Monthly Archives: August, 2015

Power Plant Adventures with Jim Heflin

Originally posted August 31, 2012:

I have often mentioned Jim Heflin in many of my posts. One might think from the attitude that Jim had toward me in a few of those posts that we didn’t get along. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jim and I were best of friends during the time that we worked together and when we carpooled together back and forth from Ponca City to the Power Plant Kingdom in the midst of North Central Oklahoma.

I have mentioned before that Jim gave me the impression of a friendly hound that was happy to see you.

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

That’s him all right, except he had a happier expression. I also mentioned that the first time I talked to his wife Brenda on the phone I made the mistake of calling her “Brenda Bulldog” because of a character that my wife and I used as a point of contention between us. As I mentioned before, I should have chosen something more becoming since there was a slight resemblance of Brenda Sue and a Bulldog….

Brenda had red hair and this expression

Besides that Faux Pas, Jim and I remained friends.

Jim was fun to be around because you could joke around with him, and you could tell that he was happy to be there. You could also tell that Jim was a very kind person. He didn’t like to see animals hurt, and felt bad when he knew he had accidentally mowed over even a field mouse with the Brush Hog. He was the kind of person you could put in a carnival in a tent and have people pay 50 cents to go see a happy lovable person, and people would come out feeling like they received their money’s worth.

Unlike most posts where I start out talking about a person, I usually end up telling you that they have died.  Jim is still alive and well. Jim Heflin is living in Moore, Oklahoma with Brenda to this day. I was just remembering all the fun times that I had with Jim and thought I would share some with you to give you a flavor of the man.

So, here is a moment that I often think about when I think about Jim. He was driving to work one morning and I was in the front seat next to him. He kept looking at his side window and lifting up his nose at the window like he was sniffing it. It reminded me of a hound dog in a car that was trying to tell you that they wanted the window rolled down so they could stick their head out. He would do that for a few seconds, then he would look back at the road and pay attention to his driving. A little while later he would be back to sniffing the window with his nose pointing up to the top of the window.

Finally I couldn’t take it anymore, so I asked him, “Jim… what’s up? Why do you keep sniffing at that window?” He looked at me like he had forgotten I was in the car and just realized that I had been watching him. “Oh!” he said, “I’m trying to sneeze.” Thoughts flashed through my mind like, “Maybe he’s allergic to windows…” or “I hope that Jim hasn’t lost his mind, or I’m going to have to find another ride back to town in the evening…” or “Yeah, that’s right. Why didn’t I think of that?” Finally the thought came to my mind to ask him how that was going to help him sneeze, so I said, “Huh?”

That was when I learned something that I suppose I should have known by then, but no one ever told me… Jim was pointing his face at the rising sun, and the sunlight was helping him sneeze. That’s right. Some people have this uncanny “allergy” or “gift” or “talent” that causes them to sneeze when they look up at the sun. Especially, I figured, if they sniff a lot like a dog sniffing a window. I do remember that Jim gave it up, and we made it to the plant without a single sneeze.

Now unfortunately, whenever I hear a sneeze, I look around to see if the sun is shining on their face, just so that I can catch someone having a “Sun Sneeze”. Years later, my wife confirmed that, yes, some people sneeze when looking at the sun. I may have even been doing that before and didn’t realize it.

I have even become some what of a pseudo expert on the subject and can now tell you that since my son sneezes as he steps out into the sunlight that, “Yes… It is a known fact that some people sneeze because of the sunlight shining on their face.” You just don’t know when moments of life-changing education is going to come along and raise your IQ. Like that morning riding alongside Jim Heflin on the way to work that morning.

Another time I often think about when thinking about Jim Heflin was in 1982 when we were dropped off below the dam when the floodgates had been open so the lake level could be lowered in order for EPA, or whatever department could inspect our dam and dikes. Evidently, after the lake had been full for 3 years, it had to be inspected, and repaired where it was deemed necessary. Because a large amount of water was being released, the Electric Company wanted to make sure that we weren’t accidentally flooding anyone’s land beyond the foot of the dam down to the Arkansas River. So Jim Heflin and I were commissioned for that job.

We were dropped off at the foot of the dam and we were to follow the creek as it wound through the countryside down to the river. Instead of the creek just heading straight toward the river, it ended up turning south for a while, and winding back and forth a bit, and what would have been about 1/2 mile to the river seemed like more than 2 or 3 miles. Anyway, we didn’t find the creek running over it’s banks, and everything was fine. We didn’t have any great adventures where we were chased by wild animals, or we saw Bambi or anything like that. We just spent a couple of hours walking through fields and trees and brush, and we talked. We had a great time talking about nothing in particular.

I’m afraid that this was shortly after I had learned how to ramble from Ramblin’ Ann, so I was doing most of the talking (You can read more about that in the post about Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann). But anyway, I had a great time with Jim just walking out in the woods talking about whatever came up.

I have found that there are times in life where I am sharing an experience with someone when I realize all of the sudden that I truly care for this person and I would do anything to help them if they needed it. I tend to imagine all sorts of scenarios when I’m in a situation and I remember that I was thinking about what I would do if a wild animal were to come charging through the woods toward us, and my main concern was how I could protect Jim. Jim was the kind of guy that looked like he needed protecting. I even looked around and found a good sized walking stick just in case the need should arise.

When we returned to the road where we had been dropped off, we still had about 1/2 hour before anyone was going to come pick us up and it started to rain really hard. At that spot there was a little hut that I would call a “monitoring hut”. It was the same kind of hut that was at the River Pump station that had the temperature recorder that was used to monitor the temperature of the Arkansas river (see the post, Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River). So, we stood in the little hut until the rain stopped.

You may remember that it was Jim Heflin that had driven the Backhoe through a muddy patch and became stuck in the mud down at the park when Larry Riley came and showed us his magic. Also, it was Jim Heflin that informed me that David Hankins had died a few months before, while I was away at school. I spent days chopping weeds along roadways while Jim Heflin was mowing the fields all around me. It was Jim Heflin that first flushed out the Bobcat at the Otoe-Missouria Indian Reservation as I was watching from the back of the truck.

If I were to sum up the three summers as a summer help working in the Garage, I would call them my “Adventures with Jim Heflin”. It was Jim that I worked with most of the time. We cleaned the park twice each week. Mowed grass. changed oil in the trucks. Washed trucks in the special truck washing bay behind the garage. Picked up rocks from the fields so the mowers could mow without tearing up the equipment. Changed and repaired flat tires.

Throughout all of this I was keenly aware that as nice a guy that Jim was, he wasn’t a True Power Plant Man. Like Sonny Karcher, he longed for a more simple life. Power Plant Men rarely have a simple life. It is filled with one crazy adventure after the other. When you drive through the gate, you have no idea what you might be doing that day. Like Sonny, Jim would have loved to have mowed grass clear across the country until the day he died.

So, I wasn’t too surprised when Jim and I were driving home one evening and Jim told me that he was going to leave the plant. He tried to explain it to me by coming up with various reasons why he was unhappy with his job; which was no longer in the garage. He didn’t really have to convince me. I knew. The Power Plant Life was not for Jim. He was sad about it, but at the same time I could tell he had already made up his mind.

After Jim left, I never saw him again. I never ran into him in town or heard from him. I had heard that he had moved to Oklahoma City, and I believe now that he lives in Moore, Oklahoma as I mentioned before. I have another friend from my childhood that lives in Moore, Oklahoma that may have an occasion to read this blog. His name is Dr. Bryan Treacy.

So, I would just like to say to Bryan, that if you are walking down the street in Moore someday and you see a couple coming out of a Sirloin Stockade, or Wendy’s and one of them looks like a bloodhound and the other sort of like a bulldog, just walk up to them and tell them that Kevin Breazile says Hello. And then just before you go, say, “Oh, and Otto says that Brenda bulldog sure has a cute wiggle.” — Now I’m really going to get it… and not from Brenda….

Here is a picture of Jim Heflin today, 33 years after our adventures in the forest:

Jim Heflin

Jim Heflin

Power Plant Men Learned Themselves Proper English

The electricians on our crew must have heard Gary Wehunt say the phrase “…of a morning” a dozen times before someone brought it to his attention.  I think it was Andy Tubbs while we were sitting in our Monday Morning Safety Meeting.  He said, “What did you just say?”  Gary repeated himself,  “I do ‘such and such’ of a morning.”  “Of a morning?  What does that mean?”  Gary asked, “What?  Of a Morning.  Isn’t that right?”

It’s true that there is a certain “Power Plant Speak” that seems unique to people that work in factories, power plants, line crews and other such situations.  I can speak only for the power plants where I worked.  I would describe the type of speech as “colorful”.  Not in a vulgar sort of way, but in a flowery way.

Power Plant Men in general didn’t curse as you may see them depicted in movies.  The majority of Power Plant Men I worked with had too much respect for each other to use foul language, and those that did usually apologized when something slipped out.  Saying things like, “Sorry Kev, you had to hear that.”

I was watching a show the other day on TV with my wife and it showed a group of men using vulgar language while talking about women.  I told my wife, I have worked around men in a number of Power Plants and I have never heard someone talk disrespectfully about women like that in the workplace.  For the most part, the men and women at a Power Plant are the cream of the crop when it comes to decency.

The people who had a tendency to use foul language were the “old-timers”.  Especially if they were an old-timer supervisor.  It seems that the culture before the 80’s was that using foul language was a normal way of communicating.  Even upper level supervisors would yell at people using curse words that today would seem very inappropriate.  I just caught the tail end of that, and it seemed to come mainly from the construction hands that were building the plant.  See the post:  “A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“.

When I say that Power Plant Speak is colorful, I mean that the words they use are… unique.

Sometimes Power Plant Men used inappropriate words without knowing what they meant.  When something isn’t working properly, a Power Plant Man may say that it is “Gilflirted”.  This was a common word used by Power Plant Men, but few of them actually knew the exact meaning.  When Martin Prigmore told Diana Brien and I what it really  meant one day, I didn’t believe him.

He said his grandfather had told him what it meant in relation to a horse.  According to the Urban Dictionary, it is exactly what Martin said.  To us, Gilflirted just meant, “It’s fouled up.”  Almost no one knew the wiser. (Before you go looking for the exact meaning, let me just say that it is a disgusting word.  You should probably pass this one up.  I wish I didn’t know).  I remember my mom telling my sister when we were young not to use words and phrases when she didn’t understand the meaning.  Now I know why.

I used to keep a dictionary of words that Charles Foster, my first electric foreman and my foremost friend used that were “variations” of words that he meant to say.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

Charles knew that he didn’t say some words correctly, and he especially didn’t write them well.  He had dyslexia so he was never a good speller.  I would check his spelling before he would send an important memo to someone.  Here is a post about when we figured out that Charles was Dyslexic:  “Personal Power Plant Hero – Charles Foster“.

Here are some of the words Charles would use:  Sipherned:  This meant to Siphon something.  Dasunul:  This meant Decimal.  Telepoly (prounounced similar to Monopoly):  This meant Telepathy (this was my favorite).  When we would both be thinking the same thing at the same time, Charles would say, “We’ve got that Telepoly going on here.”

Here are some more words….  Litatur:  Literature.  Tindency:  Tendency.  Stratety:  Strategy. etc…I think you get the point.

So, when the company offered a course called:  Practical English and the Command of Words… We jumped on it.  Maybe this way we could learn us some good English!

The Practical English and the Command of Words Course

The Practical English and the Command of Words Course

This is probably the best English course I ever had…. um… I mean “took”.  Geez.  You can see, I learned a lot….  I still have a tough time when it comes to writing run-on sentences.  This course has 48 lessons each of which would make a great Monday Morning Safety Meeting Topic… only it doesn’t deal with Safety, unless… you could argue… It is a safer workplace when people can communicate better….. okay.  Yeah.  I know.  That’s stretching it.  But it would be fun.  It was created by the “English Language Institute of America, Inc.”

Each topic in this course had an interesting title, like “Negatives from Positives”.  Or “Dangerous Resemblances”… Sounds like a murder mystery.  How about “Perplexing Plurals”?  “Fragrance, Odor or Aroma?”  — Yeah.  The title of an English class.

I had a couple of takeaways from this course that I still remind myself today.  The first one is to not end a sentence with a preposition.  Because a Preposition implies that something is supposed to follow….  I remember I used to bug my foreman Alan Kramer when he would end sentence with “….at”, which seemed to be the most common preposition ending word at the plant.  “Where’re you at?”  I used to repeat the word “At” whenever Alan would finish a sentence with “At”.  I know I was driving him up the wall.  The second one was “….to”.  Like “Where’re you going to?”

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

In order to get around ending a sentence with the word “At”, I remember the foremen trying to change the sentence like this…. “Where’re you at… Kevin?”  That’s great!  The sentence no longer ended with a preposition, but it still wasn’t “King’s English” was it?  <smile>

The easy solution to this is to stop the contraction “Where’re you” and spread it out to make “Where are you?”  No need for the “At”.  The contraction is what confuses the sentence.  You can say “Where are you going?” instead of “Where’re you going to?”  Just don’t contract “where’re” and drop the preposition.

