If you have been following my posts for very long, you may have the idea that I just like to write posts about spiders. After writing two posts about Spider Wars (see posts: “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement” and “Power Plant Spider Wars II – The Phantom Menace“), another post about spiders just seems like a bit much. Even though there is a spider in this story, another appropriate title could be something like “Another night in the Life of a Power Plant Electrician”. Without further ado, here is the story.
Ninety nine times out of a hundred, when the phone rang in the middle of the night, it was the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma calling. I don’t remember a time when the Shift Supervisor on the other end of the phone wasn’t very polite. They knew they were waking someone from their sleep to ask them to drive 30 miles out to the plant in the wee hours of the morning.
The Shift Supervisor, whether it was Joe Gallahar, Jim Padgett, Jack Maloy, or Gary Wright, they would all start out with something like, “Hey, sorry to wake you buddy…”. After such an apologetic introduction, how could you be upset that your sleep had just been interrupted? Then they would proceed to tell you why they needed your assistance. For me, it was usually because the coal dumper had stopped working while a train was dumping their coal. This meant that 110 cars tied to three or four engines was sitting idle unable to move.
Each car on the train would be dumped one at a time as it was pulled through the rotary dumper. The process was automated so that the operator in the control room watching out of the window only had to push one switch to dump each car.
The train would move forward to the next car automatically as a large arm on a machine called a Positioner would come down on the coupling between the cars and pull the entire train forward to the next car.
There were so many moving parts involved in positioning the car in place and rolling it over to dump the coal, that it was common for something to go wrong. When that happened the entire process would come to a halt and the train would just have to sit there until someone came to fix it. That was usually an electrician since the dumper and the positioner was all controlled by relays much like the elevator controls, only more complicated.
This particular night, Joe Gallahar had called me. It seemed that there was an intermittent problem with the dumper that didn’t seem to make much sense and they couldn’t figure out why it was acting so strange. One of the train cars had actually been damaged as the positioner arm would start coming up from the coupling to the point where the holding arm on the other end of the dumper had come up, then the positioner arm began going back down, causing the train to move on it’s own only to have the arm on the positioner scrape the side of the train car as it rolled backward uncontrolled.
Though it was less frequent, it was not so strange to have a train damaged by erratic dumper controls. I have seen the side of a train car smashed in by the positioner arm when it decided to inappropriately come down. This night, the problem was acting like that. So, instead of damaging the train further, they decided to call me out to have a look at it.
I always had the philosophy when being called out in the middle of the night to be just as polite back to the Shift Supervisor when I answered the phone. I had a Marketing professor at Oklahoma State University named Dr. Lee Manzer, who explained this one day.
Here is a short side story about Dr. Manzer —
Dr. Manzer told a story in class one day about how he was travelling home one day from a long and difficult trip where everything had gone wrong. It was very late at night when he arrived at his house (which, incidentally was just down the street from my parent’s house), he was really beat. He went into his bedroom and began preparing for bed.
About the time he was taking off his tie, his wife rolled over in bed and welcomed him home. Then she said, “Oh, by the way. I forgot to buy milk (or maybe it was ice cream). Do you think you could run down to the store and buy some?”
Dr. Manzer explained his decision making process at that point like this: “I could either go on a rant and tell my wife what a long and tiring day I had just had and now you are asking me to go buy milk? , and then I would go get the milk. Or I could say, ‘Of course Dear. I would be glad to go buy some milk.’ Either way, I was going to go buy the milk. So, I could do it one of two ways. I could complain about it or I could be positive. I could either score points or lose them…. hmm…. Let’s see…. what did I do? I said, ‘Of course Dear.'”
— End of the side story about Dr. Lee Manzer who by the way was a terrific Marketing Professor. I understand he still teaches to this day.
So, when Joe Gallahar called me that night, and explained that the dumper was acting all erratic, Instead of saying “Yes Dear.” as that wouldn’t have been appropriate, I told him, “No problem. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” My wife Kelly knew who was on the other end of the phone when she heard my answer. She had heard it many times before. I usually only had to say one word after hanging up the phone, “Dumper”, and she knew what that meant.
A Power Plant Electrician’s spouse knows that this is part of the job. As I pulled on the jeans that I had laid out before I went to bed, Kelly would usually say something in her sleep like, “Be careful”. I would give her a hug and tell her I’ll be back in a while, even though, sometimes I would be gone for two days working on the precipitator during a start up or some major catastrophe. Usually, it was just a couple of hours before I came crawling back in bed.
