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.
One of the first wise men to take me under his wing in the powerplant taught me to make friends with the janitor, secretary and warehouseman. That advice served me well my entire career.