Originally Posted March 16, 2012. Leroy Godfrey passed from this earth on March 9, 2012:
One of the most ornery men I have ever met in power plant life was the Electrical Supervisor at the Power Plant named Leroy Godfrey. Compared to the Power Plant Heroes of my day, the old school Power Plant Men were from a different breed of character that I would describe more as Power Broker Men. They worked in a culture of total rule much the way dictators and despots rule their people.
They expect immediate respect before they elicit any behavior worthy of respect. Their position spoke for itself. They generally wore a frown on their face that has been embedded in their facial feature permanently. This was pretty much what I thought about Leroy Godfrey when I first met him.
My first real encounter with Leroy Godfrey was when I joined the electric shop as an electrician. I quickly realized that to my benefit, I was a pawn in a game that was constantly being played between Leroy Godfrey and the Assistant Plant Manager and the Plant Manager. For reasons that I will relate in a later post, Bill Moler the Assistant Plant Manager and the Plant Manager Eldon Waugh did not want me to be promoted from a Laborer to an Electrician.
As soon as Leroy Godfrey realized this, he did everything in his power to make sure I was the person chosen to fill that position. It didn’t matter to Leroy if I was the best qualified (which I turned out to be based on performance ratings), or that I had less seniority than most everyone else on the labor crew.
I first considered becoming an electrician when I was a janitor and Charles Foster an Electrical B Foreman asked me if I would be interested, because I liked to clean things and a lot of what an electrician does is clean things (believe it or not… in a power plant). I was thinking at the time that I was probably going to try to be an operator before Charles asked me that question. So, I started preparing myself by taking correspondence electrical courses offered by the company and a house wiring course at the Vo-Tech.
To make a much longer story short (as the details belong to another story), I was selected to fill the vacancy in the Electric Shop. Then I found myself under the rule of Leroy Godfrey, who was happy as a lark that I made it to the electric shop because he had won a major victory in exerting his power over his fellow power brokers, but you couldn’t tell that by looking at him. Leroy had a constant scowl on his face.
He looked like he was mad at the world. Sometimes you would walk up to him and start talking to him and he would just walk away without saying a word as if he didn’t care to hear what you had to say. Here is his picture that shows his expression when he knows he has just won the current round of whatever game he is playing at the time.
I was the type of person that was very blatantly honest when I didn’t know something. I was not a seasoned electrician when I joined the shop and I didn’t pretend that I was. I looked to my fellow crew mates to teach me everything I needed to know and they did an excellent job.
The people on my crew were all real Power Plant Men (and Lady) of the New school of thought. Once after I had been an electrician for a couple of years (2 years and 2 months to be more exact), Leroy asked me to go to the shop and get the Ductor because he wanted to test the generator shaft during an overhaul. When I asked him where the Ductor was and what did it look like, he stood there in amazement at my stupidity. He asked me over and over again to make sure he had heard me right that I didn’t know what the Ductor was.
I answered him plainly. “No. I don’t know what the Ductor is. But I’ll go get it.” He said he couldn’t believe that anyone in his electric shop wouldn’t know what a Ductor was. That is just a taste of the his management style. Actually, it turned out that I had used the Ductor before, but I didn’t remember the name. To me it was a very precise ohm meter (a milli-ohmmeter).
This is the picture of a new ductor. We had a very old model.
I could go on about different instances that took place to illustrate how Leroy managed his employees, but it isn’t really the main point of this post. It is important, I believe, to understand why the old school culture was the way it was. Leroy was very smart. He had more raw knowledge and understanding in his little finger than the plant manager and the assistant plant manager put together. Based on that, today you would have thought that he would be in a plant manager position making all the important decisions.
That is not how the system worked while Leroy was moving up in the ranks. In the era when the old school of thought prevailed, the electric company could run as inefficiently as it wanted, and it was guaranteed a 10% profit, based on revenue minus expenses and depreciation. There was little incentive to improve plant operations other than to at least maintain the capital assets by spending at least as much as depreciation on capital projects.
In this environment people were promoted into higher positions based on friendship more so than ability. So, if you were someone’s roommate in college (and we all knew examples of this), it didn’t matter if you knew anything other than how to sign your name at the bottom of a requisition, you could eventually make your way up to plant manager or even higher as long as your roommate was one step higher than you.
To someone with brains such as Leroy Godfrey, this was very frustrating. Here he was the Electrical Supervisor at a power plant with the two people above him who used political games to make major decisions. Leroy, of course, could out maneuver them based on brain power alone, and would take great pleasure in constantly proving them wrong whenever they made a decision without consulting him first. I could always tell when Leroy was happiest. It was when he had the biggest scowl on his face. I suppose it was because he was getting ready to checkmate his opponents.
I found out later by Bill Bennett our A foreman that the reason that Leroy would act like he wasn’t listening to you was because he was deaf in one ear. If you were standing on one side of him, he couldn’t hear you. So, you could be standing there talking away, and Leroy would just walk away as if he didn’t hear you, and that would be the reason.
Something happened on July 2, 1982 that changed the power plant world. Especially in Oklahoma. History will record it as July 5, but it was known in the financial world after the market closed on Friday July 2. This was the failure of the Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma City.
It was the beginning of the end of the Oil Boom of the late 70’s after the oil crisis of the mid and later 70’s. Suddenly the future demand for electricity turned downward in Oklahoma and for many years to come there would be a surplus of electricity on the market. What made it worse was that there were laws put in place to help up and coming co-generation plants that were still on the books (Such as PURPA, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978) in which small co-generation companies could feed off of the large electric companies guaranteeing their success at the detriment of the major electric companies.
During the years that followed, the electric company found that they had to compete for the electricity they sold. This is where the new school of power plant men began to shine. They had been cultivating their culture at our plant for years trying to prove their worth, not aware and not really caring that it was “who you knew” and how much you were liked by the person making the decision that determined your promotion to a higher position. The new power plant men had become experts in their fields and took pride in their work.
The board of directors of the electric company must have known that the old school employees would not cooperate with the new way of thinking, because by 1987 they decided to early retire anyone over 55 years old, and then layoff employees where the company had over compensated based on their earlier estimates of growth. A first in the history of the Electric company.
This is when Leroy and the other old school power broker men were given an incentive to early retire. At the retirement party people stood up and said things about the different retirees. Usually just funny things that may have happened to them over the years. Leroy’s daughter Terri stood up and said that she understood what the electricians must have gone through working for Leroy because, remember, she had to LIVE with him! We laughed.
To put it in perspective. Leroy worked almost his entire adult live at that point for the power company. Over 34 years. — During the years under the old school plant manager and assistant plant manager at our plant Leroy had to face one abuse after another.
To name just one instance, the plant manager conspired to discredit Leroy’s best friend to the point that he was fired in disgrace, just so that Leroy would be friendless and have to turn to them for friendship (to give you an understanding as to why I often refer to the plant manager as the “evil plant manager”). This was known to us because while the plant manager was planning this with a hired undercover “snitch”, he was taping the conversations, which were later used in court to clear Leroy’s best friend Jim Stevenson (See last Friday’s Post: Power Plant Snitch).
Can you imagine the stress this puts on a person that then has to go home at night and be a supportive husband and father? Leroy lived another 24 years after he retired from the company. That is a long time to overcome the bitterness left over from the abuse Leroy took from the Manager and Assistant Manager at the plant.
There are two things that make me believe that Leroy was finally able to find the great peace and dignity in his life that all good Power Plant Men deserve. First, it is the loving words of his daughter Terri who many years ago, couldn’t resist “feeling our pain”. ” Daddy/Poppy, your love will forever live within us. Thank you for setting such a decent moral tone and instilling your high standards in us.”
Secondly, I know now where Leroy’s greatest love has always been. He didn’t measure himself by how high he could rise in the totem pole of managerial positions in a power company. He didn’t need to prove his self worth by how much the plant depended on his knowledge.
I believe that he had one main goal in life and once that goal was fulfilled, he had no other reason to remain. You see, just two weeks prior to Leroy Godfrey’s death, his wife Lydia had passed away on February 22, 2012. Enough said. Leroy’s heart and soul is right where it has always belonged and where it remains for eternity. Alongside his wife Lydia.
This post was originally posted on March 24, 2012:
I have just finished watching the movie “Born Free” with my son. I had recorded it on DVR because I knew he liked watching Big Cats. It reminded me of when Ken Conrad (A True Power Plant Man Extraordinaire) had become entangled with a Bobcat one day while performing his heroic Power Plant duties.
When a person usually puts the words power plant and Bobcat together in a sentence, one may easily come to the wrong conclusion that this is a story about a run-away little Bobcat scoop shovel, or what is professionally known as a Bobcat Skid-Steer Loader since these are an essential piece of equipment for any power plant or any work site for that matter (and are fun to drive and do wheelies):
In an earlier post entitled Indian Curse or Brown and Root Blunder I mentioned that in the years following the completion of the power plant, steps were taken to be extra kind to the plant’s nearest neighbor, the Otoe-Missouria Indian Reservation. This story takes place on one of those days where the electric company was showing their true colors to the friends next door.
Every summer the Otoe-Missouria tribe would hold a Pow-Wow some time in June. This is when the the Native Americans of this tribe come together as a time for a reunion where the culture of the tribe can be kept alive. It spans over a number of days, and people come from all over with camping trailers and stay on the reservation and have a good time visiting. You can learn more information about the tribe’s Pow-wow, culture and the benefits from the Casino (which was not there at this time. Not even the Bingo Hall that used to bring in buses from all over the country) from web service that hosts news about the tribe: http://www.otoe-missouria.com
The Power Plant helped out by mowing the areas around the Otoe-Missouria Reservation where the campers would park and a large open field where events could take place and large tents (and tepees) could be erected. So, when I arrived at work in the morning I was instructed to fill a water and ice bucket, and get a box of cone cups, and bring my lunch. This was because I may not be back for lunch as I was going to be the gopher for Jim and Ken that day while they mowed the area around the Otoe-Missouria Reservation.
Being a “Gopher” as most of you know means that you are the one that “Goes For” things. So, if they need something back at the plant, then I hop in the truck and I go and get it. This is fine for me, but I generally liked staying active all day, or else the day drags on. So I grabbed some trash bags and my handy dandy homemade trash stabbing tool and put them in the back of the truck as well.
I followed Jim Heflin and Ken Conrad on the two shiny new Ford tractors with double-wide brush hogs down the highway with my blinkers on so people barreling down the highway from Texas on their way to Kansas at ungodly speeds would know enough to slow down before they plowed into a brush hog like the one below:
After we arrived at the reservation there was a man there that directed us to where we should mow and Ken and Jim went right to work. They first mowed in the area where there were a lot of trees and areas to park campers and Jim and Ken worked their magic weaving in and out of the trees with these big mowers behind them just missing each tree, trash can, fire grill, building and vehicles that happened to be in their way (like the one I had driven there).
After watching their skill with the mowers for a while I stepped out of the truck, now certain that I wouldn’t be hit with a flying rock because the mowers had moved a safe distance from me. I began walking around picking up some trash. While Ken and Jim mowed the rest of this area, I helped the man move some large logs and picnic tables and things like that around the campsite.
When Ken and Jim had finished the camping area they moved over the the large field at the edge of the campground, and I drove the truck over there and watched as they both circled around and around making smaller circles each time staying opposite of each other like they were doing a synchronized dance with the mowers.
I was standing in the back of the truck leaning against the cab watching them when I noticed that Jim began waving one hand up in the air much like a cowboy would do while riding on a bronco to keep their balance. His head began bobbing and I wondered if he was all right. Then I saw what had happened.
A very large cat that looked like a grown mountain lion came darting out of the tall brush and ran in front of Jim’s tractor and headed for the trees that lined the far side of the field. As excited as I could tell Jim was by this, he didn’t miss a beat with his mowing, and only lifted his hardhat long enough to wipe his head with a rag. Then he kept on mowing as if nothing else had happened. Maybe because he was in complete shock and auto-pilot had kicked in.
As Jim circled around, Ken came around to the spot where Jim had just been mowing. Unlike Jim, Ken did not start to wave his hand as a cowboy on a bronco. Instead he jumped up in his seat while shutting down his mower and jumped off into the tall brush. He began running around in circles.
At this point Jim had seen what Ken was doing, so he shutdown his mower also. I had jumped off of the truck and ran toward where Ken was dancing. Jim came huffing and puffing up to me and asked me if I had seen that huge mountain lion run in front of him. I nodded to him and ran over to Ken who at this point was standing still as if frozen.
As we approached, Ken signaled for us to stay back, so we slowed down and watched him as we came slowly closer. Ken wasn’t moving his feet, but he was slowly swiveling his body around looking into the brush. Then like Tom Sawyer he bent down quickly and reached into a pile of mowed grass that had piled up near where he was standing.
By this time we were close enough to see what was down on the ground that Ken had grabbed. He was holding down a kitten. It was a baby Bobcat. You could tell by the short tail (a bob-tail cat):
Ken had hold of the bobcat with both hands. One at the scruff of his neck and the other above his hind legs. He began lifting up the cat from the ground, and it was hissing and went wild trying to bite and scratch Ken. At this point the man from the reservation had come over, because he had also seen the very large bobcat run from the field and had watched Ken dancing in the grass.
Ken asked him “What do I do now?” He had caught the baby bobcat, and now realized that he couldn’t let go of it without serious bodily injury (bringing to mind the phrase “Having a tiger by the tail”).
We all became aware that somewhere close by the mother was watching us from the trees. Jim remarked that he didn’t know bobcats could grow that big and the man assured him that there are a number of large bobcats on their reservation that he had seen. He suggested that he could get a five gallon bucket and Ken could throw the cat in the bucket while he put a wire screen over the top so that it couldn’t jump out and scratch or bite them.
We walked back to the camping area and the man came out of a small building and had some screen material and a board. Then Ken standing there sort of like Frankenstein with his arms straight out in front of himself (to keep from being mauled), asked a couple of times exactly what they were planning on doing, so that he would get it right. The man said that he should throw the cat into the bucket and he would quickly put the board over the top. Then he could put the screen over the board and take the board out and tie the screen on the top with some wire.
So that’s what Ken did. He quickly threw the cat into the bucket as the man slammed the board on top. It looked like it happened so fast that I was surprised to find that while the cat was quickly being ejected from Ken’s hands and being propelled into the bucket, it had enough speed to reach around with one of its paws and cut a gash down the side of Ken’s hand.
After that, I drove Ken back to the plant to get bandaged up and so that he could show everyone what he had caught. He was very proud of his wound and he seemed to grow even taller than his normal tall thin self. It seemed to take about 15 seconds before everyone in the plant knew that Ken had caught a bobcat as they were all making a trip over to the garage to have a peek at him. Ken said he was going to take it home and then decide what he was going to do with it.
I drove Ken back to the reservation to get his tractor as Jim had finished mowing the field.
The following day we learned that when Ken arrived at his house there was someone there already waiting for him to see his wild new pet. Yes. Most of you have been waiting for the other shoe to drop on this story. An Oklahoma Park Ranger.
The Ranger informed Ken that he had received 8 calls from different people at the plant letting him know that one Power Plant Hero Ken Conrad was in possession of a wild bobcat caught on an Indian Reservation (of all places — I say that because that is federal property, possibly making it a federal crime). And Ken could be in for a very serious legal entanglement.
Ken told the ranger that he was only going to show it to his family then bring it back to the reservation and let it go. The Park Ranger (not usually portrayed as a lenient character) offered to take the bobcat back himself.
Needless to say. Ken was not very pleased with his fellow campers the next morning when he arrived at work. He kept saying… “You just can’t tell who your friends are. They all came over here acting like my buddies then they ran off to call the ranger.”
By that time I had worked around the power plant men for one entire summer and this was my second. I knew that the Real Power Plant Men would have known that Ken would do the right thing and wouldn’t have called the ranger. Ken was right though, some of them were impostors.
I knew there were some people at the plant who would have felt it was their duty to call the ranger, and I never considered them power plant men in the first place. Ken Conrad, however, has always lived up to my expectations as a Real Power Plant Man!
It’s funny what comes to mind when you sit down to watch a movie on a Friday night.
Comment from previous post:
Originally Posted March 30, 2012:
I learned very quickly my first summer as a summer help at the power plant that one of the worst smells a human being can experience is the smell of rotting fish and maggots. Every Monday and Friday I would go with Dee Ball down to the two park areas with plastic bags and my Handy Dandy Homemade trash stabber to clean up where the fishermen had been fishing.
There were a few trash cans out there that we would load into the back of the truck and haul off to the junkyard located at the perimeter of our main plant grounds. There was always a well baked pile of fish guts and soiled disposable baby diapers flowing over the top of the trash cans. Most of which had been baking in the hot sun for at least a day or two, and sometimes all week. The diapers came from families that came to swim in the swimming area. At that time they had piled some sand in one area and put some buoys out in the water to keep the boats away and tied a raft out away from the shore a short distance.
It is so hard to describe the actual smell of this conglomeration of waste materials and maggots the size of grubs that I can only come close to describing the effect that it had on me when I had to inhale a whiff. I am sure that if I had ever wretched up my breakfast, it could only have made matters better. My own immune system kicked into autopilot and I was generally left holding my breathe not because the smell was so terrible, but because my auto-immune system had decided that it was better to suffocate than to suffer the intake of another breath.
Dee Ball didn’t seem to mind too much and I just took it to mean that his older and wiser soul had learned to dampen the effect through the use of cigarettes and maybe something between his cheek and gums. I wasn’t too sure how old Dee Ball was when I first met him, but later figured out that he was around 40. His hardhat looked like it was about that old. Though I would have guessed he was a little older.
His body was thin and worn out. Wrinkles were already appearing around the edges of his face. He had light blue eyes that you wouldn’t notice unless he was excited, and then his eyebrows would go up and reveal a set of wide blue eyes. He wasn’t excited in general, but he was what some would call…. “jumpy”. Meaning that if you grabbed his knee and hollered at the same time he would have jumped right out of the window of a moving truck. In later years during my summer help experience, I seem to remember Ken Conrad doing that to him. After Dee pretty near jumped out of his clothes, Ken Conrad would get such a kick out of it that he would almost fall over laughing, which would make me laugh at Ken for being so goofy.
Dee taught me the fine art of using a winch truck like the one shown above, only ours was Electric Company Orange. The first day we went to the park to clean-up trash that summer, after lunch, we returned with the Winch Truck. That was my first experience being a passenger in a larger truck with Dee, and it was one I would never forget. Not because there was some great tragedy, or we saw a huge deer walk across the highway in front of us or anything grandiose like that. But because as we were driving down the highway and neither of us were talking I suddenly became aware of a new and different “puttering” sound. At first I wasn’t sure if I had heard it at all because it was so low and almost in tune with the truck motor.
Listening to it more intently I could ascertain that the sound was from somewhere inside the cab of the truck. So without being too obvious I began taking inventory of the front seat. It sounded like it was coming from somewhere between Dee and I, but there wasn’t anything there. The truck was fairly new and clean. As I began to examine Dee, I realized that the puttering sound was coming from Dee’s mouth. He was making a puttering motor-like sound as a small boy would make as he plays with his toy trucks.
When we arrived at the park I asked Dee what he had done before he had moved to the Power Plant (you may notice that I asked that of just about everyone I worked with), and he told me he used to be a truck driver for the electric company. I had the idea that he still wished he was back in a big rig rolling down the highway. Though Dee was just four years younger than my own father, I often felt like I was watching a young boy in an older man’s body. Dee enjoyed doing very simple things, and like Sonny Karcher who had told me that what he like most in life was to mow grass, I understood Dee without him having to say another word. He liked to drive trucks.
With those thoughts still rolling around in my mind when Dee backed the truck up to an old trunk laying on the ground of what used to be a pretty good sized tree, I began wondering if Dee Ball knew what he was doing. He turned the Winch on and had unhooked it from the back of the truck and was throwing slings around this big trunk laying longways behind the truck.
I had never seen anyone use a winch truck other than a tow truck picking up the front end of a car to tow it away. So, I stood back and observed. Dee walked back and forth, running the winch motor one way, then the other, and walking back to adjust the slings. Then as neat as it could, the tree trunk lifted up on one end and with Dee Ball at the controls, he lowered the front end down on the back of the truck. Letting some slack loose, Dee moved the slings around the back end of the trunk and began pulling the winch in. As he did this, the large trunk came to rest on the bed of the truck. Learn something new every day.
Dee Ball loved to drive trucks, but unfortunately, he had the worst luck when it came to driving them anywhere. Here are my personal experiences on three occasions. The first one was while we were in the park and I was walking around picking up trash, and Dee was slowly driving a pickup across the grass watching me and looking around for things that we might need to do while we were there, when all of the sudden he said, “huh, seems like I ran into something.” So, he tried backing up. No. That didn’t work. He was stuck on something. so, he rocked back and forth a couple of times, and when he couldn’t break free, he turned the truck off and went around front to see what had snagged him.
It turned out that he had run over a tree stump sticking up about two feet. It was in some brush, so you couldn’t see it unless you looked closely. I mentioned in an earlier post about Larry Riley that the engineers in Oklahoma City had decided exactly where the trees needed to be, so they had cut down all the trees in the area and planted new ones. Well. This was one of those trees that was unfortunate enough to have been there before the park was built. The stump was stuck between the front bumper and the radiator. Unfortunately, in his fervor to release the truck from this nemesis, he had smashed and punctured the radiator and some yellow green fluid was squirting from a tiny hole.
As this was our only transportation, we were sort of stuck. So, I looked around and about a mile away down at the corner of the lake where highway 177 and 15 East meet, there was an electric company construction crew putting up a large metal High Voltage Electric Pole.
Dee asked me if I would run over there and ask them if we could borrow a saw. At the time, the lake level was a probably 3 feet below being full, which meant that the park area was somewhat larger than it is now, and you could walk all the way from the park to the electric pole without having to hop over the barbed wire fence that lined the plant property. So, I jogged on over there and they were glad to help. They drove me back and we were able to free the truck from the stump. We took the truck back to the shop and removed the radiator and had it sent to a radiator repair shop in Ponca City.
The second memorable event (well, chronologically, this was the first) having to do with trucks and Dee Ball was when Dee and I were sent to Oklahoma City to pick up new trucks from a large electric company vehicle garage. We were driven by another person who dropped us off. We drove the new trucks back to the plant. I was in a flat bed truck. This was like driving a U-Haul truck, as you couldn’t see through the rear view mirror because there was a black plate in the back window. It was a thrilling experience trying to maneuver through Oklahoma City traffic in a vehicle where I couldn’t see who was in the right lane because my mirror wasn’t set correctly. It wasn’t until I was off the Interstate and making my way through Perry Oklahoma before I felt like I could relax.
I returned to the plant about one hour after I had left the garage. Time went by, and Dee Ball didn’t appear. Another hour went by and still no Dee. He had been driving the large dump truck that Aubrey Cargill, Ben Hutchinson and I used later to pick up driftwood from the dikes (See the post: “Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill“). finally around 3 hours after I arrived, Dee drove the new dump truck into the shop. The most obvious problem was that the “O” was missing from “FORD” and there was a dent in it’s place that ran down the front of the truck. It turned out that Dee had been driving down the highway and his cigarette fell down onto the seat between his legs and disappeared under him. As he was flailing around trying to find his cigarette, he had run off the side of the road and hit a reflector post like they have to warn you where the edge of the road is by an exit.
The third memorable event having to do with trucks was when Dee Ball and I had been to the park to pick up trash and on the way back to the plant a quick cloudburst had come by and dumped some rain on us. When we went to the junkyard to dump out the trash, we made it down into the junkyard all right, but when it came time to leave, the truck couldn’t make it up the road because the mud was too slick on the road and the crew cab just slipped and slid back and forth. So, I ended up literally building a rock road for Dee to drive on up the hill (this was when you actually had to go out the construction gate and back in another gate to get to the junkyard). While I was finding rocks and putting them under the back wheels of the truck, Dee would back up and take a run up the hill while I was behind pushing him with all my might.
Finally after well over 1/2 hour and cutting into our lunch time, the truck was finally free. Unfortunately for me, I had been pushing the truck up the hill while placing myself behind one of the back wheels, which meant that I was covered from head to toe with mud. When we returned to the shop, I just walked into the shower and hosed myself off, clothes and all.
I wasn’t with Dee during other times, like when he took our new crew cab and while leaving the park, turned too soon after exiting the front gate and dented the side of the back door on the fence post. Or when…… Well. I could go on. Needless to say, by my third summer as a summer help, there was a standing order that Dee Ball was not allowed to drive a vehicle.
Two years after that, while I was a janitor, I was walking over to the Engineering shack to sweep and mop when I saw Dee Ball come around the corner in a forklift. He was on his way to fill it up with Diesel. As I saw him pull up to the pump I thought to myself, “Oh, I see they are letting Dee Ball drive again.” After I had mopped the floors in the engineering shack, I headed back to the main plant, there was a winch truck pulling the forklift out of the soft ground where Dee had parked it to top off the Diesel and where it had become stuck. It put a big smile on my face for some reason.
During my first and second summer while I worked with Dee Ball, at times he would stop by a large equipment building that was located out in a field by the dam where the discharge from the river pumps poured water into the lake. Dee told me that when the plant is completed they would split the garage and have a separate yard crew. He had been told that this was going to be his shop.
The place was big enough to hold a number of large tractors with brush hogs. It was run down though, and was probably used when they were building the lake and dam for the heavy equipment to be repaired and parked. Dee had been told that if he came to work at the Power Plant that he would be made the head of the yard crew.
I came to learn that a lot of people were told stories like that from the Assistant Plant Manager when he was trying to coax people to move their homes north to this power plant out in the middle of nowhere. Dee was never made the head of the yard crew, and the yard crew was never separate from the garage. Dee was always pleasant and courteous and was always a joy to work with. Even when I ended up covered in mud. I will always consider him a good friend.
