Category Archives: People

A Power Plant Man Becomes An Unlikely Saint

Originally Posted on April 7, 2012:

My wife came home from work one night in the early 90’s.  She was a charge nurse at the Stillwater Oklahoma Medical Center at the time.  She said that she was taking care of a patient that was one of the mostly saintly people she had ever met.  He was going to die soon and she thought I might know who he was because he used to work at the Power Plant.

When she gave me his name I was surprised to learn that he was on his deathbed, and yes.  I did know him.  I agreed with her.  He is and always had been a saintly person.  The funny thing was that I felt that very few people really knew him as I did.  Many people knew him enough to not think he would be classified in the “Saint” category, and I knew why this was also.  I knew him so well quite by chance when I first came to the plant, and I made a decision about how to answer a common question that was being asked of me at the time.

As a summer help it was known that I was a college student, so the obvious question was, why was I going to school, and what did I want to be when I graduated.  I could tell this was a rowdy bunch of men that enjoyed their day at work, and so I told them that I wasn’t sure yet what my degree would be, but I thought I might like to become a writer.  I told them this hoping that they would bite where I could set the hook (in a fisherman sort of way), and they did.

The first person that asked me that question was Sonny Karcher, and when I told him that I thought I might be a writer, he took the bait and asked, “Are you going to write about us?”  At the time, I had no plans about doing that, but I thought if they thought so, then they might fill my ears with the unique wisdom each of them seemed to have.  So I answered, “I don’t know.  I haven’t thought about it, but I suppose I might.”

That’s all it took.  After that, every time Sonny introduced me to somebody, he would say, “This is Kevin.  He’s our new summer help.  He’s going to college to be a writer, and he’s going to write all about us!”  This produced the behavior I was hoping it would.  That was that a number of Power Plant Men took me “under their wing” and bestowed upon me their own particular wisdom.  For hours on end, as I worked with various men, they would tell me how things are in the world and how I should respond to them.  Their own particular Philosophy Of Life.

At the time I really had not considered writing about my experiences at the power plant, but now that I am much older and the wisdom of these great men seem to be dying away, I thought that it would be a good idea to put these out there on the Internet where nothing ever really goes away.

I have refrained from mentioning the name of this Unlikely Saint until now because I think that if I mentioned it up front some Power Plant Men would read it and think I was just tremendously off my rocker and not read any further.  So I prefaced my story with how I came to know this particular Power Plant Man enough to understand what my wife was saying when she told me about this Saint on the general medical (3rd) floor of the hospital.

Maybe I will refrain just a little while longer to tell you a few things that this man told me.  It was obvious that he felt as if he was talking to me as a father would talk to a son.  He was only two years younger than my own father.  The one thing that sticks in my mind most is when he told me, “Kev, some day you may be a foreman or a supervisor running this plant, but always remember this…. Never forget where you came from.  Never forget that there was a time when you first began and knew nothing.  Don’t ever forget your friends.  Don’t forget who you really are.”  I have reminded myself of this often and made it part of my own  “Philosophy of Life”.  Years later when I became an electrician, he stopped by the electric shop and reminded me once again.

As an Aside comment, my mother tried to help me with this by referring to me as “My Son, The Janitor” when introducing me to someone for years after I had become an electrician.  I was always proud to be called a janitor, and I would not try to correct her, because even though I was an electrician, I knew inside that I was also still a janitor.  Today, even though my title may be “Business Systems Analyst” working for Dell (and now Senior Software Engineer working for General Motors), I also still carry around in the back of my head the title of “Janitor”.

I wish I had a picture to share of this Power Plant Man (I have one somewhere, but I am not able to find it just now), because if you could see him, you would think… this guy?

This Power Plant Man brings Hercules to mind, though, he didn't look anything like him

This Power Plant Man brings Hercules to mind, though, he didn’t look anything like him

His skin was darkened from smoking so heavily all his life.  Emphysema is what killed him while he was still relatively young.  His belly grew over the years to become larger than his stocky barrel chest.  His head nodded while he listened to you and especially when managers were talking as if he was laughing to himself because he knew what they were really saying.  His clothes were always clean, which left everyone with the impression that he never did any work.

I remember one day while we were inspecting the dumper (where the coal is dumped out of the railway cars), as it had not been in-service for very long and everything needed to be inspected.  I followed him down the stairway into the dumper going down into the darkness.  There were lights down there, but they didn’t give off much light because the coal dust absorbs the light instead of reflecting it.  So, you can shine a flashlight and it doesn’t fill the room with its glow as it might in a room painted with white paint.  To me the place was eerily unreal until I had been down there enough times to keep my bearings on where we were going.

Anyway, I followed him down into the dark damp dumper where every handrail, every light fixture and every step was covered with coal dust.  We had some wrenches and we were tight checking the rollers on the conveyors.  When we were finished we found ourselves at the ground level exit of #2 Conveyor.  I looked at this Power Plant Man and he didn’t have spot of coal on him.  I, on the other hand, was black from top to bottom.  My hardhat was black, my arms, my face, my jeans.  All black with coal dust.

Then this Power Plant Man told me some more words from the wise…. “When you get to be good, you will remain as clean as I am.”  This had as much impact on me as when Master Po told Kwai Chang Caine (In the Kung Fu TV series) that when he can walk on the rice paper and not leave a trace, then he will be a Shaolin Monk.

Master Po teaches Kwai Chang Caine about the ways of the force

Master Po teaches Kwai Chang Caine about the ways of the force

It seemed impossible to me that he could have worked right alongside me, actually doing more work than I was doing, and he came out pristine while I came out looking like a bat out of hell (or Pigpen times ten).  But there it was.

So, for years whenever I worked in a coal handling area, his words always rang in my mind.  I considered it a challenge.  I realized that there were times when it would be impossible to come out clean, like when you are sandblasting a tank, or working inside the Precipitator wading through fly ash up to your waist.  But when doing my regular job, I made a real effort to remain as clean as possible.

It made me happy to think that others might think that I wasn’t working hard enough to be in the True Power Plant Man League because my clothes were clean, because to me, it was a tribute to my own Shaolin Master…. Jerry Mitchell.  Yes.  Power Plant Men…. Jerry Mitchell.

Before Jerry came to work at the power plant, he used to work on jet engines.  Like many genuine Power Plant Men, he was a leader in the field of mechanics.  I have a list as long as my arm of great men that work as Power Plant Men that are each near the top of the list of experts in their fields of knowledge.  Jerry was one of them.

He built the engine in the blue corvette that he used to drive to work each day.  He machined the parts himself.  It could go from 0 to 80 and back to 0 from the main gate to the highway  — how many yards is that? 200 yards maybe 300  He demonstrated it once to me.  He was wondering if I was interested in buying it because he knew I didn’t own a car.

I think that I realized the true character of Power Plant Men from Jerry, because he had very little tolerance for those impostors that hung around Power Plant Men looking for a way to belittle them, or spread rumors to hurt their reputations, etc. because nothing bothers a pseudo-He-man like a True Power Plant Man, because it is like turning on a bright light and watching the roaches scurry away.  Jerry could tell their character a mile away.

I will give you a “for instance”…  One day as we pulled the truck up to the Maintenance Shop, Jerry told me to follow him and not say anything, just listen, because I was going to be shocked by the conversation that was about to take place.  I wondered how he knew as I walked up to an older coal yard foreman approaching a lady who was a Brown and Root construction hand (you could tell by the hardhat).

So I stood next to the man and listened.  He asked her how her night was last night and she began by describing the time she spent in a bar and she repeated the conversation she had with a man that was trying to pick her up.  Without going into too much detail, I will say that she ended the conversation with the man in the bar by saying that she was looking for a meal, not a snack, and proceeded to talk about another man in the bar and how she could tell that he was the kind of man she was looking for in more than descriptive terms.

She finished by telling the older man that the man she left with and her had a “Jolly good time” (my words, not hers) for at least 4 hours non-stop with more than enough details thrown in.  The older man was amused and hee-hawed about it slapping his knee in amusement.

Jerry nodded to me and we left.  We walked outside of the shop and Jerry asked me, “Have you ever heard anyone talk like that before, let alone a lady?”  I admitted that I hadn’t.  Then he said, “That man that she was talking to is her father.”

I was thoroughly shocked and greatly disturbed.  I had just heard a flowing river of filth spew from this person’s mouth as she was talking to her own father, and his response was to be amused by it.  When Jerry told me this I looked at him in shock, and he looked back at me with his head nodding as it did often.  His face had the regular straight poker face he usually wore, but his eyes told me that he was very saddened by this.  He said he felt it was important for me to know.

I have often kept that poor old man and his lost soul of a daughter in my prayers.  This man worked in the plant until the 1987-88 downsizing.  Whenever I would see him working in the coal yard, I would remember that I needed to add him and his daughter to my prayers.

So in ending I will say this about Jerry Mitchell, as I say with all the True Power Plant Men I know.  I have always considered Jerry a good friend.  Jerry was always a good friend to me, and I know that he is a Saint in Heaven today.  He never spoke a religious word in the years that I knew him, but I know that his large barrel chest held a tremendous heart.

When I think of Jerry today, I remember riding to Stillwater with him in his blue Corvette.  As we drove by a row of trees in a creek bottom he suddenly said, “What is that noise?  Do I hear Cicadas?”  I said, “Yeah, sounds like it.”  He replied, “I haven’t heard Cicada in years!  After working around Jet engines for so long I could no longer hear the sound of bugs.  My hearing is returning!”  That was the only time I saw Jerry’s expression change from his constant straight face to a smile of satisfaction.  I am 100% sure by the time Jerry made it to Heaven he was able to hear the harps very clearly.

Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River

Originally posted May 11, 2012:

The Power Plant sits on a hill where you can see it 20 miles away looming in the distance.  The lake that provides cooling water for the plant is also built on a hill.  If the Electric Company had waited for the rain to fill up the lake we would still be waiting 34 years later.  Fortunately the Arkansas River flows near the plant below the Kaw Lake dam near Ponca City and before it runs into the Keystone Lake near Tulsa.  There are 4 large pumps alongside the river in a fenced in area that draws water from the river and sends it a mile up a hill where it pours into the lake.  It is a beautiful lake and most of the area around the lake is a wildlife preserve.  A part of the area around the lake is reserved for hunting.

The lake on the hill with the Power Plant in the distance at sunset

Bald Eagles and Pelicans make this lake their home in the winter.  During the winter months you can watch a web cam of a bald eagle’s nest on the lake.  Here is a link to a Bald Eagle nest in Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge near Vian Oklahoma:  https://www.suttoncenter.org/live-bald-eagle-nest-camera/

I have included this map so that you can see the layout.  the wide blue line in the upper right corner is the Arkansas river.

Map of the Power Plant Lake

The River Pump station is just off the edge of this map.

During my second summer as a summer help at the Power Plant I was assigned to be the “gopher” for a maintenance crew that was going to be working down by the river for a week.  Being a “gopher” means that you drive back and forth between the plant and the river bringing (in other words: “go for”) tools, supplies, food, water, and anything else that the Power Plant Men may need while they were working at the river.

At first I wasn’t aware of what job the Power Plant Men crew were assigned.  I just knew it was down by the river.  I towed a large air compressor behind the flatbed truck and a lot of air hoses and air powered tools.  Then I watched as the men began to setup the equipment.  At one point Ray Butler who was overseeing the job asked me to go back to the plant and get a Y-connector for the air hoses and some more hose.

