Originally posted May 30, 2014:
Unlike the story I told a few weeks ago about Jim Padgett, this is not a story about being called to work in the middle of the night by a true Power Plant Man (See post: “Making A Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes“) or even like the story that explained the “Power Plant Black Time and the Six Hour Rule“. No. This is a quick story about a sobering slap in the face I encountered when walking into the electric shop one morning at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
I think this must have been when I was on someone’s short list for a “Power Plant Joke”, or maybe I just hadn’t been paying attention a month earlier when Bill Bennett may have informed me that this morning was coming. Either way, I was totally taken off guard when I entered the shop that morning with Scott Hubbard, my Carpooling buddy.
The first indication that something was up was that there were three contract hands standing there dressed in their worn clothing indicating that they had been hired to do some kind of “manual” activity. Yep. Worn jeans with holes. Shirts slightly ripped. One guy missing the sleeves on his shirt. I think one of them had accidentally taken a shower before he showed up. He may have mixed up his Mondays and Saturdays and woke up grumpy on Saturday and took a shower on Monday.
None of the contract hands had thought about shaving for the past week or so. So, they definitely looked out of place in the shop usually occupied by professional Power Plant Electricians, who liked to keep themselves clean and generally followed good hygiene practices.
My first thought was, “Hmm…. Looks like there is some dirty job someone has to do in the shop today. I wonder what it is.” I walked into the electric shop to wait until 8:00 to come around. Bill Bennett was leaning against one of the desks talking to Charles Foster. I asked Bill, “What’s up with the Contractors?”
Bill replied, “They are here to help you.” “What am I going to be doing?” I asked curiously. “You know. Pulling wire from the Vital Service Panel to the Telephone Room in the main office.” “Oh. That.” I replied trying to remember if I could recall ever being told that I was supposed to be inheriting this particular job.
The last time I had felt like this was when I was in High School and our American History teacher told us that the semester class projects were due tomorrow and he continued to explain that we would be presenting the projects in alphabetical order. “Which means that Kevin Breazile. You will be going first.”
Side Story Time:
Class Project? Oh No! I had forgotten all about it! I was supposed to write a paper about the Roadway system in the United States, including how we were preparing to go to the Metric System.” (Like that ever happened… This was in 1976).
So, after school I went straight home and told my mom that I needed to go to the Public Library to prepare for a class project that needed to be done tomorrow. At the library I quickly grabbed a bunch of facts out of encyclopedias. I made up a few statistics about how many miles of roads there were in the United States.
Then once I was back at home, I thought about the roads in the U.S. Well, there were dirt roads, gravel roads, asphalt roads, and roads made of concrete. So. I filled a jar with dirt. One with some rocks I found out in the street. I found a piece of asphalt that had worked itself loose at the intersection by my house. I also found a chunk of concrete under our deck in the backyard where we had busted up our patio once to pour a new one…. These were my props for my presentation.
I remembered that on the way from Kansas City To Columbia Missouri along Highway 70, there was a sign that said, 100 Miles or 160 Kilometers to Columbia. There was also one just outside Saint Louis going to Columbia that said the same thing. So, I added that to my presentation. This met the requirement of how the roadways were moving to the metric system.
When the presentation began, I began handing the jars to someone in the front row to pass around the class….. Yeah. A jar of dirt. A jar of rocks, and a piece of asphalt and the chunk of concrete. I remember our teacher, Mr. Wright grabbed the chunk of Concrete when I gave it to the guy in the front row and looking it over, then pointing to a spot on it and saying, “I can see the skid marks here where I almost hit you!”
Anyway. I ended the presentation by taking the chunk of concrete after it had been passed around the class and holding it up and saying that if we continued to create roads at the same pace that we have over the last 60 years, by the year 2076 the world will look like this…. And I held up the chunk of concrete. — Of course.. I had totally made that statistic up out of thin air. — I got an A+ for that project which was worth 1/3 of our grade for the semester.
End of side story.
So, here I was again, fourteen years later, and I was being told that I had a crew of guys standing out in the shop waiting for directions on how to pull cable from the Logic room just below the control room, across the T-G building and into the middle of the Office building on the top floor. Even though the Office was on the 3rd floor, it was equivalent to the 6th floor of an office building.
From experience, I knew that the cable would have to be pulled from the logic room down to the cable spreading room below the main Switchgear, through two manholes, then up through conduit to the office area above the break room kitchen and over to the Telephone room.
I had done nothing to prepare for this. I hadn’t looked through the blueprints to find the best route. I hadn’t even seen the large spool of wire on the pallet in the Main Switchgear waiting to be used. I hadn’t even prepared myself by looking confident like I knew what I was doing….
Bill walked out the door leaving me in the office with Charles. I wasn’t sure if Charles could tell that I was completely blind-sided by this job or not. But he did give me a quick “leg up”. He said, “Seems to me that there is already power going from the VSP (for Vital Services Panel) to the Telephone room.”
Well. I already knew that I was really lucky. Especially when I asked Saint Anthony to help me find a solution to a problem. So, I quickly glanced over in the corner where Saint Anthony liked to lean against the wall while he waited for me to come to my senses and have some faith. In my mind I could see Anthony shrug like, “sounds like you might give it a try.”
So, I walked… no… I strolled out into the shop like I belonged there….. — Oh… yeah. I did. But at that particular moment I didn’t feel like it, so I thought maybe if I walked like I felt like I did, it would help me feel that way.
I asked Scott Hubbard if he could help me check to see if we had power in the Telephone Room from the Vital Services Panel. He said he would be glad to help (this was Scott’s usual response. — A True Power Plant Man Response).
I asked him to go the Telephone room while I went to the Vital Service Panel for Unit 1 in the Logic Room. Scott took his handy Dandy Voltage Checking Tool and headed off toward the Office area.
I headed for the Logic Room with a pair of Fuse Pullers:
The Vital Service Panel is mounted on the wall next to the UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply). I opened it and read the labels inside of the cover. After scanning the list of locations that were fed from this panel I found one that could have been the one circuit I was looking for.
It was cryptically labelled in pencil “Telephone Room”. Hmmm…. I wonder if this is it… My mind had quick as a snap decrypted this entry and came up with “Telephone room”. — That sure sounds like this would provide power to the Telephone room. Let’s just hope that it is labelled correctly.
I waited until Scott called me on the gray phone to tell me that he was in place by the Telephone room. He had checked all of the receptacles (plug ins) in the room, and they all had power on them.
I told him that I would remove the fuse to the circuit that looked like it provided power to the telephone room, so in about 15 seconds, he could check to see if any of the receptacles was dead. So, we did just that. I removed the fuse….. — My first thought was…. Good. I didn’t trip the unit. I would have known that right away. — You never know… pulling a fuse out of a panel labelled “Vital Services Panel” kind of leaves you to believe that the stuff in this panel is really really important.
I went back to the gray phone and waited for Scott to get back on the phone. About 15 more seconds and Scott returned. He told me that the power had turned off on one of the receptacles on the wall. I told him I was going to put the fuse back in and head up to the telephone room so that he could show me where it was.
Literally 20 minutes after I had been jolted awake by the revelation that I was supposed to lead a crew of contractors on a wire pull that I had not prepared for, I had found out that the wire was already there. No wire pull was necessary.
Scott showed me where the receptacle was, and we walked back to the electric shop. Bill Bennett was standing in the shop wondering where I had disappeared to (oops. ended the sentence with a preposition. I should know better than that. I should have said, “….where I went.”). I was still wondering in the back of my head if I had just completely forgot that Bill had ever told me about this, or maybe he had forgotten to mention it in the first place, or he had not told me on purpose just to see how I would react to the sudden revelation that I had a semi-difficult job with no time to prepare for it.
I waited for Bill to follow me into the electric shop office. Which he did. Standing there with as straight of a face as I could muster, I looked at Bill as he asked me when I was going to start pulling the wire. The Contractors are just standing around doing nothing.
I said, “The job is already done. The wire has already been pulled.” “What do you mean? It’s still in the switchgear on the pallet.” Bill responded. I shrugged and said, “We don’t need to pull wire from the Vital Services Panel. There is already a circuit from that panel to the telephone room.” I looked over at Charles and smiled. Charles smiled back. Bill said something like, “Oh… Then I wonder what we are going to do with these contractors. We have them for three days.” Then he left the office.
I thought that somehow Charles knew something about my being “setup for some kind of failure” and had this up his sleeve all along so that it would backfire. — Just my luck. With three of my best friends standing there, how could I fail…. Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and Saint Anthony.
We had the contractors sweep out switchgears for the next 3 days.
Comment from the original Post
Power Plant Men learned about the “Law of the Hog” the first day they were introduced to the new “Quality Process”. I recently wrote a post about how the Power Plant Men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma were trained to use various tools to help them formulate ideas quality improvement ideas at the plant in June, 1993. See the post “A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“. Even though we were hearing about the “Law of the Hog” for the first time, I recognized it right away. I had seen it in action the previous November 3, 1992.
What better way to convince a room full of skeptical Power Plant Men that the Quality Process is about improving the conditions at the plant than by first telling them what they already know in such a way that from then on they believe you really do know what you’re talking about. — I know. That was a confusing sentence, so let me explain. The instructor told us the story about “The Law of the Hog”.
This evidently was a story that had been going around since the late 70’s. It had to do with a saw mill in Oregon. This is the story the instructor told us…
A group of quality consultants, or… I think they called themselves Leadership consultants back then were visiting the saw mill because they evidently needed some help. While the consultants were learning about how the plant operated, they talked with the workers one-on-one and asked them how things were really done at the mill. That’s when the workers told the consultant about “The Hog”.
The Hog is a grinder that takes scrap wood and grinds it up into sawdust. The consultants had asked them how they worked with supervisors when they were “lacking” in leadership skills. (I would say “evidently” again here, but I’ve already used that word three times. And the last time was just now while explaining that I would like to use that word again, but… — I’ll have to think of another word…. let’s see… oh. I know…. Apparently…). Anyway, apparently, that was when they told the consultants about The Hog that lived in the shack off to one side of the main mill.
So, what happens is that when their supervisor uses a heavy hand to try to whip the workers into shape, the Hog is used for more than just chewing up scraps. When the workers were treated with disrespect, then “The Law of the Hog” went into effect. What happened then was that the workers would throw perfectly good pieces of wood into the Hog where it would be turned to dust (saw dust that is). Since the supervisors were measured on their productivity which took a beating when good wood would be destroyed (Yeah. I couldn’t help using the words Wood and Would together… And then using “Words”, “Wood” and “Would” all together while explaining my obsession). So, the workers would pay the supervisor back each time he displayed inferior leadership skills.
Oh yeah. The Power Plant Men knew all about that. The guys at Muskogee, however, didn’t use such indirect methods. They had one Assistant Plant Manager (I won’t tell you his name but I think his initials were Morehouse. well. Something House anyway), that treated his men with a little more than disrespect, and was surprised one night when the front door to his house was blown off the hinges. He was quickly reassigned to Oklahoma City. But then I have always said that something is in the water in Muskogee. See the post “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“.
When the Quality instructor was telling us the story about the “Law of the Hog” a few examples immediately entered my head. Well, one was the Six Hour Rule. I mentioned this in an earlier post where there was a complicated rule about how an employee could collect “black time” and double time when they were called out at night. As management tried to manipulate the rule to the detriment of the employee, the opposite effect actually happened. After trying to skimp on paying the double time the employee was accustomed to, that was the time when I made the most money from that rule. See the post “Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rules“.
This leads us to a dark and stormy day at the Power Plant…. November 3, 1992. The story actually begins the day before. Unit 2 had been offline for a “more than” minor overhaul (I believe it was a six week overhaul instead of the usual 4 weeks). I was the acting foreman for the crew that was working on the precipitator. Terry Blevins normally was in charge of the Unit 2 Precipitator, but for this overhaul, Scott Hubbard and I were assigned to make all the necessary precipitator repairs. The main reason was that new rapper controls were being installed, and Scott had a lot of experience doing this since he had installed them on Unit 1 already.
At that time, Scott and I were like twin brothers. Whatever he was doing… I had to be there to help. Scott would work on the roof of the precipitator generally, while I worked inside. We had been given some operators to help us along with a few contract workers to do the “grunt” work. That is, when you would ask them to do something, they would usually reply with a low moaning grunty sort of sound (I just made up that word…. grunty. It seemed to fit).
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway just in case any “Non-Precipitator Gurus” are reading this)…. in order to install the new digital rapper controls, a lot of wire had to be pulled and laid down on terminal blocks from some rapper cabinets to other cabinets across the precipitator. When I say a lot, I mean somewhere over 10 miles of wire. 15 feet at at time. — I was sure glad Scott was doing that while I was strolling away inside the precipitator quietly looking for plates out of alignment and broken wires dressed in my space suit. For a better understanding of what a precipitator does, see the post “Moon Walk in A Power Plant Precipitator“.
I was not inside the precipitator on November 3, 1992, however, I had already finished up inside the precipitator by that time and I was working on the roof in cabinet 2G1 (on the southeast corner) on that day. We had the radio on and I was sitting on my bucket listening to Rush Limbaugh throwing a fit (as he has been known to do from time-to-time). None of our help was doing any work that day. The “Law of the Hog” had come into play and a day of rest had been declared by the helpers.
I was working away laying down the wires on the terminal blocks inside the rapper cabinet while the rest of the crew (minus Scott Hubbard who was on the far side of the precipitator roof working in another cabinet) was sitting around dangling their feet from the walkway near my cabinet. Merl Wright and Jim Kanelakos (two operators) were there along with three contract help. During that day I spent a lot of time running back and forth between the office area and the precipitator roof.
Here is what happened:
On November 2, 1992, just before every one left for the day, the word came down that in the morning everyone was supposed to report to work at the usual 7:00 time. We were scheduled to work until 7:00 in the evening. A full 12 hour day, except for the 30 minutes for lunch (and three breaks). The reason we had to be told to show up at seven o’clock in the morning was because November 3rd was election day.
It was the normal practice to let the Power Plant Men vote before they came to work in the morning. We were being told that we were not supposed to vote in the morning and that we could leave early in the evening to go vote instead of voting in the morning. We were told in no uncertain terms that if we went to vote in the morning, then the amount of time we were late getting to work would be the amount of time we would have to leave at the end of a normal working day.
Let me try to explain what this meant, because on the surface, it looks fairly reasonable. Since the polls closed at seven in the evening when we would be leaving work, we could leave as early as we wanted in the evening to go vote in order to arrive in time before the polls closed. There were two things fundamentally wrong with this solution from a Power Plant Man point of view, though from a Plant Manager point of view, it looked quite reasonable.
The first problem was that this was the election between George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton (Now you know why Rush Limbaugh was throwing a fit). A very large turnout was expected, and a majority of the workers wanted to make sure and go to the polls to vote that day. With that said, it would be hard to determine what would be a good time to leave the plant to go vote in order to stand in line and cast a vote before the polls closed. Up to that time, polls had not been kept open later than their designated closing time, except to let people who were already waiting in line by the time the closing bell rang.
The second problem and the main problem was this….. Suppose a person did go vote in the morning…. It was a typical practice for the company to cover that person’s time and pay what was called “Black Time” while they went to vote in the morning. In this case, the plant manager was telling us that we basically couldn’t go vote in the morning without being “punished”. If the person waited and voted in the evening, they would lose their overtime which directly affects the bottom line on the home front.
Here is how the punishment would be administered…. If a person went to vote in the morning and was an hour late, and came in, say at eight o’clock instead of seven. Then they would have to leave when they had completed a regular eight hour day. That is, they would not receive any overtime that day.
Well. this didn’t effect me, because I had already early voted a couple of weeks earlier. I think Scott did too, when we realized we were going to be on overhaul working 12 hour days. Scott Hubbard and I carpooled together, so we were always careful to coordinate our efforts.
