A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid
Originally Posted May 18, 2012
As I have been inching toward retirement, I have begun to think about the people I would like to visit when I have the time. Unfortunately, most of them are already dead so I will have to wait just a little longer before we can meet up again. One such individual I am looking forward to visiting is the man that was the chemist at our power plant during the entire 20 years I worked there.
He was the one that taught me how to do the jig. At least, he gave me one lesson once. I’m not too sure it was intentional. I’ll let you decide.
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. They make super clean water for the steam that turns the turbine.
As far as I know, George Pepple was the only one at the plant with a PhD (so the PhD spent his time testing the PH), 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 doing the same song and dance routine 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.
Since I originally wrote this post in 2012, George Pepple has died. He died on October 28, 2019. I was able to find his picture from his Obituary site. Here it is. See what I mean about a cross between Einstein and Mr. Rogers? He almost always wore a smile and was loved by everyone. When he was around, his smile was contagious. I’m smiling now just thinking about him.
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.
Plant Electrician May 25, 2012
Nebraska, if you think that was dumb, wait until you read the next post.
neenergyobserver May 25, 2012
Well, that was dumb, but not the dumbest either of us has seen. I’ll look forward to it.
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.
Plant Electrician May 27, 2012
Thank you for your kind words.
onelifethislife May 27, 2012
You are most welcome!!
bryanneelaine May 28, 2012
LOL @ “Dinty Moore”
Great story! Thanks,
I remember George as – competent, consistent, happy, supportive, and a great “team player”.
Chief Among Power Plant Machinists
Originally Posted on June 8, 2012.
The first week I worked at the power plant during the summer of 1979 was when I was assigned to sweep the floor of the maintenance shop (See the post Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown). As I was making my way around each of the mills, drill presses, band saws and lathes, I swept my way around toward a man that was sitting at a lathe watching a stainless steel rod being molded into a work of art.
This man caught my attention because of the way he sat on his stool as if he was a very proud American Indian. He was a heavy set man who peered out of the bottom of his bifocals watching the purple metal shavings flying off of the rod as he slowly and carefully turned a dial with his left hand. As I approached his lathe, he turned to me and said, “Don’t worry about those shavings, I’ll sweep them up later.”
I shrugged my shoulder and said, “Well, it’s my job to sweep the shop, so, I can go ahead and do it.” Tilting his head down so that he was looking at me through the top of his glasses, he stared for a moment, and then with a hint of a grin turned back to his work, as I proceeded to sweep up his shavings, as they were still flying off of the lathe. I glanced up to see the name on his hardhat. It said, “Ray Butler”.
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-Missouria 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 are 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 (I believe that in the 20 years I worked at the plant, I saw this big lathe being used twice).
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 his best. One time years later when I was an electrician, I asked Johnnie if he could take a piece of Plexiglas 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 Plexiglas 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 because he also wanted us to run size 2 cable to all of the fans, even thought size 8 would have been just fine — size 2 is a lot bigger than size 8 and would have called for much bigger conduit). Anyway, after I had mounted the Plexiglas 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 Plexiglas. 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 Plexiglas and bent the Plexiglas 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 Plexiglas 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. For more information about Leroy Godfrey see the post: The Passing of an Old School Power Plant Man – Leroy Godfrey.
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 new 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 (as I wore a 4 inch crucifix around my neck tucked in my V-neck T-shirt). 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 (1928) and died (2007) in Red Rock just a few miles from where the power plant was built (our plant has a Red Rock address). 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 from inside the store, 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:
Good story, Kevin!
I worked in 5 power plants in Oklahoma and I was constantly amazed by what the Machinists could do.
Great Story, I remember the machinist from the plant where I started was EXACTLY as you describe, his name was Don Rogers and he was both, one of the most talented and kindest men I’ve ever met in my power plant career. I don’t remember every name from back then, but if you met Don, he left a great impression that was impossible to forget.
Comment from last year’s repost:
Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal
Originally posted on: June 1, 2012
I was a junk collector when I was a boy. I considered myself an inventor so I collected all sorts of odd objects just in case one day I might find a use for it. I guess today you would call me a childhood prodigy hoarder. A lot of the junk would end up in my bedroom which I shared with my younger brother. Between the two of us, the room became so full of clutter that there was often no visible clear spot on the ground to step, and you either ended up scooting something over in order to walk, or you just stepped on the junk scattered over the floor.
When my mom told me to clean my room (a task that usually fell to me instead of my brother), I would go in my room and close the door, then standing in the corner, just behind the door, I would fan out from there clearing a spot that grew larger as I advanced forward. I imagined that I was in a war, and this was a battle of attrition. Everything that was clean was territory I had conquered while the pile of junk in front of me was the enemy being slowly defeated.
This idea came in handy when I was 15 years old and I became a night janitor at the Hilton Inn. I swept and mopped the kitchen, which stretched about 50 yards behind banquet rooms, which sometimes needed to be vacuumed. Then I vacuumed the restaurant and bar and cleaned 4 bathrooms. I did all this while I was alone, and I turned the lights on only in the area where I was working at the time, so off in the distance was usually dark.
In order to occupy my mind and make the task seem more pleasant, I thought about the job as if it was a war against me and the dirty floor that had taken over the place during the day since the night before when I left it all clean and shiny. It helped to pass the time and gave me a constant feeling of accomplishment.
I remember distinctly the first time I had to do coal clean-up at the plant. When I arrived that morning with Steve Higginbotham Marlin McDaniel came up to me and said I needed to go with some guys up to the Tripper Gallery. Not knowing exactly what that meant, I thought maybe it was a room where they had pictures of past power plant men, and they needed us to sweep the floor.
When I went to the tool room, Ken Reece was standing there handing out shovels and paper masks (which today would be recognized as an N95 mask). He grinned at me and said, “Oh, you’re going to have fun today.” Feeling rather relieved that I was going to enjoy myself, I looked at the assortment of shovels.
Most of the shovels were fairly small. About a foot wide and maybe 15 inches long. Leaning against the wall apart from the others was a very large scoop shovel. It looked like a shovel I had seen on my grandfather’s farm in a grain bin. So, I grabbed that.
I remember thinking as I picked it up, “I wonder why we need a shovel.” Well. Read some of my coal shoveling adventures below.
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 make. 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 or Mac as an A Foreman would volunteer for coal cleanup some times. Maybe it was when we were short a few people). Incidentally, after our first encounter with “Coal Cleanup” Steve Higginbotham decided to leave his job and find something a little less “physical”.
Coal Cleanup 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 (the safety cord was about 3 feet above the ground).
In the picture of the power plant on the side of this post, there is one long conveyor that goes from the coal yard 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 (literally 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. The bigger scoop shovel came in handy.
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:
A Power Plant Man Becomes An Unlikely Saint
Originally Posted on April 7, 2012:
As I inch toward retirement, the question that was asked of me back when I was 18 and when I had just arrived at the power plant comes back to my mind and I wonder if I ever really found an answer. The question was, “What are you going to be?” If I had know what I was really going to be, I would have replied, “A pain in the neck”. Now that I’m well into my 60s, I am beginning to think that I might not ever find the answer to that question. Maybe it’s the wrong question to ask. A more appropriate question may have been, “What are you going to do with your life?”
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.
My first reaction to this statement was surprise. I thought my wife had met a number of saintly people in her life, including myself (well. She never came out an actually told me that she thought I was saintly, but by her nicknames for me such as “rascal” and “rotten”, I just surmised…). So, this must be one really saintly person she was talking about. 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 (which was true), 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 and as a side bonus be more friendly toward me. 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 Stillwater Medical Center.
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. My mom was saying that because she wanted me to go back to school and become a doctor who would be able to take care of her in her old age and she thought by insulting my occupation, that I would be more inclined to do that.
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”. My dad had told me when I was young that two of the most important people in his office are the secretaries and the janitors. At that time I almost had changed my life’s ambition of working in the sewers like Norton on the Honeymooners to becoming a janitor right then and there.
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 and the fact that he was Native American. 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 as if he had a touch of Parkinson’s disease 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. (I hear people shutting down their laptops in dismay).
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 as I had to bum a ride wherever I went.
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 in advance 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 leaned against the pickup. 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 complete smile of satisfaction. I am 100% sure by the time Jerry made it to Heaven he was able to hear the harps very clearly.