Monthly Archives: February, 2018

In Memory of Sonny Karcher – Power Plant Man

this was originally posted on January 7, 2012.  Added a picture of Sonny Karcher:

When I heard the sad news of the death of Sonny Karcher on 11/11/11, I wished I had been able to attend his funeral.  I did reserve some amount of time that night when I heard about his death to remember the times I have spent with Sonny.  All of them good, as Sonny was always pleasant to be with even when he was mad about something.  Here are some of the first and last things I remember:

When I first worked at the Sooner power plant the summer of 1979, Sonny and Larry Riley were the first two mechanics I was assigned to work with.  They taught me how things were at the plant at that time.  Both of the units were still under construction, so there was no electricity being generated.

The first job we were to work on (my second day at the plant, since the first day was taking a safety class, and getting my hard hat and safety glasses and getting fitted for ear plugs) was a stuck check valve in the dumper sump pump pit (Not only did I not know what a check valve was, I wasn’t too sure what was meant by a dumper sump, though I did know “pump”).

It took us about an hour to take the truck to the coal yard, as a coal yard foreman Richard Nix had the key and wasn’t going to give it to us until one of his hands was ready to go with us.  So we sat in the truck parked in the north entrance of the maintenance shop for almost an hour.  When the guy was finally ready, and he had climbed in the back of the pickup, it turned out that he only needed to go as far as the parking lot… about 200 yards away (as the parking lot was at the Engineer’s shack at the time).  We dropped him off and drove up to the coal yard, and made our way down belt 2 to the sump pump pit at the tail end of the belt.

We tested the pump and saw that the water would run back into the sump once the pump stopped running.  So, it was determined that the check valve was stuck.  We drove back to the plant and took the morning break.

About an hour later, Sonny told me to go to the tool room and get the following items (which I thought was a joke, because he gave me such a strange list of tools that I didn’t recognize):   Two ¾ box ends, One four foot soft choker, a ¾ come-along, a ¾ shackle, a two foot steel choker a flat bastard file, a large channel lock, and two pry bars (I did recognize Pry Bars and shackle, which I believed was thrown in there just to make it sound legitimate).  – I wrote down the list, because I recognized right away that a joke was being played on me and I was going to play right along.

So, I went to the tool room and I asked Bud Schoonover (a very large  tall and easy going man at the time), “I need a ¾ come-along (I thought I would choose the most ridiculous item on the list first, just to get on with the joke…).  Well.  Bud turned around, walked to the back wall, took a come-along off the top of a pallet full of what appeared to be a bunch of junk, and laid it across the tool room gate window (The tool room was still being “organized” at the time).

So, I asked for two ¾ box ends (this was before anyone had been issued toolboxes by the way, that’s why we had to go to the tool room for these things).  Well, you know the rest of this part of the story.  These are all legitimate items, and I learned a lot that day and the next few weeks about the names of various tools.  I kept that list in my wallet for over 10 years as a reminder to myself of when I first came to the plant, and how much I didn’t know then.

So, Larry, Sonny and I went up to the coal yard, and went down to the tail end of #2 belt and removed the check valve from the discharge pipe and brought it back to the maintenance shop to repair.  When we returned, we went to lunch.  During lunch Sonny told me about how he was hired at Sooner plant.

He said he lived a few miles down the road and had heard that someone was building a lake up on top of the hill he could see from his property.  So, he went on over to see who was dumb enough to build a lake on top of a hill, and while he was looking around Orville Ferguson came up to him and asked  him if he was looking for a job.  Sonny said that he liked to mow grass, and Orville said that he would hire him to mow grass then.  Sonny said, if I remember correctly, that he was hired at the same time that Linda Shiever, the timekeeper, was hired and that they were the first two new hires at the plant.  The rest were already company employees that had transferred there.

After lunch we went down to the shop and took the check valve apart and what do you know….  There was a piece of coal stuck in the check valve keeping it open.  We cleaned it up and put it back together.  When we were finished, we took our afternoon break.  After break we drove back up to the coal yard and went down to the tail end of #2 Conveyor belt and put the check valve back in the discharge pipe.  When we returned to the maintenance shop, we returned the tools to the tool room and filled out our time cards.  A day’s worth of work cleaning a check valve.

I did many other things that first summer, since Sooner Plant didn’t have a yard crew yet, I worked most of the time in the maintenance shop bouncing around from crew to crew helping out.  I also did a lot of coal cleanup (especially on weekends), since the conveyor system didn’t work correctly when they started it up when they were starting to fire up unit 1.

The second day before I left at the end of the summer to go back to school, I worked again with Larry Riley and Sonny Karcher to fix the exact same check valve.  This time we jumped in a truck (we had a lot more trucks now…. Which is another story), went to the coal yard, went down #2 tunnel to the tail end of #2 Conveyor, pulled out the check valve, removed the piece of coal, put the check valve back in, went back up to the truck and back to the maintenance shop just in time for morning break. Sooner Plant had improved a lot in the short three months I worked that summer.

I worked many years with Sonny Karcher in the garage, and fixing coal handling equipment, and just about anything else.   He finally left the plant to go mow grass, when after a battle to move to the garage from coal yard maintenance to mow grass, he was told that he was going to have to go back to the coal yard to be a coal yard mechanic, because he was real good at that and they just needed him up there.  So he left.

He talked to me about it before he went, that’s how I know what was on his mind.  He said, “Kev, you remember when you first came here and I told you how they hired me to mow grass?  Well, that’s what I want to do.  Mow grass.  So I’m going to have to go back home and do just that.”

After that, the only times I remember seeing Sonny was when he was mowing grass down at Bill’s corner, with a smile on his face waving at the Sooner plant employees on their way home from work.

I can see Sonny talking to St. Peter at the gates of heaven now…..  The only words I can hear Sonny saying is, “I like to mow grass”… and St. Peter nodding with approval as he lets him through the gates.

Sonny Karcher

Sonny Karcher

Advertisements

Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day

This is a revised version of a post that was originally posted on 1/14/2012:

What sets power plant men apart from your regular mechanic, lineman or men of other occupations is that they are a semi-captive group of people with a lot of freedom to move about the plant and the plant grounds.  This provides for the opportunity to play jokes on each other without resorting to “horseplay”.  There is no room for horseplay at a power plant.  The power plant man lives among dangerous equipment, poisonous chemicals, carcinogenic dust, asbestos gloves and purely evil plant managers who would love to catch one of his minions engaging in horseplay.

The more elaborate yet simple joke seems to have the best effect on those who find themselves the victim.  First of all, the joke must be essentially harmless.  That is, no one is left injured (this rule seems to be more of a suggestion since I seemed to end up on the short end of the stick a few times).  Secondly,  the longer the joke takes to completion, the better.

If the joke goes on for a week or longer, then the final impact of the joke is much greater.  For instance.  A person that you are going to play a joke on sits in a chair that is raised and lowered by turning the chair upside down and twisting the wheel bracket around (which is how you lowered office chairs before the fancier spring and air cushioned chairs arrived).  Say you were to gradually lower a person’s chair each day by 1/8 of an inch or so.