So, guess what happened…. Yeah. You guessed it…. especially if you knew Jim Kanelakos. He knew an “injustice” when he saw it, and so, he wasn’t going to let this one slide. He made sure to go vote the first thing in the morning, just like he had ever since he was old enough to vote. He arrived at the plant around 9 o’clock.
When he arrived on the Precipitator roof he told me that he had voted that morning and that the line at the polls where he voted was down the block 15 minutes before they opened. He said he didn’t care what anyone said, he was going to work until 7:00 that evening. He said, “Just let anyone try to send me home early,” with a big grin on his face and his pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth…. Oh. Let me remind you what Jim looked like:
This is a picture I found a few years ago on Google Images. It looked like Jim, so I copied it. Since then I have received a picture of the crew Jim was working on, so you can see an actual photo:
Well… When Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor came around asking if anyone had arrived late that morning, as acting foreman, what could I say? I told him that Jim Kanelakos had come in two hours late. Tom told me to send Jim home at 4:30. He would get his black time for voting early, but he would not receive any overtime for the day. I told Tom I would tell Jim. I also told him that Jim had already said that he was going to stay until 7:00 and expected to receive the normal pay that he would have received if he had worked the entire day.
This sent Tom into a rage. He wanted Jim taken off our crew and sent back to Operations right then and there. He said that he disobeyed orders and if it was up to him, he would fire him. I told Tom that we had a ton of work to do and that we needed everyone we could have until the overhaul was over. If we sent Jim back to Operations for the remainder of the overhaul, we might not be able to finish our work. We were working on a very tight schedule as it was.
I told Jim that Tom had told me to tell him to go home at 4:30 in the afternoon. Jim just laughed. He said he was going to go home at his regular time…. 7:00 pm. I said, “Ok. I am just telling you what Tom said. I’m going to have to tell him your reply.” Jim, who was my friend, said, “I know. Do what you have to do.”
I went back to the electric shop and when I walked in the shop Denise Anson, the receptionist paged me on the Gray Phone. She said I had a call. I told her to send it to the electric shop office. I was surprised when I answered the phone and Charles Campbell was on the other end of the line. News travels fast…. He was an attorney in Stillwater. He had heard that there was something going on at the plant that might have something to do with vote tampering.
I told him in detail what I knew about Jim Kanelakos and how he had went to vote in the morning after being told that he had to wait until the evening to vote, or he would be docked pay by missing out on scheduled overtime. I knew that Charles Campbell, unlike some attorneys, was an upstanding citizen in the community and was in no way an ambulance chaser, but when he heard this, I could immediately hear the eagerness in his voice. I had the impression by his remarks that if this panned out the right (I mean “the wrong”) way, he might be able to retire early. We ended the conversation by him saying, “Let me know if you hear about anyone that doesn’t get to vote that wanted to because they left work too late.” He was in total disbelief that the plant had made that policy.
Well, I found Tom Gibson in his office and I told him what Jim had replied to me. Tom became even more furious. (I only saw him this mad or his ears this red one other time… but that is another story). He repeated that he was going to try to have Jim fired for being insubordinate. This seemed to me to be unlike Tom who was always a very reasonable person. I don’t think it was anything personal against Jim, I think there was just something about someone who blatantly (in his mind) had ignored a policy that had been clearly given to him the evening before.
I ended up in the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman’s office. Ron, who took ultimate responsibility for the decision to tell the employees to not vote in the morning listened to Tom tell him what he thought about the whole thing. I had been in Ron’s office not too long before this incident to tell him that someone had been hacking through our phone system and it surprised me that Ron wanted to find a way to resolve the issue without raising a ruckus or harming anyone, even the perpetrator. See the post “Turning the Tables on a Power Plant Telephone Interloper“. When Ron was questioning me about the issue about what to do with Jim, I could tell that Ron really wanted to resolve this issue with as little conflict as possible.
I told Ron that I had talked to my attorney in Stillwater about what was happening and that he was very anxious to find out if anyone either lost any money because they voted early, or they were not able to vote at the end of the day. Ron said, “Well. We made this decision yesterday afternoon without really thinking it through. When the idea was suggested, it sounded like a good plan at the time. Then today I went and checked to see what we have done in the past, and we have always let people go vote in the morning.” Ron’s final decision was to let Jim continue working until seven o’clock and receive the proper black time for voting in the morning. I let Jim know.
Everything would have been all right except for one thing….. The Law of the Hog. You see, I had spent considerable time going back and forth throughout the day between the precipitator roof and the office area discussing this topic with both parties involved. The entire precipitator crew with the exception of Scott Hubbard, did absolutely no work the entire day. They kept waiting to see what was going to happen. We were now one day behind schedule.
Comments from the original post:
Originally Posted October 4, 2014.
I suppose many of you have seen the movie Gremlins that came out in 1984. It’s a story about a creature named Gizmo who is a Mogwai that becomes a pet of an unsuspecting young man, who inadvertently breaks certain rules that were explained to him in specific detail. The first rule was Don’t get the Mogwai wet…. The second rule was Don’t feed a Mogwai past midnight. — There was another precaution, like Mogwai do not like Bright Lights. The Mogwai is a cute little pet designed to sell toys, and I think it was probably pretty successful.
When a Mogwai get wet, it pops out some fur balls that then turn into other Mogwai. You would think this would be good, but when the boy accidentally spills water on Gizmo, the new Mogwai turn out to be mischievous, where Gizmo is friendly and has a nice smile. The new Mogwai trick the boy into feeding them past midnight. This is when the trouble really begins. The cute fuzz ball Mogwai turn into Gremlins:
Can you guess which one is the Gremlin?
So, what does this have to do with Gremlins in a Power Plant? As it turns out something like Gremlins live in Power Power Plants. I know they did at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma where I worked as an electrician. Sometimes when you least expected it, a Gremlin would jump out and bite you.
At first a Power Plant Gremlin may appear like a nice cuddly Mogwai. For instance, one day when Stanley Elmore asked Hank Black to pull up to the front of the garage with the large P&H Crane to unload a large piece of equipment from a truck, or some such thing. I’m sure to Hank, this seemed like a nice cuddly Mogwai sort of a job.
Just think about it. Operating something with so much power and the ability to do so much work by just pulling a few levers and pressing a couple of petals, flipping a few switches. Not many people at the plant were privileged enough to have the opportunity to operate the P&H Crane. So, when Stanley asked Hank to lift that load and tote that bale, he hopped right to it.
Unfortunately, Hank didn’t realize when he climbed into the cab of the crane that the little Mogwai sitting in the seat next to him had been eating after midnight the night before…. One little pull of the wrong lever at the wrong time, and a little distraction that caused Hank to forget to put his outriggers out before trying to lift his heavy load, and the crane flipped over on its side.
I wonder if Hank noticed the Gremlin jumping out of the cab just after that happened, or was he in too much of a state of shock. Though Hank appeared all right after that incident, he had injured his back in a way where he eventually had to leave permanently. I know that many years later after he left, he was still collecting a pay check from the company. Compliments of the Gremlin.
One day RD (Dick) McIntyre, Dale Mitchell, Don Timmons and George Alley were working underneath one of the four Intake Pumps, also known as the Condenser Water Pumps. These are the large water pumps that push the lake water through the condenser in order to cool the steam so that it can make another round through the boiler and end up turning the turbine once again. I believe each of these pumps can pump something like 189,000 gallons of water per minute. — One of the Power Plant Men at the plant can correct me if I’m mistaken.
The crew was putting the coupling back on the pump if I remember this correctly…. and they needed to rotate the rotor of the motor or the pump in order to line it up or check the alignment. I wish I had a team picture of these four men, because they were the nicest bunch of old men. Especially when you were able to catch them all together. It seemed like the energy of their friendship made their group larger than the sum of the individuals. I’m sure while they were working on this job, all sprawled out underneath the pump motor, they had warm cuddly feelings just as if each of them was petting a Mogwai.
That’s when the Mogwai suddenly turned into a Gremlin. The team had put a strap wrench around the rotor (correct me if the details are wrong Mickey. You would know better than I) and were attempting to rotate the rotor. Dale Mitchell told me later that suddenly something slipped and the handle of the strap wrench swung around and smacked Dick McIntyre right in the forehead. Dick and Dale were just about as inseparable as Dick Dale was with his first and last name, so you can imagine how Dale felt that he had injured Dick.
Here is an interesting coincidence…. Dick Dale worked in the warehouse across the drive from the automotive garage where Dick and Dale (McIntyre and Mitchell respectively) worked, which was where the crane had tipped over with Hank Black in the driver seat. — I could stretch the coincidence to David Hankins, who used to drive a Black Trans Am. I would have mixed up David Hankins and Hank Black, because of David’s Black Trans Am, but David died in an auto accident early in 1980, and I don’t think Hank had arrived until shortly after. Racially, David Hankins was Black, and Hank Black was not. He was Native American. Anyway. I digress (which means… I have strayed from the topic of Gremlins).
When I think about Gremlins at the plant, Yvonne Taylor comes to mind. Not because she reminds me either of a Mogwai or a Gremlin, but because she encountered a Gremlin of sorts that sort of had a similar effect of spilling water on a Mogwai. I have recently reposted a story called “How Many Power Plant Men Can you Put in a 1982 Honda Civic” where I talked about Yvonne Taylor, one of the Chemists at the Plant.
Yvonne Taylor had worked as a Chemist at the plant since around 1980. We carpooled while I was a janitor and on the labor crew, almost until I joined the electric shop. So, I knew her pretty well. She liked to talk a lot, so I knew her a lot better than she knew me. As a chemist, she worked in the water treatment plant testing water quality, as well as testing our sewage treatment pond, and ground water, etc. She worked with a lot of different chemicals.
I was always fascinated with the chemistry lab. I had my own chemistry lab set up in the basement of our house when I was young. My dad would bring home different left over chemicals from work, and I would mix them, heat them, and light them on fire, and test their chemical properties… to the point of making gunpowder and exploding them in the backyard.
I think Yvonne had worked at the plant about 10 years when she developed a rash (or something) where she would become ill when working in the lab or in the water treatment plant. It was serious enough that Yvonne would have to take sick leave at times to recover. I first learned about her condition when I went to the chemistry lab for something and she was sitting in there wearing a paper filter mask. When I asked her why, she explained to me that she was trying to figure out what was causing her to become ill. She thought there might be some particles in the air in the lab or the water treatment plant that was causing it.
I think that the effects of Yvonne’s condition sounded a lot like what happens when someone develops an allergy to Latex. Yvonne would wear Latex gloves a lot when handling chemicals, so maybe that was it.
The sad part of the story is that Yvonne’s condition was severe enough that she had to leave the Power Plant and find another job. I don’t know where she went to work when she left the Electric Company. So, you see, Yvonne Taylor who happily went to work each morning ready to cuddle up to her chemicals just as if they were Mogwai, was finally chased away by Power Plant Gremlins.
In the post about the Honda Civic I mentioned that Yvonne’s husband Patrick had died in 2012. So, I wondered how Yvonne is doing lately, so I Googled her, knowing that she lived out in the country near Perkins Oklahoma…. But an interesting thing happened when I pulled up a page from the Perkins Journal for June 9, 2011.
I became confused when I saw this page. You see, the picture in the middle at the top is Mike Rose. He was an electrician I had worked with at the Power Plant, and I had recently re-posted a story about him called “River and Rose In the Power Plant Palace” Mike Rose had his own set of Gremlins which I may have mentioned in that post, but why, when I searched for Yvonne Taylor, did I pull up the a Newspaper Obituary of Mike Rose with the same picture of Mike I had posted in my post:
Talk about a Coincidences:
I read through the entire page before I found Yvonne’s name in a totally unrelated article on the same page of the Perkins Journal! Look in the lower right corner of the screenshot of the newspaper. The picture of Kimberly Jo Taylor Wilkins. — Yep. That’s right! The daughter of Yvonne and Patrick Taylor! I don’t know how many hundreds of stories I heard about Kimberly throughout the 9 or 10 months I spent carpooling with Yvonne each morning as we drove to the Power Plant. Here she was beginning a new phase in Kimberly’s life on the same page that Mike Rose was beginning a new phase in his life. Two unrelated stories of Power Plant People I worked with on the same page of a small town newspaper (Perkins Oklahoma, Population 2,863) 10 years after I left the plant to go work for Dell. — Isn’t that neat?
Does anyone know where the phrase, “Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back” came from? I’m sure there is a story behind that one. Maybe even a lot of different origins. I can distinctly remember a day in the Power Plant when a Power Plant Man stepped on a crack and broke his own back.
I remember looking out of the seventh floor window of my friends dorm room when I was a freshman in college watching students returning from classes about 6 months before the Power Plant Man broke his back. I was watching closely to see if any of them were purposely missing the cracks as they walked down the sidewalk toward the entrance. Out of about 20 people two of them purposely stepped over every crack in the sidewalk.
In the post “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One” I told the story about four of us were carrying a very long extension ladder through the maintenance shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma one summer morning in 1979 when Tom Dean stepped on a crack (well, it was a cracked piece of plywood that had been placed over a floor drain because the floor grate was missing), and when as he stepped on it, he lost his balance enough to twist himself around. By the time he stopped twirling, he was in immense pain as he had destroyed any chance for comfort for the next 6 months.
So, I could understand the dangers of stepping on cracks even when they appear to be insignificant. What that has to do with my mom I’m not sure. However, one day when my sister was walking with my mom on the campus of Oklahoma State University, my sister may have stepped on a crack at that time, as well as my mom, which sent her plummeting the five feet to the ground resulting in a broken hip.
This makes me wonder that since the times have changed, it may be time to change the saying to something else. Maybe something like “Smoke some crack, break your parent’s piggy bank” would be more appropriate for these times. Oh well, I’ve never been much of a poet.
Anyway, back to the subject of back pain.
The number one favorite topic during Safety Meetings at the Power Plant was Back Safety. We were told (and rightly so) that accidents where the back is injured cost the company and the employee more than any other injury. Once you really hurt your back, you can expect to have back pain the rest of your life. It only takes one time. — Times may have changed since 1979, so that now you can have some excellent back surgeries to help correct your back injuries. Even with these, you will never be completely free from back pain.
In the Power Plant Post, “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe” I told a story about how our team came up with hundreds of safety slogans in an attempt to win the coveted Power Plant Safety Award Pizza at the end of the year. A Pizza that continued to allude us for 2 and a half years. During our meetings to invent the most catchy safety slogans, Andy Tubbs (or was it Ben Davis) came up with a slogan that said, “Lift with your legs, not your back. Or you may hear a lumbar crack”. — See. I wish I could come up with doozies like that! This takes the idea of a crack and a back and turns it around, if you think about it. Now instead of a crack hurting your back, its about a strain on your back creating a crack. — I know… probably just a coincidence….
One morning Sonny Kendrick, our electric specialist at the time, while sitting in the electric lab during break, let out a whopper of a sneeze. When he did, he suddenly knew what it felt like to experience tremendous back pain. One sneeze and he was out of commission for many weeks.
One day, when Charles Foster, my very close friend, and electric foreman, were talking about back pain, I realized that a good portion of Power Plant Men suffered with back pain. — At the risk of sounding like Randy Dailey teaching our Safety Class, I’m going to repeat myself, “You only have to hurt your back one time to have a lifetime of back pain.”
The company would focus a lot of their safety training around the importance of proper lifting techniques in order to prevent back accidents (not to be confused with backing accidents which is when you back out of a parking space — which is also a common accident — though usually less severe — unless you happen to be a Ford Truck). We would learn how to lift with our legs and not with our back.
You see, it wasn’t just that one sneeze that caused Sonny’s plunge into Back Pain Hell, and it wasn’t just stepping on the cracked plywood floor drain cover that broke Tom’s back (I know “Broke Back” is a misnomer since the back isn’t exactly broke). The problem is more systemic than that. This is just the final result of maybe years of neglecting your back through various unsafe activities.
The two important points I remember from watching the safety videos during our monthly safety meetings was that when you slouch while sitting, you put a needless strain on your lower back. So, by sitting with good posture, you help prevent a future of pain. The second point I remember is that you need to keep your stomach muscles strong. Strong stomach muscles take the weight off of your back when you’re just doing your regular job.
The big problem that finally causes the disc in your lumbar region of your spine to break after neglecting it through these other means is to lift a heavy object by bending over to pick it up instead of lifting the load with your legs. So, the phrase that we always heard was “Lift with your Legs. Not your Back”. You do this by bending your knees instead of just your hips.
Ok. I know you are all thinking the same thing I am thinking (right? Yeah. You are). Bending both your knees and hips saves your back. Isn’t there another word for when you bend your knees and hips at the same time? — Yeah. Yet, I don’t remember hearing it during any of our Safety Videos. — Oh. It was implied, they just never came out and said it…. What they really mean to say is, “Squat”. Yeah. “Squat”. When you bend your knees and hips, isn’t that “Squatting?”
Times have changed…. I mean….. Doesn’t everyone today have a “Squatty Potty”?
Don’t we all have “I ‘heart’ 2 Squat” tee-shirts?
To learn more, you can watch this video:
This doesn’t just work with the Squatty Potty to help you drop your loads, it also works when lifting heavy loads. So, remember the next time you are going to bend over to pick something up…. Squat instead.
Other lifting tips include keeping the load close to your body and not holding your breath but tightening your stomach muscles, and don’t lift something too bulky by yourself. Don’t twist your body when picking something up, face the load directly. A weightlifter once told me that when you lift, feel the weight on the heel of your feet, not on the balls of your feet.
Randy Dailey, the Safety Guru of our Power Plant, and an expert machinist invented a pen that you could put in your pocket protector in your shirt pocket that would alert you by beeping if you leaned over too far. It was an ingenious device to remind you to lift with your legs instead of your back.
In one of the safety videos we watched about back safety, there was a short stalky scientist that explained the dynamics of lifting and how easy it was to put a tremendous strain on your back by leaning over and picking something up. He said that “People choose the more simple way to pick something up. Not the easiest way.”
Doesn’t that sound like the same thing? Isn’t the simplest way the easiest way? Well. You would think so, but it isn’t always the case. This Doctor of Back-ology went on to explain his statement. He explained that the simplest way to pick up an object on the floor is to bend at the hip. It is one movement. Bend at the hip. — However…. The easiest way to pick up the object is to bend both your knees and your hips to pick up the object. Since you keep your back straight and you lift with your leg muscles that are the most powerful muscles in your body. He avoided using the word, “Squat”, but that’s what he meant.
In order to reduce back injuries at the plant, the company made back belts available at the plant.
Note that this picture not only shows a Power Plant Man wearing a Back Support Belt, but he also is wearing the right kind of Tee-Shirt. It has a vest pocket where you can put a Pocket Protector for your little screwdriver and your Back Alert Pen created by Randy Dailey.
The use of back belts was new around the late 1980’s. Even though we had them available through the tool room when we wanted them, few people wore them. The warehouse team wore them a lot. I suppose that is because they were lifting and moving things all day long.
In the warehouse Bob Ringwall, Darlene Mitchell and Dick Dale used to have back belts on when I would visit the warehouse to pick up a part, or to visit my friends. I don’t remember if Bud Schoonover would wear a back belt. How’s this for a slogan…. “Be a Safety Black Belt…. When Lifting, wear your Back Belt.” I know. I should stop when I’m ahead, only I’m so far behind now I may never catch up.
There was a question about whether wearing a back belt was really a good idea. It was thought that people might tend to substitute using their stomach muscles while lifting with the back belt, resulting in weaker stomach muscles. So we were cautioned not to go around wearing back belts all day long. Only when we were going to be doing a job where we had to do a lot of lifting. I suppose now, after years of research, there is a lot more data to tell us one way or the other. I haven’t heard what the latest injury jury has said on this subject.
Even though I titled this post “…Plain Ol’ Power Plant Back Pain”, there is nothing plain about back pain. I just thought it sounded like a catchy title.
I was lucky enough that during the 20 years I spent working at the Power Plant, I never really hurt my back. To this day, I have been able to avoid living with perpetual pain in my back. — I have been accused of causing pain in other people’s necks. Also, I don’t think the many times that people told me I was a pain in their back side, they were referring to the Lumbar region. I think they meant an area just below the tailbone. I hope that by bringing to their attention the benefits of the Squatty Potty that I have been able to relieve (or prevent) a little of that lower lumbar pain.
Now when someone says, “You don’t know Squat”, you can correct them!
Comments from the original post:
The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had gone from 360 employees in 1987 down to 124 employees on August 1, 1994 after the second downsizing. Monday morning when we arrived at work, the maintenance department met in the main break room to be told how we were going to survive the loss of 100 employees. With only 7 electricians left, I kept trying to add up on my fingers how we could possibly keep up with all the work we had to do.
Jasper Christensen stood up and after saying that he understood how we must feel about our present situation, he told us that we will have to each work harder. I shook my head in disbelief (inside my head only… I didn’t really shake my head, as it was frozen with the same blank stare everyone else was wearing). I knew we weren’t going to be working harder. — What does that really mean anyway. I thought he should have said, “We will each have to work “smarter” because we can’t really work “harder”. Jasper was a nice person, but he never really was much for words so I gave him a pass on this one. After all, he never really took a course in motivational speaking.
Interestingly, the three people in charge at the plant, Jasper, Jim Arnold and Bill Green were all 53 years old, and only within 4 months in age from each other. They all belonged to the “old school way of doing things” (see the post: “From Pioneers to Power Plant Managers“). As Jasper continued in his speech I noticed that gone was any talk of working together to achieve our goals. I immediately felt that we had just rolled back our management to a time before our first downsizing in 1987 when the Evil Plant Manager used to rule the plant with an iron fist.
I felt this way because we were being told how we were going to change everything we do without giving any of our own input. For instance, we would no longer have a Quality Action Team. That was disbanded immediately. We would no longer hold Quality Team meetings (we were also told that the Quality process was not going away, though we couldn’t see how it was going to work). The Safety Task Force did survive.
We were also told that we would no longer fill out any forms unless they are requested by someone. It seems that we had over 1,300 forms that were being filled out at the plant and most of them were never being used for anything, so, unless someone requested a form, we wouldn’t just fill them out for the sake of filling them out. This was actually a good idea. I know we filled out forms in triplicate each week when we did transformer and substation inspections. Most of those were never looked at, I’m sure.
It turned out later that we needed only about 400 of the 1300 forms our plant was churning out each month.
We were told we wouldn’t be doing Substation inspections. That was not our responsibility. It would be done by the Transmission and Distribution division instead. I was beginning to see how management was trying to figure out how 7 electricians were going to “work harder”. The answer at the moment was that we were going to do less. The purpose of the Substation and Transformer checks each week was to look for problems while they were minor instead of waiting for a catastrophe to happen.
We were told that we were not going to “Gold Plate” our work. We were going to just do what it took to complete the task without worrying about polishing it up to make it “perfect” (which is what real Power Plant Men do). Instead we were going to “Farm Fix it”. I’ll go more into this subject with a separate post.
We were then told that we would no longer have an Electric Shop and an Instrument and Controls shop. We would from then on all meet in the Mechanical Maintenance shop. We were not supposed to go to the Electric Shop or the Instrument and Controls shops for breaks because we were all going to be cross-functional. We are all Maintenance now. No longer specialized (sort of).
We were going to have four Maintenance teams. Each one will have mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians and Instrument and controls people. Each member on each team would learn to do each other’s jobs to a degree.
An electrician will learn how to tack weld. A mechanic will learn how to run conduit and pull wire. An instrument and controls person will learn how to use the lathe. We would each learn enough about each job in order to perform minor tasks in each area without having to call the expert in that skill.
When the meeting was over, we each met with our own foremen. Alan Kramer was my new foreman. He used to be a foreman in the Instrument and Controls shop.
It became apparent that even though Jasper had come across as if everything had already been decided and that this was the way it was going to be, things hadn’t really been ironed out yet. Actually, this was just a first pass. The main goal was for us to figure out how to get all the work done that needed to be done. I was still an electrician and I was still responsible for working on electrical jobs.
One really good part of the new situation was that I was now on the same team as Charles Foster. We had always been very good friends, but I hadn’t worked on the same team as Charles since my first year as an electrician in 1984, ten years earlier when he was my first foreman in the electric shop (See the post: “New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop“). We were the two electricians on Alan Kramer’s team.
Besides the fact that everyone was very bitter over the despicable treatment of our fellow Power Plant Men that were laid off the previous Friday (see the post: “Power Plant Downsizing Disaster and the Left Behinds“), we knew that we had to figure out how to make this new arrangement work. We knew our upper management was using the old tyrannical style of management, but we also knew that at this point, they needed every one of us. They couldn’t go around firing us just because we spoke our mind (which was good for me, because, I was still in the process of learning how to keep my mouth shut when that was the most beneficial course of action).
As Dysfunctional as our upper management seemed to be at the moment, our new teams embraced the idea of our new Cross-Functional teams with some minor changes. First, we still needed to see ourselves as electricians, instrument and controls, machinists, welders and mechanics. We each had our own “certifications” and expertise that only a person with that trade could perform.
Charles and I would still go to the electric shop in the morning before work began, and during lunch and breaks. Our electric equipment to perform our job was there, and we still needed to maintain a stock of electric supplies. The same was true for the Instrument and Controls crew members.
Even today, after having been gone from the Power Plant for 13 1/2 years, the electric shop office phone still has my voice on the voice mail message. I know, because a couple of years ago, when it was accidentally erased, Tim Foster (Charles Foster’s son), asked me to record a new message so they could put it back on the phone. I considered that a great honor to be asked by True Power Plant Men to record their voice mail message on the electric shop phone. The Phone number by the way is: (405) 553-29??. Oh. I can’t remember the last two digits. 🙂
Once the kinks were worked out of the cross-functional team structure, it worked really well. I just kept thinking…. Boy, if we only had a group of supportive upper management that put their plant first over their own personal power needs, this would be great. The True Power Plant Men figured out how to work around them, so that in spite of the obstacles, within about 4 years, we had hit our stride.
Let me give you an example of how well the cross-functional teams worked compared to the old conventional way we used to work. I will start by describing how we used to do things…. Let’s say that a pump breaks down at the coal yard…
— start here —
An operator creates the Maintenance Order (M.O.). It is eventually assigned to a crew of mechanics. (start the clock here). When they have time, they go to the coal yard to look over the problem. Yep. The pump is not working. They will have to take it back to the shop to fix it.
A Maintenance Order is created for the electricians to unwire the motor. The electricians receive the maintenance order and prioritize it. They finally assign it to a team to go work on it. Say, in one week from the time they received the M.O. The electrician goes to the control room to request a clearance on the pump. The next day the electrician unwires the motor. They complete the maintenance order at the end of the day and send it back up to the A Foreman.
The completed electric maintenance order is sent back to the mechanics letting them know that the motor for the pump has been unwired. When they receive it, a couple of days later, they schedule some time that week to go work on the pump. At that time, they bring the motor to the electric shop so that it can be worked on at the same time.
The motor and the pump is worked on some time during the next week.
A machinist is needed to re-sleeve a bearing housing on either the motor or the pump or both. So, an M.O. is created for the machinist to work on creating a sleeve in an end bell of the motor or the pump.
The electricians inform the mechanics when the motor is ready. When they are done with the pump, and they have put it back in place, they put the motor back. Then they create an M.O. for the Machinist to line up the motor and the pump before the coupling is installed.
The Machinists prioritize their work and at some point, let’s say a couple of days, they make it up to the motor and work on aligning the pump and the motor.
During the re-installation, it is decided that a bracket that has worn out needs to be welded back. So, an M.O. is created for the welders to replace the bracket before the motor can be rewired.
The welders prioritize their work, and in a week (or two) they finally have time to go weld the bracket.
They return their M.O. completed to the mechanics who then tell the electricians that they can re-wire the motor.
The electricians prioritize their work and when they have time to go re-wire the motor, they wire it up. After wiring it, they go to the control room to have the operators help them bump test the motor to make sure it runs in the right direction. An entire day goes by until the electrician receives a call saying that the operator is ready to bump test the motor. The electrician and/or mechanic meets the operator at the pump to bump test the motor. Once this test is performed, the mechanic re-couples the motor.
The electrician then removes his clearance on the pump and it is put back into service. The M.O.s are completed.
— End here. The time it took to repair the pump and put it back in service would commonly take one month —
Now see what happens when you have a cross-functional team working on it….(and be amazed).
— Start here —
The maintenance team receives a ticket (M.O.) from the planner that a pump is broken at the coal yard. A mechanic goes and looks at it and determines it needs to be repaired. He calls his Electrician Teammate and tells him that the motor needs to be unwired in order to fix the pump. The electrician goes to the control room and takes a clearance on the pump.
The electrician then goes to the switchgear and waits for the operator to place the clearance. When that is completed, the electrician goes to the pump and unwires the motor. While there, he helps the mechanic pull the motor and put it aside. The electrician determines there if the motor needs to be worked on. If possible, it is repaired in place, or the motor is brought to the electric shop at the same time as the pump. It is determined that the pump needs to be worked on, so they work together to bring it to the shop where the mechanics work on the pump. Any machinist work is done at that time.
When the pump is being put back in place, the bracket is found broken, so they call the welder on their team who comes up and welds it back on. The machinist comes with the electrician and the mechanic to align the motor. The operators are called to bump test the motor. As soon as the test is over, the coupling is installed. The clearance is removed and the pump is put back in place.
— End here. The pump can now be repaired within one week instead of four weeks. Often the pump can be repaired in days instead of weeks. —
The reason why the cross-functional teams worked so well is that we all had the same priority. We all had the same job and we had all the skills on our team to do all the work. This was a fantastic change from working in silos.
This was “Working Smarter”, not “Working Harder”. Ever since that day when we first learned that we had to “Work Harder” I always cringe when I hear that phrase. To me, “Working Harder” means, “Working Dumber”. Today I am a big advocate of Cross-Functional Teams. I have seen them work successfully. There was only one catch which I will talk about later. This worked beautifully, but keep in mind… We had cross-functional teams made of the best Power Plant Men on the planet! So, I may have a lopsided view of how successful they really work in the general public.
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?
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.
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.
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 imposters 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-Heman 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 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 coalyard, 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.
Originally Posted August 24, 2012:
I remember the first time Martin Louthan, the supervisor over all the power plants, came to the Power Plant to meet with all the Power Plant Men a couple of months before Unit 1 came on line in 1979. I don’t know what he expected when he arrived, but I don’t think he expected the greeting he received when the meeting began and he asked us what we all wanted to talk about.
There were about 200 Power plant Men all crowded into the break room. Some sitting and a lot standing, as there was no leaning room against the walls. Martin Louthan began the meeting by saying that he wanted to come and meet with all the Power plant men every 6 months without the management in the room so that we could all speak freely. I don’t think that Martin actually thought the Power Plant Men would actually take him up on it. But they did.
Martin Louthan was from the Old School of Power Plant Men. He was what I would call a “Power Broker” Man. You can definitely tell that he had worked his way up through the ranks of Power Plant Politics and was very comfortable in his position as ruler of all the power plants. Martin had started as a Power Plant engineer and had spent time working at almost all of the power plants that had been built up to that time, including the Osage Plant that I had talked about in an earlier blog about the Power Plant Pioneers (Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace).
Once again I must remind the reader that the Power Plant Manager at the time, Eldon Waugh enjoyed ruling over his power plant kingdom and any time he could find a way to wield his power, he would. He had created many miscellaneous rules at the plant to demonstrate this authority. Most of which were designed to be a nuisance to the average employee under his domain.
When Martin Louthan asked the crowded room if anyone had anything to say while the plant manager and their own foremen were out of the room, the Power Plant Men took the opportunity to let loose a barrage of grievances against the Power Plant Manager and his assistant.
The main topic was the rule that no one could fish on plant grounds. The Power Plant Men had been told that Oklahoma City (Corporate Headquarters) had made a rule that no one could fish in the lake from the plant grounds. This included the discharge where the warm water went into the lake from the condenser, which was not far from the engineer’s shack parking lot where everyone had to park at the time. Martin acted surprised. He said he hadn’t heard of a rule like that.
Sitting next to Martin Louthan was his secretary Janice Baker (Brady). Martin would say, “I’ll look into it. Take A note Jan! I’ll let you know what I find out.” Jan would write something down on her notepad. Then complaint after complaint kept coming, and Martin kept saying “Take a note Jan.” I remember Jan’s expression throughout the meeting. I couldn’t tell if it was one of wonder or a look of someone that was having writer’s cramp.
After a few more visits from Martin, “Take a note Jan” became a phrase at the plant for something that needed to be looked into, but we knew we would never hear about again. It wasn’t long before Martin’s 6 month meetings turned into yearly meetings, and then eventually, he stopped having meetings with the Power Plant Men all together.
The nail in the coffin of Martin Louthan’s meetings happened when I was on Labor Crew. Martin had his yearly meeting some time in the middle of the summer of 1983. I was on the labor crew that summer.
One of the main complaints that year was that the assistant plant manager and the plant manager were constantly lying to us about one thing and then another. Martin asked the Power Plant Men for an example. Well. No one could come up with one on the spot. It was something you knew when you heard it, but if you didn’t write them down, then the next day you were too busy keeping the plant operational to remember the troubles of the day before.
Martin Louthan told the Power Plant Men that if they didn’t have any examples, then he would not be able to take any action. So, Jan didn’t have to take a note about that.
The Labor Crew bore the brunt of the next rule that came down from up above, and we were told that it had come from Oklahoma City (which is where Corporate Headquarters is located). A lot of people on labor crew had been there for a long time. Some had been there for about 2 years and were looking for an opportunity to move into maintenance or become an operator.
The economy had slowed down during those years as we were still recovering from the high unemployment and the downturn in the oil market in Oklahoma. Reaganomics hadn’t kicked in full steam yet, so those people who would have migrated onto other jobs were staying put.
Finally it was announced that a new crew was going to be started at the plant. It would be the Testing crew. An excellent opportunity for some of the people to finally leave the labor crew where they seemed to be held captive during those years.
Unfortunately for most, it was soon made known that the new positions required that the person have a college degree. It didn’t matter in what, as long as they had one. That left Jim Kanelakos and I as the only two power plant men-in-training that were eligible. I had a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology, and Jim had a Masters of Arts in Psychology.
Together we would stand out in the front of the Labor Crew building analyzing the other Power Plant Men using all of our education to help us determine the motivation for each person. Jim might say, “Do you ever notice how Charles Peavler will go off to do coal cleanup and then you don’t see him until lunch when he comes back completely clean, and nothing seems to have been cleaned?” And I would respond by saying, “Yes, I wonder how he manages to keep so clean when he’s obviously doing twice the work, both cleaning up the reclaim and messing it all back up again. What drives a man to be so… um… Productive?” Jim might respond by saying something like, “It is probably because he hates his father and this is his way of seeking revenge on him for all the times he made him clean his bedroom after his brother had messed it up.”
No. We really didn’t say that, but I’m sure we thought about it often enough.
Then came the clincher… It seems that when Eldon Waugh learned that requiring a college degree didn’t automatically disqualify all of the labor crew hands, a new rule came down. “No one already employed by the Electric Company could be considered for the job.” Again we were told, “This had come down from Oklahoma City.”
To compound the issue, a new program had been put in place just that summer called the Employee Application Program which included a new job announcement process that allowed everyone access across the company to apply for job opening anywhere in the company.
Now, this seemed like an obvious example of what Martin Louthan had been looking for. A perfect example of the Power plant men being lied to by the Plant Manager. Our A foreman Marlin McDaniel asked Jim Kanelakos and I to apply for the jobs. He wanted to have actual proof that the applications would not be considered even though we met the minimum qualifications.
We applied, and our applications were turned down. We went through the proper procedures and up the chain of command and asked the Supervisor of Maintenance Ken Scott to have a meeting with us to discuss the situation.
Ken listened to our grievance, and said that he would go talk to the assistant plant manager to find out what he could about the reason why we couldn’t be considered for the new testing jobs. He came back with the answer from Bill Moler, the assistant plant manager, that we could not be considered for the testing jobs because they were new positions, and no one that currently worked for the Electric Company could be considered for newly created positions. “This had come down from Oklahoma City.”
The labor crew as a group said that they wanted to have a meeting with Martin Louthan to talk about this. Ken came back and said that the next time that Martin Louthan was at the plant, he would meet with the labor crew.
Finally one day about a week later, at 4:00 we were told that Martin Louthan was at the plant and that he would be willing to meet with us. The end of our day was at 4:30. We went up to the conference room and sat down with Martin to discuss the issue. Ken Scott sat in the meeting as an advocate stating exactly what he had been told, and what had happened.
As 4:40 rolled around, I was aware that I had three people in the car waiting for me to drive them home, and I reluctantly had to leave the meeting right after Martin Louthan told us that he had never heard of such a rule that if you worked for the company you couldn’t be considered for a job. He asked to have Bill Moler and Eldon Waugh brought into the meeting.
I had to hear what happened the next day because I missed the rest of the meeting. When Bill Moler and Eldon Waugh came into the meeting, Martin Louthan asked Eldon Waugh why he didn’t consider anyone at the plant for the new testing jobs, Eldon (the plant manager) replied by saying, “We did consider people at the plant. (which was a lie)” Then Bill Moler (the assistant plant manager) replied, “No we didn’t.” Martin asked, “Well why not?” (Maybe with a little more flowery language than I am using). Bill Moler said, “Because you told us not to.” Martin then said, “No I didn’t!” Bill Moler responded by shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Then it must have been a misunderstanding.”
That was it. The meeting was over. The misunderstanding was cleared up, but by that time the new testing crew had already been hired, and it was all water under the bridge. The Labor Crew men were still stuck digging ditches and doing coal cleanup. Martin Louthan didn’t have anymore meetings with just the Power Plant Men without the management in the room after that.
Every now and then I wonder what Jan was really writing in her notebook whenever Martin said, “Take a Note Jan.” I do know that after the first meeting, we were allowed to fish at the discharge, but only if we wore our hardhats. Our families and friends however could not. Then after much back-and-forth with Oklahoma City it was decided that not only did we not need to wear our hardhat while fishing at the discharge, but we could even bring our family and friends with us as well.
Martin Louthan retired with the other Power Broker men in the 1987-88 downsizing. The next June during the summer of 1988, Jan Brady became known as Janice Louthan, as she had married Martin Louthan. Martin’s first wife had died in 1981.
Martin lived 23 years after he retired from the Electric Company where he had worked for 40 years. He died in his home on November 29, 2010. Janice was most likely right there by his side. In my mind with her notepad handy, ready and willing to hear the words, “Take a note Jan” just one more time.
Take a look at Martin Louthan and tell me this guy doesn’t mean business…
Originally posted on October 27, 2012:
I can’t say that the Coal-fired Power Plant located in the middle of the North Central Plains of Oklahoma had visitors on Halloween Night trick-or-treating looking for candy. I have mentioned before that we had an evil plant manager when I first arrived as a summer help at the plant that did what he could to make life miserable for his employees. That would sometimes send chills up your spine.
I could tell you stories about the coffin houses on top of the precipitators. I already told you about the Bug Wars in the Basement (see: “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“), and even about the Boiler Ghost that ate Bob Lillibridge (See: “Bob Liilibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost“). Instead, I’ll tell a simple story about the Evil Plant Manager and his bees.
One time out of the blue when I was a summer help in 1980, the Plant Manager asked me in a suspiciously benevolent voice if I would stay after work to help him tend to his bees. You see. Eldon Waugh was a beekeeper.
Beekeeping is a noble profession, and I admire their ability to make a good thing out of a seemingly bad situation. Sonny Karcher was a beekeeper. Sonny was a Hero of Mine.
The plant grounds was a great place for bees because we had fields full of clover. But Eldon and bees? I have a slightly different take on it. Bees are industrious workers that are single-minded. They each have their job, and they go about doing it. They are willing to give their life for their hive and in that way, are sort of unsung heroes. Or maybe bees do sing about their heroes and we just don’t know it. Maybe their buzzing away is at times a lament for those who have worked their wings away to the point that they are no longer able to contribute.
Sort of reminds you of a Power Plant Man.
Since I was carpooling at the time and didn’t have my own car, Eldon said that he would drive me back to Stillwater and drop me off at the corner of Washington and Lakeview where I normally was let off, where I would walk up to the University Estates where my parents lived (and still do – or did when I first wrote this post. Now they live across the street from me in Round Rock, Texas). So I went to Eldon’s office when I finished work that day, and I followed him down to his pickup truck. We drove up by the coalyard where he had a trailer that had a bunch of white boxes lined up, which housed his beehives.
Eldon Waugh gave me a hood that beekeepers wear to keep the bees from finding out what the beekeeper really looks like so the bees don’t attack them later when they are flying by and realize that they are the person that keeps interrupting their beehive.
Eldon explained to me that when a bee stings you, you don’t grab the stinger and pull it out because that injects the bee’s venom into your body when you squeeze it. Instead you take a straight edge, like a knife or piece of thin cardboard or something similar and you scrape it off.
That’s when I realized that Eldon had only given me a hood. He hadn’t given me a full beekeeper suit like I would see on TV or in the neighborhood when I was young and some beekeeper came to collect a swarm of bees that had settled in a tree across the street from our house.
Eldon proceeded to open the beehive boxes and inspect them. He had me hold things while he was doing this. He showed me things like how the Queen was kept in a smaller box inside the bigger one that kept it from leaving. Somehow this reminded me of the ball of fire in the boiler that produced the steam that turns the turbine that makes the electricity at the plant.
When he went to open one box he told me that this particular box had bees that were more troublesome than the other bees, and they liked to sting. “Ok.” I thought. “Thanks for letting me know.” Like that was going to help.
I had already resigned myself to the idea of being stung by a bee that was unhappy that the beekeeper had called an unscheduled inspection of the beehive when Eldon jumped back; Pulled off his hood and started batting around in the air. Sure enough. A bee had climbed up under his hood and had stung him on the back of the neck.
I took a key out of my pocket and scraped the stinger off as he whimpered and pointed to where the stinger was jabbing him. The bee was on his collar making peace with his maker (because bees die after they sting you) as I wiped him away. Besides that one incident, the rest of the time went smoothly. Eldon inspected his beehives. It seemed like he was looking for mold or moisture or some such thing. He was satisfied. When we left he gave me a jar of his “Eldon Waugh” Honey that he used to sell at the Farmer’s Market in Stillwater. Then he drove me back to Stillwater.
There was something surreal about this experience, and in a few days, I was compelled to write a poem about it. This is not a poem about Beekeepers in General. This is a poem about Eldon Waugh, the Beekeeper as I saw him. I don’t know where I placed it, so I can’t quote it now, so I’ll remake it up the best I can. You have to excuse me, because I am not a poet (as you could tell with the Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost story), so bear with me. It is short:
Bees diligently gathering nectar,
Weaving honey for the hive.
Pouring life into their work,
Spending energy for queen to stay alive.
Beekeeper gives shelter to be safe,
Benevolent ruler over all.
Sharing fields of flowers of his making,
Protecting helpless and small.
When time to pay the dues,
Beekeeper expects all to comply.
If one tries to deny his share,
Sting him once and you will die.
Why is this a Halloween story? I know I speak harshly of Eldon Waugh and I know that when he went home he had a family like everyone else. I know that Bill Moler his assistant plant manager was the same way. If you met him at Church or somewhere else, he would treat you with the dignity that you deserved. Something happened to them when they drove through the plant gates (I felt), that made them think they were invulnerable and all powerful. Like Mister Burns in the Simpsons (as I was reminded this week).
It was Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton) in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 that said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men”. At this particular power plant, because it was so far removed from Corporate Headquarters and any other Electric Company departments, the situation allowed the Plant Manager to be an absolute ruler. There wasn’t anyone there to look out for the employees.
A union had come through when the power plant was first coming online trying to get the plant to vote to join the union. Many employees had worked for unions before, and they preferred the tyranny of the evil plant manager over the stifling corruption of the union.
I remember the first summer I was at the plant (in 1979) when everyone was abuzz about the union election. Some people thought it would stop this “absolute power” syndrome infesting the two top dogs. Those employees that had worked for unions warned the rest that to me sounded like joining a union was like selling their soul to the devil. Some had even left their former employers to escape what they referred to as the “manipulation of their morals”. It came down to voting for the lesser of two evils.
I would like to point out that Lord Acton said that Great men are almost “Always” bad. There are exceptions. There was one great liberating moment in Power Plant history at our plant that occurred in 1987 the day that our new plant manager arrived at our plant. His name is Ron Kilman.
Ron called the maintenance department to a meeting to introduce himself to us in the main break room. I remember that when he began speaking he told us a joke about himself. I don’t recall the joke, but I do remember the reaction of the room. I’m sure our reaction puzzled Ron, because we were all stunned.
I gave Charles Foster a look that said, “I didn’t know Plant Managers could joke!” There must be some mistake. No rattling of chains. No “sacrifice your lives and families to provide honey for my table.” Ron was a rather likable person. It didn’t fit. What was he doing as a Plant Manager?
Throughout the almost 7 years that Ron was the plant manager, we were free from the tyranny of the “Beekeeper”. I have invited Ron to read my blog posts because he is one Plant Manger that even though he wasn’t one of the True Power Plant Men in the field showing their character daily by fighting dragons and saving fair maidens, he was our benevolent dictator that had the power to put his thumb down on the rest, but choosing “Might for Right” as King Arthur preferred.
Ok, so Ron Kilman doesn’t look exactly like King Arthur. That would be stretching it a little. Also… I’m sure some people found some reason to not like Ron Kilman through the years that he was Plant Manager. That would be because he made some unpopular decisions from time to time. That is the life of a Plant Manager.
When Ron first came to the plant, he really wanted to stay at the level of the regular working person. I believe that he meant it when he told us that. As the years went by, the demands of managing the large plant occupied so much of his time that little time was left to spend with the people he cared about.
I remember him saying that his manager demanded him to be downtown in Corporate Headquarters so many days a week, and that left him little time at the plant. He asked me what I thought would be a solution to this problem. I told him that I thought he should have a representative that would stay at the plant in his stead that would perform Plant activities and report to him directly. Sort of as an extension of himself. I was not thinking of his Assistant Plant Manager because he had his own job to do.
I was sometimes taken aback when Ron would ask a question like that because it surprised me that he valued my opinion. I will discuss Ron Kilman and why I believe that he is a man of great character in a later post. I only mention him here to show the contrast between Eldon Waugh and Ron. Both were in a position of ultimate power over their employees. One took the high road, and one took the low. Neither of them had ever been to Scotland as far as I know (ok. I had to add another rhyme… geez).
I also titled this post as a “Halloween Election” story. I told you the scary part… that was the story about the beekeeper, in case you forgot to be frightened by it. I also threw in the part about the Union Election as a meager attempt to rid the plant of total managerial tyranny. But the real reason I made this a story about an Election is because of the striking similarity between Ron Kilman and Mitt Romney. My Gosh! Have any of you noticed this? Am I the only one that sees the resemblance? Notice the chin, the hairline and even the gray side burns.
Happy Halloween, and good luck with the next election.