The electric company in Oklahoma decided late 1995 that it was about time that the employees in the company learn about the Internet. The company recognized that the vast amount of information on the Internet was very useful and encouraged everyone to start using it. A request form was available to request access to various features the Internet provided and with your Foreman’s approval, all you had to do was take a short course in Internet Etiquette and you were in (well almost). The problem with this effort was that no one bothered to teach Plant Management about the Internet, so the “Quest for the Internet” was about to begin.
As the leading computer geek at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma I had been accessing the Internet for years. I had used CompuServe and Telnet to log into the Internet before Internet Browsers and World Wide Web (WWW) were available.
I thought it was a great idea for everyone to use the Internet, so when Alan Kramer gave us the form it didn’t take long before I filled it out. Sounds pretty simple….. but unfortunately, after a short misstep on my part, a six month battle was about to begin.
The form was simple enough, you just needed to check the boxes for which part of the Internet you needed to access, and after your foreman signed it, you mailed it to Corporate Headquarters, where you would be scheduled to attend a two hour course on how to properly use the Internet in a business setting. The form was written in a curious way that sort of indicated to me that not a lot of thought had been put into it. It was either that, or the person that created the form didn’t understand the Internet very well. Here’s why:
The different parts of the Internet that you could check that you wanted to access were these: WWW, e-mail, Telnet, NewsGroups, FTP. The World Wide Web (WWW) had yet to become popular. The number of Web sites on the Internet was still less than 250,000. Compare that to today where there is almost 1 billion websites.
Well, e-mail…. you know what that is. Telnet was the usual way I had accessed the Internet for years. I would log in through the Oklahoma State University computer using Telnet, and from there I had access to almost all of the University computers in the country as well as a lot of the Government computers. You could actually print out pages and pages of all the computers on the Internet at the time using a simple seek command.
For those of you who don’t know… Before MySpace and Facebook, NewsGroups were used to communicate to people who had similar interests. They were sort of small blog sites.
On a side note:
I was a member of a number of work related NewsGroups. One NewsGroup that I was active in was for Precipitators. There were about 50 people from all over the world in this group and we all were obsessed with working on precipitators. As it turned out, two of us lived in Stillwater Oklahoma. The other guy worked for a company called Nomadics that made bomb sniffing detectors called Fido. They had a tiny precipitator that collected the particles. We were on the opposite sides of the spectrum. We had a 70 foot tall, 200 foot wide and 100 foot long precipitator, where his precipitator was tiny. I thought a few times about applying for a job with them since they were only 4 miles from my house, but, since I wasn’t an engineer I didn’t think I had a chance of being hired. Besides, what is better than working at a Power plant?
End of Side Note.
FTP, the last item on the list stands for File Transport Protocol. This is how you downloaded or uploaded files after you have used Telnet to connect to a site.
I’m sorry I’m boring you with all this, but I’m explaining them for a reason. You see… I’m getting to the part where I made my “misstep”. Maybe it was meant to happen this way, because in the end, everything worked out better than it probably would have if I had just been a little more patient…. Here’s what I did…
After checking each of the boxes, next to WWW, Telnet, NewsGroup, e-mail and FTP, I went to the foremen’s office to have Alan Kramer sign the form so that I could mail it off to Corporate Headquarters. When I arrived, Alan was gone. He had left early that day for some reason, so I walked into Jasper Christensen’s office, our Supervisor of Maintenance and asked him to sign it. Big mistake.
I wrote a post recently about Jasper’s lack of computer knowledge and how I had goaded him for making a dumb computer decision, (see the post “Power Plant Trouble With Angels“). When I handed him the form, he glanced at it, and I could see the blank look on his face indicating that he didn’t understand the different terms such as Telnet, FTP and e-mail or WWW. He might have thought he knew what NewsGroups were, but most likely that would have been incorrect.
So, instead of signing the paper, he said, he would review it and get back to me. Well…. that was unexpected. The company was encouraging us to use the Internet, so I figured it was pretty much a slam dunk. From past experience I knew that Jasper was reluctant to approve anything that he didn’t fully understand, which makes some things difficult.
During the “We’ve Got the Power” Program (See the Post: “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got the Power’ Program“) I tried to elicit an approval from Jasper about a simple example of Thermodynamics that I thought was cut and dry, especially since Jasper was the Engineering Supervisor at the time. Even though I had a sound argument about how heat dissipates in the Air Preheater, he would never say that he would agree. Only that he understood what I was saying. So, when Jasper said that he would “get back to me on this” I knew what that meant. He was going to try to find out what these different things were.
Two weeks later, Alan Kramer told me that Jasper had decided not to approve my request for Internet access. Somewhat peeved, I went into Jasper’s office and asked him why he wouldn’t approve my request. He responded with, “Give me reasons in writing why you need each of these items on this form.” — Oh. I figured that out right away. He had tried to find out what these things meant, but (without the Internet), it was hard to find the answers. So, he was asking me to tell him what these were.
So, I went back to the Electric Shop office and I wrote a full page paper outlining what each item was (WWW, Telnet, NewsGroups, FTP and e-mail). I also explained why I was requesting access to each of these. For Telnet and FTP, one of the reasons I used was that I would Telnet into the OSHA computer and download MSDS’s (Material Safety Data Sheets) for chemicals we had at our plant. The operators had asked me a number of times if I could give them a copy of an MSDS for chemicals. It is a requirement to keep an MSDS for every chemical on the plant site, and I could easily download them from the OSHA.gov computer.
When I gave my explanation to Jasper, he said he would study it and get back to me later. Two weeks later, Jasper called me to his office and said that during a staff meeting they had discussed my request for Internet access and they had decided that I didn’t need access to the Internet to do my job. They had also decided that the only thing on the list that anyone at the plant needed was e-mail and only Jim Arnold (The Supervisor of Operations) and Summer Goebel (The head engineer) needed e-mail. No one else at the plant needed anything else. — You can see why I used phrases like “Another Brilliant Idea” when describing some of Jasper’s Management decisions. Only two people at the plant needed e-mail… . Sounds funny today, huh?
A few months later, in March 1996, I was sent to Oklahoma City to learn how to install the SAP client on desktop computers. The way I was chosen was that someone downtown called each of the Power Plants and other offices and asked the receptionist who the computer geek was at the plant. Denise Anson, our receptionist gave them my name. We were supposed to change our entire financial, inventory, maintenance, and billing system over to SAP at the end of the year from our mainframe computer system. SAP is called an ERP system or Enterprise Resource Planning system. It combines almost all the computer activities in a company into one package where everything is accessible in one application.
I will go into the implementation of SAP in more detail in later posts, but for now, I was just learning about installing the client application on the computers at our plant. There were a number of steps to the installation, and a lot of times it would fail. So, they gave us some troubleshooting tips and asked us to share any tips we came up with while we were doing this task.
When I returned to the plant, I went about installing SAP on each of the computers. I think we had 22 computers all together. Anyway, during this time, I was thinking that after 3 months, I would resubmit my request for the Internet, since after all, now everyone had e-mail since we had installed a computer network at the plant with Novell’s Netware. It was obvious that we were progressing into the computer age with or without the plant staff.
So, I filled out another request form, and even before asking I wrote up another page of reasons why I could use each of the items on the form. One new reason was that the Thomas Register was now online. This was a large set of books that had information about every supplier and vendor in the United States (and beyond). It was used to find phone number, addresses and other fun stuff about vendors. A set of books could cost $5,000.00 each and you had to buy them every couple of years to keep them current.
I didn’t even need to waste my time writing out my reasons. When I gave the form to Alan, he signed it immediately and handed it back to me. I thanked him and mailed it off. A couple of weeks later I received a note through intra-company mail that I was signed up for an Internet class in Oklahoma City. Since I had been in trouble before with going to classes in Oklahoma City, I made sure I didn’t charge any driving time expenses to go to the class.
The lady who was teaching the class knew who I was, because she had worked with me before on computer issues at the plant. It was a simple course on computer etiquette, how the Internet worked and things we should and should not do on the Internet. At the end of the course, we were told that someone would come by our desk and install the Internet on our computers. — Well, our plant was 75 miles away and I knew that it was rare to have someone from the Computer Department come out to our plant, so I didn’t expect anything soon.
It was now the summer of 1996. I was driving down to the river pumps to clean motor filters with Charles Foster when Denise Anson called me on my radio and said that a guy from the SAP team was calling me. I asked her to patch the call to my Walkie Talkie, and she did.
It was the guy from Corporate Headquarters leading the effort to install all the client applications on the computers. He said they were going to have another meeting because everyone was having so much trouble with the installation. I told him that I had already successfully installed the client on all of the computers at the plant except for one, and that was because it was an old junky one that needed to be re-imaged.
The guy was surprised that we were already finished and said that our site was the first site in the company to complete the installation. Then he said, “If there is ANYTHING I can do for you, just let me know!” I glanced over at Charles who was driving the truck and could hear our conversation over the radio, and smiled.
I said, “There’s one thing. You see. Our plant is out here in the middle of no where. I have completed the Internet training course, but we are so far away that no one ever comes around that would install the Internet on my computer, so if you could send me the files, I’ll install it myself.” He replied, “Sure Thing Buddy! I’ll share a folder where you can go pick up the files.”
After installing the files, I realized that it was just an Internet Explorer browser. We were using Windows 3.2 at this time. After opening the browser and playing around with it for a while, I realized that there wasn’t any control around my username. That is, anyone could come into our office and log on our computer and use the browser. Then we found out that you didn’t even have to log on first. The Internet was wide open. There were no real controls around the use of the Internet. The only control was just the lack of a browser on the computer!
So, here is what I did next. I went to every computer at the plant (except the staff’s computers) and installed the Internet Explorer browser on them. At each computer, I gave the Power Plant Men the same course I had taken downtown. I told them what they should do and what they shouldn’t. I showed them how the browser worked, and how to setup shortcuts, and other things. Before long every Power Plant Man and Woman at the plant was cruising the Internet except the staff…. After all… they had decided that all they needed was e-mail and only for Summer Goebel and Jim Arnold.
A few weeks after I had taught all the Power Plant Men at the plant how to use the Internet, Jasper Christensen’s voice came over the radio…. “Kevin! I want to see you in my office right away!”. Okay. The gig was up. I recognized that tone of voice from Jasper. The showdown was about to begin. I was about to be chewed out for making the Internet available to everyone. Maybe even fired. I didn’t know how upset he was going to be when he found out.
As I walked from the Electric Shop to the far corner of the Maintenance Shop to Jasper’s office, I articulated in my mind what I would say. I had decided that the best defense was to explain that all I did was install the Internet browser on the computers. I didn’t have access to actually grant anyone access to the Internet. If everyone has access to the Internet, it isn’t because I gave them access. — This was true.
I took a deep breath just before entering Jasper’s office. I went in his office with the most straight face I could muster. “Here it comes,” I thought…. the six month battle for the Internet is coming to a head. Jasper said, “I want to ask you a question about the Internet.” Trying not to choke on my words and looking as if I was interested by cocking my head a little, I replied, “Yeah? What is it?” I was conscious of my thumb hanging in my right front pocket.
Then Jasper picked up a magazine sitting on his desk and said, “There is this article in this engineering magazine, and it has this website that you can visit. How would I go to that site?” — Oh my Gosh!!!! I wanted to laugh out loud with joy! I wasn’t about to be chewed out at all. He just wanted the computer geek to show him how to use the Internet browser that had been recently installed on his computer!
Jasper obviously hadn’t taken the Internet course, otherwise he would know where the address bar is at the top…… So, I said, “Let me show you.” I walked over to his computer and walked him through each step of the process. When we were done, he turned to look at me and smiled. He said, “Thank you.” I said, “Anytime. Just let me know if you have any other questions.” I turned and walked out of the office.
As I walked back to the Electric Shop Office, I met Charles Foster who wanted to know how it went, as he had heard Jasper call me on the radio. I told him that the battle for the Internet was now over. Jasper has now become a “user”. Life was good.
August 6, 1996 in Corporate Headquarters America, jaws began dropping a few minutes before 8 a.m. At first the security guard just thought some Power Plant Giant had taken a wrong turn and showed up at Corporate Headquarters to ask for directions. When another one showed up, this time carrying his Playmate lunch box, hard hat on his head, and lip quivering looking for a handy spittoon, the men in their suits and women in their fine dresses began running for cover. That was the day eight Power Plant Men took over the floor in the building where the Corporate Engineers usually lived.
If you want to understand the shock that emanated throughout the building, just picture the following bunch showing up on your doorstep:
We had come from the four corners of the Oklahoma Electric Company Power Plant Kingdom and we were there in Oklahoma City because Corporate America needed our help! Two Power Plant Men from each of the main Power Plants were picked to help the company transition from the old Mainframe computer system to a new computer application called SAP. SAP was going to combine all of our computer needs into one big application that runs on the new computer network.
Ernst and Young was the consulting company that was helping us install and implement SAP at our company. The company began the implementation some time in March, and the big bang go live date was going to be January 1, 1997. According to Ernst and Young, this was a physical impossibility. There was no way we could convert all of our requirements into SAP realities in such a short time.
The Maintenance Module for SAP hadn’t even been fully developed. We were actually working with SAP to design the module. Our company had demonstrated how a Best In Class Maintenance process worked, and SAP was designing their module around our needs. Everyone insisted that our aggressive timeline was too unreasonable and would never be met.
The Electric Company in Central Oklahoma had one Ace up their sleeve (well, maybe more than one)… That was “Power Plant Men!” As I mentioned in last week’s post (See the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God“), I was told on Monday, August 5, to show up for work the following day in Oklahoma City to work for 10 weeks on an SAP project.
Mike Gibbs, a mechanic from our plant was going with me. Our task was to convert all the Power Plant parts in the Inventory system in searchable strings that had a limited number of characters. Mike Gibbs used to work in the warehouse, so he was a good candidate for knowing what odd parts actually were.
We were a cross-section of mechanics and electricians, and warehouse people. To give you an idea of how big our job was, we had over 100,000 different parts in the system. 75,000 of those parts were in the warehouse at the power plant where I worked. There were over 5,000 different types of Nuts and Bolts… just to give you an idea of the task ahead of us.
Ernst and Young said the task would take the eight regular employees four months to complete the task. The Electric Company said, “Power Plant Men can do it in 10 weeks.
We were able to use the office space used by all of the engineers because they all happened to be at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma where I normally worked because of the big explosion that destroyed part of the Turbine Generator room early Monday morning. While they packed up to begin the work of reconstruction, Mike and I packed up and headed to Oklahoma City.
Most of the “out-of-town” Power Plant Men stayed in hotels for the next 2 1/2 months, but Mike Gibbs and I decided that we couldn’t be away from our families that long, so we decided that we would drive back and forth to work each day from Stillwater, Oklahoma. This was about an hour drive with going to work traffic. We would meet in the parking lot of a Mexican Restaurant at the edge of town and take turns each day driving to Oklahoma City.
Normally, in an instance like this, we would get paid a mileage that was farther than if we drove to the plant and maybe even driving time to and from work each day, but when our Plant Manager Bill Green found out we were driving back and forth, he refused to pay us anything. He told us that it was far enough away that he would only pay for us to stay in a Hotel (which would have cost more than the mileage), he wouldn’t pay us mileage or even a per diem (which is a daily amount for expenses).
Bill Green knew that we were family men that wouldn’t want to be away from our families during the week if it was only an hour drive, so he played his card and said that we had to stay in a hotel, and he would pay the expense for that or he would pay nothing and we could drive back and forth all we wanted at our own expense, already knowing that we would rather wear our cars out and pay the extra gas each day to be with our families. I just thought this was pay back for me being so rotten all the time.
The first week I was there, I worked on converting the 5,000 different nuts, bolts and screws into cryptic search strings that all began with the three letter search word for bolt: BLT. If you wanted to search for a Bolt in the SAP inventory, you would know it begins with a the letters BLT. This only made me hungry all week, because to me, a BLT was a sandwich. A mighty good one too, I may add.
After the first week, it was decided that having Power Plant Men roaming around between offices asking each other questions about parts was a hazard waiting to happen, so the engineer that was running our project Mark Romano had a special holding pen… um… I mean, cubicle built just for us. It was decided that we should all be together in what is called a “Bullpen Cube”. All nine of us. Bullpen was a good name considering that there was a lot of bull going around for all of us.
There were nine, because a young Corporate executive had been assigned to help us with all things “Corporate”. His name is Kent Norris. He was lucky enough to stay behind to work with us, instead of having to go spend the next 2 1/2 months at our plant up north helping to repair the fire damage.
Well. I say lucky. Lucky for us, maybe not for him. After all, he was someone from “corporate” stuck in a cubicle with 8 rascally Power Plant Men that kept themselves motivated by playing practical jokes on whoever was willing to fall for them. Not ever having experienced the likes of us before, Kent was in for 2 1/2 months of relentless practical jokes being played at his expense.
I must say that we had a terrific time teasing poor Kent, but he was such fun and took our jokes so well, that we could only admire his resilience to bounce back and smile after we ran him ragged with one joke after the next. I will go into more detail about the jokes we played on Kent in a later post. For now, I am just mentioning our situation, so that you can get a picture of our situation.
Kent helped us with our expense reports each week, and showed us all the good places to eat lunch. He helped us adapt to corporate life. He even showed us how to use our temporary badges to badge in and out of the doors when we entered and left the building.
Mike Gibbs discovered a better way. He just put his badge in his wallet, and since he was tall enough, when he walked up to the badge reader, he just pressed the back pocket of his blue jeans against the badge reader, and voila! The door would open like magic! Onlookers were always staring at this strange assortment of men in blue jeans and tee shirts walking through the office building during lunch.
I tried to remember all the people that were there in the cube with us… I remember that I was there, and so was Mike Gibb from the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
Ken Scott, who was the Maintenance Superintendent at the Gas-fired Power Plant by Konawa, and David Roe who worked in the warehouse at that plant.
Doyle Fullen, an Electric Foreman from the coal fired plant in Muskogee, and Robert Christy, a mechanic also from that plant.
I believe Dan Hayer, the warehouse man, was there from the gas-fired plant in Harrah, Oklahoma on a small lake called Horseshoe Lake. I don’t remember who else was there from that plant. I remember seeing someone there, but I think he was a more of a quiet type and for some reason, his name has escaped me.
I was a sort of a computer programmer at this time, so I created small programs that would make our jobs easier. I created icons on the computers so that people didn’t have to log into the apps, and I created a couple of other small programs that just automated the monotonous manual steps that we would have to do over and over again as we plowed through the 100,000 different part descriptions.
After the first week, we had converted over 15,000 parts, and were on our way to meeting our goal.
So, how did we do? The Power Plant Men were able to convert all 100,000 parts in the inventory system to SAP in eight weeks! Two weeks ahead of schedule. This was typical for Power Plant Men, especially when you tell them it is impossible. This was another example of doing things that others said couldn’t be done.
We were all scheduled to go back to our home plants two weeks early when Mark Romano, our project manager came to our cube to give us the news… We had performed our job so well, they wanted to expand our scope. It seems that another department… I won’t mention which one, but their initials are T&D had been working on their measly 60,000 parts for the past 4 months and had only completed about 10,000 of them. They wanted to know if the Power Plant Men would be willing to give them a hand to convert the 50,000 parts in their inventory system the same way we did for Power Supply. Otherwise the go-live of January 1, would not be met since we were coming up to the end of September already.
Our Plant Managers had agreed that we could spend the next four weeks converting T&D’s parts as well, so of course, we agreed to stay on. I’m not sure if Corporate Headquarters was ever the same after that. Because we were able to stay on for the next four weeks, we were invited to an SAP banquet that we would have otherwise missed. We stood out like a sore thumb. I will write more about that banquet in a separate post as well as go into detail with some of the jokes that we played on Kent Norris.
Spending the 12 weeks in Corporate Headquarters was an important turning point in my career as a Power Plant Electrician. When we were in the bullpen cube, I was sitting in a chair where I could turn my head to the right and look out a window over the parking lot for the building. During the day I would watch people walking to-and-fro going about their business.
I had worked most of my adult life up to that point at a plant out in the country where when you climbed to the top of the 500 foot smoke stack and looked around, you could see fields and trees for 20 miles in any direction. Looking out that window at people made a big impression on me. Here I was sitting in an air conditioned office. No Coal Dust. No Fly Ash. No ear plugs to deafen the sound of steam shooting through the pipes turning the turbines. No 100 degrees in the summer. No freezing my fingers off in the winter. Just Power Plant Men quietly tapping on their computer keyboards, while they played jokes on Corporate Executive Kent. — This was the life.
I thought… things don’t get better than this. I was in computer heaven. Even though it was unconscious at the time, something stirred in me that thought… maybe… just maybe, I’m ready for a change…. I’ll wait and see what God wants me to do…
I wonder if Kent Norris felt proud when his boss Wayne Beasley told him that he was being assigned to manage the eight Power Plant Men that were coming to Corporate Headquarters for the next 10 weeks to help prepare for the transition to SAP. I’m sure he had no idea what he was signing up to do. For the next 12 weeks, Kent bravely endured one torture after the other.
Kent Norris was a young Corporate Executive working for the Electric Company in Central Oklahoma when the Power Plant Men showed up at his doorstep August 6, 1996. I wish I had a picture of Kent (Kent… I know you read this blog… if you send me your picture, I’ll add it to this post), because then you could see right away that he would be the perfect person for playing jokes. Just like Gene Day back at the Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked.
See, you can tell by Gene Day’s expression that this guy was just right for Power Plant Jokes. Kent Norris was much like Gene in this respect, and the best part was that he was young and wasn’t from a plant, so he had never experienced the Power Plant Lifestyle of perpetual joke playing (see the post “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“).
At the plant, Power Plant jokes are such a way of life that they include a section on the timecard to enter the number of Power Plant Jokes performed during the day, along with how many were successfully implemented. This was used to create a PPJ (for Power Plant Joke) Quotient that would go on your performance appraisal each year. That way you could set your stretch goals for the following year.
I explained last week why the eight of us were at Corporate Headquarters in the post: “Do Power Plant Men and Corporate Headquarters Mix?” so I won’t go into that much here other than to say that we were working for 10 weeks preparing the Inventory module in SAP so that our company would be prepared to go live with SAP on January 1, 1997. SAP is an ERP or Enterprise Resource Planning System.
Once all 9 of us were sitting in one cube, (eight Power Plant Men, and one young Corporate Executive, Kent Norris), that was when the opportunity for Power Plant Jokes began to take shape. Kent sat at the table in the middle of the cube next to the telephone.
