Long before Facebook ever graced the pages of our browsers, Power Plant Birthday reminders began appearing in the Outlook E-mail Inboxes of Power Plant men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. Today it seems commonplace to be reminded of your friends birthdays as your smartphone pops up a message to remind you. In 1997, a strange event began happening at the plant. It sent some scurrying about to find the culprit. Others found it funny. Some worried that their secrets were about to be revealed. One person was totally surprised by the response (me).
January 3, 1997 Charles Foster and I went to our morning meeting with our team in the main break room where we would meet every morning to go over the work for the day. Alan Kramer began the meeting by asking me a direct question. He said something like, “Kevin. Do you know anything about emails from the Birthday Phantom?” I asked him what he meant, and he went on to explain.
Alan said that when someone opened up Outlook to check their e-mail that morning, shortly after they opened it up, an e-mail appeared in their inbox that was from themselves. So, when Alan had logged in that morning, he received an e-mail from Alan Kramer. When he opened it, it had a subject of “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday”. The body of the e-mail said, “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday. He is 48 years old today. Please wish him a Happy Birthday. The Birthday Phantom.”
It happened that when Wayne Cranford opened his own e-mail, the subject said, “Happy Birthday Wayne Cranford!” and the body of the email had the happy birthday song, “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday dear Wayne. Happy Birthday to you. The Birthday Phantom.
So, after Alan explained this to me, he looked at me again with a rather stern look and said, “Kevin. Did you do this?” What could I say? So, I said, “Why is it that whenever something like this happens, I’m always the first one to be blamed for it?” I knew at that point that Alan’s next response was going to mean the difference between night and day, so I put on the most indignant look I could.
Alan said, “Well. I just had to ask.” I shrugged like I understood and glanced over at Charles Foster who had a stunned look hidden behind his best poker face. Something like this:
You see…. about a year earlier, before we were using Microsoft Outlook, we were using Novell’s Groupwise for email. Alan Kramer had come to me and asked me if I had done something “wrong” in regard to emails. It turned out that I was innocent of any “wrongdoing” in that instance (well, almost). Charles Foster was my witness.
What had happened was that one day, Danny Cain, who was the Instrument and Controls person on our team had come into the electric shop office to make a phone call to someone at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City. I think it was Ed Mayberry. Email was a new idea for most people at the plant.
While Danny was on the phone, I turned to the computer sitting on the desk across the room from Danny and wrote an e-mail to the person that Danny was talking to telling him not to believe a word Danny was saying… whatever it was…. it wasn’t important. I just thought it would be funny to send an email to Ed about Danny while he was talking to Danny on the phone.
The subject of the email was “Danny Cain”. As Danny was talking on the phone, he happened to turn around just as I was clicking “Send”, and he saw his name in the subject line. Charles was sitting there next to me, as we were on break at the time. Danny quickly asked what I was doing and why did he see his name on an e-mail. I put on the guiltiest look I could and said, “Oh. Nothing. Nothing at all.” Rolling my eyes with obvious guilt.
I didn’t know how much this bugged Danny until a couple of days later Alan came into the electric shop office and said he needed to ask me a serious question. I could tell he was upset with me. He asked, “Have you been reading other people’s emails?” I was confused by the question, because I didn’t relate it to Danny from the other day. So both Charles and I looked confused.
I told Alan that not only had I not read other people’s emails, but even if I could, I wouldn’t because I considered other people’s emails private. Then I explained to him that Novell’s Groupwise email was very secure, and I wouldn’t know how to hack into their email if I had a desire. Which I didn’t.
Still confused by why Alan would ask the question both Charles and I asked Alan what this was all about. He didn’t want to say who it was that told him they thought I was reading their emails, but after we pressed him, he told us that Danny Cain said he saw me reading his email when he was in the office. Then both Charles and I knew what this was all about.
I explained to Alan that I was just joking around with Danny at the time. I reasoned with Alan that I would have to be pretty stupid to wait until Danny was standing a few feet away from me before I decided to read his emails. Alan accepted my explanation. Especially since it was backed by one of the most honest people at the plant, Charles Foster.
So, fast forward to November 6, 1996. We were now using Outlook. That was about as secure as a bag of Oreo cookies in a kindergarten classroom.
I was sitting in the electric shop office with Charles during lunch, and I had just finished writing some fun little programs that automated pulling stock prices from the Internet and putting them in Excel each day. I asked Charles, “What shall I do next?”
Charles thought for a few moments and said, “You know when we were still all in the electric shop before the downsizing, how when it was someone’s birthday we used to celebrate it by bringing a cake and having a lunch or something for that person? Well. We don’t do anything now. Can you come up with something that will help celebrate birthdays?”
After brainstorming ideas, we settled on sending emails and the “Birthday Phantom” was born. I thought it would be neat to learn how to write programs that used the Outlook API, sending emails, and stuff like that. So, I went to work during my lunch breaks writing the program.
It only took a week or so to get it working, and then we ran a bunch of tests on it until we settled on having the emails be sent by the same person that is receiving the email when they log on the computer. Each time a person logs on the computer, the program would be kicked off.
The first thing it would do was check to see if the person had already logged on that day. If they had logged on before, then it would shutdown because I didn’t want it to send more than one email for the same day, even if the person used a different computer.
The next thing it would check was if the person was on an exception list. We had decided that it was best to keep the plant manager and his cronies… um… I mean, his staff from receiving emails, as we didn’t think they would appreciate it since they didn’t have much use for such things. If the person logging on was on the exceptions list, the application would shutdown.
