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.
Comment from previous repost:
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. 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:
Originally posted September 7, 2012:
Why Stanley Elmore? I suppose that was on the mind of a few Power Plant Men when the foreman for the new Automotive Garage and Yard crew was chosen in 1980. What did Stanley have that the rest of the Power Plant Men lacked? Why did Stanley accept such a position in a power plant out in the middle of nowhere in the plains of Oklahoma? I have some thoughts about these questions and others that I will share with the rest of the Power Plant Kingdom.
When I returned to the Power Plant for my second summer as a summer help in 1980, I found that the Automotive Garage had been finished and a new crew had been assigned to work from this shop. Doug House, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley and Ken Conrad were there to welcome me. I had only known Larry from the year before and when he saw that I was returning, he actually said he was glad to see me. It was usually hard to tell what Larry was thinking because he kept a straight face even when he was chuckling under his breath. So, I never really knew what he thought about me until he told the others that he was glad that I would be working there this summer.
Then the new foreman walked in. He was a medium height stocky man that had obviously come from another plant and was well seasoned in the ways of Power Plant etiquette. This required him to act as if I had just walked into a snake pit and my summer was going to be a living Hell working under him. Of course I accepted this well knowing that this merely meant that he had a lot for us to do during the summer and I should enjoy myself.
There was another summer help there, David Foster. He had been hired because he had experience driving a Tractor, and he would spend a lot of the time that summer mowing grass. That is, until he wrecked a new brush hog while going perpendicular across a ditch at too high rate of speed.
(Boy, I’m getting a lot of mileage out of that one picture of a Brush Hog). At that point, he started working on watering the grass, as I did (and you can read about that in the post “When Power Plant Men Talk, It Pays to Listen“).
A short time after I had been there I realized that there was another resident of the garage. It was Don Pierce that came from Construction to operate the P&H Crane used by the Plant. Here is a Picture of the same kind of P&H Crane that Don Pierce operated for at least two of the summers that I was working out of the Garage.
Don Pierce was a tall person with a moustache and tinted glasses. He was chewing something often that he spit into a cup or a Coke can, that made a squeaky squirty sound each time he spit. He always looked to me like he wore the same size jeans that he wore when he graduated from High School, even though the rest of him had filled out some. Making him look like his upper body had been squeezed some out of his jeans. Like Hank Hill in King of the Hill:
It didn’t take long to figure out that Stanley Elmore loved to play jokes on people. He would get the biggest laugh from causing someone a moment of confusion. He would shake his head and laugh and say, “oooooohhh weeee” (or something similar). I always had a bigger kick out of watching Stanley’s reaction to someone encountering his joke than I did from the joke itself. As you may have learned from an earlier post “Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill“, that I was the target of at least some of his jokes. It would make me laugh to know that Stanley was playing a joke on me.
Actually, anytime during my time at the plant it made me laugh to find that someone was playing a joke on me. I remember while I was a janitor that one day while I was cleaning out the bathroom in the Electric Shop, I would first Sweep out the bathroom and then mop it. Many times I turned around to pick up something that was sitting just outside the door of the bathroom I found that it had moved.
Like the mop bucket had moved down to the door by the lab. Everyone in the shop was just doing their normal job. But when I walked out of the bathroom to find the handle missing from the push broom and Andy Tubbs and Ben Davis sitting at the break table acting like nothing was wrong, I had to walk back into the bathroom in order to keep them from seeing how hard I was laughing.
For some reason that was the funniest joke I encountered. To turn around in one moment and have the broom handle gone and the broom itself just sitting on the floor with no handle and the obvious culprit Andy Tubbs trying his best to keep a straight face and act like he wasn’t noticing anything. I still laugh when I think about it 30 years later.
Stanley’s jokes were of that caliber. When Don Pierce drove to work one day on his new Harley Davidson Motorcycle, Stanley just couldn’t resist. He started out by asking him if he noticed that it leaked oil. Don said it better not, because he just bought it brand new. Stanley answered by saying that Harley Davidsons always leaked oil.
So, while Don was out operating the P&H Crane, Stanley took a small cup of oil and poured a little oil spot under his motorcycle, just as a reminder to Don that all Harleys in 1980 leaked oil. Then Stanley watched and waited for Don to stroll by his motorcycle in the parking lot during lunch to see what his reaction would be. Of course, Don had been an Electric Company Construction worker long enough to spot a snow job when he saw a grease spot. But it did make him smile to know that Stanley had gone through the trouble of putting an oil spot under his motorcycle. — That’s one way to know that someone really cares about you. They are willing to take the time out of their busy day to play a little power plant joke on you.
I was able to work one-on-one with Don Pierce for about a week that summer when we had to go to the laydown yard by the main gate and organize all the spare cable, rebar, piping, et cetera into neat rows and in some kind of order like from largest to smallest. In order to put the large reels of cable into neat rows, we would line up two rows of very large telephone poles close to each other, and then place the reels on the poles to keep them off of the ground so they would last longer, and not sink into the ground when it rained.
Don was operating the crane and I was doing my best to use the newly learned hand signals to direct him where to go and what to do. There was a hand signal for everything, and I was afraid that if I stopped to itch my nose, Don would cut the engine and leave for lunch.
We were picking up wooden telephone poles and carefully placing them in a line, and I was standing there guiding the poles into place as they were lowered to the ground. At one point, I had signaled Don to lower the pole all the way to the ground and as I turned to undo the chokers from under the poles, I realized that the pole had been placed right on top of my feet, and I couldn’t move. It was at times like that when I was glad that I was wearing Steel Toed Boots. — A must when you are working in a power plant.
So, finding myself stuck, I straightened myself up and signaled to Don that I wanted him to raise the pole up. He looked a little confused as if he thought I had given him the wrong signal (again…). But when I didn’t change my signal, he succumbed and raised the pole off the ground. At that point, I took one step backward and with the straightest face I could muster, I signaled for Don to lower the pole back to the ground. I saw the smile go across Don’s face when he finally realized that I had been held captive by the pole, and I smiled back because at that point, I couldn’t look serious, and what would be the point anyway.
During the first summer that Stanley was my foreman, I carpooled with him and 5 others. We would all pile into Stanley’s station wagon and head home at the end of the day. I would be dropped off at the corner of Washington and Lakeview Dr. in Stillwater and would walk the rest of the way home, about a mile down the road and across a field to my parent’s house. We each paid Stanley $5.00 each week for the ride, and we didn’t have to worry about the gas and the driving. It was left up to Stanley.
So, why Stanley? That was the question I was going to answer when I started this post. Well. I think I have a good reason. All during the summer, Stanley was studying different types of weed killers that could be used around the lake without causing harm to the lake itself. He was very conscious about keeping the lake pristine and free from poisonous chemicals.
He finally found a weed killer that was approved by the department of Agriculture at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater to be used around lakes. By Stanley’s conscientious view of the Power Plant Property, I could see that he was a good choice for supervising the yard crew. We did spend many hours driving down the roadways spraying the newly mowed and chopped weeds with weed killer with the knowledge that we weren’t causing more harm than good.
But that wasn’t the only reason. I think Stanley was put over the garage crew because he took such great care with his own vehicles. I had the opportunity to see the engine in the station wagon that ferried us to work and home each day, and when I first saw it, I was astounded. The entire engine was cleaned and polished and even waxed!
Even though the engine had over 100,000 miles on it, it looked brand new. Stanley said that he keeps his engine spotless so that at the first sign of any kind of leak, he takes the steps necessary to fix it before it becomes a real problem.
I remember one Monday morning while we were on the way to work, and the Power Plant Men in the car, which included John Blake and another inspector, were talking about what they did over the weekend. Stanley said that he spent all day Saturday cleaning his car. I knew what he meant. That included waxing his engine.
I had the opportunity to go to Stanley’s house one day to drop something off or pick something up, I don’t remember, but what I do remember is that when I arrived at his humble abode, the front yard, as small and normal as the rest of the neighborhood, was so well groomed. It looked like someone had taken a scissors and carefully clipped all of the blades of grass just the right height. The various rocks and bird bath, and other yard ornaments were placed so perfectly that it had transformed this normal little yard into a complete work of art.
So, why was Stanley chosen to be the foreman over the yard crew and the Automotive garage? I believe it was because he had demonstrated by the way he took care of his own property that those in the Electric Company who knew that, knew that he was a man that would take care of their property equally as well. So, I salute Stanley for being a great foreman to work for, and never letting the work seem dull. He treated everyone in the shop with respect (except maybe in the middle of a joke). I wish I had a picture to show you, because I was unable to think of any actor or historical figure that reminds me of him. There just isn’t anyone else quite like Stanley.
Stanley died at too young of an age.
Comments from the original Post:
Power plant jokes are the greatest! I remember one time I was going on vacation (as a Control Room Operator) and my assistant was filling in for me for the first time (let’s call him “Dave”) well, anyway the Shift Supervisor asked me if I felt Dave was up to the task (Dave is an excellent operator). I told the Supervisor I had faith in Dave, but he should keep a close eye on him, so the whole time I was on vacation, the Supervisor hovered over Dave’s shoulder like a buzzing mosquito! And to add icing to the cake, on Dave’s performance appraisal the Supervisor wrote “Dave is a competent operator…but needs a little too much personal supervision!!
This is the kind of fun power plant men have with each other, no one is closer than a CO and his assistant, and Dave was, and always will be a great friend. We’ve been to each others weddings & helped each other through divorces. He’s a Control Room Operator of his own crew now, but we still get a kick out of laughing over the good times we had working together.
A book could/should be written on all the classic power plant jokes over the years. Some of the oldest I’ve heard from the Osage and Belle Isle vintage power plant men.
Something that comes through these stories: There existed in those days a very different attitude toward both one’s work and one’s coworkers, at least in industrial settings. I found it in both aircraft manufacturing and the telephone business.
It doesn’t seem to exist today or at least, isn’t obvious and I think that represents an unfortunate loss to our society…
Originally Posted on November 17, 2012:
Louise Gates seemed reluctant to approach me to ask if I wanted to make a donation for flowers for Grant Harned’s funeral. Of course I did. He was a good friend of mine. We had many carpooling adventures before he left his job as the plant receptionist to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma where he died a little more than a year later in May 1984 in an automobile accident.
Thomas “Grant” Harned had obtained a degree in business from Oklahoma State University before accepting the job at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma. He told me that he thought that once he had his foot in the door that he would be able to advance up the HR chain until he worked his way into a business department downtown at Corporate Headquarters. Downtown is synonymous for Oklahoma City.
Like many struggling new Power Plant men such as Ed Shiever, Dale Hull and others, Thomas lived in a modest student rental apartment near campus. Grant lived on West Miller Avenue just off of Main Street in Stillwater. Soon after I had become a janitor and the summer helps I had been carpooling with had left, I began carpooling with Grant.
Grant was a tall thin man with sandy hair and a moustache that reminded me a lot of Gary McCain (also known as Stick). I have a picture of him around here somewhere that I found many years after his death when we were cleaning out the office that Louise Gates (now Kalicki) had obtained upon becoming the supervisor over HR. It is a picture of him sitting at the receptionist desk.
Louise gave me a picture of myself that had been taken when I was a janitor, and as I filed through the other pictures I found Grant’s photo. I knew no one else at the plant would want the picture as few knew him or even remembered him by that time. So I took it as well. Some day when I find where I have placed those pictures, I will post them. (I found the picture since the original post).
As I mentioned, Grant was just out of the Business College at OSU and he was fired up, ready to make a difference. He had all sorts of ideas that he shared with me about how the plant and the company business processes could be improved.
He reminds me now of myself years later when I was carpooling with Scott Hubbard and Toby O’Brien and how I would talk about having smart electricity instead of the same dumb electricity we have had for the past 100 years. Except that Grant’s ideas were about business processes, where my ideas were about electrons moving through a conductor.
For Power Plant Men, carpooling is a way of getting into other Power Plant Men’s minds and understanding them from the inside out. Each day while driving back and forth from the plant you are basically locked into a confined space with one or more other individuals with nothing but your thoughts, or NPR or in the case of Dale Hull and Ricky Daniels… Beer.
In the case of Grant Harned, he soon became frustrated. He had graduated from school and wanted to make a difference somehow. And he wanted it to happen right away. He would tell his manager Jack Ballard his ideas about how he thought things could change, and each time Jack would shoot it down.
I’m not saying that Grant had great business changing ideas that would change the way Power Plants all over the country operated. He just wanted to be listened to, and he didn’t understand that there were built-in reasons why we did it the way we did. The most important was that “We had been doing it this way for 35 years, and we’re not going to change it now.”
For some reason that rubbed Grant the wrong way. Maybe because he couldn’t help thinking outside the box. He obviously had trouble understanding the benefit of doing something the same way for 35 years. I guess he must have missed the class where “because I said so” was a solid business case. If he had stuck around long enough Ben Brandt would have explained that to him.
Anyway. It is true that Power Plant business processes before Grant’s time and for a while after, were based on doing things the same way it has always been done. I suppose that is why electricity for all those years was the same boring thing…. 60 cycles (60 Hz or 50 Hz in Europe) Alternating Current. Regular Sine wave, perfectly generated. Each wave identical to each other. — But I’ll talk about electricity later. At this time I was still a janitor.
Grant finally decided that he was going to look for another job because he realized that he didn’t have a future at the power plant. He had been trained as a business person and there was little opportunity to display and cultivate his new found skills at a power plant in the middle of the countryside where everyone was content with the way things were.
Before he left, he gave me some cassette tapes that he used to play on the way to and from work. I kept them for years until I had worn them out listening to them in my car. Two of the tapes were The Rolling Stones, one of his favorite bands.
I said goodbye to Grant when he left, but I never forgot him. Each year on All Souls Day (November 2), I remember him and David Hankins. He, like most of the men I have carpooled with over the years was like a brother to me. Those that weren’t brothers, were fathers.
It didn’t occur to me until after I first wrote the original post that years later, I too went to Oklahoma State University while I was working at the plant to obtain a degree from the Business College, Spears School of Business. As with Grant, the Electric Company had no use for someone with my newfound skills, so I moved south to Round Rock, Texas to work for Dell. I wonder if Grant was looking down giving me a thumbs up as I walked to the podium to get my diploma.
I mentioned that I don’t know where I placed his Power Plant picture, but I do have other pictures (before I recently found it):
Evidently someone else remembers Grant as I do. I found these picture of him on a memorial site online. There is a comment there that says this of Grant: “Was known in school and by friends as Grant. He had a great sense of humor and would always make you laugh.”
I agreed with Grant. He really didn’t belong at the power plant. Power Plant life and culture at the time was not geared toward “continuous improvement” and Six Sigma. It was about coming home safely at night to your family and doing a good days worth of work and having something to show for it. He was young and ambitious.
I cherish the time I spent with Grant driving to and from work. I remember many of the conversations that we had. Many of them philosophical in nature. Some having to do with the regular questions people have about life and God. I know that he was being drawn toward something greater, and in the end I pray that he found it.
Originally Posted November 30, 2012:
Marlin McDaniel caught my interest when he mentioned that he had a pet Mongoose in his office. The only actual experience I had with a Mongoose had to do with a set of Hot Wheels that my brother and I had as kids. In 1968 shortly after Hot Wheels came out, they had a pair of Hot Wheel cars that was advertised on TV. Don “Snake” Prudhomme or Tom “Mongoose” McEwen. Which do you want to be?
Somehow I didn’t think Marlin McDaniel was talking about a fancy Matchbox car. Especially since he said he kept it in a cage under his desk. I knew the plant grounds was designated as a wildlife preserve, but at that time in my career, I thought that just meant that there were a lot of Construction Hands around that were still constructing the plant.
The Construction Hands that worked for Brown & Root were wild enough. When they wanted a break from the hot sun, one of them would sneak on over to the gas station / convenience store just down the road and call the plant to report a bomb had been planted somewhere. The construction hands would have to report to the construction parking lot and wait until the all clear was called, which usually gave them the afternoon off. — That’s known as the “Law of the Hog”, which I will discuss in a much later post (see the post: “Power Plant Law of the Hog“).
I had not been working at the coal-fired power plant very long my first summer as a summer help in 1979 before Mac (as we called Marlin McDaniel) asked me if I would like to be introduced to his mongoose. I said, “All Right”. Thinking…. I’m game… This sounds like a joke to me.
I don’t know if it was because I grew up with my brother and sister, where playing jokes on my sister was a mainstay of entertainment (not to mention a reason for having a close relationship with my dad’s belt, or my mom’s hair brush), but I seemed to be able to smell a joke a mile away.
So, I eagerly awaited to see what Mac actually meant by having a “Mongoose in a cage under his desk”. You see, as I mentioned above. I had never had a personal relationship with a regular goose let alone a French one. Well. “Mon goose” sounded French to me. Like “ce qui est?” “c’est mon goose” — Well. I had a number of years of French, but I didn’t remember the French word for Goose… which is actually “oie”.
Since the actual nature of a real mongoose was lost to me through my own ignorance, I had no fear of meeting a mongoose in a cage and actually wondered if it was furry if I might be able to pet it. So when Mac took this small wire cage out from under his desk and showed it to me, I was not apprehensive that a real mongoose with razor sharp teeth and a terrible disposition was in the little hut in the middle of the cage with his tail sticking out.
Mac explained to me that he must be sleeping and that if he tapped on the cage a little it might wake him up. He tapped the cage a couple of times when all of a sudden out leaped the mongoose. I don’t mean that he jumped out of his hut. I mean that he leaped completely out of the cage. In one swift motion this ball of fur came flying out of the side of the cage, leaping over the top and aiming toward my face.
I stepped out of the way and the mongoose landed on the ground in the office and it laid there. To me, it looked like a squirrel tail with something attached to it. I recognized right away that this was a joke that was supposed to make me jump in fear. Only, Mac had never met my sister. A leaping mongoose wasn’t half as scary as a raging sister that has just had a joke played on her.
I used to have a collection of wasp nest that I kept on my dresser shelves when I was young. I had considered myself the “Fearless Wasp Hunter” as a kid. Whenever I found a wasp nest, I just had to have it for my collection.
So, I was used to being chased by angry wasps as well. I don’t know how many times they chased me down only to knock me head over heels when they caught be by slamming into me with their stingers. They get rather peeved when you throw rocks at their home to try to knock the wasp nest off of the eave of a house.
That is why while I was on the labor crew in 1983 and we were on our way out to the dam in the crew cab I remained calm when a yellow jacket wasp flew in the window.
A crew cab is a pickup truck that has a full back seat.
I was sitting in the middle in the back seat. Larry Riley skid the truck to a stop and everyone piled out. Larry, Doretta, Ronnie, Jim and Bill all jumped out and went over the guard rail to escape the wrath of the wasp in the truck. I remained in my seat and leaned forward so that I could see the front seat. I picked up the stunned wasp by the wings and flicked it out the open door. The others safely returned and we drove on. — that was me… The fearless wasp hunter.
Anyway, back to the Mongoose cage. If you would like to learn how to make a trick mongoose cage all by your lonesome, you can go to this link:
I only wish they had a picture of it. As it turns out a Mongoose hunts Cobra. Later in life I read a story to my daughter written by Rudyard Kipling called “Rikki Tikki Tavi” where a mongoose hunts down a cobra in a garden. It was then that I remembered Mac’s mongoose in a cage and how I was too ignorant to know to be frightened.
Mac, along with Sonny Karcher first introduced me to Power Plant Humor. I brought some of this home with me. The second summer after hearing Mac and others call our Hard hats “Turtle Shells”, I caught some box turtles in my parent’s backyard and painted hard hat names on them using my sister’s nail polish. I had three turtles in the backyard labelled “Ken”, “Mac” and “Stan” for Ken Scott, Marlin McDaniel and Stanley Elmore. I probably would have had more, but there were only 3 turtles that frequented our back patio (I’m sure my sister never new I had used her bottle of nail polish to name turtles).
I heard a rumor that Marlin McDaniel moved to Elberta, UT where he lives to this day. I don’t know if it’s true. I think he would be about 70 years old today. He was a true Power Plant Machinist that didn’t fit too well as an A Foreman.
Especially since he had to deal with the Evil Plant Manager at the time. He was bitter about his whole Coal-fired power plant experience since he wasn’t told the truth in the first place that prompted him to take the job at the plant. So he left to go back to the plant where he came from.
The last time I talked to Mac he was in the gas-fired power plant in Midwest City standing behind a lathe machining away as happy as could be.
Actually, his expression looked like someone who was thinking about the next joke he was going to play, or story he was going to tell. I may have mentioned it before, Mac reminds me of Spanky from the “Little Rascals”. I wish I could see him one more time.
Comment from the Original Post:
The Seminole Plant had a mongoose too. Power Plant Man Bill Murray kept his in the plant garage/shop. He really enjoyed attacking new summer students.
Comment from the Previous Post: