this was originally posted on January 7, 2012. Added a picture of Sonny Karcher:
When I heard the sad news of the death of Sonny Karcher on 11/11/11, I wished I had been able to attend his funeral. I did reserve some amount of time that night when I heard about his death to remember the times I have spent with Sonny. All of them good, as Sonny was always pleasant to be with even when he was mad about something. Here are some of the first and last things I remember:
When I first worked at the Sooner power plant the summer of 1979, Sonny and Larry Riley were the first two mechanics I was assigned to work with. They taught me how things were at the plant at that time. Both of the units were still under construction, so there was no electricity being generated.
The first job we were to work on (my second day at the plant, since the first day was taking a safety class, and getting my hard hat and safety glasses and getting fitted for ear plugs) was a stuck check valve in the dumper sump pump pit (Not only did I not know what a check valve was, I wasn’t too sure what was meant by a dumper sump, though I did know “pump”).
It took us about an hour to take the truck to the coal yard, as a coal yard foreman Richard Nix had the key and wasn’t going to give it to us until one of his hands was ready to go with us. So we sat in the truck parked in the north entrance of the maintenance shop for almost an hour. When the guy was finally ready, and he had climbed in the back of the pickup, it turned out that he only needed to go as far as the parking lot… about 200 yards away (as the parking lot was at the Engineer’s shack at the time). We dropped him off and drove up to the coal yard, and made our way down belt 2 to the sump pump pit at the tail end of the belt.
We tested the pump and saw that the water would run back into the sump once the pump stopped running. So, it was determined that the check valve was stuck. We drove back to the plant and took the morning break.
About an hour later, Sonny told me to go to the tool room and get the following items (which I thought was a joke, because he gave me such a strange list of tools that I didn’t recognize): Two ¾ box ends, One four foot soft choker, a ¾ come-along, a ¾ shackle, a two foot steel choker a flat bastard file, a large channel lock, and two pry bars (I did recognize Pry Bars and shackle, which I believed was thrown in there just to make it sound legitimate). – I wrote down the list, because I recognized right away that a joke was being played on me and I was going to play right along.
So, I went to the tool room and I asked Bud Schoonover (a very large tall and easy going man at the time), “I need a ¾ come-along (I thought I would choose the most ridiculous item on the list first, just to get on with the joke…). Well. Bud turned around, walked to the back wall, took a come-along off the top of a pallet full of what appeared to be a bunch of junk, and laid it across the tool room gate window (The tool room was still being “organized” at the time).
So, I asked for two ¾ box ends (this was before anyone had been issued toolboxes by the way, that’s why we had to go to the tool room for these things). Well, you know the rest of this part of the story. These are all legitimate items, and I learned a lot that day and the next few weeks about the names of various tools. I kept that list in my wallet for over 10 years as a reminder to myself of when I first came to the plant, and how much I didn’t know then.
So, Larry, Sonny and I went up to the coal yard, and went down to the tail end of #2 belt and removed the check valve from the discharge pipe and brought it back to the maintenance shop to repair. When we returned, we went to lunch. During lunch Sonny told me about how he was hired at Sooner plant.
He said he lived a few miles down the road and had heard that someone was building a lake up on top of the hill he could see from his property. So, he went on over to see who was dumb enough to build a lake on top of a hill, and while he was looking around Orville Ferguson came up to him and asked him if he was looking for a job. Sonny said that he liked to mow grass, and Orville said that he would hire him to mow grass then. Sonny said, if I remember correctly, that he was hired at the same time that Linda Shiever, the timekeeper, was hired and that they were the first two new hires at the plant. The rest were already company employees that had transferred there.
After lunch we went down to the shop and took the check valve apart and what do you know…. There was a piece of coal stuck in the check valve keeping it open. We cleaned it up and put it back together. When we were finished, we took our afternoon break. After break we drove back up to the coal yard and went down to the tail end of #2 Conveyor belt and put the check valve back in the discharge pipe. When we returned to the maintenance shop, we returned the tools to the tool room and filled out our time cards. A day’s worth of work cleaning a check valve.
I did many other things that first summer, since Sooner Plant didn’t have a yard crew yet, I worked most of the time in the maintenance shop bouncing around from crew to crew helping out. I also did a lot of coal cleanup (especially on weekends), since the conveyor system didn’t work correctly when they started it up when they were starting to fire up unit 1.
The second day before I left at the end of the summer to go back to school, I worked again with Larry Riley and Sonny Karcher to fix the exact same check valve. This time we jumped in a truck (we had a lot more trucks now…. Which is another story), went to the coal yard, went down #2 tunnel to the tail end of #2 Conveyor, pulled out the check valve, removed the piece of coal, put the check valve back in, went back up to the truck and back to the maintenance shop just in time for morning break. Sooner Plant had improved a lot in the short three months I worked that summer.
I worked many years with Sonny Karcher in the garage, and fixing coal handling equipment, and just about anything else. He finally left the plant to go mow grass, when after a battle to move to the garage from coal yard maintenance to mow grass, he was told that he was going to have to go back to the coal yard to be a coal yard mechanic, because he was real good at that and they just needed him up there. So he left.
He talked to me about it before he went, that’s how I know what was on his mind. He said, “Kev, you remember when you first came here and I told you how they hired me to mow grass? Well, that’s what I want to do. Mow grass. So I’m going to have to go back home and do just that.”
After that, the only times I remember seeing Sonny was when he was mowing grass down at Bill’s corner, with a smile on his face waving at the Sooner plant employees on their way home from work.
I can see Sonny talking to St. Peter at the gates of heaven now….. The only words I can hear Sonny saying is, “I like to mow grass”… and St. Peter nodding with approval as he lets him through the gates.
Originally Posted March 16, 2012. Leroy Godfrey passed from this earth on March 9, 2012:
One of the most ornery men I have ever met in power plant life was the Electrical Supervisor at the Power Plant named Leroy Godfrey. Compared to the Power Plant Heroes of my day, the old school Power Plant Men were from a different breed of character that I would describe more as Power Broker Men. They worked in a culture of total rule much the way dictators and despots rule their people.
They expect immediate respect before they elicit any behavior worthy of respect. Their position spoke for itself. They generally wore a frown on their face that has been embedded in their facial feature permanently. This was pretty much what I thought about Leroy Godfrey when I first met him.
My first real encounter with Leroy Godfrey was when I joined the electric shop as an electrician. I quickly realized that to my benefit, I was a pawn in a game that was constantly being played between Leroy Godfrey and the Assistant Plant Manager and the Plant Manager. For reasons that I will relate in a later post, Bill Moler the Assistant Plant Manager and the Plant Manager Eldon Waugh did not want me to be promoted from a Laborer to an Electrician.
As soon as Leroy Godfrey realized this, he did everything in his power to make sure I was the person chosen to fill that position. It didn’t matter to Leroy if I was the best qualified (which I turned out to be based on performance ratings), or that I had less seniority than most everyone else on the labor crew.
I first considered becoming an electrician when I was a janitor and Charles Foster an Electrical B Foreman asked me if I would be interested, because I liked to clean things and a lot of what an electrician does is clean things (believe it or not… in a power plant). I was thinking at the time that I was probably going to try to be an operator before Charles asked me that question. So, I started preparing myself by taking correspondence electrical courses offered by the company and a house wiring course at the Vo-Tech.
To make a much longer story short (as the details belong to another story), I was selected to fill the vacancy in the Electric Shop. Then I found myself under the rule of Leroy Godfrey, who was happy as a lark that I made it to the electric shop because he had won a major victory in exerting his power over his fellow power brokers, but you couldn’t tell that by looking at him. Leroy had a constant scowl on his face.
He looked like he was mad at the world. Sometimes you would walk up to him and start talking to him and he would just walk away without saying a word as if he didn’t care to hear what you had to say. Here is his picture that shows his expression when he knows he has just won the current round of whatever game he is playing at the time.
I was the type of person that was very blatantly honest when I didn’t know something. I was not a seasoned electrician when I joined the shop and I didn’t pretend that I was. I looked to my fellow crew mates to teach me everything I needed to know and they did an excellent job.
The people on my crew were all real Power Plant Men (and Lady) of the New school of thought. Once after I had been an electrician for a couple of years (2 years and 2 months to be more exact), Leroy asked me to go to the shop and get the Ductor because he wanted to test the generator shaft during an overhaul. When I asked him where the Ductor was and what did it look like, he stood there in amazement at my stupidity. He asked me over and over again to make sure he had heard me right that I didn’t know what the Ductor was.
I answered him plainly. “No. I don’t know what the Ductor is. But I’ll go get it.” He said he couldn’t believe that anyone in his electric shop wouldn’t know what a Ductor was. That is just a taste of the his management style. Actually, it turned out that I had used the Ductor before, but I didn’t remember the name. To me it was a very precise ohm meter (a milli-ohmmeter).
This is the picture of a new ductor. We had a very old model.
I could go on about different instances that took place to illustrate how Leroy managed his employees, but it isn’t really the main point of this post. It is important, I believe, to understand why the old school culture was the way it was. Leroy was very smart. He had more raw knowledge and understanding in his little finger than the plant manager and the assistant plant manager put together. Based on that, today you would have thought that he would be in a plant manager position making all the important decisions.
That is not how the system worked while Leroy was moving up in the ranks. In the era when the old school of thought prevailed, the electric company could run as inefficiently as it wanted, and it was guaranteed a 10% profit, based on revenue minus expenses and depreciation. There was little incentive to improve plant operations other than to at least maintain the capital assets by spending at least as much as depreciation on capital projects.
In this environment people were promoted into higher positions based on friendship more so than ability. So, if you were someone’s roommate in college (and we all knew examples of this), it didn’t matter if you knew anything other than how to sign your name at the bottom of a requisition, you could eventually make your way up to plant manager or even higher as long as your roommate was one step higher than you.
To someone with brains such as Leroy Godfrey, this was very frustrating. Here he was the Electrical Supervisor at a power plant with the two people above him who used political games to make major decisions. Leroy, of course, could out maneuver them based on brain power alone, and would take great pleasure in constantly proving them wrong whenever they made a decision without consulting him first. I could always tell when Leroy was happiest. It was when he had the biggest scowl on his face. I suppose it was because he was getting ready to checkmate his opponents.
I found out later by Bill Bennett our A foreman that the reason that Leroy would act like he wasn’t listening to you was because he was deaf in one ear. If you were standing on one side of him, he couldn’t hear you. So, you could be standing there talking away, and Leroy would just walk away as if he didn’t hear you, and that would be the reason.
Something happened on July 2, 1982 that changed the power plant world. Especially in Oklahoma. History will record it as July 5, but it was known in the financial world after the market closed on Friday July 2. This was the failure of the Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma City.
It was the beginning of the end of the Oil Boom of the late 70’s after the oil crisis of the mid and later 70’s. Suddenly the future demand for electricity turned downward in Oklahoma and for many years to come there would be a surplus of electricity on the market. What made it worse was that there were laws put in place to help up and coming co-generation plants that were still on the books (Such as PURPA, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978) in which small co-generation companies could feed off of the large electric companies guaranteeing their success at the detriment of the major electric companies.
During the years that followed, the electric company found that they had to compete for the electricity they sold. This is where the new school of power plant men began to shine. They had been cultivating their culture at our plant for years trying to prove their worth, not aware and not really caring that it was “who you knew” and how much you were liked by the person making the decision that determined your promotion to a higher position. The new power plant men had become experts in their fields and took pride in their work.
The board of directors of the electric company must have known that the old school employees would not cooperate with the new way of thinking, because by 1987 they decided to early retire anyone over 55 years old, and then layoff employees where the company had over compensated based on their earlier estimates of growth. A first in the history of the Electric company.
This is when Leroy and the other old school power broker men were given an incentive to early retire. At the retirement party people stood up and said things about the different retirees. Usually just funny things that may have happened to them over the years. Leroy’s daughter Terri stood up and said that she understood what the electricians must have gone through working for Leroy because, remember, she had to LIVE with him! We laughed.
To put it in perspective. Leroy worked almost his entire adult live at that point for the power company. Over 34 years. — During the years under the old school plant manager and assistant plant manager at our plant Leroy had to face one abuse after another.
To name just one instance, the plant manager conspired to discredit Leroy’s best friend to the point that he was fired in disgrace, just so that Leroy would be friendless and have to turn to them for friendship (to give you an understanding as to why I often refer to the plant manager as the “evil plant manager”). This was known to us because while the plant manager was planning this with a hired undercover “snitch”, he was taping the conversations, which were later used in court to clear Leroy’s best friend Jim Stevenson (See last Friday’s Post: Power Plant Snitch).
Can you imagine the stress this puts on a person that then has to go home at night and be a supportive husband and father? Leroy lived another 24 years after he retired from the company. That is a long time to overcome the bitterness left over from the abuse Leroy took from the Manager and Assistant Manager at the plant.
There are two things that make me believe that Leroy was finally able to find the great peace and dignity in his life that all good Power Plant Men deserve. First, it is the loving words of his daughter Terri who many years ago, couldn’t resist “feeling our pain”. ” Daddy/Poppy, your love will forever live within us. Thank you for setting such a decent moral tone and instilling your high standards in us.”
Secondly, I know now where Leroy’s greatest love has always been. He didn’t measure himself by how high he could rise in the totem pole of managerial positions in a power company. He didn’t need to prove his self worth by how much the plant depended on his knowledge.
I believe that he had one main goal in life and once that goal was fulfilled, he had no other reason to remain. You see, just two weeks prior to Leroy Godfrey’s death, his wife Lydia had passed away on February 22, 2012. Enough said. Leroy’s heart and soul is right where it has always belonged and where it remains for eternity. Alongside his wife Lydia.
Originally Posted: May 4, 2012. I added some comments from the original post at the end of this post:
I wrote an earlier post about days some people would have liked to take back. There was one day that I would like to take back. It was the day Ken Conrad was teaching me how to setup and operate the two large water cannons that we used to irrigate the plant grounds. During my second summer as a summer help (1980), when I had about 6 weeks left of the summer, I was asked to take over the watering of the plant grounds because Ken Conrad was needed to do other jobs and this was taking too much of his time.
The first summer I worked as a summer help, whenever it rained, by the time you had walked from the Engineer’s Shack parking lot to the Welding Shop entrance, you felt like someone 10 feet tall. Because the entire distance would turn into a pool of red mud and as you took each step, you grew taller and taller as the mud stuck to your feet. Just before you entered the maintenance shop, you could scrape your feet on a Boot Scraper to whittle you down to size so that you would fit through the doorway.
The entire main plant grounds would be nothing but mud because there wasn’t any grass. It had all been scraped or trampled away while building the plant and now we were trying to grow grass in places where only weeds had dared to trod before. When trucks drove into the maintenance garage, they dropped mud all over the floor. It was the summer help’s job the first summer to sweep up the shop twice each week. If it had been raining, I usually started with a shovel scraping up piles of mud. So, I recognized the importance of quickly growing grass.
The day that Ken Conrad was explaining to me how to setup and operate the water cannons, I was only half paying attention. “I got it. Roll out the plastic fiber fire hose, unhook the water cannon from the tractor, let out the cable. turn it on the fire hydrant… Done….” That was all I heard. What Ken was saying to me was a lot different. it had to do with all the warnings about doing it the correct way. I think in my mind I wasn’t listening because I was thinking that it really wasn’t all that difficult.
So, here is what happened the next morning when I went to setup the first water cannon to water the field just north of the water treatment plant up to the Million Gallon #2 Diesel Oil Tanks berms. I thought… ok… Step one: roll out the hose… Hmmm… hook it up to the fire hydrant, and then just pull the water gun forward with the tractor and it should unroll the hose….
Well. my first mistake was that I hadn’t disengaged the spool so that it would turn freely, so when I pulled the tractor forward, off popped the connector on the end of the hose attached to the fire hydrant. That’s when I remembered Ken telling me not to forget to disengage the spool before letting out the hose. That’s ok. Ken showed me how to fix that.
I beat on it with a hammer to knock out the clamp and put it back on the end of the hose after I had cut off a piece with my pocket knife to have a clean end. Disengaged the spool, and tried it again… Nope. Pulled the end off again… I was letting it out too fast. That’s when I remembered Ken Conrad telling me not to let the hose out too fast or it would pull the end off. I repaired the connector on the hose again.
After finally laying the hose out and hooking it up to the water cannon, I disconnected the water cannon from the tractor and hooked up the hose and began pulling the steel cable out of the cable spool by pulling the tractor forward. Well, at first the water cannon wanted to follow me because you had to disengage that spool also, (as Ken had showed me).
So I thought I could just drag the water cannon back around to where it started, but that wasn’t a good idea because I ended up pulling off the connector on the fire hose again, only on the other end than before. Anyway, after repairing the hose at least three times and getting everything in position twice, I was finally ready to turn on the water.
That was when things turned from bad to worse. The first thing I did was turned on the fire hydrant using a large wrench where the water pressure instantly blew the hose out of the connector and water poured out into a big mud puddle by the time I could turn it off. then I remembered that Ken had told me to remember to make sure the screw valve was closed when you turned on the fire hydrant or else you will blow the end off of the hose….
So, I repaired the hose again, and reconnected it (standing in mud now). Closed the screw-type valve and turned on the fire hydrant. Then I opened the screw-type valve and the end of the hose blew off again… Then I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me to make sure I open the valve very slowly otherwise I would blow the connector off of the hose. So I repaired the hose again and hooked everything up (while standing in a bigger mud puddle) and tried it again.
I opened the valve slowly and the water cannon began shooting water out as I opened the valve up further and further… until a hole blew out in the middle of the hose shooting water all over the tractor. So I turned off the water again as I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me not to open the valve very far or it would start to blow out holes in the hose. I went and patched the hole the way that Ken Conrad has showed me and went back to try it again… walking through mud over to the fire hydrant, where there was an increasingly larger puddle.
I remember that it was around lunch time when I was standing in the middle of that field covered with mud standing in what looked like a mud hole that pigs would just love, trying to repair a hole in the hose for the 3rd or 4th time that it dawned on me how different my morning would have been if I had only paid more attention to Ken when he was explaining everything to me the day before.
I skipped lunch that day. Finally around 1 o’clock the water cannon was on and it was shooting water out about 40 yards in either direction. I spent that entire day making one mistake after the other. I was beat by the time to go home.
After sleeping on it I was determined not to let the experience from the day before intimidate me. I had learned from my mistakes and was ready to tackle the job of watering the mud in hopes that the sprigs of grass would somehow survive the 100 degree heat. As a matter of fact, the rest of the next 6 weeks the temperature was over 100 degrees every day. This was Oklahoma.
When I first took over for Ken, the watering was being done in three shifts. I watered during the day, the other summer help watered in the evening and a fairly new guy named Ron Hunt watered during the late night shift (not the Ron Hunt of Power Plant Man Fame, but a guy that eventually moved to the plant in Midwest City and became an operator). After two weeks, they did away with the night shift and I was put on 7 – 12s. that is 7 days a week, 12 hour days.
I didn’t own a car so, I had to catch a ride with someone in the morning in order to be at the plant by 6am. Then I had to catch a ride back to Stillwater in the evening when I left at 6:30pm each day of the week. The Operators and the security guards worked out good for this. I would ride to work in the morning with whichever operator was kind enough to pick me up at the corner of Washington and Lakeview (where I had walked from my parent’s house) and whichever security guard that was going that way in the evening.
I found out after a few days on this job that Colonel Sneed whose office was in the Engineer’s Shack was in charge of this job. So he would drive by and see how things were going. After a while I had a routine of where I would put the water cannons and where I would lay the Irrigation pipes. He seemed to be well pleased and even said that I could go to work for him when I was done with this job.
I told him that I was going to go back to school in a few weeks and he said that he would be waiting for me the next summer. Only Colonel Sneed, who was an older man with silver hair wasn’t there when I returned the next summer. He had either retired or died, or both. I never was sure which. I did learn a few years later that he had died, but I didn’t know when.
Besides the first day on that job, the only other memorable day I had was on a Sunday when there wasn’t anyone in the maintenance shop, I remember parking the yellow Cushman cart out in the shade of 10 and 11 belts (That is the big long belt that you see in the power plant picture on the right side of this post) where I could see both water cannons and the irrigation pipes.
I was watching dirt devils dance across the coal pile. This was one of those days when the wind is just right to make dirt devils, and there was one after the other travelling from east to west across the coal pile.
The Security guard was on his way back from checking the dam when he stopped along the road, got out of his jeep and sat on the hood and watched them for 5 or 10 minutes. For those of you who might not know, a dirt devil looks like a miniature tornado in training as it kicks up the dirt from the ground. These dirt devils were actually “coal devils” and they were black. They were lined up one after the other blowing across the the huge black pile of coal. You can see the size of the coal pile from this Google Image:
Then as the security guard on the hill and I were watching the coal pile, this long black finger came flying up from the coal pile reaching higher and higher into the sky twirling itself into one huge coal devil! It traveled toward me from the coalyard and across the intake coming straight toward where I was. It ended up going directly between the two smoke stacks which are each 500 feet tall. This coal devil was easily twice the size of the smoke stacks. Tall and Black. After it went between the smoke stacks it just faded like dust devils do and it was gone.
As the monstrous black coal devil was coming toward the plant, the security guard had jumped in his jeep and headed down to where I was parked. He was all excited and asked me if I had seen how big that was. We talked about the dust devils for a few minutes, then he left and I went back to watching the water cannons and irrigation pipes.
I had to wonder if that big coal devil had been created just for our benefit. It seemed at the time that God had been entertaining us that Sunday by sending small dust devils across the coal pile, and just as they do in Fireworks shows, he had ended this one with the big grand Finale by sending the monster-sized coal devil down directly between the smoke stacks.
Some times you just know when you have been blessed by a unique experience. We didn’t have cameras on cell phones in those days, and I’m not too quick with a camera anyway, but at least the guard and I were able to share that moment.
I began this post by explaining why it is important to listen to a Power Plant Man when he speaks and ended it with the dust devil story. How are these two things related? As I pointed out, I felt as if I had been given a special gift that day. Especially the minute it took for the monster coal devil to travel almost 1/2 mile from the coal yard through the smoke stacks.
It may be that one moment when a Power Plant Man speaks that he exposes his hidden wisdom. If you aren’t paying close attention, you may miss it. I did Ken Conrad an injustice the day he explained how to run the irrigation equipment and it cost me a day of pure frustration, but the real marvel was that as I made each mistake I could remember Ken telling me about that.
Ken had given me a full tutorial of the job I was about to do. How many people would do that? If I had only been listening, I would have heard Ken telling me much more than how to do the job. I would have seen clearly how Ken cared enough about me to spend all the time it took to thoroughly teach me what he knew.
That is the way it is with True Power Plant Men. Ken could have said, “roll out the hose, pull out the cable,, turn the water on … and good luck…”, but he didn’t. he went through every detail of how to make my job easier. I may have felt blessed when the monster coal devil flew between the stacks, but it was that day a couple of weeks earlier when Ken had taken the time and showed his concern that I had really been blessed.
I didn’t recognize it at the time. But as time goes by and you grow older, the importance of simple moments in your life come to light. My regret is that I didn’t realize it in time to say “Thank You Ken.” If I could take back that day, I would not only listen, I would appreciate that someone else was giving me their time for my sake. If I had done that. I’m sure I would have ended the day by saying, “Thank you Ken.”
Ken reminds me of my dad, who, though not a power plant man per se (he was an electrical engineer, that’s pretty close,right?), would give us way more details than we thought we needed. And now I see myself doing it to my grandson (age 11), who is likely to roll his eyes and say, “I already know that!”, when I know darn well he doesn’t. Then I try to resist doing the “I told you so” dance when he finds out he doesn’t already know that. Unfortunately, he does not resist doing the dance when we find out that he did, in fact, already know it!
zensouth May 5, 2012
I like your blog because the stories are always substantial. It takes a while to take in all the flavor of it, like sampling a fine meal or a rich pastry. I do dislike the visual theme, but I think it forces me to concentrate on the content of the story.
Plant Electrician May 5, 2012
Thanks Zen, I understand your feelings. A coal-fired power plant is hardly a normal setting. It was built way out in the country because no one really wants one in their backyard. It was the place I called home for many years. I know that when I left I took with me silicon-based ash, a couple of pounds of coal dust and asbestos particles in my lungs. I will not be surprised the day the doctor tells me that I have mesothelioma. I realized after I left, that it wasn’t the place, it was the people that were so dear to me that I called “home”.
jackcurtis May 13, 2012
I’ve served time with similar folk, people who had more time for a kid learning a job than the kid had for them. Two things stuck besides an entirely different evaluation of those people over time…first one was the old (now): “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you know that ain’t so.” And the other was, remembering the old guys who had patience with you along the way, it’s always like remembering your parents and you pay it forward…(and I still think you have a book in you)
Originally published on May 25, 2012:
Either this was the luckiest day of my life, or a day where stupidity seemed to be my natural state of mind. This particular day occurred sometime during September 1983. The Main Power transformer for Unit 1 had shutdown because of an internal fault during an exceptionally hot day during the summer and was being replaced.
While the unit was offline, while I was on the labor crew, I was asked to help out the electricians who were doing an overhaul on the Precipitator. The Precipitator takes the ash out of the boiler exhaust before it goes up the smoke stack. Without it, you would see thick smoke, instead, you see only clear exhaust. At the time the electricians I worked with were Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers. I had already applied for a job in the electric shop and was waiting to see if I was going to be offered the job. This gave me the chance to show the electricians what a brilliant worker I was.
Bill Rivers told me to go in the precipitator and wipe down the insulators that held the wire racks in place. He showed me where they were. I wore a regular half-face respirator because the fly ash is harmful to inhale.
Just before I went in the precipitator door to begin wiping down the insulators using a Scotch Brite Pad, Bill Rivers pointed to my flashlight and said, “Don’t drop your flashlight in a hopper otherwise you will have to make sure that you get it out of the hopper before we go back online.” I told him I would be sure to hold onto my flashlight (noticing that Bill had a string tied to his flashlight which was slung over his shoulder) and I entered the precipitator door.
The inside of the precipitator was dark. 70 foot tall plates are lined up 9 inches apart. Wires hang down between the plates and when the precipitator is turned on, the wires are charged up to around 45,000 volts of electricity. The wires each have a 30 pound weight on the bottom to keep the wires straight, and the wires are kept apart and lined up by a rack at the bottom. One end of the rack which is about 25 feet long is held in place by an electrical insulator about 3 feet long. This is what I was supposed to clean. The light from the flashlight lit up the area around me because everything was covered with the fine white powder reflecting the light.
The first hopper I came to was full of ash up to the top of the hopper, but just below where the insulator was mounted to the edge of the hopper. So, I worked my way down to the ledge along the edge of the hopper and dangled my feet down into the ash as I prepared to wipe down the first of the four insulators on this particular hopper. Just as I began, the precipitator suddenly went dark as my flashlight fell from my hand and down into the hopper. — Oh boy, that didn’t take long.
I sat there for a minute in the dark as my eyes grew accustomed to the small amount of light that was coming through the doors. After I could see again, I reached my hand into the ash to feel for my flashlight. The ash was very fluffy and there was little or no resistance as I flailed my hand around searching for it. I leaned over farther and farther to reach down deeper into the ash. I was at the point where I was laying down flat on the ledge trying to find the flashlight, and it was no where to be found.
I pulled myself over to the side edge of the hopper and dropped myself down into the ash so that I could reach over where I had dropped the light, but I was still not able to find it. At that point, I was leaning out into the hopper with only my one index finger gripping the ledge around the hopper. I had a decision to make… I thought I would just bail off into the ash to see if I could find the flashlight, or I could give up and go tell Bill Rivers that I had done the one thing that he told me not to do, and in record time.
I don’t usually like to give up until I have exhausted every effort, so here was my dilemma. Do I let go and dive into this ash to retrieve my flashlight? Or do I leave the hopper and go tell Bill? I regretfully decided to go tell Bill. So, I climbed up out of the hopper, with my clothes covered with Ash (as we did not have fly ash suits at the time and I was wearing my coveralls). I made my way to the precipitator door and once I was outside, I determined which hopper I had been in when I dropped my flashlight.
I found Bill and told him that I had dropped my flashlight in a hopper full of ash. He told me to get the key for that hopper and open the door at the bottom and see if I could find the flashlight. Unlike the picture of the hoppers above, we had a landing around the base of the hoppers by the access door so you didn’t need a ladder to reach them.
Curtis Love had been watching the door of the precipitator for me while I was supposed to be wiping off the insulators. He came down with me, and we proceeded to open the access door at the bottom on the side of the hopper. When I opened the door both Curtis and I were swept backward as a stream of fly ash shot from the door. The ash fell through the grating to the ground below. We regained our footing and watched as a tremendous pile of ash grew below us. If the flashlight had come out of the doorway, it would have remained on the landing since it was too big to go through the grating, but it never came out.
