Originally posted November 1, 2013:
You would think that telling time is a pretty universal past time. I used to think that myself. That is, until I went to work at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I first went to work there in 1979 as a summer help. I noticed something was different when I walked into the office to meet the Assistant Plant Manager, Bill Moler and the clock on his wall looked kind of funny. I had to stare at it for a moment before I realized what it meant:
The Power Plant Men called it Military Time because many of them had been in the military during the Vietnam War and had learned to tell time using this type of clock. When we filled out our timecards at the end of the day we put 0800 to 1600 Well. I put in the colons like this: 8:00 to 16:00 but that wasn’t the real Power Plant Man way to do it.
That wasn’t the only thing I learned about Power Plant Man time. Power Plant Men keep time in other ways. One of those ways, though it involves a clock, the time being observed isn’t the time of day. Instead it centers around five events.
Startin’ Time, Morning Break, Lunch Time and Afternoon Break and Quitin’ Time. A Power Plant Man’s day revolves around these events.
The moment Startin’ Time begins, the Power Plant Men are looking forward to Morning Break. They schedule their efforts around this event. That is, if they need to do a certain job that would run them into Morning Break, then they figure out something else to do, and push that event out until Morning Break is over.
In General, Morning Break would begin at 9:30 (Oh. I mean 0930 — pronounced “Oh Nine Thirty”). It was supposed to be 15 minutes long, but in order to make sure you didn’t miss your break, you usually headed toward the shop 15 minutes early. Then by the time you headed back out the door to and returned to your work, another 10 to 15 minutes went by. Essentially stretching morning break from 15 minutes to 40 to 45 minutes.
This was especially true in the early days of the Power Plant. The Power Plant Men’s culture evolved over time so that the actual time spent on their 15 minute break probably shortened from 45 minutes to 30 minutes.
The idea that the employees weren’t spending every moment of their day when not on break working just confounded Plant Managers, such as the “Evil Plant Manager” that I often talk about. Our first plant manager was so tight, when he worked at a gas plant in Oklahoma City, he was known for taking rags out of the trash and putting them back in the rag box because they weren’t dirty enough.
Now that I work at Dell as a Business Systems Analyst (and since I first wrote this post, I have changed jobs and now work for General Motors) after many years of working for great managers and not-so-great managers, I am always relieved when I find that a new manager doesn’t measure you by how many hours you are sitting at the computer, but by your results.
For those that looked closely at the performance of the Power Plant Men at our particular plant, they would find that when a job needed to be done, it would be done… on time. The bottom line was that when you treat the employees with respect, they go the extra mile for you.
“Quitin’ Time” was always an interesting time. From the first day that I arrived as a summer help (1979) until the day I left 22 years later (2001), Even though “Quitin’ Time” was at 4:30 (or 1630, later changing to 1730), it really began at 4:00 (or 1600, pronounced “sixteen hundred”).
at 4:00, a half hour before it was time to go out to the parking lot and drive home, everyone would return to the shop, where they would spend the next 30 minutes cleaning up and filling out their daily timecard. The timecard was, and probably still is, a sheet of paper.
Amazing huh? You would think with the way things are that paper timecards would have disappeared a long time ago. I could be wrong about that. If it is any different at the plant today, I’ll encourage one of them to leave a comment below updating me.
There are other ways that Power Plant Men tell time. Sure, they know that there are seasons, like Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring. But it is more likely that in their minds the Power Plant Men are thinking more like this…. Instead of Summer, they would think that this is “Peak Load”. That is, the units need to stay operational because the citizens of this country are in dire need of air conditioning.
Instead of Fall, there are two thoughts running through a Power Plant Man’s mind…. Hunting Season and the start of “Overhauls”.
As hunting season nears, many Power Plant Men are staking out their territories and setting up their deer stands. Some are out practicing with their bows as Bow Season starts first before you can use a rifle. The Plant staff didn’t like their employees taking off Christmas vacation, and did everything they could to keep you in town during the holiday. But when it came down to it… The real time to worry was during hunting season.
An Overhaul is when you take one of the units offline to work on things that you can’t work on when it is running. the main area being inside the boiler. When overhauls come around, it is a chance for working a lot of overtime. The pay is good especially if you get to go to another plant to work because then you not only get to work 10 or 12 hour days, but you receive a Per Diem of somewhere from $28.50 to $35.00 each day depending on how far back you want to look.
I don’t know what the Per Diem is today. I’m sure it must be much higher. Plus you get driving time back and forth each week, and you also receive mileage! So, you can see why Power Plant Men were often very anxious to go away on overhaul.
Overhaul season ran from the Fall into the Spring. It is during that time when the electric company could take a couple of units offline at a time because the electric demand wasn’t so high.
Another season that many Power Plant Men counted on was “Fishing Season”. It wasn’t like the other seasons, because it kind of ran into a lot of the others. If the weather was right, and the rain was right and the Missus was all right with it… Then it was fishing season. There were different types of fishing. In the electric shop, “Noodling” was popular. That is when you reach under the rocks in a river and feel around for a fish and then end up catching it with your bare hands.
Another timekeeping tool used by Power Plant men was “Pay Day”. It came around every two weeks. After a while everyone was on direct deposit, so it wasn’t like they were all waiting around for someone to actually hand them a paycheck. Many did plan their trips to the mall or to the gun shows in Oklahoma City around Pay Day. It was common to live from paycheck to paycheck.
If you worked in the coalyard, then you calibrated your clock by when the next coal train was going to roll into the dumper. There was generally a steady stream of coal trains coming and going. When a coal train was late, or even early, then I think it seemed to throw some coalyard hands into a state of confusion. But, then again, now that I think about it…. Walt Oswalt usually did seem to be in a state of confusion. — I’m just joking of course….. Well… you know…
If you were a Control Room Operator, then you were in a sort of Twilight Zone, because there really was only one small window in the entire Control room and that was only so that you could look through a small telescope at the Main Power Substation in case…. well… in case you were bored and you needed to be reassured that the world still did exist out there.
In the control room, there were clocks, but the control room operators had a lot more pretty lights to look at back then. Here is my favorite picture of a Power Plant Control Room (not the one where I worked):
See all those lights? Now everything is on the computer. That way if some foreign terrorist group decides they want to shut down the electric grid, all they have to do is hack into the system and down it goes. They couldn’t do that when the control room looked like this.
It seemed that being in the control room was out of time. It didn’t matter what time of the day you went in the control room. In the morning, the afternoon, even at two in morning. It always seemed the same. There were always two control room operators sitting or standing at their posts. The Shift Supervisor was sitting in his office, or was standing somewhere nearby. Other operators were walking in and out going on their rounds. I think the Control Room operators only knew that it was time to go home because the next shift would show up to take their place.
Electricians on the other hand, had their own kind of timekeeping. Well, not all of them… ok…. well… maybe just me…. I used an oscilloscope a lot when I was working on the precipitator controls, and so very small amounts of time meant a lot to me. For instance… The regular 60 cycle electricity in your house goes from zero to about 134 volts and then back to zero about every 8 and 1/3 thousands of a second (or .00833333…).
I will talk about it later, but when you are testing tripping relays, even as little as one thousandth of a second can be important. So, telling time with an oscilloscope can vary widely.
Then there were those timekeeping Power Plant Men that kept time by how long it was going to be to retirement. It was more of a countdown. I remember one Power Plant Man saying that he only had 21 more years and then he was outta there. An even more sad story was when Charles Lay at Muskogee who was 63 asked me to figure out his retirement because he wanted to retire in 2 years. Well….. sad to say… He had only been working there for 3 or so years, so his retirement package wasn’t going to be much and had never put anything into a 401k or an IRA.
Those who spent their lives working at the plant were able to retire with great benefits. It wasn’t like a union with all the healthcare and stuff, but the company did offer a very good retirement plan for those that had been there for the long haul. I suppose at this point they are measuring time in terms of their lifetime.
What it boils down to is that some Power Plant Men measured their life one-day-at-a-time, while others just looked at the entire time of their life as one time. Some looked forward to a time when they would be able to rest, while others enjoyed their work each day.
When I think about time, I realize that an infinite number of things can take place each second. Yet, a lifetime can go by without ever grasping what is important and what is fleeting. When I think back at the time that I spent working at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, what I feel is that I was blessed by the presence of such great men and women and it was time well spent.