Category Archives: Heroes

Power Plant Mother’s Day

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.

Ed Shiever 15 years later

Ed Shiever

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:

Noe Flores

Noe Flores

George Clouse

George Clouse

Robert Sharp

Robert Sharp

Mickey Postman

Mickey (Pup) Postman

Robert (T-Bone) Grover

Robert (T-Bone) Grover

Rod Meeks

Rod (Junior) Meeks

Robert Lewis

Robert Lewis

Kerry Lewallen

Kerry Lewallen

Chuck Morland

Chuck Morland

Dave McClure

Dave McClure

Earl Frazier

Earl Frazier

Bill Gibson

Bill (Gib) Gibson

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.

Joe Alley with Juliene's new grandchild

Joe Alley with Juliene’s new grandchild

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.

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Destruction of a Power Plant God

Sometimes we unknowingly end up worshiping things we never intend.  It isn’t until those things are destroyed before we realize what has happened.  We have a natural tendency to worship something.  It’s built into our DNA to worship God just as sure as the God Particle converts energy into matter and subsequently atoms into earth and water.  I’m not sure when my obsession began, but I definitely know the day when it was destroyed.  August 5, 1996.

The day of realization began as a normal day, as Scott Hubbard and I were driving to the plant.  It seemed like an extra dark morning considering it was the middle of the summer.  Perhaps it was because by this time we were working four tens, which meant we arrived at the plant before 7:00 am so we left Stillwater, Oklahoma at 6:15 to drive to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

When we topped the overpass to the turnpike at 6:32 we thought we could see something strange at the Power Plant off in the distance.  The sun was going to rise in the next few minutes (at 6:42), yet, the sky seemed darker than usual.  It must have been a cloudy morning.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset (only we were arriving before sunrise)

We thought we could see red and blue flashing lights coming from one end of the plant.  It was only momentary, because once over the overpass, we were too low to see that section of the plant.  We weren’t really sure what we had seen.  It became even more confusing as we approached the entrance to the plant.

There seemed to be a little more activity happening at the front gate than usual.  there was a guard or an operator standing out there.  He waved us through the gate.  about 300 yards past the main gate, we had a clear view of the plant grounds laying before us as we made our way to the parking lot.  It was here that the significance of the flashing lights suddenly caused us to gasp. We were stunned into silence.

The area around the Unit 1 main power transformer was flashing with the red and blue lights of several fire trucks.  They seemed to be pulling away just about that time.  Some of the siding on the Turbine-Generator room was missing, some was blackened from smoke as it had poured out of the windows along the turbine room floor.  The real shock to me came as we approached the parking lot and I looked up through where a window used to be and I could see the sky.  I could see the sky where the T-G roof should have been.

We were directed to go into the maintenance garage to avoid the fire trucks who that were backing away.  We met with our team and Alan Kramer told us that there had been an explosion during the night when an overspeed test was being performed on the Unit 1 Boiler Feed Pump Turbine (BFPT).  The number one question we all wanted answered was quickly given to us…. No one was hurt in the explosion.

Alan mentioned that in our recent fire fighter training, we had learned that a large percentage of companies that have a major fire (such as ours) goes out of business within the next year.  That was not going to happen to us even though the damage was extensive.  Our job was to put everything back to the way it was before the fire.

Here is the story as it happened, as much as I know:

The explosion occurred when an operator (I’ll let one of the operators remind me who it was) was running an overspeed test on the BFPT.  Suddenly he heard a loud pop and then the turbine winding up out of control.  He took off running and was around the corner of a concrete pillar when the turbine exploded.  The turning gear shot out like a top and flew across the mezzanine floor, hit the corner of the north stairway, and still spinning like a top, tore up the stairway as it made the turn halfway down and ended up in middle of the the T-G basement where it finally came to rest.  This turning gear weighs somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand pounds (I’m guessing).

Turning Gear

Turning Gear

At this point steam was shooting out of the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine.  The oil pumps that keep the bearings lubricated were spraying oil into the steam which burst into flames.  The flames shot up to the concrete floor 40 feet above.  The fire was so hot that it melted the metal structure holding up the floor and the rebar in the concrete.  The Turbine Room Floor literally melted away as the oil fire shot the flames up toward the roof another 80 feet above the turbine room floor  melting the roof as if it was butter.  The asbestos siding on the T-G floor was falling off because the bolts that held them to the brackets literally melted away.

The same reservoir that feeds the oil to the the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine bearings also fed the Main Turbine Generator.  This is the same generator that makes the electricity that causes the light bulb to glow in your house when you turn it on.  The Main Turbine Generator tripped when the explosion occurred, as it should.  As it slowed down to a stop, the oil for the bearings was all gone.  It had been creating the large fire ball that was melting down the T-G floor.

Normally, when the Turbine-Generator comes to a stop, it is put on a turning gear while the shaft cools down otherwise the shaft will become warped under it’s own weight.  The Turning gear slowing rotates the turbine for a day or so while it cools.  Without bearing oil, the turning gear would not be able to turn the turbine generator.  The bearings require a layer of oil to function properly.

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

Charles Patton, one of the Maintenance foremen was called out, and he took cans of STP Oil Treatment and for hours poured them onto the bearings and manually rotated the 50 ton turbine generator (Ray, help me out with the actual weights).  Through the heroic efforts of Charles and others that were there to help, the Turbine Generator was spared from even more damage.

Charles Patton

Charles Patton

By the time we arrived that morning, the fire was out, things were cooling down.  Unit 2 was still running, and it was our job to keep it going.

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

As I walked out onto the T-G floor everything went into slow motion.  I don’t know if that has ever happened to you before.  There have been a few times in my life when I was in a near death situation where my surroundings all seem to switch into a slow motion mode.  I think it happens because your brain kicks into high gear in order to process what is happening and to put as much effort forward as possible to avoid danger.

The first time I think that happened to me was when I was with some friends climbing around on some cliffs by the Missouri River.  One boy was falling back after the ledge he was on gave way and was going to fall most likely to his death when everything switched into slow motion even before I realized what was wrong.  I was able to make quick decisions that allowed me to push him back onto the ledge and grab onto a branch that luckily kept me from the same fate.

When I walked onto the T-G floor and saw the devastation, I think my mind was trying to take everything in all at once.  The Turbine Generator was covered in soot and debris.  I flashed back to the days when I was a janitor and used to keep the turbines waxed so that they would shine.  It was at this moment that I realized I actually worshiped the Turbine Generators in a way similar to the way the religious cult worshiped the alpha-omega doomsday bomb in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”.

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

The near destruction of the Turbine Generator made me realize the importance I had placed on it.  I felt as if I had almost lost my close friend like the boy climbing on the cliff.  I used to stand on the sides of the Turbines when I was a janitor with my dust mop and after spraying furniture polish on the mop, I would caress the turbines as if I was running my fingers through someone’s hair.

Like this only with a mop handle

Like this only with a mop handle

We began the clean up by taking fire hoses and washing down the siding on the Unit 2 side to try to bring some normalcy back to a surreal situation.  The soot didn’t just wash off.  Not long after we had dragged out the fire hoses and were blasting away at the siding, Alan Kramer asked Charles Foster and I to look at the air duct to the Instrument room on the north side of the Turbine room.  The room was getting too hot and the air conditioner seemed to have frozen.

We climbed into the air duct on the roof of the instrument room and replaced the filters that were packed with soot stopping the air flow for the Air Conditioner.  This seemed like one task in 100,000 that would need to be done to put this puzzle back together again.  All the electric cables that ran through the Unit 1 Mezzanine had melted away, everything had been utterly destroyed.

The thought was too overwhelming.  I felt like Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” when she said, “I can’t think about that right now.  If I do, I’ll go crazy.  I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind

Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind

With everything on the T-G floor covered in soot, everyone was quickly black from head to toe.  Are clothes were now black.  We looked like Johnny Cash impersonators

Johnny Cash Man in Black

Johnny Cash Man in Black

literally with Al Jolsen Black Face as the soot was pitch black.

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face (Google Image)

We had just climbed out of the air duct and were making our way to the electric shop when Glenn Rowland approached me and said, “You Lucky Dog!”  I thought he must be making a comment about my appearance seeing how I was covered in soot.  Then he explained.  “For the next 10 weeks you have to report to Oklahoma City to work on an SAP project.  You’re a lucky dog because you are going to miss all the fun of cleaning up this mess.”

Did I ever mention that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world?  Well.  I am.  I had just come to grips with my false God, and now I had been rescued from two and a half months of working in soot and grime to go work in an air conditioned office building in Oklahoma City.

Here is a post about how lucky I am:  Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck.

Now for the hard part of the story to write about:

So, why did the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine fail the overspeed test?  What happened to cause the explosion?

The first attempt to place the blame where it didn’t belong was to blame Sonny Kendrick who had worked on the controls during the last outage.   The same person that would accuse me of purposely causing any little opacity problem on the precipitator even when I was on vacation, was now blaming Sonny Kendrick for the multi-million dollar destruction of the Turbine Room Floor.

Sonny Kendrick must have looked like an easy target.  A soft-spoken man that works alone most of the time.  No one really understands some of the things he works on.  Maybe they thought he wouldn’t be able to explain the changes he had made to the controls in enough detail in order to blame him for the explosion.  I use the word “target” because someone else had to be “blamed” for the explosion instead of the person responsible.  The person they picked as the “fall guy” was Sonny Kendrick:

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny Kendrick

You see… someone was directly responsible for the explosion.  Someone who continuously used “Risk Management” as an excuse to cut corners.  I wonder if everything was completely on the unconscious level, or did this person ever realize the impact of his decisions.  You see, I haven’t completely decided.

There appears to have been a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the explosion that took three months to recover.  The first clue was to try to blame Sonny Kendrick without any proof.  I don’t know if Sonny was eventually cleared as the fall guy because he was able to clearly show how all of his wiring changes had no impact on an overspeed test, or someone who knew about the actual cause threatened to come out with the truth if they continued to pursue Sonny as the fall guy.  You see… there was more to this equipment failure than met the eye.

The turbine exploded because the coupling to the pump shattered.  That’s the part that connects the steam turbine to the boiler feed pump.  When the coupling broke the turbine, no longer having any resistance, began to rotate at a rate much faster than it was ever designed to rotate until it flew apart.

A large coupling

A large coupling

It was known at the end of the last outage that the coupling was damaged.  It would have delayed bringing the unit online another 2 or 3 days in order change out the coupling.  In the name of “Risk Management” it was decided to “risk it” until the next outage.  The decision was made without using any type of risk assessment tool… obviously.

I know about the conversations that took place because one of the people involved confided in me.  The person that told me the details of the conversations said that even under oath he would never tell anyone else the truth.  This is the second clue that made me think that a concerted effort was made to cover up the knowledge that it was known that a faulty coupling was operating on the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine and it had been decided to leave it in place.  You see… everyone who was on the team that found the damage knew about it.

The third clue this was a “conspiracy to cover up the truth” was that when an investigation was performed to look into the cause of the explosion, the person responsible for keeping the bad coupling in place played a major role in the investigation.  Like the Fox guarding the Hen House.

Because the truth about the coupling never came to light, the insurance company ended up paying the entire bill for the outage.  It was ruled as “equipment failure”.  Our plant manager Bill Green remarked one day that we actually came out ahead when the insurance company paid for the outage, because they paid our lost revenue without taking all the operating costs into account.

I know sometimes that things just happen and sometimes bad things happen.  Sometimes when everything is done correctly, something still goes wrong.  I know that.  That is why when this explosion first happened it made me step back and think twice about the dangers lurking around a Power Plant.  A tremendously large amount of energy is being converted from coal into electricity.  Somewhere, some time, something is going to go wrong and someone is going to be hurt or killed.

That is also why when this explosion happened, it never occurred to me to place the blame on anyone.  To me it was just one of those things that happens every now and then.  My bubble of innocence was burst the day I heard about the decision to keep a defective coupling in place on such an important piece of equipment.

On one hand I was angry that someone would make a decision that could have ended with the death of an operator, on the other hand, I was relieved to know that accidents like this don’t just happen.  It was only when someone decided to cut corners that this explosion occurred.  It gave me a little of my faith back in the system.  When things are done right, we can work safely without the fear that something is likely to explode in our face.

All right, so I never really worshiped the Turbine Generator.  I just exaggerated that part a bit.  But let me ask this question… Who in this story did?  Who was it that was willing to sacrifice the life of an operator to keep from delaying the “go-live”?  Who thought that having the Generator produce electricity two or three days sooner than it should have been was more important?  That is the person that really needs to re-evaluate their priorities and take another look at which God they worship.

The question is never, “Is there a God?”  The real question is “Which God do you worship?”

Dynamic Power Plant Trio — And Then There Was One

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.

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

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!

A 1982 Honda Civic

A 1982 Honda Civic

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.

Clown Car found on Google Images

Clown Car found on Google Images

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.

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

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….

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

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….

 

Jim Heflin

Jim Heflin

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!”

Bud Schoonover

My friend forever – Bud Schoonover

Power Plant Saints Go Marching In

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.

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him

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.

Games Power Plant Men Play

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.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

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.

The actual Computerized Chessboard we used

The actual Computerized Chessboard we used

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.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

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.

Crossword Puzzle Book - mainstay in Power Plant Tool Buckets

Crossword Puzzle Book – mainstay in Power Plant Tool Buckets

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.

An example of a cryptogram magazine

An example of a cryptogram magazine

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).

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

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”.

Games Magazines used by Power Plant Men

Games Magazines used by Power Plant Men

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.

Not the battleship game played by Power Plant Men

Not the battleship game played by Power Plant Men

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.

A Sharp Calculator like I used to program the Battleship game

A Sharp Calculator like I used to program the Battleship game

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.

Terry Blevins

Terry Blevins

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):

Move White Black Move White Black Move White Black
1 P-K4 P-K4 25 P-KN4 K-B1 49 R-R8 K-B5
2 N-KB3 N-QB3 26 P-N5 P-B6 50 P-B5 N-K4
3 P-Q4 PxP 27 QNPxP P-N5 51 R-B8 R-B3ch
4 NxP B-B4 28 P-B4 R-R3 52 K-N7 RxR
5 B-K3 NxN 29 K-N2 P-N6 53 KxR N-Q3
6 BxN BxB 30 BPxP R-N1 54 P-B6 N-N5
7 QxB Q-B3 31 PxP P-B3 55 P-B7 N-Q4
8 P-K5 Q-KN3 32 R-KN1 PxP 56 R-R7 N-N3ch
9 N-R3 N-K2 33 PxP R-R4 57 K-N7 K-K4
10 P-KN3 P-QB4 34 R-B2ch K-K2 58 KxP N-B1
11 Q-Q3 K-KN1csl 35 R-N7ch K-K3 59 K-N8 N-Q3
12 QxQ NxQ 36 N-B2 R-B4 60 R-Q7 K-K2
13 P-KB4 P-N3 37 K-B3 P-Q3 61 R-Q6 KxR
14 B-N2 R-N1 38 K-Q4 RxKP 62 P-B8 K-K4
15 K-QB1csl B-N2 39 N-N5ch RxN 63 P-R4 K-K5
16 KR-N1 KR-Q1 40 RxR NxP 64 P-R5 K-K4
17 N-B4 BxB 41 R-R2 K-B3 65 P-R6 K-B3
18 RxB P-N4 42 N5-R5 N-B4ch 66 P-R7 K-K4
19 N-Q6 P-B5 43 K-Q5 N-K6ch 67 P-R8 K-Q5
20 P-KR4 R-N3 44 KxP R-KB3 68 B8-B4ch K-K4
21 P-R5 N-K2 45 K-B7 N-N5 69 R8-Q5ch K-B3
22 P-R6 PxP 46 R2-R4 K-N3 70 B4-B6ch K-K2
23 R-R2 K-N2 47 RxP R-KB3 71 Q5-Q7ch K-B1
24 Q4-R1 N-N1 48 R-K7 K-N4 72 B6-B8 MATE

Making Power Plant Friends with Motor Alignment

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 (Stick) McCain

Gary (Stick) McCain

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:

Variables for the Motor Alignment formulas

Variables for the Motor Alignment formulas

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.

Motor Alignment Formulas (or is it Formulae?)

Motor Alignment Formulas (or is it Formulae?)

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.

motor coupled to a compressor

motor coupled to a compressor

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.

A mounted dial caliper used to measure the alignment of the motor

A mounted dial caliper used to measure the alignment of the motor

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:

Notes made to calculate the motor alignment

Notes made to calculate the motor alignment

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.

A notepad like this

Handy Dandy Power Plant Notepad

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.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

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.

My Sharp Calculator with the Thermal printer connecting to a tape recorder

My Sharp Calculator with the Thermal printer connecting to a tape recorder

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.

The short quick version of the calculator program

The short quick version of the calculator program

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.

A Casio CFX-9850G

Gary ordered the Casio CFX-9850G

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.

The pigtail I used to connect the calculators

The pigtail I used to connect the calculators

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.

Tales of Power Plant Prowess by Ray Eberle

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“)

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process

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:

Ray's Memo

Ray’s Memo

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.

Man wearing an SCBA

Man wearing an SCBA

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.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

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.

Habenero Sauce comes in colorful bottles

Habanero Sauce comes in colorful 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.

Walt Oswalt

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.

Aron Ain, Kronos CEO

Aron Ain, Kronos CEO

My director, Chris Enslin was with us in Massachusetts.

Chris Enslin

Chris Enslin

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:

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

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.

360 Degrees of Power Plant Grief Counselling

The first time I sat through a Performance Review was with my mentor Larry Riley when I was on Labor Crew.  On a scale of 1000 I was somewhere around 850.  He said that this was the highest he had ever rated anyone so I should be proud, and I was.  As I walked out of the room and returned to work, I suddenly felt depressed.  I thought this was a strange response after just being told I was Larry’s “Star Pupil”.

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 16 years after my first performance review

Throughout the years, the Performance Review process changed a number of times.  The scale was changed to 1 to 10, then 1 to 5, then the numbers were taken away altogether and replaced with, Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations, and Fails to Meet Expectations.

The different scales all meant the same thing, and that was that if someone was applying for a job or up for a promotion, then this number became significant.  The number was used to rank employees.  Anyone who had a particularly low score was told they were on probation, and if they didn’t improve, then they would lose their job some time in the future.

The only person I can remember that was placed on probation was Curtis Love.  Later, Curtis was let go because he had dented the truck (while still on probation) when he backed it into a yellow post and didn’t tell his foreman Larry.  Curtis didn’t know that Larry saw it happen standing about 100 yards away in front of the Labor Crew Building.

An example of yellow poles protecting an area

An example of yellow poles protecting an area

For more about Curtis, read the post “Power Plant Safety As Interpreted by Curtis Love“.  Other than that, it was nearly impossible to lose your job… Unless, of course, you upset Jim Arnold.

After the reorganization in 1994, a woman from HR came to our Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma from Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  She chose some people randomly to interview about how to make the performance review process better.  I happened to be one of the people she randomly chose…  Go figure.  I had my own ideas about Performance Reviews.

I did what I usually did, and waited my turn to speak… Well… sometimes I do that anyway…. like, in this case.  Ok.  This was a rare case.  I wanted to wait until everyone else gave their two cents before I gave her my dollar fifty, so I waited until she asked me specifically what I thought.

I began with the sentence that went something like this:  “I don’t think the performance review should be tied to a person’s promotions, or job opportunities.  I think if the purpose for the performance review is to improve performance, then it has to be uncoupled from any kind of retribution or promotion.”

I continued…. “When the performance review is tied to your promotions, then a game is played with upper management where the scores are adjusted and comments are changed after the initial rating by the manager so that only one person can have the highest rating in a department or a team for example.  If we really want to improve our performance then the program should be changed so that it focuses on behavior and how it can be approved.”

After blurting out… I mean, carefully laying out my ideas…. I could see the HR lady’s wheels turning in her head.  That was what I thought anyway.  I could tell she could see what I was saying and she was ready to take that back to Oklahoma City.  I thought, “Poor young lady, she still has ideals from her youth that the system can be changed.  She is in for a rude awakening when she goes back to Corporate Headquarters and tries to pitch an idea like that.”  In a way I felt like I had set her up for failure.

I was surprised several months later when volunteers were elicited to become “Assessment Counselors”.  Of course, I signed up as soon as I heard about it.  After all, the reason I first decided to work toward a psychology degree was because I was thinking about becoming a High School Counselor.  I had seen the effects of both very bad counselors (I won’t mention all their names here) and a very good one (Mr. Klingensmith at Jefferson Junior High in Columbia, Missouri) and thought it was important to have good counselors in schools.

By the time I decided that my major would be psychology I had already worked at the Power Plant for one summer as a summer help, and didn’t realize that the allure of working with such a great group of men and women had already seeped into my blood, so I still thought there was some other job waiting for me out there besides “Power Plant Janitor”.  Silly me.  I mean, where else do you get to work where you can wear a yellow hard hat, safety glasses, mop floors and still get to look out over a beautiful lake with all the wildlife just a few yards away?

I went to “Assessment Counselor” training and learned that the new “Performance Review” was going to consist of performing a “360 degree Assessment” every two years on each employee.  What this means is that each person will rate their own performance. Then they will rate their coworkers.  Their manager will rate each of their direct reports.  Direct Reports will rate their managers.  Customers from other teams, preferably people that have observed your work throughout the year when you performed jobs for them will rate you.

A 360 degree assessment is when everyone around you rates you.  Sealed packets are mailed to each person that needs to rate each other.  So, each person at the plant would be rating a lot of people.  Then the packets are mailed back in, put in the computer and a final report is created.

The person that is going to be rated either enters who they want to be their assessment counselor, or if they don’t, then one is appointed to them.  That was where I came in.  I was a 360 degree Assessment Counselor for 4 years.   Right up until the day I left the plant in 2001.

The longest lasting benefit I received from being an assessment counselor was that at one point the assessment counselors were given a special High Quality OGIO Sports duffel bag:

My OGIO Sport Assessment Counselor Duffel Bag

My OGIO Sport Assessment Counselor Duffel Bag

This duffel bag has been around the world from Malaysia to Brazil, as I have traveled the world counselling people.  Well, giving them my two cents anyway.  It has finally worn out it’s usefulness and now sits prominently in the Power Plant Museum I maintain in my closet (or what my wife refers to as “pile of junk”).

The way the assessment worked was that I would receive a sealed envelope in the mail with all the material needed to perform the assessment on a person.  I would then schedule a meeting with them to go over their results.  Power Plant Men are very uncomfortable with this sort of thing.  I know I always disliked performance reviews ever since I received my first one from Larry, even though it was a glowing review.

The first thing I would explain to the Power Plant Men was that this review belongs to only them and no one else.  No one will see it except them, and well, myself.  It will not be used to decide your raise or promotions or anything else.  This is solely for their own benefit to see what other people think about how they work and to try to improve.

The real benefit was that you could see the comments left by other “anonymous” coworkers which gave you a pretty good picture how others viewed your work.  Sometimes that can be an eye opener.  Then it was my job to help the Power Plant Men develop a plan to improve their “Areas of Opportunities”.

For the typical Power Plant Man at our plant, it was a difficult job to even find one hidden “area of opportunity” because just about everyone at our plant had been hand picked from a much larger group of workers over the years to be where they were today.  Being the cream-of-the-crop meant that “Opportunities for Improvement” were far and few between.  Well, I say that, but there was always Gene Day….

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

I could sit all day with Gene and come up with 30 ways he could improve himself, but that was because I had been studying him for so many years… Actually, I don’t remember if I was ever Gene’s Assessment Counselor, I was just thinking of who could use the most improvement, and suddenly Gene came to mind.  See the post “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“.

For those unfortunate enough to have me as their assessment counselor, they found that what they thought was going to be the typical 10 minute review of their performance usually turned into a 3 hour session where I wouldn’t let them leave the room until we had three specific action items to work on for the next year.

Many times it came down to one comment from one person that alluded to some small behavior that could be improved.  Even though it might be vague, I would use it to start a discussion about how the person might be able to improve in that area.  Then we would come up with some measurable way the person could work to improve that particular attribute.  It could be “I will do such and such at least 2 times each month for the next 4 months”.

It took a couple of years before the Power Plant Men became comfortable enough to see any benefit at all from the 360 assessment, but one thing for sure…. It was better than going through a performance review that was written by your foreman and then edited three times by people higher up who didn’t know how your really worked before it was presented to you.

By the third year I had a growing reputation as someone that took the 360 degree assessment seriously and like a priest in a confessional, kept everything confidential. That is why even today, I can only tell you all about Gene Day’s performance review and how much he needed to improve because I don’t ever remember being his assessment counselor, although I wish I had, so that I could have helped straighten him out some… But then… you can’t teach an old Gene new tricks and Gene was the oldest of the old (I say that, because I know he occasionally reads these posts).

I mentioned in the post “Power Plant Lock Out – Tag Out or Just Tag Out” that my favorite “roomie” who was/is a foreman at the Power Plant in Harrah, Oklahoma on a lake called “Horseshoe Lake” asked me to be his assessment counselor in 2001.  We met at the Perkins Restaurant in Stillwater to go over it.

Steve Trammel had been my roommate when we were on a 10 week overhaul in Muskogee Oklahoma in 1984 just before Christmas (See the post “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“).  We have always remained good friends, and I was honored that he had asked for me to be his assessment counselor 15 years later.

There were three situations where I felt like I was unable to help the people I was assigned to counsel.  The first situation was when the person reading the comments would focus on trying to figure out who said what.  As we would go over each of the comments, they would say something like, “Yeah.  I know who said that.  They just said that because of….”  Then we would read another comment and they would say something similar.

I could still work with people that initially took this approach because we could talk about why the person would say what they said and figure out how we could go about changing the other person’s attitude toward the person I was counselling.  Maybe by taking the tactics I had taken when Jim Padgett had become mad at me.  (See the post:  “Making Friends From Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes“).

The second situation that I found difficult was when the comments were broad attacks about the person.  In the sense that the person should look for another type of work, or something of that sort.  I had one female operator who was particularly upset about comments like that on her 360 assessment.  Even though we eventually came up with three ways she could improve, most of the time was spent helping her recover from the grief caused by the apparent insult in her assessment.

The third and most difficult situation I encountered while being a 360 degree assessment counselor was when I counseled someone from upper management that was planning to retire in a few years.  This person made it clear by saying right off the bat that it didn’t matter what their assessment said, he wasn’t going to change anything.  That didn’t stop me from going through all of the steps with him to create an action plan to improve his behavior.

All and all, I knew that most people didn’t take their action items and do anything about them.  That didn’t bother me.  I figured that during those three hours where we spent sitting their talking about their behavior was enough for most of them to put a thought in the back of their minds that would help them adjust their behavior at least a little when certain situations would arise.

As I mentioned before.  The people I was chosen to counsel were the best men and women in the Power Plant Industry.  The majority of the time as I watched each of them leave the room after sitting with them for three hours, I was proud to have been given the opportunity to sit with them and tell each of them that their coworkers and customers thought the world of them!

For a counselor who is looking to change the world, having to counsel this particular bunch of Power Plant People would have been very frustrating since there was barely any opportunity for improvement.  For me, this was the greatest job in the world.  “Here Fred (Generic Fred, not Fred Turner, well, it could have been Fred Turner), Look what your coworkers said about you!  Isn’t this great!?!”

Power Plant Men Meet The Wild West

I was five years old the first time I witnessed a shootout between two people the summer of 1966.  One person was a law enforcement officer and the other person was apparently a criminal.  The criminal who had run out into the middle of the street decided to stand his ground and turned around to face the Sheriff who had been calling to him to stop… “In the name of the law” I think he said.  They paused for a moment, and then in a flurry of bullets the criminal fell to the ground.  The crowd that had gathered around in that brief moment clapped.

I had never seen a dead body before that day.

The scene I had witnessed happened on the north side of Oklahoma City, just across I-35 from a restaurant called “The Surrey House”.  It was a famous restaurant in Oklahoma City since the mid 1950’s, known for having the best pies around.  We had traveled all the way from Stillwater Oklahoma to eat at this restaurant several times in the past 2 years before this incident occurred.

The Surrey House in the early 1960s. Notice the great set of cars in the parking lot

The Surrey House in the early 1960’s. Notice the great set of cars in the parking lot

That particular day after we had eaten, we took a short jog across I-35 to go for a stroll down a street that had a western feel to it, much like the stockyard area of Fort Worth, Texas.  At that time, this particular stretch of the Interstate Highway was different than any Interstate I had ever seen in my five informative years of existence.

You could pull off into the restaurant without taking a “formal” exit.  You could even cross the highway at a couple of places by just jogging across the center median and pulling off the side of the road directly into another place of business.

As a side note:

In 1966, this particular section of I-35 was under construction.  It was still under construction when we left Oklahoma in 1967 to move to Columbia, Missouri.  Oh… and it was still under construction when we returned to Oklahoma in 1978.  In fact.  This particular stretch of I-35 was under construction for about 33 years.  It was known as a “Boondoggle”.  It was the laughing stock of the Interstate Highway system.  It did look nice when it was finally finished some time around 1990.

At This time this small stretch of highway was still referred to as Route 66.

End Side note.

As fate would have it, August 14, 1999, when my son was 4 years old and my daughter was 9, we returned to the same street where I had witnessed the shootout 33 years earlier.  The buildings were much the same, only they had a better coat of paint than when I was a child.  As fate would also have it, another shootout occurred very similar to the one I had witnessed as a boy.  The players were obviously not the same as before, but it did involve another lawman and another criminal.  The criminal ended up with his gun being shot out of his hand then he was dragged off in handcuffs.  Again, the crowd that had gathered clapped.

Here is a picture of the street where the shootout occurred:

The street where the shootout took place

The street where the shootout took place

When I was a child and we entered this small town across from the Surrey House Restaurant, this is what the entrance looked like:

Frontier City I visited as a child

Frontier City I visited as a child

When I returned with my children, here is closer to what it looked like:

Frontier City Entrance

Frontier City Entrance

As you can tell by now, I am talking about an amusement park.  As a child, it was more of a place where you just strolled around and looked at the western stores and the people dressed up in western outfits, who would occasionally break out into shootouts and play tunes on tinny pianos in mocked up saloons.

When we returned 33 years later, Frontier City had turned into a full fledged amusement parks with roller coasters and water rides.  It still had the occasional shootouts that would spill out into the streets when some Black Bart character would call the Sheriff out into the street for a one-on-one “discussion”.

I suppose you think I must have slipped off my usual “Power Plant” topic.  Actually, the day my children were standing there watching the shootout at Frontier City, all of the people standing with us worked at the Electric Company.  Frontier City had been closed to the public on August 14 (and 21) and was only allowing Power Plant Men and other Electric Company employees in the gate on those dates.

There was a sort of a rivalry within the Electric Company that I had found existed about 3 years earlier in 1996 when some lineman were at our plant from what might be called the T&D department.  This stands for Transmission and Distribution.  In other words, the department where the linemen and transformer people worked.

One of the linemen told me while we were working in the substation that the company really didn’t need Power Plants anymore.  When I asked him why, he explained that since Electricity is bought on the open market now, the company could buy their electricity from anybody.  It didn’t matter who.  The company didn’t need to own the plants.

Not wanting to start a “turf war”, I kept to myself the thought that the Electric Company that produces the electricity is the one making the money just as much as the one with the wire going to the house.  Do you think you can just buy electricity as cheap as you can from our power plants?  After all, our electric company could produce electricity cheaper (at the time) than any other electric company our size in the country.

So, when we were walking around Frontier City going from ride to ride, I half expected to see a mock shootout between a Power Plant Man and a Lineman.  Fortunately, I don’t think one incident of that nature occurred that day.  If you keep reading, you may find out why.

Some time in mid-July the employees of the Electric Company in Central Oklahoma received a letter in the mailbox inviting them to spend a day at Frontier City.  You might think this is a misuse of Electric Company funds to pay for the use of an amusement park for two days just for your employees…  After all, this came out of someone’s electric bill.

You will notice on the invite below that the company was thanking everyone for their hard work and long hours and for working safely through a difficult time.

My invitation for Frontier City

My invitation for Frontier City

Wouldn’t you know I would keep a copy….

You may wonder what difficult time an Electric Company in Oklahoma could possibly face, and I suppose the first thing that comes to many people’s minds are “tornadoes”.  In this case you would be right.  We had a very trying year with the storms over Oklahoma that had ripped through Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999.

We call this a tragedy, and it was.  Over 3,000 homes had nothing but concrete slabs where their homes used to be, as an F5 tornado tore through populated areas in the Oklahoma City area.  Throughout all this destruction 36 people lost their lives.  This is a very small number considering the amount of destruction.

The evening of May 3 at my home outside Stillwater, Oklahoma when I had arrived home from work, I swept the bugs and dust out of our storm shelter, which was an 8 foot by 8 foot cube  with 8 inch reinforced concrete walls buried in the ground outside my bedroom window.  The top of it looked like a patio with a big stainless steel plated wooden door.  I stocked the storm shelter with some fresh water and snacks.

We knew tornadoes were heading our way.  The weather experts on KFOR and  KWTV in Oklahoma City were telling us all day the paths where tornadoes were likely to appear.  The majority of the people in Central Oklahoma were bracing themselves for tornadoes all afternoon.  With experts like Gary England, Oklahoma City usually found themselves well warned when tornadoes were on their way.

Gary England of KWTV Oklahoma's Premier Weather Expert of all time

Gary England of KWTV. Oklahoma’s Premier Weather Expert of all time

My wife was working as a Charge Nurse at the Stillwater Medical Center.  I remember sitting on the edge of the bed in my bedroom watching the F5 tornado entering Oklahoma City.  The tornadoes had traveled 85 miles from Lawton Texas, growing as they moved across the state.

As the tornado tore through large residential areas in Oklahoma City I called my daughter, Elizabeth (Ebit) into my room and with tears in my eyes I told her we needed to pray for the people in Oklahoma City because this tornado we were watching on TV was destroying hundreds of people’s lives right before our eyes.

Less than an hour later we entered our own storm shelter as another F5 tornado was within 5 miles of our house.  My wife, Kelly was still at the hospital moving patients to safety in the basement where we had taken shelter from tornadoes when we lived on 6th street.

We spent that night going in and out of our storm shelter as tornadoes passed close by.  The F5 tornado that came close to our house took out the High Voltage power lines coming from our Power Plant to Oklahoma City for a 10 mile stretch.

High Voltage Power Pole

High Voltage Power Pole like this

There were a total of 74 tornadoes that night in Oklahoma City and Kansas.

The Electric Company was scrambling to supply power to a city that had been crippled by a tornado 5 miles wide.  We still had one high voltage line on the 189 KV substation intact where we could funnel electricity to the rest of the state that still had an intact transmission system.

The Oklahoma Electric Company had more experience with tornado damage than any other company in the country.  They often donated their time helping out other companies in their time of need.

Electric Company Trucks on their way from Oklahoma to Indiana to help return power to millions of Americans without power

Electric Company Trucks on their way from Oklahoma to Indiana to help return power to millions of Americans without power

With the help of electric companies from nearby states, electricity was restored as quickly as possible.  The men and women who work for the Electric Company in Oklahoma are the real heroes of the wild west.  It is the lineman that is called out in an emergency like this.

Linemen work until the job is complete when an emergency like this occurs.  Sometimes they are on the job for days at a time, resting when they can, but not returning to the comfort of their own bed until power is turned on for the Million plus customers that they serve.  The lineman had completed their work repairing this natural disaster without any serious injuries.

That day at Frontier City, the heroes of the day were the T&D crews that spent a significant part of their lives working to repair the damage caused by these tornadoes.  Even though there may have been some sort of rivalry between T&D and Power Supply (that is, the Power Plant employees), any Power Plant Man that came across one of the T&D linemen that day at Frontier City, tipped their hat to them (if not literally, then through their expression of gratitude).

As grateful as the Power Plant Men were for the hard work and dedication of the linemen during that time of emergency, the people who were truly grateful were the countless families who had their power restored in a timely manner.  Sitting in your house in the dark trying to find out if another tornado is on the way or wondering if the food in your refrigerator is going to spoil, and water is going to be restored is a frightening thought when your family is counting on you to make everything right.

Ticker tape parades are reserved for returning soldiers from victories.  Invitations to the White House are usually extended to dignitaries and distinguished individuals and basketball teams.  Statues are raised for heroes who have made their mark on the nation.  Pictures of our Founding Fathers are placed on our currency.  All of these are great ways to honor our heroes.

Power Plant Men and Linemen do not need this sort of gesture to know that what they do for mankind is a tremendous benefit to society.  If you would like to honor some great heroes of our day, then if you are ever travelling through Oklahoma and you see a bright orange truck travelling down the highway with an Electric Company Logo on it, then give them a honk and a wave.  They will know what you mean.  When they wave back, know that you have just been blessed by some of the greatest men and women of our generation.

Power Plant Train Wreck

I always loved playing with numbers, and thanks to the Birthday Phantom at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I knew everyone’s birthdays. so in 1996 I decided that I would chart them all on a graph.  When I compiled them all, I found that the Power Plant was in for one heck of a train wreck.  The entire basis that enabled the plant the size of a small city to run with a total of 121 employees was going to start crumbling within the next 13 years.

The original chart I made was in pencil.  Here is a simple column chart of the employee ages from Excel:

Age of the employees at the Power Plant in 1996

Age of the employees at the Power Plant in 1996

Now study this chart for a minute….  The youngest person in the plant was 31.  There was one.  The oldest were four who were 56.  If you take everyone from age 40 to 49, you have 70 employees, or  58% of the entire Power Plant population.  So, in a 10 year period, the plant was going to lose a majority of their employees due to retirement.  35% were going to be retired within a 5 year period.

How did this happen?  How is it that the youngest Power Plant Man was 31 years old and the age between the oldest and the youngest was only 26 years?  This happened because of two situations.

The first one is that people rarely ever left the Power Plant, so new hires were rare.  The second situation was that we had a downsizing in 1988 when the employees 55 and older were early retired.  Then in 1994, we had another downsizing where everyone over 50 years old were early retired.  So, we kept lopping off the older employees, without a need to hire anyone new.

There were three entry level jobs when I first hired on as a full time employee.  I went through all of them.  Summer Help, Janitor and Laborer.  None of these jobs existed at the plant anymore.  This had given new employees an introduction into Power Plant Life.  It also gave the foremen an opportunity to pick those employees that had the natural “Power Plant Man” quality that was needed to work in this particular environment.

I brought my chart to the team and showed them how a train wreck was just down the road.  Someone at Corporate Headquarters must have figured this out, so a couple of things were done to try and combat this situation.  I’m sure the same problem must have existed at all of the power plants.

The first thing that was done was that the retirement policy was changed.  Instead of having to wait until you were 60 to retire with full benefits, you could retire with full benefits when your age and your years of service added up to 80 or more.  A couple of years after that policy went into effect, we calculated that Jim Arnold had 100 points when you added his age and his years of service.

As a side note:

When we added up Gene Day’s years of Service and his age it added up to 80.  That’s because, even though he was 80 years old, no one could remember whether he ever did any service….  That’s why I didn’t include him in the chart above.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Sure.  Gene had been hanging around at the Power Plants since they discovered electricity, but it never occurred to him to retire.  He just walked around with his orange stapler (an Oklahoma State University fan). Anyway… I digress…  Somehow, whenever I talk about being old, Gene Day always seems to pop up in my mind.  I can see him waving his finger at me now (In case you’re wondering… read this post:  “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“, or “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“).

Back to the story:

The idea was that we should have people begin to leave the plant now instead of all waiting until they were the regular retirement age, so they could be replaced with younger souls.  There was only one catch and the reason why a Power Plant this size could be run with only 121 employees…. well… it had grown to 122 by this time since Brent Kautzman had been hired in the Instrument and Controls department.  He was 31 years old when he was hired.  I remember his birthday since it was the same date as my parent’s anniversary.

Brent Kautzman

Brent Kautzman

The reason that the Power Plant could operate with so few employees was because the majority of the employees at the plant had many years of experience.  The majority of the employees had over 20 years or more with the company.  In fact, I had another chart that I had made at the time that showed how many years of experience we would lose each year that we had a large number of people retiring.  In just one year we would have lost over 220 years of experience if something hadn’t been done soon.

The company decided to hire young inexperienced employees fresh out of vo-tech and begin training them to work at a power plant.  They opened a new position at each of the plants to lead the training efforts.  Someone that had some computer skills and could work with employees to help teach them in the ways of Power Plant Maintenance.  A training program to head off an impending train wreck.

I won’t go into too much detail about how this worked but it consisted of building a training room where new hires would take computer courses then would work part time in the plant learning how things worked.  Then they would take tests and if they passed them, they could move forward with the next part of their training.  All they needed were people willing to give it a try with the understanding that if they didn’t pass their tests, they would lose their jobs by a certain time period.

Training Supervisor…. I think that was the name of the job opening that came out in October, 1997.  I was ready for this one.  I had a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans, with an emphasis on Adult Education.  I was the computer whiz at the plant.  I could even write the entire training software from scratch with the help and knowledge of the Power Plant Men and Women.

The only problem with this job was that it was understood that at first the new training supervisor was going to have to be spending a lot of time going between the different plants with the training supervisors at each of the plants.  I had just started going back to school at Oklahoma State University to work toward a Computer Science degree.  If I had to travel a lot right away, my studies were going to have to be put on hold.

Even though I was looking forward to earning a Computer Science degree in the next four years, I thought that the Training Supervisor job would be a dream job for me, so I applied for it.  My education could wait.  I interviewed for it with Bill Green, the plant manager, who was the reporting manager for the job.

Bill Green

Bill Green

I explained to him that 50% of the work that I did when studying for my Masters in Religious Education (MRE) was learning techniques on how to teach adults.  I had already shown my ability to do this using the computer when I taught the Switchman Training (see the post: “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with ‘Boring’“).  I had also taught almost the entire plant how to use Windows when it first came out.

I had created my own little Windows Manual that stepped people through opening up Microsoft Applications and how to maneuver around.

My instruction manual on how to use Windows

Here is my instruction manual on how to use Windows

The Windows Icon was actually the Window Wingding character used for the Flying Windows Screensaver.  I just added the colors to it.

Most of the people at the plant thought that I was a shoe-in for this job.  I was custom designed for it.  When the job was given to someone else, I was a little disappointed, but I was also relieved.  This meant that I could go on with my work toward my degree.  The job was given to Stanley Robbins.  Stanley was a coal yard operator, and a very nice person.

One thing I had learned a long time ago with Scott Hubbard was that when someone is given a job that you really want, it isn’t the person who receives the job that should upset you.  They were chosen by someone else.  Through no fault of their own.  This was a terrific opportunity for Stanley.

So, the day that Stanley began his new job, Bill Green was seen showing him around the plant, since he had spent most of his 18 year career up the hill at the coal yard.  Stanley and Bill entered the electric shop and Bill asked where we kept the Electric Shop copy of the electrical blueprints.  I showed him the cabinets where they were kept. Then they left.

About an hour later, Bill and Stanley returned to the shop and Bill came up to me and said that he had talked to Jerry McCurry in the training department in Oklahoma City (that is Corporate Headquarters), and he was looking for an audio book by Tom Peters, but Jerry said that I had checked it out.  He wanted Stanley to read it.  I told him that I had returned that audio book a couple of months ago, and now had a different audio book checked out at the time.

I took Bill and Stanley into the Electric Shop office and showed them a copy of a Tom Peters audio book that was my own personal copy “In Search of Excellence”, and gave it to Stanley and told him he was free to borrow it, as well as any of the other “motivational” business books I had, including a textbook on Organizational Behavior that I kept on the top of the filing cabinet to read during lunch when we couldn’t think of a fitting lunch time topic.  I had another Tom Peters book on the bookshelf Stanley was free to read, “Thriving on Chaos”:

Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters

Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters

And a book left over from our “Quality Process” days that I had rushed out to buy the day I first heard about it from our Quality instructor:

Out of the Crisis by W. Edward Deming

Out of the Crisis by W. Edward Deming

Bill Green, our Plant Manager, who had never spent much time in the electric shop quickly learned a lot about me in those few minutes that he never knew.  What he learned was that I was an avid student of just about anything I could learn.  I had read every book in the Electric Company library and was now going through their list of Audio Books.  I showed him the library catalog and explained to Stanley how to check out books.  — Everything was still done through Intra-Company mail in 1997.

Even though I was intent on being as helpful as I could to Stanley (and I think Stanley would back me up on that.  I always supported Stanley any way I could), at the same time I wanted to impress upon Bill Green that if he was really serious about making the Training Supervisor job a real success, he didn’t really pick the most qualified candidate.

With that said, I think Stanley became a great Training Supervisor.  He was forever grateful for the opportunity for this position.  He stated that to me over and over.  I was glad for Stanley.

Stanley Robbins

Stanley Robbins

I was also relieved for myself, because my dream of becoming a “real” programmer was still a possibility.  I continued with my school and was able to graduate in 2001.  That is another story for a later time.

Six months after the training team had been chosen, and the trainers had settled into their positions, we heard that the company had purchased a specialized “Training Package” for about $400,000.  With additional cost for each module that was added.  Ray Eberle can tell me the price for each module, but it ran somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 for each one.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

The training modules included one for each type of equipment in the plant.  So, for instance, there was a module for a large vertical pump, and there was one for a large horizontal pump, and one for a small one, etc.  Ray knew the prices because he was evaluating the course material for them to see if they were correct.

Ray came up to me one day and said he was embarrassed for the company who was creating the modules, because between a set of modules, they were nothing more than copying and pasting the same incorrect material in each one of them.  The set of modules he was reviewing added up to $120,000, and they were all wrong.

I had looked at the application that we had bought and I could easily see that I could have written a much better program with the help of people like Ray and the other Power Plant Men to give me information.  We were going to be spending over $750,000 for a computer training program that we could have created ourselves and then the company could have marketed it to other electric companies who were looking for a training program.

After I received my Computer Science degree I spent years working for Dell creating computer applications that performed any sort of feat that was required.

The train wreck finally hit the plant a few years ago, as a mass exodus of retirees left the plant.  I wasn’t there to see it, so I don’t know if the plant ended up with a larger group of employees or not.  I know that Stanley has retired, but I still picture him at the plant training new hires to become Power Plant Men.