After the ash had finished pouring out of the hopper as if it were water, I reached down into the remaining ash to see if I could feel the flashlight. Still I was unable to find it. There was about 4 more feet from the doorway to the bottom of the hopper, so I emptied out as much ash as I could using my hard hat for a shovel. Then I pulled my body head first into the hopper and I reached down as far as I could in the bottom of the hopper, but I couldn’t find the flashlight.
So, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Curtis Love to hold onto my legs as I lowered myself down to the throat at the bottom of the hopper. I lowered myself down until I had half of my face laying in the ash. At this point only one of the two filters on my respirator was able to function as the other one was down in the ash. I reached my hand into the top of the feeder at the bottom of the hopper and with my finger tips I could just feel the flashlight. I had reached as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach far enough to grip the flashlight.
All of the sudden my head dipped down into the ash and my hand went around the flashlight. I was not able to breathe as my respirator (and my entire head) was entirely immersed in ash. Everything went dark. I struggled to get up, as Curtis had let go of my legs and I had plunged head first into the bottom of the hopper. I had one hand free as the other one held the flashlight. I used it to push against the opposite wall of the hopper to raise my head up out of the ash. I still couldn’t breathe as my respirator was now clogged solid with ash. When I tried to inhale, the respirator just gripped my face tighter. Finally with my one free hand pushing against the hopper wall to hold my head out of the ash, I reached up with the hand that held the flashlight and pushed against my respirator enough to break the seal around my face so that I was able to get a breath of air.
Then I quickly pulled myself out of the precipitator as I heard Curtis saying the mantra that I had heard one other time (as I indicated in the post about Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love). He was saying over and over again, “I’mSorry,I’mSorry, KevinI’mSorry, ThoseGuysWereTicklingMe. I’mSorry,IDidn’tMeanToLetGo,ITriedToHoldOn, butThoseGuysWereTicklingMe.”
Looking around I spied a few Labor Crew hands sneaking away. As this happened before when I was sandblasting in the sand filter tank when Curtis Love had turned off my air, this wasn’t the first encounter I had with Power Plant Men In-Training playing a Power Plant joke on me. I told Curtis to forget it. I had retrieved my flashlight and everything was all right. I was covered from head-to-toe with fly ash, but that washes off pretty easily.
It dawned on me then that when I had dropped the flashlight, it had sunk clear to the bottom of the hopper and down into the throat of the feeder at the bottom. If I had dived into the ash in the hopper from up above, I would have fallen right down to the bottom of the hopper and been engulfed in ash. My feet would have been pinned down in the feeder pipe, and that would have been the end of me. It probably would have taken many hours to figure out where I was, and they would have found only a corpse.
While I was hanging on the edge of the hopper with only the tip of my index finger gripping the ledge, I was actually considering letting go. There never would have been an electrician at the power Plant named Kevin Breazile. I never would have married my wife Kelly, and had my two children Elizabeth and Anthony. I would not be writing this story right now. If it had been left to my own stupidity, none of those things would have happened.
I believe it was my guardian angel that had talked me out of letting go (or had actually been standing on my finger). As stubborn as I was, and against my nature, that day I had decided to give up searching for my flashlight and seek help. That one momentary decision has made all the difference in my life.
Since that day I have had a certain appreciation for the things that happen to me even when they seem difficult at the time. I have lived a fairly stress-free life because each day is a gift. Currently I work in a stress-filled job where individual accomplishments are seldom rewarded. From one day to the next I may be laid off at any time. I still find a lot of satisfaction in what I do because it was possible that it never would have happened. I have been kept alive for a purpose so I might as well enjoy the ride.
I find a special love for the people I work with today, because they are all gifts to me. I try to pay them back with kindness… when that doesn’t work.. I try to annoy them with my presence… Just to say….. — I am still here!
Comments from previous repost:
Originally Posted on August 11, 2012. Added a picture of Larry Riley:
When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened 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 Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.
I think he knew that, 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.
I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:
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 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.
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 life time 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 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 and asked Bif Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.
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 shutdown 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.
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.
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:
Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT. 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 not wearing my hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.
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.
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 Habenero 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) 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.
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 all the time.
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.
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:
I had worn the rubber off of the mallet. When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif 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.
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. 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 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, 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. 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 had been doing it this way for 35 years, and we’re not going to change it now.”
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 business person and there was little opportunity to display and cultivate his new found 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 picture 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 days 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.
Originally Posted on November 24, 2012: I added a picture of Jody Morse
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 eldery 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. 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 mind 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. Angers 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 “Scopalamine”, “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, “Scopalamine!!!” (prounounced “Sco-pall-a-meen”).
Caryn and I had discussed my obsession with Dr. Anger and my desire to hear him say the word “Scopalamine”. 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 “Scopalamine”. 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 “Scopalamine” 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 “Scopalmine” once and the next 60 years of my life will have been fulfilled. So, I stayed with it. Unfortunately, there was no mention of “Scopalamine”. 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 it’s 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 affects on learning. He had that suspicious look on his face again.
I went on explaining that he especially had talked about the drug “Scopalimine” 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 ‘Scopalamine’ 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 ‘Scopalamine’ 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, “Scopalamine! Scopalamine! Scopalamine!” 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 “Scopalamine”. — 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 thoughts…. 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 the 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, “Scopalamine! Scopalamine! Scopalamine!” Aesop had the final lesson from our pigeon experiment. “Persuasion is much more effective than force.”
Originally posted: April 15, 2013:
“Something is in the water in Muskogee.” That is what I used to say. Something that makes people feel invulnerable. That was what I attributed to David Stewart’s belief that he could jump up in a falling elevator just before it crashed into the ground and he would be saved (see After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests).
There was another story at the Muskogee Coal-fired Power Plant where this one mechanic believed that he could stick his finger in a running lawnmower and pull it out so fast that it wouldn’t cut his finger off. Of course, True Power Plant Men tried to reason with him to convince him that it was impossible…. Then there were others who said… “Ok. Prove it.”
Think about it. A lawnmower spins at the same rate that a Turbine Generator spins when it makes electricity. 3,600 time a minute. Or 60 times each second. Since the blade in a lawnmower extends in both directions, a blade would fly by your finger 120 times each second. Twice as fast as the electric current in your house cycles positive and negative.
This means that the person will have to stick their finger in the path of the lawnmower blade and pull it out within 8/1000th of a second…. IF they were able to time it so that they put their finger in the path at the precise moment that the blade passed by. Meaning that on average, the person only has 4/1000th of a second (or 0.004 seconds) to perform this feat (on average… could be a little more, could be less).
Unfortunately for this person, he was not convinced by the logicians that it was impossible, and therefore proceeded to prove his case. If you walked over and met this person in the maintenance shop at Muskogee, you would find that he was missing not only one finger, but two. Why? Because after failing the first time and having his finger chopped off, he was still so stubborn to think that he could have been wrong, so later he tried it again. Hence the reason why two of his fingers were missing.
Upon hearing this story, I came to the conclusion that there must be something in the water at Muskogee. I drank soft drinks as much as possible while I was there on overhaul during the fall of 1984.
As I mentioned in the post Power Plant Rags to Riches, in 1984 I was on overhaul at Muskogee with Ben Davis. An overhaul is when a unit is taken offline for a number of weeks so that maintenance can be performed on equipment that is only possible when the unit is offline. During this particular overhaul, Unit 6 at Muskogee was offline.
Ben and I were working out of the Unit 6 Electric shop. Ben was staying with his friend Don Burnett, a machinist that used to work at our plant when I was a summer help. Before Don worked for the electric company, he worked in a Zinc Smelting plant by Tonkawa, Oklahoma. Not only was Don an expert machinist, he was also one of the kindest people you would run across. Especially at Muskogee.
I was staying in a “trailer down by the river” by the old plant. Units one, two and three. They were older gas-fired units. I think at the time, only Unit 3 was still operational. The first 2 weeks of the overhaul, I stayed in a rectory with the Catholic priests in town. Then David Stewart offered to let me stay in his trailer down by the river for only $50 a week.
After the first couple of weeks it was decided that the 4 week overhaul had turned into a 9 week overhaul because of some complications that they found when inspecting something on the turbine. So, I ended up staying another month.
When they found out that they were going to be down for an extra 5 weeks, they called in for reinforcements, and that is when I met my new “roomie”, Steven Trammell from the plant in Midwest City. He shared the trailer for the last 4 weeks of the overhaul. From that time on, Steven and I were good friends. To this day (and I know Steven reads this blog) we refer to each other as “roomie”, even though it has been 28 years since we bunked together in a trailer…..down by the river.
I have one main story that I would like to tell with this post that I am saving until the end. It was what happened to me the day I think I accidentally drank some of the water…. (sounds like Mexico doesn’t it?). Before I tell that story, I want to introduce you to a couple of other True Power Plant Men that lived next door to “roomie” and me in another trailer down by the river (this was the Arkansas River by the way…. Yeah… The Arkansas river that flowed from Kansas into Oklahoma… — go figure. The same river that we used at our plant to fill our lake. See the post Power Plant Men taking the Temperature Down By The River).
Joe Flannery was from Seminole Plant and I believe that Chet Turner was from Horseshoe Plant, though I could be mistaken about Chet. I know he was living in south Oklahoma City at the time, so he could have been working at Seminole as well. These were two electricians that were very great guys. Joe Flannery had a nickname. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I think it was “Bam Bam”.
Joe was very strong, like Bam Bam. He also reminded me of Goober on the Andy Griffith Show, though Gary Lyons at our plant even resembled Goober more:
Chet was older than Joe by quite a lot, but I could tell that my Roomie and Joe held him in high esteem… So much so, that I might just wait on the story I was going to tell you about the time that I drank the water in Muskogee to focus more on Chet Turner… otherwise known as Chester A Turner.
I first met Chet when my roomie asked me if I wanted to go out and eat with him and our two trailer neighbors. On the way to dinner, we had to stop by a used car lot to look at what was available because Chet loved looking at cars. He had gray hair and was 60 years old at the time.
During the next 5 weeks, we went out to eat almost every night during the week with Chet and Joe. We explored Muskogee as best we could. That means that we visited about every car lot in the town. We also ate at a really good BBQ place where you sat at a picnic table and ate the BBQ on a piece of wax paper.
One night we were invited by another electrician (I think his name was Kevin Davis) to meet him at a Wal-Mart (or some other similar store) parking lot where his son was trying to win a car by being the last person to keep his hand on the car. He had already been doing it for about 4 days, and was exhausted. It would have reminded me of the times I had spent adjusting the precipitator controls after a fouled start-up, only, I hadn’t done that yet.
I was usually hungry when we were on our way to dinner, and I was slightly annoyed by the many visits to car lots when my stomach was set on “growl” mode. I never said anything about it, because I could tell that Chet was having a lot of fun looking at cars.
If only I had known Chet’s story when I met him, I would have treated him with the respect that he deserved. If I had known his history, I would have paid for his meals. It was only much later that I learned the true nature of Chet, a humble small gray-haired man that seemed happy all the time, and just went with the flow.
You know… It is sometimes amazing to me that I can work next to someone for a long time only to find out that they are one of the nation’s greatest heroes. I never actually worked with Chet, but I did sit next to him while we ate our supper only to return to the trailers down by the river exhausted from the long work days.
Let me start by saying that Chet’s father was a carpenter. Like another friend of mine, and Jesus Christ himself, Chester had a father that made furniture by hand. During World War II, Chester’s mother helped assemble aircraft for the United States Air Force.
While Chet’s mother was working building planes for the Air Force, Chet had joined the Navy and learned to be an electrician. He went to work on a ship in the Pacific called the USS Salt Lake City. It was in need of repairs, so he was assigned to work on the repairs.
While working on the ship, it was called to service, and Chet went to war. After a couple of battles where the ship was damaged from Japanese shelling it went to Hawaii to be repaired. After that, it was sent to the battle at Iwo Jima. That’s right. The Iwo Jima that we all know about. Chet was actually there to see the flag being raised by the Marines on Mount Suribachi:
Chet fought valiantly in the battle at Iwo Jima and was able to recall stories of specific attacks against targets that would make your hair stand on end to listen to. After it was all said and done, Chet was awarded the Victory Medal,
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal,
and the Philippine Liberation Campaign Ribbon.
As well as others….
At the time that I knew Chet, I didn’t know any of this about him. Isn’t that the case so many times in our lives. Think twice about that Wal-Mart Greeter when you go to the store. When you see an elderly old man or woman struggling with her cart to put her groceries in her car…. You may be looking at a hero.
I was looking at Chet thinking, “boy. This guy sure enjoys looking at cars…. I’m hungry.” This past week I was thinking about writing tonight about an event that took place while Ben and I were on overhaul at Muskogee. I thought it would be a funny story that you would enjoy. So, I asked my roomie, “What was the name of the guy that was staying with Joe Flannery in the trailer? The one with the gray hair?”
He reminded me that his name was Chet Turner. Steven told me that Chet had died a while back (on January 12, 2013, less than two weeks after I started writing about Power Plant Men) and that he was a good friend. So much so, that Steven found it hard to think about him being gone without bringing tears to his eyes. This got me thinking…. I knew Chet for a brief time. I wondered what was his story. I knew from my own experience that most True Power Plant Men are Heroes of some kind, so I looked him up.
Now you know what I found. What I have told you is only a small portion of the wonderful life of a great man. I encourage everyone to go and read about Chet Turner. The Story of Chester A. Turner
Notice the humble beginning of this man who’s father was a carpenter. Who’s mother worked in the same effort that her son did during the war to fight against tyranny. How he became an electrician at a young age, not to rule the world, but to serve mankind.
Looking at cars has taken on an entirely new meaning to me. I am honored today to have Chet forever in my memory.
Comment from Original Post:
Originally posted April 26, 2013:
Less than 6 months after Arthur Hammond was hired as an electrician, OD McGaha (proununced Muh Gay Hay), his foreman, wanted to fire him. Not because he wasn’t a good electrician. Not because he had done something wrong. Not even because he smelled bad, or used bad language. OD (prounounced “Oh Dee”) wanted to fire him because he argued too much.
Art and I started the same day in the electric shop. I remember very well when I first walked in the door the morning that I became an electrician. I talked about that day in an earlier post New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop. That was the first day I met Arthur Francis Hammond Jr. Oh yes. I remember his full name. Everyone just called him Art. I always called him Arthur.
I had the habit of calling people by their full name…. Sometimes I would even embellish their name some. For instance. I used to call Scott Hubbard “Scotland”. Not because he looked Scottish, but because Scott seemed too short of a name for such a great guy. It would be like calling Jesus “Geez”.
Anyway. Arthur had this one trait that became obvious for anyone that had spent more than 5 minutes with him. He liked to argue. He may have thought of it more of playing the devil’s advocate. So, often when you made a statement about anything, Arthur would say something like, “Nah. That couldn’t be true. Nope. What about this?….”
Well. OD McGaha (OD’s first name was OD. The O and the D didn’t stand for anything other than O and D… OD) didn’t like being told he was wrong by anyone, especially by one of his direct reports. He soon went to Bill Bennett to see about having Arthur fired. Of course, Arthur never really did anything to be fired over, he was just pushing OD’s buttons and OD was falling for it.
So, in less than 6 months after Arthur and I joined the electric shop, Bill Bennett decided it would be best if Arthur Hammond moved to our team to help keep the peace in the shop. I’m not sure, but I think Ben Davis was traded from Howard Chumbley’s crew while Diana Lucas (later Brien) moved from our team over to Howard’s, making the circle complete…. except that now Ben, who was as content as all get out to stay on Howard’s crew (who wouldn’t be?), was stuck on OD’s crew… which is another story in itself that I will not be writing about in a later post (well, I may mention an after effect in passing).
Once Arthur was on my team, we worked together often. One reason was that I was perfectly content arguing with Art Hammond (See… I can call him Art, especially in the same sentence as “arguing”, since Arthur made an art out of arguing). I wish I had a picture of this tall man with tired eyes, yet a happy disposition (once you overlooked the tendency to argue). I do have this picture though:
Arthur and I were able to happily work together because he liked to argue and I liked to argue back. You see, I had grown up with an Italian mom. Few people like to argue like Italian mothers, especially mine.
I remember one Thanksgiving sitting with my brother on the couch in the house of my mom’s cousin Larry listening to our Italian relatives arguing in the dining room. We were keeping count on our fingers of how many people were talking at the same time. All of them sounded like they were arguing. Usually it took more than the fingers on one hand.
After a while, we realized that there were several conversations (well…. arguments really) going on at the same time. Yet, there was one person that was in the middle of all the arguments at the same time….. yep….. my mother. She would be taking part in at least three arguments simultaneously. My children grew up thinking that I hated my mother because we were always arguing. It wasn’t until they were older that they realized that we were just trying to decide where to go eat for dinner.
Anyway. When Arthur and I would be working together, all I had to do was say something… anything…. and the argument would start. At least that would be how it would appear to an unsuspecting person walking by listening to us. I knew that what it really meant was nothing more important than my mom and I trying to figure out where we should go out for dinner.
An argument with Arthur would go something like this. Here is one particular one I remember…. I was explaining that what someone had said wasn’t really what they meant. They were just saying that to get a reaction, because they really wanted to see how someone else would react (come to think of it… we were probably talking about Bill Rivers, See the post Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant from last week).
Arthur then proceeded to tell me that lying was never right…. ever. It was never all right to lie. If someone says something, it should be what they mean. I pointed out that people may tell a “white lie”. One that isn’t intended to deceive someone as much as it is to hide something for another purpose. Arthur said that he disagreed. That even a white lie is always wrong….
So, I asked him if he ever told his kids that Santa Claus brought them Christmas Presents on Christmas Day, or that the Tooth Fairy put a coin under their pillow at night. He had to admit that he did. He did have to ponder whether it was right or not. So I told him that I thought it was all right to tell his children this. It didn’t necessarily mean that he was doing something wrong.
I could see that this had really puzzled him, because this was a steadfast dogma of Arthur’s. One thing that really bugged him was when someone lied to him. I have another post that I will write in a few weeks that will give a definite situation where someone was lying to Arthur. It really bugged the heck out of him.
So, I explained to Arthur that even though he told his children that Santa Claus had given them presents, that in some way, maybe Santa Claus really did. Maybe Santa Claus represented the spirit of Christmas, and it was the Spirit of Christmas that prompted Arthur to go out and buy the presents for his children in order to surprise and delight them on Christmas morning. That seemed to satisfy him…..
So, we immediately found something else to argue about, and you know what? The days would fly by when I was working with Arthur. We would go out to wire up a Boiler Water Circulating Pump, using regular rubber tape (as this was before we started using the synthetic stuff), and four hours would go by like nothing. Three small arguments and we would be done.
To get an idea of how big this pump is…. you can easily stand (and dance… um…. if you were inclined to… er…) on the junction box on the lower left corner of this motor.
I actually had a great time working with Arthur Hammond. I was heartbroken the day he told me in 1988 that he had decided to take the money being offered for anyone that wanted to leave before a downsizing was going to occur. He explained the reasons to me. I just wanted to grab him and shake him and tell him “No!” I wanted him to realize that he was making a mistake….. but I didn’t.
You see, Arthur had been a construction electrician before joining the electric shop. He had traveled from one job to another. He hadn’t stayed in one place for more than a couple of years. He was already working on 3 1/2 years in the shop…. He wasn’t used to that. He said that he just didn’t like settling down in one job. He had to keep moving.
I know what he really wanted to do. He wanted to go into business for himself. He wanted to start a cleaning business. He had made a business case for it and was trying to get the funding from a fund for American Indian Entrepreneurs. He just needed the down payment. This looked like the opportunity to do this. He wanted to buy a big steam cleaning truck.
So, I think Arthur’s last day was sometime early June, 1988. I always hate to see my friends walking out the door, not knowing if I will ever see them again. That was the way I felt when Arthur left.
The only shining event that came out of Arthur leaving was that it left an opening in the electric shop that was filled by Scott Hubbard from the Testing team. Scott and I would spend the rest of my years working together along with Charles Foster until the day I left the plant in 2001.
I did see Arthur three months later. He called me at work one day and asked me if I would help him out. His going away package that the company gave him to opt out had run out and he needed some cash. He had 50 shares of company stock left and was wondering if I would buy them from him. He knew that I bought and sold stock and thought I might be interested.
I was glad to help him out, so we arranged to meet at the house he was renting in Stillwater (I was living in Ponca City at the time), on a Saturday. He went to the Morrison, Oklahoma bank and had the bank president sign the stock certificates, and when I arrived, at his home, I handed him a check for $1600.00 and he gave me the stock certificate for 50 shares ($32 per share).
The price of the stock has gone up and down through the years…. I could have made a profit on them I suppose. I have kept them to this day. Every 3 months I receive a dividend check in the mail for $19 from those 50 shares….. I hang onto those shares. Maybe it is because ever three months, I am reminded of the day I bought them.
When I arrived at Arthur’s house out in the country, just down the road from where I eventually bought my own home up on the hill, Arthur handed me the certificates and said, “that’s it…. That’s the last of the package I received…. It sure didn’t last long.” I shook his hand, gave him a hug and said goodbye. That was the last time I ever heard from Arthur.
I think today he is living in Tulsa. I am not certain. He would be in his early 60’s now. I only hope that all is well with him and his family. I hope that he finally found a place to settle down. Some place where he could wake up each day….. go to work, or walk down the street and talk to a friend who enjoys a good argument. I know that if he could do that, then he would be content. Nothing was more enjoyable to Arthur than being able to take part in a good argument.
Originally Posted May 17, 2013:
I remember the day when I walked into the Electric Shop office to begin the lunch break, and four guys from the T&D department (Transmission and Distribution) came in from the door leading to the Main Switchgear. They were obviously worn out, and were complaining. The first one said that he couldn’t believe that the guy from GE had made them work through morning break. The second guy called him a slave driver. The third guy replied that he couldn’t believe how that GE guy just kept on working from the crack of dawn without stopping all morning without even coming up for air. The fourth guy just collapsed on one of the chairs.
I remember the name of the last guy. His name was Foote. I remember him because he was real proud of his heritage. The first time I had met him, I asked him his name twice, because when he told me it was “Foote”, I wasn’t sure I heard correctly, so I asked him again. I guess that he must has guessed what was going through my mind because he must have had the same reaction from a thousand other people in the past. I figure that because my last name is Breazile (pronounced “Brazil”) and I have had many conversations with people explaining the origin of my name.
Anyway. I don’t remember Foote’s first name because I think he only had initials for his first name on his hard hat, and I’m more of a visual person when it comes to memories. I clearly remember his last. If I remember correctly, one of his ancestors was a naval officer in the Civil War, though, I don’t remember for which side. I guess it doesn’t really matter much now, since both sides were Americans, and both sides loved their country and the lives they knew — that they were fighting to hold onto or to change.
This reminds me of a side story that I must tell…. Years and years later in 1997, when I was on the Confined Space Rescue Team, one guy that was from North Dakota named Brent Kautzman was constantly being “harassed” for being a Yankee, because he came from a Northern State. This was kind of a mute (or is it “moot”) point to me, because I knew that North Dakota didn’t become a state until well after the Civil War.
Anyway, one day when Brent was trying to defend himself from the hardcore confederates of the group, he pointed out that the North won the Civil war. A couple of other members disagreed, claiming that the South was going to “rise again”. One of those that believed in the Confederate resurrection turned to me and asked me, as if I was the resident historian (well… I did have a college degree… and I did have a minor in History…. and I was known for telling the truth when it really came down to it), “Kevin…. Did the north win the Civil War?”
Not really wanting to hurt the feelings of my southern friends, and also wanting to stand by Brent who was really correct about the outcome of the Civil War, I replied with the following explanation: “Yes. The North must have won the war. Otherwise the South never would have let all the carpetbaggers from the North come down there and steal their property and their dignity.” Brent was satisfied, and the southerners had to agree with my logic. They still insisted that the South would rise again. I couldn’t argue with them about that…. It has never ceased to amaze me how bigotry can be passed down so easily.
With that said, I would say that the Power Plant Men that I worked with that believed that the “South would rise again!” didn’t really understand what that meant. I say that because they never would have given a thought that the men that they worked with that were African American such as Floyd Coburn, or Bill Bennett, were nothing less than members of their own families. I know that they each personally loved these men with all their hearts. I thought it was more of a nostalgic feeling than a desire to see the return of slavery or even the bigotry that crippled the southern states for decades after the Civil War.
End of the Side Story…. Back to the worn out T&D workers.
By the sound of it, I figured that this guy from GE (General Electric) that had come to work on one of the Main Auxiliary Transformers on Unit 2 that had a problem with the Tap Changing Mechanism, was some kind of slave driver. Some hard line guy that wanted to work our employees to the brink of exhaustion because he wanted to be done with the repairs as quickly as possible so that he could move on to some more important work. You see. For this job, GE had called on one of the top Main Power Transformer Geniuses in all the country to work on this transformer.
The T&D guys sat there for a while and then walked out into the shop to eat their lunch. Shortly after that, the slave driver from GE came in the back door…. In stepped a man that immediately reminded me of Arthur Fielder from the Boston Pops.
He sat down…. opened his brown paper bag. Pulled out his sandwich. Carefully unwrapped it and began to eat. Charles Foster and I were sitting there watching him. After hearing the horror stories from the T&D crew, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to engage this seemingly mad man in conversation, so I waited a while. I ate some cherry tomatoes and Banana peppers that Charles brought for me each day…. and with each bite, I took a bite out of my ham sandwich. Then I looked over at “Arthur Fielder….” (I don’t remember his real name).
Finally, I decided that this slave driver in sheep’s clothing (well, an old frail man costume really), might come up with some interesting conversation so I asked him…. “Say, old man…. how old are you anyway?” He looked up from the total enjoyment of his sandwich, and with food still un-swallowed said, “I’m 83.”
“83?” — Either I said that or Charles did… because we were both stunned by his answer….. “Yep… They called me out of retirement to work on this transformer. Seems I’m the only one that knows how to fix ’em. But I’m teachin’ your fellows how to do it so they don’t have to call me again.”
Charles and I were so flabbergasted by his reply that we couldn’t leave it alone. One of us (Charles and I were always on the same wavelength, so usually when one of us spoke, it was what we were both thinking)… So, one of us asked…. “You’re retired and they called you up to work on this transformer!?!? Are you such a Transformer guru that you were the only one they could send?” (hmm… must have been me…. I don’t think Charles would have used the word “Guru”. He would have used something like “expert” or “talented” or maybe “genius”). He said, “Yep. They paid me enough that I agreed to take a week away from my wife to come here to take care of business. It would have to take a lot to take me away from my Jenny.”
Then this feeble old man with the white moustache explained that he didn’t like to be away from home. Every night since when he was young he has played the piano for two hours. — Wait… I wasn’t sure if I heard that right, so I asked him…. “What? You play the piano for two hours… every night!?!?” (notice… already I have used “!?!?” twice in one post… just goes to show you how surprised I was to run across this man). He reaffirmed what he said, “Yeah. I had to find a hotel that had a piano, so I could sit in the lobby and play it before I go to bed. I can’t sleep well unless I have played the piano first.
After that, he began to tell us about his career in the Music Industry. He had played for many Big Band orchestras in the past. He talked about playing with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. Names that I had learned from my Aunt Pam Sorisso in Kansas City that gave me an Eight Track Tape of Big Band music when I was in College that I used to listen to often. I had become a fan of Big Band and had a great respect for these Big Band Leaders.
Here sitting in front of me was one of the geniuses of the Big Band era in the electric shop at a Coal-fired Power Plant in the middle of North Central Oklahoma. All I could think of was, “Who woulda thought it?” Though I was impressed as all get out… I tried to act calm….. I wanted to jump up with a piece of paper and ask him for his autograph….
This old guy suddenly had all my respect. It cracked me up to think that this 83 year old man was out performing the younger T&D workers. He was running them ragged. He explained that he didn’t like to stop for break. It made the day go a lot faster if he just kept working until he had to stop. He wouldn’t have stop for lunch if all the workers hadn’t just dropped all their tools and left.
It amazed me even more that this man who was a big band musician of the highest caliber had ended up working for GE Not only had he worked for GE, but he had become the ultimate authority in large transformer repair. I mean…. How cool is that?
I can’t tell you how much I instantly fell in love with this guy. He had talked and talked about his days as a big band piano player. What really came out of his conversation what just how much he loved his wife. The two things he loved in the entire world was his wife and to play the piano. He said there was nothing more soothing than playing the piano. As he walked off to go back to work at the end of lunch… the only thing I could think of was one of my Big Band favorites…. Louis Armstrong….
For those people who stopped to really think about it…. This truly is….. A Wonderful World!