I know I’m getting old when I pick up a small piece of paper and I am suddenly taken back 17 years to the day I pulled the small page from the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. Notepad sitting on the desk in the Electric Shop office. It was the day that I was finally able to come to the aid of a noble Power Plant Man that the plant generally referred to as “Stick”.
Gary McCain, or Stick, is a tall thin Power Plant Man (sort of like a stick) known for his intellect and knowledge of “Machine Language”. In this case, “Machine Language” refers to the ability to understand how machines work, not how to talk directly to computers using zeroes and ones.
Gary had just walked into the Electric Shop office at the power plant in North Central Oklahoma as lunch was ending. He was carrying a textbook, which seemed odd right off the bat. He explained that some of the machinists and mechanics had been sent to motor alignment school and they had been given this textbook in case they wanted to refer back to the material that was covered in the class.
Gary sat down next to me and set the book on the desk opening it to the page he had bookmarked (Yeah. We used to use books made out of paper, and we put pieces of paper between pages to bookmark the pages we wanted to remember… Bookmarking wasn’t something new with Internet browsers).
Gary (am I going to start all my paragraphs with the word “Gary”? Maybe the next paragraph, I’ll just say “That tall guy”) pointed to a formula on the page and asked me if it was possible to use the computer to make calculations that will help him align motors using this formula.
I told that tall guy (Gary) that we could use a program called “Excel” (from Microsoft) that could be used to solve problems just like that. So, I grabbed the small sheet of paper off of the Hunzicker Brothers Inc. notepad and wrote down the variables for the formula on one side, and the four formulas on the back side. Here is what I wrote:
Oh yeah. I think I ripped off the corner of the paper to use as a bookmark because I didn’t like the one Gary was using. It was too small.
I guess at this point I should stop and tell you what is meant by “motor alignment” and why machinists and mechanics are interested in this in the first place.
The alignment that is done with a motor is performed when you are putting a pump back in place or some other equipment like a gear box or fan shaft or… well… a lot of things. You have to make sure that the shaft on the motor is perfectly aligned with the pump otherwise it will quickly tear something up when you turn it on.
This picture shows how the motor is aligned up with the compressor so that the red coupling lines up perfectly. Once it is aligned the coupling can be bolted together to connect the motor to the pump.
Notice that the motor has bolts to mount it to the skid in the front and the back on both sides, as well as the pump. These are called “Feet”. Usually when you put the pump and the motor back in place, they don’t line up perfectly, so thin pieces of brass called “shims” are used to raise the various feet just the right amount so that the shaft on the motor and shaft on the pump are looking right at each other.
A special piece of equipment is used to check the alignment. It is called a “Dial Caliper” and it is mounted to the coupling on the motor and the pump with a magnet and it tests the alignment as it is rotated around.
I’m sorry if I’m boring those of you who don’t immediately see the beauty of Motor Alignment. Try pretending that the dial caliper is something invented by ancient aliens if you need to make this part of the post more interesting (actually, who needs ancient aliens when you have machinists?).
Gary told me that the company was looking into buying laser guided motor alignment machines for only $30,000 a piece. They would probably buy three of them that could be used between the four main plants. He said that he didn’t think we needed them if we could use these formulas to calculate exactly how to align the motors. This would save the company around $90,000 and at the same time show the mechanics the “joy of math”!
So, I made some notes on another page which simplified, (or maybe complicated) the formulas further. Then I sat down at the computer and began putting them into Excel. The idea was to have the person doing the motor alignment take some notes, then go to the computer and enter them into the Excel sheet and it would tell them right away how many shims to put under any of the 8 feet (four on the motor and four on the pump).
Here are the notes I made:
If you are Jesse Cheng (or some other old time calculator geek), you can see what I was doing with my notes. I was thinking of the next steps… which I’ll explain below…. (oh… ok… I’ll tell you… this is the code that you would use if you were creating a program for a Casio calculator).
After creating the spreadsheet, Gary headed out the door to go start aligning a motor using our newfangled motor alignment method. A little while later he came back into the shop and pulling out his handy dandy notepad he read off the notes he had taken while he put the values into Excel… When he was finished, he wrote down the results and headed back out the door to add the proper shims to the motor and the pump.
We had to tweak the program a little to work out the bugs, but after a couple of tries it worked very well and Gary was pleased. Only, there was one problem with this method… Over the next couple of weeks, Gary would come bursting into the electric shop office interrupting me and Charles Foster while we were having a deep discussion about the virtues of banana peppers on ham sandwiches.
So, I suggested to Gary that we could use a calculator to do the same thing that we were doing with the spreadsheet. That way he wouldn’t have to travel back and forth to the computer. Instead, he could just stand there at the motor and enter the information and have it display the answers that he was seeking.
Right off the bat (hmm… the second time I have used that “cliche”…. I need to read more often), Gary didn’t understand how a calculator could do this. So, I explained to him that some calculators are programmable and I can write a program on the calculator that would do just that. I said, “Let me show you”….. After all, I had grown up in Missouri (the Show Me State)… So, I took my calculator off of the top of the filing cabinet and placed it on the table.
I used the thermal printer to connect the calculator to the tape recorder to store my programs, so I didn’t have to enter them manually after I entered them once.
I took my notes and wrote the following program and entered it into the calculator.
I gave the calculator to Gary and showed him how to run the program and sent him to try it out for himself. He was very excited about this and offered some suggestions to make the program easier to use.
A few days later Gary caught me walking across the maintenance shop and showed me a catalog with various calculators for sale. He said he wanted to buy some calculators for the shop so that every person that had been trained to align motors had a calculator with a program on it. I showed him a Casio calculator that would work for about $70. So, he ordered a better one.
Even though the language for programming it was different than the Sharp calculator, it didn’t take long for me to write a program for it that did the same thing since I had sort of already written it by that time. After Gary proved to his foreman that the calculator worked, he ordered several more and when they arrived he asked me if I could program them as well.
It took almost a half hour just to type the program into each calculator, so I bought a small pigtail that connected two calculators together. This allowed me to copy the program from one calculator to another one. So, when Gary arrived one day with a box of over 20 calculators for the rest of the plants, it took me longer to open the packages than it did to copy the program from one calculator to the next.
Since the calculator was a graphic calculator, I thought about improving the program by drawing a little picture of a motor shaft and a pump shaft and showing how they were out of alignment after the information was entered, but I never took the time to do that as I was on to another computer project by that time (which I will write about later).
So, think about this. The company was willing to buy $90,000 worth of laser-guided motor alignment equipment to do something that machinists and mechanics already knew how to do. The specialized equipment would work, and it might have been faster I suppose. With the aid of a programmable calculator, however, a mechanic can stand at the motor, takes a few measurements and come up with the same results probably just as fast as the laser-guided motor alignment gizmo could do it.
Either way, the mechanic still had to install the same number of shims under the same feet whether they used the calculator and the dial caliper or the laser beam. The 26 or so calculators that were purchased for the four plants came up to less than $2,000, which is a savings of $88,000. I don’t think the laser would have saved that much time. It still had to be carried over to the motor and plugged in and mounted on the motor. My guess is that as soon as the laser was dropped on the floor accidentally, it would have been broken anyway.
The best part of this little project was that I was able to help out a True Power Plant Man Gary McCain, that I hadn’t really had the opportunity to help much before. Gary didn’t need much help as he is one of those Power Plant Men that people seek out when they need advice. So, when he came to me and asked for help with the computer, I was more than glad to do what I could to help him.
Sometimes it is a little difficult for my wife to understand why I keep scraps of paper laying around that have meaningless scribbles on them. One might be a doodle that some friend of mine created one day while talking on the phone. Another might be a fortune from a cookie that I opened when I was eating lunch with a coworker. Today the piece of paper I picked up happened to have a mathematical formula written on the back.
I think my son understands now that when I seem to be picking up trash off of the table and a tear comes to my eye, it isn’t because I have just picked up something rotten, but because I have just been transported back in time to place where I am with some people that I love. It doesn’t stop him from saying, “Dad? It’s just a piece of paper. Geez!” Well… I know I’m getting old… but that scrap of paper is poetry to me.
In the morning when a Power Plant Man drives through the gate at the plant, with the boilers and smoke stacks looming ahead of them, they know that whatever lies ahead for them can be any one of over 20,000 different Power Plant Man Jobs! Yes. That’s right. There are over 20,000 separate jobs that a person can be assigned on over 1,000 different pieces of equipment.
The bravery brings to mind the “Charge of the Light Brigade” (by Alfred Lord Tennyson), where “…All in the Valley of Death rode the six hundred”… only there were about 44 He-men and Women to repair whatever was in need of repair that day. And as in the commemorative poem about the Battle of Balaclava where “… Cannon to the right of them, Cannon to the Left of them Cannon in front of them… Into the Jaws of Death, Into the Mouth of Hell Rode the Six Hundred.” Or 44 in the case of the Power Plant Men and Women.
It is true of the bravery possessed by True Power Plant Men and Women as they go about their daily quest for perfection. Unlike the Charge of the Light Brigade, who through an error in the command structure was ordered to perform a suicide mission, Power Plant Men go into daily battle well prepared using the correct tools, Safety Gear, Clearance Procedures and the knowledge of how to perform any one of the 20,000 jobs that could be assigned to them on any given day. (wait! Did I just create an extremely long run-on sentence? — No wonder I could never get an A in English class!).
As Lord Tennyson Memorialized the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 by writing the poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, one day when I showed up to work during the spring of 1998, I was assigned a similar task at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. “What’s that you say? Similar to writing the Charge of the Light Brigade?” Yeah. You heard me. I was given the job of chronicling each and every task that a Power Plant Man or Woman could possibly ever perform at the Power Plant.
For the next three years, I spent 50% of my time at the plant sitting in front of a computer in the Master Print Room (where the master blueprints for the entire plant are kept) entering each task into the program called SAP. You may have heard me mention this program before.
We had started using SAP a year earlier at the Electric Company. The benefit of using this product was that it connected all of the functions of the company together into one application. So, as soon as a Power Plant Man took a part out of the warehouse, it was reflected in the finance system on the Asset Balance sheet. When our time was entered into SAP, the expense was calculated and charged to the actual piece of equipment we had been working on during that day. It gave us a lot of visibility into where and how the company was spending their money.
This became even more useful if we were able to tell SAP more and more about what we did. That was where Ray Eberle and I came in. Ray was assigned to enter all of the Bill of Materials for every piece of equipment at the plant. I was assigned the task of entering all of the possible jobs that could be performed at the plant into SAP.
I entered jobs into a section called “Task Lists”. When I created a task about a specific job, I had to tell SAP all about how do perform that job. This is referred to as “Expert Data” in the world of Enterprise Software. (sorry to bother you with all these boring technical terms).
Each task had to include any Safety Concerns about doing the job. It included a list of instruction manuals for the equipment that needed to be repaired and where to find them. I had to the include the Safety clearance procedure that needed to be performed in order to clear out the equipment before working on it.
The Task also included all the parts that could be used to fix the equipment if something was broken along with the warehouse part number. Then I would add a list of tools that would be used to perform the job. This would include every wrench size, screwdriver, soft choker, come-along, pry bar, and nasal spray that might be needed for the job (well, you never know… there could be job that required the use of nasal spray). Ok. You have me… I only threw that in there because I found this great picture of Nasal Spray on Google Images and this was the only way I think of to show it to you:
Finally I would list each of the steps that a person would take to fix the equipment they were assigned to repair. This was a step-by-step procedure about how to perform the job.
My first thought when I was assigned the job of chronicling every possible job a Power Plant Maintenance Man could perform was “Great! I will get to work on the computer! Everyone will be glad to help me with this task as it will make their lives easier!” Well… After I began the task of collecting information about the jobs, I unexpectedly found a lot of opposition to the idea of listing down each of the steps that a Power Plant Man performed to do their job. — Can you guess why?
Well… Yeah. It’s true that I have an annoying personality, and sometimes I may come across as unpleasant, but that wasn’t the main reason. Here is what happened….
When a Maintenance Order was created, one of the planners, Either Ben Davis (Planner 3) or Tony Mena (Planner 4) would flag the work order as needing a Task created for that particular job.
I would pull up the list of work orders and start creating the task list for that job. I could tell who was assigned to it, so I figured I would just go up to them and ask them how they were going to fix the equipment.
I remember going up to the first person on my list (Earl Frazier) the first day and explaining to him what I was doing. I asked him if he could tell me the steps to replacing the tail roller on belt 18 in the Surge Bin Tower. His response was, “Why should I tell you? You will just put all of that into the computer and then when you have described how to do all of the jobs, they can just get rid of us and hire some contractors to do our jobs.”
Oh… I hadn’t thought about that. It seemed unlikely, because there is a big difference between having a low wage contractor working on something and a dedicated Power Plant Man. There just isn’t any comparison.
In order to write up the task for this job, I just waited until the men were up in the Surge Bin Tower pulling the roller off of the belt, and I went up there and watched them. I took notes of all of the tools and equipment they were using, and asked one of them the steps they were taking to get the new roller up to the tower, and how they were taking the old one out, etc.
Ok… I wasn’t going to do this… but I can feel your anticipation clear from here while I am writing this, that you really want to know what kind of tools it took to pull the roller from the Surge Bin Tower Conveyor belt…. Here is a list of just the tools needed…. just warning you… reading this list of tools just may cause you to drop whatever you are doing and drive out in the country to your nearest Power Plant and apply for a job…. just to warn you… if you don’t think that would be good for you, you may want to skip this next paragraph.
One 9 Foot Extension Ladder. Two 1-1/2 ton come-alongs, and one 3/4 come-along. Two large pry bars, a 15/16 in. and 3/4 inch sockets, an air or electric impact wrench (to be used with the sockets). An 8 foot step ladder. One can of WD-40. a 3/8 in. screwdriver. Oxygen-Acetylene tanks with Torch, a Welding machine, two 8 ft. 2 by 4’s (that’s two pieces of wood). A hammer, a 1/8 in. wrench. One small pipe wrench. One hook to hold up the roller. Three extension cords, with adapters for the coal-handling safety plug-ins. One 4 in. electric grinder. Two 6 in. C Clamps and four 6 ft. Steel Chokers.
I decided that I would make things easier for myself up front by working on all of the electrician maintenance jobs first since I knew how to do most of those already. So, I spent the first year almost solely working on Electrical and Instrument and Control jobs. I could easily write the task lists for these, because I new all of the steps.
For instance… If I needed to take a clearance on the A Tripper Drive motor, I knew that the breaker was on the Motor Control Center (MCC) 13B Cubicle 1C already. I didn’t have to even look that one up. (I often wondered what they were thinking when they put Tripper B on MCC 13B Cubicle 2B. Why not put it in the same place (1C) on the next Motor Control Center? It would make things less confusing — Just things I think about when I’m sitting on my “thinkin’ chair”).
Some tasks were short and easy. Others were novels. Take “Elevator is Malfunctioning” Maintenance order. I included all sorts of troubleshooting tips for that one. I even drew a sort of diagram of relays showing how they should be picked up and dropped out as the elevator went up and down… When the elevator was going up, I put in a table of relay positions like this (U means the relay is picked up, D means it is dropped out). Those names at the top are the names of the relays.
|At Start up||D||U||D||U||D||D||D|
|Slowdown 2 up||D||D||D||D||D||D||U|
|Slowdown 3 up||D||D||D||D||U||D||U|
|At Stop up||D||D||D||D||U||D||D|
I wrote a similar one for when the elevator was going down.
Anyway….I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Ray Eberle and I worked together side-by-side for most of the three years while I was writing the task lists (see the post “Tales of Power Plant Prowess by Ray Eberle“). After I had written a number of novels about different Electrician jobs in the form of task lists, I began working on the general maintenance tasks.
After a while the Mechanics came around and saw the benefits of the task lists. I remember one of the men who had been the most vocal about not telling me how to do his job (yes. Earl Frazier) came up to me after I had written a task list about changing out the number 2 conveyor belt gear box and he asked me to add another wrench to the list. He said, that they had to go all the way back down the belt at the coal yard, drive back to the shop and retrieve the wrench, all because they hadn’t taken it with them the first time. I added it in a heartbeat and he left smiling.
Every once in a while I would run across a Maintenance Order where I could be somewhat creative. For instance, I had to write a task list about how to inspect the railroad tracks and right-away from the plant to where the tracks entered the town of Red Rock, Oklahoma about 5 miles away.
After explaining how the person connected the railroad truck to the tracks and drove on the tracks toward the growing Metropolis of Red Rock (population 282). I explained about how they were to make sure that all the wildlife was being treated well. I also said that when they arrived at Red Rock, they should go into the feed store and build up our public relations by striking up friendly conversations with the “locals”.
After completing over 10,000 different task lists….. I had begun to get into a routine where I felt like my creativity was becoming a little stifled. Then one day, Ray Eberle suggested that when I’m writing my task lists, I should think about how Planner 4 (Tony Mena) would like to see something a little more exciting than the usual…. “this is how you fix this piece of equipment” task list…
One day I remember writing a task list about something called a “Sparser Bar”. A sparser bar is something that sprays water at the bottom of a sump to stir up the coal when the pump is running so that it doesn’t build up or maybe on a conveyor belt for dust suppression. Anyway… One of the tasks I needed to write was for a person to “create a new Sparser bar”.
I wish I had the exact Task List that I wrote. I know that many years later, Ray Eberle sent me a copy of it when he ran across it one day, but I don’t have it readily available, so I’ll just go by memory (until someone at the plant wants to print it out and send it to me). I don’t know… I may be able to write a better one now…. let me see….
Here are the instruction:
- Cut a one and a quarter inch pipe 30 inches long.
- Drill 1/8 inch holes along the pipe so that you have exactly 24 holes evenly distributed across the pipe leaving at least 3 inches on either side of the pipe.
- If you accidentally drill 23 holes, then you should add an extra hole so that you end up with exactly 24 holes.
- If you drill 25 holes, then you should discard the pipe and start over again.
- Note: Do not drill holes that are larger than 1/8 inches in diameter as this will be too big. If you drill holes bigger than 1/8 inches, then discard the new sparser bar and begin again.
- Another Note: Do not drill the holes smaller than 1/8 inches in diameter. If you drill holes that are smaller than 1/8 inches, then obtain a 1/8 inch drill bit and use that to increase the diameter of the holes that you have drilled.
- Once you have exactly 24 holes in the new Sparser Bar, then rotate the pipe 30 degrees and drill 24 more holes in the exact same positions as the holes that are now 30 degrees from where you are going to drill the new holes.
- Note: Do not drill the second set of holes at a 40 degree angle from the first set of holes as this is not the correct angle. Only drill the holes at a 30 degree angle from the first set of holes.
- Also Note: Do not drill the holes at a 20 degree angle, as this is also not the correct angle from the first set of holes.
- Caution: If you find that you have drilled the second set of holes at an angle other than 30 degrees, please discard the sparser bar and begin again.
- Once you have exactly 48 holes (count them… 24 + 24) in the sparser bar, thread both ends of the pipe.
- After you have threaded both ends of the new sparser bar, put a metal cap on one end of the sparser bar.
- Note: Do Not under any circumstance put a metal cap on both ends of the sparser bar as this will render the sparser bar useless because there will not be any way to attach the sparser bar to the water line.
- Caution: If you find that you have accidentally put a metal cap on both ends of the sparser bar, then remove the metal cap from one end (and only one end) of the sparser bar so that it can be attached to the water line.
- After you have completed creating the new sparser bar with two rows of 24 1/8 in. holes each at an angle of exactly 30 degrees, then using a medium pipe wrench attach the new sparser bar to the water line.
- Align the holes on the sparser bar so that they will have the maximum desired affect when the water is turned on.
See? Only 7 easy steps. I think Tony Mena said he fell asleep trying to read my “Sparser Bar Task List”. I seem to remember Ray Eberle telling me that Tony said, “Kevin’s a nut!”
So, I have one more story to tell you about writing task lists, and then I will conclude this post with the proper conclusive paragraph….
At the plant, every piece of equipment had their own “Cost Center”. This came in handy when you were looking for spending trends and things like that. The structure of the cost center was like this: SO-1-FD-A-FDFLOP — I just made that up. It’s not a real cost center… I just wanted to show you the structure…. The first two characters SO represent the plant. The following “1” represents the unit. We had 2 units. The FD represents a “functional area” like “Force Draft Fan. The “A” represents the number of the piece of equipment, like A or B or C, etc…. depending on how many there are. The FDFLOP is the piece of equipment. In this case it might be a Forced Draft Fan Lube Oil Pump.
I’m explaining this apparently boring aspect of Power Plant Life, because I made an attempt to make it a little more interesting. Here is what I did…. The Ultra Clean water that goes in the boilers and are used to turn the turbine are stored in a couple of large water tanks in front of the main power transformer. The code for their functional area just happened to be: “AM”. So, when you were creating a task for working on a piece of equipment on the first of the two tanks, the Functional area would look like this: SO-1-AM-A…..
See where I’m going with this? It looks like it is saying… “So I am a….” This quickly reminded me of Jim Arnold, who was the Superintendent of Maintenance. The guy that had assigned me to write all of these task lists in the first place. He always seemed like he was king of the jungle, so I thought I would have a little fun with this….
I created a completely new Functional Area Cost Center for this water tank for a non-existent piece of equipment…. I called it the “Gould Outdoor Detector”. So, when I created the Cost Center string, it looked like this: SO-1-AM-A-GOD. For the Gould Outdoor Detector. — I know… I was being rotten.
Then using this cost center (that looked like “So, I am a God”), I created a Task List called: “How to be Superintendent of Maintenance”. I added a lot of steps to the task about how you can humiliate your employees and over work them, and kick them when they are down, and stuff like that. I don’t remember the details. Anyway, that was a lot of fun.
I created task lists up until the day before I left the plant. At my going away party Jim Arnold asked me how many task lists I had created in the last three years… the count was something close to 17,800 task lists. Yeah. That’s right. I wrote over 17,000 descriptions of Power Plant Man jobs in three years. Our plant had over three times more task lists in SAP than the rest of the entire electric company put together.
You can see that I was proud of some, like my the novel I wrote about Elevator Maintenance. You can also tell that working side-by-side with Ray Eberle kept us both entertained during those years. We were the best of friends when I left. I don’t know how many times I just about passed out because I was laughing so hard while we worked together.
If I were to write Power Plant Tasks today, I think I would write the ones that aren’t assigned to a Maintenance Order… they would be more like “How to be a True Power Plant Man”. It would be a novel that would describe the tremendous character of each and every True Power Plant Man and Woman that I learned to love during my stay at the “Power Plant Palace.”
After I left the power plant and went to work for Dell on August 20, 2001, I wrote letters back to my friends at the plant letting them know how things were going. This is the ninety eighth letter I wrote. Keep in mind that at the time when I originally penned this letter I didn’t intend on it being posted online.
4/13/04 – The Boiler Ghost
Dear Friends from Sooner Plant and others,
Kelly was cleaning out our closet over the weekend, and she ran across some old papers from my former life at Sooner Plant. She asked me if she could throw them out, so I sifted through them, and I ran across a piece of paper that was folded up and all stained with Fly Ash. When I opened it, I found that it was a short story that I had written when I was on Labor Crew 21 years ago. I had written it for Bob Lillibridge.
When we were on Labor Crew and we had to work in the Economizer tubes cleaning the caked up ash with Cross-cut saws welded end on end, we would climb into the small crawl space halfway down the tubes to spread the tubes from below. Bob used to grab Ronnie Banks by the legs and Yell, “Boiler Ghost!!!” Ronnie Banks had Claustrophobia, and it would throw him into a panic. So I had written this story to Bob.
It went like this:
From the darkness of the boiler it came.
The Boiler Ghost, black, enormous, full of hate.
I watched with disbelief as it edged its way along.
Its eyes, red and piercing, with a stare of terror
It glanced first this way and then that.
As its eyes passed through me I was filled with
Such a terrible fright that I felt near the point of death.
The massive head hung down between two pointed
Shoulder blades vulture-like.
The most terrifying thing of all was the gaping mouth
That hung open.
It was full of such a terrible darkness,
So dark and evil as if it were the gates of Hell.
Just then I noticed its eyes had fixed on Bob.
He was pressed against the wall by the piercing stare,
His mouth open wide as if to scream.
Eyes bulging out in utter terror.
Mindless with pure fright.
I tried to scream, but felt such a choking force
On my throat I could make no noise.
With steady movement the monster advanced toward Bob.
Bob was white as ash staring into that dark empty mouth.
Smoke poured out of a flat nose on that horrid face.
It reached out a vile and tremendous hand
And grabbed Bob,
Who burst into flames at his touch.
In one movement he was gone.
Vanished into the mouth of pure darkness.
The Evil Ghost glanced first this way, then that,
And into the darkness of the boiler it went.
All was quiet,
The roar of the boiler told me I was safe once again.
Until the boiler ghost should decide to return.
Kevin James Anthony Breazile
Kevin J. Breazile
Originally posted December 20, 2014:
When my children were young and the season was right and I had finished telling them all the Gene Day stories, when they were in just the right Christmas spirit, I would tell them about the Power Plant Christmas Star and how it would shine brightly over Ponca City, Oklahoma around Christmas time, calling shepherds and Power Plant Operators to come and see what technological miracle had taken place on Bonnie Drive on the North End of the thriving community known as Ponca City (Did I actually make an entire paragraph out of one sentence? — Geez. This is why my English Teacher was always slapping my hand — Catholic school…. you can imagine how that was).
The story actually begins way before the Christmas season starts, but some time after Christmas decorations have gone up in Target and Wal-Mart. That is, some time after Halloween, but before Thanksgiving. November, 1984 was the first time I had a hint that something big was going to be happening soon. At the time, I had been an electrician for one year, and since that time, a new machinist had arrived at the plant named Randy Dailey. We thought he looked a lot like Barney Fife, only he seemed to be a lot smarter. Here is a picture of the two. See what you think.
Ok. I admit it. that’s not really Randy Dailey. That really is Barney Fife’s Smarter Brother. Here is a real picture of Randy Dailey:
I happened to be walking through the machinist shop at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma on my way to the tool room when I noticed a big pile of large cans stacked up next to the large press. These cans were about the size of a large can of beans.
The labels had been removed from all the cans, so I couldn’t tell if they were beans, corn, Hawaiian Punch, or what. Only Randy Dailey knew for sure. He had set up some sort of assembly line where he was punching holes through these cans in the shapes of stars and Christmas trees, and I don’t even remember what else. Ginger Bread Men maybe…. Hopefully Randy will comment at the bottom of this post to answer the unanswered questions about the can decorations and not leave a comment about how I look more like Barney Fife than he does and how he actually looks more like Cary Grant.
One could only imagine what Randy was going to do with hundreds of cans with Christmas designs punched out around them. I know that one could only imagine that, because I was one. No one else seemed puzzled about the cans, so I pretended not to be puzzled also. It seemed to work, because no one stopped me on the way to the tool room to ask me about the puzzled look on my face. Which was surprisingly not that uncommon since I walked around a lot puzzled by a great many things.
I figured that some day all this can punching (as opposed to cow punching which is something entirely different) would some day make sense to me. Each year, Randy would do the same thing. He would fill the machine shop with cans and then proceed to punch Christmas Trees and stars into them. It finally made sense to me two years later. After I had moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma.
My wife and I were sitting around one night in our luxurious two bedroom, one bath, one dog house in Ponca City trying to decide what to do for our first wedding anniversary.
I suggested that we try to solve the riddle of the Randy Dailey Christmas cans. My wife was not at all surprised, because during our wedding night a year earlier I had made up a story called “Barney Frumpkin, the Christmas Pumpkin”, so, solving a riddle like Randy Dailey’s Christmas Cans seemed right up my alley and in no way out of the ordinary.
Ok. Here is a side story about Barney Frumpkin the Christmas Pumpkin. Keep in mind that I just whipped this one out off the top of my head and it was 30 years ago tomorrow (December 21, 1985):
Once upon a time there was a pumpkin patch out in the country by a small town.
Each year the people from the town would go out to the pumpkin patch to pick out a pumpkin before Halloween,
in order to make Jack-O-Lanterns and/or Pumpkin Pie.
This one particular year, there was one pumpkin in the patch named Barney Frumpkin.
He had heard from the other pumpkins that the farmer had been talking to someone and said,
“Tomorrow the people from the town will be here to pick their own special pumpkin, so I want everything to be just perfect.”
All the pumpkins were excited about being chosen by a family, but none were as excited as Barney Frumpkin.
Barney stretched and stretched himself as much as he could to try to stand out as a very special pumpkin.
He could imagine himself shining bright orange among the green vines.
When the day finally arrived, Barney was as excited as he could be as children and parents walked through the pumpkin patch,
Each family looking for their own special Halloween Pumpkin.
As each family came near to Barney, he would wish as hard as he could wish that this would be the family for him.
Each time throughout the day, as each family walked by Barney, none of them so much as gave him a second glance.
Toward the end of the day, as the crowds began to thin, Barney suddenly came to the realization that he was all alone.
No one had chosen him to be their special Halloween Pumpkin.
What Barney didn’t know was that he had a very large black spot on one side that made him look like he was rotten.
As the sun set that day, Barney was left all alone in the pumpkin patch.
All the other pumpkins had been picked and carried away.
Barney Frumpkin sat in the patch and cried.
No one heard him except you and I.
As each day began, the sun was lower in the sky and the nights became colder.
Soon there was snow on the ground that left Barney Frumpkin rather wrinkled and dry.
Barney felt as if the world had left him behind and he wanted to die.
So, he just laid there in the withered pumpkin patch sinking slower into the ground.
Shivering in the snow one night, he thought he could hear songs coming from the village.
In the distance people were singing carols of happiness and joy.
In the darkness Barney felt as if his life was coming to an end.
Then suddenly Barney became aware of a different sound.
The sound of someone humming quietly to their self.
Unknown to Barney, it was an evil witch making her way through the pumpkin patch.
Back to the hovel she would call home if she had a heart.
The people of the town called her a witch and she had no friends.
As she approached Barney, the moon peered out from behind a cloud to take a look.
The witch was about to step on Barney Frumpkin when the moonlight appeared.
The witch stopped in her tracks and looked down at the shriveled pumpkin at her feet.
The one with the large black spot on the side.
She had never seen such a wonderful site in all the days of her life.
It was the perfect pumpkin laying right there in front of her!
Without hesitation, the witch carefully picked up the pumpkin.
She smiled a smile that was so big that the cloud covering the rest of the moon scurried away,
Allowing the moonlight to brighten up the pumpkin patch.
The witch hugged Barney Frumpkin with as much care as she could muster.
She carefully carried him home to her hovel which would now become a home.
Barney was so surprised that for a while he was in shock.
He wasn’t sure what had happened because suddenly everything had turned dark.
It wasn’t until he saw the fire in the fireplace that he realized that someone had taken him home.
The witch set Barney on a table close to the fire where Barney could look around the room.
Standing close by, he saw the witch leaning toward him.
Barney Frumpkin had never seen such a beautiful site!
Barney Frumpkin, the Christmas Pumpkin and the Witch lived happily ever after.
End of Side Story. Back to the mystery about Randy Dailey and his Christmas cans.
So, I went to the kitchen and took the phone book out of the drawer and looked up Randy’s address…. hmm…. Bonnie Drive. In 1986, we didn’t have the World Wide Web, so I couldn’t Google the address. So, I looked in the middle of the phone book to where they had inserted maps of the town, and found the street.
Kelly and I climbed into our car and drove north up Union Street to Lora Street and over to Bonnie Drive. The mystery of the Christmas Cans was immediately solved even before we had turned the corner. The entire neighborhood was lit up. Randy’s Christmas Cans were lined up and down both sides of the street, up and down each drive way on the block and each can had a light shining in it so that you could see the punched out Christmas Trees and Stars shining brightly.
Randy’s house was easy to see halfway up the street because it was all lit up.
You can see the Flag Pole in the front and the Ham Radio tower in the backyard. Well, the Ham Radio tower had a large star on the top of it, and there were strings of lights coming down on all sides. The entire street was lit up with Christmas lights and those in front of Randy’s house had a light show going that was fantastic. Randy had programmed the lights himself. The Nativity Scene on the front lawn was like none I had ever seen before. I wish Randy would send me a picture of it (I would put it in this post).
So, the Christmas story that I told my Children went something like this:
The Evil Plant Manager (Eldon Waugh) had issued a decree that no Christmas Lights would be visible on the plant grounds. And the Power Plant Men were distraught. Then there were unknown sounds coming from the machine shop. They went, “Punch, Punch, Punch. Zing. Punch, Punch, Punch, Zing…” Like that.
Cans were quietly being donated while the lone Power Plant Elf (Randy Dailey) punched out designs on cans. Careful to keep them hidden where the Evil Plant Manager wouldn’t see them. Which was easy, because he never dared to stroll through any shop where work might be happening.
Then when Christmas Eve came, and the Operators were keeping watch over the boilers at night, An Angel of the Lord appeared to them and said, “Lo! Climb to the top of Unit 2 Boiler and look yonder North toward Ponca City!”
And Lo! When the Power Plant Operators and any other Shepherds that happened to be nearby (the cattlemen were all tucked in their beds with visions of Salt Licks dancing in their heads. Apparently, cattlemen don’t need to keep watch at night like Shepherds do.. unless they are trying to catch cow tippers).
Anyway, the Operators and any other shepherds that happened to be nearby climbed up the 250 stairs (or took the elevator), and gazed upon the Conoco Oil Refinery lighting up the night sky, they became puzzled.
Then the Angel said, “No. Over that way.” And Lo! The Power Plant Men of Operator Fame gazed upon a Star shining brightly in the night! With streams of light coming down in a fantastic light show specially programmed for the occasion to elicit maximum emotions.
And the Angel said unto the Power Plant Men and any stray Shepherds, “Be not afraid! I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people! Know that today, this very power plant has supplied the electricity to power The Star of Ponca City! To honor the baby Jesus that was born 2,000 years ago in the town of Bethlehem! The Son of God!”
When the Angel of God had left them, the Power Plant Men said to one another, “Let us go to Ponca City (during our midnight lunch break) and see Randy Dailey’s Christmas Star and all the magical Christmas Cans for ourselves!”
So, they hurried off to their pickup trucks and created a convoy of Ford and Chevy’s and an occasional GMC and Dodge Ram and raced up Highway 177 to Ponca City. Arriving at Randy’s house, they found the Nativity Scene of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus and they were amazed! They spread the word to all the Power Plants letting them know how important it was to keep the Star of Ponca City burning for all to see. Then they all returned back to work.
And now you know…. The rest of the Story! Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Good Night!
Originally posted on December 21, 2012:
December, 1998 my brother who is now a full Colonel in the United States Marine Corp. sent me the following poem about Santa Claus visiting a Marine on the night before Christmas. I, in turn, sat down and in about 30 minutes wrote a poem about Santa Claus visiting the house of a Power Plant Man. Words flowed out as easily as Ralph writing about his wish to have a Red Rider BB gun.
First, here is the Marine story, and then after that, you can read the one about Santa and the Power Plant Man. Notice the similarities….
I made the title for the Marine Poem a link to the website where I found a recent copy of the Marine Christmas Story:
By Nathan Tabor
‘Twas the night before Christmas, he lived all alone,
in a one-bedroom house made of plaster and stone.
I had come down the chimney with presents to give
and to see just who in this home did live.
I looked all about, a strange sight I did see,
no tinsel, no presents, not even a tree.
No stocking by mantle, just boots filled with sand,
on the wall hung pictures of far distant lands.
With medals and badges, awards of all kinds,
a sober thought came through my mind.
For this house was different, it was dark and dreary;
I found the home of a soldier, once I could see clearly.
The soldier lay sleeping, silent, alone,
curled up on the floor in this one bedroom home.
The face was so gentle, the room in such disorder,
not how I pictured a United States soldier.
Was this the hero of whom I’d just read?
Curled up on a poncho, the floor for a bed?
I realized the families that I saw this night,
owed their lives to these soldiers who were willing to fight.
Soon round the world, the children would play,
and grownups would celebrate a bright Christmas Day.
They all enjoyed freedom each month of the year,
because of the soldiers, like the one lying here.
I couldn’t help wonder how many lay alone,
on a cold Christmas Eve in a land far from home.
The very thought brought a tear to my eye,
I dropped to my knees and started to cry.
The soldier awakened and I heard a rough voice,
“Santa don’t cry, this life is my choice;
I fight for freedom, I don’t ask for more,
my life is my God, my Country, my Corps.
“The soldier rolled over and drifted to sleep,
I couldn’t control it, I continued to weep.
I kept watch for hours, so silent and still
and we both shivered from the cold night’s chill.
I didn’t want to leave on that cold, dark night,
this guardian of honor so willing to fight.
Then the soldier rolled over, with a voice soft and pure,
whispered, “Carry on Santa, It’s Christmas Day, all is secure.
“One look at my watch, and I knew he was right.
“Merry Christmas my friend, and to all a good night!”
And now for the story where Santa visits the Power Plant Man!!!
Merry Christmas Power Plant Men
by Kevin Breazile
Twas the night before Christmas, as I flew through the snow,
To a house full of kids, wife, dog and Jay Leno.
I came down the chimney with presents to share,
And to see what kind of he-man actually lived there.
I looked all about, and oh what a sight!
Four kids in their beds, without much of a fight!
A dirty pair of jeans, and a shirt full of holes,
Boots full of coal dust, worn shoestrings and soles.
A hardhat was hung by the chimney to dry,
With safety stickers, scratches, and earplugs nearby.
I felt that something was stirring in my chest,
And I knew that this man was different from the rest.
I had heard about men like this from watching Roseanne,
But now I was in the house of a Power Plant Man!
I looked down the hallway and what should I see,
A tool bag hanging behind the Christmas tree.
As I approached it to look at his shiny side cutters,
I heard a strange sound, like a motor that sputters.
There on the recliner laid back as far as it can,
Lay the worn body of the Power Plant Man!
The hole in his sock showed a big toe that was callous,
From trudging all day through his Power Plant Palace.
His face was unshaven, his clothes were a mess,
He needed a shower, of that I confess.
I knew through the nation all people could stay,
Warm in their houses, all night and all day.
From the power that hummed at the speed of light,
And silently flowed through the houses at night.
Day after day, and year after year,
Blizzards and storms with nothing to fear.
As the Power Plant Man lay on his chair fast asleep,
I thought about others like him that work just to keep,
Our world safe from the cold and the heat and the night,
By keeping us warm, or cool and in light.
I looked in my bag for a gift I could give,
To the Power Plant Man who helps others to live.
I found that nothing seemed quite enough,
For the Power Plant Man had all “The Right Stuff”.
As I looked through my bag for the perfect choice,
I suddenly heard a muffled cigarette voice.
The Power Plant Man had stirred with a shock,
And all that he said was, “just leave me some socks.”
Then he rolled on his side, and scratched his behind,
And a tear swelled in my eye that left me half blind,
I knew Power Plant Men were selfless inside.
They lived to serve others with courage and pride.
I pulled out some socks and put them under the tree,
Then I walked nimbly back to go up the chimney.
Before I rose to return to my sled,
I picked up his hardhat and placed it on my head.
It was then that I realized the soot on my brow,
Had come from his hardhat I put on just now.
I often get soot on my clothes and my face,
But tonight I had been blessed by the man in this place.
So as I flew through the night to finish my plan,
I took with me some of the soot from that Power Plant Man!
Merry Christmas to all! And to all a Good Night!!!!
Originally posted November 9, 2013:
One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards. My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service. There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.
I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs. Like I said. It was really fun.
I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having. Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing. He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.
Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job. Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application. I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about. He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.
I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….
I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School. He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri. We immediately became friends when we met. We both enjoyed the same things. The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.
I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games. So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me. We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.
One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.
Jesse was beating us so bad that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn. Then his mother called us for dinner.
Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice. When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal. Chili. So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.
After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home. On the way home my brother started to chuckle. I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” in his head. It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.
So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say. We would just yell out, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!” It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.
When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory. I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!!”
Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm. He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived. The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?” When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.” When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was. I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse! You’re my friend!”
So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine. It’s poetry to my ears. Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.
End of Side Story….
So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most? Well… because all good things had to come to an end. Electronic circuit boards included.
When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it. They just aren’t used much anymore. Everything has gone digital. Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips. It just isn’t quite the same.
So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant. By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors. We were programming chips. Now the circuit boards looked more like this:
Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using. We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor. We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing. When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.
There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit… Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.
Well. Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun. We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.
The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature. No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit. Oh well….
When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor. The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant. They were made from genuine Asbestos. I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.
Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves. Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing. You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well… They were taken away. Not deemed safe for use by humans.
In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”. That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.
Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator. Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface. But…. I wouldn’t know about that. I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.
A manual crank megger was similar….
Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:
It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing. We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places. Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?
I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards. I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.
This heater didn’t even get hot. The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.
The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:
They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.
As for the volt-ohm meters. Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter. I dare say. It was a step up from the old Simpson meter. A lot safer also:
And the Safety belt? Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body. So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.
So… you see… What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs. Real Power Plant Men I mean. So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss. They lose those things they hold dear. Yeah. They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had. I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.
So. That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most. Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing. Power plant Men just change right along with it. But sometimes it hurts a littl
Originally posted October 25, 2014.
I’m sure just about everyone does this. When they look at someone, they occasionally hear music. Some sort of song that is inspired by the person. For instance when I look at my mom, I suddenly begin to hear Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (sorry about the advertisements. Nothing I can do about that).
For those with older browsers that are not able to view video links, I will include the link below the video: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
A few years ago when I was working for Dell, after I had given a thumb drive loaded with the songs I liked to listen to, to a friend of mine, Nina Richburg, when she left our team, she came up to me later and said she had never heard such an eclectic selection of music before. I told her I knew what she meant. I had included classical, rock and roll, electronic, movie soundtracks, country, easy listening, and just about every other genre in the book.
I didn’t explain to her how I can come to the point where I listened to so many different types of music. The answer of course is that I had worked at a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma for 20 years and I had learned to listen to the music that played in my head while working alongside some of the most diverse set of humans that comprised the Power Plant Men and Women at the plant.
I think it began while I was a janitor working with Pat Braden. When I would work with him, I hear a certain song in my head. So, I began to associate that song with Pat. I’m sure many at the plant heard the same song playing in their heads while interacting with Pat. He was such a nice guy:
The direct link is: Sesame Street Theme Song.
I guess you can call it Power Plant Theme Songs, since the songs that usually played in my head represented the type of person. This wasn’t always the case. For instance, when I looked at the electric Foreman and my close friend, Charles Foster, I would usually hear this song:
The direct link is: GhostBusters.
I would hear this song, because when the movie came out, and the song would be played on the radio, Charles’ son Tim Foster thought the song was saying, “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!” So, I can’t hear this song without thinking of Charles Foster.
I have told stories about Gene Day (formally known as Victor Eugene Day — I didn’t misspell “formally), and how it was always fun to play jokes on him. The main reason is because Gene Day was always so easy going. When you look at Gene, the obvious song that pops in my mind is this:
The direct link is: Feelin’ Groovy.
Aren’t they cute? If you took Garfunkel (the tall singer) and shrank him down to the size of Simon, then you would have Gene Day. It was worth the trip to the control room just to encounter Gene Day, so that the rest of your day, you could go around the Power Plant, performing your feats of magic while you were “Feelin’ Groovy!” just for looking at Gene Day. That’s the effect he would have on passerby’s.
My bucket buddy Diana Brien had her own theme song. This song would come to mind not because the song itself reminded me of her, but because she remarked one day when the song was playing on the radio that she really liked it. So, from that point, this was Dee’s song:
The direct link is: Desperado.
I had some songs in my head when I looked at other Power Plant men because it actually sounded like they were singing the song themselves. This was the case with Bill Bennett, our A Foreman. He had a gruff Cigarette voice so I could easily hear Bill Bennett singing this song. Actually, ZZ Top was probably inspired to write this song by Bill Bennett:
Direct link to: La Grange.
The Extreme Power Plant character of some Power Plant Men that I was inclined to “Hero Worship” because of their tremendous talent led me to hear music of a more epic nature. This was true for both Earl Frazier and Andy Tubbs. Earl Frazier was a welder of such talent and when combined with his loyal country nature, even though his occupation was different than this song… This is what usually came to mind when I would look at Earl Frazier:
Direct link: Wichita Lineman.
Andy Tubbs had the same sort of “epic-ness” that Earl had. He was “Country” like Earl also. At the same time, Andy was one of the most intelligent Power Plant Man that graced the Tripper Gallery by his presence. That is probably why this song would come to mind when I would look at Andy:
Direct Link: Good Bad and the Ugly.
Notice the resemblance to Andy’s picture and the song. You could hear the Good Bad and the Ugly Song start up every time Andy would leave the foreman’s office and step out into the shop.
I have covered the “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley” in a previous post. He was another “Epic Hero” of mine. There was not a lot that Larry couldn’t do. His epic-ness was more like a knight from the time of King Arthur. I think that’s why I would hear the song that I heard when I would look at Larry. The movie Excalibur included the perfect song for a knight riding out to meet the enemy just as Larry would step out of the Labor Crew building each morning when I worked for him as a laborer. I would hear the following epic song go through my mind (try singing along with this song):
Direct link: O Fortuna.
Flashbacks of Latin Class!
If you look at Larry’s picture while listening to O Fortuna, you can actually picture him dressed in armor riding on a backhoe just as if it was a War Horse, heading off into battle!
There were other epic characters at the plant that would inspire similar songs. Toby O’Brien, as a Power Plant Engineer, though, not “epic” in the Power Plant Man sort of way, still inspired music when in his presence. I think it was his calm demeanor even when faced with those who may disagree with him (to put it mildly), and it was his deliberate resolve to focus on tasks at hand that left me with this music running through my mind when in his presence:
Direct Link: Moonlight Sonata.
The music fits, doesn’t it?
Scott Hubbard, my partner in crime (not literally…. it felt like a crime sometimes having so much fun and getting paid for it at the same time), was always such a hard worker. Like most industrious Power Plant Men, Scott was always running around (not literally again…) with a smile on his face working away on one project or other. That’s probably why this song was always going through my head when we were working together. It always seemed like everything was going like clockwork:
Direct link: Miss Marple Theme Song.
When I would go to the tool room to get parts, if Bud Schoonover was working there, I could usually hear his song even before I arrived. I don’t know if it was some kind of psychic ability I had, or it was because I would observe the faces of others as they were leaving the tool room, that would queue me in that Bud was on Tool Room duty. Either way, when this song would start up in my head, I knew that Bud Schoonover was near:
Direct Link: Baby Elephant Walk.
It wasn’t because Bud reminded me of an elephant that this song would come to mind. I think it had more to do with Bud’s carefree attitude about things. This song just seemed to come to mind while I would wait at the tool room gate while Bud would search for the parts I had requested. I don’t have a picture of Bud. He was big like Paul Bunyan, but he had the expression of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son, as I have often mentioned. It was the squint and the jutting jaw when he spoke…
Johnny Keys was another True Power Plant Man that had his own theme song. This one came to mind just about the first time I met Johnny. I could tell right away where he would rather be. This song actually came up with a lot of different Power Plant Men, including Ben Davis and Don Burnett. Don and Johnny were working together as machinists when I first met them the summer of 1979. Ben Davis was good friends with both Don and Johnny, so this song would come to mind whenever I encountered any of these three Power Plant Men:
Direct link: Daniel Boone.
There are some Power Plant Men that sort of reminded me of a bear. Ronnie Banks was that way, and so was Dave McClure. Ronnie reminded me of a bear because he walked like one. Dave reminded me of a bear because he was a big scruffy Power Plant Man. He was gentle like Gentle Ben in the TV show Gentle Ben. I didn’t hear the theme song for Gentle Ben when I worked around these two. Instead I heard this song because this song captured their personality much better:
Direct Link: Bare Necessities.
Ron Kilman, the Plant manager (yeah. I have a song for him too). But I wanted to say that Ron Kilman had his own clerk (secretary) that sort of acted like a receptionist when you entered his office. Her name is Jean Kohler. She was the same age as my mother. Unlike hearing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony as I do with my mom, when I would have the opportunity to talk with Jean Kohler, she was such a lady that the following song would immediately come to my mind:
Direct Link: Lady.
I don’t have a picture of Jean Kohler, so you will just have to picture a very nice prim and proper lady with a perfectly sweet smile.
Ron Kilman’s theme song was The William’ Tell Overture. I guess because of the pace that he usually had to work. I listen to this song often because it helps me work. The song is longer than most people are used to hearing, so, I’ll just send you a link to the part that most people are familiar:
Direct Link: Lone Ranger.
In the Power Plant there were a few “sour apples”. In my posts I generally like to focus on the True Power Plant Men and their accomplishments. Occasionally when the topic is right, I may mention those of a less savory character…. Without saying much more than that, whenever I would encounter Jim Arnold, who was the Supervisor over the engineers, and later the head of Operations and later, the head of Maintenance, several songs would come to mind. The theme of the songs were songs like this one:
Direct Link: You’re So Vain.
I searched everywhere for a picture of Jim Arnold and this was the only one I could find:
What more can I say? I will leave it at that. Now you can see why someone would think that I listen to an eclectic selection of music. Because I worked with such a diverse bunch of Power Plant Men and Women!
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 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 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.
Comment from last Repost:
Originally posted October 18, 2014.
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 foot 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 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:
Pickles and Ice Cream usually makes one think of things other than Coal-Fired Power Plants, but when I think of Pickles, peppers or Ice Cream, my first thoughts are of the Electric Power Plant where I used to work. The place where I spent 20 years of my life in North Central Oklahoma. I suppose I have Charles Foster to thank for that.
I wrote about Charles earlier this year in the post “Personal Power Plant Hero – Charles Foster“. In that post I explained about how Charles and I would sit in the electric shop office at lunch time talking about movies that we had seen. We would take turns telling each other about the movies in such great detail that when it came time for me to actually watch “Mrs. Doubtfire” for the first time, I felt as if I had seen it before as Charles had explained every scene to me in technicolor.
The other thing that we would do during lunch, of course, was eat lunch. Being that naturally boring person that I am, I would usually bring the same ham sandwich to work each day. Day-in and day-out, I would eat a ham sandwich, and an apple, or some other kind of fruit depending on the time of year.
If it hadn’t been for Charles I never would have experienced the finer side of Power Plant Lunch Time. Charles was an avid gardener. He had a very large garden between his house and the road where he lived out in the country.
People from Pawnee, Oklahoma would judge the world economic situation just by taking a ride out in the country to take a look at how Charles’ garden was coming along. Between Charles Foster and the Farmer’s Almanac, there was little guesswork left.
I was the beneficiary of this little piece of the Garden of Eden amid the arid Oklahoma prairie. Though I never came to take it for granted, every day when I opened my lunch box to retrieve my ham sandwich with American Cheese and a bit of Miracle Whip to keep the bread from sliding off, I would be given an extra treat from one of the kindest people I know. Charles would hand me something special from his garden.
Cherry Tomatoes were a common, but always special treat.
I include this perfect photo of a cherry tomato by Shelley Hourston because this is the kind of cuisine I was subjected to on a regular basis. I almost suspect that Shelley stopped by Charles’ garden to find this tomato. It makes the question about whether the cherry tomato is a fruit or a vegetable a moot point. The real answer is that it is a feast.
Growing up as a boy in Columbia, Missouri during the 1970’s I was spoiled when it came to Dill Pickles. The best Dill pickles that money could buy could be found in Central Missouri. I don’t remember the brand. They may not even exist today. I remember the ingredients on the jar very clearly. Cucumbers, Vinegar, Salt, Dill.
Today it is hard to find a jar of Dill Pickles that actually has dill in them. I think that you shouldn’t be able to label a jar of pickles as Dill Pickles unless they are pickled with dill.
Where’s the Dill?
Why am I so picky? Well. Because besides this one company in Missouri that had only the 4 main ingredients, the only other place I found a true American Dill Pickle was in the Power Plant electric shop office in North Central Oklahoma during lunch. Not only did Charles make his pickles from the cucumbers he grew in his garden, but he pickled them with the fresh dill that he also grew in his garden.
I realize I have digressed. I will climb down off of the pickle barrel now and continue with the important part of this story… um… ok… I mean.. I’ll continue talking about food. One summer Charles let me come over to his house and pick cucumbers and pickle them right there in his kitchen. We scrubbed them clean, put them in the jars with some dill sprigs. Brought the vinegar just to a boil and then poured it in the jars, and sealed them shut. — Best pickles ever. Four ingredients.
Besides being granted the best pickles and tomatoes around each day for lunch, when the right season came around Charles would bring peppers. I don’t mean the large bell peppers. I mean the thin hot peppers. Like this:
At times Charles would bring in some very small peppers where I would take one little nibble of the pepper then a couple of bites of ham sandwich just to go with it. I became so used to eating hot peppers that at home I would buy a large jar of whole jalapeno peppers just to eat like pickles. Since I’m really going to town showing pictures tonight I tried to find a large jar of whole jalapenos, but I couldn’t find one. My mouth started watering while I was searching for jalapeno on Google Images.
While I am on the subject of peppers, I will mention that many years later, when I was “sequestered” with Ray Eberle for three years working on SAP (this is another story for a later time), he introduced me to the wonderful taste of Habanero sauce on my ham sandwich. Yeah…
Like Charles Foster, Ray would bring in a bottle of Habanero sauce every day and let me soak my ham sandwich with it. After that, I stopped buying jars of jalapenos and started using Habanero salsa for my chips at home.
On an even farther note…. one day when I was working on some homework for a course I was taking at the University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, my daughter, Elizabeth took one of the tortilla chips from my plate and dipped it in the Habanero salsa bowl I had sitting in front of me. Without looking up, I said, “I wouldn’t do that.” Not sure what I meant, she put the chip in her mouth.
After the brief moment of complete unbelief that her mouth from the jaw down had just disintegrated, she started making strange sounds as she ran to the kitchen to try to find some relief. I told her not to drink any water, that only makes it worse. I told her that the only way to fix this situation is to keep eating chips. You see…. drinking water just washes all that hot stuff into every crevice in your mouth and throat. Eating chips absorbs the heat and carries it to safety.
When I was young at one point in my life, an ice cream truck used to come through the neighborhood selling ice cream and candy. It seemed like one of those fun times when you are a child that just seems to go away when you are older. Today there is an ice cream truck that goes through our neighborhood and when I watch the children that live next door all run outside to catch it, it brings back those memories.
So, imagine my surprise when an ice cream truck for adults showed up at the plant one day. I didn’t even know they existed. Charles had to explain it to me. We were walking by the break room in the office area and this man was handing boxes to the janitor, who was stashing them in a freezer. Charles asked me how much money I had on me, as we quickly headed for the office elevator.
On the way down Charles explained that we had just seen the Swan Man! The Swan man? I asked him what that meant. He explained that the Swan man traveled around the countryside delivering all kinds of food to people so that they didn’t have to go to the grocery store. Ok….. I thought. Sounds reasonable… When we reached the ground floor, we walked out of the building and there parked at the end of the sidewalk was this truck:
Wow! An Ice cream truck for adults!!! We stood around for a few minutes and when the man returned to his truck Charles and I gave him some money and we bought two boxes of Ice Cream sandwiches! Who would have thought that you could stand in the middle of the parking lot at a Power Plant in the middle of nowhere, 20 miles from the nearest city of any size, and buy ice cream from an Ice Cream Truck? I certainly never thought that would happen until it did.
Years later, when I was driving through the countryside on the way to my house outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma I spied a Schwan man driving his truck down the country road. I drove up behind him and started honking at him. My daughter, who was about 9 at the time, asked me what I was doing. I told her that she would see…. My son sitting in the back seat asked if we were going to get in trouble. I assured him that we weren’t.
After about a mile of me honking and blinking my lights at him, the Schwan man pulled over. I walked over to him. Looked at him rather seriously as he climbed out of the truck and said, “Do you have a box of Ice cream sandwiches for sale?” At that point, he put his brass knuckles back in his pocket, and re-holstered his pistol. Looked back at me with a straight face. Paused, Thought for a moment. Then said, “Sure!” He opened one of those side doors. Pulled out a box.
I handed him some money. Then returned to my car and drove home. On the way home I explained to Elizabeth about the Schwan man and about how he travels around the countryside bringing food to people. So, of course he wouldn’t mind selling me a box of Ice Cream sandwiches.
Anyway, back at the plant. After Charles and I figured out the Schwan Man’s schedule, we knew what day he was going to show up, so we made sure to have enough cash in our pockets to get a couple of boxes so that we could keep them in the freezer in the electric shop. It seemed like we had to eat them rather fast because our freezer wouldn’t keep them frozen hard and after a while they would get pretty soft. That was our story anyway. We didn’t want them to melt. Now. Would we?
So, thanks to Charles Foster we were able to eat like Kings in our Power Plant Palace. When Sonny Karcher, years ago used to say the phrase from a country song, “I’m just an old chunk of coal, but I’m going to be a diamond some day,” (a song by John Anderson) he was right in more ways than one. We would stagger back to the electric shop after working on a coal conveyor on the long belt, all covered with coal dust. Go in the bathroom and wash up… plop ourselves down on the chair in the office. Open our lunch boxes… and have a feast fit for a king!
I’ll leave you with the words from one of Sonny’s favorite songs the first summer I worked as a summer help back in 1979:
Hey I’m just an old chunk of coal but I’m gonna be a diamond some day
I’m gonna grow and glow till I’m so blue pure perfect
I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face
I’m gonna kneel and pray every day last I should become vain along the way
I’m just an old chunk of coal now Lord but I’m gonna be a diamond some day
I’m gonna learn the best way to walk gonna search and find a better way to talk
I’m gonna spit and polish my old rough edged self till I get rid of every single flaw
I’m gonna be the world’s best friend gonna go round shaking everybody’s hand
I’m gonna be the cotton pickin’ rage of the age I’m gonna be a diamond some day
Now I’m just an old chunk of coal…
Here’s John Anderson singing the song: