Originally posted October 25, 2015.
It was no secret at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that I was Catholic. When I was a summer help and working on the labor crew, I wore a large crucifix under my tee shirt. I had worn the crucifix since I was 13 years old.
When I joined the electric shop I had to take it off. Electricians should not wear any kind of metal jewelry for the obvious reason that if it were to come into contact with a “hot” circuit, the effect would be the same as if I wrapped the live electric wire around my neck. In other words… I could easily have been electrocuted.
In place of the crucifix, I wore a Scapular instead. Wearing a cord around my neck was unsafe enough, but it didn’t take much for the cord to break away from the piece of cloth on either end.
So, as I said, most everyone at the plant knew that I was Catholic. It was common for someone to see the cloth with the picture on it sticking out the back of my tee shirt and ask me, “What is that around your neck with the postage stamp on it?” I usually hesitated to answer the question because I understood that living in Oklahoma where there was only a 5% Catholic population, the Catholic Church was greatly misunderstood and I really didn’t want to enter a lengthy discussion about why Catholics do what they do.
Diana Brien (my bucket buddy) helped me out one day when someone asked me why I wore the scapular, and I was hesitating trying to decide if they wanted a short answer or a long one, when Diana broke in and said, “It’s a Catholic thing.” I quickly agreed. “Yeah. It’s a Catholic thing. It reminds me to be good. I need all the reminders I can get. Sort of like ‘Catholic Protection’.”
Before I discuss what a Power Plant Catholic has to do with checking Cathodic Protection, let me just add that though I wasn’t the only Catholic at the plant, I was sort of the “Token” Catholic. Which meant, when someone wanted a straight answer about what the Catholic Church believes about any subject, I was the person that they turned to for answers.
Living in the midst of the Bible Belt, Monday mornings is when most of the questions would be asked. Preachers from various religions would occasionally say something during their Church service about Catholics and their “strange” beliefs. So, the next day, some would come to me to hear the other side of the story.
I will list a few questions…. “Why do Catholics say, ‘Hell Mary’?” “Is it true that the Pope has 666 on his Tiara?” “Is it true that Catholics are not able to say the entire ‘Our Father’?” “Are Catholics really against abortion because they need newborn babies to sacrifice in the basement of their Church?” “Is it true that Catholics can’t say for sure that they are going to heaven?” Aren’t Catholics cannibals by believing they are eating the real Body and Blood of Jesus?” “Don’t Catholics believe that they can do anything wrong they want because they know that they can just go to confession and have it forgiven?”
These are all actual questions I was asked when I was an electrician at the power plant. I understood why the Power Plant Men were asking me the questions, and I respectfully answered them. I would rather they felt comfortable asking me these questions than just going around thinking that I was some kind of barbaric pagan behind my back.
By feeling free to talk to me about being Catholic, I knew that I was respected by the Power Plant Men even though I was from a religion that they viewed as far from their own. There was one day when this became obvious to me.
I was on the second landing on Unit 2 boiler just about to enter the boiler enclosure when Floyd Coburn walked out. He was nicknamed “Coal Burner” partly because he was black, and partly because he worked in the coal yard for a long time, but mostly because his last name was Coburn which sounds a lot like Coal Burner. Someone figured that out one day, and called him that, and it stuck. When Floyd came out of the enclosure he stopped me. He tapped me on the arm and signaled for me to follow him.
We stepped out of the walkway a short distance and he held out his fist in front of me. Floyd was built like a wrestler. Actually, he was State Champion of the 148 lb weight class for 4A High Schools in Oklahoma in 1972 and 1973. This meant a lot because in Oklahoma, Wrestling was an important sport. He also had earned an associates degree at Rogers State College in Claremore.
Not once did I ever hear Floyd Coburn brag about his accomplishments, or even mention them. I suspect that few people if any knew much about Floyd’s background because as much fun as he was to work with, he was very humble, as are most True Power Plant Men.
Floyd was grinning at me as if he was about to show me a trick or a joke or something. Then he opened his fist. In the middle of his palm he held a small crucifix. The size of one on a typical rosary.
When I saw the cross I looked up at Floyd and he was grinning ear-to-ear. I gave him a puzzled looked. Then he told me. “I found Jesus! I just wanted you to know. I know you would understand.”
I felt very privileged that Floyd felt like sharing his experience with me. I thanked him for letting me know. I patted him on the shoulder and we went on our way.
Throughout the years after that, Floyd would set me down every now and then and share how he was expanding his faith with Jesus. He finally became a minister and re-opened a Church in Ponca City where his family used to worship when he was a boy. Floyd was the Pastor of the Broken Heart Ministers Church.
I always felt blessed that he came to me to tell me about his journey. The last time I talked with Floyd Coburn was around Christmas, 2005. I had dropped in at the plant to say hello while I was visiting Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Floyd wanted to talk to me about the progress he was making as Pastor of the Church in Ponca City. He explained the troubles he was having and asked for my prayers. He felt as if the devil was fighting against him. I assured him I have always kept him in my prayers.
One day around the end of October 2006, I felt compelled to write to the plant about a Power Plant Man David Hankins, who had died after my first summer as a summer help in 1979. I have always remembered him on November 1, All Saints Day, because I know that he’s in heaven as he had a tremendous heart.
I hadn’t written to the plant for some time. When I did, I received a couple of e-mails back telling me that Floyd Coburn had died on August 25 during his son’s birthday party. He died of a sudden heart attack.
Though I felt very sorrowful for Floyd’s family because of the circumstance surrounding his death, I felt a great relief for Floyd. I know he had a great desire to be united with Jesus Christ.
So. Now that I discussed some of my experience as a Catholic at the Power Plant, let me tell you about Cathodic Protection (that is not a misspelling of ‘Catholic Protection’).
Have you ever noticed on a car battery how one post is more shiny, than the other post? Especially after it has been in your car for a while. It’s not real noticeable so you may not have realized it. The shiny post is the Cathode or Positive post. Well. Cathodic Protection is just that.
You see the main ingredient besides Power Plant Men at a Power Plant is Iron. The boilers are almost entirely made from the stuff. There are underground and above ground pipes running all over the place. Well. You can paint most of the iron that is above the ground to keep it from rusting, but it doesn’t work very well when you bury the pipes and structure in the dirt.
So, how do you protect your investment? The answer is by using Cathodic Protection. There is a grounding grid made of copper wires buried in the dirt that ties to all the metal objects around the plant grounds. This not only helps absorb things like lightening strikes, but it also allows for the seemingly miraculous anti-rust system known as “Cathodic Protection”.
This is how Cathodic Protection works… You bury a large piece of metal in the dirt and you tie a negative DC (direct current) power source to it. Then you tie the positive power to the grounding grid. By creating a positive charge on the boiler structure and the piping you inhibit rusting, while you enhance the corrosion on the large piece of buried metal with the negative charge.
A nifty trick if you ask me. The only thing about using cathodic protection is that you have to keep an eye on it because the large piece of buried metal will eventually need to be replaced, or the charge will need to be adjusted as it decays in order to protect all the other metal in the plant.
The Power Plant doesn’t just have one source for cathodic protection. There are numerous boxes placed around the plant that protected a specific set of equipment and buildings. So, when it came time to do Cathodic Protection checks, we would go to each station and take readings. If there were anomalies in the readings then someone would be alerted, and tap settings may be adjusted. In extreme cases, the large piece of metal would need to be replaced with a new one…. Though I never saw that happen.
Once I understood the concept of how Cathodic Protection worked I came to the conclusion that what Catholic Protection was doing for me, Cathodic Protection was doing for the Power Plant. It was helping to prevent corrosion.
If you don’t keep a close watch on how well your Cathodic Protection is doing, then you won’t realize when it needs to be re-calibrated. I have found the same thing applies with how well I am doing as a person. Sometimes I find I need to do a little adjustment to keep myself in line…
When checking a Cathodic Protection rectifier, when you use your multimeter to check the voltages, you have to put your leads and usually your hands into a container of transformer oil. This is somewhat messy and unpleasant. But we realize that it is something that just has to be done. We may wear latex disposable gloves to help keep our hands from soaking in the oil, but inevitably, I would end up dripping some on my jeans.
It’s the same way when trying to adjust myself to be a better person. It seems a little unpleasant at first, but you know it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s swallowing your pride. Sometimes it’s admitting that you are wrong. Sometimes it is just getting off your duff and stop being so lazy.
This is why I always felt so honored working with such True Power Plant Men. They were the ones that, even though they struggled in their individual lives like the rest of us, they always kept their mind on what was right and used that as a guide to make the right decisions.
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.
Comments from Original Post:
Originally posted November 9, 2013:
One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards. My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service. There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.
I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs. Like I said. It was really fun.
I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having. Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing. He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.
Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job. Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application. I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about. He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.
I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….
I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School. He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri. We immediately became friends when we met. We both enjoyed the same things. The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.