Okay.  Another lesson about prepositions is that if you can’t just drop it, then you are probably using the wrong words and you need to reword the entire sentence…  Take this sentence… “Who do you work for?”  You wouldn’t just say, “Who do you work?”  That’ doesn’t sound right… “Work” is not the right word.  What you are really asking is, “Where are you employed?”  — oh… sorry for the lesson….  English class is dismissed… by the way… in all my years in school, I never made an A in English.  The best grade I had was a B+.

The second “takeaway” from this course was to never use the word “Get” or “Got” or one of their other words like “getting” or”gotten”, etc.  There is always a better word.  “Get” could mean too many different things.  “I’ve got it.”  What does that mean?  I figured it out?  I found it?  I retrieved it?  or even… “Enough already!”  How about “I have it”.  there’s a contraction again “I’ve” that has caused a person to throw in an extra word.

Whenever you want to use the word “Get” stop and ask yourself, what do I really want to say.  there is always a better word.  It is annoying because script writers for television shows should learn this lesson.  Every day (almost), I hear someone on TV say, “I’ve got to have it!” (instead of “I need it”) or some such thing.  Once you start listening for it, you hear it everywhere.  Oh.  Sorry… I did say… English Class dismissed… didn’t I?

I’m not sure how many Power Plant Men took the English course, but when it was over, once while walking through the Welding Shop at the beginning of break time I heard out of the corner of my ear, one welder asking the other….  “Tea?”  My first thought was “Geez!  They really took this “English” stuff seriously… until I heard the follow-up question…. “Sweet or UnSweet?”

There was another course that I think every person at the plant had to take.  It was called  “The Path To Dialogue”.  Well, this says “The Path Of Dialogue”, but it seemed like we always called it the “Path To Dialogue”, which seems more like going down a path, I suppose.

The Patch to Dialogue Course

The Patch to Dialogue Course

The course talked about each section of that diagram on the first page.  Let me blow up the diagram for you… (No!  Not like that!).

This shows ways to kill dialogue and way to improve it

This shows ways to kill dialogue and way to improve it

Down at the bottom, you can see the different ways that people use to try to kill the conversation.  Recognize any of these?  One side is withdrawing and the other side is, “Meet me out behind the barn (or in the elevator, as the case may be).”  The course started with the bottom of the pyramid and worked upward.

The course actually taught the student how to ask questions in a way that promoted a dialogue instead of working to crush it. This is a very useful course that was given to us by the Praxis Institute in 1995.  Everyone took it, but not everyone bought into the idea.

Just as during the Confined Space training, a few people who were in upper management (like Jim Arnold for instance) didn’t think things like this applied to them.  “A ‘Path To Dialogue’ is fine and dandy for the peons that work for me, but all I need to do is tell you what to do and the discussion is over.”  The rest of us learned some very valuable lessons from this course.  Oh.  Just as a reminder… Here is Jim Arnold in all of his glory:

Jim Arnold in all of his awesomeness

Jim Arnold in all of his awesomeness

Years later, what I learned in this course comes in handy in my job today.  I run into a lot of things like “Monologuing” and “Hiding”.  The worst one is “Politicking”.  I still have to check myself to make sure I’m not doing the same thing.

I have always thought that the True Power Plant Men were made from “The Right Stuff”.  Taking these courses didn’t make them better people.  They were great men and women all along.  These courses just helped them express themselves better so that other people could understand what great people worked at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

The thought of educating skilled labor to be better speakers and to give them the tools to communicate better with each other may slip the minds of plant managers around the globe.  I think that when a company steps up to the plate and shows that educating their own employees is an important part of their culture it tells the workers that they are respected.

The Electric Company always had a pro-education policy.  They would pay for your school as long as it had something to do with working for an Electric Company.  I had taken advantage of this benefit many times.  I took a lot of Vo-tech courses since we had a nice Vo-tech school just down the road from my house.

Around the year 1995, this policy became even more generous.  They said that they would pay 100% of the tuition and fees for employees attending an accredited school, and they would even pay 75% of the books required for the courses.  They even broadened the types of degrees you could take to almost anything.

Living in a college town, I found this to be a very enticing proposition.  I didn’t act on it right away.  I suppose I was waiting for a certain catalyst to kick me out the door.

The catalyst came one day during the spring of 1997 when my wife Kelly, who was working on a Masters for Healthcare Administration at Oklahoma State University, came home one night from class and said,  “Kevin.  We had a speaker in class today who owns a software company here in Stillwater.  He described the type of employee he wants to hire, and he described you perfectly.  You need to go back to school and get a degree in Computer Science!  What do you think?”

I had to think about this….  Going back to college, while working is a difficult task.  I did that before when I obtained my Masters in Religious Education from Loyola a few years earlier.  That took three years.  I always loved programming computers, only I had considered it more of a hobby than a job.  This would require a full four years of school if it was even possible, since I would have to work it around my job.  All of these questions went through my mind…

I thought and thought.  Then I thought about it some more…. Then…. 5 seconds after Kelly had asked me what I thought…. I had made up my mind…. “Okay.  I’ll do it.”  I’ll tell you more about that experience in some other posts.

When I finally was enrolled, it turned out that since I had already taken English back when I was earning my degree in Psychology in 1982, I didn’t have to take it again!  That was good… I was ready this time though.  I had taken the “Power Plant King’s English!”  It entitled me to continue working at the “Power Plant Palace” just up the road north of town.

The OSHA Man Cometh

I suppose when you are a Plant Manager, the last person you want to see at your Power Plant doorstep is the OSHA Man!  That’s exactly what happened on Thursday, March 10, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  He was not paying a social call.  He was there to conduct an investigation.  One in which I was heavily involved.

In my post from last week, “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting” I described a near death accident where a contract worker was engulfed in fly ash in a precipitator hopper.  The accident was all over the 5 o’clock news in Oklahoma City.  The press was there when the Life Flight helicopter arrived at the hospital where they interviewed the flight crew.  The OSHA office in the Federal building a few blocks from the Electric Company’s Corporate Headquarters had quickly assigned someone to the case.  Armed with all the authority he needed, he began a full investigation of the accident.

The day before Gerald Young, (the OSHA Man) arrived, I had done some investigation myself into the accident.  I was trying to figure out exactly what had happened.  Why had someone who thought that he had emptied out a hopper so much so that he climbed inside, had suddenly become instantly engulfed in ash?  Where did this large volume of ash come from, and why did it decide to suddenly break loose and fill the hopper at the particular moment when James Vickers had decided to climb into the hopper?

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

Our Precipitator was longer than this one, but you can see the hoppers on the bottom

Larry Kuennan, the lead engineer had asked me to show him the hopper from the inside of the Precipitator, so he could have an idea of what took place.  I told him he needed to put on a fly ash suit and a full face respirator in order to go into the precipitator.  After we were all suited up, I took him on a tour of the inside.  A sight few people have had the chance to experience.  I could write an entire post just about the experience…. Oh…. maybe I already have.  See “Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me or Larry, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

The hopper we needed to investigate was not at the edge, so, we had to squeeze our way around a few beams in order to see the hopper where the accident took place.  When we arrived, I explained that when I had first inspected the precipitator, I had found that the ash had piled up five foot above the bottom of the plates because the feeder wasn’t feeding properly.  So, I had figured that when they were vacuuming out the hopper, the ash that was lodged between the plates (that were 9 inches apart) must have still been there when James climbed into the hopper.  Something had caused the ash to give way all at once.

Larry and I climbed down between the hoppers where we could see the bottle racks underneath the plates.  The bottles are 30 pound anchors in the shape of the old style milk bottles.  They are used to keep the tension on the wires, which are the electrodes that are normally charged with up to 45,000 volts of electricity when the precipitator is online.

When we sat down to look at the four bottle racks, I noticed right away that one row of bottles was about a foot and a half lower than the rest of the bottle racks.  This didn’t make sense to me at first.  I couldn’t think of anyway that 176 wires and bottles would be lower than the rest of the wires in the hopper.  It was a paradox that took a while to soak in.

When we left, Larry Kuennen made a statement I will never forget.  He said, “Until now, I thought that Plant Electricians did nothing but twist wires together.  I never thought they worked on things like this.”  I replied, “We work on anything that has a wire connected to it.  That includes almost everything in the plant.”  He replied, “Well, I have a new appreciation for Plant Electricians.”

It wasn’t until I returned to the electric shop and heard Scott Hubbard’s recount of the accident (again).  Scott and his crew was working on the roof of the precipitator when the accident happened.  He said that when the accident happened he heard a loud bang.  Sort of like an explosion.  I told him what I had found inside the precipitator.   This could only mean one thing….  An electric insulator on the roof of the precipitator that held up the wires on that bottle rack had broken.  When that happened, it fell the foot and half causing all the ash that had been lodged between the plates to be jolted loose, engulfing James Vickers who had just climbed in the hopper below.

After lunch, Scott went up on the roof and opened the portal on the tension house that housed the insulator that held up that row of wires.  Sure enough. The three foot by 3 inch diameter ceramic insulator had broken.  Something that had never happened at the plant up to that point.   A tremendous load must have been put on this insulator, or it must have been defective in order to just break.  These insulators are designed to hold up to 10,000 pounds of weight.  the weight of the bottles and wires altogether weighed about 6,000 pounds.  This meant that about 4,000 pounds of ash was pressing down from the ash above in order for it to just pull apart.

An insulator like this only 3 foot long

An electric insulator like this only 3 foot long

There was only one person that the OSHA man Jerry wanted to speak to when he arrived at the plant (other than to arrange things).  That was me.  I was the acting foreman in charge of the operations in, on and below the precipitator when the accident happened.  I was also just a regular hourly employee, not so “beholden” to the company that I would participate in any kind of “cover-up”.

The first thing OSHA Jerry wanted to see was the inside of the precipitator.  So, I procured a respirator for him, and we climbed up to the landing where one enters the precipitator through side doors.  The first thing he did when he arrived at the door was take out a measuring tape to measure the height of the door.

I hadn’t thought about it until that moment, but a new set of OSHA regulations had  a new set of Confined Space regulations 1910.146 that dealt specifically with confined spaces.  It had gone into effect on April 15, 1993.  Here we were almost a year later.  I had always treated the precipitator as a  confined space, so I had always checked the air quality before I entered it.

So, I asked OSHA Jerry why he measured the size of the door.  He said, he was checking if the entrance was “restricted” or “limited”.  This was the requirement of a Confined space as stated in OSHA regulation 1910.146.  I asked him how small does an entrance have to be to be restricted?  He said, “Well.  That’s not clearly defined.  We could enter the precipitator by bending over and stepping in.

That was the first time I thought that maybe the precipitator itself may not really fit into the strict definition of a confined space.  The hoppers do for sure, but does the precipitator?  Hmm….  I wondered…. I still do come to think of it.  The hoppers were definitely confined spaces by definition… “any space with converging walls, such as a hopper…..”

Oh.  I forgot to describe OSHA Jerry.  He reminded me a little of the guy a sidekick in Cheers named Paul Willson:

Paul Willson in Cheers

Paul Willson in Cheers

Actually, he looked so much like him that I thought of him right away.

When we were done inspecting the precipitator, we returned to the front office where we went to Tom Gibson’s (our Electric Supervisor) office.  He closed the door and locked it.  And he began to interview me by explaining that anything that was said in this room would be held in confidence.  He explained that I could speak freely and that the Electric Company could do nothing to me for telling him the truth.

I thought… Ok…. um….  I have always been known for speaking my mind, so he wasn’t going to hear anything that I would personally tell the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman to his face.  Just ask Ron.  I’m sure he would agree that I was pretty open about anything that popped into my mind.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman – Who wouldn’t want to be honest to a nice guy like this?

He asked me if I had been trained how in the OSHA Confined Space regulations.  I responded by saying that we had a class in it one day where we went over our new confined space requirements.  That consisted of reading the company policy.  I knew that I needed to have a hole watch, and I needed to check the air before I went into a confined space.

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

We checked to make sure there was 20.9% oxygen, that there was less than 10 parts per million Carbon Monoxide, less than 5 parts per million H2S (Hydrogen Sulfide) and that there was less than 5% explosive vapors.  OSHA Jack wrote everything down.

Actually, while I was talking, Jerry asked me to pause often because he was writing everything I said word-for-word on a yellow notepad what I was saying.

While we were talking, I asked him a few questions also.  I asked Jack how he decided to work for OSHA.  Where he had come from (Kansas.  Wichita, I think).  How long he had been working for OSHA.  Did he enjoy his job…..  At times, I could get him to digress and tell me a story about his life.

As we continued with our interview over this grave accident that almost resulted in the loss of someone’s life, I was busy making a new friend.  By the time he had asked me everything he needed to know, I knew all about how he had grown up in Kansas, and how he had gone from job-to-job until he had ended up in front of me… interviewing me.

When we had finished the interview, he explained to me that this was an official document that contained all the answers to the questions he had asked me.  He said that this would be private and that the Electric Company would not be able to ever see what I said unless I wanted them to see it.  I asked him if I could show it to them.  He said he would give me a copy of it, and I could do whatever I wanted with it.  He asked me to sign it.  I did.

