My friend and fellow carpool buddy Fred Turner told me last week that another carpool buddy from my past Toby O’Brien has past away. This news hit me rather hard since Toby was the last Power Plant Man I have seen in person. Toby gave me a call early last year to let me know that he was coming down to the Austin Texas area. He was travelling around in an RV and I drove out to an RV Park to visit him and his wife Trish for a while. I didn’t realize as I drove out of the park that this was going to be the last time I would ever see Toby alive. He died on January 4, 2020 from prostate cancer.
I have written about Toby in a number of posts. The two most memorable are: Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible and Toby Teaches Time Management. In these posts I didn’t really indicate what good friends we had become during the time we were driving to and fro from Stillwater to the plant and back. We were so close that after I had not seen him for almost 20 years when I met with him last year, I felt as if nothing had changed. I have always kept him in my mind and I have prayed for his family each day. Because of that I never felt as if we had been far away.
When Fred told me that Toby had died, I felt as if I had just lost a brother. I told my wife that it made me sad to know that Toby had died. I think the reason is that I know he had a son Tim who was about the same age as my daughter and a loving wife that he has left behind. Then this weekend when I was going through some old papers that I was shredding to make more space in my cluttered closet, I found a letter in a folder that was written by Toby.
In September 2000, Toby had written a reference letter for me to use with my resumé as I was preparing to interview for IT jobs. I stopped and stared at the paper in my hand and my face went blank. My wife Kelly knew that something was up right away as I read what Toby had written about me. I finally eked out while trying not to choke on my words “This is a reference letter Toby wrote for me back in 2000.”
I could tell by the way Toby worded his letter that he had taken the time to recommend a true friend. He couldn’t have written a nicer letter about anyone. Needless to say, I set the letter aside a safe distance from the shredder. I brought Toby’s letter to work with me this morning with the intent of pinning it up in my cube as a constant reminder how much Toby continues to mean to me. As I read and re-read his letter this morning, I felt as if I needed to share my thoughts with the rest of the Power Plant family that reads this blog.
In the 20 years that I worked at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, Toby was the smartest and most friendly engineer that we had at our plant. Even during times when we were trying to rile him up, Toby had this way about himself where he would grin and slightly stutter as he was trying to restate the argument so that it showed that he was listening to what was being said, but that he had concerns. Toby taught me that just blowing my top and blurting out how stupid something is, isn’t the best response. Well, I still do that today, but even while I’m saying something like that, I know that Toby would have said that in a better way.
I thought that since Toby had written such a thoughtful Reference letter for me 20 years ago, I should do my best to help him out now, even though I know he doesn’t really need it… so here goes:
FROM: Kevin Breazile
TO: Whom it may concern (St. Peter most likely)
SUBJECT: Reference letter for Thomas A. O’Brien (A stands for Anthony)
I have known Toby since 1990 as we both worked at the OG&E Sooner Power Plant. I know Toby well since we carpooled together for a couple of years. Toby would spend our time together patiently listening as I would read out loud, or comment (or complain) about our daily Power Plant adventures. Toby knows the power of patience and how it improves one’s character.
I always found Toby to be a valuable resource for helping us become inspired to be better in our jobs and in our lives. Toby understood all about friendship and how to apply it in diverse situations. Throughout his time at our Power Plant Toby was well respected by all of the Power Plant Men whether they were mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians, Instrument and Controls workers or operators. He was respected because he would stop and take the time to listen to each of them as if they were just as important as anyone else. This is a rare gift.
Toby was always open to learn new things. Where some people in his position wouldn’t take the time to listen to the regular workers, Toby sought us out and brainstormed with us to find solutions. Toby was an avid user of kindness. He was instrumental in instituting a culture of kindness and respect at our power plant.
Toby has very high morals, is trustworthy and very family oriented. I will be glad to discuss further any specific areas related to Toby’s performance, skills or virtues. Toby will make an excellent new member of the celestial choir and will be greatly missed down here on earth.
Kevin J. Breazile
Former Power Plant Electrician
Sooner Power Plant
This story was originally posted on February 11, 2012:
There are five main power plants in the electric company in Central Oklahoma, and maintenance men from each plant would work at other plants when there was an overhaul. An overhaul is when a generator was taken off line for the purpose of doing maintenance on major parts of the plant that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. Such as repairing boiler tubes, and working on the turbine and generator. Because employees would work at other plants for months at a time, living in camping trailers or cheap hotel rooms to save money, most people were able to work with and had the opportunity to know the Power Plant Men from the other four plants.
I have noticed that most non-plant people have a general misconception about Power Plant Men when they first meet them. As a young 18 year old entering my first job with real men, I learned very quickly that they each possessed a certain quality or talent that made them unique and indispensable Sure there were some “bad apples”, but they were never really and truly Power Plant Men. They either left because of incompatibility or were promoted to upper management. I know more than once the plant hired someone new only to have them work one day and never show up again. There were few if any real Power Plant Men that ever left the plant where the character of the plant and its ability to be maintained properly wasn’t instantly changed.
While I am writing this post this evening a wake service is being held at the First Methodist Church in Moore, Oklahoma for a true Power Plant man; Jimmy Armarfio. He was an electrician at Mustang plant. I had heard some stories about Jimmy before I actually met him; most of them about humorous things that had happened to him at one time or other. Everyone liked his African accent (Jimmy was from Ghana, a country in Africa) as they would imitate his voice while telling the stories. It seems that Bill Bennett our Electrical A foreman had more than a few stories to tell.
Jimmy came to our plant on an overhaul and worked out of our electric shop. The first time I talked to Jimmy, he was leaning against a counter during lunch just finishing a book. I happened to notice when I was walking by that the book was titled “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I had read that book not too long before, so I stopped and asked him what he thought of it. He said that it was interesting how this man who was in a prison camp in Siberia living in a miserable state could go to bed at night thinking that he had a pretty good day. I think I said something like, “Yeah, sort of like us working in this Power Plant.”
Then he said something that has always stuck in my mind. He said that in the English language there are many words that mean the same thing. For instance, for a rock, there is pebble, rock, stone and boulder. In his native language there is one word. It means “rock”. You may say, large rock, small rock, smooth rock, but there is only one word for rock. It made me reflect on the phrase, “In the beginning was the Word…” Suppose there was one word that included everything.
What I didn’t know at that time was that not only was Jimmy Armarfio from Ghana but he was the king of his tribe. Steven Trammell said that his friends referred to him as “King Jimmy” after he was elected King of his tribe. When I heard that Jimmy had died, I looked at the funeral home site and saw that one of his coworkers George Carr said the following: “Jimmy was a beloved coworker and one of my personal heroes.” Another friend, Jack Riley wrote: “It was my blessing to work with Jimmy. The most cheerful person I have had the privilege of knowing.” I have included his picture below. Jimmy Armarfio…. Take a good long look at A True Power Plant Man! A Hero and a King!
Originally posted February 25, 2012. I added Larry’s Picture at the end:
When I first began working at the power plant (in 1979), one of the people I spent a good deal of time with was Larry Riley. I was 18 and knew very little about tools, equipment, power plants and how to speak in the Power Plant language. I quickly found out that in those early days, when the plant was still under construction, a lot of people turned to Larry Riley when they were faced with an obstacle and didn’t know how to approach it.
Larry Riley was a 24 year old genius. I was amazed by his vast knowledge of seemingly disparate areas of expertise. When he was asked to do something, I never heard him say that he didn’t know how. He just went and did it. So, after I asked Larry how old he was, I asked him how long he had been at the plant. He hadn’t been there very long, but he had worked in the construction department before transferring to the power plant.
Larry Riley already at the age of 24 had a beat up hard hat full of hard hat stickers. One indicating that he was a certified industrial truck driver. I think he had about 5 safety stickers and various other hard hat stickers. He was a thin clean cut dark haired young man with a moustache that sort of reminded me of the Marlboro Man’s moustache. He walked like he had a heavy burden on his back and he was rarely seen without a cigarette in his mouth.
I worked with Larry off and on throughout my years as a summer help and during that time Larry taught me the following things (to name a few): How to drive a tractor. How to mend a fence. How to bleed the air out of a diesel engine’s fuel line (which is more important than you would think). How to operate a brush hog (a large mower on the back of a tractor). How to free a brush hog from a chain link fence after you get one of the bat wings stuck in one. Tie rebar, and pour concrete and operate a Backhoe.
I remember asking Larry why a backhoe was called a backhoe. I think Sonny Karcher was in the truck at the time. You would have thought I had asked what year the War of 1812 was fought! I’m sure you are all chuckling while reading this (especially all the power plant men). But for those of you who are as green as I was, I’ll tell you. A Backhoe is called a Backhoe because the Hoe is on the Back. Gee. Who would have thought?
