Original posted on January 28, 2012:
I vividly remember four events while working at the power plant where I was at the brink of death. I’m sure there were many other times, but these four have been etched in my memory almost 30 years later. Of those four memorable events, Curtis Love was by my side (so to speak) to share the wonder of two of those moments. This is a story about one of those times when you are too busy at the time to realize how close you came to catching that ride to the great power plant in the sky, until the middle of the night when you wake up in a cold sweat trying to catch your breath.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, safety is the number one priority at the power plant. But what is safe and what isn’t is relative. If you are the person that has to walk out onto a plank hanging out over the top ledge on the boiler in order to replace a section of boiler tube before the boiler has cooled down below 160 degrees, you might not think it is safe to do that with only an extra long lanyard tied to your waist and a sheer drop of 200 feet to the bottom ash hopper below (which I incidentally didn’t have to do as an electrician, but had to hear about after some other brave he-man had the privilege), you might not think that this is safe. But the Equipment Support Supervisor who has spent too many years as an engineer behind his desk doesn’t see anything wrong with this as long as you don’t fall. So, he tells you to do it, just don’t fall.
Safety is also relative to the date when something occurs. In 1994 OSHA implemented new rules for confined spaces. A confined space is any place that’s hard to enter and exit, or a place where you might be trapped in an enclosure because of converging walls. So, before 1994, there were no safety rules specific to confined spaces.
No rules meant that when I was on labor crew it was perfectly safe to crawl into a confined space and wind and twist your way around obstacles until the small oval door that you entered (18 inches by 12 inches) was only a distant memory as you are lying down in the bottom section of the sand filter tank with about 22 inches from the bottom of the section to the top requiring you to lie flat as you drag yourself around the support rods just less than 2 feet apart. Oh. and wearing a sandblast helmet…
and holding a sandblaster hose…
with a straight through Sandblast Nozzle….
Which means, the person sandblasting has no way of turning off the sand or the air on their own. If you wanted to turn off the sand, you had to bang the nozzle against the side of the tank and hope that the person outside monitoring the sandblaster was able to hear you above the roar of the Sandblaster and the Industrial Vacuum.
You also had a drop light that left you all tangled in wires and hoses that blew air on your face so that you could breathe and a 4 inch diameter vacuum hose that sucked the blasted sand and rust away, while the sandblaster blasts away the rust from all things metal less than a foot away from your face, because the air is so full of dust, that’s as far as you can see while holding the drop light with the other hand next to the sandblast hose. The air that blows through the sandblaster is hot, so you begin to sweat inside the heavy rain suit that you wear to protect the rest of you from sand that is ricocheting everywhere, but you don’t feel it as long as cool air is blowing on your face.
The week I spent lying flat trying to prop up my head while sandblasting the bottom section of both sand filter tanks gave me time to think about a lot of things…. which leads us to Curtis Love…. Not that it was Curtis Love that I was thinking about, but that he enters the story some time in the middle of this week. When I least expected it.
Curtis Love was a janitor at the plant when I first joined the Sanitation Engineering Team after my four summers of training as a “summer help”. Curtis was like my mother in some ways (and in other ways not – obviously). He was always looking for something to worry about.
For instance, one Monday morning while we were sitting in our Monday Morning Janitor safety meeting and Pat Braden had just finished reading the most recent safety pamphlet to us and we were silently pondering the proper way to set the outriggers on a P&H Crane, Jim Kanelakos said, “Hey Curtis. Don’t you have your mortgage at the Federal Bank in Ponca City?” Curtis said, “Yeah, why?” Jim continued, “Well I heard this morning on the news that the bank was foreclosing on all of their home mortgages.”
Curtis said that he hadn’t heard that, but that as soon as it was 9:00 am he would call the bank to find out what he needed to do so that he wouldn’t lose his house. About that time I gave a report on the number of fiddleback spiders I had killed in the main switchgear the previous week (See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“). It seemed like no one was listening to my statistics as Doris Voss was still pondering the P&H Crane hand signals, and Curtis was shuffling his feet in worry and Ronnie Banks was staring off into space, as if he was stunned that Monday was already here again, and Jim Kanelakos was snickering under his breath.
When the meeting was over and we were standing up, Jim told Curtis, “Hey Curtis. I was just kidding. The bank really isn’t foreclosing on their mortgages.” Curtis replied, “I don’t know. I better call them to check anyway.” Jim replied, “Curtis, I just made that up! I was playing a joke on you.” Curtis said, “I better check anyway, because it still is possible that they could be foreclosing on their mortgages”. So Jim just gave up trying to explain.
I know you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at me now, but there were only two of us at the plant that were small enough to crawl through the portal into the Sand Filter tanks (Ed Shiever and myself), because not only was it very tight, but the entry was so close to the edge of the building that you had to enter the hole by curving your body around the corner and into the tank.
I have tried to paint a of picture of the predicament a person is in when they are laying in this small space about 20 feet from the small portal that you have to crawl through. with their airline for the sandblast helmet, the sandblast hose, the drop light cord and the 4 inch vacuum hose all wound around the support rods that were not quite 2 feet apart in all directions. Because this is where I was when without my giving the signal (by banging the sandblast nozzle on the tank three times), the sand stopped flowing from the nozzle and only air was hissing loudly.
This meant one of two things. The sandblast machine had just run out of sand, or someone was shutting the sandblaster off because it was time for lunch. I figured it was time for lunch, because I didn’t think it had been more than 10 minutes since the sand had been refilled and amid the roaring blasts and the howling sucking vacuum hose, I thought I had caught the sound of a rumbling stomach from time to time.
The next thing that should happen after the sand has blown out of the sandblast hose, is that the air to the sandblaster should stop blowing. And it did…. but what wasn’t supposed to happen, that did, was that the air blowing through my sandblast hood allowing me to breathe in this sea of rusty dust shut off at the same time! While still pondering what was happening, I suddenly realized that without the air supply to my hood, not only could I not breathe at all, but my sweat-filled rain suit that I was wearing suddenly became unbearably hot and dust began pouring into my hood now that the positive pressure was gone.
I understood from these various signs of discomfort that I needed to head back to the exit as quickly as possible, as I was forced by the thick dust to hold my breath. I pulled my hood off of my head and everything went black. I had moved more than a foot away from the drop light. I knew that the exit was in the direction of my feet on the far side of the tank, so I swung around a row of support rods and dragged myself along by the rods as quickly as I could unable to see or take a breath. Working my way around the drop light cable, the air hose, the sandblast hose and the vacuum hose as I pulled myself along trying to make out where the exit could be. Luckily before I passed out from the lack of air, I had figured correctly and I found myself at the exit where in one motion I pulled myself out to fresh air and the blinding light of the day gasping for air.
Furious that someone had turned off my air, I ran out of the sand filter building to the sandblast machine where I found Curtis Love of all people. Up to this point, Curtis had never had the privilege to operate the sandblaster and was not aware of the proper sequence to shutting down the machine…. without shutting off the air to my hood. Incidentally, both the sandblaster and the air hose to the sandblast hood were being fed from the same regular plant air supply (which OSHA might have frowned upon back as far as 1983, and which caused you to blow black oily stuff out of your nose for a few days).
Needless to say, about the time that I came bolting out of the sand filter building Curtis had figured out that he had shut off the wrong valve. He was apologizing profusely in one long drawn out sentence….. “Kevin, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry….” I stopped myself short as my hands were flying toward the area where his neck would have been, if Curtis had had a neck.
I looked over toward the crew cab parked nearby. It was full of hungry labor crew “he-men in training” all smiling and chuckling. At that moment I knew that both Curtis and I had been on the receiving end of what could be construed as a “power plant joke” (refer to the post about Gene Day to learn more about those: “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“). So, I spent the next 30 seconds as Curtis and I piled into the crew cab telling Curtis that is was all right, he didn’t have to feel bad about it. Evidently, someone had told Curtis how to shutdown the sandblaster, but failed to tell him exactly which valve to turn off when turning off the air to the sandblaster.
Needless to say. Lunch tasted extra good that day. Possibly the rusty dust added just the right amount of iron to my sandwich.
This post was originally posted on February 4, 2012. I have added some detail and pictures:
Coal-fired power plants are built out in the country away from any major town. I used to think this was because they didn’t want to pour ash and fumes on the nearby civilians, but now I think it has more to do with the kind of people that work at the plant. They like wide open spaces.
They like driving through the countryside every morning on the way to work, and again in the afternoon on the way home. In the morning, it gives them time to wake up and face the day ahead, as they can see the plant 20 miles away looming closer and closer as the dawn approaches. It gives them time to wind down in the evening so that by the time they arrive at their homes, the troubles of the day are long behind them and they can spend time with their families, their horses, and cows, and tractors, and their neighbors. But enough about Walt Oswalt for now.
Some brave power plant workers reside in the nearest towns 20 miles in either direction. This is where I was in 1986 when I moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma. I had a few good friends in Ponca City that worked at the plant, and so we decided it would be best for us to carpool to work each day. There were four of us and we would alternate drivers each day. We would meet early in the morning in the parking lot of a grocery store and all pile into one of the cars and make our 20 mile trek to the plant. Besides myself, there was Jim Heflin, Dick Dale and Bud Schoonover.
For those of you who don’t know these three, let’s just say that they were on the hefty side. At that time I was slightly on the pre-hefty stage of my life. I owned a little 1982 Honda Civic that would normally get 40 miles to the gallon on the highway.
With all four of us in the car, I couldn’t get past 32 miles to the gallon, as my car would spit and sputter all the way to work like the “little engine that could” trying to make it over the mountain.
Bud was very tall and in the front seat of my little Honda Civic, his knees would almost touch his chin and his feet were cramped and his head had to bend down a little. It was comical to watch us all pour out of my car in the parking lot. it was almost magical how we could all fit in there.
Bud Schoonover and Dick Dale worked in the tool room and the warehouse, and Jim worked on a mechanical maintenance crew. I was an electrician and called the electric shop my home at this time. I had worked with all three of these men from my early days as a summer help and we knew each other very well. Jim Heflin reminded me of an old hound dog that the kids like to climb all over and he just sits there and enjoys it.
He rarely had a cross word to say. I could go on about Jim, but this is a story more about Bud Schoonover than it is Jim. I will save him for another day.
Dick Dale was a jolly kind of person in general, but he had more wits about him than his other companions, and that tended to make him a little more agitated at some things, which he would work out verbally on the way home from work on most days.
Once before I started carpooling with Bud, Jim and Dick, Bud was driving home after work one day, and Dick was talking about his day. Every once in a while Bud would say “…and what about Jim.” After they had passed the Otoe-Missouri tribe and were close to the Marland turnoff, just after Bud had said, “…and what about Jim” for the fifth time, Dick stopped talking and said, “Why do you keep asking about Jim Heflin? What does he have to do with this?”
Bud answered, “Well. Jim did ride to work with us this morning didn’t he?” Sure enough. They had left Jim behind. So, they turned around and headed back to the plant. 15 minutes later, they arrived back at the plant, and there was Jim just waiting by the roadside with his lunch box like a good faithful hound dog, just as sure that they were going to come back and pick him up as he could be.
Bud Schoonover (or Scoot-On-Over Bud as I used to call him from time-to-time when we were climbin in the car), was a tall large man. I want to say that I saw him angry only one time, and it was kind of scary seeing this huge guy chasing after you like a large troll with a big grin on his face and tongue hanging out flailing his lunch box like a giant mace. Bud was really a mild mannered person most of the time, and though he might complain from time to time each day, you felt like he was someone that made an art out of remaining calm when faced with an angry mob lined up at the tool room gate demanding tools and parts. He wouldn’t move any faster if there was just one person or an entire crowd.
I could go on about Bud, and I probably will later, but today I am focusing on the act of carpooling with Bud Schoonover. Each morning Bud would watch the weather on TV before heading out of the house, and he just couldn’t wait for someone to ask him what the weather was going to be like, because he knew in his heart that he was providing a service to his fellow man by making sure that he never missed the weather report in the morning. So I would always oblige him. I would wait until we were on the road on our way out of Ponca City, and then I would ask, “Hey Bud. What’s the weather goin’ ta be like today?” Bud would squint his eyes (mainly because Bud seemed to naturally squint a lot. Sort of like Clint Eastwood) and he would look off into the distance and say a long drawn out “Well…..” Then he would go into the weather report.
To Describe what Bud’s face looked like you will have to use a little imagination… First, by starting with Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son…
Then you need to make her a white person. Then you need to make her a man. Then you need to add about 150 lbs. And you would have Bud Schoonover. Actually, Bud would make the very same expression that Aunt Esther is making in this picture. I couldn’t watch Sanford and Son without thinking about Bud Schoonover. I think Aunt Esther probably took lessons from Bud about how to move your jaw back and forth at some point in her life.
I remember one morning when we were driving to work and Bud was telling us that it was going to start clearing up around noon, and Dick Dale and I were sitting in the front seats looking out the window at the cloudless sky and the morning sun shining brightly across the meadow, and I said, “…going to clear up around noon?”, and he replied, “Yep, around noon”. I answered, “Well, that’s good, it’ll be about time.”
There was another time where Bud’s weather report one morning said that if we didn’t get rain soon the wheat farmers were sure to lose all their crops. When Dick Dale and I looked around, the wheat fields were all just as green and growing like there was no tomorrow. — There was a drought, but it was in the southern part of the state and didn’t effect us.
Because of this daily report, Dick Dale and I developed a way of speaking to each other without saying words. We would look at each other and move our eyebrows up and down and make small gestures with our mouths, and we both knew exactly what each other was saying.
My favorite Bud Schoonover carpooling story has to do with one morning when Bud was driving us to work and we were heading down the highway when we topped a small hill and were getting ready to head down into a valley just inside the Ponca Indian tribe. Bud slowed down the car and stopped right there in the middle of the highway.
We looked around trying to figure out what happened. Bud acted as if everything was just normal, and so the three of us, Jim, Dick and I were spinning our heads around trying to figure out what Bud was doing stopping the car in the middle of the highway with cars beginning to pile up behind us. Ideas flashed through my mind of some Indian curse that had possessed Bud, and I half expected Bud to start attacking us like a zombie.
So, I couldn’t stand it any longer and I had to ask, “Bud? Why did you stop here?” He said, “School bus.” Dick then chimed in with the next logical question and said, “School bus?” Bud came back with “Yeah, the school bus down there”. Sure enough. Down in the valley about 1/2 mile in front of us was a school bus heading toward us that had stopped to pick up some children along the highway and it had its red flashers on and its stop sign out.
So, Dick Dale said something to me with his left eyebrow, and I replied by raising the right side of my lip while tensing it up some.
Finally the bus resumed its journey toward us, and Bud began moving again, much to the delight of the long line of cars behind us. The bus went forward about 300 feet and stopped at another driveway to pick up some more children. We were only about 1/4 of a mile away from the bus at this point, so Bud stopped his car again and waited for the children to board the bus. I think I could see Bud squinting to get a better count of how many children were climbing into the bus. It occurred to me later that maybe when Bud squinted his eyes he magnified his sight so that ‘objects appear closer than they really were’.
Anyway, that was the first and only time in my life that I had waited twice for a school bus going in the opposite direction. It could only happen while carpooling with Bud Schoonover.
I now have a picture of Bud:
Since I first posted this story about Bud Schoonover he has passed away. You can read about that in this post: Dynamic Power Plant Trio – And Then There Was One.
This story was originally posted on February 11, 2012:
There are five main power plants in the electric company in Central Oklahoma, and maintenance men from each plant would work at other plants when there was an overhaul. An overhaul is when a generator was taken off line for the purpose of doing maintenance on major parts of the plant that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. Such as repairing boiler tubes, and working on the turbine and generator. Because employees would work at other plants for months at a time, living in camping trailers or cheap hotel rooms to save money, most people were able to work with and had the opportunity to know the Power Plant Men from the other four plants.
I have noticed that most non-plant people have a general misconception about Power Plant Men when they first meet them. As a young 18 year old entering my first job with real men, I learned very quickly that they each possessed a certain quality or talent that made them unique and indispensable Sure there were some “bad apples”, but they were never really and truly Power Plant Men. They either left because of incompatibility or were promoted to upper management. I know more than once the plant hired someone new only to have them work one day and never show up again. There were few if any real Power Plant Men that ever left the plant where the character of the plant and its ability to be maintained properly wasn’t instantly changed.
While I am writing this post this evening a wake service is being held at the First Methodist Church in Moore, Oklahoma for a true Power Plant man; Jimmy Armarfio. He was an electrician at Mustang plant. I had heard some stories about Jimmy before I actually met him; most of them about humorous things that had happened to him at one time or other. Everyone liked his African accent (Jimmy was from Ghana, a country in Africa) as they would imitate his voice while telling the stories. It seems that Bill Bennett our Electrical A foreman had more than a few stories to tell.
Jimmy came to our plant on an overhaul and worked out of our electric shop. The first time I talked to Jimmy, he was leaning against a counter during lunch just finishing a book. I happened to notice when I was walking by that the book was titled “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I had read that book not too long before, so I stopped and asked him what he thought of it. He said that it was interesting how this man who was in a prison camp in Siberia living in a miserable state could go to bed at night thinking that he had a pretty good day. I think I said something like, “Yeah, sort of like us working in this Power Plant.”
Then he said something that has always stuck in my mind. He said that in the English language there are many words that mean the same thing. For instance, for a rock, there is pebble, rock, stone and boulder. In his native language there is one word. It means “rock”. You may say, large rock, small rock, smooth rock, but there is only one word for rock. It made me reflect on the phrase, “In the beginning was the Word…” Suppose there was one word that included everything.
What I didn’t know at that time was that not only was Jimmy Armarfio from Ghana but he was the king of his tribe. Steven Trammell said that his friends referred to him as “King Jimmy” after he was elected King of his tribe. When I heard that Jimmy had died, I looked at the funeral home site and saw that one of his coworkers George Carr said the following: “Jimmy was a beloved coworker and one of my personal heroes.” Another friend, Jack Riley wrote: “It was my blessing to work with Jimmy. The most cheerful person I have had the privilege of knowing.” I have included his picture below. Jimmy Armarfio…. Take a good long look at A True Power Plant Man! A Hero and a King!
Originally posted on February 18, 2012.
I worked at Sooner Coal-fired power plant about a month during the summer of 1979 before I heard about the Indian curse that had been placed on the plant before they started construction. It came up by chance in a conversation with Sonny Karcher and Jerry Mitchell when we were on our way to the coalyard to do something. I was curious why Unit 1 was almost complete but Unit 2 still had over a year left before it was finished even though they both looked pretty much identical. When I asked them that question I didn’t expect the answer that I received, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to hear about an Indian Curse. It did explain, however, that when we drove around by Unit 2. Sonny would tense up a little looking up at the boiler structure as if he expected to see something.
The edge of the plant property is adjacent to the Otoe-Missouria Indian Tribe. It was said that for some reason the tribe didn’t take too kindly to having a huge power plant larger than the nearby town of Red Rock taking up their view of the sunrise (at least until the tax revenue started rolling in from the plant building the best school in the state at the time). So it was believed that someone in the Indian tribe decided to place a curse on the plant that would cause major destruction.
I heard others say that the plant was built on Holy Indian Burial ground. At the time it seemed to me that this was a rumor that could easily be started and very hard to prove false. Sort of like a “Poltergeist” situation. Though, if it was true, then it would seem like the burial site would most likely be located around the bottom of Unit 2 boiler (right at the spot where I imagined the boiler ghost creeping out to grab Bob Lillibridge 4 years later. See the post Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost).
I am including an aerial picture of the immediate plant grounds below to help visualize what Jerry and Sonny showed me next.
This is a Google Earth Image taken from their website of the power plant. In this picture you can see the two tall structures; Unit 1 on the right with Unit 2 sitting right next to it just like the two boilers that you see in the picture of the plant to the right of this post. They are each 250 feet tall. About the same height as a 25 story building. Notice that next to Unit 2 there is a wide space of fields with nothing there. The coalyard at the top is extended the same distance but the coal is only on the side where the two units are. This is because in the future 4 more units were planned to be built in this space. Sooner Lake was sized to handle all 6 units when it was built. But that is another story.
At the time of this story the area next to Unit 2 between those two roads you see going across the field was not a field full of flowers and rabbits and birds as it is today. It was packed full of huge metal I-Beams and all sorts of metal structures that had been twisted and bent as if some giant had visited the plant during the night and was trying to tie them all into pretzels.
Sonny explained while Jerry drove the truck around the piles of iron debris that one day in 1976 (I think it was) when it was very windy as it naturally is in this part of Oklahoma, in the middle of the day the construction company Brown and Root called off work because it was too windy. Everyone had made their way to the construction parking lot when all of the sudden Unit 2 boiler collapsed just like one of the twin towers. It came smashing down to the ground. Leaving huge thick metal beams twisted and bent like they were nothing more than licorice sticks. Amazingly no one was killed because everyone had just left the boilers and were a safe distance from the disaster.
Needless to say this shook people up and those that had heard of an Indian Curse started to think twice about it. Brown and Root of course had to pay for the disaster, which cost them dearly. They hauled the pile of mess off to one side and began to rebuild Unit 2 from the ground up. This time with their inspectors double checking the torque (or tightness) of every major bolt.
This brings to mind the question… If a 250 foot tall boiler falls in the prairie and no one is injured… Does it make a sound?
In the years that followed, Sooner Plant took steps to maintain a good relationship with the Otoe Missouria tribe. Raymond Lee Butler a Native American from the Otoe Missouria tribe and a machinist at the plant was elected chief of their tribe (or chairman as they call it now). But that (as I have said before) is another story which you may read here: Chief Among Power Plant Machinists.
Comment from Earlier Post:
I was there the day unit 2 fell, I was walking to the brass shack, just came down from unit 2 when we noticed the operator of the Maniwoc 5100 crane did not secure the crane ball to the boiler or the crane to keep it from swaying in the wind. I kept watching the crane ball slamming into the steel causing the boiler to sway and within a minute I watched it fall from 50 yards away and took off running,the whole unit was going up quick because B&R were behind schedule,and the most of the steel hadn’t been torqued yet by the bolt up crew.
Originally posted February 25, 2012. I added Larry’s Picture at the end:
When I first began working at the power plant (in 1979), one of the people I spent a good deal of time with was Larry Riley. I was 18 and knew very little about tools, equipment, power plants and how to speak in the Power Plant language. I quickly found out that in those early days, when the plant was still under construction, a lot of people turned to Larry Riley when they were faced with an obstacle and didn’t know how to approach it.
Larry Riley was a 24 year old genius. I was amazed by his vast knowledge of seemingly disparate areas of expertise. When he was asked to do something, I never heard him say that he didn’t know how. He just went and did it. So, after I asked Larry how old he was, I asked him how long he had been at the plant. He hadn’t been there very long, but he had worked in the construction department before transferring to the power plant.
Larry Riley already at the age of 24 had a beat up hard hat full of hard hat stickers. One indicating that he was a certified industrial truck driver. I think he had about 5 safety stickers and various other hard hat stickers. He was a thin clean cut dark haired young man with a moustache that sort of reminded me of the Marlboro Man’s moustache. He walked like he had a heavy burden on his back and he was rarely seen without a cigarette in his mouth.
I worked with Larry off and on throughout my years as a summer help and during that time Larry taught me the following things (to name a few): How to drive a tractor. How to mend a fence. How to bleed the air out of a diesel engine’s fuel line (which is more important than you would think). How to operate a brush hog (a large mower on the back of a tractor). How to free a brush hog from a chain link fence after you get one of the bat wings stuck in one. Tie rebar, and pour concrete and operate a Backhoe.
I remember asking Larry why a backhoe was called a backhoe. I think Sonny Karcher was in the truck at the time. You would have thought I had asked what year the War of 1812 was fought! I’m sure you are all chuckling while reading this (especially all the power plant men). But for those of you who are as green as I was, I’ll tell you. A Backhoe is called a Backhoe because the Hoe is on the Back. Gee. Who would have thought?
Later when I was a full time employee and had worked my way from being a Janitor to being on the Labor Crew, Larry Riley became my foreman. At that point on occassion I would call him “Dad”. He would usually disown me and deny that he had anything to do with it. On occassion when he would own up to being my dad, he would admit that when I was real little I was dropped on my head and that’s why I acted so odd (though, I don’t know to what behavior he was referring).
There was this other guy at the plant the first summer I was there that had the unique title of “Mill Wright”. His name was Gary Michelson. He evidently had gone to school, taken some tests and been certified as a Mill Wright and this probably brought him a bigger paycheck than the other regular workers as well as a much bigger ego.
Gary would spend days at a time at a band saw cutting out metal wedges at different angles so that he would have them all in his pristine tool box. I worked with him a few times during my first summer as a summer help. I will probably talk more about Gary in a later post, but just to put it plainly… I could tell right away that he wasn’t a real “power plant man”.
The rest of the power plant men I’m sure would agree with me. I wouldn’t have traded Larry Riley for ten Gary Michelsons unless I was trying to help some engineers change a light bulb (actually. I have met some good engineers along the way. Some of them very good. But they were not the norm. At least not those assigned to power plants).
I have mentioned some different things that Larry had taught me and if you remember, he was the person that I worked with on my second day at the plant when Sonny Karcher and Larry had taken me to the coalyard to fix the check valve (in my post about Sonny Karcher “In Memory of Sonny Karcher – Power Plant Man“). There will always be one day that first comes to my mind when I think about Larry. This is what happened:
I drove a truck down to the Picnic area on the far side of the lake from the plant. Jim Heflin drove a Backhoe down there. I believe he was going to dig up some tree stumps that had been left over after the “engineers” in Oklahoma City had decided where to put all the trees in the area.
What the engineers in Oklahoma City did was this: They cut down all of the trees that were in the picnic area and planted new trees. Some of them not more than 15 or 20 feet away from a tree that had been there for 30 years and was a good size. So, there were a lot of stumps left over from the big hearty trees that had been cut down that needed to be removed so that the sickly little twigs that were planted there could prosper and grow without feeling inadequate growing next to a full grown he-man tree.
Anyway. I had climbed out of the truck and was making my way around the picnic area picking up trash and putting it in a plastic bag using a handy dandy homemade trash stabbing stick. As Jim was making his way across the “lawn” (I use the word “lawn” loosely, since the area was still fairly new and was not quite finished) when he hit a wet spot. The Backhoe was stuck in the mud.
There wasn’t much I could do but watch as Jim used the hoe to try to drag himself out. He rocked the backhoe back and forth. Use the stabilizers to pick up the backhoe while trying to use the scoop to pull it forward. I would say he worked at it for about ten minutes (even though it seemed more like half an hour). Eventually it was time for us to head back to the plant to go to break.
Back at the plant, Jim told Larry about his predicament and asked him if he would help him get the backhoe out of the mud. Larry said he would come along and see what he could do. At this point, I was thinking that he would jump in the Wench Truck and go down there and just pull him out. Instead we just climbed in the pickup truck and headed back to the park (notice how it went from being a picnic area to a park in only three paragraphs?).
When we arrived, Larry climbed into the Backhoe after making his way across the vast mud pit that Jim had created while trying to free himself before. He fired up the Backhoe…. cigarette in mouth… then the most fascinating thing happened… using both feet to work the pedals, and one hand working the controls in the front and the other hand working the levers in the back, Larry picked up the backhoe using the scoop and the hoe and stabilizers and cigarette all simultaneously, he walked the backhoe sideways right out of the mud pit and onto dry land just as if it was a crab walking sideways. I would say it took no longer than three minutes from the time he started working the controls. Jim just looked at me in amazement. Patted me on the back, shook his head and said, “And that’s how it’s done.”
Now that I’m on the subject of Larry Riley on a backhoe, let me tell you another one. I have seen Larry digging a ditch so that we could run some pipe for irrigation. Now picture this. The bucket on the backhoe is digging a hole in the hard red clay of Oklahoma, and Larry suddenly stops and says….. “I think I felt something”. What? (I think) Of course you did, you are operating this machine that has the power to dig a big hole in the ground in one scoop like it was nothing and Larry said he felt something?
He climbed off of the backhoe, jumped down into the ditch he was creating, kicked some clods of dirt around and lo and behold, he had just scraped clean a buried cable. He hadn’t broken it. He had come down on it with the bucket and had somehow “felt” this cable buried under all that dirt. I wonder what it felt like that told him he had encountered something that wasn’t just dirt. Maybe the electromagnet forces from the electricity in the cable caused the backhoe to be slightly magnetized and it tugged on his key chain. I think the entire labor crew just went down on one knee before his greatness for a moment of silence – all right, so we didn’t really. But we were somewhat impressed.
The one thing that makes Larry a True Power Plant Man with all the rest is that he performed acts of greatness like what I described above with complete humility. I never saw a look of arrogance in Larry’s face. He never spoke down to you and he never bragged about anything. To this day, I still picture Larry Riley working at the power plant working feats of magic that would amaze the rest of us as he thinks that he’s just doing another day’s work. That’s the way it is with True Power Plant Men.
Since I first created this post two years ago, I have found a picture of Larry Riley taken many years after this story:
Since I first posted this story about Larry, he has passed away. I described the day of his passing in the post: “Power Plant Saints Go Marching In“
Originally Posted March 2, 2012:
The first day I showed up at the Power plant to report to work as a new employee, it took me a little while to find the parking lot where I was supposed to park. There were construction people all over the place, large equipment being moved, and I had somehow turned my directions around 90 degrees when I came through the construction gate.
I started heading up to the coal yard before I told myself that the little green shack I had past back by the main plant was probably where I needed to go (I never recovered from my perception of which way was north. I always felt like west was north, so I constantly had to stop and tell myself that the coal yard was north).
So, having arrived in the parking lot about five minutes late, I was just in time to meet Steve Higginbotham the only other summer help during the summer of 1979. Well, there was one other guy, but he quickly joined a Brown and Root construction crew because he was a welder and they were getting paid a lot more than the $3.89 per hour the summer helps were blessed to receive.
So Higginbotham and I walked together into the main office that morning. He was about 35 years old with red hair, freckles and sort of reminded you of Margaret Thatcher only shorter with a more prominent forehead and wider chin and he had a Georgia accent.
He had worked as a Pinkerton guard at the plant before advancing to summer help. He explained it to me like this: “If I get my foot in the door by being a summer help, they will be more likely to hire me as a permanent employee.” (somehow, I began to think that this probably wasn’t the best strategy for Steve to take. I thought perhaps a surprise attack would be more effective, where they don’t know you at all when they hire you).
The company hired summer helps because there was a tax write-off for hiring college kids during the summer to give them a real life experience (I guess). Steve explained to me later that he really wasn’t going to college, but told them that he was going to go back to school to finish a degree so that they would hire him, but he really wasn’t going to do that.
He drove an old Ford Ranchero (which is what inspired the El Camino). It was all beat up, and had the manual gear shift on the steering column, to give you an idea of how old it was. Below is a picture of one in good condition. His car however had dents, rust, and an assortment of trash in the back, and it squeaked when it hit a pothole as the car bounced on the springs.
I didn’t own a car and had just borrowed my family’s car to drive to the plant that day, so when Steve asked me if I would like to ride with him to work each day I jumped at the opportunity. I told him where I lived and he said that he would be by to pick me up in the morning.
I am the kind of person that likes to arrive at work at least 10 or 15 minutes early, so I was getting a little anxious the next morning when Steve didn’t show up. Finally, when I was about ready to ask my parents if I could borrow the car again, his beat up old car came puttering down the street… It turned out that Steve was the kind of person that likes to show up at least 5 minutes late each day…. Something I was going to have to get used to that summer. This is an important point in the story because those 5 minutes on one particular morning made all the difference in my outlook on what it meant to be working at a “Power” plant.
First, let me tell you a little more about Steve Higginbotham, just so you can appreciate his unusual character the way that I did. As an 18 year old summer help, not having had my encounter with Ramblin’ Ann until later, where I learned the fine art of rambling (see the post: “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was amazed by the way Steve Higginbotham could talk and chew gum or sunflower seeds at the same time — all the time — non-stop. His open mouth would move in a circular motion while chewing and talking.
From the time he picked me up in the morning to the 25 mile ride to the plant, and until I arrived home in the afternoon, Steve Higginbotham was talking about something to someone and chewing either sunflower seeds or gum the entire time. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had been learning something, but I can’t think of one thing that he told me that was useful all summer. I think I paid him $15.00 each week for the privilege. Gas at the time was around 89 cents a gallon.
Twice each week we would sweep the entire maintenance shop from one end to the other. I would start going down one half, Usually the north side that has all the machine shop equipment, and Steve would start down the south side where the welders were. Invariably, he would catch an unsuspecting welder off his guard and start talking to him, and before you knew it, I had finished my side of the shop and was starting back the other way up the other side, where I would meet up with Steve and a half-dazed welder somewhere around the Welder’s lunch table, which was about 50 feet from the spot where Steve had started (I would say the shop is about 75 yards long) I didn’t mind, because I liked working and it felt good to look around at the clean floor and see that I had done something noticeable.
I had worked in a Hilton Inn restaurant as the night janitor when I was in High School, and the kitchen was almost as long as the maintenance shop. I would spend six hours each night sweeping and mopping the kitchen, and vacuuming the restaurant and bar. So, I always enjoyed sweeping the floor.
Mondays and Fridays were days where we would go to the soon-to-be park and pick up trash. The rest of the time I was able to work with the maintenance crews. For more information about picking up trash at the park, read the post: “Mud, Maggots and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball“.
All the company employees at the power plant were fitted for a special set of earplugs that were made out of a Silly Putty looking material because there was going to be a “Boiler Blowdown” on Unit 1 (which was just finishing construction). I suppose that most people (except the old timers) at the plant today have not experienced a boiler blowdown like the one that is done on a new power plant, since a new base unit hadn’t been built in a long time.
We were told that when you hear the 2 minute warning make sure you put your earplugs in, because it is going to be real loud. We were reminded the day before to have our earplugs handy the following morning because that was when the blowdowns were going to start.
A boiler blowdown is when they run a big steam pipe right off of the high pressure section of the boiler and point it out off the side of the boiler and after they have built up the pressure as high as they can go without blowing the place apart, they flop open the valve and the steam is released quickly blowing out any unwanted material from the steam tubes, such as welding rods, tin cans, shoes, lunch boxes, a lost construction foreman, or anything else that was accidentally left in the steam pipes when they were assembled.
I remember someone saying that they had a come-along go flying out of one once during a blowdown. The first blowdown was the loudest, and then after that they were slightly less forceful each time.
The next morning on the way to the plant, I could see steam shooting out of the boiler from about 10 miles away. As we pulled into the parking lot, the steam was shooting out about 100 yards from the big pipe on the side of the boiler creating a very loud rumbling sound that made your body shake all over. This is exactly how I remember what happened next…..
I climbed out of the car and looked up at the large plume of steam shooting out of the boiler and I said to Steve, “Well, that’s pretty loud, but it’s not THAT loud!” Just at the exact moment that I finished that sentence, the ground started to shake, and my lunch box and hardhat went flying as my hands went to my head to cover my ears!
I hit the ground and rolled sideways to see that the plume of steam that had been blowing out of the boiler had grown into a huge white roaring dragon about 500 yards long as it reached directly over my head to the point where the condenser discharges water back into the lake behind me! The sound was so loud my whole body was shaking from the force, as we were directly in line with the steam pipe. It continued for about a minute or less and then abruptly shutdown back to the much smaller quieter plume of steam that had been there before.
I stood up, but my legs were all wobbly. I picked up my hard hat and lunch box and wobbled my way into the maintenance shop. My ears were ringing and I remember that I couldn’t hear very good and I was pretty upset about my possible loss of hearing.
Then I wondered to myself why I hadn’t heard the two minute warning, and in my muted state I looked around at the mechanics standing around and my eyes settled on one person who was chewing on sunflower seeds or gum, and was talking to someone, though I couldn’t hear his voice — and I knew why! I couldn’t hear the 2 minute warning because we were 5 minutes late getting to work! We were always 5 minutes late!
This bummed me out the rest of the day. As the day went by my hearing was returning, and by the time we were heading home, I could hear Higginbotham talking very clearly all the way to the house. Maybe this would have been a good time for the earplugs.
That night as I lay in bed, I could hear the boiler blowdown continuing 25 miles away every half hour or so. I thought about how much power it took to create that much force. It gave me a great respect for the power harnessed in the power plant and how it takes all that power and turns the majority of it into electricity to serve the state of Oklahoma.
Originally Posted March 16, 2012. Leroy Godfrey passed from this earth on March 9, 2012:
One of the most ornery men I have ever met in power plant life was the Electrical Supervisor at the Power Plant named Leroy Godfrey. Compared to the Power Plant Heroes of my day, the old school Power Plant Men were from a different breed of character that I would describe more as Power Broker Men. They worked in a culture of total rule much the way dictators and despots rule their people.
They expect immediate respect before they elicit any behavior worthy of respect. Their position spoke for itself. They generally wore a frown on their face that has been embedded in their facial feature permanently. This was pretty much what I thought about Leroy Godfrey when I first met him.
My first real encounter with Leroy Godfrey was when I joined the electric shop as an electrician. I quickly realized that to my benefit, I was a pawn in a game that was constantly being played between Leroy Godfrey and the Assistant Plant Manager and the Plant Manager. For reasons that I will relate in a later post, Bill Moler the Assistant Plant Manager and the Plant Manager Eldon Waugh did not want me to be promoted from a Laborer to an Electrician.
As soon as Leroy Godfrey realized this, he did everything in his power to make sure I was the person chosen to fill that position. It didn’t matter to Leroy if I was the best qualified (which I turned out to be based on performance ratings), or that I had less seniority than most everyone else on the labor crew.
I first considered becoming an electrician when I was a janitor and Charles Foster an Electrical B Foreman asked me if I would be interested, because I liked to clean things and a lot of what an electrician does is clean things (believe it or not… in a power plant). I was thinking at the time that I was probably going to try to be an operator before Charles asked me that question. So, I started preparing myself by taking correspondence electrical courses offered by the company and a house wiring course at the Vo-Tech.
To make a much longer story short (as the details belong to another story), I was selected to fill the vacancy in the Electric Shop. Then I found myself under the rule of Leroy Godfrey, who was happy as a lark that I made it to the electric shop because he had won a major victory in exerting his power over his fellow power brokers, but you couldn’t tell that by looking at him. Leroy had a constant scowl on his face.
He looked like he was mad at the world. Sometimes you would walk up to him and start talking to him and he would just walk away without saying a word as if he didn’t care to hear what you had to say. Here is his picture that shows his expression when he knows he has just won the current round of whatever game he is playing at the time.
I was the type of person that was very blatantly honest when I didn’t know something. I was not a seasoned electrician when I joined the shop and I didn’t pretend that I was. I looked to my fellow crew mates to teach me everything I needed to know and they did an excellent job.
The people on my crew were all real Power Plant Men (and Lady) of the New school of thought. Once after I had been an electrician for a couple of years (2 years and 2 months to be more exact), Leroy asked me to go to the shop and get the Ductor because he wanted to test the generator shaft during an overhaul. When I asked him where the Ductor was and what did it look like, he stood there in amazement at my stupidity. He asked me over and over again to make sure he had heard me right that I didn’t know what the Ductor was.
I answered him plainly. “No. I don’t know what the Ductor is. But I’ll go get it.” He said he couldn’t believe that anyone in his electric shop wouldn’t know what a Ductor was. That is just a taste of the his management style. Actually, it turned out that I had used the Ductor before, but I didn’t remember the name. To me it was a very precise ohm meter (a milli-ohmmeter).
This is the picture of a new ductor. We had a very old model.
I could go on about different instances that took place to illustrate how Leroy managed his employees, but it isn’t really the main point of this post. It is important, I believe, to understand why the old school culture was the way it was. Leroy was very smart. He had more raw knowledge and understanding in his little finger than the plant manager and the assistant plant manager put together. Based on that, today you would have thought that he would be in a plant manager position making all the important decisions.
That is not how the system worked while Leroy was moving up in the ranks. In the era when the old school of thought prevailed, the electric company could run as inefficiently as it wanted, and it was guaranteed a 10% profit, based on revenue minus expenses and depreciation. There was little incentive to improve plant operations other than to at least maintain the capital assets by spending at least as much as depreciation on capital projects.
In this environment people were promoted into higher positions based on friendship more so than ability. So, if you were someone’s roommate in college (and we all knew examples of this), it didn’t matter if you knew anything other than how to sign your name at the bottom of a requisition, you could eventually make your way up to plant manager or even higher as long as your roommate was one step higher than you.
To someone with brains such as Leroy Godfrey, this was very frustrating. Here he was the Electrical Supervisor at a power plant with the two people above him who used political games to make major decisions. Leroy, of course, could out maneuver them based on brain power alone, and would take great pleasure in constantly proving them wrong whenever they made a decision without consulting him first. I could always tell when Leroy was happiest. It was when he had the biggest scowl on his face. I suppose it was because he was getting ready to checkmate his opponents.
I found out later by Bill Bennett our A foreman that the reason that Leroy would act like he wasn’t listening to you was because he was deaf in one ear. If you were standing on one side of him, he couldn’t hear you. So, you could be standing there talking away, and Leroy would just walk away as if he didn’t hear you, and that would be the reason.
Something happened on July 2, 1982 that changed the power plant world. Especially in Oklahoma. History will record it as July 5, but it was known in the financial world after the market closed on Friday July 2. This was the failure of the Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma City.
It was the beginning of the end of the Oil Boom of the late 70’s after the oil crisis of the mid and later 70’s. Suddenly the future demand for electricity turned downward in Oklahoma and for many years to come there would be a surplus of electricity on the market. What made it worse was that there were laws put in place to help up and coming co-generation plants that were still on the books (Such as PURPA, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978) in which small co-generation companies could feed off of the large electric companies guaranteeing their success at the detriment of the major electric companies.
During the years that followed, the electric company found that they had to compete for the electricity they sold. This is where the new school of power plant men began to shine. They had been cultivating their culture at our plant for years trying to prove their worth, not aware and not really caring that it was “who you knew” and how much you were liked by the person making the decision that determined your promotion to a higher position. The new power plant men had become experts in their fields and took pride in their work.
The board of directors of the electric company must have known that the old school employees would not cooperate with the new way of thinking, because by 1987 they decided to early retire anyone over 55 years old, and then layoff employees where the company had over compensated based on their earlier estimates of growth. A first in the history of the Electric company.
This is when Leroy and the other old school power broker men were given an incentive to early retire. At the retirement party people stood up and said things about the different retirees. Usually just funny things that may have happened to them over the years. Leroy’s daughter Terri stood up and said that she understood what the electricians must have gone through working for Leroy because, remember, she had to LIVE with him! We laughed.
To put it in perspective. Leroy worked almost his entire adult live at that point for the power company. Over 34 years. — During the years under the old school plant manager and assistant plant manager at our plant Leroy had to face one abuse after another.
To name just one instance, the plant manager conspired to discredit Leroy’s best friend to the point that he was fired in disgrace, just so that Leroy would be friendless and have to turn to them for friendship (to give you an understanding as to why I often refer to the plant manager as the “evil plant manager”). This was known to us because while the plant manager was planning this with a hired undercover “snitch”, he was taping the conversations, which were later used in court to clear Leroy’s best friend Jim Stevenson (See last Friday’s Post: Power Plant Snitch).
Can you imagine the stress this puts on a person that then has to go home at night and be a supportive husband and father? Leroy lived another 24 years after he retired from the company. That is a long time to overcome the bitterness left over from the abuse Leroy took from the Manager and Assistant Manager at the plant.
There are two things that make me believe that Leroy was finally able to find the great peace and dignity in his life that all good Power Plant Men deserve. First, it is the loving words of his daughter Terri who many years ago, couldn’t resist “feeling our pain”. ” Daddy/Poppy, your love will forever live within us. Thank you for setting such a decent moral tone and instilling your high standards in us.”
Secondly, I know now where Leroy’s greatest love has always been. He didn’t measure himself by how high he could rise in the totem pole of managerial positions in a power company. He didn’t need to prove his self worth by how much the plant depended on his knowledge.
I believe that he had one main goal in life and once that goal was fulfilled, he had no other reason to remain. You see, just two weeks prior to Leroy Godfrey’s death, his wife Lydia had passed away on February 22, 2012. Enough said. Leroy’s heart and soul is right where it has always belonged and where it remains for eternity. Alongside his wife Lydia.
This post was originally posted on March 24, 2012:
I have just finished watching the movie “Born Free” with my son. I had recorded it on DVR because I knew he liked watching Big Cats. It reminded me of when Ken Conrad (A True Power Plant Man Extraordinaire) had become entangled with a Bobcat one day while performing his heroic Power Plant duties.
When a person usually puts the words power plant and Bobcat together in a sentence, one may easily come to the wrong conclusion that this is a story about a run-away little Bobcat scoop shovel, or what is professionally known as a Bobcat Skid-Steer Loader since these are an essential piece of equipment for any power plant or any work site for that matter (and are fun to drive and do wheelies):
In an earlier post entitled Indian Curse or Brown and Root Blunder I mentioned that in the years following the completion of the power plant, steps were taken to be extra kind to the plant’s nearest neighbor, the Otoe-Missouria Indian Reservation. This story takes place on one of those days where the electric company was showing their true colors to the friends next door.
Every summer the Otoe-Missouria tribe would hold a Pow-Wow some time in June. This is when the the Native Americans of this tribe come together as a time for a reunion where the culture of the tribe can be kept alive. It spans over a number of days, and people come from all over with camping trailers and stay on the reservation and have a good time visiting. You can learn more information about the tribe’s Pow-wow, culture and the benefits from the Casino (which was not there at this time. Not even the Bingo Hall that used to bring in buses from all over the country) from web service that hosts news about the tribe: http://www.otoe-missouria.com
The Power Plant helped out by mowing the areas around the Otoe-Missouria Reservation where the campers would park and a large open field where events could take place and large tents (and tepees) could be erected. So, when I arrived at work in the morning I was instructed to fill a water and ice bucket, and get a box of cone cups, and bring my lunch. This was because I may not be back for lunch as I was going to be the gopher for Jim and Ken that day while they mowed the area around the Otoe-Missouria Reservation.
Being a “Gopher” as most of you know means that you are the one that “Goes For” things. So, if they need something back at the plant, then I hop in the truck and I go and get it. This is fine for me, but I generally liked staying active all day, or else the day drags on. So I grabbed some trash bags and my handy dandy homemade trash stabbing tool and put them in the back of the truck as well.
I followed Jim Heflin and Ken Conrad on the two shiny new Ford tractors with double-wide brush hogs down the highway with my blinkers on so people barreling down the highway from Texas on their way to Kansas at ungodly speeds would know enough to slow down before they plowed into a brush hog like the one below:
After we arrived at the reservation there was a man there that directed us to where we should mow and Ken and Jim went right to work. They first mowed in the area where there were a lot of trees and areas to park campers and Jim and Ken worked their magic weaving in and out of the trees with these big mowers behind them just missing each tree, trash can, fire grill, building and vehicles that happened to be in their way (like the one I had driven there).
After watching their skill with the mowers for a while I stepped out of the truck, now certain that I wouldn’t be hit with a flying rock because the mowers had moved a safe distance from me. I began walking around picking up some trash. While Ken and Jim mowed the rest of this area, I helped the man move some large logs and picnic tables and things like that around the campsite.
When Ken and Jim had finished the camping area they moved over the the large field at the edge of the campground, and I drove the truck over there and watched as they both circled around and around making smaller circles each time staying opposite of each other like they were doing a synchronized dance with the mowers.
I was standing in the back of the truck leaning against the cab watching them when I noticed that Jim began waving one hand up in the air much like a cowboy would do while riding on a bronco to keep their balance. His head began bobbing and I wondered if he was all right. Then I saw what had happened.
A very large cat that looked like a grown mountain lion came darting out of the tall brush and ran in front of Jim’s tractor and headed for the trees that lined the far side of the field. As excited as I could tell Jim was by this, he didn’t miss a beat with his mowing, and only lifted his hardhat long enough to wipe his head with a rag. Then he kept on mowing as if nothing else had happened. Maybe because he was in complete shock and auto-pilot had kicked in.
As Jim circled around, Ken came around to the spot where Jim had just been mowing. Unlike Jim, Ken did not start to wave his hand as a cowboy on a bronco. Instead he jumped up in his seat while shutting down his mower and jumped off into the tall brush. He began running around in circles.
At this point Jim had seen what Ken was doing, so he shutdown his mower also. I had jumped off of the truck and ran toward where Ken was dancing. Jim came huffing and puffing up to me and asked me if I had seen that huge mountain lion run in front of him. I nodded to him and ran over to Ken who at this point was standing still as if frozen.
As we approached, Ken signaled for us to stay back, so we slowed down and watched him as we came slowly closer. Ken wasn’t moving his feet, but he was slowly swiveling his body around looking into the brush. Then like Tom Sawyer he bent down quickly and reached into a pile of mowed grass that had piled up near where he was standing.
By this time we were close enough to see what was down on the ground that Ken had grabbed. He was holding down a kitten. It was a baby Bobcat. You could tell by the short tail (a bob-tail cat):
Ken had hold of the bobcat with both hands. One at the scruff of his neck and the other above his hind legs. He began lifting up the cat from the ground, and it was hissing and went wild trying to bite and scratch Ken. At this point the man from the reservation had come over, because he had also seen the very large bobcat run from the field and had watched Ken dancing in the grass.
Ken asked him “What do I do now?” He had caught the baby bobcat, and now realized that he couldn’t let go of it without serious bodily injury (bringing to mind the phrase “Having a tiger by the tail”).
We all became aware that somewhere close by the mother was watching us from the trees. Jim remarked that he didn’t know bobcats could grow that big and the man assured him that there are a number of large bobcats on their reservation that he had seen. He suggested that he could get a five gallon bucket and Ken could throw the cat in the bucket while he put a wire screen over the top so that it couldn’t jump out and scratch or bite them.
We walked back to the camping area and the man came out of a small building and had some screen material and a board. Then Ken standing there sort of like Frankenstein with his arms straight out in front of himself (to keep from being mauled), asked a couple of times exactly what they were planning on doing, so that he would get it right. The man said that he should throw the cat into the bucket and he would quickly put the board over the top. Then he could put the screen over the board and take the board out and tie the screen on the top with some wire.
So that’s what Ken did. He quickly threw the cat into the bucket as the man slammed the board on top. It looked like it happened so fast that I was surprised to find that while the cat was quickly being ejected from Ken’s hands and being propelled into the bucket, it had enough speed to reach around with one of its paws and cut a gash down the side of Ken’s hand.
After that, I drove Ken back to the plant to get bandaged up and so that he could show everyone what he had caught. He was very proud of his wound and he seemed to grow even taller than his normal tall thin self. It seemed to take about 15 seconds before everyone in the plant knew that Ken had caught a bobcat as they were all making a trip over to the garage to have a peek at him. Ken said he was going to take it home and then decide what he was going to do with it.
I drove Ken back to the reservation to get his tractor as Jim had finished mowing the field.
The following day we learned that when Ken arrived at his house there was someone there already waiting for him to see his wild new pet. Yes. Most of you have been waiting for the other shoe to drop on this story. An Oklahoma Park Ranger.
The Ranger informed Ken that he had received 8 calls from different people at the plant letting him know that one Power Plant Hero Ken Conrad was in possession of a wild bobcat caught on an Indian Reservation (of all places — I say that because that is federal property, possibly making it a federal crime). And Ken could be in for a very serious legal entanglement.
Ken told the ranger that he was only going to show it to his family then bring it back to the reservation and let it go. The Park Ranger (not usually portrayed as a lenient character) offered to take the bobcat back himself.
Needless to say. Ken was not very pleased with his fellow campers the next morning when he arrived at work. He kept saying… “You just can’t tell who your friends are. They all came over here acting like my buddies then they ran off to call the ranger.”
By that time I had worked around the power plant men for one entire summer and this was my second. I knew that the Real Power Plant Men would have known that Ken would do the right thing and wouldn’t have called the ranger. Ken was right though, some of them were impostors.
I knew there were some people at the plant who would have felt it was their duty to call the ranger, and I never considered them power plant men in the first place. Ken Conrad, however, has always lived up to my expectations as a Real Power Plant Man!
It’s funny what comes to mind when you sit down to watch a movie on a Friday night.
Comment from previous post:
Originally Posted March 30, 2012:
I learned very quickly my first summer as a summer help at the power plant that one of the worst smells a human being can experience is the smell of rotting fish and maggots. Every Monday and Friday I would go with Dee Ball down to the two park areas with plastic bags and my Handy Dandy Homemade trash stabber to clean up where the fishermen had been fishing.
There were a few trash cans out there that we would load into the back of the truck and haul off to the junkyard located at the perimeter of our main plant grounds. There was always a well baked pile of fish guts and soiled disposable baby diapers flowing over the top of the trash cans. Most of which had been baking in the hot sun for at least a day or two, and sometimes all week. The diapers came from families that came to swim in the swimming area. At that time they had piled some sand in one area and put some buoys out in the water to keep the boats away and tied a raft out away from the shore a short distance.
It is so hard to describe the actual smell of this conglomeration of waste materials and maggots the size of grubs that I can only come close to describing the effect that it had on me when I had to inhale a whiff. I am sure that if I had ever wretched up my breakfast, it could only have made matters better. My own immune system kicked into autopilot and I was generally left holding my breathe not because the smell was so terrible, but because my auto-immune system had decided that it was better to suffocate than to suffer the intake of another breath.
Dee Ball didn’t seem to mind too much and I just took it to mean that his older and wiser soul had learned to dampen the effect through the use of cigarettes and maybe something between his cheek and gums. I wasn’t too sure how old Dee Ball was when I first met him, but later figured out that he was around 40. His hardhat looked like it was about that old. Though I would have guessed he was a little older.
His body was thin and worn out. Wrinkles were already appearing around the edges of his face. He had light blue eyes that you wouldn’t notice unless he was excited, and then his eyebrows would go up and reveal a set of wide blue eyes. He wasn’t excited in general, but he was what some would call…. “jumpy”. Meaning that if you grabbed his knee and hollered at the same time he would have jumped right out of the window of a moving truck. In later years during my summer help experience, I seem to remember Ken Conrad doing that to him. After Dee pretty near jumped out of his clothes, Ken Conrad would get such a kick out of it that he would almost fall over laughing, which would make me laugh at Ken for being so goofy.
Dee taught me the fine art of using a winch truck like the one shown above, only ours was Electric Company Orange. The first day we went to the park to clean-up trash that summer, after lunch, we returned with the Winch Truck. That was my first experience being a passenger in a larger truck with Dee, and it was one I would never forget. Not because there was some great tragedy, or we saw a huge deer walk across the highway in front of us or anything grandiose like that. But because as we were driving down the highway and neither of us were talking I suddenly became aware of a new and different “puttering” sound. At first I wasn’t sure if I had heard it at all because it was so low and almost in tune with the truck motor.
Listening to it more intently I could ascertain that the sound was from somewhere inside the cab of the truck. So without being too obvious I began taking inventory of the front seat. It sounded like it was coming from somewhere between Dee and I, but there wasn’t anything there. The truck was fairly new and clean. As I began to examine Dee, I realized that the puttering sound was coming from Dee’s mouth. He was making a puttering motor-like sound as a small boy would make as he plays with his toy trucks.
When we arrived at the park I asked Dee what he had done before he had moved to the Power Plant (you may notice that I asked that of just about everyone I worked with), and he told me he used to be a truck driver for the electric company. I had the idea that he still wished he was back in a big rig rolling down the highway. Though Dee was just four years younger than my own father, I often felt like I was watching a young boy in an older man’s body. Dee enjoyed doing very simple things, and like Sonny Karcher who had told me that what he like most in life was to mow grass, I understood Dee without him having to say another word. He liked to drive trucks.
With those thoughts still rolling around in my mind when Dee backed the truck up to an old trunk laying on the ground of what used to be a pretty good sized tree, I began wondering if Dee Ball knew what he was doing. He turned the Winch on and had unhooked it from the back of the truck and was throwing slings around this big trunk laying longways behind the truck.
I had never seen anyone use a winch truck other than a tow truck picking up the front end of a car to tow it away. So, I stood back and observed. Dee walked back and forth, running the winch motor one way, then the other, and walking back to adjust the slings. Then as neat as it could, the tree trunk lifted up on one end and with Dee Ball at the controls, he lowered the front end down on the back of the truck. Letting some slack loose, Dee moved the slings around the back end of the trunk and began pulling the winch in. As he did this, the large trunk came to rest on the bed of the truck. Learn something new every day.
Dee Ball loved to drive trucks, but unfortunately, he had the worst luck when it came to driving them anywhere. Here are my personal experiences on three occasions. The first one was while we were in the park and I was walking around picking up trash, and Dee was slowly driving a pickup across the grass watching me and looking around for things that we might need to do while we were there, when all of the sudden he said, “huh, seems like I ran into something.” So, he tried backing up. No. That didn’t work. He was stuck on something. so, he rocked back and forth a couple of times, and when he couldn’t break free, he turned the truck off and went around front to see what had snagged him.
It turned out that he had run over a tree stump sticking up about two feet. It was in some brush, so you couldn’t see it unless you looked closely. I mentioned in an earlier post about Larry Riley that the engineers in Oklahoma City had decided exactly where the trees needed to be, so they had cut down all the trees in the area and planted new ones. Well. This was one of those trees that was unfortunate enough to have been there before the park was built. The stump was stuck between the front bumper and the radiator. Unfortunately, in his fervor to release the truck from this nemesis, he had smashed and punctured the radiator and some yellow green fluid was squirting from a tiny hole.
As this was our only transportation, we were sort of stuck. So, I looked around and about a mile away down at the corner of the lake where highway 177 and 15 East meet, there was an electric company construction crew putting up a large metal High Voltage Electric Pole.
Dee asked me if I would run over there and ask them if we could borrow a saw. At the time, the lake level was a probably 3 feet below being full, which meant that the park area was somewhat larger than it is now, and you could walk all the way from the park to the electric pole without having to hop over the barbed wire fence that lined the plant property. So, I jogged on over there and they were glad to help. They drove me back and we were able to free the truck from the stump. We took the truck back to the shop and removed the radiator and had it sent to a radiator repair shop in Ponca City.
The second memorable event (well, chronologically, this was the first) having to do with trucks and Dee Ball was when Dee and I were sent to Oklahoma City to pick up new trucks from a large electric company vehicle garage. We were driven by another person who dropped us off. We drove the new trucks back to the plant. I was in a flat bed truck. This was like driving a U-Haul truck, as you couldn’t see through the rear view mirror because there was a black plate in the back window. It was a thrilling experience trying to maneuver through Oklahoma City traffic in a vehicle where I couldn’t see who was in the right lane because my mirror wasn’t set correctly. It wasn’t until I was off the Interstate and making my way through Perry Oklahoma before I felt like I could relax.
I returned to the plant about one hour after I had left the garage. Time went by, and Dee Ball didn’t appear. Another hour went by and still no Dee. He had been driving the large dump truck that Aubrey Cargill, Ben Hutchinson and I used later to pick up driftwood from the dikes (See the post: “Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill“). finally around 3 hours after I arrived, Dee drove the new dump truck into the shop. The most obvious problem was that the “O” was missing from “FORD” and there was a dent in it’s place that ran down the front of the truck. It turned out that Dee had been driving down the highway and his cigarette fell down onto the seat between his legs and disappeared under him. As he was flailing around trying to find his cigarette, he had run off the side of the road and hit a reflector post like they have to warn you where the edge of the road is by an exit.
The third memorable event having to do with trucks was when Dee Ball and I had been to the park to pick up trash and on the way back to the plant a quick cloudburst had come by and dumped some rain on us. When we went to the junkyard to dump out the trash, we made it down into the junkyard all right, but when it came time to leave, the truck couldn’t make it up the road because the mud was too slick on the road and the crew cab just slipped and slid back and forth. So, I ended up literally building a rock road for Dee to drive on up the hill (this was when you actually had to go out the construction gate and back in another gate to get to the junkyard). While I was finding rocks and putting them under the back wheels of the truck, Dee would back up and take a run up the hill while I was behind pushing him with all my might.
Finally after well over 1/2 hour and cutting into our lunch time, the truck was finally free. Unfortunately for me, I had been pushing the truck up the hill while placing myself behind one of the back wheels, which meant that I was covered from head to toe with mud. When we returned to the shop, I just walked into the shower and hosed myself off, clothes and all.
I wasn’t with Dee during other times, like when he took our new crew cab and while leaving the park, turned too soon after exiting the front gate and dented the side of the back door on the fence post. Or when…… Well. I could go on. Needless to say, by my third summer as a summer help, there was a standing order that Dee Ball was not allowed to drive a vehicle.
Two years after that, while I was a janitor, I was walking over to the Engineering shack to sweep and mop when I saw Dee Ball come around the corner in a forklift. He was on his way to fill it up with Diesel. As I saw him pull up to the pump I thought to myself, “Oh, I see they are letting Dee Ball drive again.” After I had mopped the floors in the engineering shack, I headed back to the main plant, there was a winch truck pulling the forklift out of the soft ground where Dee had parked it to top off the Diesel and where it had become stuck. It put a big smile on my face for some reason.
During my first and second summer while I worked with Dee Ball, at times he would stop by a large equipment building that was located out in a field by the dam where the discharge from the river pumps poured water into the lake. Dee told me that when the plant is completed they would split the garage and have a separate yard crew. He had been told that this was going to be his shop.
The place was big enough to hold a number of large tractors with brush hogs. It was run down though, and was probably used when they were building the lake and dam for the heavy equipment to be repaired and parked. Dee had been told that if he came to work at the Power Plant that he would be made the head of the yard crew.
I came to learn that a lot of people were told stories like that from the Assistant Plant Manager when he was trying to coax people to move their homes north to this power plant out in the middle of nowhere. Dee was never made the head of the yard crew, and the yard crew was never separate from the garage. Dee was always pleasant and courteous and was always a joy to work with. Even when I ended up covered in mud. I will always consider him a good friend.