Page 1 of the statement I signed

Page 1 of the statement I signed

I took Jerry to the copy machine in the front office where he made copies for me.  When he handed them to me, I shook his hand.  I told him I enjoyed talking to him.  I also told him that I wished him well.  I showed him to the elevator, and he left the plant.  I made a copy of the papers that I had signed and went directly to the plant manager Ron Kilman’s office and gave him a copy of the document I had signed.

Ron asked me how it went.  I told him that it went fine.  Here is everything we talked about.  I had nothing to hide.  It did amaze me that OSHA Jack thought I might want to “spill the beans” about something as if we were treated like peons where the King had total rule. — I guess he didn’t know that Eldon Waugh had retired in 1987.

From there, I went to Bill Bennett’s office.  Bill Bennett was our A Foreman.  His office was across the hall from Tom Gibson’s office where I had been interviewed for the previous 3 hours. —  Yeah.  3 hours.  OSHA Jack didn’t know Shorthand.

Bill asked me how the interview went.  I said it went fine.  He said that Ron and Ben Brandt had been worried about me because the interview had lasted so long.  Bill said he told them, “Don’t worry about Kevin.  He probably has this guy wrapped around his little finger.  He’s probably using his ‘psychology’ on him”  I always loved Bill with all my heart.  He knew me too well.  I told Bill that I knew OSHA Jack’s life story by the time we were done.  Bill smiled…. just like this:

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to smile like Bill Bennett

I smiled back at Bill.  I returned to the Electric Shop to continue with Unit 1 Overhaul.  After all.  That was my “real” job.  I put on my fly ash suit, my full face respirator, and my rubber boots and returned to the innards of the precipitator to continue where I had left off.  I had a lot to think about as I scanned the Precipitator plates and wires in the dark with my flashlight safely strapped around my neck.

Comment from the original post

  1. Ron Kilman August 23, 2014

    Great story! And good job interviewing OSHA Jack.
    When the OSHA (EPA, OFCCP, EEOC, etc.) Man cometh, whatever was scheduled for that day (week, etc.) was suspended and you do whatever he/she wants. Cost to implement changes was not a factor and permanent effects on plant efficiency or employee morale were of little importance either. At 67 (with increasing arthritis) I’m reminded of OSHA’s “help” every time I have to use both hands to start my recip saw (one to pull the trigger and the other to push the “safety” switch), or when I have to re-start my lawnmower every time I empty the grass bag.

Power Plant Men Show Their True Colors

Originally posted August 23, 2013:

If you happened to stop some Saturday evening at the old gas station just north of the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma back in the late 70’s around supper time, you might run into a group of grubby men that looked like they had fallen into a coal bin. They might look like they had been swimming in a batch of coal dust and sweat. Dark hair greasy with the grime of the day. If you took a closer look and observed their handkerchief after it had been used, you would have seen the black slime soaking through. The pores in their skin darkened by the black dust they had been wading through.

If you had run across a gang of shabbily dressed grubby men like this, then you would have just witnessed a group of Power Plant Men seeking a cool one on their way home after a full day of coal clean-up. Be assured, they drove with their windows down in the 100 degree heat. It helped dry the sweat that had soaked them from the top of their head to their soles of their feet. You may feel a little intimidated by this bunch of seemingly hoodlums carrying six packs of Coors out of the store that looked like nothing more than a shack.

You might think that the snickers that you hear below their breath is because they are laughing at you. You might think that it would be safer to stay in your car with the doors locked and the windows rolled up until this gang of rovers left, even though the circumference of their upper arms indicated to you that it wouldn’t take much effort for one of these brutes to shatter your windshield if they had a mind to.

If per-say you happened to make the mistake of saying something neutral to them, such as “good evening”, you would be surprised by their reply. One might grin real big and spit off to one side (maybe in the reverse order…. spit first and then grin). Another might scratch the top of his head and lift his hat… (oh. That’s backward too) while at the same time looking over your vehicle to see what kind of tires are on it, or what kind of upholstery it has. Another might act as if they can’t hear you and just ignore your “good evening”.

This would have been a real possibility back during the summer of 1979 or 1980 at this one particular power plant. You may have even noticed a light blue Volkswagen Sirocco with a young guy sitting in the back seat waiting for a couple of lugs to return with their six packs under their arms for the trip back to Stillwater where they had left 12 hours earlier. That young guy in the back of the car…. that would have been me. Observing the parade of worn Power Plant Men on their way home after a day of coal cleanup. I wrote about days like this in a post called: “Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal“.

Yeah. Just like this

Yeah. Just like this. This is a copy of a picture that can be purchased at

I met many of the Power Plant Men those first few summers when I worked as a Summer Help at the plant. I didn’t really get to know them until I had worked as a full time employee for many years. I wasn’t like this group of Power Plant Men that seemed like a bunch of misfits that somehow stumbled into performing great feats almost as if it was by accident. At first I figured that most of them were just really lucky. Later I learned that these lumps of coal were really diamonds in disguise.

Today, looking back I realize that each of the True Power Plant Men were some of the wisest, kindest, and most caring people I would ever know. I guess I ran across this the first summer as a summer help when people would offer to do things for me for no reason other than they could. When this would happen I would be suspicious at first that either a joke was being played on me, or someone was going to want to use this as leverage for something later.

This thought was short-lived, as all I had to do was look in their eyes to see their sincerity. I had grown up looking into the eyes of deceit. I could tell when I was being snookered. It didn’t take long to find that the True Power Plant Men really did care for my well-being, even when my well-being seemed to being doing just fine.

I suppose i could go down a list of times where power plant men did something nice for me. I probably would just be describing a regular day at work with this bunch of grubby guys in tee shirts and jeans and work boots. This post would become long and monotonous pretty fast. So, let me just focus on one example that illustrates what I’m talking about.

The following story follows a regular theme when it came to Power Plant Men heroism. I will preface it with a short side story…

Back during the late 70’s and early 80’s there were a few medical miracles that had surfaced that were said to cure cancer. One example of this was Vitamin B-17. It is found in fruit seeds. People found that when taken in regular doses, cancer can be prevented and even cured. Of course, the person seeking this cure can’t wait until they are on their deathbed when they try to find a sudden cure that is going to pull them out of the jaws of death.

What makes B-17 probably the most easily accessible cure for cancer is how fast the Cancer industry, that is, the Pharmaceutical and the AMA quickly tried to ban anything with enough vitamin B-17 in it from the market. They didn’t call it Vitamin B-17. They called it “Laetrile”. If there had been nothing to it, then they would have treated it like every other snake oil remedy that came around. They would have ignored it.

People in the United States that wanted to be treated with Vitamin B-17 for their cancer had to go to Mexico. They were happy to treat you down there. Raw apricot seeds were banned from the stores because they are a good source for this vitamin. Well. They couldn’t really ban apple seeds. I think people knew many years ago that eating an apple each day would keep the doctor away. As a child long before the word “Laetrile” had hit the news wire, I remember some people that would eat the entire apple, only leaving the stem. They insisted that the best stuff was in the apple seeds. Maybe Johnny Appleseed was on a mission from God when he went across the country planting apple orchards.

The argument was that Laetrile (Vitamin B17) contained Cyanide and that it could possibly be released and become toxic in the body. — This is the same argument that those in favor of using Laetrile were making. They believe that the cyanide is released by toxins emitted by cancer cells, and in this way, the cyanide actually targets the cancer cells. By the way, the chemical symbol for Cyanide is: CN.

CN is Cyanide. You can see it in the middle of the chemical diagram. Only this isn't Laetrile (vitamin B17). This is the chemical structure of Vitamin B12.

CN is Cyanide. You can see it in the middle of the chemical diagram. Only this isn’t Laetrile (vitamin B17). This is the chemical structure of Vitamin B12.

Anyway. This was also before there was anything like the Internet (because…. Al Gore hadn’t invented it yet). So, in order to hear the alternate viewpoint than the governments, you had to read newspapers that were “on the fring”. Anyway, during that time around 1980 after the Laetrile ban, people were growing suspicious of the cancer doctors and whether they really cared to cure their patients or just grab their money while they were on their way down. The argument was that one person in California had died from apparently being poisoned by cyanide after taking Laetrile. Never mind that he was on his deathbed already from cancer and had only weeks to live.

Today is a different story, where there are a lot of homeopathic methods for fighting cancer. Laetrile is still banned I think, but who is going to ban the apple seed? — Oh. I guess they pick them before they have seeds these days, and where they used to press the entire apple to make apple cider, they may core them now first…. I’m sure it is because it makes the cider taste better…. Don’t you think? Or is it the added sugar…. maybe.

End of the Side Story Almost…

Toward the end of my first summer as a summer help in 1979 I worked for two weeks with Aubrey Cargill and Ben Hutchinson clearing out driftwood from the miles of dikes that had been built on the man-made lake to route the water around the lake from the discharge to the intake so it had time to cool. I wrote about this in the post “Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill“. Ben and Aubrey were best friends. They never told me that, it was just like they were two peas in a pod. Where one went, the other was always right by their side.

Well. 10 years after we had been tossing driftwood up the dikes into the dump truck, Aubrey had early retired from plant life, leaving his best buddy to fend for himself. Ben had become a foreman. I never heard a complaint about Ben as a foreman, but then, I wasn’t listening, so if someone had told me something negative, I’m sure it would have went in one ear and out the other and something inside me would have marked that person on my list of “Not True Power Plant Men”.

So, why this side story of cancer cures? Well. Around the summer of 1989 Ben Hutchinson began his fight with cancer. He took all the regular cures for cancer…. like “chemo-therapy”. — Oh. Now that is safe…. yeah. No one would ever feel poisoned by that…

Anyway. After trying all the regular cures, Ben was told that there was nothing left for him to do but to lay down and die. He was given so many months to live and sent home.

At this time there was a doctor in Athens Greece named Dr. Alivazatos that was reported to be curing cancer patients at a rate of 60%. He would say that the 40% that die come to him too late to be cured. Otherwise he would be able to cure them all. He had some special treatment that he was willing to share with the world, but he wanted to do it in a way where it was assured that he would receive credit for it. Not understanding the medical system in the United States, he said that he was waiting to be invited to the United States by the Medical community where he would tell them all how to do what he was doing.

Dr. Alivazatos, Athens Greece

Dr. Alivazatos, Athens Greece

When the Cancer doctors had drained Ben’s funds and sent him home to die, that was when the True Power Plant Men showed their true colors. They had heard about this doctor performing miracle cancer cures in Athens Greece and they were determined that Ben was not going to go down without a fight.

During the winter, while an overhaul was going on at our plant, barbecues were setup to raise money. Donations were taken. Requests went out to the other plants for help.

I don’t recall the exact amount that was raised. But I believe it was well over $30,000.00. Ben was sent to Athens for treatment. He was sent to Dr. Alivarazatos. Ben arrived too late. After his month of treatments there, he was sent home in March 1990, somewhat better than he had left, but still his cancer was too far gone by the time he had made it to the doctor’s doorstep, and by June, Ben succumbed to the cancer and died on the 13th of June.

— A personal note. June 13 is the feast day for St. Anthony. He is my patron saint and has been a personal friend of mine since my childhood.

St. Anthony of Padua

St. Anthony of Padua

I like to picture St. Anthony there with Ben when he died, taking his hand and leading him up to the pearly gates where St. Peter was standing… Without looking up, St. Anthony says…. “A True Power Plant Man…” St. Peter nods and passes him through without checking the roster. Once inside, an angel hands Ben his clean white robe. Ben puts it on, and by the time he pulls it over his head and straightens it out, it is all stained with black coal dust. The angel looks a little confused and St. Anthony, standing beside him in his brown robe with the bald spot on the top of his head says, “Power Plant Man….” The angel nods in understanding….. — end of personal note.

The Power Plant Men didn’t sit around and complain that they threw away good money to send Ben to Greece. They knew the odds were thin when they sent him. It didn’t matter to them. True Power Plant Men cherish Life. They live from day-to-day taking risks in a dangerous situation, yet they are safe, not for themselves, but for their family and friends. One extra day of life for Ben was well worth it.

This example of Ben was not the exception, it was the norm. Whenever a Power Plant Man was in need, there were 100 Power Plant Men there to help them. Never hesitating. I would say that they love each other as if they were all part of the same family. Actually, I have no doubt about it.

Oh. A side note. Dr. Alivazatos was (and some would say conveniently) killed in a hit and run accident in 1991. No one to date has been able to duplicate his treatment and many believe that he was a fraud, though he had been tried and found not guilty

Comment from preevious post

  1. sacredhandscoven August 28, 2014

    Beautiful story, thank you for sharing it. Takes me back to the days when you did for people, because that is what people do. It is just a pity that only a few of us are raising our kids in the old way, nowadays. True Power Plant Men sound a lot like the Feed Mill Men that I was raised by and with. Daddy was a feed mill worker from 17 to 56 until his emphysema got so bad he had to retire. All three brothers and one of my sisters went on to work there too for a decade or more until daddy convinced them they weren’t safe there.

    Again, thanks for a return to a more precious time of life.

“Take a Note Jan” said the Supervisor of Power Production

Originally Posted August 24, 2012:

I remember the first time Martin Louthan, the supervisor over all the power plants, came to the Power Plant to meet with all the Power Plant Men a couple of months before Unit 1 came on line in 1979. I don’t know what he expected when he arrived, but I don’t think he expected the greeting he received when the meeting began and he asked us what we all wanted to talk about.

There were about 200 Power plant Men all crowded into the break room. Some sitting and a lot standing, as there was no leaning room against the walls. Martin Louthan began the meeting by saying that he wanted to come and meet with all the Power plant men every 6 months without the management in the room so that we could all speak freely. I don’t think that Martin actually thought the Power Plant Men would actually take him up on it. But they did.

Martin Louthan was from the Old School of Power Plant Men. He was what I would call a “Power Broker” Man. You can definitely tell that he had worked his way up through the ranks of Power Plant Politics and was very comfortable in his position as ruler of all the power plants. Martin had started as a Power Plant engineer and had spent time working at almost all of the power plants that had been built up to that time, including the Osage Plant that I had talked about in an earlier blog about the Power Plant Pioneers (Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace).

Once again I must remind the reader that the Power Plant Manager at the time, Eldon Waugh enjoyed ruling over his power plant kingdom and any time he could find a way to wield his power, he would. He had created many miscellaneous rules at the plant to demonstrate this authority. Most of which were designed to be a nuisance to the average employee under his domain.

When Martin Louthan asked the crowded room if anyone had anything to say while the plant manager and their own foremen were out of the room, the Power Plant Men took the opportunity to let loose a barrage of grievances against the Power Plant Manager and his assistant.

The main topic was the rule that no one could fish on plant grounds. The Power Plant Men had been told that Oklahoma City (Corporate Headquarters) had made a rule that no one could fish in the lake from the plant grounds. This included the discharge where the warm water went into the lake from the condenser, which was not far from the engineer’s shack parking lot where everyone had to park at the time. Martin acted surprised. He said he hadn’t heard of a rule like that.

Not being able to fish on plant grounds meant a long walk (about a mile) across an often muddy field

Sitting next to Martin Louthan was his secretary Janice Baker (Brady). Martin would say, “I’ll look into it. Take A note Jan! I’ll let you know what I find out.” Jan would write something down on her notepad. Then complaint after complaint kept coming, and Martin kept saying “Take a note Jan.” I remember Jan’s expression throughout the meeting. I couldn’t tell if it was one of wonder or a look of someone that was having writer’s cramp.

A notepad like this

A Power Plant notepad Jan may have been using

After a few more visits from Martin, “Take a note Jan” became a phrase at the plant for something that needed to be looked into, but we knew we would never hear about again. It wasn’t long before Martin’s 6 month meetings turned into yearly meetings, and then eventually, he stopped having meetings with the Power Plant Men all together.

The nail in the coffin of Martin Louthan’s meetings happened when I was on Labor Crew. Martin had his yearly meeting some time in the middle of the summer of 1983. I was on the labor crew that summer.

One of the main complaints that year was that the assistant plant manager and the plant manager were constantly lying to us about one thing and then another. Martin asked the Power Plant Men for an example. Well. No one could come up with one on the spot. It was something you knew when you heard it, but if you didn’t write them down, then the next day you were too busy keeping the plant operational to remember the troubles of the day before.

Martin Louthan told the Power Plant Men that if they didn’t have any examples, then he would not be able to take any action. So, Jan didn’t have to take a note about that.

The Labor Crew bore the brunt of the next rule that came down from up above, and we were told that it had come from Oklahoma City (which is where Corporate Headquarters is located). A lot of people on labor crew had been there for a long time. Some had been there for about 2 years and were looking for an opportunity to move into maintenance or become an operator.

The economy had slowed down during those years as we were still recovering from the high unemployment and the downturn in the oil market in Oklahoma. Reaganomics hadn’t kicked in full steam yet, so those people who would have migrated onto other jobs were staying put.

Finally it was announced that a new crew was going to be started at the plant. It would be the Testing crew. An excellent opportunity for some of the people to finally leave the labor crew where they seemed to be held captive during those years.

Unfortunately for most, it was soon made known that the new positions required that the person have a college degree. It didn’t matter in what, as long as they had one. That left Jim Kanelakos and I as the only two power plant men-in-training that were eligible. I had a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology, and Jim had a Masters of Arts in Psychology.

Together we would stand out in the front of the Labor Crew building analyzing the other Power Plant Men using all of our education to help us determine the motivation for each person. Jim might say, “Do you ever notice how Charles Peavler will go off to do coal cleanup and then you don’t see him until lunch when he comes back completely clean, and nothing seems to have been cleaned?” And I would respond by saying, “Yes, I wonder how he manages to keep so clean when he’s obviously doing twice the work, both cleaning up the reclaim and messing it all back up again. What drives a man to be so… um… Productive?” Jim might respond by saying something like, “It is probably because he hates his father and this is his way of seeking revenge on him for all the times he made him clean his bedroom after his brother had messed it up.”

No. We really didn’t say that, but I’m sure we thought about it often enough.

Then came the clincher… It seems that when Eldon Waugh learned that requiring a college degree didn’t automatically disqualify all of the labor crew hands, a new rule came down. “No one already employed by the Electric Company could be considered for the job.” Again we were told, “This had come down from Oklahoma City.”

To compound the issue, a new program had been put in place just that summer called the Employee Assistance Program which included a new job announcement process that allowed everyone access across the company to apply for job opening anywhere in the company.

Now, this seemed like an obvious example of what Martin Louthan had been looking for. A perfect example of the Power plant men being lied to by the Plant Manager. Our A foreman Marlin McDaniel asked Jim Kanelakos and I to apply for the jobs. He wanted to have actual proof that the applications would not be considered even though we met the minimum qualifications.

We applied, and our applications were turned down. We went through the proper procedures and up the chain of command and asked the Supervisor of Maintenance Ken Scott to have a meeting with us to discuss the situation.

Ken listened to our grievance, and said that he would go talk to the assistant plant manager to find out what he could about the reason why we couldn’t be considered for the new testing jobs. He came back with the answer from Bill Moler, the assistant plant manager, that we could not be considered for the testing jobs because they were new positions, and no one that currently worked for the Electric Company could be considered for the jobs. “This had come down from Oklahoma City.”

The labor crew as a group said that they wanted to have a meeting with Martin Louthan to talk about this. Ken came back and said that the next time that Martin Louthan was at the plant, he would meet with the labor crew.

Finally one day, at 4:00 we were told that Martin Louthan was at the plant and that he would be willing to meet with us. The end of our day was at 4:30. We went up to the conference room and sat down with Martin to discuss the issue. Ken Scott sat in the meeting as an advocate stating exactly what he had been told, and what had happened.

As 4:40 rolled around, I was aware that I had three people in the car waiting for me to drive them home, and I reluctantly had to leave the meeting right after Martin Louthan told us that he had never heard of such a rule that if you worked for the company you couldn’t be considered for a job. He asked to have Bill Moler and Eldon Waugh brought into the meeting.

The rest, I had to hear the next day because I missed the rest of the meeting. When Bill Moler and Eldon Waugh came into the meeting, Martin Louthan asked Eldon Waugh why he didn’t consider anyone at the plant for the new testing jobs, Eldon replied by saying, “We did consider people at the plant.” Then Bill Moler replied, “No we didn’t.” Martin asked, “Well why not?” (Maybe with a little more flowery language than I am using). Bill Moler said, “Because you told us not to.” Martin then said, “No I didn’t!” Bill Moler responded by shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Then it must have been a misunderstanding.”

That was it. The meeting was over. The misunderstanding was cleared up, but by that time the new testing crew had already been hired, and it was all water under the bridge. The Labor Crew men were still stuck digging ditches and doing coal cleanup. Martin Louthan didn’t have anymore meetings with just the Power Plant Men without the management in the room after that.

Every now and then I wonder what Jan was really writing in her notebook whenever Martin said, “Take a Note Jan.” I do know that after the first meeting, we were allowed to fish at the discharge, but only if we wore our hardhats. Our families and friends however could not. Then after much back-and-forth with Oklahoma City it was decided that not only did we not need to wear our hardhat while fishing at the discharge, but we could even bring our family and friends with us as well.

Martin Louthan retired with the other Power Broker men in the 1987-88 downsizing. The next June during the summer of 1988, Jan Brady became known as Janice Louthan, as she had married Martin Louthan. Martin’s first wife had died in 1981.

Janice Louthan's Facebook picture

Janice Louthan’s Facebook picture

Martin lived 23 years after he retired from the Electric Company where he had worked for 40 years. He died in his home on November 29, 2010. Janice was most likely right there by his side. In my mind with her notepad handy, ready and willing to hear the words, “Take a note Jan” just one more time.

Take a look at Martin Louthan and tell me this guy doesn’t mean business…

Martin Louthan

How Many Different Power Plant Man Jobs?

In the morning when a Power Plant Man drives through the gate at the plant, with the boilers and smoke stacks looming ahead of them, they know that whatever lies ahead for them can be any one of over 20,000 different Power Plant Man Jobs!  Yes.  That’s right.  There are over 20,000 separate jobs that a person can be assigned on over 1,000 different pieces of equipment.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset

The bravery brings to mind the “Charge of the Light Brigade” (by Alfred Lord Tennyson), where “…All in the Valley of Death rode the six hundred”… only there were about 44 He-men and Women to repair whatever was in need of repair that day.  And as in the commemorative poem about the Battle of Balaclava where “… Cannon to the right of them, Cannon to the Left of them Cannon in front of them… Into the Jaws of Death, Into the Mouth of Hell Rode the Six Hundred.”  Or 44 in the case of the Power Plant Men and Women.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

The Charge of the Light Brigade

It is true of the bravery possessed by True Power Plant Men and Women as they go about their daily quest for perfection.  Unlike the Charge of the Light Brigade, who through an error in the command structure was ordered to perform a suicide mission, Power Plant Men go into daily battle well prepared using the correct tools, Safety Gear, Clearance Procedures and the knowledge of how to perform any one of the 20,000 jobs that could be assigned to them on any given day.  (wait!  Did I just create an extremely long run-on sentence? — No wonder I could never get an A in English class!).

As Lord Tennyson Memorialized the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 by writing the poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, one day when I showed up to work during the spring of 1998, I was assigned a similar task at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  “What’s that you say? Similar to writing the Charge of the Light Brigade?”  Yeah.  You heard me.  I was given the job of chronicling each and every task that a Power Plant Man or Woman could possibly ever perform at the Power Plant.

For the next three years, I spent 50% of my time at the plant sitting in front of a computer in the Master Print Room (where the master blueprints for the entire plant are kept) entering each task into the program called SAP.  You may have heard me mention this program before.

SAP Logo

SAP Logo

We had started using SAP a year earlier at the Electric Company.  The benefit of using this product was that it connected all of the functions of the company together into one application.  So, as soon as a Power Plant Man took a part out of the warehouse, it was reflected in the finance system on the Asset Balance sheet.  When our time was entered into SAP, the expense was calculated and charged to the actual piece of equipment we had been working on during that day.  It gave us a lot of visibility into where and how the company was spending their money.

This became even more useful if we were able to tell SAP more and more about what we did.  That was where Ray Eberle and I came in.  Ray was assigned to enter all of the Bill of Materials for every piece of equipment at the plant.  I was assigned the task of entering all of the possible jobs that could be performed at the plant into SAP.

I entered jobs into a section called “Task Lists”.  When I created a task about a specific job, I had to tell SAP all about how do perform that job.  This is referred to as “Expert Data” in the world of Enterprise Software. (sorry to bother you with all these boring technical terms).

Each task had to include any Safety Concerns about doing the job.  It included a list of instruction manuals for the equipment that needed to be repaired and where to find them.  I had to the include the Safety clearance procedure that needed to be performed in order to clear out the equipment before working on it.

The Task also included all the parts that could be needed to fix the equipment if something was broken along with the warehouse part number.  Then I would add in a list of tools that would be used to perform the job.  This would include every wrench size, screwdriver, soft choker, come-along, pry bar, and nasal spray that might be needed for the job (well, you never know… there could be job that required the use of nasal spray).  Ok.  You have me… I only threw that in there because I found this great picture of Nasal Spray on Google Images and this was the only way I think of to show it to you:

Nasal Spray

Nasal Spray

Finally I would list each of the steps that a person would take to fix the equipment they were assigned to repair.  This was a step-by-step procedure about how to perform the job.

My first thought when I was assigned the job of chronicling every possible job a Power Plant Maintenance Man could perform was “Great!  I will get to work on the computer!  Everyone will be glad to help me with this task as it will make their lives easier!”  Well… After I began the task of collecting information about the jobs, I unexpectedly found a lot of opposition to the idea of listing down each of the steps that a Power Plant Man performed to do their job. — Can you guess why?

Well… Yeah.  It’s true that I have an annoying personality, and sometimes I may come across as unpleasant, but that wasn’t the main reason.  Here is what happened….

When a Maintenance Order was created, one of the planners, Either Ben Davis (Planner 3) or Tony Mena (Planner 4) would flag the work order as needing a Task created for that particular job.

Ben Davis

Ben Davis

I would pull up the list of work orders and start creating the task list for that job.  I could tell who was assigned to it, so I figured I would just go up to them and ask them how they were going to fix the equipment.

I remember going up to the first person on my list the first day and explaining to him what I was doing.  I asked him if he could tell me the steps to replacing the tail roller on belt 18 in the Surge Bin Tower.  His response was, “Why should I tell you?  You will just put all of that into the computer and then when you have described how to do all of the jobs, they can just get rid of us and hire some contractors to do our jobs.”

A conveyor Drum Roller similar to the one on the coal conveyor belts

A conveyor Drum Roller similar to the one on the coal conveyor belts

Oh… I hadn’t thought about that.  It seemed unlikely, because there is a big difference between having a low wage contractor working on something and a dedicated Power Plant Man.  There just isn’t any comparison.

In order to write up the task for this job, I just waited until the men were up in the Surge Bin Tower pulling the roller off of the belt, and I went up there and watched them.  I took notes of all of the tools and equipment they were using, and asked one of them the steps they were taking to get the new roller up to the tower, and how they were taking the old one out, etc.

Ok… I wasn’t going to do this… but I can feel your anticipation clear from here while I am writing this, that you really want to know what kind of tools it took to pull the roller from the Surge Bin Tower Conveyor belt….  Here is a list of just the tools needed….  just warning you… reading this list of tools just may cause you to drop whatever you are doing and drive out in the country to your nearest Power Plant and apply for a job…. just to warn you… if you don’t think that would be good for you, you may want to skip this next paragraph.

One 9 Foot Extension Ladder.  Two 1-1/2 ton come-alongs, and one 3/4 come-along. Two large pry bars, a 15/16 in. and 3/4 inch sockets, an air or electric impact wrench (to be used with the sockets).  An 8 foot step ladder.  One can of WD-40.  a 3/8 in. screwdriver.  Oxygen-Acetylene tanks with Torch, a Welding machine, two 8 ft. 2 by 4’s (that’s two pieces of wood).  A hammer, a 1/8 in. wrench.  One small pipe wrench.  One hook to hold up the roller.  Three extension cords, with adapters for the coal-handling safety plug-ins.  One 4 in. electric grinder.  Two 6 in. C Clamps and four 6 ft. Steel Chokers.

I decided that I would make things easier for myself up front by working on all of the electrician maintenance jobs first since I knew how to do most of those already.  So, I spent the first year almost solely working on Electrical and Instrument and Control jobs.  I could easily write the task lists for these, because I new all of the steps.

For instance… If I needed to take a clearance on the A Tripper Drive motor, I knew that the breaker was on the Motor Control Center (MCC) 13B Cubicle 1C already.  I didn’t have to even look that one up. (I often wondered what they were thinking when they put Tripper B on MCC 13B Cubicle 2B.  Why not put it in the same place (1C)  on the next Motor Control Center?  It would make things less confusing  — Just things I think about when I’m sitting on my “thinkin’ chair”).

Power Plant Thinkin' Chair

Power Plant Thinkin’ Chair

Some tasks were short and easy.  Others were novels.  Take “Elevator is Malfunctioning” Maintenance order.  I included all sorts of troubleshooting tips for that one.  I even drew a sort of diagram of relays showing how they should be picked up and dropped out as the elevator when up and down…   When the elevator was going up, I put in a table of relay positions like this (U means the relay is picked up, D means it is dropped out).  Those names at the top are the names of the relays.

At Rest D D D D U D D
At Start up D U D U D D D
Running Up D U U U D D D
Slowdown up D D D U D D D
Slowdown 2 up D D D D D D U
Slowdown 3 up D D D D U D U
At Stop up D D D D U D D

I wrote a similar one for when the elevator was going down.

Anyway….I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Ray Eberle and I worked together side-by-side for most of the three years while I was writing the task lists (see the post “Tales of Power Plant Prowess by Ray Eberle“).  After I had written a number of novels about different Electrician jobs in the form of task lists, I began working on the general maintenance tasks.

After a while the Mechanics came around and saw the benefits of the task lists.  I remember one of the men who had been the most vocal about not telling me how to do his job came up to me after I had written a task list about changing out the number 2 conveyor belt gear box and he asked me to add another wrench to the list.  He said, that they had to go all the way back down the belt at the coal yard, drive back to the shop and retrieve the wrench, all because they hadn’t taken it with them the first time.  I added it in a heartbeat and he left smiling.

Every once in a while I would run across a Maintenance Order where I could be somewhat creative.  For instance, I had to write a task list about how to inspect the railroad tracks and right-away from the plant to where the tracks entered the town of Red Rock, Oklahoma about 5 miles away.

After explaining how the person connected the railroad truck to the tracks and drove on the tracks toward the growing Metropolis of Red Rock (population 282).  I explained about how they were to make sure that all the wildlife was being treated well.  I also said that when they arrived at Red Rock, they should go into the feed store and build up our public relations by striking up friendly conversations with the “locals”.

After completing over 10,000 different task lists…..  I had begun to get into a routine where I felt like my creativity was becoming a little stifled.  Then one day, Ray Eberle suggested that when I’m writing my task lists, I should think about how Planner 4 (Tony Mena) would like to see something a little more exciting than the usual…. “this is how you fix this piece of equipment” task list…

One day I remember writing a task list about something called a “Sparser Bar”.  A sparser bar is something that sprays water at the bottom of a sump to stir up the coal when the pump is running so that it doesn’t build up or maybe on a conveyor belt for dust suppression.  Anyway… One of the tasks I needed to write was for a person to “create a new Sparser bar”.

An iron pipe like this with holes in it

An iron pipe like this with holes in it

I wish I had the exact Task List that I wrote.  I know that many years later, Ray Eberle sent me a copy of it when he ran across it one day, but I don’t have it readily available, so I’ll just go by memory (until someone at the plant wants to print it out and send it to me).  I don’t know… I may be able to write a better one now…. let me see….

Here are the instruction:

  1. Cut a one and a quarter inch pipe 30 inches long.
  2. Drill 1/8 inch holes along the pipe so that you have exactly 24 holes evenly distributed across the pipe with leaving at least 3 inches on either side of the pipe.
    1. If you accidentally drill 23 holes, then you should add an extra hole so that you end up with exactly 24 holes.
    2. If you drill 25 holes, then you should discard the pipe and start over again.
    3. Note:  Do not drill holes that are larger than 1/8 inches in diameter as this will be too big.  If you drill holes bigger than 1/8 inches, then discard the new sparser bar and begin again.
    4. Another Note:  Do not drill the holes smaller than 1/8 inches in diameter.  If you drill holes that are smaller than 1/8 inches, then obtain a 1/8 inch drill bit and use that to increase the diameter of the holes that you have drilled.
  3. Once you have exactly 24 holes in the new Sparser Bar, then rotate the pipe 30 degrees and drill 24 more holes in the exact same positions as the holes that are now 30 degrees from where you are going to drill the new holes.
    1. Note:  Do not drill the second set of holes at a 40 degree angle from the first set of holes as this is not the correct angle.  Only drill the holes at a 30 degree angle from the first set of holes.
    2. Also Note:  Do not drill the holes at a 20 degree angle, as this is also not the correct angle from the first set of holes.
    3. Caution:  If you find that you have drilled the second set of holes at an angle other than 30 degrees, please discard the sparser bar and begin again.
  4. Once you have exactly 48 holes (count them… 24 + 24) in the sparser bar, thread both ends of the pipe.
  5. After you have threaded both ends of the new sparser bar, put a metal cap on one end of the sparser bar.
    1. Note:  Do Not under any circumstance put a metal cap on both ends of the sparser bar as this will render the sparser bar useless because there will not be any way to attach the sparser bar to the water line.
    2. Caution:  If you find that you have accidentally put a metal cap on both ends of the sparser bar, then remove the metal cap from one end (and only one end) of the sparser bar so that it can be attached to the water line.
  6. After you have completed creating the new sparser bar with two rows of 24  1/8 in. holes each at an angle of exactly 30 degrees, then using a medium pipe wrench attach the new sparser bar to the water line.
  7. Align the holes on the sparser bar so that they will have the maximum desired affect when the water is turned on.

See?  Only 7 easy steps.  I think Tony Mena said he fell asleep trying to read my “Sparser Bar Task List”.  I seem to remember Ray Eberle telling me that Tony said, “Kevin’s a nut!”

So, I have one more story to tell you about writing task lists, and then I will conclude this post with the proper conclusive paragraph….

At the plant, every piece of equipment had their own “Cost Center”.  This came in handy when you were looking for spending trends and things like that.  The structure of the cost center was like this:  SO-1-FD-A-FDFLP   — I just made that up.  It’s not a real cost center… I just wanted to show you the structure…. The first two characters SO represent the plant.  The following “1” represents the unit.  We had 2.  The FD represents a “functional area” like “Force Draft Fan.  The “A” represents the number of the piece of equipment, like A or B or C, etc…. depending on how many there are.  The FDFLP is the piece of equipment.  In this case it might be a Forced Draft Fan Lube Oil Pump.

I’m explaining this apparently boring aspect of Power Plant Life, because I made an attempt to make it a little more interesting. Here is what I did…. The Ultra Clean water that goes in the boilers are stored in a couple of large water tanks in front of the main power transformer.  The code for their functional area just happened to be: “AM”.  So, when you were creating a task for working on a piece of equipment on the first of the two tanks, the Functional area would look like this:  SO-1-AM-A…..

See where I’m going with this?  It looks like it is saying… “So I am a….”  This quickly reminded me of Jim Arnold, who was the Superintendent of Maintenance.  The guy that had assigned me to write all of these task lists in the first place.  He always seemed like he was king of the jungle, so I thought I would have a little fun with this….

I created a completely new Functional Area Cost Center for this water tank for a non-existent piece of equipment…. I called it the “Gould Outdoor Detector”.  So, when I created the Cost Center string, it looked like this:  SO-1-AM-A-GOD.  For the Gould Outdoor Detector.  — I know… I was being rotten.

Jim Arnold in all of his awesomeness

Jim Arnold in all of his awesomeness

Then using this cost center (that looked like “So, I am a God”), I created a Task List called:  “How to be Superintendent of Maintenance”.  I added a lot of steps to the task about how you can humiliate your employees and over work them, and kick them when they are down, and stuff like that.  I don’t remember the details.  Anyway, that was a lot of fun.

I created task lists up until the day before I left the plant.  At my going away party Jim Arnold asked me how many task lists I had created in the last three years… the count was something close to 17,800 task lists.  Yeah.  That’s right.  I wrote over 17,000 descriptions of Power Plant Man jobs in three years.  Our plant had over three times more task lists in SAP than the rest of the entire electric company put together.

You can see that I was proud of some, like my the novel I wrote about Elevator Maintenance.  You can also tell that working side-by-side with Ray Eberle kept us both entertained during those years.  We were the best of friends when I left.  I don’t know how many times I just about passed out because I was laughing so hard while we worked together.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

If I were to write Power Plant Tasks today, I think I would write the ones that aren’t assigned to a Maintenance Order… they would be more like “How to be a True Power Plant Man”.  It would be a novel that would describe the tremendous character of each and every True Power Plant Man and Woman that I learned to love during my stay at the “Power Plant Palace.”

Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting

Originally posted August 16, 2014.

I knew that we had our work cut out for us when Unit 1 was taken offline for a major overhaul on February 19, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I had learned to expect the unexpected. I just never suspected this to happen. As acting foreman, I had a crew that consisted of a few of our own electricians, as well as a number of contract workers. I was also coordinating efforts between Brown & Root contractors that were going to be doing some major work inside the Precipitator (that takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler) during the 12 weeks we were going to be offline and a Vacuum Truck Company that was going to vacuum ash out of the hoppers where the ash is collected and blown through pipes to the coal yard to be trucked away to make concrete.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long. You can see the hoppers at the bottom

When I inspected the precipitator during the first week, I had found numerous hoppers that had filled up with ash. One in particular hopper was so full that the ash had built up between the plates over 5 feet above the top of the hopper. Because of this, I had to coordinate with hoppers that were available for the Brown and Root contractors to begin building scaffolding, and those hoppers the vacuum truck needed to vacuum out first.

I had learned to deal with full hoppers the first time I entered the precipitator back when I was on the Labor Crew in 1983. Since that day, I had understood the potential dangers lying in wait. Especially with hoppers full of ash. See the Post “Angel of Death Passes By the Precipitator Door“.

The crew I was directly managing was on the Precipitator roof working on vibrators, insulators, transformers and rappers. I worked inside the precipitator aligning plates, and removing broken wires and cleaning insulators. The vacuum truck company vacuumed out the full hoppers by attaching a vacuum hose from a large vacuum truck to clean out pipes at the bottom of the hoppers. The Brown and Root crew climbed into the hoppers through an access door near the bottom of the hopper and constructed scaffolding in order to work at the top of the hoppers immediately below the plates.

Vacuum Truck

Vacuum Truck

This operation had been going on for 3 days and had seemed to be going smoothly. The Brown and Root crews and the vacuum truck crews were working shifts 24 hours a day. I would come in the morning and see the progress that had been made during the night. We kept a sheet taped to a beam in the hopper area that the vacuum truck would update when they had finished a hopper, and the Brown and Root crew indicated where they had finished building their scaffold.

On Thursday March 3, 1994, just after lunch, instead of making my way out to the precipitator to continue my work, I went up to the office area to meet in the conference room with the Safety Task Force. I was the leader of the task force, and we were meeting with upper management to work out some issues that I outlined in last week’s post. See “Taking Power Plant Safety To Task“. As you may have noticed, the last two weekly posts are a continuation of a long story.

Our meeting began shortly after 12:30 and we were discussing ways in which the Safety Task Force could work in a more cooperative way with the Maintenance Supervisor, Ken Scott. I felt that we were making good progress. We seemed to have come up with a few solutions, and we were just working out the details.

At 1:10 pm, the Electric A Foreman knocked on the door and opened it. He explained that there had been an accident at the precipitator in one of the hoppers and he thought that I might have been in the hopper at the time. He was checking to see if I was in the meeting. Once he was assured that I was all right, he left (presumably to tell the rest of my crew that I was not involved in the accident).

At this point, my head started to spin. What could have happened? None of my crew would have been in the hoppers. Maybe someone fell off of a scaffold and hurt themselves. I know I had locked out all of the electricity to the precipitator and grounded the circuits that have up to 45,000 volts of electricity when charged up, so, I’m pretty sure no one would have been electrocuted. Bill’s voice seemed real shaky when he entered the room, and when he saw me he was very relieved.

When working in a Power Plant, the Power Plant Men and Women become like a real family. Everyone cares about each other. Bill Bennett in some ways was like a father to me. In other ways, he was like an older brother. The nearest picture I have of Bill is a picture of Bill Cosby, as they looked similar:

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett just after he has called me a “Scamp”

I don’t know how long I was staring off into space counting my crew and thinking about what each of them would be doing. I was sure they were all on the roof. I knew that if a Brown & Root hand had been hurt that their own Safety Coordinator would be taking care of their injury. The thought of someone being hurt in a hopper sent flashbacks of the day I nearly dived off into the hopper full of ash ten and a half years earlier.

After about 5 minutes, Bill Bennett came back to the conference room, where we were still trying to focus on the task at hand. I don’t remember if we were doing any more good or not since I wasn’t paying any attention. Bill said that he needed for me to leave the meeting because they needed me out at the precipitator. Someone had been engulfed in fly ash!

Then I realized that the first time Bill had come to the room to check on me, he had mentioned that. I think I had blocked that from my mind. He had said that someone had been engulfed in ash, and they couldn’t tell if it was me or someone else. That was why he was so shaken up. Bill had thought that I may have died, or at least been seriously injured. The pain he was feeling before he saw me sitting in the room, alive and well, flooded my thoughts.

I quickly stood up and left the room. Bill and I quickly made our way to the precipitator. He said that Life Flight was on the way. One of the vacuum truck workers had climbed into the hopper to get the last bits of ash out of the hopper when a large amount of ash had broken loose above him and immediately engulfed him in the hopper.

When that happened there was a large boom and a cloud of ash came pouring out from the side of the precipitator. Scott Hubbard, who would have been my twin brother if I had been able to pick my own twin brother (though I never had a real twin brother)… heard the boom on the roof and when he looked down and saw the cloud of ash, immediately thought that I may have been hurt. I suppose he had called Bill Bennett on the radio and told him.

As we arrived at the precipitator, a young man was being carried out on a stretcher. A Life Flight from Oklahoma City was on it’s way, and landed just a few minutes later. I looked at the man all covered with ash. I could see how someone may have mistaken him for me. He was dressed like I was. A white t-shirt and jeans. He was unconscious.

Without going into detail as to the cause of the accident, as that will be in a later post, let me tell you about the heroic Power Plant Men and their actions before I had arrived on the scene…

James Vickers, a 26 year old vacuum truck worker, had climbed in the hopper carrying a shovel. He had a hole watch standing out the door keeping an eye on him. They had sucked out the hopper from the outside pipes and had banged on the walls in order to knock down any ash build up on the sides until they figured they had cleaned out the hopper.

James had opened the door to the hopper, and maybe because he saw some buildup on the hopper walls, he decided to climb in the hopper in order to knock it down with the shovel. While he was doing this, a large amount of ash that had bridged up in the plates above was knocked free all at once and immediately filled up the hopper probably more than half full.

James was crammed down into the throat of the hopper, which at the bottom is only about 8 inches in diameter with a plate across the middle about 2 feet above the throat of the hopper. He was immediately knocked unconscious by the impact.

The person assigned to be the hole watch was standing at the door to the hopper and when the ash fell down, he was knocked back about 6 or 7 feet when the ash came pouring out of the door. Panicking, He ran to the edge of the walkway yelling for help. Luckily, he was not also knocked unconscious, or this would pretty much have been the end of the story.

Men came running. Especially a couple of Power Plant Men working in the area. I wish I could remember who they were. When I try to think of the most heroic Power Plant Men I knew at the plant at the time, the list is about a long as my arm, so it is hard to narrow it down.

The Power Plant Men began to frantically dig the ash out of the hopper to uncover James Vickers. When they reached his head, they immediately cleared his face to where they could perform Mouth-to-Mouth resuscitation. They began breathing for James as soon as they could, and continued mouth-to-mouth as they dug out more of the ash.

As they dug the ash out, they were using their hardhats for shovels. When they tried to move James, they found that he had been crammed down into the bottom of the hopper to where he was trapped in the throat of the hopper. Heroically they continued without hesitation to breath for James, while simultaneously working to free him from the hopper. The shovel had been wedged into the bottom of the hopper with him.

Almost immediately after the accident happened, the control room became aware that someone had been engulfed in a hopper, they called Life Flight in Oklahoma City. A helicopter was immediately dispatched. By the time James was safely removed from the hopper, placed on a stretcher and carried out to the adjacent field, the Life Flight Helicopter was landing to take him to the Baptist Medical Center. I would say the helicopter was on the ground a total of about 3 or so minutes before it was took off again.

Bill and I inspected the hopper where the accident had taken place. On the ground below under the grating was a pile of ash, just like I had experienced years before when I almost bailed off into the hopper to look for my flashlight. I was suddenly filled with a tremendous amount of sorrow.

I was sorry for James Vickers, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. I was sorry for Bill Bennett who thought for a while that I had died in that hopper. I remembered hanging by one finger in a hopper only two rows down from this one, ten years ago with my life hanging by a thread, and I just wanted to cry.

So, I gave Bill a big hug as if I was hugging my own father and just started to cry. The whole thing was just so sad.

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….

On the roof of the Baptist Medical Center, a Triage unit had been setup waiting for the helicopter to arrive with James. Hazardous Waste protective suits were being worn by the people that were going to begin treating James. They had heard that he had been engulfed in hazardous chemicals which consisted of: Silica, Aluminum Oxide, Hexavalent Chromium, arsenic and other unsavory and hard to pronounce chemicals. The Life Flight People on the helicopter had to be scrubbed down by the Hazmat team as soon as they exited the helicopter to clean off the hazardous Fly Ash. The news reporters were all standing by reporting the incident.

Yes. The same fly ash that I went swimming in every day during the overhaul. The same fly ash that I tracked through the Utility Room floor when I came home at night. The same fly ash used to create highways all across the country. It’s true it has some carcinogenic material in it. I’m sure I have my share of Silica in my lungs today, since it doesn’t ever really clear out of there.

Besides the psychological trauma of a near-death experience, Jame Vickers was fairly unharmed considering what he went through. He came out of the ordeal with an eye infection. Randy Dailey pointed out that this was because the Safety Coordinator from Brown & Root had opened his eyes to check if he was alive when he was laying on the stretcher, and had let ash get in his eyes. Otherwise, he most likely wouldn’t have developed an eye infection.

When I arrived at home that evening I explained to my wife what had happened. She had heard something on the news about it, but hadn’t realized they were talking about our plant since the person was in Oklahoma City when the reporters were talking about it.

All I can say is… Some Safety Meetings in the past have been pretty boring, but nothing made me want to improve my Safety Attitude like the Safety Meeting we had that afternoon. I’m glad that I had to experience that only once in my career as a Plant Electrician.


Comments from the original post

    1. Dan Antion August 16, 2014

      Too close.


    1. Ron Kilman August 16, 2014

      I remember when this happened. I know some prayers went up for James.

      They had to “decontaminate” the helicopter too. It was always amusing for me to see a hazmat worker strain at a “gnat” removing every molecule of fly ash, then take his respirator and suit off and light up his “camel” cigarette!


    1. Garfield Hug August 16, 2014

      Thankfully glad you made it to safety *blessings*

    1. Donna Westhoff Collins August 16, 2014

      Hope you don’t mind I posted on my Innovative Safety Solutions facebook page along with a link back to the blog. Good article!

    1. Anna Waldherr August 17, 2014

      What a harrowing account! Clearly, those of us not in the industry have no idea of its dangers.

    1. T. Foster August 19, 2014

      I remember hearing about that on the news that day. Also that Dad told us how strange it seemed that they were wearing the haz mat suits to deal with flyash.

    1. createthinklive September 14, 2014

      Work at the power plant sounds sexy: vibrators, insulators and rappers

Lifecycle of a Power Plant Lump of Coal

Originally posted August 16, 2013:

Fifty Percent of our electricity is derived from coal. Did you ever wonder what has to take place for that to happen? I thought I would walk through the lifecycle of a piece of coal to give you an idea. I will not start back when the it was still a tree in a prehistoric world where dinosaurs grew long necks to reach the branches. I will begin when the large scoop shovel digs it out of the ground and loads it onto a coal truck.

The coal is loaded onto trucks like these before it is dumped onto the train cars. This photo was found at

The coal is loaded onto trucks like these before it is dumped onto the train cars. This photo was found at

The coal for the power plant in North Central Oklahoma came from Wyoming. There were trains from the Black Thunder Mine and the Powder River Basin.

Coal Trains on their way to power plants

Coal Trains on their way to power plants

It’s a long ride for the lump of coal sitting in the coal train on it’s way to Oklahoma. Through Nebraska and Kansas. It’s possible for the coal to be visited by a different kind of traveler. One that we may call “A tramp.” Someone that catches a ride on a train without paying for the ticket.

One time a tramp (or a hobo, I don’t remember which), caught a ride on one of our coal trains. They forgot to wake up in time, and found their self following the lumps of coal on their next phase of the journey. You see. Once the coal reached the plant, one car at a time enters a building called the “Rotary Dumper”.

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

As each train car enters the dumper four clamps come done on the car and it rolls upside down dumping the coal into a bin below. Imagine being a tramp waking up just in time to find yourself falling into a bin full of coal. with a car full of coal dumping coal on top of you. One coal car contained 102 tons of coal (today they carry 130 tons). Today one train contains 13,300 tons of coal. This is over 26 million pounds of coal per train.

Miraculously, this passenger survived the fall and was able to call for help or someone saw him fall. He was quickly rescued and brought to safety. Needless to say, the tramp went from being penniless to being, “comfortable” very quickly. I don’t know that it made the news at the time. I think the electric company didn’t want it to become “viral” that they had dumped a hobo into a coal bin by accident. Well. They didn’t know what “going viral” meant at the time, but I’m sure they had some other phrase for it then.

Ok. Time for a Side Story:

Since I’m on the subject of someone catching a clandestine ride on a train, this is as good of a place as any to sneak in the tragic story of Mark Meeks. Well. I say it was tragic. When Mark told the story, he seemed rather proud of his experience. You see. Mark was a construction electrician. He hired on as a plant electrician in order to settle down, but in his heart I felt like he was always a construction electrician. That is, he didn’t mind moving on from place to place. Doing a job and then moving on.

Mark explained that when he was working at a construction job in Chicago where he worked for 2 years earning a ton of overtime, he figured that by the time he finished he would have saved up enough to buy a house and settle down. He was married and living in an apartment in Chicago. He didn’t spend much time at home as he was working 12 hour days at least 6 days each week. He figured that was ok, because when he was done, he would be set for life.

Unknown to him at the time, each morning when he woke up before the crack of dawn to go to work, his wife would drive to O’Hara airport and catch a plane to Dallas, Texas where she was having an affair with some guy. By the time Mark returned from work 14 hours later, she was back home. Each day, Mark was earning a ton of overtime, and his wife was burning it on airline tickets.

When the two years were over, Mark came home to his apartment to collect his wife and his things and go live in peace in some small town some where. That was when he learned that his wife had been having the affair and using all his money to do it. She was leaving him. Penniless.

Completely broke, Mark drifted around for a while. Finally one day he saw a train that was loaded down with wooden electric poles. Mark figured that wherever those poles were going, there was going to be work. So, he hopped on the train and traveled all the way from Minneapolis Minnesota riding in the cold, wedged between some wooden poles on one of the cars on the train.

The train finally arrived at its destination somewhere at a port in the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t remember if it was Mississippi or Louisiana. He watched as they unloaded the poles, waiting to see what jobs were going to be needed for whatever the poles were for. He watched as they took the large wooden poles and piled them up in the ocean. They were using them to build up the shoreline. There were no jobs.

