My friend and fellow carpool buddy Fred Turner told me last week that another carpool buddy from my past Toby O’Brien has past away. This news hit me rather hard since Toby was the last Power Plant Man I have seen in person. Toby gave me a call early last year to let me know that he was coming down to the Austin Texas area. He was travelling around in an RV and I drove out to an RV Park to visit him and his wife Trish for a while. I didn’t realize as I drove out of the park that this was going to be the last time I would ever see Toby alive. He died on January 4, 2020 from prostate cancer.
I have written about Toby in a number of posts. The two most memorable are: Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible and Toby Teaches Time Management. In these posts I didn’t really indicate what good friends we had become during the time we were driving to and fro from Stillwater to the plant and back. We were so close that after I had not seen him for almost 20 years when I met with him last year, I felt as if nothing had changed. I have always kept him in my mind and I have prayed for his family each day. Because of that I never felt as if we had been far away.
When Fred told me that Toby had died, I felt as if I had just lost a brother. I told my wife that it made me sad to know that Toby had died. I think the reason is that I know he had a son Tim who was about the same age as my daughter and a loving wife that he has left behind. Then this weekend when I was going through some old papers that I was shredding to make more space in my cluttered closet, I found a letter in a folder that was written by Toby.
In September 2000, Toby had written a reference letter for me to use with my resumé as I was preparing to interview for IT jobs. I stopped and stared at the paper in my hand and my face went blank. My wife Kelly knew that something was up right away as I read what Toby had written about me. I finally eked out while trying not to choke on my words “This is a reference letter Toby wrote for me back in 2000.”
I could tell by the way Toby worded his letter that he had taken the time to recommend a true friend. He couldn’t have written a nicer letter about anyone. Needless to say, I set the letter aside a safe distance from the shredder. I brought Toby’s letter to work with me this morning with the intent of pinning it up in my cube as a constant reminder how much Toby continues to mean to me. As I read and re-read his letter this morning, I felt as if I needed to share my thoughts with the rest of the Power Plant family that reads this blog.
In the 20 years that I worked at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, Toby was the smartest and most friendly engineer that we had at our plant. Even during times when we were trying to rile him up, Toby had this way about himself where he would grin and slightly stutter as he was trying to restate the argument so that it showed that he was listening to what was being said, but that he had concerns. Toby taught me that just blowing my top and blurting out how stupid something is, isn’t the best response. Well, I still do that today, but even while I’m saying something like that, I know that Toby would have said that in a better way.
I thought that since Toby had written such a thoughtful Reference letter for me 20 years ago, I should do my best to help him out now, even though I know he doesn’t really need it… so here goes:
FROM: Kevin Breazile
TO: Whom it may concern (St. Peter most likely)
SUBJECT: Reference letter for Thomas A. O’Brien (A stands for Anthony)
I have known Toby since 1990 as we both worked at the OG&E Sooner Power Plant. I know Toby well since we carpooled together for a couple of years. Toby would spend our time together patiently listening as I would read out loud, or comment (or complain) about our daily Power Plant adventures. Toby knows the power of patience and how it improves one’s character.
I always found Toby to be a valuable resource for helping us become inspired to be better in our jobs and in our lives. Toby understood all about friendship and how to apply it in diverse situations. Throughout his time at our Power Plant Toby was well respected by all of the Power Plant Men whether they were mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians, Instrument and Controls workers or operators. He was respected because he would stop and take the time to listen to each of them as if they were just as important as anyone else. This is a rare gift.
Toby was always open to learn new things. Where some people in his position wouldn’t take the time to listen to the regular workers, Toby sought us out and brainstormed with us to find solutions. Toby was an avid user of kindness. He was instrumental in instituting a culture of kindness and respect at our power plant.
Toby has very high morals, is trustworthy and very family oriented. I will be glad to discuss further any specific areas related to Toby’s performance, skills or virtues. Toby will make an excellent new member of the celestial choir and will be greatly missed down here on earth.
Kevin J. Breazile
Former Power Plant Electrician
Sooner Power Plant
this was originally posted on January 7, 2012. Added a picture of Sonny Karcher:
When I heard the sad news of the death of Sonny Karcher on 11/11/11, I wished I had been able to attend his funeral. I did reserve some amount of time that night when I heard about his death to remember the times I have spent with Sonny. All of them good, as Sonny was always pleasant to be with even when he was mad about something. Here are some of the first and last things I remember:
When I first worked at the Sooner power plant the summer of 1979, Sonny and Larry Riley were the first two mechanics I was assigned to work with. They taught me how things were at the plant at that time. Both of the units were still under construction, so there was no electricity being generated.
The first job we were to work on (my second day at the plant, since the first day was taking a safety class, and getting my hard hat and safety glasses and getting fitted for ear plugs) was a stuck check valve in the dumper sump pump pit (Not only did I not know what a check valve was, I wasn’t too sure what was meant by a dumper sump, though I did know “pump”).
It took us about an hour to take the truck to the coal yard, as a coal yard foreman Richard Nix had the key and wasn’t going to give it to us until one of his hands was ready to go with us. So we sat in the truck parked in the north entrance of the maintenance shop for almost an hour. When the guy was finally ready, and he had climbed in the back of the pickup, it turned out that he only needed to go as far as the parking lot… about 200 yards away (as the parking lot was at the Engineer’s shack at the time). We dropped him off and drove up to the coal yard, and made our way down belt 2 to the sump pump pit at the tail end of the belt.
We tested the pump and saw that the water would run back into the sump once the pump stopped running. So, it was determined that the check valve was stuck. We drove back to the plant and took the morning break.
About an hour later, Sonny told me to go to the tool room and get the following items (which I thought was a joke, because he gave me such a strange list of tools that I didn’t recognize): Two ¾ box ends (pronounced “three quarter box ends”), One four foot soft choker, a ¾ come-along, a ¾ shackle, a two foot steel choker a flat bastard file, a large channel lock, and two pry bars (I did recognize Pry Bars and shackle, which I believed was thrown in there just to make it sound legitimate). – I wrote down the list, because I recognized right away that a joke was being played on me and I was going to play right along.
So, I went to the tool room and I asked Bud Schoonover (a very large tall and easy going man at the time), “I need a ¾ come-along (I thought I would choose the most ridiculous item on the list first, just to get on with the joke…). Well. Bud turned around, walked to the back wall, took a come-along off the top of a pallet full of what appeared to be a bunch of junk, and laid it across the tool room gate window (The tool room was still being “organized” at the time and the gate was actually a window in the office next to the tool room).
So, I asked for two ¾ box ends (this was before anyone had been issued toolboxes by the way, that’s why we had to go to the tool room for these things). Well, you know the rest of this part of the story. These are all legitimate items, and I learned a lot that day and the next few weeks about the names of various tools. I kept that list in my wallet for over 10 years as a reminder to myself of when I first came to the plant, and how much I didn’t know then.
So, Larry, Sonny and I went up to the coal yard, and went down to the tail end of #2 belt and removed the check valve from the discharge pipe and brought it back to the maintenance shop to repair. When we returned, we went to lunch. During lunch Sonny told me about how he was hired at Sooner plant.
