Monthly Archives: May, 2022

Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost

Revised 5/14/2022

This is a repost of a story that was Posted on January 21, 2012.  I rewrote it slightly and added a story to the bottom of it.

When I worked on the labor crew, we used to have a lot of fun cleaning out the boiler.  Especially the economizer section where we had that three-foot crawl space in the middle where you had to lie flat with the hydraulic spreaders and the four-inch vacuum hose trying to suck out the chunks of ash clinkers before the crawl space filled up with ash.  After lying around in this wonderful environment for a day or so, one begins to look around for something to break the drone of the sucking sound of the vacuum and the swishing sound of the crosscut saws welded end on end as they rose and fell in a rhythmic beat propelled by Labor Crew He-men ten feet above this large bundle of Economizer tubes.

Diagram of a boiler – the Economizer is on the right side in blue

Bob Lillibridge was never in a bad mood when it came to cleaning the boiler.  His thin physique allowed him easy access to the crawl space.  The wild glare in his eye and cigarette smile kept everyone guessing what he would do next.  The texture of Bob’s face was like those bikers that have spent too many hours riding their Harleys through the desert without wearing a helmet.  Especially after working in the economizer for a week.

Ok. I'm over exagerating. Bob didn't have this many wrinkles

Ok. I’m over exaggerating. Bob didn’t have this many wrinkles

He was especially cheerful when we were able to work in the Economizer crawl space with Ronnie Banks.  Ronnie Banks, unlike Bob, was not wiry.  His stature was more like a thin black bear standing on his hind legs.  He sort of walked that way too.  I developed a song when Ronnie Banks and I worked together that went to the tune of the Lone Ranger theme (the William Tell Overture), that consisted of saying his name rapidly over and over again (like: Ronnie Banks Ronnie Banks Ronnie Banks Banks Banks).  It felt good to sing this song, and it seemed to amuse Ronnie Banks.

Bob on the other hand knew that Ronnie was highly claustrophobic.  So, he would let Ronnie crawl through the too small hole into the economizer, then would crawl in after him.  After they were in the entrance far enough, Bob would grab both of Ronnie’s legs and hug them as hard as he could.

This would send Ronnie into a Claustrophobic seizure where he would flail himself around wildly yelling unrecognizable words such as “Blahgruuuee” and “uuunnnhh-ope” and other similar pronunciations.  I think Bob Lillibridge just liked to hear Ronnie Banks speaking in tongues.

I have to admit it did give you a strange sort of spiritual high when you saw the smile of pure satisfaction on Bob’s face as his body flew by while he was hugging Ronnie’s legs that were spinning and twirling all round a crawl space that was only three feet high.

I think it was these kind of spiritual moments that gave me the dream to write a story about the day that Bob Lillibridge met the Boiler Ghost.  It went like this:

The Boiler Ghost

From the darkness of the boiler it came.

The Boiler Ghost, black, enormous, full of hate.

I watched with disbelief as it edged its way along.

Its eyes, red and piercing, with a stare of terror.

It glanced first this way and then that.

As its eyes passed through me I was filled with

Such a terrible fright that I felt near the point of death.

The massive head hung down between two pointed

Shoulder blades vulture-like.

The most terrifying thing of all was the gaping mouth

That hung open.

It was full of such a terrible darkness,

So dark and evil as if it were the gates of Hell.

Just then I noticed its eyes had fixed on Bob.

Bob Lillibridge.

He was pressed against the wall by the piercing stare,

His mouth open wide as if to scream.

Eyes bulging out in utter terror.

Mindless with pure fright.

I tried to scream, but felt such a choking force

I could make no noise.

With steady movement the monster advanced toward Bob.

Bob was white as ash staring into that dark empty mouth.

Smoke poured out of a flat nose on that horrid face.

It reached out a vile and tremendous hand

And grabbed Bob,

Who burst into flames at his touch.

In one movement he was gone.

Vanished into the mouth of pure darkness.

The Evil Ghost glanced first this way, then that,

And into the darkness of the boiler it went.

All was quiet,

The roar of the boiler told me I was safe once again.

Until the boiler ghost should decide to return.

I showed this poem to Bob after I had written it down.  He chuckled a little, but didn’t seem too amused by it.  Actually he looked a little worried.

Some time after I had written this poem and was actually on the labor crew (I had been on loan while I was a janitor when we were cleaning the economizer), we were in the bottom ash hopper at the bottom of the #2 boiler while it was offline.  There are two hoppers side-by-side, and we were breaking up some hard clinkers that had built up in there.  I had climbed over the one hopper where we were entering the hoppers to check something out, when all of the sudden someone started sandblasting the other hopper.

Now, these hoppers are quite large and you would have thought that someone sandblasting over on the other hopper wouldn’t really bother you if you were over in the other hopper, but I can assure you, that isn’t the case.  As I was only wearing a t-shirt and jeans, when the sandblast hose started blowing out sand, before I could climb over the hopper to try to escape, I was being pelted by sand.

It felt as if someone was just aiming the sandblast hose over the top of the hopper toward me (which could very well have been the case).  I searched around the hopper to find a place where I was being pelted the least, and then I just crouched there with my face against the side of the hopper to protect it.  Finally after 10 to 15 minutes (though it seemed more like an hour), the sandblast hose was turned off, and I was able to climb over the hopper and out the portal to fresh air.

I don’t think anyone even realized I was over in the other hopper when they decided to turn the sandblast hose on.  I just climbed out of there and went about my business just slightly bruised all over from being blasted by sand.  — It didn’t occur to me until just now that this is the hopper where I  had seen the Boiler Ghost climb out, and Bob was there that day, and may have even been the person holding the sandblast hose…

Later Bob was able to move off of the labor crew. I think he went to the welding shop. Then later during the 1987-88 reshuffle, I think he was told that he was going to have to go back to the labor crew, and that was too much for him after being on the labor crew so long before being able to move off. So, he left the plant. I never knew for certain what happened to Bob. I think he still lives somewhere around Pawnee, Oklahoma.

Comments from previous posts

  1. Ron Kilman 

    I never saw the boiler ghost – but I knew a “boiler jerk” once. He was an evil Plant Manager that would send Mechanics into a dangerously hot superheater/reheat section (off-line just a few hours) to start repairs. He’d also send in laborers to clean out bottom ash while clinkers were still falling.

    Like

  2. Plant Electrician 

    Yes. I have seen the those same two things. I have a post about working below the economizer cleaning the slag screens when the air was about 160 degrees and you had to wear long sleeves to keep from burning yourself when you touched something metal. I may have mentioned in that post about a guy that had to go weld a boiler tube in the high pressure section standing on a plank that was jutted out from the top shelf like a plank on a ship when the unit was only offline for a short amount of time. Crazy!

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew

Revised 5/7/2022

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012.

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were especially blessed by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.

I think he knew that I felt that way, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young, I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins during the summer in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self-service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy.  You can see the house on the hill in the background

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a lifetime wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  Each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 while I was a janitor when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room personally and asked Biff Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shut down over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

Below the Economizer and above the air preheater in the diagram above.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.

As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Emergency Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp).  Anyway, I could go on and on.  Today it feels me with excitement just to say, “1A Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Emergency Lube Oil Pump “.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back online in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time because of the heat.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT and very windy.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a tee shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 160 degrees.  I was wearing my hard hat with a chin strap to keep it from blowing off because there was a strong hot wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.  This meant there was a steady stream of fly ash blowing on me.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

there is a SpongeBob Square Pants episode where he goes to visit his friend Sandy who is a squirrel who lives in a domed area under the ocean.  When he goes in there he suddenly becomes very dry.  —  That was me that day.

Sponge Bob Square Pants all dried up

Anyway, I threw the lanyard for my safety belt around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  Breathing slowly gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habanero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see through the cloud of ash) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon-based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I tried tightening them, but I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out every 10 minutes.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Biff said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross.  He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.

I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.

Comments from the previous repost:

  1. Jonathan Caswell August 12, 2014

    GLAD that you made it….even if the mallet didn’t!!!

    I can dig it. When I was hired for Security at one post…I really looked forward to working with and for that particular Supervisor who’d hired me. No such luck–she was gone in a month or two. THAT hurt! 🙂

  2. Ron Kilman August 13, 2014

    If the environment is too hot for a respirator to function properly in, it’s too hot for people to work in (if safety is actually job #1). I saw too many examples of “Get the Unit Back On is Job #1″.