Most of the Power Plant Men had their backs to each other as they all faced the edge of the cube. This way, a person walking into the cube could easily see the computer monitors. I sat on the end of a table at the end of the elongated cube where I could watch everyone and no one could see my monitor (and incidentally, I had a great view of the outside world).
At first we began our harassm….uh… I mean… jokes…. on Kent by easing him into it with very simple things… When he would step out of his cube, we would do little things like put water in his pen cap so that when he went to write something down and removed the cap, water would spill on him.
Other minor pranks were things like, unplugging the keyboard and mouse from the computer so that Kent would think that his computer had locked up. He tried rebooting his computer and for five minutes couldn’t figure out how to fix his computer until he found that the mouse and keyboard were unplugged, at which point, several muffled chuckles could be heard emanating from the far corners of the cube… Not from me, because I had learned the fine art of keeping a straight face in the midst of a hilarious power plant joke — after years of training.
Kent was so good at having jokes played on him that I think he enjoyed them as much as we did. He would respond with phrases like “You guys!!! Geez!” The Power Plant Men were so fast at implementing jokes on the fly that all Kent had to do was turn around to talk to someone that had come to ask a question and all the wheels on his chair would be removed and hidden in various locations throughout the cube.
Ken Scott was the Supervisor of Maintenance at the Seminole Plant, who I had worked with at our plant since I first showed up as a new summer help. He knew I was a trouble causer from day one. I wondered how he was going to take our constant jokes with Kent, but he helped out with the rest of us, and when Kent would run off to tell his friend Rita Wing (I think that was her name) about a new joke we had just played on him, Ken Scott would break out of his straight “uninterested” expression into a big smile and laugh out loud.
Mike Gibbs and I would evaluate the day’s jokes on the way home each day. We were carpooling from Stillwater.
The jokes became more elaborate over time, and I was reaching out to others beyond our cube to help out. At the time, we were using Windows 3.2 which had small program called “Windows Popup” (I believe the file name was popup.exe). It was sort of an old version of IMing someone before chatting was really common. I taught our team how to use it, so that we could pop up messages on each other’s computers to coordinate our jokes while we were doing our work without having to even look at each other.
Popup means so many things now that we all use Internet Browsers. “Windows Popup” allowed you to locate someone logged into the network, and pop a message right up in the middle of their screen. It would include the logon name of the person popping it up. My logon name on the computer system was BREAZIKJ. The popup message would say Message from BREAZIKJ in the title bar, and it would display the message. Here is an example I found on Google Images:
I had noticed that Kent often talked to the admin for Dennis Dunkelgod, a manager over the Telecommunications team.
I had worked with Dennis a couple of times running telephone cable at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we needed to install the computer network. I sent a Popup message to his admin asking her if she would help us play a joke on Kent. The message was something like this…. “We are going to play a joke on Kent Norris and were wondering if you would like to help us out.”
The young lady admin didn’t know what to think when this message popped up in the middle of her computer screen, though she knew where it came from because our cube was just across the aisle from her. She took a print screen of the message and gave it to Dennis.
Dennis, not knowing the ways of Power Plant Men didn’t know what I meant by “joke” and thought we might be planning something inappropriate. So he came to our cube and asked who was this person BREAZIKJ. I told him I was Kevin. He asked me if I had sent that message. I told him that I had sent it. (In trouble again… as usual). As Dennis was replying Kent Norris walked into the cube and saw Dennis dressing me down. He was saying that things like this did not belong in the workplace and he didn’t want to hear about this again! I replied, “all right.”
Dennis left the cube, and Kent asked what was going on, so I said, “We were planning on playing a joke on you, and so I asked the admin sitting over there if she would like to help us out and it upset Dennis.” Kent knew that Dennis was just looking out for him, so he explained that to us that Dennis misunderstood our intention.
One joke I played on Kent was this… Since he always answered the phone in our cube, I found a way to connect to a modem on the mainframe and dial out of the company (thanks Craig Henry for the tip), and then dial back in again and ring a phone…. So, I would wait until Kent hung up from the phone, which was just one second after he would say “Toodles” (which was Kent’s way of saying goodbye), then I would ring the phone and hang it back up.
Kent would answer the phone with his regular telephone answering phrase that I don’t quite remember, but it was something like, “Kent Norris, how may I help you?” only more interesting than that. When he answered the phone the first time, he was surprised to find that no one was on the phone. He hung it up and said, “That’s odd.” Then throughout the week, at various times, just as Kent hung up the phone from a conversation, I would ring his phone again.
Kent began troubleshooting it… he noticed that the ring indicated that it was an outside number calling, but it seemed like the phone was malfunctioning, so he created a trouble ticket to have someone look into it. Of course, the phone was working fine.
One day, Toby O’Brien came to my cube to ask me if I could tell him how I would do a root cause analysis on a particular accident. Toby was working for the safety department at the time.
I was showing him on the computer how I would make a hierarchy of causes and how each cause could be caused by something else, making something that looks like an organizational chart of causes. While I was talking to him, Toby was looking over my shoulder at the computer screen. Kent was talking on the phone… As I was talking to Toby, I was also listening to Kent’s conversation and I could tell he was wrapping it up, and I wanted to ring the phone.
So, as I continued talking along with Toby, I opened up the program I had configured to ring the phone and had it all ready to click the button when Kent said “Toodles”. I could tell that Toby was a little confused by my talking to him while I was opening another program and acting oblivious to it. Still explaining to Toby as if nothing was happening I hit the call button just as Kent hung up the phone, and it immediately rang. As Kent picked it up, I hung up and closed the program. Kent said, “Hello this is Kent Norris….. Damn! Kevin!” as he slammed the receiver back down on the phone. For some reason Kent thought I was doing something, though, he couldn’t figure out what. I just gave him a confused look.
At this point I heard a chuckle from Toby, he had a grin much like his picture above. I couldn’t hold it in much longer as my stomach was beginning to quiver and my body was shaking. So I slunk down in my chair so Kent couldn’t see the smile on my face and put my hand over my eyes to try and concentrate on making a straight face again. I squeaked out “…and that’s how I would do the root cause analysis on that accident.”
The climax of the Telephone joke was when one day, I set the program up for redial and left to go to the bathroom. The phone kept calling Kent once every minute. When I returned to the cube, Kent said, “Kevin! Stop ringing my phone!” I said, “I just went to the bathroom! How could I be ringing your phone?” At that point the phone rang and Kent said, “Pick it up!” I picked it up and listened, and said, “There’s nobody there. But you can’t blame me for that.” Then I returned to my computer and turned off the program and didn’t call him anymore after that.
The most elaborate joke played on Kent began when one day Kent made the statement that he had never been to a Power Plant and no desire in the world to ever visit a Power Plant! I think someone had asked him if he had seen the control room at one of the plants and that was his response. So, when an opening for an operator came up at our plant, we told Kent that we had sent in his application for the Operator job at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
Kent didn’t believe us of course, he thought this was just another little joke we were playing. We told him that we put all the right things in the application so that he was sure to get the job. Even though he would tell us that he didn’t believe us, we could see the small hint of doubt on his face, which made it a successful small joke… but this was only the beginning.
A couple of weeks later, Kent received word that since all the engineers were up at our plant in North Central Oklahoma they were going to hold their monthly safety meeting there and Kent and Rita were going to have to drive up to the plant to attend. Which meant, Kent didn’t have a choice, he was going to have to visit the plant after all. What Kent didn’t know was that his boss Wayne Beasley had been updated by Ken Scott about what we had told Kent about applying him for the operations job at the plant.
We told Kent that the real reason Wayne was having the meeting at the plant was so that Kent would be able to have his interview for the operations job, because they had accepted his application. Of course… again… he thought we were just kidding him since he said he had no desire to even visit a plant in his life.
Using Windows Popup (since IM wasn’t around yet), I sent messages to Denise Anson, the receptionist at the plant telling her about our plan with Kent. When Kent and Rita drove up to the main gate at the plant and said that it was Kent Norris and Rita Wing from Corporate Headquarters, Denise replied with, “Oh yes. Kent Norris. You have an interview for the operator position.” Kent said something like, “No, I’m just going to a safety meeting.” At this point, he couldn’t believe that the joke had actually reached the plant.
Denise messaged me using Windows Popup that he had just entered the gate…. I sent a popup to Ron Madron, who was going to ride up in the elevator with him letting him know that Kent was on his way to the parking lot…. When Kent and Rita entered the building and stood at the elevator, Ron Madron entered from the Maintenance Shop and entered the elevator with Kent and Rita. Ron asked who they were and when Kent told Ron who he was, Ron replied with “Oh! You’re the new operator! Good to meet you!” Kent could not believe that we had involved yet another person in our joke…
Ken Scott told me that he had talked to Wayne Beasley, Kent’s manager who was holding the safety meeting. Here is his LinkedIn picture:
Wayne had told Ken that he was going to make an announcement during the Safety Meeting that Kent Norris was going to soon begin working at the plant as their new operator. I messaged to Denise to ask her where Bill Green, the Plant Manager was because I wanted to fill him in on the plan. Denise told me he was in Wayne Beasley’s Safety Meeting.
I asked her if she could go get him out of the meeting because I needed to talk to him right away. So, she went and interrupted the safety meeting to tell Bill that I was on the phone and needed to talk to him. When Bill answered, I told him about the elaborate joke we had been playing on Kent Norris and how Wayne Beasley was going to announce in the meeting that Kent Norris was going to become an operator at the plant. Bill said thanks for letting him know because if he didn’t know it was a joke, he might have been upset if Wayne said that without him knowing it was coming…..
So, here is what happened in the safety meeting….. As the meeting was coming to a close, Bill Green, the Plant Manager, stood up and said, “We would all like to welcome Kent Norris to our plant and hope that he will enjoy coming to work for us as an operator.” — The perfect execution of a power plant joke after weeks of preparation, it was executed flawlessly.
Later that afternoon when Kent came back to our cube at Corporate Headquarters, he said that was the greatest joke ever! He couldn’t believe how we had everyone involved up to the plant manager. We were all glad that it went off without a hitch. We were also glad that Kent had enjoyed it so much. He said that it wasn’t until he walked in the control room and they didn’t know who he was that he felt sure that he really wasn’t going to be an operator at the plant.
The joke where I laughed the hardest was during the last week working at Corporate Headquarters. Wayne Beasley had come back from our plant to work where he normally worked, and he wanted to take our team out to lunch with Kent to congratulate us for doing such a good job. So, they picked a Mexican restaurant in Bricktown just east of downtown Oklahoma City. This restaurant was chosen specifically because it offered a great opportunity for a joke to be played on Kent.
When we walked into the restaurant, Doyle Fullen, the Plant foreman and electrician from Muskogee told the waiter that it was Kent Norris’s birthday. He told them that he was very shy and would deny that it was his birthday, but we were all bringing him out to lunch because we were celebrating it. So, toward the end of the meal, out came the group of waiters singing Felice Navidad carrying a huge Sombrero. Which they placed on Kent’s head!
We all sang Felice Navidad at the top of our lungs and clapped and laughed. I laughed so hard at Kent’s culmination of Power Plant Jokes! Rarely in my life have I laughed so hard as Kent stood there under this huge sombrero looking humiliated and at the same time proud to be so well loved by the Power Plant Men!
The week ended on Friday afternoon around 3pm, as each of us started leaving one at a time to drive back home for the last time. Doyle and Bob Christy left first because they had the farthest to drive. the rest of us left some time later. Each saying goodbye to Kent a couple at a time…. until Kent was left sitting in the bullpen cube all by himself. Thinking…. “I’m finally rid of these bozos!”
Unknown to Kent, the majority of us didn’t exactly leave the building… instead we each went into the bathroom where I was the last to enter….. I carried a bag that was full of 12 cans of various colors of Silly String:
Once everyone was ready, we snuck up to the side of the cube where we could hear Kent typing on a computer and with all 12 cans the six of us sprayed silly string over the cube totally covering Kent in Silly String. That was our last goodbye. We couldn’t leave without one more Power Plant Man Joke!
A week or two after I returned to the plant, I received the following letter through Intra-Company mail:
For years after, and up to today, I consider Kent Norris a dear friend. One day when I was at the Stillwater Public Library during their yearly book sale, I found a book that I just had to buy for Kent. It was perfect! I sent it by intra-company mail. Kent thanked me for it…. I figured it would remind him of the time he spent trying to Corral a passel of Power Plant Men! Oh… here is a picture of the book:
My friends will tell you that I tend to not take things too seriously. It seems that the more serious the situation, the more I joke around about it. I know that this drives some people up the wall sometimes. Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, used to call me “rascal” and maybe that was because I was one. That was the way life seemed to be for the majority of the people at the Power Plant. One of the funniest days in my life happened when Corporate Headquarters learned a thing or two about not taking things too seriously.
Eight (or was it 9?) Power Plant Men had been assigned to work in Corporate Headquarters for a ten week period. I wrote about the reason for this in the post: “Do Power Plant Men and Corporate Headquarters Mix?” I also wrote a post about how the Power Plant Men played one joke after the other on Kent Norris the entire time. See the post: “Corporate Executive Kent Norris Meets Power Plant Men“. We know that the entire floor of corporate headquarters was kept in a slightly disturbed state as they were constantly hearing the “hee-hawing” coming from our over-sized cube where they had put us in a corner of the building hoping to isolate the ruckus we were making constantly.
We didn’t make enemies of our victi… uh.. I mean “our friends” when we played jokes. We tried to do them in such a way that they would appreciate the thought and ingenuity that went into each joke we played on them. On the other hand, passerby’s and those that worked within earshot had to endure the constant uproar of laughter. They were missing out on all the fun, and we were just being a bother.
I think that’s why we received the initial reaction we did when we arrived at an SAP banquet during the last week we were going to be at Corporate Headquarters. The banquet was being held in a banquet room in a hotel on the west side of Oklahoma City. We had all carpooled in a couple of cars and arrived at the same time.
When we walked into the banquet room, we could see right away that we didn’t fit in. No one had told us that we were supposed to wear a suit…. well, it wouldn’t have mattered if they had, we still would have arrived in our blue jeans and tee shirts. At least our clothes were clean. I didn’t have one coal dust stain on my entire shirt.
We were told where we were supposed to sit. The Power Plant Men were directed to a large circular table in the back middle of the room. We figured they didn’t want us close to podium in case someone was going to be taking pictures of the speakers. This was an appreciation lunch for the SAP project teams. We were only a small group compared to the rest of the room.
During the lunch, recognition was given to the different SAP teams. We were mentioned for having completed our tasks two weeks early and had been given additional work and had completed that as well. All together, we had rewritten over 140,000 warehouse part descriptions so they would fit in SAP and would be easily “searchable”. We stood up and bowed and everyone applauded.
I think up to that point, the rest of the room had thought that the people sitting at our table was going to be providing the entertainment and that we were all “in costume”. Once they realized that we were Power Plant Men, their gaze turned from “anticipation” to “curiosity”. When a bunch of Power Plant Men are all sitting at one table and there is food involved, we can become quite a spectacle.
After the lunch was over and recognition and awards were given, an interesting man stood up and started to speak. He seemed like a rather goofy person and while he spoke he kept playing with a paper cup. Popping it up in the air and catching it… or accidentally not catching it and having to go pick it up. I thought he was becoming rather annoying as he kept distracting us from his boring words of wisdom because he kept playing with this stupid paper cup.
After a minute, he mentioned that there are lots of things you can do with a paper cup to entertain yourself. You can pop it up in the air and try to catch it. You can turn it over on a desk and beat it like a drum. You can put in over your mouth and suck in to create a suction and walk around with the cup stuck to your face in order to impress your coworkers. You can talk into it and sound like Darth Vader. You can tie a string between two paper cups to make a telephone.
Ok. That was a little more interesting than the speech he had been making. I began formulating in my mind how I might play a trick on Gene Day using a paper cup telephone when I returned back at the plant.
I borrowed this picture from a fellow WordPress blogger: “The B.S. Report”
This person’s name turned out to be Stephen Kissell and he is a “motivational speaker”. I had heard about Motivational Speakers by watching Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live as the Motivator who lived in a van down by the river. See the following short YouTube loop for my conception of a Motivational Speaker:
for those who can’t view the video from the video above can click here: “Matt Foley Down by the River”
Anyway, Steve Kissell was dressed about the same way as Chris Farley in that skit. It was definitely mismatched clothing. I wondered if he lived in a van down by the river as well.
Then Stephen said that he needed some people from the audience to come up and help him with something. He had the names of some people he would like to help him. Obviously, someone had given these names to him in order to make the next “skit” he was going to perform turn out best. He called up three people, a couple of well dressed and prim and proper ladies and a man. They looked like they were the upper class stuck up types which, as it turned out was essential for this to play out properly.
Then Steve explained that in projects, in order to complete large task, you just have each person do smaller tasks, and when you put them all together, you can actually perform something great. So he asked each one to do one little task when he tapped on his paper cup.
I don’t remember the exact tasks, but they were simple like shrug your left shoulder, and then your right, or squat down and then stand back up. Little things like that.
Then after he had instructed each person what they should do, he tapped out a tune on the paper cup and they each performed their simple tasks over and over until he stopped.
After trying that a few times, he added other little tasks to each person one at a time. The result was that after a while he had each of them performing a real goofy dance that made them all look silly dressed up in their finest clothes dancing around like kids.
There was something so funny about the way Stephen Kissell had set this up that everyone was laughing their hearts out. The laughter was so thunderous that it sounded like one loud roar. I thought I was going to lose my lunch. I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe.
This guy who had stood up and begun by annoying his audience (which was my philosophy as well… See the post: “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“) had turned them into driveling piles of laughter after 10 minutes. Up to that point, I hadn’t laughed that hard since I had seen the movie “Gus” when I was a boy.
Ok. Here is a side story about the movie “Gus”.
In 1976, when I was 15 years old, my brother (who was 11) and I went to the movies to see a Disney movie called “Gus” about a donkey who can kick a football through the goal post and ends up on a football team. It starred Don Knotts and Tim Conway, two comedians who were masters of slap stick comedy. This was still back when the movie theaters were large and there was only one theater in the building. — Yeah. They would only show one movie at a time. Amazing. Huh?
Anyway, there is a scene in a grocery store where they are chasing the donkey down the aisles trying to catch him. The comedy had built up so much that by that point the entire audience of children were laughing so hard that the sound was deafening. You literally could not hear anything but a loud constant roar. I remember that I could hardly breathe I was laughing so hard.
I suppose it is a little like the Kennedy/Nixon debate… When you heard it on the radio, Nixon won the debate, but when you saw it on Television, Kennedy won the debate… I say that because fast forwarding 10 years, in 1986, I had the opportunity to watch Gus on TV. I couldn’t wait to relive the hilarious moment in the Grocery store.
When the moment finally arrived, it came and went and I didn’t really see much humor in it at all. It was just Don Knotts and Tim Conway fumbling around acting goofy. I couldn’t understand what had been so funny in the movie theater when the entire theater had erupted with such intense laughter. I guess you just had to be there in the movie theater at the time. Whatever it was didn’t translate to the TV.
I talked to my brother about it a few years later when he brought up the same topic. He said he had rented the movie Gus and had insisted that his four children sit and watch it all together as they ate popcorn. They all sat around and watched the movie and my brother Greg said, “it wasn’t funny at all.” He couldn’t figure it out.
End of Side Story
I heard that same statement a few years later when I had said something at Dell and my manager thought it was so funny that she went and repeated it to our director. When she did, she said it didn’t sound funny at all when she said it. The truth is, it’s not always what you are saying… it’s how you say it. The inflection in your voice and the expression on your face. Pausing at just the right time.
When we had all been sufficiently slain in the spirit of Stephen’s humor, and the banquet was over, we were all given a copy of Stephen’s book “Surviving Life With Laughter”.
We were also given a copy of a second Steve Kissell book:
In Steve Kissell’s books, he tells stories and jokes that you can use or modify to fit the type of job you may be in at the moment. This was something that Power Plant Men already knew how to do well, but always appreciated a good joke.
I found that Stephen Kissell is still out there after 19 years spreading good humor to the corporate world and the rest of humanity. If you’re in the need of a motivational speaker. You may consider looking up Stephen. Or…. you may find him living in a van down by the river!
As my readers know, I have written a number of posts about Power Plant Humor, See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“. Humor is the best motivator I have found to keep people on track and not get too carried away with details. I have learned this by working with the Power Plant Men over the years.
The most solid advise I remember from the “Pre-Cana” sessions (a program you have to go through in order to be married in the Catholic Church) we had with the priest when my wife and I were preparing to be married was “Always keep your sense of humor”. So, when the situation looks hopeless, and there doesn’t appear to be a viable solution available, that is the time to take a step back in your mind and look for the humor in the situation.
It has always been important that true Power Plant Men not play jokes on another person in a way that would end up hurting them. Whenever that would inadvertently happen, then a sincere apology would definitely have to follow and some sort of retribution. Usually, sharing your Squirrel Stew with them during lunch was an appropriate form of retribution for any joke gone awry.
Even though we played one joke after the other on Kent Norris, after 12 weeks of torment, he still remained friends with the Power Plant Men. I heard from him a week after we left when Kent sent a letter to me through intra-company mail. He returned my name tag to me…. I have kept this letter with the name tag since that day in 1996 as a reminder of the days we spent torturing Kent with humor:
When I first became an electrician at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, my foreman Charles Foster and I would sit each day at lunch and talk about movies we had seen. We would go into detail explaining each scene to each other so that when I actually watched a movie that Charles had described, I felt as if I had seen it already. In the years that followed, after we had described to each other just about every movie we could remember, we moved on to playing games.
Sure, there were those jokes we would play now and then, but I’m not talking about those. This was something different. One of the games that we played was Chess.
I brought a computerized chessboard to work one day that had pieces on a board that you pressed down when you wanted to move a piece, then you moved it and pressed down on the square where you placed the piece in order for the board to keep track where all the pieces were on the board.
This chessboard had 8 levels of difficulty when you played against the computer. Charles, Terry Blevins, Scott Hubbard and I were not really the competitive type. We were more of the team player types. So, when we played, we played against the computer as a team.
We would set the level of difficulty to the highest level, then as a team, we would spend a long time analyzing our moves. Sometimes we would discuss making our next move over several days. Actually, at the highest level, the computer would at times take up to 7 hours to decide what move to make. — This was when computers were still relatively slow.
We figured out that at level 8, the chessboard would think of all the possibilities for the next 8 moves. Once we realized that, then we knew that we had to think 9 moves ahead in order to beat it. So, you could see how together we would try several strategies that would put us ahead after we had basically forced the computer to make 9 moves… It wasn’t easy, but by realizing what we were dealing with, we were able to beat the chess computer on the highest level.