I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games. So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me. We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.
One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.
Jesse was beating us so badly that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn. Then his mother called us for dinner.
Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice. When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal. Chili. So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.
After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home. On the way home my brother started to chuckle. I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” in his head. It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.
So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say. We would just yell out, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!” It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.
When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory. I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!!”
Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm. He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived. The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?” When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.” When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was. I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse! You’re my friend!”
So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine. It’s poetry to my ears. Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.
End of Side Story….
So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most? Well… because all good things had to come to an end. Electronic circuit boards included.
When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it. They just aren’t used much anymore. Everything has gone digital. Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips. It just isn’t quite the same.
So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant. By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors. We were programming chips. Now the circuit boards looked more like this:
Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using. We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor. We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing. When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.
There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit… Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.
Well. Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun. We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.
The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature. No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit. Oh well….
When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor. The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant. They were made from genuine Asbestos. I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.
Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves. Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing. You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well… They were taken away. Not deemed safe for use by humans.
In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”. That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.
Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator. Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface. But…. I wouldn’t know about that. I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.
A manual crank megger was similar….
Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:
It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing. We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places. Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?
I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards. I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.
This heater didn’t even get hot. The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.
The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:
They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.
As for the volt-ohm meters. Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter. I dare say. It was a step up from the old Simpson meter. A lot safer also:
And the Safety belt? Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body. So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.
So… you see… What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs. Real Power Plant Men I mean. So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss. They lose those things they hold dear. Yeah. They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had. I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.
So. That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most. Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing. Power plant Men just change right along with it. But sometimes it hurts a little
Originally posted November 16, 2013:
Most of us have watched the Alfred Hitchcock Thriller “The Birds” at least once in their life. When I was young it used to come on TV around Thanksgiving about the same time that Wizard of Oz would rerun. What a mix of movies to watch after eating turkey in one of our Italian relative’s house in Kansas City as I was growing up. During those years of sitting passively by watching the birds gang up on the humans, it never occurred to me that some day I might take part in my own private version of “Blackbird Wars” amid the playground equipment found in a typical Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
A tale like this is best starts out with the line, “It was a cold and windy night…” That was close. My story begins with, “It was a dark and cold winter morning…” Unit 1 was on overhaul. That meant that it was offline while we climbed inside the inner workings of the boiler, precipitator, Turbine and Generator in order to perform routine yearly maintenance. Being on overhaul also meant that we came to work earlier in the morning and we left later in the evening. Since it was in the middle of the winter, it also meant that we came to work in the dark, and we left for home in the dark…. These were dark times at the Power Plant for those of us on long shifts.
At this time in my career I was working on Unit 1 precipitator by myself. I had my own agenda on what needed to be done. Sometimes I would have contractors working with me, but for some reason, we had decided that we didn’t need them for this overhaul. Maybe because it was an extra long one and I would have plenty of time to complete my work before it was over.
I can remember grabbing my tool bucket and heading for the precipitator roof to begin my day of calibrating vibrators and checking rappers to make sure they were operating correctly. I was wearing my winter coat over my coveralls because it was cold outside. In Oklahoma, 20 degrees was pretty cold. 20 degrees in Oklahoma with 30 mile an hour winds gives you a pretty low wind chill…. which chills you to the bone.
I had a red stocking liner on my hardhat that wrapped around my forehead that kept my head warm.
All bundled up, I left the shop through the Turbine Room basement and headed toward the breezeway between Unit 1 and 2. I climbed the stairs up the Surge Bin Tower until I had reached the landing where you can go to either Unit 1 or 2 precipitator roofs. Using rote memory after having performed this same task every morning for the past month and a half, I turned toward Unit 1.
The Precipitator is a big box that takes the ash out of the exhaust from boiler. It drops the ash into hoppers where it is transported to the coalyard into large silos, where trucks haul it away to make concrete for roads and buildings. The precipitator roof is full of large transformers (84 of them), 168 vibrators that shake the 29568 high voltage wires in the precipitator, and 672 rappers that bang on the 7560 metal plates. The transformers are used to collect the ash using “static cling”. The rappers and vibrators are used to knock the ash into the hoppers.
The Precipitator roof is a very noisy place when all the rappers and vibrators are running. It is covered with a sheet metal roof. It wasn’t originally designed that way, but someone with foresight thought that it would be a great idea to insulate the precipitator roof. In doing so, they needed to add a roof to keep the insulation from being exposed to the weather.
It wasn’t noisy that morning as I reached the ladder and quickly tied my tool bucket to a rope hanging down from above. It was dark, and lonely and quiet. Well. There were some lights, but this morning, the light from the precipitator didn’t seem to shine much as I pulled myself up the ladder. When I reached the top I turned around and sat at the top of the ladder and began pulling my tool bucket up.
It was at that moment when I realized that something was much different than usual. I had spent a couple of years working on the precipitator roof and inside and I had become friends with each of the transformers, and I even knew the unique sounds of each of the vibrators. I could tell when a rapper wasn’t rapping correctly. There would be a slight sucking sound as the rapper was drawn up into the cylinder…. There was a slight pause, then it would drop onto an anvil that was connected to the plate rack. But this morning everything was turned off. Yet, I could feel that there was something wrong.
There was a strange hum. I was trying to place it as I grabbed each foot of rope and pulled my bucket closer. There was more than a hum… There was a weird muffled sound all around. I had a chill down my back as if I was being watched. I quickly grabbed the handle of the bucket and stood up and turned around. I was ready to spot whoever it was that was spying on me!
What I saw immediately sucked the breath out of me. The precipitator is 200 feet wide and 120 feet long. Every inch as far as I could see was black. Not just the equipment, but the air itself.
During the night a cold wave had moved into Oklahoma from the north. With it, it had brought a horde of blackbirds. Thousands upon thousands of them. They had found refuge from the cold blasting wind in the precipitator roof enclosure. Safe and warm and undisturbed….. That is, until I arrived.
It was as if the blackbirds had discovered me at the same time I had found them. They suddenly burst into a frenzy.
I stood there in wonder for a few moments watching the swirling mass of blackness obscuring what little light was given off by the 100 watt Mercury Vapor lights. As I began to move toward the walkway the flying mass of feathers parted so that the birds kept a safe distance from me. As I grabbed the rungs of the ladder, I suddenly realized why keeping an aviary at a Power Plant is not a good idea. A warm moist gooey mass squished between my fingers as I pulled myself up the ladder and onto the walkway.
I took a few steps to where a package of WypAlls was laying on the walkway and pulled out a couple of heavy duty sheets of durable wiping material:
I decided that I was going to try to chase the birds out of the shelter so I began waving a couple of rags around as I walked down the walkway. All it did was cause the birds to bunch up in corners away from me. They would circle back around behind me. So, when I reached the other end of the roof, I climbed down to one of the rapper control cabinets and powered it up.
The rappers and vibrators began their music. A medley of humming and clanking. I went to each of the 14 cabinets on the roof turning on each of them until the entire roof had risen to a symphony of buzzing and banging. Music to my ears. After wiping down a few places where I needed to work, I spent some time testing and taking notes so that I could make adjustments in the control cabinet after I had made my way around each rapper and vibrator in that area. Then I left for break.
The sun was now up and daylight was shining through the openings in the precipitator roof. When I returned from break the hoard of blackbirds had decided to continue their journey south.
There was one time when I was working as an electrician at the Power Plant where I felt close to being a bird myself. It was when I had to travel to the top of the 500 foot smoke stack to repair some equipment. I was not only at the top of the smokestack, but I was literally sitting on the edge of it and shimming my way around it.
Why me? Well. Our A Foreman, Bill Bennett summed it up like this…. “Have Kevin do it. He likes heights.” Sure. Just like he said I liked to get dirty, so put me in a coal bin to fix a proximity switch. Or, just like he said that I liked climbing in holes in the ground, so I was assigned the job of fixing all the manhole pumps at the plant. What could I say? At some point, he was right. I couldn’t argue with him. Especially since he would call me a “scamp” with such endearment (See the post “Tales of a Tall Power Plant A Foreman“).
Well. You learn something new every day when working at a power plant, and I sure learned something that day. Quite a few things. I already knew that inside the tall concrete smoke stack was another smoke stack made out of brick. The outer stack would sway in the strong Oklahoma wind, while the brick stack inside would remain steady. On a windy day, at the very top, the stack would sway as much as six inches.
On this particular day I rode on top of the stack elevator to the top so that I could climb up onto the rim where the lightning rods were placed about 6 feet apart around the top.
When the wind is blowing there is a certain amount of a difference in the electric potential at the top of the stack as there is on the ground, so you could hear a slight crackling sound around the lightning rods even though it was a clear sunny day. I was wearing a safety belt and as I stopped to work, I would clip the lanyard to the closest lightning rod knowing full well that if I decided to jump off the stack, the lightning rod would just bend and the lanyard would just slide off the end.
