Originally Posted: May 4, 2012.
Now that I’m older and I do know everything; I am reminded of those times when I thought I knew everything when I really didn’t. This is one of those times.
I wrote an earlier post about days some people would have liked to take back. There was one day that I would like to take back. It was the day Ken Conrad was teaching me how to setup and operate the two large water cannons that we used to irrigate the plant grounds.
During my second summer as a summer help (1980), when I had about 6 weeks left of the summer, I was asked to take over the watering of the plant grounds because Ken Conrad was needed to do other jobs and this was taking too much of his time.
The first summer I worked as a summer help, whenever it rained, by the time you had walked from the Engineer’s Shack parking lot to the Welding Shop entrance, you felt like someone 10 feet tall. This was because the entire distance would turn into a pool of red mud and as you took each step, you grew taller and taller as the mud stuck to your boots.
It was imperative during these times that your boots were laced up tight, otherwise the weight of the mud would pull your boot right off of your foot, and you wouldn’t notice it fast enough to keep you from plugging your foot (sock and all) into the mud with your next step.
Just before you entered the maintenance shop, you could scrape your boots on a Boot Scraper to whittle you down to size so that you would fit through the doorway.
The entire main plant grounds would be nothing but mud because there wasn’t any grass. It had all been scraped or trampled away while building the plant and now we were trying to grow grass in places where only weeds had dared to trod before.
When trucks drove into the maintenance garage, they dropped mud all over the floor. It was the summer help’s job the first summer to sweep up the shop twice each week. If it had been raining, I usually started with a shovel scraping up piles of mud. So, I recognized the importance of quickly growing grass.
The day that Ken Conrad was explaining to me how to setup and operate the water cannons, I was only half paying attention. “I got it. Roll out the plastic fiber fire hose, unhook the water cannon from the tractor, let out the cable. turn on the fire hydrant… Done….” That was all I heard.
What Ken was saying to me was a lot different. it had to do with all the warnings about doing it the correct way. I think in my mind I wasn’t listening because I was thinking that it really wasn’t all that difficult. I was really just eager to have the opportunity to finally drive a tractor.
So, here is what happened the next morning when I went to setup the first water cannon to water the field just north of the water treatment plant up to the Million Gallon #2 Diesel Oil Tanks berms. I thought… ok… Step one: roll out the hose… Hmmm… hook it up to the fire hydrant, and then just pull the water gun forward with the tractor and it should unroll the hose….
Well. my first mistake was that I hadn’t disengaged the spool so that it would turn freely, so when I pulled the tractor forward, off popped the connector on the end of the hose attached to the fire hydrant. That’s when I remembered Ken telling me not to forget to disengage the spool before letting out the hose. That’s ok. Ken showed me how to fix that.
I beat on the connector with a hammer to knock out the clamp and put it back on the end of the hose after I had cut off a piece with my pocket knife to have a clean end. Disengaged the spool, and tried it again… Nope. Pulled the end off again… I was letting it out too fast. That’s when I remembered Ken Conrad telling me not to let the hose out too fast or it would pull the end off. I repaired the connector on the hose again.
After finally laying the hose out and hooking it up to the water cannon, I disconnected the water cannon from the tractor and hooked up the hose and began pulling the steel cable out of the cable spool by pulling the tractor forward. Well, at first the water cannon wanted to follow me because you had to disengage that spool also, (as Ken had showed me).
So I thought I could just drag the water cannon back around to where it started, but that wasn’t a good idea because I ended up pulling off the connector on the fire hose again, only on the other end than before. Anyway, after repairing the hose at least three times and getting everything in position twice, I was finally ready to turn on the water.
That was when things turned from bad to worse. The first thing I did was turned on the fire hydrant using a large wrench where the water pressure instantly blew the hose out of the connector and water poured out into a big mud puddle by the time I could turn it off. then I remembered that Ken had told me to remember to make sure the screw valve was closed when you turned on the fire hydrant or else you will blow the end off of the hose….
So, I repaired the hose again, and reconnected it (standing in mud now). Closed the screw-type valve and turned on the fire hydrant. Then I opened the screw-type valve and the end of the hose blew off again… Then I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me to make sure I open the valve very slowly otherwise I would blow the connector off of the hose. So I repaired the hose again and hooked everything up (while standing in a bigger mud puddle) and tried it again.
I opened the valve slowly and the water cannon began shooting water out as I opened the valve up further and further… until a hole blew out in the middle of the hose shooting water all over the tractor. So I turned off the water again as I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me not to open the valve very far or it would start to blow out holes in the hose. I went and patched the hole the way that Ken Conrad has showed me and went back to try it again… walking through mud over to the fire hydrant, where there was an increasingly larger puddle.
I remember that it was around lunch time when I was standing in the middle of that field covered with mud standing in what looked like a mud hole that pigs would just love, trying to repair a hole in the hose for the 3rd or 4th time that it dawned on me how different my morning would have been if I had only paid more attention to Ken when he was explaining everything to me the day before.
I skipped lunch that day. Finally around 1 o’clock the first water cannon was on and it was shooting water out about 40 yards in either direction. I spent that entire day making one mistake after the other. I was beat (and soaked in mud) by the time to go home.
After sleeping on it I was determined not to let the experience from the day before intimidate me. I had learned from my mistakes and was ready to tackle the job of watering the mud in hopes that the sprigs of grass would somehow survive the 100 degree heat. As a matter of fact, the rest of the next 6 weeks the temperature was over 100 degrees every day (yeah. Every day for 45 days straight the temperature was over 100 degrees that summer). This was Oklahoma.
When I first took over for Ken, the watering was being done in three shifts. I watered during the day, the other summer help watered in the evening and a fairly new guy named Ron Hunt watered during the late night shift (not the Ron Hunt of Power Plant Man Fame, but a younger guy that eventually moved to the plant in Midwest City and became an operator). After two weeks when they found that in my 8 hour day I was watering more grass than the evening and night shift combined (mainly because they were sleeping all night through their shifts), they did away with the night shift and I was put on 7 – 12s. that is 7 days a week, 12 hour days.
I didn’t own a car so, I had to catch a ride with someone in the morning in order to be at the plant by 6am. Then I had to catch a ride back to Stillwater in the evening when I left at 6:30pm each day of the week. The Operators and the security guards worked out good for this.
I would ride to work in the morning with whichever operator was kind enough to pick me up at the corner of Washington and Lakeview (where I had walked one mile from my parent’s house — not 10 miles like my dad had to do when he walked to school as a boy) and whichever security guard that was going that way in the evening.
I found out after a few days on this job that Colonel Sneed whose office was in the Engineer’s Shack was in charge of this job. He would drive by to see how things were going. After a while I had a routine of where I would put the water cannons and where I would lay the Irrigation pipes. He seemed to be well pleased and even said that I could go to work for him when I was done with this job.
I told him that I was going to go back to school in a few weeks and he said that he would be waiting for me the next summer. Only Colonel Sneed, who was an older man with silver hair wasn’t there when I returned the next summer. He had either retired or died, or both. I never was sure which. I did learn a few years later that he had died, but I didn’t know when. So, I never took him up on his offer to hire me.
Besides the first day on that job, the only other memorable day I had was on a Sunday when there wasn’t anyone in the maintenance shop, I remember parking the yellow Cushman cart out in the shade of 10 and 11 belts (That is the big long belt that you see in the power plant picture on the right side of this post) where I could see both water cannons and the irrigation pipes.
I was watching dirt devils dance across the coal pile. This was one of those days when the wind is just right to make dirt devils, and there was one after the other travelling from east to west across the coal pile.
I watched as the Security guard was on his way back from checking the dam when he stopped along the road, got out of his jeep and sat on the hood and watched them for 5 or 10 minutes. For those of you who might not know, a dirt devil looks like a miniature tornado-in-training as it kicks up the dirt from the ground. These dirt devils were actually “coal devils” and they were black. They were lined up one after the other blowing across the the huge black pile of coal. You can see the size of the coal pile from this Google Image:
Then as the security guard on the hill and I were watching the coal pile, this long black finger came flying up from the coal pile reaching higher and higher into the sky twirling itself into one huge coal devil 1,000 feet tall! It traveled toward me from the coal yard and across the intake coming straight toward where I was. It ended up going directly between the two smoke stacks which are each 500 feet tall. This coal devil was easily twice the size of the smoke stacks. Tall and Black. After it went between the smoke stacks it just faded like dust devils do and it was gone.
As the monstrous black coal devil was coming toward the plant, the security guard had jumped in his jeep and headed down to where I was parked. He was all excited and asked me if I had seen how big that was. We talked about the dust devils for a few minutes, then he left and I went back to watching the water cannons and irrigation pipes.
I had to wonder if that big coal devil had been created just for our benefit. It seemed at the time that God had been entertaining us that Sunday by sending small dust devils across the coal pile, and just as they do in Fireworks shows, he had ended this one with the big grand Finale by sending the monster-sized coal devil down directly between the smoke stacks.
Some times you just know when you have been blessed by a unique experience (and some times you don’t). We didn’t have cameras on cell phones in those days, and I’m not too quick with a camera anyway, but at least the guard and I were able to share that moment.
I began this post by explaining why it is important to listen to a Power Plant Man when he speaks and ended it with the dust devil story. How are these two things related? As I pointed out, I felt as if I had been given a special gift that day I was watching the dust devils. Especially the minute it took for the monster coal devil to travel almost 1/2 mile from the coal yard through the smoke stacks.
It may be that one moment when a Power Plant Man speaks that he exposes his hidden wisdom. If you aren’t paying close attention, you may miss it. I did Ken Conrad an injustice the day he explained how to run the irrigation equipment and it cost me a day of pure frustration, but the real marvel was that as I made each mistake I could remember Ken telling me about that.
Ken had given me a full tutorial of the job I was about to do. How many people would do that? If I had only been listening, I would have heard Ken telling me much more than how to do the job. I would have seen clearly how Ken cared enough about me to spend all the time it took to thoroughly teach me what he knew.
That is the way it is with True Power Plant Men. Ken could have said, “roll out the hose, pull out the cable,, turn the water on … and good luck…”, but he didn’t. he went through every detail of how to make my job easier. I may have felt blessed when the monster coal devil flew between the stacks, but it was that day a couple of weeks earlier when Ken had taken the time and showed his concern that I had really been blessed.
I didn’t recognize it at the time. But as time goes by and you grow older, the importance of simple moments in your life come to light. My regret is that I didn’t realize it in time to say “Thank You Ken.” If I could take back that day, I would not only listen, I would appreciate that someone else was giving me their time for my sake. If I had done that. I’m sure I would have ended the day by saying, “Thank you Ken.”
Ken reminds me of my dad, who, though not a power plant man per se (he was an electrical engineer, that’s pretty close,right?), would give us way more details than we thought we needed. And now I see myself doing it to my grandson (age 11), who is likely to roll his eyes and say, “I already know that!”, when I know darn well he doesn’t. Then I try to resist doing the “I told you so” dance when he finds out he doesn’t already know that. Unfortunately, he does not resist doing the dance when we find out that he did, in fact, already know it!
zensouth May 5, 2012
I like your blog because the stories are always substantial. It takes a while to take in all the flavor of it, like sampling a fine meal or a rich pastry. I do dislike the visual theme, but I think it forces me to concentrate on the content of the story.