Then, it would check to see if it was anyone’s birthday that day. If it was, then it would send an email from the person logged on, to the person logged on. If it was the birthday of the person logging on, then it would modify the email so that it was personalized to say happy birthday to them.
There were little tweeks I made while testing the application before we went live with it. First, I added little things like making sure the gender was correct. So, if it was a woman’s birthday, then it would say “…wish her a happy birthday”.
Charles and I decided that the application would start running on January 1, 1997. So, during December, I made sure it was setup on all the computers in the plant except those belonging to the staff. This brings us to January 3, 1997, when Wayne Cranford was the first Power Plant Man to have a birthday.
As I hinted above, Alan’s response to my indignation at being accused of creating the Birthday Phantom would have determined how short-lived the Birthday Phantom would have been. Since Alan didn’t pursue the inquiry I didn’t offer any more information.
For instance. A few minutes after the meeting was over, I walked over the control room, and the control room operators were all standing around talking about the Birthday Phantom. David Evans asked me if I was the Birthday Phantom. I responded the same way I did with Alan, I said, “Why is it that when something like this happens, I am always the first person to be accused?” David responded with, “Yeah, but are you the Birthday Phantom?” Well. I wasn’t the type of person to blatantly lie, so I had to admit that “Yes. I’m the Birthday Phantom, but don’t tell anyone.” The Control room operators said they would all keep it to themselves (yeah. right).
Though some people thought the Birthday Phantom was a nuisance, others thought that their personal emails were at risk, and that the Birthday Phantom could be stealing their emails. Whenever I heard that anyone was upset (such as Alan) with the Birthday Phantom, I just added them to the exceptions list and they never received another Birthday Phantom email.
Jim Padgett, a Shift Supervisor, had received a Birthday Phantom email one day, and called IT to report it as they were trying to track down the program to figure out where it was coming from. Jim Cave told me that Padgett had the IT guy on the phone and he was logged into his computer to watch what happened when he logged on and opened up Outlook to try and find what was sending the emails.
Jim Cave said that the IT guy was sounding hopeful that he was going to finally be able to catch the Birthday Phantom when all of the sudden he said, “Oh! That’s a Wiley One!” I came to understand that in Oklahoma City, the IT department was taking this so seriously that they assigned two people full time for two weeks to try and find the culprit (I added Jim Padgett to the exception list, so he didn’t receive any more emails).
I hadn’t thought about it when I was writing the application, but back at Corporate Headquarters, they thought that the application had somehow gained access to the HR system in order to find the birthdays of each employee. Even though, things like Birthdays and Social Security Numbers were not as sensitive in 1997 (for instance, the plant manager’s Social Security Number was 430-68-…. You really didn’t think I would put his Social Security number here did you?), if someone was accessing the HR database, that would have been serious.
Even though the IT department was taking this very seriously, there was one timekeeper at the Power Plant that was just about climbing the walls over the Birthday Phantom. She was so concerned that I was afraid she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I was not surprised by this at all, and had actually anticipated her anxiety. Actually, the Birthday Phantom was designed for just this reason. You see, this particular timekeeper was going to be turning 40 years old one week after the first Birthday Phantom email showed up.
After the second Birthday Phantom email arrived the next Monday on January 6, announcing that Jerry Potter had just turned 36, Linda Shiever called me and asked me if I could find out how to stop the Birthday Phantom. I told her I would look into it. I did look into it for about one second. Linda was turning 40 on Friday.
On Wednesday, January 8, not only did Elvis Presley turn 62 (if he had been alive… or…. um…well, you know…) but the Birthday Phantom informed everyone at the plant that Sonny Kendrick (who was only 5 days younger than Wayne Cranford) had also turned 48 years old. Linda Shiever was thinking about calling in sick on Friday.
Linda knew that when she came to work the morning of January 10, that her cube would be full of black balloons with the number 40 on them. She had resigned herself to this a while before when she helped blow up the balloons for Louise Kalicki’s cube the previous August 23, less than 5 months earlier. The appearance of the Birthday Phantom, however, had thrown in a new element of recognition.
The morning of January 10, 1997 finally arrived, and the Birthday Phantom email notified everyone that it was not only Linda Shiever’s birthday, but it was also Gene Day’s birthday as well. Yeah. The application could handle multiple birthdays on the same day. Linda Shiever was happy to find out that the Birthday Phantom had informed the entire Power Plant that she had just turned 29. In fact, that year, every woman at the plant was turning 29 years old according to the Birthday Phantom. — That was another one of those tweeks that came out of our testing.
Gene Day, on the other hand, according to the Birthday Phantom had just turned 100 years old…. Well.. Everyone knew he was ancient (See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” and the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“). Needless to say, there was a lot less stress in the office area after that day.
The following week, when I went to the tool room to get some supplies, Darlene Mitchell stopped me and asked me if the Birthday Phantom would do her a favor. She was turning 45 years old on January 28, and she didn’t want the Birthday Phantom to tell everyone she was 29. She wanted it to say, “Today is Darlene Mitchell’s Birthday, She is 45 years old and Lovin’ it! Please wish her a Happy Birthday!” I told her I would have a talk with the Birthday Phantom and it shouldn’t be a problem.
After a month, when I was in the Control Room, Jim Cave, who was now referring to me regularly as “The Wiley One” said that the IT department had told Jack Maloy that they were no longer looking for the Birthday Phantom. They were not able to find it. The person that did it would just have to tell them who it was.
I still have the computer code I used when I wrote the program. Sometimes I take it out and read it and I remember that year when the Birthday Phantom visited the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to remind everyone that we were all growing older and as a family, we should take the time to stop and say “Happy Birthday” to each other on that one day each year when we are special.