Originally posted May 17, 2014:
Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.
One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.
The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.
Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.
Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.
I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.
When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.
I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.
Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.
When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.
When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.
Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.
I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait) See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“.
With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.
While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.
Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.
By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.
The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.
The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.
So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.
As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”
So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.
Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….
George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.
Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.
The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.
This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.
You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).
Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.
Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.
This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….
Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.
I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….
In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.
In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically all “mechanical”.
Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.
Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.
I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.
It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.
He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?
The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.
When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.
That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…
I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.
Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.
Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.
Comments from the Original post
Originally posted July 4, 2014. Added some pictures:
I never would have guessed that playing Power Plant Man jokes on Gene Day would have led me to the “Uh Oh!” moment I later encountered when I was told in no uncertain terms that the President of the Electric Company, James G. Harlow Junior was personally upset with something I had done. I had learned my first year as a summer help at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that “One ‘Uh Oh’ wipes out all previous ‘Atta Boys’!” I could tell by the way the Electric Supervisor, Tom Gibson’s ears were glowing red that this was considered a little more serious than I had first realized.
I have mentioned in previous posts that playing jokes on Gene Day was one of my favorite Power Plant Man Pastimes. See the post, “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“. Also see, “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“. My lunch breaks were usually consumed with learning more about how to program the Honeywell mainframe computer used by just about all the company processes that actually ran the company from payroll, to billing, to work orders and Inventory. I figured that as I learned more about the computer system, the more elaborate jokes I would be able to play on Gene.
Already I had learned about the escape codes used by the large IBM printers that were used throughout the company at the time. This allowed me to create graphic images on the printer as well as large bold letters.
Besides the telephone and inter-company mail, printers were the only other way to communicate to non-present Power Plant Men in 1989. We had not yet been introduced to e-mail. I was one of the few people in the company that had an e-mail address on the mainframe, and the only other person that I knew that I could write to was Craig Henry, a Corporate Engineer downtown.
Much like the first time when I met Gene Day, when I first encountered Craig Henry, I could tell right away that he was a down-to-earth person that would shoot straight. Craig probably wouldn’t remember this far into the past that I would reach out to him occasionally just to say “Hi” and to pick his brain about how the corporate IT infrastructure was setup. I figured since he was one of the few people in the company that even knew what an e-mail address was at the time, he most likely had more knowledge about such things than the average person in Corporate Headquarters.
After finding out that Gene Day would go work out at the Rock Gym in Stillwater, Oklahoma after work, and I had played the joke on him with the notes from the private investigator, I used my knowledge of Printer Escape codes to write documents on the mainframe that when printed out would turn on the graphic commands on the printer so that I could print out pictures. I don’t mean that I would have a saved picture that I would send to a printer like we might do today. No. I had to create these pictures one pixel at a time using commands in a UNIX document on the mainframe. It was all codes that would not make sense to anyone that didn’t know the graphic commands of the IBM printers.
I had been teasing Gene Day about meeting up with a young “coed” from the University at the Gym each day. I would do this by printing out messages on the Control Room printer by the the Shift Supervisor’s office when I knew that Gene Day was there filling in as the Shift Supervisor. They were usually notes from someone that called herself “Bunny”. Usually they were short notes or “love letters” from Bunny just saying something about how she enjoyed her time with Gene at the Gym.
At the bottom I would sign it “Bunny” then under it, the printer would read the graphic commands and create a small Playboy Bunny symbol under the name. At the end, the document would send a command that would put the printer back into the text mode.
Of course. Whenever I walked into the control room shortly after, just to see how the precipitator was doing, Gene Day would confront me about the notes. With a grin on his face he would say, “This isn’t funny! What if my wife found one of these notes?” — Like that was ever going to happen…. unless he was like me, and likes to save everything.