Plant Electrician May 5, 2012
Thanks Zen, I understand your feelings. A coal-fired power plant is hardly a normal setting. It was built way out in the country because no one really wants one in their backyard. It was the place I called home for many years. I know that when I left I took with me silicon-based ash, a couple of pounds of coal dust and asbestos particles in my lungs. I will not be surprised the day the doctor tells me that I have mesothelioma. I realized after I left, that it wasn’t the place, it was the people that were so dear to me that I called “home”.
jackcurtis May 13, 2012
I’ve served time with similar folk, people who had more time for a kid learning a job than the kid had for them. Two things stuck besides an entirely different evaluation of those people over time…first one was the old (now): “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you know that ain’t so.” And the other was, remembering the old guys who had patience with you along the way, it’s always like remembering your parents and you pay it forward…(and I still think you have a book in you)
This post was originally posted on March 24, 2012:
I have just finished watching the movie “Born Free” with my son. I had recorded it on DVR because I knew he liked watching Big Cats. It reminded me of when Ken Conrad (A True Power Plant Man Extraordinaire) had become entangled with a Bobcat one day while performing his heroic Power Plant duties.
When a person usually puts the words power plant and Bobcat together in a sentence, one may easily come to the wrong conclusion that this is a story about a run-away little Bobcat scoop shovel, or what is professionally known as a Bobcat Skid-Steer Loader since these are an essential piece of equipment for any power plant or any work site for that matter (and are fun to drive and do wheelies):
In an earlier post entitled Indian Curse or Brown and Root Blunder I mentioned that in the years following the completion of the power plant, steps were taken to be extra kind to the plant’s nearest neighbor, the Otoe-Missouria Indian Reservation. This story takes place on one of those days where the electric company was showing their true colors to the friends next door.
Every summer the Otoe-Missouria tribe would hold a Pow-Wow some time in June. This is when the the Native Americans of this tribe come together as a time for a reunion where the culture of the tribe can be kept alive. It spans over a number of days, and people come from all over with camping trailers and stay on the reservation and have a good time visiting. You can learn more information about the tribe’s Pow-wow, culture and the benefits from the Casino (which was not there at this time. Not even the Bingo Hall that used to bring in buses from all over the country) from web service that hosts news about the tribe: http://www.otoe-missouria.com
The Power Plant helped out by mowing the areas around the Otoe-Missouria Reservation where the campers would park and a large open field where events could take place and large tents (and tepees) could be erected. So, when I arrived at work in the morning I was instructed to fill a water and ice bucket, and get a box of cone cups, and bring my lunch. This was because I may not be back for lunch as I was going to be the “gopher” for Jim and Ken that day while they mowed the area around the Otoe-Missouria Reservation.
Being a “Gopher” as most of you know means that you are the one that “Goes For” things. So, if they need something back at the plant, then I hop in the truck and I go and retrieve it. This is fine for me, but I generally liked staying active all day, or else the day drags on. So I grabbed some trash bags and my handy dandy homemade trash stabbing tool and put them in the back of the truck as well.
I followed Jim Heflin and Ken Conrad on the two shiny new Ford tractors with double-wide brush hogs down the highway with my blinkers on so people barreling down the highway from Texas on their way to Kansas at ungodly speeds would know enough to slow down before they plowed into a brush hog like the one below:
After we arrived at the reservation there was a man there that directed us to where we should mow and Ken and Jim went right to work. They first mowed in the area where there were a lot of trees and areas to park campers and Jim and Ken worked their magic weaving in and out of the trees with these big mowers behind them just missing each tree, trash can, fire grill, building and vehicles that happened to be in their way (including the truck I had driven there).
After watching their skill with the mowers for a while I stepped out of the truck, now certain that I wouldn’t be hit with a flying rock because the mowers had moved a safe distance from me. I began walking around picking up some trash. While Ken and Jim mowed the rest of this area, I helped the man move some large logs, trash cans and picnic tables and things like that around the campsite.
When Ken and Jim had finished the camping area they moved over to the large field at the edge of the campground, and I drove the truck over there and watched as they both circled around and around making smaller circles each time staying opposite of each other like they were doing a synchronized dance with the mowers.
I was standing in the back of the truck leaning against the cab watching them when I noticed that Jim began waving one hand up in the air much like a cowboy would do while riding on a bronco in a rodeo to keep their balance. His head began bobbing and I wondered if he was all right. Then I saw what had happened.
A very large cat that looked like a grown mountain lion came darting out of the tall brush and ran in front of Jim’s tractor and headed for the trees that lined the far side of the field. As excited as I could tell Jim was by this, he didn’t miss a beat with his mowing, and only lifted his hardhat long enough to wipe his head with a rag. Then he kept on mowing as if nothing else had happened. Maybe because he was in complete shock and auto-pilot had kicked in.
As Jim circled around, Ken came around to the spot where Jim had just been mowing when he threw his fit. Unlike Jim, Ken did not start to wave his hand as a cowboy on a bronco. Instead he jumped up in his seat while shutting down his mower and jumped off into the tall brush. He began running around in circles.
At this point Jim had seen what Ken was doing, so he shutdown his mower also. I jumped off of the truck and ran toward where Ken was dancing. Jim came huffing and puffing up to me and asked me if I had seen that huge mountain lion run in front of him. I nodded to him and ran over to Ken who at this point was standing still as if frozen.
As we approached, Ken signaled for us to stay back, so we slowed down and watched him as we came slowly creeping closer. Ken wasn’t moving his feet, but he was slowly swiveling his body around looking into the brush. Then like Tom Sawyer he bent down quickly and reached into a pile of mowed grass that had piled up near where he was standing. (nowadays the analogy we would use would be “Like Gandalf reaching out of the window and grabbing Sam and pulling him into Frodo’s hobbit hole”).
