Originally Posted December 7, 2012:
What happens to a million-dollar forest when left to the fate of two Power Plant Summer Help? I can tell you; the result is not good. Before I explain this statement, let me introduce some summer help to you so that you will have a deeper understanding of my summer help career. It spanned 4 summers for a total of 12 months.
I would like to start out by saying that there were a few summer helps that I thought were very intelligent and goodhearted people. A dear friend of mine named Tim Flowers, who was a friend that I met while attending Oklahoma University my first year in school, was one of the smartest people you might run across in your lifetime. He was also a very hard worker who didn’t mind putting his entire effort into his work.
Blake Tucker from Pawnee also had a brilliant mind and had an honorable work ethic. He was fresh out of High School when he first went to work as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma. During his years as a summer help, I spent a lot of time with him working on mathematical calculations and on programming feats of magic.
Bill Cook, though he didn’t put his back into his work the way some would have liked to see, he did go on to work at the power plant on the labor crew a year and a half before I finally made it onto that team of singularly distinguished characters. Bill confided in me, and I consider him a friend, though I haven’t seen him in 30 years (now 40 years).
David Foster became a friend of mine the second summer when we were summer help together. He only worked at the plant that one summer, but I talked to him a few times during the years when he was going to college, and I would run into him coming out of church or on campus. His father was a dentist in Ponca City.
This leaves me with all the rest of the summer help that worked with me during those 4 summers. I wrote a post about the first summer help I worked with that really didn’t fit the requirements, since you were supposed to be going to school in order to be a summer help. That was Steve Higginbotham. He was 34 at the time and not planning on attending school in the fall. You can read more about him in the post: Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown
Steve was a less than energetic person, but I could understand his lack of enthusiasm. He had been dealt a shorthand in his life and he was making the best out of his situation. What I found hard to understand were summer help that were fresh out of High School that were given the opportunity to work at an illustrious palace of a Power Plant, and they just didn’t want to work.
When I was leaving the house at age 14 to go to my first job where I was working for someone other than myself (I began selling tomatoes from my garden door-to-door at age 8), my dad told me something that became the core of my work ethic. He said, “Son.” Well, I don’t remember if he actually said “Son.” but it was something like that. Maybe he said “Kevin, before you go, I want to tell you something.”
He said that I should do my best at whatever job they give me. I should do a job that I would be proud to show others. He never wanted to hear anything that would make him ashamed of me.
It was a thrill to go work at a German Restaurant as a dishwasher making $1.50 an hour. I worked my tail off each night. I didn’t know there was anything called “breaks”, and I focused on keeping ahead of the work so that I wouldn’t become swamped.
So, it was hard for me, by the time I was 20, to see summer help come to the plant and work real hard at not working. Young football players from Pawnee, who you would think would be able to put their best foot forward, were usually standing around talking smack about that one doofus of a summer help that wanted to get to work right away. That one guy that liked wearing his face shield and earmuffs hanging down from his hard hat swinging the industrial weed-eater to-and-fro all day long.
This one group of summer help that were hired that summer all seemed to have the same bug, except for Bill Cook. Bill didn’t get along with them because he wasn’t from the same bully class that they graduated. At one point during the summer the tension between them and Bill rose to such a level that they had to handle it the only way left.
Bill had to meet one of them outside the gate after quittin’ time to settle matters. The truth of the matter was that Bill had done nothing to stir up their ire. They just didn’t like him. It seemed to be a personality issue with them. The word “bigotry” comes to mind. From what I understand, the cowards received what was coming to them as usually happens when they have mistaken someone to be a weakling and easy pickings.
To illustrate the intelligence of this particular group of summer help (there were 3 of them), let me describe an instance where they were struggling really hard to keep from working. I didn’t understand their desire to keep doing what they were doing in the first place, so I wasn’t about to stay in the situation all afternoon.
Stanley Elmore had told us to mow the area around the main parking lot. This included the area by the main entrance. At that time there were sections of grass on all sides of the parking lot including the side by the garage (which is not there today). Stanley sent me and the 3 of them (not Bill Cook. I think he knew the tension between them and tried to work it so that Bill could be doing other things) out to mow this area with regular push mowers.
It was just after lunch when we started. I knew right away that the three amigos wanted to make this job last all afternoon. I think they were afraid that when they finished, they would be sent to the park to empty the trash cans of the foul rotten fish guts and soiled baby diapers. A job that would make most summer help puke and even bring water to the eyes of a True Power Plant Man.
Well. I grabbed one of the lawn mowers and headed out across the drive to the grass and started mowing around and around one stretch of grass closes to the garage. By the time the others had dragged their mowers out and took their time starting them, I had finished one stretch of grass and went around to the other side of the parking lot to work on that side as well.
The grass on the far side of the parking lot wrapped around by the welding shop and over to the front entrance. So, once this entire section was done, we would be finished. It really wasn’t that much grass to mow. Not when you had 4 lawn mowers all going around in a counterclockwise direction.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three in a huddle together to have a quick discussion (Something they must have learned from playing football). I knew they were going to try to thwart my efforts to quickly finish this job, so they didn’t have to move on to the next adventure. I also knew that there wasn’t any way they were going to be able to stop me.
They had tried to stop me before earlier when we were going out to cut weeds down a long right-of-way. One of them had let his weed-eater string out real far so that the strings were sticking out about 2 feet. He started his weed-eater up so that the strings were whining and turned around so that the strings grabbed my leg and before I knew it, I was flat on my back with a stabbing pain in my knee.
My kneecap had been knocked out of the socket, which I quickly hit with the palm of my hand to knock it back over from the side of my knee. What they didn’t know was that I was used to this sort of pain and finding my kneecap over on the side of my leg was not a new experience for me.
I could see that this had been pre-planned by their reaction. I think they thought it would take me out of commission or make me angry so they could watch me lose my top. The guy that did it apologized in a half sarcastic way, and I told him it was all right. I wiped the dust off of my pants and grabbed my weed-eater and went to work. I could see them at the back of the truck standing there wondering where their plan had failed.
Anyway, back to mowing the grass around the parking lot. I was able to tell immediately what they had planned. Their idea was to hem me in and mow very slowly so that I would have nowhere to go but to follow along behind one of them travelling at a snail’s pace. They were so slow they would take one step, wait a second, then take another step, etc.
So, as I came up behind one of them, I suddenly took a left turn and cut a new path through the grass without even slowing down. I quickly came to the other side of the curb, and I turned left again and was heading back in the direction I came from, just as if nothing was wrong.
I knew the law of physics. Newton’s First Law of Physics. If a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion unless it is acted on by another force. Well. The mind of the weak have little force. Newton was not only one of my favorite Physicist, but he was also one of my favorite Mathematicians as well.
Well. Newton did like sitting in the park under an apple tree reading Plato. — So how did they keep the grass mowed back in 1642? Maybe they trained the grass just to stay small. Why don’t we have grass that just stays short? We could do that easy enough.
Because of the laws of motion and the size of my lawn mower and the speed in which I was mowing, I had calculated that I should be able to finish mowing the entire area in about 15 more minutes (or 900 seconds) if I were to do it all myself. — Funny how things run through your mind when you are mowing grass. No wonder Sonny Karcher loved mowing grass so much.
Anyway. That little story illustrates my point about how some summer help put all their brain power into thinking about how to stay out of work that they couldn’t even conceive of someone thinking outside the box. How difficult was it for me to just turn and mow a patch of grass out in the middle of the stretch of grass we were mowing?
Once they realized that there wasn’t any way to stop me, they went ahead and finished their job. I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to stand out in the sun in 100-degree temperature anyway pretending to mow grass. Didn’t they know that just made the day seem longer?
It was during that summer that the plant manager was sold on the idea of planting a forest around the coal yard to prevent the wind from blowing all the coal away (Oklahoma is windy). So, a million dollars was spent to hire a company to plant a number of rows of trees along the south road next to the coal yard. When the trees were planted, they were sickly little sticks. The summer helps were sent to go water them from time-to-time using the small Mitsubishi tractor pulling a trailer with a tank of water on it.
I have to admit that I never gave the idea much hope. The ground where the trees were planted was hard clay. The company that received the million dollars hardly even put any real usable tree-growing dirt in the hole when they planted the trees.
The trees were planted very close together so that you couldn’t mow around them on a tractor. So, when the weeds started growing tall (…as tall as the trees) and the field had been mowed, Stanley sent a couple of the lazy summer help up there to weed eat around the trees.
I had been told some time in my childhood that one of the fastest ways to kill a tree was to strip the bark off all the way around the tree. Not just strip the bark but cut a little into the tree itself around the base of the tree. If you did this, the tree would die. The only actual living part of the tree is the outside section. Here is a link to a site that describes the part of a tree and a picture from that site:
So, do I need to go on? That’s right. When the summer help had finished trimming the verge around the trees their fate had been sealed. Two summer help in a matter of an hour totally wiped out the million-dollar tree experiment. They had stripped the bark clean around every tree.
Not to be outdone. The Plant Manager spent 2 million dollars to have larger trees installed with plenty of good soil around the embankments on the north side of the coal pile. These were good healthy trees. There was even an irrigation system installed to make sure they were properly watered.
This worked at least a year or two. Long enough for a lot of the trees to catch hold. The only problem is that the wind almost always blows from the west or the south defeating the purpose of the “windbreak” on the north and east side of the coal pile.
Ok. One more summer help story before I go. A friend of mine named Ben Cox became a summer help for a summer the fourth summer I worked as a summer help (how many times can I use the word summer in one sentence?). I had worked with him at the Bakery in Columbia, Missouri and he had followed me home that summer to try his hand at summer helping at the power plant.
Tim Flowers and I had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail. I have mentioned Ben Cox before in the story about Ramblin’ Ann. He and I used to tag team Ramblin’ Ann just to keep our sanity. See the link below as a refresher on Ramblin’ Ann: Ed Sheiver Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann
Ben wasn’t the most physically fit, and we didn’t want to see him have a heart attack at such an early age. Ben, however, held his own as best he could and survived a summer of working outdoors. He actually did better than Tim and I expected.
One day when we were driving to the coal yard Ben asked me why there were large hills of sand piled up across the road from the intake. Instead of telling him that the sand had been dredged out of the intake channel when they were filling the lake and sand was being pumped from the river up to the lake with the water, I told him something else…
I told Ben that they kept the large piles of sand there in case they ran out of coal. They would burn the sand as a last resort. I explained that they didn’t like to burn sand because it burned hotter than coal and it turned into glass in the boiler and really messed things up. But if there was a long coal strike and they totally ran out of coal, they would have to burn sand in order to keep producing electricity.
Tim and I watched closely as Ben mulled this over in his mind. At first, he didn’t believe me, but after I explained why we didn’t burn sand all the time, you could start to see the wheels turning in his mind. Burning sand…. wow! There is sand all over the place! I never told him differently. I’m sure if he tried to sell the idea to someone, he would have found out quick enough.
Comment from the original post:
Your stories are so good! They bring back memories I hadn’t thought of for years. The part about “burning sand” reminded me of the Brown & Root engineer that was looking for an easy way to put holes in a thick set of blueprints. “Someone” (Kenneth Palmer or John Blake might have been involved) convinced him that shooting them with a 22 would be the easiest way to do the job. He then proceeded to take a new set of prints and totally destroy them!
Originally Posted November 30, 2012:
Marlin McDaniel caught my interest when he mentioned that he had a pet Mongoose in his office. The only actual experience I had with a Mongoose had to do with a set of Hot Wheels that my brother and I had as kids. In 1968 shortly after Hot Wheels came out, they had a pair of Hot Wheel cars that was advertised on TV. Don “Snake” Prudhomme or Tom “Mongoose” McEwen. Which do you want to be?
Somehow, I didn’t think Marlin McDaniel was talking about a fancy Matchbox car. Especially since he said he kept it in a cage under his desk. I knew the plant grounds was designated as a wildlife preserve, but at that time in my career, I thought that just meant that there were a lot of Construction Hands around that were still constructing the plant.
The Construction Hands that worked for Brown & Root were wild enough. When they wanted a break from the hot sun, one of them would sneak on over to the gas station / convenience store just down the road and call the plant to report a bomb had been planted somewhere. The construction hands would have to report to the construction parking lot and wait until “all clear” was called, which usually gave them the afternoon off. — That’s known as the “Law of the Hog”, which I will discuss in a much later post (see the post: “Power Plant Law of the Hog“).
I had not been working at the coal-fired power plant very long my first summer as a summer help in 1979 before Mac (as we called Marlin McDaniel) asked me if I would like to be introduced to his mongoose. I said, “All Right”. Thinking…. I’m game… This sounds like a joke to me.
I don’t know if it was because I grew up with my brother and sister, where playing jokes on my sister was a mainstay of entertainment (not to mention a reason for having a close relationship with my dad’s belt, or my mom’s hairbrush), but I seemed to be able to smell a joke a mile away even when there wasn’t one there.
So, I eagerly awaited to see what Mac actually meant by having a “Mongoose in a cage under his desk”. You see, as I mentioned above. I had never had a personal relationship with a regular goose let alone a French one. Well. “Mon goose” sounded French to me. Like “ce qui est?” “c’est mon goose” — Well. I had a number of years of French, but I didn’t remember the French word for Goose… which is actually “oie”.
Since the actual nature of a real mongoose was lost to me through my own ignorance, I had no fear of meeting a mongoose in a cage and actually wondered if it was furry if I might be able to pet it. So, when Mac took this small wire cage out from under his desk and showed it to me, I was not apprehensive that a real mongoose with razor sharp teeth and a terrible disposition was in the little hut in the middle of the cage with his tail sticking out.
Mac explained to me that he must be sleeping and that if he tapped on the cage a little it might wake him up. He tapped the cage a couple of times when all of a sudden out leaped the mongoose. I don’t mean that he jumped out of his hut. I mean that he leaped completely out of the cage. In one swift motion this ball of fur came flying out of the side of the cage, leaping over the top and aiming toward my face.
I stepped out of the way and the mongoose landed on the ground in the office and it laid there. To me, it looked like a squirrel tail with something attached to it. I recognized right away that this was a joke that was supposed to make me jump in fear. Only, Mac had never met my sister. A leaping mongoose wasn’t half as scary as a raging sister that has just had a joke played on her.
I used to have a collection of wasp nest that I kept on my dresser shelves when I was young. I had considered myself the “Fearless Wasp Hunter” as a kid. Whenever I found a wasp nest, I just had to have it for my collection.
So, I was used to being chased by angry wasps as well. I don’t know how many times they chased me down only to knock me head over heels when they caught me by slamming into me with their stingers. They get rather peeved when you throw rocks at their home to try to knock the wasp nest off of the eave of a house.
That is why while I was on the labor crew in 1983 and we were on our way out to the dam in the crew cab I remained calm when a yellow jacket wasp flew in the window.
A crew cab is a pickup truck that has a full back seat.
I was sitting in the middle in the back seat. Larry Riley skid the truck to a stop and everyone piled out. Larry, Doretta, Ronnie, Jim and Bill all jumped out and went over the guard rail to escape the wrath of the wasp in the truck. I remained in my seat and leaned forward so that I could see the front seat. I picked up the stunned wasp by the wings and flicked it out the open door. The others safely returned, and we drove on. — that was me… The fearless wasp hunter.
Anyway, back to the Mongoose cage. If you would like to learn how to make a trick mongoose cage all by your lonesome, you can go to this link:
I only wish they had a picture of it. As it turns out a Mongoose hunts Cobra. Later in life I read a story to my daughter written by Rudyard Kipling called “Rikki Tikki Tavi” where a mongoose hunts down a cobra in a garden. It was then that I remembered Mac’s mongoose in a cage and how I was too ignorant to know to be frightened.
Mac, along with Sonny Karcher first introduced me to Power Plant Humor. I brought some of this home with me. The second summer after hearing Mac and others call our Hard hats “Turtle Shells”, I caught some box turtles in my parent’s backyard and painted hard hat names on them using my sister’s nail polish.
I had three turtles in the backyard labelled “Ken”, “Mac” and “Stan” for Ken Scott, Marlin McDaniel and Stanley Elmore. I probably would have had more, but there were only 3 turtles that frequented our back patio (I’m sure my sister never knew I had used her bottle of nail polish to name turtles).
I think Mac would be about 75 years old today. He was a true Power Plant Machinist that didn’t fit too well as an A Foreman.
Especially since he had to deal with the Evil Plant Manager at the time. He was bitter about his whole Coal-fired power plant experience since he wasn’t told the truth in the first place that prompted him to take the job at the plant. So, he left to go back to the plant where he came from.
The last time I talked to Mac he was in the gas-fired power plant in Midwest City standing behind a lathe machining away as happy as could be.
Actually, his expression looked like someone who was thinking about the next joke he was going to play, or story he was going to tell. I may have mentioned it before, Mac reminds me of Spanky from the “Little Rascals”. I wish I could see him one more time.
Comment from the Original Post:
The Seminole Plant had a mongoose too. Power Plant Man Bill Murray kept his in the plant garage/shop. He really enjoyed attacking new summer students.
Comment from the Previous Post:
Originally Posted on November 24, 2012.
Pigeons were considered a nuisance at the Coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma. They left their droppings in the most unfortunate locations. Invariably, you would reach up to grab a rung on a ladder only to feel the cool squishiness of new fallen droppings.
The Power Plant Men had a conflict when it came to pigeons. Most of the plant grounds are designated as a wildlife preserve and the electric company wanted to maintain a general acceptance of wildlife around the immediate plant as much as feasible. The pigeons, however, seem to have been taking advantage of the free rent space supplied by the boiler structures.
It was decided early on that we couldn’t poison the pigeons for various reasons. The main reason was that other non-pigeon entities may find themselves poisoned as well. Other birds may eat the poison, and other animals may eat the dead pigeons causing a poison pill that would work its way up the food chain.
It was decided that the plant would use live traps to catch the pigeons and then the trapped pigeons would be properly disposed of in an efficient and useful method. That is, all the live pigeons were given to a very thin elderly welder named ET. ET wasn’t his real name. I believe he received this name because he reminded you of ET from the movie.
Especially when he wasn’t wearing his teeth. ET was a small older African American man that you just couldn’t help falling in love with the first time you met him. He always wore a smile from ear-to-ear. He was lovable. He would take the pigeons home and eat them. He would say, “They are called ‘Squab’ you know.”
I realized what a great honor and responsibility it was when I was appointed by Larry Riley when I was on the labor crew to maintain the Pigeon live traps. To me, it was a dream job. What could be better on labor crew than going around the plant each day to check the five live traps we had at the time to see if we had trapped any pigeons.
This is a picture of a live trap for pigeons. You sprinkled some corn in the front of the live trap, and you poured corn inside the live trap to entice the pigeons to enter the trap. Once in, they couldn’t get out.
Unbeknownst (I just had to use that word… Un-be-knownst… I’ve said it a few times in my life but have never had the occasion to actually use it when writing) anyway….. Unbeknownst to Larry Riley and the rest of the Power Plant Kingdom, a year and a half before I was appointed as the “Pigeon Trapper of the Power Plant Realm”, I had actually performed experiments with pigeons.
Ok. It is time for a side story:
One person that may have the occasion to read the Power Plant Man Posts, Caryn Lile (now Caryn Iber), who has been a good friend of mine since the second grade, actually was on my team of college students in my Animal Learning class in our senior year in college at the University of Missouri in Columbia. We had devised an experiment to test if we could teach pigeons to cooperate with each other.
My personal ultimate goal in the experiment (though I didn’t tell anyone) was to see if we could tell if pigeons actually cared for each other. The premise for the experiment was to create a situation where a pigeon would peck a button that would feed another pigeon in a nearby cage.
The pigeon in the other cage could peck their button to feed the other pigeon. Caryn and I attempted various variations (is that redundant?) on our experiment to set up a situation where the pigeon would have to watch the other pigeon peck the button before they could eat, and visa-versa, but we never really reached our goal.
The pigeons would always figure out that all they had to do was both go wildly peck their buttons and both were fed. Our professor at the time was Dr. Anger. How is that for the name of a Psychology professor? Perfect! — I have said in previous posts that the head janitor at the power plant reminded me of Red Skelton, but Dr. Anger sounded just like Red Skelton. Just like him!
The first couple of weeks in Dr. Anger’s class, I found myself confused with his terminology. He used words that were not readily available in the old Red 1960 Webster’s Dictionary that I kept in my dorm room. I finally figured out the secret code he was using and the rest of the semester I understood his every word. This gave me a leg up in his class.
There were some words that Dr. Anger would use a lot. There were various drugs that he would talk about that caused different kinds of changes in learning patterns. The ones that he was most enamored with at the time were “Scopolamine”, “Dopamine” and “Norepinephrine” (pronounced Nor-rep-pin-efrin). I know these words well to this day because I still wake up in the middle of the night with a silent scream saying, “Scopolamine!!!” (prounounced “Scoe-pall-a-meen”).
Caryn and I had discussed my obsession with Dr. Anger and my desire to hear him say the word “Scopolamine”. He said it in such a comical “Red Skelton Way” where his tongue was a little more involved in forming the words than a normal person, that just made a chill run up my spine.
I had noticed that Dr. Anger hadn’t used the word for a few weeks in class, and I just wanted to hear him say it one more time. So, I devised different conversations with Dr. Anger to try to get him to mention the word “Scopolamine”. I asked Dr. Anger once if I could talk to him for a few minutes to ask him some questions.
I figured I could trick him into saying “Scopolamine” at least once before I graduated from college in order for the rest of my life to be complete. I remember telling Dr. Anger that I was interested in testing pigeons using different kinds of drugs to see how the drugs affected their learning abilities and what drugs would he suggest…. Of course, being the dumb college student that I was, as soon as I had spit out the question, I realized how stupid it sounded.
Dr. Anger gave me a look like…. “Ok…. I know where this is going…. you just want to get your hands on drugs”…. Geez. I thought immediately when I saw the expression on his face, “Oh gee whiz. He thinks I’m asking this so that I can get my hands on some drugs….”
It didn’t bother me… because all I needed was for him to say “Scopolamine” once and the next 60 years of my life will have been fulfilled. So, I stayed with it. Unfortunately, there was no mention of “Scopolamine”. I left the meeting unfulfilled.
During our experiment, there came a time when we needed an extra pigeon. The only one available was one that Caryn Lile had tried to train during the first lab. Her team (which I was not on) during that experiment had this pigeon that did nothing but sit there. It never moved and never pecked the button.
They would place it in the cage and try to get it to peck a button, but it just never understood that in order to make all those humans standing around smile, all he had to do was go to the button on the wall and peck it.
When I told Caryn that we needed to use that pigeon for our experiment she became slightly annoyed because they had spent weeks trying to teach this pigeon to peck a button. It was the only one left.
We had to use their “bum” pigeon. She retrieved the pigeon from its cage in a two-quart plastic pitcher (pigeons had a natural reflex which caused them to climb into a two-quart pitcher automatically once you place it over their head and were glad to be held upside down as you carried them around).
She placed it in the cage and left to go back to make sure she had closed the cage in the other room. This gave me a few moments alone with the pigeon. I went to work to teach the pigeon to peck the button.
I knew this pigeon had caused Caryn trouble, so I went straight to “Stage 3 Therapy”. I turned on a white light on the button and turned on a cross on the button as well, I waited a second, and then lifted the feeding tray. The tray stayed up for the regular 3 seconds. By the time the pigeon had looked up from gorging on grain, I had turned off the cross (or plus sign) on the button.
I waited a few seconds and turned the cross back on again… a couple of seconds later, I lifted the feeding tray, and the pigeon went straight to eating. The cross was off again when the tray dropped. The third time was the charm. After watching the cross turn on, the pigeon went straight to pecking the grain in the tray, I knew at that point that I had him.
He was mine. The Manchurian Pigeon was all mine! Then I performed the clincher move on the pigeon. I turned on the cross on the white lit button, but I didn’t lift the food tray. “What?” I could see the pigeon think… “The cross is on! Where is the food?!?! Hey button! What’s up?” — PECK! The pigeon pecked the button. Up went the food tray…. the food tray went back down… the pigeon pecked the button — up went the food tray…. etc.
Caryn walked back in the room and here was a pigeon pecking away at the button and eating away at the grain in the food tray. She asked me what happened to her pigeon. I smiled at her innocently and I said, “That IS your pigeon.”
“No Way! This couldn’t be my pigeon! We spent weeks trying to teach this pigeon to peck that button! We came out on weekends! We even taped pieces of grain on the button to try to get the pigeon to peck the button, but it never would.” I could see the tears in her eyes welling up from thinking about the useless hours spent on something that only took me moments.
You see… I felt like I had a personal relationship with the pigeons. I understood them. The pigeons and I were one…. — yeah, right….. my faith in my abilities as “Pigeon Whisperer” was about to be tested. Anyway, the last day of our Animal Learning class consisted of our team sitting down with our professor in a meeting room to present our findings.
I explained to Dr. Anger that even though our experiments were successful, we didn’t show that the pigeons could actually cooperate with each other to keep both of them fed. I ended our meeting by saying to Dr. Anger that when we began our course, he had talked about different drugs and how they had different effects on learning. He had that suspicious look on his face again.
I went on explaining that he especially had talked about the drug “Scopolamine” many times. My teammates all looked at me (ok… they glared at me) as if they were saying to me, “No! Don’t! Don’t say it!!! I did anyway. I told Dr. Anger, “There is something about the way that you say ‘Scopolamine’ that I really adore. I have tried to trick you into saying it for the past couple of months, but nothing has worked. Before we leave, would it be possible to hear you say ‘Scopolamine’ just one more time?”
Dr. Anger looked around at my other teammates who were all about to pass out as they were all holding their breath. Then he looked right at me and said, “Scopolamine! Scopolamine! Scopolamine!” Caryn couldn’t contain it anymore. She broke out in a nervous laughing jag.
The other girl on our team, just sat their stunned that I would risk receiving a bad grade on such an important thesis. Dr. Anger and I both had a look of total satisfaction. I politely said, “Thank you”. My life since then has been “complete” knowing that the last word I have heard from Dr. Anger was “Scopolamine”. — Oh… yeah. We received an A on our thesis paper.
Ok. End of the long side story.
I told this story so that you would understand why I was eager to become the pigeon trapper of the Power Plant Realm. Pigeons and I were one…. Who could be a better pigeon trapper than me? I knew their every thought…. So, since I already told the long side story… I’ll try to keep the rest of the story shorter…. (I hope)
I was a decent pigeon trapper. I captured a couple of pigeons each day. I carefully put pieces of corn in a row up to the entrance of the trap where I had a small pile of corn inside to entice them to enter their last welfare apartment.
Unfortunately, word had gotten out that the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was the perfect spa for pigeons. Carrier Pigeons had been sent out globally alerting pigeons as far as Rome that this Power Plant had more roosts than the Vatican! Just avoid the one dumb Labor Crew hand that had a few live traps set out….. Before long… This is what our plant looked like:
Around this time, I had been sent to torment Ed Shiever in the Sand Filter Tank (see the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space by a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“) and the job of managing the Power Plant Pigeon Live Traps fell to Jody Morse. Jody was a janitor with Ed Shiever and joined the labor crew just before Ed. He had worked in the warehouse before becoming a company employee.
He liked to ramble as I did, but unlike myself, he was truly a real Power Plant Man. I remember leaving the confines of the Sand filter tank to return for lunch at the Labor Crew building in the coal yard only to hear that Jody Morse had caught 10 or 12 pigeons in one day. What? I could only catch one or two! How could Jody be catching 10 or 12?
This is when I realized the full meaning of the Aesop’s Fable: “The Wind and the Sun”. Ok. I know this post is longer than most. I apologize. I originally thought this would be short…. But here is another side story.
Here is the Aesop’s Fable, “The Wind and the Sun”:
“The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveler coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveler to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger You begin.” So, the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveler but the harder, he blew the more closely did the traveler wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveler who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.”
Isn’t it a great story? Persuasion instead of force. This is what Jody had figured out with the pigeons. He had them lining up to go into the Hotel California pigeon traps (you know… “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave”) until they couldn’t fit any more. He had poured a heap of corn inside the trap and another heap of corn in front of the trap. I bow to Jody for his genius.
My arrogance had blinded me. My belief in my past experience had kept me from seeing the reality that was before me. I resolved from that time to live up to the expectations of my Animal Learning Professor Dr. Anger who had blessed me in May 1982 with words, “Scopolamine! Scopolamine! Scopolamine!” Aesop had the final lesson from our pigeon experiment. “Persuasion is much more effective than force.”
Originally Posted on November 17, 2012:
Louise Gates seemed reluctant to approach me to ask if I wanted to make a donation for flowers for Grant Harned’s funeral. Of course, I did. He was a good friend of mine. We had many carpooling adventures before he left his job as the plant receptionist to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma where he died a little more than a year later in May 1984 in an automobile accident.
Thomas “Grant” Harned had obtained a degree in business from Oklahoma State University before accepting the job at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma. He told me that he thought that once he had his foot in the door that he would be able to advance up the HR chain until he worked his way into a business department downtown at Corporate Headquarters. After all, he had a degree. Downtown is synonymous for Oklahoma City.
Like many struggling new Power Plant men such as Ed Shiever, Dale Hull and others, Thomas lived in a modest (which translates to “tiny”) student rental apartment near campus. Grant lived on West Miller Avenue just off of Main Street in Stillwater. Soon after I had become a janitor and the summer helps I had been carpooling with had left at the end of the summer, I began carpooling with Grant.
Grant was a tall thin man with sandy hair and a moustache that reminded me a lot of Gary McCain (also known as Stick). I have a picture of him around here somewhere that I found many years after his death when we were cleaning out the office that Louise Gates (now Kalicki) had obtained upon becoming the supervisor over HR. It is a picture of him sitting at the receptionist desk.
Louise gave me a picture of myself that had been taken when I was a janitor, and as I filed through the other pictures, I found Grant’s photo. I knew no one else at the plant would want the picture as few knew him or even remembered him by that time. So, I took it as well. Some day when I find where I have placed those pictures, I will post them. (I found the picture since the original post).
As I mentioned, Grant was just out of the Business College at OSU and he was fired up, ready to make a difference in the world. He had all sorts of ideas that he shared with me about how the plant and the company business processes could be improved.
He reminds me now of myself years later when I was carpooling with Scott Hubbard and Toby O’Brien and how I would talk about having smart electricity instead of the same dumb electricity we have had for the past 100 years. Except that Grant’s ideas were about business processes, where my ideas were about electrons moving through a conductor.
For Power Plant Men, carpooling is a way of getting into other Power Plant Men’s minds and understanding them from the inside out. Each day while driving back and forth from the plant you are basically locked into a confined space with one or more other individuals with nothing but your thoughts, or NPR or in the case of Dale Hull and Ricky Daniels… Beer.
In the case of Grant Harned, he soon became frustrated. He had graduated from school and wanted to make a difference somehow. And he wanted it to happen right away. He would tell his manager Jack Ballard his ideas about how he thought things could change, and each time Jack would shoot it down.
I’m not saying that Grant had great business changing ideas that would change the way Power Plants all over the country operated. He just wanted to be listened to, and he didn’t understand that there were built-in reasons why we did it the way we did. The most important was that “We have been doing it this way for 35 years, and we’re not going to change it now.” Jack Ballard kept reminding him of this fact.
For some reason that rubbed Grant the wrong way. Maybe because he couldn’t help thinking outside the box. He obviously had trouble understanding the benefit of doing something the same way for 35 years. I guess he must have missed the class where “because I said so” was a solid business case. If he had stuck around long enough Ben Brandt would have explained that to him.
Anyway. It is true that Power Plant business processes before Grant’s time and for a while after, were based on doing things the same way it has always been done. I suppose that is why electricity for all those years was the same boring thing…. 60 cycles (60 Hz or 50 Hz in Europe) Alternating Current. Regular Sine wave perfectly generated. Each wave identical to each other. — But I’ll talk about electricity later. At this time, I was still a janitor.
Grant finally decided that he was going to look for another job because he realized that he didn’t have a future at the power plant. He had been trained as a businessperson and there was little opportunity to display and cultivate his newfound skills at a power plant in the middle of the countryside where everyone was content with the way things were.
Before he left, he gave me some cassette tapes that he used to play on the way to and from work. I kept them for years until I had worn them out listening to them in my car. Two of the tapes were The Rolling Stones, one of his favorite bands.
I said goodbye to Grant when he left, but I never forgot him. Each year on All Souls Day (November 2), I remember him and David Hankins. He, like most of the men I have carpooled with over the years was like a brother to me. Those that weren’t brothers, were fathers.
It didn’t occur to me until after I first wrote the original post that years later, I too went to Oklahoma State University while I was working at the plant to obtain a degree from the Business College, Spears School of Business. As with Grant, the Electric Company had no use for someone with my newfound skills, so I moved south to Round Rock, Texas to work for Dell. I wonder if Grant was looking down giving me a thumbs up as I walked to the podium to get my diploma.
I mentioned that I don’t know where I placed his Power Plant picture, but I do have other pictures (before I recently found it):
Evidently someone else remembers Grant as I do. I found these pictures of him on a memorial site online. There is a comment there that says this of Grant: “Was known in school and by friends as Grant. He had a great sense of humor and would always make you laugh.”
I agreed with Grant. He really didn’t belong at the power plant. Power Plant life and culture at the time was not geared toward “continuous improvement” and Six Sigma. It was about coming home safely at night to your family and doing a good day’s worth of work and having something to show for it. He was young and ambitious.
I cherish the time I spent with Grant driving to and from work. I remember many of the conversations that we had. Many of them philosophical in nature. Some having to do with the regular questions people have about life and God. I know that he was being drawn toward something greater, and in the end, I pray that he found it.