In order to create the bunny at the bottom I had to create the pixels in small blocks of 9 pixel patterns. Here is the code I used to create the bunny:
In the last couple of weeks I have written about how the Power Plant Men were introduced to the “Quality Process” (otherwise known as “Six Sigma”). We had created teams with our crews and we met once each week to come up with Quality ideas. By August, 1993, I had received my official Certificate Certifying that I had completed all the QuickStart training and was on my way to making a difference in the Power Plant World!
So, what do these two events have in common and how did this lead the President of the Electric Company to send out a search warrant on a lowly (lowlife is more like it) Plant Electrician in North Central Oklahoma? Well. This is what happened…
First you have to remember that in 1993, the Internet was not easily accessible by the general public. Company e-mail was still not a reality in our company. We had dumb terminals and large IBM printers. That was the extent of most employees interaction with a computer. Each printer had a designation. It was a five character ID beginning with a “P”. So, the printer in the Electric Shop Office might be…. P1234. I needed to know this number if I wanted to send something to it.
At the time, the only thing people had to send to each other were requests for things from the mainframe systems that were used to run the company. So, for instance, if you wanted to request some parts from the warehouse at our plant, we would send over a list of parts to the warehouse printer where Dick Dale and Darlene Mitchell would pick it up and go retrieve the parts. So, the people that used the terminals and computers with mainframe emulators on them knew the most commonly used printer numbers in the plant.
If you wanted to send something to someone in Oklahoma City, or to the Power Plant in Muskogee, then you would have to call over there and ask the person what their Printer ID is so you can be sure you are sending your request to the appropriate printer. Without e-mail, and any other form of computerized communication. This was the only way at the time.
So, after our Customer Service Team was formed, we would meet once each week to brainstorm new ideas that would benefit the company. Andy Tubbs was our team leader, as he was our foreman.
The other members of our Customer Service Team were Diana Brien, Scott Hubbard, Sonny Kendrick, Ben Davis and Gary Wehunt. I haven’t properly introduced my bucket buddy Diana Brien in a post before. I have recently obtained a photograph that I can share:
We were called bucket buddies because we carried tool buckets with us whenever we went to work on something. They doubled as our stool and tripled as our trash can.
Thursday, July 15, 1993 during our Quality Brainstorming session, while we were pouring out ideas like…. “What if we changed out the street lights at the plant so that they would be different colors…. wouldn’t that help morale?…. and “How about if we wrapped fluorescent Christmas lights around the high voltage electric lines between here and Oklahoma City so that they could light up the night with colorful lights during the Christmas Season?”….. And other ingenious Brainstorming ideas that are bound to pull up an occasional brilliant idea….. well. One such idea popped up!
I don’t remember which one of our brilliant brainstorming ideas conjured up this idea, but Andy Tubbs suddenly blurted out…. “What if we had the Printer IDs added as a column in the Corporate Directory? — You see, each quarter we received an updated copy of the Corporate Phone Book. It included the names and office phone numbers of all the Electric Company employees. It also included their mail code. So, if you wanted to send something through inter-company mail to them, you would know where to send it. Our mail code was PP75. That was the code for our power plant.
So, what if we added a column where we had the printer ID that each person would use for people to send printed requests, among other things? This was Brilliant! We could just make this proposal and send it downtown to Corporate Headquarters where it would be lost in the “mail”. Or we could do more research to prove that it was a possible proposal that was really do-able.
So, I suggested…. Well… I can print a form out on every printer in the entire company requesting that they include all the names of all the people that use that printer and mail it through inter-company mail back to me at PP75. — I had recently uncovered a special printer command that allowed me to do this hidden away on the Honeywell mainframe. So, we took a vote and it was decided that we would pursue this proposal. I set to work on creating the form that I would send to every printer. If we could not only send the proposal to the Communications department downtown, but also a list of everyone and their printers, the work would already have been done for them.
I wanted to send a real fancy letter because I had already created a header using the Quality print settings on the printers. I had created a Company Logo that (I thought) ingeniously used the backspace command to create two words with one word on top of the other in the middle of a sentence…. Our company began as Oklahoma Gas and….. in the logo, I wanted the word Gas to be on top of the word And as it was in our company logo in smaller letters than the others. So… after playing around with it for a while, I created the logo and had it saved on the mainframe.
