Monthly Archives: June, 2015

Importance of Power Plant Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance

The very last thing I ever learned in High School was the importance of Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance. In fact, the entire senior class of 1978 at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri learned this lesson at the same time. It was during the graduation ceremony in May while the students were walking across the stage to receive their diplomas.

I had already received mine and I was back in my seat sitting between Tracy Brandecker and Patrick Brier (we were sitting alphabetically. My name is Breazile). Pat was sitting on my left and Tracy was on my right. We were grinning from ear-to-ear to be graduating. My friends from the second grade, Mark Schlemper, Russell Somers and Brent Stewart had just walked across the stage in the gymnasium while a storm raged outside. As my friend from the fifth grade forward, Matt Tapley was walking across the stage there was a loud crack of thunder and the sound of an explosion as the lights went out.

Matt Tapley has albinism, giving him white hair and skin. In his black robe, the entire class witnessed Matt’s head bobbing up and down in the faint light given off from the emergency lights to either side of the stage as he was bowing to his classmates. We all clapped. The clapping soon turned to laughter as the emergency lights quickly dimmed and went entirely out within a minute.

An emergency light

An emergency light

As we sat in total darkness waiting for some resourceful faculty member to make their way to the hidden fallout shelter in the basement of the school to retrieve the portable generator and a spotlight, I was amazed by how quickly the emergency lighting had failed. The transformer to the school had been destroyed by the lightning strike so we finished the ceremony by the light of the large spotlight from the back of gym. My thought was that the school is only 4 years old and already the emergency lighting is too old to stay lit long enough to even begin evacuating the building, if that was what we had intended to do.

Fast forward to the spring of 1984. I had become an electrician a few months earlier. As I was learning the electrical ropes, I learned the importance of Preventative Maintenance in a power plant setting. The majority of an electrician’s job when I first joined the electric shop was doing “Preventative Maintenance”. I have some horror stories of bad preventative maintenance that I will share much later. I will point out now that most Americans know of some stories themselves, they just don’t realize that the root cause of these major failures were from a lack of preventative maintenance.

A power plant, like the emergency lights in the High School, has a battery backup system, only it is on a grand scale. There are backup batteries for every system that needs to remain online when there is a total blackout of power. These batteries needed to be inspected regularly. We inspected them monthly.

At first, I had done battery inspections with various electricians. Some people didn’t seem to take this task very seriously. I remember that when I did the inspections with Mike Rose, he usually finished by taking a gallon of soda water (a gallon of water with a box of baking soda dissolved into it) and pouring it all over the batteries.

My bucket buddy, Diana Lucas (Dee), on the other hand, took a different approach. We carefully filled each cell with just the right amount of distilled water. Then she showed me how to meticulously clean any corrosion from the battery posts using a rag soaked in the soda water, and then she would paint the area on the post where the corrosion was with No-Ox grease.

A jar of No-Ox Grease (No-Ox means No Oxide)

A jar of No-Ox Grease (No-Ox means No Oxide)

When I say batteries, you may think that I’m talking about batteries like you have in your car, or even in a large piece of equipment like a big dirt mover. Some of the batteries were the size of a battery used in a large dozer or dirt mover:

A battery used in a large dozer

A battery used in a large dozer

Some of the batteries that we inspected were of this type. They were usually hooked up to generators that could be started up in case all the power was out and we needed to start up a diesel generator. However, this was just the puppies when it came to the Station Power Batteries. These were some serious batteries:

The battery shown on the left is about the size of a small file cabinet

These are the type of UPS Station batteries used at the plant. The battery shown on the left is about the size of a small file cabinet

As big as these batteries are, it takes 58 of them for each system to come up with a 130 volt circuit. That’s right. 58 of these batteries all in a series. The station batteries are all in rooms by themselves known as…. “Unit 1 and Unit 2 Battery rooms”. Smaller station battery sets are found at different locations. Today, those places include the relay house in the main substation, the Microwave room on the roof of #1 boiler. The River pumps, the radio tower building, the coalyard switchgear, Enid Turbine Generators and the Co-Generation plant in Ponca City. I’m sure I’m leaving some out. Maybe a current electrician at the plant can remind me of the others in a comment below. Each of these locations have approximately 58 station batteries.

While I was still a novice electrician, one morning in May I was told that I was going with Dee and Ben Davis to Enid to a Battery training class at an electric company office where the manufacturer (C&D) was going to go over the proper maintenance of the station batteries. Ben drove the pickup. I remember sitting in the middle between Dee and Ben both going and coming back from our lesson on Battery Preventative Maintenance….

Interesting that Ben was sitting to my left and Dee to my right that day… just like Pat and Tracy during the graduation ceremony 6 years earlier to the month when we first learned the impact of bad preventative maintenance on backup batteries. This time we were learning how to prevent the problem I had witnessed years before. I don’t know why I draw parallels like that. It just seem to make life a little neater when that happens. I don’t remember Ben and Dee grinning ear-to-ear like Pat and Tracy were the night we graduated from High School, but I can assure you, I was the entire 45 minutes going to Enid and the 45 minutes going back to the plant.

Since I had been trained for battery maintenance, I suppose it was like Andy Griffith becoming the Permanent Latrine Orderly (PLO) in the movie “No Time For Sergeants”. I was able to go to town inspecting all kinds of backup batteries.

Andy Griffith as Permanent Latrine Orderly in No Time for Sergeants grinning ear-to-ear

Andy Griffith as Permanent Latrine Orderly in No Time for Sergeants grinning ear-to-ear

Gene Roget (pronounced with a french accent as “Row Jay” with a soft J) was a contract electrician when I first became an electrician in the shop. I wrote about him in the post New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop. He was a great mentor that taught me a lot about how to be an electrician. He taught me how to use all the different tools in my tool bucket. He taught me how to bend conduit and make it come out the right length on both ends…

He especially taught me the importance of doing a “pretty” job when running wire or conduit or just rewiring a motor. I remember Gene stopping one day when we were walking to the precipitator and he paused to look up at the transfer tower. I asked him where he was looking. He said, “I’m just admiring the wonderful job someone did bending that set of conduit. that’s a perfect job! Just perfect!”

Anyway, Gene and I were given the task of checking all the batteries in the emergency lights throughout the plant. It happened that the emergency lights at the plant were all about 5 years old. Probably about the same age as the lights were in the high school the night of our graduation. The lights in the plant had wet cells. Which meant that you had to add distilled water to them like you do in your car, or in the station batteries. This amounted to a pretty large task as there were emergency lights stationed throughout the plant.

We found many of the lights that would never have been able to light up enough to cause a cockroach to run for cover. We took the bad ones back to the shop to work on them. A lot of the batteries had gone bad because they had never been checked. They have a built-in battery charger, and some of the chargers were not working. I drew a wiring diagram of the charger so that we could troubleshoot them and replace components that had gone bad.

All of this was like a dream to me. At the time I couldn’t think of any other place I would rather be. I loved taking things that were broken and fixing them and putting them back into operation. Eventually we decided to change the emergency light batteries to dry batteries. Those didn’t need water. We could pull out the six wet cells from each emergency light box and just plug the new batteries in place. This made a lot more sense. Who has time to go around regularly and check 50 or 60 emergency lights every 3 months? Not us. Not when we were trying to save the world.

Back to the Station Batteries:

Just to give you an idea of how important these batteries are, let me tell you what they are used for…. Suppose the power plant is just humming along at full power, and all of the sudden, the power goes out. It doesn’t matter the reason. When there is a blackout in a city, or a state, be assured, the power plant itself is in a blackout state as well. After all, the power plant is where the electricity is being created.

In the plant there is large equipment running. The largest and most valuable piece of equipment by far in a power plant is the Turbine Generator. The entire plant exists to spin this machine. As big as it is, it spins at 3600 revolutions per minute, or 60 times each second. In order to do that, oil has to be flowing through the bearings otherwise they would burn up almost instantly. This would cause the generator to come to a screeching halt — and I mean “screeching!”

A turbine Generator Room at a nuclear plant with a waxed floor!

A turbine Generator Room at a nuclear power plant with a waxed floor!

So, in order to stop a turbine generator properly, when a unit is taken offline, once it has coasted to a smooth stop, the turbine has to be engaged to something called a “Turning Gear” which slowly rotates the turbine generator. This is turned off only when the shaft has cooled down. Without this, you might as well call General Electric and order a new one.

