Originally Posted on April 7, 2012:
My wife came home from work one night in the early 90’s. She was a charge nurse at the Stillwater Oklahoma Medical Center at the time. She said that she was taking care of a patient that was one of the mostly saintly people she had ever met. He was going to die soon and she thought I might know who he was because he used to work at the Power Plant.
When she gave me his name I was surprised to learn that he was on his deathbed, and yes. I did know him. I agreed with her. He is and always had been a saintly person. The funny thing was that I felt that very few people really knew him as I did. Many people knew him enough to not think he would be classified in the “Saint” category, and I knew why this was also. I knew him so well quite by chance when I first came to the plant, and I made a decision about how to answer a common question that was being asked of me at the time.
As a summer help it was known that I was a college student, so the obvious question was, why was I going to school, and what did I want to be when I graduated. I could tell this was a rowdy bunch of men that enjoyed their day at work, and so I told them that I wasn’t sure yet what my degree would be, but I thought I might like to become a writer. I told them this hoping that they would bite where I could set the hook (in a fisherman sort of way), and they did.
The first person that asked me that question was Sonny Karcher, and when I told him that I thought I might be a writer, he took the bait and asked, “Are you going to write about us?” At the time, I had no plans about doing that, but I thought if they thought so, then they might fill my ears with the unique wisdom each of them seemed to have. So I answered, “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it, but I suppose I might.”
That’s all it took. After that, every time Sonny introduced me to somebody, he would say, “This is Kevin. He’s our new summer help. He’s going to college to be a writer, and he’s going to write all about us!” This produced the behavior I was hoping it would. That was that a number of Power Plant Men took me “under their wing” and bestowed upon me their own particular wisdom. For hours on end, as I worked with various men, they would tell me how things are in the world and how I should respond to them. Their own particular Philosophy Of Life.
At the time I really had not considered writing about my experiences at the power plant, but now that I am much older and the wisdom of these great men seem to be dying away, I thought that it would be a good idea to put these out there on the Internet where nothing ever really goes away.
I have refrained from mentioning the name of this Unlikely Saint until now because I think that if I mentioned it up front some Power Plant Men would read it and think I was just tremendously off my rocker and not read any further. So I prefaced my story with how I came to know this particular Power Plant Man enough to understand what my wife was saying when she told me about this Saint on the general medical (3rd) floor of the hospital.
Maybe I will refrain just a little while longer to tell you a few things that this man told me. It was obvious that he felt as if he was talking to me as a father would talk to a son. He was only two years younger than my own father. The one thing that sticks in my mind most is when he told me, “Kev, some day you may be a foreman or a supervisor running this plant, but always remember this…. Never forget where you came from. Never forget that there was a time when you first began and knew nothing. Don’t ever forget your friends. Don’t forget who you really are.” I have reminded myself of this often and made it part of my own “Philosophy of Life”. Years later when I became an electrician, he stopped by the electric shop and reminded me once again.
As an Aside comment, my mother tried to help me with this by referring to me as “My Son, The Janitor” when introducing me to someone for years after I had become an electrician. I was always proud to be called a janitor, and I would not try to correct her, because even though I was an electrician, I knew inside that I was also still a janitor. Today, even though my title may be “Business Systems Analyst” working for Dell (and now Senior Software Engineer working for General Motors), I also still carry around in the back of my head the title of “Janitor”.
I wish I had a picture to share of this Power Plant Man (I have one somewhere, but I am not able to find it just now), because if you could see him, you would think… this guy?
His skin was darkened from smoking so heavily all his life. Emphysema is what killed him while he was still relatively young. His belly grew over the years to become larger than his stocky barrel chest. His head nodded while he listened to you and especially when managers were talking as if he was laughing to himself because he knew what they were really saying. His clothes were always clean, which left everyone with the impression that he never did any work.
I remember one day while we were inspecting the dumper (where the coal is dumped out of the railway cars), as it had not been in-service for very long and everything needed to be inspected. I followed him down the stairway into the dumper going down into the darkness. There were lights down there, but they didn’t give off much light because the coal dust absorbs the light instead of reflecting it. So, you can shine a flashlight and it doesn’t fill the room with its glow as it might in a room painted with white paint. To me the place was eerily unreal until I had been down there enough times to keep my bearings on where we were going.
Anyway, I followed him down into the dark damp dumper where every handrail, every light fixture and every step was covered with coal dust. We had some wrenches and we were tight checking the rollers on the conveyors. When we were finished we found ourselves at the ground level exit of #2 Conveyor. I looked at this Power Plant Man and he didn’t have spot of coal on him. I, on the other hand, was black from top to bottom. My hardhat was black, my arms, my face, my jeans. All black with coal dust.
Then this Power Plant Man told me some more words from the wise…. “When you get to be good, you will remain as clean as I am.” This had as much impact on me as when Master Po told Kwai Chang Caine (In the Kung Fu TV series) that when he can walk on the rice paper and not leave a trace, then he will be a Shaolin Monk.
It seemed impossible to me that he could have worked right alongside me, actually doing more work than I was doing, and he came out pristine while I came out looking like a bat out of hell (or Pigpen times ten). But there it was.
So, for years whenever I worked in a coal handling area, his words always rang in my mind. I considered it a challenge. I realized that there were times when it would be impossible to come out clean, like when you are sandblasting a tank, or working inside the Precipitator wading through fly ash up to your waist. But when doing my regular job, I made a real effort to remain as clean as possible.
It made me happy to think that others might think that I wasn’t working hard enough to be in the True Power Plant Man League because my clothes were clean, because to me, it was a tribute to my own Shaolin Master…. Jerry Mitchell. Yes. Power Plant Men…. Jerry Mitchell.
Before Jerry came to work at the power plant, he used to work on jet engines. Like many genuine Power Plant Men, he was a leader in the field of mechanics. I have a list as long as my arm of great men that work as Power Plant Men that are each near the top of the list of experts in their fields of knowledge. Jerry was one of them.
He built the engine in the blue corvette that he used to drive to work each day. He machined the parts himself. It could go from 0 to 80 and back to 0 from the main gate to the highway — how many yards is that? 200 yards maybe 300 He demonstrated it once to me. He was wondering if I was interested in buying it because he knew I didn’t own a car.
I think that I realized the true character of Power Plant Men from Jerry, because he had very little tolerance for those impostors that hung around Power Plant Men looking for a way to belittle them, or spread rumors to hurt their reputations, etc. because nothing bothers a pseudo-He-man like a True Power Plant Man, because it is like turning on a bright light and watching the roaches scurry away. Jerry could tell their character a mile away.
I will give you a “for instance”… One day as we pulled the truck up to the Maintenance Shop, Jerry told me to follow him and not say anything, just listen, because I was going to be shocked by the conversation that was about to take place. I wondered how he knew as I walked up to an older coal yard foreman approaching a lady who was a Brown and Root construction hand (you could tell by the hardhat).
So I stood next to the man and listened. He asked her how her night was last night and she began by describing the time she spent in a bar and she repeated the conversation she had with a man that was trying to pick her up. Without going into too much detail, I will say that she ended the conversation with the man in the bar by saying that she was looking for a meal, not a snack, and proceeded to talk about another man in the bar and how she could tell that he was the kind of man she was looking for in more than descriptive terms.
She finished by telling the older man that the man she left with and her had a “Jolly good time” (my words, not hers) for at least 4 hours non-stop with more than enough details thrown in. The older man was amused and hee-hawed about it slapping his knee in amusement.
Jerry nodded to me and we left. We walked outside of the shop and Jerry asked me, “Have you ever heard anyone talk like that before, let alone a lady?” I admitted that I hadn’t. Then he said, “That man that she was talking to is her father.”
I was thoroughly shocked and greatly disturbed. I had just heard a flowing river of filth spew from this person’s mouth as she was talking to her own father, and his response was to be amused by it. When Jerry told me this I looked at him in shock, and he looked back at me with his head nodding as it did often. His face had the regular straight poker face he usually wore, but his eyes told me that he was very saddened by this. He said he felt it was important for me to know.
I have often kept that poor old man and his lost soul of a daughter in my prayers. This man worked in the plant until the 1987-88 downsizing. Whenever I would see him working in the coal yard, I would remember that I needed to add him and his daughter to my prayers.
So in ending I will say this about Jerry Mitchell, as I say with all the True Power Plant Men I know. I have always considered Jerry a good friend. Jerry was always a good friend to me, and I know that he is a Saint in Heaven today. He never spoke a religious word in the years that I knew him, but I know that his large barrel chest held a tremendous heart.