The game where we beat the computer on the highest level took us over 3 months to play and 72 turns. The four of us had teamed up against the computer in order to beat it. I remember that I would wake up in the morning dreaming about that game of chess when we were playing it and I would be anxious to go into the electric shop to try out a move that had popped in my mind when I was in the shower.
Once we were able to beat the chess board we went on to other things.
Diana Brien (my first and only “Bucket Buddy”) and I would buy Crossword puzzle magazines and when we were in a spot where we were waiting for an operator to arrive, or for a pump to finish pumping, etc.
We would pull out the crossword puzzle magazine and start working on them. If we weren’t doing crossword puzzles, we were doing Word Searches, or Cryptograms… more on them in a moment.
This kept our mine sharp, and just as Fat Albert and Cosby Kids used to say, “If you’re not careful, you might learn something before you’re through.”
I had bought some Crossword puzzles that had other types of puzzles in them. Some were pretty straightforward like Cryptograms. That is where you have a phrase where each letter of the alphabet has been changed to another letter of the alphabet, and you have to figure out what it says. So, for instance, an “A” may have been changed to a “D” and a “B” to a “Z” etc. So, you end up with a sentence or two that looks like gibberish, but it actually means something once you solve the puzzle.
The cryptogram magazine I copied for the picture isn’t complete because of the green rectangle is blocking out part of it, but I can see that it says: “Everyone wants to “understand” art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? (Pablo Picasso).”
We were becoming expert cryptogram puzzle solvers, when one day we ran into a short cryptogram that didn’t have many words. We tried solving this cryptogram for almost a week. Scott Hubbard was getting frustrated with me, because I would never give up and look at the answer in the back of the book. So, after he became so fed up with me, he finally looked in the back of the book and wrote the answer in the puzzle. The answer was this: “Red breasted Robin, Harbinger of Spring”
Now… how is someone supposed to figure out a puzzle like that? I had figured on the “ing” in Spring and Harbinger but since Harbinger was barely in my vocabulary to begin with, I was never going to solve this one… I’ll have to admit.
Regardless, I was upset with Scott for looking at the answer in the back of the magazine, so I ripped out all the answers from the magazine and threw them in the dumpster so we would never be able to look at them again….. Still…. I would probably be trying to figure out “Red breasted Robin, Harbinger of Spring” to this day if Scott Hubbard hadn’t looked in the back of the book. I just felt like I wasn’t getting my money’s worth if we looked at the answers…. Yeah. all $3.95 worth (pretty cheap entertainment).
So, I have a side story to go along with working Cryptograms….
In my later life I changed jobs and went to work at Dell in Texas. (It just so happened that the Puzzle Books we would buy were usually “Dell” puzzle books…. totally unrelated to the Dell Computer company where I worked). That’s not really the important part of the side story, but I thought I would throw that in for good measure.
Every so often, our department would have an offsite where some team building events were held in order to… well… build teams.
One particular team building event was held in a park in Round Rock Texas where we were assigned to teams and each team was assigned to their own picnic table. When the game began we were each given a poster board with some phrase on it… and guess what? It was a cryptogram!
I was the only person on my team that knew how cryptograms worked, though most had seen them in the newspaper below the crossword puzzle, no one on our team had ever tried solving them. As a team, we were supposed to solve the puzzle. The quote was fairly long, which made it easy for someone who had been obsessed with cryptograms for years…. — Myself.
I took one look at the puzzle and said…. “That word right there is “that” and I wrote in the word “that”. Then I began filling in all the letters that had “T”, “H” and “A”. I quickly found a couple of “The”s which gave me the “E”, then I had one three letter word that began with an “A” and ended with an “E” that could only be the word “Are”. Which gave me the letter “R”. I could see that there were a couple of places that ended in “ing”, so I quickly filled those in, and as quickly as we could write all the letters into the puzzle we were done.
My director, Diane Keating, happened to be on my team. When I first pointed to the word “That” and said, “That is the word ‘that'”, she said, “Wait, how can you tell?” I said, “Trust me. I know Cryptograms.” When we had finished the puzzle within about a minute and a half, we called the person over to check it and she was amazed that we had solved the puzzle so quickly.
That is the end of the side story, except to say that I give credit to the games that Power Plant Men Play for teaching me the fine art of solving Cryptograms. Our team came in first place…. needless to say after solving three cryptograms in a row.
There were other more complicated but equally fun types of anagram/cryptogram combination puzzles that I worked when we had worked all the cryptogram puzzles in the Dell Variety Magazines. Eventually Charles Foster and I were looking for something different. That was when Charles ordered a subscription to a magazine called “GAMES”.
This was a monthly magazine that was full of all sorts of new games. Today, I understand that this magazine is more about the Video Games that are out than puzzle sort of games. Each month we would scour the pages of the Game magazine looking for puzzles to conquer. We worked on those for about a year.
At one point in my days as an electrician, I wrote a Battleship game for my Sharp Calculator that was a two player game. We each had a battleship in a 100 x 100 grid, which you could move around. It was sort of like the Battleship game where on the commercial they would say, “You Sunk My Battleship!” Only, our ships could move and we only had one.
Each turn when you would plug in the coordinates to shoot at the other person’s ship, it would only tell you how much you missed by. Then you could plot it on a graph paper and try to figure out where the other person’s ship was. Even though it could move. If you were close, then it would damage the other ship, and it would slow down so it couldn’t move as fast.
When the next person took their turn, they could see if their ship had been damaged or sunk, or even had become dead in the water….
The person was randomly assigned a home base at the beginning of the game and they could go there to repair their ship and be given more ammo in case they were running low. If they did this more than twice, then the other guy would know because the circles they would draw on their graph paper would keep intersecting at that one point.
Anyway…. that was the calculator game I made that I played with Terry Blevins for a while.
While other Power Plant Men were playing “Rope the Bull” with an Iron rendition of a bull welders had created, some of us in the electric shop were playing different kinds of games. Puzzles.
I think the reason that electricians like puzzles so much is because a lot of what they do from day-to-day is solve puzzles. When something isn’t functioning and the electrician has to figure out why, they usually have to follow through a bunch of steps in order to figure out what exactly went wrong. Solving Circuit problems are a lot like the puzzles we were playing.
Sometimes they are like “Word Searches” where you are looking for needles in the haystacks. Sometimes they are like Cryptograms where a circuit has been wired incorrectly and you have to figure out which wire is supposed to go where. Sometimes you get so frustrated that you just wish you could look in the back of the book at the answer page. In real life, you don’t always have an answer page exactly.
Some of us may think that you can find all you need to know in the Bible, but there are different kinds of “Bibles” for different kinds of jobs. In the Electric Shop we had the National Electric Code. We had the Master Blueprints that showed us how things were supposed to be wired up. Some times we just had to wing it and try putting words in crossword puzzle that we knew might not be the right ones, but they were the best we had at the time.
I’m just glad that I spent that time working puzzles with my friends at the Power Plant. If solving puzzles together helps build a team, then we had the best darn team around!
Because someone asked me about the game we played against the computer… Here is the play by play (for those who know how to read Chess Playing Geek Language):
Scott Hubbard and I weren’t too sure why we had been called out that night when we met at the Bowling Alley on Washington Street at two o’clock in the morning in Stillwater Oklahoma to drive out to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. Something about a fire on the top of the precipitator.
I was glad that Scott was driving instead of me when I climbed into his pickup and he began the 20 mile journey up Highway 177. I wasn’t quite awake yet from the phone call at 1:45 am telling me that there was a fire on the Unit 1 precipitator roof and they were calling Scott and I out to put it out. I figured if there was a fire it should be put out long before the 45 minutes it takes me and Scott to arrive at the plant.
We had all been trained to fight fires this size, so it didn’t make sense why we had to go do this instead of the operators.
My head was still swimming from the lack of sleep when we arrived at the plant, and headed to the Control Room to find out more about the fire we were supposed to fight. The Shift Supervisor explained that there was an oil fire under one of the high voltage transformers next to some high voltage cables, and the operators that were on duty didn’t feel comfortable climbing under the transformer stands to try and put it out because of high voltage cable tray that ran alongside the fire (ok, now it made sense. Electricity was involved. Electricians had to work on anything that had an electric cable attached even if it was a fire).
The operators had already brought a number of fire extinguishers appropriate to putting out an oil fire to the precipitator roof, and they had an SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) waiting there as well.
Scott and I went to the Electric Shop to get a couple of pairs of asbestos gloves just in case we needed them.
When we arrived on the precipitator roof we could smell the fire smoldering right away. The operator explained that some oil soaked insulation was on fire under the transformer stand for Transformer 1G9 and that he had tried to put it out using the extinguisher, but since the transformer oil was soaked into the bricks of insulation, it didn’t seem to do any good.
The transformer stands are about 18 inches tall, so climbing under them reminded me of the time I was sandblasting the water treatment tanks and Curtis Love turned off my air (see the post: “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“). This time I had a self-contained breathing apparatus, so I was in control of my own air… only there would only be about 30 minutes of air in the tank.
After assessing the situation Scott and I decided that the only way to put the fire out was to remove the blocks of insulation that were burning. This meant that I had to lay down under the precipitator transformers and come face to face with the burning insulation and pull them out while wearing the asbestos gloves and put them in a barrel.
The plan was that we would then lower the 55 gallon barrel down to the ground and extinguish the fire by filling the barrel with water.
The precipitator is on the outlet end of the boiler. The boiler exhaust blows through the precipitator and the ash in the exhaust is removed using static electricity generated by the large transformers on the precipitator roof using up to 45,000 volts of electricity. When the precipitator is on, the roof is generally a warm place to be.
When a person is laying on the insulation under a transformer, the temperature is somewhat higher as the heat is trapped in the enclosed space between two enclosures called “Coffin Houses” (how appropriate). When the insulation is soaked with burning oil, the temperature seemed to rise significantly. Luckily the insulation was not fiberglass as you may have in your attic, because I was wearing nothing but a tee shirt and jeans. So, I was not subject to the itching I would have if the insulation had been fiberglass.
I had turned the air on the SCBA without using the “Positive Pressure” setting. That meant that when I inhaled, I pulled air from the air tank, but the air didn’t apply pressure on the mask to keep out the bad air.
I did that because, this looked like it was going to be a long job and I wanted to conserve the air in the tank, and I found that on this setting I was not breathing the smoke pouring up around my face. Otherwise I would have reached down to the valve on my belt and changed the setting to positive pressure.
I kept wondering while I was lying there with my face a few inches from the smoldering blocks of insulation why I was so calm the entire time. The hot temperature had caused my sweat reflex to pour out the sweat so I was quickly drenched. I would just lay my head on the insulation as I reached into the hole I was creating and pulled a glowing brick of insulation out using the asbestos gloves.
I knew I was only half awake so I kept telling myself… “Pay attention. Work slowly. One step at a time. I tried to work like Granny would when she was digging Taters on the Beverly Hillbillies (see the video below):
In case you are not able to view the video above, try this link: “Granny Digging Taters“.
It’s funny when you’re half dreaming the various things that come to mind. I’m not sure how picking up smoldering bricks of insulation translated in my mind to Granny teaching beatniks how to pick “taters”…. but it did.
