My wife used to wince a little each time I told her I would be late coming home that evening because I was going to the Men’s Club dinner after work. Not because I was going to be spending the evening at the Raccoon Lodge with Ralph Cramden:
It wasn’t because I would come home Blotto’ed after an evening of drinking. No. The reason my wife would cringe at the thought of Men’s Club was because about half the time I went to Men’s Club I would come back with some sort of prize.
You see… I have always been cursed with being lucky. It came in handy sometimes because there were times when I was flying by the seat of my pants and if I wasn’t just plain lucky, things would have ended quite suddenly and there would not have been any “rest of the story.”
Others in the Electric shop recognized that I was lucky and would try to take advantage of it by having me buy the squares in the football pots and they would pay me back. Those types of things never really worked. I tried to pass my luck on by proxy, but it didn’t seem to rub off.
Sure in the early days, Men’s Club was held offsite at a lodge. At those dinners, there were alcoholic beverages being served. That was back during the summer of 1979 when I was 18. I was barely old enough to drink the 3.2% beer from a convenience store in Oklahoma at the time.
I didn’t have a car, so I had to rely on Steve Higginbotham driving me home in his Junky Jalopy. (See the post: “Steve Higginbotham in his Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown“). He acted as if he had been drinking even if he hadn’t been… or maybe he had and I just didn’t know it.
By the summer of 1980, after David Hankins was killed in an automobile accident while driving home from a Men’s Club event, alcohol was no longer served and most Men’s Clubs at our Power Plant were held On-Site.
The Women’s Club however was still held off-site. You see, in order to be fair, the Women’s Club was given the same amount of money that the Men’s Club was given. Only there were over 300 men and only about 15 women. So the Women had even better prizes than the Men.
I suppose it was when they decided to have Men’s Clubs in the break room at the plant that they decided they needed to do something to make it worthwhile. They tried having interesting speakers, but listening to Bill Gibson (Gib) tell jokes would only go so far. After all, even though he could tell jokes as well as any other storyteller at the plant, we could hear him any day of the week. So it was decided to start having drawings for prizes.
Prizes were good. Everyone likes prizes. After all, when you won a prize it was given to you freely. You didn’t have to put on a show or stand on your head or anything to get it. You just had to walk the gauntlet of Power Plant Men oogling your new fishing rod, or tackle box wishing they had won it instead of you, and asking you if you would like to trade it for an old busted up pair of Channel Locks.
There were some of us that seemed to win prizes all the time. Some may have even won enough prizes to furnish their house with prizes from Men’s Clubs. Me? I did a pretty good job of furnishing my garage.
Here are some of the gifts I won:
If you look closely at this picture you will see that even after 20 years, the “Heavy Duty Double Gear Cable Puller” is still in the box. — Yeah. I never had a chance to use it. Believe me…. I have been waiting desperately for the day when I can say. “I have a tool for that!” Just like Bob Kennedy used to say (See the Post, “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“). Alas… the “come-along” is still in the box.
I did use the floor jack on my riding lawn mower when i had to change the tires. The tackle box actually has Tackle in it. the cooler has been used a lot. The camping chair, not so often. I have never used the Emergency blinking light combination air compressor, that hooks up to a car battery for power.
I won many other prizes, but these are the prizes that I still have readily available in my garage. You can see that I dragged them all into the kitchen this evening for the picture. My wife was sitting on the couch when I came into the room with a floor jack under one arm, and a combination light slash air compressor under the other arm holding a tackle box in one hand the cooler in the other.
She asked me what I was doing, (with a look of anticipation). I suddenly realized that the look of hope in her eyes was because she thought that I had a momentary lapse of civility and was going to be throwing out some junk from the garage. I caught a glimpse of disappointment when I told her I was writing my blog post. — What? throw away something from the Power Plant? Do I act like I have dementia?
My son walked into the kitchen to quench his thirst and saw the assorted items arranged across the kitchen floor and asked, “Why is all this junk here in the kitchen?” I explained that I was writing my blog and these were some of the things I won at Men’s Club at the Power Plant. “Oh. Ok,” he said as he gave me a side-glance that said, “whatever dad.”
After having collected all sorts of really good junk over the years at the plant, Terry Blevins who had been a fellow electrician for 11 of the 18 years I had spent in the shop was sitting across from me during dinner and the subject of winning prizes came up.
I never liked to mention to others how I won a prize half the time I went to a Men’s Club, because they used to give the other lucky people such a hard time about it. Accusing them of cheating because they were always winning. It seemed like Fred Turner was another lucky person that came away with a lot of loot.
Anyway, When Scott Hubbard and I were talking to Terry, he mentioned that he had never won a prize at Men’s Club. What? I couldn’t believe it. He had to repeat it many times before it sunk into my thick skull. I must have had more than 20 Men’s club prizes by that time and Terry had never ever won a prize. How does that happen?
I recognized that I was lucky early on. When I was in college I would count on it. I also contributed it with having Saint Anthony as one of my best friends. He is the saint of finding lost items. Here are a couple of examples that happened in just one night.
I had arrived in Columbia, Missouri my senior year in college from Christmas break in a brand new Honda Civic. It was early January, 1982. This was the same Honda Civic I just re-posted about earlier this week (See, “How Many Power Plant Men can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic“).
My friend Ben Cox had come over to the dorm and we decided to go eat at a natural food store just northeast of the campus. So, we took my car. The roads were icy. That was fine with me. Not only was I lucky, but I was experienced in driving on ice, having learned to drive in Columbia.
Now, when I say the roads were icy. I mean.. with ice. Not packed snow. So, with Ben sitting next to me in the Honda, in the dark as I made my way up Locust Street going east. I was timing my speed so that I would hit 9th street (The Strollway) just as the light turned green, because if I had to stop, it would be difficult since I would be stopping on the slope of a hill and would probably start sliding back down.
Just as I arrived at 9th street the light turned green and I slid right through the intersection right on time. The only problem was that there were two cars going each direction on 9th street (one in front of the Missouri Theater and the other in front of the Calvary Episcopal Church), and they were not able to stop.
So, I was caught directly between two cars. There didn’t appear to be anyway out of this predicament. That was when I found that my Honda had a tendency to spin out of control on ice for no apparent reason.
As I slid across the intersection my car began to spin around. Just as I was in the middle of the intersection and the two other cars were skidding by me, I had turned parallel with them. As they passed by, all three cars continued spinning and going through the intersection, pirouetting as in a ballet, so that as the car going north was just passing by, the front of my car came around and pointed back in the direction of travel (I had spun 360 degrees), and I continued on my way as if nothing had happened. Whew… — Yeah. My pants were still dry at that point… — see how lucky I was? Dry Pants!
Anyway. I went one more block and parallel parked directly across from the Greyhound bus depot. Ben climbed out of the car and made some sort of comment, though I couldn’t quite hear him. I noticed he was walking a little funny. Maybe his pants weren’t as lucky.
Anyway. We walked the two blocks to the restaurant slash health food store called “The Catalpa Tree”. We ate something that had fried tofu in it that tasted like the tofu had went bad some time last summer… — No. That wasn’t part of the story about how lucky I am.
Anyway. After eating Ben and I walked back to my car. As we were approaching the car, another car began rolling back out of the Greyhound bus depot directly toward my car. There was no one behind the wheel. All that Ben and I could do was stand there and stare at it heading directly into the side of my car.
The car had rolled out into the street and was bound to smash right into my brand new car. Then all of the sudden another car came sliding down the road right between my car and the approaching one. The rogue car smashed into the side of that car instead.
When the car with no driver from the bus depot came to a smashing stop, two little boy heads peered up from the front seat. You see. Their mother had left the two kids in the car while she went into the bus station to do something. She had left the car running to keep her children warm in the sub-freezing weather. Well…. oops.
After making sure that everyone was all right, I climbed into my car and drove away. Within an hour… two incidents where I could have had my new car smashed through no real fault of my own, instead I came out unscathed. — That has been the story of my life — well.. Not to tempt fate…
My luck hasn’t changed… I still end up bringing home things that I win at different functions. Sure some functions everyone comes home a winner. But there are times when it just isn’t fair to the my coworkers.
I have a number of stories since I have been at Dell, but they are all similar to this one story…. A couple of years ago, I attended a Well At Dell event where a special speaker that was a Champion Runner from Burundi Africa was speaking about everything he went through to reach this point in his life. He survived an attack during the war between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. His name is Gilbert Tuhabonye.
Tuhabonye was a lucky person. Or you may say that he has a large guardian angel. On October 21, 1993 while he was in High School, a group of Hutu attacked his school. They took more than 100 students and teachers, beat them and packed them in a school room then burned the building down with them in it. After being burned, nine hours later he took the charred bone of another student and used it to break out of the building where he ran to safety.
Anyway. I went to go listen to this remarkable man speak in a large meeting room on the Dell Campus in Round Rock, Texas on October 21, 2010. 17 years to the day after Gilbert’s tragedy, and the beginning of his new life.
I arrived early and was the first person in the room that wasn’t someone setting up the room for the event. I walked up the middle row with the pick of any seat. I went the the third row on the left and sat on the chair in the middle of the row.
The people that were setting up the room all smiled at me. They had all seen me, as I had been working out in the gym where they all worked. I said hi back to them.
Anyway at the end of the inspirational talk by Gilbert, he announced that one person in this room was going to get a free copy of his book. They just had to look under their seat and if they had a paper taped under it then they were the winner. — Of course… I had the pick of chairs in the room… so you know what happened. Yep. Here is the book:
I could go on and on… maybe I will later when I talk again about how lucky I was to just miss a falling piece of metal that would have killed me, but I had stopped to tie my shoe…
Sure I’m lucky. Today is September 27. It is one of those days that sticks in my mind because both tragedies and good things have happened on this day in the past. On September 27, 1980 I was lucky enough during a tragic situation when the world was turned upside down, that I became friends with a young beautiful person named Kelly.
Kelly became my wife 5 years and 3 months later. After all the times I have been lucky enough to win some prize even when I wasn’t really trying, I can surely say that on that one day when I really wasn’t looking, I began a relationship with the most remarkable person I have ever met. It has been exactly 33 years since that day, and I still believe that it is the luckiest day of my life.
Comment from 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:
Everyone expects when they enter an elevator and push a button for the 3rd floor that when the doors open they will find themselves on the third floor. It doesn’t occur to most people what actually has to happen behind the scenes for the elevator to go through the motions of carrying someone up three stories. In most cases you want an automated system that requires as little interaction as possible.
I have found while working in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that some systems are better off with a little less than perfect automation. We might think about that as we move into a new era of automated cars, robot soldiers and automatic government shutdowns. Let me give you a for instance.
The coal trains that brought the coal from Wyoming all the way down to the plant would enter a building called “The Dumper.” Even though this sounds like a less savory place to park your locomotive, it wasn’t called a Dumper because it was a dump. It was called a Dumper because it “Dumped.” Here is a picture of a dumper:
The coal train would pull into this room one car at a time. I talked about the dumper in an earlier post entitled “Lifecycle of a Power Plant Lump of coal“. As each car is pulled into this building by a large clamp called the “Positioner” (How is that for a name? It is amazing how when finding names for this particular equipment they decided to go with the “practical” words. The Positioner positions the coal cars precisely in the right position so that after the car clamps come down on the car, it can be rotated upside down “Dumping” the coal into the hoppers below. No fancy names like other parts of the power Plant like the “Tripper Gallery” or the “Generator Bathtub” here.
A typical coal train has 110 cars full of coal when it enters the dumper. In the picture of the dumper above if you look in the upper left corner you will see some windows. This is the Dumper Control Room. This is where someone sits as each car pulls through the dumper and dumps the coal.
Not long after the plant was up and running the entire operation of the dumper was automated. That meant that once put into motion, the dumper and the controls would begin dumping cars and continue operating automatically until the last car was through the dumper.
Let me try to remember the sequence. I know I’ll leave something out because there are a number of steps and it has been a while since I have been so fortunate as to work on the dumper during a malfunction… But here goes…
I remember that the first coal car on the train had to positioned without the positioner because… well….. the car directly in front of the first car is, of course, the locomotive. Usually a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Engine.
Before I explain the process, let me show you a picture of the Positioner. This the machine that pulls the train forward:
The automation begins after the first or second car is dumped. I’ll start with the second car just finishing the process as it rolls back up right after dumping the coal… The car clamps go up.
- The rear holding arm (that holds the car in place from the entrance side of the dumper) lifts up out of the way.
- The Positioner begins pulling the entire train forward.
- Electric eyes on both end of the dumper detect when the next car has entered the dumper.
- The Positioner adjusts the position of the coal car to the exact position (within an inch or two) by backing up and pulling forward a couple of times.
- The Holding arm on the back end comes down on the couplings between the two train cars one back from the car that is going to be dumped.
- The four car clamps come down on the train car at the same time that the dumper begins rotating.
- The Positioner clamp lifts off of the train car couplings.
- Water Sprayers come on that are attached to the top of the dumper so that it wets the coal in order to act as a dust suppression.
- The Positioner travels back to the car clamp between the car that was just emptied before and the car in front of it.
- As the train car rotates to the desired angle. (I think it’s about 145 degrees), it begins slowing down.
- When the car has been rotated as far as desired it comes to a stop.
- The Dumper pauses for a few seconds as all the coal is dumped from the coal car.
- The Positioner moves back and forth until it is in just the right position for the positioner arm to lower onto the couplings between the cars.
- The Sprayers turn off.
- The Dumper begins returning to an upright position.
- The Positioner arm lowers down onto the clamps between the coal cars.
- Once the car is upright the dumper stops rotating.
- The 4 car clamps go up.
- The Holding arm goes up. And the process is repeated.
This is a beautiful process when it works correctly. Before I tell you about the times it doesn’t work correctly, let me tell you about how this process was a little…uh… too automated…
So. The way this worked originally, was that once the automated process was put into operation after the second car had been dumped, all the dumper control room operator had to do was sit there and look out the window at the coal cars being dumped. They may have had some paperwork they were supposed to be doing, like writing down the car numbers as they pulled through the dumper. It seems that paperwork was pretty important back then.
Each car would pull through the dumper… The coal would be dumped. The next car would be pulled in… etc.
Well. Trains come from Wyoming at any time of the day. Train operators were paid pretty well, and the locomotive engineers would come and sit in the control room while the train was being dumped. Often (more often than not it seemed) the trains would pull into the dumper in the middle of the night. Coalyard operators were on duty 24 by 7.
So, imagine this…. Imagine Walt Oswalt… a feisty sandy haired Irishman at the dumper controls around 3 in the morning watching 110 cars pull through the dumper. Dumping coal…. One after the other. I think the time it took to go from dumping one car to the next was about 2 1/2 minutes. So it took about 3 1/2 hours to dump one train (I may be way off on the time… Maybe one of the operators would like to leave a comment below with the exact time).
This meant that the dumper operator had to sit there and watch the coal cars being slowly pulled through the dumper for about 3 hours. Often in the middle of the night.
For anyone who is older than 25 years, you will remember that the last car on a train was called a Caboose. The locomotive engineers called it a “Weight Car”. This made me think that it was heavy. I don’t know. It didn’t look all that heavy to me… You decide for yourself:
Back in those days, there was a caboose on the back of every train. A person used to sit in there while the train was going down the tracks. I think it was in case the back part of the train accidentally became disconnected from the front of the train, someone would be back there to notice. That’s my guess. Anyway. Later on, a sensor was placed on the last car instead of a caboose. That’s why you don’t see them today. Or maybe it was because of something that happened one night…
You see… it isn’t easy for Walt Oswalt (I don’t mean to imply that it was Walt that was there that night.. well… it sounds like I’m implying that doesn’t it…. I use Walt when telling this story because he wouldn’t mind. I really don’t remember who it was) to keep his eyes open and attentive for 3 straight hours. Anyway… One night while the coal cars were going through the dumper automatically being dumped one by one… there was a point when the sprayers stopped spraying and the 4 car clamps rose, and there there was a moment of pause, if someone had been there to listen very carefully, they might have heard a faint snoring sound coming from the dumper control room.
That is all fine and dandy until the final car rolled into the dumper. You see… One night…. while all the creatures were sleeping (even a mouse)… the car clamps came down on the caboose. Normally the car clamps had to be raised to a higher position to keep them from tearing the top section off of the caboose.
If it had been Walt… He woke when he heard the crunching sound of the top of the caboose just in time to see the caboose as it swung upside down. He was a little too late hitting the emergency stop button. The caboose rolled over. Paused for a moment as the person manning the caboose came to a rest on the ceiling inside… then rolled back upright all dripping wet from the sprayer that had meant to keep down the dust.
As the car clamps came up… a man darted out the back of the caboose. He ran out of the dumper…. knelt down… kissed the ground… and decided from that moment on that he was going to start going back to church every Sunday. Ok. I exaggerate a little. He really limped out of the dumper.
Needless to say. A decision had to be made. It was decided that there can be too much automation at times. The relay logic was adjusted so that at the critical point where the dumper decides to dump a coal car, it had to pause and wait until the control room operator toggled the “Dump” switch on the control panel. This meant that the operator had to actively decide to dump each car.
As a software programmer…. I would have come up with another solution… such as a caboose detector…. But given the power that was being exerted when each car was being dumped it was probably a good idea that you guaranteed that the dumper control room operator actually had his eyeballs pointed toward the car being dumped instead of rolled back in his head.
I leave you with that thought as I go to another story. I will wait until another time to talk about all the times I was called out at night when the dumper had failed to function.
This is a short story of durability…
I walked in the electric shop one day as an electrician trainee in 1984 to find that Andy Tubbs had taken an old drill and hooked it up to the 480 volt power source that we used to test motors. Ok. This was an odd site. We had a three phase switch on the wall with a fairly large cable attached with three large clips so we could hook them up to motors that we had overhauled to test the amperage that they pulled to make sure they were within the specified amount according to their nameplate.
I hesitated a moment, but I couldn’t resist…. I had to ask, “Andy…. Why have you hooked up that old drill to 480? (it was a 120 volt drill). He replied matter-of-factly (Factly? Can I really say that in public?), “I am going to burn up this old drill from the Osage Plant (See “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace” for more information about Osage Plant) so that I can turn it in for a new one.
Ok. I figured there must be a policy somewhere that said that if you turned in a burned up tool they would give you a new one. I knew that Bud Schoonover down at the toolroom was always particular about how he passed out new tools (I have experienced the same thing at my new job when trying to obtain a new security cable for my laptop).
Anyway. Andy turned the 480 volts on and powered up the drill. The drill began whining as it whirled wildly. Andy stood there holding up the drill as it ran in turbo mode for about five minutes. The drill performed like a champ.
After showing no signs of burning itself up running on 480 volts instead of 120 volts, Andy let off of the trigger and set it back on the workbench. He said, “This is one tough drill! I think I’ll keep it.” Sure. It looked like something from the 1950’s (and it probably was). But, as Andy said, it was one tough drill. On that day, because of the extra Durability of that old Pioneer Power Plant Drill, Andy was robbed of a new variable speed, reversible drill that he was so craving.
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It takes about 7 hrs to dump 150 car train
Wasn’t Walt but a certain marine we won’t mention. They dumped the last car & forgot to put the car clamps in the up maximum position. They give the go ahead for the train to pull the caboose through! Instant convertible caboose! Now there are break away clamps on the north side. And there are locomotives on the rear of the train because the trains are made up of 150 cars .
Like you, I can think of several ways to automate the process without dumping the caboose but I think the operator pushing the button may be the best. Automation can get out of hand.
Originally posted October 19, 2013:
Everybody seemed to like Bill Bennett. We didn’t like him because he possessed a profound knowledge in the field of electricity. No. We liked him because he was a good person. Bill was a tall very thin black man that sort of reminded you of Bill Cosby.
Bill had a gruff cigarette voice as he was a chain smoker. Often he would say his first words to me when he came into the Electric Shop office for lunch each day in the same manner that Aunt Esther would say something to Fred Sanford. His lower jaw would jut out and he would shake his head with a look of total disgust… like this:
With this expression, Bill would often look at me and say, “You Scamp!” Dragging it out for the full effect. Nothing would bring a smile to my face faster than having Bill berate me by insulting my integrity as a person. He would also add on additional phrases like, “…You disgust me!” Or… “….you scum!” — I felt like Gomer Pyle by that point with a big grin on my face.
I just wish everyone could work for such a great guy at least once in their life.
I’m not saying that we didn’t have our disagreements throughout the years that he was our A Foreman at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I recognized that Bill had his way of viewing the world, and I had mine. And even though my way was always the right one, I realized he had a right to his view even when it was wrong.
At those times what could you do? Probably the same thing I would do. Fall on the ground kicking and screaming and then try to make your face turn blue by holding your breath. — That never seemed to change his mind though. Probably because I liked breathing too much and would find that it didn’t take long before I would develop an overwhelming urge to take another breath.
Anyway. After spending well over a thousand lunch times with Bill Bennett, just when I began to think that I had heard every story about Bill Bennett’s life that was imaginable, he would come up with another one.
I could tell you some stories about Bill where he was at the lowest point in his life. When he was an alcoholic at the point where he normally would have been fired from the electric company. Then someone gave him another chance for no other reason than because he understood human nature and cared about his fellow man.
You see. There are a number of people in the electric company throughout the years where they were at the low point in their lives. Sometimes people were there to give them a lift up from the gutter where they had fallen. At other times, they were cast aside mercilessly and forgotten because the company was priority. A useless and hypocritical attitude, I always thought, because what is electricity used for except to help mankind.
When Bill Bennett had reached this point in his life. Someone was there to help him out of the gutter. They brushed him off (the dust I mean). Gave him some self dignity and “let it go”. Bill went on to become a good and compassionate person. I’m sure that those people in his life that helped him back then were the major force in reshaping his outlook on life. He was always fighting for the underdog. Once I understood that. I stopped my kicking and screaming, and picked myself up off of the floor.
So, I thought I would share a couple of my favorite stories about Bill.
When Bill was young, he lived in Oklahoma City, southeast of the capitol a couple of miles in the poor section of town. I could picture this story real well when he was telling it because my soon-to-be wife was living in this same area as she was attending Nursing School at the Oklahoma University Medical School.
Bill recounted this story: One day when he came home from school his dad gave him a little pet possum.
Bill was overwhelmed with happiness. This was like his one and only true friend. He took the possum with him wherever he went. After so many years I don’t remember what name Bill had given the possum, but it was something like “Fred”, so I’ll just call him Fred for the rest of the story.
Bill taught Fred tricks, and he would run up his arm and perch on his shoulder. Bill would walk around the neighborhood proud to have his pet possum Fred sitting on his shoulder. The two became inseparable.
When the summer was over, in the morning when Bill went to school he would have to leave Fred at home. He had a certain sound that he would make to call his possum. So, when he would walk in the door after returning home from school he would call Fred, and he would come out from under the sofa, or the bed, or wherever he had decided to hide for the day. Fred was pretty much a grown possum by this time.
One day Bill came home from school. He didn’t remember whether he had called Fred or not when he came home, but if he had, Fred didn’t answer. This wouldn’t have concerned Bill much since Fred may have just been playing Possum as Possums are apt to do from time-to-time. Anyway. Bill didn’t see Fred when he came home.
When it came time for dinner Bill sat down and his mom served him a nice hot bowl of stew. As dinner progressed, at one point the subject of the stew came up. Maybe one of Bill’s brothers and sisters said, “Hey mom. This is sure some good tasting stew! What is it?” That was the point in Bill’s life when he decided to become a chain smoker and an alcoholic…. well… not all at once… This was just the point that led him down that path.
You see. As Granny in the Beverly Hillbillies would say, “Go eat your Possum Stew Jethro”. Here is Granny running for Possum Queen:
That’s right. Bill Bennett’s mom had cooked his pet possum Fred for dinner. When he heard this he was stunned. He didn’t have the same expression that Jethro had when Granny called him to the dinner table, that’s for sure.
When he asked his parents how they could do that to his pet possum, his father replied, “Why did you think I gave that possum to you?” That was when the grim reality of life hit Bill right between the eyes. Sick to his stomach he left the dinner table. From that day onward, Bill never again ate possum stew.
This might seem like a humorous or cute story to some. To Bill, it changed his entire outlook on life. As I mentioned. He later became an alcoholic. Which even later, with the help of his wife and others, he overcame. Though it was gradual, if you trace his life back, I believe that the downward spiral began at this one crucial point in his life. With the intentional loss of the life of someone he loved.
When Bill would call me a scamp…. I sometimes felt that down inside he was still crying for Fred, and was talking to his father instead of me. I could see a hint of sorrow even in his humor. He knew he could take out his hidden frustration in our presence because Bill always knew that friends like Charles Foster and I would always be there smiling back at him.
Ok. That was one of the more serious stories of Bill’s life, but one that I often think about when I think about Bill. Let me tell you a more humorous story:
Bill Bennett worked for an electronics store at one point in his life before he found his true calling as a “Power Plant Man”. Part of this job included making house calls to work on the security system in homes.
The employees would use the company van to go on house calls. It had the necessary equipment to install and repair the security systems. It also had one curious item sitting on the dashboard. A garage door opener.
The garage door opener was a point of amusement for the employees as they would drive through a neighborhood on the way to someone’s house they would click the opener as they drove along looking around to see if it would open anyone’s garage door. No one knew where the opener had come from, but they thought that just by chance it might randomly open a garage door here or there.
So, here is Bill’s story:
One day he was on his way to do a job in a high-end neighborhood. As he was slowly making his way down the neighborhood street to his destination, he was clicking the garage door opener to see if it would open any doors. When all of a sudden he saw a few houses up ahead that a garage door was opening.
For a brief moment Bill was excited that he had found a garage door that opened. Then he realized that the garage door that was opening was the house where he was making the service call. “Oh No!” He quickly began clicking the garage door opener to try to close the garage door, but it wouldn’t close.
Bill sat in the van for a while desperately clicking the garage door opener praying that it would work to close the garage door, but it never did. finally he decided he would act as if he didn’t know anything about how the garage door opened and climbed out of the van.
He walked over to the garage and peered in, sheepishly saying, “Hello?” He was conscious that he was a lone lower class black man in a predominantly rich white neighborhood walking into someone’s garage in broad daylight. He took a few steps into the garage when the garage door began to close!
In order to make it out of the garage, Bill would have had to dodge under the closing door, so he just froze in place and awaited his fate.
A few moments later, the door to the house opened and a little old lady entered. Bill tried to explain that he didn’t know how the garage door had opened and that he only entered the garage to see if someone was there. She said she had seen his van coming down the street, and had opened the garage door from inside the house.
So, the garage door opener in the van hadn’t opened the door after all. It was just a major coincidence that Bill happened to be driving down the street clicking a garage door opener when an elderly lady (like Granny) had seen his van and opened her garage door only to have Bill think that he had opened the door. Or was it a coincidence?
Sometimes I feel that when a coincidence of this statistical improbability occurs that there is often an extraordinary intervention from above telling you something. I’m sure that this little scare taught Bill something and helped him progress on to the view of life that he had when I met him years later.
I have another very coincidental story about a true Power Plant engineer that was a major turning point in this person’s life that I will share in a couple of years from now. When you read that story it will be very clear that there is someone definitely looking out for poor souls like us.
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Originally posted October 25, 2015.
It was no secret at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that I was Catholic. When I was a summer help and working on the labor crew, I wore a large crucifix under my tee shirt. I had worn the crucifix since I was 13 years old.
When I joined the electric shop I had to take it off. Electricians should not wear any kind of metal jewelry for the obvious reason that if it were to come into contact with a “hot” circuit, the effect would be the same as if I wrapped the live electric wire around my neck. In other words… I could easily have been electrocuted.
In place of the crucifix, I wore a Scapular instead. Wearing a cord around my neck was unsafe enough, but it didn’t take much for the cord to break away from the piece of cloth on either end.
So, as I said, most everyone at the plant knew that I was Catholic. It was common for someone to see the cloth with the picture on it sticking out the back of my tee shirt and ask me, “What is that around your neck with the postage stamp on it?” I usually hesitated to answer the question because I understood that living in Oklahoma where there was only a 5% Catholic population, the Catholic Church was greatly misunderstood and I really didn’t want to enter a lengthy discussion about why Catholics do what they do.
Diana Brien (my bucket buddy) helped me out one day when someone asked me why I wore the scapular, and I was hesitating trying to decide if they wanted a short answer or a long one, when Diana broke in and said, “It’s a Catholic thing.” I quickly agreed. “Yeah. It’s a Catholic thing. It reminds me to be good. I need all the reminders I can get. Sort of like ‘Catholic Protection’.”
Before I discuss what a Power Plant Catholic has to do with checking Cathodic Protection, let me just add that though I wasn’t the only Catholic at the plant, I was sort of the “Token” Catholic. Which meant, when someone wanted a straight answer about what the Catholic Church believes about any subject, I was the person that they turned to for answers.
Living in the midst of the Bible Belt, Monday mornings is when most of the questions would be asked. Preachers from various religions would occasionally say something during their Church service about Catholics and their “strange” beliefs. So, the next day, some would come to me to hear the other side of the story.
I will list a few questions…. “Why do Catholics say, ‘Hell Mary’?” “Is it true that the Pope has 666 on his Tiara?” “Is it true that Catholics are not able to say the entire ‘Our Father’?” “Are Catholics really against abortion because they need newborn babies to sacrifice in the basement of their Church?” “Is it true that Catholics can’t say for sure that they are going to heaven?” Aren’t Catholics cannibals by believing they are eating the real Body and Blood of Jesus?” “Don’t Catholics believe that they can do anything wrong they want because they know that they can just go to confession and have it forgiven?”
These are all actual questions I was asked when I was an electrician at the power plant. I understood why the Power Plant Men were asking me the questions, and I respectfully answered them. I would rather they felt comfortable asking me these questions than just going around thinking that I was some kind of barbaric pagan behind my back.
By feeling free to talk to me about being Catholic, I knew that I was respected by the Power Plant Men even though I was from a religion that they viewed as far from their own. There was one day when this became obvious to me.
I was on the second landing on Unit 2 boiler just about to enter the boiler enclosure when Floyd Coburn walked out. He was nicknamed “Coal Burner” partly because he was black, and partly because he worked in the coal yard for a long time, but mostly because his last name was Coburn which sounds la lot like Coal Burner. Someone figured that out one day, and called him that, and it stuck. When Floyd came out of the enclosure he stopped me. He tapped me on the arm and signaled for me to follow him.
We stepped out of the walkway a short distance and he held out his fist in front of me. Floyd was built like a wrestler. Actually, he was State Champion of the 148 lb weight class for 4A High Schools in Oklahoma in 1972 and 1973. This meant a lot because in Oklahoma, Wrestling was an important sport. He also had earned an associates degree at Rogers State College in Claremore.
Not once did I ever hear Floyd Coburn brag about his accomplishments, or even mention them. I suspect that few people if any knew much about Floyd’s background because as much fun as he was to work with, he was very humble, as are most True Power Plant Men.
Floyd was grinning at me as if he was about to show me a trick or a joke or something. Then he opened his fist. In the middle of his palm he held a small crucifix. The size of one on a typical rosary.
When I saw the cross I looked up at Floyd and he was grinning ear-to-ear. I gave him a puzzled looked. Then he told me. “I found Jesus! I just wanted you to know. I know you would understand.”
I felt very privileged that Floyd felt like sharing his experience with me. I thanked him for letting me know. I patted him on the shoulder and we went on our way.
Throughout the years after that, Floyd would set me down every now and then and share how he was expanding his faith with Jesus. He finally became a minister and re-opened a Church in Ponca City where his family used to worship when he was a boy. Floyd was the Pastor of the Broken Heart Ministers Church.
I always felt blessed that he came to me to tell me about his journey. The last time I talked with Floyd Coburn was around Christmas, 2005. I had dropped in at the plant to say hello while I was visiting Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Floyd wanted to talk to me about the progress he was making as Pastor of the Church in Ponca City. He explained the troubles he was having and asked for my prayers. He felt as if the devil was fighting against him. I assured him I have always kept him in my prayers.
One day around the end of October 2006, I felt compelled to write to the plant about a Power Plant Man David Hankins, who had died after my first summer as a summer help in 1979. I have always remembered him on November 1, All Saints Day, because I know that he’s in heaven as he had a tremendous heart.
I hadn’t written to the plant for some time. When I did, I received a couple of e-mails back telling me that Floyd Coburn had died on August 25 during his son’s birthday party. He died of a sudden heart attack.
Though I felt very sorrowful for Floyd’s family because of the circumstance surrounding his death, I felt a great relief for Floyd. I know he had a great desire to be united with Jesus Christ.
So. Now that I discussed some of my experience as a Catholic at the Power Plant, let me tell you about Cathodic Protection (that is not a misspelling of ‘Catholic Protection’).
Have you ever noticed on a car battery how one post is more shiny, than the other post? Especially after it has been in your car for a while. It’s not real noticeable so you may not have realized it. The shiny post is the Cathode or Positive post. Well. Cathodic Protection is just that.
You see the main ingredient besides Power Plant Men at a Power Plant is Iron. The boilers are almost entirely made from the stuff. There are underground and above ground pipes running all over the place. Well. You can paint most of the iron that is above the ground to keep it from rusting, but it doesn’t work very well when you bury the pipes and structure in the dirt.
So, how do you protect your investment? The answer is by using Cathodic Protection. There is a grounding grid made of copper wires buried in the dirt that ties to all the metal objects around the plant grounds. This not only helps absorb things like lightening strikes, but it also allows for the seemingly miraculous anti-rust system known as “Cathodic Protection”.
This is how Cathodic Protection works… You bury a large piece of metal in the dirt and you tie a negative DC (direct current) power source to it. Then you tie the positive power to the grounding grid. By creating a positive charge on the boiler structure and the piping you inhibit rusting, while you enhance the corrosion on the large piece of buried metal with the negative charge.
A nifty trick if you ask me. The only thing about using cathodic protection is that you have to keep an eye on it because the large piece of buried metal will eventually need to be replaced, or the charge will need to be adjusted as it decays in order to protect all the other metal in the plant.
The Power Plant doesn’t just have one source for cathodic protection. There are numerous boxes placed around the plant that protected a specific set of equipment and buildings. So, when it came time to do Cathodic Protection checks, we would go to each station and take readings. If there were anomalies in the readings then someone would be alerted, and tap settings may be adjusted. In extreme cases, the large piece of metal would need to be replaced with a new one…. Though I never saw that happen.
Once I understood the concept of how Cathodic Protection worked I came to the conclusion that what Catholic Protection was doing for me, Cathodic Protection was doing for the Power Plant. It was helping to prevent corrosion.
If you don’t keep a close watch on how well your Cathodic Protection is doing, then you won’t realize when it needs to be re-calibrated. I have found the same thing applies with how well I am doing as a person. Sometimes I find I need to do a little adjustment to keep myself in line…
When checking a Cathodic Protection rectifier, when you use your multimeter to check the voltages, you have to put your leads and usually your hands into a container of transformer oil. This is somewhat messy and unpleasant. But we realize that it is something that just has to be done. We may wear latex disposable gloves to help keep our hands from soaking in the oil, but inevitably, I would end up dripping some on my jeans.
It’s the same way when trying to adjust myself to be a better person. It seems a little unpleasant at first, but you know it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s swallowing your pride. Sometimes it’s admitting that you are wrong. Sometimes it is just getting off your duff and stop being so lazy.
This is why I always felt so honored working with such True Power Plant Men. They were the ones that, even though they struggled in their individual lives like the rest of us, they always kept their mind on what was right and used that as a guide to make the right decisions.
Originally posted November 1, 2013:
You would think that telling time is a pretty universal past time. I used to think that myself. That is, until I went to work at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I first went to work there in 1979 as a summer help. I noticed something was different when I walked into the office to meet the Assistant Plant Manager, Bill Moler and the clock on his wall looked kind of funny. I had to stare at it for a moment before I realized what it meant:
The Power Plant Men called it Military Time because many of them had been in the military during the Vietnam War and had learned to tell time using this type of clock. When we filled out our timecards at the end of the day we put 0800 to 1600 Well. I put in the colons like this: 8:00 to 16:00 but that wasn’t the real Power Plant Man way to do it.
That wasn’t the only thing I learned about Power Plant Man time. Power Plant Men keep time in other ways. One of those ways, though it involves a clock, the time being observed isn’t the time of day. Instead it centers around five events.
Startin’ Time, Morning Break, Lunch Time and Afternoon Break and Quitin’ Time. A Power Plant Man’s day revolves around these events.
The moment Startin’ Time begins, the Power Plant Men are looking forward to Morning Break. They schedule their efforts around this event. That is, if they need to do a certain job that would run them into Morning Break, then they figure out something else to do, and push that event out until Morning Break is over.
In General, Morning Break would begin at 9:30 (Oh. I mean 0930 — pronounced “Oh Nine Thirty”). It was supposed to be 15 minutes long, but in order to make sure you didn’t miss your break, you usually headed toward the shop 15 minutes early. Then by the time you headed back out the door to and returned to your work, another 10 to 15 minutes went by. Essentially stretching morning break from 15 minutes to 40 to 45 minutes.
This was especially true in the early days of the Power Plant. The Power Plant Men’s culture evolved over time so that the actual time spent on their 15 minute break probably shortened from 45 minutes to 30 minutes.
The idea that the employees weren’t spending every moment of their day when not on break working just confounded Plant Managers, such as the “Evil Plant Manager” that I often talk about. Our first plant manager was so tight, when he worked at a gas plant in Oklahoma City, he was known for taking rags out of the trash and putting them back in the rag box because they weren’t dirty enough.
Now that I work at Dell as a Business Systems Analyst (and since I first wrote this post, I have changed jobs and now work for General Motors) after many years of working for great managers and not-so-great managers, I am always relieved when I find that a new manager doesn’t measure you by how many hours you are sitting at the computer, but by your results.
For those that looked closely at the performance of the Power Plant Men at our particular plant, they would find that when a job needed to be done, it would be done… on time. The bottom line was that when you treat the employees with respect, they go the extra mile for you.
“Quitin’ Time” was always an interesting time. From the first day that I arrived as a summer help (1979) until the day I left 22 years later (2001), Even though “Quitin’ Time” was at 4:30 (or 1630, later changing to 1730), it really began at 4:00 (or 1600, pronounced “sixteen hundred”).
at 4:00, a half hour before it was time to go out to the parking lot and drive home, everyone would return to the shop, where they would spend the next 30 minutes cleaning up and filling out their daily timecard. The timecard was, and probably still is, a sheet of paper.
Amazing huh? You would think with the way things are that paper timecards would have disappeared a long time ago. I could be wrong about that. If it is any different at the plant today, I’ll encourage one of them to leave a comment below updating me.
There are other ways that Power Plant Men tell time. Sure, they know that there are seasons, like Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring. But it is more likely that in their minds the Power Plant Men are thinking more like this…. Instead of Summer, they would think that this is “Peak Load”. That is, the units need to stay operational because the citizens of this country are in dire need of air conditioning.
Instead of Fall, there are two thoughts running through a Power Plant Man’s mind…. Hunting Season and the start of “Overhauls”.
As hunting season nears, many Power Plant Men are staking out their territories and setting up their deer stands. Some are out practicing with their bows as Bow Season starts first before you can use a rifle. The Plant staff didn’t like their employees taking off Christmas vacation, and did everything they could to keep you in town during the holiday. But when it came down to it… The real time to worry was during hunting season.
An Overhaul is when you take one of the units offline to work on things that you can’t work on when it is running. the main area being inside the boiler. When overhauls come around, it is a chance for working a lot of overtime. The pay is good especially if you get to go to another plant to work because then you not only get to work 10 or 12 hour days, but you receive a Per Diem of somewhere from $28.50 to $35.00 each day depending on how far back you want to look.
I don’t know what the Per Diem is today. I’m sure it must be much higher. Plus you get driving time back and forth each week, and you also receive mileage! So, you can see why Power Plant Men were often very anxious to go away on overhaul.
Overhaul season ran from the Fall into the Spring. It is during that time when the electric company could take a couple of units offline at a time because the electric demand wasn’t so high.
Another season that many Power Plant Men counted on was “Fishing Season”. It wasn’t like the other seasons, because it kind of ran into a lot of the others. If the weather was right, and the rain was right and the Missus was all right with it… Then it was fishing season. There were different types of fishing. In the electric shop, “Noodling” was popular. That is when you reach under the rocks in a river and feel around for a fish and then end up catching it with your bare hands.
Another timekeeping tool used by Power Plant men was “Pay Day”. It came around every two weeks. After a while everyone was on direct deposit, so it wasn’t like they were all waiting around for someone to actually hand them a paycheck. Many did plan their trips to the mall or to the gun shows in Oklahoma City around Pay Day. It was common to live from paycheck to paycheck.
If you worked in the coalyard, then you calibrated your clock by when the next coal train was going to roll into the dumper. There was generally a steady stream of coal trains coming and going. When a coal train was late, or even early, then I think it seemed to throw some coalyard hands into a state of confusion. But, then again, now that I think about it…. Walt Oswalt usually did seem to be in a state of confusion. — I’m just joking of course….. Well… you know…
If you were a Control Room Operator, then you were in a sort of Twilight Zone, because there really was only one small window in the entire Control room and that was only so that you could look through a small telescope at the Main Power Substation in case…. well… in case you were bored and you needed to be reassured that the world still did exist out there.
In the control room, there were clocks, but the control room operators had a lot more pretty lights to look at back then. Here is my favorite picture of a Power Plant Control Room (not the one where I worked):
See all those lights? Now everything is on the computer. That way if some foreign terrorist group decides they want to shut down the electric grid, all they have to do is hack into the system and down it goes. They couldn’t do that when the control room looked like this.
It seemed that being in the control room was out of time. It didn’t matter what time of the day you went in the control room. In the morning, the afternoon, even at two in morning. It always seemed the same. There were always two control room operators sitting or standing at their posts. The Shift Supervisor was sitting in his office, or was standing somewhere nearby. Other operators were walking in and out going on their rounds. I think the Control Room operators only knew that it was time to go home because the next shift would show up to take their place.
Electricians on the other hand, had their own kind of timekeeping. Well, not all of them… ok…. well… maybe just me…. I used an oscilloscope a lot when I was working on the precipitator controls, and so very small amounts of time meant a lot to me. For instance… The regular 60 cycle electricity in your house goes from zero to about 134 volts and then back to zero about every 8 and 1/3 thousands of a second (or .00833333…).
I will talk about it later, but when you are testing tripping relays, even as little as one thousandth of a second can be important. So, telling time with an oscilloscope can vary widely.
Then there were those timekeeping Power Plant Men that kept time by how long it was going to be to retirement. It was more of a countdown. I remember one Power Plant Man saying that he only had 21 more years and then he was outta there. An even more sad story was when Charles Lay at Muskogee who was 63 asked me to figure out his retirement because he wanted to retire in 2 years. Well….. sad to say… He had only been working there for 3 or so years, so his retirement package wasn’t going to be much and had never put anything into a 401k or an IRA.
Those who spent their lives working at the plant were able to retire with great benefits. It wasn’t like a union with all the healthcare and stuff, but the company did offer a very good retirement plan for those that had been there for the long haul. I suppose at this point they are measuring time in terms of their lifetime.
What it boils down to is that some Power Plant Men measured their life one-day-at-a-time, while others just looked at the entire time of their life as one time. Some looked forward to a time when they would be able to rest, while others enjoyed their work each day.
When I think about time, I realize that an infinite number of things can take place each second. Yet, a lifetime can go by without ever grasping what is important and what is fleeting. When I think back at the time that I spent working at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, what I feel is that I was blessed by the presence of such great men and women and it was time well spent.
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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 little
Originally posted November 16, 2013:
Most of us have watched the Alfred Hitchcock Thriller “The Birds” at least once in their life. When I was young it used to come on TV around Thanksgiving about the same time that Wizard of Oz would rerun. What a mix of movies to watch after eating turkey in one of our Italian relative’s house in Kansas City as I was growing up. During those years of sitting passively by watching the birds gang up on the humans, it never occurred to me that some day I might take part in my own private version of “Blackbird Wars” amid the playground equipment found in a typical Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
A tale like this is best starts out with the line, “It was a cold and windy night…” That was close. My story begins with, “It was a dark and cold winter morning…” Unit 1 was on overhaul. That meant that it was offline while we climbed inside the inner workings of the boiler, precipitator, Turbine and Generator in order to perform routine yearly maintenance. Being on overhaul also meant that we came to work earlier in the morning and we left later in the evening. Since it was in the middle of the winter, it also meant that we came to work in the dark, and we left for home in the dark…. These were dark times at the Power Plant for those of us on long shifts.
At this time in my career I was working on Unit 1 precipitator by myself. I had my own agenda on what needed to be done. Sometimes I would have contractors working with me, but for some reason, we had decided that we didn’t need them for this overhaul. Maybe because it was an extra long one and I would have plenty of time to complete my work before it was over.
I can remember grabbing my tool bucket and heading for the precipitator roof to begin my day of calibrating vibrators and checking rappers to make sure they were operating correctly. I was wearing my winter coat over my coveralls because it was cold outside. In Oklahoma, 20 degrees was pretty cold. 20 degrees in Oklahoma with 30 mile an hour winds gives you a pretty low wind chill…. which chills you to the bone.
I had a red stocking liner on my hardhat that wrapped around my forehead that kept my head warm.
All bundled up, I left the shop through the Turbine Room basement and headed toward the breezeway between Unit 1 and 2. I climbed the stairs up the Surge Bin Tower until I had reached the landing where you can go to either Unit 1 or 2 precipitator roofs. Using rote memory after having performed this same task every morning for the past month and a half, I turned toward Unit 1.
The Precipitator is a big box that takes the ash out of the exhaust from boiler. It drops the ash into hoppers where it is transported to the coalyard into large silos, where trucks haul it away to make concrete for roads and buildings. The precipitator roof is full of large transformers (84 of them), 168 vibrators that shake the 29568 high voltage wires in the precipitator, and 672 rappers that bang on the 7560 metal plates. The transformers are used to collect the ash using “static cling”. The rappers and vibrators are used to knock the ash into the hoppers.
The Precipitator roof is a very noisy place when all the rappers and vibrators are running. It is covered with a sheet metal roof. It wasn’t originally designed that way, but someone with foresight thought that it would be a great idea to insulate the precipitator roof. In doing so, they needed to add a roof to keep the insulation from being exposed to the weather.
It wasn’t noisy that morning as I reached the ladder and quickly tied my tool bucket to a rope hanging down from above. It was dark, and lonely and quiet. Well. There were some lights, but this morning, the light from the precipitator didn’t seem to shine much as I pulled myself up the ladder. When I reached the top I turned around and sat at the top of the ladder and began pulling my tool bucket up.
It was at that moment when I realized that something was much different than usual. I had spent a couple of years working on the precipitator roof and inside and I had become friends with each of the transformers, and I even knew the unique sounds of each of the vibrators. I could tell when a rapper wasn’t rapping correctly. There would be a slight sucking sound as the rapper was drawn up into the cylinder…. There was a slight pause, then it would drop onto an anvil that was connected to the plate rack. But this morning everything was turned off. Yet, I could feel that there was something wrong.
There was a strange hum. I was trying to place it as I grabbed each foot of rope and pulled my bucket closer. There was more than a hum… There was a weird muffled sound all around. I had a chill down my back as if I was being watched. I quickly grabbed the handle of the bucket and stood up and turned around. I was ready to spot whoever it was that was spying on me!
What I saw immediately sucked the breath out of me. The precipitator is 200 feet wide and 120 feet long. Every inch as far as I could see was black. Not just the equipment, but the air itself.
During the night a cold wave had moved into Oklahoma from the north. With it, it had brought a horde of blackbirds. Thousands upon thousands of them. They had found refuge from the cold blasting wind in the precipitator roof enclosure. Safe and warm and undisturbed….. That is, until I arrived.
It was as if the blackbirds had discovered me at the same time I had found them. They suddenly burst into a frenzy.
I stood there in wonder for a few moments watching the swirling mass of blackness obscuring what little light was given off by the 100 watt Mercury Vapor lights. As I began to move toward the walkway the flying mass of feathers parted so that the birds kept a safe distance from me. As I grabbed the rungs of the ladder, I suddenly realized why keeping an aviary at a Power Plant is not a good idea. A warm moist gooey mass squished between my fingers as I pulled myself up the ladder and onto the walkway.
I took a few steps to where a package of WypAlls was laying on the walkway and pulled out a couple of heavy duty sheets of durable wiping material:
I decided that I was going to try to chase the birds out of the shelter so I began waving a couple of rags around as I walked down the walkway. All it did was cause the birds to bunch up in corners away from me. They would circle back around behind me. So, when I reached the other end of the roof, I climbed down to one of the rapper control cabinets and powered it up.
The rappers and vibrators began their music. A medley of humming and clanking. I went to each of the 14 cabinets on the roof turning on each of them until the entire roof had risen to a symphony of buzzing and banging. Music to my ears. After wiping down a few places where I needed to work, I spent some time testing and taking notes so that I could make adjustments in the control cabinet after I had made my way around each rapper and vibrator in that area. Then I left for break.
The sun was now up and daylight was shining through the openings in the precipitator roof. When I returned from break the hoard of blackbirds had decided to continue their journey south.
There was one time when I was working as an electrician at the Power Plant where I felt close to being a bird myself. It was when I had to travel to the top of the 500 foot smoke stack to repair some equipment. I was not only at the top of the smokestack, but I was literally sitting on the edge of it and shimming my way around it.
Why me? Well. Our A Foreman, Bill Bennett summed it up like this…. “Have Kevin do it. He likes heights.” Sure. Just like he said I liked to get dirty, so put me in a coal bin to fix a proximity switch. Or, just like he said that I liked climbing in holes in the ground, so I was assigned the job of fixing all the manhole pumps at the plant. What could I say? At some point, he was right. I couldn’t argue with him. Especially since he would call me a “scamp” with such endearment (See the post “Tales of a Tall Power Plant A Foreman“).
Well. You learn something new every day when working at a power plant, and I sure learned something that day. Quite a few things. I already knew that inside the tall concrete smoke stack was another smoke stack made out of brick. The outer stack would sway in the strong Oklahoma wind, while the brick stack inside would remain steady. On a windy day, at the very top, the stack would sway as much as six inches.
On this particular day I rode on top of the stack elevator to the top so that I could climb up onto the rim where the lightning rods were placed about 6 feet apart around the top.
When the wind is blowing there is a certain amount of a difference in the electric potential at the top of the stack as there is on the ground, so you could hear a slight crackling sound around the lightning rods even though it was a clear sunny day. I was wearing a safety belt and as I stopped to work, I would clip the lanyard to the closest lightning rod knowing full well that if I decided to jump off the stack, the lightning rod would just bend and the lanyard would just slide off the end.
I was not in any mood to do any jumping that day. I was there to fix jumpers instead. You see, there is a metal cap on the top rim of the smoke stack. Actually, there is a metal rim on the top of both smoke stacks. The concrete one and the brick stack inside the concrete stack. And there was supposed to be a set of jumpers around the top of the stacks connecting the two metal caps together electrically. This way, if perchance a bolt of lightning hit the inside stack, then the electricity would be routed to the outer rim and down the large grounding cables to the ground grid 500 feet below.
As I shimmied around the top of the stack, I became aware that as far as I could see… clear to the horizon, there wasn’t anything higher than me. At first this threw me a little off balance, because I usually focused on other objects to help me keep my bearings. In this case, only the other smoke stack was as high as me. So, I focused on the rim where I was sitting and tried as hard as I could to ignore the fact that I was a tenth of a mile up in the air.
I removed the broken jumpers and replaced them with the new ones. I didn’t think these new jumpers would last long considering that as the stack swayed back and forth, it would quickly wear the jumpers in to. But, there was some regulation or something that said they had to be replaced, and so that was why I was there.
I noticed while I was working on the top of the stack that birds were flying around below me. Actually, most of them were way below me. Few birds would fly as high as the stacks, and they were usually the predatory types that liked to swoop down on unsuspecting pigeons below. It felt a little odd to be working and looking down at birds flying when it is so normal to look up to see birds. From up there, a large flock of birds like those in “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock didn’t look so intimidating. They were nothing but small dots far below.
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Originally posted: November 22, 2013:
I suppose you’ve heard it said that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The same is true at the Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked for 20 years first as a summer help, then a janitor, a laborer and finally as an electrician. I did find out when I was a janitor, that even though they may not have been a free lunch, there was often a carefully prepared lunch for special occasions.
I have written about when I was an electrician where I would sit in the electric shop office during lunch and Charles Foster and I would sit and talk day after day about various topics throughout the years (See the post “Eating Power Plant Pickles, Peppers and Ice Cream“). He kept my lunch well-stocked with various types of vegetables throughout the year. It seemed to me that I had little to offer in the way of providing for the team.
The electric shop would occasionally have a special feast for no apparent reason. I would walk into the shop one day and find a big pot of beans soaking in water. They would soak the beans overnight. When I saw that big pot of beans, I knew that tomorrow the shop would be having a real bean feast. It was funny, but before becoming an electrician, the only place I had ever heard the phrase, “Bean Feast” was from Varuca in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
It was customary that when there was going to be a shop lunch that we would each bring something to go with it. We often had someone that made some Sun Tea. That is, they would put some tea in a big jar of water and put it outside so that it could bake in the hot summer sun until lunch.
I was pretty inept with coming up with some kind of casserole, and I didn’t have ready-made vegetable garden like Charles, so at first I didn’t know how I could contribute. As time went by, whenever we had a shop lunch, I could always be counted on to bring a tray of brownies. I knew how to bake brownies.
Sometimes, when it was the right season, and Andy Tubbs and Ben Davis and others had gathered enough fish that they had a lot left over, we would be treated to a fish fry. That was one of my favorite lunches. I could eat fish anytime.
Chili was another shop treat that I was always glad to see. It broke the monotony of the same lunch I ate every day. The shop used to make the best spicy hot chili.
Sometimes the Maintenance shop would cook hamburgers or something, usually because they wanted to do something for the people from other plants that were visiting during overhaul, or they were raising money for someone who was sick, or had some tragedy in their life like their house burned down or something. Power Plant Men were always on the lookout for someone to help. I always felt it was my duty to pitch in by eating as many hamburgers as I could.
For years, for lunch I either only brought a ham sandwich or I brought a couple of boiled eggs for lunch. I tried not to spend too much time putting my lunch together in the morning, so I went for the quick fix. For a year, each morning when I woke up, before taking my shower I went in the kitchen, put a couple of eggs in a pan of water, put them on the stove, and headed for the shower.
By the time I came out of the shower, the eggs were ready to come out of the pan and into my Little Playmate lunch box with my salt shaker and a couple of paper towels to be used as napkins for when I peeled them at lunch time. I had to put the shells somewhere….
When I was on the labor crew I used to be able to eat all day long and remain thin. When I arrived in the electric shop, the amount of physical activity was a lot less. I found that buying a cinnamon roll from the vending machine for morning and afternoon break was no longer a viable idea. My weight quickly went from 145 pounds to 163 in a few short months.
So, I could no longer eat like a Hobbit. I had to watch my weight. I stopped drinking Dr. Peppers and bought Diet Cokes instead. I limited myself to my one sandwich or a couple of boiled eggs and a fruit, and whatever vegetable treats Charles would give me. That still didn’t seem to help me keep my weight down, so I had to take other measures.
I began drinking Slim Fast for lunch every day. I would bring a half gallon of skim milk and keep it in the refrigerator and then I would use half of it each day for lunch mixing up a glass of Slim Fast. This helped keep me fairly…. um…. less Hobbit-like.
I don’t remember how many years I continued drinking Slim-Fast for lunch, but I’m sure it was a number of years. The same lunch every day. A glass of Slim Fast for lunch. — Yum…. um…. Yum…..
One day as lunch time was rapidly approaching, I went to the Ice Box to retrieve my carton of milk to mix my Slim-Fast. When I opened the refrigerator door, I didn’t see the carton of milk. I stopped and thought. I was sure I had left a half carton of milk there from the day before…. Someone had obviously taken my milk. That was unusual. I would trust just about everyone in the shop with my life (well, there were a couple of them in the lab that I had my doubts). Surely I could trust them all with my carton of milk.
So, as Andy, Ben and Diana came to the Work Table slash Lunch Table, I asked if anyone had seen my carton of milk that was in the refrigerator. Andy Tubbs replied that he had thrown it out that morning. He had seen that carton of milk sitting in there for months and had figured that it had gone bad a long time ago, so that morning he had poured it down the drain.
Semi-stunned, I explained that I had only put that milk carton in the refrigerator yesterday, and that I put a new one in there every two day. But at this point what could you do? Andy shrugged his shoulders. Said something like, “Oh Well…” I hobbled back to the office feeling a little downtrodden that I wasn’t going to be able to feast on my cool Malt Chocolaty glass of Slim-Fast like I had for the past 100 weeks…. Like I said… I was a “little” downtrodden about it.
I sat down in the office across from Charles and told him that my milk had been inadvertently tossed out. The only thing I had in my lunchbox at that point was my can of Slim-Fast. Maybe I had a spare pocket knife, some old hardhat stickers and a rosary, but nothing really edible as a backup.
I sat there for a couple of minutes when the office door opened up and Andy walked in with a plastic Tupperware bowl. It was filled with some meat and vegetables. He placed it down in front of me, and turned to walk out. — Power Plant Men….. That’s how they are. He had given me, what looked like the majority of his lunch to eat.
In the 20 years that I worked at the Power Plant, I had eaten all kinds of foods for the first time. From Squirrel to Deer Jerky. I think this was some kind of Deer Stew. I can tell you that of all the lunches I ate during that time, I can vividly remember eating that lunch. It was a Power Plant Man lunch fit for a king.
I guess I was feeling guilty that I never could really contribute anything more than just a tray of stale brownies for the team lunches, so I told the shop that the next day I was going to prepare a salad for them. Like at a salad bar. The idea didn’t seem to excite them too much. Most of them were Meat and Potato type people, as I was myself. But I thought I would surprise them.
I went to the store that evening and bought all kinds of things that I could use to make a salad bar. The next day, I brought bean sprouts, Alfalfa Sprouts, boiled eggs, a ham, some spinach, leaf lettuce and iceberg lettuce, some diced beets, broccoli, cauliflower, and about 4 different kinds of salad dressing.
Around 9:30 after our morning break, I began working on setting up the counter for lunch. I began by dicing up the ham….. Well… using a regular old knife to slice ham into little tiny cubes takes a lot longer than I thought it would. It turned out that by the time I had finished with the ham, and sliced up about 6 boiled eggs, and slicing up a pound of mushrooms and washed and prepared the lettuce, and cheese and beets and lemons (for squeezing) and everything to make it look like a real salad bar, it was already lunch time.
I think I surprised the electricians that day. I don’t think they were thinking that they were going to get anything more than a bowl of lettuce with some vinegar and oil. I did the best I could and they seemed to enjoy it. Being that they hadn’t really counted on my salad being a full blown lunch, I think many of them (or most of them) had went ahead and brought there regular lunch just in case.
I know this wasn’t a typical Power Plant Man Lunch. And it isn’t like I eat a lot of salads myself. I just thought it was something that I could do without having to cook a lot…. I mean… the ham was already cooked, and I knew how to boil eggs. So, I thought, what the heck. I’ll give it a try.
I wasn’t very good at showing my appreciation toward the electricians because….. well….. because I just was never much good at that. I only did something like that once that I can remember. The electricians on the other hand were constantly doing things to show their appreciation for others. At least there was that one day when the Power Plant Men “Ate My Lunch”!
Originally posted November 30, 2013:
While I worked as a janitor at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma the subject came up one Monday morning about the normal career path that janitors could take. We had already been told that the only place a janitor could advance to was the labor crew. We had also been told that there was a company policy that came down from Oklahoma City that only allowed janitors to move to the labor crew before they could move on to another job like an Operator or Mechanic.
I had been trying to decide if I wanted to go the route of being an Operator or a Mechanic during my time as a janitor. That is, until Charles Foster asked me if I would be interested in becoming an Electrician. I hadn’t even considered being an electrician up to that point, as I had no experience and it seemed like a job that needed a particular skill set.
I had begun my studies to learn about being an electrician when there was an opening in the Electric Shop. Charles Foster and Bill Bennett petitioned to hire me for the position, but the verdict came down from above that according to Company Policy, a janitor could only advance from janitor to the labor crew.
I didn’t have any expectation at the time of becoming an electrician given that I had no experience, so I wasn’t disappointed when Mike Rose was hired from outside the company. He was hired to help out Jim Stevenson with Air Conditioning and Freeze Protection.
The next revelation about our position as janitor at the plant (and I’m sure that Ron Kilman, our next plant manager, who reads this blog can testify that it really was company policy…. after all…. that’s what our plant manager told us. — Just kidding…. I know that it really wasn’t), was that when it became our turn to move from being a janitor to moving to the labor crew, if we didn’t move to the labor crew during the next two openings on the labor crew, then we would be let go. I mean… we would lose our job.
This revelation came about when Curtis Love was next in line to go to the labor crew and he was turned down. Larry Riley, the foreman of the labor crew had observed Curtis while we were being loaned to the labor crew during outages and he didn’t want him on the crew for um…. various reasons. After Curtis had been turned down, he was later told that if he didn’t move onto the labor crew when there was another opening, then the company had to fire him. It was company policy (so we were told…. from Corporate Headquarters).
I had been around the plant long enough to know at that point that when we were told that it was company policy that came down to us from Corporate Headquarters, that, unless it was in our binders called General Policies and Practices, then it probably wasn’t really company policy. It was more likely our evil plant manager’s excuse for not taking the responsibility himself and just telling us that this was the way it was, because he just said so….
Anyway… This caused a dilemma from an unlikely source on our team of janitors. Doris Voss became worried that if she didn’t move onto the labor crew, that she would lose her job. She was quite content at the time to have just stayed a janitor, but from this policy that had just come down from Corporate Headquarters, (i.e. The front corner office of our plant), she either had to go to the labor crew, or lose her job.
So, what Doris decided to do was to apply for the job of receptionist that had just been vacated by Grant Harned (see the post “Power Plant Carpooling Adventures with Grant Harned“). Doris applied for the job and her application was accepted. She moved on to work at the receptionist desk. I, on the other hand, was next in line behind Curtis Love. So, when he was turned down for the labor crew, I took his place.
As a side note, I talked Larry Riley into letting Curtis Love advance to the labor crew when there was another opening. I told him that I would let him work with me, and that I would take care of him. With that caveat, Larry agreed. You can read a couple of adventures I had with Curtis after he arrived on the labor crew by reading these posts: “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love” and “Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door“. Later, however, when I had moved on to be an electrician, Curtis was let go after having a vehicle accident and not reporting it right away.
What does this have to do with the EEOC shuffle? Well… about the time I have moved on to the labor crew, a new company-wide policy had been put in place for the internal “Employee Job Announcement Program”. Our power plant had some “irregularities” surrounding where our new employees were coming from. It seems that an inordinate amount of new employees were coming from Pawnee, and more particularly from a certain church. It was obvious to some that a more “uniform” method needed to be in place to keep local HR staff from hiring just their buddies.
Along with this, came a mandate that all external job announcements had to be sent to various different unemployment offices in a certain radius in order to guarantee that everyone that was interested had the opportunity to be informed about any new positions at the plant well in time to apply for it. That was, if the Internal job announcement program didn’t find any viable candidates within the company that was willing to take the job.
EEOC, by the way, means, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Around the same time that our plant had hired a “snitch” to go around an entrap unsuspecting employees into illegal activities (see the post: “Power Plant Snitch“), the EEOC had given us notice that we were not hiring enough women and American Indians as well as African Americans at the plant. Not only did we lack number, we also needed to have them spread out into a number of different jobs in the plant.
At the time the operators were 100% male. No women. The maintenance shop had a couple of women. The rest of the women at the plant were either clerks, working for the warehouse, or in the HR department…. Which all incidentally reported up to Jack Ballard our HR Supervisor. Well. Except for Yvonne Taylor in the Chemistry lab, and maybe someone that was on the testing team and of course Summer Goebel who was a Plant Engineer.
It wasn’t just women that were affected. We had to have an African American in Upper Management. Bill Bennett had become an A Foreman a few years earlier, and there was some discussion about whether they could promote him up one more level. He refused the offer. Later they decided that an A Foreman at our plant was high enough to be considered “upper management”.
American Indians were also a group of employees that needed to fill a certain quota. The Power Plant was located in North Central Oklahoma with many Indian Reservations surrounding it. I think we were supposed to have more than 10% American Indians employed at the plant. So the front office asked everyone to check to see if they were Indian enough to be considered. I think if you were 1/16th American Indian, you counted in the quota.
Some people were a little disturbed to be asked to report their racial status in order to fill a quota. Jerry Mitchell told me that he was Indian, but that he never had told anyone and he didn’t want to become a number, so he wasn’t going to tell them. I think we met our quota even without Jerry Mitchell and some others that felt insulted.
At the time, we had over 350 employees at the plant. That meant that we needed 35 women. I think we were closer to 25 when the push to hire more women went into effect.
The problem area that needed the most work was with the operators. Their entire organization had no women and they were told that they needed them. The problem was both structural and operational (yeah…. Operations had an operational problem…. how about that?).
There were two problems with hiring women to be operators. The first one was structural. The operators main base was the Control Room. That’s where their locker room was. That’s where their kitchen was. More importantly that’s where they could all stand around and watch Gene Day perform feats of magic by doing nothing more than standing there being…. well… being Gene Day!
There was only a Power Plant men’s locker room. There were no facilities for women. The nearest women’s rest / locker room was across the main plant in the office area, or downstairs in the Maintenance shop. This presented a logistical problem, especially on days when Gene Day made his special Chili or tortilla soup (Ok, I’m just picking on Gene Day…. We all know Gene never could cook. We loved him anyway).
Either way, there were times when taking a trek across the plant to make it to the nearest restroom was not acceptable. This was solved by building an additional rest / locker room in the control room for women operators. That problem was solved.
The operational problem inherent in operations was that they worked shift work. That is, each week, they shifted the hours they worked. Operators had to be working around the clock. So, one week, they would work from 7:00 am to 3:30 pm. Next week they may work from 3pm to 11:30pm, or from 11pm to 7:30am. The plant didn’t have any female applicants for a job where you had to work around the clock.
The EEOC said that wasn’t good enough. We needed to find women to work in operations. This was where Doris Voss became a person of interest.
Doris was asked if she would like to become an operator. Of course, she said no. She really still wanted to be a janitor, but was content being a receptionist. I’m not sure what she was told or was given, but she eventually agreed and moved over to become an operator. Another clerk, Helen Robinson was later coaxed into becoming an operator. Mary Lou Teeman was also hired into the Operations department. I don’t remember if she was a clerk before that, or if she was a new hire. — I do remember that she was the sweetest lady in operations.
Here is a picture that includes Doris Voss:
And here is Helen Robinson:
How is it that Charles Peavler showed up in two pictures? — Oh. Taken at different times. Note that Charles Peavler with the gray shirt in the front row is kneeling on one knee, but Larry Tapp with the blue shirt next to him is standing….. Hey. Larry Tapp may be short, but he’s one of the nicest guys in this picture. I have a story about those two guys on the right side of this picture. Merl Wright and Jack Maloy. I’ll probably include that as a side story in a later post (See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“).
With the addition of the three new female operators, the EEOC shuffle was satisfied. We had added a few new female employees from the outside world and everyone was happy. Julienne Alley was added to the Welding shop during this time. The entire maintenance crew would agree that their new “Shop” mother was the best of them all (See the post: “Power Plant Mother’s Day“).