Originally Posted March 30, 2012:
Have you noticed that some people are so proud of their middle name that they prefer to be called by that name instead of their first name, like Andy Tubbs, who is really Carl Andy Tubbs? Others don’t really care for their first name, so they go by a nickname like Sonny Karcher who is really Clarence Karcher. Others would rather you didn’t know their middle name because it doesn’t seem to fit the rest of their name or their personality.
I used to think that Dee Ball’s mom decided to call him Dee Ball because that way it would be easy for him to spell when he had to spell it in school. Another person I thought had a similar experience was O D McGaha (pronounced Mc Gay Hay). The O and the D were his first and middle names. They weren’t abbreviations, so there is no period after them. His name wasn’t Odie, it was just O D.
Later in life, out of curiosity, I decided to look into Dee Ball’s background a little more closely, since I was writing this post mainly about him and he seemed reluctant to discuss his middle name one time when I asked him about it when I was a new summer help at the plant. I found out that Dee’s middle name is Theron. The only other person I know with a name like that was Charlize Theron, an actress. Neither of us knew about Charlize Theron at the time since she was only 3 years old during the summer of 1979.
I suppose if someone knew that Dee’s middle initial was a T, they probably would have nicknamed him Tee Ball.
Anyway, enough about middle names. Let me move on to the story about Mud, Maggots and Motor Vehicles and what it all has to do with Dee Theron Ball.
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 with a dash of smoldering dirty diapers thrown in for spice. During the summer of 1979, 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 and soaked 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 by 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 will 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 emanating 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 hopped back and forth much like a leprechaun, 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 the truck 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 (See the post Power Plant Genius of 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 Interstate 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 the mud that had been flinging up from the back tire. 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.
Originally posted on February 18, 2012.
We had a meeting the other day where I work and the chief of the Choctaw tribe was being interviewed. This is Native American Heritage Month, and we were celebrating it by having events like this. Our CIO (Chief Information Officer) is Cherokee and he was being interviewed along with the Chief from the Choctaw Tribe.
This reminded me of the days when I first became a summer help at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
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 coal yard 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 coal-fired 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 a 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 coal yard 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. I thought that if this was an Indian curse, then it was a very well thought out one. After all, a billion dollar structure came crashing to the ground and not one person was killed. That’s a pretty targeted curse if you ask me.
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. During one summer we had an encounter with a bobcat, which you may read here: Ken Conrad Dances with a Wild Bobcat.
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.
Added a new beginning on 11/11/2021
This was originally posted on January 7, 2012
I remember on January 12, 1980 I had decided that November 11, 2011 was going to be a very special day for me. For almost 32 years I waited for that day to arrive. If I had been paying more attention at the time, I should have realized that it was going to be a day walking down memory lane as well as a day of death.
My roommate, Mark Sarmento in the private dorm “Mark Twain’s Residence Hall” at the University of Missouri in Columbia had just returned from his Christmas holiday and he had quite the tale to tell me as soon as he walked in the door. He told me a story about how his friend had told him over the holiday that he kept seeing the numbers 1111 (eleven eleven) or 111 (one eleven). It kept showing up at the oddest places. Too often to just be a coincidence. Then a few days later after Mark’s friend had told him about seeing all the ones, he died suddenly when he had a seizure while taking a shower.
Mark had just been to his friends funeral the day before on (get this) January 11 (1/11). Mark returned from his vacation and now Mark was seeing the numbers 1111 and 111 everywhere. I have to admit that over the next semester, Mark had some very interesting encounters with these two numbers. Even to the point where he was on flight 111 when he went home for spring break. He wondered what this could mean.
To me, I knew what it meant. I had decided that day in January 1980 that no matter where I was or what I was doing, I was going to find Mark Sarmento and give him a call on November 11, 2011 at 11:11am (or 11/11/11 11:11). You can see now why I was looking forward to that day. It went off without a hitch. I called his company and told the receptionist that I was an old friend of Mark’s and I have been waiting 32 years to call him on this day. I had called him at 10:11 since he was in the Eastern Time Zone while I was in the Central Time Zone. He called me back an hour later, at 11:11.
Two days later, a power plant man sent me an email informing me that Sonny Karcher had died on November 11, 2011 (11/11/11). I wondered if it was at the same time I was talking to Mark on the phone. I had met my roommate Mark Sarmento exactly 111 days after I had met Sonny Karcher. Another interesting coincidence.
It wasn’t my idea to go work at a power plant for a summer job in 1979. My dad called me in my dorm room one night during the Spring Semester at Oklahoma University in Norman Oklahoma before I decided to go back to Missouri. I had figured I would go back to working in a restaurant during the summer as that had been my “go to” job in the past.
Dad said that a fellow Deacon from the Catholic Church in Stillwater, who was the assistant plant manager had asked him if I would be interested in being a summer help at a new power plant the electric company was building 25 miles north of Stillwater. Without giving it much thought, I told him, “Sure”. Not really knowing at the time that my simple answer to that question sent me on a journey that lasted for over 22 years.
The next Monday after school was over, I took my mom’s station wagon and drove north out of Stillwater on Hwy 177. It wasn’t until I topped the hill just before Bill’s corner that I realized that this was actually happening. I had figured up to that point that someone was going to change their mind, and I would go back to Sirloin Stockade and work for my old manager Ken Low. But, “No.” This was actually happening.
Now, 42 years later, I cherish the memories of the days I spent working at the plant as a summer help during the summers of 1979 through 1982, when I became a full time Janitor at the plant. I later worked my way into the Labor Crew, and eventually ending up in the Electric Shop, where I was an electrician for 18 years.
When I heard the sad news of the death of my very first mentor at the plant, Sonny Karcher on 11/11/11 (November 11, 2011), I wished I had been able to attend his funeral. I did reserve some amount of time that night when I heard about his death to remember the times I have spent with Sonny. All of them good, as Sonny was always pleasant to be with even when he was mad about something. Here are some of the first and last things I remember:
When I first worked at the Sooner power plant the summer of 1979, The first two mechanics I worked with were Sonny and Larry Riley. They taught me how things worked at the plant at that time. Both of the units were still under construction, so there was no electricity being generated.
The first job we were to work on was on my second day at the plant, since the first day was taking a safety class, and getting my hard hat and safety glasses and getting fitted for ear plugs. We were supposed to work on a stuck check valve in the dumper sump pump pit. Not only did I not know what a check valve was, I wasn’t too sure what was meant by a dumper sump, though I did recognize the word “pump”.
It took us about an hour to take the truck to the coal yard, as a coal yard foreman Richard Nix had the key and wasn’t going to give it to us until one of his hands was ready to go with us. So we sat in the truck parked in the north entrance of the maintenance shop for almost an hour. When the guy was finally ready, and he had climbed in the back of the pickup, it turned out that he only needed to go as far as the parking lot… about 200 yards away (as the parking lot was at the Engineer’s shack at the time). We dropped him off and drove up to the coal yard, and made our way down belt 2 to the sump pump pit at the tail end of the belt.
We tested the pump and saw that the water would run back into the sump once the pump stopped running. So, it was determined that the check valve was stuck. We drove back to the plant and took the morning break. That’s when I learned that a check valve keeps the water from running backward down a pipe.
About an hour later, Sonny told me to go to the tool room and get the following items (which I thought was a joke, because he gave me such a strange list of tools that I didn’t recognize): Two ¾ box ends (pronounced “three quarter box ends”), One four foot soft choker, a ¾ ton come-along, a ¾ shackle, a two foot steel choker a large flat bastard file, a large channel lock, and two pry bars (I did recognize Pry Bars and shackle, which I believed was thrown in there just to make the list sound legitimate). – I wrote down the list, because I recognized right away that a joke was being played on me and I was going to play right along.
So, I went to the tool room and when I saw Bud Schoonover (a very large tall and easy going man at the time) I wondered if he was perchance the large flat bastard file that was on my list. I thought maybe when I came to “Flat Bastard File” on my list, he would fly into a rage and pick me up by the neck and throw me to the ground (unlikely, I know, but at that time, I didn’t know what to expect). I told him, “I need a ¾ come-along (I thought I would choose the most ridiculous item on the list first, just to get on with the punch line of the joke…).
Well. Bud turned around, walked to the back wall, took a come-along off the top of a pallet full of what appeared to be a bunch of junk, and laid it across the tool room gate window (The tool room was still being “organized” at the time and the gate was actually a window in A foreman’s office next to the tool room). — not the regular gate that has been in the tool room for the past 35 years.
So, I asked for two ¾ box ends (this was before anyone had been issued toolboxes by the way, that’s why we had to go to the tool room for these things). Well, you know the rest of this part of the story. These are all legitimate items, and I learned a lot that day and the next few weeks about the names of various tools. I kept that list in my wallet for over 10 years until it finally disintegrated as a reminder to myself of when I first came to the plant, and how much I didn’t know then.
So, Larry, Sonny and I went up to the coal yard, and went down to the tail end of #2 belt and removed the check valve from the discharge pipe and brought it back to the maintenance shop to repair. When we returned, we went to lunch. During lunch Sonny told me about how he was hired at Sooner plant.
He said he lived a few miles down the road and had heard that someone was building a lake up on top of the hill he could see from his property. So, he went on over to see who was dumb enough to build a lake on top of a hill, and while he was looking around Orville Ferguson came up to him and asked him if he was looking for a job.
Sonny said that he liked to mow grass, and Orville said that he would hire him to mow grass then. Sonny said, if I remember correctly, that he was hired at the same time that Linda Shiever, the timekeeper, was hired and that they were the first two new hires at the plant. The rest were already company employees that had transferred there.
After lunch we went down to the shop and took the check valve apart and what do you know…. There was a piece of coal stuck in the check valve keeping it open. We cleaned it up and put it back together. When we were finished, we took our afternoon break. After break we drove back up to the coal yard and went down to the tail end of #2 Conveyor belt and put the check valve back in the discharge pipe. When we returned to the maintenance shop, we returned the tools to the tool room and filled out our time cards. A day’s worth of work cleaning a check valve.
I did many other things that first summer, since Sooner Plant didn’t have a yard crew yet and that was what a typical non-educated summer help usually did, I worked most of the time in the maintenance shop bouncing around from crew to crew helping out. I also did a lot of coal cleanup (especially on weekends), since the conveyor system didn’t work correctly when they started it up when they were starting to fire up unit 1. See the post “Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal“.
The second day before I left at the end of the summer to go back to school, I worked again with Larry Riley and Sonny Karcher to fix the exact same check valve. This time we jumped in a truck (we had a lot more trucks now…. Which is another story — See the post: “Experiencing Maggots, Mud and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball“), went to the coal yard, went down #2 tunnel to the tail end of #2 Conveyor, pulled out the check valve, removed the piece of coal, put the check valve back in, went back up to the truck and back to the maintenance shop just in time for morning break. Sooner Plant had improved a lot in the short three months I worked that summer.
I worked many years with Sonny Karcher in the garage, and fixing coal handling equipment, and just about anything else. He finally left the plant to go mow grass, when after a battle to move to the garage from coal yard maintenance to mow grass, he was told that he was going to have to go back to the coal yard to be a coal yard mechanic, because he was real good at that and they just needed him up there. So he left the plant.
He talked to me about it before he went, that’s how I know what was on his mind. He said, “Kev, you remember when you first came here and I told you how they hired me to mow grass? Well, that’s what I want to do. Mow grass. So I’m going to have to go back home and do just that.”
After that, the only times I remember seeing Sonny was when he was mowing grass down at Bill’s corner, with a smile on his face waving at the Sooner plant employees on their way home from work.
During the summer of 2018, while I went through Stillwater on my way to Columbia Missouri to attend my 40th High School Reunion, I took a couple of days visiting friends from the plant. I went to the Morrison Cemetery hoping to find Sonny Karcher’s grave. I was not able to find it. I searched other nearby cemeteries including the Sumner cemetery close to his house, and I was never able to find his grave.
Regardless, I can see Sonny talking to St. Peter at the gates of heaven now….. The only words I can hear Sonny saying is, “I like to mow grass”… and St. Peter nodding with approval and points out that they have a lot of green pastures as he lets him through the gates.
Originally posted February 25, 2012.
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 occasion I would call him “Dad”. He would usually disown me and deny that he had anything to do with it. On occasion when he would own up to being my dad, he would admit that when I was little I was dropped on my head and that’s why I acted so odd (though, I don’t know to what behavior he had in mind).
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” (see the post “A Power Plant Doctor does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“).
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. Used 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“