Power Plant Lady of the Labor Crew

Originally Posted on October 19, 2012:

In the Power Plant posts, I generally tend to focus on the Power Plant Men that taught their Power Plant culture to me while I was fortunate enough to grace the boilers and conveyors of the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the north central plains of Oklahoma. Every once in a while during this journey there were True Power Plant Ladies that came along that took their place right alongside the Power Plant Men.

The Women generally held their own when it came to the amount of work, their tenacity, and even for some, their ability to hit a spittoon from 6 feet. — Ok. I made up the part about hitting a spittoon.  Everyone just used the floor drains for spittoons in the early days before they became responsible for cleaning them out themselves, after the summer help found more grass to mow. — The choice spitting material was…. Sunflower seed shells.

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

In the first few years, Leta Cates worked out of the welding shop (I believe… Well, she hung around there a lot), and later became a clerk. Then there was Opal Brien who was in the maintenance shop and worked in the garage one year when I was a summer help. Of course, there was Darlene Mitchell who worked in the warehouse with Dick Dale, Mike Gibbs and Bud Schoonover.

There was also Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), who was one of the Electric Shop A team super heroes.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Later came Julienne Alley that became the “Mom” of the welding shop. Some more came and went…. Especially the person that we referred to as “Mom” while I was on labor crew. Doretta Funkhouser.

I have mentioned before that the evil plant manager Eldon Waugh enjoyed manipulating his minion’s (oh… I mean employee’s) personal lives as much as he could get away with without stirring up trouble downtown. So, one of the rules he had put in place was that no one on the janitor crew could be considered for another position at the plant until they had first moved to the labor crew.

There even came a ruling later in 1983 (from Eldon and/or Bill Moler) that if it was your turn to go to Labor Crew, and you were not able to, or didn’t for some reason more than once, then you would lose your job altogether. That remained the case until Darrell Low was able to quickly move from janitor to Operator after Eldon had lost his control over the people on labor crew that he wanted to keep there, making the rule obsolete (I’m sure we had been told the rule had come from Corporate headquarters anyway).

Once on the labor crew, it was very rare that anyone left this crew to go to another position in the plant. They usually had to leave the company altogether, or find a job at another plant in order to escape. This was especially true after the summer of 1982 when the oil boom went bust in Oklahoma making jobs harder to find, and less people left the plant to go somewhere else to work.  The phrase on the first Tuesday of every month was, “Did you see that line of cars outside the gate this morning?  Be lucky you have a job.”

So, when I finally made it to the labor crew, many of the team had been there for a very long time. Others I had worked with before because we were janitors together. This included Ronnie Banks and Jim Kanelakos. Other members of the labor crew were Ron Luckey, Chuck Moreland, Fred Crocker, Bob Lillibridge, Tom Kelly, Bill Cook, Charles Peavler and Doretta Funkhouser. Larry Riley was our foreman.

While on labor crew I was able to learn how to operate a backhoe. Though I never learned the backhoe magic of Larry Riley, I was able to scoop up bottom ash and dump it into the back of Power Plant Men’s pickup trucks that needed it to fill in the parts of their driveways that had washed out at home. The very first time I operated a backhoe, I noticed right away that the brakes didn’t operate very well. You really had to play with it in order to get backhoe to not roll forward.

Backhoe

Here is a picture of a Backhoe

That was ok, because I was just loading bottom ash from a pile into a dump truck and I could just bump the backhoe right up against the dump truck and empty the scoop into the bed. That was working real good until while I was waiting for the dump truck to return after bringing the bottom ash to the place where it was dumping the ash, Jim Harrison pulled up in a shiny new Dodge Pickup. I mean…. it was brand new! He backed up by me and signalled to me from inside his truck. I was waiting there with a scoop full of bottom ash (which is a gravelly looking substance) for the dump truck to return.

My first thought was oh boy…. I shouldn’t do this…. I can hardly stop this thing and I know I will probably run right into the side of Jim’s new truck and he’s going to have a fit. So, I did the only thing I could do. I proceeded to drive around to the side of Jim’s truck to pour the load of ash into the bed of his truck.

Now… either it was Jim’s guardian angel, or it was mine (protecting me from the bodily harm Jim may have inflicted on me out of stress had I put a big dent in the side of his new truck) that stopped the backhoe just at the right spot, I’ll never know for sure. But something did. The backhoe for once stopped right where I would have liked it to stop and I dumped the ash in the truck filling it to the brim. I waved to Jim, and he drove away.

Later when I went back to the Coal Yard Maintenance building (where the Labor Crew called home) I saw Jim in the office, so I went to talk to him. I smiled and said, “I hope I didn’t make you nervous dumping that ash in your truck.” Jim said “No.” It didn’t bother him one bit. He said he knew I could handle it.

So I told him that was the first time I had ever operated a backhoe and the brakes don’t work too well, and I wasn’t even sure if I could keep the backhoe from running into the side of his truck. I remember Jim’s reaction. He said, “Ok, now I’m nervous.” Having done my share of passing the nervous energy over to Jim, I went next door to the break room to enjoy my lunch.

You would think that with Doretta being the only woman on the crew, she would have had it much easier than the rest of us. She was about a 29 year old lady that had a daughter at home. I know because she used to wear a shirt that had her daughter’s face on it. She was working to make a living like most everyone else on the labor crew. Doretta worked right alongside the rest of us when it came to Coal Cleanup, washing down the conveyor system using high pressure water hoses.

She worked right alongside me while we tied the rebar for the concrete floor of the new sandblast building that was going to be built behind the water treatment building. She worked with me in the sump pit between the precipitator and the smoke stacks with the Honey Wagon Sewer company that was helping us suck out the crud from the bottom of the pit. (This was before we had bought our own Honey Wagon). They call it a “Honey Wagon”, because, well… it is used to suck out things like Outhouses. You know how much that smells like Honey….. right? Um… ok.

We finally bought a Honey Wagon like this

Most surprising to me, Doretta worked cleaning boiler tubes in the boiler when the unit was offline and we needed to shake tubes to knock out the ash, or even use crosscut saw blades welded end on end to cut through the ash packed in the boiler economizer section.

I’m talking about two man crosscut saws. Welded end-on-end

This lady was a survivor. That is how she struck me.

Most of the time Doretta worked with a smile on her face. In fact, she had a smile embedded on her face from years of smiling to the point that her eyes smiled. Even though (as I found out in the course of my time on the Labor Crew), Doretta had a very rough period of her life, she hadn’t let it beat her down, and she was happy to be working on the labor crew, doing what most people would think was a thankless job.

It is true that when something needed to be typed, (Desktop computers were not available yet), Doretta would do the typing for Larry. She would also cut our hair. Being paid our modest salary (mine was $5.75 per hour at the time), we couldn’t afford to go to the barber every other week to have our hair trimmed, so Doretta would set up shop and one-by-one, we would go sit in the chair and she would cut our hair. Just like a mom would do.

I figured that if we were calling Doretta “Mom”, it only made sense that we would call Larry “Dad”. Larry’s reaction to my calling him “Dad” was more like Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker that he was Luke’s father. “Nooooooo!!!!” Except I was the little Darth Vader telling Larry I was his son…

The little Darth Vader from the Volkwagen commercial

Larry disowned me for a while as I have mentioned in an earlier post called “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“. He finally came around to admitting it when I continued calling him Dad. But he explained that he dropped me on my head when I was a baby and that was why I was so strange. So, Larry was our Labor Crew Dad, and Doretta was our Labor Crew mom.

It came to no surprise later when Doretta Funkhouser left the plant to become Doretta Riley. It seemed natural to me that my Labor Crew Mom and Dad would be married. I don’t know if that resolved the issue of my illegitimate Power Plant birth. I don’t remember anyone referring to me as a bastard after that. at least not in relation to my questionable origin, and at least not directly to my face. Though I do know of a few people during the years that would have thought that would have been an appropriate title for me.

I remember on one occasion when we were hauling scaffolding up onto the boiler to prepare for an outage, and I was working with Doretta using the large wench on floor 8 1/2 (I think), when Doretta came back from checking something at the bottom of the boiler. She said something to me then that puzzled me for a while. I didn’t understand it at first, but later came to know why she said what she did.

This is the type of Wench Hoist we were operating, only ours was powered by high pressure air. Not electricity

She said that it made her mad that people were trying to get me fired, when I’m a decent person, while there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to stay. She was referring to the wrath of Waugh after we had embarassed him in front of Martin Louthan when we had confronted them about not being allowed to be considered for the Testing jobs, (See the post “Take A Note Jan” said the Manager of Power Production“). Eldon was trying to dig up dirt on anyone that had caused his embarassment and had targetted me as one person to fire.

What had happened when Doretta had gone down to the foot of the boiler was that one or more of the “Pseudo” Power Plant Men-in-training had made an insulting reference to the past hardships that Doretta experienced in her life. I wasn’t aware of this until Eldon and Bill Moler questioned me about it a few weeks later when I was called to the office to see if I knew anything about the incident.

When they told me what had been said I became visibly upset to the point that I could hardly respond. Not because I didn’t want to answer their questions (which I didn’t, because I knew they were on their witch hunt which included me as well), but because when I learned that a couple of people on our crew had gravely insulted someone that I deeply cared about, I was both angry and upset. It was upsetting that someone would insult a struggling mother who was doing what she could to take care of her children only to be berated by others that worked closely with me.

After Doretta left the plant to marry Larry, I only saw her at a few Christmas Parties after that. She still had the same smile. I hope that she was able to find peace in her life, and that her family is doing well today. And that’s the story of my Labor Crew Mom and Dad.

Comments from the original post:

  1. Spent a little time on the picket line with the Navajo Local, District 65, in the Navajo Nation – when they were out on strike in 1987. Forget the lass’s name; but, the leader of the Local was a young Navajo woman, married with a couple of kids at home, who operated the biggest dragline at the Peabody Mine.

    Helluva skill.

  2. Gotta say, this is one of the more unusual blog posts I’ve seen in a while: different subject, funny, and well-written, too.

    Not my normal fare, but you’ve got a new follower… :)

  3. Your evocative stories return me to my years as a riveter… your subjects were the kind of people who built this country’s industry, I think. And I still think you have a book here…

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6 responses

  1. At times I’ve found myself thinking that the Power Plant could have used a union. But I guess there are reasons it didn’t have one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For the most part the threat of a union was enough. From what I’ve seen of unions they seem to negotiate contracts that no nonunion person would ever accept. It works out best for the employer and the union because it keeps the workers in a situation where they think the company is the enemy and they need the union to fight back. Nonunion workers in this country have it a lot better… for the most part. There’s always exceptions. Remember. If you don’t like your job, this is a big country. With a lot of opportunity. The employer knows that. The plant manager in this case was an old school manager that was early retired for that very reason.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I figured something of the sort. Thanks for the explanation.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
    SO—LETA CATES WAS THE FIRST LADY????? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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