Later when I was a full time employee and had worked my way from being a Janitor to being on the Labor Crew, Larry Riley became my foreman. At that point on occassion I would call him “Dad”. He would usually disown me and deny that he had anything to do with it. On occassion when he would own up to being my dad, he would admit that when I was real little I was dropped on my head and that’s why I acted so odd (though, I don’t know to what behavior he was referring).
There was this other guy at the plant the first summer I was there that had the unique title of “Mill Wright”. His name was Gary Michelson. He evidently had gone to school, taken some tests and been certified as a Mill Wright and this probably brought him a bigger paycheck than the other regular workers as well as a much bigger ego.
Gary would spend days at a time at a band saw cutting out metal wedges at different angles so that he would have them all in his pristine tool box. I worked with him a few times during my first summer as a summer help. I will probably talk more about Gary in a later post, but just to put it plainly… I could tell right away that he wasn’t a real “power plant man”.
The rest of the power plant men I’m sure would agree with me. I wouldn’t have traded Larry Riley for ten Gary Michelsons unless I was trying to help some engineers change a light bulb (actually. I have met some good engineers along the way. Some of them very good. But they were not the norm. At least not those assigned to power plants).
I have mentioned some different things that Larry had taught me and if you remember, he was the person that I worked with on my second day at the plant when Sonny Karcher and Larry had taken me to the coalyard to fix the check valve (in my post about Sonny Karcher “In Memory of Sonny Karcher – Power Plant Man“). There will always be one day that first comes to my mind when I think about Larry. This is what happened:
I drove a truck down to the Picnic area on the far side of the lake from the plant. Jim Heflin drove a Backhoe down there. I believe he was going to dig up some tree stumps that had been left over after the “engineers” in Oklahoma City had decided where to put all the trees in the area.
What the engineers in Oklahoma City did was this: They cut down all of the trees that were in the picnic area and planted new trees. Some of them not more than 15 or 20 feet away from a tree that had been there for 30 years and was a good size. So, there were a lot of stumps left over from the big hearty trees that had been cut down that needed to be removed so that the sickly little twigs that were planted there could prosper and grow without feeling inadequate growing next to a full grown he-man tree.
Anyway. I had climbed out of the truck and was making my way around the picnic area picking up trash and putting it in a plastic bag using a handy dandy homemade trash stabbing stick. As Jim was making his way across the “lawn” (I use the word “lawn” loosely, since the area was still fairly new and was not quite finished) when he hit a wet spot. The Backhoe was stuck in the mud.
There wasn’t much I could do but watch as Jim used the hoe to try to drag himself out. He rocked the backhoe back and forth. Use the stabilizers to pick up the backhoe while trying to use the scoop to pull it forward. I would say he worked at it for about ten minutes (even though it seemed more like half an hour). Eventually it was time for us to head back to the plant to go to break.
Back at the plant, Jim told Larry about his predicament and asked him if he would help him get the backhoe out of the mud. Larry said he would come along and see what he could do. At this point, I was thinking that he would jump in the Wench Truck and go down there and just pull him out. Instead we just climbed in the pickup truck and headed back to the park (notice how it went from being a picnic area to a park in only three paragraphs?).
When we arrived, Larry climbed into the Backhoe after making his way across the vast mud pit that Jim had created while trying to free himself before. He fired up the Backhoe…. cigarette in mouth… then the most fascinating thing happened… using both feet to work the pedals, and one hand working the controls in the front and the other hand working the levers in the back, Larry picked up the backhoe using the scoop and the hoe and stabilizers and cigarette all simultaneously, he walked the backhoe sideways right out of the mud pit and onto dry land just as if it was a crab walking sideways. I would say it took no longer than three minutes from the time he started working the controls. Jim just looked at me in amazement. Patted me on the back, shook his head and said, “And that’s how it’s done.”
Now that I’m on the subject of Larry Riley on a backhoe, let me tell you another one. I have seen Larry digging a ditch so that we could run some pipe for irrigation. Now picture this. The bucket on the backhoe is digging a hole in the hard red clay of Oklahoma, and Larry suddenly stops and says….. “I think I felt something”. What? (I think) Of course you did, you are operating this machine that has the power to dig a big hole in the ground in one scoop like it was nothing and Larry said he felt something?
He climbed off of the backhoe, jumped down into the ditch he was creating, kicked some clods of dirt around and lo and behold, he had just scraped clean a buried cable. He hadn’t broken it. He had come down on it with the bucket and had somehow “felt” this cable buried under all that dirt. I wonder what it felt like that told him he had encountered something that wasn’t just dirt. Maybe the electromagnet forces from the electricity in the cable caused the backhoe to be slightly magnetized and it tugged on his key chain. I think the entire labor crew just went down on one knee before his greatness for a moment of silence – all right, so we didn’t really. But we were somewhat impressed.
The one thing that makes Larry a True Power Plant Man with all the rest is that he performed acts of greatness like what I described above with complete humility. I never saw a look of arrogance in Larry’s face. He never spoke down to you and he never bragged about anything. To this day, I still picture Larry Riley working at the power plant working feats of magic that would amaze the rest of us as he thinks that he’s just doing another day’s work. That’s the way it is with True Power Plant Men.
Since I first created this post two years ago, I have found a picture of Larry Riley taken many years after this story:
Since I first posted this story about Larry, he has passed away. I described the day of his passing in the post: “Power Plant Saints Go Marching In“
Originally Posted on August 3, 2012 (I added a picture of Walt Oswalt):
The second summer as Summer Help at the Coal-fired Power Plant, was when I first worked out of the Automotive garage. It wasn’t finished during the first summer. The second summer when I began working in the garage, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley, Doug House and Ken Conrad were the regular workers that mowed the fields using tractors with brush hogs, as I have explained in previous posts. A summer help that also worked with us from Ponca City named David Foster was also able to mow grass using one of the new Ford tractors that we painted Orange to easily identify them as belonging to the Electric Company in Oklahoma.
I learned to drive the tractors later in the summer when I worked irrigating the fields in our attempt to grow grass (as told in the post “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It Pays To Listen“). The next summer I was able to mow grass using a Brush Hog pulled behind a tractor:
It didn’t take long before I had to mow grass on the side of the dam (and other levies). The side of the dam has a very sharp incline, so while mowing grass on the side of the dam you sat more on the side of the tractor seat than on the seat itself. Heavy weights were put on the front of the tractor and the back tires on the tractor were turned around so that they were farther apart than they would be otherwise. This gave the tractor a lower, wider profile and a lower center of gravity helping to keep it from rolling over sideways down the slope.
I had watched Jim, Larry, Ken and David mow grass along some very steep inclines the summer before without any tractors tumbling over, so I felt like it must be safe, even though looking at the tractors they still seemed a little “top heavy”.
It was quite an eerie feeling the first time I actually mowed a slope this steep. I experienced the same feeling as you have on a roller coaster when it hits the top of the hill and flings you down real fast when the tractor tire on the downhill side of the tractor rolls into a washed out spot on the dam causing the tractor to roll over just a little farther than you are used to. It was definitely an adrenaline rush each time this happened, because it felt like the tractor was going to roll over.
That is when I remembered the story about the little engine that was trying to pull the train over the steep mountain, and he kept chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” over and over. So, between each decade of the Rosary that I was saying while counting Hail Mary’s on my fingers, I added in an “I Think I can…” as an added prayer before the next “Our Father”.
In the time that I worked as a summer help we never turned over a tractor while mowing on a slope. That isn’t to say that the tractors didn’t start to tip over. It’s just that if you realize that the large back tractor tire has left the ground and is spinning freely, you could quickly turn the steering wheel downhill so that the tractor would turn downhill preventing it from rolling completely over. The weight of the brush hog on the back helped to keep the tractor snug against the sloping dam.
Years later, after I left the Power Plant, in 2006, my father’s best friend, Tom Houghton, a Veterinarian in Lakeland, Florida was killed in a tractor accident at his family’s farm in Polo, Missouri. This greatly effected my father. He has not recovered from the loss of his friend still today. As I was mowing grass and picturing my sudden demise if a tractor were to roll down the hill, my main concern was the sorrow my family would have felt by my death. Needless to say… I never toppled a tractor.
It was during that same summer in 1981 that I first worked with the Power Plant Icon Walt Oswalt. Every plant must have at least one person like Walt. He is the type of person that once he has something in his mind about how to do something, nothing is going to change it. I know many different stories about Walt Oswalt that have been shared with me, but this is one of my own. Walt is a sandy-haired Irish-looking man that always reminded me of the little old man, Jackie Wright, on the Benny Hill Show.
I now have an actual picture of Walt that I found laying around….
One Saturday while I had caught a ride to the Power Plant to do “coal cleanup” the crew was asked who would like to wash down belts 10 and 11. These are the 1/2 mile long belts that go from the coalyard all the way up to the plant. You can see them on the left side of the picture of the plant on the side of this post. Finding the opportunity for a challenge, I volunteered.
I made my way up to the top of the Transfer tower where I found Walt Oswalt. He was working out of the coalyard at the time and was helping us wash down 10 and 11 belt. Wearing rainsuits and rubber boots we began at the top and worked our way down. It didn’t look like this belt had been washed down for a while. We could blast the tin enclosure with the high pressure hoses we were using to completely wash off all the coal dust that had built up over time. This looked like it was going to be a fun job.
Then Walt pointed out to me that most of our work was under the belt where the coal had built up almost solid up to the belt itself so that the coal was rubbing on the rubber Uniroyal conveyor belt. Remember, if the conveyor belt goes up, it has to go back down also. So underneath the conveyor is where the belt returns. it is a big loop.
So, Walt Oswalt and I spent the rest of the day laying on the grating so we could see under the belts washing the coal down the slope of belt 10 and 11. Under the conveyor is another set of rollers that the rubber conveyor belt rides on it’s return trip to the Crusher Tower. During this time there were two chants that came to my mind…. One was, “Whistle While you Work”, since we seemed to be in some kind of coal mine working away like the Seven Dwarfs (you know… Walt Disney… Walt Oswalt). The other one was the song, “Workin’ In a Coal Mine” (…goin’ down down).
At one particular spot the coal had built up and packed itself in there so much that one of the rollers wasn’t able to turn and the belt was just rubbing on the roller. After we had washed the coal away we could see that the roller was not able to turn still because the belt had worn it flat on one side.
Walt called the Control Room to shutdown the belt so that we could look at it. We could see that the roller was bad. For some reason the other belt (11) was out of commission so without this belt running, no coal was being sent up to the plant. The coal silos and the surge bin hold enough coal for a while but not for too long during the summer when the units need to run at their maximum rate to supply the electricity needed by the customers. We could have the belt shutdown for a while, but not for too long.
I followed Walt down the belt to the Crusher Tower wondering what he had in mind. He didn’t tell me what we were going to do, so I just gathered my clues by watching what he did. When we came out of the belt and left the Crusher I was surprised that it was already dark outside. When I had left the Maintenance Shop it had been morning. Now it was dark. We had spent the entire day (12 hours at this point) in Belt 10 and 11. I didn’t remember ever taking a break or eating lunch or even going to the bathroom. Just holding the high pressure water hose, directing the stream down under the belt… all day.
We walked over to a new building that was still being built called the Coalyard Maintenance Building. This was the new building that was going to be used by the new Labor Crew in a few months. Outside the building to one side was a Conex Box, as I have described before. This is the kind of large box that you see on the CSX train commercials that are being transported by trains.
We used them to store equipment used for specific jobs or crews. In this case, the Conex box had conveyor equipment in it. Walt found a long straight roller that is used under the Number 10 and 11 belts and tied it to a 2 wheel dolly. We rolled it back to the Crusher Tower and began the long trek back up the belt. I was pulling the dolly and Walt was carrying some large wrenches.
When we arrived at the spot where the roller had been worn, Walt called the control room to let them know we were beginning to work. We pulled the safety cords on the side of the conveyor to ensure that the belt would not start, even though we were assured that a Clearance had been placed on the breaker in the Main Switchgear (where I began my first war with the spiders a year later. See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“).
Walt climbed over the belt and I stayed on the main walkway. We worked upside down for a while unbolting the roller. At one point we decided we needed some more suitable tools and headed back down the belt to the Coalyard Garage where the heavy equipment is serviced and brought back some large ratchet wrenches and sockets with an extension.
I think the chant, “I think I can, I think I can” was running through my head on our second trip back up the conveyor belt. I think it was around 10pm. We finished changing the roller and decided to leave the old one laying in the walkway for the night. Walt said he would bring it back to the coalyard on Monday morning.
We made our way back to the Maintenance shop where I took off the rain suit and rubber boots that I had been wearing all day and put my regular boots back on. I went up to the control room and asked if anyone could give me a ride to Stillwater since the evening shift of operators were just getting off at 11pm. I believe it was Charles Buchanan that gave me a ride home that night in his little beat up pickup truck.
I never worked directly with Charles Buchanan since he was an operator. The first impression that one may have is that he looks like a caricature of a construction worker in a comic strip.
Charles reaffirmed my belief that Power Plant Men are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. There were a few times when I caught a ride with Charles to or from the plant. Each time I felt honored to ride in his truck. If I think about what chant was running through my mind as we were on our way home at night, I think it would be something like the song “You’ve Got a Friend”: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend….”
That is what all real Power Plant men and linemen are like. Wherever you look in the United States, these great men and women work tirelessly to keep you safe by providing electricity to your homes. Something we take for granted until the power goes out.
Recently when the power went out in the east, the linemen from this electric company drove with pride, eager to help those in need:
Below I have included the lyrics for the song “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King and her husband James Taylor. See how well it fits those people that work around the clock bringing the power to your home:
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend.
If the sky above you should turn dark and full of clouds
and that old north wind should begin to blow,
keep your head together and call my name out loud.
Soon I will be knocking upon your door.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there.
Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend? People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you. Well, they’ll take your soul if you let them,
oh yeah, but don’t you let them.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend. You’ve got a friend.
Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend. Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend.
Oh, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.
Here is a YouTube video of James Taylor singing this song:
If your aren’t able to play youtube videos directly from the picture… here is the link: “You’ve got a Friend“
Originally posted on August 18, 2012:
I have just finished watching the movie “Godfather II” with my son. Toward the end of the movie Fredo Corleone and Al are going fishing. There is a scene where the motor boat in the boat house is lowered down into the water. I have seen one boat house like this before where the boat is hoisted out of the water in the boat house so that it can be stored dry while hovering a few feet over the water. The Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked as a summer help had a very similar boat house.
The Power Plant had a boat house because each month during the summer months the chemist had to go to various locations in the lake to take the temperature and a water sample. He would take the water samples back to the chemist lab where they could be analyzed. Each bottle was carefully labeled indicating where in the lake the sample was taken. In order to take the samples out in the middle of the lake…. A motor boat was required. Thus the need for the boat house.
The second summer as a Summer Help (before the boathouse was built) I was asked to go along on this journey with George Dunagan, a new chemist at the time. Larry Riley usually manned the motor, as it was known that the motor for the boat had a tendency to cut out and die at random times and the best person that could be counted on to fix a stranded boat out in the middle of the lake was Larry Riley. I know I always felt safe.
I have seen Larry dismantle part of the motor out in the middle of the lake, clean a fuel filter and put the thing back together again with a minimum number of tools at his disposal. I would sit patiently as the boat rocked back and forth with the waves (Oklahoma winds usually kept a steady flow of waves) waiting for Larry to repair the motor. I didn’t have any fear of missing lunch because Larry was in the boat. So, I would just sit and watch the ducks and other birds fly by or look into the water to see what I could see.
Larry would pull something out of the motor and say, “Well, look at that! No wonder this thing died.” Right on queue. A few minutes later and he would start the boat up again and off we would go speeding across the lake.
During the time I was a summer help, there were various tragic events that took place. One man committed suicide by drowning at the park while his sister and wife waited on the shore to tell whoever was first to arrive. Summer Helps were there, but I was on an errand to Oklahoma City at the time and only heard about it when I returned. He had wrapped himself up in some brush. Evidently, he was in some kind of legal trouble at the time and was expected to show up to serve jail time the following Monday.
Another tragedy which was very sad was when a man was swimming with his son on his shoulders out to the dock that was placed out in the water so that swimmers could swim out to it, when he had a heart attack while his daughter was waiting for them on the shore. When the summer help arrived, the daughter told them that her father and brother just went under the water and never came up. One of the Summer Help, David Foster jumped in and found them both drowned. It was a traumatic experience for him, which I’m sure lives on in his memory to this day. Both the father (which appeared to have had a heart attack) and his son had drowned.
Another man was fishing where the river pumps discharged into the lake. This was a popular place to fish at a certain part of the day. A large man had waded out into the water, and at some point fell over. He could not swim (maybe because he had too much to drink) and was also drowned.
These tragic events were a constant reminder that water sports of all kinds have their dangers. Following Safety rules is very important. I believe that two of those 4 people would have not drowned if they had on a life preserver.
Another more humorous tragedy (depending on how you look at it) occurred not far from the boat ramp at the park located closer to Hwy 177. The story as I heard it was that this stubborn farmer who had become rich when they found oil on his land (and I won’t mention his name, because I don’t remember it. Heck. I can’t even remember his initials, if you can believe that), had bought his first boat. Not knowing much about boating, he wanted to make sure he was well equipped, so he attached the biggest motor he could buy to it.
He lowered it into water at the boat ramp at the park, and turned it around so that it pointed out into the lake. Then he opened it up to full throttle. The nose of the boat proceeded to point straight up in the air, and the boat sank motor first. The man swam over to the shore. Climbed in his truck and drove away. Leaving the boat on the floor of the lake. Now… I figure that someone must have seen this happen, because I’m sure that the person didn’t go around telling everyone that he met what he had done… — That is, until he had a few beers in him… maybe.
I would like to tell you some more about George Dunagan, the chemist that went with us to take the water samples. He looked like the type of person that would make a good Sergeant in the Army. A solid facial structure, and a buzz haircut reminded me of the Sergeant Carter on the Gomer Pyle TV show. Here is a picture of Sergeant Carter and George Dunagan when he was younger:
George was in his mid-40s when I first met him. He was 4 months older than my father. He went about his business as a man that enjoyed his job. Occasionally, something might get under his craw, and he would let you know about it, but you always knew that he was the type of person that was looking out for you, even when you thought you didn’t need it.
I considered George a True Power Plant Chemist. He was a genius in his own field. When I was young and I worked around George, I felt like he was passionate about his job and that he wanted to teach it to others. He would explain to me what the different chemical processes in the Water Treatment were doing. He would take any opportunity to explain things in detail. Some people would think that he was kind of grumpy sometimes, and sometimes they would be right. He cared passionately about things that involved “right” and “wrong”. When he saw something that he considered wrong, he rarely sat still.
I considered George to be a passionate teacher that loved to see others learn. I made it a point to stop and nod my head like I was really listening when he was telling me something because I could see the joy in his face that knowledge was being bestowed upon someone.
As he took the water samples in the lake, he explained to me why he was doing what he was doing. How the EPA required these for so many years to show that the lake was able to cool the power plant steam back to water without disturbing the wildlife that inhabited the lake (that the electric company had created).
At that particular time, they were still taking a baseline of how the water was with just one unit running. Later when both units are running they would see how it held up by comparing the year before when no unit was running, then this year with one, and next year with two units.
I listened intently. Not so much because the topic interested me. I wouldn’t tell George that I was struggling to pay attention because the particulars about how he had to label each sample and put them in order in the box were not as interesting as things that came to my own imagination. I imagined things like… “Wouldn’t it be neat if you could breathe under water?” Or, “If the boat tipped over, and we were in the middle of the lake, would I stay with the boat or try to swim to the shore….” “Was that my stomach rumbling? Am I getting hungry already?” I would put my own imagination aside.
I listened intently, mainly because I could see that George would brighten up to find such an attentive pupil in the boat. I was grinning inside real big to watch George with such a satisfied look. I suppose inside as George was explaining the world of water temperature and bacteria growth, I was thinking, “I wonder if George used to be a Sergeant in the Army.” “Does he teach his own children the same way he does me?”. “I wonder what George did before he came here. Was he a chemist somewhere else?”
At the beginning of this year I began writing this Power plant Man Blog because I felt a great need to capture on paper (well. Virtual paper anyway), some stories about the people I was blessed to work with at the Power Plant. Sonny Karcher, who I considered a good friend had died a couple of months earlier. I needed to write about these men, because if I didn’t, I feared these stories would be lost to the world. These are too great of men to just fade away into history without something being left behind to record at least some memorable events in their lives. 16 days after I wrote my first post this year (on January 18, 2012), George Dunagan died in the Ponca City Medical Center.
One thing I was not surprised to learn about George was that he used to be a teacher. He had a Master Degree in Education and had taught at the Chilocco Indian School for 11 years before going to work at the power plant. This explained why he seemed to go into the “Teacher” mode when he was explaining something.
I also learned that he was in the U.S. Navy where he enlisted in 1954. This didn’t surprise me either. As I mentioned above, George reminded me of the Sergeant Carter on Gomer Pyle, and not in the humorous way, but in the way he carried himself like someone in the military. George Dunagan reached the rank of Master Sergeant in the Army Reserves where he retired in 1994, two years after retiring from the Power Plant life.
The movie Godfather II seemed to be about how one man struggled to build a secure home for his family and fellow countrymen through any means necessary, and about how his son destroyed his own family to the point where he was left completely alone with his family destroyed at the end.
Power Plant Men had their own struggles at home. They were not immune to family strife any more than anyone else. The nature of their work gave them a great sense of dignity and feeling of accomplishment. This sense of dignity helps relieve some stress in the family unit. To realize every day that the work that you perform directly impacts the lives of everyone that receives the electricity being produced at the Power Plant.
When something goes wrong and a base unit trips suddenly, the lights flicker in every school room, every store and every house of 2 million people reminding us that this fragile system is so stable because of the due diligence of True Power Plant Men with the sense to care as much as George Dunagan a True Power Plant Chemist.
Comment from previous repost:
Originally Posted October 5, 2012:
The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked first as a summer help, then as a janitor, a labor crew hand and finally as an Electrician is located about 20 miles north of Stillwater, Oklahoma. It just so happened that Oklahoma State University in Stillwater has one of the leading Fire Protection and Safety schools in the country. They offer Fire Service Training for companies who need to train their employees how to fight fires. As a summer help I was fortunate enough to take the onsite training that they provided at the power plant about every other summer to train the employees how to put out difficult fires.
It does sound like a good idea considering that there was all this coal laying around that had the habit of spontaneously igniting into smouldering embers that could easily lead to a large raging ball of flames. In fact, the Coal Yard heavy equipment operators had to drive their large dirt movers over and over the coal on the coal pile to pack it down because if it was exposed to too much air, it would develop hot spots that would turn into smoldering piles of coal that were nearly impossible to put out.
I have seen a spot smoldering on the coal pile where a water wagon would drench it with water over and over. That only seemed to keep it from spreading as fast. The only way to deal with it was to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn itself out.
You would think that the OSU Fire Training Service would do a good job of teaching the employees the proper use of the fire extinguishers, and they did. The plant was loaded with Fire Extinguishers. As a summer help and labor crew hand, we would have to do a monthly inspection of all the plant extinguishers to check their pressures and initial the inspection sticker showing that we had been by to check it. This was a practice that would later change to once each quarter when the Power Plant Men were strung out too thin and the labor crew no longer existed. Even later, the operators inspected them as they made their rounds, since they walked by them during their shifts anyway.
The plant had more than just the regular chemical fire extinguishers, it had the larger roll-around type in a few places as well:
The Fire Training Service trained us to use this as well. Actually, they motivated us to go out and buy fire extinguishers to put in our own homes. Which came in handy for me one year when an air condition repairman was using a blow torch in my house to cut out the cooling coils but forgot to take out the filter first.
The moment I saw him light up his torch, I pulled out the extinguisher from under the sink and set it on the counter. As I watched him, he suddenly started jerking back and forth. I figured something was up, so I pulled the pin, and when he was finally able to pull the burning filter out of the air duct, I was ready to blast it with the extinguisher. So, I gratefully thank the electric company for properly training us to use the handy dandy fire extinguishers that you might use around the house.
One important thing that you learn about the little extinguishers in your house is that they don’t really go very far before they run out of chemicals. So, you have to get the job done quickly while the fire is still small and manageable.
When I first heard that we were going to be trained to fight fires the second summer I was at the plant as a summer help, I was pretty excited. Wow… Great!!! Fight Fires! That sounds fun. A day of watching safety videos and playing with fire extinguishers. I didn’t realize at the time that there was a reason why OSU Fire Training Service was the best fire training school in the radius of about 1,000 miles.
Sure. We watched the training videos. We learned all about proper fire extinguisher care and maintenance. We heard stories about how small fires turned into raging infernos that burned companies right out of business. One thing I remember is that some large percentage of companies that have a major fire are never able to recover to the point that they go completely out of business.
If you need the exact percentage, I suggest you call up the OSU School of Fire Protection and Safety. They probably have the latest statistic printed on their school lunch napkins, because these guys eat, drink and sleep fire safety.
Then, after they had impressed us with their Fire Safety Prowess, they said, “Let’s take about a 15 minute break, and we will meet outside just north of the water treatment plant where we will resume your lessons. Oh, and bring your rubber boots and maybe a rain suit.” Rain Suit? What? It’s about 100 degrees outside. “I wouldn’t mind getting a little wet”, I thought to myself. — The simpleminded summer help that I was at the time.
I would describe in detail to you how they had this obstacle course of staircases and pipes and other metal structures all sitting in a big tray. It’s enough to say that it was quite a tangled mess of a contraption.
“Interesting.” I thought… Are we going to climb the staircase and shoot the fire from up above with our handy dandy fire extinguishers which were lined up in a row off to one side? Climbing over pipes to fight a fire under the stairs maybe… Do we get to use the big roll around fire extinguisher that was there too? This looks like it might be fun.
That was when the fun began. One of the trainers turned a valve, and then I noticed that there was a fairly large tank there also that was hooked up to the pipes that wound around the mocked up structure of a stairway and other obstacles in the large tray. As he turned the valve, what looked like diesel or kerosene like petroleum product came spraying out of various holes in the piping spraying everything in the tray drenching it with fuel.
This other guy had a long rod that he had lit like a large lighter only it was giant size, and after the fuel had been spraying out for a while, he lowered the flame down into the tray that now was beginning to fill up with some kind of oily substance. He lit it and the flames quickly spread over the entire structure. He had us go in groups of 4 people with fire extinguishers to try to put out the fire. As their extinguishers ran out of fuel, others waiting behind would take their place trying to put out the fire.
We would chase the fire around the structure trying to put it out, but it wasn’t as easy as you would think. If you didn’t completely suffocate it by hitting it from many different directions and in a pattern from one end to the other just right, the fire would dodge around the spray from the extinguishers to be right back where you started. By the time we had used up all the extinguishers, we may have put the fire out about 3 times.
Rubber boots… I kept thinking…. my feet are getting hot… You couldn’t hardly get close enough to the fire to use your fire extinguisher without getting your eyebrows singed. I was always known for having long eyelashes, and I thought I could hear them sizzle as they brushed against my safety glasses.
That’s when they pulled the fire hose out of the fire box that was there next to the fire hydrant. All over the plant grounds there were these red boxes. They are lined up alongside the long conveyor belt from the coal yard to the plant (about 1/2 mile). They were also lined up around the two silver painted million gallon number 2 Diesel tanks. They were just about everywhere you looked (come to think of it).
I remember Summer Goebel when she was a new plant engineer one time asked me when she had first arrived, “What are all those red boxes out there?” (she was pointing out the window of the Engineer’s office). I told her they each contained fire hose and a valve wrench to open up the fire hydrant. I neglected to add that they also provided great shade for all the Jack and Jill rabbits that inhabited the plant grounds, which doubled as a wild life preserve.
So, we were going to use the fire hose! That sounded like more fun. That is until the one guy said to the other guy (more using hand and face signals — like putting his thumb up and winking) “open ‘er up” — so, he was using “slang” hand and face signals…
That’s when the real training began. First of all, we all backed up because as the flames grew on their structure, the heat literally talked directly to your legs and magically told them…. “back up, or else…” so, now that we were standing a good 50 feet away from the fire, we lined up in a row on the fire hose.
4 of us. Four hefty Brawny Power Plant men… (well, 3 hefty brawny power plant men, and one scrawny little runt of a summer help who actually thought he could be measured alongside them), Isn’t that a bit much for this one 4 inch fire hose? (or was it just 3 inches?). There were two hoses actually being used. One to create a wide barrier of water to protect us from the heat, and another hose to shoot water through the barrier into the fire.
A couple of guys manned the large roll around fire extinguisher. Here is an actual picture of the OSU Training Service training a group of employees at a work site to fight fires to give you a picture of what we faced:
Notice the two different types of sprays in the picture. one very wide spray and a narrow spray.
Like I said, these guys aren’t called the best Fire Trainers because they have pretty pamphlets. so, the first time I slipped in the mud, I thought… hmm… I suppose the rainsuit would have kept all that mud from coming into contact with my jeans, and my shirt and my ego.
Well, the most fascinating thing was that we could walk up real close to this intense fire and the wide spray of water sheltered us from the heat.
Then with the large fire extinguisher on wheels, you could open it up on the fire by standing behind this barrier and shoot the chemicals right through the water onto the fire, and it would quickly and incredibly put out that tremendous fire when it was done right. The other fire hose that was spraying through the barrier of water was used to cool everything down so that the fire didn’t spring right back up. the water wasn’t going to put out an oil fire.
Anyway, not long after our first of many fire fighting training sessions that we had throughout the years, the night that we were actually fighting the dragon in the boiler (See the Post, “Where do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today“), the Control Room came over the gray phone (PA system) saying that there was a fire on the turbine room floor.
A bunch of power plant he-men dropped the lance they were using to pierce the dragon and ran off to fight the fire. It turned out to be a barrel full of oily rags that had spontaneously combusted. The fire refused to go out for a long time. It kept re-igniting until the contents had completely burned up.
I remained in the bottom ash area as I was still reeling from the steaming hot water that had been spewed all over me. A little while later the men were back ready to grab the lance and go back to work on the boiler around 10pm (this after a full day of coal cleanup from 8am that morning).
The one important topic that they ingrained into our minds while we were taking the training was that you have to know when the fire is too big to fight. We had learned what our equipment could do and what it couldn’t do. So, we had the knowledge to realize that if the fire is too big, then it is time to get out of there and call the professionals. The only problem was that the nearest professionals were about 20 minutes away. A lot can burn down in that amount of time…. but that is a story for another time. I see the grin on the power plant men’s faces. They know what I am talking about.
Comments from Previous Repost:
Originally posted December 14, 2012:
I have heard the relationship between Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick referred to as the “Punch and Judy Show”. Ok. I thought. Punch and Judy. Sounds like a show from the early 50’s. Must have been a comedy. I thought that for a long time until one day I ran across a brief history of the Punch and Judy Show. It turned out that Punch and Judy was a puppet show from the time of Queen Anne of England. She was queen of England from 1702 to 1714. I could only find a painting of Queen Anne. Didn’t anyone ever think about taking her photograph?
Anyway, once I learned more about Punch and Judy, I realized that this was probably a better description of the Rivers – Sonny relationship than those people realized. It turns out in the first version of the Punch and Judy show, Punch actually strangles his child and beats his wife Judy to death and beats up on other people as well. I suppose that was “entertainment” back then. Now we only have things like “The Terminator”!
I carpooled with Bill Rivers at this particular time when I was a janitor and while I was on labor crew (except during the summer when I carpooled with my summer help buddies). Each day Bill Rivers would explain about some trick he had played on Sonny that day. The one thing that amazed Bill the most was that every day he could play a joke on Sonny, and each day, Sonny would fall for it.
This reminded me of when I was in Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri and I used to borrow a pencil from my friend Bryan Treacy each day and each day I would chew it up to the point where it was practically useless. I had to come up with different diversionary tactics each day, but somehow I was able to coax a wooden pencil from my friend. Before he would realize what he had done, I had already chewed it up from one end to the next. I liked to think that I was tricking Bryan each day, but I also thought that it was odd that Bryan would have a new pencil every time, and he probably made sure that his mom kept a full stock of pencils just for my enjoyment in eating them (I also wondered if I was getting lead poisoning from all the yellow paint I was ingesting).
Bryan Treacy today is a doctor living in Moore Oklahoma (and now back in Columbia Missouri). I would like to drop by his office without seeing him some time just to see if he has any wooden pencils laying about that I could leave all chewed up. I wonder if he would realize I had been there. He might read this blog from time-to-time, so I may have just blown my cover.
I mentioned Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick because they were the first two electricians that I worked for before becoming an electrician. I worked on the precipitator while I was on the Labor Crew. See the Post:
I also mentioned before that I owe my decision to become a Power Plant Electrician to Charles Foster an Electrical B Foreman at the time. I was a janitor and cleaning the electric shop office and lab were part of my duty. How I came to be the janitor of the electric shop is explained further in the post:
I had found the floor scrubbing machine in ill repair. Charles helped me put it back in running condition. He explained how to take care of the batteries and to keep them properly charged.
When the electric shop had an opening they tried to recruit me while I was still a janitor, but the Evil Plant Manager had a rule at the time that when you were a janitor, the only place you could go from there was onto the Labor Crew. That was when Mike Rose was hired to become a backup for Jim Stevenson that worked on the air conditioning and freeze protection. I knew about the janitor ruling so I didn’t have my hopes up. Besides, at the time I didn’t have any electrical background.