Originally Posted on April 7, 2012:
My wife came home from work one night in the early 90’s. She was a charge nurse at the Stillwater Oklahoma Medical Center at the time. She said that she was taking care of a patient that was one of the mostly saintly people she had ever met. He was going to die soon and she thought I might know who he was because he used to work at the Power Plant.
When she gave me his name I was surprised to learn that he was on his deathbed, and yes. I did know him. I agreed with her. He is and always had been a saintly person. The funny thing was that I felt that very few people really knew him as I did. Many people knew him enough to not think he would be classified in the “Saint” category, and I knew why this was also. I knew him so well quite by chance when I first came to the plant, and I made a decision about how to answer a common question that was being asked of me at the time.
As a summer help it was known that I was a college student, so the obvious question was, why was I going to school, and what did I want to be when I graduated. I could tell this was a rowdy bunch of men that enjoyed their day at work, and so I told them that I wasn’t sure yet what my degree would be, but I thought I might like to become a writer. I told them this hoping that they would bite where I could set the hook (in a fisherman sort of way), and they did.
The first person that asked me that question was Sonny Karcher, and when I told him that I thought I might be a writer, he took the bait and asked, “Are you going to write about us?” At the time, I had no plans about doing that, but I thought if they thought so, then they might fill my ears with the unique wisdom each of them seemed to have. So I answered, “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it, but I suppose I might.”
That’s all it took. After that, every time Sonny introduced me to somebody, he would say, “This is Kevin. He’s our new summer help. He’s going to college to be a writer, and he’s going to write all about us!” This produced the behavior I was hoping it would. That was that a number of Power Plant Men took me “under their wing” and bestowed upon me their own particular wisdom. For hours on end, as I worked with various men, they would tell me how things are in the world and how I should respond to them. Their own particular Philosophy Of Life.
At the time I really had not considered writing about my experiences at the power plant, but now that I am much older and the wisdom of these great men seem to be dying away, I thought that it would be a good idea to put these out there on the Internet where nothing ever really goes away.
I have refrained from mentioning the name of this Unlikely Saint until now because I think that if I mentioned it up front some Power Plant Men would read it and think I was just tremendously off my rocker and not read any further. So I prefaced my story with how I came to know this particular Power Plant Man enough to understand what my wife was saying when she told me about this Saint on the general medical (3rd) floor of the hospital.
Maybe I will refrain just a little while longer to tell you a few things that this man told me. It was obvious that he felt as if he was talking to me as a father would talk to a son. He was only two years younger than my own father. The one thing that sticks in my mind most is when he told me, “Kev, some day you may be a foreman or a supervisor running this plant, but always remember this…. Never forget where you came from. Never forget that there was a time when you first began and knew nothing. Don’t ever forget your friends. Don’t forget who you really are.” I have reminded myself of this often and made it part of my own “Philosophy of Life”. Years later when I became an electrician, he stopped by the electric shop and reminded me once again.
As an Aside comment, my mother tried to help me with this by referring to me as “My Son, The Janitor” when introducing me to someone for years after I had become an electrician. I was always proud to be called a janitor, and I would not try to correct her, because even though I was an electrician, I knew inside that I was also still a janitor. Today, even though my title may be “Business Systems Analyst” working for Dell (and now Senior Software Engineer working for General Motors), I also still carry around in the back of my head the title of “Janitor”.
I wish I had a picture to share of this Power Plant Man (I have one somewhere, but I am not able to find it just now), because if you could see him, you would think… this guy?
His skin was darkened from smoking so heavily all his life. Emphysema is what killed him while he was still relatively young. His belly grew over the years to become larger than his stocky barrel chest. His head nodded while he listened to you and especially when managers were talking as if he was laughing to himself because he knew what they were really saying. His clothes were always clean, which left everyone with the impression that he never did any work.
I remember one day while we were inspecting the dumper (where the coal is dumped out of the railway cars), as it had not been in-service for very long and everything needed to be inspected. I followed him down the stairway into the dumper going down into the darkness. There were lights down there, but they didn’t give off much light because the coal dust absorbs the light instead of reflecting it. So, you can shine a flashlight and it doesn’t fill the room with its glow as it might in a room painted with white paint. To me the place was eerily unreal until I had been down there enough times to keep my bearings on where we were going.
Anyway, I followed him down into the dark damp dumper where every handrail, every light fixture and every step was covered with coal dust. We had some wrenches and we were tight checking the rollers on the conveyors. When we were finished we found ourselves at the ground level exit of #2 Conveyor. I looked at this Power Plant Man and he didn’t have spot of coal on him. I, on the other hand, was black from top to bottom. My hardhat was black, my arms, my face, my jeans. All black with coal dust.
Then this Power Plant Man told me some more words from the wise…. “When you get to be good, you will remain as clean as I am.” This had as much impact on me as when Master Po told Kwai Chang Caine (In the Kung Fu TV series) that when he can walk on the rice paper and not leave a trace, then he will be a Shaolin Monk.
It seemed impossible to me that he could have worked right alongside me, actually doing more work than I was doing, and he came out pristine while I came out looking like a bat out of hell (or Pigpen times ten). But there it was.
So, for years whenever I worked in a coal handling area, his words always rang in my mind. I considered it a challenge. I realized that there were times when it would be impossible to come out clean, like when you are sandblasting a tank, or working inside the Precipitator wading through fly ash up to your waist. But when doing my regular job, I made a real effort to remain as clean as possible.
It made me happy to think that others might think that I wasn’t working hard enough to be in the True Power Plant Man League because my clothes were clean, because to me, it was a tribute to my own Shaolin Master…. Jerry Mitchell. Yes. Power Plant Men…. Jerry Mitchell.
Before Jerry came to work at the power plant, he used to work on jet engines. Like many genuine Power Plant Men, he was a leader in the field of mechanics. I have a list as long as my arm of great men that work as Power Plant Men that are each near the top of the list of experts in their fields of knowledge. Jerry was one of them.
He built the engine in the blue corvette that he used to drive to work each day. He machined the parts himself. It could go from 0 to 80 and back to 0 from the main gate to the highway — how many yards is that? 200 yards maybe 300 He demonstrated it once to me. He was wondering if I was interested in buying it because he knew I didn’t own a car.
I think that I realized the true character of Power Plant Men from Jerry, because he had very little tolerance for those impostors that hung around Power Plant Men looking for a way to belittle them, or spread rumors to hurt their reputations, etc. because nothing bothers a pseudo-He-man like a True Power Plant Man, because it is like turning on a bright light and watching the roaches scurry away. Jerry could tell their character a mile away.
I will give you a “for instance”… One day as we pulled the truck up to the Maintenance Shop, Jerry told me to follow him and not say anything, just listen, because I was going to be shocked by the conversation that was about to take place. I wondered how he knew as I walked up to an older coal yard foreman approaching a lady who was a Brown and Root construction hand (you could tell by the hardhat).
So I stood next to the man and listened. He asked her how her night was last night and she began by describing the time she spent in a bar and she repeated the conversation she had with a man that was trying to pick her up. Without going into too much detail, I will say that she ended the conversation with the man in the bar by saying that she was looking for a meal, not a snack, and proceeded to talk about another man in the bar and how she could tell that he was the kind of man she was looking for in more than descriptive terms.
She finished by telling the older man that the man she left with and her had a “Jolly good time” (my words, not hers) for at least 4 hours non-stop with more than enough details thrown in. The older man was amused and hee-hawed about it slapping his knee in amusement.
Jerry nodded to me and we left. We walked outside of the shop and Jerry asked me, “Have you ever heard anyone talk like that before, let alone a lady?” I admitted that I hadn’t. Then he said, “That man that she was talking to is her father.”
I was thoroughly shocked and greatly disturbed. I had just heard a flowing river of filth spew from this person’s mouth as she was talking to her own father, and his response was to be amused by it. When Jerry told me this I looked at him in shock, and he looked back at me with his head nodding as it did often. His face had the regular straight poker face he usually wore, but his eyes told me that he was very saddened by this. He said he felt it was important for me to know.
I have often kept that poor old man and his lost soul of a daughter in my prayers. This man worked in the plant until the 1987-88 downsizing. Whenever I would see him working in the coal yard, I would remember that I needed to add him and his daughter to my prayers.
So in ending I will say this about Jerry Mitchell, as I say with all the True Power Plant Men I know. I have always considered Jerry a good friend. Jerry was always a good friend to me, and I know that he is a Saint in Heaven today. He never spoke a religious word in the years that I knew him, but I know that his large barrel chest held a tremendous heart.
When I think of Jerry today, I remember riding to Stillwater with him in his blue Corvette. As we drove by a row of trees in a creek bottom he suddenly said, “What is that noise? Do I hear Cicadas?” I said, “Yeah, sounds like it.” He replied, “I haven’t heard Cicada in years! After working around Jet engines for so long I could no longer hear the sound of bugs. My hearing is returning!” That was the only time I saw Jerry’s expression change from his constant straight face to a smile of satisfaction. I am 100% sure by the time Jerry made it to Heaven he was able to hear the harps very clearly.
Originally Posted on April 20, 2012. I added a couple of pictures including an Actual picture of Ed Shiever:
The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked is out in the country and it supplies its own drinkable water as well as the super clean water needed to generate steam to turn the turbine. One of the first steps to creating drinkable water was to filter it through a sand filter. The plant has two large sand filters to filter the water needed for plant operations.
These are the same tanks I was in when I was Sandblasting under the watchful eye of Curtis Love which was the topic of the post about “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“. Before I was able to sandblast the bottom section of the sand filter tank, Ed Shiever and I had to remove all the teflon filter nozzles from the two middle sections of each tank. Once sandblasted, the tank was painted, the nozzles were replaced and the sand filter was put back in operation.
Ed Shiever and I were the only two that were skinny enough and willing enough to crawl through the small entrance to the tanks. The doorway as I mentioned in an earlier post is a 12-inch by 18-inch oval. Just wide enough to get stuck. So, I had to watch what I ate for lunch otherwise I could picture myself getting stuck in the small portal just like Winnie the Pooh after he had eaten all of Rabbits honey.
Ed Shiever was a janitor at the time, and was being loaned to the labor crew to work with me in the sand filter tank. Ed was shorter than average and was a clean-cut respectable person that puts you in the mind of Audey Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II.
For those power plant men that know Ed Shiever, but haven’t ever put him and Audey Murphy together in their mind will be surprised and I’m sure agree with me that Ed Shiever looked strikingly similar to Audey Murphy at the time when we were in the sand filter tank (1983).
Before I explain what happened to Ed Shiever while we spent a couple of weeks holed up inside the sand filter tanks removing the hundreds of teflon nozzles and then replacing them, I first need to explain how I had come to this point in my life when Ed and I were in this echo chamber of a filter tank. This is where Ann Bell comes into the story. Or, as my friend Ben Cox and I referred to her as “Ramblin’ Ann”.
I met Ramblin’ Ann when I worked at The Bakery in Columbia Missouri while I was in my last year of college at the University of Missouri. I was hired to work nights so that I could handle the drunks that wandered in from nearby bars at 2 a.m.. Just up the street from The Bakery were two other Colleges, Columbia College and Stephen’s College which were primarily girls schools. Ramblin’ Ann attended Stephen’s College.
She had this uncanny knack of starting a sentence and never finishing it. I don’t mean that she would stop halfway through the sentence. No. When Ann began the first sentence, it was just molded into any following sentences as if she not only removed the periods but also the spaces between the words.
She spoke in a seemly exaggerated Kentucky accent (especially when she was talking about her accent, at which point her accent became even more pronounced). She was from a small town in Kentucky and during the summers she worked in Mammoth Cave as a tour guide (this is an important part of this story… believe it or not).
A normal conversation began like this: “Hello Ann, how is it going?” “WellHiKevin!Iamjustdoinggreat!IhadagooddayatschooltodayYouKnowWhatIMean? IwenttomyclassesandwhenIwenttomymailboxtopickupmymailIrealizedthatthistownisn’t likethesmalltownIcamefromin KentuckybecausehereIamjustboxnumber324 butinthetownwhereIcamefrom (breathe taken here) themailmanwouldstopbymyhousetogiveusthemailandwouldsay, “Hi Ann, how are you today?” YouKnowWhatImean? AndIwouldsay, “WellHiMisterPostmansirIamdoingjustgreattodayHowareYoudoing?”YouknowwhatImean? (sigh inserted here) SoItIsSureDifferentlivinginabigtownlikethisandwhenIthinkbackonmyclassesthatIhadtoday andIthinkabouthowmuchitisgoingtochangemylifeandallbecauseIamjustlearning somuchstuffthatIhaveneverlearnedbefore IknowthatwhenIamOlderandI’mthinkingbackonthisdayandhowmuchitmeanstome, IknowthatIamgoingtothinkthatthiswasareallygreatdayYouKnowWhatIMean?” (shrug added here)….
The conversation could continue on indefinitely. So, when my girlfriend who later became my wife came to visit from Seattle, I told her that she just had to go and see Ramblin’ Ann Bell, but that we had to tell her that we only have about 15 minutes, and then we have to go somewhere else because otherwise, we would be there all night nodding our heads every time we heard “…Know What I Mean?”
My roommate Barry Katz thought I was being inconsiderate one day when he walked in the room and I was sitting at the desk doing my homework and occasionally I would say, “Uh Huh” without looking up or stopping my work, so after sitting there watching me for a minute he asked me what I was doing and I told him I was talking to Ann Bell and I pointed to the phone receiver sitting on the desk.
I could hear the “You Know What I Mean”s coming out of the receiver and each time I would say, “Uh Huh”. So, when he told me that wasn’t nice, I picked up the receiver and I said to Ramblin’ Ann, “Hey Ann, Barry is here, would you like to talk to him?” and I handed it to him.
He sat down and asked Ann how she was doing…. 10 minutes or so and about 150 “Uh Huh”‘s later, Barry looked over at me and slowly started placing the receiver back on the desktop repeating “Uh Huh” every so many seconds.
Anyway. The reason I told you this story about Ramblin’ Ann was because after a while I began to imitate Ann. I would start ramblin’ about something, and it was almost as if I couldn’t stop.
If you have ever read the story about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll would transform into Mr. Hyde by drinking a potion. But eventually he started turning into Mr. Hyde randomly without having to drink the potion. Well, that is what had happened to me. In some situations, I would just start to ramble non-stop for as long as it takes to get it all out… Which Ed Shiever found out was a very long time.
You see, Ed Shiever and I worked in the Sand filter tanks for an entire week removing the nozzles and another week putting them back in. the entire time I was talking non-stop to him. while he just worked away saying the occasional “uh huh” whenever I said, “you know what I mean?”, though I didn’t say it as much as Ramblin’ Ann did. I could never match her prowess because my lung capacity just wasn’t as much.
Ed Shiever was a good sport though, and patiently tolerated me without asking to be dismissed back to be a janitor, or even to see the company Psychiatrist…. Well, we didn’t have a company psychiatrist at the time.
It wasn’t until a few years later when Ronald Reagan went to visit Mammoth Cave during the summer, that this event with Ed Shiever came back to me. You see… Ann Bell had been a tour guide at Mammoth Cave during the summer, and as far as I knew still was. My wife and I both realized what this could mean if Ronald Reagan toured Mammoth Cave with Ann Bell as his tour guide.
Thoughts about a Manchurian Candidate Conspiracy came to mind as we could imagine the voice of Ann Bell echoing through the cave as a very excited Ramblin’ Ann explained to Ronald Reagan how excited she was and how much this was going to mean to her in her life, and how she will think back on this time and remember how excited she was and how happy she will be to have those memories and how much she appreciated the opportunity to show Ronald Reagan around in Mammoth Cave… with all of this echoing and echoing and echoing….
We had watched this on the evening news and it was too late to call to warn the President of the United States not to go in the cave with Ann Bell, so we could only hope for the best. Unfortunately, Ronald’s memory seemed to be getting worse by the day after his tour of Mammoth Cave and started having a confused look on his face as if he was still trying to parse out the echoes that were still bouncing in his head.
Of course, my wife and I felt like we were the only two people in the entire country that knew the full potential of what had happened.
So this started me thinking… Poor Ed Shiever, one of the nicest people you could ever meet, had patiently listened to me rambling for two entire weeks in an echo chamber just like the President. I wondered how much impact that encounter had on his sanity. So, I went to Ed and I apologized to him one day for rambling so much while we were working in the Sand Filter tank, hoping that he would forgive me for messing up his future.
He said, “Sure, no problem.” Just like that. He was all right. He hadn’t lost his memory or become confused, or even taken up rambling himself. I breathed a sigh of relief. Ed Shiever had shown his true character under such harsh conditions and duress.
I’m just as sure today as I was then that if Ed Shiever had been with Audey Murphy on the battlefield many years earlier, Ed would have been standing right alongside him all the way across the enemy lines. In my book, Ed Shiever is one of the most decorated Power Plant Men still around at the Power Plant today.
I finally found an actual picture of Ed Shiever:
Originally Posted: May 4, 2012. I added some comments from the original post at the end of this post:
I wrote an earlier post about days some people would have liked to take back. There was one day that I would like to take back. It was the day Ken Conrad was teaching me how to setup and operate the two large water cannons that we used to irrigate the plant grounds.
During my second summer as a summer help (1980), when I had about 6 weeks left of the summer, I was asked to take over the watering of the plant grounds because Ken Conrad was needed to do other jobs and this was taking too much of his time.
The first summer I worked as a summer help, whenever it rained, by the time you had walked from the Engineer’s Shack parking lot to the Welding Shop entrance, you felt like someone 10 feet tall. Because the entire distance would turn into a pool of red mud and as you took each step, you grew taller and taller as the mud stuck to your feet. Just before you entered the maintenance shop, you could scrape your feet on a Boot Scraper to whittle you down to size so that you would fit through the doorway.
The entire main plant grounds would be nothing but mud because there wasn’t any grass. It had all been scraped or trampled away while building the plant and now we were trying to grow grass in places where only weeds had dared to trod before. When trucks drove into the maintenance garage, they dropped mud all over the floor. It was the summer help’s job the first summer to sweep up the shop twice each week. If it had been raining, I usually started with a shovel scraping up piles of mud. So, I recognized the importance of quickly growing grass.
The day that Ken Conrad was explaining to me how to setup and operate the water cannons, I was only half paying attention. “I got it. Roll out the plastic fiber fire hose, unhook the water cannon from the tractor, let out the cable. turn it on the fire hydrant… Done….” That was all I heard. What Ken was saying to me was a lot different. it had to do with all the warnings about doing it the correct way. I think in my mind I wasn’t listening because I was thinking that it really wasn’t all that difficult. I was really just eager to have the opportunity to finally drive a tractor.
So, here is what happened the next morning when I went to setup the first water cannon to water the field just north of the water treatment plant up to the Million Gallon #2 Diesel Oil Tanks berms. I thought… ok… Step one: roll out the hose… Hmmm… hook it up to the fire hydrant, and then just pull the water gun forward with the tractor and it should unroll the hose….
Well. my first mistake was that I hadn’t disengaged the spool so that it would turn freely, so when I pulled the tractor forward, off popped the connector on the end of the hose attached to the fire hydrant. That’s when I remembered Ken telling me not to forget to disengage the spool before letting out the hose. That’s ok. Ken showed me how to fix that.
I beat on it with a hammer to knock out the clamp and put it back on the end of the hose after I had cut off a piece with my pocket knife to have a clean end. Disengaged the spool, and tried it again… Nope. Pulled the end off again… I was letting it out too fast. That’s when I remembered Ken Conrad telling me not to let the hose out too fast or it would pull the end off. I repaired the connector on the hose again.
After finally laying the hose out and hooking it up to the water cannon, I disconnected the water cannon from the tractor and hooked up the hose and began pulling the steel cable out of the cable spool by pulling the tractor forward. Well, at first the water cannon wanted to follow me because you had to disengage that spool also, (as Ken had showed me).
So I thought I could just drag the water cannon back around to where it started, but that wasn’t a good idea because I ended up pulling off the connector on the fire hose again, only on the other end than before. Anyway, after repairing the hose at least three times and getting everything in position twice, I was finally ready to turn on the water.
That was when things turned from bad to worse. The first thing I did was turned on the fire hydrant using a large wrench where the water pressure instantly blew the hose out of the connector and water poured out into a big mud puddle by the time I could turn it off. then I remembered that Ken had told me to remember to make sure the screw valve was closed when you turned on the fire hydrant or else you will blow the end off of the hose….
So, I repaired the hose again, and reconnected it (standing in mud now). Closed the screw-type valve and turned on the fire hydrant. Then I opened the screw-type valve and the end of the hose blew off again… Then I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me to make sure I open the valve very slowly otherwise I would blow the connector off of the hose. So I repaired the hose again and hooked everything up (while standing in a bigger mud puddle) and tried it again.
I opened the valve slowly and the water cannon began shooting water out as I opened the valve up further and further… until a hole blew out in the middle of the hose shooting water all over the tractor. So I turned off the water again as I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me not to open the valve very far or it would start to blow out holes in the hose. I went and patched the hole the way that Ken Conrad has showed me and went back to try it again… walking through mud over to the fire hydrant, where there was an increasingly larger puddle.
I remember that it was around lunch time when I was standing in the middle of that field covered with mud standing in what looked like a mud hole that pigs would just love, trying to repair a hole in the hose for the 3rd or 4th time that it dawned on me how different my morning would have been if I had only paid more attention to Ken when he was explaining everything to me the day before.
I skipped lunch that day. Finally around 1 o’clock the water cannon was on and it was shooting water out about 40 yards in either direction. I spent that entire day making one mistake after the other. I was beat by the time to go home.
After sleeping on it I was determined not to let the experience from the day before intimidate me. I had learned from my mistakes and was ready to tackle the job of watering the mud in hopes that the sprigs of grass would somehow survive the 100 degree heat. As a matter of fact, the rest of the next 6 weeks the temperature was over 100 degrees every day. This was Oklahoma.
When I first took over for Ken, the watering was being done in three shifts. I watered during the day, the other summer help watered in the evening and a fairly new guy named Ron Hunt watered during the late night shift (not the Ron Hunt of Power Plant Man Fame, but a guy that eventually moved to the plant in Midwest City and became an operator). After two weeks, they did away with the night shift and I was put on 7 – 12s. that is 7 days a week, 12 hour days.
I didn’t own a car so, I had to catch a ride with someone in the morning in order to be at the plant by 6am. Then I had to catch a ride back to Stillwater in the evening when I left at 6:30pm each day of the week. The Operators and the security guards worked out good for this. I would ride to work in the morning with whichever operator was kind enough to pick me up at the corner of Washington and Lakeview (where I had walked from my parent’s house) and whichever security guard that was going that way in the evening.
I found out after a few days on this job that Colonel Sneed whose office was in the Engineer’s Shack was in charge of this job. So he would drive by and see how things were going. After a while I had a routine of where I would put the water cannons and where I would lay the Irrigation pipes. He seemed to be well pleased and even said that I could go to work for him when I was done with this job.
I told him that I was going to go back to school in a few weeks and he said that he would be waiting for me the next summer. Only Colonel Sneed, who was an older man with silver hair wasn’t there when I returned the next summer. He had either retired or died, or both. I never was sure which. I did learn a few years later that he had died, but I didn’t know when.
Besides the first day on that job, the only other memorable day I had was on a Sunday when there wasn’t anyone in the maintenance shop, I remember parking the yellow Cushman cart out in the shade of 10 and 11 belts (That is the big long belt that you see in the power plant picture on the right side of this post) where I could see both water cannons and the irrigation pipes.
I was watching dirt devils dance across the coal pile. This was one of those days when the wind is just right to make dirt devils, and there was one after the other travelling from east to west across the coal pile.
The Security guard was on his way back from checking the dam when he stopped along the road, got out of his jeep and sat on the hood and watched them for 5 or 10 minutes. For those of you who might not know, a dirt devil looks like a miniature tornado-in-training as it kicks up the dirt from the ground. These dirt devils were actually “coal devils” and they were black. They were lined up one after the other blowing across the the huge black pile of coal. You can see the size of the coal pile from this Google Image:
Then as the security guard on the hill and I were watching the coal pile, this long black finger came flying up from the coal pile reaching higher and higher into the sky twirling itself into one huge coal devil 1,000 feet tall! It traveled toward me from the coalyard and across the intake coming straight toward where I was. It ended up going directly between the two smoke stacks which are each 500 feet tall. This coal devil was easily twice the size of the smoke stacks. Tall and Black. After it went between the smoke stacks it just faded like dust devils do and it was gone.
As the monstrous black coal devil was coming toward the plant, the security guard had jumped in his jeep and headed down to where I was parked. He was all excited and asked me if I had seen how big that was. We talked about the dust devils for a few minutes, then he left and I went back to watching the water cannons and irrigation pipes.
I had to wonder if that big coal devil had been created just for our benefit. It seemed at the time that God had been entertaining us that Sunday by sending small dust devils across the coal pile, and just as they do in Fireworks shows, he had ended this one with the big grand Finale by sending the monster-sized coal devil down directly between the smoke stacks.
Some times you just know when you have been blessed by a unique experience. We didn’t have cameras on cell phones in those days, and I’m not too quick with a camera anyway, but at least the guard and I were able to share that moment.
I began this post by explaining why it is important to listen to a Power Plant Man when he speaks and ended it with the dust devil story. How are these two things related? As I pointed out, I felt as if I had been given a special gift that day. Especially the minute it took for the monster coal devil to travel almost 1/2 mile from the coal yard through the smoke stacks.
It may be that one moment when a Power Plant Man speaks that he exposes his hidden wisdom. If you aren’t paying close attention, you may miss it. I did Ken Conrad an injustice the day he explained how to run the irrigation equipment and it cost me a day of pure frustration, but the real marvel was that as I made each mistake I could remember Ken telling me about that.
Ken had given me a full tutorial of the job I was about to do. How many people would do that? If I had only been listening, I would have heard Ken telling me much more than how to do the job. I would have seen clearly how Ken cared enough about me to spend all the time it took to thoroughly teach me what he knew.
That is the way it is with True Power Plant Men. Ken could have said, “roll out the hose, pull out the cable,, turn the water on … and good luck…”, but he didn’t. he went through every detail of how to make my job easier. I may have felt blessed when the monster coal devil flew between the stacks, but it was that day a couple of weeks earlier when Ken had taken the time and showed his concern that I had really been blessed.
I didn’t recognize it at the time. But as time goes by and you grow older, the importance of simple moments in your life come to light. My regret is that I didn’t realize it in time to say “Thank You Ken.” If I could take back that day, I would not only listen, I would appreciate that someone else was giving me their time for my sake. If I had done that. I’m sure I would have ended the day by saying, “Thank you Ken.”
Ken reminds me of my dad, who, though not a power plant man per se (he was an electrical engineer, that’s pretty close,right?), would give us way more details than we thought we needed. And now I see myself doing it to my grandson (age 11), who is likely to roll his eyes and say, “I already know that!”, when I know darn well he doesn’t. Then I try to resist doing the “I told you so” dance when he finds out he doesn’t already know that. Unfortunately, he does not resist doing the dance when we find out that he did, in fact, already know it!
zensouth May 5, 2012
I like your blog because the stories are always substantial. It takes a while to take in all the flavor of it, like sampling a fine meal or a rich pastry. I do dislike the visual theme, but I think it forces me to concentrate on the content of the story.
Plant Electrician May 5, 2012
Thanks Zen, I understand your feelings. A coal-fired power plant is hardly a normal setting. It was built way out in the country because no one really wants one in their backyard. It was the place I called home for many years. I know that when I left I took with me silicon-based ash, a couple of pounds of coal dust and asbestos particles in my lungs. I will not be surprised the day the doctor tells me that I have mesothelioma. I realized after I left, that it wasn’t the place, it was the people that were so dear to me that I called “home”.
jackcurtis May 13, 2012
I’ve served time with similar folk, people who had more time for a kid learning a job than the kid had for them. Two things stuck besides an entirely different evaluation of those people over time…first one was the old (now): “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you know that ain’t so.” And the other was, remembering the old guys who had patience with you along the way, it’s always like remembering your parents and you pay it forward…(and I still think you have a book in you)
Originally posted May 11, 2012:
The Power Plant sits on a hill where you can see it 20 miles away looming in the distance. The lake that provides cooling water for the plant is also built on a hill. If the Electric Company had waited for the rain to fill up the lake we would still be waiting 34 years later. Fortunately the Arkansas River flows near the plant below the Kaw Lake dam near Ponca City and before it runs into the Keystone Lake near Tulsa. There are 4 large pumps alongside the river in a fenced in area that draws water from the river and sends it a mile up a hill where it pours into the lake. It is a beautiful lake and most of the area around the lake is a wildlife preserve. A part of the area around the lake is reserved for hunting.
Bald Eagles and Pelicans make this lake their home in the winter. During the winter months you can watch a web cam of a bald eagle’s nest on the lake. Here is a link to a Bald Eagle nest in Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge near Vian Oklahoma: https://www.suttoncenter.org/live-bald-eagle-nest-camera/
I have included this map so that you can see the layout. the wide blue line in the upper right corner is the Arkansas river.
The River Pump station is just off the edge of this map.
During my second summer as a summer help at the Power Plant I was assigned to be the “gopher” for a maintenance crew that was going to be working down by the river for a week. Being a “gopher” means that you drive back and forth between the plant and the river bringing (in other words: “go for”) tools, supplies, food, water, and anything else that the Power Plant Men may need while they were working at the river.
At first I wasn’t aware of what job the Power Plant Men crew were assigned. I just knew it was down by the river. I towed a large air compressor behind the flatbed truck and a lot of air hoses and air powered tools. Then I watched as the men began to setup the equipment. At one point Ray Butler who was overseeing the job asked me to go back to the plant and get a Y-connector for the air hoses and some more hose.
I drove back to the plant and when I returned I was standing there with the Y-coupling in my hand watching the men dragging air hoses down into the river, someone asked me to help them move something. So I laid the Y-connector on the top of the Air Compressor. Thinking that would be a safe out of the way place for it. When I did that, it fell down into a cavity that was about 6 inches wide and 5 feet deep where there was the air intake for the compressor. It was too deep to reach it. You can see the air intake section on the front of this air compressor:
After trying to figure out how to take off the front grill of the compressor to retrieve the connector and not seeing an easy way, I told Dale Hull what I had done. He just smiled (well… Dale Hull had a perpetual smile or grin on his face anyway), and he went over to a tool box and pulled out a spool of wire. After cutting some off and fashioning a hook on the end, he quickly snagged the connector and pulled it right out.
Honestly when I saw him start fishing for that coupling I thought to myself that this wasn’t going to work and I was resigned to driving back to the plant again for another one and being humiliated by my failure. It’s too hard to hook something that far down with that flimsy wire. I was surprised and relieved when he quickly pulled it out with little effort.
Maybe he had a lot of practice doing this. In True Power Plant Man fashion, there was no ridicule. From the moment I told him I had dropped the connector, he went to work as if it was his job, not doing anything to attract attention. Until this moment, Dale Hull and I were the only two that knew that I had dropped that connector into the compressor housing. Even though I already had, I marked him down again in my book as a True Power Plant man.
Dale Hull was one of those surprise mechanics that had a lot more skill than you would think by looking at him. He reminded me of John Ritter. The actor on “Three’s Company”. I carpooled with him a lot during the first and second summer and one thing that stood out in my mind was that he had over 100,000 miles on his car and still had the original tires. He did his own wheel alignments. I spent many hours alongside Dale on weekends doing coal cleanup. I helped him move one time from one apartment to another. I remember that he had his own set of precision machining tools.
When I carpooled with him and Ricky Daniels, we would go to the gas station just north of the plant where Dale and Ricky would purchase some beer to drink on the way home. At this time, the place was crowded with construction hands that were still building the plant. I would sit in the back seat and watch the back of the heads of Ricky and Dale who, after a long hot day at work were relaxing by drinking beer and trying to stay awake until they reached Stillwater. I would see Dale’s head bobbing up and down as he would struggle to stay awake. Every day it was the same. We always made it safely home. I don’t know if it was the Novena to St. Jude that I was saying in the back seat or it was Dale’s ability to drive while nodding off to sleep or both.
Anyway. Back to the river.
In the river just below the surface of the water next to the River Pump Forebay there are 4 “coffin houses” where the water can flow into the pump forebay. From there it is pumped up to the lake. The 4 coffin houses (which get their name because they are rectangular shaped boxes that put you in mind of coffins) are mounted on one large concrete slab. The Power Plant Men were setting everything up so that they could drill holes in the concrete slab which was about 4 feet under water.
Why were they drilling holes in the concrete slab? (you might wonder). According to the EPA, it was required that the Electric Company continuously monitor the temperature of the water in the river at the point where the water enters the intake into the forebay area (As if the electric company was somehow going to be able to change the temperature of the water). So they were mounting a thermometer out in the middle on the concrete slab at the bottom of the river.
Hence the use of Air powered tools. It wouldn’t have worked well with electric tools. I remember Power Plant He-men like Bill Gibson standing out in the river (the water had been lowered by lowering the output of Kaw Dam about 20 miles upstream) taking a deep breath, and dropping down into the water. A few moments later a rush of bubbles would come blasting out of the water as he operated the air operated power drill. Each time someone went under the water, they had to find the hole they were drilling, put the bit back in it, and try to drill some more of the hole all while holding their breath. A lot of times they came up laughing because once they started drilling they couldn’t see anything because bubbles were flying in their face. Needless to say, the 10 or so holes they had to drill took almost an entire week.
Of course, they had to take time out for cookouts and swimming in the river. Fortunately there were no Power Plant Women down there at the time, because when it came time for lunch, a group of men in nothing but their skivvies would take a dip in the river.
When they were through there was a thermocouple mounted at the bottom of the river with a cable that led up the bank and into a small galvanized metal building that housed a recorder that took one month to make a full revolution recording the temperature of the water.
There was one other time when I worked for a week at the river. It was when I was on labor crew and we had to shovel the sand out of the river pump forebay. This is a concrete pit about 30 feet deep. Animals would fall in there from time to time and drown, so usually there was a rotting dead possum and a dead bird or two floating in the murky water when the pumps weren’t running.
A P&H crane would lower a large bucket into the pit and a couple of us would shovel sand into it until it was full, then the crane would take it up and dump it out, then lower it back down again for some more sand. We would be standing in the water or on a pile of sand shoveling sand all day. I remember my first day doing that, after a while I looked down to see that there were little tiny bugs crawling all over under the hair on my arms. I called them weevils because they weeved around the hairs on my arms. I quickly realized that my entire body was covered with these little crawling bugs. From the hair on my head down to my ankles. They really weren’t weevils, because those are much bigger than the tiny bugs that were crawling all over me. They put me in the mind of flea larva.
My first reaction was to panic, run around in circles screaming like a little girl. Instead I resigned myself to these bugs and just kept on working. They weren’t biting me. I think they were just looking for a way out of the pit. You climbed in and out of the pit using a ladder permanently mounted on the concrete wall. When it was lunch time I would take a dip in the river, clothes and all to wash them all off.
It’s a funny thought now to think that after I became an electrician a trip to the river pumps always felt like a vacation. Maybe because we were outside of the normal plant grounds. There usually weren’t any supervisors around. There was wildlife. There was a river you could play in if you felt the need. I never found myself working less while I was there, it just seemed enjoyable to have a change in scenery.
Anyway. I don’t think the EPA every really cared what the temperature of the river was, they just wanted us to go through the exercise of measuring it. But that is how the lake ended up on the top of that hill. The water is used to cool the steam in the condenser in the Power Plant. The fish and the birds also enjoy it and all the wildlife around the lake. All made possible by the diligent maintenance of the Power Plant Men.
Comments from the original post:
rjdawarrior May 17, 2012 at 5:10 pm
Loved it! The pictures really brought the whole story to life. You have a way with words that in trigs me.
My favorite part was the flea larva, I could just see you out there in a field full of testosterone, running around in a panic screaming like a little girl…..
Thanks for the enjoyment of the employment RJPlant Electrician May 17, 2012, at 5:21 pm
Thanks RJ, No matter how I try to forget it… I still remember it all too well.
Comment from last Repost:
Originally Posted May 18, 2012
George Pepple was the chemist at the plant when I first arrived in 1979. His last name is pronounced “Pep-Lee”. A chemist plays an important role in a power plant. The plant treats their own water and has it’s own sewage system. The chemist spends their time with these activities.
They do other things like check ground water for contaminates, and lake water for bacteria, and a host of other things. Hydrochloric Acid is used to balance the PH of the water. As far as I know, George Pepple was the only one at the plant with a PhD, which gave him the title of Doctor. No one called him Dr. Pepple (which sounds like a soda pop). We either called him George or Pepple (Pep Lee) or both. He had a sort of Einsteinian simplicity about him. To me he was the perfect combination of Einstein and Mr. Rogers from “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”:
One other thing I would like to add about George was that he developed a special process for Cupric chloride leaching of copper sulfides. This was a patented process (1982) which is now owned by the Phelps Dodge Corporation which is a copper and gold mining company. As humble as George Pepple was, he never mentioned this to anyone at the plant as far as I know.
When he would page someone on the PA system (gray phones), he would always do it in a straight monotone voice. putting no accents on any of the words and he would always repeat his page twice. Like this: “PaulMullonLineOne. PaulMullonLineOne.”
Before I get to the point where George is dancing in the acid, I first need to tell you about Gary Michelson, since he had a role to play in this jig. In an earlier post: In Memory of Sonny Karcher, A True Power Plant Man, I remarked that Sonny Karcher had told people when he introduced me to them that I was going to college to learn to be a writer (which wasn’t exactly true. The writing part I mean…. I was going to college… and.. well… I am writing now), and that I was going to write about them. In doing so, some people took me in their confidence and laid before me their philosophy of life.
Jerry Mitchell being one of them (as you can read in an earlier post about “A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“). Jerry had filled me with his own sense of humility, where it was important to build true friendships and be a good and moral person. His philosophy was one of kindness to your fellow man no matter what his station in life. If there was someone you couldn’t trust, then stay clear of them.
Gary Michelson was another person that wished to bestow upon me his own personal wisdom. We worked for about 3 days filtering the hydraulic oil in the dumper car clamps and in the coal yard garage. While there, he explained to me why it was important to be the best in what you do. If you are not number one, then you are nobody. No one remembers who came in second.
He viewed his job performance and his station in life as a competition. It was him against everyone else. He didn’t care if he didn’t get along with the rest of the people in the shop (which he didn’t) because it is expected that other people would be jealous or resentful because he was superior to them.
According to Gary his family owned part of a uranium mine somewhere in Wyoming or Montana. He thought he might go work for his father there, because truly, he was not a True Power Plant Man. He reminded me slightly of Dinty Moore. Like a lumber Jack.
As I mentioned in the post about the “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“, Gary Michelson had the title “Millwright”. Which no one else in the shop seemed to have. He had been certified or something as a Millwright. Gary explained to me that a Millwright can do all the different types of jobs. Machinist, Mechanic, Pipe fitter, etc.
I remember him spending an entire week at a band saw cutting out wedges at different angles from a block of metal to put in his toolbox. Most mechanics at this time hadn’t been issued a toolbox unless they had brought one with them from the plant where they had transferred. Gary explained to me that his “superiority was his greatest advantage.” Those aren’t his words but it was basically what he was saying. That phrase came from my son who said that one day when he was imitating the voice of a video game villain named Xemnas.
Filtering the hydraulic oil through the blotter press was very slow until we removed most of the filters.
It was a job that didn’t require a lot of attention and after a while became boring. That gave me more time to learn about Gary. He filled the time with stories about his past and his family. Since I hadn’t met Ramblin’ Ann at this point (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was not able to contribute my share. In the middle of this job we were called away to work on a job in water treatment where a small pump needed to be re-installed.
During this time at the plant every pump, fan, mill and turbine were brought to the maintenance shop and disassembled, measured, cleaned, honed and reassembled before the plant was brought online for the first time. This is called doing a “check out” of the unit. The electricians would check every motor, every cable and every relay and alarm. The Results team (Instrument and Controls as they were later called) would check out the instrument air, the pneumatic valves and the control logic throughout the plant.
Gary had me go to the tool room and get some rubber boots and a rain suit. When we arrived at the water treatment building George Pepple was there waiting for us. The pump was in place and only the couplings needed to be connected to the acid line. Gary explained to me as he carefully tightened the bolts around the flange that you had to do it just right in order for the flange to seat properly and create a good seal. He would tighten one bolt, then the bolt opposite it until he worked his way around the flange. He also explained that you didn’t want to over-tighten it.
Anyway. When he was through tightening the couplings I was given a water hose to hold in case some acid were to spray out of the connections when the pump was turned on. After the clearance was returned and the operator had closed the breaker, George turned the pump on. When he did the coupling that Gary had so carefully tightened to just the right torque using just the right technique sprayed a clear liquid all over George Pepple’s shoes.
Gary quickly reached for the controls to turn off the pump. I immediately directed the water from the hose on George’s shoes while he began to jump up and down. In last week’s post I explained that when I was working in the River Pump forebay pit shoveling sand, there was a point when I realized that I was covered from head to foot with tiny crawling bugs, and I felt like running around in circles screaming like a little girl (See “Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down By The River“).
If I had done that, I probably would have been singing the same song and dance that George Pepple was doing at that moment. Because he indeed was screaming like a little girl (I thought). His reaction surprised me because I didn’t see the tell tale signs of sizzling bubbles and smoke that you would see in a movie when someone throws acid on someone. I continued hosing him down and after a minute or so, he calmed down to the point where he was coherent again. He had me run water on his shoes for a long time before he took them off and put on rubber boots.
After hosing off the pipes, Gary took the coupling apart and put the o-ring in place that he had left out.
I made a mental note to myself. — Always remember the o-ring.
Besides those two jobs, I never worked with Gary Michelson again. When I returned the next summer Gary was no where to be found. When I asked Larry Riley about it, he just said that they had run him off. Which is a way of saying… “He ain’t no Power Plant Man.” George Pepple on the other hand was there throughout my career at the power plant. He was a True Power Plant Man, PhD! When George was around you knew it was always “A wonderful Day in the Neighborhood”. When I would hear George Pepple paging someone on the Gray Phone (the PA system) in his own peculiar way, I would think to myself… “I like the way you say that.” (As Mr. Rogers used to say). I will leave you with that thought.
Comments from the original post:
neenergyobserver May 18, 2012
Funny isn’t it, how the ones that are the best (in their own minds) do stupid stuff like forgetting the O-ring. Apparently they can’t see for all the jaw-flapping involved in patting themselves on the back. Not that I haven’t had a few days I’d rather not talk about too.
onelifethislife May 27, 2012
You are master storyteller! I know nothing about power plants and I was right there with you. This was fantastic read! Thank you for sharing your work.
bryanneelaine May 28, 2012
LOL @ “Dinty Moore”