Air Hose Y-Connector

I drove back to the plant and when I returned I was standing there with the Y-coupling in my hand watching the men dragging air hoses down into the river, someone asked me to help them move something.  So I laid the Y-connector on the top of the Air Compressor.  Thinking that would be a safe out of the way place for it.  When I did that, it fell down into a cavity that was about 6 inches wide and 5 feet deep where there was the air intake for the compressor.  It was too deep to reach it.  You can see the air intake section on the front of this air compressor:

This is the exact size and type of air compressor

After trying to figure out how to take off the front grill of the compressor to retrieve the connector and not seeing an easy way, I told Dale Hull what I had done.  He just smiled (well… Dale Hull had a perpetual smile or grin on his face anyway), and he went over to a tool box and pulled out a spool of wire.  After cutting some off and fashioning a hook on the end, he quickly snagged the connector and pulled it right out.

Honestly when I saw him start fishing for that coupling I thought to myself that this wasn’t going to work and I was resigned to driving back to the plant again for another one and being humiliated by my failure.  It’s too hard to hook something that far down with that flimsy wire.  I was surprised and relieved when he quickly pulled it out with little effort.

Maybe he had a lot of practice doing this.  In True Power Plant Man fashion, there was no ridicule.  From the moment I told him I had dropped the connector, he went to work as if it was his job, not doing anything to attract attention.  Until this moment, Dale Hull and I were the only two that knew that I had dropped that connector into the compressor housing.  Even though I already had, I marked him down again in my book as a True Power Plant man.

Dale Hull was one of those surprise mechanics that had a lot more skill than you would think by looking at him.  He reminded me of John Ritter.  The actor on “Three’s Company”.  I carpooled with him a lot during the first and second summer and one thing that stood out in my mind was that he had over 100,000 miles on his car and still had the original tires.  He did his own wheel alignments.  I spent many hours alongside Dale on weekends doing coal cleanup.  I helped him move one time from one apartment to another.  I remember that he had his own set of precision machining tools.

John Ritter looking like Dale Hull in 1980

When I carpooled with him and Ricky Daniels, we would go to the gas station just north of the plant where Dale and Ricky would purchase some beer to drink on the way home.  At this time, the place was crowded with construction hands that were still building the plant.  I would sit in the back seat and watch the back of the heads of Ricky and Dale who, after a long hot day at work were relaxing by drinking beer and trying to stay awake until they reached Stillwater.  I would see Dale’s head bobbing up and down as he would struggle to stay awake.  Every day it was the same.  We always made it safely home.  I don’t know if it was the Novena to St. Jude that I was saying in the back seat or it was Dale’s ability to drive while nodding off to sleep or both.

Anyway.  Back to the river.

In the river just below the surface of the water next to the River Pump Forebay there are 4 “coffin houses” where the water can flow into the pump forebay. From there it is pumped up to the lake.  The 4 coffin houses (which get their name because they are rectangular shaped boxes that put you in mind of coffins) are mounted on one large concrete slab.  The Power Plant Men were setting everything up so that they could drill holes in the concrete slab which was about 4 feet under water.

Why were they drilling holes in the concrete slab? (you might wonder).  According to the EPA, it was required that the Electric Company continuously monitor the temperature of the water in the river at the point where the water enters the intake into the forebay area (As if the electric company was somehow going to be able to change the temperature of the water). So they were mounting a thermometer out in the middle on the concrete slab at the bottom of the river.

Hence the use of Air powered tools.  :)  It wouldn’t have worked well with electric tools.  I remember Power Plant He-men like Bill Gibson standing out in the river (the water had been lowered by lowering the output of Kaw Dam about 20 miles upstream) taking a deep breath, and dropping down into the water.  A few moments later a rush of bubbles would come blasting out of the water as he operated the air operated power drill.  Each time someone went under the water, they had to find the hole they were drilling, put the bit back in it, and try to drill some more of the hole all while holding their breath.  A lot of times they came up laughing because once they started drilling they couldn’t see anything because bubbles were flying in their face.  Needless to say, the 10 or so holes they had to drill took almost an entire week.

Of course, they had to take time out for cookouts and swimming in the river.  Fortunately there were no Power Plant Women down there at the time, because when it came time for lunch, a group of men in nothing but their skivvies would take a dip in the river.

When they were through there was a thermocouple mounted at the bottom of the river with a cable that led up the bank and into a small galvanized metal building that housed a recorder that took one month to make a full revolution recording the temperature of the water.

Thermocouple – detects temperature using the voltage between two different types of metal

Temperature Recorder

There was one other time when I worked for a week at the river.  It was when I was on labor crew and we had to shovel the sand out of the river pump forebay.  This is a concrete pit about 30 feet deep.  Animals would fall in there from time to time and drown, so usually there was a rotting dead possum and a dead bird or two floating in the murky water when the pumps weren’t running.

A P&H crane would lower a large bucket into the pit and a couple of us would shovel sand into it until it was full, then the crane would take it up and dump it out, then lower it back down again for some more sand.  We would be standing in the water or on a pile of sand shoveling sand all day.  I remember my first day doing that, after a while I looked down to see that there were little tiny bugs crawling all over under the hair on my arms.  I called them weevils because they weeved around the hairs on my arms.  I quickly realized that my entire body was covered with these little crawling bugs.  From the hair on my head down to my ankles.  They really weren’t weevils, because those are much bigger than the tiny bugs that were crawling all over me.    They put me in the mind of flea larva.

Flea Larva

My first reaction was to panic, run around in circles screaming like a little girl.  Instead I resigned myself to these bugs and just kept on working. They weren’t biting me.  I think they were just looking for a way out of the pit.  You climbed in and out of the pit using a ladder permanently mounted on the concrete wall.  When it was lunch time I would take a dip in the river, clothes and all to wash them all off.

It’s a  funny thought now to think that after I became an electrician a trip to the river pumps always felt like a vacation.  Maybe because we were outside of the normal plant grounds.  There usually weren’t any supervisors around.  There was wildlife.  There was a river you could play in if you felt the need.  I never found myself working less while I was there, it just seemed enjoyable to have a change in scenery.

Anyway.  I don’t think the EPA every really cared what the temperature of the river was, they just wanted us to go through the exercise of measuring it.  But that is how the lake ended up on the top of that hill.  The water is used to cool the steam in the condenser in the Power Plant.  The fish and the birds also enjoy it and all the wildlife around the lake.  All made possible by the diligent maintenance of the Power Plant Men.

Comments from the original post:

  1. rjdawarrior May 17, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    Loved it! The pictures really brought the whole story to life. You have a way with words that in trigs me.

    My favorite part was the flea larva, I could just see you out there in a field full of testosterone, running around in a panic screaming like a little girl…..

    Thanks for the enjoyment of the employment RJ

    Plant Electrician May 17, 2012, at 5:21 pm

    Thanks RJ, No matter how I try to forget it… I still remember it all too well. :)

    Comment from last Repost:

    1. Dan Antion May 13, 2014

      I love using air tools but I’m very glad to have only ever had to use them on land. I’ve used them in the rain, but I was always able to breath :)

Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door

Originally published on May 25, 2012:

Either this was the luckiest day of my life, or a day where stupidity seemed to be my natural state of mind. This particular day occurred sometime during September 1983. The Main Power transformer for Unit 1 had  shutdown because of an internal fault during an exceptionally hot day during the summer and was being replaced.

While the unit was offline, while I was on the labor crew, I was asked to help out the electricians who were doing an overhaul on the Precipitator. The Precipitator takes the ash out of the boiler exhaust before it goes up the smoke stack. Without it, you would see thick smoke, instead, you see only clear exhaust. At the time the electricians I worked with were Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers. I had already applied for a job in the electric shop and was waiting to see if I was going to be offered the job. This gave me the chance to show the electricians what a brilliant worker I was.

Bill Rivers told me to go in the precipitator and wipe down the insulators that held the wire racks in place. He showed me where they were. I wore a regular half-face respirator because the fly ash is harmful to inhale.

Half-face respirator

Just before I went in the precipitator door to begin wiping down the insulators using a Scotch Brite Pad, Bill Rivers pointed to my flashlight and said, “Don’t drop your flashlight in a hopper otherwise you will have to make sure that you get it out of the hopper before we go back online.” I told him I would be sure to hold onto my flashlight (noticing that Bill had a string tied to his flashlight which was slung over his shoulder) and I entered the precipitator door.

Yellow Flashlight similar to the one I carried

The inside of the precipitator was dark. 70 foot tall plates are lined up 9 inches apart. Wires hang down between the plates and when the precipitator is turned on, the wires are charged up to around 45,000 volts of electricity. The wires each have a 30 pound weight on the bottom to keep the wires straight, and the wires are kept apart and lined up by a rack at the bottom. One end of the rack which is about 25 feet long is held in place by an electrical insulator about 3 feet long. This is what I was supposed to clean. The light from the flashlight lit up the area around me because everything was covered with the fine white powder reflecting the light.

The first hopper I came to was full of ash up to the top of the hopper, but just below where the insulator was mounted to the edge of the hopper. So, I worked my way down to the ledge along the edge of the hopper and dangled my feet down into the ash as I prepared to wipe down the first of the four insulators on this particular hopper. Just as I began, the precipitator suddenly went dark as my flashlight fell from my hand and down into the hopper. — Oh boy, that didn’t take long.

Fly Ash Hoppers. Our hoppers were 12 foot by 12 foot at the top.

I sat there for a minute in the dark as my eyes grew accustomed to the small amount of light that was coming through the doors. After I could see again, I reached my hand into the ash to feel for my flashlight. The ash was very fluffy and there was little or no resistance as I flailed my hand around searching for it. I leaned over farther and farther to reach down deeper into the ash. I was at the point where I was laying down flat on the ledge trying to find the flashlight, and it was no where to be found.

I pulled myself over to the side edge of the hopper and dropped myself down into the ash so that I could reach over where I had dropped the light, but I was still not able to find it. At that point, I was leaning out into the hopper with only my one index finger gripping the ledge around the hopper (read that again…. one index finger was holding me up). I had a decision to make… I thought I would just bail off into the ash to see if I could find the flashlight, or I could give up and go tell Bill Rivers that I had done the one thing that he told me not to do, and in record time.

I don’t usually like to give up until I have exhausted every effort, so here was my dilemma. Do I let go and dive into this ash to retrieve my flashlight? Or do I leave the hopper and go tell Bill? I regretfully decided to go tell Bill. So, I climbed up out of the hopper, with my clothes covered with Ash (as we did not have fly ash suits at the time and I was wearing my coveralls). I made my way to the precipitator door and once I was outside, I determined which hopper I had been in when I dropped my flashlight.

I found Bill and told him that I had dropped my flashlight in a hopper full of ash. He told me to get the key for that hopper and open the door at the bottom and see if I could find the flashlight. Unlike the picture of the hoppers above, we had a landing around the base of the hoppers by the access door so you didn’t need a ladder to reach them.

Curtis Love had been watching the door of the precipitator for me while I was supposed to be wiping off the insulators. He came down with me, and we proceeded to open the access door at the bottom on the side of the hopper. When I opened the door both Curtis and I were swept backward as a stream of fly ash shot from the door. The ash fell through the grating to the ground below. We regained our footing and watched as a tremendous pile of ash grew below us. If the flashlight had come out of the doorway, it would have remained on the landing since it was too big to go through the grating, but it never came out.