He said he lived a few miles down the road and had heard that someone was building a lake up on top of the hill he could see from his property. So, he went on over to see who was dumb enough to build a lake on top of a hill, and while he was looking around Orville Ferguson came up to him and asked him if he was looking for a job. Sonny said that he liked to mow grass, and Orville said that he would hire him to mow grass then. Sonny said, if I remember correctly, that he was hired at the same time that Linda Shiever, the timekeeper, was hired and that they were the first two new hires at the plant. The rest were already company employees that had transferred there.
After lunch we went down to the shop and took the check valve apart and what do you know…. There was a piece of coal stuck in the check valve keeping it open. We cleaned it up and put it back together. When we were finished, we took our afternoon break. After break we drove back up to the coal yard and went down to the tail end of #2 Conveyor belt and put the check valve back in the discharge pipe. When we returned to the maintenance shop, we returned the tools to the tool room and filled out our time cards. A day’s worth of work cleaning a check valve.
I did many other things that first summer, since Sooner Plant didn’t have a yard crew yet, I worked most of the time in the maintenance shop bouncing around from crew to crew helping out. I also did a lot of coal cleanup (especially on weekends), since the conveyor system didn’t work correctly when they started it up when they were starting to fire up unit 1.
The second day before I left at the end of the summer to go back to school, I worked again with Larry Riley and Sonny Karcher to fix the exact same check valve. This time we jumped in a truck (we had a lot more trucks now…. Which is another story), went to the coal yard, went down #2 tunnel to the tail end of #2 Conveyor, pulled out the check valve, removed the piece of coal, put the check valve back in, went back up to the truck and back to the maintenance shop just in time for morning break. Sooner Plant had improved a lot in the short three months I worked that summer.
I worked many years with Sonny Karcher in the garage, and fixing coal handling equipment, and just about anything else. He finally left the plant to go mow grass, when after a battle to move to the garage from coal yard maintenance to mow grass, he was told that he was going to have to go back to the coal yard to be a coal yard mechanic, because he was real good at that and they just needed him up there. So he left.
He talked to me about it before he went, that’s how I know what was on his mind. He said, “Kev, you remember when you first came here and I told you how they hired me to mow grass? Well, that’s what I want to do. Mow grass. So I’m going to have to go back home and do just that.”
After that, the only times I remember seeing Sonny was when he was mowing grass down at Bill’s corner, with a smile on his face waving at the Sooner plant employees on their way home from work.
I can see Sonny talking to St. Peter at the gates of heaven now….. The only words I can hear Sonny saying is, “I like to mow grass”… and St. Peter nodding with approval and points out that they have a lot of green pastures as he lets him through the gates.
This is a revised version of a post that was originally posted on 1/14/2012:
What sets power plant men apart from your regular mechanic, lineman or men of other occupations is that they are a semi-captive group of people with a lot of freedom to move about the plant and the plant grounds. This provides for the opportunity to play jokes on each other without resorting to “horseplay”. There is no room for horseplay at a power plant. The power plant man lives among dangerous equipment, poisonous chemicals, carcinogenic dust, asbestos gloves and purely evil plant managers who would love to catch one of his minions engaging in horseplay.
The more elaborate yet simple joke seems to have the best effect on those who find themselves the victim. First of all, the joke must be essentially harmless. That is, no one is left injured (this rule seems to be more of a suggestion since I seemed to end up on the short end of the stick a few times). Secondly, the longer the joke takes to completion, the better.
If the joke goes on for a week or longer, then the final impact of the joke is much greater. For instance. A person that you are going to play a joke on sits in a chair that is raised and lowered by turning the chair upside down and twisting the wheel bracket around (which is how you lowered office chairs before the fancier spring and air cushioned chairs arrived). Say you were to gradually lower a person’s chair each day by 1/8 of an inch or so.
Eventually, in a couple of weeks, the person will be sitting lower and lower at their desk until one day they get frustrated at sitting so low that they turn their chair over and raise the chair higher. But each day, you keep lowering the chair by just a little bit until they are sitting so low again that they complain about it again and raise the chair up. This can go on indefinitely. The more people that know the joke is being played, the better in this instance.
The first time I met Gene Day, I knew that he was someone that would be fun to play jokes on. I don’t know what it was about him exactly. It wasn’t that he appeared to have a lower IQ. On the contrary. He seemed to be very knowledgeable as Control Room operators go. Maybe it was because he seemed like a happy person that took most things rather lightly.
He wouldn’t be the type of person that would hold something against you just because you made him look foolish in front of his peers (or you posted it on a blog for the entire world to see. — Right Gene?). It seemed like the first time I noticed Gene Day, he was standing in the Control Room and I gave him a look like I was suspicious of him and he returned the look with one that said that he knew that I might be the type of person that would play a joke on him. This surprised me, because I thought I had masked that look pretty well.
Throughout my 20 years of power plant life I played many jokes on Gene Day, and each time it seems that I was throttled to the edge of extinction, which meant that I had executed the joke perfectly. It seemed that each person had a different way of expressing their joy of finding out that they have been the victim of a power plant joke. Gene’s general reaction was to place his hands carefully around your neck and start rapidly shaking your head back and forth.
My favorite Gene Day joke was not one that took a long time to execute, and from the time that I conceived the idea to the time that I was being strangled by Gene Day was a mere 15 hours.
It began when I was driving home from work one day on my way down Sixth Street in Stillwater Oklahoma where I lived on the west end of town at the time. Gene Day was an operator and their shift was over an hour and a half before the rest of the plant. As I drove down Sixth Street about a block ahead of me, I saw Gene Day’s truck pull away from the Rock House Gym travelling in the same direction. Gene had a black pickup with flames on the side…. Something left over from High School I think… The only one in town like it.
I kept an eye on his truck to see where he went, and as he passed the Stillwater Hospital he pulled into an Eye Clinic and parked in the parking lot. I drove on past and pulled into my driveway about 3 blocks further on. As I checked my mail I decided to go to the bank to deposit some checks I had received. I returned to my car and pulled my car out of the driveway and headed back toward downtown.
Gene Day just happened to turn onto Sixth Street in front of me again as he left the Eye Clinic and proceeded to go down Sixth street in front of me. So again I watched him to see where he went.
Just as I came to Duck Street, I saw Gene Day pull his truck into the Simon’s Gas Station on the corner of Duck and Sixth. He had pulled his truck up to the garage instead of the pumps, so I figured that he was getting his truck inspected. I turned on Duck street to go to the bank drive-thru about a block away from the gas station.
After taking care of my banking business, I left the bank and headed back home toward Sixth Street. I arrived at the corner of Sixth Street just in time to see Gene Day pulling out of the gas station and heading off in the opposite direction toward his house. I thought that he hadn’t been at the gas station very long so he probably had just had his truck inspected.
The next morning when I arrived at the plant I walked by Gene Day’s truck on the way to the electric shop and I looked to see if he had a new Safety Inspection sticker. He didn’t have any Safety Inspection sticker which meant that his truck had failed the inspection.
Armed with this information when I arrived in the electric shop I took out a yellow pad of paper and proceeded to write the following:
Private Investigator’s Notes for Gene Day:
3:05 Gene Day leaves work.
3:45 Gene Day arrives at Rockhouse Gym where he works out with a young college coed named Bunny.
5:05 Gene Day leaves Rockhouse Gym.
5:07 Gene Day arrives at Cockrell Eye Care Center where he meets with a nurse in his pickup truck in the parking lot.
5:20 Gene Day leaves Eye Care Center.
5:25 Gene Day arrives at Simon’s Garage at the corner of Sixth and Duck and has them clean his pickup seats to remove the perfume scent. While he was there, he tried to have his pickup inspected, but it didn’t pass inspection.
5:33 Gene Day leaves Simon’s Garage and goes home.
I folded the paper in half and after I began work, I headed to the Control Room to see how the Electrostatic Precipitator was doing. I sat at the computer by the Control Room door that opened up to the Turbine Generator room. After a while Gene Day walked by on his way to pick up the mail from the front office.
I waited about 30 seconds and followed him out onto the Turbine Generator (T-G) floor. The T-G floor at Sooner Plant is painted bright red and the floor is kept clean so that the lights overhead reflect off of the floor.
The Control Room is halfway across this large room about 200 yards long. The office area is at one end. I walked over to the door that leads to the Office area and laid the half folded paper in the middle of the floor.
I figured that Gene wouldn’t be able to resist picking it up to see what it said. Then I went back to the Control Room and leaned against one of the big blue monitors used by the Control Room Operators to view alarms.
After a few minutes, Gene Day walked into the Control room. In one arm he carried various parcels of mail. In the other hand, he was carrying the yellow paper I had left for him to find. He was violently shaking it at me yelling, “How did you do this?!?!”
I acted surprised as if I didn’t know what he was talking about. Somehow he figured I was behind this, but for the life of me I don’t know why…. He tried to explain to me that he had stopped to see his wife who is a nurse at the Cockrell Eye Care Clinic, and that there wasn’t any girl named Bunny. He couldn’t figure out how I would know that he tried to get his truck inspected and it failed inspection….
I insisted that I didn’t know what he was talking about. About that time, the room became blurry as my head was shaking back and forth, and I came to the realization that this joke had been performed perfectly.
This post was originally posted on February 4, 2012. I have added some detail and pictures:
Coal-fired power plants are built out in the country away from any major town. I used to think this was because they didn’t want to pour ash and fumes on the nearby civilians, but now I think it has more to do with the kind of people that work at the plant. They like wide open spaces.
They like driving through the countryside every morning on the way to work, and again in the afternoon on the way home. In the morning, it gives them time to wake up and face the day ahead, as they can see the plant 20 miles away looming closer and closer as the dawn approaches. It gives them time to wind down in the evening so that by the time they arrive at their homes, the troubles of the day are long behind them and they can spend time with their families, their horses, and cows, and tractors, and their neighbors. But enough about Walt Oswalt for now.
Some brave power plant workers reside in the nearest towns 20 miles in either direction. This is where I was in 1986 when I moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma. I had a few good friends in Ponca City that worked at the plant, and so we decided it would be best for us to carpool to work each day. There were four of us and we would alternate drivers each day. We would meet early in the morning in the parking lot of a grocery store and all pile into one of the cars and make our 20 mile trek to the plant. Besides myself, there was Jim Heflin, Dick Dale and Bud Schoonover.
For those of you who don’t know these three, let’s just say that they were on the hefty side. At that time I was slightly on the pre-hefty stage of my life. I owned a little 1982 Honda Civic that would normally get 40 miles to the gallon on the highway.
With all four of us in the car, I couldn’t get past 32 miles to the gallon, as my car would spit and sputter all the way to work like the “little engine that could” trying to make it over the mountain.
Bud was very tall and in the front seat of my little Honda Civic, his knees would almost touch his chin and his feet were cramped and his head had to bend down a little. It was comical to watch us all pour out of my car in the parking lot. it was almost magical how we could all fit in there.
Bud Schoonover and Dick Dale worked in the tool room and the warehouse, and Jim worked on a mechanical maintenance crew. I was an electrician and called the electric shop my home at this time. I had worked with all three of these men from my early days as a summer help and we knew each other very well. Jim Heflin reminded me of an old hound dog that the kids like to climb all over and he just sits there and enjoys it.
He rarely had a cross word to say. I could go on about Jim, but this is a story more about Bud Schoonover than it is Jim. I will save him for another day.
Dick Dale was a jolly kind of person in general, but he had more wits about him than his other companions, and that tended to make him a little more agitated at some things, which he would work out verbally on the way home from work on most days.
Once before I started carpooling with Bud, Jim and Dick, Bud was driving home after work one day, and Dick was talking about his day. Every once in a while Bud would say “…and what about Jim.” After they had passed the Otoe-Missouri tribe and were close to the Marland turnoff, just after Bud had said, “…and what about Jim” for the fifth time, Dick stopped talking and said, “Why do you keep asking about Jim Heflin? What does he have to do with this?”
Bud answered, “Well. Jim did ride to work with us this morning didn’t he?” Sure enough. They had left Jim behind. So, they turned around and headed back to the plant. 15 minutes later, they arrived back at the plant, and there was Jim just waiting by the roadside with his lunch box like a good faithful hound dog, just as sure that they were going to come back and pick him up as he could be.
Bud Schoonover (or Scoot-On-Over Bud as I used to call him from time-to-time when we were climbin in the car), was a tall large man. I want to say that I saw him angry only one time, and it was kind of scary seeing this huge guy chasing after you like a large troll with a big grin on his face and tongue hanging out flailing his lunch box like a giant mace. Bud was really a mild mannered person most of the time, and though he might complain from time to time each day, you felt like he was someone that made an art out of remaining calm when faced with an angry mob lined up at the tool room gate demanding tools and parts. He wouldn’t move any faster if there was just one person or an entire crowd.
I could go on about Bud, and I probably will later, but today I am focusing on the act of carpooling with Bud Schoonover. Each morning Bud would watch the weather on TV before heading out of the house, and he just couldn’t wait for someone to ask him what the weather was going to be like, because he knew in his heart that he was providing a service to his fellow man by making sure that he never missed the weather report in the morning. So I would always oblige him. I would wait until we were on the road on our way out of Ponca City, and then I would ask, “Hey Bud. What’s the weather goin’ ta be like today?” Bud would squint his eyes (mainly because Bud seemed to naturally squint a lot. Sort of like Clint Eastwood) and he would look off into the distance and say a long drawn out “Well…..” Then he would go into the weather report.
To Describe what Bud’s face looked like you will have to use a little imagination… First, by starting with Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son…
Then you need to make her a white person. Then you need to make her a man. Then you need to add about 150 lbs. And you would have Bud Schoonover. Actually, Bud would make the very same expression that Aunt Esther is making in this picture. I couldn’t watch Sanford and Son without thinking about Bud Schoonover. I think Aunt Esther probably took lessons from Bud about how to move your jaw back and forth at some point in her life.
I remember one morning when we were driving to work and Bud was telling us that it was going to start clearing up around noon, and Dick Dale and I were sitting in the front seats looking out the window at the cloudless sky and the morning sun shining brightly across the meadow, and I said, “…going to clear up around noon?”, and he replied, “Yep, around noon”. I answered, “Well, that’s good, it’ll be about time.”
There was another time where Bud’s weather report one morning said that if we didn’t get rain soon the wheat farmers were sure to lose all their crops. When Dick Dale and I looked around, the wheat fields were all just as green and growing like there was no tomorrow. — There was a drought, but it was in the southern part of the state and didn’t effect us.
Because of this daily report, Dick Dale and I developed a way of speaking to each other without saying words. We would look at each other and move our eyebrows up and down and make small gestures with our mouths, and we both knew exactly what each other was saying.
My favorite Bud Schoonover carpooling story has to do with one morning when Bud was driving us to work and we were heading down the highway when we topped a small hill and were getting ready to head down into a valley just inside the Ponca Indian tribe. Bud slowed down the car and stopped right there in the middle of the highway.
We looked around trying to figure out what happened. Bud acted as if everything was just normal, and so the three of us, Jim, Dick and I were spinning our heads around trying to figure out what Bud was doing stopping the car in the middle of the highway with cars beginning to pile up behind us. Ideas flashed through my mind of some Indian curse that had possessed Bud, and I half expected Bud to start attacking us like a zombie.
So, I couldn’t stand it any longer and I had to ask, “Bud? Why did you stop here?” He said, “School bus.” Dick then chimed in with the next logical question and said, “School bus?” Bud came back with “Yeah, the school bus down there”. Sure enough. Down in the valley about 1/2 mile in front of us was a school bus heading toward us that had stopped to pick up some children along the highway and it had its red flashers on and its stop sign out.
So, Dick Dale said something to me with his left eyebrow, and I replied by raising the right side of my lip while tensing it up some.
Finally the bus resumed its journey toward us, and Bud began moving again, much to the delight of the long line of cars behind us. The bus went forward about 300 feet and stopped at another driveway to pick up some more children. We were only about 1/4 of a mile away from the bus at this point, so Bud stopped his car again and waited for the children to board the bus. I think I could see Bud squinting to get a better count of how many children were climbing into the bus. It occurred to me later that maybe when Bud squinted his eyes he magnified his sight so that ‘objects appear closer than they really were’.
Anyway, that was the first and only time in my life that I had waited twice for a school bus going in the opposite direction. It could only happen while carpooling with Bud Schoonover.
I now have a picture of Bud:
Since I first posted this story about Bud Schoonover he has passed away. You can read about that in this post: Dynamic Power Plant Trio – And Then There Was One.
Originally Posted on June 8, 2012. Added comments from the past 2 years:
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-Missouri 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 is 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.
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 the best he can. One time years later when I was an electrician, I asked Johnnie if he could take a piece of plexiglass 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 plexiglass 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). Anyway, after I had mounted the plexiglass 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 plexiglass. 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 plexiglass and bent the plexiglass 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 plexiglass 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.
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 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. 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 and died in Red Rock just a few miles from where the power plant was built. 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 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:
Originally Posted on June 16, 2012:
I have mentioned before that Sonny Karcher was one of the first Power Plant Men that taught me how to work my way up the ladder of Power Plant Ingenuity (In the post titled, In Memory of Sonny Karcher A True Power Plant Man). I used to come home from work after Steve Higginbotham dropped me off at the duplex where we were living at the time (see the post Steve Higginbotham and His Junky Jalopy late for the Boiler Blowdown), and my family couldn’t wait to hear what Sonny Karcher had said or done that day.
Soon after I had arrived at the plant one day, after coming back from the coal yard, Sonny had just dropped me off at the front of the Maintenance shop where I was going to the tool room to get some tools for something we were going to do. Sonny was going to drive around behind the tool room in a yellow Cushman cart to pick up some larger equipment, and I was going to meet him there.
As he was backing out of the shop he suddenly made a motion with his left hand. To me it looked like he was making the movement that someone would make if they were taking the lid off of a jar. I thought this meant that he wanted me to do something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.
Various things went through my head, such as, I should get something to help remove lids from barrels. Or I needed to look inside of a jar to find one of the parts I was going to pick up. Nothing made much sense to me, so I waved for him to come back.
When he did, I asked him what he wanted me to do. He asked me what I meant. I told him that when he made that motion to open a jar, I couldn’t figure out what he wanted. So he told me. “I was just waving goodbye.”
He gave me a big smile and backed out of the shop again. Each time Sonny Karcher waved goodbye, he used a different motion with his hand. Sometimes he would look like he was twirling something on his finger. Sometimes it seemed like he was trying to get something sticky off of his fingers. Sometimes he just drew circles in the air with a couple of fingers. Other times he looked like he was giving an awkward kind of salute. Sonny made an art out of simple things like a wave goodbye.
That first summer it seemed like everyone was always munching on Sunflower seeds. There were bags of sunflower seeds everywhere you looked. Sonny already looked somewhat like a chipmunk with puffy round cheeks that formed from years of wearing a grin on his face. They were extra prominent when his cheeks were full of sunflower seeds. These were seeds still in their shells.
So, it was normal to see someone take a step back while standing around talking, turn their head and drop a few sunflower seed shells from their mouth into the floor drains that were spaced evenly across the maintenance shop floor. There came a time when those drains had to be cleaned out because it seemed that every drain was packed solid full of sunflower seed shells.
Sunflowers weren’t the only items found in the drains, since chewing (or dipping) tobacco (such as Skoal) was used by a lot of the men in the Power Plant.
Cleaning out a drain full of sunflower seeds, dipping tobacco and spit was a job that might cause a lot of people to gag, and I know I had to fight it back at the time. Most of the time I felt like I was having too much fun to get paid for working at the plant, but when it came time for cleaning out those drains, I felt like I was really working very hard for the $3.89 an hour that I was getting paid my first summer (1979) as a summer help.
But anyway, back to Sonny. I remember one evening when I came home after working with Sonny during the day, and we were sitting around the dinner table eating supper when my dad said something surprising. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember what my response was. It came out before I thought what I was saying, and I said it with the same surprised smile Sonny would have. I replied, “Well S–t the bed!” With a heavy emphasis on each word.
That was a common phrase that Sonny used, and it was his response to anything surprising. Needless to say, I don’t normally use four letter words that have to be edited out of a post. It was just the matter of fact way that Sonny would use that phrase that made it seem all right to say at the time. If I remember correctly, both my mom and my dad stared at me for a second in disbelief, then broke out laughing as they had never heard that particular phrase. It was kind of like hearing “…Bless his heart” for the first time when used following an obvious insult.
In the year 1990 the Power Plant had a program that they called, “We’ve Got the Power”. I will talk more about this in a later post, so I will just say that it was a program where we broke up into teams and tried to find ways to save the company money. But long before “We’ve Got the Power”, there was Sonny Karcher. He was often trying to figure out how we could make electricity cheaper, or even come up with other ways of making a profit.
One day Sonny asked me this, “Kev, your smart because you learn things from all those books at school so tell me this… someone said the other day that diamonds are made out of coal. Is that true?” I told him it was. Then he said, “Well, what if we had one of those big dirt movers full of coal drive over some coal a bunch of times, would we be able to make diamonds?”
I told him that wouldn’t work because it takes a lot more pressure to make a diamond. So, he asked me if it would work if we put some coal on the railroad track and we let an entire train full of coal run over it. Would it make a diamond then? I assured him that even that wouldn’t make a diamond. He accepted it and just said, “Well, it’s too bad since we have that big pile of coal there, we ought to be able to come up with some way of turning them into diamonds.