Eventually, in a couple of weeks, the person will be sitting lower and lower at their desk until one day they get frustrated at sitting so low that they turn their chair over and raise the chair higher.  But each day, you keep lowering the chair by just a little bit until they are sitting so low again that they complain about it again and raise the chair up.  This can go on indefinitely.  The more people that know the joke is being played, the better in this instance.

The first time I met Gene Day, I knew that he was someone that would be fun to play jokes on.  I don’t know what it was about him exactly.  It wasn’t that he appeared to have a lower IQ.  On the contrary.  He seemed to be very knowledgeable as Control Room operators go.  Maybe it was because he seemed like a happy person that took most things rather lightly.

He wouldn’t be the type of person that would hold something against you just because you made him look foolish in front of his peers (or you posted it on a blog for the entire world to see.  — Right Gene?).  It seemed like the first time I noticed Gene Day, he was standing in the Control Room and I gave him a look like I was suspicious of him and he returned the look with one that said that he knew that I might be the type of person that would play a joke on him.  This surprised me, because I thought I had masked that look pretty well.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.  See what I mean about he has a face that says it would be great to play a joke on him?  Actually, everyone else smiling in this picture are doing so because they are in the middle of playing a joke on Gene, only he doesn’t know it yet.

Throughout my 20 years of power plant life I played many jokes on Gene Day, and each time it seems that I was throttled to the edge of extinction, which meant that I had executed the joke perfectly.  It seemed that each person had a different way of expressing their joy of finding out that they have been the victim of a power plant joke.  Gene’s general reaction was to place his hands carefully around your neck and start rapidly shaking your head back and forth.

My favorite Gene Day joke was not one that took a long time to execute, and from the time that I conceived the idea to the time that I was being strangled by Gene Day was a mere 15 hours.

It began when I was driving home from work one day on my way down Sixth Street in Stillwater Oklahoma where I lived on the west end of town at the time.  Gene Day was an operator and their shift was over an hour and a half before the rest of the plant.  As I drove down Sixth Street about a block ahead of me, I saw Gene Day’s truck pull away from the Rock House Gym travelling in the same direction.  Gene had a black pickup with flames on the side…. Something left over from High School I think…  The only one in town like it.

Gene Day's truck was similar to this only different, with a different pattern of flames and a newer type of truck

Gene Day’s truck was similar to this only different, with a different pattern of flames and a newer type of truck

I kept an eye on his truck to see where he went, and as he passed the Stillwater Hospital he pulled into an Eye Clinic and parked in the parking lot.   I drove on past and pulled into my driveway about 3 blocks further on.  As I checked my mail I decided to go to the bank to deposit some checks I had received.  I returned to my car and pulled my car out of the driveway and headed back into town.

Gene Day just happened to turn onto Sixth Street in front of me again as he left the Eye Clinic and proceeded to go down Sixth street in front of me.  So again I watched him to see where he went.

Just as I came to Duck Street, I saw Gene Day pull his truck into the Simon’s Gas Station on the corner of Duck and Sixth.  He had pulled his truck up to the garage instead of the pumps, so I figured that he was getting his truck inspected.  I turned on Duck street to go to the bank drive-thru about a block away from the gas station.

After taking care of my banking business, I left the bank and headed back home toward Sixth Street.  I arrived at the corner of Sixth Street just in time to see Gene Day pulling out of the gas station and heading off in the opposite direction toward his house.  I thought that he hadn’t been at the gas station very long so he probably had just had his truck inspected.

The next morning when I arrived at the plant I walked by Gene Day’s truck on the way to the electric shop and I looked to see if he had a new Safety Inspection sticker.  He didn’t have any Safety Inspection sticker which meant that his truck had failed the inspection.

Armed with this information when I arrived in the electric shop I took out a yellow pad of paper and proceeded to write the following:

Private Investigator’s Notes for Gene Day:

Date:  5/14/91

3:05  Gene Day leaves work.

3:45 Gene Day arrives at Rockhouse Gym where he works out with a young college coed named Bunny.

5:05 Gene Day leaves Rockhouse Gym.

5:07 Gene Day arrives at Cockrell Eye Care Center  where he meets with a nurse in his pickup truck in the parking lot.

5:20 Gene Day leaves Eye Care Center.

5:25 Gene Day arrives at Simon’s Garage at the corner of Sixth and Duck and has them clean his pickup seats to remove the perfume scent.  While he was there, he tried to have his pickup inspected, but it didn’t pass inspection.

5:33 Gene Day leaves Simon’s Garage and goes home.

I folded the paper in half and after I began work, I headed to the Control Room to see how the Electrostatic Precipitator was doing.  I sat at the computer by the Control Room door that opened up to the Turbine Generator room.  After a while Gene Day walked by on his way to pick up the mail from the front office.

I waited about 30 seconds and followed him out onto the Turbine Generator (T-G) floor.  The T-G floor at Sooner Plant is painted bright red and the floor is kept clean so that the lights overhead reflect off of the floor.

The Control Room is halfway across this large room about 200 yards long.  The office area is at one end.   I walked over to the door that leads to the Office area and laid the half folded paper in the middle of the floor.

I figured that Gene wouldn’t be able to resist picking it up to see what it said.  Then I went back to the Control Room and leaned against one of the big blue monitors used by the Control Room Operators to view alarms.

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

This picture by Jim Cave shows the Unit 2 Turbine-Generator, The Office is in the opposite direction but just as far as to the wall at the end of the Generator

After a few minutes, Gene Day walked into the Control room.  In one arm he carried various parcels of mail.  In the other hand, he was carrying the yellow paper I had left for him to find.  He was violently shaking it at me yelling, “How did you do this?!?!”

I acted surprised as if I didn’t know what he was talking about.  Somehow he figured I was behind this, but for the life of me I don’t know why….  He tried to explain to me that he had stopped to see his wife who is a nurse at the Cockrell Eye Care Clinic, and that there wasn’t any girl named Bunny.  He couldn’t figure out how I would know that he tried to get his truck inspected and it failed inspection….

I insisted that I didn’t know what he was talking about.  About that time, the room became blurry as my head was shaking back and forth, and I came to the realization that this joke had been performed perfectly.

Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost

This is a repost of a story that was Posted on January 21, 2012.  I rewrote it slightly and added a story to the bottom of it.  Everything past the poem is new.

When I worked on the labor crew we used to have a lot of fun cleaning out the boiler.  Especially the economizer section where we had that three foot crawl space in the middle where you had to lie flat with a the hydraulic spreaders and the four inch vacuum hose trying to suck out the chunks of ash clinkers before the crawl space filled up with ash.  After lying around in this wonderful environment for a day or so, one begins to look around for something to break the drone of the sucking sound of the vacuum and the swishing sound of the crosscut saws welded end on end as they rose and fell in a rhythmic beat propelled by Labor Crew He-men ten feet above this large bundle of Economizer tubes.

Bob Lillibridge was never in a bad mood when it came to cleaning the boiler.  His thin physique allowed him easy access to the crawl space.  The wild glare in his eye and cigarette smile kept everyone guessing what he would do next.  The texture of Bob’s face was like those bikers that have spent too many hours riding their Harleys through the desert without wearing a helmet.