After the ash had finished pouring out of the hopper as if it were water, I reached down into the remaining ash in the hopper to see if I could feel the flashlight. Still I was unable to find it. There was about 4 more feet from the doorway to the bottom of the hopper, so I emptied out as much ash as I could using my hard hat for a shovel. Then I pulled my body head first into the hopper and I reached down as far as I could in the bottom of the hopper, but I couldn’t find the flashlight.

So, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Curtis Love to hold onto my legs as I lowered myself down to the throat at the bottom of the hopper. I lowered myself down until I had half of my face laying in the ash. At this point only one of the two filters on my respirator was able to function as the other one was down in the ash. I reached my hand into the top of the feeder at the bottom of the hopper and with my finger tips I could just feel the flashlight. I had reached as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach far enough to grip the flashlight.

All of the sudden my head dipped down into the ash and my hand went around the flashlight. I was not able to breathe as my respirator (and my entire head) was entirely immersed in ash. Everything went dark. I struggled to get up, as Curtis had let go of my legs and I had plunged head first into the bottom of the hopper.

I had one hand free as the other one held the flashlight. I used it to push against the opposite wall of the hopper to raise my head up out of the ash. I still couldn’t breathe as my respirator was now clogged solid with ash. When I tried to inhale, the respirator just gripped my face tighter. Finally with my one free hand pushing against the hopper wall to hold my head out of the ash, I reached up with the hand that held the flashlight and pushed against my respirator enough to break the seal around my face so that I was able to get a breath of air.

Then I quickly pulled myself out of the precipitator as I heard Curtis saying the mantra that I had heard one other time (as I indicated in the post about Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love). He was saying over and over again, “I’mSorry,I’mSorry, KevinI’mSorry, ThoseGuysWereTicklingMe. I’mSorry,IDidn’tMeanToLetGo,ITriedToHoldOn, butThoseGuysWereTicklingMe.”

Looking around I spied a few Labor Crew hands sneaking away. As this happened before when I was sandblasting in the sand filter tank when Curtis Love had turned off my air, this wasn’t the first encounter I had with Power Plant Men In-Training playing a Power Plant joke on me. I told Curtis to forget it. I had retrieved my flashlight and everything was all right. I was covered from head-to-toe with fly ash, but that washes off pretty easily.

It dawned on me then that when I had dropped the flashlight, it had sunk clear to the bottom of the hopper and down into the throat of the feeder at the bottom. If I had dived into the ash in the hopper from up above, I would have fallen right down to the bottom of the hopper and been engulfed in ash. My feet would have been pinned down in the feeder pipe, and that would have been the end of me. It probably would have taken many hours to figure out where I was, and they would have found only a corpse.

While I was hanging on the edge of the hopper with only the tip of my index finger gripping the ledge, I was actually considering letting go. There never would have been an electrician at the power Plant named Kevin Breazile. I never would have married my wife Kelly, and had my two children Elizabeth and Anthony. I would not be writing this story right now. If it had been left to my own stupidity, none of those things would have happened.

I believe it was my guardian angel that had talked me out of letting go (or had actually been standing on my finger). As stubborn as I was, and against my nature, that day I had decided to give up searching for my flashlight and seek help. That one momentary decision has made all the difference in my life.

Since that day I have had a certain appreciation for the things that happen to me even when they seem difficult at the time. I have lived a fairly stress-free life because each day is a gift. Currently I work in a stress-filled job where individual accomplishments are seldom rewarded. From one day to the next I may be laid off at any time. I still find a lot of satisfaction in what I do because it was possible that it never would have happened. I have been kept alive for a purpose so I might as well enjoy the ride.

I find a special love for the people I work with today, because they are all gifts to me. I try to pay them back with kindness… when that doesn’t work.. I try to annoy them with my presence… Just to say….. — I am still here!

Comments from previous repost:

  1. Dan Antion May 27, 2014

    Scary thought there at the end. Sounds like quick sand.

  2. Ron May 27, 2014

    I’m glad you chose to “give up” on going after a flashlight! There is a Proverb that says “There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof is the way death.” Sounds like you found one of those “ways”. To choose to find your flashlight and lose your life would be the ultimate bad choice. God, give us the wisdom to choose the way of life.

  3. A.D. Everard August 4, 2014

    Wow. So close! You have a book with all these adventures, you really do. I’m enjoying reading these pages very much. I’m so glad you survived to write them!

  4. inmytwisteddreams August 17, 2014

    You are a very good story teller! I was drawn in from the first sentence, and engulfed in your words until the last. Great Story! I mean, not so great at the time, but glad you brought it full circle in the end! I always say, “You must never hesitate” – a simple statement, whose words most might take for granted. As humans, it’s typically against our nature to trust our first (or gut) instinct, but as you know, it is there for a reason! Good story! 🙂

    ~Nikki

Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace

originally posted on June 30, 2012:

Somewhere today there is a young man named Cameron Powell whose grandmother has recently died and who has a Great Grandmother named Dolores. A kind and gentle lady. If this young man were able to ask his great grandmother about his great grandfather he would hear the tale about a peaceful and kind man that made those who worked with him smile and enjoy their day. He lived his life in love with Dolores and his daughter and the very people that he worked with each day. All you had to do was walk in the same room as Howard Chumbley and a smile would come across your face instantly.

You see. While I was in my first years as a summer help at the Coal Fired Power Plant learning from the True Power Plant men of my day, 15 miles north of the plant along the Arkansas River was another plant. This plant was being operated by the Power Plant Pioneers of an earlier time. While we had the latest technological advancements that were available in 1974 when our plant was designed, the Osage plant was using old mechanical instruments that measured actual pressures and temperatures. What this meant was that when the pressure gauge registered 1000 pounds of pressure, it was because the pipe that was connected to the back or bottom of the gauge had 1000 lbs of pressure on it. I don’t know. They may have had a regulator on there that cut the pressure down to a safer range. That would seem crazy to anyone today to think that behind the Control Panel in the Control Room were pipes that ran from different steam pipes all over the plant to the gauges on the Control board, so that the Control Room operators could operate the plant correctly.

The Power Plant Men that worked in these early Generating Stations were subjected to dangerous chemicals and conditions though it was the best they knew at the time. Asbestos insulation covered the steam pipes. Turbine oil with PCBs were used to clean their tools.

Howard Chumbley explained to me one day that they used to wash their tools in Turbine oil up to their elbows in what was now known to contain the dangerous chemical PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyls). A funny fact I found out later was that there was a temperature probe in the river just downstream from the plant taking the temperature of the water just like Sooner Plant (See the Post about Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River).

When the old Osage Plant closed in the early 1980s, that was when I first learned about it. This was because some of the pioneer power plant men came to work at our plant. Howard Chumbley became an Electrical foreman and Gilbert Schwarz came to our plant as the superintendent of operations. Two gray haired men, both with a kind of slow peaceful look on their face. Howard had a smaller build with soft wavy gray hair. He could have been a professor at Harvard if you put a pipe in his mouth and a turtleneck sweater. Of course, that would not have been fitting for Howard. Gilbert was tall and had the look of a cowboy or a farm hand. I understand that he enjoyed working on the farm.

One year after I became an electrician in November 1984, Howard Chumbley became my foreman. It was less than a year after that when Howard retired. During the short time he was my foreman we took a trip up to the Osage Plant. It was named Osage because the Osage Indian Nation Territorial boundary is directly across the river from the plant. The plant itself actually sat adjacent to the Ponca Indian Tribe just outside of Ponca City. The day we went to the plant, Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien). a Power Plant Electrician and I loaded a special hazardous material containment barrel into the truck and I was given a special suit that I was to wear that would cover me from head to toe while I cleaned up a PCB spill. A smaller plant transformer had been removed from the old plant and there had been a slow leak under it that left a tar like substance on the concrete where the transformer had stood. As Howard, Diana and I approached the plant and I spied it for the first time. This is what I saw:

The old Osage Power Plant

As we drove closer I had a better look at the plant as we drove around the other side:

A closer view of the Osage Plant

It was definitely an old abandoned power plant. We took the barrel out of the back of the truck and hauled it inside on a two wheel dolly (or two-wheel hand truck, as it is often called). When we entered the abandoned plant we walked across the turbine room floor:

The stripped down Turbine Room floor of the Osage Power Plant

I could see where equipment used to stand that had been sold for scrap or stolen by vandals.

When we arrived at the oil spill I was surprised by how small of a spot it was. It couldn’t have been more than one square foot. I put on the rubber suit with it’s rubber hat, rubber boots and a full face respirator and rubber gloves. I took a putty knife and scraped up the tar-like substance and placed it in special bag that had a special seal on it.

When I had scraped up the thick stuff, I poured trichloroethane 1.1.1 solvent (which is no longer used due to the dangerous fumes that damages your liver) on the spot and scrubbed it with a wire brush. Then I took a Scotch Brite pad and scrubbed the floor until the spot was much cleaner than the concrete around it. Everything I had used went into the special barrel. The bags of tar, the Scotch Brite pad, the wire brush the putty knife and the rags I had used to wipe everything up. Then as I took off my suit, every piece of the rubber suit including the full face respirator went into the barrel. Once everything was in the barrel, the special lid was placed on top and it was bolted shut. A Hazardous Waste sticker was placed on the barrel and the time and date and what was in the container was written on it.

Hazardous Waste Barrel

We took the barrel back to the plant and it was placed in a hazardous waste Conex Box that was later buried when it was full of different types of hazardous waste from all over Oklahoma.

A Conex Box

A few years after Howard Chumbley retired, so did Gilbert Schwartz. Gilbert was the Superintendent over the Operators so I didn’t work around Gilbert and I knew very little about him. However, later when I was married and living in Ponca City, I would see him at the Catholic Church in Ponca City where he was a member of the Knights of Columbus. He would nod and say hi whenever he saw me.

Both Howard and Gilbert were in the military. I know that Howard Chumbley was in the Navy during World War II and that Gilbert Schwarz was in the Korean War. Growing up I noticed that older men that had served in the armed forces seemed to have light gray hair. Especially if they had been in the Navy. I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence. Aubrey Cargill was that way also (See the post about Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill).

In 1998, Howard Chumbley died unexpectedly when he was admitted to the hospital in Ponca City with a broken arm. The hospital in Ponca City had a bad reputation (or Mortality Rate, as some might say). People didn’t want to go there if there was anyway to avoid it. The hospital in Stillwater was the preferred hospital in this area of Oklahoma.

I only met Dolores Chumbley on two occasions and they were both at Christmas or Award banquets. She seemed the perfect spouse for Howard as she appeared kind and peaceful as well. I’m sure they had a happy life together. I do not have a picture of Howard. I wish I did. His demeanor reminds me of my Mother-In-Law. We have a picture of her in our hallway and the words below the picture says: “Be Kind”. I would say that this is what Howard was all about. Everything about Howard was kindness. I am honored to have known him.

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

This past week on June 24, 2012 Gilbert Schwarz died at the age of 83. He lived a long and happy life as did Howard. There was something about these Power Plant Pioneers that gave them a strange sort of peace.

A Power Plant Pioneer – Gilbert Schwarz

I never found the source of this peace for sure. I suppose it was their long and happy marriages with their loving and supportive wives. Howard had a daughter that he was always very proud to discuss. She was a teacher somewhere close to Tulsa. She recently died of Cancer on January 4. That was 2 days after I wrote my first Power Plant Man post (Why Santa Visits Power Plant Men) at the beginning of this year.

Gilbert never had a child of his own, but his nieces and nephews meant a lot to him throughout his life and he was active in their lives as they grew up. I suppose if the Power Plant Pioneers were anything like the True Power Plant Men of my day, then they found a lot of peace in the friendships that they had with their fellow Power Plant Men locked away behind the Main Gate that they had to drive through each day on the way to work. Once you drive through that gate and enter into the Power Plant Kingdom, there is a certain peace that you feel knowing that what you will do that day will directly affect the lives of millions of people in the state of Oklahoma.

These Pioneers of the early days willingly put themselves at risk working around equipment that did not have the safeties and guards that we have today to supply the electricity to the State. I don’t know if there are a few of these brave Pioneers left from the Osage Plant. Gilbert was the last of the older men that I knew about. If you happen to find one of these men some day, don’t miss the opportunity to talk to him. I am sure they would be proud to tell you of the days that they spent being Pioneers of the Power Plant World. You should be able to recognize them. You can pick them out in a crowd. They are the mild peaceful looking old men treating the people around them with respect.

Comments from Previous Post:

  1. Ron Kilman July 3, 2013:

    Thanks! I had not heard of Gilbert’s passing.
    Yes, the old plants had full pressures to the gauges in the control room (throttle, extractions, reheat (if any), even condenser vacuum). The funniest “gauge” I ever saw was at the Byng Power Plant (north of Ada). It was the plant MW output “gauge”. When the control room operator changed load, he would move the dial on the “gauge” (with his hand) and ring a buzzer. The men firing the boilers would hear the buzzer, look through the glass window at the new plant MW output, and change the firing rate on the boilers accordingly!

    1. Plant Electrician July 3, 2013:

      That’s a great story about the MW output gauge! This reminds me of the throttle control on large older ships. The round thing with the handle that the captain would turn to change the speed of the ship. This actually called an “Engine Order Telegraph” that rings a bell when the setting is changed so the Engine room knows to look at the new setting and then does what it takes to make the ship go faster or slower, or even to change from forward to reverse. In the movies it looks like it just happens automatically.

Power Plant Adventures with Jim Heflin

Originally posted August 31, 2012:

I have often mentioned Jim Heflin in many of my posts. One might think from the attitude that Jim had toward me in a few of those posts was that we didn’t get along. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jim and I were best of friends during the time that we worked together and when we carpooled together back and forth from Ponca City to the Power Plant Kingdom in the midst of North Central Oklahoma.

I have mentioned before that Jim gave me the impression of a friendly hound that was happy to see you.

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

That’s him all right, except he had a happier expression. I also mentioned that the first time I talked to his wife Brenda on the phone I made the mistake of calling her “Brenda Bulldog” because of a character that my wife and I used as a point of contention between us. As I mentioned before, I should have chosen something more becoming since there was a slight resemblance of Brenda Sue and a Bulldog….

Brenda had red hair and this expression

Besides that Faux Pas, Jim and I remained friends.

Jim was fun to be around because you could joke around with him, and you could tell that he was happy to be there. You could also tell that Jim was a very kind person. He didn’t like to see animals hurt, and felt bad when he knew he had accidentally mowed over even a field mouse with the Brush Hog. He was the kind of person you could put in a carnival in a tent and have people pay 50 cents to go see a happy lovable person, and people would come out feeling like they received their money’s worth.

Unlike most posts where I start out talking about a person, I usually end up telling you that they have died.  Jim is still alive and well. Jim Heflin is living in Moore, Oklahoma with Brenda to this day. I was just remembering all the fun times that I had with Jim and thought I would share some with you to give you a flavor of the man.

So, here is a moment that I often think about when I think about Jim. He was driving to work one morning and I was in the front seat next to him. He kept looking at his side window and lifting up his nose at the window like he was sniffing it. It reminded me of a hound dog in a car that was trying to tell you that they wanted the window rolled down so they could stick their head out. He would do that for a few seconds, then he would look back at the road and pay attention to his driving. A little while later he would be back to sniffing the window with his nose pointing up to the top of the window.

Finally I couldn’t take it anymore, so I asked him, “Jim… what’s up? Why do you keep sniffing at that window?” He looked at me like he had forgotten I was in the car and just realized that I had been watching him. “Oh!” he said, “I’m trying to sneeze.” Thoughts flashed through my mind like, “Maybe he’s allergic to windows…” or “I hope that Jim hasn’t lost his mind, or I’m going to have to find another ride back to town in the evening…” or “Yeah, that’s right. Why didn’t I think of that?” Finally the thought came to my mind to ask him how that was going to help him sneeze, so I said, “Huh?”

That was when I learned something that I suppose I should have known by then, but no one ever told me… Jim was pointing his face at the rising sun, and the sunlight was helping him sneeze. That’s right. Some people have this uncanny “allergy” or “gift” or “talent” that causes them to sneeze when they look up at the sun. Especially, I figured, if they sniff a lot like a dog sniffing a window. I do remember that Jim gave it up, and we made it to the plant without a single sneeze.

Now unfortunately, whenever I hear a sneeze, I look around to see if the sun is shining on their face, just so that I can catch someone having a “Sun Sneeze”. Years later, my wife confirmed that, yes, some people sneeze when looking at the sun. I may have even been doing that before and didn’t realize it.

I have even become some what of a pseudo expert on the subject and can now tell you that since my son sneezes as he steps out into the sunlight that, “Yes… It is a known fact that some people sneeze because of the sunlight shining on their face.” You just don’t know when moments of life-changing education is going to come along and raise your IQ. Like that morning riding alongside Jim Heflin on the way to work.

Another time I often think about when thinking about Jim Heflin was in 1982 when we were dropped off below the dam when the floodgates had been open so the lake level could be lowered in order for EPA, or whatever department could inspect our dam and dikes. Evidently, after the lake had been full for 3 years, it had to be inspected, and repaired where it was deemed necessary. Because a large amount of water was being released, the Electric Company wanted to make sure that we weren’t accidentally flooding anyone’s land beyond the foot of the dam down to the Arkansas River. So Jim Heflin and I were commissioned for that job.

We were dropped off at the foot of the dam and we were to follow the creek as it wound through the countryside down to the river. Instead of the creek just heading straight toward the river, it ended up turning south for a while, and winding back and forth a bit, and what would have been about 1/2 mile straight to the river seemed like more than 2 or 3 miles. Anyway, we didn’t find the creek running over it’s banks, and everything was fine. We didn’t have any great adventures where we were chased by wild animals, or we saw Bambi or anything like that. We just spent a couple of hours walking through fields and trees and brush, and we talked. We had a great time talking about nothing in particular.

I’m afraid that this was shortly after I had learned how to ramble from Ramblin’ Ann, so I was doing most of the talking (You can read more about that in the post about Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann). But anyway, I had a great time with Jim just walking out in the woods talking about whatever came up.

I have found that there are times in life where I am sharing an experience with someone when I realize all of the sudden that I truly care for this person and I would do anything to help them if they needed it. I tend to imagine all sorts of scenarios when I’m in a situation and I remember that I was thinking about what I would do if a wild animal were to come charging through the woods toward us, and my main concern was how I could protect Jim. Jim was the kind of guy that looked like he needed protecting. I even looked around and found a good sized walking stick just in case the need should arise.

When we returned to the road where we had been dropped off, we still had about 1/2 hour before anyone was going to come pick us up and it started to rain really hard. At that spot there was a little hut that I would call a “monitoring hut”. It was the same kind of hut that was at the River Pump station that had the temperature recorder that was used to monitor the temperature of the Arkansas river (see the post, Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River). So, we stood in the little hut until the rain stopped.

You may remember that it was Jim Heflin that had driven the Backhoe through a muddy patch and became stuck in the mud down at the park when Larry Riley came and showed us his magic (see the post Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley). Also, it was Jim Heflin that informed me that David Hankins had died a few months before, while I was away at school. I spent days chopping weeds along roadways while Jim Heflin was mowing the fields all around me. It was Jim Heflin that first flushed out the Bobcat at the Otoe-Missouria Indian Reservation as I was watching from the back of the truck (see the post Ken Conrad Dances With a Wild Bobcat).

If I were to sum up the three summers as a summer help working in the Garage, I would call them my “Adventures with Jim Heflin”. It was Jim that I worked with most of the time. We cleaned the park twice each week. Mowed grass. changed oil in the trucks. Washed trucks in the special truck washing bay behind the garage. Picked up rocks from the fields so the mowers could mow without tearing up the equipment. Changed and repaired flat tires.

Throughout all of this I was keenly aware that as nice a guy that Jim was, he wasn’t a True Power Plant Man. Like Sonny Karcher, he longed for a more simple life. Power Plant Men rarely have a simple life. It is filled with one crazy adventure after the other. When you drive through the gate, you have no idea what you might be doing that day. Like Sonny, Jim would have loved to have mowed grass clear across the country until the day he died.

So, I wasn’t too surprised when Jim and I were driving home one evening and Jim told me that he was going to leave the plant. He tried to explain it to me by coming up with various reasons why he was unhappy with his job; which was no longer in the garage. He didn’t really have to convince me. I knew. The Power Plant Life was not for Jim. He was sad about it, but at the same time I could tell he had already made up his mind.

After Jim left, I never saw him again. I never ran into him in town or heard from him. I had heard that he had moved to Oklahoma City, and I believe now that he lives in Moore, Oklahoma as I mentioned before. I have another friend from my childhood that lives in Moore, Oklahoma that may have an occasion to read this blog. His name is Dr. Bryan Treacy (Well, since my original post Bryan has moved back to Columbia Missouri now to the town where we grew up as children – so this next paragraph probably isn’t ever going to happen).

So, I would just like to say to Bryan, that if you are walking down the street in Moore someday and you see a couple coming out of a Sirloin Stockade, or Wendy’s and one of them looks like a bloodhound and the other sort of like a bulldog, just walk up to them and tell them that Kevin Breazile says Hello. And then just before you go, say, “Oh, and Otto says that Brenda bulldog sure has a cute wiggle.” — Now I’m really going to get it… and not from Brenda….

Here is a picture of Jim Heflin today, 33 years after our adventures in the forest:

Jim Heflin Jim Heflin

Power Plant Safety is Job Number One

Originally posted September 14, 2012:

I found out soon after I arrived at the Coal-fired power plant in Oklahoma the first summer I worked as a summer help that Safety was Job Number One.  I was given a hard hat and safety glasses the first day I was there, and I watched a safety film on how to lift with my legs and not with my back.  I thought the hard hat made me look really cool.  Especially with the safety glasses that looked like someone wore as a scientist during the 1950s.  Dark and square.

The first safety glasses we had didn’t have side shields

I used to keep a pair with me when I went back to school.  When I was a senior at the University of Missouri, Columbia, while working at the Bakery on Broadway, I kept a pair with me at all times, along with a hat that I had stol…um…. borrowed from my dad and always forgot to return. (In fact, I still have that hat to this day).

A hat just like this.  An Inspector Clouseau hat.

That way, whenever someone suspected who I was, I would put on my glasses and hat and people would think I was Clark Kent.  Anyway…. I diverse.  I never thought about it being an Inspector Clouseau hat until one winter morning in the parking lot at the plant Louise Gates (later Louise Kalicki) called me Inspector Clouseau.

The yellow hard hat made me confident that I was part of the blue collar working class.  Hard hats have a suspension system in them that make them look like it is riding too high on your head.  You soon get used to it, but for the first couple of weeks I kept bumping into things because my hardhat made me taller than I was used to being.

See? The hardhat looks like it is floating above this man’s head

This is this because of this great suspension system that causes the hat to ride so high on someone’s head.  I learned about this not long after I arrived and Marlin McDaniel the A Foreman at the time told me to sort out of bunch of large steel chokers (or slings) in a wooden shack just inside the Maintenance shop by the door to the office elevator.

Ok. Not this big, but pretty large

While I was bending over picking up the chokers (I mean…. While I was lifting with my legs and not my back…) and hanging them on pegs I suddenly found myself laying on the ground.  At first I wasn’t sure what had happened because I hadn’t felt anything and it happened so fast.  It seemed that my legs had just buckled under me.

I soon realized that one of the large chokers that I had just hung on a peg a couple of feet above my head had fallen off and struck me square in the middle of the hard hat.  I was surprised by the force of the cable and how little I had felt.  I became a true believer in wearing my hardhat whenever I was working.  The steel rope had left a small gash across the hardhat that remained as a reminder to me of the importance of wearing my hardhat at all times.

Larry Riley used to comment to me that I didn’t need to wear it when we were in the truck driving somewhere.  Especially when I was sitting in the middle in the back seat of the crew cab and it made it hard for him to see anything through the rear view mirror other than a yellow hard hat sticking up to the top of the cab.

During my first summer at the plant (1979), I did witness how easy it was for someone to hurt their back.  I mean… really hurt their back.  I was helping to carry a very large 30 foot long section of a wooden extension ladder.  There were four of us.  Each on one corner.  I know that Tom Dean was behind me carrying one side of the back end.  I believe that Ben Hutchinson and Aubrey Cargill were on the other side of the ladder.

As we were walking through the shop, Tom stepped on the floor drain just outside of the A Foreman’s office.  The drain cover was missing and a wooden piece of plywood had been put in its place to cover the hole.

A Cast Iron Floor drain cover similar to this was missing

Large equipment had driven over the plywood and it was smashed down into the drain making a slight indention in the middle of the floor.

When Tom stepped on the piece of wood, he lost his balance, and ended up spinning himself around as he tried to remain holding onto the ladder.  By doing this, he became slightly twisted, and at once he was in terrible pain.  Back pain.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this one event was a critical turning point in Tom Dean’s career at the power plant.  He was pretty well out the rest of the summer recuperating from the back injury.

The next summer when I returned to the plant, Tom was working in the tool room.  Obviously a step down from being a mechanic.  He was also very unhappy.  You could tell by looking at him that he had lost the proud expression that he had wore the summer before.

I don’t remember how long Tom worked at the plant after that.  I just know that it really made me sad to see someone’s life deteriorate during the snapshots that I had in my mind from the summer before to when I returned to see a man tortured not only by back pain, but by a feeling of inadequate self worth.  Hurting your back is one of the most common and most serious injuries in an industrial setting.  It is definitely a life changing event.

There were other tragedies during my time as a summer help and they didn’t necessarily have to do with something dangerous at work.  One summer there was a young man working in the warehouse and tool room.  His name was Bill Engleking (thanks Fred.  I didn’t remember his name in the original post).  The next summer I asked where he had gone, and I learned that one morning he had woke up and found that he had become completely blind.  It turned out that he had a very serious case of diabetes.  The sugar levels in his blood had reached such dangerous levels that it destroyed his optic nerves overnight.

Then there was one of the Electricians, Bill Ennis.  He would say that he was “Blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other one.”  He was actually blind in one eye completely, and the other eye he was color blind.  So, what he said was actually true.

It happened on occasion that people visiting the plant would be seriously hurt.  Everyone at the plant was trained in first aid, and Power Plant Men, being the way that they are, are always willing to do whatever it takes to help someone out in time of trouble.

One day during lunch, a man came to the plant to fill the unleaded gas tank on the side of the garage in front of the warehouse.  While he was reaching over the PTO (Power Take Off), His shirt sleeve caught in the spinning PTO shaft and broke his arm.

An example of a PTO shaft on a brush hog

I remember Mickey Postman explaining what happened.  His crew was eating lunch in the garage when they heard someone yelling for help.  When they ran out to see what had happened, they found the man tied up in the PTO with one bone from his arm sticking straight out in the air.  They quickly took care of him and treated him for shock as they waited for the Ambulance from Ponca City to arrive.

It is times like this that you wish would never happen, but you are glad that you had first aid training and you know what to do.  This person could easily have died from this injury if not for the quick action of Mickey Postman and the rest of his crew.  I believe other Power Plant Men that were there to help was Dale Mitchell, George Alley, Don Timmons and Preston Jenkins.  Mickey would know for sure.  I’ll leave it up to him to remind me.

Mickey Postman

I have illustrated these tragic events to demonstrate the importance of making Safety Job Number One.  The Power Plant Men didn’t have to be told by a safety video to know how important it was.  They all knew examples of tragedies such as these.

Each month the plant would have the Monthly Safety Meeting, and every Monday morning each crew would have their own safety meeting.  Safety pamphlets would be read, safety videos would be watched.  Campaigns would be waged to re-emphasize the importance of proper lifting techniques.  Everyone in the plant had to take the Defensive Driving course.

The last summer I worked as a summer help in 1982 was the first summer that everyone was required to take the Defensive Driving course.  The course was being given by Nancy Brien, Nick Gleason and Ken Couri.  We learned a lot of defensive driving slogans like, “Is the Pass really necessary?”  “Slow down, ride to the right, ride off the road” (when an emergency vehicle is approaching), “Use the Two Second Rule” (Only, I think it was 3 seconds at that time).  “Do a Circle For Safety” etc….

The Defensive Driving Course we took when I was a summer help

The Defensive Driving Course we took when I was a summer help

My friend Tim Flowers and another summer help were carpooling during that time and we made signs with those slogans on them.  Then when we were driving home in my little Honda Civic, we would hold one of those signs up in the back window so that the Power Plant person that was following us home (Usually Dick Dale and Mike Gibbs) would wonder what it said, and would pull up closer to read the sign, and it would say, “Use the 3 second rule”, or “If you can read this, you are too close”.

That was when I began wearing my seat belt all the time.  Before that, it was not common for people to wear seat belts.  They only had the lap belt before that, and those weren’t the safest things in the world.  Especially since they would get lost inside the seat.  I attribute the Defensive Driving Course that I took while I was a summer help at the plant for my safe record as a driver.  There were a number of tips that I learned then, that I still use all the time today.

There is one advantage to wearing a hardhat that I didn’t realize until I left the power plant in 2001. It is that you never have to worry about hair loss on the top of your head.  Whenever you are outside at the plant, you always wear your hardhat and safety glasses.  When I changed jobs to become a software developer at Dell, I would find that just by walking down the street in the neighborhood in Texas, I would quickly develop a sunburn on the top of my head.

During the years of wearing a hardhat, I may have been losing my hair, but it never occurred to me.  Not until I had a sunburn on the top of my head.  I wondered at times if people would look at me funny if I showed up for work in my cubicle at Dell (when we had cubicles) wearing a yellow hardhat.  Oh, and a pair of super stylish safety glasses like those shown at the top of this post.

You know when you are young, and I’m sure this has happened to all of you at one point in your life,  you dream that you get off of the school bus at your school in the morning only to find that you are still wearing your pajamas.  — Yeah.  I thought you would remember that one.  Well.  I still have dreams of showing up at my desk job wearing a hardhat and safety glasses.  I don’t realize it until I lift my hardhat up to wipe the sweat off of my brow, then I quickly look around to see if anyone noticed as I stuff the hardhat under the desk.

Comment from previous post:

Jack Curtis January 22, 2014:

The safety meetings, Defensive Driving, safety glasses… it was the same way for telephone men, too. And they jumped in whenever there were problems as well. It is striking to me, to see the differences in attitudes from one generation to another…

How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic?

Originally Posted on September 21, 2012:

Not long after I became a full time Power Plant employee after I had moved from being a janitor to the labor crew in 1983, I began carpooling with 3 other Power Plant employees.  An Electrician, Bill Rivers.  A Chemist, Yvonne Taylor, and one of the new members of the Testing team, Rich Litzer.  With such a diverse group, you can only imagine the types of topics that were discussed driving to and from work each day.

Bill Rivers usually talked about different absurdities that he encountered during his day as an electrician.  How one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing, leading sometimes to very funny results.  Yvonne Taylor would talk about her farm and something called School Land Lease that she farmed, and how she had to deal with the bureaucracy and the constantly changing laws.  Rich Litzer would discuss how their newly formed team were learning new things at the plant and often had funny things to say about his encounters during the day.

Me?  Occasionally I would lift up my head from the book I was reading (if I wasn’t the driver), and ask, “Would anyone like to hear about the training that we received from Johnson & Johnson about how to properly wax a floor using their top of the line wax, ShowPlace?”  that didn’t usually jump to the top of the list of most interesting stories.

The Best Floor Wax money can buy!

We did use ShowPlace wax by Johnson and Johnson, and they did send a representative to our plant to teach us backward Oklahoma hick janitors how to properly care for our plain tile hallways and offices.  Not the fancy tile like they have these days.  If you are over 50 years old, then it is probably the same type of tile that you had on the floors of your school if you went to the standard brick public elementary school  like the one I used to attend.

The office area floors were sure shiny after we applied a healthy dose of ShowPlace on them.  The Johnson and Johnson rep. taught us how to properly buff the floor and showed us how a properly buffed floor that was really shiny was actually less slick than a badly waxed floor.

Anyway, I digress.  Waxing floors is usually something that I tend to ramble about when I have an audience that shows interest in it (which I’m still trying to find).  Since I can’t see your expression, I can only suspect that you would like to hear more about Power Plant floor waxing techniques, so I just might indulge you later on in this post after I have talked about the three other people in the car.

When it was my turn to drive to work, everyone had to climb into my 1982 Honda Civic:

A 1982 Honda Civic

A 1982 Honda Civic

Bill Rivers was about 10 years younger than my father and I know he had at least 6 children (I think).  Maybe more.  He told me once that even he lost count.  Before he came to work at the Power Plant, he lived in Columbia, Missouri (while I had lived there, coincidentally), and worked at a Tool and Die manufacturing plant.

He worked so much overtime that one day he came home and sat down to eat dinner and sitting across from him at the table was a young boy that he didn’t recognize.  He figured that he was a friend one of his own kids had invited to supper, so he asked him, “What’s your name?”  Come to find out, it was one of his own children.

Bill had spent so little time at home that he didn’t even recognize his own child because his children were growing up and he was missing it.  Mainly because he worked so much overtime.  That was when Bill decided to move to Oklahoma and go to work at the power plant.  Probably at the same time when I had moved to work there also, and was still going back to Columbia to finish college before becoming a full fledged bona-fide Power plant Janitor.

Bill Rivers always seemed to be having fun, and usually at the expense of someone else.  He was constantly playing jokes on someone, and his most common target was Sonny Kendrick, the Electrical Specialist.  Sonny was somewhat gullible, and so, Bill would weave some very complicated stories together to draw Sonny’s attention and string it along until Sonny was totally believing something preposterous.

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny wasn’t gullible like Curtis Love was gullible.  Sonny knew that Bill Rivers was always trying to pull something over on him.  So, Bill would just see how far along he could string Sonny until Sonny realized that everything Bill was saying was just made up in his head.  —  Then Bill Rivers would spend the rest of the week chuckling about it.  Which usually aggravated Sonny to no end.

Sonny Kendrick was the only Electrical Specialist at the plant.  I suppose he had some electronics training that allowed him to hold that honored position.  His real name is Franklin Floyd Kendrick.  I first met Sonny when I was the janitor for the Electric Shop.

People would call him “Baby Huey”.  Since I didn’t know who Baby Huey was, I just figured that it was some character that reminded them of Sonny.  So, when I had the opportunity, I looked up Baby Huey (this was a number of years before the Internet).  I still wasn’t sure why, unless they were talking about a different Baby Huey:

I didn’t really get the connection, unless it had something to do with the diaper or the facial expression

Bill Rivers had a son that was in High School at the time, and he had the same Algebra teacher that my brother Greg had when he was trying to learn Algebra.  The teacher had a real problem teaching algebra to high school students, and Bill asked me if I would tutor his son in Algebra.

When I first met Bill’s son, (I think his name was either Jerard or Bryan, I don’t remember now – well, that’s not too surprising considering even Bill Rivers forgot his name once), his life ambition was to graduate from High School and work as a mechanic in an auto garage and drive motorcycles.  I tried to show him how interesting and fun Algebra and Math in general could be, so each time I went to meet with him, I would bring him either a math puzzle or a book with a story about a mathematician, or a neat Mathematical oddity… such as imaginary numbers, and things like that.

Later, long after Bill had moved to another Power Plant in Konawa, Oklahoma, I saw Bill, and he told me that he his son was working toward becoming a dentist.  I don’t know if he was ever able to fulfill his dream, but when I visit Oklahoma, I keep my eye out for a guy on a motorcycle with a Dentist symbol on the back of his Harley Davidson jacket.  Because that would probably be him.

The Dental Symbol. it would probably look good on a Harley Jacket, don’t you think?

Anyway, while the four of us were carpooling together, the person that did the most talking was Yvonne Taylor.  Now, I like Yvonne Taylor.  I liked her a lot.  But she was the main reason why I was never able to practice my Ramblin’ Ann rambles (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space With a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“) because she was usually in the midst of exercising her right to ramble as well.

Since she was my elder, (almost my mother’s age), I always let her go first, which usually meant there wasn’t much of a chance for anyone to go second.  I finally just decided this would be a great time to read.  So I started reading books about different sorts of religions around the world.  With the Bhagavad Gita being one of my favorite ones.

I always had a certain attraction to Yvonne, because she had a son named Kevin (which is my name), and a daughter named Kelley (My girlfirend’s name at the time was Kelly, now she is my wife).  And her son and daughter were about the same age as my future wife and I were.

In the midst of rambles emanating from Yvonne, I would look up every time I would hear, “Kelley said this, or Kevin said that….”  She did say one thing one time that I have always remembered and I have tried to follow.  Yvonne said that you never want to buy a house that is West of the place where you work.  Especially if it is any distance away.

I believe it was when she lived in Michigan, she had to drive a long way East every day, and the sun was glaring in her eyes all the way to work.  Then when she had to drive home going West in the evening, the sun was glaring in her eyes as it was going down.  So, when you live West of your workplace, you have to drive with the sun in your eyes every day, both ways, and you just pray and pray for rain or at least a cloudy day.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Yvonne’s husband, Pat, had a dad with last name Taylor (obviously), and his mom’s Maiden Name was Songer.  My Grandmother’s last name is Taylor (by marriage), and my wife Kelly has a Grandmother who’s maiden name was Songer.  So there was that as well.

Unfortunately for Yvonne, was that by the time we arrived at the plant in the morning, she was usually slightly hoarse.  I don’t know if it was the morning air… or maybe… it could have possibly been the rambling….  So, when she would have to page someone on the PA system (The Gaitronics Gray Phone), she sounded a little bit like the wicked witch.  Just like some clothes can cause someone to look fatter than other clothes, the Gray Phone system had a tendency to make one’s voice more “tinny” than it actually is.  Especially if your voice is hoarse, and high pitched already.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

So, whenever I heard Yvonne paging someone and I was in the Electric shop or with the janitor crew, I would say, “Yvonne just has the sexiest voice I’ve ever heard.  I can’t hardly Stand it!!”  Those who were hearing me for the first time would give me a look like I must be crazy.  And Well…  who knows for sure.  I think the Electricians knew for sure.

Rich Litzer lived just up the street from me, so I would drive by his house and pick him up, or I would park my car at his house and we would take his car, and we would meet Bill Rivers and Yvonne Taylor at the local Bowling Alley, since it was on the main drag out of town on Washington Street in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Rich was a great guy to carpool with because he usually had a lighthearted story to tell about something that happened at home, or we would talk about something else equally not serious.  Later he was relocated downtown in Corporate Headquarters, and I didn’t see him for a long time.

Then one day, Rich and Ron Madron came down to Austin, Texas (where I live now) after I had moved down to work for Dell, to go to a school or conference, and I was able to meet them for dinner.  That was the last time I saw Rich or Ron, and that was about 9 or 10 years ago (now 16 years).

At this point I was going to rambl… I mean…. talk more about how we used to wax the floor when I was a janitor, however,  I have decided to leave that for another post “Wax On, Wax Off and other Power Plant Janitorial Secrets“.

Today when I finally found out that the post I was going to write was about my carpooling with Bill Rivers, Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer, I went to the Internet and looked up the latest news on my old friends.  To my surprise, I found that Yvonne’s husband Patrick, died on September 12, just 9 days ago.

I don’t think I ever met Patrick in person, however, I used to hear about his daily activities for the 2 1/2 years from October 1982 through December 1985 when I used to carpool with Yvonne.  Learning about Patrick’s death has saddened me because I know how much Yvonne loved and cared for Patrick.  I know she has four sons and two daughters that are there to comfort her.  I offer Yvonne my condolences and I wish her all the best.

Yvonne Taylor’s husband the past 52 years, Patrick Taylor

Comment from Previous Post:

  1. Ron  September 25, 2013:

    Great story, Kevin! I’ll bet you didn’t know I used to run a floor scrubber-/polisher. Yep – at the big TG&Y store in Shepherd Mall (OKC). I helped in opening the store in 1964 and continued working there for a couple of years as a “Stock Boy”.

What Does a Hard Hat Sticker Tell You about a Power Plant Man?

Originally Posted September 28, 2012:

I have learned one thing from Power Plant Men, and the Power Plant Safety Process is that, when you become comfortable doing a dangerous job, that is when an accident is most likely to happen.  Isn’t that when a young driver seems to become careless?

They drive carefully for the first couple of months when they have just learned how to drive, and then when they feel confident about their driving ability, they begin to cut safety corners, and the next thing you know an accident occurs. That was one lesson we learned in our Defensive Driving Course.

The Defensive Driving Course we took when I was a summer help

The Defensive Driving Course we took when I was a summer help

In the spring of 1986, while I was an electrician at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I went with another electrician, Ted Riddle, to work on a Major Overhaul for three months in Oklahoma City at a Power Plant just North of Mustang. While we worked there, we would eat lunch with a man well into his 50’s that was our acting foreman for the overhaul. His name was Willard Stark.

During lunch we would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio. When Paul would mention a date 20 years in the past, Willard would be able to tell us what he was doing on that day, many years earlier.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality. No one will ever fill his shoes.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality. No one will ever fill his shoes.

I was fascinated by his ability. I will probably talk about Willard more in a later post, but today, I mention him only because of his ability to remember what happened on dates long gone by.

Now that I am about the same age as Willard was then, I am beginning to see that certain dates hold a special significance. The more memorable the experience, either for the good or the bad, and I seem to remember what day it happened. That leads me to one of the memorable dates in my past life at the Power Plant.

The particular date was July 15, 1980. I was working at the power plant during my second summer when I was normally working out of the garage. But Stanley Elmore had told me to go to the Maintenance Shop and get with Ray Butler, because he was going to have me do some cleaning up around the shop.

When I arrived, Ray told me to go over and wait with this new hand that they had just hired the day before, and he would be over there in a few minutes when he finished what he was doing. I walked over to the young man (I say young, but he was 6 years older than I was. He was 25) named Kerry Lewallen.

I introduced myself to him, and we waited together for a few minutes until Ray came over and told us to get a forklift and move some crates that were nearby over to the Warehouse, and then meet him there to help build some shelves in the warehouse to store the larger material on pallets.

The reason I remember this day so well was because of what happened right after Ray walked away. Kerry looked at me and asked me if I wanted to drive the forklift. Well. I really did want to drive the forklift, because I thought it would be fun, but from my experience at the plant, I noticed that people like Larry Riley had a Hard Hat Sticker that said: “Certified Operator Industrial Powered Trucks”.

So I explained to Kerry that I wasn’t Certified to drive a forklift. Kerry had only worked there one day before that day, and even though he probably had a lot of experience driving a forklift (as most Power Plant Men did), he didn’t feel comfortable driving the forklift either.

Certified Forklift Drivers had these on their hardhats

So, we waited for Ray to come back and Ray asked if we were going to go get the forklift. Then Kerry said something that I have never forgotten, and that I have used repeatedly throughout my career at the Power Plant, as well as my current career. He explained to Ray, “I would like to, but I haven’t been circumcised to drive the forklift.”

I watched Ray as he listened, and I noticed a very faint smile as he realized what Kerry meant to say. Ray agreed, and said he would take care of it. I believe that was the day he took us to the warehouse and circumcised both of us to drive the forklift right then and there.

I couldn’t wait to get home and show my parents. As you can see, I was so proud of my new hardhat sticker, I didn’t put it on my hardhat, I just brought it home and framed it and hung it on the wall. That was July 15, 1980. Being Circumcised to drive the forklift was kind of like my “Come to Jesus” moment in my Power Plant journey.

Kerry Lewallen, as it turned out was a great welder, as were all the True Power Plant Welders. He stayed on at the plant to become one of the True Power Plant Men that worked side-by-side with the other great welders in the boilers welding boiler tubes, or in the bowl mill welding inside them in the tremendous heat that mere mortals like myself found totally unbearable.

Kerry Lewallen

Kerry Lewallen

As with Jerry Mitchell, my wife came home one day and told me about this very nice person that she worked with as a Nurse in the Stillwater Medical Center. She described her as being a very honest and pleasant person to work with. She also told me that her husband worked at the Power Plant. Her name was Vicki Lewallen, Kerry’s wife.

Through the years, there were many opportunities where we received Hardhat stickers. Most of them were safety related. Each year we would receive a safety sticker, if we hadn’t had an accident. It would indicate how many years in a row it has been that we have been accident free. I received my last safety sticker the last day I worked at the Power Plant during my going away party.

I worked 20 years without an accident

I didn’t place this on a hardhat either. Well. I was walking out the door leaving my hardhat behind (so to speak). I don’t remember how long the Plant Manager Eldon Waugh had worked for the electric company, (about 40 years) but just a couple of months before he retired, while driving back to the plant from Oklahoma City, he took an exit off of I-35 behind a semi-truck.

The truck stopped on the ramp realizing that he had taken the wrong exit and proceeded to back up. He ran into the company truck that Eldon was driving causing an accident. This was enough to ruin Eldon’s perfect safety record just months before he retired. The thought was that Eldon should not have pulled up so close to the truck, or have kept the truck in line with the driver’s side mirror so that he knew he was there.

Throughout the years that I worked at the plant we would have different Safety programs or initiatives that would help to drive our safe behavior. Since back injuries were a major concerned, we would watch films about lifting properly. Since we worked with heavy equipment we would watch videos about people being injured while working with dozers, and other big tractors.

One video that we watched was called: “Shake Hands With Danger”.  You can watch it here on YouTube:

This is a classic Safety film shown at the Power Plant periodically. I always thought we should have been provided with popcorn when we watched these. Harry in this film reminds me of a cross between Ken Conrad and Darrell Low. The “Old timer” reminds me of Mike Lafoe. I could go on.

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

Darrel Low is the tall man in the far back left with the white shirt between two shifty looking characters

When our new plant manager Ron Kilman arrived after Eldon Waugh, he had us watch a film where there was a near fatal race car accident. When they looked more closely at the accident, it turned out that there were many things that had to happen wrong that led up to the accident.

When an accident occurs on the race track, a Yellow Flag is raised, and everyone gets in line and takes it slow around the track until the accident is cleared. In the movie, the thought was that it would have been helpful if the yellow flag had come out each time someone was about to do something wrong “Before” the accident happened.

The foremen at the plant were given yellow flags to put on their desks as a reminder to see yellow flags whenever you see something that has the potential to be dangerous. We were even given yellow flag stickers to put on our hardhat. — By now, you probably know what I did with mine. Yep. I have it right here. I keep it by my bedside as a reminder:

See the Yellow Flag Before the Accident Happens

At one point during the years at the plant, we created a Safety Task Force. When Bill Gibson was the head of the Task Force, he used his Safety imagination to come up with some customized Hardhat Safety Stickers that people at our plant would appreciate. One of the more patriotic Hardhat Safety Stickers looked like this:

A Patriotic Customized Safety Sticker from the Safety Task Force

I didn’t receive one of the stickers that he came up with that I really liked because I was away at the time on an overhaul when they were being handed out. Many years later, when I mentioned it to the guys at the plant in an e-mail, I was given a stack of them by Randy Dailey the next time I visited the plant.

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

Randy Dailey the Plant Machinist that was known as “Mister Safety” himself. Thanks to Randy Dailey I am able to show you a hardhat safety sticker that was created based on a particular phrase that was going around the plant at the time:

The phrase was: ‘Cause I Love You Man!

That really says it all doesn’t it. The real truth about Power Plant Men. They really do care about each other. The close bond between the Power Plant Men is what kept us safe. In the “Shake Hands with Danger” at one point, it mentions that each person should “Watch out for the other guy.”

That is how our plant remained as safe as it did throughout the years that I was there. When I received the Hardhat Safety Sticker for working 20 years without an accident, it wasn’t because I was always being safe in every job I was doing, because that wasn’t always true. It was because there were enough Power Plant Men and Women looking out for me that decreased my odds of being injured by decreasing the number of times that I would end up doing something stupid and getting myself hurt or killed.

So, not only do I thank all the True Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with throughout those years, but so does my wife and my two children. One little mistake at the wrong time. One extra time of Shaking Hands with Danger, and I might not have come home one day from work. It was more than luck that kept me safe. I thank each and everyone of the Power Plant People that I worked with throughout my career for watching out for the other guy.

NOTE: After posting this last year, Ron Kilman, the plant manager at our plant from 1988 to 1994 sent me a picture of his Hard hat. I thought I would post it here so you can see it:

Ron Kilman's Hard Hat

Ron Kilman’s Hard Hat

Ron said he stacked his Yearly safety stickers on top of each other as you can see. 24 years of working safely.

Wax On Wax Off and Other Power Plant Janitorial Secrets

Orignally Posted on October 12, 2012:

Two years before the movie Karate Kid came out at the movies in 1984, I had learned the secret of “Wax On, Wax Off”. One that made a significant difference to my Power Plant Janitorial Powers!

The Student Learns from the Master…. “Wax On… Wax Off”

My Janitorial Master was Pat Braden. He is the same age as my father. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Pat Braden reminded me of a rounder version of Red Skelton:

This Picture of Red Skelton reminds me of Pat Braden

Pat was one of the kindest people you would ever meet. He was the head janitor when I became a janitor at the Coal-Fired Power Plant. I had worked with him off and on during the 4 summers when I had worked as a summer help. So I was glad to actually be on his crew as one of the team.

When we had a big waxing job to do, we would schedule a weekend to come in and do it. That way we could wax an entire area without interruption. We could strip off the old wax with the stripping chemicals, then neutralize it, then add the sealer, and finally end up with waxing the floors with the best wax we could buy. As I mentioned in the post “How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic“, we used Johnson Wax’s best wax: Showplace.

The Best Floor Wax money can buy!

We had been “certified” by Johnson and Johnson to wax floors properly. This included the proper buffing techniques once the wax had been applied and had properly dried. A properly waxed and buffed floor is shiny but not a slippery floor.

Floor buffer, used to strip the wax off and buff the wax once it has been applied.  The black pad is used with the stripper.

We decided to spend one weekend waxing the Engineering shack. It was a tin building like a Metal Butler Building that the inspectors from Corporate Headquarters would use when they had projects at the plant. In 1982, that was pretty well all of the time, as John Blake and Gene Titus were permanent residents of the Engineers Shack.

A simple metal building sort of like this. Only it was green.

The floor in this building had a regular tile floor like you would see in an office building in the 1960’s. Just the plain square tiles. It looked like it had never been waxed before, and was probably built on the plant grounds long before the power plant existed. The floor had been worn out by the traffic over the years. This was one building that I was expected to keep swept and mopped as part of my daily janitorial responsibilities.

Our Janitor crew consisted of Pat Braden, Doris Voss, James Kanelakos, Ronnie Banks and Curtis Love (and myself of course). We had decided a couple of days before that for lunch we would eat baked onions. “Ok”, I thought. I knew we didn’t get paid much as janitors and we had to be frugal, but I didn’t really think that we were so bad off that we had to resort to eating onions for lunch. But since no one really asked me for my vote (which would have been to bring in some pizza from Ponca City), we were having baked onions for lunch.

We spent the morning removing all the furniture from the building, and then stripping the floor (even though it looked like it had never been waxed before). Then we mopped it a couple of times. By that time it was lunch time, and we headed up to the plant break room where Doris was just finishing up baking our um…. er….. onions. Yeah.. Baked Onions….

It turned out that these were Purple Onions. The ends had been cut off of them and butter and salt and pepper had been put on each end as they were wrapped up in tinfoil like a baked potato, and then baked in the oven just as if they were baked potatoes.

oh yum… a purple onion…

Well. I was never one to complain about food, and I was determined not to show my lack of enthusiasm at the thought of eating an onion for lunch, so I sat down and put on my eager hungry expression as I waited for our (uh) feast. — Well. The joke was on me. As I began to eat the baked onion, I realized right away that it didn’t taste like any onion I had ever eaten. It was kind of sweet and…. well…. it was rather tasty! Power Plant Culture never ceases to amaze me.

Anyway, after I had eaten my share of onions, we were ready to go back to work waxing the engineers shack. We spent the rest of the day doing that (and burping onions) and when we had decided that the wax had dried enough, we carefully brought the furniture back in and put everything back in order.

So, why am I boring you with all this detail about waxing the floor in a metal building that doesn’t even exist today? Well. I have told you now about the “Wax On” part. Now comes the “Wax Off” part. The second part of my training to becoming a Jedi Janitor (hmm… snuck in a Star Wars reference I see).

Here is what happened the next Monday when I wheeled the buffing machine out of the janitor closet in the Engineer’s shack. Gene Titus (who always reminded me of Jerry Reed):

Jerry Reed trying to look like Gene Titus

and John Blake, both were very pleased with their new shiny floor. They looked like they were anxious to show it off to someone… anyone that would come by. I was about to really impress them (I thought) with my fine buffing skills that was “really” going to make their floor shine. So, they watched closely as I attached the red buffing pad on the bottom of the buffer:

The black buffing pad is for stripping the wax. The red one is for normal heavy buffing and the white one is for polishing

I began at the far end of the room from the doors and began buffing…. The first thing I noticed was that the buffer was literally removing the wax from the floor. Yep. It was taking it right off. Wax On…. Wax Off…..  I realized that for all our stripping and neutralizing, we hadn’t taken into account the years of dirt and grime that was embedded in the tiles.

Normally John Blake was a likable sensible person. I had carpooled with him for two summers when I was a summer help.  But when he saw me removing the wax from the floor he had a very concerned expression, and well, I perceived that a sort of extreme hatred was rising up in his demeanor…. I was glad that John was a quiet mild-mannered sort of person, otherwise, I think he would have walloped me one for ruining the floor that he was so proud of minutes before.

I began thinking to myself what I should do. After all. The floor really did need buffing, and buffing the floor was removing the wax. So as the buffer moved back and forth erasing the shine and bringing back the dull tiles, I thought as hard as I could muster my brain what I should do next….

I figured I would go ahead and buff the entire main room, as if I knew exactly what I was doing, not looking concerned. I don’t know if the confidence that I exhibited while removing the wax relaxed John just enough so that he could leave the building and continue his job, or if he actually stormed out in distress hoping to drown his sorrows in his morning cup of coffee…

When I finished the room with the red pad… I did what I would have done if the wax had buffed up correctly and had actually still existed on the floor…. I put the white pad on the buffer. I thought in my mind that the floor was probably so infiltrated with dust that we hadn’t done a proper job (if it was even possible) to clean the floor before applying the wax on Saturday.

So I thought I would try something that they hadn’t taught us in waxing class… I took a spray bottle and filled it with wax mixed with some water. Then I started in the same corner where I had begun removing the pride and glory of John Blake’s newly waxed dreams. I sprayed some wax and buffed it into the floor. As I guided the buffer back and forth with one hand, I sprayed the floor with the other. To my surprise, not only did it start to leave a shiny polished floor, but it left a polish that was much more clear than before. One that was almost like a mirror.

A plain spray bottle like this

As I buffed the room from one end to the next, the entire room became brighter as the lights from the ceiling reflected from the hard polished wax. I was nearly finished with the room when John walked back in. He was immediately stunned by the brightly polished floor.

I could see his uncharacteristic desire to kill me melt away and his pleasure with his new Shangri-La abode become immediately evident. John Blake from that moment on viewed me with the respect that most Power Plant janitors normally deserve.

I was so impressed with how well the floor looked when I was done, that I went to the Brown and Root building next door and did the same thing there.

I began to wonder what other uses I could make out of this discovery… Spraying wax on the floor and buffing it right in. It finally occurred to me that the floor cleaning machine that I used to clean the Turbine room floor might benefit by adding some wax to the mixture. It had the same type of red buffer pads on it.

We had a Clarke Floor scrubber similar to this one

So, after I had scrubbed the Turbine Generator floor using the regular detergent. I cleaned out the scrubber and put just water in there and about 1/2 gallon of wax. Then I went to try out my experiment. Sure enough…. The bright red Turbine Room floor began to glow. The bright lights overhead were clearly reflected off the floor. This was very successful.

This is a picture of the red turbine room floor, only not with the nice wax job. After I had waxed it, you could see the light bulbs in the floor

So, my next test was to sweep off the turbine-Generators themselves with a red dust mop. Then spray watered down Johnson Wax directly on the dust mop and mop away on the turbine generators:

Like this only with a mop handle

The Turbine Generators took on the same polished shine.

I distinctly remember one Power Plant Operator that gave me a very nice complement one day for keeping the T-G floor so nicely polished. His name was Michael Hurst. He was a True Power Plant Operator.

Michael Hurst is the second Brave Power Plant Operator on the right

As a lowly janitor in a plant of heroes, I found that I was treated with the same respect as everyone else. I would never forget that complement from him because I could see his earnest sincerity.

A few years ago on December 19, 2008 Michael Hurst died in Oklahoma City. What was said about Michael after his death was this: “He had a great sense of humor and a big heart… Many have been blessed with his generosity and his genuine love for people.”

I can include myself in this statement. I know that everyone shown in the picture above from Joe Gallahar (on the left) to Doris Voss (in the middle) to Pat Quiring (on the right) would agree with that testament about Michael.

There was another sentence after this one that stands on it’s own. One that is a sign of a True Power Plant Man. It was also said of Michael Hurst: “Above all else, the most important thing to him was his family.” Though I don’t have a picture of Michael’s immediately family. I believe that I have included a picture above of at least some of his extended family.

Comment from previous post:

  1. Ron  October 16, 2013:

    Thanks, Kevin.
    Did you know that (years ago) John Blake’s dad was Manager of Power Production (Generation Dept. in those days)? I remember Martin Louthan and other “old” Power Plant Men speak of “Mr. Blake” with respect.

    1. Plant Electrician  October 16, 2o13:

      I didn’t know that. I do know that everyone seemed to treat John with respect. Which he deserved in his own right. We carpooled together my second summer as a summer help with Stanley Elmore.

Comment from previous repost

  1. Dan Antion October 14, 2014

    My father managed a bowling alley when I was young. I remember large mops, all kinds of pads and rags and a buffing machine. Before he would let me use the machine on the alleys, he had me do the lobby floor. He not only inspected my work, he watched my technique. This brought back some of those memories, thanks.

Power Plant Lady of the Labor Crew

Originally Posted on October 19, 2012:

In the Power Plant posts, I generally tend to focus on the Power Plant Men that taught their Power Plant culture to me while I was fortunate enough to grace the boilers and conveyors of the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the north central plains of Oklahoma. Every once in a while during this journey there were True Power Plant Ladies that came along that took their place right alongside the Power Plant Men.

The Women generally held their own when it came to the amount of work, their tenacity, and even for some, their ability to hit a spittoon from 6 feet. — Ok. I made up the part about hitting a spittoon.  Everyone just used the floor drains for spittoons in the early days before they became responsible for cleaning them out themselves, after the summer help found more grass to mow. — The choice spitting material was…. Sunflower seed shells.

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

In the first few years, Leta Cates worked out of the welding shop (I believe… Well, she hung around there a lot), and later became a clerk. Then there was Opal Brien who was in the maintenance shop and worked in the garage one year when I was a summer help. Of course, there was Darlene Mitchell who worked in the warehouse with Dick Dale, Mike Gibbs and Bud Schoonover.

There was also Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), who was one of the Electric Shop A team super heroes.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Later came Julienne Alley that became the “Mom” of the welding shop. Some more came and went…. Especially the person that we referred to as “Mom” while I was on labor crew. Doretta Funkhouser.

I have mentioned before that the evil plant manager Eldon Waugh enjoyed manipulating his minion’s (oh… I mean employee’s) personal lives as much as he could get away with without stirring up trouble downtown. So, one of the rules he had put in place was that no one on the janitor crew could be considered for another position at the plant until they had first moved to the labor crew.

There even came a ruling later in 1983 (from Eldon and/or Bill Moler) that if it was your turn to go to Labor Crew, and you were not able to, or didn’t for some reason more than once, then you would lose your job as janitor altogether. That remained the case until Darrell Low was able to quickly move from janitor to Operator after Eldon had lost his control over the people on labor crew that he wanted to keep there, making the rule obsolete (I’m sure we had been told the rule had come from Corporate headquarters anyway).

Once on the labor crew, it was very rare that anyone left this crew to go to another position in the plant. They usually had to leave the company altogether, or find a job at another plant in order to escape. This was especially true after the summer of 1982 when the oil boom went bust in Oklahoma making jobs harder to find, and less people left the plant to go somewhere else to work.  The phrase on the first Tuesday of every month was, “Did you see that line of cars outside the gate this morning?  Be lucky you have a job.”

So, when I finally made it to the labor crew, many of the team had been there for a very long time. Others I had worked with before because we were janitors together. This included Ronnie Banks and Jim Kanelakos. Other members of the labor crew were Ron Luckey, Chuck Moreland, Fred Crocker, Bob Lillibridge, Tom Kelly, Bill Cook, Charles Peavler and Doretta Funkhouser. Larry Riley was our foreman.

While on labor crew I was able to learn how to operate a backhoe. Though I never learned the backhoe magic of Larry Riley, I was able to scoop up bottom ash and dump it into the back of Power Plant Men’s pickup trucks that needed it to fill in the parts of their driveways that had washed out at home. The very first time I operated a backhoe, I noticed right away that the brakes didn’t operate very well. You really had to play with it in order to get backhoe to not roll forward.

Backhoe

Here is a picture of a Backhoe

That was ok, because I was just loading bottom ash from a pile into a dump truck and I could just bump the backhoe right up against the dump truck and empty the scoop into the bed. That was working real good until while I was waiting for the dump truck to return after bringing the bottom ash to the place where it was dumping the ash, Jim Harrison pulled up in a shiny new Dodge Pickup. I mean…. it was brand new! He backed up by me and signalled to me from inside his truck. I was waiting there with a scoop full of bottom ash (which is a gravelly looking substance) for the dump truck to return.

My first thought was oh boy…. I shouldn’t do this…. I can hardly stop this thing and I know I will probably run right into the side of Jim’s new truck and he’s going to have a fit. So, I did the only thing I could do. I proceeded to drive around to the side of Jim’s truck to pour the load of ash into the bed of his truck.

Now… either it was Jim’s guardian angel, or it was mine (protecting me from the bodily harm Jim may have inflicted on me out of stress had I put a big dent in the side of his new truck) that stopped the backhoe just at the right spot, I’ll never know for sure. But something did. The backhoe for once stopped right where I would have liked it to stop and I dumped the ash in the truck filling it to the brim. I waved to Jim, and he drove away.

Later when I went back to the Coal Yard Maintenance building (where the Labor Crew called home) I saw Jim in the office, so I went to talk to him. I smiled and said, “I hope I didn’t make you nervous dumping that ash in your truck.” Jim said “No.” It didn’t bother him one bit. He said he knew I could handle it.

So I told him that was the first time I had ever operated a backhoe and the brakes don’t work too well, and I wasn’t even sure if I could keep the backhoe from running into the side of his truck. I remember Jim’s reaction. He said, “Ok, now I’m nervous.” Having done my share of passing the nervous energy over to Jim, I went next door to the break room to enjoy my lunch.

You would think that with Doretta being the only woman on the crew, she would have had it much easier than the rest of us. She was about a 29 year old lady that had a daughter at home. I know because she used to wear a shirt that had her daughter’s face on it. She was working to make a living like most everyone else on the labor crew. Doretta worked right alongside the rest of us when it came to Coal Cleanup, washing down the conveyor system using high pressure water hoses.

She worked right alongside me while we tied the rebar for the concrete floor of the new sandblast building that was going to be built behind the water treatment building. She worked with me in the sump pit between the precipitator and the smoke stacks with the Honey Wagon Sewer company that was helping us suck out the crud from the bottom of the pit. (This was before we had bought our own Honey Wagon). They call it a “Honey Wagon”, because, well… it is used to suck out things like Outhouses. You know how much that smells like Honey….. right? Um… ok.

We finally bought a Honey Wagon like this

Most surprising to me, Doretta worked cleaning boiler tubes in the boiler when the unit was offline and we needed to shake tubes to knock out the ash, or even use crosscut saw blades welded end on end to cut through the ash packed in the boiler economizer section.

I’m talking about two man crosscut saws. Welded end-on-end

This lady was a survivor. That is how she struck me.

Most of the time Doretta worked with a smile on her face. In fact, she had a smile embedded on her face from years of smiling to the point that her eyes smiled. Even though (as I found out in the course of my time on the Labor Crew), Doretta had a very rough period of her life, she hadn’t let it beat her down, and she was happy to be working on the labor crew, doing what most people would think was a thankless job.

It is true that when something needed to be typed, (Desktop computers were not available yet), Doretta would do the typing for Larry. She would also cut our hair. Being paid our modest salary (mine was $5.75 per hour at the time), we couldn’t afford to go to the barber every other week to have our hair trimmed, so Doretta would set up shop and one-by-one, we would go sit in the chair and she would cut our hair. Just like a mom would do.

I figured that since we were calling Doretta “Mom”, it only made sense that we would call Larry “Dad”. Larry’s reaction to my calling him “Dad” was more like Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker that he was Luke’s father. “Nooooooo!!!!” Except I was the little Darth Vader telling Larry I was his son…

The little Darth Vader from the Volkwagen commercial

Larry disowned me for a while as I have mentioned in an earlier post called “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“. He finally came around to admitting it when I continued calling him Dad. But he explained that he dropped me on my head when I was a baby and that was why I was so strange. So, Larry was our Labor Crew Dad, and Doretta was our Labor Crew mom.

It came to no surprise later when Doretta Funkhouser left the plant to become Doretta Riley. It seemed natural to me that my Labor Crew Mom and Dad would be married. I don’t know if that resolved the issue of my illegitimate Power Plant birth. I don’t remember anyone referring to me as a bastard after that. at least not in relation to my questionable origin, and at least not directly to my face. Though I do know of a few people during the years that would have thought that would have been an appropriate title for me.

I remember on one occasion when we were hauling scaffolding up onto the boiler to prepare for an outage, and I was working with Doretta using the large wench on floor 8 1/2 (I think), when Doretta came back from checking something at the bottom of the boiler. She said something to me then that puzzled me for a while. I didn’t understand it at first, but later came to know why she said what she did.

This is the type of Wench Hoist we were operating, only ours was powered by high pressure air. Not electricity

She said that it made her mad that people were trying to get me fired, when I’m a decent person, while there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to stay. She was referring to the wrath of Waugh after we had embarrassed him in front of Martin Louthan when we had confronted them about not being allowed to be considered for the Testing jobs, (See the post “Take A Note Jan” said the Manager of Power Production“). Eldon was trying to dig up dirt on anyone that had caused his embarrassment and had targeted me as one person to fire.

What had happened when Doretta had gone down to the foot of the boiler was that one or more of the “Pseudo” Power Plant Men-in-training had made an insulting reference to the past hardships that Doretta experienced in her life. I wasn’t aware of this until Eldon and Bill Moler questioned me about it a few weeks later when I was called to the office to see if I knew anything about the incident.

When they told me what had been said I became visibly upset to the point that I could hardly respond. Not because I didn’t want to answer their questions (which I didn’t, because I knew they were on their witch hunt which included me as well), but because when I learned that a couple of people on our crew had gravely insulted someone that I deeply cared about, I was both angry and upset. It was upsetting that someone would insult a struggling mother who was doing what she could to take care of her children only to be berated by others that worked closely with me.

After Doretta left the plant to marry Larry, I only saw her at a few Christmas Parties after that. She still had the same smile. I hope that she was able to find peace in her life, and that her family is doing well today. And that’s the story of my Labor Crew Mom and Dad.

Comments from the original post:

  1. Spent a little time on the picket line with the Navajo Local, District 65, in the Navajo Nation – when they were out on strike in 1987. Forget the lass’s name; but, the leader of the Local was a young Navajo woman, married with a couple of kids at home, who operated the biggest dragline at the Peabody Mine.

    Helluva skill.

  2. Gotta say, this is one of the more unusual blog posts I’ve seen in a while: different subject, funny, and well-written, too.

    Not my normal fare, but you’ve got a new follower… :)

  3. Your evocative stories return me to my years as a riveter… your subjects were the kind of people who built this country’s industry, I think. And I still think you have a book here…