Power Plant Adventures with Jim Heflin
Originally posted August 31, 2012:
I have often mentioned Jim Heflin in many of my posts. One might think from the attitude that Jim had toward me in a few of those posts was that we didn’t get along. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jim and I were best of friends during the time that we worked together and when we carpooled together back and forth from Ponca City to the Power Plant Kingdom in the midst of North Central Oklahoma.
I have mentioned before that Jim gave me the impression of a friendly hound that was happy to see you.
That’s him all right, except he had a happier expression. I also mentioned that the first time I talked to his wife Brenda on the phone I made the mistake of calling her “Brenda Bulldog” because of a character that my wife and I used as a point of contention between us. As I mentioned before, I should have chosen something more becoming since there was a slight resemblance of Brenda Sue and a Bulldog….
Besides that Faux Pas, Jim and I remained friends.
Jim was fun to be around because you could joke around with him, and you could tell that he was happy to be there. You could also tell that Jim was a very kind person. He didn’t like to see animals hurt, and felt bad when he knew he had accidentally mowed over even a field mouse with the Brush Hog. He was the kind of person you could put in a carnival in a tent and have people pay 50 cents to go see a happy lovable person, and people would come out feeling like they received their money’s worth.
Unlike most posts where I start out talking about a person, I usually end up telling you that they have died. Jim is still alive and well. Jim Heflin is living in Moore, Oklahoma with Brenda to this day (Update: Now Jim is living in Guthrie, Oklahoma). I was just remembering all the fun times that I had with Jim and thought I would share some with you to give you a flavor of the man.
So, here is a moment that I often think about when I think about Jim. He was driving to work one morning and I was in the front seat next to him. He kept looking at his side window and lifting up his nose at the window like he was sniffing it. It reminded me of a hound dog in a car that was trying to tell you that they wanted the window rolled down so they could stick their head out. He would do that for a few seconds, then he would look back at the road and pay attention to his driving. A little while later he would be back to sniffing the window with his nose pointing up to the top of the window.
Finally I couldn’t take it anymore, so I asked him, “Jim… what’s up? Why do you keep sniffing at that window?” He looked at me like he had forgotten I was in the car and just realized that I had been watching him. “Oh!” he said, “I’m trying to sneeze.” Thoughts flashed through my mind like, “Maybe he’s allergic to windows…” or “I hope that Jim hasn’t lost his mind, or I’m going to have to find another ride back to town in the evening…” or “Yeah, that’s right. Why didn’t I think of that?” Finally the thought came to my mind to ask him how that was going to help him sneeze, so I said, “Huh?”
That was when I learned something that I suppose I should have known by then, but no one ever told me… Jim was pointing his face at the rising sun, and the sunlight was helping him sneeze. That’s right. Some people have this uncanny “allergy” or “gift” or “talent” that causes them to sneeze when they look up at the sun. Especially, I figured, if they sniff a lot like a dog sniffing a window. I do remember that Jim gave it up, and we made it to the plant without a single sneeze.
Now unfortunately, whenever I hear a sneeze, I look around to see if the sun is shining on their face, just so that I can catch someone having a “Sun Sneeze”. Years later, my wife confirmed that, yes, some people sneeze when looking at the sun. I may have even been doing that before and didn’t realize it.
I have even become some what of a pseudo expert on the subject and can now tell you that since my son sneezes as he steps out into the sunlight that, “Yes… It is a known fact that some people sneeze because of the sunlight shining on their face.” You just don’t know when moments of life-changing education is going to come along and raise your IQ. Like that morning riding alongside Jim Heflin on the way to work.
Another time I often think about when thinking about Jim Heflin was in 1982 when we were dropped off below the dam when the floodgates had been open so the lake level could be lowered in order for EPA, or whatever department could inspect our dam and dikes. Evidently, after the lake had been full for 3 years, it had to be inspected, and repaired where it was deemed necessary. Because a large amount of water was being released, the Electric Company wanted to make sure that we weren’t accidentally flooding anyone’s land beyond the foot of the dam down to the Arkansas River. So Jim Heflin and I were commissioned for that job.
We were dropped off at the foot of the dam and we were to follow the creek as it wound through the countryside down to the river. Instead of the creek just heading straight toward the river, it ended up turning south for a while, and winding back and forth a bit, and what would have been about 1/2 mile straight to the river seemed like more than 2 or 3 miles. Anyway, we didn’t find the creek running over it’s banks, and everything was fine. We didn’t have any great adventures where we were chased by wild animals, or we saw Bambi or anything like that. We just spent a couple of hours walking through fields and trees and brush, and we talked. We had a great time talking about nothing in particular.
I’m afraid that this was shortly after I had learned how to ramble from Ramblin’ Ann, so I was doing most of the talking (You can read more about that in the post about Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann). But anyway, I had a great time with Jim just walking out in the woods talking about whatever came up.
I have found that there are times in life where I am sharing an experience with someone when I realize all of the sudden that I truly care for this person and I would do anything to help them if they needed it. I tend to imagine all sorts of scenarios when I’m in a situation and I remember that I was thinking about what I would do if a wild animal were to come charging through the woods toward us, and my main concern was how I could protect Jim. Jim was the kind of guy that looked like he needed protecting. I even looked around and found a good sized walking stick just in case the need should arise.
When we returned to the road where we had been dropped off, we still had about 1/2 hour before anyone was going to come pick us up and it started to rain really hard. At that spot there was a little hut that I would call a “monitoring hut”. It was the same kind of hut that was at the River Pump station that had the temperature recorder that was used to monitor the temperature of the Arkansas river (see the post, Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River). So, we stood in the little hut until the rain stopped.
You may remember that it was Jim Heflin that had driven the Backhoe through a muddy patch and became stuck in the mud down at the park when Larry Riley came and showed us his magic (see the post Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley). Also, it was Jim Heflin that informed me that David Hankins had died a few months before, while I was away at school. I spent days chopping weeds along roadways while Jim Heflin was mowing the fields all around me. It was Jim Heflin that first flushed out the Bobcat at the Otoe-Missouria Indian Reservation as I was watching from the back of the truck (see the post Ken Conrad Dances With a Wild Bobcat).
If I were to sum up the three summers as a summer help working in the Garage, I would call them my “Adventures with Jim Heflin”. It was Jim that I worked with most of the time. We cleaned the park twice each week. Mowed grass. changed oil in the trucks. Washed trucks in the special truck washing bay behind the garage. Picked up rocks from the fields so the mowers could mow without tearing up the equipment. Changed and repaired flat tires.
Throughout all of this I was keenly aware that as nice a guy that Jim was, he wasn’t a True Power Plant Man. Like Sonny Karcher, he longed for a more simple life. Power Plant Men rarely have a simple life. It is filled with one crazy adventure after the other. When you drive through the gate, you have no idea what you might be doing that day. Like Sonny, Jim would have loved to have mowed grass clear across the country until the day he died.
So, I wasn’t too surprised when Jim and I were driving home one evening and Jim told me that he was going to leave the plant. He tried to explain it to me by coming up with various reasons why he was unhappy with his job; which was no longer in the garage. He didn’t really have to convince me. I knew. The Power Plant Life was not for Jim. He was sad about it, but at the same time I could tell he had already made up his mind.
After Jim left, I never saw him again. I never ran into him in town or heard from him. I had heard that he had moved to Oklahoma City, and I believe now that he lives in Moore, Oklahoma as I mentioned before. I have another friend from my childhood that lives in Moore, Oklahoma that may have an occasion to read this blog. His name is Dr. Bryan Treacy (Well, since my original post Bryan has moved back to Columbia Missouri now to the town where we grew up as children – so this next paragraph probably isn’t ever going to happen).
So, I would just like to say to Bryan, that if you are walking down the street in Moore someday and you see a couple coming out of a Sirloin Stockade, or Wendy’s and one of them looks like a bloodhound and the other sort of like a bulldog, just walk up to them and tell them that Kevin Breazile says Hello. And then just before you go, say, “Oh, and Otto says that Brenda bulldog sure has a cute wiggle.” — Now I’m really going to get it… and not from Brenda….
Here is a picture of Jim Heflin today, 33 years after our adventures in the forest:
Update: I recently talked with Jim Heflin. We had a great conversation and talked as if it had only been the other day since we were working in the garage when I was a summer help.
Chief Among Power Plant Machinists
Originally Posted on June 8, 2012.
The first week I worked at the power plant during the summer of 1979 was when I was assigned to sweep the floor of the maintenance shop (See the post Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown). As I was making my way around each of the mills, drill presses, band saws and lathes, I swept my way around toward a man that was sitting at a lathe watching a stainless steel rod being molded into a work of art.
This man caught my attention because of the way he sat on his stool as if he was a very proud American Indian. He was a heavy set man who peered out of the bottom of his bifocals watching the purple metal shavings flying off of the rod as he slowly and carefully turned a dial with his left hand. As I approached his lathe, he turned to me and said, “Don’t worry about those shavings, I’ll sweep them up later.”
I shrugged my shoulder and said, “Well, it’s my job to sweep the shop, so, I can go ahead and do it.” Tilting his head down so that he was looking at me through the top of his glasses, he stared for a moment, and then with a hint of a grin turned back to his work, as I proceeded to sweep up his shavings, as they were still flying off of the lathe. I glanced up to see the name on his hardhat. It said, “Ray Butler”.