I was not in any mood to do any jumping that day. I was there to fix jumpers instead. You see, there is a metal cap on the top rim of the smoke stack. Actually, there is a metal rim on the top of both smoke stacks. The concrete one and the brick stack inside the concrete stack. And there was supposed to be a set of jumpers around the top of the stacks connecting the two metal caps together electrically. This way, if perchance a bolt of lightning hit the inside stack, then the electricity would be routed to the outer rim and down the large grounding cables to the ground grid 500 feet below.
As I shimmied around the top of the stack, I became aware that as far as I could see… clear to the horizon, there wasn’t anything higher than me. At first this threw me a little off balance, because I usually focused on other objects to help me keep my bearings. In this case, only the other smoke stack was as high as me. So, I focused on the rim where I was sitting and tried as hard as I could to ignore the fact that I was a tenth of a mile up in the air.
I removed the broken jumpers and replaced them with the new ones. I didn’t think these new jumpers would last long considering that as the stack swayed back and forth, it would quickly wear the jumpers in two. But, there was some regulation or something that said they had to be replaced, and so that was why I was there.
I noticed while I was working on the top of the stack that birds were flying around below me. Actually, most of them were way below me. Few birds would fly as high as the stacks, and they were usually the predatory types that liked to swoop down on unsuspecting pigeons below. It felt a little odd to be working and looking down at birds flying when it is so normal to look up to see birds. From up there, a large flock of birds like those in “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock didn’t look so intimidating. They were nothing but small dots far below.
Comment from original post:
Originally posted: November 22, 2013:
I suppose you’ve heard it said that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The same is true at the Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked for 20 years first as a summer help, then a janitor, a laborer and finally as an electrician. I did find out when I was a janitor, that even though there may not have been a free lunch, there was often a carefully prepared lunch for special occasions.
I have written about when I was an electrician where I would sit in the electric shop office during lunch and Charles Foster and I would sit and talk day after day about various topics throughout the years (See the post “Eating Power Plant Pickles, Peppers and Ice Cream“). He kept my lunch well-stocked with various types of vegetables throughout the year. It seemed to me that I had little to offer in the way of providing for the team.
The electric shop would occasionally have a special feast for no apparent reason. I would walk into the shop one day and find a big pot of beans soaking in water. They would soak the beans overnight. When I saw that big pot of beans, I knew that tomorrow the shop would be having a real bean feast. It was funny, but before becoming an electrician, the only place I had ever heard the phrase, “Bean Feast” was from Varuca in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
It was customary that when there was going to be a shop lunch that we would each bring something to go with it. We often had someone that made some Sun Tea. That is, they would put some tea in a big jar of water and put it outside so that it could bake in the hot summer sun until lunch.
I was pretty inept with coming up with some kind of casserole, and I didn’t have ready-made vegetable garden like Charles, so at first I didn’t know how I could contribute. As time went by, whenever we had a shop lunch, I could always be counted on to bring a tray of brownies. I knew how to bake brownies.
Sometimes, when it was the right season, and Andy Tubbs and Ben Davis and others had gathered enough fish that they had a lot left over, we would be treated to a fish fry. That was one of my favorite lunches. I could eat fish anytime.
Chili was another shop treat that I was always glad to see. It broke the monotony of the same lunch I ate every day. The shop used to make the best spicy hot chili.
Sometimes the Maintenance shop would cook hamburgers or something, usually because they wanted to do something for the people from other plants that were visiting during overhaul, or they were raising money for someone who was sick, or had some tragedy in their life like their house burned down or something. Power Plant Men were always on the lookout for someone to help. I always felt it was my duty to pitch in by eating as many hamburgers as I could.
For years, for lunch I either only brought a ham sandwich or I brought a couple of boiled eggs for lunch. I tried not to spend too much time putting my lunch together in the morning, so I went for the quick fix. For a year, each morning when I woke up, before taking my shower I went in the kitchen, put a couple of eggs in a pan of water, put them on the stove, and headed for the shower.
By the time I came out of the shower, the eggs were ready to come out of the pan and into my Little Playmate lunch box with my salt shaker and a couple of paper towels to be used as napkins for when I peeled them at lunch time. I had to put the shells somewhere….
When I was on the labor crew I used to be able to eat all day long and remain thin. When I arrived in the electric shop, the amount of physical activity was a lot less. I found that buying a cinnamon roll from the vending machine for morning and afternoon break was no longer a viable idea. My weight quickly went from 145 pounds to 163 in a few short months.
So, I could no longer eat like a Hobbit. I had to watch my weight. I stopped drinking Dr. Peppers and bought Diet Cokes instead. I limited myself to my one sandwich or a couple of boiled eggs and a fruit, and whatever vegetable treats Charles would give me. That still didn’t seem to help me keep my weight down, so I had to take other measures.
I began drinking Slim Fast for lunch every day. I would bring a half gallon of skim milk and keep it in the refrigerator and then I would use half of it each day for lunch mixing up a glass of Slim Fast. This helped keep me fairly…. um…. less Hobbit-like.
I don’t remember how many years I continued drinking Slim-Fast for lunch, but I’m sure it was a number of years. The same lunch every day. A glass of Slim Fast for lunch. — Yum…. um…. Yum…..
One day as lunch time was rapidly approaching, I went to the Ice Box to retrieve my carton of milk to mix my Slim-Fast. When I opened the refrigerator door, I didn’t see the carton of milk. I stopped and thought. I was sure I had left a half carton of milk there from the day before…. Someone had obviously taken my milk. That was unusual. I would trust just about everyone in the shop with my life (well, there were a couple of them in the lab that I had my doubts). Surely I could trust them all with my carton of milk.
So, as Andy, Ben and Diana came to the Work Table slash Lunch Table, I asked if anyone had seen my carton of milk that was in the refrigerator. Andy Tubbs replied that he had thrown it out that morning. He had seen that carton of milk sitting in there for months and had figured that it had gone bad a long time ago, so that morning he had poured it down the drain.
Semi-stunned, I explained that I had only put that milk carton in the refrigerator yesterday, and that I put a new one in there every two day. But at this point what could you do? Andy shrugged his shoulders. Said something like, “Oh Well…” I hobbled back to the office feeling a little downtrodden that I wasn’t going to be able to feast on my cool Malt Chocolaty glass of Slim-Fast like I had for the past 100 weeks…. Like I said… I was a “little” downtrodden about it.
I sat down in the office across from Charles and told him that my milk had been inadvertently tossed out. The only thing I had in my lunchbox at that point was my can of Slim-Fast. Maybe I had a spare pocket knife, some old hardhat stickers and a rosary, but nothing really edible as a backup.
I sat there for a couple of minutes when the office door opened up and Andy walked in with a plastic Tupperware bowl. It was filled with some meat and vegetables. He placed it down in front of me, and turned to walk out. — Power Plant Men….. That’s how they are. He had given me, what looked like the majority of his lunch to eat.
In the 20 years that I worked at the Power Plant, I had eaten all kinds of foods for the first time. From Squirrel to Deer Jerky. I think this was some kind of Deer Stew. I can tell you that of all the lunches I ate during that time, I can vividly remember eating that lunch. It was a Power Plant Man lunch fit for a king.
I guess I was feeling guilty that I never could really contribute anything more than just a tray of stale brownies for the team lunches, so I told the shop that the next day I was going to prepare a salad for them. Like at a salad bar. The idea didn’t seem to excite them too much. Most of them were Meat and Potato type people, as I was myself. But I thought I would surprise them.
I went to the store that evening and bought all kinds of things that I could use to make a salad bar. The next day, I brought bean sprouts, Alfalfa Sprouts, boiled eggs, a ham, some spinach, leaf lettuce and iceberg lettuce, some diced beets, broccoli, cauliflower, and about 4 different kinds of salad dressing.
Around 9:30 after our morning break, I began working on setting up the counter for lunch. I began by dicing up the ham….. Well… using a regular old knife to slice ham into little tiny cubes takes a lot longer than I thought it would. It turned out that by the time I had finished with the ham, and sliced up about 6 boiled eggs, and slicing up a pound of mushrooms and washed and prepared the lettuce, and cheese and beets and lemons (for squeezing) and everything to make it look like a real salad bar, it was already lunch time.
I think I surprised the electricians that day. I don’t think they were thinking that they were going to get anything more than a bowl of lettuce with some vinegar and oil. I did the best I could and they seemed to enjoy it. Being that they hadn’t really counted on my salad being a full blown lunch, I think many of them (or most of them) had went ahead and brought there regular lunch just in case.
I know this wasn’t a typical Power Plant Man Lunch. And it isn’t like I eat a lot of salads myself. I just thought it was something that I could do without having to cook a lot…. I mean… the ham was already cooked, and I knew how to boil eggs. So, I thought, what the heck. I’ll give it a try.
I wasn’t very good at showing my appreciation toward the electricians because….. well….. because I just was never much good at that. I only did something like that once that I can remember. The electricians on the other hand were constantly doing things to show their appreciation for others. At least there was that one day when the Power Plant Men “Ate My Lunch”!
Originally posted November 30, 2013:
While I worked as a janitor at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma the subject came up one Monday morning about the normal career path that janitors could take. We had already been told that the only place a janitor could advance to was the labor crew. We had also been told that there was a company policy that came down from Oklahoma City that only allowed janitors to move to the labor crew before they could move on to another job like an Operator or Mechanic.
I had been trying to decide if I wanted to go the route of being an Operator or a Mechanic during my time as a janitor. That is, until Charles Foster asked me if I would be interested in becoming an Electrician. I hadn’t even considered being an electrician up to that point, as I had no experience and it seemed like a job that needed a particular skill set.
I had begun my studies to learn about being an electrician when there was an opening in the Electric Shop. Charles Foster and Bill Bennett petitioned to hire me for the position, but the verdict came down from above that according to Company Policy, a janitor could only advance from janitor to the labor crew.
I didn’t have any expectation at the time of becoming an electrician given that I had no experience, so I wasn’t disappointed when Mike Rose was hired from outside the company. He was hired to help out Jim Stevenson with Air Conditioning and Freeze Protection.
The next revelation about our position as janitor at the plant (and I’m sure that Ron Kilman, our next plant manager, who reads this blog can testify that it really was company policy…. after all…. that’s what our plant manager told us. — Just kidding…. I know that it really wasn’t), was that when it became our turn to move from being a janitor to moving to the labor crew, if we didn’t move to the labor crew during the next two openings on the labor crew, then we would be let go. I mean… we would lose our job.
This revelation came about when Curtis Love was next in line to go to the labor crew and he was turned down. Larry Riley, the foreman of the labor crew had observed Curtis while we were being loaned to the labor crew during outages and he didn’t want him on the crew for um…. various reasons. After Curtis had been turned down, he was later told that if he didn’t move onto the labor crew when there was another opening, then the company had to fire him. It was company policy (so we were told…. from Corporate Headquarters).
I had been around the plant long enough to know at that point that when we were told that it was company policy that came down to us from Corporate Headquarters, that, unless it was in our binders called General Policies and Procedures, then it probably wasn’t really company policy. It was more likely our evil plant manager’s excuse for not taking the responsibility himself and just telling us that this was the way it was, because he just said so….
Anyway… This caused a dilemma from an unlikely source on our team of janitors. Doris Voss became worried that if she didn’t move onto the labor crew, that she would lose her job. She was quite content at the time to have just stayed a janitor, but from this policy that had just come down from Corporate Headquarters, (i.e. The front corner office of our plant), she either had to go to the labor crew, or lose her job.
So, what Doris decided to do was to apply for the job of receptionist that had just been vacated by Grant Harned (see the post “Power Plant Carpooling Adventures with Grant Harned“). Doris applied for the job and her application was accepted. She moved on to work at the receptionist desk. I, on the other hand, was next in line behind Curtis Love. So, when he was turned down for the labor crew, I took his place.
As a side note, I talked Larry Riley into letting Curtis Love advance to the labor crew when there was another opening. I told him that I would let him work with me, and that I would take care of him. With that caveat, Larry agreed. You can read a couple of adventures I had with Curtis after he arrived on the labor crew by reading these posts: “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love” and “Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door“. Later, however, when I had moved on to be an electrician, Curtis was let go after having a vehicle accident and not reporting it right away.
What does this have to do with the EEOC shuffle? Well… about the time I have moved on to the labor crew, a new company-wide policy had been put in place for the internal “Employee Job Announcement Program”. Our power plant had some “irregularities” surrounding where our new employees were coming from. It seems that an inordinate amount of new employees were coming from Pawnee, and more particularly from a certain church. It was obvious to some that a more “uniform” method needed to be in place to keep local HR staff from hiring just their buddies.
Along with this, came a mandate that all external job announcements had to be sent to various different unemployment offices in a certain radius in order to guarantee that everyone that was interested had the opportunity to be informed about any new positions at the plant well in time to apply for it. That was, if the Internal job announcement program didn’t find any viable candidates within the company that was willing to take the job.
EEOC, by the way, means, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Around the same time that our plant had hired a “snitch” to go around an entrap unsuspecting employees into illegal activities (see the post: “Power Plant Snitch“), the EEOC had given us notice that we were not hiring enough women and American Indians as well as African Americans at the plant. Not only did we lack number, we also needed to have them spread out into a number of different jobs in the plant.
At the time the operators were 100% male. No women. The maintenance shop had a couple of women. The rest of the women at the plant were either clerks, working for the warehouse, or in the HR department…. Which all incidentally reported up to Jack Ballard our HR Supervisor. Well. Except for Yvonne Taylor in the Chemistry lab, and maybe someone that was on the testing team and of course Summer Goebel who was a Plant Engineer.
It wasn’t just women that were affected. We had to have an African American in Upper Management. Bill Bennett had become an A Foreman a few years earlier, and there was some discussion about whether they could promote him up one more level. He refused the offer. Later they decided that an A Foreman at our plant was high enough to be considered “upper management”.
American Indians were also a group of employees that needed to fill a certain quota. The Power Plant was located in North Central Oklahoma with many Indian Reservations surrounding it. I think we were supposed to have more than 10% American Indians employed at the plant. So the front office asked everyone to check to see if they were Indian enough to be considered. I think if you were 1/16th American Indian, you counted in the quota.
Some people were a little disturbed to be asked to report their racial status in order to fill a quota. Jerry Mitchell told me that he was Indian, but that he never had told anyone and he didn’t want to become a number, so he wasn’t going to tell them. I think we met our quota even without Jerry Mitchell and some others that felt insulted.
At the time, we had over 350 employees at the plant. That meant that we needed 35 women. I think we were closer to 25 when the push to hire more women went into effect.
The problem area that needed the most work was with the operators. Their entire organization had no women and they were told that they needed them. The problem was both structural and operational (yeah…. Operations had an operational problem…. how about that?).
There were two problems with hiring women to be operators. The first one was structural. The operators main base was the Control Room. That’s where their locker room was. That’s where their kitchen was. More importantly that’s where they could all stand around and watch Gene Day perform feats of magic by doing nothing more than standing there being…. well… being Gene Day!
There was only a Power Plant men’s locker room. There were no facilities for women. The nearest women’s rest / locker room was across the main plant in the office area, or downstairs in the Maintenance shop. This presented a logistical problem, especially on days when Gene Day made his special Chili or tortilla soup (Ok, I’m just picking on Gene Day…. We all know Gene never could cook. We loved him anyway).
Either way, there were times when taking a trek across the plant to make it to the nearest restroom was not acceptable. This was solved by building an additional rest / locker room in the control room for women operators. That problem was solved.
The operational problem inherent in operations was that they worked shift work. That is, each week, they shifted the hours they worked. Operators had to be working around the clock. So, one week, they would work from 7:00 am to 3:30 pm. Next week they may work from 3pm to 11:30pm, or from 11pm to 7:30am. The plant didn’t have any female applicants for a job where you had to work around the clock.
The EEOC said that wasn’t good enough. We needed to find women to work in operations. This was where Doris Voss became a person of interest.
Doris was asked if she would like to become an operator. Of course, she said no. She really still wanted to be a janitor, but was content being a receptionist. I’m not sure what she was told or was given, but she eventually agreed and moved over to become an operator. Another clerk, Helen Robinson was later coaxed into becoming an operator. Mary Lou Teeman was also hired into the Operations department. I don’t remember if she was a clerk before that, or if she was a new hire. — I do remember that she was the sweetest lady in operations.
Here is a picture that includes Doris Voss:
And here is Helen Robinson:
How is it that Charles Peavler showed up in two pictures? — Oh. Taken at different times. Note that Charles Peavler with the gray shirt in the front row is kneeling on one knee, but Larry Tapp with the blue shirt next to him is standing….. Hey. Larry Tapp may be short, but he’s one of the nicest guys in this picture. I have a story about those two guys on the right side of this picture. Merl Wright and Jack Maloy. I’ll probably include that as a side story in a later post (See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“).
With the addition of the three new female operators, the EEOC shuffle was satisfied. We had added a few new female employees from the outside world and everyone was happy. Julienne Alley was added to the Welding shop during this time. The entire maintenance crew would agree that their new “Shop” mother was the best of them all (See the post: “Power Plant Mother’s Day“).
Comment from the Original Post:
Originally posted December 7, 2013:
Usually when I write a Power Plant Man post, the story is about the Power Plant Men and Women I worked with during the 20 years I spent at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. Today’s post, however, is more about a particular experience I had during this time period. Some Power Plant Men at the plant were witnesses to the events, but for the most part, this was personal.
This story begins early in the morning on New Years Day 1987. Some time around 3:00 am. I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night from the bed where I was sleeping at my parents house in Stillwater, Oklahoma where my wife and I were visiting on New Year’s Eve. It felt as if someone had crept into my room and stabbed me in the back with a knife!
Instead of replying “Et Tu Brute” (pronounced “Bru Tey”), I jumped out of bed, flailing to fight back, only to find that Kelly and I were alone in the room. A quick search of my back with my right hand told me that I didn’t have any external injury, even though the pain indicated that a knife of some sort was still piercing my lower back as if someone was working the knife around trying to increase the pain.
Not wanting to wake my wife, I left the room and went into the hallway. I figured I must be having a kidney stone. I seemed to recall a similar pain many years earlier when I was a boy. At that time the pain didn’t last too long, and I figured that I would just drink some water and hope that it would work itself out quickly.
Some of you who have experienced this pain probably guessed this from the start that I was having a kidney stone. there isn’t much that is more painful than having a kidney stone, especially if the kidney stone is of any size and spiky.
I did finally wake up my wife and tell her that I thought I was having a kidney stone. She is an RN, and I figured she would know what to do if I passed out from the pain. Besides, I didn’t want her to think the house was haunted if she woke up and heard some moaning and groaning out in the hallway.
Luckily for me, the kidney stone was small and without spikes. I was able to pass the stone through the painful stage in less than hour. It felt as if I had dropped a pebble right into my bladder. A quick trip to the bathroom, and I emerged with a little stone the size of a piece of sand.
The next morning (still New Year’s Day), we drove back to Ponca City where we lived at the time. We were only about 3 miles north of Stillwater when all of the sudden, I was hit with another stabbing pain. This time coming from the lower left side. It was that same experience as a few hours earlier.
I was able to pull the car into the gas station at Bill’s Corner. I climbed quickly out of the car, paced back and forth for a minute or two, and then climbed into the passenger seat as Kelly drove the rest of the way home. At some point on the way home. I think it was about the time we passed the power plant, the stone had worked its way down into the bladder and the pain was over.
We scheduled an appointment with a Urologist the following week, and when I arrived at the doctor’s office, I gave him the two kidney stones and he had them analyzed. They were the typical kidney stone made of Calcium Oxalate. The doctor’s advice? Cut down on my calcium intake. Ok. So, I stopped drinking a glass of milk each morning before I left for work.
The result was that every 3 months I churned out another kidney stone. For the next 10 and a half year, every 3 months I had a kidney stone. Sometimes they were easy. Other times they were difficult. It depended on the size and shape of the stones.
I began saving them in one of those cases that people use for their contact lenses. The ones that have a side for the left contact, and one for the right contact.
I would put the kidney stones from my left kidney in the Left side, and the right Kidney in the R section. How did I know which was which? It was easy. Was I being stabbed in the back on the left or the right.
So, what does this have to do with Power Plant Men? Well, at times the Power Plant men had to deal with me while I was in the middle of having a Kidney stone. Most of the times it was just as a bystander sharing in my misery as they watched me pace back and forth as pale as a zombie. Other times it was riding shotgun in peril of their lives as I struggled to bring my car safely to a stop while writhing in pain.
Here are some instances I remember. One day when Scott Hubbard and either Toby O’Brien or Fred Turner were in my car as we were driving to work, I was suddenly hit with a bat across my lower back. I vaguely remember saying, “Oh No!” I asked Scott Hubbard, who was sitting in front with me to dump the contents of my lunchbox out on the floor of the car.
You see, when a kidney stone is in full swing and the feeling of intense pain begins to build up, there is a plexus of nerves around the kidneys that send a message to the stomach that it would be best if the stomach is empty. Meaning that any recently eaten breakfast should be evacuated as quickly as possible.
I struggled to remain conscious and sane and to keep the car on the road. We were only about a mile from Bill’s Corner (where I had stopped during my second kidney stone on New Years Eve (many years earlier). So, I headed for there as a place to jump out of the car. Only this was a much worse kidney stone that during the last time I pulled into the gas station to switch sides with my wife. I was going to have to turn around and go home. I wasn’t going to be passing this one any time soon.
When I climbed out of the car, I made it to the back of the car just in time to eject the contents of my stomach onto the pavement. When you are sick and you vomit, it usually makes you feel better because that it over. When you have a kidney stone, vomiting is only about as much relief as taking a breathe.
Luckily some other Power Plant Men had stopped at the gas station to fill up their vehicle and they had enough room to take Scott and Toby, (or was it Fred… Fred? You read these posts…. was it you?). I asked Scott to tell our foreman that I wasn’t going to be in for work today.
I climbed back into my Honda and pointed the car toward home. With my Little Playmate Lunchbox open at my side, I drove home. When I walked in the door at home, my wife immediately knew what was happening. She comforted me by saying, “Poor Beast.” While I began the ritual of drinking water and pacing around the house.
You see…. At this time I no longer went to the doctor or the hospital when attacked with a kidney stone. I had learned my lesson many years earlier.
Early on, in Ponca City, when I had a kidney stone, I went to the hospital bent over in pain and having visions of my life passing before my eyes as if I was already in the middle of judgement day. When I would arrive in the emergency room, they would give me a shot of morphine to ease the pain.
The problem with morphine was that I was already using all my mental faculties to suppress the pain, and as soon as the morphine would begin taking effect, it took away my ability to block the mentally blocked pain. I would end up, for about 20 minutes while the morphine was taking its full effect on my senses, climbing the walls in really intense pain. Then eventually they would send me home where I would be sick from the morphine for about a week even though I may have passed the kidney stone in a day or two.
During the worst kidney stone I encountered while I was living in Ponca City, (during the first 3 years that we were married), it took about 5 day to pass this one stone. It was especially rough. Usually the only relief I had from this particular stone was to pass out from the pain. Pacing didn’t seem to work. Drinking water didn’t seem to work. It seemed like this particular stone was stuck right at the bottom of the Ureters. That is, the urinary tract just before the bladder. I knew that if it would only fall into the bladder, the intense pain would be over.
I remember how this passed very clearly. I was kneeling on the side of the bed saying a Rosary (the Sorrowful Mysteries of course). One of the Sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary is to meditate on the Scourging at the Pillar. That was what I felt I was going through at the time, so I had been saying the sorrowful mysteries all week.
I finally prayed to God something I usually refrained from doing…. I said to Him. “Father…. this is enough. This is all I can take. Please take this away from me.” Almost immediately the kidney stone dropped into my bladder. Oh my gosh! I climbed up into the bed and fell asleep. The pain had finally ended after 5 hard days.
I was awoken 5 hours later. My Father was calling me from Florida where he was working at a Veterinary Clinic training the employees of the clinic for continuous education. (See the post “I Think I Can, I Think I Can and Other Power Plant Man Chants” to learn more about my Father and Tom Houghton who owned the Veterinary Clinic). He told me that about 5 hours earlier he was struck with a kidney stone.
My father, though he had one kidney stone when I was a boy, was not prone to kidney stones like I was. It seemed as if the moment that I was relieved of my pain, my Father had picked up the torch and carried on the pain. I apologized to him, because I had prayed that the pain I was feeling would go away and it seems as if he had to experience whatever pain I was meant to finish bearing. The coincidence was too much to belief. He had just passed the stone and wanted to call me to tell me, since he knew that I was regularly experiencing kidney stones at the time. I resolved from that time on, to go ahead and suffer through whatever pain was being sent my way, because it appeared as if it was for a reason of some sort. I never prayed to have the pain leave again. Only that I was able to endure it.
Back to the Power Plant. One day Diana Brien and I were doing some work in the Coal yard Maintenance building, where the Labor Crew called home. We had driven the electric cart to the coal yard to work on whatever we were working on. The moment we sat in the cart to head back to the electric shop. Wham. I was hit with a kidney stone.
I didn’t want to mention it to Dee. There was no need in worrying her, or embarrassing me, so I just remained silent. I just held onto the side rail on the cart and closed my eyes. As we banged over the railroad tracks and down the gravel road on the hill, I just held on and thought…. “don’t throw up…. don’t throw up….” I concentrated real hard to try and ease the pain.
When we reached the shop, without a word, I walked into the shop and straight into the bathroom, where I began peeling back clothing. That is, I undid my belt, and unsnapped my pants. I paced a few minutes… then feeling the kidney stone hit the bladder, I relieved myself and walked back out into the shop. I figure all the jostling about on the bumpy road in a cart with no suspension system helped move the stone down quickly.
Dee and Scott Hubbard knew right away what had happened to me. There was no hiding the pale face and the sweat that was running down my face. I went in the office to rest a while. After a while I was ready to go back to work.
So, for all you kidney stone sufferers, here is a few words of advice. Today I have passed more than 55 kidney stones. I have never had one of them removed by any other means than passing them myself. I have passed very large kidney stones. Some so big you could crush them in your fingers.
First of all. Don’t panic. Kidney stones won’t kill you (at least not right away). The first thing that happens is that the muscles in your back tighten up. This is not a good thing. You need the muscles in your back to relax. Concentrate on relaxing those muscles. I used to use a handheld massager to try to relax the muscles. Now I just concentrate on relaxing the back. Today when I have a kidney stone, even a large one, I am usually able to pass it within hours.
Pace a lot. Drink a lot of water. You will only move the kidney stone down into the bladder by drinking water and pacing (or a massager maybe). I walk back and forth in the house. I have a path that I take. I walk back and forth, then I sip water each time. Don’t worry about throwing up. It’s just part of the reaction to the pain.
I only have about one kidney stone of any size once each year these day. I found that taking a good dose of CitriCal each day (yes. Extra calcium, has reduced the number of kidney stones considerably).
If you are Catholic… then offer the pain up for souls in Purgatory. It is our belief that the painful time that a person suffers in purgatory can be shortened by someone else offering up their pain for someone in purgatory. Note the difference between suffering and pain. Pain is the sensation you receive. Suffering is what you do with it. When you accept the pain and you “embrace” it, then you suffer it. If you moan and groan a lot, you basically pass it on to others. You tell them…. “I am in Pain.” Then they empathize with you and in a sense “feel your pain.” If this helps comfort you, ok. If you want to offer it to someone in Purgatory, then accept your pain in silence (I realize this makes no sense for those who do not accept the idea of Purgatory).
For those Christians that are not Catholic, let me offer you another way to suffer the pain from a kidney stone when it is too intense to bear. St. Paul said the following: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). With this in mind, the pain felt during a kidney stone has great meaning. It literally unites you with Christ during his Passion.
I realize this has been an odd break from the usual Power Plant Man Post. The power plant man posts for the remainder of the year will be those posts that include stories from the time that the plant was ruled under the “evil plant manager” Eldon Waugh. Beginning in January, for the next year, the post will be stories during the reign of the plant manager, Ron Kilman (1987 to 1994). During the year 2015, the stories will be during the reign of Bill Green until I left the electric company (1994 to 2001).
Comments from the original post:
About a year after I had joined the electric shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, when it was my week to be the truck driver in Fall of 1984, I had an conversation with a contract electrician that I have never forgotten. It was with a guy named Mark Meeks. I have talked about him before in the post entitled, “Life Cycle of a Power Plant Lump of Coal“.
At the time, Mark was working as a contract help for the electric shop. He had been hired to help Mike Rose and Bill Ennis to work on Freeze Protection. I was driving him to the coal yard. He was telling me how he liked working on a job for a while and then he would move on to do another job working somewhere else.
I replied back that I liked having a job where no one had ever been laid off. The electric company had been in existence for about 70 years and had never had a downsizing. I noticed that when I said that, Mark paused and thought about what I said. I was not surprised when a few weeks later, Mark was hired as a plant electrician in the shop.
I’m not saying that no one was ever fired from a power plant. I’m just saying that there wasn’t a general downsizing where a group of people were laid off. After all. you can’t really ship the jobs overseas. Not when you want to provide electricity to Oklahoma City. So, as long as you did your job and showed up to work on time, you had job until it was time to retire. That type of job security sure felt good.
All good things have to come to an end at some point. Toward the end of 1986, Martin Louthan, the Superintendent over all the Power Plants, came to our plant to talk to us. He told us that when our plant was created, it was engineered so that it would accommodate 6 units. At the time we had two. He said that when they staffed the plant, they hired enough people to operate and maintain four units.
He explained that when the oil boom went bust in 1982, it changed everything. The demand for electricity dropped instead of increased as the company had projected. So, our power plant had too many employees for the foreseeable future. We were going to have to downsize. At the time we had over 350 employees.
I think we all knew that we had too many employees at the time. There was a lot of downtime when the maintenance crews had to look for something to do. There are innumerable “for instances” I could bring up. Like times when a team of welders had to go weld something at the train gate, which would normally take a couple of hours. Instead of having it done by lunch time, the crew would park their truck at the train gate, way out where no one would bother them, and listen to the radio for a week.
There were a lot of times like these where there just wasn’t enough work during a regular work week to keep everyone busy. Everyone seemed to have their own special place where they could go take a nap if they needed one. I think we all figured that they kept us all around because when it came time for overhaul, everyone was hard at work making all kinds of overtime. Anyway. We knew it was true. There were too many employees at our plant. Especially since we weren’t going to be expanding anytime soon.
So, here is how the company decided to downsize the company. They offered everyone a “Voluntary Separation Package.” (Or VSP as we refer to it at Dell where I work today – or I did when I originally wrote this post… Now I work at General Motors who just recently – in 2019 had a VSP of their own). They would give you so many weeks of pay for every year of service you had with the company. I don’t remember the exact amount. The employees had until a certain date to decide.
Employees that were over 55 years old would be able to take an early retirement package that would amount to a normal retirement if they had stayed until they had reached retirement age. Our retirement pension plan had grown large enough that it could comfortably absorb those who would early retire. You had until a certain date when you had to decide whether or not you would take the early retirement.
There was one caveat to the taking the Voluntary Separation Package or the early retirement. You had to decide to take one of these options before you were told if your permanent position with the company was going to be terminated at the end of the year. That is, if by the end of June, if you didn’t take the package, then in July if you were told that your position was being eliminated, then the package and retirement was no longer an option. So, if you doubted your “good standing” with the company, you probably would be inclined on taking the retirement package if you were old enough.
In the electric shop I think we had one person old enough to retire. Bill Ennis. He decided to stick it out and hope that his position would still be around. Bill was a good worker, so if that had anything to do with it, he was in good shape. Only one person in our shop decided to take the Voluntary Separation Package.
It broke my heart the day that Arthur Hammond told me he was going to take the package. He only had three years with the company, so his package wasn’t going to be that big, but there was a lump sum associated with it as well. I explained his decision in the post “Power Plant Arguments with Arthur Hammond“. Arthur was a dear friend of mine. I feared that he hadn’t thought this decision through. On one hand, he was used to moving from job to job like Mark Meeks as a Contract electrician. On the other hand, he was raising a family who would benefit from a stable income without having to move from place to place.
The one an only good thing about Arthur Hammond leaving was that Scott Hubbard moved to the electric shop in his place. This was fortunate for Scott because the testing team was not surviving the downsizing and his position was surely going away. I had a bias toward the testers from their inception because when I was on the labor crew, we had not been allowed to apply for the testing jobs. I was also biased because Scott was replacing my friend Arthur. I explained this in the post: “Take a Note Jan, Said the Supervisor of Power Production“. As it turned out, Scott and I became like brothers. We worked together for years, and carpooled most of the time after he joined the shop.
As a side note. I ‘fessed up to Scott one day while we were driving home from work…. He was driving, and I told Scott, “I just want you to know that when you first came to the electric shop. I didn’t like you. It wasn’t anything you did. I just didn’t like you because you were on the testing team.” When I told Scott that, I could tell that he was uncomfortable and that he felt hurt by what I was saying. He turned his head away from me. I went on…. “When I came to know you while we have worked together, I just want you to know that you have become one of my best friends. I am sorry that I had prejudged you. I just wanted to let you know. I’m glad we are on the same team.”
So, what does this have to do with Bif? Well, Lynn “Bif” Johnson and Mark Meeks were two of the few people left that were told on the “day of reckoning” that their jobs were going way.
I remember how our entire team was called up to the front office. We waited in Leroy Godfrey’s office. (He was early retiring). They called us one at a time to Bill Moler’s office (He was early retiring also). There we were told that who we would be working for.
Gary Wehunt had been sure that he was going to be axed. I think by that time we knew that the electric shop needed to downsize one more person. Gary was shocked when he was told he still had his job. He was going to be working for Andy Tubbs on the same team I was on. — Of course, in my own cocky 26 year old way, I never thought I would be let go.
Mark Meeks was told he would no longer be employed at the end of the year. The same was true for Bif Johnson. The company offered to help find a job somewhere in the company if there was position left vacant that needed a person with your skills. They also provided a service to help you create a resume and would help you find a job so that by the end of the year, you wouldn’t just be sent packing.
Mark called up some of his contract buddies and was soon on his way to another job. He had been a contract electrician for so long, this was “Situation Normal” (which is the first two words for the acronym “SNAFU”) for him. I thought it was ironic that he should be the one person from the electric shop that was laid off when I knew that the reason he had applied for the position in the first place was most likely because he thought he could be there until he retired, as we had discussed that day in the truck a couple of years earlier.
I later learned that before Leroy Godfrey early retired he had singled out Mark Meeks and had seen to it that he was the person that was going to be laid off because he had said something to Leroy one day that had annoyed him. Much like the comment I had made to Leroy one day when he went to Bill Bennett and told him to fire me. See the Post: “Chief Among the Power Plant Machinists ” As Bill Bennett explained. Leroy wanted to make sure that Mark was included in the downsizing. It was his gift to him.
So, what about Bif? With all the help offered by the company to find a new position and five months to find a new job, what happened to Bif? Well. Bif had the attitude that I had, though he is 10 years older than me. He had it in his mind that for some reason the plant couldn’t do without him…. or maybe it was more like the attitude I have at my current job. “I am going to stay here until you make me leave.” The last day of the year came around…. Bif was no longer working for the electric company.
It seems like there were two people at the plant at the end of the year that had their positions eliminated that decided to remain at the plant up until the last day of the year (Off hand, I have forgotten who the other person was). Neither of them had sought help from the company to find another position in the company or even outside the company. They were really only laid off because they chose to be. The company had offered them every opportunity.
There were a few lessons I learned from the different events that happened during this time. The first was that I shouldn’t dislike someone because of someone else’s decision. It wasn’t Scott Hubbard’s decision not to let labor crew hands apply for the testing positions. I saw the same thing happen at the gas plant in Harrah, Oklahoma when Mel Woodring became the foreman ahead of obviously more qualified electricians. The general feeling was to dislike Mel, but who was it that picked him? Mel didn’t have anything to do with that decision. He was a pawn in an effort to move him out of the Muskogee Plant.
The second was that no matter how much you think you are indispensable, you aren’t. We all knew the saying that if you want to find out how important you are, just put your hand into a bucket of water and pull it out and see what kind of hole you leave. That’s how important you are. — Well…. Archimedes would disagree with this assessment given that the water level in the bucket changed, but that wasn’t the point.
Third, Job Security? What’s that? A Power plant probably still has more job security than most other jobs.
The fourth lesson I learned was that when your friend has decided to make a dumb decision, no matter how much it is going to hurt them in the long run, after you have tried to convince them not to take that route, you have to stand by them as much as possible. I have had some friends in the past make really stupid decisions in their lives. No matter how dumb it is…. remain their friend. How much of a friend are you if you cut and run because of their bad decisions? Like my friend Bob Ray reminds me often…. “You can’t fix stupid.” No. You can’t. But you can be there to help when needed.
Comments from Previous post:
Originally posted December 20, 2013. Added additional news about Richard at the bottom of the post:
I think it was while we were sitting in the lunch room eating lunch while I was still a janitor when the subject of harmonicas came up. Dick Dale must have asked me if I played a musical instrument, because that was my usual reply, “I play the harmonica… and the Jew’s Harp.” Just about everyone knows what a Harmonica looks like. I suppose most people in Oklahoma knows what a Jew’s Harp is. It’s that instrument you put in your mouth and you flip the little lever and it makes a vibrating twanging sound.
Dick Dale, worked in the warehouse, and we had been friends since my second year as a summer help. He told me that he always wanted to learn to play the harmonica. I told him I learned by just playing around on it. I never took lessons or used a harmonica book or anything.
When I was growing up, my dad knew how to play the harmonica, so we had one laying around the house all the time. So, one day when I was a kid, I picked it up and started playing with it. It took about five minutes before my older sister ran to my mom and complained about me making a racket. My mom told me to take it outside. So, I not only learned the harmonica by playing around with it, I was usually sitting alone in the woods while I was learning it. I have found that under these conditions, there is usually some basic part of the skill that is left out. So, I knew that my harmonica playing was never really up to snuff.
In the spring of 1983, I joined the labor crew, and I no longer ate lunch in the break room. I kept it in mind that Dick Dale wanted to learn to play the harmonica, so some time during the summer, I purchased a Hohner Marine Band Harmonica for him, and I began creating a song book with the songs that I knew how to play. I made up my own notation. The holes in the harmonica were numbered, so I wrote the numbers of the holes I would blow in, and put an arrow above the number pointing up or down to indicate whether I was blowing in the hole, or sucking the air through the hole.
During the summer I talked to Dick Dale a few times, and he was having trouble with his family. He was getting a divorce from his wife of fifteen years. He was pretty upset about that, because all along he thought he was happily married. This turned out not to be the case. In the process, Dick moved from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Ponca City. I was living in Stillwater at the time.
When winter came around, my friend Tim Flowers, who was a summer help for two summers at the plant, including the summer I was on the labor crew, came to visit me in Stillwater. I had bought a harmonica for him for Christmas, and I told him I wanted to go visit Dick Dale in Ponca City and take him his Harmonica for Christmas, along with the booklet I had handwritten (as we didn’t have computers back in those days….).
So, I called up Dick to make sure it would be all right if we dropped by for a little while. He was at home in his new house, and said he would be delighted if we came by. Dick knew Tim Flowers from the time he had been a summer help. While Tim and I were carpooling, Dick would be carpooling with Mike Gibbs, and sometimes on the way home, we would play car tag going down the highway.
One day after a Men’s Club dinner at the plant, while we were leaving, I was in the front of the line of cars heading for the main gate. In those days, there weren’t two separate gates (one for entering, and one for exiting). So, the one gate had to open almost all the way up before the person exiting could go through the gate.
When I pulled up to the gate, I pulled up on the entrance side, and Dick and Mike pulled up on the exit side. We had been racing with each other up to the main gate…. Dick was revving up the engine of his pickup truck which could easily outrun my little blue 1982 Honda Civic. I had to be more cunning to stay in front of Richard (yeah. I liked to call him Richard).
As the gate opened, I was on the side where I could go through the gate first. The way it worked was that as soon as I crossed the threshold of the gate, the gate would stop opening. then, as I went through it, I drove over to the exit side and ran over the closed loop of the gate, so that the gate closed again leaving Richard and Mike waiting behind the closed gate as we made our escape.
Of course, as soon as we were out on the main highway, it didn’t take long for Richard to make up the mile lead I had gained while he had to wait for the gate to close and re-open. So, the only way I could prevent him from passing me was by weaving over in the passing lane when he attempted to pass me, and then back again, when he returned to the right lane.
Eventually he was able to go around me, but from that day forward, whenever we were travelling home at the end of the day, and we were following each other, we would both meander back and forth across the highway on the way home…. when it was safe of course. Since we were out in the country, on a seldom traveled rode, that was usually not a problem. This came to an end when Richard moved to Ponca City.
When Tim Flowers and I arrived at Richard’s house in Ponca City that Christmas holiday, we surprised him when we handed him his very own harmonica with the booklet that I had written. He invited us inside and we sat for a while as I explained to him how the booklet worked. He said he appreciated it, and that he would work on learning how to play his harmonica so that we could play together.
We sat around and made terrible music together for a while. Then, because I didn’t want to impose on Richard too much, we left to go back to Stillwater. A couple of weeks later after the holiday, Richard said he had been practicing on the harmonica and he really appreciated the Christmas present.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but two and a half years later I was going to move to Ponca City after I was married, and my wife graduated from nursing school. That was when Dick Dale, Jim Heflin, Bud Schoonover and I began carpooling together (See the post: Carpooling with Bud Schoonover). At the time Dick said that he had hoped to get over the tragedy of his marriage by the end of the year. He had heard that it took a year to get over 5 years. Since he had been married for 15 years, he figured by the end of 3 years he should be feeling like he was over it.
The only other person at the plant that I can remember that ever heard me playing the harmonica was Arthur Hammond. He asked me one day in 1986 if I would bring my harmonica to work so that he could hear me play it. So, I did, and while we were driving down to the Arkansas River to check batteries, I played some “harmonica blues” for him. It was just stuff I was making up.
I had seen this movie called “Crossroads” with Ralph Macchio. In the movie Ralph’s character is trying to learn how to play the Blues guitar from an old and once famous blues musician. There are two things you learn as the movie unfolds. The first is that in order to really know how to play the blues, you had to have experienced a real “Blue” time in your life. So you had to play with the feeling that you had experienced. The second thing was that Ralph had to play his guitar against a contract guitar player chosen by the devil in order to save the old man’s soul.
So, what was I supposed to do? I had been blessed most of my life. I hadn’t really experienced any “real” blues. As Art was driving the pickup truck down to the river, I tried to dream up the bluest thoughts I could. I thought…. what if the world ran out of chocolate….. That would ruin everybody’s mood. I piped out a few sorrowful sounding notes on the harmonica to try and portray my disappointment living without chocolate….. that sounded kind of lame.
Then I thought, wasn’t I upset that one time when I was a summer help and I stayed over to help feed the foremen that were having a dinner in the break room and Pat Braden and I fed the foremen, and no one offered me any food, so I had to go hungry for a couple of hours before I could go home and eat some leftovers at home. I think I felt kind of blue that day….. so I cupped my hand over the harmonica, tilted my head to the side and tried to remember that painful time as I shook my hand up and down so that the harmonica would make the sad “whaaa whaa” sound.
I drummed up a few more sad thoughts, and I thought I was really floundering as my debut as a blues harmonica player, so I paused for a few minutes to try and make myself feel bad about doing such a poor job playing the harmonica hoping that it would help. Then Art said, “Hey. You are pretty good!” “What?” I thought, “Oh… That’s Art, trying to be polite.” “Thank you,” I said. Boy. How pitiful is that? Surely I should feel bad enough now to play some blues at least a little better….
Anyway, a mile or two later, I decided to give it up. I put the harmonica back in my pocket and told Art that was all I could do for now. Finally. We had some peace and quiet the rest of the way to the river. I remembered that my sister would always run screaming to my mom when I was younger and blew a few notes on the harmonica, and here Art patiently listened and even complimented my playing. Gee. What a true friend he was.
Later, Dick Dale remarried, and as far as I could tell, he was a much happier person a few years after that. I did what I could to help him. Though, I think at times I confused him a little. I will relay a story about that in a few weeks.
Richard Dale died at the age of 64 on Christmas Day, 2008. He can now be heard in concert in Heaven playing the mouth organ. Since I don’t play the regular harp, I hope one day to stand alongside him playing the Jew’s Harp. Richard’s Mother Maurine Dale joined him in Heaven last month (November, 2015) at the age of 98.
Originally posted December 28, 2013:
Times were changing in 1987 when the electric company in Oklahoma decided that they needed to downsize the company in order to change with the new business environment. I always seemed to think that the executives down at corporate headquarters in Oklahoma City knew that the old pioneers in charge of the Power Plants would be very difficult customers when it came to the new business model.
Like I said…. Times were changing. The digital era was being introduced to the power industry. We had already upgraded the precipitator controls to make them computerized. Other areas of the plant were going to be next. Especially the employees. Of course, none of us knew that quite yet, except Bill Rivers, who was a natural visionary, and he was gone.
Side story time:
I had always been interested in computers and programming from the time I was a sophomore in High School when I had just turned 15 years old. My friend Jesse Cheng had introduced me to one of the first programmable calculators, the HP-25.
This was the most wonderful Christmas present I had ever received. I literally felt myself fainting when I opened the present and found that I had been given a pair of cowboy boots, only to find an HP-25 calculator inside when I opened it up. Ralphie had nothing on me that day.
It was much like the Christmas Story with Ralphie. I had tried every with way to convince my parents that using a slide rule in High School was passe (pronounced “pass A”). All the other students in my advanced chemistry class were using calculators, and I was still stuck with my dad’s old circular slide rule. It was a pretty neat one, I’ll grant you that, but it just… well….. I could work things out on paper faster than I could use the slide rule.
I introduced my friend Jesse Cheng in the post “Why Do Power Plant Men Always Lose the Things They Love Most“. He had an HP-25 calculator and had loaned it to me to take a Chemistry test. He showed me how it used Reverse Polish Notation, which is different than a normal calculator, but more like a computer.
The calculator could be programmed with 49 steps. Because it had a stack built right into it, and the reason it used Reversed Polish Notation, we could create all sorts of games with just those 49 steps. The book that came with the calculator had a moon landing game. We made more sophisticated games, like one called Battleship.
Anyway. Because of this early exposure with actually programming something in a logical manner, I was eager to learn more about programming. During college, my calculator was often sitting on my desk in the dorm room running a long program to help me perfect a random number generator. Finally in my Junior year in college, my calculator was completely fried.
After I was married at the end of 1985, I began subscribing to a magazine called “Compute”. It had actual programs in it in Basic. I would read the programs to learn how it worked, but at that point, I didn’t own a computer, so all I could do was dream about writing programs.
It wasn’t until Thanksgiving 1987 when I went to visit my ol’ friend Jesse Cheng in Columbia, Missouri who was interning as a medical doctor that I felt a sudden need to have a computer of my own. He had built a computer using a Heath Kit and we used it to play two computer games. One was called Starflight:
The other was called F15 Strike Eagle:
When I returned home I was pretty eager to buy a computer. Up until that time, every time my wife and I had gone to the mall, I always had stopped in the computer stores to look at the latest computers. I never had really considered buying one. But now, they had 20 megabyte hard drives! And you could play these terrific games like Starflight and F-15 Strike Eagle.
So, one day after we had left the mall, and my wife could see the look on my face, she finally said…. “Why don’t you go and buy one?” I asked her, “Are you sure? Because you know what is going to happen if I get a computer. I’ll be playing on it all the time.” She said, “No. I want you to go buy one.” So we turned around and went back to the mall.
That was the start of my journey into the world of computers.
End of Side Story.
As I explained in the post “Boppin’ with Bif during the Power Plant Downsizing“, the company offered an early retirement package for everyone 55 years old and older. They would give them full benefits to leave. This meant that our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey, as well as the assistant plant manager, Bill Moler and the Plant Manager, Eldon Waugh were all going to retire some time in August 1987.
We had a retirement party for Leroy Godfrey out in the country at Diana Brien’s house. A bunch of the electricians were there including Mark Meeks, who Leroy knew at the time was the one that was going to be laid off. Mark commented about that later when he was told that he was losing his job that Leroy had sat there and smiled at him while we were at the party. Mark knew Leroy didn’t like him, but hadn’t expected to be the one to go since everyone thought it would be Gary Wehunt, since he was the newest member in the shop.
I explained in the post, “The Passing of an Old School Power Plant Man — Leroy Godfrey” what Leroy’s management style was like. It was very top-down, if you know what I mean. It was like, “Because I told you so.” No need to explain anything. That was the world of Power Plant Management up to that point.
I think Corporate Headquarters realized that this needed to change in order for the company to compete in a world where electric companies could no longer count on the Corporation Commission to guarantee a sustainable electric rate or even a set number of customers. The world of electric power was changing rapidly and the company needed to move on from the mentality that it could be run like a “good ol’ boys” club.
It is easier to teach young dogs new tricks than older and crankier ones. It looked to me like this was a logical choice when looking back using hindsight. I think the company was making a bold move. I don’t think they really had much of a choice if they wanted to survive.
So, we had the main retirement party at the plant where people stood up and told stories about the old guys that were retiring. Nothing much happened there except the part where Leroy Godfrey’s daughter stood up and said that we just had to work with him, while she had to live with him… see the post about Leroy above for the full story about that.
Then the following Monday. I believe it was August 17, 1987, everyone was told to meet in the main break room for a meeting with our new management. That was when we were introduced to our new plant manager, Ron Kilman.
I remember a certain part of the meeting very well. Ron said something funny. It didn’t matter exactly what he said. I don’t even remember what it was. Probably something self-deprecating. I leaned over to Charles Foster, who had been my foreman for a while (on that day, it was officially Andy Tubbs). I said, “I didn’t know Plant Managers could tell jokes!”
Charles looked back at me and I raised my eyebrows and tilted my head while the corners of my mouth went down. — This was one of the signals I had learned while carpooling with Bud Schoonover when I needed to communicate with Dick Dale without saying anything out loud (see the post: Carpooling with Bud Schoonover“. This particular expression meant, “Maybe this won’t be such a bad thing.”
Ron Kilman remained the plant manager at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma for the next 7 years. The stories that I will post during this next year will all be at least partially from this time period. During this time, there were some decisions that Ron made that I applauded, and others that even he would admit he wished he hadn’t made.
All in all, I think that Ron has a good heart and that those times when he did make a rash decision, it was evident that he was falling back to his “management training” and not managing from his heart. Old School management training left a lot to be desired.
During the 7 years from 1987 to 1994, the power plant saw a lot of changes. Some I have alluded to already. Such as the move to computerize everything. The other was a total change in how management works. Or at least that was the attempt.
People were willing to step out of their regular day-to-day jobs and try new things that they thought would help the plant. Many of these things were successful. Some of them failed, but not so miserably as they would have if the earlier management had been around. The employees felt as if they had more of a say in how the plant ran instead of feeling like they were just a bunch of tools running around fixing things.
I have a quote from Ron Kilman that said it all one day after a catastrophe had occurred. It summed up his management style as opposed to his assistant manager, Ben Brandt. I will relay the exact story later, but for now I’ll just say that when Ben Brandt saw what happened, the first thing that he said was, “Who did this?” When Ron Kilman saw what had happened, the first thing he said was, “How can we prevent this from happening again?”
Ben’s approach was from the old school of thought. Blame and punish the culprit. Later when we were drastically changing the way process improvements took place, my favorite quote from Ben Brandt is, “I am the obstacle! We aren’t going to change because I say so.” We all had to agree. He was definitely the obstacle.
Ron’s approach was one more like a leader. “Let’s get the job done right.” Sure, he is human, so the decisions weren’t always perfect, but I think in general, he was leading where other people may have been dragging.
Well… I will say no more for now… I look forward to writing stories about this time period during this next year. I’m sure there are a lot of those at the plant just as eager to see how I portray the different events that took place during this time.