It is when you have been beaten down to the point of breaking when you reach a very important point in your life. Do you give up, or do you pick yourself up and make something of yourself? Mark chose the latter. He was a natural fighter. He eventually ended up at our plant as contract help, and then was hired as a plant electrician.

End of side story.

Let’s follow the lump of coal after it is poured out of the coal train in the dumper…

The coal is fed onto a conveyor belt. Let’s call this Conveyor 1, (because that is what we called it in the plant). This has a choice to feed it onto belt 2 which leads up to the stack out tower, or it can feed the other way to where some day it was planned to add another conveyor with another stackout tower. This was going to go to a pile of coal for two other units that were never built.

Anyway, when the coal drops down on Conveyor 2, way under ground, it travels up to the ground level, and continues on its way up to the top of the stackout tower where it feeds onto Belt 3. Belt 3 is a short belt that is on an arm that swings out over the coal pile. The coal is fed onto the coal pile close to the stack out tower. I suppose it is called stack out, because the coal is stacked up next to the tower.

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack. The tower with the conveyor running up to the top is the stack out tower. Belt 3 is the arm pointing to the right in this picture

Anyway, there are large dozers (bulldozers) and dirt movers that pickup the coal and spread it out to make room for more coal from more coal trains. As mentioned above. One train now carries 26 million pounds of coal.

Dirt Mover full of coal

Dirt Mover full of coal

the coal that is spread out on the coal pile has to stay packed down otherwise it would spontaneously combust. That is, it would catch on fire all by itself. Once coal on a coal pile catches on fire it is impossible to “reasonably” put out. You can spray all the water on it you want and it won’t go out. When a fire breaks out, you just have to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn out.

In order to keep the coal from performing spontaneous combustion, the dirt movers kept it packed down. As long as the coal is packed tight, air can’t freely reach the buried coal, and it doesn’t catch fire. So, dirt movers were constantly driving back and forth on the coal pile to keep the coal well packed. Even on the picture of the coalyard above from the smoke stack, you can see two pieces of heavy equipment out on the coal pile traveling back and forth packing the coal.

Anyway, the next phase in the life of the lump of coal happens when it finds itself directly under the stack out tower, and it is fed down by a vibratory feeder onto a conveyor. In our plant, these belts were called, Belts 4, 5, 6 and 7. Belts 4 and 5 fed onto Belt 8 and belts 6 and 7 fed onto belt 9.

Belts 8 and 9 brought the coal up from under the coal pile to the top of the Crusher tower. In the picture above you can see that tower to the right of the stack out tower with the long belts coming from the bottom of the tower toward the plant. The crusher tower takes the large lumps of coal that can be the size of a baseball or a softball and crushes it down to the size of marbles and large gumballs.

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard. This is the size of the coal after it has been crushed by the crusher

From the crusher tower the lump of coal which is now no more than a nugget of coal travels from the coal yard up to the plant on belts 10 and 11.

conveyor 10 and 11 are almost 1/2 mile long

conveyor 10 and 11 are almost 1/2 mile long

Up at the top of this belt in the distance you can see another tower. This tower is called the Transfer tower. Why? Well, because it transfers the coal to another set of belts, Belt 12 and 13. You can see them going up to the right to that tower in the middle between the two boilers.

The tower between the two boilers is called the Surge Bin tower. That basically means that there is a big bin there that can hold a good amount of coal to feed to either unit. At the bottom of the white part of the tower you can see that there is a section on each side. This is where the tripper galleries are located. There are two belts in each tripper, and two belts that feed to each tripper belt from the surge bin. So, just to keep counting, Belts 14 and 15 feed to unit one and belts 16 and 17 feed to unit 2 from the surge bin. then Belts 18 and 19 are the two tripper belts that dump coal into the 6 silos on unit one, while belts 20 and 21 feed the silos on unit 2.

Once in the Coal silos, the coal is through traveling on belts. The silos are positioned over things called bowl mills. The coal is fed from the silo into the bowl mill through something called a Gravimetric feeder, which is able to feed a specific amount of coal into the bowl mill. This is the point that basically decides how hot the boiler is going to be.

Once the coal leaves the gravimetric feeder and drops down to the bowl mill, it is bound for the boiler. The gravimetric feeder is tied right to the control room. When they need to raise load more than just a minimal amount, a control room operator increases the amount of coal being fed from these feeders in order to increase the flow of coal into the boiler….. I don’t know… maybe it’s more automatic than that now…. The computer probably does it these days.

When the nugget of coal falls into the bowl mill the long journey from the coal mine in Wyoming is almost complete. Its short life as a nugget is over and it is pulverized into powder. The powder is finer than flour. Another name for a bowl mill is “Pulverizer”. The coal comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and just before it is consumed in Oklahoma it really does become powder.

Big rollers are used to crush the coal into fine particles. The pulverized coal his blown up pipes by the primary air fans and blown directly into the boiler where they burst into flames. A bright orange flame. The color reminds me of orange sherbet Ice cream.

The color of the fireball in the boiler

The color of the fireball in the boiler

At this point an incredible thing happens to the coal that so many years ago was a part of a tree or some other plant. The chemical process that trapped the carbon from the carbon dioxide millions of years earlier is reversed and the carbon is once again combined to the oxygen as it was many millennium ago. A burst of heat is released which had been trapped after a cooling effect below the tree as it sucked the carbon out of the environment way back then.

The heat is transferred to the boiler tubes that line the boiler. The tubes heat the water and turn it into steam. The steam shoots into the turbine that turns a generator that produces the electricity that enters every house in the country. The solar power from eons ago that allowed the tree to grow is being used today to power our world. What an amazing system.

To take this one step further, the carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere today is replenishing the lost carbon dioxide from many years ago. Back when plants could breathe freely. Back before the carbon dioxide level was depleted almost to the point of the extinction of plant life on this planet. Remember, what we look on as a pollutant and a poison, to a plant is a chance to grow. The Sahara desert used to be a thriving forest. Maybe it will be again some day.

So, there is the question of global warming. We humans are so short sighted sometimes. We want to keep everything the same way we found it when we were born. We try desperately to keep animals from becoming extinct. We don’t think about the bazillions (ok, so I exaggerate) of animals that were extinct long before man arrived. It is natural for extinction to occur. That is how things evolve. We are trying to keep a system the same when it has always been changing.

Years from now we may develop ways to harness the energy from the sun or even from the universe in ways that are unimaginable today. When that time arrives, let’s just hope that we remain good stewards of the world so that we are around to see it. I believe that the use of fossil fuels, (as odd as that may seem) is a major step in reviving our planet’s natural resources.

Comments from the previous repost:

twotiretirade  August 20, 2014

Glad Mark fought the good fight, still a sad story.

Antion August 21, 2014
Great read. I love knowing how things work. As I read the sad story of the traveling electrician, I kept wondering if she could have pulled that off in today’s world of air travel.

hiwaychristian August 22, 2014
when I went to the Christian College in Eugene Oregon, they forced me to take a course in biology at the University of Oregon. I willingly sat and listened to the mix of science and evolution. I admit their perspective was intriguing.
at the end of the class, the last day, the instructor asked each one of her students to tell how the class had affected their thinking.
each one gave the politically correct answer in a variety of form. all the while I sat joyfully waiting my turn.
my response hushed the class for a moment. (it’s been some decades ago so I have to paraphrase but let it be sufficient) “I’m impressed with all the material you’ve covered. it’s astounding to think of all the things that were. but for me this class has only glorified my God. because I realize that in his wisdom he created gasoline for my car.”
you’ve covered a lot of material in your post. and I’m impressed at your diligence to complete it. I thank God for His faithfulness that he has put into you. may He prosper your testimony for the glory of His Holy Son.
By His Grace
(please overlook the syntax errors in this reply it was generated on a mobile device)

Monty Hansen November 4, 2014

We processed several hobo’s through our coal system, & injured a few, but none ever got anything from the power company. I remember we would always worried about finding a chunk of scalp or something in the grating where the tripper car drops coal down into the silo. One especially memerable event was when a coal yard operator found a down vest jacket on the coal pile and bragged about how lucky he was to find this jacket, the size even fit, but the jacket did smell a little funny. yes it was ripped off the body of a hobo by the plow above conveyor one & shot out onto the coal pile by the stackout conveyor.

It was always unnerving to have a pullcord go down in the middle of the night deep down in the coal trestle, while the belts were shut down. You’d have to go down there alone, in the dark & reset the pull cords, so the belts could be started later when needed. You knew it wasn’t a trick because the whole crew had been up in the control room together eating dinner or something. You always wondered if you might run into a real hobo – or the ghost of one.

Life and Death on the Power Plant Lake

Originally posted on August 18, 2012:

I have just finished watching the movie “Godfather II” with my son.  Toward the end of the movie Fredo Corleone and Al are going fishing.  There is a scene where the motor boat in the boat house is lowered down into the water.  I have seen one boat house like this before where the boat is hoisted out of the water in the boat house so that it can be stored dry while hovering a few feet over the water.  The Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked as a summer help had a very similar boat house.

The Power Plant had a boat house because each month during the summer months the chemist had to go to various locations in the lake to take the temperature and a water sample.  He would take the water samples back to the chemist lab where they could be analyzed.  Each bottle was carefully labeled indicating where in the lake the sample was taken.  In order to take the samples out in the middle of the lake…. A motor boat was required.  Thus the need for the boat house.

The second summer as a Summer Help I was asked to go along on this journey with George Dunagan, a new chemist at the time.  Larry Riley usually manned the motor, as it was known that the motor for the boat had a tendency to cut out and die at random times and the best person that could be counted on to fix a stranded boat out in the middle of the lake was Larry Riley.  I know I always felt safe.

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

I have seen Larry dismantle part of the motor out in the middle of the lake, clean a fuel filter and put the thing back together again with a minimum number of tools at his disposal.  I would sit patiently as the boat rocked back and forth with the waves (Oklahoma winds usually kept a steady flow of waves) waiting for Larry to repair the motor.  I didn’t have any fear of missing lunch because Larry was in the boat.  So, I would just sit and watch the ducks and other birds fly by or look into the water to see what I could see.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset across the lake

Larry would pull something out of the motor and say, “Well, look at that!  No wonder this thing died.”  Right on queue.  A few minutes later and he would start the boat up again and off we would go speeding across the lake.

During the time I was a summer help, there were various tragic events that took place.  One man committed suicide by drowning at the park while his sister and wife waited on the shore to tell whoever was first to arrive.  Summer Helps were there, but I was on an errand to Oklahoma City at the time and only heard about it when I returned.  He had wrapped himself up in some brush. Evidently, he was in some kind of legal trouble at the time and was expected to show up to serve jail time the following Monday.

Another tragedy which was very sad was when a man was swimming with his son on his shoulders out to the dock that was placed out in the water so that swimmers could swim out to it, when he had a heart attack while his daughter was waiting for them on the shore.  When the summer help arrived, the daughter told them that her father and brother just went under the water and never came up.  One of the Summer Help, David Foster jumped in and found them both drowned.  It was a traumatic experience for him, which I’m sure lives on in his memory to this day.  Both the father and son had drowned.

Another man was fishing where the river pumps discharged into the lake.  This was a popular place to fish at a certain part of the day.  A large man had waded out into the water, and at some point fell over.  He could not swim and was also drowned.

These tragic events were a constant reminder that water sports of all kinds have their dangers.  Following Safety rules is very important.  I believe that two of those 4 people would have not drowned if they had on a life preserver.

Another more humorous tragedy (depending on how you look at it) occurred not far from the boat ramp at the park located closer to Hwy 177.  The story as I heard it was that this stubborn farmer who had become rich when they found oil on his land (and I won’t mention his name, because I don’t remember it.  Heck.  I can’t even remember his initials, if you can believe that), had bought his first boat.  Not knowing much about boating, he wanted to make sure he was well equipped, so he attached the biggest motor he could buy to it.

He lowered it into water at the boat ramp at the park, and turned it around so that it pointed out into the lake.  Then he opened it up to full throttle.  The nose of the boat proceeded to point straight up in the air, and the boat sank motor first. The man swam over to the shore.  Climbed in his truck and drove away.  Leaving the boat on the floor of the lake.  Now… I figure that someone must have seen this happen, because I’m sure that the person didn’t go around telling everyone that he met what he had done… — That is, until he had a few beers in him… maybe.

I would like to tell you some more about George Dunagan, the chemist that went with us to take the water samples.  He looked like the type of person that would make a good Sergeant in the Army.  A solid facial structure, and a buzz haircut reminded me of the Sergeant Carter on the Gomer Pyle TV show.  Here is a picture of Sergeant Carter and George Dunagan when he was younger:

Sergeant Carter

George Dunagan

Or does he look more like Glenn Ford?

George was in his mid-40s when I first met him.  He was 4 months older than my father.  He went about his business as a man that enjoyed his job.  Occasionally, something might get under his craw, and he would let you know about it, but you always knew that he was the type of person that was looking out for you, even when you thought you didn’t need it.

I considered George a True Power Plant Chemist.  He was a genius in his own field.  When I was young and I worked around George, I felt like he was passionate about his job and that he wanted to teach it to others.  He would explain to me what the different chemical processes in the Water Treatment were doing.  He would take any opportunity to explain things in detail.  Some people would think that he was kind of grumpy sometimes, and sometimes they would be right.  He cared passionately about things that involved “right” and “wrong”.  When he saw something that he considered wrong, he rarely sat still.

I considered George to be a passionate teacher that loved to see others learn.  I made it a point to stop and nod my head like I was really listening when he was telling me something because I could see the joy in his face that knowledge was being bestowed upon someone.

As he took the water samples in the lake, he explained to me why he was doing what he was doing.  How the EPA required these for so many years to show that the lake was able to cool the power plant steam back to water without disturbing the wildlife that inhabited the lake.

At that particular time, they were still taking a baseline of how the water was with just one unit running.  Later when both units are running they would see how it held up by comparing the year before when no unit was running, then this year with one, and next year with two units.

I listened intently.  Not so much because the topic interested me.  I wouldn’t tell George that I was struggling to pay attention because the particulars about how he had to label each sample and put them in order in the box were not as interesting as things that came to my own imagination.  I imagined things like… “Wouldn’t it be neat if you could breathe under water?”  Or,  “If the boat tipped over, and we were in the middle of the lake, would I stay with the boat or try to swim to the shore….”  “Was that my stomach rumbling?  Am I getting hungry already?”  I would put my own imagination aside.

I listened intently, mainly because I could see that George would brighten up to find such an attentive pupil in the boat.  I was grinning inside real big to watch George with such a satisfied look.  I suppose inside as George was explaining the world of water temperature and bacteria growth, I was thinking, “I wonder if George used to be a Sergeant in the Army.”  “Does he teach his own children the same way he does me?”.  “I wonder what George did before he came here.  Was he a chemist somewhere else?”

At the beginning of this year I began writing this Power plant Man Blog because I felt a great need to capture on paper (well.  Virtual paper anyway), some stories about the people I was blessed to work with at the Power Plant.  Sonny Karcher, who I considered a good friend had died a couple of months earlier.  I needed to write about these men, because if I didn’t, I feared these stories would be lost to the world.  These are too great of men to just fade away into history without something being left behind to record at least some memorable events in their lives.  16 days after I wrote my first post this year (on January 18, 2012), George Dunagan died in the Ponca City Medical Center.

One thing I was not surprised to learn about George was that he used to be a teacher.  He had a Master Degree in Education and had taught at the Chilocco Indian School for 11 years before going to work at the power plant.  This explained why he seemed to go into the “Teacher” mode when he was explaining something.


I also learned that he was in the U.S. Navy where he enlisted in 1954.  This didn’t surprise me either.  As I mentioned above, George reminded me of the Sergeant Carter on Gomer Pyle, and not in the humorous way, but in the way he carried himself like someone in the military.  George Dunagan reached the rank of Master Sergeant in the Army Reserves where he retired in 1994, two years after retiring from the Power Plant life.

The movie Godfather II seemed to be about how one man struggled to build a secure home for his family and fellow countrymen through any means necessary, and about how his son destroyed his own family to the point where he was left completely alone with his family destroyed at the end.

Power Plant Men had their own struggles at home.  They were not immune to family strife any more than anyone else.  The nature of their work gave them a great sense of dignity and feeling of accomplishment.  This sense of dignity helps relieve some stress in the family unit.  To realize every day that the work that you perform directly impacts the lives of everyone that receives the electricity being produced at the Power Plant.

When something goes wrong and a base unit trips suddenly, the lights flicker in every school room, every store and every house of 2 million people reminding us that this fragile system is so stable because of the due diligence of True Power Plant Men with the sense to care as much as George Dunagan a True Power Plant Chemist.

Comment from previous repost:

  1. Monty Hansen November 3, 2014

    Your story about George brought back warm memories of my own plant chemist, from long ago. “Chet Malewski”, a brilliant man in his own field, very kind, with a love of teaching and I was happy to soak up any knowledge he was willing to pass on. I took Chet fishing once & we spent the day in my boat. I find it amazing how much our powerplant lives have paralelled. Chet resembled Albert Einstein in appearance.

What Coal-Fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery

Power Plant Men working for a large Coal-Fired Power Plant have the kind of culture where Cleanliness is next to “Leroy Godfrey-ness”.  If you knew Leroy Godfrey, then you would know that he was a perfectionist in a lot of ways.  Or… Well, he expected the Plant Electricians to be anyway.  A few years after becoming an electrician, there was some work being done by Ben Davis, one of our best electricians, at the Conoco (Continental) Oil Refinery twenty miles north of the plant in Ponca City.

Conoco (Now Philips 66) Oil refinery

Conoco (Now Philips 66) Oil refinery in Ponca City

Being a low level Electrician Apprentice, I was not included in whatever was happening at the Refinery.  I didn’t work at the refinery for many years.  When I finally did go to Conoco, I wished I hadn’t.

What was happening?  A Co-Generation plant was being built there.  It is called a “Co-Generation” plant because it serves two purposes.  Waste gas from the refinery is used to fire the boiler that produces the steam to turn the turbine.  Any steam left over is sent over to the refinery to supplement their own needs.  The electricity is used by the refinery and any left over electricity is sold by the Electric Company for a profit.  So, in a sense, it is a “Co-Existence”.

For the most part, Power Plant Men were looking for opportunities to get in a company truck and leave the plant grounds to work on something outside the confines of the plant where they work every day, week in and week out.  Trips to the river pumps or the parks on our lake were always nice, because you would see wildlife along the way.  You could look out over the Arkansas River in the morning as the sun was rising and feel the cool breeze and smell the pastures nearby.

Trips to Enid to our small peaking units were fun too, because we were able to work on some different equipment out in a quiet substation where mud daubers were the only sound until the units came online.  The drive to Enid was nice because the 45 mile trip across the countryside is pleasant and the traffic is very light.  You can go for miles without seeing another car.

After only a couple of visits to the Conoco Oil Refinery, I never looked forward to the 20 minute drive from the plant when we had to work on the Co-Generation Plant co-owned by our company and the Oil Refinery.  There were a few things about the refinery that bothered me about working there.  One annoying factor was the hideous smell.

I had lived in Ponca City for three years and the sour odor that poured out of the Oil Refinery to the south of our house generally blew right up our street.  One winter morning I remember stepping out of our rental house into the dark on my way to work, and the exhaust from the oil refinery must have been blowing directly down the street to our house where I lived because when I took a breath I gagged immediately and was at the point of vomiting on the front lawn.

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma in 1986-89 with about 600 sq. ft. of living space

A side note…

My wife and I lived in this tiny house shortly after we were married.  Kelly was an RN (nurse) at the local hospital working the night shift while I was an electrician at the Power Plant during the day.  I had the philosophy that if we started by living in a dump and saved our money, then as we gradually worked our way up to a bigger house, we would feel as if life was getting better, and we never had to worry about money, since we always lived well below our means.

I figured that if we lived far below our means, our means would keep growing.  Living just below your means meant always staying in the same economic spot (how many sentences can put the words “means” and “meant” right next to each other?).  The quality of Life doesn’t get much better.  When living well below your means, life continues to get better even if your job stays the same your entire life.  I had figured that I was going to be a plant electrician until the day I retired, so, this was my way of planning ahead.

My wife endured living in this tiny house one block away from the railroad tracks traveled by the coal trains on their way to our plant (which shook our house as they passed) for three years before we moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma where we lived with more than twice the square feet and no smell from the oil refinery.

end of side note…

I started out by saying that the culture at our Power Plant was that Cleanliness was very important.  I suppose this was true at the Oil Refinery as well, only, it seemed that even though the clutter was all picked up, there was something “inherently” dirty about the oil refinery.  I’m not sure how to describe it, but you just felt like you didn’t want to touch anything because it was going to leave some sort of dirty film on you.  It was….. grimy.

Our Power Plant is in North Central Oklahoma, and during the summer going for an entire month with over 100 degree weather every day was not uncommon.  There are parts of the plant where you had to work some times where the temperature reached 160 degrees.  Of course, you can’t stay in that environment very long, and those areas are generally not the areas of choice when choosing which job to work on next.

One hot summer day in 1996, Charles Foster and I had to go to the oil refinery to our Co-Generation plant there to fix an Air Conditioner Condenser Fan Motor.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

This isn’t like one of those fans on the side of your house in the box that you know as your “air conditioner” that blows hot air out when the air conditioner in your house is running, though it performs the same task, only on a much bigger scale.

A large air conditioner about the size of the one that Mike Rose worked on

No.  Even bigger than this air conditioner

When you entered the oil refinery you had to wear a long blue cloak or coat called “Nomex”.

A Blue Nomex Coat

A Blue Nomex Coat  which can be worn by Mexicans.  That rumor is just not true.

The reason for wearing this heavy “woolen” coat was to help save your life in case you happened to be around the next time (next time?) something exploded, blasting flames in your direction.  — Yeah…. comforting huh?  Knowing that this flame retardant coat was going to keep you from being burned alive when something exploded in the refinery.  Oh joy.

Everyone in the refinery was wearing these blue coats.  It was a requirement before you could drive your pickup through the security gate.

Once inside the gate, Charles and I checked our clearances to make sure it was safe to work on unwiring the motor that was mounted under the air conditioner coils.  Another fan was running that was turning a large fan blade blowing hot air down next to us.  We had brought our own fans to blow cooler air on us while we worked on the motor.  This particular motor weighed about 400 lbs, to give you an idea of the size of motor we were repairing.

A motor much like this one

A motor much like this one only mounted vertically

Charles and I had brought a temperature gun to check how hot everything was when we were working.

An Infrared Thermometer

An Infrared Thermometer

When we checked the temperature, we found that the area where we had to stand was 160 degrees.  The motor itself was even hotter than that.  We had to wear leather gloves just to work on it without burning our hands.  Asbestos gloves would have rendered us useless because they make you feel like you are wearing “Hulk Hands” where your fingers are about 2 inches wide.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

See what I mean?

Hulk Hands

Hulk Hands

The air was too hot to breathe except for quick shallow breaths.  Even though we had a fan blowing directly on us, we took turns approaching the motor, turning some bolts a couple of times, and then quickly moving out of the area to where we could be in the cooler 105 degree temperature.

There is nothing like a mild irritation (such as working in extreme heat) to motivate you to hurry up a job.  Charles and I worked diligently to remove the motor and then lowering it down with a platform hand lift that we kept in the shop.

A platform Lift Hand Truck like the one we used

A platform Lift Hand Truck like the one we used only ours had a hydraulic lift on it.

This fan motor was on the roof of a building, so once we had removed the motor from where it was mounted, we still had to lower it down to the back of the truck which was backed up to the side of the building.  Once in the truck, we brought it back to the plant where we could work on it.

When you first went to work in the oil refinery you have to take a specially designed safety course when you are issued your Nomex coat.  During that class, you are told that if you hear the sirens go off, that generally means that there are some toxic gases being released accidentally in the plant, you are supposed to take action quickly.

The funniest (or not so funniest) instructions was that when the sirens go off, you are supposed to run in the opposite direction away from the sirens.  Which sort of reminds me of Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail when they had to run away from the viscous fighting rabbit. Yelling “Run Away!  Run Away!”  Great safety evacuation plan.

Battling the Killer Rabbit in the Search for the Holy Grail

Battling the Killer Rabbit in the Search for the Holy Grail

The toxic gas that everyone was worried about is called Hydrogen Sulfide or H2S.  This is the gas that smells like rotten eggs.  The only problem is that when there is more than the minimal amount of H2S in the air, you can’t smell it anymore because it quickly deadens your sense of smell.

Hydrogen Sulfide Warning Sign

Hydrogen Sulfide Warning Sign

Another fun reason to not want to go work in the Oil Refinery.

Anyway, Charles and I safely reversed the process to return the motor to its rightful place mounted on the bottom of the coils on the roof.

A few times I had to go to work at the Co-Generation plant because something was broken (like the fan motor), but most of the time that we went to the plant was to do our quarterly battery inspections.  For more information about battery inspections, you can read this post: “Importance of Power Plant Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance“.

I have told you all the reasons why I didn’t enjoy working at the Oil Refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma.  There were reasons why I did enjoy it.  I suppose if you have been reading my posts, you will know the most obvious answer to that question (oh.  I guess I didn’t really ask a question… but if I had…).  The only redeeming factor with working at the Co-Generation plant at the oil refinery was being able to work with the best Power Plant Men and Women in the country.

I have given you an example above when I worked with Charles Foster.  I also worked with Scott Hubbard and Diana Brien.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Both of them top class electricians and First Class Friends.  Just to be able to work side-by-side with such terrific people made me forget about the poison gases.  I didn’t mind the heat.  I even forgot I was wearing the heavy suffocating Nomex Coat.  What’s a little grime when your friend tells you about their day?  About what they are planning for the weekend?  Or the rest of their life?

Actually, I think that’s what made everything about working both at the Oil Refinery and the Power Plant itself the most enjoyable job I can imagine.  Sure.  We had a culture of “cleanliness” at the plant.  I think it was the “friendliness” that really made all the difference.  It was also the most painful part the day I finally left the Power Plant to adventure out to find the rest of the world in 2001.