There was also something about this that reminded me of eating chocolate…. oh wait… that was probably left over from the dream I was having when the phone first rang back at the house.
For the next hour or so, I filled the barrels with the burning insulation and then lowered them down to the alleyway between Unit 1 and 2. During this time I was still groggy from the lack of sleep and the entire process seemed like a dream to me.
I remember lying on my stomach next to the burning insulation. Pulling the blocks out one at a time, layer by layer until I reached the precipitator roof underneath. I placed each block of smoldering insulation in the barrel that had been lowered down by an overhead chain-fall near me.
When the barrel was about 3/4 full, we would work the chain fall over to the motorized hoist that would lower it down to the pickup truck bed 100 feet below. When the barrel left the confines of the precipitator roof and the night air blew over the top of it, the insulation would burst into flames. By the time the barrel landed in the back of the pickup truck the flames would be lighting up the alley way.
Scott doused the flames with a hose and an extinguisher and hauled the barrel of insulation off to a hazardous waste bin while I repeated the process with the next barrel that Scott attached to the hoist.
By the time we were through I smelled like something that crawled out of a damp fireplace. My shirt and jeans were soaked with sweat and caked with pink insulation. The SCBA was out of air after using it for an hour and we were ready to go home.
The operators said they would bring the empty extinguishers back to the plant and send the SCBA off to have it recharged. We checked back in with the Shift Supervisor in the control room and told him we were heading for home.
I don’t remember which Shift Supervisor it was, though Gary Wright comes to my mind when I think about it.
I don’t remember which operator was helping us on the precipitator roof either. I would usually remember those things, but like I said, I was still dreaming during this entire process.
Normally at this time, since it was close to 3:30 in the morning, we would opt to stay over and just do some odd jobs until it was time to start work because the 6 hour rule would still require us to come back to work at the regular time (see the Post: “Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rule“). Scott and I decided that we both needed a good shower and if we could catch even one hour of sleep before we had to head back out to work, that would help.
So, we climbed back into Scott’s truck and headed back to Stillwater to the bowling alley where I had left my car. I don’t remember the drive home. I don’t even remember taking off my shirt and jeans in the utility room where I walked in the house and placing them in the washing machine straightaway… though that’s what I did.
I know I took a shower, but all that was just part of the same dream I had been having since the phone rang earlier that night. Usually I didn’t have trouble waking up when the phone rang in the middle of the night, but for some reason, this particular night, I never fully woke up.
Or… maybe it’s something else…. Could I have dreamed the entire thing? Maybe I never did receive that call, and we didn’t have to go out to the plant in the middle of the night to put out a fire. I mean… how crazy is that anyway? Does it make any sense?
I suppose I will have to rely on Scott Hubbard to confirm that we really did fight that fire. How about it Scott?
As Bill Gibson asked one time…. “Is the Fact Truer than the Fiction?”
I know I’m getting old when I pick up a small piece of paper and I am suddenly taken back 17 years to the day I pulled the small page from the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. Notepad sitting on the desk in the Electric Shop office. It was the day that I was finally able to come to the aid of a noble Power Plant Man that the plant generally referred to as “Stick”.
Gary McCain, or Stick, is a tall thin Power Plant Man (sort of like a stick) known for his intellect and knowledge of “Machine Language”. In this case, “Machine Language” refers to the ability to understand how machines work, not how to talk directly to computers using zeroes and ones.
Gary had just walked into the Electric Shop office at the power plant in North Central Oklahoma as lunch was ending. He was carrying a textbook, which seemed odd right off the bat. He explained that some of the machinists and mechanics had been sent to motor alignment school and they had been given this textbook in case they wanted to refer back to the material that was covered in the class.
Gary sat down next to me and set the book on the desk opening it to the page he had bookmarked (Yeah. We used to use books made out of paper, and we put pieces of paper between pages to bookmark the pages we wanted to remember… Bookmarking wasn’t something new with Internet browsers).
Gary (am I going to start all my paragraphs with the word “Gary”? Maybe the next paragraph, I’ll just say “That tall guy”) pointed to a formula on the page and asked me if it was possible to use the computer to make calculations that will help him align motors using this formula.
I told that tall guy (Gary) that we could use a program called “Excel” (from Microsoft) that could be used to solve problems just like that. So, I grabbed the small sheet of paper off of the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. notepad and wrote down the variables for the formula on one side, and the four formulas on the back side. Here is what I wrote:
Oh yeah. I think I ripped off the corner of the paper to use as a bookmark because I didn’t like the one Gary was using. It was too small.
I guess at this point I should stop and tell you what is meant by “motor alignment” and why machinists and mechanics are interested in this in the first place.
The alignment that is done with a motor is performed when you are putting a pump back in place or some other equipment like a gear box or fan shaft or… well… a lot of things. You have to make sure that the shaft on the motor is perfectly aligned with the pump otherwise it will quickly tear something up when you turn it on.
This picture shows how the motor is aligned up with the compressor so that the red coupling lines up perfectly. Once it is aligned the coupling can be bolted together to connect the motor to the pump.
Notice that the motor has bolts to mount it to the skid in the front and the back on both sides, as well as the pump. These are called “Feet”. Usually when you put the pump and the motor back in place, they don’t line up perfectly, so thin pieces of brass called “shims” are used to raise the various feet just the right amount so that the shaft on the motor and shaft on the pump are looking right at each other.
A special piece of equipment is used to check the alignment. It is called a “Dial Caliper” and it is mounted to the coupling on the motor and the pump with a magnet and it tests the alignment as it is rotated around.
I’m sorry if I’m boring those of you who don’t immediately see the beauty of Motor Alignment. Try pretending that the dial caliper is something invented by ancient aliens if you need to make this part of the post more interesting (actually, who needs ancient aliens when you have machinists?).
Gary told me that the company was looking into buying laser guided motor alignment machines for only $30,000 a piece. They would probably buy three of them that could be used between the four main plants. He said that he didn’t think we needed them if we could use these formulas to calculate exactly how to align the motors. This would save the company around $90,000 and at the same time show the mechanics the “joy of math”!
So, I made some notes on another page which simplified, (or maybe complicated) the formulas further. Then I sat down at the computer and began putting them into Excel. The idea was to have the person doing the motor alignment take some notes, then go to the computer and enter them into the Excel sheet and it would tell them right away how many shims to put under any of the 8 feet (four on the motor and four on the pump).
Here are the notes I made:
If you are Jesse Cheng (or some other old time calculator geek), you can see what I was doing with my notes. I was thinking of the next steps… which I’ll explain below…. (oh… ok… I’ll tell you… this is the code that you would use if you were creating a program for a Casio calculator).
After creating the spreadsheet, Gary headed out the door to go start aligning a motor using our newfangled motor alignment method. A little while later he came back into the shop and pulling out his handy dandy notepad he read off the notes he had taken while he put the values into Excel… When he was finished, he wrote down the results and headed back out the door to add the proper shims to the motor and the pump.
We had to tweak the program a little to work out the bugs, but after a couple of tries it worked very well and Gary was pleased. Only, there was one problem with this method… Over the next couple of weeks, Gary would come bursting into the electric shop office interrupting me and Charles Foster while we were having a deep discussion about the virtues of banana peppers on ham sandwiches.
So, I suggested to Gary that we could use a calculator to do the same thing that we were doing with the spreadsheet. That way he wouldn’t have to travel back and forth to the computer. Instead, he could just stand there at the motor and enter the information and have it display the answers that he was seeking.
Right off the bat (hmm… the second time I have used that “cliche”…. I need to read more often), Gary didn’t understand how a calculator could do this. So, I explained to him that some calculators are programmable and I can write a program on the calculator that would do just that. I said, “Let me show you”….. After all, I had grown up in Missouri (the Show Me State)… So, I took my calculator off of the top of the filing cabinet and placed it on the table.
I used the thermal printer to connect the calculator to the tape recorder to store my programs, so I didn’t have to enter them manually after I entered them once.
I took my notes and wrote the following program and entered it into the calculator.
I gave the calculator to Gary and showed him how to run the program and sent him to try it out for himself. He was very excited about this and offered some suggestions to make the program easier to use.
A few days later Gary caught me walking across the maintenance shop and showed me a catalog with various calculators for sale. He said he wanted to buy some calculators for the shop so that every person that had been trained to align motors had a calculator with a program on it. I showed him a Casio calculator that would work for about $70. So, he ordered a better one.
Even though the language for programming it was different than the Sharp calculator, it didn’t take long for me to write a program for it that did the same thing since I had sort of already written it by that time. After Gary proved to his foreman that the calculator worked, he ordered several more and when they arrived he asked me if I could program them as well.
It took almost a half hour just to type the program into each calculator, so I bought a small pigtail that connected two calculators together. This allowed me to copy the program from one calculator to another one. So, when Gary arrived one day with a box of over 20 calculators for the rest of the plants, it took me longer to open the packages than it did to copy the program from one calculator to the next.
Since the calculator was a graphic calculator, I thought about improving the program by drawing a little picture of a motor shaft and a pump shaft and showing how they were out of alignment after the information was entered, but I never took the time to do that as I was on to another computer project by that time (which I will write about later).
So, think about this. The company was willing to buy $90,000 worth of laser-guided motor alignment equipment to do something that machinists and mechanics already knew how to do. The specialized equipment would work, and it might have been faster I suppose. With the aid of a programmable calculator, however, a mechanic can stand at the motor, takes a few measurements and come up with the same results probably just as fast as the laser-guided motor alignment gizmo could do it.
Either way, the mechanic still had to install the same number of shims under the same feet whether they used the calculator and the dial caliper or the laser beam. The 26 or so calculators that were purchased for the four plants came up to less than $2,000, which is a savings of $88,000. I don’t think the laser would have saved that much time. It still had to be carried over to the motor and plugged in and mounted on the motor. My guess is that as soon as the laser was dropped on the floor accidentally, it would have been broken anyway.
The best part of this little project was that I was able to help out a True Power Plant Man Gary McCain, that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to help much before. Gary didn’t need much help as he is one of those Power Plant Men that people seek out when they need advice. So, when he came to me and asked for help with the computer, I was more than glad to do what I could to help him.
Sometimes it is a little difficult for my wife to understand why I keep scraps of paper laying around that have meaningless scribbles on them. One might be a doodle that some friend of mine created one day while talking on the phone. Another might be a fortune from a cookie that I opened when I was eating lunch with a coworker. Today the piece of paper I picked up happened to have a mathematical formula written on the back.
I think my son understands now that when I seem to be picking up trash off of the table and a tear comes to my eye, it isn’t because I have just picked up something rotten, but because I have just been transported back in time to place where I am with some people that I love. It doesn’t stop him from saying, “Dad? It’s just a piece of paper. Geez!” Well… I know I’m getting old… but that scrap of paper is poetry to me.
Many years ago in my earlier days as a Power Plant Electrician while working on Relays at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, Ben Davis, a plant electrician and True Power Man introduced me to one of his favorite Rock and Roll Bands, the “Dire Straits”. One of their hit songs is “Money For Nothing.” About 14 years later, the Power Plant Men learned exactly how to make “Money For Nothing” and other “Money Matters”!
Albert Einstein was once asked what the greatest miracle known to man is, and he replied “Compound Interest”.
One day at the Power Plant our timekeeper Linda Shiever invited a Financial Planner to come to the plant and talk to the Power Plant Men about the importance of planning ahead for your retirement. This may have been the first time many of the Power Plant Men had ever heard of such a thing as “Compound Interest”.
To a Power Plant Man, “Compound Interest” sounds more like “paying close attention when you pound something with a sledge hammer”.
The Financial Planner explained to the Power Plant Men that it is important to begin planning for the future early in your life. He gave us a sheet of paper titled “Put the Magic of compounding to work for you.” It showed how someone 25 years old investing in the stock market (S&P 500 which averages 10% annually over time) by putting $2,000 in something that gives you a 10% return for 8 years, and then stops, while another person waits 8 years until they are 33 and spends the rest of their life putting $2,000 into the same stock market they will never have as much as the person who only put in $2000 for 8 years beginning when they were 25 years old.
Let me explain this a little more: Using compound interest at 10% rate for his example (since that is what you receive in the S&P 500 over time), he showed that the person that invested $16,000 beginning at 25 years old and adding $2000 each year for only 8 years will have a net earnings of over $1,000,000 by the time they are 71 years old. Yet the person that waited 8 years and invested $78,000 by adding $2,000 each year until they are 71 will only have a net earnings of $800,000. The importance was that compound interest works best when you start early.
This is a great lesson to learn. The problem was that the majority of the audience was already well over 40 years old. There may have been one person in the room that was 25 years old, and that was only because they weren’t telling the truth about their age.
On Friday, September 6, 1996 a group of us from the plant were told to show up at a hotel conference room not far from corporate headquarters to attend a meeting that was called “Money Matters”. The other phrase they used to describe the meeting was that it was a “Root Learning” class. The reason it was called Root Learning was because the company that put the class together for the Electric Company was called Root Learning.
When we arrived, we were told which table we were going to sit. Bruce Scambler was the leader of the table where I was appointed to sit. When we were assigned seats, it was in a way that the Power Plant Men were spread out across the tables, so that we were each sitting with people from other departments in the company. I supposed right away that this was so that we could maximize the spread of the Power Plant culture to others.
This turned out to be a class about how the company has problems that need to be resolved. When the class began the leader placed a poster in the middle of the table. It showed a picture of a canyon. The workers were on one side and the leaders were on the other with the managers stuck in the middle. It was very similar to this picture:
This was an ingenious representation of the problems the company had with the management structure. The poster we had was customized for our particular company.
We talked for a couple of hours about how we could bridge the gap between management and the workers. What were some of the barriers in the tornado that kept destroying those bridges…. etc.
The following year on September 24, 1997, we attended another meeting in Enid Oklahoma where we learned about Shareholder value. The leader of my table this year was a young man from HR at Corporate Headquarters (I’ll mention this guy in a later post). This topic made more sense as it really did talk about Money this time. This time the maps they showed us had race cars on it which showed the different competing electric companies. Something like this:
Being the main electric company in the state, our truck was on the Regulated track. Some of the electric providers had figured out a way to go the unregulated route. Our company kept looking for ways to get on the unregulated road by offering other services that were not regulated. After looking at the poster that looked similar to the one above for a while and talking about it, we moved on to the next poster:
Even though the chart is the main part of this picture, most of the discussion took place around the “Expense Street” section in the picture. There was an added pie chart that was on a card that was placed on this street which showed how the expenses of the company were broken down.
The main expense for the company was Fuel. I want to say that it was close to 40% of expenses. Taxes was the next largest expense for the company. It made up somewhere around 30% of our total expenses. The rest of the expenses were the other costs to run the company. Employee wages made up around 8% of the total expenses for the company.
It was the job of the leader at the table to explain that the cost for fuel was pretty well fixed, so we can’t do anything about that. We also can’t do anything about how much taxes the company pays. We didn’t have control over the supplies and other costs the company buys. So, the bottom line was that the little sliver of expenses for the company that represented “Employee Wages” was really the only thing we can adjust to increase shareholder value…..
What? Run that one by me again? We were a 3 billion dollar revenue company. We had around 3,000 employees which we had reduced to around 2,000 employees when the Corporation Commission cut how much we could charge for electricity, and now you’re saying that the only way to keep the company afloat is to “adjust” employee wages because 92% of everything else it “out-of-bounds”? I think you can see why we spent a lot of time discussing this… This turned into a pretty lively discussion.
Learning about the “Time Value of Money” can be very helpful. I had a financial calculator that I kept at the plant. One day one of the Power Plant Men came to me and asked me to figure out how they could buy a Harley Davidson Motorcycle. Earl Frazier said that he could only afford something like $230 per month and the wanted to buy this motorcycle. How would he do that? The motorcycle cost something like $38,000 or more. I don’t remember the exact details.
Sounds complicated doesn’t it? How does a Power Plant Man buy a Harley Davidson for only $230.00 per month with only a four year loan? Earl had heard that I knew all about the “Time Value of Money” and that if there was a way, I would be able to tell him how to do it. His parameters were that the cost of the motorcycle was $38,000 (I’m just guessing as I don’t remember the exact amounts), and he could only pay $230 each month.
Well. Even with a no interest loan, it would take over 13 years to pay for the motorcycle. So, my only option for solving this problem was to pull out my financial calculator:
This calculator allowed me to find the monthly payment quickly for a loan at a specific interest rate over a specific number of months. So, I worked backward from that point. I told Earl to come back in a couple of hours and I would let him know his options.
When Earl returned, I had his answer…. I told him this…. Each month he needed to begin putting his $230.00 into an annual CD at the bank for 5% (yeah… they had those at that time). In two and a half years, he would stop doing that. And just put his money in his regular checking account. Then 9 months later, he takes the money in his checking account and buys the Harley Davidson. This way he would put 10% down up front (because CDs would have been rolling into his account also).
Then, each month, as his CDs became available, he would roll part of them back into another year, leaving out a certain amount each time to supplement the $230.00 he would still be paying each month for his motorcycle, since his payments would be significantly higher than that. Then exactly after 4 years, he would have used up all of the money in his account just as he would be paying off his motorcycle. This would only work if he could get a loan for the motorcycle that charged 3.7% interest rate or less which was a reasonable rate at the time.
Earl responded by saying, “You mean I will have to wait 3 years before I can buy the motorcycle?!?!” Yeah. That was the bottom line… and by the end of it all, he would have to pay for the motorcycle over a 7 year period when it came down to it. He wasn’t too happy about having to wait, but that was the only way he could do it for $230 monthly payments.
Here is a side story… A few years later when I went to work for Dell, we also had Root Learning classes there as well. Here is one of the posters we used during the class:
In this picture, Dell is the big boat at the top. When I walked into the class I recognized the style of the poster right off the bat. Oh! Root Learning! This will be fun. These types of classes were a fun way to express the realities of the business and the obstacles they have to overcome to achieve their goals.
I still remember the leader at our table 13 years later. His name is Jonah Vaught. I worked with him about 5 years after that class. I acted like I knew him, and I could tell that he was wondering where we had met. So, I finally told him…. “You were the group leader when we were doing that Money Matters class back in 2002.”
End of Side story….
Now when I listen to the Dire Straits’ song “Money For Nothing” (like Paul Harvey’s “Rest of the Story”) you know what goes through my mind… First sitting in the switchgear working on relays with Ben Davis listening to Rock and Roll on the radio (see the post: “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“).
Secondly, I remember the Power Plant Men learning the “Time Value of Money” in a fun way that kept them interested.
Thirdly, I remember Charles Lay finally realizing when he was 63 years old that he was going to have to work the rest of his life because he hadn’t been saving for retirement…. See the post “Pain in the Neck Muskogee Power Plant Relay Testing“). Some times when you learn about the Time Value of Money…. it’s too late to do anything about it because time has already run out.
The first time I saw Ray Eberle was during my first summer as a summer help in 1979. He was standing in the midst of a group of mechanics who sat around him as school children sit around the librarian as a story is being read. Ray was telling a story to a group of mesmerized Power Plant Men.
Many years later I heard that Ray was invited to tell stories to hunters who were hunting elk in Montana around the campfires at night as an occupation. I think he passed on that opportunity. Who would think of leaving the comfort of a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to go sit around telling stories by campfires in Montana?
For many years I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Ray. He had joined the Safety Task Force that we had created at the plant. He had also become a member of the Confined Space Rescue Team, and was a HAZWOPER Emergency Rescue responder. I was on all of these teams with Ray, but I really had never worked side-by-side with him.
I know that at times, I had disappointed Ray by not living up to his expectations of what a True Power Plant Man should be. When we were on the Safety Task Force, after the reorganization, we had shifted gears to be more of an “Idea” task force instead of one that actually fixed safety issues. I was pushing hard to have the company move to a “Behavior-Based Safety” approach. It was a misunderstood process and if not implemented correctly would have the exact opposite effect (see the post “ABCs of Power Plant Safety“)
I know this bothered Ray. He let me know one day when I received an intra-company envelope with a memo in it. It said that he was resigning from the team:
I hang on to the oddest things. Some things that lift me up and some things that break my heart. I figure that there is a lesson for me in this memo. That is why I have held onto it for the past 20 years. I suppose this enforces my philosophy of trying to make a “Bad First Impression” (See the post: “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“).
Ray Eberle told me once that he had always thought that I was a lazy stuck up electrician that didn’t like to get dirty and just sat around in the electric shop all the time. (read the post: “Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“) He said that he saw me as a “higher than thou” type of person that looked down on others. Then one day I said something that totally changed his perception of me. I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
It’s funny to learn sometimes what people actually think of you. Then it’s even funnier to think what makes them change their mind. You see… when Ray Eberle was sharing his thoughts about me, we had become very good friends. He said that he felt that he finally understood me when I uttered those three words “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember the moment I had said that. As members of the Confined Space Rescue Team, we were responsible for inspecting the SCBAs (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) each month. We were standing in the control room and had a couple of the SCBAs sitting out while the instructor was showing us the proper way to inspect them.
Ray had asked a few “what-if” questions (like “What if the pressure is right at the minimum amount?” or “What if we send a tank off to be refilled and we have an emergency?”) and his questions weren’t being answered. He was getting a little hot under the collar, so I said, “Don’t get twisted.”
I remember Ray’s reaction. He turned to me and said, “What did you say?” I looked him straight in the eye with a grin on my face and repeated “Don’t get twisted.”
At that moment I didn’t know if Ray was going to haul off and belt me one, so I was mentally preparing my various responses…. like…. get ready to duck… just try to stand there as if nothing had happened… run and call a therapist because my ego had been shattered (no… wait… that wasn’t then)…. Anyway… instead Ray just smiled at me and said calmly, “I thought that was what you had said.” I could see that he was in deep thought.
It was a couple of years later that I found out that at that moment Ray Eberle’s perception of who I was had done a 180. Isn’t it funny what causes someone to change their mind sometimes? Maybe he saw a spot of dirt on my tee shirt.
One day during the spring of 1998 my foreman, Alan Kramer told me that Jim Arnold wanted me to be assigned to create “Task Lists” in SAP.
Task lists are instructions on how to perform jobs associated with trouble tickets. Jim Arnold (probably to keep me out of trouble) had assigned me to write task lists and Ray Eberle to write Bill of Materials (or BOMs). Thus began our three year journey together working side-by-side entering data into the computer.
Writing task lists didn’t mean that I just sat in front of the computer all day. In order to create them, I had to find out what tools a person would use to fix something, and what procedure they would perform in order to do their job. This meant that a lot of times, I would go up to a crew that was working on something and I would ask them to tell me all the tools they used and how they did their job while standing at the job site.
I will write another post later about how I actually did the task of writing task lists, so I won’t go into any more detail. After a short while, Ray and I figured out that we needed to be in the front office close to the Master Prints and the room where the “X-Files” (or X-drawings) were kept.
X-Files didn’t have to do with “Aliens”. X-Files were files in cabinets that had all the vendor information about every piece of equipment at the plant (just about). They were called X Files because their filing numbers all began with an X. Like X-160183.
About 50% of my time for the next three years was spent creating task lists. The rest of the time, I was still doing my regular electrician job, and going to school. After the first year, I moved into the Master Print Room and Ray and I set up shop working on the computers next to each other.
Ray was a collector of Habanero Sauce bottles.
He would travel the country looking for unique Habanero Sauce bottles. Each day, Ray would bring a bottle of habanero sauce to work and pour some on his lunch.
I ate the same boring lunch every day. It consisted of a ham sandwich with a slice of American cheese. Then I had some kind of fruit, like an apple or an orange. Since I was no longer eating lunch in the electric shop where Charles would give me peppers with my sandwich, when Ray asked me if I would like some hot sauce for my sandwich I was quick to give it a try.
There is something very addictive about habanero sauce. After a few days of having this sauce on my sandwich, I went to the grocery store and bought some of my own bottles of habanero sauce and salsa.
Ok. One side story…
I was sitting at home reading a school book at the dining room table, my 9 year old daughter Elizabeth walked up to the table and took a tortilla chip from my paper plate, dipped it in the (habanero) salsa in the bowl next to it, and began to put it in her mouth. Without looking up from my book, I said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Thinking that I meant that she shouldn’t be stealing my chips, she went ahead and put it in her mouth. Grinning because she had stolen my chip, she began to walk away. Then she started to squeal a little. Moments later she was hopping all over the kitchen trying to find some way to put out the fire.
I told her the best remedy is to eat more chips. Don’t drink water. It makes it worse. Eat chips without salsa.
End of side story…
I mentioned above that Ray Eberle is a very good storyteller. He told me a series of stories that I call the “Walt Oswalt Stories”. These were real life stories about a Power Plant Man at our plant. They were so funny that I would go home and share them with my wife and she would fold over laughing at them. She said that Ray needs to write a book about Walt Oswalt.
I have shared some of these stories with various people in my later career and the reaction is always the same. These stories belong in a book. Later this year, I will share some of the Walt Oswalt stories in a post or two then you will see what I’m talking about.
One time in 2007 when I worked for Dell, I was meeting with the CEO of the world’s leading timekeeping company called Kronos. His name is Aron Ain.
My director, Chris Enslin was with us in Massachusetts.
Aron had taken us out to eat dinner, and Chris asked me to tell Aron some Walt Oswalt stories, so I shared a couple.
Then a couple of years later in 2009, Chris told me that he was at a meeting with CEOs from companies all over the United States, and there was Aron standing in the middle of a group of CEOs telling them a Walt Oswalt story.
Here is a picture of Ray Eberle sitting next to me at our computers in the master print room at the power plant:
Each day at lunch, after we had eaten our sandwiches, Ray would reach into his lunch box and pull out a worn black book and begin reading it. He would spend about 10 to 15 minutes reading. Sometimes he would stop and tell me something interesting about something he had just read. When he was done, the book went back into his lunch box and we continued working.
I remember some of the interesting conversations we used to have about that worn black book in his lunch box. One time we talked about a story in the book about how a hand just appeared out of nowhere and began writing on a wall when this guy named Belshazzar was having a party. Then this guy named Daniel came and told him what it meant, and that night Belshazzar was killed. Ray said, “…. God sent the hand that wrote the inscription.” What do you think about that? My response was…. “Yeah. God sure has class. He could have just struck the guy down right there and then. Instead he has a hand appear and write something on the wall. That way we can now have the saying: The writing on the wall’.”
I always thought if you were going to pick a good friend to have, if you pick one that reads their Bible every day during lunch, they are bound to be trustworthy. I could tell that I could trust Ray with anything. So, I spent the three years with Ray telling him everything I knew about myself while Ray shared a good deal of his life story with me. Of course… being nine and a half years older than I was, he had lived a lot more life than I had.
When I left the Power Plant in 2001 to work for Dell, one of the things I missed the most was sitting next to Ray talking about our lives, eating our lunch with Habanero Sauce, and listening to Ray’s stories about Prominent Power Plant Men! I have considered Ray a very dear friend for many years and I am honored to have him take me into his confidence. I only hope that I could be as much of a friend to Ray as he has been to me.
One of the most exhilarating moments a Power Plant Man may experience is when, while wearing a pair of high voltage gloves, they crank the handle of a High Voltage Switch closed in a substation. The booming sound of the electricity crackling overhead and the echoing off of the hills and trees a mile away comes rumbling back! I never could understand why the training required to be a certified substation switchman had to be the most boring class a Power Plant Man had to sit through.
I remember when I was young, every child had their own trampoline in their bedroom. When your mom or dad confined you to your room, you could always find entertainment by jumping on the bed. Then throwing up the blanket and letting it fall in a way that created a big blanket bubble, then you could plop yourself down in the middle as the mushroomed bed sheet burped the air out.
Once when I was young, my dad took my brother and me to Saint Louis because he was attending a meeting. He was in the meeting most of the day, as we stayed in the hotel room. This was back when you didn’t have 24 hour cable TV. The day whizzed by as my brother and I jumped around between the two beds. Leaping as high as we could, and pouncing from one bed to the other. When our dad arrived after a day in meetings, he didn’t find a couple of young boys staring at the walls, he found two worn out kids who had just had one of the funnest days we could remember…. being cooped up in a hotel room all day long.
Contrast that to the first time I attended Substation Switchman Certification training.
The instructor explained at the beginning of the day long class that he was required to read through the company policies and procedures on substation switching before we were allowed to take the test. There were a number of procedures that were practically duplicates of each other, so we had to listen to the same boring documents being read to us over and over again throughout the day. This didn’t include just the switching procedures in the switchyard. It also included the clearance procedures required before and after the switching has occurred.
Six hours later, I thought my eyelids had grown little lead weights on the end of every eyelash (and if you have ever seen how many eyelashes I have, you would know how serious of a situation this was).
That wasn’t the worst of it. Switchman training back then was required every two years. Think about this. I was an electrician for 18 years. During that time, I had to take Switchman training 7 times! Each time the instructor had to read the entire text of the switchman policies and procedures. Think of the most boring lecture or sermon you ever had to sit through, then multiply it by six, and you will understand the agony we had to endure each time to receive the Certified Switchman card for our wallets.
During the summer of 1995, after we had downsized to where we only had 7 electricians at the large coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, we decided we needed to train more operators to be switchman. After all, they had the clearance part down already, and basically did lower voltage switching in the switchgears. It made a lot of sense.
We told the switchman trainer that we wanted to add some hands-on practical training to the course to try to make training more exciting. Andy Tubbs, the foreman who was also an electrician and long time switchman, worked to arrange it so that we could have the operators switch out a section of the substation after they had learned the boring part of their training.
After an entire day of sitting in a classroom. The switchmen trainees had a real life opportunity to watch and experience switching out a real section of the substation. They could wear the high voltage gloves and open the switches.
We also took switching orders and added some errors to them, and asked the students to review the orders to see if they would approve the switching before they went to the substation and to make any corrections necessary. This is one of the steps a switchman is required to do before going out to switch. They have to review each step of the switching and approve them.
Two years later in 1997, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City and become certified as a Switchman Trainer. I remember going to the training center just north of Norman Oklahoma where I met our instructor, Harry McRee. He was a trainer in his early 50’s. He had been a safety trainer for years.
Harry explained to us that he would like to make the switchman training more interesting, but the company’s requirements demanded that all of the documentation be read through entirely every time a person was re-certified. Since the documentation took most of the day to read, his hands were sort of tied when it came to making the class more interesting.
To give you an idea… here is how many steps it takes just to take a clearance on a breaker in a plant…. We had to review each step of the process:
As a side note… In 1993, I had received a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans. My emphasis was on Adult Education. So, when I went back to the plant and began developing the class for our plant, I thought I should be able to come up with some way to make the class more interesting.
I also thought that if it was possible for a couple of kids to keep themselves entertained all day just with a couple of beds in a hotel room, then something should be able to be done to make this ultra-boring class, more entertaining.
Since I was the “computer person” at the plant, I decided that I would use my computer as a learning aid. I went to our substations and took pictures of everything I could find, so I could add them to a PowerPoint Project. PowerPoint was fairly new at the time, so I decided to dazzle the class with animated fly-ins and popups, and cool transitions. I also consolidated the various documents so that I wasn’t repeating myself throughout the day. I brought my computer from home and set it up in the conference room.
I also employed my daughter Elizabeth to help me. I figured if she could teach some of the training, and the students could see that even a seven year old can learn this, then maybe they would be a little more interested. I had recently bought a new Ball Camera for my computer. It was a new thing to have a camera on your computer. They weren’t really used for things like Skype back then, since you only had 28,800 baud modems, which doesn’t give you very much bandwidth. So needless to say. No one in the room knew what that little white ball was.
I had my daughter dress up in one of my wife’s lab coats and wear over-sized glasses to give her the look of a teacher. Then we created a number of short film clips that gave specific instructions. Here are a few screenshots from the short videos we made:
At any moment her video would come flying in and she would often say….. “Look Class! I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”
She would also fly in and say, “Pay Attention! This is on the test!”
There were still a couple of videos that the switchmen-in-training had to watch that were boring, especially since we had all watched them many times in our careers. I knew that during the videos, many would be falling asleep, so, I took my ball camera with me and kept it sitting on the table while we went through the training. No one really knew what it was.
While we were watching the first boring video, I sat looking at my computer monitor, which no one in the room could see. What I was doing was acting like I wasn’t paying any attention to anyone when I really was. I had the ball camera in my hand. I was looking for anyone who was dozing off. Then I would take a movie clip of them nodding off. Some fighting to keep their eyes open. Others leaning way back in their chair with their mouth hanging wide open fast asleep.
I took the movie clips and put them about 5 slides later in the next section we were going to cover. Just when they were ready to be bored from the next section of the class, I would present a slide to them with movie clips of them sleeping during the videos and Elizabeth would slide in from the bottom of the slide and say, “Look Class! I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”
That was the clincher. Once they realized that I had taken movie clips of them sleeping in the class just a few minutes earlier, they were all wide awake the rest of the day. No one dared to nod off again. It worked great! When the second video was playing, you can be sure that everyone in the room was wide-eyed and wide awake.
When it came to the part where they took their test, they could use any notes they had taken. Since Elizabeth had popped in and notified them about the parts that were going to be on the test, they were all prepared. Here is a copy of the test they took:
Isn’t it funny that back then, you regularly used your Social Security Number for things like this? We wouldn’t think of doing that today.
Later, after the class was over, Harry McRee, the trainer that had trained me in Oklahoma City, had heard how I had made the class interesting. So, he called me and asked if he could come out to our plant and see what I had done. When he arrived I showed him all my material and gave him a copy of the PowerPoint and videos. I told him he was free to use them however he wanted.
Because of this, I was asked to train the Power Plant Man in some other areas including general Windows training. When a job to be the “official” trainer opened up at the plant, I applied for it…. but that is a topic for another post. See the post “Power Plant Train Wreck“.