When I think of Jerry today, I remember riding to Stillwater with him in his blue Corvette. As we drove by a row of trees in a creek bottom he suddenly said, “What is that noise? Do I hear Cicadas?” I said, “Yeah, sounds like it.” He replied, “I haven’t heard Cicada in years! After working around Jet engines for so long I could no longer hear the sound of bugs. My hearing is returning!” That was the only time I saw Jerry’s expression change from his constant straight face to a smile of satisfaction. I am 100% sure by the time Jerry made it to Heaven he was able to hear the harps very clearly.
Originally Posted on April 20, 2012. I added a couple of pictures including an Actual picture of Ed Shiever:
The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked is out in the country and it supplies its own drinkable water as well as the super clean water needed to generate steam to turn the turbine. One of the first steps to creating drinkable water was to filter it through a sand filter. The plant has two large sand filters to filter the water needed for plant operations.
These are the same tanks I was in when I was Sandblasting under the watchful eye of Curtis Love which was the topic of the post about “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“. Before I was able to sandblast the bottom section of the sand filter tank, Ed Shiever and I had to remove all the teflon filter nozzles from the two middle sections of each tank. Once sandblasted, the tank was painted, the nozzles were replaced and the sand filter was put back in operation.
Ed Shiever and I were the only two that were skinny enough and willing enough to crawl through the small entrance to the tanks. The doorway as I mentioned in an earlier post is a 12-inch by 18-inch oval. Just wide enough to get stuck. So, I had to watch what I ate for lunch otherwise I could picture myself getting stuck in the small portal just like Winnie the Pooh after he had eaten all of Rabbits honey.
Ed Shiever was a janitor at the time, and was being loaned to the labor crew to work with me in the sand filter tank. Ed was shorter than average and was a clean-cut respectable person that puts you in the mind of Audey Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II.
For those power plant men that know Ed Shiever, but haven’t ever put him and Audey Murphy together in their mind will be surprised and I’m sure agree with me that Ed Shiever looked strikingly similar to Audey Murphy at the time when we were in the sand filter tank (1983).
Before I explain what happened to Ed Shiever while we spent a couple of weeks holed up inside the sand filter tanks removing the hundreds of teflon nozzles and then replacing them, I first need to explain how I had come to this point in my life when Ed and I were in this echo chamber of a filter tank. This is where Ann Bell comes into the story. Or, as my friend Ben Cox and I referred to her as “Ramblin’ Ann”.
I met Ramblin’ Ann when I worked at The Bakery in Columbia Missouri while I was in my last year of college at the University of Missouri. I was hired to work nights so that I could handle the drunks that wandered in from nearby bars at 2 a.m.. Just up the street from The Bakery were two other Colleges, Columbia College and Stephen’s College which were primarily girls schools. Ramblin’ Ann attended Stephen’s College.
She had this uncanny knack of starting a sentence and never finishing it. I don’t mean that she would stop halfway through the sentence. No. When Ann began the first sentence, it was just molded into any following sentences as if she not only removed the periods but also the spaces between the words.
She spoke in a seemly exaggerated Kentucky accent (especially when she was talking about her accent, at which point her accent became even more pronounced). She was from a small town in Kentucky and during the summers she worked in Mammoth Cave as a tour guide (this is an important part of this story… believe it or not).
A normal conversation began like this: “Hello Ann, how is it going?” “WellHiKevin!Iamjustdoinggreat!IhadagooddayatschooltodayYouKnowWhatIMean? IwenttomyclassesandwhenIwenttomymailboxtopickupmymailIrealizedthatthistownisn’t likethesmalltownIcamefromin KentuckybecausehereIamjustboxnumber324 butinthetownwhereIcamefrom (breathe taken here) themailmanwouldstopbymyhousetogiveusthemailandwouldsay, “Hi Ann, how are you today?” YouKnowWhatImean? AndIwouldsay, “WellHiMisterPostmansirIamdoingjustgreattodayHowareYoudoing?”YouknowwhatImean? (sigh inserted here) SoItIsSureDifferentlivinginabigtownlikethisandwhenIthinkbackonmyclassesthatIhadtoday andIthinkabouthowmuchitisgoingtochangemylifeandallbecauseIamjustlearning somuchstuffthatIhaveneverlearnedbefore IknowthatwhenIamOlderandI’mthinkingbackonthisdayandhowmuchitmeanstome, IknowthatIamgoingtothinkthatthiswasareallygreatdayYouKnowWhatIMean?” (shrug added here)….
The conversation could continue on indefinitely. So, when my girlfriend who later became my wife came to visit from Seattle, I told her that she just had to go and see Ramblin’ Ann Bell, but that we had to tell her that we only have about 15 minutes, and then we have to go somewhere else because otherwise, we would be there all night nodding our heads every time we heard “…Know What I Mean?”
My roommate Barry Katz thought I was being inconsiderate one day when he walked in the room and I was sitting at the desk doing my homework and occasionally I would say, “Uh Huh” without looking up or stopping my work, so after sitting there watching me for a minute he asked me what I was doing and I told him I was talking to Ann Bell and I pointed to the phone receiver sitting on the desk.
I could hear the “You Know What I Mean”s coming out of the receiver and each time I would say, “Uh Huh”. So, when he told me that wasn’t nice, I picked up the receiver and I said to Ramblin’ Ann, “Hey Ann, Barry is here, would you like to talk to him?” and I handed it to him.
He sat down and asked Ann how she was doing…. 10 minutes or so and about 150 “Uh Huh”‘s later, Barry looked over at me and slowly started placing the receiver back on the desktop repeating “Uh Huh” every so many seconds.
Anyway. The reason I told you this story about Ramblin’ Ann was because after a while I began to imitate Ann. I would start ramblin’ about something, and it was almost as if I couldn’t stop.
If you have ever read the story about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll would transform into Mr. Hyde by drinking a potion. But eventually he started turning into Mr. Hyde randomly without having to drink the potion. Well, that is what had happened to me. In some situations, I would just start to ramble non-stop for as long as it takes to get it all out… Which Ed Shiever found out was a very long time.
You see, Ed Shiever and I worked in the Sand filter tanks for an entire week removing the nozzles and another week putting them back in. the entire time I was talking non-stop to him. while he just worked away saying the occasional “uh huh” whenever I said, “you know what I mean?”, though I didn’t say it as much as Ramblin’ Ann did. I could never match her prowess because my lung capacity just wasn’t as much.
Ed Shiever was a good sport though, and patiently tolerated me without asking to be dismissed back to be a janitor, or even to see the company Psychiatrist…. Well, we didn’t have a company psychiatrist at the time.
It wasn’t until a few years later when Ronald Reagan went to visit Mammoth Cave during the summer, that this event with Ed Shiever came back to me. You see… Ann Bell had been a tour guide at Mammoth Cave during the summer, and as far as I knew still was. My wife and I both realized what this could mean if Ronald Reagan toured Mammoth Cave with Ann Bell as his tour guide.
Thoughts about a Manchurian Candidate Conspiracy came to mind as we could imagine the voice of Ann Bell echoing through the cave as a very excited Ramblin’ Ann explained to Ronald Reagan how excited she was and how much this was going to mean to her in her life, and how she will think back on this time and remember how excited she was and how happy she will be to have those memories and how much she appreciated the opportunity to show Ronald Reagan around in Mammoth Cave… with all of this echoing and echoing and echoing….
We had watched this on the evening news and it was too late to call to warn the President of the United States not to go in the cave with Ann Bell, so we could only hope for the best. Unfortunately, Ronald’s memory seemed to be getting worse by the day after his tour of Mammoth Cave and started having a confused look on his face as if he was still trying to parse out the echoes that were still bouncing in his head.
Of course, my wife and I felt like we were the only two people in the entire country that knew the full potential of what had happened.
So this started me thinking… Poor Ed Shiever, one of the nicest people you could ever meet, had patiently listened to me rambling for two entire weeks in an echo chamber just like the President. I wondered how much impact that encounter had on his sanity. So, I went to Ed and I apologized to him one day for rambling so much while we were working in the Sand Filter tank, hoping that he would forgive me for messing up his future.
He said, “Sure, no problem.” Just like that. He was all right. He hadn’t lost his memory or become confused, or even taken up rambling himself. I breathed a sigh of relief. Ed Shiever had shown his true character under such harsh conditions and duress.
I’m just as sure today as I was then that if Ed Shiever had been with Audey Murphy on the battlefield many years earlier, Ed would have been standing right alongside him all the way across the enemy lines. In my book, Ed Shiever is one of the most decorated Power Plant Men still around at the Power Plant today.
I finally found an actual picture of Ed Shiever:
Originally Posted: May 4, 2012. I added some comments from the original post at the end of this post:
I wrote an earlier post about days some people would have liked to take back. There was one day that I would like to take back. It was the day Ken Conrad was teaching me how to setup and operate the two large water cannons that we used to irrigate the plant grounds.
During my second summer as a summer help (1980), when I had about 6 weeks left of the summer, I was asked to take over the watering of the plant grounds because Ken Conrad was needed to do other jobs and this was taking too much of his time.
The first summer I worked as a summer help, whenever it rained, by the time you had walked from the Engineer’s Shack parking lot to the Welding Shop entrance, you felt like someone 10 feet tall. Because the entire distance would turn into a pool of red mud and as you took each step, you grew taller and taller as the mud stuck to your feet. Just before you entered the maintenance shop, you could scrape your feet on a Boot Scraper to whittle you down to size so that you would fit through the doorway.
The entire main plant grounds would be nothing but mud because there wasn’t any grass. It had all been scraped or trampled away while building the plant and now we were trying to grow grass in places where only weeds had dared to trod before. When trucks drove into the maintenance garage, they dropped mud all over the floor. It was the summer help’s job the first summer to sweep up the shop twice each week. If it had been raining, I usually started with a shovel scraping up piles of mud. So, I recognized the importance of quickly growing grass.
The day that Ken Conrad was explaining to me how to setup and operate the water cannons, I was only half paying attention. “I got it. Roll out the plastic fiber fire hose, unhook the water cannon from the tractor, let out the cable. turn it on the fire hydrant… Done….” That was all I heard. What Ken was saying to me was a lot different. it had to do with all the warnings about doing it the correct way. I think in my mind I wasn’t listening because I was thinking that it really wasn’t all that difficult. I was really just eager to have the opportunity to finally drive a tractor.
So, here is what happened the next morning when I went to setup the first water cannon to water the field just north of the water treatment plant up to the Million Gallon #2 Diesel Oil Tanks berms. I thought… ok… Step one: roll out the hose… Hmmm… hook it up to the fire hydrant, and then just pull the water gun forward with the tractor and it should unroll the hose….
Well. my first mistake was that I hadn’t disengaged the spool so that it would turn freely, so when I pulled the tractor forward, off popped the connector on the end of the hose attached to the fire hydrant. That’s when I remembered Ken telling me not to forget to disengage the spool before letting out the hose. That’s ok. Ken showed me how to fix that.
I beat on it with a hammer to knock out the clamp and put it back on the end of the hose after I had cut off a piece with my pocket knife to have a clean end. Disengaged the spool, and tried it again… Nope. Pulled the end off again… I was letting it out too fast. That’s when I remembered Ken Conrad telling me not to let the hose out too fast or it would pull the end off. I repaired the connector on the hose again.
After finally laying the hose out and hooking it up to the water cannon, I disconnected the water cannon from the tractor and hooked up the hose and began pulling the steel cable out of the cable spool by pulling the tractor forward. Well, at first the water cannon wanted to follow me because you had to disengage that spool also, (as Ken had showed me).
So I thought I could just drag the water cannon back around to where it started, but that wasn’t a good idea because I ended up pulling off the connector on the fire hose again, only on the other end than before. Anyway, after repairing the hose at least three times and getting everything in position twice, I was finally ready to turn on the water.
That was when things turned from bad to worse. The first thing I did was turned on the fire hydrant using a large wrench where the water pressure instantly blew the hose out of the connector and water poured out into a big mud puddle by the time I could turn it off. then I remembered that Ken had told me to remember to make sure the screw valve was closed when you turned on the fire hydrant or else you will blow the end off of the hose….
So, I repaired the hose again, and reconnected it (standing in mud now). Closed the screw-type valve and turned on the fire hydrant. Then I opened the screw-type valve and the end of the hose blew off again… Then I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me to make sure I open the valve very slowly otherwise I would blow the connector off of the hose. So I repaired the hose again and hooked everything up (while standing in a bigger mud puddle) and tried it again.
I opened the valve slowly and the water cannon began shooting water out as I opened the valve up further and further… until a hole blew out in the middle of the hose shooting water all over the tractor. So I turned off the water again as I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me not to open the valve very far or it would start to blow out holes in the hose. I went and patched the hole the way that Ken Conrad has showed me and went back to try it again… walking through mud over to the fire hydrant, where there was an increasingly larger puddle.
I remember that it was around lunch time when I was standing in the middle of that field covered with mud standing in what looked like a mud hole that pigs would just love, trying to repair a hole in the hose for the 3rd or 4th time that it dawned on me how different my morning would have been if I had only paid more attention to Ken when he was explaining everything to me the day before.
I skipped lunch that day. Finally around 1 o’clock the water cannon was on and it was shooting water out about 40 yards in either direction. I spent that entire day making one mistake after the other. I was beat by the time to go home.
After sleeping on it I was determined not to let the experience from the day before intimidate me. I had learned from my mistakes and was ready to tackle the job of watering the mud in hopes that the sprigs of grass would somehow survive the 100 degree heat. As a matter of fact, the rest of the next 6 weeks the temperature was over 100 degrees every day. This was Oklahoma.
When I first took over for Ken, the watering was being done in three shifts. I watered during the day, the other summer help watered in the evening and a fairly new guy named Ron Hunt watered during the late night shift (not the Ron Hunt of Power Plant Man Fame, but a guy that eventually moved to the plant in Midwest City and became an operator). After two weeks, they did away with the night shift and I was put on 7 – 12s. that is 7 days a week, 12 hour days.
I didn’t own a car so, I had to catch a ride with someone in the morning in order to be at the plant by 6am. Then I had to catch a ride back to Stillwater in the evening when I left at 6:30pm each day of the week. The Operators and the security guards worked out good for this. I would ride to work in the morning with whichever operator was kind enough to pick me up at the corner of Washington and Lakeview (where I had walked from my parent’s house) and whichever security guard that was going that way in the evening.
I found out after a few days on this job that Colonel Sneed whose office was in the Engineer’s Shack was in charge of this job. So he would drive by and see how things were going. After a while I had a routine of where I would put the water cannons and where I would lay the Irrigation pipes. He seemed to be well pleased and even said that I could go to work for him when I was done with this job.
I told him that I was going to go back to school in a few weeks and he said that he would be waiting for me the next summer. Only Colonel Sneed, who was an older man with silver hair wasn’t there when I returned the next summer. He had either retired or died, or both. I never was sure which. I did learn a few years later that he had died, but I didn’t know when.
Besides the first day on that job, the only other memorable day I had was on a Sunday when there wasn’t anyone in the maintenance shop, I remember parking the yellow Cushman cart out in the shade of 10 and 11 belts (That is the big long belt that you see in the power plant picture on the right side of this post) where I could see both water cannons and the irrigation pipes.
I was watching dirt devils dance across the coal pile. This was one of those days when the wind is just right to make dirt devils, and there was one after the other travelling from east to west across the coal pile.
The Security guard was on his way back from checking the dam when he stopped along the road, got out of his jeep and sat on the hood and watched them for 5 or 10 minutes. For those of you who might not know, a dirt devil looks like a miniature tornado-in-training as it kicks up the dirt from the ground. These dirt devils were actually “coal devils” and they were black. They were lined up one after the other blowing across the the huge black pile of coal. You can see the size of the coal pile from this Google Image:
Then as the security guard on the hill and I were watching the coal pile, this long black finger came flying up from the coal pile reaching higher and higher into the sky twirling itself into one huge coal devil 1,000 feet tall! It traveled toward me from the coalyard and across the intake coming straight toward where I was. It ended up going directly between the two smoke stacks which are each 500 feet tall. This coal devil was easily twice the size of the smoke stacks. Tall and Black. After it went between the smoke stacks it just faded like dust devils do and it was gone.
As the monstrous black coal devil was coming toward the plant, the security guard had jumped in his jeep and headed down to where I was parked. He was all excited and asked me if I had seen how big that was. We talked about the dust devils for a few minutes, then he left and I went back to watching the water cannons and irrigation pipes.
I had to wonder if that big coal devil had been created just for our benefit. It seemed at the time that God had been entertaining us that Sunday by sending small dust devils across the coal pile, and just as they do in Fireworks shows, he had ended this one with the big grand Finale by sending the monster-sized coal devil down directly between the smoke stacks.
Some times you just know when you have been blessed by a unique experience. We didn’t have cameras on cell phones in those days, and I’m not too quick with a camera anyway, but at least the guard and I were able to share that moment.
I began this post by explaining why it is important to listen to a Power Plant Man when he speaks and ended it with the dust devil story. How are these two things related? As I pointed out, I felt as if I had been given a special gift that day. Especially the minute it took for the monster coal devil to travel almost 1/2 mile from the coal yard through the smoke stacks.
It may be that one moment when a Power Plant Man speaks that he exposes his hidden wisdom. If you aren’t paying close attention, you may miss it. I did Ken Conrad an injustice the day he explained how to run the irrigation equipment and it cost me a day of pure frustration, but the real marvel was that as I made each mistake I could remember Ken telling me about that.
Ken had given me a full tutorial of the job I was about to do. How many people would do that? If I had only been listening, I would have heard Ken telling me much more than how to do the job. I would have seen clearly how Ken cared enough about me to spend all the time it took to thoroughly teach me what he knew.
That is the way it is with True Power Plant Men. Ken could have said, “roll out the hose, pull out the cable,, turn the water on … and good luck…”, but he didn’t. he went through every detail of how to make my job easier. I may have felt blessed when the monster coal devil flew between the stacks, but it was that day a couple of weeks earlier when Ken had taken the time and showed his concern that I had really been blessed.
I didn’t recognize it at the time. But as time goes by and you grow older, the importance of simple moments in your life come to light. My regret is that I didn’t realize it in time to say “Thank You Ken.” If I could take back that day, I would not only listen, I would appreciate that someone else was giving me their time for my sake. If I had done that. I’m sure I would have ended the day by saying, “Thank you Ken.”
Ken reminds me of my dad, who, though not a power plant man per se (he was an electrical engineer, that’s pretty close,right?), would give us way more details than we thought we needed. And now I see myself doing it to my grandson (age 11), who is likely to roll his eyes and say, “I already know that!”, when I know darn well he doesn’t. Then I try to resist doing the “I told you so” dance when he finds out he doesn’t already know that. Unfortunately, he does not resist doing the dance when we find out that he did, in fact, already know it!
zensouth May 5, 2012
I like your blog because the stories are always substantial. It takes a while to take in all the flavor of it, like sampling a fine meal or a rich pastry. I do dislike the visual theme, but I think it forces me to concentrate on the content of the story.
Plant Electrician May 5, 2012
Thanks Zen, I understand your feelings. A coal-fired power plant is hardly a normal setting. It was built way out in the country because no one really wants one in their backyard. It was the place I called home for many years. I know that when I left I took with me silicon-based ash, a couple of pounds of coal dust and asbestos particles in my lungs. I will not be surprised the day the doctor tells me that I have mesothelioma. I realized after I left, that it wasn’t the place, it was the people that were so dear to me that I called “home”.
jackcurtis May 13, 2012
I’ve served time with similar folk, people who had more time for a kid learning a job than the kid had for them. Two things stuck besides an entirely different evaluation of those people over time…first one was the old (now): “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you know that ain’t so.” And the other was, remembering the old guys who had patience with you along the way, it’s always like remembering your parents and you pay it forward…(and I still think you have a book in you)
Originally posted May 11, 2012:
The Power Plant sits on a hill where you can see it 20 miles away looming in the distance. The lake that provides cooling water for the plant is also built on a hill. If the Electric Company had waited for the rain to fill up the lake we would still be waiting 34 years later. Fortunately the Arkansas River flows near the plant below the Kaw Lake dam near Ponca City and before it runs into the Keystone Lake near Tulsa. There are 4 large pumps alongside the river in a fenced in area that draws water from the river and sends it a mile up a hill where it pours into the lake. It is a beautiful lake and most of the area around the lake is a wildlife preserve. A part of the area around the lake is reserved for hunting.
Bald Eagles and Pelicans make this lake their home in the winter. During the winter months you can watch a web cam of a bald eagle’s nest on the lake. Here is a link to a Bald Eagle nest in Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge near Vian Oklahoma: https://www.suttoncenter.org/live-bald-eagle-nest-camera/
I have included this map so that you can see the layout. the wide blue line in the upper right corner is the Arkansas river.
The River Pump station is just off the edge of this map.
During my second summer as a summer help at the Power Plant I was assigned to be the “gopher” for a maintenance crew that was going to be working down by the river for a week. Being a “gopher” means that you drive back and forth between the plant and the river bringing (in other words: “go for”) tools, supplies, food, water, and anything else that the Power Plant Men may need while they were working at the river.
At first I wasn’t aware of what job the Power Plant Men crew were assigned. I just knew it was down by the river. I towed a large air compressor behind the flatbed truck and a lot of air hoses and air powered tools. Then I watched as the men began to setup the equipment. At one point Ray Butler who was overseeing the job asked me to go back to the plant and get a Y-connector for the air hoses and some more hose.
I drove back to the plant and when I returned I was standing there with the Y-coupling in my hand watching the men dragging air hoses down into the river, someone asked me to help them move something. So I laid the Y-connector on the top of the Air Compressor. Thinking that would be a safe out of the way place for it. When I did that, it fell down into a cavity that was about 6 inches wide and 5 feet deep where there was the air intake for the compressor. It was too deep to reach it. You can see the air intake section on the front of this air compressor:
After trying to figure out how to take off the front grill of the compressor to retrieve the connector and not seeing an easy way, I told Dale Hull what I had done. He just smiled (well… Dale Hull had a perpetual smile or grin on his face anyway), and he went over to a tool box and pulled out a spool of wire. After cutting some off and fashioning a hook on the end, he quickly snagged the connector and pulled it right out.
Honestly when I saw him start fishing for that coupling I thought to myself that this wasn’t going to work and I was resigned to driving back to the plant again for another one and being humiliated by my failure. It’s too hard to hook something that far down with that flimsy wire. I was surprised and relieved when he quickly pulled it out with little effort.
Maybe he had a lot of practice doing this. In True Power Plant Man fashion, there was no ridicule. From the moment I told him I had dropped the connector, he went to work as if it was his job, not doing anything to attract attention. Until this moment, Dale Hull and I were the only two that knew that I had dropped that connector into the compressor housing. Even though I already had, I marked him down again in my book as a True Power Plant man.
Dale Hull was one of those surprise mechanics that had a lot more skill than you would think by looking at him. He reminded me of John Ritter. The actor on “Three’s Company”. I carpooled with him a lot during the first and second summer and one thing that stood out in my mind was that he had over 100,000 miles on his car and still had the original tires. He did his own wheel alignments. I spent many hours alongside Dale on weekends doing coal cleanup. I helped him move one time from one apartment to another. I remember that he had his own set of precision machining tools.
When I carpooled with him and Ricky Daniels, we would go to the gas station just north of the plant where Dale and Ricky would purchase some beer to drink on the way home. At this time, the place was crowded with construction hands that were still building the plant. I would sit in the back seat and watch the back of the heads of Ricky and Dale who, after a long hot day at work were relaxing by drinking beer and trying to stay awake until they reached Stillwater. I would see Dale’s head bobbing up and down as he would struggle to stay awake. Every day it was the same. We always made it safely home. I don’t know if it was the Novena to St. Jude that I was saying in the back seat or it was Dale’s ability to drive while nodding off to sleep or both.
Anyway. Back to the river.
In the river just below the surface of the water next to the River Pump Forebay there are 4 “coffin houses” where the water can flow into the pump forebay. From there it is pumped up to the lake. The 4 coffin houses (which get their name because they are rectangular shaped boxes that put you in mind of coffins) are mounted on one large concrete slab. The Power Plant Men were setting everything up so that they could drill holes in the concrete slab which was about 4 feet under water.
Why were they drilling holes in the concrete slab? (you might wonder). According to the EPA, it was required that the Electric Company continuously monitor the temperature of the water in the river at the point where the water enters the intake into the forebay area (As if the electric company was somehow going to be able to change the temperature of the water). So they were mounting a thermometer out in the middle on the concrete slab at the bottom of the river.
Hence the use of Air powered tools. It wouldn’t have worked well with electric tools. I remember Power Plant He-men like Bill Gibson standing out in the river (the water had been lowered by lowering the output of Kaw Dam about 20 miles upstream) taking a deep breath, and dropping down into the water. A few moments later a rush of bubbles would come blasting out of the water as he operated the air operated power drill. Each time someone went under the water, they had to find the hole they were drilling, put the bit back in it, and try to drill some more of the hole all while holding their breath. A lot of times they came up laughing because once they started drilling they couldn’t see anything because bubbles were flying in their face. Needless to say, the 10 or so holes they had to drill took almost an entire week.
Of course, they had to take time out for cookouts and swimming in the river. Fortunately there were no Power Plant Women down there at the time, because when it came time for lunch, a group of men in nothing but their skivvies would take a dip in the river.
When they were through there was a thermocouple mounted at the bottom of the river with a cable that led up the bank and into a small galvanized metal building that housed a recorder that took one month to make a full revolution recording the temperature of the water.
There was one other time when I worked for a week at the river. It was when I was on labor crew and we had to shovel the sand out of the river pump forebay. This is a concrete pit about 30 feet deep. Animals would fall in there from time to time and drown, so usually there was a rotting dead possum and a dead bird or two floating in the murky water when the pumps weren’t running.
A P&H crane would lower a large bucket into the pit and a couple of us would shovel sand into it until it was full, then the crane would take it up and dump it out, then lower it back down again for some more sand. We would be standing in the water or on a pile of sand shoveling sand all day. I remember my first day doing that, after a while I looked down to see that there were little tiny bugs crawling all over under the hair on my arms. I called them weevils because they weeved around the hairs on my arms. I quickly realized that my entire body was covered with these little crawling bugs. From the hair on my head down to my ankles. They really weren’t weevils, because those are much bigger than the tiny bugs that were crawling all over me. They put me in the mind of flea larva.
My first reaction was to panic, run around in circles screaming like a little girl. Instead I resigned myself to these bugs and just kept on working. They weren’t biting me. I think they were just looking for a way out of the pit. You climbed in and out of the pit using a ladder permanently mounted on the concrete wall. When it was lunch time I would take a dip in the river, clothes and all to wash them all off.
It’s a funny thought now to think that after I became an electrician a trip to the river pumps always felt like a vacation. Maybe because we were outside of the normal plant grounds. There usually weren’t any supervisors around. There was wildlife. There was a river you could play in if you felt the need. I never found myself working less while I was there, it just seemed enjoyable to have a change in scenery.
Anyway. I don’t think the EPA every really cared what the temperature of the river was, they just wanted us to go through the exercise of measuring it. But that is how the lake ended up on the top of that hill. The water is used to cool the steam in the condenser in the Power Plant. The fish and the birds also enjoy it and all the wildlife around the lake. All made possible by the diligent maintenance of the Power Plant Men.
Comments from the original post:
rjdawarrior May 17, 2012 at 5:10 pm
Loved it! The pictures really brought the whole story to life. You have a way with words that in trigs me.
My favorite part was the flea larva, I could just see you out there in a field full of testosterone, running around in a panic screaming like a little girl…..
Thanks for the enjoyment of the employment RJPlant Electrician May 17, 2012, at 5:21 pm
Thanks RJ, No matter how I try to forget it… I still remember it all too well.
Comment from last Repost:
Originally Posted May 18, 2012
George Pepple was the chemist at the plant when I first arrived in 1979. His last name is pronounced “Pep-Lee”. A chemist plays an important role in a power plant. The plant treats their own water and has it’s own sewage system. The chemist spends their time with these activities.
They do other things like check ground water for contaminates, and lake water for bacteria, and a host of other things. Hydrochloric Acid is used to balance the PH of the water. As far as I know, George Pepple was the only one at the plant with a PhD, which gave him the title of Doctor. No one called him Dr. Pepple (which sounds like a soda pop). We either called him George or Pepple (Pep Lee) or both. He had a sort of Einsteinian simplicity about him. To me he was the perfect combination of Einstein and Mr. Rogers from “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”:
One other thing I would like to add about George was that he developed a special process for Cupric chloride leaching of copper sulfides. This was a patented process (1982) which is now owned by the Phelps Dodge Corporation which is a copper and gold mining company. As humble as George Pepple was, he never mentioned this to anyone at the plant as far as I know.
When he would page someone on the PA system (gray phones), he would always do it in a straight monotone voice. putting no accents on any of the words and he would always repeat his page twice. Like this: “PaulMullonLineOne. PaulMullonLineOne.”
Before I get to the point where George is dancing in the acid, I first need to tell you about Gary Michelson, since he had a role to play in this jig. In an earlier post: In Memory of Sonny Karcher, A True Power Plant Man, I remarked that Sonny Karcher had told people when he introduced me to them that I was going to college to learn to be a writer (which wasn’t exactly true. The writing part I mean…. I was going to college… and.. well… I am writing now), and that I was going to write about them. In doing so, some people took me in their confidence and laid before me their philosophy of life.
Jerry Mitchell being one of them (as you can read in an earlier post about “A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“). Jerry had filled me with his own sense of humility, where it was important to build true friendships and be a good and moral person. His philosophy was one of kindness to your fellow man no matter what his station in life. If there was someone you couldn’t trust, then stay clear of them.
Gary Michelson was another person that wished to bestow upon me his own personal wisdom. We worked for about 3 days filtering the hydraulic oil in the dumper car clamps and in the coal yard garage. While there, he explained to me why it was important to be the best in what you do. If you are not number one, then you are nobody. No one remembers who came in second.
He viewed his job performance and his station in life as a competition. It was him against everyone else. He didn’t care if he didn’t get along with the rest of the people in the shop (which he didn’t) because it is expected that other people would be jealous or resentful because he was superior to them.
According to Gary his family owned part of a uranium mine somewhere in Wyoming or Montana. He thought he might go work for his father there, because truly, he was not a True Power Plant Man. He reminded me slightly of Dinty Moore. Like a lumber Jack.
As I mentioned in the post about the “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“, Gary Michelson had the title “Millwright”. Which no one else in the shop seemed to have. He had been certified or something as a Millwright. Gary explained to me that a Millwright can do all the different types of jobs. Machinist, Mechanic, Pipe fitter, etc.
I remember him spending an entire week at a band saw cutting out wedges at different angles from a block of metal to put in his toolbox. Most mechanics at this time hadn’t been issued a toolbox unless they had brought one with them from the plant where they had transferred. Gary explained to me that his “superiority was his greatest advantage.” Those aren’t his words but it was basically what he was saying. That phrase came from my son who said that one day when he was imitating the voice of a video game villain named Xemnas.
Filtering the hydraulic oil through the blotter press was very slow until we removed most of the filters.
It was a job that didn’t require a lot of attention and after a while became boring. That gave me more time to learn about Gary. He filled the time with stories about his past and his family. Since I hadn’t met Ramblin’ Ann at this point (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was not able to contribute my share. In the middle of this job we were called away to work on a job in water treatment where a small pump needed to be re-installed.
During this time at the plant every pump, fan, mill and turbine were brought to the maintenance shop and disassembled, measured, cleaned, honed and reassembled before the plant was brought online for the first time. This is called doing a “check out” of the unit. The electricians would check every motor, every cable and every relay and alarm. The Results team (Instrument and Controls as they were later called) would check out the instrument air, the pneumatic valves and the control logic throughout the plant.
Gary had me go to the tool room and get some rubber boots and a rain suit. When we arrived at the water treatment building George Pepple was there waiting for us. The pump was in place and only the couplings needed to be connected to the acid line. Gary explained to me as he carefully tightened the bolts around the flange that you had to do it just right in order for the flange to seat properly and create a good seal. He would tighten one bolt, then the bolt opposite it until he worked his way around the flange. He also explained that you didn’t want to over-tighten it.
Anyway. When he was through tightening the couplings I was given a water hose to hold in case some acid were to spray out of the connections when the pump was turned on. After the clearance was returned and the operator had closed the breaker, George turned the pump on. When he did the coupling that Gary had so carefully tightened to just the right torque using just the right technique sprayed a clear liquid all over George Pepple’s shoes.
Gary quickly reached for the controls to turn off the pump. I immediately directed the water from the hose on George’s shoes while he began to jump up and down. In last week’s post I explained that when I was working in the River Pump forebay pit shoveling sand, there was a point when I realized that I was covered from head to foot with tiny crawling bugs, and I felt like running around in circles screaming like a little girl (See “Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down By The River“).
If I had done that, I probably would have been singing the same song and dance that George Pepple was doing at that moment. Because he indeed was screaming like a little girl (I thought). His reaction surprised me because I didn’t see the tell tale signs of sizzling bubbles and smoke that you would see in a movie when someone throws acid on someone. I continued hosing him down and after a minute or so, he calmed down to the point where he was coherent again. He had me run water on his shoes for a long time before he took them off and put on rubber boots.
After hosing off the pipes, Gary took the coupling apart and put the o-ring in place that he had left out.
I made a mental note to myself. — Always remember the o-ring.
Besides those two jobs, I never worked with Gary Michelson again. When I returned the next summer Gary was no where to be found. When I asked Larry Riley about it, he just said that they had run him off. Which is a way of saying… “He ain’t no Power Plant Man.” George Pepple on the other hand was there throughout my career at the power plant. He was a True Power Plant Man, PhD! When George was around you knew it was always “A wonderful Day in the Neighborhood”. When I would hear George Pepple paging someone on the Gray Phone (the PA system) in his own peculiar way, I would think to myself… “I like the way you say that.” (As Mr. Rogers used to say). I will leave you with that thought.
Comments from the original post:
neenergyobserver May 18, 2012
Funny isn’t it, how the ones that are the best (in their own minds) do stupid stuff like forgetting the O-ring. Apparently they can’t see for all the jaw-flapping involved in patting themselves on the back. Not that I haven’t had a few days I’d rather not talk about too.
onelifethislife May 27, 2012
You are master storyteller! I know nothing about power plants and I was right there with you. This was fantastic read! Thank you for sharing your work.
bryanneelaine May 28, 2012
LOL @ “Dinty Moore”
Originally published on May 25, 2012:
Either this was the luckiest day of my life, or a day where stupidity seemed to be my natural state of mind. This particular day occurred sometime during September 1983. The Main Power transformer for Unit 1 had shutdown because of an internal fault during an exceptionally hot day during the summer and was being replaced.
While the unit was offline, while I was on the labor crew, I was asked to help out the electricians who were doing an overhaul on the Precipitator. The Precipitator takes the ash out of the boiler exhaust before it goes up the smoke stack. Without it, you would see thick smoke, instead, you see only clear exhaust. At the time the electricians I worked with were Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers. I had already applied for a job in the electric shop and was waiting to see if I was going to be offered the job. This gave me the chance to show the electricians what a brilliant worker I was.
Bill Rivers told me to go in the precipitator and wipe down the insulators that held the wire racks in place. He showed me where they were. I wore a regular half-face respirator because the fly ash is harmful to inhale.
Just before I went in the precipitator door to begin wiping down the insulators using a Scotch Brite Pad, Bill Rivers pointed to my flashlight and said, “Don’t drop your flashlight in a hopper otherwise you will have to make sure that you get it out of the hopper before we go back online.” I told him I would be sure to hold onto my flashlight (noticing that Bill had a string tied to his flashlight which was slung over his shoulder) and I entered the precipitator door.
The inside of the precipitator was dark. 70 foot tall plates are lined up 9 inches apart. Wires hang down between the plates and when the precipitator is turned on, the wires are charged up to around 45,000 volts of electricity. The wires each have a 30 pound weight on the bottom to keep the wires straight, and the wires are kept apart and lined up by a rack at the bottom. One end of the rack which is about 25 feet long is held in place by an electrical insulator about 3 feet long. This is what I was supposed to clean. The light from the flashlight lit up the area around me because everything was covered with the fine white powder reflecting the light.
The first hopper I came to was full of ash up to the top of the hopper, but just below where the insulator was mounted to the edge of the hopper. So, I worked my way down to the ledge along the edge of the hopper and dangled my feet down into the ash as I prepared to wipe down the first of the four insulators on this particular hopper. Just as I began, the precipitator suddenly went dark as my flashlight fell from my hand and down into the hopper. — Oh boy, that didn’t take long.
I sat there for a minute in the dark as my eyes grew accustomed to the small amount of light that was coming through the doors. After I could see again, I reached my hand into the ash to feel for my flashlight. The ash was very fluffy and there was little or no resistance as I flailed my hand around searching for it. I leaned over farther and farther to reach down deeper into the ash. I was at the point where I was laying down flat on the ledge trying to find the flashlight, and it was no where to be found.
I pulled myself over to the side edge of the hopper and dropped myself down into the ash so that I could reach over where I had dropped the light, but I was still not able to find it. At that point, I was leaning out into the hopper with only my one index finger gripping the ledge around the hopper (read that again…. one index finger was holding me up). I had a decision to make… I thought I would just bail off into the ash to see if I could find the flashlight, or I could give up and go tell Bill Rivers that I had done the one thing that he told me not to do, and in record time.
I don’t usually like to give up until I have exhausted every effort, so here was my dilemma. Do I let go and dive into this ash to retrieve my flashlight? Or do I leave the hopper and go tell Bill? I regretfully decided to go tell Bill. So, I climbed up out of the hopper, with my clothes covered with Ash (as we did not have fly ash suits at the time and I was wearing my coveralls). I made my way to the precipitator door and once I was outside, I determined which hopper I had been in when I dropped my flashlight.
I found Bill and told him that I had dropped my flashlight in a hopper full of ash. He told me to get the key for that hopper and open the door at the bottom and see if I could find the flashlight. Unlike the picture of the hoppers above, we had a landing around the base of the hoppers by the access door so you didn’t need a ladder to reach them.
Curtis Love had been watching the door of the precipitator for me while I was supposed to be wiping off the insulators. He came down with me, and we proceeded to open the access door at the bottom on the side of the hopper. When I opened the door both Curtis and I were swept backward as a stream of fly ash shot from the door. The ash fell through the grating to the ground below. We regained our footing and watched as a tremendous pile of ash grew below us. If the flashlight had come out of the doorway, it would have remained on the landing since it was too big to go through the grating, but it never came out.
After the ash had finished pouring out of the hopper as if it were water, I reached down into the remaining ash in the hopper to see if I could feel the flashlight. Still I was unable to find it. There was about 4 more feet from the doorway to the bottom of the hopper, so I emptied out as much ash as I could using my hard hat for a shovel. Then I pulled my body head first into the hopper and I reached down as far as I could in the bottom of the hopper, but I couldn’t find the flashlight.
So, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Curtis Love to hold onto my legs as I lowered myself down to the throat at the bottom of the hopper. I lowered myself down until I had half of my face laying in the ash. At this point only one of the two filters on my respirator was able to function as the other one was down in the ash. I reached my hand into the top of the feeder at the bottom of the hopper and with my finger tips I could just feel the flashlight. I had reached as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach far enough to grip the flashlight.
All of the sudden my head dipped down into the ash and my hand went around the flashlight. I was not able to breathe as my respirator (and my entire head) was entirely immersed in ash. Everything went dark. I struggled to get up, as Curtis had let go of my legs and I had plunged head first into the bottom of the hopper.
I had one hand free as the other one held the flashlight. I used it to push against the opposite wall of the hopper to raise my head up out of the ash. I still couldn’t breathe as my respirator was now clogged solid with ash. When I tried to inhale, the respirator just gripped my face tighter. Finally with my one free hand pushing against the hopper wall to hold my head out of the ash, I reached up with the hand that held the flashlight and pushed against my respirator enough to break the seal around my face so that I was able to get a breath of air.
Then I quickly pulled myself out of the precipitator as I heard Curtis saying the mantra that I had heard one other time (as I indicated in the post about Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love). He was saying over and over again, “I’mSorry,I’mSorry, KevinI’mSorry, ThoseGuysWereTicklingMe. I’mSorry,IDidn’tMeanToLetGo,ITriedToHoldOn, butThoseGuysWereTicklingMe.”
Looking around I spied a few Labor Crew hands sneaking away. As this happened before when I was sandblasting in the sand filter tank when Curtis Love had turned off my air, this wasn’t the first encounter I had with Power Plant Men In-Training playing a Power Plant joke on me. I told Curtis to forget it. I had retrieved my flashlight and everything was all right. I was covered from head-to-toe with fly ash, but that washes off pretty easily.
It dawned on me then that when I had dropped the flashlight, it had sunk clear to the bottom of the hopper and down into the throat of the feeder at the bottom. If I had dived into the ash in the hopper from up above, I would have fallen right down to the bottom of the hopper and been engulfed in ash. My feet would have been pinned down in the feeder pipe, and that would have been the end of me. It probably would have taken many hours to figure out where I was, and they would have found only a corpse.
While I was hanging on the edge of the hopper with only the tip of my index finger gripping the ledge, I was actually considering letting go. There never would have been an electrician at the power Plant named Kevin Breazile. I never would have married my wife Kelly, and had my two children Elizabeth and Anthony. I would not be writing this story right now. If it had been left to my own stupidity, none of those things would have happened.
I believe it was my guardian angel that had talked me out of letting go (or had actually been standing on my finger). As stubborn as I was, and against my nature, that day I had decided to give up searching for my flashlight and seek help. That one momentary decision has made all the difference in my life.
Since that day I have had a certain appreciation for the things that happen to me even when they seem difficult at the time. I have lived a fairly stress-free life because each day is a gift. Currently I work in a stress-filled job where individual accomplishments are seldom rewarded. From one day to the next I may be laid off at any time. I still find a lot of satisfaction in what I do because it was possible that it never would have happened. I have been kept alive for a purpose so I might as well enjoy the ride.
I find a special love for the people I work with today, because they are all gifts to me. I try to pay them back with kindness… when that doesn’t work.. I try to annoy them with my presence… Just to say….. — I am still here!
Comments from previous repost:
Originally posted on: June 1, 2012
The first couple of years while I worked as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant Coal Cleanup was performed on weekends by volunteer He-Men that wanted to make a few extra dollars. As a summer help, I needed all the extra money I could get. My wages during the first year (1979) were $3.89 an hour.
This jumped to $5.84 an hour when I worked on the weekend, so you can imagine the thrill I had at receiving a paycheck that included the extra money made by doing “Coal Cleanup”. Another great advantage to doing coal cleanup on the weekends was that I was able to carpool with different people. So, during the first summer instead of just riding to work with Steve Higginbotham (See the post “Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy late for the Boiler Blowdown“), I caught a lot of rides with real Power Plant Men like Dale Hull, David Hankins, Jerry Mitchell, Preston Jenkins and Marlin McDaniel (Yeah. Marlin McDaniel as an A Foreman would volunteer for coal cleanup some times. Maybe it was when we were short a few people).
Coal Cleanup really became important during the second half of the first summer because Unit 1 was getting ready to go online. There was a major flaw in the Coal Conveyor logic when the conveyors first started conveying coal from the coal pile to the coal silos just above the bowl mills. What would happen was the same thing that happens if someone were to fall down at the top of a crowded escalator going up. Everyone behind that person would be shoved right on top of them if there wasn’t an emergency stop button to stop the escalator.
All the conveyors had a safety cord alongside the entire length that could be pulled to stop the conveyor in an emergency, but this was something different.
To give you an idea… once the coal on the coal pile has been fed onto either Belts 4, 5, 6 or 7, from there the coal is dropped onto either belt 8 or 9. That carries the coal up to the coal Crusher which has a bin above the crusher that can be filled with coal. If the bin gets too full, then conveyor 8 and/or 9 would stop. When that happens, belts 4, 5, 6 or 7 should stop also…. only they didn’t. Belts 8 and 9 continued dumping coal into the crusher bin until it filled up and then coal fell out all over the top of the crusher tower around belts 8 and 9 until the coal tripped the belt by hitting the safety cord on the side of the belt. Belts 4, 5, 6 and 7 continued dumping coal onto belts 8 and 9, which caused the coal to backup and spill out all over the floor until the coal piled up high enough to trip the safety cord on the side of the belt.
In the picture of the power plant on the side of this post, there is one long conveyor that goes from the coalyard to the plant. It is about 1/2 mile long. This is where belts 10 and 11 carry the coal from the crusher, which crushes the coal down from big pieces the size of baseballs down to the size of walnuts.
At the top of the Transfer tower the coal from belts 10 and 11 are dumped onto belts 12 and 13 which carry the coal up to the Surge Bin Tower where the coal is dumped into the Surge bin. When the Surge Bin fills up, it stops belts 12 and/or 13 and it should also stop belts 10 and 11 and the feeders that feed the coal into the crusher at the bottom of the crusher bin… only they didn’t.
They continued dumping coal into the Surge bin, which filled up and spilled coal all over the surge bin until belts 12 and 13 tripped, at which point, coal began spilling out all over the transfer tower filling up both floors of the transfer tower with tons of coal. The same thing would happen at the bottom of Belt 10 and 11, where the crusher feeders kept feeding coal down to belts 10 and 11, which spilled out all over the bottom floor of the crusher tower.
I have worked in the transfer tower where the coal was higher than the windows and you had to bend over because your head would hit the ceiling on the floor at the foot of belt 12 and 13. It was almost dangerous enough to picture yourself sliding down the pile of coal and slipping right out one of the windows (which had been broken out by the pile of coal). To give you an idea of what this felt like, it was then a straight drop of 150 feet to the concrete below.
If that doesn’t seem like enough coal spills, then picture this… The coal from the Surge Bin tower fed onto belts 14, 15, 18 and 19 which in turn fed onto belts 16 and 17, 20 and 21. These last 4 belts were in what was called the “Tripper Gallery”. These 4 belts would dump coal into 12 coal silos (6 on each unit) that would feed the bowl mills. These are big silos about 5 stories tall.
The same thing would happen to these belts leaving piles of coal at the bottom of the surge bin in the surge bin tower and all along the tripper gallery because when the coal silos were full, the tripper was supposed to move to the next silo and dump coal until it was full, and keep moving until all the silos were full. Only, the tripper wasn’t working correctly, so it wouldn’t detect that the silo was full so the belt would keep dumping coal and would end up spilling coal all over the entire tripper gallery which runs about 100 feet or so.
So, our first experience with doing coal cleanup was like being on a chain gang where we shoveled coal from morning until night trying to clean up these 15 or so major coal spills from the Trippers on back to the the first belts 4, 5, 6 and 7 by shoveling the coal back onto the conveyor while it was running. In some cases, we had to shovel the coal away from the belt before the belt could even run (as was the case with belts 12 and 13). So, you can imagine how shoveling coal one scoop at a time made it seem like you were not getting anywhere fast. 3 or 4 men could all be shoveling on one pile of coal for 30 minutes and not even make a noticeable dent in the pile. That is why when I went to the tool room to choose a shovel, instead of picking a regular shovel, I picked a large scoop shovel used to scoop grain.
Even though each scoop of coal was heavier, it seemed more satisfying to see the bigger dent in the pile of coal with each shovelful. I remember one day after we had shoveled coal all day from morning until late at night only to come back into work the next morning to the new piles of coal just as big as the ones we had shoveled the day before. Once we had cleaned everything up they started up the conveyors again only to have it do the same thing as before.
After 2 years of volunteer coal cleanup which was becoming less volunteer and more rotational since the list of volunteers was growing smaller, Ray Butler pointed out that it didn’t make much sense to pay a first class machinist overtime to shovel coal when you could create a labor crew and pay them bottom dollar to do coal cleanup all the time, as well as other dirty jobs that no one really wanted to do (such as suck out sewage pits and other sump pits around the plant).
That was when the Labor crew was formed. While I was in my 3rd year as a summer help (1981). Bill Cook was a summer help then that stayed on as a labor crew hand at the end of the summer. By the 4th summer as summer help, the only time we did coal cleanup was when there was a major spill, which was only a couple of times all summer.
I will write later about coal cleanup with Dale Hull. I also remember doing coal-cleanup with Preston Jenkins one weekend. I hadn’t carpooled with him to work, but I caught a ride back to Stillwater with him because my ride left at the end of a full day, and I decided to stay behind to add a few extra dollars to my bank account. We left a couple of hours later around seven o’clock.
I climbed into the back of Preston’s Camaro. I apologized for being so dirty, as I was covered from head-to-toe in coal-dust and my clothes were soaked with coal-dust permeated sweat. Preston said that he didn’t mind. I soon found out why.
When I climbed into the backseat of his car, I noticed that the upholstery that covered the seat back of the back seat was stained with some blackish-brownish um…. something. Anyway. I decided to sit on the passenger side of the back seat instead of behind the driver side because that side wasn’t nearly as stained. As we drove down the highway toward home, I quickly learned why the seat back was so stained.
Being the “good-ol’ boy” that Preston was, when he climbed into the car, he took out his can of Skoal and put a pinch between his cheek and gums:
As we flew down the highway like a Texan heading for Stillwater, Preston would lean his head out the window and squirt out a wad of spit. It would dance in the air like a little fairy just before it would be sucked into the back window of his car and splat against the seat back of the back seat. Yep that explained it all right. I always wondered if he knew, never having to sit in the back seat of his own car.
During the first summer when I was able to catch a ride with David Hankins a couple of times. He was the crane operator at the time and drove a black Trans Am. He was a black man with a very broad chest that never seemed to tire while doing coal cleanup. From the first day he always treated me with great respect which in turn gave me a great respect for him. I had him classified as a true Power Plant Man.
The second summer when I had been back at the plant for a couple of weeks, one day when Jim Heflin and I were going somewhere in a yellow Cushman cart, I asked Jim why I hadn’t seen David Hankins around.
Jim (who hadn’t been at the plant the first summer) stopped the cart in the middle of the road and looked at me very solemnly and told me that David Hankins had died in a car accident in the spring. He had been going home from a Men’s Club event when he was killed. Because of this, alcoholic beverages were no longer allowed at Men’s Club events. As with all the people I have worked with at the power plant, I keep David Hankins in my memory and I often think about him to this day. David Hankins was a True Power Plant Man.
Comments from the original Post:
neenergyobserver June 1, 2012 as 6:28 pm
We’ve lost so many friends over the years, in the plants and on the line, especially when they were relaxing on their way home. You, and David’s family have my very belated condolences.
Somebody, somewhere, needs to teach engineers a course on Conveyor Logic 101, I’ve seen the same thing happen in nearly every plant (from automotive, rarely, to meat packing, often) I’ve been in. Or they could, just for once in their life, shut their pie-hole and listen to people like you and me.
Plant Electrician June 1, 2012 at 11:39 pm
We were often exhausted while driving home from work when we had been working a lot of overtime. It was a wonder sometimes that we were able to keep the car on the road.
My uncle Bill Breazile worked for the Utility company in Nebraska City where someone closed a breaker while he was working on a line. He was in the hospital for about 6 months healing from his burns. This was about 30 years ago. He has since passed away. It takes a special person to be a lineman. Putting their life on the line every time they reach out to do their job.
neenergyobserver June 2, 2012 at 10:42 am
Not that different from you. It’s all about planning your work, and doing it right, and safely. You and I know that 480 will kill you just as quick as 7200 if you get careless. That’s why almost all (old) linemen and electricians are in some sense stolid and unexcitable.
jackcurtis July 14, 2012 at 12:59 pm
Industrial America returns in stories and comments in places like this, from the only place it still exists: the minds of those who were part of it. Industrial America was a giant; those who manned it were giant tamers and it seems to me, very much the special breed illuminated in these posts…
Comment from last repost:
Originally Posted on June 8, 2012. Added comments from the past 2 years:
Lawrence Hayes was the foreman over the machinists when I first arrived at the power plant, but Ray Butler was undoubtedly the Chief. He was actually the Chief of the Otoe-Missouri Indian tribe, for a time, that was located just to the north and west of the plant grounds. The Machinists I can remember from the first summer is Don Burnett, Johnnie Keys, Ray Butler and Lawrence Hayes. Being a Machinist in a power plant is something that few people can pull off, but those that do, can create just about any metal part that is needed in the plant.
The machinists fascinated me when I first arrived at the plant in 1979 as a summer help. One side of the entire maintenance shop was the machine shop and it was filled with all different kinds of machining equipment. I recognized some of the equipment like the lathes, but other machines, like the mill, were something new. Then there is this very large lathe. It was monstrous. I wondered what kind of part would be machined with that big lathe.
Even though the power plant machinists came from very diverse backgrounds, they all have two important traits in common. They are very patient and they are perfectionists. During my first summer as a summer help both of the units were still under construction and the mechanics were busy going through the entire plant disassembling each piece of equipment and measuring it and cleaning it and putting it back together. This was called: “Check Out”.
Often they would find something that didn’t meet the Electric Companies specifications, so it would be sent to the machinist to fix. Very precise measurements were being used, and if there was a 3 thousandth inch gap (.003), and the company wanted it to be no more than 2 thousandths of an inch (.002)…. then it was the job of the machinist to add a sleeve and machine the part down until it was precisely where it was supposed to be.
I learned very little about the lives of the machinists because they were always standing behind the lathes watching vigilantly as the metal shavings were flying off of the parts, but I did learn a few things about some of them. First of all, each one of the machinists seemed to care about you right away. Don Burnett, a tall and very thin man with a friendly face, worked in a Zinc Smelting plant before he had come to work at the power plant. One time while he was working there, some molten zinc was accidentally poured down the back of his boot burning his heel. It was then that he decided that he would start looking for a different line of work. I went fishing with him and some other guys once, where he told me some more things about his life. Then a few years later, he moved to the Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma, where I saw him a couple of times while on overhaul down there.
Johnnie Keys would be perfectly cast as a hillbilly. He had a scruffy beard (this was before beards were no longer allowed in 1983 due to the problem with obtaining a seal on your respirator) and if you put an old leather hat on him, he would look like this:
When you ask Johnnie to create something for you, you can be sure that he will do the best he can. One time years later when I was an electrician, I asked Johnnie if he could take a piece of plexiglass and cut out 8 rectangles in it so that I could mount it in an electrical box so that a bunch of breakers could be accessed, without someone worrying about getting into the electricity. This is the control box that was used for the vent fans that were installed around the turbine room floor. As far as I know, it is still there today. Anyway, Johnnie brought it back to the electric shop when he was finished and it was perfect. He had a couple of holes in it so that I could put two standoffs to mount the plexiglass in the box.
It just so happened that Leroy Godfrey the electrical supervisor was in the middle of a little war with the engineers because they hadn’t consulted him about the project, and so he was intent on making the job go way over budget. I wasn’t exactly privy to this information at the time (or maybe I was). Anyway, after I had mounted the plexiglass to the back plate of the electric box using the standoffs, and it was sitting on the workbench, Leroy came up to me and looked at it.
He said right away, “Go have the machinists put some more holes in it so that you can add more standoffs to mount the plexiglass. Knowing full well that it didn’t need the extra mounting, I told Leroy that I believed that two standoffs will be fine because the entire assembly was going to be put in the electric box, where there wasn’t going to be much movement.
At that point I picked up the entire assembly with the breakers and all by the plexiglass and bent the plexiglass all the way around to where both ends were touching and shook the breakers up and down. Then I put it back on the workbench and said, “I am not going to tell the machinist to add more holes, this is perfect.”
I knew that Johnnie had worked very meticulously machining out the plexiglass and I wasn’t going to bother him with meaningless revisions. It was at that point where Leroy Godfrey decided that I must go. He went into the office and told Bill Bennett that he wanted to fire me. Bill Bennett calmed him down, and it wasn’t long after that Leroy and the other old school power plant men were early retired.
Lawrence Hayes was the foreman during my first summer at the plant and I remember one morning while he was working on the lathe next to the foremen’s office. He had a disturbed look on his face about something as he had a long metal rod in the lathe and was busy measuring it from different angles. A little while later when I was passing by on the way to the tool room, Lawrence had Marlin McDaniel, the A Foreman out there and he was showing him something about the lathe.
Then some time just after lunch, Lawrence had a big wrench and was removing the mounting bolts from the Lathe, and later picked the entire thing up with the shop overhead crane and moved it down to the other end of the shop. Over the next couple of days, the concrete where the lathe had been mounted was busted up and removed, and then re-poured, so that the mounting bolts were now properly aligned. The enormity of this job made me realize that when these Power Plant Men knew what needed to be done to fix something, they went right ahead and did it, no matter how big the job was.
I have saved the Chief until last. Ray Butler as I mentioned above was the Chief of the Otoe-Missouria India tribe. They really called him “Chairman”, but I think I knew what the title really meant.
As Ray Butler sat at a lathe or a mill working on a piece of metal, he always had the same expression. His head was slightly tilted up so that he could see through the bottom of his bifocals and he had the most satisfied expression. He looked as if he was watching a work of art being created before his eyes.
It didn’t matter what he was working on, he always had the same expression. I mentioned above that the machinists (like all true power plant men), seemed to instantly care about you. This seemed to be especially true with Ray Butler. He was almost 7 years older than my own father. He treated me as one of his sons.
When I had been at the plant three days of my third year as a summer help in 1981, on Wednesday May 13, I went to the break room to eat my lunch. Ray came up to me and sat down across from me at the table. He looked at me solemnly and told me that Pope John Paul II had just been shot. He had heard it on the radio and knew that I was Catholic. He said that was all that he knew other than that they had taken him to the hospital. I could see his concern when he told me this, and I could see that he was equally concerned that this holy man across the ocean had been shot. I thanked him for letting me know.
Ray had served in the Navy during World War II and besides the time he spent in the Navy he spent most of his life from the time he was born until his death in 2007 in Oklahoma. He was born and died in Red Rock just a few miles from where the power plant was built. He went to high school in Pawnee. Even though I have seen him upset at times, he was always a man at peace.
Ray retired in 1988 and the day that he left I met him on his way to the control room while I was on my way to the maintenance shop. I told him that I wished him well on his retirement and I gave him a hug. I didn’t see him again until a few years later when we had stopped by the Indian Reservation convenience store to buy gas for the company truck and when he saw me he came out to say hello and it was like meeting a close friend. He gave me a hug and I got back in the truck and we left. That was the last time I saw Ray Butler, but I know that if I wanted to visit with him again, I could just go take a stroll around the Pow-wow area of the Otoe-Missouria Reservation and he would not be far away.
Comment from the original Post:
The old machinists I knew were a special breed; they were the High Priests of any shop where they were present…they started disappearing in favor of cheaper (and much less capable) machine operators when the computer-controlled production machines came in. After that, if you wanted a machinist, you’d likely have to import him; Americans didn’t seem to train for it anymore. I’ve always thought that a shame and a loss of something special that was important in making our industrial history…and a loss of a very interesting and accomplished breed of men. Thanks for resurrecting some of them!
Comments from first Repost: