonder…

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron Kilman June 15, 2013:

    Great story! It’s neat how God puts us in teams to “fix stuff” and make life happen.

  2. Monty Hansen August 16, 2013:

    I wonder why they don’t make ‘em bright yellow or some other color easy to spot in an emergency? Anyway, I remember this one gray phone/speaker we had & when you’d wash down the basement if you accidently got water in it, it would bellow throughout the plant like a sick cow moose until it finally dried out!

    1. Plant Electrician August 16, 2013:

      Thanks Monty, I remember having to stuff putty down the end of conduit from a cable tray to gray phones so that water wouldn’t run down them during washdown. We pulled a gray phone out of the box one day and water just poured out of it. We took to drilling a small hole in the bottom of some of them just to let the water drain out.

Chief Among Power Plant Machinists — Repost

Originally Posted on June 8, 2012.  Added comments from the past 2 years:

Lawrence Hayes was the foreman over the machinists when I first arrived at the power plant, but Ray Butler was undoubtedly the Chief.  He was actually the Chief of the Otoe-Missouri Indian tribe, for a time, that was located just to the north and west of the plant grounds.  The Machinists I can remember from the first summer is Don Burnett, Johnnie Keys, Ray Butler and Lawrence Hayes.  Being a Machinist in a power plant is something that few people can pull off, but those that do, can create just about any metal part that is needed in the plant.

The machinists fascinated me when I first arrived at the plant in 1979.  One side of the entire maintenance shop was the machine shop and it was filled with all different kinds of machining equipment.  I recognized some of the equipment like the lathes, but other machines, like the mill, were something new.  Then there is  this very large lathe.  It was monstrous.  I wondered what kind of part would be machined with that big lathe.

This is what the typical lathe looks like in a machine shop

Even though the power plant machinists came from very diverse backgrounds, they all have two important traits in common.  They are very patient  and they are perfectionists.  During my first summer as a summer help both of the units were still under construction and the mechanics were all busy going through the entire plant disassembling each piece of equipment and measuring it and cleaning it and putting it back together.  This was called:  “Check Out”.  Often they would find something that didn’t meet the Electric Companies specifications, so it would be sent to the machinist to fix.  Very precise measurements were being used, and if there was a 3 thousandth inch gap (.003), and the company wanted it to be no more than 2 thousandths of an inch (.002)…. then it was the job of the machinist to add a sleeve and machine the part down until it was precisely where it was supposed to be.

I learned very little about the lives of the machinists because they were always standing behind the lathes watching vigilantly as the metal shavings were flying off of the parts, but I did learn a few things about some of them.  First of all, each one of the machinists seemed to care about you right away.  Don Burnett, a tall and very thin man with a friendly face, worked in a Zinc Smelting plant before he had come to work at the power plant.  One time while he was working there, some molten zinc was accidentally poured down the back of his boot burning his heel.  It was then that he decided that he would start looking for a different line of work.  I went fishing with him and some other guys once, where he told me some more things about his life.  Then a few years later, he moved to the Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma, where I saw him a couple of times while on overhaul down there.

Johnnie Keys would be perfectly cast as a hillbilly.  He had a scruffy beard (this was before beards were no longer allowed in 1983 due to the problem with obtaining a seal on your respirator) and if you put an old leather hat on him, he would look like this:

Like this, only younger and with a shorter beard

When you ask Johnnie to create something for you, you can be sure that he will do the best he can.  One time years later when I was an electrician, I asked Johnnie if he could take a piece of plexiglass and cut out 8 rectangles in it so that I could mount it in an electrical box so that a bunch of breakers could be accessed, without someone worrying about getting into the electricity.  This is the control box that was used for the vent fans that were installed around the turbine room floor.  As far as I know, it is still there today.  Anyway, Johnnie brought it back to the electric shop when he was finished and it was perfect.  He had a couple of holes in it so that I could put two standoffs to mount the plexiglass in the box.

It just so happened that Leroy Godfrey the electrical supervisor was in the middle of a little war between the engineers because they hadn’t consulted him about the project, and so he was intent on making the job go way over budget.  I wasn’t exactly privy to this information at the time (or maybe I was).  Anyway, after I had mounted the plexiglass to the back plate of the electric box using the standoffs, and it was sitting on the workbench, Leroy came up to me and looked at it.  He said right away, “Go have the machinists put some more holes in it so that you can add more standoffs to mount the plexiglass.  Knowing full well that it didn’t need the extra mounting, I told Leroy that I believed that two standoffs will be fine because the entire assembly was going to be put in the electric box, where there wasn’t going to be much movement, and I picked up the entire assembly with the breakers and all by the plexiglass and bent it all the way around to where both ends  of the plexiglass were touching and shook the breakers up and down.  Then I put it back on the workbench and said,  “I am not going to tell the machinist to add more holes, this is perfect.”  I knew that Johnnie had worked very meticulously machining out the plexiglass and I wasn’t going to bother him with meaningless revisions.  It was at that point where Leroy Godfrey decided that I must go.  He went into the office and told Bill Bennett that he wanted to fire me.  Bill Bennett calmed him down, and it wasn’t long after that Leroy and the other old school power plant men were early retired.

Lawrence Hayes was the foreman at the time and I remember one morning while he was working on the lathe next to the foremen’s office.  He had a disturbed look on his face about something as he had a long metal rod in the lathe and was busy measuring it from different angles.  A little while later when I was passing by on the way to the tool room, Lawrence had Marlin McDaniel, the A Foreman out there and he was showing him something about the lathe.  Then some time just after lunch, Lawrence had a big wrench and was removing the mounting bolts from the Lathe, and later picked the entire thing up with the shop overhead crane and moved it down to the other end of the shop.  Over the next couple of days, the concrete where the lathe had been mounted was busted up and removed, and then re-poured, so that the mounting bolts were now properly aligned.  The enormity of this job made me realize that when these Power Plant Men knew what needed to be done to fix something, they went right ahead and did it, no matter how big the job was.

I have saved the Chief until last.  Ray Butler as I mentioned above was the Chief of the Otoe-Missouria India tribe.  They really called him “Chairman”, but I think I knew what the title really meant.

This is an actor trying to look like Ray Butler

As Ray Butler sat at a lathe or a mill working on a piece of metal, he always had the same expression.  His head was slightly tilted up so that he could see through the bottom of his bifocals and he had the most satisfied expression.  He looked as if he was watching a work of art being created before his eyes.  It didn’t matter what he was working on, he always had the same expression.  I mentioned above that the machinists (like all true power plant men), seemed to instantly care about you.  This seemed to be especially true with Ray Butler.  He was almost 7 years older than my own father.  He treated me as one of his sons.

When I had been at the plant three days of my third year as a summer help in 1981, on Wednesday May 13, I went to the break room to eat my lunch.  Ray came up to me and sat down across from me at the table.  He looked at me solemnly and told me that Pope  John Paul II had just been shot.  He had heard it on the radio and knew that I was Catholic.  He said that was all that he knew other than that they had taken him to the hospital.  I could see his concern when he told me this, and I could see that he was equally concerned that this holy man across the ocean had been shot.  I thanked him for letting me know.

Ray had served in the Navy during World War II and besides the time he spent in the Navy he spent most of his life from the time he was born until his death in 2007 in Oklahoma.  He was born and died in Red Rock just a few miles from where the power plant was built.  He went to high school in Pawnee.  Even though I have seen him upset at times, he was always a man at peace.   He retired in 1988 and the day that he left I met him on his way to the control room while I was on my way to the maintenance shop.  I told him that I wished him well on his retirement and I gave him a hug.  I didn’t see him again until a few years later when we had stopped by the Indian Reservation convenience store to buy gas and when he saw me he came out to say hello and it was like meeting a close friend.  He gave me a hug and I got back in the truck and we left.  That was the last time I saw Ray Butler, but I know that if I wanted to visit with him again, I could just go take a stroll around the Pow-wow area of the Otoe-Missouria Reservation and he would not be far away.

This is where the Pow-wow is held today. The same field where Ken Conrad danced with the Bobcat years ago

Comment from the original Post:

  jackcurtis June 23, 2012

The old machinists I knew were a special breed; they were the High Priests of any shop where they were present…they started disappearing in favor of cheaper (and much less capable) machine operators when the computer-controlled production machines came in. After that, if you wanted a machinist, you’d likely have to import him; Americans didn’t seem to train for it anymore. I’ve always thought that a shame and a loss of something special that was important in making our industrial history…and a loss of a very interesting and accomplished breed of men. Thanks for resurrecting some of them!

 

Comments from last year’s Repost:

  1. Ron Kilman June 12, 2013:

    Good story, Kevin!

    I worked in 5 power plants in Oklahoma and I was constantly amazed by what the Machinists could do.

  2. Monty Hansen August 15, 2013:

    Great Story, I remember the machinist from the plant where I started was EXACTLY as you describe, his name was Don Rogers and he was both, one of the most talented and kindest men I’ve ever met in my power plant career. I don’t remember every name from back then, but if you met Don, he left a great impression that was impossible to forget.