Ok. I'm over exagerating. Bob didn't have this many wrinkles

Ok. I’m over exaggerating. Bob didn’t have this many wrinkles

He was especially cheerful when we were able to work in the Economizer crawl space with Ronnie Banks.  Ronnie Banks, unlike Bob was not wiry.  His stature was more like a thin black bear standing on his hind legs.  He sort of walked that way too.  I developed a song when Ronnie Banks and I worked together that went to the tune of the Lone Ranger theme (the William Tell Overture), that consisted of saying his name rapidly over and over again (like: Ronnie Banks Ronnie Banks Ronnie Banks Banks Banks).  It felt good to say, and it seemed to amuse Ronnie Banks.

Bob on the other hand knew that Ronnie was highly claustrophobic.  So, he would let Ronnie crawl through the too small hole into the boiler, then would crawl in after him.  After they were in the boiler far enough, Bob would grab both of Ronnie’s legs and hug them as hard as he could.  This would send Ronnie into a Claustrophobic seizure where he would flail himself around wildly yelling unrecognizable words such as “Blahgruuuee” and “uuunnnhh-ope” and other similar pronunciations.  I think Bob Lillibridge just liked to hear Ronnie Banks speaking in tongues.  I have to admit it did give you a strange sort of spiritual high when you saw the smile of pure satisfaction on Bob’s face as his body flew by while he was hugging Ronnie’s legs that were spinning and twirling all round a crawl space that was only three feet high.

I think it was these kind of spiritual moments that gave me the dream to write a story about the day that Bob Lillibridge met the Boiler Ghost.  It went like this:

The Boiler Ghost

From the darkness of the boiler it came.

The Boiler Ghost, black, enormous, full of hate.

I watched with disbelief as it edged its way along.

Its eyes, red and piercing, with a stare of terror

It glanced first this way and then that.

As its eyes passed through me I was filled with

Such a terrible fright that I felt near the point of death.

The massive head hung down between two pointed

Shoulder blades vulture-like.

The most terrifying thing of all was the gaping mouth

That hung open.

It was full of such a terrible darkness,

So dark and evil as if it were the gates of Hell.

Just then I noticed its eyes had fixed on Bob.

Bob Lillibridge.

He was pressed against the wall by the piercing stare,

His mouth open wide as if to scream.

Eyes bulging out in utter terror.

Mindless with pure fright.

I tried to scream, but felt such a choking force

I could make no noise.

With steady movement the monster advanced toward Bob.

Bob was white as ash staring into that dark empty mouth.

Smoke poured out of a flat nose on that horrid face.

It reached out a vile and tremendous hand

And grabbed Bob,

Who burst into flames at his touch.

In one movement he was gone.

Vanished into the mouth of pure darkness.

The Evil Ghost glanced first this way, then that,

And into the darkness of the boiler it went.

All was quiet,

The roar of the boiler told me I was safe once again.

Until the boiler ghost should decide to return.

I showed this poem to Bob after I had written it down.  He chuckled a little, but didn’t seem too amused by it.  Actually he looked a little worried.

Some time after I had written this poem and was actually on the labor crew (I had been on loan while I was a janitor when we were cleaning the economizer), we were in the bottom ash hopper at the bottom of the #2 boiler while it was offline.  There are two hoppers side-by-side, and we were breaking up some hard clinkers that had built up in there.  I had climbed over the one hopper where we were entering the hoppers to check something out, when all of the sudden someone started sandblasting the other hopper.

Now, these hoppers are quite large and you would have thought that someone sandblasting over on the other hopper wouldn’t really bother you if you were over in the other hopper, but I can assure you, that isn’t the case.  As I was only wearing a t-shirt and jeans, when the sandblast hose started blowing out sand, before I could climb over the hopper to try to escape, I was being pelted by sand.

It felt as if someone was just aiming the sandblast hose over the top of the hopper toward me.  I searched around the hopper to find a place where I was being pelted the least, and then I just crouched there with my face against the side of the hopper to protect it.  Finally after 10 to 15 minutes (though it seemed more like an hour), the sandblast hose was turned off, and I was able to climb over the hopper and out the portal to fresh air.

I don’t think anyone even realized I was over in the other hopper when they decided to turn the sandblast hose on.  I just climbed out of there and went about my business just slightly bruised all over from being blasted by sand.  — It didn’t occur to me until just now that this is the hopper where I  had seen the Boiler Ghost climb out, and Bob was there that day, and may have even been the person holding the sandblast hose…

Later Bob was able to move off of the labor crew. I think he went to the welding shop. Then later during the 1987-88 reshuffle, I think he was told that he was going to have to go back to the labor crew, and that was too much for him after being on the labor crew so long before being able to move off. So, he left the plant. I never knew for certain what happened to Bob. I think he still lives somewhere around Pawnee, Oklahoma.

Power Plant Safety As Interpreted by Curtis Love

Original posted on January 28, 2012:

I vividly remember four events while working at the power plant where I was at the brink of death. I’m sure there were many other times, but these four have been etched in my memory almost 30 years later. Of those four memorable events, Curtis Love was by my side (so to speak) to share the wonder of two of those moments. This is a story about one of those times when you are too busy at the time to realize how close you came to catching that ride to the great power plant in the sky, until the middle of that night when you wake up in a cold sweat trying to catch your breath.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, safety is the number one priority at the power plant. But what is safe and what isn’t is relative. If you are the person that has to walk out onto a plank hanging out over the top ledge on the boiler in order to replace a section of boiler tube before the boiler has cooled down below 160 degrees, you might not think it is safe to do that with only an extra long lanyard tied to your waist and a sheer drop of 200 feet to the bottom ash hopper below (which I incidentally didn’t have to do as an electrician, but had to hear about after some other brave he-man had the privilege), you might not think that this is safe. But the Equipment Support Supervisor who has spent too many years as an engineer behind his desk doesn’t see anything wrong with this as long as you don’t fall. So, he tells you to do it, just don’t fall.

Safety is also relative to the date when something occurs. In 1994 OSHA implemented new rules for confined spaces. A confined space is any place that’s hard to enter and exit, or a place where you might be trapped in an enclosure because of converging walls. So, before 1994, there were no safety rules specific to confined spaces.

No rules meant that when I was on labor crew it was perfectly safe to crawl into a confined space and wind and twist your way around obstacles until the small oval door that you entered (18 inches by 12 inches) was only a distant memory as you are lying down in the bottom section of the sand filter tank with about 22 inches from the bottom of the section to the top requiring you to lie flat as you drag yourself around the support rods just less than 2 feet apart. Oh. and wearing a sandblast helmet…

Sand Blast Helmet

Sand Blast Helmet

and holding a sandblaster hose…

Sand Blast Hose

Sand Blast Hose

with a straight through Sandblast Nozzle….

Sand Blast Nozzle

Sand Blast Nozzle

Which means, the person sandblasting has no way of turning off the sand or the air on their own. If you wanted to turn off the sand, you had to bang the nozzle against the side of the tank and hope that the person outside monitoring the sandblaster was able to hear you above the roar of the Sandblaster and the Industrial Vacuum.

Sandblasting machine. Would run about 15 minutes before it would run out of sand.

Sandblasting machine. Would run about 15 minutes before it would run out of sand.

