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!
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