So, one of the most important things the station batteries do is run emergency oil pumps that engage immediately when the power is cutoff from the plant. This allows the turbine generator and other important equipment throughout the plant to slowdown and come to a stop gracefully in case the power is instantly gone.

I will write a story later about a day when this happened at our plant. The moments of confusion, and the quick decisions that had to be made to keep the unit 1 boiler from melting to the ground. Rest assured that throughout this time, the emergency oil pumps had kicked in. The station batteries did their job when they were called upon. While the control room operators were performing their emergency tasks to the letter and the electricians were scrambling to come up with a workable solution to an unforeseen problem, the turbine-generator, the PA (Primary Air) fans, the FD (Forced Draft) Fans, the ID (Induction) fans were all coasting down as the groundwork was being laid to quickly restore power.

Someone in an office in the middle of Oklahoma City may have noticed their lights flicker for a moment. Maybe they dimmed slightly…

If not for the proper maintenance of the power plant station batteries, the lights would have possibly gone dark. Someone would have had to go looking for the portable generator and the spotlight. Ceremonies in progress may have to continued under candlelight.

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Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace

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.

Power Plant Saints Go Marching In

When I think back about the Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with for the 20 years I spent working at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I still see them as they were back when I first knew them.  I was able to see them come to work each day willing to give all they had in order to keep the plant running smoothly.  I would find out sometimes that behind their stoic behavior of heroism was a person bearing enormous pain.

I will not go into the private lives of each of the Power Plant Men and the personal struggles in their lives beyond those that we all shared at the plant.  Some were bearing such enormous pain that all the Power Plant Men and Women shared their pain.  Others bore their pain in silence leaving the rest of us oblivious to the grief as they sat next to you in the truck or beside you tightening bolts, or checking electric circuits.

I remember a time when one of my best friends seemed to be acting short tempered for a while.  I figured something was eating at him.  Finally after almost a year he confided in me what had been going on in his personal life, and it broke my heart to think of the pain this person had been experiencing all along, while I had been annoyed at his quick temper.

It is an eye opening experience when the person I talked to every single day at work is being torn apart with worry and I didn’t even have a clue.  Well, the clues were there only I was too blind to see.

I began this post on a rather ominous note because one of the great Power Plant Men of his day, Larry Riley, died this past Wednesday, June 24, 2015.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my Power Plant Friend Bud Schoonover passing away.  (See the post: “Dynamic Power Plant Trio — And Then There Was One“).  I mentioned some of the special times we had while we carpooled back and forth to Ponca City, Oklahoma.  I knew Bud was getting along in years, so when I heard about his death, I was not surprised.  I immediately pictured him back together again with Richard Dale, our travelling companion.

On Wednesday night when I was contacted by a number of Power Plant Men and Women who all wanted me to know right away that Larry had passed away, I was suddenly hit with a wave of shock.  I was overwhelmed with grief.  I broke out in tears.

Larry had been important to me from the very first day I worked in the Power Plant.  I worked with Larry and Sonny Karcher before I worked with anyone else.  My original mentors have both passed away now.

Of the 183 Power Plant Stories I have written thus far, the story about Larry Riley was one of the first stories I couldn’t wait to tell others.  You can read it here:  “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“.

Through my first years at the Power Plant Larry was there looking out for me when he had no other reason to do so than that he cared for others.  Some pseudo-Power Plant Men mocked him secretly for being a noble person.  Others didn’t have a clue what lengths Larry went to help out a person in need.

Since Larry’s death I have heard a couple of stories that Power Plant Men wanted to share with me about how Larry helped them out when there was no where else to turn.  Stories I heard for the first time.  I encourage any Power Plant Men who knew Larry to leave a comment below about him.

Larry was one of those people who used to bear his pain in secret.  He did the same thing with his love for others.  I had mentioned in the post about the Genius of Larry Riley that “…he performed acts of greatness … with complete humility.  I never saw a look of arrogance on Larry’s face.  He never spoke down to you and he never bragged about anything.”

Though Larry did his best to conceal it, there was always a hidden sort of sadden about him.  Since he had the wisdom and knowledge well beyond his years when he was only 24 years old, I figured he must have had a rough childhood that caused him to grow up quickly.  He was humped over as if he carried a burden on his back.  I thought maybe his sadness grew out of that experience.  Of course, I was only guessing.

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him.  He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him

After I first posted the story about Larry Riley, I was told by a Power Plant Man that Larry had been forced to accept an early retirement because he had a drinking problem.  The Plant Manager was kind enough to let him retire instead of outright firing him, which would have caused him to lose his retirement benefits.

When I heard that Larry was no longer at the plant and under what circumstances he left, my heart sank.  The sadness that Larry Riley had been trying to hide all those years had finally caught up with him in a big way and his world came crashing down.

I know that I am more like an “armchair observer” in the life of Larry Riley.  There were family members and friends that I’m sure were devastated by Larry’s downfall in a lot more ways than one.  Where I sit back and idolize the Power Plant Men as heroes, others are down in the trenches coming face-to-face with whatever realities happen in their lives.

Where others may look at Larry as a failure for developing a drinking problem that brought him to his knees, True Power Plant Men know full well that Larry Riley has a noble soul.  He has always been meant for greatness.

In the post about my last day on the Labor Crew, I wrote the following about Larry, who was my foreman while I was on the Labor Crew (see the post: “Last Days as a Power Plant Labor Crew Hand“):  “…Most of all, I knew I was going to miss Larry Riley… Larry was a hero to me.  I love him dearly and if I had ever had an older brother, I would have liked someone with the character and strength of Larry Riley.  He remains in my prayers to this day.”

I know I am not the only person that remembers Larry the way I do.  When Larry died this past Wednesday, as soon as the Power Plant Men found out, several of them sent me e-mails, and reached out to me on Facebook to let me know.    I think some of them wanted me to share Larry’s greatness with the rest of the world through this post.

As I felt the outpouring of grief from the Power Plant Men, I was overwhelmed by their sorrow.  I happened to be sitting alone in a hotel room in Detroit, Michigan when I first found out.  My phone kept buzzing (as I had it on vibrate) as one-by-one Power Plant Men sent messages letting me know of Larry’s death.  I could feel the sadness hanging over my phone like a fog.

As each message buzzed my phone, my sorrow over Larry’s death grew until I had to just sit on the corner of the bed and cry.  I have never felt more sorrow over the death of a Power Plant Man than I did for Larry Riley.

As I pictured Bud Schoonover meeting up again with Richard Dale after Peter open the gate for him, I pictured Larry Riley somewhat differently.  I envisioned him walking down a dirt road by himself.

In my mind this is what I saw:

As Larry walks away from me down the road humped over with bad posture, struggling to take each step, in pain from the cancer that killed him, seemingly alone, he pauses suddenly.  From the distance in my vision, I can’t quite tell why.  He turns to one side.

Almost falling over, as he walks like an old man to the edge of the road where the ditch is overgrown with weeds, he stumbles down into the brush.  Thinking that Larry has had a mishap, I move closer.

Suddenly I see Larry re-emerge.  This time standing more upright.  Alongside Larry is another Power Plant Man.  I recognize his gait, but his back is turned so I can’t tell for sure who he is.  He is much bigger than Larry.  Larry has his arm across the man’s back holding him up as the other Power Plant Man has his arm wrapped around Larry’s neck as Larry pulls him up onto the road.

The two continue walking down the road toward the sun rising on the horizon.  The Saints Go Marching On.

This is the Larry Riley I knew.

His funeral service will be held on his 61st birthday, July 3, 2015.

I know that those who really knew Larry will take a moment of silence to remember him.  Not for the sorrow that he felt through his life as I originally felt when I heard of his death, but take a moment of silence to remember a great man.  One who secretly inspired others toward goodness.  A man who went out of his way to lift up someone who had fallen along the side of the road.  My personal hero:  Larry Wayne Riley.

A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality

Originally posted June 21, 2014.  I updated dates and added some new things.

I don’t know if anyone of us knew what to expect  Wednesday morning January 13 , 1993 when we were told to go to a meeting in the break room that was going to take all 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 just started work that day.  We became 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”, Rick Olson from Utah (when I originally posted this last year, I couldn’t remember his name.  Then I found my Quality book and it had Rick’s name in it).  I had looked Rick Olson up to see if he was a member of CompuServe and there was Rick Olson from Ogden, Utah.  When I asked him if he was from Ogden, he told me he was from Provo, Utah.

One of the first things Rick 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 recently found a list of the Quality teams that were formed at our plant.  Here is a list of the more interesting names and which team it was:  Barrier Reliefs (that was our team — Andy Tubbs team).  Rolaids (Ted Holdges team).  Elmore and the Problem Solvers (Stanley Elmore’s team… of course).  Spit and Whittle (Gerald Ferguson’s Team).  Foster’s Mission (Charles Foster’s team).  Sooner Elite (Engineer’s team).  Boiler Pukes (Cleve’s Smith’s Welding crew I believe).  Quality Trek (Alan Kramer’s Team).  Designing Women (Linda Dallas’s Team).  There were many more.

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.

Later they gave us a the main Quality binder that we used for our team meetings:

Our Quality Manual

Our Quality Manual

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 was about to graduate from Loyola University in New Orleans in a couple of months 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.  Rick 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 other Action team members in the beginning were:  Richard Allen, John Brien, Jim Cave, Robert Grover, Phil Harden, Alan Hetherington, Louise Kalicki, Bruce Klein, Johnnie Keys, Kerry Lewallen, Ron Luckey and George Pepple.

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 Rick 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 Rick 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

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.

Belt Buckle Mania And Turkeys During Power Plant Man Downtime

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.

What Does it Take to Motivate a Power Plant Man?

My friends will tell you that I tend to not take things too seriously.  It seems that the more serious the situation, the more I joke around about it.  I know that this drives some people up the wall sometimes.  Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, used to call me “rascal” and maybe that was because I was one.  That was the way life seemed to be for the majority of the people at the Power Plant.  One of the funniest days in my life happened when Corporate Headquarters learned a thing or two about not taking things too seriously.

Eight Power Plant Men had been assigned to work in Corporate Headquarters for a ten week period.  I wrote about the reason for this in the post: “Do Power Plant Men and Corporate Headquarters Mix?”  I also wrote a post about how the Power Plant Men played one joke after the other on Kent Norris the entire time.  See the post:  “Corporate Executive Kent Norris Meets Power Plant Men“.  We know that the entire floor of corporate headquarters was kept in a slightly disturbed state as they were constantly hearing the “hee-hawing” coming from our over-sized cube where they had put us in a corner of the building hoping to isolate the ruckus we were making constantly.

We didn’t make enemies of our victi… uh.. I mean “our friends” when we played jokes.  We tried to do them in such a way that they would appreciate the thought and ingenuity that went into each joke we played on them.  On the other hand, passerby’s and those that worked within earshot had to endure the constant uproar of laughter.  They were missing out on all the fun, and we were just being a bother.

I think that’s why we received the initial reaction we did when we arrived at an SAP banquet during the last week we were going to be at Corporate Headquarters.  The banquet was being held in a banquet room in a hotel on the west side of Oklahoma City.  We had all carpooled in a couple of cars and arrived at the same time.

When we walked into the banquet room, we could see right away that we didn’t fit in.  No one had told us that we were supposed to wear a suit…. well, it wouldn’t have mattered if they had, we still would have arrived in our blue jeans and tee shirts.  At least our clothes were clean.  I didn’t have one coal dust stain on my entire shirt.

Yeah.  Just like this

Yeah. Just like this

We were told where we were supposed to sit.  The Power Plant Men were directed to a large circular table in the back middle of the room.  We figured they didn’t want us close to podium in case someone was going to be taking pictures of the speakers.  This was an appreciation lunch for the SAP project teams.  We were only a small group compared to the rest of the room.

During the lunch, recognition was given to the different SAP teams.  We were mentioned for having completed our tasks two weeks early and had been given additional work and had completed that as well.  All together, we had rewritten over 140,000 warehouse part descriptions so they would fit in SAP and would be easily “searchable”.  We stood up and bowed and everyone applauded.

SAP Logo

SAP Logo

I think up to that point, the rest of the room had thought that the people sitting at our table was going to be providing the entertainment and that we were all “in costume”.  Once they realized that we were Power Plant Men, their gaze turned from “anticipation” to “curiosity”.  When a bunch of Power Plant Men are all sitting at one table and there is food involved, we can become quite a spectacle.

After the lunch was over and recognition and awards were given, an interesting man stood up and started to speak.  He seemed like a rather goofy person and while he spoke he kept playing with a paper cup.  Popping it up in the air and catching it… or accidentally not catching it and having to go pick it up.  I thought he was becoming rather annoying as he kept distracting us from his boring words of wisdom because he kept playing with this stupid paper cup.

After a minute, he mentioned that there are lots of things you can do with a paper cup to entertain yourself.  You can pop it up in the air and try to catch it.  You can turn it over on a desk and beat it like a drum.  You can put in over your mouth and suck in to create a suction and walk around with the cup stuck to your face in order to impress your coworkers.  You can talk into it and sound like Darth Vader.  You can tie a string between two paper cups to make a telephone.

Ok.  That was a little more interesting than the speech he had been making.  I began formulating in my mind how I might play a trick on Gene Day using a paper cup telephone when I returned back at the plant.

Phone made from paper cups

Phone made from paper cups

I borrowed this picture from a fellow WordPress blogger:  “The B.S. Report

This person’s name turned out to be Stephen Kissell and he is a “motivational speaker”.  I had heard about Motivational Speakers by watching Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live as the Motivator who lived in a van down by the river.  See the following short YouTube video for my conception of a Motivational Speaker:

for those who can’t view the video from the video above can click here:  “Matt Foley Down by the River

Anyway, Steve Kissell was dressed about the same way as Chris Farley in that skit.  It was definitely mismatched clothing.  I wondered if he lived in a van down by the river as well.

Then Stephen said that he needed some people from the audience to come up and help him with something.  He had the names of some people he would like to help him.  Obviously, someone had given these names to him in order to make the next “skit” he was going to perform turn out best.  He called up three people, a couple of well dressed and prim and proper ladies and a man.  They looked like they were the upper class stuck up types which, as it turned out was essential for this to play out properly.

Then Steve explained that in projects, in order to complete large task, you just have each person do smaller tasks, and when you put them all together, you can actually perform something great.  So he asked each one to do one little task when he tapped on his paper cup.

I don’t remember the exact tasks, but they were simple like shrug your left shoulder, and then your right, or squat down and then stand back up.  Little things like that.

Then after he had instructed each person what they should do, he tapped out a tune on the paper cup and they each performed their simple tasks over and over until he stopped.

After trying that a few times, he added other little tasks to each person one at a time.  The result was that after a while he had each of them performing a real goofy dance that made them all look silly dressed up in their finest clothes dancing around like kids.

There was something so funny about the way Stephen Kissell had set this up that everyone was laughing their hearts out.  The laughter was so thunderous that it sounded like one loud roar.  I thought I was going to lose my lunch.   I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe.

This guy who had stood up and begun by annoying his audience (which was my philosophy as well… See the post:  “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“) had turned them into driveling piles of laughter after 10 minutes.  Up to that point, I hadn’t laughed that hard since I had seen the movie “Gus” when I was a boy.

The movie Gus

The movie Gus

Ok.  Here is a side story about the movie “Gus”.

In 1976, when I was 15 years old, my brother (who was 11) and I went to the movies to see a Disney movie called “Gus” about a donkey who can kick a football through the goal post and ends up on a football team.  It starred Don Knotts and Tim Conway, two comedians who were masters of slap stick comedy.  This was still back when the movie theaters were large and there was only one theater in the building.  — Yeah.  They would only show one movie at a time.  Amazing.  Huh?

Anyway, there is a scene in a grocery store where they are chasing the donkey down the aisles trying to catch him.  The comedy had built up so much that by that point the entire audience of children were laughing so hard that the sound was deafening.  You literally could not hear anything but a loud constant roar.  I remember that I could hardly breathe I was laughing so hard.

I suppose it is a little like the Kennedy/Nixon debate…  When you heard it on the radio, Nixon won the debate, but when you saw it on Television, Kennedy won the debate…  I say that because fast forwarding 10 years, in 1986, I had the opportunity to watch Gus on TV.  I couldn’t wait to relive the hilarious moment in the Grocery store.

When the moment finally arrived, it came and went and I didn’t really see much humor in it at all.  It was just Don Knotts and Tim Conway fumbling around acting goofy.  I couldn’t understand what had been so funny in the movie theater when the entire theater had erupted with such intense laughter.  I guess you just had to be there in the movie theater at the time.  Whatever it was didn’t translate to the TV.

I talked to my brother about it a few years later when he brought up the same topic.  He said he had rented the movie Gus and had insisted that his four children sit and watch it all together as they ate popcorn.  They all sat around and watched the movie and my brother Greg said, “it wasn’t funny at all.”  He couldn’t figure it out.

End of Side Story

I heard that same statement a few years later when I had said something at Dell and my manger thought it was so funny that she went and repeated it to our director.  When she did, she said it didn’t sound funny at all when she said it.  The truth is, it’s not always what you are saying… it’s how you say it.  The inflection in your voice and the expression on your face.  Pausing at just the right time.

When we had all been sufficiently slain in the spirit of Stephen’s humor, and the banquet was over, we were all given a copy of Stephen’s book “Surviving Life With Laughter”.

Surviving Life With Laughter by Steve Kissell

Surviving Life With Laughter by Steve Kissell

We were also given a copy of a second Steve Kissell book:

Never Take Comedy From a Stranger

Never Take Comedy From a Stranger

In Steve Kissell’s books, he tells stories and jokes that you can use or modify to fit the type of job you may be in at the moment.  This was something that Power Plant Men already knew how to do well, but always appreciated a good joke.

I found that Stephen Kissell is still out there 19 years spreading good humor to the corporate world and the rest of humanity.  If you’re in the need of a motivational speaker.  You may consider looking up Stephen.  Or…. you may find him living in a van down by the river!

Stephen Kissell -- Learn more about him at http://kisselltalks.com

Stephen Kissell — Learn more about him at http://kisselltalks.com

As my readers know, I have written a number of posts about Power Plant Humor, See the post:  “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“.  Humor is the best motivator I have found to keep people on track and not get too carried away with details.  I have learned this by working with the Power Plant Men over the years.

The most solid advise I remember from the “Pre-Cana” sessions (a program you have to go through in order to be married in the Catholic Church) we had with the priest when my wife and I were preparing to be married was “Always keep your sense of humor”.  So, when the situation looks hopeless, and there doesn’t appear to be a viable solution available, that is the time to take a step back in your mind and look for the humor in the situation.

It has always been important that true Power Plant Men not play jokes on another person in a way that would end up hurting them.  Whenever that would inadvertently happen, then a sincere apology would definitely have to follow and some sort of retribution.  Usually, sharing your Squirrel Stew with them during lunch was an appropriate form of retribution for any joke gone awry.

Even though we played one joke after the other on Kent Norris, after 12 weeks of torment, he still remained friends with the Power Plant Men.  I heard from him a week after we left when Kent sent a letter to me through intra-company mail.  He returned my name tag to me….  I have kept this letter with the name tag since that day in 1996 as a reminder of the days we spent torturing Kent with humor:

Note I received from Kent after I returned home to our power plant

Note I received from Kent after I returned home to our power plant

 

 

Turning the Tables on a Power Plant Telephone Interloper

Originally posted June 13, 2014:

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.

Comments from the original post:

    1. Dave Tarver June 14, 2014

      I still stand in awe at all the talent we had at the plant- never has one place had so many guys of remarkable skill and overall just good people and kind hearted.

        1. Plant Electrician June 14, 2014

          I can’t agree with you more! We had the cream of the crop for sure.

  1. Ron Kilman June 14, 2014

    Your memory still amazes me. I don’t remember that at all.
    I’ll bet most young people today don’t know why we say to “dial” a phone number!

    1. Plant Electrician June 14, 2014

      It was just a moment in your busy day. It was the highlight of my week.

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

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.

Power Plant Invocations and Imitations of Sonny Karcher

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.

Sonny Karcher

Sonny Karcher

Soon after I had arrived at the plant one day, after coming back from the coal yard, 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.

Like this only Yellow

Like this only Yellow

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 when 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 our 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 the other 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.

Ray Eberle

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!