You also had a drop light that left you all tangled in wires and hoses that blew air on your face so that you could breathe and a 4 inch diameter vacuum hose that sucked the blasted sand and rust away, while the sandblaster blasts away the rust from all things metal less than a foot away from your face, because the air is so full of dust, that’s as far as you can see while holding the drop light with the other hand next to the sandblast hose. The air that blows through the sandblaster is hot, so you begin to sweat inside the heavy rain suit that you wear to protect the rest of you from sand that is ricocheting everywhere, but you don’t feel it as long as cool air is blowing on your face.

The week I spent lying flat trying to prop up my head while sandblasting the bottom section of both sand filter tanks gave me time to think about a lot of things…. which leads us to Curtis Love…. Not that it was Curtis Love that I was thinking about, but that he enters the story some time in the middle of this week. When I least expected it.

Similar to these Sand Filters only about twice the size

Similar to these Sand Filters only about twice the size. If you look closely you can see the seam around the bottom. Below that seam is where I was lying while sandblasting

Curtis Love was a janitor at the plant when I first joined the Sanitation Engineering Team after my four summers of training as a “summer help”. Curtis was like my mother in some ways (and in other ways not – obviously). He was always looking for something to worry about.

For instance, one Monday morning while we were sitting in our Monday Morning Janitor safety meeting and Pat Braden had just finished reading the most recent safety pamphlet to us and we were silently pondering the proper way to set the outriggers on a P&H Crane, Jim Kanelakos said, “Hey Curtis. Don’t you have your mortgage at the Federal Bank in Ponca City?” Curtis said, “Yeah, why?” Jim continued, “Well I heard this morning on the news that the bank was foreclosing on all of their home mortgages.”

Curtis said that he hadn’t heard that, but that as soon as it was 9:00 am he would call the bank to find out what he needed to do so that he wouldn’t lose his house. About that time I gave a report on the number of fiddleback spiders I had killed in the main switchgear the previous week. It seemed like no one was listening to my statistics as Doris Voss was still pondering the P&H Crane hand signals, and Curtis was shuffling his feet in worry and Ronnie Banks was staring off into space, as if he was stunned that Monday was already here again, and Jim Kanelakos was snickering under his breath.

When the meeting was over and we were standing up, Jim told Curtis, “Hey Curtis. I was just kidding. The bank really isn’t foreclosing on their mortgages.” Curtis replied, “I don’t know. I better call them to check anyway.” Jim replied, “Curtis, I just made that up! I was playing a joke on you.” Curtis said, “I better check anyway, because it still is possible that they could be foreclosing on their mortgages”. So Jim just gave up trying to explain.

I know you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at me now, but there were only two of us at the plant that were small enough to crawl through the portal into the Sand Filter tanks (Ed Shiever and myself), because not only was it very tight, but the entry was so close to the edge of the building that you had to enter the hole by curving your body around the corner and into the tank.

I have tried to paint of picture of the predicament a person is in when they are laying in this small space about 20 feet from the small portal that you have to crawl through. with their airline for the sandblast helmet, the sandblast hose, the drop light cord and the 4 inch vacuum hose all wound around the support rods that were not quite 2 feet apart in all directions. Because this is where I was when without my giving the signal (by banging the sandblast nozzle on the tank three times), the sand stopped flowing from the nozzle and only air was hissing loudly.

This meant one of two things. The sandblast machine had just run out of sand, or someone was shutting the sandblaster off because it was time for lunch. I figured it was time for lunch, because I didn’t think it had been more than 10 minutes since the sand had been refilled and amid the roaring blasts and the howling sucking vacuum hose, I thought I had caught the sound of a rumbling stomach from time to time.

Industrial Vacuum used to suck out the sand as I was sandblasting

Industrial Vacuum used to suck out the sand as I was sandblasting

The next thing that should happen after the sand has blown out of the sandblast hose, is that the air to the sandblaster should stop blowing. And it did…. but what wasn’t supposed to happen, that did, was that the air blowing through my sandblast hood allowing me to breathe in this sea of rusty dust shut off at the same time! While still pondering what was happening, I suddenly realized that without the air supply to my hood, not only could I not breathe at all, but my sweat-filled rain suit that I was wearing suddenly became unbearably hot and dust began pouring into my hood now that the positive pressure was gone.

I understood from these various signs of discomfort that I needed to head back to the exit as quickly as possible, as I was forced by the thick dust to hold my breath. I pulled my hood off of my head and everything went black. I had moved more than a foot away from the drop light. I knew that the exit was in the direction of my feet on the far side of the tank, so I swung around a row of support rods and dragged myself along by the rods as quickly as I could unable to see or take a breath. Working my way around the cable, the air hose, the sandblast hose and the vacuum hose as I pulled myself along trying to make out where the exit could be. Luckily, I had figured correctly and I found myself at the exit where in one motion I pulled myself out to fresh air and the blinding light of the day gasping for air.

Furious that someone had turned off my air, I ran out of the sand filter building to the sandblast machine where I found Curtis Love of all people. Up to this point, Curtis had never had the privilege to operate the sandblaster and was not aware of the proper sequence to shutting down the machine…. without shutting off the air to my hood. Incidentally, both the sandblaster and the air hose to the sandblast hood were being fed from the same regular plant air supply (which OSHA might have frowned upon back as far as 1983, and which caused you to blow black oily stuff out of your nose for a few days).

Needless to say, about the time that I came bolting out of the sand filter building Curtis had figured out that he had shut off the wrong valve. He was apologizing profusely in one long drawn out sentence….. “Kevin, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry….” I stopped myself short as my hands were flying toward the area where his neck would have been, if Curtis had had a neck.

I looked over toward the crew cab parked nearby. It was full of hungry labor crew “he-men in training” all smiling and chuckling. At that moment I knew that both Curtis and I had been on the receiving end of what could be construed as a “power plant joke” (refer to the post about Gene Day to learn more about those:  “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“). So, I spent the next 30 seconds as Curtis and I piled into the crew cab telling Curtis that is was all right, he didn’t have to feel bad about it. Evidently, someone had told Curtis how to shutdown the sandblaster, but failed to tell him exactly which valve to turn off when turning off the air to the sandblaster.

Needless to say. Lunch tasted extra good that day. Possibly the rusty dust added just the right amount of iron to my sandwich.

Carpooling with Bud Schoonover

This post was originally posted on February 4, 2012.  I have added some detail and pictures:

Coal-fired power plants are built out in the country away from any major town. I used to think this was because they didn’t want to pour ash and fumes on the nearby civilians, but now I think it has more to do with the kind of people that work at the plant. They like wide open spaces.

They like driving through the countryside every morning on the way to work, and again in the afternoon on the way home. In the morning, it gives them time to wake up and face the day ahead, as they can see the plant 20 miles away looming closer and closer as the dawn approaches. It gives them time to wind down in the evening so that by the time they arrive at their homes, the troubles of the day are long behind them and they can spend time with their families, their horses, and cows, and tractors, and their neighbors. But enough about Walt Oswalt for now.

Some brave power plant workers reside in the nearest towns 20 miles in either direction. This is where I was in 1986 when I moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma. I had a few good friends in Ponca City that worked at the plant, and so we decided it would be best for us to carpool to work each day. There were four of us and we would alternate drivers each day. We would meet early in the morning in the parking lot of a grocery store and all pile into one of the cars and make our 20 mile trek to the plant. Besides myself, there was Jim Heflin, Dick Dale and Bud Schoonover.

For those of you who don’t know these three, let’s just say that they were on the hefty side. At that time I was slightly on the pre-hefty stage of my life. I owned a little 1982  Honda Civic that would normally get 40 miles to the gallon on the highway.

A 1982 Honda Civic

A 1982 Honda Civic

With all four of us in the car, I couldn’t get past 32 miles to the gallon, as my car would spit and sputter all the way to work like the little engine that could trying to make it over the mountain.

Just like my Blue Honda coasting down the Hill with Jim, Dick and Bud!

Just like my Blue Honda coasting down the Hill with Jim, Dick and Bud!

Bud was very tall and in the front seat of my little Honda Civic, his knees would almost touch his chin and his feet were cramped and his head had to bend down a little. It was comical to watch us all pour out of my car in the parking lot. it was almost magical how we could all fit in there.

Bud Schoonover and Dick Dale worked in the tool room and the warehouse, and Jim worked on a mechanical maintenance crew. I was an electrician and called the electric shop my home at this time. I had worked with all three of these men from my early days as a summer help and we knew each other very well. Jim Heflin reminded me of an old hound dog that the kids like to climb all over and he just sits there and enjoys it.

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

He rarely had a cross word to say. I could go on about Jim, but this is a story more about Bud Schoonover than it is Jim. I will save him for another day.

Dick Dale was a jolly kind of person in general, but he had more wits about him than his other companions, and that tended to make him a little more agitated at some things, which he would work out verbally on the way home from work on most days.

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

Once before I started carpooling with Bud, Jim and Dick, Bud was driving home after work one day, and Dick was talking about his day. Every once in a while Bud would say “…and what about Jim.” After they had passed the Otoe-Missouri tribe and were close to the Marland turnoff, just after Bud had said, “…and what about Jim” for the fifth time, Dick stopped talking and said, “Why do you keep asking about Jim Heflin?  What does he have to do with this?”

Bud answered, “Well. Jim did ride to work with us this morning didn’t he?” Sure enough. They had left Jim behind. So, they turned around and headed back to the plant. 15 minutes later, they arrived back at the plant, and there was Jim just waiting by the roadside with his lunch box like a good faithful hound dog, just as sure that they were going to come back and pick him up as he could be.

Bud Schoonover (or Scoot-On-Over Bud as I used to call him from time-to-time when we were climbin in the car), was a tall large man. I want to say that I saw him angry only one time, and it was kind of scary seeing this huge guy chasing after you like a large troll with a big grin on his face and tongue hanging out flailing his lunch box like a giant mace. Bud was really a mild mannered person most of the time, and though he might complain from time to time each day, you felt like he was someone that made an art out of remaining calm when faced with an angry mob lined up at the tool room gate demanding tools and parts. He wouldn’t move any faster if there was just one person or an entire crowd.

I could go on about Bud, and I probably will later, but today I am focusing on the act of carpooling with Bud Schoonover. Each morning Bud would watch the weather on TV before heading out of the house, and he just couldn’t wait for someone to ask him what the weather was going to be like, because he knew in his heart that he was providing a service to his fellow man by making sure that he never missed the weather report in the morning. So I would always oblige him. I would wait until we were on the road on our way out of Ponca City, and then I would ask, “Hey Bud. What’s the weather goin’ ta be like today?” Bud would squint his eyes (mainly because Bud seemed to naturally squint a lot. Sort of like Clint Eastwood) and he would look off into the distance and say a long drawn out “Well…..” Then he would go into the weather report.

To Describe what Bud’s face looked like you will have to use a little imagination…  First, by starting with Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son…

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Then you need to make her a white person.  Then you need to make her a man.  Then you need to add about 150 lbs.  And you would have Bud Schoonover.  Actually, Bud would make the very same expression that Aunt Esther is making in this picture.  I couldn’t watch Sanford and Son without thinking about Bud Schoonover.  I think Aunt Esther probably took lessons from Bud about how to move your jaw back and forth at some point in her life.

I remember one morning when we were driving to work and Bud was telling us that it was going to start clearing up around noon, and Dick Dale and I were sitting in the front seats looking out the window at the cloudless sky and the morning sun shining brightly across the meadow, and I said, “…going to clear up around noon?”, and he replied, “Yep, around noon”. I answered, “Well, that’s good, it’ll be about time.”

There was another time where Bud’s weather report one morning said that if we didn’t get rain soon the wheat farmers were sure to lose all their crops. When Dick Dale and I looked around, the wheat fields were all just as green and growing like there was no tomorrow. — There was a drought, but it was in the southern part of the state and didn’t effect us.

Because of this daily report, Dick Dale and I developed a way of speaking to each other without saying words. We would look at each other and move our eyebrows up and down and make small gestures with our mouths, and we both knew exactly what each other was saying.

My favorite Bud Schoonover carpooling story has to do with one morning when Bud was driving us to work and we were heading down the highway when we topped a small hill and were getting ready to head down into a valley just inside the Ponca Indian tribe.  Bud slowed down the car and stopped right there in the middle of the highway.

We looked around trying to figure out what happened. Bud acted as if everything was just normal, and so the three of us, Jim, Dick and I were spinning our heads around trying to figure out what Bud was doing stopping the car in the middle of the highway with cars beginning to pile up behind us. Ideas flashed through my mind of some Indian curse that had possessed Bud, and I half expected Bud to start attacking us like a zombie.

So, I couldn’t stand it any longer and I had to ask, “Bud? Why did you stop here?” He said, “School bus.” Dick then chimed in with the next logical question and said, “School bus?” Bud came back with “Yeah, the school bus down there”. Sure enough. Down in the valley about 1/2 mile in front of us was a school bus heading toward us that had stopped to pick up some children along the highway and it had its red flashers on and its stop sign out.

A school bus with its flashers on about 1/2 mile down the road

A school bus with its flashers on about 1/2 mile down the road

So, Dick Dale said something to me with his left eyebrow, and I replied by raising the right side of my lip while tensing it up some.

Finally the bus resumed its journey toward us, and Bud began moving again, much to the delight of the long line of cars behind us. The bus went forward about 300 feet and stopped at another driveway  to pick up some more children. We were only about 1/4 of a mile away from the bus at this point, so Bud stopped his car again and waited for the children to board the bus. I think I could see Bud squinting to get a better count of how many children were climbing into the bus. It occurred to me later that maybe when Bud squinted his eyes he magnified his sight so that ‘objects appear closer than they really were’.

Anyway, that was the first and only time in my life that I had waited twice for a school bus going in the opposite direction. It could only happen while carpooling with Bud Schoonover.

I now have a picture of Bud:

Bud-Schoonover

Bud Schoonover

Heroes and Kings of the Power Plant Palace

This story was originally posted on February 11, 2012:

There are five main power plants in the electric company in Central Oklahoma, and maintenance men from each plant would work at other plants when there was an overhaul.  An overhaul is when a generator was taken off line for the purpose of doing maintenance on major parts of the plant that can only be done when the unit isn’t running.  Such as repairing boiler tubes, and working on the turbine and generator.  Because employees would work at other plants for months at a time, living in camping trailers or cheap hotel rooms to save money, most people were able to work with and had the opportunity to know the Power Plant Men  from the other four plants.

I have noticed that most non-plant people have a general misconception about Power Plant Men when they first meet them.  As a young 18 year old entering my first job with real men, I learned very quickly  that they each possessed a certain quality or talent that made them unique and indispensable   Sure there were some “bad apples”, but they were never really and truly Power Plant Men.   They either left because of incompatibility or were promoted to upper management.  I know more than once the plant hired someone new only to have them work one day and never show up again.  There were few if any real Power Plant Men that ever left the plant where the character of the plant and its ability to be maintained properly wasn’t instantly changed.

While I am writing this post this evening a wake service is being held at the First Methodist Church in Moore, Oklahoma for a true Power Plant man; Jimmy Armarfio.  He was an electrician at Mustang plant.  I had heard some stories about Jimmy before I actually met him; most of them about humorous things that had happened to him at one time or other.  Everyone liked his African accent (Jimmy was from Ghana, a country in Africa) as they would imitate his voice while telling the stories.  It seems that Bill Bennett our Electrical A foreman had more than a few stories to tell.

Jimmy came to our plant on an overhaul and worked out of our electric shop.  The first time I talked to Jimmy, he was leaning against a counter during lunch just finishing a book.  I happened to notice when I was walking by that the book was titled “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  I had read that book before, so I stopped and asked him what he thought of it.  He said that it was interesting how this man who was in a prison camp in Siberia living in a miserable state could go to bed at night thinking that he had a pretty good day.  I think I said something like, “Yeah, sort of like us working in this Power Plant.”

Then he said something that has always stuck in my mind.  He said that in the English language there are many words that mean the same thing.  For instance, for a rock, there is pebble, rock, stone and boulder.  In his native language there is one word.  It means “rock”. You may say, large rock, small rock, smooth rock, but there is only one word for rock.  It made me reflect on the phrase, “In the beginning was the Word…”  Suppose there was one word that included everything.

What I didn’t know at that time was that not only was Jimmy Armarfio from Ghana but he was the king of his tribe.  Steven Trammell said that his friends referred to him as “King Jimmy” after he was elected King of his tribe.   When I heard that Jimmy had died, I looked at the funeral home site and saw that one of his coworkers George Carr said the following:  “Jimmy was a beloved coworker and one of my personal heroes.”  Another friend, Jack Riley wrote: “It was my blessing to work with Jimmy.  The most cheerful person I have had the privilege of knowing.”  I have included his picture below.  Jimmy Armarfio…. Take a good long look at  A True Power Plant Man!  A Hero and a King!

Indian Curse or Brown and Root Blunder

Originally posted on February 18, 2012.

I worked at Sooner Coal-fired power plant about a month during the summer of 1979 before I heard about the Indian curse that had been placed on the plant before they started construction.  It came up by chance in a conversation with Sonny Karcher and Jerry Mitchell when we were on our way to the coalyard to do something.  I was curious why Unit 1 was almost complete but Unit 2 still had over a year left before it was finished even though they both looked pretty much identical.  When I asked them that question I didn’t expect the answer that I received, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to hear about an Indian Curse.  It did explain, however, that when we drove around by Unit 2. Sonny would tense up a little looking up at the boiler structure as if he expected to see something.

The edge of the plant property is adjacent to the Otoe-Missouria Indian Tribe.  It was said that for some reason the tribe didn’t take too kindly to having a huge power plant larger than the nearby town of Red Rock taking up their view of the sunrise (at least until the tax revenue started rolling in from the plant building the best school in the state at the time).  So it was believed that someone in the Indian tribe decided to place a curse on the plant that would cause major destruction.

I heard others say that the plant was built on Holy Indian Burial ground.  At the time it seemed to me that this was a rumor that could easily be started and very hard to prove false.  Sort of like a “Poltergeist” situation.  Though, if it was true, then it would seem like the burial site would most likely be located around the bottom of Unit 2 boiler (right at the spot where I imagined the boiler ghost creeping out to grab Bob Lillibridge 4 years later.  See the post Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost).

I am including an aerial picture of the immediate plant grounds below to help visualize what Jerry and Sonny showed me next.

This is a Google Earth Image taken from their website of the power plant.  In this picture you can see the two tall structures; Unit 1 on the right with Unit 2 sitting right next to it just like the two boilers that you see in the picture of the plant to the right of this post.  They are each 250 feet tall.  About the same height as a 25 story building.  Notice that next to Unit 2 there is a wide space of fields with nothing there.  The coalyard at the top is extended the same distance but the coal is only on the side where the two units are.  This is because in the future 4 more units were planned to be built in this space.  Sooner Lake was sized to handle all 6 units when it was built.  But that is another story.

At the time of this story the area next to Unit 2 between those two roads you see going across the field was not a field full of flowers and rabbits and birds as it is today.  It was packed full of huge metal I-Beams and all sorts of metal structures that had been twisted and bent as if some giant had visited the plant during the night and was trying to tie them all into pretzels.

Sonny explained while Jerry drove the truck around the piles of iron debris that one day in 1976 (I think it was) when it was very windy as it naturally is in this part of Oklahoma, in the middle of the day the construction company Brown and Root called off work because it was too windy.  Everyone had made their way to the construction parking lot when all of the sudden Unit 2 boiler collapsed just like one of the twin towers.  It came smashing down to the ground.  Leaving huge thick metal beams twisted and bent like they were nothing more than licorice sticks.  Amazingly no one was killed because everyone had just left the boilers and were a safe distance from the disaster.

Needless to say this shook people up and those that had heard of an Indian Curse started to think twice about it.  Brown and Root of course had to pay for the disaster, which cost them dearly.  They hauled the pile of mess off to one side and began to rebuild Unit 2 from the ground up.  This time with their inspectors double checking the torque (or tightness) of every major bolt.

This brings to mind the question…  If a 250 foot tall boiler falls in the prairie and no one is injured… Does it make a sound?

In the years that followed, Sooner Plant took steps to maintain a good relationship with the Otoe Missouria tribe.  Raymond Lee Butler a Native American from the Otoe Missouria tribe and a machinist at the plant was elected chief of their tribe (or chairman as they call it now).  But that (as I have said before) is another story.

Comment from Earlier Post:

eddie hickman March 20, 2013

I was there the day unit 2 fell, I was walking to the brass shack, just came down from unit 2 when we noticed the operator of the Maniwoc 5100 crane did not secure the crane ball to the boiler or the crane to keep it from swaying in the wind. I kept watching the crane ball slamming into the steel causing the boiler to sway and within a minute I watched it fall from 50 yards away and took off running,the whole unit was going up quick because B&R were behind schedule,and the most of the steel hadn’t been torqued yet by the bolt up crew.

Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley

Originally posted February 25, 2012.  I added Larry’s Picture at the end:

When I first began working at the power plant (in 1979), one of the people I spent a good deal of time with was Larry Riley.  I was 18 and knew very little about  tools, equipment, power plants and how to speak in the Power Plant language.  I quickly found out that in those early days, when the plant was still under construction, a lot of people turned to Larry Riley when they were faced with an obstacle and didn’t know how to approach it.

Larry Riley was a 24 year old genius.  I was amazed by his vast knowledge of seemingly disparate areas of expertise.  When he was asked to do something, I never heard him say that he didn’t know how.  He just went and did it.  So, after I asked Larry how old he was, I asked him how long he had been at the plant.  He hadn’t been there very long, but he had worked in the construction department before transferring to the power plant.

Larry Riley already at the age of 24 had a beat up hard hat full of hard hat stickers.  One indicating that he was a certified industrial truck driver.  I think he had about 5 safety stickers and various other hard hat stickers.  He was a thin clean cut dark haired young man with a moustache that sort of reminded me of the Marlboro Man’s moustache.  He walked like he had a heavy burden on his back and he was rarely seen without a cigarette in his mouth.

Yep. That's the Marlboro Man

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I worked with Larry off and on throughout my years as a summer help and during that time Larry taught me the following things (to name a few):  How to drive a tractor.  How to mend a fence.  How to bleed the air out of a diesel engine’s fuel line (which is more important than you would think).  How to operate a brush hog (a large mower on the back of a tractor).  How to free a brush hog from a chain link fence after you get one of the bat wings stuck in one.  Tie rebar, and pour concrete and operate a Backhoe.

I remember asking Larry why a backhoe was called a backhoe.  I think Sonny Karcher was in the truck at the time.  You would have thought I had asked what year the War of 1812 was fought!  I’m sure you are all chuckling while reading this (especially all the power plant men).  But for those of you who are as green as I was, I’ll tell you.  A Backhoe is called a Backhoe because the Hoe is on the Back.  Gee.  Who would have thought?

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

Later when I was a full time employee and had worked my way from being a Janitor to being on the Labor Crew, Larry Riley became my foreman.  At that point on occassion I would call him “Dad”.  He would usually disown me and deny that he had anything to do with it.  On occassion when he would own up to being my dad, he would admit that when I was real little I was dropped on my head and that’s why I acted so odd (though, I don’t know to what behavior he was referring).

There was this other guy at the plant the first summer I was there that had the unique title of “Mill Wright”.  His name was Gary Michelson.  He evidently had gone to school, taken some tests and been certified as a Mill Wright and this probably brought him a bigger paycheck than the other regular workers as well as a much bigger ego.

Gary would spend days at a time at a band saw cutting out metal wedges at different angles so that he would have them all in his pristine tool box.  I worked with him a few times during my first summer as a summer help.  I will probably talk more about Gary in a later post, but just to put it plainly…  I could tell right away that he wasn’t a real “power plant man”.

The rest of the power plant men I’m sure would agree with me.  I wouldn’t have traded Larry Riley for ten Gary Michelsons unless I was trying to help some engineers change a light bulb (actually.  I have met some good engineers along the way.  Some of them very good.  But they were not the norm.  At least not those assigned to power plants).

I have mentioned some different things that Larry had taught me and if you remember, he was the person that I worked with on my second day at the plant when Sonny Karcher and Larry had taken me to the coalyard to fix the check valve (in my post about Sonny Karcher).  There will always be one day that first comes to my mind when I think about Larry.  This is what happened:

I drove a truck down to the Picnic area on the far side of the lake from the plant.  Jim Heflin drove a Backhoe down there.  I believe he was going to dig up some tree stumps that had been left over after the “engineers” in Oklahoma City had decided where to put all the trees in the area.

What the engineers in Oklahoma City did was this:  They cut down all of the trees that were in the picnic area and planted new trees.  Some of them not more than 15 or 20 feet away from a tree that had been there for 30 years and was a good size.  So, there were a lot of stumps left over from the big hearty trees that had been cut down that needed to be removed so that the sickly little twigs that were planted there could prosper and grow without feeling inadequate growing next to a full grown he-man tree.

Anyway.  I had climbed out of the truck and was making my way around the picnic area picking up trash and putting it in a plastic bag using a handy dandy homemade trash stabbing stick.  As Jim was making his way across the “lawn” (I use the word “lawn” loosely, since the area was still fairly new and was not quite finished) when he hit a wet spot.  The Backhoe was stuck in the mud.

There wasn’t much I could do but watch as Jim used the hoe to try to drag himself out.  He rocked the backhoe back and forth.  Use the stabilizers to pick up the backhoe while trying to use the scoop to pull it forward.  I would say he worked at it for about ten minutes (even though it seemed more like half an hour).  Eventually it was time for us to head back to the plant to go to break.

Back at the plant, Jim told Larry about his predicament and asked him if he would help him get the backhoe out of the mud.  Larry said he would come along and see what he could do.  At this point, I was thinking that he would jump in the Wench Truck and go down there and just pull him out.  Instead we just climbed in the pickup truck and headed back to the park (notice how it went from being a picnic area to a park in only three paragraphs?).

When we arrived, Larry climbed into the Backhoe after making his way across the vast mud pit that Jim had created while trying to free himself before.  He fired up the Backhoe…. cigarette in mouth…  then the most fascinating thing happened…  using both feet to work the pedals, and one hand working the controls in the front and the other hand working the levers in the back, Larry picked up the backhoe using the scoop and the hoe and stabilizers and cigarette all simultaneously, he walked the backhoe sideways right out of the mud pit and onto dry land just as if it was a crab walking sideways.  I would say it took no longer than three minutes from the time he started working the controls.  Jim just looked at me in amazement.  Patted me on the back, shook his head and said, “And that’s how it’s done.”

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

This is the best picture I could find of Jim Heflin

Now that I’m on the subject of Larry Riley on a backhoe, let me tell you another one.  I have seen Larry digging a ditch so that we could run some pipe for irrigation.  Now picture this.  The bucket on the backhoe is digging a hole in the hard red clay of Oklahoma, and Larry suddenly stops and says….. “I think I felt something”.  What? (I think) Of course you did, you are operating this machine that has the power to dig a big hole in the ground in one scoop like it was nothing and Larry said he felt something?

He climbed off of the backhoe, jumped down into the ditch he was creating, kicked some clods of dirt around and lo and behold, he had just scraped clean a buried cable.  He hadn’t broken it.  He had come down on it with the bucket and had somehow “felt” this cable buried under all that dirt.  I wonder what it felt like that told him he had encountered something that wasn’t just dirt.  I think the entire labor crew just went down on one knee before his greatness for a moment of silence – all right, so we didn’t really.  But we were somewhat  impressed.

The one thing that makes Larry a True Power Plant Man with all the rest is that he performed acts of greatness like what I described above with complete humility.  I never saw a look of arrogance in Larry’s face.  He never spoke down to you and he never bragged about anything.  To this day, I still picture Larry Riley working at the power plant working feats of magic that would amaze the rest of us as he thinks that he’s just doing another day’s work.  That’s the way it is with True Power Plant Men.

Since I first created this post two years ago, I have found a picture of Larry Riley taken many years after this story:

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. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy late for the Boiler Blowdown

Originally Posted March 2, 2012:

The first day I showed up at the Power plant to report to work as a new employee, it took me a little while to find the parking lot where I was supposed to park.   There were construction people all over the place, large equipment being moved, and I had somehow turned my directions around 90 degrees when I came through the construction gate.  I started heading up to the coal yard before I told myself that the little green shack I had past back by the main plant was probably where I needed to go (I never recovered from my perception of which way was north.  I always felt like west was north, so I constantly had to stop and tell myself that the coal yard was north).

