The Vast Universe of Power Plant Heroes

The trouble I had with my 1982 Honda Civic began when I thought I could use water instead of antifreeze in my radiator.  I had never been much of a car person, but I figured I knew the basics.  Especially after working in the Power Plant garage for three summers as a summer help on the yard crew.  I thought the collective knowledge of Power Plant Men like Larry Riley, Doug House, Preston Jenkins and Jim Heflin had rubbed off on me… at least a little.

One very cold morning on the way to work at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, just north of the toll road spur from Stillwater to Tulsa, the temperature gauge in my car pegged out in the wrong direction indicating my engine was too hot.  I pulled into the gas station/convenience store parking lot and parked my car.  Another Power Plant Man was just coming out of the store, so I hitched a ride with him to work.  It turned out that the freeze plug in engine block had blown out.  My car had overheated and because of the location of the plug, the engine had to be slightly dismantled in order to replace it. — Or at least that was what the mechanic at the auto repair place said.

A 1982 Honda Civic

A 1982 Honda Civic

After that incident, I had developed a minor oil leak, which a year or so later caused my timing belt to fail because the oil had been leaking on it.  Scott Hubbard and I were on the way to work, and when I was in the middle of the intersection at Bill’s Corner, my car just died.  I coasted off the side of the road, and we bummed a ride to work with another Power Plant Man on their way to the plant.  The way the 1982 Honda Civic was built, if your timing belt broke, it bent your piston rods, which caused the need to rebuild the engine.

The winter after my engine had been rebuilt, when it was my turn to drive Scott Hubbard and Fred Turner to work on a cold morning, on the way to work, my car would begin to sputter then finally die.  After sitting on the roadside for a couple of minutes, it would start up again and we could go a few more miles, until it would do the same thing again.  This would only happen when it was real cold outside.

I took my car to the mechanics that had rebuilt my engine, and by that time of the day, it was warm, and the car ran just fine.  They couldn’t tell me what was causing it.  I did this several times, and Scott and Fred were beginning to wonder if it was such a good idea carpooling with me and my unreliable Honda Civic.  Especially on cold mornings.  I had tried several times to get it fixed, and the mechanics finally told me to stop bothering them.  They couldn’t fix my problem.

Then one morning at work during the winter of 1992-93, when I must have been looking a little despondent while walking to the tool room to see Bud Schoonover to get some supplies, Mike Crisp, one of the plant machinists asked me what was wrong.  I told him about how my car was dying when I drove it to work.  Then Mike described my problem to me.  He asked, “Does it die only when it’s real cold outside?”  “Yeah,” I replied.  “Then after a couple of minutes it will start back up just fine?”  “Yeah!  That’s exactly it!”  Mike said,  “Oh.  I can fix that with a busted screwdriver.”

I wasn’t sure if I had heard that correctly, so I repeated, “busted screwdriver?”  “Yeah,” he said.  Then he reached into his tool box drawer behind his lathe and pulled out an old broken screwdriver and said, “I have one right here.  Where is your car?”

Mike and I went to the parking lot and opened the hood of the car.  He took the top cover off of the carburetor.  Then taking the short screwdriver he poked it into a hole…  Not the carburetor hole, but one off to the side.  He said it was a valve that was supposed to open when the engine was running in order to bring warm air from around the engine into the carburetor to keep it from “vapor locking”… or some such thing.  By putting the screwdriver in the valve to hold it open all the time, I wouldn’t have any more problems with the car.

After that, the car worked great!  I was happy.  Fred Turner was happy.  Scott Hubbard was happy….. Well.  Scott Hubbard is always happy.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

At this point in my career as a plant electrician, I was beyond being surprised by the vast collective knowledge of Power Plant Men.  Though they live most of their lives confined within the plant ground of a single Power Plant for the most part, from that experience and the total experience of their fellow Power Plant Heroes, they have a vast knowledge of the entire world.

I had heard something like that when watching the BBC version of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple once.  In one episode, the Inspector Craddock was explaining to someone how Miss Marple could solve crimes.  He said, “She knows the world only through the prism of that village and it’s daily life.  And by knowing the village so thoroughly, she knows the world.”  I immediately connected that phrase to the Power Plant Men I had the pleasure of working with for 20 years.

 

Miss Marple from BBC series

Miss Marple from BBC series played by Joan Hickson

As a side note.  This isn’t my favorite Miss Marple.  My favorite by far is played by Margaret Rutherford:

Miss Marple played by Margaret Rutherford

Miss Marple played by Margaret Rutherford

You can immediately see my attraction to Margaret Rutherford.  Who could resist such a strong women with such intense eyes and jutting jaw?  — Anyway, you can see how that phrase applied to Power Plant Men as well.  End of side note.

After the Mike Crisp had fixed my car, when I would walk by him in the machine shop, he would sometimes stop and talk to me about things.  One day he asked me if I had done anything interesting over the weekend, and I told him that I had been out in my yard looking at the stars through my telescope.  That was about the most interesting thing that had happened that weekend.

Mike, to my surprise, instantly became interested in this subject.  This surprised me, especially after he pointed out that he had never thought about getting a telescope or looking at the stars.  I supposed I was surprised because he showed more than just a passing interest.  He wanted to know more about my telescope, which was a cheap 4 1/2 inch reflecting telescope I had bought at Wal-Mart or some such place.

I had a telescope like this

I had a Tasco telescope like this

He asked me why I liked looking at the stars.  I told him about looking at the moon and the planets, and seeing the rings around Saturn.  My favorite pastime was looking at Nebulae (That’s plural for “Nebula” in case you were wondering).

Actually, my telescope was the next step above the picture above, as it had a counter weight and the pedestal mount was designed where you could set your latitude so that as the stars moved in the sky, you could swing your telescope around with the object you were watching.  The pedestal shown above doesn’t do that.  I had one like that as a boy, and as you followed the star, you had to adjust it up or down as you moved it west…. see…. that’s not interesting right?  — But Mike Crisp thought it was.

A couple of weeks later when I was passing by the machine shop again, Mike called me over to his lathe.  A piece of metal was taking shape as the lathe spun around and metal shavings were flying off in one direction and being deflected by a metal guard.

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

This is what the typical lathe looks like in a machine shop without the metal guard

Mike picked up a magazine from the top of his toolbox and showed it to me.  It was a catalog for telescopes.  He wanted to ask my advice about whether to get an 8 inch telescope or go all out and buy a 10 inch one.  The cost was considerably higher for the 10 inch telescope and he was wondering if it would be that much better.

Mike had been to an observatory since I had first talked to him about astronomy.  Now he was going to purchase his own telescope.  — I had had (yeah… there must be a better way to say that besides “had had”…. how about this)….  I had been through this discussion with myself in the past.  I wanted a bigger telescope so that I could see more detail than I could get with my 4 1/2 inch reflecting telescope.  I knew the cost of those really nice ones.  I used to go to the observatory at the University of Missouri in Columbia when I was growing up and even had thought about becoming an astronomer as a career.

I felt confident when I told Mike that an 8 inch reflecting telescope was big enough for him.  Considering where he lived, (outside Ponca City, Oklahoma), the altitude (900 feet above sea level), he wasn’t going to gain enough with a 10 inch telescope to justify the extra cost.  — Especially on a machinist’s salary. — I didn’t tell him that last part.  You see…. I felt a little responsible for his sudden interest in astronomy, and I didn’t want his wife and children to go hungry so that Mike could get a better picture of the Horsehead Nebula.

 

Horsehead Nebula

Horsehead Nebula

Later Mike told me that he had ordered the 8 inch telescope and that he had poured a concrete pillar in his backyard to mount the telescope aligning it just right and at the right angle so that the mount would be able to be permanent.  I continued to be amazed by not only his sudden interest in Astronomy, but by how he jumped into it so completely.  I could see his excitement when he talked to me about it. — As I said above, I had hoped that the extra expense wasn’t putting a stress on his financial situation.

Not knowing Mike Crisp’s background, I never knew if he was an eccentric millionaire that had just decided to take up residence as a power plant machinist to experience more of life, or if he was just the type of person that when passionate about something would pour all his thought and effort into his passion.  Either way, Mike Crisp was happy and seemed to enjoy what he was doing.  I kept looking for signs of new stress on his face, but never saw it. — others at the plant might know different, but not me.

When the 1994 Rift came along (which I will discuss in a later post), Mike Crisp was one of the casualties.  He was laid off on July 29, 2014 as were a lot of other great Power Plant Men.  It wasn’t too long after Mike had made astronomy his hobby, and so I was worried that this extra financial burden may make his transition to a new life a little harder.

On the other hand.  I have found that in times of extra stress, going out in the backyard and looking up at the sky and realizing the vastness of the universe helps put things in perspective.  So, it might have turned out that Mike’s new hobby of looking to the stars for answers may have been just what he needed at that time.

I have not spoken to Mike since he was laid off in 1994 and I don’t know what ever became of him.  I only know that the little time I spent with him talking in the machine shop for those few years have meant enough to me that I keep Mike and his family in my prayers to this day.  I hope he found what he was looking for when he mounted that telescope to his concrete pedestal and turned his telescope to the heavens.  I know I had found a good friend that day when I walked to the parking lot with Mike wondering how a broken screwdriver was going to fix my 1982 Honda Civic after the car mechanics in Stillwater, Oklahoma had given up on me.  — Mike Crisp… Another one of my Power Plant Heroes.

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6 responses

  1. I thought I knew where you were going when you started this story about water instead of antifreeze. One really cold day, as I was driving to the Seminole Plant, my 1970 Maverick overheated bad. Temperature gauge all the way HOT. I shut it down and left it all day on the shoulder of Highway 99. Some Power Plant Man (can’t remember who) picked me up and took me to work. I picked it up after work and drove it home without it overheating. I found that the radiator had frozen up. I didn’t have enough antifreeze. I corrected that and never had that problem again. I sold the Maverick in 1985 with 217K miles on it.

    While I was at Seminole, I built an 8″ f/6 reflector. I’ve seen a lot of cool stuff with it. I saw the impacts on Jupiter by Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9. That was shortly after I was dismissed from Sooner Plant (July, 1994). I still have the scope. In the early 1980’s I remember showing Saturn to the lady that played the organ at our church (rings were almost edge-on) and she said “Oh! It’s middle C.” Cool.

    Love your stories.

    1. Thanks Ron! I do remember when Saturn was tilted so far that you could see the complete ring. That was fun.

  2. Always a joy to read your stories. Keep ’em coming!

  3. Innit lovely when someone says: “Oh yeah, I can fix that!” He diagnosed it, too, without looking.

    Sounds like a lovely bloke. 🙂

  4. Mike would like to send you some pictures taken with the telescope

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