Lawrence Hayes was the foreman over the machinists when I first arrived at the power plant, but Ray Butler was undoubtedly the Chief. He was actually the Chief of the Otoe-Missouria Indian tribe, for a time, that was located just to the north and west of the plant grounds. The Machinists I can remember from the first summer are Don Burnett, Johnnie Keys, Ray Butler and Lawrence Hayes. Being a Machinist in a power plant is something that few people can pull off, but those that do, can create just about any metal part that is needed in the plant.
The machinists fascinated me when I first arrived at the plant in 1979 as a summer help. One side of the entire maintenance shop was the machine shop and it was filled with all different kinds of machining equipment. I recognized some of the equipment like the lathes, but other machines, like the mill, were something new. Then there is this very large lathe. It was monstrous. I wondered what kind of part would be machined with that big lathe (I believe that in the 20 years I worked at the plant, I saw this big lathe being used twice).
Even though the power plant machinists came from very diverse backgrounds, they all have two important traits in common. They are very patient and they are perfectionists. During my first summer as a summer help both of the units were still under construction and the mechanics were busy going through the entire plant disassembling each piece of equipment and measuring it and cleaning it and putting it back together. This was called: “Check Out”.
Often they would find something that didn’t meet the Electric Companies specifications, so it would be sent to the machinist to fix. Very precise measurements were being used, and if there was a 3 thousandth inch gap (.003), and the company wanted it to be no more than 2 thousandths of an inch (.002)…. then it was the job of the machinist to add a sleeve and machine the part down until it was precisely where it was supposed to be.
I learned very little about the lives of the machinists because they were always standing behind the lathes watching vigilantly as the metal shavings were flying off of the parts, but I did learn a few things about some of them. First of all, each one of the machinists seemed to care about you right away.
Don Burnett, a tall and very thin man with a friendly face, worked in a Zinc Smelting plant before he had come to work at the power plant. One time while he was working there, some molten zinc was accidentally poured down the back of his boot burning his heel. It was then that he decided that he would start looking for a different line of work. I went fishing with him and some other guys once, where he told me some more things about his life. Then a few years later, he moved to the Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma, where I saw him a couple of times while on overhaul down there.
Johnnie Keys would be perfectly cast as a hillbilly. He had a scruffy beard (this was before beards were no longer allowed in 1983 due to the problem with obtaining a seal on your respirator) and if you put an old leather hat on him, he would look like this:
When you ask Johnnie to create something for you, you can be sure that he will do his best. One time years later when I was an electrician, I asked Johnnie if he could take a piece of Plexiglas and cut out 8 rectangles in it so that I could mount it in an electrical box so that a bunch of breakers could be accessed, without someone worrying about getting into the electricity.
This is the control box that was used for the vent fans that were installed around the turbine room floor. As far as I know, it is still there today. Anyway, Johnnie brought it back to the electric shop when he was finished and it was perfect. He had a couple of holes in it so that I could put two standoffs to mount the Plexiglas in the box.
It just so happened that Leroy Godfrey the electrical supervisor was in the middle of a little war with the engineers because they hadn’t consulted him about the project, and so he was intent on making the job go way over budget. I wasn’t exactly privy to this information at the time (or maybe I was because he also wanted us to run size 2 cable to all of the fans, even thought size 8 would have been just fine — size 2 is a lot bigger than size 8 and would have called for much bigger conduit). Anyway, after I had mounted the Plexiglas to the back plate of the electric box using the standoffs, and it was sitting on the workbench, Leroy came up to me and looked at it.
He said right away, “Go have the machinists put some more holes in it so that you can add more standoffs to mount the Plexiglas. Knowing full well that it didn’t need the extra mounting, I told Leroy that I believed that two standoffs will be fine because the entire assembly was going to be put in the electric box, where there wasn’t going to be much movement.
At that point I picked up the entire assembly with the breakers and all by the Plexiglas and bent the Plexiglas all the way around to where both ends were touching and shook the breakers up and down. Then I put it back on the workbench and said, “I am not going to tell the machinist to add more holes, this is perfect.”
I knew that Johnnie had worked very meticulously machining out the Plexiglas and I wasn’t going to bother him with meaningless revisions. It was at that point where Leroy Godfrey decided that I must go. He went into the office and told Bill Bennett that he wanted to fire me. Bill Bennett calmed him down, and it wasn’t long after that Leroy and the other old school power plant men were early retired. For more information about Leroy Godfrey see the post: The Passing of an Old School Power Plant Man – Leroy Godfrey.
Lawrence Hayes was the foreman during my first summer at the plant and I remember one morning while he was working on the lathe next to the new foremen’s office. He had a disturbed look on his face about something as he had a long metal rod in the lathe and was busy measuring it from different angles. A little while later when I was passing by on the way to the tool room, Lawrence had Marlin McDaniel, the A Foreman out there and he was showing him something about the lathe.
Then some time just after lunch, Lawrence had a big wrench and was removing the mounting bolts from the Lathe, and later picked the entire thing up with the shop overhead crane and moved it down to the other end of the shop. Over the next couple of days, the concrete where the lathe had been mounted was busted up and removed, and then re-poured, so that the mounting bolts were now properly aligned. The enormity of this job made me realize that when these Power Plant Men knew what needed to be done to fix something, they went right ahead and did it, no matter how big the job was.
I have saved the Chief until last. Ray Butler as I mentioned above was the Chief of the Otoe-Missouria India tribe. They really called him “Chairman”, but I think I knew what the title really meant.
As Ray Butler sat at a lathe or a mill working on a piece of metal, he always had the same expression. His head was slightly tilted up so that he could see through the bottom of his bifocals and he had the most satisfied expression. He looked as if he was watching a work of art being created before his eyes.
It didn’t matter what he was working on, he always had the same expression. I mentioned above that the machinists (like all true power plant men), seemed to instantly care about you. This seemed to be especially true with Ray Butler. He was almost 7 years older than my own father. He treated me as one of his sons.
When I had been at the plant three days of my third year as a summer help in 1981, on Wednesday May 13, I went to the break room to eat my lunch. Ray came up to me and sat down across from me at the table. He looked at me solemnly and told me that Pope John Paul II had just been shot.
He had heard it on the radio and knew that I was Catholic (as I wore a 4 inch crucifix around my neck tucked in my V-neck T-shirt). He said that was all that he knew other than that they had taken him to the hospital. I could see his concern when he told me this, and I could see that he was equally concerned that this holy man across the ocean had been shot. I thanked him for letting me know.
Ray had served in the Navy during World War II and besides the time he spent in the Navy he spent most of his life from the time he was born until his death in 2007 in Oklahoma. He was born (1928) and died (2007) in Red Rock just a few miles from where the power plant was built (our plant has a Red Rock address). He went to high school in Pawnee. Even though I have seen him upset at times, he was always a man at peace.
Ray retired in 1988 and the day that he left I met him on his way to the control room while I was on my way to the maintenance shop. I told him that I wished him well on his retirement and I gave him a hug.
I didn’t see him again until a few years later when we had stopped by the Indian Reservation convenience store to buy gas for the company truck and when he saw me from inside the store, he came out to say hello and it was like meeting a close friend. He gave me a hug and I got back in the truck and we left. That was the last time I saw Ray Butler, but I know that if I wanted to visit with him again, I could just go take a stroll around the Pow-wow area of the Otoe-Missouria Reservation and he would not be far away.
Comment from the original Post:
The old machinists I knew were a special breed; they were the High Priests of any shop where they were present…they started disappearing in favor of cheaper (and much less capable) machine operators when the computer-controlled production machines came in. After that, if you wanted a machinist, you’d likely have to import him; Americans didn’t seem to train for it anymore. I’ve always thought that a shame and a loss of something special that was important in making our industrial history…and a loss of a very interesting and accomplished breed of men. Thanks for resurrecting some of them!
Comments from first Repost:
Comment from last year’s repost:
A Power Plant Man Becomes An Unlikely Saint
Originally Posted on April 7, 2012:
As I inch toward retirement, the question that was asked of me back when I was 18 and when I had just arrived at the power plant comes back to my mind and I wonder if I ever really found an answer. The question was, “What are you going to be?” If I had know what I was really going to be, I would have replied, “A pain in the neck”. Now that I’m well into my 60s, I am beginning to think that I might not ever find the answer to that question. Maybe it’s the wrong question to ask. A more appropriate question may have been, “What are you going to do with your life?”
My wife came home from work one night in the early 90’s. She was a charge nurse at the Stillwater Oklahoma Medical Center at the time. She said that she was taking care of a patient that was one of the mostly saintly people she had ever met.
My first reaction to this statement was surprise. I thought my wife had met a number of saintly people in her life, including myself (well. She never came out an actually told me that she thought I was saintly, but by her nicknames for me such as “rascal” and “rotten”, I just surmised…). So, this must be one really saintly person she was talking about. He was going to die soon and she thought I might know who he was because he used to work at the Power Plant.
When she gave me his name I was surprised to learn that he was on his deathbed, and yes. I did know him. I agreed with her. He is and always had been a saintly person. The funny thing was that I felt that very few people really knew him as I did.
Many people knew him enough to “not” think he would be classified in the “Saint” category, and I knew why this was also. I knew him so well quite by chance when I first came to the plant, and I made a decision about how to answer a common question that was being asked of me at the time.
As a summer help it was known that I was a college student, so the obvious question was, why was I going to school, and what did I want to be when I graduated. I could tell this was a rowdy bunch of men that enjoyed their day at work, and so I told them that I wasn’t sure yet what my degree would be (which was true), but I thought I might like to become a writer. I told them this hoping that they would bite where I could set the hook (in a fisherman sort of way), and they did.
The first person that asked me that question was Sonny Karcher, and when I told him that I thought I might be a writer, he took the bait and asked, “Are you going to write about us?” At the time, I had no plans about doing that, but I thought if they thought so, then they might fill my ears with the unique wisdom each of them seemed to have and as a side bonus be more friendly toward me. So I answered, “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it, but I suppose I might.”
That’s all it took. After that, every time Sonny introduced me to somebody, he would say, “This is Kevin. He’s our new summer help. He’s going to college to be a writer, and he’s going to write all about us!” This produced the behavior I was hoping it would.
That was that a number of Power Plant Men took me “under their wing” and bestowed upon me their own particular wisdom. For hours on end, as I worked with various men, they would tell me how things are in the world and how I should respond to them. Their own particular Philosophy Of Life.
At the time I really had not considered writing about my experiences at the power plant, but now that I am much older and the wisdom of these great men seem to be dying away, I thought that it would be a good idea to put these out there on the Internet where nothing ever really goes away.
I have refrained from mentioning the name of this Unlikely Saint until now because I think that if I mentioned it up front some Power Plant Men would read it and think I was just tremendously off my rocker and not read any further. So I prefaced my story with how I came to know this particular Power Plant Man enough to understand what my wife was saying when she told me about this Saint on the general medical (3rd) floor of the Stillwater Medical Center.
Maybe I will refrain just a little while longer to tell you a few things that this man told me. It was obvious that he felt as if he was talking to me as a father would talk to a son. He was only two years younger than my own father.
The one thing that sticks in my mind most is when he told me, “Kev, some day you may be a foreman or a supervisor running this plant, but always remember this…. Never forget where you came from. Never forget that there was a time when you first began and knew nothing. Don’t ever forget your friends. Don’t forget who you really are.”
I have reminded myself of this often and made it part of my own “Philosophy of Life”. Years later when I became an electrician, he stopped by the electric shop and reminded me once again.
As an aside comment, my mother tried to help me with this by referring to me as “My Son, The Janitor” when introducing me to someone for years after I had become an electrician. I was always proud to be called a janitor, and I would not try to correct her, because even though I was an electrician, I knew inside that I was also still a janitor. My mom was saying that because she wanted me to go back to school and become a doctor who would be able to take care of her in her old age and she thought by insulting my occupation, that I would be more inclined to do that.
Today, even though my title may be “Business Systems Analyst” working for Dell (and now Senior Software Engineer working for General Motors), I also still carry around in the back of my head the title of “Janitor”. My dad had told me when I was young that two of the most important people in his office are the secretaries and the janitors. At that time I almost had changed my life’s ambition of working in the sewers like Norton on the Honeymooners to becoming a janitor right then and there.
I wish I had a picture to share of this Power Plant Man (I have one somewhere, but I am not able to find it just now), because if you could see him, you would think… this guy?
His skin was darkened from smoking so heavily all his life and the fact that he was Native American. Emphysema is what killed him while he was still relatively young. His belly grew over the years to become larger than his stocky barrel chest. His head nodded as if he had a touch of Parkinson’s disease while he listened to you and especially when managers were talking as if he was laughing to himself because he knew what they were “really” saying. His clothes were always clean, which left everyone with the impression that he never did any work.
I remember one day while we were inspecting the dumper (where the coal is dumped out of the railway cars), as it had not been in-service for very long and everything needed to be inspected. I followed him down the stairway into the dumper going down into the darkness.
There were lights down there, but they didn’t give off much light because the coal dust absorbs the light instead of reflecting it. So, you can shine a flashlight and it doesn’t fill the room with its glow as it might in a room painted with white paint. To me the place was eerily unreal until I had been down there enough times to keep my bearings on where we were going.
Anyway, I followed him down into the dark damp dumper where every handrail, every light fixture and every step was covered with coal dust. We had some wrenches and we were tight checking the rollers on the conveyors. When we were finished we found ourselves at the ground level exit of #2 Conveyor. I looked at this Power Plant Man and he didn’t have spot of coal on him. I, on the other hand, was black from top to bottom. My hardhat was black, my arms, my face, my jeans. All black with coal dust.
Then this Power Plant Man told me some more words from the wise…. “When you get to be good, you will remain as clean as I am.” This had as much impact on me as when Master Po told Kwai Chang Caine (In the Kung Fu TV series) that when he can walk on the rice paper and not leave a trace, then he will be a Shaolin Monk.
It seemed impossible to me that he could have worked right alongside me, actually doing more work than I was doing, and he came out pristine while I came out looking like a bat out of hell (or Pigpen times ten). But there it was.
So, for years whenever I worked in a coal handling area, his words always rang in my mind. I considered it a challenge. I realized that there were times when it would be impossible to come out clean, like when you are sandblasting a tank, or working inside the Precipitator wading through fly ash up to your waist. But when doing my regular job, I made a real effort to remain as clean as possible.
It made me happy to think that others might think that I wasn’t working hard enough to be in the True Power Plant Man League because my clothes were clean, because to me, it was a tribute to my own Shaolin Master…. Jerry Mitchell. Yes. Power Plant Men…. Jerry Mitchell. (I hear people shutting down their laptops in dismay).
Before Jerry came to work at the power plant, he used to work on jet engines. Like many genuine Power Plant Men, he was a leader in the field of mechanics. I have a list as long as my arm of great men that work as Power Plant Men that are each near the top of the list of experts in their fields of knowledge. Jerry was one of them.
He built the engine in the blue corvette that he used to drive to work each day. He machined the parts himself. It could go from 0 to 80 and back to 0 from the main gate to the highway — how many yards is that? 200 yards maybe 300 He demonstrated it once to me. He was wondering if I was interested in buying it because he knew I didn’t own a car as I had to bum a ride wherever I went.
I think that I realized the true character of Power Plant Men from Jerry, because he had very little tolerance for those impostors that hung around Power Plant Men looking for a way to belittle them, or spread rumors to hurt their reputations, etc. because nothing bothers a pseudo-He-man like a True Power Plant Man, because it is like turning on a bright light and watching the roaches scurry away. Jerry could tell their character a mile away.
I will give you a “for instance”… One day as we pulled the truck up to the Maintenance Shop, Jerry told me to follow him and not say anything, just listen, because I was going to be shocked by the conversation that was about to take place. I wondered how he knew in advance as I walked up to an older coal yard foreman approaching a lady who was a Brown and Root construction hand (you could tell by the hardhat).
So I stood next to the man and listened. He asked her how her night was last night and she began by describing the time she spent in a bar and she repeated the conversation she had with a man that was trying to pick her up. Without going into too much detail, I will say that she ended the conversation with the man in the bar by saying that she was looking for a meal, not a snack, and proceeded to talk about another man in the bar and how she could tell that he was the kind of man she was looking for in more than descriptive terms.
She finished by telling the older man that the man she left with and her had a “Jolly good time” (my words, not hers) for at least 4 hours non-stop with more than enough details thrown in. The older man was amused and hee-hawed about it slapping his knee in amusement.
Jerry nodded to me and we left. We walked outside of the shop and leaned against the pickup. Jerry asked me, “Have you ever heard anyone talk like that before, let alone a lady?” I admitted that I hadn’t. Then he said, “That man that she was talking to is her father.”
I was thoroughly shocked and greatly disturbed. I had just heard a flowing river of filth spew from this person’s mouth as she was talking to her own father, and his response was to be amused by it. When Jerry told me this I looked at him in shock, and he looked back at me with his head nodding as it did often. His face had the regular straight poker face he usually wore, but his eyes told me that he was very saddened by this. He said he felt it was important for me to know.
I have often kept that poor old man and his lost soul of a daughter in my prayers. This man worked in the plant until the 1987-88 downsizing. Whenever I would see him working in the coal yard, I would remember that I needed to add him and his daughter to my prayers.
So in ending I will say this about Jerry Mitchell, as I say with all the True Power Plant Men I know. I have always considered Jerry a good friend. Jerry was always a good friend to me, and I know that he is a Saint in Heaven today. He never spoke a religious word in the years that I knew him, but I know that his large barrel chest held a tremendous heart.
When I think of Jerry today, I remember riding to Stillwater with him in his blue Corvette. As we drove by a row of trees in a creek bottom he suddenly said, “What is that noise? Do I hear Cicadas?” I said, “Yeah, sounds like it.” He replied, “I haven’t heard Cicada in years! After working around Jet engines for so long I could no longer hear the sound of bugs. My hearing is returning!” That was the only time I saw Jerry’s expression change from his constant straight face to a complete smile of satisfaction. I am 100% sure by the time Jerry made it to Heaven he was able to hear the harps very clearly.
In Memory of Sonny Karcher – Power Plant Man
Added a new beginning on 11/11/2021
This was originally posted on January 7, 2012
I remember on January 12, 1980 I had decided that November 11, 2011 was going to be a very special day for me. For almost 32 years I waited for that day to arrive. If I had been paying more attention at the time, I should have realized that it was going to be a day walking down memory lane as well as a day of death.
My roommate, Mark Sarmento in the private dorm “Mark Twain’s Residence Hall” at the University of Missouri in Columbia had just returned from his Christmas holiday and he had quite the tale to tell me as soon as he walked in the door. He told me a story about how his friend had told him over the holiday that he kept seeing the numbers 1111 (eleven eleven) or 111 (one eleven). It kept showing up at the oddest places. Too often to just be a coincidence. Then a few days later after Mark’s friend had told him about seeing all the ones, he died suddenly when he had a seizure while taking a shower.
Mark had just been to his friends funeral the day before on (get this) January 11 (1/11). Mark returned from his vacation and now Mark was seeing the numbers 1111 and 111 everywhere. I have to admit that over the next semester, Mark had some very interesting encounters with these two numbers. Even to the point where he was on flight 111 when he went home for spring break. He wondered what this could mean.
To me, I knew what it meant. I had decided that day in January 1980 that no matter where I was or what I was doing, I was going to find Mark Sarmento and give him a call on November 11, 2011 at 11:11am (or 11/11/11 11:11). You can see now why I was looking forward to that day. It went off without a hitch. I called his company and told the receptionist that I was an old friend of Mark’s and I have been waiting 32 years to call him on this day. I had called him at 10:11 since he was in the Eastern Time Zone while I was in the Central Time Zone. He called me back an hour later, at 11:11.
Two days later, a power plant man sent me an email informing me that Sonny Karcher had died on November 11, 2011 (11/11/11). I wondered if it was at the same time I was talking to Mark on the phone. I had met my roommate Mark Sarmento exactly 111 days after I had met Sonny Karcher. Another interesting coincidence.
It wasn’t my idea to go work at a power plant for a summer job in 1979. My dad called me in my dorm room one night during the Spring Semester at Oklahoma University in Norman Oklahoma before I decided to go back to Missouri. I had figured I would go back to working in a restaurant during the summer as that had been my “go to” job in the past.
Dad said that a fellow Deacon from the Catholic Church in Stillwater, who was the assistant plant manager had asked him if I would be interested in being a summer help at a new power plant the electric company was building 25 miles north of Stillwater. Without giving it much thought, I told him, “Sure”. Not really knowing at the time that my simple answer to that question sent me on a journey that lasted for over 22 years.
The next Monday after school was over, I took my mom’s station wagon and drove north out of Stillwater on Hwy 177. It wasn’t until I topped the hill just before Bill’s corner that I realized that this was actually happening. I had figured up to that point that someone was going to change their mind, and I would go back to Sirloin Stockade and work for my old manager Ken Low. But, “No.” This was actually happening.
Now, 42 years later, I cherish the memories of the days I spent working at the plant as a summer help during the summers of 1979 through 1982, when I became a full time Janitor at the plant. I later worked my way into the Labor Crew, and eventually ending up in the Electric Shop, where I was an electrician for 18 years.
When I heard the sad news of the death of my very first mentor at the plant, Sonny Karcher on 11/11/11 (November 11, 2011), 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, The first two mechanics I worked with were Sonny and Larry Riley. They taught me how things worked 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 was 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. We were supposed to work on 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 recognize the word “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. That’s when I learned that a check valve keeps the water from running backward down a pipe.
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 (pronounced “three quarter box ends”), One four foot soft choker, a ¾ ton come-along, a ¾ shackle, a two foot steel choker a large 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 the list 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 when I saw Bud Schoonover (a very large tall and easy going man at the time) I wondered if he was perchance the large flat bastard file that was on my list. I thought maybe when I came to “Flat Bastard File” on my list, he would fly into a rage and pick me up by the neck and throw me to the ground (unlikely, I know, but at that time, I didn’t know what to expect). I told him, “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 punch line of 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 and the gate was actually a window in A foreman’s office next to the tool room). — not the regular gate that has been in the tool room for the past 35 years.
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 until it finally disintegrated 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 and that was what a typical non-educated summer help usually did, 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. See the post “Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal“.
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 — See the post: “Experiencing Maggots, Mud and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball“), 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 the plant.
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.
During the summer of 2018, while I went through Stillwater on my way to Columbia Missouri to attend my 40th High School Reunion, I took a couple of days visiting friends from the plant. I went to the Morrison Cemetery hoping to find Sonny Karcher’s grave. I was not able to find it. I searched other nearby cemeteries including the Sumner cemetery close to his house, and I was never able to find his grave.
Regardless, 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 and points out that they have a lot of green pastures as he lets him through the gates.
Power Plant Desk Job
I have always been a late bloomer. It wasn’t until I was 60 before I realized that every time I yanked a hair out of my nose, I had one less hair on my head. Imagine my surprise. Now that I have to wear a hat when I go outside to prevent a sunburn on my dome, I wish someone had told me about this a long time ago.
As a young boy, I knew something was up the day my mom received a letter with the results from the IQ test we had taken at school. She seemed excited at first as we were standing at the mailbox. After opening it and quickly reading the results, she suddenly folded it up and put it back in the envelope without divulging her findings. At first I took that as meaning that I was such a genius that my mom didn’t want me to know in case it would go to my head.
I thought to myself… “Well, if I knew it meant that much to her, I would have paid more attention when I was taking that dumb test.” I was more interested in the instructions the teacher had given us at the time, which was that when we had finished this test, which had nothing to do with our grades, we could go outside and play for the rest of the day.
I knew I looked at the world differently than my classmates. Sometimes I would answer a question or make a comment that seemed perfectly obvious to me, and the rest of the class would suddenly go silent as if I had just said something very stupid. I would look around at them like, “Am I not making myself clear? The answer is obvious.” I couldn’t help it if they didn’t understand. But then again, I realized that maybe it was just me.
Even at 60 years old, I still have that same effect on people. Often when I give my input in meetings, everyone seems to pause as if to indicate that I just said something rather dumb. I’m used to it. As I said, I knew I see the world differently even at an early age. I also knew all along that I didn’t know a lot of things that other people just seemed to know instinctively.
That was why the first day I showed up at the Power Plant as a summer help in 1979, I was rather cautious about my first encounter with Power Plant Men. I didn’t want them to immediately know that I was “slow”. I had years of practice at hiding that fact, so I put on a look of “confident kindness” thinking that if I was friendly, then who cares if I’m dumb. I looked young for my age. Even though I was 18 I knew I looked more like I was 15 or even younger.
My first encounter was with Sonny Karcher, as I described in the post In Memory of Sonny Karcher – Power Plant Man. Before long, I was working with a number of Power Plant Men that took me under their wing. Especially after I had told them that some day I might write a book about them. Which for someone as dumb as me, I thought was a brilliant idea.
I soon became so popular that a number of crews would ask if I could go along on jobs with them. I had never been one for being lazy, and manual labor suited me just fine. I was a perfect “gopher” who didn’t mind taking the truck back to the shop to “go for” parts and tools.
Even though I was just a temporary employee for the summer, I was invited to help disassemble and reassemble pumps and gearboxes, as the plant at the time was going through something called “check out” before they actually came online and began producing electricity for the first time. I was enjoying my notoriety. Never before in my life had I experienced the feeling of friendship that I received from the men in the maintenance shop.
The A foreman, Marlin McDaniel (or Mac) came up to me one day and explained that some people in the shop were complaining that I was working on things that they should be doing. Since I was going to be going back to school at the end of the summer, they should be the ones working on the equipment, since they will need to know everything going forward. They made a good point.
I knew that I probably would never need to know about the tolerance level between the size of a bearing and the bearing housing of a pump end bell, but they would. I would be gone, and they would have missed the opportunity to learn at a critical stage of their training. So, I was not surprised when Mac gave me my next job.
Mac took me over to a corner of the maintenance shop where pallets of large boxes had recently been unloaded from a truck that had backed into the shop that morning. He said that these were office desks that needed to be assembled. There were 15 of them all together. Some would be used as work benches in the shop, and others would be brought to the office area upstairs.
I was going to assemble the desks by myself in a corner of the maintenance shop, so I dragged a box over to an open spot on the floor and pulled the parts out of the box and looked at the instructions. It seemed as if each desk consisted of the parts for each of the drawers, and the desktop and sides and back, and about 10,000 little bolts.
As I started working on the first desk I realized that it was going to take all day just to assemble one of these. Using my exceptional brain power, I quickly calculated that this amounted to 15 days of work, or three weeks. It so happened that I was going to be at the plant for only 3 more weeks before I left to go back to school. It looked as if this was going to be the only job I was going to be doing the rest of the summer.
I began feeling a little sick about my prospects, after spending two months working side-by-side with other Power Plant Men that had treated me as an equal. Now I was consigned to my own little corner of the shop where I was going to be spending my days alone. I was surprised by how much this seemed to rub me the wrong way. The monotony of using a nut driver to install each bolt seemed like such an overwhelming burden to me.
This surprised me since my life up to this point was spent enjoying menial tasks such as this. It was my new friends I was missing. As they carried their tool boxes to their trucks to head out on a job, I watched them as they glanced over at me, sorry that I wasn’t going to be able to go with them.
That morning on the way to work I had been looking forward to whatever job I was going to be doing that day. On the ride home that evening, I was silent, sitting the in back seat of Dale Hull’s Volkswagen Sirocco. My knuckles were scraped up from the protruding bolts as I reached into tight spots to assemble drawers, and the cabinets that fit under the desks. I was painfully aware of my over reaction to my turn of events.
The next morning when I began assembling my second desk, I waved goodbye to the various crews that had adopted me in the previous weeks as they took off to do their jobs. I noticed that after building the first desk, I was able to assemble the second one a lot faster. By lunch time, I had almost finished it. This meant by the end of the second week I should be done.
After I came down from the lunch room and began my work finishing up the second desk something remarkable happened. Dale Hull came up to me and said, “Mind if I help?” Overjoyed for his help, I tried to appear calm as I gladly said, “Sure! That would be great!” He walked across the shop and grabbed his tools and came back with Ricky Daniels. They each grabbed a box off of the stack of desks, and began assembling them.
I thought, “With 3 of us working, we could be done with 5 desks by the end of the day! 1/3rd of them in 2 days!
While I was hoping that Dale and Ricky would be able to stay and finish their desks before being called away, Tom Dean came over and slid a box off of a pallet and began working without even saying anything. Sonny Karcher, Larry Riley and Jerry Mitchell were the next three that grabbed a box. Before long desk parts were strewn over half of the shop as Power Plant Men were building all of the desks!
Someone had brought a radio over and plugged it in and everyone was listening to music and talking as if they were having a party. By the end of the day all of the desks had been assembled. My 15 day lonely task had turned into a 2 day task ending with a party of Power Plant Men all pitching in to help.
That evening during the drive home, sitting in the back of Dale Hull’s car, I was overwhelmed at how quickly things can turn around when you have friends. Little did I know that the next day, I would be given quite a different task. Not one where I worked alone, but one that would keep me busy for the next 2 weeks until I left to go back to school. You can read about that in this post: Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill.
Letters to the Power Plant #43 — Traveling at Dell
After I left the power plant and went to work for Dell on August 20, 2001, I wrote letters back to my friends at the plant letting them know how things were going. This is the forty third letter I wrote.
07/19/02 – Traveling at Dell
Dear Soonerites and others,
I have spent this week working in my new location. It has been a real experience in many ways. Probably the biggest difference between where I’m working now and my normal workplace is that the cubicles are 1 1/4 inches shorter. That means that I don’t have to stand as erect to see over the top of them. I can easily see across the entire building by just standing up with my normal slouching posture.
Another difference with working in Parmer South (that’s the “campus” where I am working), is that I have to drive farther. Instead of the easy 7 to 10 minute drive to work, I have about a 20 minute drive. — The extra 5 miles generally takes about 10 to 15 minutes because I have to travel on Interstate 35.
The 35 means that that is about the top speed you travel during Rush Hour (Rush hour. Yeah right.). Anyway. Driving that extra time reminds me of the days when I would carpool to work with Scott Hubbard (and Toby O’Brien and Fred Turner, and Paul Mullon and Tony Mena).
Note to reader: To learn more about carpooling with Scott Hubbard, read the post Hubbard Here! Hubbard There! Power Plant Hubbard Everywhere!
As you can imagine, we would talk all the way to work, and all the way home while we were listening to NPR on the radio, or Rush Limbaugh. Those were fun days. It’s amazing how much you can say in a 25 minute drive.
I have found that instead of filling my car up with gas every 2 1/2 weeks, I have to fill it now about every week and a half. — When I was working at OG&E, it seemed that I had to fill my car with gas just about every week.
Anyway. I have heard some interesting conversations in my new temporary abode, as you can imagine. I don’t want to go into much detail about it, but let me just say that I have heard a lot of conversations that I couldn’t understand because they were in a very different foreign language. Since I speak every language in the world except “Greek” and “Geek”, my guess is that these guys were all speaking a Geekish form of Greek.
Dell is coming out with some new commercials, and I was watching them on my computer this morning. I think you will like them. Especially if you have grown tired of the “Steven” commercials.
These aren’t aimed at the regular consumer like the Steven commercials, they are geared more toward the ******SECURITY VIOLATION******** THIS PORTION OF THE E-MAIL HAS BEEN DELETED BY DELLSECURE—-IT CONTAINED PROPRIETARY INFORMATION. ******SECURITY VIOLATION******** Anyway, I thought Ellen and Dave were pretty good.
I hope everything is going well with you guys this week. I haven’t heard much from “up North” lately. I suppose that means that everything is going well. No fires. No explosions. No buildings falling over in the middle of the night. Gee. If none of those things are happening, then what are you guys doing for fun these days?
So, who’s the next person retiring from Sooner? Does anyone know? Has George Pepple retired yet? I have forgotten.
Your friendly programmer from Dell Land incorporated,
Kevin James Anthony Breazile
Kevin J. Breazile
Customer Experience / Warranty Cost
Dell Computer Corporation
Power Plant Families Experience Pain
The 105th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally posted on 12/24/2015
If I were to create a list of each time a tragedy occurred in the life of the Power Plant Men and Women of our plant, it would be quite long. Most of the tragedies go unnoticed because when a Power Plant Man enters the front gate, an attempt is made to leave the rest of the world behind so that their full attention can be focused on returning home safely at the end of the day.
Sometimes the tragedy is too much to put aside. Sometimes the tragedy is so devastating that the entire character of the person is shaken. Sometimes it is only one’s Faith in God and in the fellow Power Plant Men that the heart is kept beating.
Just as in a small town like Mayberry (from the Andy Griffith Show), everyone knows everyone’s business in a Power Plant. This was true when I worked as an electrician in the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. There were some people you were closer to than others, but whenever there was a tragedy in anyone’s life at the plant, everyone felt the pain.
In everyone’s life, there is always a loss of loved ones. This is expected in most cases. When someone’s Mother died, we knew that a certain amount of grief would be felt. Those weren’t “tragedies” per se, unless the death was unexpected or caused by an accident. Power Plant Men know that death is a part of life. They would be there to comfort each other during those times.
The most devastating tragedy that one can imagine is the loss of a son or a daughter through a tragic accident. In this post I will focus on two times when I worked at the Power Plant when True Power Plant Men lost their sons through a tragic accident. I bring up these two events because I wish to share the grief that was felt by the entire community at the time. I think this is important because times like this help define the character of everyone involved.
Ron Hunt was born November 2, 1948. He graduated from Ponca City High School in 1966. He had a number of jobs before being hired in 1981 at the Power Plant as a mechanic. After working at the plant for almost 20 years, one day his crew had to work late into the night to repair the Number 2 Conveyor Belt.
Some time around 2 am, when the work was almost done, the counterweight for the belt that weighs at least 5 tons, that had been welded in place to keep the weight off of the belt while they were working on it, was being cut loose in order to put the belt back into service. At this point the entire crew had been working for over 18 hours without much of a break.
The counterweight, which is used to keep the the belt tight, was bolted to the railing so that when the plates were cut off the weight wouldn’t fall. Ron Hunt was standing on the counter weight working with the others to cut the weight loose. As the plates were cut using blow torches, the weight gave way, and dropped.
The bolts that were used to hold the weight in place had not been tightened. After working 18 hours, and not being mechanical engineers who understand the importance of tensile strength in bolts that are tight as opposed to bolts that are loose, the group of men didn’t know that the loose bolts didn’t have the strength to hold the weight in place. Especially if the weight dropped an inch before hitting the bolts.
Because of this circumstance, the weight fell to the ground with Ron standing on top of it. As it fell, Ron scraped his leg causing a serious gash down the side of his leg. He was rushed to the hospital, where after a couple of months he was able to report back to work at the plant.
Not long after Ron Hunt had returned to work, one afternoon, his son was driving a Coca Cola Truck, or some other beverage truck from Ponca City down Highway 177 toward Stillwater. About 5 miles after passing the plant where his father worked, as he was approaching the railroad tracks that go through Morrison Oklahoma, a train suddenly appeared from behind the tree line. The lights on the railroad crossing turned on and the arms began to lower.
As most Power Plant Men that lived south of the plant knew, whenever a train was approaching that particular crossing, the warning light and the arms didn’t start coming down until the train was almost at the crossing. Many of us had the experience of trying to come to a fast halt when suddenly the light turned on while we were within 100 yards of the tracks and a train suddenly appeared from behind the trees.
This is what happened to Ron Hunt’s son that day. The truck was not close enough to the tracks to clear the tracks and avoid hitting the crossing arms that suddenly dropped down, and was too close to the tracks to stop a truck full of product. Skid marks were left where the Ron’s son had desperately tried to stop the truck in time. Unfortunately, he was not able to stop before crossing the railroad track directly in front of the train. He was killed in a fiery crash as the engine of the train derailed.
For weeks on the ride home from work, when we approached the railroad track, we would see the railroad investigators working on the accident. Each day, as we crossed the tracks we were reminded of the tragedy. We would think about what Ron Hunt was going through. We could only imagine what Ron was going through.
Jim Kirkendall worked in the Coalyard from the first day he arrived at the Power Plant, March 19, 1979. This was just a month and a half before I showed up my first summer to work as a summer help. The plant was still under construction, so I met Jim when I would go to the coalyard to work with Gary Michelson or Jerry Mitchell when we were filtering all the oil in the plant through the blotter press.
Jim has red hair and reminded me of an English detective, much like Philip Jackson who played Inspector Japp in the British TV series “Poirot”:
Jim Kirkendall experienced such a tragedy one day that the entire plant was stunned into sorrowful silence when they learned what happened. The day was June 10, 1998. When his son was late coming home that day in Morrison Oklahoma, Jim went out to look for him in the pasture where he had been baling large bales of hay.
As Jim approached looked out over the pasture, he could see the tractor with the baler attached, and the bale of hay that was still attached was on fire. As Jim quickly approached the baler, he found that his son Jim Aaron had been caught in the baler and had been baled up in the round bale that was on fire.
I don’t know how anyone can remain alive after coming across a scene where your very own 17 year old son has been killed in such a way. I think the grief alone would have been so suffocating that I would have died right there on the spot. Somehow Jim survived this experience.
I bring up both of these tragic events today, because in order to understand the bond that exists between the Power Plant Men and Women who have worked side-by-side at a Power Plant for many years, it helps to know that when tragedies like these occur, the entire group of Power Plant Men is changed. Even though the events themselves are tragic, the resulting change in the character of the plant is improved.
Times like these have taught the Power Plant Men and Women who they really are inside. It turns out that they are all men and women of great compassion. They joke about it at times with Safety stickers like this:
This hard hat sticker expresses the bond that exists within the Power Plant family more than it was originally intended. After Randy Dailey gave me a stack of these a few years after I left the plant, I have kept these stickers handy to remind me of that bond.
I was reminded of this bond this past week when Ben Davis reached out to me to let me know that Ray Eberle’s wife Barbara passed away the previous Friday. I knew that Barbara was very ill, and that Ray has been by her side almost constantly for the past year caring for her, so I was not surprised by the news.
Ray’s nickname for me is “little buddy”. I follow his family on Facebook and up until the very end when Barbara was very sick, whenever she would post something on Facebook it was very positive. A proud grandparent.
I left the plant over 14 years ago. Yet, what happens in the lives of my Power Plant Family is just as important to me today as it was the day I left.
I know that Ray grieved when Barbara died, but I also know that he had a feeling of joy at the same time. His wife Barbara had been struggling with her health for a long time. Ray knows that now her life is finally fulfilled. No more pain.
Ben Davis sent me an e-mail shortly after he learned about Barbara.
Not because I asked him to keep me informed about Power Plant News. He told me what happened because we are part of the same family, and we share each other’s joys and sorrows.
Even though Ray has been retired for the last few years, he is still as much a part of the family as I am, and I have been gone for 14 years (now almost 20).
I suppose some day in the not too distant future, everyone I know from the Power Plant will have retired or passed away. Some day there will even be a video online of the entire plant being destroyed as it is bulldozed under to make way for newer technology. The lives of these brave Power Plant Men will not be forgotten.
The lives of the Power Plant Men are etched into eternity. Not because they pushed countless electrons down wires to light up houses, but because of the bond that exists between them. Because the love that Power Plant Men and Women have for each other is the type of Love that comes from God.
As a follow up to this post (as this is a repost); this past summer (July 18, 2018) I visited the the small town of Morrison. Because I had heard so many stories about the Morrison Cafe I thought I would stop there to eat dinner. I sat on a stool at the counter and ordered my meal.
A few minutes later an older man approached me. He had a gray beard and a wrinkled face. He said, “You’re Kevin Breazile. Aren’t you?” I looked at his face and it seemed familiar. I had seen those eyes so many times before. Flashing through my Rolodex of Power Plant faces, I finally matched the eyes with the man.
I said, “Jim! Jim Kirkendall!” He asked me what I was doing there and I told him I was just passing through and stopped by the Morrison Cemetery to visit some old friends (including Ray Eberle’s wife, Barbara). We said a few more words and he went to sit with 3 other old men at a table by the door.
When I was ready to leave to go meet with my other old friend Ray Eberle who had just pulled up outside, I told the waitress that I would like to pay Jim and his friend’s bill for dinner. That was my parting gift for Jim, who has been in my heart all these years.
Tales of Power Plant Prowess by Ray Eberle
The 100th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally posted 8/01/2015
The first time I saw Ray Eberle was during my first summer as a summer help in 1979. He was standing in the midst of a group of mechanics who sat around him as school children sit around the librarian as a story is being read. Ray was telling a story to a group of mesmerized Power Plant Men.
I had actually been seeking him out, though I didn’t know it. A week or so earlier I noticed that Sonny Karcher started putting on a distinct drawl at times when he was telling a story. Every once in a while Sonny would change his way of talking when he was making a point where he would let his lower lip come forward and work its way left and right as he talked, and he would close one eye more than the other and talk in a strange sort of a southern drawl.
I just knew he was imitating someone because it was so different than just the regular Sonny (See the post “Power Plant Invocations and Imitations of Sonny Karcher“). So, one day when I heard that drawl coming from someone in the welding shop, I veered over in that direction to find out who it was, and there was Ray Eberle sitting in the middle of a ring of welders all listening intently while Ray weaved a story full of intrigue and excitement.
Many years later I heard that Ray was invited to tell stories to hunters who were hunting elk in Montana around the campfires at night as an occupation. I think he passed on that opportunity. Who would think of leaving the comfort of a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to go sit around telling stories by campfires in Montana?
For many years I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Ray. He had joined the Safety Task Force that we had created at the plant. He had also become a member of the Confined Space Rescue Team, and was a HAZWOPER Emergency Rescue responder. I was on all of these teams with Ray, but I really had never worked side-by-side with him.
I know that at times, I had disappointed Ray by not living up to his expectations of what a True Power Plant Man should be. When we were on the Safety Task Force, after the reorganization, we had shifted gears to be more of an “Idea” task force instead of one that actually fixed safety issues. I was pushing hard to have the company move to a “Behavior-Based Safety” approach. It was a misunderstood process and if not implemented correctly would have the exact opposite effect (see the post “ABCs of Power Plant Safety“)
I know this bothered Ray. He let me know one day when I received an intra-company envelope with a memo in it. It said that he was resigning from the team:
I hang on to the oddest things. Some things that lift me up and some things that break my heart. I figure that there is a lesson for me in this memo. That is why I have held onto it for the past 20 years. I suppose this enforces my philosophy of trying to make a “Bad First Impression” (See the post: “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“).
Ray Eberle told me once that he had always thought that I was a lazy stuck up electrician that didn’t like to get dirty and just sat around in the electric shop all the time. (read the post: “Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“) He said that he saw me as a “higher than thou” type of person that looked down on others. Then one day I said something that totally changed his perception of me. I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
It’s funny to learn sometimes what people actually think of you. Then it’s even funnier to think what makes them change their mind. You see… when Ray Eberle was sharing his thoughts about me, we had become very good friends. He said that he felt that he finally understood me when I uttered those three words “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember the moment I had said that. As members of the Confined Space Rescue Team, we were responsible for inspecting the SCBAs (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) each month. We were standing in the control room and had a couple of the SCBAs sitting out while the instructor was showing us the proper way to inspect them.
Ray had asked a few “what-if” questions (like “What if the pressure is right at the minimum amount?” or “What if we send a tank off to be refilled and we have an emergency?”) and his questions weren’t being answered. He was getting a little hot under the collar, so I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember Ray’s reaction. He turned to me and said, “What did you say?” I looked him straight in the eye with a grin on my face and repeated “Don’t get twisted.”
At that moment I didn’t know if Ray was going to haul off and belt me one, so I was mentally preparing my various responses…. like…. get ready to duck… just try to stand there as if nothing had happened… run and call a therapist because my ego had been shattered (no… wait… that wasn’t then)…. Anyway… instead Ray just smiled at me and said calmly, “I thought that was what you had said.” I could see that he was in deep thought.
It was a couple of years later that I found out that at that moment Ray Eberle’s perception of who I was had done a 180. Isn’t it funny what causes someone to change their mind sometimes? Maybe he saw a spot of dirt on my tee shirt.
One day during the spring of 1998 my foreman, Alan Kramer told me that Jim Arnold wanted me to be assigned to create “Task Lists” in SAP.
Task lists are instructions on how to perform jobs associated with trouble tickets. Jim Arnold (probably to keep me out of trouble) had assigned me to write task lists and Ray Eberle to write Bill of Materials (or BOMs). Thus began our three year journey together working side-by-side entering data into the computer.
Writing task lists didn’t mean that I just sat in front of the computer all day. In order to create them, I had to find out what tools a person would use to fix something, and what procedure they would perform in order to do their job. This meant that a lot of times, I would go up to a crew that was working on something and I would ask them to tell me all the tools they used and how they did their job while standing at the job site.
I will write another post later about how I actually did the task of writing task lists, so I won’t go into any more detail. (Now that I have written all of the posts, I find that I have scattered my story about task lists through various other posts, but mainly, down below). After a short while, Ray and I figured out that we needed to be in the front office close to the Master Prints and the room where the “X-Files” (or X-drawings) were kept.
X-Files didn’t have to do with “Aliens”. X-Files were files in cabinets that had all the vendor information about every piece of equipment at the plant (just about). They were called X Files because their filing numbers all began with an X. Like X-160183. Which is probably the source of the name of the TV show.
About 50% of my time for the next three years was spent creating task lists. The rest of the time, I was still doing my regular electrician job, and going to school. After the first year, I moved into the Master Print Room and Ray and I set up shop working on the computers next to each other.
Ray was a collector of Habanero Sauce bottles.
He would travel the country looking for unique Habanero Sauce bottles. Each day, Ray would bring a bottle of habanero sauce to work and pour some on his lunch.
I ate the same boring lunch every day. It consisted of a ham sandwich with a slice of American cheese. Then I had some kind of fruit, like an apple or an orange. Since I was no longer eating lunch in the electric shop where Charles would give me peppers with my sandwich, when Ray asked me if I would like some hot sauce for my sandwich I was quick to give it a try.
There is something very addictive about habanero sauce. After a few days of having this sauce on my sandwich, I went to the grocery store and bought some of my own bottles of habanero sauce and salsa.
Ok. One side story…
I was sitting at home reading a school book at the dining room table, my 9 year old daughter Elizabeth walked up to the table and took a tortilla chip from my paper plate, dipped it in the (habanero) salsa in the bowl next to it, and began to put it in her mouth. Without looking up from my book, I said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Thinking that I meant that she shouldn’t be stealing my chips, she went ahead and put it in her mouth. Grinning because she had stolen my chip, she began to walk away. Then she started to squeal a little. Moments later she was hopping all over the kitchen trying to find some way to put out the fire.
I told her the best remedy is to eat more chips. Don’t drink water. It makes it worse. Eat chips without salsa.
End of side story…
I mentioned above that Ray Eberle is a very good storyteller. He told me a series of stories that I call the “Walt Oswalt Stories”. These were real life stories about a Power Plant Man at our plant. They were so funny that I would go home and share them with my wife and she would fold over laughing at them. She said that Ray needs to write a book about Walt Oswalt.
I have shared some of these stories with various people in my later career and the reaction is always the same. These stories belong in a book. Later this year, I will share some of the Walt Oswalt stories in a post or two then you will see what I’m talking about. (See the posts: “A Window into a Power Plant Man Bedroom“, “Mr. Frog’s Wild Power Plant Ride“, “Power Plant Trip leads to a game of Frogger“).
One time in 2007 when I worked for Dell, I was meeting with the CEO of the world’s leading timekeeping company called Kronos (now UKG or Ultimate Kronos Group). His name is Aron Ain.
My director, Chris Enslin was with us in Massachusetts.
Aron had taken us out to eat dinner, and Chris asked me to tell Aron some Walt Oswalt stories, so I shared a couple.
Then a couple of years later in 2009, Chris told me that he was at a meeting with CEOs from companies all over the United States, and there was Aron standing in the middle of a group of CEOs telling them a Walt Oswalt story.
Here is a picture of Ray Eberle sitting next to me at our computers in the master print room at the power plant:
Each day at lunch, after we had eaten our sandwiches, Ray would reach into his lunch box and pull out a worn black book and begin reading it. He would spend about 10 to 15 minutes reading. Sometimes he would stop and tell me something interesting about something he had just read. When he was done, the book went back into his lunch box and we continued working.
I remember some of the interesting conversations we used to have about that worn black book in his lunch box. One time we talked about a story in the book about how a hand just appeared out of nowhere and began writing on a wall when this guy named Belshazzar was having a party. Then this guy named Daniel came and told him what it meant, and that night Belshazzar was killed. Ray said, “…. God sent the hand that wrote the inscription.” What do you think about that? My response was…. “Yeah. God sure has class. He could have just struck the guy down right there and then. Instead he has a hand appear and write something on the wall. That way we can now have the saying: The writing on the wall’.”
I always thought if you were going to pick a good friend to have, if you pick one that reads their Bible every day during lunch, they are bound to be trustworthy. I could tell that I could trust Ray with anything. So, I spent the three years with Ray telling him everything I knew about myself while Ray shared a good deal of his life story with me. Of course… being nine and a half years older than I was, he had lived a lot more life than I had.
When I left the Power Plant in 2001 to work for Dell, one of the things I missed the most was sitting next to Ray talking about our lives, eating our lunch with Habanero Sauce, and listening to Ray’s stories about Prominent Power Plant Men! I have considered Ray a very dear friend for many years and I am honored to have him take me into his confidence. I only hope that I could be as much of a friend to Ray as he has been to me.
Dynamic Power Plant Trio — And Then There Was One
The 96th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally posted 6/5/2015
I began writing this Power Plant blog on January 1, 2012. The reason I did was because the first Power Plant Man I had met at the plant my first day on the job was Sonny Karcher and he had recently died. I had always led Sonny to believe that someday I would be a writer and I would write stories about the Power Plant Men.
When Sonny died on November 11, 2011, and Saint Peter gladly welcomed him through the Pearly Gates (as they needed someone special to mow the grass on the green pastures), Sonny realized that I had never really intended to set the wonderful stories of great heroes of Power Plant Fame down on paper.
Sonny being Sonny, made sure to send messengers (of sorts) to me reminding me of the commitment I had made to him many years earlier (in 1979) to spread the Wisdom of Power Plant Men to the rest of the world. What could I say? I had told him when he asked if I was going to write about the Power Plant Men that “maybe…. I hadn’t thought about it…” I knew that was just as good as a commitment to Sonny.
My very first Power Plant Post was about Sonny and how that first day on the job as a summer help opened up a whole new world to me full of wonders that some take for granted in the Power Plant Kingdom (see the Post “In Memory of Sonny Karcher – Power Plant Man“).
During the very first job I ever did with Sonny and Larry Riley, I went to the tool room to obtain a list of tools that to me sounded like the first of many Power Plant Man jokes that were to be played on me… As it turned out… there really was a tool called a “Come-along” and a soft choker and 3/4 box ends (who would’ve thunk it?).
When I went to the tool room to ask for these tools, as I walked up to the entrance I came face-to-face with a tall bear of a man. He had a grin on his face as he stood there at the gate to the tool room. I would say he was a big man… bigger than Daniel Boone, who was also said to have been a big man (according to the song about him).
Bud Schoonover was his name. When I asked him for the tools waiting for the joke to begin, he handed me each tool one-by-one as I asked for them. As I left the gate carrying a load of tools in my arm I said, “Thanks Bud.” He grinned back at me as if he knew….. I wasn’t sure exactly what he knew, but he looked at me as if he did anyway.
That first encounter with Bud may have seemed relatively insignificant, but I have always remembered that moment as it is etched firmly in my mind. I didn’t know it at the time that over the years Bud and I were going to become great friends.
I suppose that some day when I’m old (oh! I’m almost there now!), and I can’t remember what stories I have already told to my grandchildren, if I ever have any, or to the person standing behind me in the line at the grocery store, I will tell them over and over again about the first time I ever met Bud Schoonover. I will tell them that story as an introduction to all the other stories about Bud that I love to tell.
In past Power Plant Posts about Bud Schoonover, I have often said that there was something about Bud that reminded me of Aunt Esther on the TV Show, Sanford and Son, only a lot bigger, whiter and more male.
The reason was that Aunt Ester had the same squint as Bud, and she would protrude her chin out the same way as Bud when he was telling you something important.
Tonight when I was eating dinner with my parents at the Olive Garden in Round Rock Texas, I asked them “Do you remember Bud Schoonover?” My dad immediately said, “Yeah! I remember Bud Schoonover!” Not that he had ever met Bud in person… He had only heard about him off and on for the last 36 years. Everyone in my family knew Bud Schoonover.
Tonight I told my parents that Bud Schoonover died the Wednesday before last on May 27 (2015). They were surprised to hear that. My mom said, “How old was he?” (a common question asked by older people… I have found).
I had always talked about Bud as he was when I knew him, which made him seem timelessly younger. I told them he was 76. “Oh. He was young” answered my 80 year old dad. “Yeah Dad… He was.” I responded.
I have written many posts where I talked about Bud Schoonover these past 3 1/2 years. A couple were pretty much solely dedicated to spreading Bud’s special Wisdom about the rest of the world… as Sonny Karcher insists to this day… My first post about Bud is called “Carpooling with Bud Schoonover“. This is one of the first posts I wrote after talking about Sonny Karcher and Larry Riley, as Bud Schoonover has always been one of my favorite Power Plant Men of all time.
Last September I wrote a post called “Elvin Power Plant Tool Room Adventures With Bud“. This post relays a number of my favorite stories about Bud. The most endearing story is the one where Bud would never let you check out a tool or supply if it was the last one left. It would crack me up the entire day when I would go to the tool room to get some supply only to have Bud tell me that he couldn’t let me have it because he only had one left.
As a new 18 year old summer help in 1979, Bud Schoonover offered me some advice that I decided to take. As I was sweeping the floor of the Maintenance Shop near the tool room one day, Bud waved me over, and he said, “Let me tell you something.” “What is it?” I asked. He said, “Maybe it’s not such a good idea to wear a shirt that says ‘Kiss Me I’m Left Handed’ at a plant that’s just about made up of all guys (my sister had bought that shirt for me). I decided that maybe he was right about that. I couldn’t get away with it the way that Betty White (I think that was her name), another warehouse worker could when she wore the shirt that said, “Eat Your Heart Out! I’m married!” That was Bud… looking out for me right from the start.
I mentioned earlier that Bud and I were destined to become good friends, and we did just that. For three years from May 1986 to May 1989 we carpooled together with Dick Dale and Jim Heflin. The Carpooling adventures came from the 750 round trips Bud Schoonover, Jim and Richard and I took to and from the Power Plant each morning.
Each day carpooling with Bud was special to me. Three years may not seem like a long time in a person’s life, but we actually drove together around 750 days in those three years. Each day. Four larger men all crammed into one car. My poor Honda Civic could hardly move when the four of us were in the car. My gas mileage went from 40 miles per gallon down to 30 with all of us in the car. — It’s true. A 1982 Honda Civic 1300 would go 40 miles on a gallon of gas!
750 days of talking to Bud Schoonover, Dick Dale and Jim Heflin (well, Jim left after two years to try his luck somewhere else). Bud, Jim, Richard (I always liked calling Dick Dale, “Richard” though everyone else called him Dick) were the Dynamic Trio. The three of them were the best of friends. Each day as they drove to work I felt like I was a fifth (or a fourth) wheel invited to a family get together. You couldn’t find three brothers closer than Bud Schoonover, Dick Dale and Jim Heflin. They had carpooled together before I showed up in 1986.
I rarely think of any of these three men without thinking about the other two. I picture them together all climbing out of my Honda Civic in the parking lot at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma after we had driven the 20 miles from Ponca City to the plant all crammed in my car. It always reminded me of one of those circus cars that pulls into the tent during the show and a bunch of people come pouring out and you wonder how did all those big guys fit in that little car.
Last year I wrote a post about Dick Dale (see the post “Dick Dale and the Power Plant Printer Romance“). that post begins with this sentence…. “When I first moved to Ponca City I carpooled to the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma with Dick Dale, Jim Heflin and Bud Schoonover.” I wonder how many times my parents and my children (and my coworkers) have heard me begin a story with that sentence….
My daughter thought for many years that the one year in 1993 at the Christmas Party in Ponca City when Bud Schoonover dressed up as Santa Claus, that this Santa was the real one! She told me on the way back home to Stillwater that she could look in Santa’s (Bud’s) eyes and tell that this Santa was the “Real Santa Claus!” She was always so happy to have actually met the real one when everyone else just met Mall Santas.
In actuality, Bud was so shy when the children came up to sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas that he could only smile and look down at them with tears welling up in his eyes. I remember when he looked over at me standing by as he was listening to my daughter. He had nothing but love in his eyes.
In the story about the Printer Romance I mentioned that Dick Dale died on Christmas Day, 2008.
Now I am writing a post about the second person of the Dynamic Trio that has finally found their peace and are once again joined together as family. Richard and Bud I know you are together again. I know because today the two of you asked me to look for Jim Heflin, the third brother in your Power Plant Family.
So, before I sat down to write this post this evening, I opened Facebook at Bud’s and Richard’s urging and searched for Jim Heflin. I don’t know how many there were, but there were a lot of Jim Heflins. I didn’t know what Jim would look like since I hadn’t seen him for the past 27 years. After scrolling down a few pages of Jim Heflins, one person caught my eye…. Could this be Jim?
One way to find out…. I looked at Jim’s friends, and sure enough….. There was Brenda (Bulldog) Heflin. This was my long lost friend. The last of the Dynamic Trio. Still alive and still with the same eyes…..
You see… over the past years, I have written stories about Jim Heflin too…. See the post “Power Plant Adventures with Jim Heflin” I have described Jim as giving you the impression of a friendly Hound Dog….
Well, here is the Facebook picture of the Jim Heflin I found tonight. I know it’s him. He has the same eyes that used to roll around when he would walk up to me to pat me on the back and tell me some words of wisdom….
I have missed my friend Jim Heflin, along with Bud and Richard until today. Now I feel like I have them back again.
Why did Richard and Bud want me to find Jim? They wanted me to tell Jim that they are back together again after all these years. I think they also wanted me to reach out to Jim for another reason as well…. Well… I’ll see about that…. How about it Jim?
I sent Jim a Friend request. That sounds real funny to me. To send a “Friend Request” to someone that I have held close to my heart since the first day I met him in May 1980.
Maybe some day Jim and I will be up there with Richard and Bud and we can go for a ride together….. I can see us now all crammed in that Fiery Chariot. Bud telling us about the weather report…. “Sunny”… of course…. Jim staring out the window up at the sun trying to pull up a sneeze (as Jim would sneeze in sunlight some times)… Richard and I rolling our eyes at each other as the Chariot comes to a halt in the middle of the stars because some school bus full of little angels has stopped and put out the Stop Sign three clouds over…. — Sonny Karcher, out in the Green Pastures on his tractor mowing the grass smiling at me for finally writing these stories…
From now on, I will keep to the straight and narrow so that one day I can be up there with my friends. All the True Power Plant Men that have gone before me. For now, I will just remember them….
Let me just end by saying, “Way to go Bud! I Love You Man!”
Power Plant Mother’s Day
The 95th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post
Originally posted May 9, 2015
Mother’s Day came a week early for the men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma in the year 2000. Instead of the scheduled May 14th Mother’s Day, the Power Plant Men gathered in the First Baptist Church in Pawnee Oklahoma to say goodbye to their Power Plant Mother Saturday, May 6, 2000. That was the day that Juliene Alley, our Power Plant Mother was laid to rest.
You might think that a woman welder spending her time at a Power Plant welding boiler tubes in the dark insides of the boiler during overhaul, or crammed up inside a bowl mill where the air you breathe can be as hot as 160 degrees Fahrenheit would fit the image of a broad shouldered tough woman that you wouldn’t want to meet in an Alley at night. This in no way describes Juliene. If I had a picture of Juliene, you would see a woman of small stature with a slightly worn countenance and a humble but confident expression with a slight smile that had been etched permanently into her face from years of being content with whatever lot in life she had been dealt.
I am not able to say what her life was like before she arrived at the Power Plant in 1985 one week before her 34th birthday. I know she had one son named Joseph Alley and she had been married to a man named Red. For me, her life began when I first met her at the tool room waiting to get a tool from Bud Schoonover. She was being treated with extra care by her welding crew. They were very protective of her at first. My first impression was that she was kind and soft spoken.
I didn’t work around Juliene for quite a while. I don’t even remember if she had worked her way through the Labor Crew as we were required when I hired on at the plant. I worked with Juliene only after the last downsizing when we were on the same cross-functional team in 1994. By that time, the welders referred to Juliene as their “Mom”.
I never heard an unkind word come from Juliene. It may have happened immediately following a Power Plant Joke had been played on her, but since it never would have occurred to me to play a joke on her, I only ever heard kind words from Juliene. I’m sure her son Joe could tell us more about that. Juliene spent a lot of time working with Ed Shiever. They were about the same height and it seemed to me that the two of them were paired often to work the same jobs.
The title “Mom” wasn’t given to her as a ceremonial title just because of her gender. When I watched Juliene with the welders, I could see and hear that she treated each one of the welders as if she was really and truly their Mother. I have heard her scold them, put them in their places, and even calm them down when they needed to be put in “time out”.
Juliene did not die unexpectedly. She died from a failing liver that lasted over many months. It seems to me that her son Joe married his sweetheart Shauna a little earlier than intended so that it was in time for his Mother to attend the wedding in September 1999, eight months before she passed away. The last time I talked with Juliene was when someone at the plant had called her in the hospital in Oklahoma City from the tool room telephone. When I walked in the tool room to get a part, someone asked me if I wanted to speak with Juliene.
When I talked to her, I could tell that she was trying to be pleasant in spite of the knowledge that she only had about a week or two left. I told her I would be praying for her. She asked me if I knew where she could find a new liver. I think I said something like, “I don’t have a spare one myself, but these machinists here are pretty good, maybe we can have one of them whip one up real quick.”
I have mentioned one of Juliene’s sons, Joe. I have also mentioned Ed Shiever, who was a Power Plant Son to Juliene. Here are some of Juliene’s other Power Plant children:
With Ed Shiever, that makes over a dozen Power Plant Sons. I’m sure there are others. (If any others would like to be added, let me know, and if I have your pictures, I’ll post them here).
I attended Juliene’s funeral ceremony at the First Baptist Church in Pawnee on May 6, 2000. The church was crowded that day with Power Plant Men. Some had come from other Power Plants in the state to say goodbye to the Power Plant Mom we had all come to love. Her Power Plant Sons stood up front and said their departing words to Juliene and to share their memories.
I have said in one of my early Power Plant Posts that each time a True Power Plant Man or Woman left the Power Plant that the character of the Power Plant would change. The gift that Juliene Alley gave to the maintenance shop for many years was one of calm and civility. I watched the welders over the years, and some of them began their Power Plant career with a less than “savory” attitude about life. Over the years, I think the affect of having Juliene constantly in their lives tamed the welding shop to mold them into the respectable, caring, fine Power Plant Men that they became. When Juliene left us that day at the Church, she left her character behind in her Power Plant Sons.
In memory of their Power Plant Mother, no character was lost from the Power Plant the day Juliene departed to tend to other pastures. Eight months to the day of Juliene’s death on January 3, 2001, Joseph Edward Alley, her son, joined the ranks of Power Plant Men as he came to work at the Power Plant. The joy of having the actual son of Juliene working in the plant was a reflection of how much we all loved his Mother.
As you can see, Juliene’s family continues to grow. Tomorrow we will be celebrating Mother’s Day. Today, on Saturday, I remember back to Saturday May 6, 2000. The day we celebrated our Power Plant Mother’s Day a week early.
Good story, Kevin!
I worked in 5 power plants in Oklahoma and I was constantly amazed by what the Machinists could do.
Great Story, I remember the machinist from the plant where I started was EXACTLY as you describe, his name was Don Rogers and he was both, one of the most talented and kindest men I’ve ever met in my power plant career. I don’t remember every name from back then, but if you met Don, he left a great impression that was impossible to forget.