By this time we were close enough to see what was down on the ground that Ken had grabbed. He was holding down a kitten. It was a baby Bobcat. You could tell by the short tail (a bob-tail cat):
Ken had hold of the bobcat with both hands. One at the scruff of his neck and the other above his hind legs. He began lifting up the cat from the ground, and it was hissing and went wild trying to bite and scratch Ken. At this point the man from the reservation had come over, because he had also seen the very large bobcat run from the field and had watched Ken dancing in the grass.
Ken asked him “What do I do now?” He had caught the baby bobcat, and now realized that he couldn’t let go of it without serious bodily injury (bringing to mind the phrase “Having a tiger by the tail”).
We all became aware that somewhere close by the mother was watching us from the trees. Jim remarked that he didn’t know bobcats could grow that big and the man assured him that there are a number of large bobcats on their reservation that he had seen. He suggested that he could get a five gallon bucket and Ken could throw the cat in the bucket while he put a wire screen over the top so that it couldn’t jump out and scratch or bite them.
We walked back to the camping area and the man came out of a small building and had some screen material and a board. Then Ken standing there sort of like Frankenstein with his arms straight out in front of himself (to keep from being mauled), asked a couple of times exactly what they were planning on doing, so that he would get it right. The man said that he should throw the cat into the bucket and he would quickly put the board over the top. Then he could put the screen over the board and take the board out and tie the screen on the top with some wire.
So that’s what Ken did. He quickly threw the cat into the bucket as the man slammed the board on top. It looked like it happened so fast that I was surprised to find that while the cat was quickly being ejected from Ken’s hands and being propelled into the bucket, this baby bobcat was fast enough to reach around with one of its paws and cut a gash down the side of Ken’s hand.
After that, I drove Ken back to the plant with his bucket of bobcat to get bandaged up and so that he could show everyone what he had caught. He was very proud of his wound and he seemed to grow even taller than his normal tall thin self. It seemed to take about 15 seconds before everyone in the plant knew that Ken had caught a bobcat as they were all making a trip over to the garage to have a peek at him. Ken said he was going to take it home and then decide what he was going to do with it.
I drove Ken back to the reservation to get his tractor as Jim had finished mowing the field.
The following day we learned that when Ken arrived at his house there was someone there already waiting for him to see his wild new pet. Yes. Most of you have been waiting for the other shoe to drop on this story. An Oklahoma Park Ranger.
The Ranger informed Ken that he had received 8 calls from different people at the plant letting him know that one Power Plant Hero Ken Conrad was in possession of a wild bobcat caught on an Indian Reservation (of all places — I say that because that is federal property, possibly making it a federal crime). And Ken could be in for a very serious legal entanglement.
Ken told the ranger that he was only going to show it to his family then bring it back to the reservation and let it go. The Park Ranger (not usually portrayed as a lenient character) offered to take the bobcat back himself.
Needless to say. Ken was not very pleased with his fellow campers the next morning when he arrived at work. He kept saying… “You just can’t tell who your friends are. They all came over here acting like my buddies then they ran off to call the ranger.”
By that time I had worked around the power plant men for one entire summer and this was my second. I knew that the Real Power Plant Men would have known that Ken would do the right thing and wouldn’t have called the ranger. Ken was right though, some of them were impostors.
I knew there were some people at the plant who would have felt it was their duty to call the ranger, and I never considered them power plant men in the first place. Ken Conrad, however, has always lived up to my expectations as a Real Power Plant Man!
It’s funny what comes to mind when you sit down to watch a movie on a Friday night.
Comment from previous post:
Originally Posted March 9, 2012.
Not too long ago my wife mentioned that we need to paint the dining room. The last time I helped her paint a room I was left with a splotch of white paint down the front of one of my favorite power plant shirts. It looked like I had stood under a tree where a devious pigeon had dropped a well placed excrement.
And like someone with dementia where one thought leads to another fairly unrelated topic, the thought of my Power Plant shirt with the paint drippings reminded me of the day when I came home from work as a summer help during the second summer of Power Plant Mania with little sparkling spatters of silver paint on my jeans (which I proudly wore for the next few years). I had just finished my painting lessons with Aubrey Cargill.
I had the feeling it would be an interesting day when the first thing that Stanley Elmore asked me when I sat down for our morning meeting was, “Kelvin, are you afraid of heights?” Well, since before that day I hadn’t been afraid of heights, I told him I wasn’t. I decided not to mention that my name was really “Kevin”, since I thought he was only calling me “Kelvin” as a joke.
As a side note, Stanley called me Kelvin for most of the summer. One day toward the end of my summer sojourn, when I was sitting in his office he looked at me, then glanced at the name on my hard hat and said, “Hey! Your name is Kevin! I’ve been calling you Kelvin all summer! Why didn’t you say something?” Still thinking this was just part of the same joke he had been cultivating all summer I just shrugged and said, “That’s ok. You can call me Kelvin if you want. Just don’t call me late for supper.”
Back to the story where he asked me if I was afraid of heights:
Then Stanley, who liked most of all to joke around with people, started hinting through facial expressions of excitement (such as grinning real big and raising his eyebrows up to where his hair line used to be when he was younger) and by uttering sounds like “boy, well, yeah…. huh, I guess we’ll see” while shaking his head as if in disbelief. He told me to get with Aubrey after the meeting because there was a job I needed to help him out with. (Ok. I know. Ending a terribly constructed sentence ending with a preposition – how about this instead: He told me to talk to Aubrey after the meeting because I needed to help him out with a job).
Aubrey Cargill was our painter this summer. He worked out of the garage that I worked out of the last 3 years of working as a summer help. There was a paint room in the back of the garage on the side where the carpenter, Fred Hesser built cabinets and other great works of art.
Fred was the best carpenter I have ever met, as well as one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known. He wasn’t in the category of Power Plant Man, as he didn’t involve himself in most of the power plant operations or maintenance, but to this day, Power Plant Men from all over Oklahoma can visit Sooner Plant on overhaul and admire the woodworking masterpieces created by Carpenter Fred many years earlier (this was the summer of 1980).
I had worked with Aubrey my first year as a summer help. The garage hadn’t been built yet, and Aubrey had not been assigned as a painter, as both units were still under construction. Aubrey was the same age as my father and in his mid-forties that first summer.
His favorite buddy was Ben Hutchinson. Wherever one went, the other was not far away. Throughout the first summer, the lake on the hill was still being filled by pumping water up from the Arkansas river.
Most of the last two weeks that summer I worked with Aubrey and Ben picking up driftwood along the dikes that were built on the lake to route the water from the discharge from the plant to the far side of the lake from where the water enters the plant to cool the condensers. The idea is that the water has to flow all the way around the lake before it is used to cool the condenser again. So, Ben and Aubrey took turns driving a big dump truck down the dike while I walked down one side of the dike around the water level and Aubrey or Ben walked down the other side, and we would toss wood up the dike into the dump truck.
This was quite a throw, and often resulted in a big log being tossed up the dike just to hit the side of the dump truck creating a loud banging sound. Anyway, when you consider that there are probably about 6 miles of dikes all together, it was quite a task to clean up all the driftwood that had accumulated in this man made lake. After doing this for two weeks I learned the true meaning of the word “bursitis”. When the truck bed was full, we would take it to a dump on the west side of the plant and dump it out.
After the morning meeting with Stanley Elmore I followed Aubrey into the carpenter shop. He pointed to two buckets of paint that I was to carry, while he grabbed a canvas tool bag filled with large paint brushes and other painting tools and some white rope that looked like it had the seat of wooden swing on one end.
Aubrey nodded to Fred, and I understood by this that Fred had created the wooden swing that had four pieces of rope knotted through each of the corners of the seat and were connected to the main rope using some kind of small shackle. When I asked Aubrey what that was, he told me that it is was a Boatswain Chair. “Oh.” I think I said, “It looks like a swing.” Like the picture below only homemade.
On the way to the boilers, we stopped by the tool room and I checked out a safety belt. I could see Aubrey nodding at Bud Schoonover about my having to check out a safety belt, and what implication that had. I of course preferred to think that my fellow employees would not purposely put me in harms way, so I went along acting as if I was oblivious to whatever fate awaited me.
We took the elevator on #1 Boiler to the 11th floor (which is actually about 22 stories up. There are only 12 stops on the boiler elevator, but the building is really 25 stories to the very top. So Power Plant men call the extra floors things like 8 1/2 when you get off the elevator where it says 8, and go up one flight of stairs.
Aubrey explained to me that we need to paint a drain pipe that is below us a couple of floors that goes down from there to just above floor 7 1/2 where it turns. He said that he could paint the rest, but he needed my help to paint the pipe where it drops straight down, because there isn’t any way to reach it, except by dropping someone off the side of the boiler over a handrail and lowering them down to the pipe, and that turned out to be me.
He explained how the safety belt worked. He said that I clip the lanyard in the ring at the top of the boatswain chair so that if I slip off the chair I wouldn’t fall all the way down, and then he could gradually lower me on down to the landing.
He didn’t explain to me at the time that the weight of my body free-falling three feet before coming to the end of the lanyard would have been a sufficient enough force to snap the white rope in half. I guess he didn’t know about that. But that was all right with me, because I didn’t know about it either — at the time. We didn’t use Safety Harnesses at that time. Just a belt around the waist.
So as I tied the canvas bag to the bottom of the chair, I saw Aubrey quickly wrap the rope around the handrail making some sort of half hitch knot. I wasn’t too sure about that so I asked Aubrey where he learned to tie a knot like that and he told me in the Navy. That was all I needed to hear. As soon as he told me he learned knot tying in the Navy, I felt completely secure. I figured if anyone knew the right way to tie a knot it’s someone in the Navy.
I clipped the lanyard in the shackle at the top of the boatswain chair and headed over the handrail. I situated the chair to where I had my feet through it when I went over and the chair was up by my waist. As I lowered myself down, I came to rest on the boatswain chair some 210 feet up from the ground.
It is always windy in this part of Oklahoma in the summer, and the wind was blowing that day, so, I began to spin around and float this way and that. That continued until Aubrey had lowered me down to the pipe that I was going to paint and I was able to wrap my legs around it and wait for my head to stop spinning.
Then Aubrey lowered down another rope that had a bucket of paint tied to it. I began my job of painting the pipe as Aubrey had hold of the rope and was slowly lowering me down. Luckily Aubrey didn’t have to sneeze, or wasn’t chased by a wasp while he was doing this. Thinking about that, I kept my legs wrapped around the pipe pretty tight just in case Aubrey had a heart attack or something.
The pipe really did need painting. So, I knew this wasn’t completely just a joke to toss me out on a swing in the middle of the air hanging onto a rope with one hand while attempting to paint a pipe with the other. It had the red primer on it that most of the piping had before it was painted so it looked out of place with all the other silver pipes, but I couldn’t help thinking about Jerry Lewis in the Movie, “Who’s Minding the Store”.
Jerry Lewis is told to paint the globe on the end of a flagpole that is located out the window on a top floor of the building. He begins by trying to climb out on the flagpole with a bucket of paint in his mouth with little success, but like Jerry, I figured it had to be done, so I just went ahead and did it (So. you may have noticed that was a very long sentence. I just counted and there are 112 words – definitely a run-on sentence – I have since cut the sentence into parts and even created a new paragraph all from that one run on sentence).
Fortunately, I found out right away that I wasn’t afraid of heights, even at this height and under these conditions. So, instead of fainting away, I just painted away and finally ended up on floor 7 1/2 which is right next to the Tripper Gallery. I think I finished this a little after morning break. I don’t think Aubrey wanted to stop for break just to lower me down and then have to start from the top again lowering me all the way down one more time holding onto a pipe that had wet paint on it.
This brings me to another point. Notice where I landed. Right next to the Tripper Gallery. Power Plant ingenuity has a way of naming parts of the plant with interesting names. The first time I heard that we were going to the tripper gallery to shovel coal (see the post Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal), I half expected to see paintings lining the walls. It sounded like such a nice place to visit…. “Tripper Gallery”. It sort of rolls off your tongue. Especially if you try saying it with a French accent and spell Gallery like this: Galerie.
The Tripper Gallery is neither eloquent nor French. It is where the coal from the coal yard is dumped into the Coal Silos just above the Bowl Mills. — Yes. Bowl Mills. I know. It sounds like a breakfast cereal. Almost like Malt-O-Meal in a bowl.
So, the Tripper Gallery is a long narrow room (hence the word Gallery), and there are two machines called Trippers that travels from one silo to the next dumping coal from the conveyor belt down into the coal silo, and when the silo is full, a switch is triggered (or tripped) which tells the machine to go to the next silo. Since the switch “trips” and tells the machine to move, they call the machine the “Tripper”.
I know. That last paragraph didn’t have anything to do with painting the drain pipe. But I thought since I mentioned the Tripper Gallery, I might as well explain what it is. Anyway, when we returned to the shop I watched as Stanley Elmore went over to Aubrey to see how I did when I found out he was going to drop me over the side of the boiler in a wooden chair. I could see that Aubrey gave him a good report because Stanley looked a little disappointed that this Power Plant Joke (even though essential), hadn’t resulted in visibly shaking me up.
Originally posted on December 21, 2012:
There was a phase when I was in college (the first time) when I felt like writing poetry. It was an after affect of my year struggling with a very advanced hyperthyroid when I was 15 and 16. After a close brush with death, once I was on my way to a recovery, I found that I suddenly viewed life quite differently.
I suddenly found myself not so interested in being the science and math nerd that I was before, and now I was more interested in history and literature and the law. This eventually led me to pick up a pen and write poetry. My first attempt at poetry was to go in the bathroom in classroom buildings on the campus of Oklahoma University in Norman and write the proof for the quadratic formula on the wall in the stalls. I would sign it “The Mad Quadratic Formula Writer”.
At this phase of my poetry writing skills, you can tell that I hadn’t completely given up on my interest in Math. I was sitting in a calculus class one day when a fellow student sitting behind me saw me writing the proof for the quadratic formula on the desktop. He said, “Hey! Are you the Mad Quadratic Formula Writer? I was just reading your proof in the bathroom on the second floor!”
To me the proof for the quadratic formula was pure poetry just like Math is a pure science. Over the next few years, however, I managed to change my focus from writing Mathematical poetry and focused more on conventional poetic topics such as gnomes, trilobites and girls. This leads me to the topic of Christmas Poetry. By 1998 I had honed my feeble poetry skills to the point where I could make an acceptable version of a limerick about a gnome a fairy and two elves.
So in December, 1998 when my brother who was a full Colonel in the United States Marine Corp at the time before he retired sent me the following poem about Santa Claus visiting a Marine on the night before Christmas. I, in turn, sat down and in about 30 minutes wrote a poem about Santa Claus visiting the house of a Power Plant Man. Words flowed out as easily as Ralph writing about his wish to have a Red Rider BB gun.
First, here is the Marine story, and then after that, you can read the one about Santa and the Power Plant Man. Notice the similarities….
I made the title for the Marine Poem a link to the website where I found a recent copy of the Marine Christmas Story:
By Nathan Tabor
‘Twas the night before Christmas, he lived all alone,
in a one-bedroom house made of plaster and stone.
I had come down the chimney with presents to give
and to see just who in this home did live.
I looked all about, a strange sight I did see,
no tinsel, no presents, not even a tree.
No stocking by mantle, just boots filled with sand,
on the wall hung pictures of far distant lands.
With medals and badges, awards of all kinds,
a sober thought came through my mind.
For this house was different, it was dark and dreary;
I found the home of a soldier, once I could see clearly.
The soldier lay sleeping, silent, alone,
curled up on the floor in this one bedroom home.
The face was so gentle, the room in such disorder,
not how I pictured a United States soldier.
Was this the hero of whom I’d just read?
Curled up on a poncho, the floor for a bed?
I realized the families that I saw this night,
owed their lives to these soldiers who were willing to fight.
Soon round the world, the children would play,
and grownups would celebrate a bright Christmas Day.
They all enjoyed freedom each month of the year,
because of the soldiers, like the one lying here.
I couldn’t help wonder how many lay alone,
on a cold Christmas Eve in a land far from home.
The very thought brought a tear to my eye,
I dropped to my knees and started to cry.
The soldier awakened and I heard a rough voice,
“Santa don’t cry, this life is my choice;
I fight for freedom, I don’t ask for more,
my life is my God, my Country, my Corps.
“The soldier rolled over and drifted to sleep,
I couldn’t control it, I continued to weep.
I kept watch for hours, so silent and still
and we both shivered from the cold night’s chill.
I didn’t want to leave on that cold, dark night,
this guardian of honor so willing to fight.
Then the soldier rolled over, with a voice soft and pure,
whispered, “Carry on Santa, It’s Christmas Day, all is secure.
“One look at my watch, and I knew he was right.
“Merry Christmas my friend, and to all a good night!”
And now for the story where Santa visits the Power Plant Man!!!
Merry Christmas Power Plant Men
by Kevin Breazile
Twas the night before Christmas, as I flew through the snow,
To a house full of kids, wife, dog and Jay Leno.
I came down the chimney with presents to share,
And to see what kind of he-man actually lived there.
I looked all about, and oh what a sight!
Four kids in their beds, without much of a fight!
A dirty pair of jeans, and a shirt full of holes,
Boots full of coal dust, worn shoestrings and soles.
A hardhat was hung by the chimney to dry,
With safety stickers, scratches, and earplugs nearby.
I felt that something was stirring in my chest,
And I knew that this man was different from the rest.
I had heard about men like this from watching Roseanne,
But now I was in the house of a Power Plant Man!
I looked down the hallway and what should I see,
A tool bag hanging behind the Christmas tree.
As I approached it to look at his shiny side cutters,
I heard a strange sound, like a motor that sputters.
There on the recliner laid back as far as it can,
Lay the worn body of the Power Plant Man!
The hole in his sock showed a big toe that was callous,
From trudging all day through his Power Plant Palace.
His face was unshaven, his clothes were a mess,
He needed a shower, of that I confess.
I knew through the nation all people could stay,
Warm in their houses, all night and all day.
From the power that hummed at the speed of light,
And silently flowed through the houses at night.
Day after day, and year after year,
Blizzards and storms with nothing to fear.
As the Power Plant Man lay on his chair fast asleep,
I thought about others like him that work just to keep,
Our world safe from the cold and the heat and the night,
By keeping us warm, or cool and in light.
I looked in my bag for a gift I could give,
To the Power Plant Man who helps others to live.
I found that nothing seemed quite enough,
For the Power Plant Man had all “The Right Stuff”.
As I looked through my bag for the perfect choice,
I suddenly heard a muffled cigarette voice.
The Power Plant Man had stirred with a shock,
And all that he said was, “just leave me some socks.”
Then he rolled on his side, and scratched his behind,
And a tear swelled in my eye that left me half blind,
I knew that Power Plant Men were selfless inside.
They lived to serve others with courage and pride.
I pulled out some socks and put them under the tree,
Then I walked nimbly back to go up the chimney.
Before I rose to return to my sled,
I picked up his hardhat and placed it on my head.
It was then that I realized the soot on my brow,
Had come from his hardhat I put on just now.
I often get soot on my clothes and my face,
But tonight I had been blessed by the man in this place.
So as I flew through the night to finish my plan,
I took with me some of the soot from that Power Plant Man!
Merry Christmas to all! And to all a Good Night!!!!
Originally posted September 14, 2012:
Today in 2022 in the office environment where I work, whenever we begin a staff meeting, we always start by having a small safety talk. Safety is always important, and you can imagine that if people who work in an office need to constantly be reminded of safety, you can imagine how important it is to be safe in a “pinch point ridden”, “back breaking”, “toe-stubbing”, “spontaneous combusting”, “toxic chemical filled”, “fall hazardous”, “ear piercing” (in the decibel sense, not the earring sense), environment of a Power Plant.
I found out soon after I arrived at the Coal-fired power plant in Oklahoma the first summer I worked as a summer help that Safety was Job Number One. I was given a hard hat and safety glasses the first day I was there, and I watched a safety film on how to lift with my legs and not with my back. I thought the hard hat made me look really cool. Especially with the safety glasses that looked like someone wore as a scientist during the 1950s. Dark and square.
I used to keep a pair with me when I went back to school. When I was a senior at the University of Missouri, Columbia, while working at the Bakery on Broadway, I kept a pair with me at all times, along with a hat that I had stol…um…. borrowed from my dad and always forgot to return. (In fact, I still have that hat to this day).
That way, whenever someone suspected who I was, I would put on my glasses and hat and people would think I was Clark Kent. Anyway…. I diverge. I never thought about it being an Inspector Clouseau hat until one winter morning in the parking lot at the plant Louise Gates (later Louise Kalicki) called me Inspector Clouseau.
The yellow hard hat made me confident that I was part of the blue collar working class. Hard hats have a suspension system in them that make them look like it is riding too high on your head. You soon get used to it, but for the first couple of weeks I kept bumping into things because my hardhat made me taller than I was used to being.
It is because of this great suspension system that causes the hat to ride so high on someone’s head. I learned about this not long after I arrived and Marlin McDaniel the A Foreman at the time told me to sort out of bunch of large steel chokers (or slings) in a wooden shack just inside the Maintenance shop by the door to the office elevator.
While I was bending over picking up the chokers (I mean…. While I was lifting with my legs and not my back…) and hanging them on pegs I suddenly found myself laying on the ground. At first I wasn’t sure what had happened because I hadn’t felt anything and it happened so fast. It seemed that my legs had just buckled under me.
I soon realized that one of the large chokers that I had just hung on a peg a couple of feet above my head had fallen off and struck me square in the middle of the hard hat. I was surprised by the force of the cable and how little I had felt. I became a true believer in wearing my hardhat whenever I was working. The steel rope had left a small gash across the hardhat that remained as a reminder to me of the importance of wearing my hardhat at all times.
Larry Riley used to comment to me that I didn’t need to wear it when we were in the truck driving somewhere. Especially when I was sitting in the middle in the back seat of the crew cab and it made it hard for him to see anything through the rear view mirror other than a yellow hard hat sticking up to the top of the cab.
During my first summer at the plant (1979), I did witness how easy it was for someone to hurt their back. I mean… really hurt their back. I was helping to carry a very large 30 foot long section of a wooden extension ladder. There were four of us. Each on one corner. I know that Tom Dean was behind me carrying one side of the back end. I believe that Ben Hutchinson and Aubrey Cargill were on the other side of the ladder as we had been called from the job picking up driftwood on the dikes on the lake (see the post “Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill“).
As we were walking through the shop, Tom stepped on the floor drain just outside of the A Foreman’s office. The drain cover was missing and a wooden piece of plywood had been put in its place to cover the hole.
Large equipment had driven over the plywood and it was smashed down into the drain making a slight indention in the middle of the floor.
When Tom stepped on the piece of wood, he lost his balance, and ended up spinning himself around as he tried to remain holding onto the ladder. By doing this, he became slightly twisted, and at once he was in terrible pain. Back pain. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this one event was a critical turning point in Tom Dean’s career at the power plant. He was pretty well out the rest of the summer recuperating from the back injury.
The next summer when I returned to the plant, Tom was working in the tool room. Obviously a step down from being a mechanic. He was also very unhappy. You could tell by looking at him that he had lost the proud expression that he had wore the summer before.
I don’t remember how long Tom worked at the plant after that. I just know that it really made me sad to see someone’s life deteriorate during the snapshots that I had in my mind from the summer before to when I returned to see a man tortured not only by back pain, but by a feeling of inadequate self worth. Hurting your back is one of the most common and most serious injuries in an industrial setting. It is definitely a life changing event.
There were other tragedies during my time as a summer help and they didn’t necessarily have to do with something dangerous at work. One summer there was a young man working in the warehouse and tool room. His name was Bill Engleking (thanks Fred. I didn’t remember his name in the original post). The next summer I asked where he had gone, and I learned that one morning he had woke up and found that he had become completely blind. It turned out that he had a very serious case of diabetes. The sugar levels in his blood had reached such dangerous levels that it destroyed his optic nerves overnight.
Then there was one of the Electricians, Bill Ennis. He would say that he was “Blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other one.” He was actually blind in one eye completely, and the other eye he was color blind. So, what he said was actually true.
It happened on occasion that people visiting the plant would be seriously hurt. Everyone at the plant was trained in first aid, and Power Plant Men, being the way that they are, are always willing to do whatever it takes to help someone out in time of trouble.
One day during lunch, a man came to the plant to fill the unleaded gas tank on the side of the garage in front of the warehouse. While he was reaching over the PTO (Power Take Off), His shirt sleeve caught in the spinning PTO shaft and broke his arm.
I remember Mickey Postman explaining what happened. His crew was eating lunch in the garage when they heard someone yelling for help. When they ran out to see what had happened, they found the man tied up in the PTO with one bone from his arm sticking straight out in the air. They quickly took care of him and treated him for shock as they waited for the Ambulance from Ponca City to arrive.
It is times like this that you wish would never happen, but you are glad that you had first aid training and you know what to do. This person could easily have died from this injury if not for the quick action of Mickey Postman and the rest of his crew. I believe other Power Plant Men that were there to help was Dale Mitchell, George Alley, Don Timmons and Preston Jenkins. Mickey would know for sure. I’ll leave it up to him to remind me.
I have illustrated these tragic events to demonstrate the importance of making Safety Job Number One. The Power Plant Men didn’t have to be told by a safety video to know how important it was. They all knew examples of tragedies such as these.
Each month the plant would have the Monthly Safety Meeting, and every Monday morning each crew would have their own safety meeting. Safety pamphlets would be read, safety videos would be watched. Campaigns would be waged to re-emphasize the importance of proper lifting techniques. Everyone in the plant had to take the Defensive Driving course.
The last summer I worked as a summer help in 1982 was the first summer that everyone was required to take the Defensive Driving course. The course was being given by Nancy Brien, Nick Gleason and Ken Couri. We learned a lot of defensive driving slogans like, “Is the Pass really necessary?” “Slow down, ride to the right, ride off the road” (when an emergency vehicle is approaching), “Use the Two Second Rule” (Only, I think it was 3 seconds at that time). “Do a Circle For Safety” etc….
My friend Tim Flowers and another summer help were carpooling during that time and we made signs with those slogans on them. Then when we were driving home in my little Honda Civic, we would hold one of those signs up in the back window so that the Power Plant person that was following us home (Usually Dick Dale and Mike Gibbs) would wonder what it said, and would pull up closer to read the sign, and it would say, “Use the 3 second rule”, or “If you can read this, you are too close”.
That was when I began wearing my seat belt all the time. Before that, it was not common for people to wear seat belts. They only had the lap belt before that, and those weren’t the safest things in the world. Especially since they would get lost inside the seat. I attribute the Defensive Driving Course that I took while I was a summer help at the plant for my safe record as a driver. There were a number of tips that I learned then, that I still use all the time today.
There is one advantage to wearing a hardhat that I didn’t realize until I left the power plant in 2001. It is that you never have to worry about hair loss on the top of your head. Whenever you are outside at the plant, you always wear your hardhat and safety glasses. When I changed jobs to become a software developer at Dell, I would find that just by walking down the street in the neighborhood in Texas, I would quickly develop a sunburn on the top of my head.
During the years of wearing a hardhat, I may have been losing my hair, but it never occurred to me. Not until I had a sunburn on the top of my head. I wondered at times if people would look at me funny if I showed up for work in my cubicle at Dell (when we had cubicles) wearing a yellow hardhat. Oh, and a pair of super stylish safety glasses like those shown at the top of this post. — And um…. Steel Toed Boots!
You know when you are young, and I’m sure this has happened to all of you at one point in your life, you dream that you get off of the school bus at your school in the morning only to find that you are still wearing your pajamas. — Yeah. I thought you would remember that one. Well. I still have dreams of showing up at my desk job wearing a hardhat and safety glasses. I don’t realize it until I lift my hardhat up to wipe the sweat off of my brow, then I quickly look around to see if anyone noticed as I stuff the hardhat under the desk.
Comment from previous post:
Jack Curtis January 22, 2014:
The safety meetings, Defensive Driving, safety glasses… it was the same way for telephone men, too. And they jumped in whenever there were problems as well. It is striking to me, to see the differences in attitudes from one generation to another…