Mother’s Day came a week early for the men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma in the year 2000. Instead of the scheduled May 14th Mother’s Day, the Power Plant Men gathered in the First Baptist Church in Pawnee Oklahoma to say goodbye to their Power Plant Mother Saturday, May 6, 2000. That was the day that Juliene Alley, our Power Plant Mother was laid to rest.
You might think that a woman welder spending her time at a Power Plant welding boiler tubes in the dark insides of the boiler during overhaul, or crammed up inside a bowl mill where the air you breathe can be as hot as 160 degrees Fahrenheit would fit the image of a broad shouldered tough woman that you wouldn’t want to meet in an Alley at night. This in no way describes Juliene. If I had a picture of Juliene, you would see a woman of small stature with a slightly worn countenance and a humble but confident expression with a slight smile that had been etched permanently into her face from years of being content with whatever lot in life she had been dealt.
I am not able to say what her life was like before she arrived at the Power Plant in 1985 one week before her 34th birthday. I know she had one son named Joseph Alley and she had been married to a man named Red. For me, her life began when I first met her at the tool room waiting to get a tool from Bud Schoonover. She was being treated with extra care by her welding crew. They were very protective of her at first. My first impression was that she was kind and soft spoken.
I didn’t work around Juliene for quite a while. I don’t even remember if she had worked her way through the Labor Crew as we were required when I hired on at the plant. I worked with Juliene only after the last downsizing when we were on the same cross-functional team in 1994. By that time, the welders referred to Juliene as their “Mom”.
I never heard an unkind word come from Juliene. It may have happened immediately following a Power Plant Joke had been played on her, but since it never would have occurred to me to play a joke on her, I only ever heard kind words from Juliene. I’m sure her son Joe could tell us more about that. Juliene spent a lot of time working with Ed Shiever. They were about the same height and it seemed to me that the two of them were paired often to work the same jobs.
The title “Mom” wasn’t given to her as a ceremonial title just because of her gender. When I watched Juliene with the welders, I could see and hear that she treated each one of the welders as if she was really and truly their Mother. I have heard her scold them, put them in their places, and even calm them down when they needed to be put in “time out”.
Juliene did not die unexpectedly. She died from a failing liver that lasted over many months. It seems to me that her son Joe married his sweetheart Shauna a little earlier than intended so that it was in time for his Mother to attend the wedding in September 1999, eight months before she passed away. The last time I talked with Juliene was when someone at the plant had called her in the hospital in Oklahoma City from the tool room telephone. When I walked in the tool room to get a part, someone asked me if I wanted to speak with Juliene.
When I talked to her, I could tell that she was trying to be pleasant in spite of the knowledge that she only had about a week or two left. I told her I would be praying for her. She asked me if I knew where she could find a new liver. I think I said something like, “I don’t have a spare one myself, but these machinists here are pretty good, maybe we can have one of them whip one up real quick.”
I have mentioned one of Juliene’s sons, Joe. I have also mentioned Ed Shiever, who was a Power Plant Son to Juliene. Here are some of Juliene’s other Power Plant children:
With Ed Shiever, that makes over a dozen Power Plant Sons. I’m sure there are others. (If any others would like to be added, let me know, and if I have your pictures, I’ll post them here).
I attended Juliene’s funeral ceremony at the First Baptist Church in Pawnee on May 6, 2000. The church was crowded that day with Power Plant Men. Some had come from other Power Plants in the state to say goodbye to the Power Plant Mom we had all come to love. Her Power Plant Sons stood up front and said their departing words to Juliene and to share their memories.
I have said in one of my early Power Plant Posts that each time a True Power Plant Man or Woman left the Power Plant that the character of the Power Plant would change. The gift that Juliene Alley gave to the maintenance shop for many years was one of calm and civility. I watched the welders over the years, and some of them began their Power Plant career with a less than “savory” attitude about life. Over the years, I think the affect of having Juliene constantly in their lives tamed the welding shop to mold them into the respectable, caring, fine Power Plant Men that they became. When Juliene left us that day at the Church, she left her character behind in her Power Plant Sons.
In memory of their Power Plant Mother, no character was lost from the Power Plant the day Juliene departed to tend to other pastures. Eight months to the day of Juliene’s death on January 3, 2001, Joseph Edward Alley, her son, joined the ranks of Power Plant Men as he came to work at the Power Plant. The joy of having the actual son of Juliene working in the plant was a reflection of how much we all loved his Mother.
As you can see, Juliene’s family continues to grow. Tomorrow we will be celebrating Mother’s Day. Today, on Saturday, I remember back to Saturday May 6, 2000. The day we celebrated our Power Plant Mother’s Day a week early.
I wonder if Kent Norris felt proud when his boss Wayne Beasley told him that he was being assigned to manage the eight Power Plant Men that were coming to Corporate Headquarters for the next 10 weeks to help prepare for the transition to SAP. I’m sure he had no idea what he was signing up to do. For the next 12 weeks, Kent bravely endured one torture after the other.
Kent Norris was a young Corporate Executive working for the Electric Company in Central Oklahoma when the Power Plant Men showed up at his doorstep August 6, 1996. I wish I had a picture of Kent (Kent… I know you read this blog… if you send me your picture, I’ll add it to this post), because then you could see right away that he would be the perfect person for playing jokes. Just like Gene Day back at the Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked.
See, you can tell by Gene Day’s expression that this guy was just right for Power Plant Jokes. Kent Norris was much like Gene in this respect, and the best part was that he was young and wasn’t from a plant, so he had never experienced the Power Plant Lifestyle of perpetual joke playing (see the post “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“).
At the plant, Power Plant jokes are such a way of life that they include a section on the timecard to enter the number of Power Plant Jokes performed during the day, along with how many were successfully implemented. This was used to create a PPJ (for Power Plant Joke) Quotient that would go on your performance appraisal each year. That way you could set your stretch goals for the following year.
I explained last week why the eight of us were at Corporate Headquarters in the post: “Do Power Plant Men and Corporate Headquarters Mix?” so I won’t go into that much here other than to say that we were working for 10 weeks preparing the Inventory module in SAP so that our company would be prepared to go live with SAP on January 1, 1997. SAP is an ERP or Enterprise Resource Planning System.
Once all 9 of us were sitting in one cube, (eight Power Plant Men, and one young Corporate Executive, Kent Norris), that was when the opportunity for Power Plant Jokes began to take shape. Kent sat at the table in the middle of the cube next to the telephone.
Most of the Power Plant Men had their backs to each other as they all faced the edge of the cube. This way, a person walking into the cube could easily see the computer monitors. I sat on the end of a table at the end of the elongated cube where I could watch everyone and no one could see my monitor (and incidentally, I had a great view of the outside world).
At first we began our harassm….uh… I mean… jokes…. on Kent by easing him into it with very simple things… When he would step out of his cube, we would do little things like put water in his pen cap so that when he went to write something down and removed the cap, water would spill on him.
Other minor pranks were things like, unplugging the keyboard and mouse from the computer so that Kent would think that his computer had locked up. He tried rebooting his computer and for five minutes couldn’t figure out how to fix his computer until he found that the mouse and keyboard were unplugged, at which point, several muffled chuckles could be heard emanating from the far corners of the cube… Not from me, because I had learned the fine art of keeping a straight face in the midst of a hilarious power plant joke — after years of training.
Kent was so good at having jokes played on him that I think he enjoyed them as much as we did. He would respond with phrases like “You guys!!! Geez!” The Power Plant Men were so fast at implementing jokes on the fly that all Kent had to do was turn around to talk to someone that had come to ask a question and all the wheels on his chair would be removed and hidden in various locations throughout the cube.
Ken Scott was the Supervisor of Maintenance at the Seminole Plant, who I had worked with at our plant since I first showed up as a new summer help. He knew I was a trouble causer from day one. I wondered how he was going to take our constant jokes with Kent, but he helped out with the rest of us, and when Kent would run off to tell his friend Rita Wing (I think that was her name) about a new joke we had just played on him, Ken Scott would break out of his straight “uninterested” expression into a big smile and laugh out loud.
Mike Gibbs and I would evaluate the day’s jokes on the way home each day. We were carpooling from Stillwater.
The jokes became more elaborate over time, and I was reaching out to others beyond our cube to help out. At the time, we were using Windows 3.2 which had small program called “Windows Popup” (I believe the file name was popup.exe). It was sort of an old version of IMing someone before chatting was really common. I taught our team how to use it, so that we could pop up messages on each other’s computers to coordinate our jokes while we were doing our work without having to even look at each other.
Popup means so many things now that we all use Internet Browsers. “Windows Popup” allowed you to locate someone logged into the network, and pop a message right up in the middle of their screen. It would include the logon name of the person popping it up. My logon name on the computer system was BREAZIKJ. The popup message would say Message from BREAZIKJ in the title bar, and it would display the message. Here is an example I found on Google Images:
I had noticed that Kent often talked to the admin for Dennis Dunkelgod, a manager over the Telecommunications team.
I had worked with Dennis a couple of times running telephone cable at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we needed to install the computer network. I sent a Popup message to his admin asking her if she would help us play a joke on Kent. The message was something like this…. “We are going to play a joke on Kent Norris and were wondering if you would like to help us out.”
The young lady admin didn’t know what to think when this message popped up in the middle of her computer screen, though she knew where it came from because our cube was just across the aisle from her. She took a print screen of the message and gave it to Dennis.
Dennis, not knowing the ways of Power Plant Men didn’t know what I meant by “joke” and thought we might be planning something inappropriate. So he came to our cube and asked who was this person BREAZIKJ. I told him I was Kevin. He asked me if I had sent that message. I told him that I had sent it. (In trouble again… as usual). As Dennis was replying Kent Norris walked into the cube and saw Dennis dressing me down. He was saying that things like this did not belong in the workplace and he didn’t want to hear about this again! I replied, “all right.”
Dennis left the cube, and Kent asked what was going on, so I said, “We were planning on playing a joke on you, and so I asked the admin sitting over there if she would like to help us out and it upset Dennis.” Kent knew that Dennis was just looking out for him, so he explained that to us that Dennis misunderstood our intention.
One joke I played on Kent was this… Since he always answered the phone in our cube, I found a way to connect to a modem on the mainframe and dial out of the company (thanks Craig Henry for the tip), and then dial back in again and ring a phone…. So, I would wait until Kent hung up from the phone, which was just one second after he would say “Toodles” (which was Kent’s way of saying goodbye), then I would ring the phone and hang it back up.
Kent would answer the phone with his regular telephone answering phrase that I don’t quite remember, but it was something like, “Kent Norris, how may I help you?” only more interesting than that. When he answered the phone the first time, he was surprised to find that no one was on the phone. He hung it up and said, “That’s odd.” Then throughout the week, at various times, just as Kent hung up the phone from a conversation, I would ring his phone again.
Kent began troubleshooting it… he noticed that the ring indicated that it was an outside number calling, but it seemed like the phone was malfunctioning, so he created a trouble ticket to have someone look into it. Of course, the phone was working fine.
One day, Toby O’Brien came to my cube to ask me if I could tell him how I would do a root cause analysis on a particular accident. Toby was working for the safety department at the time.
I was showing him on the computer how I would make a hierarchy of causes and how each cause could be caused by something else, making something that looks like an organizational chart of causes. While I was talking to him, Toby was looking over my shoulder at the computer screen. Kent was talking on the phone… As I was talking to Toby, I was also listening to Kent’s conversation and I could tell he was wrapping it up, and I wanted to ring the phone.
So, as I continued talking along with Toby, I opened up the program I had configured to ring the phone and had it all ready to click the button when Kent said “Toodles”. I could tell that Toby was a little confused by my talking to him while I was opening another program and acting oblivious to it. Still explaining to Toby as if nothing was happening I hit the call button just as Kent hung up the phone, and it immediately rang. As Kent picked it up, I hung up and closed the program. Kent said, “Hello this is Kent Norris….. Damn! Kevin!” as he slammed the receiver back down on the phone. For some reason Kent thought I was doing something, though, he couldn’t figure out what. I just gave him a confused look.
At this point I heard a chuckle from Toby, he had a grin much like his picture above. I couldn’t hold it in much longer as my stomach was beginning to quiver and my body was shaking. So I slunk down in my chair so Kent couldn’t see the smile on my face and put my hand over my eyes to try and concentrate on making a straight face again. I squeaked out “…and that’s how I would do the root cause analysis on that accident.”
The climax of the Telephone joke was when one day, I set the program up for redial and left to go to the bathroom. The phone kept calling Kent once every minute. When I returned to the cube, Kent said, “Kevin! Stop ringing my phone!” I said, “I just went to the bathroom! How could I be ringing your phone?” At that point the phone rang and Kent said, “Pick it up!” I picked it up and listened, and said, “There’s nobody there. But you can’t blame me for that.” Then I returned to my computer and turned off the program and didn’t call him anymore after that.
The most elaborate joke played on Kent began when one day Kent made the statement that he had never been to a Power Plant and no desire in the world to ever visit a Power Plant! I think someone had asked him if he had seen the control room at one of the plants and that was his response. So, when an opening for an operator came up at our plant, we told Kent that we had sent in his application for the Operator job at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
Kent didn’t believe us of course, he thought this was just another little joke we were playing. We told him that we put all the right things in the application so that he was sure to get the job. Even though he would tell us that he didn’t believe us, we could see the small hint of doubt on his face, which made it a successful small joke… but this was only the beginning.
A couple of weeks later, Kent received word that since all the engineers were up at our plant in North Central Oklahoma they were going to hold their monthly safety meeting there and Kent and Rita were going to have to drive up to the plant to attend. Which meant, Kent didn’t have a choice, he was going to have to visit the plant after all. What Kent didn’t know was that his boss Wayne Beasley had been updated by Ken Scott about what we had told Kent about applying him for the operations job at the plant.
We told Kent that the real reason Wayne was having the meeting at the plant was so that Kent would be able to have his interview for the operations job, because they had accepted his application. Of course… again… he thought we were just kidding him since he said he had no desire to even visit a plant in his life.
Using Windows Popup (since IM wasn’t around yet), I sent messages to Denise Anson, the receptionist at the plant telling her about our plan with Kent. When Kent and Rita drove up to the main gate at the plant and said that it was Kent Norris and Rita Wing from Corporate Headquarters, Denise replied with, “Oh yes. Kent Norris. You have an interview for the operator position.” Kent said something like, “No, I’m just going to a safety meeting.” At this point, he couldn’t believe that the joke had actually reached the plant.
Denise messaged me using Windows Popup that he had just entered the gate…. I sent a popup to Ron Madron, who was going to ride up in the elevator with him letting him know that Kent was on his way to the parking lot…. When Kent and Rita entered the building and stood at the elevator, Ron Madron entered from the Maintenance Shop and entered the elevator with Kent and Rita. Ron asked who they were and when Kent told Ron who he was, Ron replied with “Oh! You’re the new operator! Good to meet you!” Kent could not believe that we had involved yet another person in our joke…
Ken Scott told me that he had talked to Wayne Beasley, Kent’s manager who was holding the safety meeting. Here is his LinkedIn picture:
Wayne had told Ken that he was going to make an announcement during the Safety Meeting that Kent Norris was going to soon begin working at the plant as their new operator. I messaged to Denise to ask her where Bill Green, the Plant Manager was because I wanted to fill him in on the plan. Denise told me he was in Wayne Beasley’s Safety Meeting.
I asked her if she could go get him out of the meeting because I needed to talk to him right away. So, she went and interrupted the safety meeting to tell Bill that I was on the phone and needed to talk to him. When Bill answered, I told him about the elaborate joke we had been playing on Kent Norris and how Wayne Beasley was going to announce in the meeting that Kent Norris was going to become an operator at the plant. Bill said thanks for letting him know because if he didn’t know it was a joke, he might have been upset if Wayne said that without him knowing it was coming…..
So, here is what happened in the safety meeting….. As the meeting was coming to a close, Bill Green, the Plant Manager, stood up and said, “We would all like to welcome Kent Norris to our plant and hope that he will enjoy coming to work for us as an operator.” — The perfect execution of a power plant joke after weeks of preparation, it was executed flawlessly.
Later that afternoon when Kent came back to our cube at Corporate Headquarters, he said that was the greatest joke ever! He couldn’t believe how we had everyone involved up to the plant manager. We were all glad that it went off without a hitch. We were also glad that Kent had enjoyed it so much. He said that it wasn’t until he walked in the control room and they didn’t know who he was that he felt sure that he really wasn’t going to be an operator at the plant.
The joke where I laughed the hardest was during the last week working at Corporate Headquarters. Wayne Beasley had come back from our plant to work where he normally worked, and he wanted to take our team out to lunch with Kent to congratulate us for doing such a good job. So, they picked a Mexican restaurant in Bricktown just east of downtown Oklahoma City. This restaurant was chosen specifically because it offered a great opportunity for a joke to be played on Kent.
When we walked into the restaurant, Doyle Fullen, the Plant foreman and electrician from Muskogee told the waiter that it was Kent Norris’s birthday. He told them that he was very shy and would deny that it was his birthday, but we were all bringing him out to lunch because we were celebrating it. So, toward the end of the meal, out came the group of waiters singing Felice Navidad carrying a huge Sombrero. Which they placed on Kent’s head!
We all sang Felice Navidad at the top of our lungs and clapped and laughed. I laughed so hard at Kent’s culmination of Power Plant Jokes! Rarely in my life have I laughed so hard as Kent stood there under this huge sombrero looking humiliated and at the same time proud to be so well loved by the Power Plant Men!
The week ended on Friday afternoon around 3pm, as each of us started leaving one at a time to drive back home for the last time. Doyle and Bob Christy left first because they had the farthest to drive. the rest of us left some time later. Each saying goodbye to Kent a couple at a time…. until Kent was left sitting in the bullpen cube all by himself. Thinking…. “I’m finally rid of these bozos!”
Unknown to Kent, the majority of us didn’t exactly leave the building… instead we each went into the bathroom where I was the last to enter….. I carried a bag that was full of 12 cans of various colors of Silly String:
Once everyone was ready, we snuck up to the side of the cube where we could hear Kent typing on a computer and with all 12 cans the six of us sprayed silly string over the cube totally covering Kent in Silly String. That was our last goodbye. We couldn’t leave without one more Power Plant Man Joke!
A week or two after I returned to the plant, I received the following letter through Intra-Company mail:
For years after, and up to today, I consider Kent Norris a dear friend. One day when I was at the Stillwater Public Library during their yearly book sale, I found a book that I just had to buy for Kent. It was perfect! I sent it by intra-company mail. Kent thanked me for it…. I figured it would remind him of the time he spent trying to Corral a passel of Power Plant Men! Oh… here is a picture of the book:
I began writing this Power Plant blog on January 1, 2012. The reason I did was because the first Power Plant Man I had met at the plant my first day on the job was Sonny Karcher and he had recently died. I had always led Sonny to believe that someday I would be a writer and I would write stories about the Power Plant Men.
When Sonny died on November 11, 2011, and Saint Peter gladly welcomed him through the Pearly Gates (as they needed someone special to mow the grass on the green pastures), Sonny realized that I had never really intended to set the wonderful stories of great heroes of Power Plant Fame down on paper.
Sonny being Sonny, made sure to send messengers (of sorts) to me reminding me of the commitment I had made to him many years earlier (in 1979) to spread the Wisdom of Power Plant Men to the rest of the world. What could I say? I had told him when he asked if I was going to write about the Power Plant Men that “maybe…. I hadn’t thought about it…” I knew that was just as good as a commitment to Sonny.
My very first Power Plant Post was about Sonny and how that first day on the job as a summer help opened up a whole new world to me full of wonders that some take for granted in the Power Plant Kingdom (see the Post “In Memory of Sonny Karcher – Power Plant Man“).
During the very first job I ever did with Sonny and Larry Riley, I went to the tool room to obtain a list of tools that to me sounded like the first of many Power Plant Man jokes that were to be played on me… As it turned out… there really was a tool called a “Come-along” and a soft choker and 3/4 box ends (who would’ve thunk it?).
When I went to the tool room to ask for these tools, as I walked up to the entrance I came face-to-face with a tall bear of a man. He had a grin on his face as he stood there at the gate to the tool room. I would say he was a big man… bigger than Daniel Boone, who was also said to have been a big man (according to the song about him).
Bud Schoonover was his name. When I asked him for the tools waiting for the joke to begin, he handed me each tool one-by-one as I asked for them. As I left the gate carrying a load of tools in my arm I said, “Thanks Bud.” He grinned back at me as if he knew….. I wasn’t sure exactly what he knew, but he looked at me as if he did anyway.
That first encounter with Bud may have seemed relatively insignificant, but I have always remembered that moment as it is etched firmly in my mind. I didn’t know it at the time that over the years Bud and I were going to become great friends.
I suppose that some day when I’m old (oh! I’m almost there now!), and I can’t remember what stories I have already told to my grandchildren, if I ever have any, or to the person standing behind me in the line at the grocery store, I will tell them over and over again about the first time I ever met Bud Schoonover. I will tell them that story as an introduction to all the other stories about Bud that I love to tell.
In past Power Plant Posts about Bud Schoonover, I have often said that there was something about Bud that reminded me of Aunt Esther on the TV Show, Sanford and Son, only a lot bigger, whiter and more male.
The reason was that Aunt Ester had the same squint as Bud, and she would protrude her chin out the same way as Bud when he was telling you something important.