Another time when we were cleaning out the fish baskets at the intake (a job as smelly as it sounds) next to the 4 big intake pumps. These are the pumps that pump around 189,000 gallons of water per minute each. Sonny told me how big those pumps were and how much water they pumped. Then he said, “You know, that entire boiler is there just to make steam to turn the turbine to make electricity. It seems to me that we could just take these four pumps and have them pump water through the turbine and have it turn the turbines, then we wouldn’t need those big boilers. Why don’t we do something like that?” I assured Sonny that we would never be able to make enough electricity to make up for the electricity it took to turn the pumps that were pumping the water. He shook his head and said that it just seemed to him that those pumps could turn that turbine pretty fast.
One day I watched as Sonny watched another Power Plant man walk into the shop with a new type of lunch box. It was an Igloo Little Playmate. Sonny made a comment about how neat this guy’s new lunch box was. It was a new design at the time.
Sonny immediately went out and bought one. The next week he came to work with his shiny new Little Playmate lunch box. I admit. I went and bought one myself a few weeks later. But this was the beginning of a trend that I noticed with Sonny. I began to notice that Sonny seemed to pick one item from each of the people he admired, and went and bought one for himself. Or he would pick up a phrase that someone else would say, and would start using that.
At first I thought it might just be a coincidence, so I started to test my hypothesis. When I would see something new that Sonny brought to work, I would look around to see who else had one of those, and sure enough. Someone close by would have one. Then I would hear Sonny talk a certain way. His accent would change and he would say something like he was imitating someone else, and usually I could tell right away who talked like that and knew that Sonny had borrowed that phrase from that person.
Some may think that this would be annoying, but I think with Sonny it was an act of endearment. It was his way of connecting with those people that he admired. Sonny had a small yellow orange Ford truck and I figured that someone else must have a truck like that, so I started looking all around for one like it. It took me a couple of weeks, but one morning while we were carpooling our way to the power plant, we came up behind the same kind of truck that Sonny had on its way to the plant. It was green instead of yellow, but it was undoubtedly the same model of truck. It was owned by Ken Reece, who was the manager over the tool room and warehouse.
Sonny imitated a voice that had me puzzled for a while. I had checked out all the Power Plant Men around trying to figure out who Sonny was imitating. 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.
Finally, one day when I was walking through the shop I heard someone in the welding area talking just like Sonny would talk when he used that voice. There was no mistake. That had to be the person. I could hear every inflection in his voice and it had to be the voice that Sonny was imitating because it had been much more honed and refined to give just the right effect. So, I changed the course I was travelling so that I could make my way around to the welders to see who it was that was talking like that.
There in the middle of the welding shop was a heavier set man standing in the middle of a group of welders telling a story. Everyone was listening to him quietly just as if it was story time at the library. So, I stopped and watched. This man wasn’t wearing an Electric Company hard hat. He was wearing a Brown and Root hard hat, which indicated that he worked for the construction company that was building the plant.
This guy was undoubtedly a master storyteller. When it came to the climactic part of the story, the bottom of his mouth would stick out with his lip moving left and right and left again, and one eye was partially closed to show the intensity of the situation and the drawl would intensify. Finally. I had found the man that Sonny Karcher had admired enough to take one of his favorite traits and connect it to himself. I could see why Sonny admired him so much. He had everyone within listening distance captivated by his story.
This Brown and Root hand soon became an employee of the Electric Company within a couple of weeks after I left at the end of the summer (on September 9, 1979). This heavier set person was still working at the plant when I first posted this story last year, but has since retired. He was one of this country’s leading Turbine mechanics and he can still tell a story like no one else. He is no longer as heavy. He is rather thin in comparison. He improved his health after realizing that if he really loved his family, he needed to take better care of himself.
I consider this True Power Plant Man, Ray Eberle, to be a dear friend of mine. I have never met anyone that looked more like my own grandfather than Ray. Not that he was that much older. No. He looked almost exactly like my grandfather looked when he was Ray’s age. There was no nicer man than my dad’s dad, and there is no nicer Power Plant Man than Ray Eberle.
Comments from the re-post:
Originally posted on July 6, 2012:
I suppose that many parents while raising their children would hear them say, “Dad, can you read that story to us again about the pirates that go to the island to find the treasure but Jim Hawkins fights them single-handed?” Or their children might say to their mother, “Will you tell us the story again about how you met daddy?” In my household, my children would say, “Dad, tell us another story about how you played a joke on Gene Day when you were working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in Oklahoma? Those are always the best!”
As I pointed out in my third post this year called “Power Plant Humor And Joking With Gene Day” the first time I met Gene Day, I could tell that he was the type of person that would take a joke well, or so I thought…. One of the favorite stories my daughter would like for me to tell her as she was growing up was the one where I had created a Psychological Profile of Gene Day, who at that time was an Auxiliary Operator.
It began one day when I was leaving the electric shop through the Turbine Generator (T-G) building ground floor. A very noisy location as large steam pipes wound around under the Turbines where the steam caused a rumbling or whining sound. It was normal when walking through this area to reach up to the ear plugs that were draped over your shoulders and put them in your ears because the decibels were dangerously high if you were exposed earplugless too long.
I stepped from the landing leading from the electric shop and started toward number 1 boiler when I spied Gene Day making his way around the first floor of the T-G building inspecting equipment and marking his documents indicating that they were operating correctly. As I saw him turn toward my direction I quickly dodged behind the nearest metal pillar (I-Beam). I peaked my head out from behind the pillar and took out the notepad that was in my back pocket, and the pen from my vest pocket pocket protector.
Gene saw me and gave me a suspicious look as I began feverishly writing in my notepad while looking from my notepad back to Gene and then back to what I was writing. After I had done this for about 10 seconds or so, I put my pad away, my pen back in the pocket protector and strolled away toward unit 1 to continue my work.
It happened that this particular week was Gene’s week to monitor the equipment in the T-G building, so throughout the week he would be making his way somewhere around the T-G building with his clipboard in hand. Each time I encountered him I would do the same thing. I would visibly hide behind a beam and write notes in my notepad. I saw Gene rather frequently during the week because the majority of the time, I left the electric shop by going through the T-G room to one of the boilers and then to the precipitators, where I spent most of my time working at this time in my career (but that is another story for a later time).
Each time, Gene would watch me suspiciously knowing that I was just messing with him, but not exactly sure what I was “up to”. At the time, I wasn’t sure either. So I just wrote down what I saw Gene doing, that way, if he ran over and grabbed my notepad from me, it wouldn’t say anything other than what I saw.
It had happened at the plant a few years earlier when I was a janitor that the company had hired an efficiency expert to monitor the employees at the plant. He would walk around the plant with a stopwatch observing the employees. When he saw them he would write notes on his clipboard. It became very unnerving because you would walk around the corner and there he would be standing writing something down about you.
I went to the Assistant Plant Manager Bill Moler and told him that this creepy guy keeps showing up in the main switchgear by the janitors closet. And every time he sees me, he writes something down. I told Bill that it really bothered me. He explained that he is an efficiency expert and he has a certain path that he takes throughout the day and takes a snapshot of what the workers are doing at that moment and writes it down. By doing that he calculates how efficient we are. It seemed pretty silly to me, because most mechanics when they saw him coming put their tools down and did nothing while he walked by until he was out of sight again.
When I was on the labor crew a few weeks later, and I was blowing coal dust off of all the I-Beams above the bowl mills with a high pressure air hose, I looked down, and through my fogged up goggles I could see this guy standing directly under me. I was about 50 feet above him crawling across an I-Beam with the air hose blowing black dust everywhere. He had crossed my barrier tape to go into the bowl mill area to see how efficient I was being.
I was so mad I turned off my air hose, climbed down the wall Spiderman-like (no. not head first) and went straight into the A-Foreman’s office and told Marlin McDaniel that the Efficiency Expert had crossed my barrier tape and was standing directly under me as I was blowing down the beams with air.
It turned out that the Efficiency Expert had gone upstairs to complain that some guy in the bowl mill had dumped a bunch of coal dust on him while he was monitoring him from below. Evidently, he wasn’t expert enough to know you weren’t supposed to cross someone’s barrier tape without permission, as was indicated on the caution tags that were tied to the barrier tape. From that point on, the efficiency expert (now in lowercase) had to be accompanied by someone from the plant to make sure he wasn’t breaking any safety rules and putting himself at harm.
To make a long side story short, we turned out to be so efficient, people came from all over the world to study us. Somebody downtown hired the efficiency expert full time, but later he was laid off during the first downsizing.
He reminds me of a person on an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation where this guy Lieutenant Commander Remmick comes aboard the Enterprise and he walks around inspecting everything and asking everyone questions that make them uncomfortable and at the end asks Picard if he could come work on the Enterprise. He looked so much like him, that I thought maybe our efficiency expert went to Hollywood to become an actor.
Back to Gene Day. I suppose the thought of the efficiency expert may have been going through my mind as I was taking notes about Gene Day at work. Like I said, at the time, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it.
It finally came to me on Thursday morning. This was the last day that Gene was going to be on the day shift, so I figured I might as well do something about it. So when I entered the shop that morning, I sat down at the desk of my foreman Andy Tubbs and began to write. The title at the top of the page was: “The Psychological Profile of Gene Day”.
Using the notes I had taken during the week, I wrote things like the following: “Gene Day walks around the Turbine Generator building with a clipboard in his hand trying desperately to look like he’s doing something important. He constantly hopes that someone is watching him because he dislikes doing so much work to act busy for no reason.
At times Gene Day gets paranoid and believes that he sees people spying on him from behind every corner (especially I-Beams). Sometimes Gene Day stands in the middle of the T-G floor staring up into space as if he forgot what he was supposed to be doing.” I’m sure I wrote more, but I don’t remember everything… but I do remember the second from the last sentence. I will save that for a couple of paragraphs from now.
I took my Psychological Profile of Gene Day and went up to the Control Room. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Gene had just walked over toward the break room behind the Auxiliary Control Panel so I walked over by the Shift Supervisor’s office and I leaned against the top of the large Blue Monitor and placed the Psychological Profile on the top of the monitor in front of me.
Less than a minute later Gene came walking around behind me and seeing the paper on the top of the monitor came up behind me and looked over my shoulder and began to read….. He wasn’t trying to hide the fact that he was reading the paper, and I obviously knew he was there, and the title in large bold letters did say, “The Psychological Profile of Gene Day”. So, he read on.
I heard a few chuckles as he read through my interpretation of what he had done during the week. Then he came to the “Second from the Last Sentence”, as I could hear him reading quietly in my ear… The sentence read, “Gene Day sneaks up behind people and reads their private material over their shoulder!” — Bingo! I had him!
When he read that he grabbed me by the throat and started to Throttle me! Shaking me back and forth. This would have been a humdinger of a joke at that point, but I had one more sentence up my sleeve… ur… I mean on the paper….
As I was wavering (is that a word?) back and forth between life and death I managed to eke out something like: “Wait! There’s More!”…. Gene Day let up on me a little and looked down at the page and read the last sentence…… It read….. “Gene Day tries to strangle people who are only trying to help him by creating his Psychological Profile.”
That was all it took. Another perfect joke played on Gene Day, and I was able to live to tell about it. When Gene read that he was stunned into dismay. Giggling as hard as he could he retreated shaking his head in defeat.
Now, I know that Gene reads these posts, and he may remember this story a little differently, and I’ll give him that because Gene is older than dirt and his memory isn’t that good. But I was the one that was being strangled, and I still have a vivid image of those few moments. Not only do I, but so do my children, who will one day tell their children, who will say, “Mommy, will you tell us that story again about how Grandpa was strangled by Gene Day that time in the Control Room at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in Oklahoma?”
Originally Posted on August 3, 2012 (I added a picture of Walt Oswalt):
The second summer as Summer Help at the Coal-fired Power Plant, was when I first worked out of the Automotive garage. It wasn’t finished during the first summer. The second summer when I began working in the garage, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley, Doug House and Ken Conrad were the regular workers that mowed the fields using tractors with brush hogs, as I have explained in previous posts. A summer help that also worked with us from Ponca City named David Foster was also able to mow grass using one of the new Ford tractors that we painted Orange to easily identify them as belonging to the Electric Company in Oklahoma.
I learned to drive the tractors later in the summer when I worked irrigating the fields in our attempt to grow grass (as told in the post “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It Pays To Listen“). The next summer I was able to mow grass using a Brush Hog pulled behind a tractor:
It didn’t take long before I had to mow grass on the side of the dam (and other levies). The side of the dam has a very sharp incline, so while mowing grass on the side of the dam you sat more on the side of the tractor seat than on the seat itself. Heavy weights were put on the front of the tractor and the back tires on the tractor were turned around so that they were farther apart than they would be otherwise. This gave the tractor a lower, wider profile and a lower center of gravity helping to keep it from rolling over sideways down the slope.
I had watched Jim, Larry, Ken and David mow grass along some very steep inclines the summer before without any tractors tumbling over, so I felt like it must be safe, even though looking at the tractors they still seemed a little “top heavy”.
It was quite an eerie feeling the first time I actually mowed a slope this steep. I experienced the same feeling as you have on a roller coaster when it hits the top of the hill and flings you down real fast when the tractor tire on the downhill side of the tractor rolls into a washed out spot on the dam causing the tractor to roll over just a little farther than you are used to. It was definitely an adrenaline rush each time this happened, because it felt like the tractor was going to roll over.
That is when I remembered the story about the little engine that was trying to pull the train over the steep mountain, and he kept chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” over and over. So, between each decade of the Rosary that I was saying while counting Hail Mary’s on my fingers, I added in an “I Think I can…” as an added prayer before the next “Our Father”.
In the time that I worked as a summer help we never turned over a tractor while mowing on a slope. That isn’t to say that the tractors didn’t start to tip over. It’s just that if you realize that the large back tractor tire has left the ground and is spinning freely, you could quickly turn the steering wheel downhill so that the tractor would turn downhill preventing it from rolling completely over. The weight of the brush hog on the back helped to keep the tractor snug against the sloping dam.
Years later, after I left the Power Plant, in 2006, my father’s best friend, Tom Houghton, a Veterinarian in Lakeland, Florida was killed in a tractor accident at his family’s farm in Polo, Missouri. This greatly effected my father. He has not recovered from the loss of his friend still today. As I was mowing grass and picturing my sudden demise if a tractor were to roll down the hill, my main concern was the sorrow my family would have felt by my death. Needless to say… I never toppled a tractor.
It was during that same summer in 1981 that I first worked with the Power Plant Icon Walt Oswalt. Every plant must have at least one person like Walt. He is the type of person that once he has something in his mind about how to do something, nothing is going to change it. I know many different stories about Walt Oswalt that have been shared with me, but this is one of my own. Walt is a sandy-haired Irish-looking man that always reminded me of the little old man, Jackie Wright, on the Benny Hill Show.
I now have an actual picture of Walt that I found laying around….
One Saturday while I had caught a ride to the Power Plant to do “coal cleanup” the crew was asked who would like to wash down belts 10 and 11. These are the 1/2 mile long belts that go from the coalyard all the way up to the plant. You can see them on the left side of the picture of the plant on the side of this post. Finding the opportunity for a challenge, I volunteered.
I made my way up to the top of the Transfer tower where I found Walt Oswalt. He was working out of the coalyard at the time and was helping us wash down 10 and 11 belt. Wearing rainsuits and rubber boots we began at the top and worked our way down. It didn’t look like this belt had been washed down for a while. We could blast the tin enclosure with the high pressure hoses we were using to completely wash off all the coal dust that had built up over time. This looked like it was going to be a fun job.
Then Walt pointed out to me that most of our work was under the belt where the coal had built up almost solid up to the belt itself so that the coal was rubbing on the rubber Uniroyal conveyor belt. Remember, if the conveyor belt goes up, it has to go back down also. So underneath the conveyor is where the belt returns. it is a big loop.
So, Walt Oswalt and I spent the rest of the day laying on the grating so we could see under the belts washing the coal down the slope of belt 10 and 11. Under the conveyor is another set of rollers that the rubber conveyor belt rides on it’s return trip to the Crusher Tower. During this time there were two chants that came to my mind…. One was, “Whistle While you Work”, since we seemed to be in some kind of coal mine working away like the Seven Dwarfs (you know… Walt Disney… Walt Oswalt). The other one was the song, “Workin’ In a Coal Mine” (…goin’ down down).
At one particular spot the coal had built up and packed itself in there so much that one of the rollers wasn’t able to turn and the belt was just rubbing on the roller. After we had washed the coal away we could see that the roller was not able to turn still because the belt had worn it flat on one side.
Walt called the Control Room to shutdown the belt so that we could look at it. We could see that the roller was bad. For some reason the other belt (11) was out of commission so without this belt running, no coal was being sent up to the plant. The coal silos and the surge bin hold enough coal for a while but not for too long during the summer when the units need to run at their maximum rate to supply the electricity needed by the customers. We could have the belt shutdown for a while, but not for too long.
I followed Walt down the belt to the Crusher Tower wondering what he had in mind. He didn’t tell me what we were going to do, so I just gathered my clues by watching what he did. When we came out of the belt and left the Crusher I was surprised that it was already dark outside. When I had left the Maintenance Shop it had been morning. Now it was dark. We had spent the entire day (12 hours at this point) in Belt 10 and 11. I didn’t remember ever taking a break or eating lunch or even going to the bathroom. Just holding the high pressure water hose, directing the stream down under the belt… all day.
We walked over to a new building that was still being built called the Coalyard Maintenance Building. This was the new building that was going to be used by the new Labor Crew in a few months. Outside the building to one side was a Conex Box, as I have described before. This is the kind of large box that you see on the CSX train commercials that are being transported by trains.
We used them to store equipment used for specific jobs or crews. In this case, the Conex box had conveyor equipment in it. Walt found a long straight roller that is used under the Number 10 and 11 belts and tied it to a 2 wheel dolly. We rolled it back to the Crusher Tower and began the long trek back up the belt. I was pulling the dolly and Walt was carrying some large wrenches.
When we arrived at the spot where the roller had been worn, Walt called the control room to let them know we were beginning to work. We pulled the safety cords on the side of the conveyor to ensure that the belt would not start, even though we were assured that a Clearance had been placed on the breaker in the Main Switchgear (where I began my first war with the spiders a year later. See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“).
Walt climbed over the belt and I stayed on the main walkway. We worked upside down for a while unbolting the roller. At one point we decided we needed some more suitable tools and headed back down the belt to the Coalyard Garage where the heavy equipment is serviced and brought back some large ratchet wrenches and sockets with an extension.
I think the chant, “I think I can, I think I can” was running through my head on our second trip back up the conveyor belt. I think it was around 10pm. We finished changing the roller and decided to leave the old one laying in the walkway for the night. Walt said he would bring it back to the coalyard on Monday morning.
We made our way back to the Maintenance shop where I took off the rain suit and rubber boots that I had been wearing all day and put my regular boots back on. I went up to the control room and asked if anyone could give me a ride to Stillwater since the evening shift of operators were just getting off at 11pm. I believe it was Charles Buchanan that gave me a ride home that night in his little beat up pickup truck.
I never worked directly with Charles Buchanan since he was an operator. The first impression that one may have is that he looks like a caricature of a construction worker in a comic strip.
Charles reaffirmed my belief that Power Plant Men are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. There were a few times when I caught a ride with Charles to or from the plant. Each time I felt honored to ride in his truck. If I think about what chant was running through my mind as we were on our way home at night, I think it would be something like the song “You’ve Got a Friend”: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend….”
That is what all real Power Plant men and linemen are like. Wherever you look in the United States, these great men and women work tirelessly to keep you safe by providing electricity to your homes. Something we take for granted until the power goes out.
Recently when the power went out in the east, the linemen from this electric company drove with pride, eager to help those in need:
Below I have included the lyrics for the song “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King and her husband James Taylor. See how well it fits those people that work around the clock bringing the power to your home:
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend.
If the sky above you should turn dark and full of clouds
and that old north wind should begin to blow,
keep your head together and call my name out loud.
Soon I will be knocking upon your door.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there.
Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend? People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you. Well, they’ll take your soul if you let them,
oh yeah, but don’t you let them.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend. You’ve got a friend.
Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend. Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend.
Oh, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.
Here is a YouTube video of James Taylor singing this song:
If your aren’t able to play youtube videos directly from the picture… here is the link: “You’ve got a Friend“
Originally posted on August 18, 2012:
I have just finished watching the movie “Godfather II” with my son. Toward the end of the movie Fredo Corleone and Al are going fishing. There is a scene where the motor boat in the boat house is lowered down into the water. I have seen one boat house like this before where the boat is hoisted out of the water in the boat house so that it can be stored dry while hovering a few feet over the water. The Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked as a summer help had a very similar boat house.
The Power Plant had a boat house because each month during the summer months the chemist had to go to various locations in the lake to take the temperature and a water sample. He would take the water samples back to the chemist lab where they could be analyzed. Each bottle was carefully labeled indicating where in the lake the sample was taken. In order to take the samples out in the middle of the lake…. A motor boat was required. Thus the need for the boat house.
The second summer as a Summer Help (before the boathouse was built) I was asked to go along on this journey with George Dunagan, a new chemist at the time. Larry Riley usually manned the motor, as it was known that the motor for the boat had a tendency to cut out and die at random times and the best person that could be counted on to fix a stranded boat out in the middle of the lake was Larry Riley. I know I always felt safe.
I have seen Larry dismantle part of the motor out in the middle of the lake, clean a fuel filter and put the thing back together again with a minimum number of tools at his disposal. I would sit patiently as the boat rocked back and forth with the waves (Oklahoma winds usually kept a steady flow of waves) waiting for Larry to repair the motor. I didn’t have any fear of missing lunch because Larry was in the boat. So, I would just sit and watch the ducks and other birds fly by or look into the water to see what I could see.
Larry would pull something out of the motor and say, “Well, look at that! No wonder this thing died.” Right on queue. A few minutes later and he would start the boat up again and off we would go speeding across the lake.
During the time I was a summer help, there were various tragic events that took place. One man committed suicide by drowning at the park while his sister and wife waited on the shore to tell whoever was first to arrive. Summer Helps were there, but I was on an errand to Oklahoma City at the time and only heard about it when I returned. He had wrapped himself up in some brush. Evidently, he was in some kind of legal trouble at the time and was expected to show up to serve jail time the following Monday.
Another tragedy which was very sad was when a man was swimming with his son on his shoulders out to the dock that was placed out in the water so that swimmers could swim out to it, when he had a heart attack while his daughter was waiting for them on the shore. When the summer help arrived, the daughter told them that her father and brother just went under the water and never came up. One of the Summer Help, David Foster jumped in and found them both drowned. It was a traumatic experience for him, which I’m sure lives on in his memory to this day. Both the father (which appeared to have had a heart attack) and his son had drowned.
Another man was fishing where the river pumps discharged into the lake. This was a popular place to fish at a certain part of the day. A large man had waded out into the water, and at some point fell over. He could not swim (maybe because he had too much to drink) and was also drowned.
These tragic events were a constant reminder that water sports of all kinds have their dangers. Following Safety rules is very important. I believe that two of those 4 people would have not drowned if they had on a life preserver.
Another more humorous tragedy (depending on how you look at it) occurred not far from the boat ramp at the park located closer to Hwy 177. The story as I heard it was that this stubborn farmer who had become rich when they found oil on his land (and I won’t mention his name, because I don’t remember it. Heck. I can’t even remember his initials, if you can believe that), had bought his first boat. Not knowing much about boating, he wanted to make sure he was well equipped, so he attached the biggest motor he could buy to it.
He lowered it into water at the boat ramp at the park, and turned it around so that it pointed out into the lake. Then he opened it up to full throttle. The nose of the boat proceeded to point straight up in the air, and the boat sank motor first. The man swam over to the shore. Climbed in his truck and drove away. Leaving the boat on the floor of the lake. Now… I figure that someone must have seen this happen, because I’m sure that the person didn’t go around telling everyone that he met what he had done… — That is, until he had a few beers in him… maybe.
I would like to tell you some more about George Dunagan, the chemist that went with us to take the water samples. He looked like the type of person that would make a good Sergeant in the Army. A solid facial structure, and a buzz haircut reminded me of the Sergeant Carter on the Gomer Pyle TV show. Here is a picture of Sergeant Carter and George Dunagan when he was younger:
George was in his mid-40s when I first met him. He was 4 months older than my father. He went about his business as a man that enjoyed his job. Occasionally, something might get under his craw, and he would let you know about it, but you always knew that he was the type of person that was looking out for you, even when you thought you didn’t need it.
I considered George a True Power Plant Chemist. He was a genius in his own field. When I was young and I worked around George, I felt like he was passionate about his job and that he wanted to teach it to others. He would explain to me what the different chemical processes in the Water Treatment were doing. He would take any opportunity to explain things in detail. Some people would think that he was kind of grumpy sometimes, and sometimes they would be right. He cared passionately about things that involved “right” and “wrong”. When he saw something that he considered wrong, he rarely sat still.
I considered George to be a passionate teacher that loved to see others learn. I made it a point to stop and nod my head like I was really listening when he was telling me something because I could see the joy in his face that knowledge was being bestowed upon someone.
As he took the water samples in the lake, he explained to me why he was doing what he was doing. How the EPA required these for so many years to show that the lake was able to cool the power plant steam back to water without disturbing the wildlife that inhabited the lake (that the electric company had created).
At that particular time, they were still taking a baseline of how the water was with just one unit running. Later when both units are running they would see how it held up by comparing the year before when no unit was running, then this year with one, and next year with two units.
I listened intently. Not so much because the topic interested me. I wouldn’t tell George that I was struggling to pay attention because the particulars about how he had to label each sample and put them in order in the box were not as interesting as things that came to my own imagination. I imagined things like… “Wouldn’t it be neat if you could breathe under water?” Or, “If the boat tipped over, and we were in the middle of the lake, would I stay with the boat or try to swim to the shore….” “Was that my stomach rumbling? Am I getting hungry already?” I would put my own imagination aside.
I listened intently, mainly because I could see that George would brighten up to find such an attentive pupil in the boat. I was grinning inside real big to watch George with such a satisfied look. I suppose inside as George was explaining the world of water temperature and bacteria growth, I was thinking, “I wonder if George used to be a Sergeant in the Army.” “Does he teach his own children the same way he does me?”. “I wonder what George did before he came here. Was he a chemist somewhere else?”
At the beginning of this year I began writing this Power plant Man Blog because I felt a great need to capture on paper (well. Virtual paper anyway), some stories about the people I was blessed to work with at the Power Plant. Sonny Karcher, who I considered a good friend had died a couple of months earlier. I needed to write about these men, because if I didn’t, I feared these stories would be lost to the world. These are too great of men to just fade away into history without something being left behind to record at least some memorable events in their lives. 16 days after I wrote my first post this year (on January 18, 2012), George Dunagan died in the Ponca City Medical Center.
One thing I was not surprised to learn about George was that he used to be a teacher. He had a Master Degree in Education and had taught at the Chilocco Indian School for 11 years before going to work at the power plant. This explained why he seemed to go into the “Teacher” mode when he was explaining something.
I also learned that he was in the U.S. Navy where he enlisted in 1954. This didn’t surprise me either. As I mentioned above, George reminded me of the Sergeant Carter on Gomer Pyle, and not in the humorous way, but in the way he carried himself like someone in the military. George Dunagan reached the rank of Master Sergeant in the Army Reserves where he retired in 1994, two years after retiring from the Power Plant life.
The movie Godfather II seemed to be about how one man struggled to build a secure home for his family and fellow countrymen through any means necessary, and about how his son destroyed his own family to the point where he was left completely alone with his family destroyed at the end.
Power Plant Men had their own struggles at home. They were not immune to family strife any more than anyone else. The nature of their work gave them a great sense of dignity and feeling of accomplishment. This sense of dignity helps relieve some stress in the family unit. To realize every day that the work that you perform directly impacts the lives of everyone that receives the electricity being produced at the Power Plant.
When something goes wrong and a base unit trips suddenly, the lights flicker in every school room, every store and every house of 2 million people reminding us that this fragile system is so stable because of the due diligence of True Power Plant Men with the sense to care as much as George Dunagan a True Power Plant Chemist.