Charles asked me to take the electrical courses that were offered by the company. The company offered correspondence courses, and in about 3 weeks, I had signed up for them, read the books, and taken the tests. While I was on the labor crew I signed up for a House wiring course at the Vo-Tech. I was taking that course when I learned that Larry Burns was moving from our electric shop to go to another plant. It was then that I applied for the job as a plant electrician.
The main power transformer for Unit 1 had been destroyed by the heat wave that summer (1983) when the plant had tested it’s durability on the hottest day. The unit was offline for a couple of months while GE created a new transformer and shipped it to us.
After the main power transformer was destroyed and it took so long to ship in a new one, it was decided that we would keep a spare on hand. That way if it went bad again, we could swap them out quickly. That is probably the best assurance that we wouldn’t lose that transformer again. We had that spare transformer sitting around for years collecting taxes. I’m sure we must have paid for it a few times over again.
During the time that the unit was offline, and we weren’t shaking boiler tubes or cutting the ash out of the economizer tubes, I was working with Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick on the precipitator. The precipitator (by the way), is what takes the smoke (ash) out of the exhaust, so you don’t see smoke coming out of the smokestacks.
Bill and Sonny were pretty well sure that I was going to be selected to fill the opening in the Electric Shop, so they were already preparing me to work on the precipitator. Of all the jobs in the electric shop, this one had more to do with electronics than any of the others. That gave “being an electrician” a whole new dimension. I was even looking forward to taking an Electronics course at the Vo-Tech in the spring.
I was getting updates from Bill and Sonny about the progress of the job opening and they were telling me about the battle that was going on between the Evil Plant Manager and the Electrical Supervisor. Eldon Waugh, the plant manager at the time wanted Charles Peavler to be chosen as the electrician. He had an electrical background, because he had wired his barn once.
The ultimate reason why the plant manager wanted Charles Peavler to be the new electrician was because I had been placed on the blacklist due to the incident that took place earlier that I had described in the post:
Thanks to Larry Riley’s performance review, and his purposeful procrastination of the Plant Manager’s request to modify my performance review, and Charles Foster’s insistence that they follow the procedures that were laid out in the new Employee Application Program (known as the EAP), the argument stopped with Charles Foster’s statement: “Let’s just take whoever has the best performance rating as it is laid out in the company policy and leave it at that.” I was chosen to fill the position for the opening in the Electric Shop.
I was actually called to Eldon Waugh’s office while I was sandblasting the Sand Filter Tank. See Post:
When I arrived in Eldon’s office I was covered from head to toe in sandblast dust. My hair was all disheveled and my shirt was soaked with sweat. Jack Ballard (the head of HR) was sitting there along with Leroy Godfrey and Charles Foster. I knew what it was about because according to Bill Rivers on the way home the day before, they had already decided that they were going to accept me for the position.
Eldon Waugh explained that I was being offered the job that I had applied for in the electric shop. I felt really humbled at the time. Even though I was expecting it, I felt surprised that it was actually happening. To me, being an electrician was like the greatest job in the world. The electricians were like an elite team of super heroes.
I had the occasion to watch the electricians while I was a janitor in their shop and many of them were like these super intelligent beings that could quickly look at a blueprint and grab their tool bucket and head out to fix the world. I was very grateful for the opportunity, and at the same time apprehensive. I wasn’t sure if I had the quality of character and intelligence to become a part of this team. This was truly a dream come true for me.
Few times in my life has this happened to me. The day I was married. The day I became a Father. The day I drove to Dell to begin my first day as a Programmer Analyst. These were all major milestones in my life. The first major milestone was the day I became an electrician. Because of the way that I am (I don’t know…. maybe it’s because I’m half Italian), I just wanted to break out in tears and hug Eldon Waugh and cry on his shoulder. Instead, I just managed to crack a small smile.
I thanked them and started to leave. Then Jack Ballard said something interesting. As I was leaving he asked, “Uh…. Do you accept the offer?” Oh. In my surprise and elation, I hadn’t said anything but “Thank You”. Jack’s expression was that it wasn’t official until it was official. So, I replied, “Yes. I accept the offer”. “Ok then,” Jack replied. And I left to go crawl back in my hole and continue sandblasting the Sand Filter tank.
My last day on the Labor Crew was on November 4, 1983. I was leaving my Labor Crew Family behind and moving onto a new life in the electric shop. This was hard for me because I really did consider most of the people on the Labor Crew as family. Fred Crocker, Ron Luckey, Jim Kanelakos, and Ronnie Banks. Curtis Love and Chuck Moreland. Doretta Funkhouser and Charles Peavler. Jody Morse and Bob Lillibridge.
Most of all, I knew I was going to miss Larry Riley. I had worked with Larry from the day I had first arrived as a summer help in 1979. Now it was November, 1983. 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.
The last day on the labor crew I suspected foul play. Mainly because the last day that Bill Cook was on the Labor Crew, he had asked us if we would throw Larry in the intake as a going away gift. I had worked with Bill when we were summer help together and I felt like I owed him one, so I told him I would help.
As we were driving from the Coalyard Maintenance building (the home of the labor crew) to the plant maintenance shop that day, Bill Cook, who was driving, suddenly turned toward the intake pumps and stopped the truck. By the time Larry had figured out what was going on, we had dragged Larry out of the truck and I was carrying him over to the Intake and getting ready to throw him in.
Larry had worked with me long enough to know that once I had set my mind on something, there was no turning back. He had tried to escape from my grip, but I had him where he couldn’t escape. As I climbed with him over the guard rail and headed toward the edge of the water, Larry said the only possible thing that could make me stop in my tracks. He said, “Please Kevin. Don’t do this.”
I was paralyzed. Stuck between my word with Bill Cook that I would help him throw Larry in the brink, and a plea from someone who meant the world to me. There wasn’t but one choice to make. I set Larry down. I walked back to the truck and I told Bill, “I’m sorry. I can’t do it.” I returned to my seat in the back of the crew cab. Without my help, no one else had the resolve and strength to follow through with Bill’s wish. We drove on to the Maintenance Shop.
So, on my last day on the Labor Crew, I thought that something similar might be planned for me. As soon as we left to go to work that morning, I headed up Belt 10 and 11. That is the long belt on the left side of the power Plant picture on the upper right side of this post…. Ok. I’ll post it here:
Once up 10 & 11 and 12 & 13, I was in the Surge bin tower. (The Surge Bin Tower is the white building you can see between the two boilers near the top that has the conveyor belt entering it from the left). From there, I roamed around looking for some coal to clean up. I figured I would stay far away from my labor crew buddies that day.
At the end of the day, I traveled back down belts 10 & 11 and headed into the office in the Coalyard Maintenance building to fill out my last timecard as a Laborer. Beginning next Monday on November 7, I would be an “Electrician.” Along with the empty feeling at the bottom of my heart was a feeling of excitement for the new adventure that awaited me.
Originally posted January 11, 2013:
Today I sit quietly in a cubicle with a group of other people on my team. We each type away throughout the day, or we are on calls in our own meetings listening to conversations where we offer input where it is necessary. I may listen to music on my computer to help me get into the rhythm of my work as I type away creating documents or sending IMs to other employees as they ask me questions throughout the day.
That was not how it was before the PC made inroads into our lives. We used to sit around and talk to each other. We did things to pass the time while we worked on tedious jobs. We talked about our families. We talked about movies and shows we had seen. We asked each other how their family was doing. Sometimes, we even sang.
I was sitting on the Precipitator Roof installing a new Rapper circuit board in the Rapper Vibrator cabinet while one of my Precipitator Mentors sat behind me making sure that I was learning the fine art of Precipitator Maintenance on one of the first actual jobs I worked on when I became an Electrician.
The day was growing long, and Sonny had taken over for me and was installing the second circuit board while I was sitting on a Tension house box where Sonny had previously been sitting. Suddenly I felt this sudden urge to burst out in song. It was not known before this moment that I was sort of a professional singer. Actually. I had grown up with a family of singers.
My mother and my sister used to break out into song at random times throughout my childhood when a song would come over the radio on the easy listening station that was constantly on. So naturally, it would be natural for me to want to break out into song when the moment was right.
So, I just let loose singing one of my favorite songs. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t an accompaniment. I didn’t need the orchestra behind me on the radio to help me keep time. I had the orchestra playing in my mind…. I didn’t need the tuning fork that Sister Maureen used to use at Catholic School when I was a kid as she would bang it on the desk and then hum with a wavering hum until she came in tune with her tuning fork. No. The tuning fork came from years of listening to my favorite songs.
Yes. Even before the iPod was invented and the VCR had come around, there were two places where a person could hear a song over and over and over again. One place was the radio. Back in the 70’s when your favorite song was in the top 20’s you could hear it play over and over again every two hours on the radio.
So, I burst out with one of my favorite songs and started to serenade my new found friend, Sonny Kendrick. I began quietly and worked my way up to a crescendo. The song I sang began thus: “Here’s the story of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls….”
I continued with great confidence in my singing ability, knowing that I was impressing my fellow electrician with my fantastic singing ability: “all of them had hair of gold, like their mother….the youngest one in curls!” Even louder I bellowed out: “Here’s the story of a man named Brady who was living with three boys of his own. They were four men living all together, yet they were all alone!”
Now I was in full form with my hand on my chest, standing at attention with all the full emotion I could draw out as I sang the final verse: “Till the one day when the lady met this fellow. And they knew that it was much more than a hunch, That this group must somehow form a family, That’s the way we all became the Brady bunch!”
Then as if I was playing an air guitar on stage, I was able to dramatically complete my short opera with the shaking of my head as I sang the final words: “The Brady bunch, the Brady bunch. That’s the way we became the Brady bunch bunch bunch…..” (now you know the second place where you could hear a song over and over).
Acting rather proud of my accomplishment I relieved Sonny as I was going to install the third of the four Rapper cards in the cabinet…. I began connecting the wires to the circuit board one at a time when all of the sudden I was struck with some strange form of electricity!
Had we forgotten to turn off the electrical disconnect to the 480 Volts to the cabinet? My fingers were shaking from the sudden impulse of electricity. My knees were buckling so that I stumbled back and sat against rappers behind me. I was completely stunned. I couldn’t tell if my ears were actually picking up sound or I had suddenly died and was on my way to heaven because I had just electrocuted myself in the cabinet.
My head was spinning. Thoughts entered my head like, “Great. I have just been electrocuted! I have only been an electrician for less than a month and already I have killed myself. I hope my parents and my girlfriend don’t think I suffered when I died.”
Gradually, I realized that the sounds of harps and the humming of angels were all just an accompaniment that were being added by heaven itself to the song that was emanating from Sonny Kendrick! Sonny Kendrick, while he was taking his repose while I had proceeded to install my circuit board had suddenly had a similar urge to break out into song.
Only, unlike my feeble attempt at doing justice to the Brady Bunch Song, Sonny Kendrick was singing as if God himself had come down and suddenly transformed him into an Opera Singer. I couldn’t tell if he was singing something from Wagner’s immortal Opera “The Ring” or if he was singing La Boheme by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.
It didn’t matter to me. All I could do was sit there on a tension house in stunned amazement. Tears were rolling down my face. Here was a guy that people referred to as Baby Huey because of his build ( I guess):
Suddenly his lower build had moved up to the chest area and Sonny Kendrick had transformed into Franklin Floyd Kendrick! The magnificent opera singer!
When my friend and sudden Opera singing hero had finished, he stepped over the conduits and went to work to add the last rapper circuit board on the rack with the other three.
Still sitting on the tension house coming to my senses. Realizing that my transformation to heaven was only a temporary visit. I asked Sonny…. “What was that?” — That was all I could think of saying. What else could I say? “Can I have your Autograph?” I suppose I could have said that. No. All I could say was, “What was that?”
Here is a picture of Sonny. He didn’t have a beard then, but he has the exact same smile today that he had that day! He gave me this exact same smile when I asked him “What was that?” Exactly!
I said, “Sonny. What are you doing here? Why are you an electrician when you have a voice like that?” He replied by telling me that he had a family and he had to provide for them and he couldn’t do it by being a singer. So I asked him how he became an electrician.
You see. At the time, Sonny had the distinction of being the Electrical Specialist. He was the only one. He had gone to Oklahoma State Tech in Okmulgee and received a technical degree there in electronics. This gave him the ability to become the electrical specialist at the plant.
His real dream was to become an Opera Singer. Being an electrician was something to pay the bills. His heart was in his song. Sonny has a tremendous heart. I know. I have seen and heard it beating.
There is a part of Sonny’s story that is a tragedy. Isn’t that usually true with great artists? I suppose that is where their passion for their creativity comes from. This was true with Sonny, and in the next few months, I learned more and more about the burden that had been put on Sonny’s shoulders.
You see. One day. Sonny had said something to Leroy Godfrey to the effect that Sonny was a electrical specialist. He should be doing something more than spending all his time working on the precipitator. What his exact words were doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Leroy Godfrey had decided that day that Sonny Kendrick was to be banished to the precipitator. Never to work on anything but the precipitator.
In order to understand what this means… you have to understand the conditions someone has to work in when they work on the precipitator… First of all. No one wants to work with you, because it means working in the midst of pigeon dung, insulation, fly ash, and dust. Along with that, when the unit is online, the roof of the precipitator is one of the loudest places at the plant. Rappers and Vibrators going off constantly. Buzzing and Banging! Very hot in the summer and freezing in the winter.
As time went by, and Bill Rivers and Sonny filled in the blanks I came to understand just how burned out Sonny Kendrick was with working on the precipitator. I could see how he literally had to drag himself to the precipitator roof to work on the cabinets or fix a transformer knife switch. He would rather being doing anything else. The precipitator had become like Van Gogh’s ear. He just wanted to cut it off.
It had occurred to me at the time that the units had only been online for about 3 and 4 years and Sonny was already completely burned out on this job. It made perfect sense to me when I understood that this was a punishment for trying to stand up to an Old School Power Plant Supervisor. In order to understand Leroy Godfrey read the post:
A little less than two years later, Sonny Kendrick sang at my wedding. He was up in the balcony singing a list of songs that had been given to him by my mom. Bill Moler, the Evil Assistant Plant Manager who was serving as a Deacon at my wedding came in the front door dressed in his robes and ready to go into the church. I was standing there greeting people as they came in.
Bill suddenly stopped and stood still for a moment. Then he said, “Who is that singing? Where did you find someone with such a wonderful voice?” I proudly told him, “That’s Sonny.” Bill leaned forward and said, “Our Sonny?” I replied, “Yep. Sonny Kendrick. Our Sonny Kendrick.”
I had decided early on that I was going to do whatever I could to pull Sonny off of that Precipitator so that he could use his talents as they were meant to be used. So, every time I was asked to help out on the precipitator, I was glad to help Sonny.
Years later, when Sonny was finally able to be free of the precipitator, he went kicking and screaming, because I had turned precipitator maintenance on it’s head and it was hard for Sonny to see his work all turned Topsy-turvy. I knew that like myself, Sonny had a personal relationship with his work and that when someone else was tinkering with it it was a kind of “insult”.
I knew for Sonny it was best. It didn’t take him long to step out into the open air and take a deep breathe. Once he realized it was no longer his worry, he was a much happier man. I am pleased to see that Sonny Kendrick today wears the same smile that he did that day when he had broken out in song and serenaded me on top of the Precipitator.
It means that he still has the peace that he is due. I can’t help it. I have to end this post by posting his picture again. Just look into his eyes and see his joy. I’ll bet this picture was taken just after he had finished an aria of La Traviata by Guiseppe Verdi:
In a way. Sonny’s life has been a Aria. I have been blessed to have been able to call him “Friend”.
COMMENTS FROM THE ORIGINAL POST:
The best job I ever had with OG&E was as a Results Engineer at Seminole. I helped start up all 3 units, design, purchase and install a water induction prevention system for unit 2, balance turbines, fans, etc., became “Plant Photographer”, designed all the racks and supports for turbine/generator rotors and diaphragms, ran performance tests on the boiler/turbine units, and lots of other fun stuff. But in 1975 I was promoted to “Senior Results Engineer”.
OG&E saw people with an Engineering degree as automatically anointed for management. I didn’t agree with that, but I was stuck in that culture. That promotion made me “Supervisor” of Montie Adams. I first began working with Montie (Old Power Plant Man) in 1967 at Mustang as a summer student in the Results department. (That’s where I got to know Leroy Godfrey too).
Montie had taught me a lot, had tons of knowledge and experience, and was much more qualified than I was. But he didn’t have the degree so he couldn’t even apply for the job. I never did become comfortable supervising people with more knowledge and experience than me just because I had the magic degree. From 1975 on, my job focus was no longer on the equipment used in generating electrical power, but on the people who used and maintained that equipment. I never understood how an engineering degree equipped me for that.
Plant Electrician January 12, 2013
It’s funny how cultures change over time. You described the old power plant culture perfectly.
Today in my profession, it is perfectly sensible to manage employees that have more knowledge about their work than you have. The trick is knowing that. I currently have a terrific manager that would hardly know how to do what I do. That really isn’t his job though. He relies on his people to know what they are doing. It is being a good leader that makes one a good supervisor. Not trying to find or pretend to know all the answers yourself. Somehow that was lost on the Old Power Plant Man culture.
I think that was why we were so stunned when you arrived at the plant and you had a personality beyond “slave driver”. I know I’ll write more about this in the future, but there were a number of times where I was pleasantly surprised to find that you listened to me and even asked for my advice.
Originally posted March 30, 2013:
When you think about it, you probably spend more time with your best friend than you ever did talking to your own father. That is, unless your father is your best friend. Charles Foster was my “Foster Father”. Though I was grateful for his effort to bring me into the Electric Shop at the Coal-Fired Plant, when I had little to no electrical experience, that wasn’t the reason why we became such good friends.
When I moved into the electric shop from the labor crew, Charles Foster was my B Foreman. He was my foreman for only the first year of the 18 years I spent as an electrician. He was my friend from the first day I met him until… well… until the end of eternity.
I found that most of the electricians were more intelligent than others it seemed. The shop had people that were Heroes in their own right. Andy Tubbs, Craig Jones, Terry Blevins, Diana Lucas and Ben Davis were what I thought of as “Delta Force” Electricians. They were sent to tackle the toughest of jobs because everyone knew that they would pour all they had into their work until the job was done.
Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers were the electronics buffs. They would work on calibrating, programming and monitoring different plant systems. These are the people that you went to when a piece of electronic equipment was on the fritz, and they would analyze, test and repair it with their endless drawers of all types of electronic parts.
There were some other electricians, such as Art Hammond, Bill Ennis, Jim Stevenson and Mike Rose that had their own special knowledge that made each of them unique (to be sure). The other two foremen were Howard Chumbley and O.D. McGaha (prounounced: Oh Dee Muh Gay Hay).
Charles Foster didn’t fall in the same category as the others. He wasn’t the type of person to wire up a Boiler Water Circulating Pump, or run conduit up the side of the boiler. Though he would do these tasks when the A-Team wasn’t around to do it. He liked to work alone, or at least alongside one other person. I felt lucky that Charles enjoyed working with me.
When I first joined the electric shop Charles made two things clear to me; don’t call him Charlie and don’t make fun of his spelling. He was sensitive about those two things. I agreed, and I never did…. call him Charlie or make fun of his spelling.
Charles knew he had a problem with spelling, and there didn’t seem to be anything he could do about it. So, I often checked over his work before he sent something. — This was before Personal Computers were available in the office with spell checkers.
During my first electrical year (1984), Charles and I would sit in the Electric Shop Office during lunch and talk about movies we had seen. We took turns relaying entire movies to each other. We would start out by saying, “Have you seen “Karate Kid”? Well you see, there was this boy who was moving to California with his mom from someplace in the east and….”
We quickly learned that we liked the same kind of movies and shows, and even more, we liked telling each other about them. It seems that we spent years during lunch talking about one movie (or TV show) after the other. I looked forward to just sitting with Charles and talking during lunch.
I noticed in the years that I worked at the Power Plant that, in general, Power Plant Men have the knack of thinking outside of the box. Charles Foster was very good at doing this, and we would have discussions about all sorts of subjects. From God and the Universe to time travel and gardening. The more we talked, the more I came to realize that this man was brilliant.
Not “Newton” brilliant, but “Einstein” brilliant…. If you know what I mean…. Newton had a great mathematical mind and used that ability to become the father of Physics. Einstein on the other hand used his ability to take an observation and mix it with his idea of reality to come up with something that seemed totally unrelated, but made sense nonetheless. This was Charles.
So, what great plans did Charles come up with? What plot to take over the world (as my current manager at Dell, Clay Worley accuses me of weekly)? He became a good father to his son and daughter and a good husband to his wife Margaret. All the things that are really important for the survival of mankind.
One day while Andy Tubbs and I were driving to the River Pump station to check the transformers during substation checks, we stopped along the roadside and I picked a stalk from a Cattail that was about ready to bloom.
The plan was to put it in Charles’ top right hand desk drawer. The reason is that when handled just right, this brown furry “flower” (if you want to call it that) will literally explode into tens of thousands of tiny floating bits of fur. Sort of like a dandelion does when it turns white, only more furry and much more numerous. A thousand times more numerous.
When we arrived back in the shop, I walked into the office and told Charles that I had a present for him. Holding the stalk in my hand I opened his drawer. As Charles leaped out of his chair to stop me, I dropped the cattail into his drawer full of tools and odds and end parts, and it exploded into a huge ball of fur. Cattail fur went flying around the room.
Charles was genuinely upset. You see… It wasn’t bad enough that our clothes and hair and nose were being speckled with fur… Charles had allergies and this fur wasn’t helping. So Charles hurried into the shop and wheeled the Shop Vac over to the door and unraveled the hose and plugged it in to vacuum out his drawer.
Charles was trying to vacuum up the mess in his drawer before the office became flooded with the fur. He turned the vacuum on and turned around to put the end of the hose in the drawer. As he turned, Andy quickly disconnected the hose from the intake and attached it to the outtake. Notice the two holes on the front of the Shop-Vac. The bottom one is to vacuum while the top hose connect actually blows out the air.
By the time Charles plunged the end of the hose into the drawer, it was blasting air from the hose which caused just the opposite effect that Charles was hoping for. The entire room became so full of flying fur that any attempt to clean it up became impossible. I couldn’t help it, I was over in the corner laughing at the situation that Charles found himself in….. Of course… I was standing in the middle of what looked like a heavy snowstorm.
After about 5 minutes some of the flying fur had settled on the floor and the entire floor in the office was covered with what seemed like about 2 inches of fur. — Ok. So, I felt guilty about this. I hadn’t thought about Charles’ allergies. For the next 2 months (at least), each morning Charles would remind me that I was still supposed to feel bad about it by opening his drawer when he first came in, and blowing down into the drawer causing fur to stir up and fly around the room. Yeah, it was remarkable that it lasted so long.
During a Major Overhaul, the electricians do alarm checks. During this time, you go down the list of every alarm in the plant and test it to make sure it is still working as designed. There are hundreds of alarms. You take blueprints with you to go to every conceivable alarm on the unit that is down for overhaul. Then while someone is sitting in the control room watching the alarm printout and the alarm monitors, the electrician will place a jumper across the apparatus that brings in the alarm and wait until the person in the control room acknowledges the alarm.
To do this job, you need to read the wire numbers on the print and match them with the wires on the terminal blocks. Then you call the Control room on the radio and ask them if alarm so and so came in. We found out quickly that we didn’t want Charles doing either of these two jobs. Charles had the habit of reading the numbers out of order. Instead of wire number 25496, he might read 24956.
I know that some of you recognize the signs that I have described about Charles. I know that Charles felt a great frustration with his problem spelling and transposing numbers. One night in 1992, I watched a movie on TV called “The Secret” with Kirk Douglas.
I wouldn’t normally have sat and watched a movie like this because it dragged on for a while and didn’t seem to have much of a plot. What kept me glued to the TV was that the man in the movie played by Kirk Douglas was just like Charles except that he couldn’t read at all. He was very smart and was trying to hide the fact that he just couldn’t read.
When his grandson began having the same problem, he realized he had to do something about it. That was when he found out that he had Dyslexia. There are different forms or degrees of Dyslexia, but I recognized right away that this was a story about Charles Foster. I knew that his son Tim who was in High School at the time was having the same difficulty with spelling.
The next morning when I arrived in the Electric Shop Office I had to tell Charles right away (I couldn’t wait until our normal lunch time movie review) that I knew why he had so much trouble spelling and why he always jumbled his numbers around. It was because he had Dyslexia. I explained the movie to him. As I was telling this to Charles I could see that he was beginning to understand…. everything fit.
I watched as Charles soaked in what I had just told him. A lifetime of feeling like he had failed at the most simple of tasks were drying up before his eyes. He had a condition that was not only common, but was also treatable in the sense that you could learn to improve using the correct techniques. Just knowing why was good enough for Charles. He had spent years coping and working around. Now he knew why. I will never forget that moment when I was sitting in the office smiling at Charles smiling back at me.
I mentioned above that Charles reminded me of Albert Einstein. It is an interesting coincidence (or is it?) that the movie “The Secret” earned the Einstein Award from the National Dyslexia Research Foundation in 1992. It seems that Einstein, Charles Foster and Dyslexia go together.
God Bless you Charles and your wonderful family!