So, having arrived in the parking lot about five minutes late, I was just in time to meet Steve Higginbotham the only other summer help during the summer of 1979.  Well, there was one other guy, but he quickly joined a Brown and Root construction crew because he was a welder and they were getting paid a lot more than the $3.89 per hour the summer helps were blessed to receive.

So Higginbotham and I walked together into the main office that morning.  He was about 35 years old with red hair, freckles  and sort of reminded you of Margaret Thatcher only shorter with a more prominent forehead and wider chin and he had a Georgia accent.

Steve Higginbotham had an uncanny resemblence to Margaret Thatcher

Steve Higginbotham had an uncanny resemblence to Margaret Thatcher

He had worked as a Pinkerton guard at the plant before advancing to summer help.  He explained it to me like this:  “If I get my foot in the door by being a summer help, they will be more likely to hire me as a permanent employee.”  (somehow, I began to think that this probably wasn’t the best strategy for Steve to take.  I thought perhaps a surprise attack would be more effective, where they don’t know you at all when they hire you).

The company hired summer helps because there was a tax write-off for hiring college kids during the summer to give them a real life experience (I guess).  Steve explained to me later that he really wasn’t going to college, but told them that he was going to go back to school to finish a degree so that they would hire him, but he really wasn’t going to do that.

He drove an old Ford Ranchero (which is what inspired the El Camino).  It was all beat up, and had the manual gear shift on the steering column, to give you an idea of how old it was. Below is a picture of one in good condition.  His car however had dents, rust, and an assortment of trash in the back, and it squeaked when it hit a pothole as the car bounced on the springs.

Like this only more beat up

I didn’t own a car and had just borrowed my family’s car to drive to the plant that day, so when Steve asked me if I would like to ride with him to work each day I jumped at the opportunity.  I told him where I lived and he said that he would be by to pick me up in the morning.

I am the kind of person that likes to arrive at work at least 10 or 15 minutes early, so I was getting a little anxious the next morning when Steve didn’t show up.  Finally, when I was about ready to ask my parents if I could borrow the car again, his beat up old car came puttering down the street…  It turned out that Steve was the kind of person that likes to show up at least 5 minutes late each day…. Something I was going to have to get used to that summer.  This is an important point in the story because those 5 minutes on one particular morning made all the difference in my outlook on what it meant to be working at a “Power” plant.

First, let me tell you a little more about Steve Higginbotham, just so you can appreciate his unusual character the way that I did.  As an 18 year old summer help, not having had my encounter with Ramblin’ Ann until later, where I learned the fine art of rambling (see the post: “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was amazed by the way Steve Higginbotham could talk and chew gum or sunflower seeds at the same time — all the time — non-stop.  His open mouth would move in a circular motion while chewing and talking.

Food of choice in the Power Plant Maintenance Shop

Food of choice in the Power Plant Maintenance Shop

From the time he picked me up in the morning to the 25 mile ride to the plant, and until I arrived home in the afternoon, Steve Higginbotham was talking about something to someone and chewing either sunflower seeds or gum the entire time.  It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had been learning something, but I can’t think of one thing that he told me that was useful all summer.  I think I paid him $15.00 each week for the privilege.  Gas at the time was around 89 cents a gallon.

Twice each week we would sweep the entire maintenance shop from one end to the other.  I would start going down one half,  Usually the north side that has all the machine shop equipment, and Steve would start down the south side where the welders were.  Invariably, he would catch an unsuspecting welder off his guard and start talking to him, and before you knew it, I had finished my side of the shop and was starting back the other way up the other side, where I would meet up with Steve and a half-dazed welder somewhere around the Welder’s lunch table, which was about 50 feet from the spot where Steve had started (I would say the shop is about 75 yards long)  I didn’t mind, because I liked working and it felt good to look around at the clean floor and see that I had done something noticeable.

I had worked in a Hilton Inn restaurant as the night janitor when I was in High School, and the kitchen was almost as long as the maintenance shop.  I would spend six hours each night sweeping and mopping the kitchen, and vacuuming the restaurant and bar.  So, I always enjoyed sweeping the floor.

Mondays and Fridays were days where we would go to the soon-to-be park and pick up trash.  The rest of the time I was able to work with the maintenance crews.  For more information about picking up trash at the park, read the post:  “Mud, Maggots and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball“.

All the company employees at the power plant were fitted for a special set of earplugs that were made out of a Silly Putty looking material because there was going to be a “Boiler Blowdown” on Unit 1 (which was just finishing construction).  I suppose that most people (except the old timers) at the plant today have not experienced a boiler blowdown like the one that is done on a new power plant, since a new base unit hadn’t been built in a long time.  We were told that when you hear the 2 minute warning make sure you put your earplugs in, because it is going to be real loud.  We were reminded the day before to have our earplugs handy the following morning because that was when the blowdowns were going to start.

A boiler blowdown is when they run a big steam pipe right off of the high pressure section of the boiler and point it out off the side of the boiler and after they have built up the pressure as high as they can go without blowing the place apart, they flop open the valve and the steam is released quickly blowing out any unwanted material from the steam tubes, such as welding rods, tin cans, shoes, lunch boxes, a lost construction foreman, or anything else that was accidentally left in the steam pipes when they were assembled.  I remember someone saying that they had a come-along go flying out of one once during a blowdown.  The first blowdown was the loudest, and then after that they were slightly less forceful each time.

The next morning on the way to the plant, I could see steam shooting out of the boiler from about 10 miles away.  As we pulled into the parking lot, the steam was shooting out about 100 yards from the big pipe on the side of the boiler creating a very loud rumbling sound that made your body shake all over.  This is exactly how I remember what happened next…..

I climbed out of the car and looked up at the large plume of steam shooting out of the boiler and I said to Steve, “Well, that’s pretty loud, but it’s not THAT loud!”  Just at the exact moment that I finished that sentence, the ground started to shake, and my lunch box and hardhat went flying as my hands went to my head to cover my ears!

I hit the ground and rolled sideways to see that the plume of steam that had been blowing out of the boiler had grown into a huge white roaring demon about 500 yards long as it reached directly over my head to the point where the condenser discharges water back into the lake behind me!  The sound was so loud my whole body was shaking from the force, as we were directly in line with the steam pipe.  It continued for about a minute or less and then abruptly shutdown back to the much smaller quieter plume of steam that had been there before.

I stood up, but my legs were all wobbly.  I picked up my hard hat and lunch box and wobbled my way into the maintenance shop.  My ears were ringing and I remember that I couldn’t hear very good and I was pretty upset about my possible loss of hearing.

Then I wondered to myself why I hadn’t heard the two minute warning, and in my muted state I looked around at the mechanics standing around and my eyes settled on one person who was chewing on sunflower seeds or gum, and was talking to someone, though I couldn’t hear his voice  —  and I knew why!  I couldn’t hear the 2 minute warning because we were 5 minutes late getting to work!  We were always 5 minutes late!

This bummed me out the rest of the day.   As the day went by my hearing was returning, and by the time we were heading home, I could hear Higginbotham talking very clearly all the way to the house.  Maybe this would have been a good time for the earplugs.

That night as I lay in bed, I could hear the boiler blowdown continuing 25 miles away every half hour or so.  I thought about how much power it took to create that much force.  It gave me a great respect for the power harnessed in the power plant and how it takes all that power and turns the majority of it into electricity to serve the state of Oklahoma.