This particular night I drove to work in silence with the window open so that the cool air would keep me awake. Normally I had the radio on some rock station so that I would be singing along (in my terribly off-key singing voice) in order to stay awake. Sometimes I would just take the 25 minutes of silence to just think.
My thought that night was that it was nice to be wanted. There is some comfort in knowing that the Shift Supervisor could call me with enough confidence to know that I would be able to come out on my own and fix a problem that was costing the company a large amount of money each hour the dumper was offline. Some might think that I would be annoyed to be wakened in the middle of the night to go fix something at the plant. That night, as most nights I was feeling honored.
That wasn’t always the case, and I’ll soon write a post about another call out in the middle of the night where Scott Hubbard and I wondered exactly why they called us… but that’s another story.
When I arrived at the plant, I rolled my car up to the speaker at the front gate and said, “Hello” with an arrogant English accent. I don’t know why, but I always liked doing that. I think it was Billy Epperson who answered back. I told him I was here to work on the dumper. He thanked me and opened the gate and I drove the 1/2 mile down the hill to the plant parking lot. As I went over hill, in the moonlight I could see the train up at the coal yard looking like a long silver snake.
I walked into the maintenance shop and grabbed a truck key off of the hook and drove around to the electric shop to pick up my hard hat and tool bucket.
I took the long way around to the coal yard since the train blocked the shortest route. We had a tunnel on the west end of the coal yard that went under the tracks for just this occasion.
When I arrived at the dumper, Stanley Robbins explained that he had tried troubleshooting this problem himself, but he couldn’t find anything that would explain the strange behavior. Since the last downsizing, we were all able to sort of mix our skills so that an operator could do simple electric tasks if they felt comfortable with it. Stanley knew enough to fix your normal minor dumper issues. This one was a little different.
Since I had been an electrician for the past 15 years at this point, I felt pretty confident that I would quickly find the problem and be heading back home soon. So, I walked into the dumper switchgear where the dumper controls are found. I asked Stanley to go turn on the power to the dumper so that I could watch the relays. When the power was on, I began tracing the circuits looking for the point of failure.
The problem was intermittent, and when Stanley started the dumper back up, everything seemed to be working just fine. Stanley explained that this was why they couldn’t use the dumper because they couldn’t be sure when it was going to malfunction. They had even uncoupled the train and pulled it apart right where the positioner arm was so that I could see what was happening.
Using radios (walkie talkies), I asked Stanley to move the positioner arm up and down while I checked it. He lowered it and raised it back up without any problem. When he began lowering it the second time, it suddenly stopped halfway down. Watching the controls, I could see that it indicated that it had come all the way down. It would be this case that would tell the holding arm on the far side of the dumper to go back up, which is what happened when the train rolled back earlier that night.
Then the relays rattled like they were picking up and dropping out rapidly. Then the problem cleared up again. Somehow the positioner arm had thought it had come down on the car clamps when it was still up in the air. That was not likely to happen because when something fails it usually doesn’t see what it’s supposed to see, not the other way around. It doesn’t usually see something that isn’t there.
So, I had Stanley lower the positioner arm down so that it was level with the ground, so that I could check the connections to the electric eye that was on the positioner clamp that detected the train car clamp when it came down. I couldn’t find any lose connections or anything that would explain it.
So I told Stanley that I was going to look up from under the car clamp to look at the electric eye. So, I asked him to kill the power to the positioner so that it wouldn’t move while I was doing that and crush me like a bug. Kneeling on the train track, I took my flashlight and looked up at the electric eye from under the car clamp, and this is what I saw:
This spider had built a spider web in front of the electric eye on the positioner and was sitting right in the middle causing the positioner to think it was down on the car clamp when it wasn’t. Stanley was watching me from the window of the dumper control room when he saw me stand up quickly and look up at him with a big grin on my face. I gave him a thumbs up.
You know the phrase, “Everyone has 10 minutes of fame….” It indicates that some time in most people’s lives they are famous for a brief moment. It may or may not define the rest of their life. Well. This was that spiders claim to fame. This one spider had successfully stranded a coal train with 110 cars of coal. A train crew, a coal yard operator, and one lone electrician that had traveled 30 miles to watch it act out it’s drama of catching gnats on it’s web being constantly watched by one large electric eye.
I did not drive home in silence that early morning. I laughed out loud all the way home. I still laugh to myself to this day when I think about this night. Phrases like, “Isn’t life wonderful” comes to my mind. Or “Even Spiders desire attention every now and then.” Could there have been a better malfunction than to have a spider dancing in front of an electric eye out in the plains of Oklahoma saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” and by golly. Someone did! I’m just glad it was me.