Originally Posted on October 12, 2012:
Two years before the movie Karate Kid came out at the movies in 1984, I had learned the secret of “Wax On, Wax Off”. One that made a significant difference to my Power Plant Janitorial Powers!
My Janitorial Master was Pat Braden. He is the same age as my father. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Pat Braden reminded me of a rounder version of Red Skelton:
Pat was one of the kindest people you would ever meet. He was the head janitor when I became a janitor at the Coal-Fired Power Plant. I had worked with him off and on during the 4 summers when I had worked as a summer help. I was glad to actually be on his crew as one of the team.
When we had a big waxing job to do, we would schedule a weekend to come in and do it. That way we could wax an entire area without interruption. We could strip off the old wax with the stripping chemicals, then neutralize it, then add the sealer, and finally end up with waxing the floors with the best wax we could buy. As I mentioned in the post “How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic“, we used Johnson Wax’s best wax: Showplace.
We had been “certified” by Johnson and Johnson to wax floors properly. This included the proper buffing techniques once the wax had been applied and had properly dried. A properly waxed and buffed floor is shiny but not a slippery floor.
We decided to spend one weekend waxing the Engineering shack. It was a tin building like a Metal Butler Building that the inspectors from Corporate Headquarters would use when they had projects at the plant. In 1982, that was pretty well all of the time, as John Blake and Gene Titus were semi-permanent residents of the Engineers Shack.
The floor in this building had a regular tile floor like you would see in an office building in the 1960’s. Just the plain square tiles. It looked like it had never been waxed before and was probably built on the plant grounds long before the power plant existed. The floor had been worn out by the traffic over the years. This was one building that I was expected to keep swept and mopped as part of my daily janitorial responsibilities.
Our Janitor crew consisted of Pat Braden, Doris Voss, James Kanelakos, Ronnie Banks and Curtis Love (and me of course). We had decided a couple of days before that for lunch we would eat baked onions. “Ok”, I thought. I knew we didn’t get paid much as janitors and we had to be frugal, but I didn’t really think that we were so bad off that we had to resort to eating onions for lunch. But since no one really asked me for my vote (which would have been to bring in some pizza from Ponca City), we were having baked onions for lunch.
We spent the morning removing all the furniture from the building, and then stripping the floor (even though it looked like it had never been waxed before and there wasn’t anything to strip). Then we mopped it with neutralizer a couple of times. By that time, it was lunch time, and we headed up to the plant break room where Doris was just finishing up baking our um…. er….. onions. Yeah.. Baked Onions….
It turned out that these were Purple Onions. The ends had been cut off of them and butter and salt and pepper had been put on each end as they were wrapped up in tinfoil like a baked potato, and then baked in the oven just as if they were baked potatoes.
Well. I was never one to complain about food, and I was determined not to show my lack of enthusiasm at the thought of eating an onion for lunch, so I sat down and put on my eager hungry expression on my then skinny face as I waited for our (uh) feast. — Well. The joke was on me. As I began to eat the baked onion, I realized right away that it didn’t taste like any onion I had ever eaten. It was kind of sweet and…. well…. it was rather tasty! Power Plant Culture never ceases to amaze me.
Anyway, after I had eaten my share of onions, we were ready to go back to work waxing the engineers shack. We spent the rest of the day doing that (and burping onions) and when we had decided that the wax had dried enough, we carefully brought the furniture back in and put everything back in order.
So, why am I boring you with all this detail about waxing the floor in a metal building that doesn’t even exist today? Well. I have told you now about the “Wax On” part. Now comes the “Wax Off” part. The second part of my training to becoming a Jedi Janitor (hmm… snuck in a Star Wars reference I see).
Here is what happened the next Monday when I wheeled the buffing machine out of the janitor closet in the Engineer’s shack. Gene Titus (who always reminded me of Jerry Reed):
and John Blake, both were very pleased with their new shiny floor. They looked like they were anxious to show it off to someone… anyone that would come by. I was about to really impress them (I thought) with my fine buffing skills that was “really” going to make their floor shine. So, they watched closely as I attached the red buffing pad on the bottom of the buffer:
I began at the far end of the room from the doors and began buffing…. The first thing I noticed was that the buffer was literally removing the wax from the floor. Yep. It was taking it right off. Wax On…. Wax Off….. I realized that for all our stripping and neutralizing, we hadn’t taken into account the years of dirt and grime that was embedded in the tiles.
Normally John Blake was a likable sensible person. I had carpooled with him for two summers when I was a summer help. But when he saw me removing the wax from the floor he had a very concerned expression, and well, I perceived that a sort of extreme hatred was rising up in his demeanor…. I was glad that John was a quiet mild-mannered sort of person, otherwise, I think he would have walloped me one for ruining the floor that he was so proud of minutes before.
I began thinking to myself what I should do. After all. The floor really did need buffing, and buffing the floor was removing the wax. So as the buffer moved back and forth erasing the shine and bringing back the dull tiles, I thought as hard as I could muster my brain what I should do next….
I figured I would go ahead and buff the entire main room, as if I knew exactly what I was doing, not looking concerned. I don’t know if the confidence that I exhibited while removing the wax relaxed John just enough so that he could leave the building and continue his job, or if he actually stormed out in distress hoping to drown his sorrows in his morning cup of coffee…
When I finished the room with the red pad… I did what I would have done if the wax had buffed up correctly and had actually still existed on the floor…. I put the finer white pad on the buffer. I thought in my mind that the floor was probably so infiltrated with dust that we hadn’t done a proper job (if it was even possible) to clean the floor before applying the wax on Saturday.
So I thought I would try something that they hadn’t taught us in waxing class… I took a spray bottle and filled it with wax mixed with some water. Then I started in the same corner where I had begun removing the pride and glory of John Blake’s newly waxed dreams. I sprayed some wax and buffed it into the floor. As I guided the buffer back and forth with one hand, I sprayed the floor with the other. To my surprise, not only did it start to leave a shiny polished floor, but it left a polish that was much more clear than before. One that was almost like a mirror.
As I buffed the room from one end to the next, the entire room became brighter as the lights from the ceiling reflected from the hard polished wax. I was nearly finished with the room when John walked back in. He was immediately stunned by the brightly polished floor.
I could see his uncharacteristic desire to kill me melt away and his pleasure with his new Shangri-La abode become immediately evident. John Blake from that moment on viewed me with the respect that most Power Plant janitors normally deserve (though I had just stumbled on this accidentally).
I was so impressed with how well the floor looked when I was done, that I went to the Brown and Root building next door and did the same thing there.
I began to wonder what other uses I could make out of this discovery… Spraying wax on the floor and buffing it right in. It finally occurred to me that the floor cleaning machine that I used to clean the Turbine room floor might benefit by adding some wax to the mixture. It had the same type of red buffer pads on it.
So, after I had scrubbed the Turbine Generator floor using the regular detergent. I cleaned out the scrubber and put just water in there and about 1/2 gallon of wax. Then I went to try out my experiment. Sure enough…. The bright red Turbine Room floor began to glow. The bright lights overhead were clearly reflected off the floor. This was very successful.
So, my next test was to sweep off the turbine-Generators themselves with a red dust mop. Then spray watered down Johnson Wax directly on a clean dust mop and mop away on the turbine generators:
The Turbine Generators took on the same polished shine.
I distinctly remember one Power Plant Operator that gave me a very nice complement one day for keeping the T-G floor so nicely polished. His name was Michael Hurst. He was a True Power Plant Operator.
As a lowly janitor in a plant of heroes, I found that I was treated with the same respect as everyone else. I would never forget that complement from him because I could see his earnest sincerity.
A few years ago on December 19, 2008 Michael Hurst died in Oklahoma City. What was said about Michael after his death was this: “He had a great sense of humor and a big heart… Many have been blessed with his generosity and his genuine love for people.”
I can include myself in this statement. I know that everyone shown in the picture above from Joe Gallahar (on the left) to Doris Voss (in the middle) to Pat Quiring (on the right) would agree with that testament about Michael.
There was another sentence after this one that stands on it’s own. One that is a sign of a True Power Plant Man. It was also said of Michael Hurst: “Above all else, the most important thing to him was his family.” Though I don’t have a picture of Michael’s immediately family. I believe that I have included a picture above of at least some of his extended family.
I have recently (2020) found a picture with Pat Braden:
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Originally posted July 27, 2012:
There were two distinct times in my life at the Power Plant Kingdom where I went Head-to-Head (or tête-à-tête as they say in France) with a horde of spiders. The second time I fought side-by-side with my trusty friend Scott Hubbard, that I knew wouldn’t desert me when things went from bad-to-worse (for some reason I find myself using a lot of hyphens-to-day). The first battle, however, I had to face alone, armed only with a push broom and a shovel (and some large plastic trash bags).
It all started a few months after I became a janitor at the power plant (in 1982). I had received my Psychology degree at the University of Missouri, and I was well on my way to becoming a certified “sanitation engineer” (as my grandmother corrected me after I once told her I was a janitor).
It actually came in handy having a Psychology degree. Power Plant men would sometimes approach me when I was working by myself to stop and have a conversation that usually started like this: “So, someone told me you are a psychiatrist.” I would correct them and tell them that I am a janitor and I only have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology which makes me a properly trained janitor able to sweep the floor in confidence knowing that “I’m OK, and You’re OK.” (Which was a joke lost on everyone at the plant except for Jim Kanelakos, who was also a janitor with a Master’s in Psychology).
Then they would often want to talk about problems they were having. I would lean on my broom and listen. Nodding my head slightly to show I was listening. After a while the person would finish and thank me for listening and go on back to work.
The most important thing I learned while obtaining a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology was that Psychology is an art, not a science. Though certain scientific methods are used in many areas, especially in Behavioral Psychology. Being an art, means that the person must possess the talent for being a Psychologist. This is as important as being properly trained. So I never assumed the role of a real Psychologist, I rather tried my best to just be a friend. I found that worked well.
As I mentioned, James Kanelakos was also a janitor at the Power Plant. Which meant that between the 5 janitors and our leader Pat Braden, two of us not only had degrees, but both of them were in Psychology (with James having the Masters degree, and I as his pupil with the Bachelors).
Before I proceed with my battle with the spiders, I should mention a little about the dynamics of our Janitorial crew.
James Kanelakos was obviously Greek. With a name like Kanelakos, it was rather obvious. He looked the part also, with a graying moustache that made him look like a Greek sailor. He never was a “True Power Plant Man” and he would be glad to hear me say that. Instead he was a person that at the time acted as if he was biding his time at the plant waiting for something else to happen.
Though he never mentioned it, I know that he was also part Irish, and every now and then I would see the Irish come out. He was a family man, and in that sense he reminded me of my own father (who was also part Irish, or so I thought before DNA tests came out). He was only 35 years old at the time, but he acted as if he had lived longer. He smoked a pipe like my father did. As far as I know, he always remained married to his wife Sandy, and together they raised two children, a daughter and a son. That was where his heart really was.
He made no secret that his family came before anything else. Not that he would say it straight out to your face, but you could tell it in the way he interacted with others. Like I said, Jim was there “biding his time”, changing his career at a time when he needed something… else. Maybe to strengthen his priorities. He said once that he left the office to go work outside.
Then there was Doris Voss. She was an unlikely site to see in the Power Plant Palace (especially later when she became an operator). She was a “Church-going Fundamentalist” who made it clear to me that Catholics, such as myself, were doomed to hell for various reasons. I always enjoyed our… um… discussions.
I thought it was quite appropriate during Christmas when the janitors drew names from Jim’s Greek Sailor’s hat and I drew Doris’s name to give her a very nice leather-bound Catholic Version of the Family Bible. I later heard her talking to Curtis Love about it in the kitchen. He was telling her that she shouldn’t read it and she told him that it looked pretty much the same as hers and she didn’t see anything wrong with it. Needless-to-say, I was rarely condemned to a regular Catholic’s fate after that.
Curtis Love, as I explained in the post called “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“, was very gullible. It was easy to play a joke on Curtis. Too easy. He didn’t take them well, because he would rather believe what you were joking about before believing that you were joking at all. Because of this, it never occurred to me to play a joke on Curtis. Somehow, though, it is hard to explain, Curtis reminded me of Tweedledee. Or was it Tweedledum?
Then there was Ronnie Banks. I talked about Ronnie Banks before in the post where Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost. He was like a likable young bear standing up on his hind legs. You could joke around with him and he was fun to be around. He acted like he enjoyed your company. Interestingly though, none of the people on our team would ever be classified as “True Power Plant Men”. We were more like an odd assortment of Misfits.
Pat Braden was our lead Janitor. He was by far the nicest person one could ever work for. He constantly had a smile on his face. He smiled when he talked, he smiled when he walked, and he especially smiled when he stood up from a chair and became dizzy from his blood pressure medicine. He had a daughter at home that he really loved. He reminded me of the goodhearted Red Skelton.
Now back to the Spider Wars and the bugs in the basement.
When I first became a janitor at the plant, I was assigned to clean the Control room and to sweep half of the turbine room floor and the Control room elevator landings and stairs. I always enjoyed being a janitor. I first became a janitor when I was a 15 year old Sophomore in High School working the night shift (from 11pm to 6am) at a Hilton Inn in Columbia, Missouri.
To me it was a dream job. Sure, I couldn’t keep my own room cleaned, but put a push broom in my hand and pay me $2.50 an hour and I could clean all night. When I began as a janitor at the power plant, I was making $5.15 an hour. Double what I was making at the hotel cleaning the kitchen, the restaurant and the bar in the wee hours of the morning.
Anyway. I went to work cleaning the control room like there was no tomorrow. I would shampoo the carpet once each week. I would clean on the top and the back of the Alarm Panel. I know I made Ted Holdge (Supervisor of Operations) real nervous once when I laid a vacuum cleaner on the top of the Main Electric Panel (That’s what I call it. it was the Control panel where you synced up the unit when it was coming online) and I started vacuuming the top of it.
He actually jumped out of his chair in the Shift Supervisor’s office and stood there and watched me closely. It obviously had never been cleaned before. I was trying to get rid of a strange odor in the control room that I eventually found was years of burned coffee in the coffee maker in the break room. I even had to scrub the walls in the kitchen to remove the odor from the entire control room.
Anyway. I was getting to know the Control Room operators, and I was thinking that maybe someday when I had progressed past janitor and labor crew that one day I may become an operator also.
One day Pat Braden came to me and told me that I was going to have to move down to be the janitor of the Electric Shop. There were many reasons. The first was that Curtis wanted to be an operator and he thought that if he worked around them that they would get to know him and would want him to join their ranks and he had more seniority than I did, so he had first pick.
The second reason was that for some reason, since Curtis had been the janitor of the Electric Shop he had been bitten twice by a brown recluse spider, which had invaded the janitor closet downstairs. If he were to be bitten again, he might lose his job for being unsafe. So, the thinking was that it would be better for someone new to move down there and be bitten instead.
I didn’t mind. Cleaning the Electric shop meant that I also was able to clean the Engineers Shack and the Brown and Root Building next to it. Curtis also decided I needed to keep the job of cleaning the T&G room which is about the size of two football fields. Except now, I was going to have to clean all of the turbine room floor instead of just half of it. I also decided that the main switchgear which was where the Janitor closet was located needed to be kept clean to cut down on the onslaught of the poisonous brown recluse spiders (which in Oklahoma is a regular house spider).
My first day as a Janitor in the Electric Shop as soon as I opened the door to the janitor closet, I could see why Curtis had been bitten by a Brown Recluse (not twice, but three times — the last time he didn’t tell Pat. He showed me, but just went straight to the doctor for the required shots to counteract the poison. Not wanting to lose his job). The janitor closet was full of them. They were all over the little 4 foot by 7 foot closet.
Thus began the first war on spiders at the coal fired power plant. The closet was also being used to store Freon and other air conditioning equipment used by Jim Stevenson the Air Conditioning expert in the Electric Shop. I decided then and there to move all the equipment out of the closet. The spiders were practicing “Duck and Cover” drills all over this equipment so it had to go.
My main weapon against the spiders were my boots. When I spied a spider, I stomped on it quickly. I asked Pat Braden to order a case of insecticide to help me combat the spiders. The next day he pulled a two-wheeler up to the closet with two cases of bug spray and said, “Here is your order sir!” (Picture Red Skelton saying that).
I had cleaned the shelves, the cabinet and the floor of the janitor closet, and there was no place for spiders to hide in there anymore. Each morning when I arrived, there was always more spiders there. 3 or 4 at least waiting for me in the closet. All Brown Recluse.
I surveyed the combat zone and realized that spiders were all over the main switchgear. So I decided I was going to sweep the switchgear regularly and kill every spider I saw to wipe them out for good.
So I laid down floor sweep (cedar chips with red oil) to keep the dust down, and began at one corner and worked my way across the switchgear sweeping and killing spiders. I kept a body count. I taped a paper on the wall in the janitor closet to keep track of my daily kill. My first day I killed over 240 spiders.
I thought surely in a short time, I will have wiped out the spider population. After sweeping the switchgear I laid down a blanket of Insecticide (equivalent to Agent Orange in Vietnam). If I could kill any bugs that are around, the spiders would leave. The insecticide didn’t kill the spiders. they would just duck under the switchgear and then come out an hour later to be standing where I left them before. So I kept stomping them out.
Every day, my body count was around 25 to 30 spiders and this number wasn’t going down. That was when I discovered the Cable Spreader rooms… I had been involved in mere child’s play before I walked down some steps at the tail end of the switchgear and opened one of the two doors at the bottom.
I cannot describe to you exactly what I saw, because nothing I say can put into words what was there. I guess the best thing I can say is: Armageddon.
There were two rooms. One on each side at the bottom of some concrete steps. They are called Cable Spreader rooms and are directly beneath the switchgear. One side was unit one, the other was unit two. They are large rooms with cable trays lining the walls and across the room at regular intervals. The floor was damp, and it was black, and it was alive.
There was a small path through the room where the operator would pass through “the gauntlet” once each shift as they muttered prayers that they not be eaten alive by the black oozing mass of bugs spiders, mice and an occasional snake.
The can of bug spray in my hand seemed completely useless. I knew what I had to do. These two rooms and the cable tunnels that ran from there underneath the T-G building were the source of my daily trouncing of the meager few spiders that decided to explore the world above to see what was happening in the switchgear.
The real battle was down here in the trenches. Each room was full of tens of thousands of spiders. Piles of alive and dead bugs. Skeletal remains of a few field mice who had strayed into the abyss.
I started with a large box of Plastic Contractor bags, a box of floor sweep, a shovel and a push broom. I attacked the room the same way I used to clean my own bedroom at home when I was growing up. I started in one corner and fanned out. Not letting anything past me. always keeping a clear supply line back to the steps that led up to freedom and fresh air up above.
At first I just took a large scoop shovel and scooped up the black mass of crawling and dead bugs and dumped them in a bag, until I had enough space to sweep the dust into a pile. Then I attacked it again. Occasionally a small snake would appear upset that I had invaded his space, and into the bag it would go.
Everything went in the bags. The snakes, the bugs, the spiders and the grime. There was actually a constant battle taking place down there that I was interrupting. it was bug eat bug, spider eat bug and snake eat bugs and spiders wars. Everything went in the bags.
I carefully hauled the bags out to the dumpster and out they went. It took an entire day to clean one room. Then the next day when I went back I completely cleaned it again. This time paying more attention to making it livable.
I wanted these two rooms to be so clean that people could go down into these cool damp rooms in the hot summer and have a picnic down there and feel safe. — No one ever did though, but such is the life of a cable spreader room. Years later Tom Gibson setup a sort of a greenhouse down there.
After that, each day I made my rounds of the switchgear, the cable spreader rooms and the cable tunnels killing any spider that showed it’s legs. After the main battle in the two rooms and tunnels was over of countless spiders and bugs, I recorded about 230 spiders the next day by making my rounds.
The next day that dropped to around 150. then 80, then 50 and on down. Finally, when I was down to 3 or 4 spiders each day, I felt like the war was over and a weekly sweeping and daily walk-through would suffice to keep the switchgear safe. This left the small janitor closet virtually free of spiders from that point.
The interesting twist of the entire battle against the spiders was that the electricians had seen my skills at “Battle Sweeping” and some of them had become impressed. They told me that I didn’t have to sweep their shop and the main switchgear because they took turns doing it. I still felt that as the janitor, with my battle hardened push broom, by paying a little more attention to detail would do a slightly better job.
The electricians didn’t really volunteer to clean the shop. Whoever was the truck driver for that week was supposed to clean the shop at least one time during the week. At $5.15 an hour, I was more of a volunteer than someone that was hired to do this chore, and I enjoyed it. So, eventually, Charles Foster (An Electrical Foreman) popped the question to me one day…. He didn’t get down on one knee when he asked me, but either way, he asked me if I would think about becoming an Electrician.
That was something I hadn’t even considered until that moment. The Electricians to me were the elite squad of Power Plant Maintenance. Like the Results guys, but with a wider range of skills it seemed. But that is a story for another time.
Since I originally posted this, I have written the post about the second war with spiders with Scott Hubbard by my side. So, if this post wasn’t enough for you… read this one: “Power Plant Spider Wars II The Phantom Menace“. For a more tame story about spiders try this one: “Power Plant Spider in the Eye“.
Originally Posted on August 3, 2012 (I added a picture of Walt Oswalt):
The second summer as Summer Help at the Coal-fired Power Plant, was when I first worked out of the Automotive garage. It wasn’t finished during the first summer. The second summer when I began working in the garage, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley, Doug House and Ken Conrad were the regular workers that mowed the fields using tractors with brush hogs, as I have explained in previous posts. A summer help that also worked with us from Ponca City named David Foster was also able to mow grass using one of the new Ford tractors that we painted Orange to easily identify them as belonging to the Electric Company in Oklahoma.
I learned to drive the tractors later in the summer when I worked irrigating the fields in our attempt to grow grass (as told in the post “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It Pays To Listen“). The next summer I was able to mow grass using a Brush Hog pulled behind a tractor:
It didn’t take long before I had to mow grass on the side of the dam (and other levies). The side of the dam has a very sharp incline, so while mowing grass on the side of the dam you sat more on the side of the tractor seat than on the seat itself. Heavy weights were put on the front of the tractor and the back tires on the tractor were turned around so that they were farther apart than they would be otherwise. This gave the tractor a lower, wider profile and a lower center of gravity helping to keep it from rolling over sideways down the slope.
I had watched Jim, Larry, Ken and David mow grass along some very steep inclines the summer before without any tractors tumbling over, so I felt like it must be safe, even though looking at the tractors they still seemed a little “top heavy”.
It was quite an eerie feeling the first time I actually mowed a slope this steep. I experienced the same feeling as you have on a roller coaster when it hits the top of the hill and flings you down real fast when the tractor tire on the downhill side of the tractor rolls into a washed out spot on the dam causing the tractor to roll over just a little farther than you are used to. It was definitely an adrenaline rush each time this happened, because it felt like the tractor was going to roll over.
That is when I remembered the story about the little engine that was trying to pull the train over the steep mountain, and he kept chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” over and over. So, between each decade of the Rosary that I was saying while counting Hail Mary’s on my fingers, I added in an “I Think I can…” as an added prayer before the next “Our Father”.
In the time that I worked as a summer help we never turned over a tractor while mowing on a slope. That isn’t to say that the tractors didn’t start to tip over. It’s just that if you realize that the large back tractor tire has left the ground and is spinning freely, you could quickly turn the steering wheel downhill so that the tractor would turn downhill preventing it from rolling completely over. The weight of the brush hog on the back helped to keep the tractor snug against the sloping dam.
Years later, after I left the Power Plant, in 2006, my father’s best friend, Tom Houghton, a Veterinarian in Lakeland, Florida was killed in a tractor accident at his family’s farm in Polo, Missouri. This greatly effected my father. He has not recovered from the loss of his friend still today. As I was mowing grass and picturing my sudden demise if a tractor were to roll down the hill, my main concern was the sorrow my family would have felt by my death. Needless to say… I never toppled a tractor.
It was during that same summer in 1981 that I first worked with the Power Plant Icon Walt Oswalt. Every plant must have at least one person like Walt. He is the type of person that once he has something in his mind about how to do something, nothing is going to change it. I know many different stories about Walt Oswalt that have been shared with me, but this is one of my own (See the post Power Plant Trip Leads to Game of Frogger for one such story). Walt is a sandy-haired Irish-looking man that always reminded me of the little old man, Jackie Wright, on the Benny Hill Show.
I now have an actual picture of Walt that I found laying around….
One Saturday while I had caught a ride to the Power Plant to do “coal cleanup” the crew was asked who would like to wash down belts 10 and 11. These are the 1/2 mile long belts that go from the coal yard all the way up to the plant. You can see them on the left side of the picture of the plant on the side of this post. Finding the opportunity for a challenge, and needing the overtime, I volunteered.
I made my way up to the top of the Transfer tower where I found Walt Oswalt. He was working out of the coal yard at the time and was helping us wash down 10 and 11 belt. Wearing rainsuits and rubber boots we began at the top and worked our way down. It didn’t look like this belt had been washed down for a while. We could blast the tin enclosure with the high-pressure hoses we were using to completely wash off all the coal dust that had built up over time. This looked like it was going to be a fun job.
Then Walt pointed out to me that most of our work was under the belt where the coal had built up almost solid up to the belt itself so that the coal was rubbing on the rubber Uniroyal conveyor belt. Remember, if the conveyor belt goes up, it has to go back down also. So underneath the conveyor is where the belt returns. it is a big loop.
So, Walt Oswalt and I spent the rest of the day laying on the grating so we could see under the belts washing the coal down the slope of belt 10 and 11. Under the conveyor is another set of rollers that the rubber conveyor belt rides on it’s return trip to the Crusher Tower. During this time there were two chants that came to my mind…. One was, “Whistle While you Work”, since we seemed to be in some kind of coal mine working away like the Seven Dwarfs (you know… Walt Disney… Walt Oswalt). The other one was the song, “Workin’ In a Coal Mine” (…goin’ down down).
At one particular spot the coal had built up and packed itself in there so much that one of the rollers wasn’t able to turn and the belt was just rubbing on the roller. After we had washed the coal away we could see that the roller was not able to turn still because the belt had worn it flat on one side.
Walt called the Control Room to shutdown the belt so that we could look at it. We could see that the roller was bad. For some reason the other belt (11) was out of commission so without this belt running, no coal was being sent up to the plant. The coal silos and the surge bin hold enough coal for a while but not for too long during the summer when the units need to run at their maximum rate to supply the electricity needed by the customers. We could have the belt shutdown for a while, but not for too long.
I followed Walt down the belt to the Crusher Tower wondering what he had in mind. He didn’t tell me what we were going to do, so I just gathered my clues by watching what he did. When we came out of the belt and left the Crusher I was surprised that it was already dark outside. When I had left the Maintenance Shop it had been morning. Now it was dark. We had spent the entire day (12 hours at this point) in Belt 10 and 11. I didn’t remember ever taking a break or eating lunch or even going to the bathroom. Just holding the high pressure water hose, directing the stream down under the belt… all day.
We walked over to a new building that was still being built called the Coal yard Maintenance Building. This was the new building that was going to be used by the new Labor Crew in a few months. Outside the building to one side was a Conex Box, as I have described before. This is the kind of large box that you see on the CSX train commercials that are being transported by trains.
We used them to store equipment used for specific jobs or crews. In this case, the Conex box had conveyor equipment in it. Walt found a long straight roller that is used under the Number 10 and 11 belts and tied it to a 2 wheel dolly. We rolled it back to the Crusher Tower and began the long trek back up the belt. I was pulling the dolly and Walt was carrying some large wrenches.
When we arrived at the spot where the roller had been worn, Walt called the control room to let them know we were beginning to work. We pulled the safety cords on the side of the conveyor to ensure that the belt would not start, even though we were assured that a Clearance had been placed on the breaker in the Main Switchgear (where I began my first war with the spiders a year later. See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“).
Walt climbed over the belt and I stayed on the main walkway. We worked upside down for a while unbolting the roller. At one point we decided we needed some more suitable tools and headed back down the belt to the Coal yard Garage where the heavy equipment is serviced and brought back some large ratchet wrenches and sockets with an extension.
I think the chant, “I think I can, I think I can” was running through my head on our second trip back up the conveyor belt. I think it was around 10pm. We finished changing the roller and decided to leave the old one laying in the walkway for the night. Walt said he would bring it back to the coal yard on Monday morning.
We made our way back to the Maintenance shop where I took off the rain suit and rubber boots that I had been wearing all day and put my regular boots back on. I went up to the control room and asked if anyone could give me a ride to Stillwater since the evening shift of operators were just getting off at 11pm. I believe it was Charles Buchanan that gave me a ride home that night in his little beat up pickup truck.
I never worked directly with Charles Buchanan since he was an operator. The first impression that one may have is that he looks like a caricature of a construction worker in a comic strip.
Charles reaffirmed my belief that Power Plant Men are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. There were a few times when I caught a ride with Charles to or from the plant. Each time I felt honored to ride in his truck. If I think about what chant was running through my mind as we were on our way home at night, I think it would be something like the song “You’ve Got a Friend”: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend….”
That is what all real Power Plant men and linemen are like. Wherever you look in the United States, these great men and women work tirelessly to keep you safe by providing electricity to your homes. Something we take for granted until the power goes out.
Recently when the power went out in the east, the linemen from this electric company drove with pride, eager to help those in need:
Below I have included the lyrics for the song “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King and her husband James Taylor. See how well it fits those people that work around the clock bringing the power to your home:
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend.
If the sky above you should turn dark and full of clouds
and that old north wind should begin to blow,
keep your head together and call my name out loud.
Soon I will be knocking upon your door.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there.
Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend? People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you. Well, they’ll take your soul if you let them,
oh yeah, but don’t you let them.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend. You’ve got a friend.
Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend. Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend.
Oh, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.
Here is a YouTube video of James Taylor singing this song:
If your aren’t able to play youtube videos directly from the picture… here is the link: “You’ve got a Friend“
Original Posted on July 13, 2012:
Three of the four years that I worked as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant, I worked out of the garage. Not only were we responsible for mowing the grass and cleaning up the park areas around the lake; we were also the Automotive Garage. That is, we changed the oil and other fluids, charged dead truck batteries and washed the pickup trucks that were used at the plant and various other truck related jobs. We also Fixed Flat Tires.
Something had happened the first summer when I worked out of the garage (my second summer as a summer help) that greatly impacted the need for us to fix flats fast and furious. It was a disease that was rapidly killing dogs in Oklahoma during the summer of 1980. It was known as the Canine Parvovirus.
We had a puppy at home named Oreo that died that summer from this disease. By the time the dog showed the symptoms of the disease, it was just about too late to save the life of the dog. This leads me to introduce you to Doug House (No, not Doghouse. I know you were thinking that because I had just mentioned the Parvovirus killing dogs and you may have thought I misspelled Dog).
It was Doug House that taught me the fine art of “Fixin’ Flats”. Doug House and Preston Jenkins had been hired because of their automotive skills more so than their Power Plant Man Prowess. Doug House was a few years older than my dad and his son was about the age of my younger brother. He was from Louisiana. He didn’t have a Cajun accent or anything like that, or maybe he did, and I just didn’t know it. He sounded like an interesting mix between Winnie The Pooh and Frosty The Snowman (if you can imagine that). So, those power plant men that remember Doug, listen to these two voices and think of Doug (and I don’t mean Jimmy Durante who is singing the Frosty the Snowman song. I mean the guy that asks “What’s a lamp post?”):
Watch the Video Here:
Watch the video here:
The Power Plant was still under construction on Unit 2 when I started working in the garage (my second summer) and this meant that there were plenty of nails, screws welding rods and other pieces of shrapnel strewn over the roadways, giving ample opportunity for flat tires. We would often come into work in the morning to find one of the operators’ trucks that had developed a flat tire during the night shift parked in front of the garage waiting patiently for the flat to be fixed.
It seemed like the garage was filled with all the latest equipment for automotive maintenance, however, the flat fixing tools were mostly manual. We did have air powered tools so that we could quickly remove the lug nuts from the tire. From there we would add air to the flat tire so that it was pressurized enough to find the leak. Then we would put it in a half barrel trough full of soapy water to see if we could see the air leaking, blowing soap bubbles. Once the leak was found and marked with a yellow paint pen, the wheel was placed on a special stand that was used to remove the tire from the rim called a “Tire Dismounter”.
So, I became a Flat Fixin’ Fool. And during the three summers that I worked repairing flats, I became pretty fast. I loved fixing flat tires. We used patches the first two years instead of plugs, which means that we fixed the flat from the inside of the tire by placing a patch over the hole inside the tire using special patches and rubber cement.
It wasn’t until the third summer working in the garage that I learned about plugs when my dad and I brought my uncle’s wheel to a garage to repair a leak and I was all ready to watch the repairman take the tire off of the wheel and repair it. But instead, as soon as he found the hole, he just reached up to a shelf, pulled this black worm looking gooey thing and splashed some rubber cement on it and jammed it in the hole using some small kind of awl. Then took out his big pocket knife and cut off the part sticking out and handed the tire back to us and said, “No Charge”. I was shocked.
My first thought was that I couldn’t figure out why someone wouldn’t go through all the fun of wrestling with the tire to remove it from the rim, then clamping it down so that you could easily reach the hole inside the tire with a wire brush so you could buff the spot clean, and then applying the patch and rolling over it with another special Tire Patch rolling pin. My second thought was, “Why don’t we have those plugs at the plant?”
So when I arrived for my last summer as summer help a couple of weeks later, I asked Stanley Elmore why we didn’t use Tire Plugs. The next thing I knew, we had them. Trucks could practically line up outside with their flat tires and you could run up to them with an air hose, fill the tire up with air, spray some soapy water on it until you found the hole, pulled out the nail and jam a plug in it. Take out your pocket knife, cut off the tail sticking out, and then yell “Next!” At least that is what I dreamed about doing. There was a little more work when it actually came down to it.
So, what does all this have to do with Canine Parvovirus? You see, the Jackrabbit population in Oklahoma was being controlled by the ever elusive wily coyote.
The coyotes had caught the parvovirus and were being destroyed almost to the point of distinction (or is it extinction?) by 1980. The Coal-Fired Power Plant ground in north central Oklahoma became a veritable Shangri-la for Jackrabbits. The plant grounds are in the middle of a wildlife preserve created by the Electric Company that not only created the wildlife preserve, but also built the entire lake where all sorts of animals lived. None were more proliferate than the Jackrabbits.
I learned a lot about wildlife working at this power plant. For instance, This may be a picture of a Jack Rabbit, but Larry Riley could tell at 75 yards whether or not it was a Jack Rabbit or a Jill Rabbit. Yep. That’s what they called the female Jackrabbit. There were Jack and Jill Rabbits. I couldn’t tell the difference, but then half the time while Larry was pointing out a rabbit to me I not only couldn’t tell if it was a male or female, I couldn’t even see the rabbit because it was camouflaged in the dirt and weeds.
So, at this point you are probably wondering, “What does the multiplication of jackrabbits have to do with fixing flat tires?” (or maybe you are just wondering why I would go on and on about a subject as mundane as fixing flat tires). I was recently reminded by one of the most stellar of Power Plant Men Shift Supervisors, Joe Gallahar (notice how his name is only one letter away from “Gallahad” as in “Sir Galahad”), that the night crew of operators that brave the weather better than any mail carrier ever did, as one of their formidable duties had to perform Jackrabbit Roundup while riding three-wheel All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs).
It was important that the Jackrabbits not become too complacent around humans in this wholesale bliss, so the operators obviously felt it was their duty to see that they received their proper quota of daily (or nightly) exercise by being chased by ATVs. There were enough thorny plants spread around the grassless dirt that inevitably at least one three-wheeler would end up with a flat tire by the end of the night. And that is how the Canine Parvovirus impacted the flat fixin’ focus of the garage crew. Fixing three-wheeler balloon tires was a slightly different animal altogether, plugs didn’t work as well on these tires, but the patches did.
I seem to remember another Power Plant A-Foreman that reads this post that used to take his three-wheeler out by the blowdown water ponds during lunch time and hone his skills maneuvering around the berm surrounding the two ponds (I won’t tell you his name, but his initials are “Ken Scott”). His tires often needed a quick patch job later in the day. We later went to Four-Wheelers as the added stability proved to be a much needed safety improvement.
There was also a clandestine group of Coyote hunters at the Power Plant, though I didn’t know it at the time. Before (and many years after) the Parvovirus took its toll on the Coyotes, a group of Coyote Hunters would patrol the wilderness looking for signs of the highly elusive coyote.
I first realized something was up years later when I was a passenger in a company truck on our way to the river pumps when the driver slowed the truck down to a crawl as he looked out the window at something in the middle of the road. He put the truck in park, climbed out and picked something up next to the truck. He showed it to me. It was fecal matter left behind by some creature. Andy Tubbs was sure it was Coyote Dung and he wanted it for some reason.
The True Power Plant Electricians, Andy Tubbs and Ben Davis were the “fearless Coyote Hunters”, who were on a constant vigil for Coyotes. This also gave them a chance to give their Greyhounds an opportunity to stretch their legs and get some exercise as a trapdoor to the large wooden box in the back of the truck was sprung open and the Greyhounds went to work chasing down the coyotes and bringing them back to the truck waiting for them at the next mile section. Stretched Coyote skins were sometimes hung up in front of the cooling fans on the main power transformer to dry.
Here is a motivational video of a man named John Hardzog (Not a Power Plant Man) that hunts Coyotes with Greyhounds:
Anyway. the last I heard about Doug House was that he had moved back to Louisiana and is still there to this day. I don’t really know what he’s doing these days as he would be in his mid 80’s (now closer to 90). I do know that I enjoyed the sport that he taught me, and that was how to be a “Flat Fixin’ Fool”.
Another Interesting factoid is that by the time I finished writing this blog, it became July 14, 2012. Bill Moler, the Assistant Plant Manager during the time that I was a summer help became 80 years old today (and since I first posted this, Bill Moler died on July 18, 2018 at the age of 86).
Originally Posted July 21, 2012:
No one knows more about having to put up with the antics of Summer Help than the Power Plant Man Jim Heflin. Though Jim wasn’t completely a True Power Plant Man, he was nevertheless certified as a Bonafide Caretaker of Summer Help Helpers.
I understood after a couple of years of being a Summer Help myself that the reason that Summer Help were called by that name was because they really did indeed need help. Though some may think that this help could best be found in the company of a licensed Therapist, most of the time what they really needed was a good dose of Summer Help chores to keep them out of trouble and to teach them the fine art of labor in its most tedious and repetitious form.
Though I’m not sure, it could have been Jim Heflin that talked Stanley Elmore into allowing the summer help to attach the signs to the barbed wire fence that surrounded the Electric Company property that enclosed the Power Plant itself as well as the lake that was built to be used as cooling water in the condenser. I say that because it didn’t seem like it was a long time after I had answered the phone one day in the garage and I found Jim Heflin’s wife on the other end of the line calling to talk to Jim, that we were assigned to the task of installing the signs.
Jim wasn’t in the shop at the time, so she told me to tell Jim that his wife Brenda had called.
It just so happened that my girlfriend at the time (who I later married and lived happily ever after) and I had a joke character that we would talk about named “Brenda Bulldog”. It is a long story to tell about Brenda Bulldog, so I’ll just say that it has to do with “Otto” in the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip, and his girlfriend “Polly Bulldog” who is always suspicious of another bulldog named “Brenda Bulldog”. I’m sure that you all have the same sort of characters that you talk about in your family… um… don’t you?
So, obviously, when she told me that her name was Brenda, I just had to respond as Otto would respond. I said in a gruff but excited voice (rolling the “R” in the word Brenda in my throat), “Brenda Bulldog?!?” Jim’s Wife responded by asking what I had said, so I responded back exactly as I had the first time, “Brenda Bulldog?!?”
I guess she misunderstood my intentions because she sounded obviously disgruntled as she explained to me in no uncertain terms that she was not a bulldog. I answered back by insisting that this was, “Brenda Bulldog!” She repeated again that she was not a bulldog and told me to just tell Jim to call her at home when he returned to the garage.
When Jim came back from them maintenance shop, I told him that his wife had called, and I added, “By the way. I called her “Brenda Bulldog”. I explained to him that I just couldn’t help it when I heard her name was Brenda, I just had to say, “Brenda Bulldog”. I couldn’t help it. It just came out. He looked a little mystified by my explanation and quickly went into the office to call home.
I guess in hindsight, after having met Brenda in person it probably wasn’t a good idea to have called her “Brenda Bulldog”. First of all, not only did Jim Heflin have the face that reminded you of a likable Basset hound, but Brenda really did kind of remind you of a bulldog (a slight underbite). If I had known that earlier, I am sure I would have insisted that she was Brenda Poodle. That would be the most logical response given the circumstance.
A couple of days later a pickup truck was backed up to the garage and in the back were bundles of thin metal signs. Each sign was about the size of a piece of paper. the sign was white and had red lettering. There were two different signs. One that indicated that this was the Property of the Electric company and that a person should only enter at designated areas. The other had a set of warnings or rules, which I can’t remember anymore.
There were 4,500 of each type of sign. It was our job to take the signs and to bolt them together with small nuts and bolts that were supplied in buckets. As we bolted them together, we placed them in boxes and put them in the back of the truck, where we went around the fence line surrounding the lake and the plant and every third section of fence (about 30 feet) we would mount the sign onto the barbed wire fence. It would take about 4,500 of each of the signs to completely cover the perimeter of the property.
In the back of my mind, I could hear Jim Heflin say to Stanley Elmore after he hung up the call with his wife, “Stanley. Wouldn’t it be a good chore for the summer help to hang all those signs around the 25-mile perimeter of the electric company property?” And Stanley replying, “Jim! That’s a brilliant idea!”
So began the long trek of hanging signs. We had a small blue Mitsubishi Tractor that we used to travel around the fence line in areas where the truck couldn’t easily go.
It had a small trailer on the back of it that we would pile a bunch of sign assemblies (the two signs bolted together). Then we would walk or ride behind the tractor as we went from fence post to fence post mounting the signs evenly between the posts every third section.
This was a brilliant way to teach the young and inexperienced summer help the art of patience as well as the art of subservience. This way, later in life when the summer help became a Power Plant Man-in-Training, or even a mechanic or electrician or husband and was asked to do something that may seem boring to the average citizen, all the summer help had to do was remember the time they had to hang 4,500 signs on barbed wire fences and even the most boring tasks seemed like an exciting ride on a roller coaster in comparison.
For those power plant men who knew me as a janitor, now maybe they can understand how I could find so much enjoyment sweeping the turbine room floor (about the size of two football fields) over and over with a red dust mop.
Anyway, during our time while traversing the wilds along the fence line, it gave the summer help time to think. I was working with a good friend of mine by the name of Tim Flowers. We had become friends while I had attended Oklahoma University in Norman my first year in college (before going to Missouri University in Columbia for my last 3 years). So, my fourth year, 1982, as a summer help, Tim came to work alongside me.
Jim Heflin and Ken Conrad (as well as Opal Ward — or was it Opal Brien at the time) used to take turns shuffling us around the fence line. When we were with Jim Heflin, we would spend our time in the intellectual pursuit of inventing new “Burning Cat” jokes.
This was a skill I had picked up from my father who was a Veterinary Professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. He had come home one day from work with the latest copy of a Veterinary journal. In the journal was a set of “Burning Cat” jokes that he read to me. I’m sure you must already know them.
There were jokes like, “Why did the Burning Cat cross the road?” “So that it could burn on the other side.” Or “Knock, Knock”, “Who’s there?” “Burning”, “Burning who?” “Burning Cat.” Or “What did one burning cat say to the other burning cat when he met him in a bar?” “That’s silly. Everyone knows that a burning cat can’t talk when they’re on fire.”
We made it a goal to come up with at least one new burning cat joke every day. This came in handy the previous semesters when I was in my last year in college and I became known as the “Burning Cat Man” in Columbia, Missouri as I would tell burning cat jokes to the workers at the Subway every time my friend Ben Cox and I would go there to eat a sub sandwich. I would be introduced as “The Burning Cat Man” when customers would come in while we were there.
When we were with Ken Conrad we would think about more esoteric subjects like, “What does a cow think about while it is chewing it’s cud?”
We would go on and on speculating “Maybe the cow is meditating about the full meaning of life and whether or not the self is the center of his being or is it somewhere else, or is it just that he’s thinking that his ear itches and he can’t reach it with his tail. He can only twitch it”
We would think about these things as we would be passing some cows standing opposite across the fence. We would wonder if they stood around trying to think up jokes that would entertain themselves since they had to stand out in the hot sun all day. Maybe they thought about burning cats, or even chickens crossing the road.
At first we couldn’t tell if Ken was even listening to us until one time, the tractor started to swerve a bit and he pulled it to a stop so that he could turn around and tell us that we were the strangest bunch of kids he had ever run across. But I could tell that we had started him thinking about it. I’m pretty sure that it was on his mind for quite a while. “What is that cow thinking about?”
Every once in a while I knew that Ken Conrad had gained some enlightenment because he would suddenly turn to me and say, “Hey Sweet Pea!” And then he would grin real big. Yep. He knew. The meaning of life was within his grasp.
Anyway, long story short, before all the signs were hung by the barbed wire with care (as if it was Christmas in July), I went up to the main office and asked Eldon Waugh if I could talk to him. He was the plant manager. The one I often have referred to as the “Evil Plant Manager”. Mostly because I think he would have liked that title. He worked so hard to obtain it.
I asked him if he had an opening at the plant because I would like to go to work there permanently. He said there was a janitor position opening up and if it was all right with Ken Scott he would hire me. So he paged Ken and asked him to come up to his office.
When he arrived, Eldon asked Ken if he thought they ought to hire me because I wanted to work at the plant full time. Ken said that he would be happy to hire me on as a janitor.
I don’t know if Ken realized at the time how much trouble I would cause in the years that followed, because I always had come across as a fairly decent person up to that point. I don’t know if he ever regretted his decision. I’m pretty sure that Eldon did and I know that Bill Moler regretted it when he returned from his summer vacation to find me standing in the janitor closet across from his office.
He was none too happy about it. Especially since he considered it his job to do the hiring for people in the maintenance shop. Bill knew that I had already expressed my willingness to open my mouth and reveal my innermost thoughts right to someone’s face at the most inappropriate moments. I used to explain that I took after my Italian Mother who always spoke twice before thinking.
That was how I was able to escape the sign hangin’ chain gang and became the Janitor that I was always meant to be! Years later the words had worn off of the signs, but the white signs were still hanging from those barbed wire fences for as long as I can remember. Now that I think about it, I wonder what Jim Heflin was thinking when I became a janitor and he still had to tote babbling summer helps around the wilderness in the hot sun with an endless supply of Burning Cat Jokes.
Was he wishing that he had thought twice before he spoke about having us hang the signs? Or maybe he didn’t and I just imagined that he was slightly upset all because I had said those two impulsive words….. “Brenda Bulldog!”