Tonight when I was eating dinner with my parents at the Olive Garden in Round Rock Texas, I asked them “Do you remember Bud Schoonover?” My dad immediately said, “Yeah! I remember Bud Schoonover!” Not that he had ever met Bud in person… He had only heard about him off and on for the last 36 years. Everyone in my family knew Bud Schoonover.
Tonight I told my parents that Bud Schoonover died the Wednesday before last on May 27 (2015). They were surprised to hear that. My mom said, “How old was he?” (a common question asked by older people… I have found).
I had always talked about Bud as he was when I knew him, which made him seem timelessly younger. I told them he was 76. “Oh. He was young” answered my 80 year old dad. “Yeah Dad… He was.” I responded.
I have written many posts where I talked about Bud Schoonover these past 3 1/2 years. A couple were pretty much solely dedicated to spreading Bud’s special Wisdom about the rest of the world… as Sonny Karcher insists to this day… My first post about Bud is called “Carpooling with Bud Schoonover“. This is one of the first posts I wrote after talking about Sonny Karcher and Larry Riley, as Bud Schoonover has always been one of my favorite Power Plant Men of all time.
Last September I wrote a post called “Elvin Power Plant Tool Room Adventures With Bud“. This post relays a number of my favorite stories about Bud. The most endearing story is the one where Bud would never let you check out a tool or supply if it was the last one left. It would crack me up the entire day when I would go to the tool room to get some supply only to have Bud tell me that he couldn’t let me have it because he only had one left.
As a new 18 year old summer help in 1979, Bud Schoonover offered me some advice that I decided to take. As I was sweeping the floor of the Maintenance Shop near the tool room one day, Bud waved me over, and he said, “Let me tell you something.” “What is it?” I asked. He said, “Maybe it’s not such a good idea to wear a shirt that says ‘Kiss Me I’m Left Handed’ at a plant that’s just about made up of all guys (my sister had bought that shirt for me). I decided that maybe he was right about that. I couldn’t get away with it the way that Betty White (I think that was her name), another warehouse worker could when she wore the shirt that said, “Eat Your Heart Out! I’m married!” That was Bud… looking out for me right from the start.
I mentioned earlier that Bud and I were destined to become good friends, and we did just that. For three years from May 1986 to May 1989 we carpooled together with Dick Dale and Jim Heflin. The Carpooling adventures came from the 750 round trips Bud Schoonover, Jim and Richard and I took to and from the Power Plant each morning.
Each day carpooling with Bud was special to me. Three years may not seem like a long time in a person’s life, but we actually drove together around 750 days in those three years. Each day. Four larger men all crammed into one car. My poor Honda Civic could hardly move when the four of us were in the car. My gas mileage went from 40 miles per gallon down to 30 with all of us in the car. — It’s true. A 1982 Honda Civic 1300 would go 40 miles on a gallon of gas!
750 days of talking to Bud Schoonover, Dick Dale and Jim Heflin (well, Jim left after two years to try his luck somewhere else). Bud, Jim, Richard (I always liked calling Dick Dale, “Richard” though everyone else called him Dick) were the Dynamic Trio. The three of them were the best of friends. Each day as they drove to work I felt like I was a fifth (or a fourth) wheel invited to a family get together. You couldn’t find three brothers closer than Bud Schoonover, Dick Dale and Jim Heflin. They had carpooled together before I showed up in 1986.
I rarely think of any of these three men without thinking about the other two. I picture them together all climbing out of my Honda Civic in the parking lot at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma after we had driven the 20 miles from Ponca City to the plant all crammed in my car. It always reminded me of one of those circus cars that pulls into the tent during the show and a bunch of people come pouring out and you wonder how did all those big guys fit in that little car.
Last year I wrote a post about Dick Dale (see the post “Dick Dale and the Power Plant Printer Romance“). that post begins with this sentence…. “When I first moved to Ponca City I carpooled to the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma with Dick Dale, Jim Heflin and Bud Schoonover.” I wonder how many times my parents and my children (and my coworkers) have heard me begin a story with that sentence….
My daughter thought for many years that the one year in 1993 at the Christmas Party in Ponca City when Bud Schoonover dressed up as Santa Claus, that this Santa was the real one! She told me on the way back home to Stillwater that she could look in Santa’s (Bud’s) eyes and tell that this Santa was the “Real Santa Claus!” She was always so happy to have actually met the real one when everyone else just met Mall Santas.
In actuality, Bud was so shy when the children came up to sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas that he could only smile and look down at them with tears welling up in his eyes. I remember when he looked over at me standing by as he was listening to my daughter. He had nothing but love in his eyes.
In the story about the Printer Romance I mentioned that Dick Dale died on Christmas Day in the year 2008.
Now I am writing a post about the second person of the Dynamic Trio that has finally found their peace and are once again joined together as family. Richard and Bud I know you are together again. I know because today the two of you asked me to look for Jim Heflin, the third brother in your Power Plant Family.
So, before I sat down to write this post this evening, I opened Facebook at Bud’s and Richard’s urging and searched for Jim Heflin. I don’t know how many there were, but there were a lot of Jim Heflins. I didn’t know what Jim would look like since I hadn’t seen him for the past 27 years. After scrolling down a few pages of Jim Heflins, one person caught my eye…. Could this be Jim?
One way to find out…. I looked at Jim’s friends, and sure enough….. There was Brenda (Bulldog) Heflin. This was my long lost friend. The last of the Dynamic Trio. Still alive and still with the same eyes…..
You see… over the past years, I have written stories about Jim Heflin too…. See the post “Power Plant Adventures with Jim Heflin” I have described Jim as giving you the impression of a friendly Hound Dog….
Well, here is the Facebook picture of the Jim Heflin I found tonight. I know it’s him. He has the same eyes that used to roll around when he would walk up to me to pat me on the back and tell me some words of wisdom….
I have missed my friend Jim Heflin, along with Bud and Richard until today. Now I feel like I have them back again.
Why did Richard and Bud want me to find Jim? They wanted me to tell Jim that they are back together again after all these years. I think they also wanted me to reach out to Jim for another reason as well…. Well… I’ll see about that…. How about it Jim?
I sent Jim a Friend request. That sounds real funny to me. To send a “Friend Request” to someone that I have held close to my heart since the first day I met him in May 1980.
Maybe some day Jim and I will be up there with Richard and Bud and we can go for a ride together….. I can see us now all crammed in that Fiery Chariot. Bud telling us about the weather report…. “Sunny”… of course…. Jim staring out the window up at the sun trying to pull up a sneeze (as Jim would sneeze in sunlight some times)… Richard and I rolling our eyes at each other as the Chariot comes to a halt in the middle of the stars because some school bus full of little angels has stopped and put out the Stop Sign three clouds over…. — Sonny Karcher, out in the Green Pastures on his tractor mowing the grass smiling at me for finally writing these stories…
From now on, I will keep to the straight and narrow so that one day I can be up there with my friends. All the True Power Plant Men that have gone before me. For now, I will just remember them….
Let me just end by saying, “Way to go Bud! I Love You Man!”
One thing I learned while working with Power Plant Men is always expect to be surprised. I just didn’t quite expect one September morning in 1996 to have a Power Plant Engineer sit down next to me and tell me about the day when he decided to brutally murder his wife. The eight Power Plant men sitting in a circle with their backs to each other working on computers all turned their chairs around and listened intently as Mark Romano, a Power Plant Engineer poured out his soul.
I had first met Mark Romano five years earlier at the Muskogee Power Plant when I went there for three days to be trained on how to troubleshoot the telephone system we used at the Power Plants. It was called a ROLM system. I gathered that Mark had coordinated the training and was sitting through the class as well. The name of the course was “Moves and Changes”. What a great name for a course on how to work on a telephone system.
Mark was a clean cut engineer from the power plant in Mustang Oklahoma. He had just been hired by the Electric Company and was the type of person that you immediately liked because he seemed to have a confident stature and smile. The look in Mark’s eyes was a little wild as if he was mischievous, which also made him an instant candidate to become a perfectly True Power Plant Man. I didn’t know at the time that Mark had been in the Marine Corps.
The day that Mark decided to reveal his deep dark secret he was the coordinator of the SAP project the 8 Power Plant Men were working on at Corporate Headquarters. To learn more about that project see the post: “Do Power Plant Men and Corporate Headquarters Mix?”
It was clear when Mark entered our over-sized cubicle that day that it was specifically because he had something on his mind that he wanted to share. Even though he began telling his story directly to me, after the rest of the Power Plant Men had turned their chairs and were sitting there in silence with their jaws dropped and their mouths open in astonishment, Mark stood in the middle of a circle sharing his story with all of us.
The story began ten years earlier when Mark was a U.S. Marine. He was on an extended mission in Central America on some covert missions. I figured it had something to do with Oliver North and El Salvador, but Mark didn’t go into that much detail about the actual mission. He just mentioned that he had been out of pocket for some time while he was away on this particular tour of duty.
While sitting on the military plane flying home to Tinker Air Force Base in Midwest City, a suburb of Oklahoma City, he was anxious to finally see his wife again. He hadn’t seen her for a long time and was looking forward to coming back home. The anticipation of returning home grew the closer he came to his destination.
As Mark disembarked from the aircraft families of Marines poured out onto the landing field to greet their Heroes who had put their lives on the line and their families on hold while protecting and serving their country. Wives and children were hugging the Marine soldiers as Mark walked through the crowd looking around frantically for his wife. He was searching for his wife who was not there.
I don’t remember the details of the story at this point, but I believe that Mark took a cab or a friend drove him to his home in Oklahoma City. When he arrived home he met his wife at the door that told him that she had basically left him. She had found someone else and Mark was no longer welcome in his own home.
I think at this point Mark went to temporarily stay at another soldier’s home while he worked out what exactly he was going to do with his life. He didn’t really come back to a job waiting for him. He had always been a Marine. Mark has served his country in a covert war in a distant country that didn’t exactly measure up to Mark’s idea of “defending America from the Halls of Montezuma to the Shore of Tripoli” even though the “Halls of Montezuma” may not have been too far away from where Mark had been deployed.
Out of a job, a wife that had waited until he was on the front doorstep of his house to tell him that she had left him, and no where to go, Mark began to spiral down quickly. The first stage of grief is denial. Mark could not believe this was happening. After serving his country, he comes home and finds that his wife has kicked him out of his own home. “How can something like this be happening? Just fall asleep on this couch and maybe when I wake up, it will all turn out to be a big mistake.”
The second stage of grief is Anger. This is a necessary stage in order to go through the process of grieving. Sometimes we can process our anger quickly and move onto the next stage of grief toward healing. Other times, Anger can become overwhelming. Feuds can begin. Wars between nations. Husbands can murder wives. An all consuming hatred can take hold which leads only to death.
This was where Mark’s grief had left him as he sat on the couch at his friends house. He had nothing left in the world. Nothing but Anger. Sitting there staring at the wall of the apartment while his friend was at work, a plan began to take hold in Mark’s mind. The plan centered around one thing… Revenge. Complete and total annihilation. Murder and Suicide.
As if on auto-pilot Mark waited until the opportune time when his friend was gone. Then he gathered his equipment, put on his khaki’s and put his assault rifle in his car. He had planned his route. He was driving to the neighborhood just down the street from his house, where he was going to park the car. Then he was going to proceed through the neighbor’s backyard and attack from the back door. He was going to kill his wife and then himself. He was on the last mission of his life.
With all of his equipment ready, his car parked, ready to begin his assault, he stepped out of the car and onto the curb, ready to make his way across the backyard, suddenly he heard the quick burst of a siren from a police car and over a police car speaker a police man yelled, “Stop Right There!” Instantly because of his experience in the Marines, Mark ducked down behind a transformer box that was right next to him.
The Police were waiting for him! How could this have happened? He hadn’t told anyone about his plan. Maybe his friend had figured it out. However the Police had figured out his plan, they were there now 50 feet away in a police car. Mark decided that he would just have to go down right here. This was it. No one was going to take him alive.
A Policeman jumped out of the car, gun drawn… Mark prepared to leap up and begin shooting… In the next few seconds… Mark was laying behind the transformer dead. Pierced directly through the heart.
Just as Mark stood up to shoot the policemen, the officer ran around the car away from Mark. He ran up into a yard on the other side of the car where he confronted someone who had just come out of the house he was robbing. Mark quickly ducked back down behind the transformer.
The officer had not been confronting him at all. He was arresting someone who had been robbing a house. He hadn’t even seen Mark!
Mark sat crouched behind the transformer and the sudden realization that he had just come face-to-face with God became clear. Suddenly all the anger that had built up disappeared. God had stopped him in his tracks and instantly pierced his heart with Love.
Mark laid there as if dead for some time while the arresting officer drove away with his prisoner. When Mark finally stood up, he was no longer the Mark that had been alive the past 25 years. This was a new Mark. Some would use the phrase… Born Again.
In that one instance when Mark ducked back down behind the transformer, he relived the moment that Saul experienced on the road to Damascus. In a flash he had come face-to-face with Jesus Christ. The new Mark put his gear back in his car and drove back to the apartment and began to live his new life as if it was day one.
Sometimes it is when there is nothing left that you find everything.
Mark finished telling the Power Plant Men his story by saying that now he lives each day as if it is precious. He has been saved for some purpose. He lives with God in his heart. I think we were all turning blue because we had forgotten to breathe for the last five minutes of Mark’s life story. We finally all breathed a sigh of relief and felt the love that Mark had for each of us as he looked around the cube.
So, what did Mark do after he returned to the apartment back in 1986, ten years before he told us this story? He decided to enroll in college at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater Oklahoma, where I lived. He obtained a Mechanical Engineering degree and went to work in 1991 for the Electric Company at the plant in Mustang.
I wondered if he ever thought about the fact that he went to work for the same company that owned the transformer that Mark ducked down behind the day he fought his battle against God and Won.
A company engineer had decided one day years earlier while helping to plan a neighborhood that they needed to place a transformer right at this spot. We make decisions each day that have consequences that we never know. He never thought… “Yeah. Place the transformer right there. This will be needed some day by someone who needs to have a one-on-one with God who will convince him to be an Engineer for the very same company.
Mark has kept in touch with me through the years. He sent me an e-mail around 2004 when I was working at Dell telling me that he had decided to obtain his pilot’s license. He felt as if he should pilot an airplane. He was even thinking about leaving the electric company to become a full time pilot.
A few years later, he became an FAA Licensed Private Pilot. He sent me an e-mail that day letting me know. Mark is now listed in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airmen Certification Database and was recognized by the FAA on September 18, 2013 as a pilot that sets a positive example in the Aviation Business Gazette.
When Mark was telling us of his life and death experience, I was having flashbacks of a similar experience that had happened to me when I was in High School. I bring this up only to mention that when I had come to the point where I had lost everything in my life, even my own sanity, I came face-to-face with a friend who pulled me out of it in an instant. Only, it wasn’t Jesus Christ, as it was in Mark’s case. It was a friend of his. Saint Anthony.
Saint Anthony picked me up that one day when I was at the end of my rope, and since that time, I have felt the same joy in life that Mark experiences. I believe that “coincidence” is a word we use to explain things that seem too unlikely to happen on purpose. Some of us think that nothing is a coincidence. Everything that happens has a purpose.
Some may say it was a coincidence that the exact moment that Mark stepped out of the car and a policeman yelled “Stop Right There!” to someone else…. Yeah. I’m sure that happens all the time…
I didn’t wake up today knowing that I was going to write this story about Mark. Before last week’s post about my friend Bud Schoonover, who died the previous week, I had told two stories about our experience in Corporate Headquarters where Mark Romano had been our project manager. So, I thought, “Is there anything else about our time there that I could write about, and the story that Mark had told us had come to mind.
It was only at the end of the story that I thought about how Saint Anthony the “Finder of Lost Items” found me in the woods that winter day. Saint Anthony’s feast day is today… June 13.
I thought it was fitting that Mark Romano became a pilot. I think it has to do with his desire to be close to God. To be soaring like an eagle close to the “heavens”. Here is Mark’s LinkedIn photo:
My friends will tell you that I tend to not take things too seriously. It seems that the more serious the situation, the more I joke around about it. I know that this drives some people up the wall sometimes. Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, used to call me “rascal” and maybe that was because I was one. That was the way life seemed to be for the majority of the people at the Power Plant. One of the funniest days in my life happened when Corporate Headquarters learned a thing or two about not taking things too seriously.
Eight (or was it 9?) Power Plant Men had been assigned to work in Corporate Headquarters for a ten week period. I wrote about the reason for this in the post: “Do Power Plant Men and Corporate Headquarters Mix?” I also wrote a post about how the Power Plant Men played one joke after the other on Kent Norris the entire time. See the post: “Corporate Executive Kent Norris Meets Power Plant Men“. We know that the entire floor of corporate headquarters was kept in a slightly disturbed state as they were constantly hearing the “hee-hawing” coming from our over-sized cube where they had put us in a corner of the building hoping to isolate the ruckus we were making constantly.
We didn’t make enemies of our victi… uh.. I mean “our friends” when we played jokes. We tried to do them in such a way that they would appreciate the thought and ingenuity that went into each joke we played on them. On the other hand, passerby’s and those that worked within earshot had to endure the constant uproar of laughter. They were missing out on all the fun, and we were just being a bother.
I think that’s why we received the initial reaction we did when we arrived at an SAP banquet during the last week we were going to be at Corporate Headquarters. The banquet was being held in a banquet room in a hotel on the west side of Oklahoma City. We had all carpooled in a couple of cars and arrived at the same time.
When we walked into the banquet room, we could see right away that we didn’t fit in. No one had told us that we were supposed to wear a suit…. well, it wouldn’t have mattered if they had, we still would have arrived in our blue jeans and tee shirts. At least our clothes were clean. I didn’t have one coal dust stain on my entire shirt.
We were told where we were supposed to sit. The Power Plant Men were directed to a large circular table in the back middle of the room. We figured they didn’t want us close to podium in case someone was going to be taking pictures of the speakers. This was an appreciation lunch for the SAP project teams. We were only a small group compared to the rest of the room.
During the lunch, recognition was given to the different SAP teams. We were mentioned for having completed our tasks two weeks early and had been given additional work and had completed that as well. All together, we had rewritten over 140,000 warehouse part descriptions so they would fit in SAP and would be easily “searchable”. We stood up and bowed and everyone applauded.
I think up to that point, the rest of the room had thought that the people sitting at our table was going to be providing the entertainment and that we were all “in costume”. Once they realized that we were Power Plant Men, their gaze turned from “anticipation” to “curiosity”. When a bunch of Power Plant Men are all sitting at one table and there is food involved, we can become quite a spectacle.
After the lunch was over and recognition and awards were given, an interesting man stood up and started to speak. He seemed like a rather goofy person and while he spoke he kept playing with a paper cup. Popping it up in the air and catching it… or accidentally not catching it and having to go pick it up. I thought he was becoming rather annoying as he kept distracting us from his boring words of wisdom because he kept playing with this stupid paper cup.
After a minute, he mentioned that there are lots of things you can do with a paper cup to entertain yourself. You can pop it up in the air and try to catch it. You can turn it over on a desk and beat it like a drum. You can put in over your mouth and suck in to create a suction and walk around with the cup stuck to your face in order to impress your coworkers. You can talk into it and sound like Darth Vader. You can tie a string between two paper cups to make a telephone.
Ok. That was a little more interesting than the speech he had been making. I began formulating in my mind how I might play a trick on Gene Day using a paper cup telephone when I returned back at the plant.
I borrowed this picture from a fellow WordPress blogger: “The B.S. Report”
This person’s name turned out to be Stephen Kissell and he is a “motivational speaker”. I had heard about Motivational Speakers by watching Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live as the Motivator who lived in a van down by the river. See the following short YouTube loop for my conception of a Motivational Speaker:
for those who can’t view the video from the video above can click here: “Matt Foley Down by the River”
Anyway, Steve Kissell was dressed about the same way as Chris Farley in that skit. It was definitely mismatched clothing. I wondered if he lived in a van down by the river as well.
Then Stephen said that he needed some people from the audience to come up and help him with something. He had the names of some people he would like to help him. Obviously, someone had given these names to him in order to make the next “skit” he was going to perform turn out best. He called up three people, a couple of well dressed and prim and proper ladies and a man. They looked like they were the upper class stuck up types which, as it turned out was essential for this to play out properly.
Then Steve explained that in projects, in order to complete large task, you just have each person do smaller tasks, and when you put them all together, you can actually perform something great. So he asked each one to do one little task when he tapped on his paper cup.
I don’t remember the exact tasks, but they were simple like shrug your left shoulder, and then your right, or squat down and then stand back up. Little things like that.
Then after he had instructed each person what they should do, he tapped out a tune on the paper cup and they each performed their simple tasks over and over until he stopped.
After trying that a few times, he added other little tasks to each person one at a time. The result was that after a while he had each of them performing a real goofy dance that made them all look silly dressed up in their finest clothes dancing around like kids.
There was something so funny about the way Stephen Kissell had set this up that everyone was laughing their hearts out. The laughter was so thunderous that it sounded like one loud roar. I thought I was going to lose my lunch. I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe.
This guy who had stood up and begun by annoying his audience (which was my philosophy as well… See the post: “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“) had turned them into driveling piles of laughter after 10 minutes. Up to that point, I hadn’t laughed that hard since I had seen the movie “Gus” when I was a boy.
Ok. Here is a side story about the movie “Gus”.
In 1976, when I was 15 years old, my brother (who was 11) and I went to the movies to see a Disney movie called “Gus” about a donkey who can kick a football through the goal post and ends up on a football team. It starred Don Knotts and Tim Conway, two comedians who were masters of slap stick comedy. This was still back when the movie theaters were large and there was only one theater in the building. — Yeah. They would only show one movie at a time. Amazing. Huh?
Anyway, there is a scene in a grocery store where they are chasing the donkey down the aisles trying to catch him. The comedy had built up so much that by that point the entire audience of children were laughing so hard that the sound was deafening. You literally could not hear anything but a loud constant roar. I remember that I could hardly breathe I was laughing so hard.
I suppose it is a little like the Kennedy/Nixon debate… When you heard it on the radio, Nixon won the debate, but when you saw it on Television, Kennedy won the debate… I say that because fast forwarding 10 years, in 1986, I had the opportunity to watch Gus on TV. I couldn’t wait to relive the hilarious moment in the Grocery store.
When the moment finally arrived, it came and went and I didn’t really see much humor in it at all. It was just Don Knotts and Tim Conway fumbling around acting goofy. I couldn’t understand what had been so funny in the movie theater when the entire theater had erupted with such intense laughter. I guess you just had to be there in the movie theater at the time. Whatever it was didn’t translate to the TV.
I talked to my brother about it a few years later when he brought up the same topic. He said he had rented the movie Gus and had insisted that his four children sit and watch it all together as they ate popcorn. They all sat around and watched the movie and my brother Greg said, “it wasn’t funny at all.” He couldn’t figure it out.
End of Side Story
I heard that same statement a few years later when I had said something at Dell and my manager thought it was so funny that she went and repeated it to our director. When she did, she said it didn’t sound funny at all when she said it. The truth is, it’s not always what you are saying… it’s how you say it. The inflection in your voice and the expression on your face. Pausing at just the right time.
When we had all been sufficiently slain in the spirit of Stephen’s humor, and the banquet was over, we were all given a copy of Stephen’s book “Surviving Life With Laughter”.
We were also given a copy of a second Steve Kissell book:
In Steve Kissell’s books, he tells stories and jokes that you can use or modify to fit the type of job you may be in at the moment. This was something that Power Plant Men already knew how to do well, but always appreciated a good joke.
I found that Stephen Kissell is still out there after 19 years spreading good humor to the corporate world and the rest of humanity. If you’re in the need of a motivational speaker. You may consider looking up Stephen. Or…. you may find him living in a van down by the river!
As my readers know, I have written a number of posts about Power Plant Humor, See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“. Humor is the best motivator I have found to keep people on track and not get too carried away with details. I have learned this by working with the Power Plant Men over the years.
The most solid advise I remember from the “Pre-Cana” sessions (a program you have to go through in order to be married in the Catholic Church) we had with the priest when my wife and I were preparing to be married was “Always keep your sense of humor”. So, when the situation looks hopeless, and there doesn’t appear to be a viable solution available, that is the time to take a step back in your mind and look for the humor in the situation.
It has always been important that true Power Plant Men not play jokes on another person in a way that would end up hurting them. Whenever that would inadvertently happen, then a sincere apology would definitely have to follow and some sort of retribution. Usually, sharing your Squirrel Stew with them during lunch was an appropriate form of retribution for any joke gone awry.
Even though we played one joke after the other on Kent Norris, after 12 weeks of torment, he still remained friends with the Power Plant Men. I heard from him a week after we left when Kent sent a letter to me through intra-company mail. He returned my name tag to me…. I have kept this letter with the name tag since that day in 1996 as a reminder of the days we spent torturing Kent with humor:
When I think back about the Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with for the 20 years I spent working at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I still see them as they were back when I first knew them. I was able to see them come to work each day willing to give all they had in order to keep the plant running smoothly. I would find out sometimes that behind their stoic behavior of heroism was a person bearing enormous pain.
I will not go into the private lives of each of the Power Plant Men and the personal struggles in their lives beyond those that we all shared at the plant. Some were bearing such enormous pain that all the Power Plant Men and Women shared their pain. Others bore their pain in silence leaving the rest of us oblivious to the grief as they sat next to you in the truck or beside you tightening bolts, or checking electric circuits.
I remember a time when one of my best friends seemed to be acting short tempered for a while. I figured something was eating at him. Finally after almost a year he confided in me what had been going on in his personal life, and it broke my heart to think of the pain this person had been experiencing all along, while I had been annoyed at his quick temper.
It is an eye opening experience when the person I talked to every single day at work is being torn apart with worry and I didn’t even have a clue. Well, the clues were there only I was too blind to see.
I began this post on a rather ominous note because one of the great Power Plant Men of his day, Larry Riley, died this past Wednesday, June 24, 2015.
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my Power Plant Friend Bud Schoonover passing away. (See the post: “Dynamic Power Plant Trio — And Then There Was One“). I mentioned some of the special times we had while we carpooled back and forth to Ponca City, Oklahoma. I knew Bud was getting along in years, so when I heard about his death, I was not surprised. I immediately pictured him back together again with Richard Dale, our travelling companion.
On Wednesday night when I was contacted by a number of Power Plant Men and Women who all wanted me to know right away that Larry had passed away, I was suddenly hit with a wave of shock. I was overwhelmed with grief. I broke out in tears.
Larry had been important to me from the very first day I worked in the Power Plant. I worked with Larry and Sonny Karcher before I worked with anyone else. My original mentors have both passed away now.
Of the 183 Power Plant Stories I have written thus far, the story about Larry Riley was one of the first stories I couldn’t wait to tell others. You can read it here: “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“.
Through my first years at the Power Plant Larry was there looking out for me when he had no other reason to do so than that he cared for others. Some pseudo-Power Plant Men mocked him secretly for being a noble person. Others didn’t have a clue what lengths Larry went to help out a person in need.
Since Larry’s death I have heard a couple of stories that Power Plant Men wanted to share with me about how Larry helped them out when there was no where else to turn. Stories I heard for the first time. I encourage any Power Plant Men who knew Larry to leave a comment below about him.
Larry was one of those people who used to bear his pain in secret. He did the same thing with his love for others. I had mentioned in the post about the Genius of Larry Riley that “…he performed acts of greatness … with complete humility. I never saw a look of arrogance on Larry’s face. He never spoke down to you and he never bragged about anything.”
Though Larry did his best to conceal it, there was always a hidden sort of sadden about him. Since he had the wisdom and knowledge well beyond his years when he was only 24 years old, I figured he must have had a rough childhood that caused him to grow up quickly. He was humped over as if he carried a burden on his back. I thought maybe his sadness grew out of that experience. Of course, I was only guessing.
After I first posted the story about Larry Riley, I was told by a Power Plant Man that Larry had been forced to accept an early retirement because he had a drinking problem. The Plant Manager was kind enough to let him retire instead of outright firing him, which would have caused him to lose his retirement benefits.
When I heard that Larry was no longer at the plant and under what circumstances he left, my heart sank. The sadness that Larry Riley had been trying to hide all those years had finally caught up with him in a big way and his world came crashing down.
I know that I am more like an “armchair observer” in the life of Larry Riley. There were family members and friends that I’m sure were devastated by Larry’s downfall in a lot more ways than one. Where I sit back and idolize the Power Plant Men as heroes, others are down in the trenches coming face-to-face with whatever realities happen in their lives.
Where others may look at Larry as a failure for developing a drinking problem that brought him to his knees, True Power Plant Men know full well that Larry Riley has a noble soul. He has always been meant for greatness.
In the post about my last day on the Labor Crew, I wrote the following about Larry, who was my foreman while I was on the Labor Crew (see the post: “Last Days as a Power Plant Labor Crew Hand“): “…Most of all, I knew I was going to miss Larry Riley… Larry was a hero to me. I love him dearly and if I had ever had an older brother, I would have liked someone with the character and strength of Larry Riley. He remains in my prayers to this day.”
I know I am not the only person that remembers Larry the way I do. When Larry died this past Wednesday, as soon as the Power Plant Men found out, several of them sent me e-mails, and reached out to me on Facebook to let me know. I think some of them wanted me to share Larry’s greatness with the rest of the world through this post.
As I felt the outpouring of grief from the Power Plant Men, I was overwhelmed by their sorrow. I happened to be sitting alone in a hotel room in Detroit, Michigan when I first found out. My phone kept buzzing (as I had it on vibrate) as one-by-one Power Plant Men sent messages letting me know of Larry’s death. I could feel the sadness hanging over my phone like a fog.
As each message buzzed my phone, my sorrow over Larry’s death grew until I had to just sit on the corner of the bed and cry. I have never felt more sorrow over the death of a Power Plant Man than I did for Larry Riley.
As I pictured Bud Schoonover meeting up again with Richard Dale after Peter open the gate for him, I pictured Larry Riley somewhat differently. I envisioned him walking down a dirt road by himself.
In my mind this is what I saw:
As Larry walks away from me down the road humped over with bad posture, struggling to take each step, in pain from the cancer that killed him, seemingly alone, he pauses suddenly. From the distance in my vision, I can’t quite tell why. He turns to one side.
Almost falling over, as he walks like an old man to the edge of the road where the ditch is overgrown with weeds, he stumbles down into the brush. Thinking that Larry has had a mishap, I move closer.
Suddenly I see Larry re-emerge. This time standing more upright. Alongside Larry is another Power Plant Man. I recognize his gait, but his back is turned so I can’t tell for sure who he is. He is much bigger than Larry. Larry has his arm across the man’s back holding him up as the other Power Plant Man has his arm wrapped around Larry’s neck as Larry pulls him up onto the road.
The two continue walking down the road toward the sun rising on the horizon. The Saints Go Marching On.
This is the Larry Riley I knew.
His funeral service will be held on his 61st birthday, July 3, 2015.
I know that those who really knew Larry will take a moment of silence to remember him. Not for the sorrow that he felt through his life as I originally felt when I heard of his death, but take a moment of silence to remember a great man. One who secretly inspired others toward goodness. A man who went out of his way to lift up someone who had fallen along the side of the road. My personal hero: Larry Wayne Riley.
When I first became an electrician at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, my foreman Charles Foster and I would sit each day at lunch and talk about movies we had seen. We would go into detail explaining each scene to each other so that when I actually watched a movie that Charles had described, I felt as if I had seen it already. In the years that followed, after we had described to each other just about every movie we could remember, we moved on to playing games.
Sure, there were those jokes we would play now and then, but I’m not talking about those. This was something different. One of the games that we played was Chess.
I brought a computerized chessboard to work one day that had pieces on a board that you pressed down when you wanted to move a piece, then you moved it and pressed down on the square where you placed the piece in order for the board to keep track where all the pieces were on the board.
This chessboard had 8 levels of difficulty when you played against the computer. Charles, Terry Blevins, Scott Hubbard and I were not really the competitive type. We were more of the team player types. So, when we played, we played against the computer as a team.
We would set the level of difficulty to the highest level, then as a team, we would spend a long time analyzing our moves. Sometimes we would discuss making our next move over several days. Actually, at the highest level, the computer would at times take up to 7 hours to decide what move to make. — This was when computers were still relatively slow.
We figured out that at level 8, the chessboard would think of all the possibilities for the next 8 moves. Once we realized that, then we knew that we had to think 9 moves ahead in order to beat it. So, you could see how together we would try several strategies that would put us ahead after we had basically forced the computer to make 9 moves… It wasn’t easy, but by realizing what we were dealing with, we were able to beat the chess computer on the highest level.
The game where we beat the computer on the highest level took us over 3 months to play and 72 turns. The four of us had teamed up against the computer in order to beat it. I remember that I would wake up in the morning dreaming about that game of chess when we were playing it and I would be anxious to go into the electric shop to try out a move that had popped in my mind when I was in the shower.
Once we were able to beat the chess board we went on to other things.
Diana Brien (my first and only “Bucket Buddy”) and I would buy Crossword puzzle magazines and when we were in a spot where we were waiting for an operator to arrive, or for a pump to finish pumping, etc.
We would pull out the crossword puzzle magazine and start working on them. If we weren’t doing crossword puzzles, we were doing Word Searches, or Cryptograms… more on them in a moment.
This kept our mine sharp, and just as Fat Albert and Cosby Kids used to say, “If you’re not careful, you might learn something before you’re through.”
I had bought some Crossword puzzles that had other types of puzzles in them. Some were pretty straightforward like Cryptograms. That is where you have a phrase where each letter of the alphabet has been changed to another letter of the alphabet, and you have to figure out what it says. So, for instance, an “A” may have been changed to a “D” and a “B” to a “Z” etc. So, you end up with a sentence or two that looks like gibberish, but it actually means something once you solve the puzzle.
The cryptogram magazine I copied for the picture isn’t complete because of the green rectangle is blocking out part of it, but I can see that it says: “Everyone wants to “understand” art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? (Pablo Picasso).”
We were becoming expert cryptogram puzzle solvers, when one day we ran into a short cryptogram that didn’t have many words. We tried solving this cryptogram for almost a week. Scott Hubbard was getting frustrated with me, because I would never give up and look at the answer in the back of the book. So, after he became so fed up with me, he finally looked in the back of the book and wrote the answer in the puzzle. The answer was this: “Red breasted Robin, Harbinger of Spring”
Now… how is someone supposed to figure out a puzzle like that? I had figured on the “ing” in Spring and Harbinger but since Harbinger was barely in my vocabulary to begin with, I was never going to solve this one… I’ll have to admit.
Regardless, I was upset with Scott for looking at the answer in the back of the magazine, so I ripped out all the answers from the magazine and threw them in the dumpster so we would never be able to look at them again….. Still…. I would probably be trying to figure out “Red breasted Robin, Harbinger of Spring” to this day if Scott Hubbard hadn’t looked in the back of the book. I just felt like I wasn’t getting my money’s worth if we looked at the answers…. Yeah. all $3.95 worth (pretty cheap entertainment).
So, I have a side story to go along with working Cryptograms….
In my later life I changed jobs and went to work at Dell in Texas. (It just so happened that the Puzzle Books we would buy were usually “Dell” puzzle books…. totally unrelated to the Dell Computer company where I worked). That’s not really the important part of the side story, but I thought I would throw that in for good measure.
Every so often, our department would have an offsite where some team building events were held in order to… well… build teams.
One particular team building event was held in a park in Round Rock Texas where we were assigned to teams and each team was assigned to their own picnic table. When the game began we were each given a poster board with some phrase on it… and guess what? It was a cryptogram!
I was the only person on my team that knew how cryptograms worked, though most had seen them in the newspaper below the crossword puzzle, no one on our team had ever tried solving them. As a team, we were supposed to solve the puzzle. The quote was fairly long, which made it easy for someone who had been obsessed with cryptograms for years…. — Myself.
I took one look at the puzzle and said…. “That word right there is “that” and I wrote in the word “that”. Then I began filling in all the letters that had “T”, “H” and “A”. I quickly found a couple of “The”s which gave me the “E”, then I had one three letter word that began with an “A” and ended with an “E” that could only be the word “Are”. Which gave me the letter “R”. I could see that there were a couple of places that ended in “ing”, so I quickly filled those in, and as quickly as we could write all the letters into the puzzle we were done.
My director, Diane Keating, happened to be on my team. When I first pointed to the word “That” and said, “That is the word ‘that'”, she said, “Wait, how can you tell?” I said, “Trust me. I know Cryptograms.” When we had finished the puzzle within about a minute and a half, we called the person over to check it and she was amazed that we had solved the puzzle so quickly.
That is the end of the side story, except to say that I give credit to the games that Power Plant Men Play for teaching me the fine art of solving Cryptograms. Our team came in first place…. needless to say after solving three cryptograms in a row.
There were other more complicated but equally fun types of anagram/cryptogram combination puzzles that I worked when we had worked all the cryptogram puzzles in the Dell Variety Magazines. Eventually Charles Foster and I were looking for something different. That was when Charles ordered a subscription to a magazine called “GAMES”.
This was a monthly magazine that was full of all sorts of new games. Today, I understand that this magazine is more about the Video Games that are out than puzzle sort of games. Each month we would scour the pages of the Game magazine looking for puzzles to conquer. We worked on those for about a year.
At one point in my days as an electrician, I wrote a Battleship game for my Sharp Calculator that was a two player game. We each had a battleship in a 100 x 100 grid, which you could move around. It was sort of like the Battleship game where on the commercial they would say, “You Sunk My Battleship!” Only, our ships could move and we only had one.
Each turn when you would plug in the coordinates to shoot at the other person’s ship, it would only tell you how much you missed by. Then you could plot it on a graph paper and try to figure out where the other person’s ship was. Even though it could move. If you were close, then it would damage the other ship, and it would slow down so it couldn’t move as fast.
When the next person took their turn, they could see if their ship had been damaged or sunk, or even had become dead in the water….
The person was randomly assigned a home base at the beginning of the game and they could go there to repair their ship and be given more ammo in case they were running low. If they did this more than twice, then the other guy would know because the circles they would draw on their graph paper would keep intersecting at that one point.
Anyway…. that was the calculator game I made that I played with Terry Blevins for a while.
While other Power Plant Men were playing “Rope the Bull” with an Iron rendition of a bull welders had created, some of us in the electric shop were playing different kinds of games. Puzzles.
I think the reason that electricians like puzzles so much is because a lot of what they do from day-to-day is solve puzzles. When something isn’t functioning and the electrician has to figure out why, they usually have to follow through a bunch of steps in order to figure out what exactly went wrong. Solving Circuit problems are a lot like the puzzles we were playing.
Sometimes they are like “Word Searches” where you are looking for needles in the haystacks. Sometimes they are like Cryptograms where a circuit has been wired incorrectly and you have to figure out which wire is supposed to go where. Sometimes you get so frustrated that you just wish you could look in the back of the book at the answer page. In real life, you don’t always have an answer page exactly.
Some of us may think that you can find all you need to know in the Bible, but there are different kinds of “Bibles” for different kinds of jobs. In the Electric Shop we had the National Electric Code. We had the Master Blueprints that showed us how things were supposed to be wired up. Some times we just had to wing it and try putting words in crossword puzzle that we knew might not be the right ones, but they were the best we had at the time.
I’m just glad that I spent that time working puzzles with my friends at the Power Plant. If solving puzzles together helps build a team, then we had the best darn team around!
Because someone asked me about the game we played against the computer… Here is the play by play (for those who know how to read Chess Playing Geek Language):
I know I’m getting old when I pick up a small piece of paper and I am suddenly taken back 17 years to the day I pulled the small page from the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. Notepad sitting on the desk in the Electric Shop office. It was the day that I was finally able to come to the aid of a noble Power Plant Man that the plant generally referred to as “Stick”.
Gary McCain, or Stick, is a tall thin Power Plant Man (sort of like a stick) known for his intellect and knowledge of “Machine Language”. In this case, “Machine Language” refers to the ability to understand how machines work, not how to talk directly to computers using zeroes and ones.
Gary had just walked into the Electric Shop office at the power plant in North Central Oklahoma as lunch was ending. He was carrying a textbook, which seemed odd right off the bat. He explained that some of the machinists and mechanics had been sent to motor alignment school and they had been given this textbook in case they wanted to refer back to the material that was covered in the class.
Gary sat down next to me and set the book on the desk opening it to the page he had bookmarked (Yeah. We used to use books made out of paper, and we put pieces of paper between pages to bookmark the pages we wanted to remember… Bookmarking wasn’t something new with Internet browsers).
Gary (am I going to start all my paragraphs with the word “Gary”? Maybe the next paragraph, I’ll just say “That tall guy”) pointed to a formula on the page and asked me if it was possible to use the computer to make calculations that will help him align motors using this formula.
I told that tall guy (Gary) that we could use a program called “Excel” (from Microsoft) that could be used to solve problems just like that. So, I grabbed the small sheet of paper off of the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. notepad and wrote down the variables for the formula on one side, and the four formulas on the back side. Here is what I wrote:
Oh yeah. I think I ripped off the corner of the paper to use as a bookmark because I didn’t like the one Gary was using. It was too small.
I guess at this point I should stop and tell you what is meant by “motor alignment” and why machinists and mechanics are interested in this in the first place.
The alignment that is done with a motor is performed when you are putting a pump back in place or some other equipment like a gear box or fan shaft or… well… a lot of things. You have to make sure that the shaft on the motor is perfectly aligned with the pump otherwise it will quickly tear something up when you turn it on.
This picture shows how the motor is aligned up with the compressor so that the red coupling lines up perfectly. Once it is aligned the coupling can be bolted together to connect the motor to the pump.
Notice that the motor has bolts to mount it to the skid in the front and the back on both sides, as well as the pump. These are called “Feet”. Usually when you put the pump and the motor back in place, they don’t line up perfectly, so thin pieces of brass called “shims” are used to raise the various feet just the right amount so that the shaft on the motor and shaft on the pump are looking right at each other.
A special piece of equipment is used to check the alignment. It is called a “Dial Caliper” and it is mounted to the coupling on the motor and the pump with a magnet and it tests the alignment as it is rotated around.
I’m sorry if I’m boring those of you who don’t immediately see the beauty of Motor Alignment. Try pretending that the dial caliper is something invented by ancient aliens if you need to make this part of the post more interesting (actually, who needs ancient aliens when you have machinists?).
Gary told me that the company was looking into buying laser guided motor alignment machines for only $30,000 a piece. They would probably buy three of them that could be used between the four main plants. He said that he didn’t think we needed them if we could use these formulas to calculate exactly how to align the motors. This would save the company around $90,000 and at the same time show the mechanics the “joy of math”!
So, I made some notes on another page which simplified, (or maybe complicated) the formulas further. Then I sat down at the computer and began putting them into Excel. The idea was to have the person doing the motor alignment take some notes, then go to the computer and enter them into the Excel sheet and it would tell them right away how many shims to put under any of the 8 feet (four on the motor and four on the pump).
Here are the notes I made:
If you are Jesse Cheng (or some other old time calculator geek), you can see what I was doing with my notes. I was thinking of the next steps… which I’ll explain below…. (oh… ok… I’ll tell you… this is the code that you would use if you were creating a program for a Casio calculator).
After creating the spreadsheet, Gary headed out the door to go start aligning a motor using our newfangled motor alignment method. A little while later he came back into the shop and pulling out his handy dandy notepad he read off the notes he had taken while he put the values into Excel… When he was finished, he wrote down the results and headed back out the door to add the proper shims to the motor and the pump.
We had to tweak the program a little to work out the bugs, but after a couple of tries it worked very well and Gary was pleased. Only, there was one problem with this method… Over the next couple of weeks, Gary would come bursting into the electric shop office interrupting me and Charles Foster while we were having a deep discussion about the virtues of banana peppers on ham sandwiches.
So, I suggested to Gary that we could use a calculator to do the same thing that we were doing with the spreadsheet. That way he wouldn’t have to travel back and forth to the computer. Instead, he could just stand there at the motor and enter the information and have it display the answers that he was seeking.
Right off the bat (hmm… the second time I have used that “cliche”…. I need to read more often), Gary didn’t understand how a calculator could do this. So, I explained to him that some calculators are programmable and I can write a program on the calculator that would do just that. I said, “Let me show you”….. After all, I had grown up in Missouri (the Show Me State)… So, I took my calculator off of the top of the filing cabinet and placed it on the table.
I used the thermal printer to connect the calculator to the tape recorder to store my programs, so I didn’t have to enter them manually after I entered them once.
I took my notes and wrote the following program and entered it into the calculator.
I gave the calculator to Gary and showed him how to run the program and sent him to try it out for himself. He was very excited about this and offered some suggestions to make the program easier to use.
A few days later Gary caught me walking across the maintenance shop and showed me a catalog with various calculators for sale. He said he wanted to buy some calculators for the shop so that every person that had been trained to align motors had a calculator with a program on it. I showed him a Casio calculator that would work for about $70. So, he ordered a better one.
Even though the language for programming it was different than the Sharp calculator, it didn’t take long for me to write a program for it that did the same thing since I had sort of already written it by that time. After Gary proved to his foreman that the calculator worked, he ordered several more and when they arrived he asked me if I could program them as well.
It took almost a half hour just to type the program into each calculator, so I bought a small pigtail that connected two calculators together. This allowed me to copy the program from one calculator to another one. So, when Gary arrived one day with a box of over 20 calculators for the rest of the plants, it took me longer to open the packages than it did to copy the program from one calculator to the next.
Since the calculator was a graphic calculator, I thought about improving the program by drawing a little picture of a motor shaft and a pump shaft and showing how they were out of alignment after the information was entered, but I never took the time to do that as I was on to another computer project by that time (which I will write about later).
So, think about this. The company was willing to buy $90,000 worth of laser-guided motor alignment equipment to do something that machinists and mechanics already knew how to do. The specialized equipment would work, and it might have been faster I suppose. With the aid of a programmable calculator, however, a mechanic can stand at the motor, takes a few measurements and come up with the same results probably just as fast as the laser-guided motor alignment gizmo could do it.
Either way, the mechanic still had to install the same number of shims under the same feet whether they used the calculator and the dial caliper or the laser beam. The 26 or so calculators that were purchased for the four plants came up to less than $2,000, which is a savings of $88,000. I don’t think the laser would have saved that much time. It still had to be carried over to the motor and plugged in and mounted on the motor. My guess is that as soon as the laser was dropped on the floor accidentally, it would have been broken anyway.
The best part of this little project was that I was able to help out a True Power Plant Man Gary McCain, that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to help much before. Gary didn’t need much help as he is one of those Power Plant Men that people seek out when they need advice. So, when he came to me and asked for help with the computer, I was more than glad to do what I could to help him.
Sometimes it is a little difficult for my wife to understand why I keep scraps of paper laying around that have meaningless scribbles on them. One might be a doodle that some friend of mine created one day while talking on the phone. Another might be a fortune from a cookie that I opened when I was eating lunch with a coworker. Today the piece of paper I picked up happened to have a mathematical formula written on the back.
I think my son understands now that when I seem to be picking up trash off of the table and a tear comes to my eye, it isn’t because I have just picked up something rotten, but because I have just been transported back in time to place where I am with some people that I love. It doesn’t stop him from saying, “Dad? It’s just a piece of paper. Geez!” Well… I know I’m getting old… but that scrap of paper is poetry to me.
The first time I saw Ray Eberle was during my first summer as a summer help in 1979. He was standing in the midst of a group of mechanics who sat around him as school children sit around the librarian as a story is being read. Ray was telling a story to a group of mesmerized Power Plant Men.
Many years later I heard that Ray was invited to tell stories to hunters who were hunting elk in Montana around the campfires at night as an occupation. I think he passed on that opportunity. Who would think of leaving the comfort of a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to go sit around telling stories by campfires in Montana?
For many years I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Ray. He had joined the Safety Task Force that we had created at the plant. He had also become a member of the Confined Space Rescue Team, and was a HAZWOPER Emergency Rescue responder. I was on all of these teams with Ray, but I really had never worked side-by-side with him.
I know that at times, I had disappointed Ray by not living up to his expectations of what a True Power Plant Man should be. When we were on the Safety Task Force, after the reorganization, we had shifted gears to be more of an “Idea” task force instead of one that actually fixed safety issues. I was pushing hard to have the company move to a “Behavior-Based Safety” approach. It was a misunderstood process and if not implemented correctly would have the exact opposite effect (see the post “ABCs of Power Plant Safety“)
I know this bothered Ray. He let me know one day when I received an intra-company envelope with a memo in it. It said that he was resigning from the team:
I hang on to the oddest things. Some things that lift me up and some things that break my heart. I figure that there is a lesson for me in this memo. That is why I have held onto it for the past 20 years. I suppose this enforces my philosophy of trying to make a “Bad First Impression” (See the post: “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“).
Ray Eberle told me once that he had always thought that I was a lazy stuck up electrician that didn’t like to get dirty and just sat around in the electric shop all the time. (read the post: “Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“) He said that he saw me as a “higher than thou” type of person that looked down on others. Then one day I said something that totally changed his perception of me. I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
It’s funny to learn sometimes what people actually think of you. Then it’s even funnier to think what makes them change their mind. You see… when Ray Eberle was sharing his thoughts about me, we had become very good friends. He said that he felt that he finally understood me when I uttered those three words “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember the moment I had said that. As members of the Confined Space Rescue Team, we were responsible for inspecting the SCBAs (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) each month. We were standing in the control room and had a couple of the SCBAs sitting out while the instructor was showing us the proper way to inspect them.
Ray had asked a few “what-if” questions (like “What if the pressure is right at the minimum amount?” or “What if we send a tank off to be refilled and we have an emergency?”) and his questions weren’t being answered. He was getting a little hot under the collar, so I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember Ray’s reaction. He turned to me and said, “What did you say?” I looked him straight in the eye with a grin on my face and repeated “Don’t get twisted.”
At that moment I didn’t know if Ray was going to haul off and belt me one, so I was mentally preparing my various responses…. like…. get ready to duck… just try to stand there as if nothing had happened… run and call a therapist because my ego had been shattered (no… wait… that wasn’t then)…. Anyway… instead Ray just smiled at me and said calmly, “I thought that was what you had said.” I could see that he was in deep thought.
It was a couple of years later that I found out that at that moment Ray Eberle’s perception of who I was had done a 180. Isn’t it funny what causes someone to change their mind sometimes? Maybe he saw a spot of dirt on my tee shirt.
One day during the spring of 1998 my foreman, Alan Kramer told me that Jim Arnold wanted me to be assigned to create “Task Lists” in SAP.
Task lists are instructions on how to perform jobs associated with trouble tickets. Jim Arnold (probably to keep me out of trouble) had assigned me to write task lists and Ray Eberle to write Bill of Materials (or BOMs). Thus began our three year journey together working side-by-side entering data into the computer.
Writing task lists didn’t mean that I just sat in front of the computer all day. In order to create them, I had to find out what tools a person would use to fix something, and what procedure they would perform in order to do their job. This meant that a lot of times, I would go up to a crew that was working on something and I would ask them to tell me all the tools they used and how they did their job while standing at the job site.
I will write another post later about how I actually did the task of writing task lists, so I won’t go into any more detail. After a short while, Ray and I figured out that we needed to be in the front office close to the Master Prints and the room where the “X-Files” (or X-drawings) were kept.
X-Files didn’t have to do with “Aliens”. X-Files were files in cabinets that had all the vendor information about every piece of equipment at the plant (just about). They were called X Files because their filing numbers all began with an X. Like X-160183.
About 50% of my time for the next three years was spent creating task lists. The rest of the time, I was still doing my regular electrician job, and going to school. After the first year, I moved into the Master Print Room and Ray and I set up shop working on the computers next to each other.
Ray was a collector of Habanero Sauce bottles.
He would travel the country looking for unique Habanero Sauce bottles. Each day, Ray would bring a bottle of habanero sauce to work and pour some on his lunch.
I ate the same boring lunch every day. It consisted of a ham sandwich with a slice of American cheese. Then I had some kind of fruit, like an apple or an orange. Since I was no longer eating lunch in the electric shop where Charles would give me peppers with my sandwich, when Ray asked me if I would like some hot sauce for my sandwich I was quick to give it a try.
There is something very addictive about habanero sauce. After a few days of having this sauce on my sandwich, I went to the grocery store and bought some of my own bottles of habanero sauce and salsa.
Ok. One side story…
I was sitting at home reading a school book at the dining room table, my 9 year old daughter Elizabeth walked up to the table and took a tortilla chip from my paper plate, dipped it in the (habanero) salsa in the bowl next to it, and began to put it in her mouth. Without looking up from my book, I said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Thinking that I meant that she shouldn’t be stealing my chips, she went ahead and put it in her mouth. Grinning because she had stolen my chip, she began to walk away. Then she started to squeal a little. Moments later she was hopping all over the kitchen trying to find some way to put out the fire.
I told her the best remedy is to eat more chips. Don’t drink water. It makes it worse. Eat chips without salsa.
End of side story…
I mentioned above that Ray Eberle is a very good storyteller. He told me a series of stories that I call the “Walt Oswalt Stories”. These were real life stories about a Power Plant Man at our plant. They were so funny that I would go home and share them with my wife and she would fold over laughing at them. She said that Ray needs to write a book about Walt Oswalt.
I have shared some of these stories with various people in my later career and the reaction is always the same. These stories belong in a book. Later this year, I will share some of the Walt Oswalt stories in a post or two then you will see what I’m talking about.
One time in 2007 when I worked for Dell, I was meeting with the CEO of the world’s leading timekeeping company called Kronos. His name is Aron Ain.
My director, Chris Enslin was with us in Massachusetts.
Aron had taken us out to eat dinner, and Chris asked me to tell Aron some Walt Oswalt stories, so I shared a couple.
Then a couple of years later in 2009, Chris told me that he was at a meeting with CEOs from companies all over the United States, and there was Aron standing in the middle of a group of CEOs telling them a Walt Oswalt story.
Here is a picture of Ray Eberle sitting next to me at our computers in the master print room at the power plant:
Each day at lunch, after we had eaten our sandwiches, Ray would reach into his lunch box and pull out a worn black book and begin reading it. He would spend about 10 to 15 minutes reading. Sometimes he would stop and tell me something interesting about something he had just read. When he was done, the book went back into his lunch box and we continued working.
I remember some of the interesting conversations we used to have about that worn black book in his lunch box. One time we talked about a story in the book about how a hand just appeared out of nowhere and began writing on a wall when this guy named Belshazzar was having a party. Then this guy named Daniel came and told him what it meant, and that night Belshazzar was killed. Ray said, “…. God sent the hand that wrote the inscription.” What do you think about that? My response was…. “Yeah. God sure has class. He could have just struck the guy down right there and then. Instead he has a hand appear and write something on the wall. That way we can now have the saying: The writing on the wall’.”
I always thought if you were going to pick a good friend to have, if you pick one that reads their Bible every day during lunch, they are bound to be trustworthy. I could tell that I could trust Ray with anything. So, I spent the three years with Ray telling him everything I knew about myself while Ray shared a good deal of his life story with me. Of course… being nine and a half years older than I was, he had lived a lot more life than I had.
When I left the Power Plant in 2001 to work for Dell, one of the things I missed the most was sitting next to Ray talking about our lives, eating our lunch with Habanero Sauce, and listening to Ray’s stories about Prominent Power Plant Men! I have considered Ray a very dear friend for many years and I am honored to have him take me into his confidence. I only hope that I could be as much of a friend to Ray as he has been to me.
Power Plant Men working for a large Coal-Fired Power Plant have the kind of culture where Cleanliness is next to “Leroy Godfrey-ness”. If you knew Leroy Godfrey, then you would know that he was a perfectionist in a lot of ways. Or… Well, he expected the Plant Electricians to be anyway. A few years after becoming an electrician, there was some work being done by Ben Davis, one of our best electricians, at the Conoco (Continental) Oil Refinery twenty miles north of the plant in Ponca City.
Being a low level Electrician Apprentice, I was not included in whatever was happening at the Refinery. I didn’t work at the refinery for many years. When I finally did go to Conoco, I wished I hadn’t.
What was happening? A Co-Generation plant was being built there. It is called a “Co-Generation” plant because it serves two purposes. Waste gas from the refinery is used to fire the boiler that produces the steam to turn the turbine. Any steam left over is sent over to the refinery to supplement their own needs. The electricity is used by the refinery and any left over electricity is sold by the Electric Company for a profit. So, in a sense, it is a “Co-Existence”.
For the most part, Power Plant Men were looking for opportunities to get in a company truck and leave the plant grounds to work on something outside the confines of the plant where they work every day, week in and week out. Trips to the river pumps or the parks on our lake were always nice, because you would see wildlife along the way. You could look out over the Arkansas River in the morning as the sun was rising and feel the cool breeze and smell the pastures nearby.
Trips to Enid to our small peaking units were fun too, because we were able to work on some different equipment out in a quiet substation where mud daubers were the only sound until the units came online. The drive to Enid was nice because the 45 mile trip across the countryside is pleasant and the traffic is very light. You can go for miles without seeing another car.
After only a couple of visits to the Conoco Oil Refinery, I never looked forward to the 20 minute drive from the plant when we had to work on the Co-Generation Plant co-owned by our company and the Oil Refinery. There were a few things about the refinery that bothered me about working there. One annoying factor was the hideous smell.
I had lived in Ponca City for three years and the sour odor that poured out of the Oil Refinery to the south of our house generally blew right up our street. One winter morning I remember stepping out of our rental house into the dark on my way to work, and the exhaust from the oil refinery must have been blowing directly down the street to our house where I lived because when I took a breath I gagged immediately and was at the point of vomiting on the front lawn.
A side note…
My wife and I lived in this tiny house shortly after we were married. Kelly was an RN (nurse) at the local hospital working the night shift while I was an electrician at the Power Plant during the day. I had the philosophy that if we started by living in a dump and saved our money, then as we gradually worked our way up to a bigger house, we would feel as if life was getting better, and we never had to worry about money, since we always lived well below our means.
I figured that if we lived far below our means, our means would keep growing. Living just below your means meant always staying in the same economic spot (how many sentences can I put the words “means” and “meant” right next to each other?). The quality of Life doesn’t get much better. When living well below your means, life continues to get better even if your job stays the same your entire life. I had figured that I was going to be a plant electrician until the day I retired, so, this was my way of planning ahead.
My wife endured living in this tiny house one block away from the railroad tracks traveled by the coal trains on their way to our plant (which shook our house as they passed) for three years before we moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma where we lived with more than twice the square feet and no smell from the oil refinery.
end of side note…
I started out by saying that the culture at our Power Plant was that Cleanliness was very important. I suppose this was true at the Oil Refinery as well, only, it seemed that even though the clutter was all picked up, there was something “inherently” dirty about the oil refinery. I’m not sure how to describe it, but you just felt like you didn’t want to touch anything because it was going to leave some sort of dirty film on you. It was….. grimy (one could say… oily… well… it was an oil refinery).
Our Power Plant is in North Central Oklahoma, and during the summer going for an entire month with over 100 degree weather every day was not uncommon. There are parts of the plant where you had to work some times where the temperature reached 160 degrees. Of course, you can’t stay in that environment very long, and those areas are generally not the areas of choice when choosing which job to work on next.
One hot summer day in 1996, Charles Foster and I had to go to the oil refinery to our Co-Generation plant to fix an Air Conditioner Condenser Fan Motor.
This isn’t like one of those fans on the side of your house in the box that you know as your “air conditioner” that blows hot air out when the air conditioner in your house is running, though it performs the same task, only on a much bigger scale.
When you entered the oil refinery you had to wear a long blue cloak or coat called “Nomex” (pronounced “No Mex”).
The reason for wearing this heavy “woolen” coat was to help save your life in case you happened to be around the next time (next time?) something exploded, blasting flames in your direction. — Yeah…. comforting huh? Knowing that this flame retardant coat was going to keep you from being burned alive when something exploded in the refinery. Oh joy.
Everyone in the refinery was wearing these blue coats. It was a requirement before you could drive your pickup through the security gate.
Once inside the gate, Charles and I checked our clearances to make sure it was safe to work on unwiring the motor that was mounted under the air conditioner coils. Another fan was running that was turning a large fan blade blowing hot air down next to us. We had brought our own fans to blow cooler air on us while we worked on the motor. This particular motor weighed about 400 lbs, to give you an idea of the size of motor we were repairing.
Charles and I had brought a temperature gun to check how hot everything was when we were working.
When we checked the temperature, we found that the area where we had to stand was 160 degrees. The motor itself was even hotter than that. We had to wear leather gloves just to work on it without burning our hands. Asbestos gloves would have rendered us useless because they make you feel like you are wearing “Hulk Hands” where your fingers are about 2 inches wide.
See what I mean?
The air was too hot to breathe except for quick shallow breaths. Even though we had a fan blowing directly on us, we took turns approaching the motor, turning some bolts a couple of times, and then quickly moving out of the area to where we could be in the cooler 105 degree temperature.
There is nothing like a mild irritation (such as working in extreme heat) to motivate you to hurry up a job. Charles and I worked diligently to remove the motor and then lowered it down with a platform hand lift that we kept in the shop.
This fan motor was on the roof of a building, so once we had removed the motor from where it was mounted, we still had to lower it down to the back of the truck which was backed up to the side of the building. Once in the truck, we brought it back to the plant where we could work on it.
When you first went to work in the oil refinery you had to take a specially designed safety course when you are issued your Nomex coat. During that class, you are told that if you hear the sirens go off, that generally means that there are some toxic gases being released accidentally in the plant, you are supposed to take action quickly.
The funniest (or not so funniest) instructions was that when the sirens go off, you are supposed to run in the opposite direction away from the sirens. Which sort of reminds me of Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail when they had to run away from the viscous fighting rabbit. Yelling “Run Away! Run Away!” Great safety evacuation plan. — Plan of action: “Run!!!”
The toxic gas that everyone was worried about is called Hydrogen Sulfide or H2S. This is the gas that smells like rotten eggs. The only problem is that when there is more than the minimal amount of H2S in the air, you can’t smell it anymore because it quickly deadens your sense of smell.
Another fun reason to not want to go work in the Oil Refinery.
Anyway, Charles and I safely reversed the process to return the motor to its rightful place mounted on the bottom of the coils on the roof.
A few times I had to go to work at the Co-Generation plant because something was broken (like the fan motor), but most of the time that we went to the plant was to do our quarterly battery inspections. For more information about battery inspections, you can read this post: “Importance of Power Plant Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance“.
I have told you all the reasons why I didn’t enjoy working at the Oil Refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma. There were reasons why I did enjoy it. I suppose if you have been reading my posts, you will know the most obvious answer to that question (oh. I guess I didn’t really ask a question… but if I had…). The only redeeming factor with working at the Co-Generation plant at the oil refinery was being able to work with the best Power Plant Men and Women in the country.
I have given you an example above when I worked with Charles Foster. I also worked with Scott Hubbard and Diana Brien.
Both of them top class electricians and First Class Friends. Just to be able to work side-by-side with such terrific people made me forget about the poison gases. I didn’t mind the heat. I even forgot I was wearing the heavy suffocating Nomex Coat. What’s a little grime when your friend tells you about their day? About what they are planning for the weekend? Or the rest of their life?
Actually, I think that’s what made everything about working both at the Oil Refinery and the Power Plant itself the most enjoyable job I can imagine. Sure. We had a culture of “cleanliness” at the plant but I think it was the culture of “friendliness” that really made all the difference. It was also the most painful part the day I finally left the Power Plant to adventure out to find the rest of the world in 2001.