After attaching the header to the form, I included a message that told the person that discovered the form on the printer to add the names of all people who used the printer below and to send the form to Kevin Breazile at PP75. As I mentioned. In order to make the form look pretty, I turned on the Quality Print settings on the printer at the beginning of the document. Like the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice….. I didn’t know a good way to turn off all the settings I changed to revert the printers back to their original settings.
I ran the command to send the document to every printer on the print server and away they went…. A copy printed out on the printer in the Electric Shop office so I knew it was working. Copies printed out on the other 12 printers at our plant. They also printed out on the 500 other printers throughout Oklahoma. — With the thought that “My work here is done.” I went back to work repairing plant electric equipment.
The following Monday I had the day off. When I returned to work on Tuesday, Denise Anson called me from the front office. She said that I had a large stack of mail. I thought, “Oh good!” Results from our request on Thursday have arrived! I hurried up to the front office.
When I entered the mail cubicle I was surprised to see how big the pile of envelopes were. The stack of inter-company envelopes was over two feet high. “Um…. Thanks….” I said to Denise. I picked up the stack and headed back to the Electric Shop to sort out the forms.
After opening the first few envelopes. I suddenly came to an astonishing discovery. Not only did the form print out on the large mainframe IBM printers used in office areas, it also had printed out on other types of printers…. I opened one envelope and found the form printed out on a “Work Order” printer. The paper size was different than the standard paper size, and I hadn’t put a page feed at the end of the document, so, it had left the paper in the middle of the page…. “Uh Oh”.
My “Uh Oh” changed to “UH OH!” after opening a few more of the inter-company envelopes. I found that the form had printed out on Pay Check Printers! And Billing Printers! “UH OH!” quickly changed to “OH NO!” When I read comments like “Under no circumstances print anything on this Printer Again!!!!” I realized I had really messed things up. By changing the font size and the quality settings, the billing, payroll and work order printers all had to be manually reset and the jobs that printed out paychecks, customer bills and employee work orders had to be re-run!
After taking all the forms out of their envelopes, the stack of papers was over 4 inches thick, just to give you an idea about how many responses we had.
A couple of hours later, Tom Gibson called me to his office. “Uh Oh.” (remember… One “uh oh” erases all previous “atta boy”s). When I entered Tom’s office, I could tell that something was definitely wrong. Like I mentioned earlier. Tom’s ears were beet red…. and in case you don’t know what a beet looks like. Here is one:
Of course… I knew what this was all about, only I didn’t know yet, how Tom had found out about it…. Tom began by saying…. “Ron Kilman just received a call from James Harlow asking him who is Kevin Breazile and why is he printing something out on my printer? Ron didn’t like the fact that he wasn’t aware that you had sent something to the President of the Company’s printer.
Sorry. That’s the biggest picture I could find of James Harlow….
Um what could I say? So, I said this…
“Well. This was a quality idea that our team had. We wanted to collect the names of people that used each printer so that we could send in a proposal to have the printer ID added in the Corporate Directory.”
I didn’t mention that Harlow’s Secretary had returned the form with all the people that used his computer as I had requested, because I knew that the President of the Electric Company was not asking because he was upset that I had printed something out on his printer. No. He had probably been told that the reason the bills were late being sent to the one million customers that month was because some kook had messed up their printers and the jobs had to be run over again causing the delay. So, I thought it was best not to go down that route at this time…
So, I stuck with my story, which was the truth…. I had printed out the forms on all the printers as part of a quality idea by our CST. — I also didn’t mention that three years earlier, Tom had asked me to learn everything I could about the company computer, because he believe that the computer was going to be the wave of the future.
Even though Tom believed my explanation, he told me…. “Kevin, Ron never wants this to happen again, therefore, you are never to send anything out of this plant without Ron Kilman’s personal approval. Is that clear?”
I replied to Tom that this was unreasonable. I send things to other departments all the time. I send Substation Inspection forms, and blueprint revisions and all sorts of other forms downtown all the time. Ron Kilman wouldn’t want to waste his time approving all those things….
Tom thought about it and revised his statement…. “Then, don’t ever send out anything that isn’t part of your normal daily job without Ron’s approval first.” — Ok. I thought…. this works, since everything I do is part of my normal daily job…. Even printing out forms on all the printers in the company… since that was part of our normal “Quality Process” Customer Service Team activity…. So, I happily agreed. And I left Tom’s office happy that I hadn’t joined the ranks of the unemployed.
That was one thing about working at the plant at this time. As long as your heart was in the right place…. That is, you tried your best to keep the electricity humming through the electric lines…. then the chances of being fired for messing up, even as big of a mess up as this, most often didn’t end up by losing your job.
I sometimes think that this was my biggest mess up of all time… however…. after this episode was over… there was a part two to this story….. Believe it or not…. Someone else in the company was overjoyed about what I had just done. They had been trying to do something similar for a long time, only to be told that it was impossible. — Doing the Impossible… I was good at that… Part two of this story is a story for another day…
Since this is a repost of this story, I have written part two, which you can read here: “Printing Impossible Power Plant Fast News Post“.
Originally posted: July 12, 2014:
Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma didn’t have a clue the large can of worms he opened the day in 1988 when he told me to find out all I could about the company computer in Corporate Headquarters…. The one that ran all the important financial systems for the company. I remember going straight down to the Electric Shop office and sending a request for a username on the Honeywell Mainframe to the IT department, with Tom’s approval.
This story is a continuation of two previous stories…. Last week I wrote a post called: “Power Plant Customer Service Team Gone Wild“. This is the next shoe that dropped in that story…. Earlier this year I wrote a post called: “Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible“. Well, this is the second story in the list of “Impossible Things” Power Plant Electricians were able to accomplish when others said it couldn’t be done.
As a reminder… and in case you didn’t read last week’s post…. as a summary….. let me just say that I had printed out a form on every printer in the company as part of a “Quality Idea” our team was investigating. In doing so, I sent commands to the printers to change their quality settings, as well as the Font Size and a few other settings. When I ran the little known command that sent the document to every printer listed on the mainframe, I didn’t realize that this included all the billing, paycheck and work order printers that all had their special kinds of paper and setting for those particular jobs to run.
This was probably the biggest “Faux Pas” (pronounced “Foe Paw” — yeah…. French… which literally means: “False Step”) of my 18 years as an Electrician. Before I tell you about how the second shoe dropped… Let me explain that a few weeks before I had hit enter on the keyboard sending the disastrous command to the Mainframe, In June, 1993, I had found an interesting program on the Honeywell mainframe called “Magna 8”.
It had to do with creating reports from the main database. This was the entire database that ran the Electric Company Business! I thought this would be a great program to learn in order to create all kinds of reports for our plant that would help us understand where our efforts were being spent. I thought I might actually be able to tie our Maintenance Orders to the time the employees spent on them to their wages, and to the cost of the parts used…. Nothing like that existed at the time, and the little I was able to read from the Magna 8 User Manual on the mainframe, this seemed like just the ticket..
We had never heard of SAP, or other ERP systems at the time. — Oh… sorry… ERP stands for “Enterprise Resource Planning”. It does just that. It combines all the company’s business together in one application so that you can account for all the costs down to each machine, person, and part. If I could learn more about Magna 8, maybe I could start piecing these pieces together from the database. I was having one problem…. When I would page down in the user manual, it kept skipping the bottom half of every page….
I couldn’t figure out how to stop it from scrolling past the second half of each page. So, I called in a favor from the IT guys downtown and asked them if they could send me a printed copy of the Magna 8 User’s Manual. They said they would be glad to send me a copy. About a week later, I received the User Manual through company mail. It was about 4 inches thick.
There were different sections. One was called: “The Update Module”. Yeah…. That’s right…. It was used to enter data into the database…. I thought about that module for about 2 seconds and decided It would be best to stay away from that one. Then there was the “Reporting Module”.
That was the one I was looking for. — on a side note…. I know “for” is a preposition, and I know you aren’t supposed to end a sentence in a preposition, however, who doesn’t say, “That’s what I was looking for”? In these circumstances, I figure that I better approach it from a whole different angle…. like…. “That’s the section I really wanted.” — End side note.
A couple of weeks after I received the copy of the Magna 8 User Guide, I sent the infamous form to all the printers in the company, and that’s when I was sort of had all my “atta boys” taken away with that one “Uh Oh”. I was all prepared to watch my step while on the mainframe. About a week after the episode in Tom’s office when he told me not to send anything outside the plant without Ron Kilman’s permission, my foreman, Andy Tubbs came in the office and told me that in two days, I was supposed to go to some training in Oklahoma City.
“Oh. Training!” One of my favorite things! I always liked to learn new things. I asked Andy what the training was for (Oh geez… did I really say that? “For” at the end of the sentence again! — how about “I asked Andy what kind of training would I be taking” — yeah…. that’s what I said…). Andy replied, “Something called ‘Magna 8′”.
Oh No! I hadn’t asked for training! I had just asked for the user guide! Now I was scheduled to go to training in Oklahoma City and I knew that no one at the plant had “okay-ed” it. Now what was I supposed to do? I did the only thing I could think of at the time…. I asked Andy where I was supposed to go at Corporate Headquarters for the class.
Since I knew that this class hadn’t been approved by Tom Gibson or even our A Foreman Bill Bennett, I decided that I was going to go on my own dime…. that is, I wasn’t going to expense anything. I would pay for my own mileage and lunch, etc. Hopefully, no one would notice that I was gone that day. — Anyway, I could always fall back on the fact that my own Foreman Andy had told me to go….
So, when the day came, I drove to Oklahoma City and entered Corporate Headquarters dressed in my cleanest steel-toed work boots and my cleanest tee-shirt!
When I introduced myself to the instructor, Scott Overmeyer, I told him I was surprised that I had been scheduled for this class. He told me that since I had requested the User Guide that he figured that I should attend this course so that I would know how to use Magna 8 to create reports. — Well, that explained it.
The classroom was short on computers so we had to share one computer between two people. I sat in the back row on the right side if you are facing the instructor. A young lady sat next to me. Her name was something like Laura Burgert. We didn’t introduce ourselves right off the bat. We spent the morning learning about how our database was structured.
Our database was not what is referred to as a “relational database”. I’m not even sure if that term was being used at the time…. anyway, we had what is called a “Hierarchical Database”. The relationships are more like a family tree. If you needed to connect the data, you had to go up the tree to where you could go back down another branch… sort of like if you were into Genealogy and you were looking for your 3rd cousin twice removed. This was all new to me.
Anyway, this isn’t an important part of this story, so don’t strain your brain trying to figure it out.
When noon came around and we were just breaking for lunch, Laura Burgert said to me, “You’re Kevin Breazile! Oh my Gosh! You’re the guy that printed out that form on everyone’s printers!” I replied, “Yeah, that’s me. I sure was in trouble for that one.”
She replied that they had been trying to do something like that for a long time. Then she explained… “I work in the Communication Department and we create the Fast News Bulletins that are sent out to the printers….”
You see… this was what you had to do before e-mail was available…. When there was some news about the company that they wanted to disseminate to all the employees quickly, they would send out a Fast News bulletin to the printers and we would post it on the bulletin board in our area.
She continued to explain….. We have asked IT to give us a list of printers that we should send the Fast News Bulletins, because we know that our list is old and we are sending some to printers that messes up billing jobs and other things…. I said, “Yeah. I know all about those.”
She continued to explain some more…. IT told us there isn’t any way to tell which printers are good printers and which ones we shouldn’t be sending Fast News Bulletins. I replied, “Well…. I know which ones are good and which ones are not. I have all the forms that were sent to me. You can tell right away by the paper they are printed on, and if that’s not enough to give you a hint, just read the ‘colorful’ notes they wrote to me trying to convince me not to print on their printers anymore…”
Laura said it would be a great help if I could send those forms to her. I said I would do it as soon as I was back at the plant.
When I arrived at the plant the next morning, and Andy Tubbs told me that Tom Gibson was upset when he found that I had gone to Oklahoma City for training when Bill Bennett had mentioned it to him the day before. He had been all hot because he hadn’t approved any training and here I was going off on my own to Oklahoma City. I told Andy…. Well…. You did tell me to go….
Anyway, after that I gathered up the stack of around 500 forms and carried them up to the mail room where Denise Anson helped me put them in a small box to mail them to Laura Burgert.
A few weeks went by and Laura called me on the phone. She asked me how I had created the header on the forms. You see, I had created a header with the name of the company and part of the name was normally smaller and had one word over the top of another so….. well…… let me just show you…..
Notice the “GAS/AND” in the middle of the name of the company…. — This doesn’t look like anything to you today, because we now have laser printers and Publishers and all sorts of Word Art at our fingertips. But back then, printing this from a mainframe document took some work…. let me explain, just to give you an idea.
First, I had to space all the way out to where the word GAS starts, then I had to turn on the underline and decrease the font size to the size of the small letters and print out the word GAS then I had to turn off the underline and backspace the three characters, change the font back to the large size, then backspace all the way back to the beginning of the line, then print out the word Oklahoma and a space, then change the font back to small and print out the word AND then change the font back to the large size, and continue with the rest of the line. Yeah… I had to send backspace commands to the printer…. I was pretty proud of my header.
You can see by the Memo above that I had been using it for almost a year. The picture above isn’t even using the “Quality” setting on the printer which even made it look a lot sharper.
Anyway, on with the story…… The Fast News Bulletin’s header had a simple design. The “F” in Fast was created using a bunch of F’s. The A using a bunch of A’s. Like this:
Yeah… pretty embarass… um… I mean exciting huh? Laura was looking for a way to add some Quality to the Fast News Bulletin. I told her that I could create large block letters using the graphic commands on the printer I asked her what her printer ID was and I quickly created a Fast News Bulletin for her with a real header: Laura was excited and said that she may be getting back to me soon…. which she did a few weeks later. She asked if I could attend the first meeting of a new Task Force they had created to enhance the Fast News. I said I would be glad to attend, but I would first have to have permission from my Electric Supervisor before I could go.
She said she would take care of it…. and she did.
Ben Brandt, our Assistant Plant Manager wanted to know why I was being asked to show up to a Corporate Communication Task Force! — “Uh… I don’t know.” I replied. Knowing that everything I did outside the plant grounds was being questioned after my previous “misstep”.
So, one day I showed up at Corporate Headquarters again. Laura Burgert was there to greet me. She told me where to sit along a big long table in a meeting room. I was to sit about halfway down the table, while she sat on one end of the table.
When others came in, the IT person that was on the committee… I believe his name was Mike Russell sat on the far end from Laura. Laura opened the meeting by explaining the reason for the task force and when she finished she said, “For starters we were thinking that instead of using the ugly Fast News header we have been using, we would like to have a header like this…. And she passed a copy of the Fast News Bulletin I had printed out on her printer that day when she called me.
When Mike Russell saw it, he replied, “Our Printers can’t print a header like this.” Laura looked over at me, as if she wanted me to reply to Mike’s remark. So, I said, “This was printed out on the standard IBM network printer.”
Mike replied by saying, “No. Our printers can’t print like this. It’s impossible.” I repeated that this Fast News was printed out on Laura’s IBM printer from the mainframe just like the regular Fast News is printed out. I even told him that I could send him a copy of the header so that he could print it out and see for himself.
He said, “There’s no need to do that. Our printers can’t print this out.” — Though he held a bulletin in his hands that was printed out on our Standard IBM printer.
At the end of the meeting Laura thanked me for coming. She said, “See? This is what we have been dealing with. They probably weren’t going to be able to go anywhere with this.” I just nodded…. I thanked her for inviting me and I returned to the plant 75 miles north.
I guess it didn’t matter too much. A few months later and we were all being introduced to E-Mail, as I had been running telephone cable all over the plant so that we could set up a new NT Server network using Netware 4.0. Which used Novell’s GroupWise for e-mail. Fast News then just showed up in our Inbox.
It’s funny how things work out. What are the odds? I wreak havoc by sending a “rogue” form to printers that should be left alone, only to have those forms become useful to another department after I was “accidentally” enrolled in a training course where I happened to sit next to the one person in the company that could benefit from that printing blunder. Which then led her to look at ways to improve the Fast News Bulletin that she was responsible for creating….
Then the IT department refused to listen, but it didn’t matter anyway because new Technology quickly came along which began the process of weaning us off of the mainframe and onto a new state of the art network that later allowed us to use SAP a real ERP system that made the Magna 8 application that I went to learn in the first place obsolete.
I guess the Fast News Bulletin for the day is that Technology Moves Fast…. If you aren’t on for the ride, then you will be making statements like “That’s Impossible” and having a student in the 8th grade proving you wrong. It reminded me of what my dad always said when I was growing up… “Don’t ever say you can’t. — There’s always a way.”
Comments from the original post:
I’m sure just about everyone does this. When they look at someone, they occasionally hear music. Some sort of song that is inspired by the person. For instance when I look at my mom, I suddenly begin to hear Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (sorry about the advertisements. Nothing I can do about that).
For those with older browsers that are not able to view video links, I will include the link below the video: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
A few years ago when I was working for Dell, after I had given a thumb drive loaded with the songs I liked to listen to, to a friend of mine, Nina Richburg, when she left our team, she came up to me later and said she had never heard such an eclectic selection of music before. I told her I knew what she meant. I had included classical, rock and roll, electronic, movie soundtracks, country, easy listening, and just about every other genre in the book.
I didn’t explain to her how I can come to the point where I listened to so many different types of music. The answer of course is that I had worked at a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma for 20 years and I had learned to listen to the music that played in my head while working alongside some of the most diverse set of humans that comprised the Power Plant Men and Women at the plant.
I think it began while I was a janitor working with Pat Braden. When I would work with him, I hear a certain song in my head. So, I began to associate that song with Pat. I’m sure many at the plant heard the same song playing in their heads while interacting with Pat. He was such a nice guy:
The direct link is: Sesame Street Theme Song.
I guess you can call it Power Plant Theme Songs, since the songs that usually played in my head represented the type of person. This wasn’t always the case. For instance, when I looked at the electric Foreman and my close friend, Charles Foster, I would usually hear this song:
The direct link is: GhostBusters.
I would hear this song, because when the movie came out, and the song would be playing on the radio, Charles’ son Tim Foster thought the song was saying, “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!” So, I can’t hear this song without thinking of Charles Foster.
I have told stories about Gene Day (formally known as Victor Eugene Day — I didn’t misspell “formally), and how it was always fun to play jokes on him. The main reason is because Gene Day was always so easy going. When you look at Gene, the obvious song that pops in my mind is this:
The direct link is: Feelin’ Groovy.
Aren’t they cute? If you took Garfunkel (the tall singer) and shrank him down to the size of Simon, then you would have Gene Day. It was worth the trip to the control room just to encounter Gene Day, so that the rest of your day, you could go around the Power Plant, performing your feats of magic while you were “Feelin’ Groovy!” just for looking at Gene Day. That’s the effect he would have on passerby’s.
My bucket buddy Diana Brien had her own theme song. This song would come to mind not because the song itself reminded me of her, but because she remarked one day when the song was playing on the radio that she really liked it. So, from that point, this was Dee’s song:
The direct link is: Desperado.
I had some songs in my head when I looked at other Power Plant men because it actually sounded like they were singing the song themselves. This was the case with Bill Bennett, our A Foreman. He had a gruff Cigarette voice so I could easily hear Bill Bennett singing this song. Actually, ZZ Top was probably inspired to write this song by Bill Bennett:
Direct link to: La Grange.
The Extreme Power Plant character of some Power Plant Men that I was inclined to “Hero Worship” because of their tremendous talent led me to hear music of a more epic nature. This was true for both Earl Frazier and Andy Tubbs. Earl Frazier was a welder of such talent and when combined with his loyal country nature, even though his occupation was different than this song… This is what usually came to mind when I would look at Earl Frazier:
Direct link: Wichita Lineman.
Andy Tubbs had the same sort of “epic-ness” that Earl had. He was “Country” like Earl also. At the same time, Andy was one of the most intelligent Power Plant Man that graced the Tripper Gallery by his presence. That is probably why this song would come to mind when I would look at Andy:
Direct Link: Good Bad and the Ugly.
Notice the resemblance to Andy’s picture and the song. You could hear the Good Bad and the Ugly Song start up every time Andy would leave the foreman’s office and step out into the shop.
I have covered the “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley” in a previous post. He was another “Epic Hero” of mine. There was not a lot that Larry couldn’t do. His epic-ness was more like a knight from the time of King Arthur. I think that’s why I would hear the song that I heard when I would look at Larry. The movie Excalibur included the perfect song for a knight riding out to meet the enemy just as Larry would step out of the Labor Crew building each morning when I worked for him as a laborer. I would hear the following epic song go through my mind (try singing along with this song):
Direct link: O Fortuna.
Flashbacks of Latin Class!
If you look at Larry’s picture while listening to O Fortuna, you can actually picture him dressed in armor riding on a backhoe just as if it was a War Horse, heading off into battle!
There were other epic characters at the plant that would inspire similar songs. Toby O’Brien, as a Power Plant Engineer, though, not “epic” in the Power Plant Man sort of way, still inspired music when in his presence. I think it was his calm demeanor even when faced with those who may disagree with him (to put it mildly), and it was his deliberate resolve to focus on tasks at hand that left me with this music running through my mind when in his presence:
Direct Link: Moonlight Sonata.
The music fits, doesn’t it?
Scott Hubbard, my partner in crime (not literally…. it felt like a crime sometimes having so much fun and getting paid for it at the same time), was always such a hard worker. Like most industrious Power Plant Men, Scott was always running around (not literally again…) with a smile on his face working away on one project or other. That’s probably why this song was always going through my head when we were working together. It always seemed like everything was going like clockwork:
Direct link: Miss Marple Theme Song.
When I would go to the tool room to get parts, if Bud Schoonover was working there, I could usually hear his song even before I arrived. I don’t know if it was some kind of psychic ability I had, or it was because I would observe the faces of others as they were leaving the tool room, that would queue me in that Bud was on Tool Room duty. Either way, when this song would start up in my head, I knew that Bud Schoonover was near:
Direct Link: Baby Elephant Walk.
It wasn’t because Bud reminded me of an elephant that this song would come to mind. I think it had more to do with Bud’s carefree attitude about things. This song just seemed to come to mind while I would wait at the tool room gate while Bud would search for the parts I had requested. He was big like Paul Bunyan, but he had the expression of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son, as I have often mentioned. It was the squint and the jutting jaw when he spoke…
Here is Bud:
Johnny Keys was another True Power Plant Man that had his own theme song. This one came to mind just about the first time I met Johnny. I could tell right away where he would rather be. This song actually came up with a lot of different Power Plant Men, including Ben Davis and Don Burnett. Don and Johnny were working together as machinists when I first met them the summer of 1979. Ben Davis was good friends with both Don and Johnny, so this song would come to mind whenever I encountered any of these three Power Plant Men:
Direct link: Daniel Boone.
There are some Power Plant Men that sort of reminded me of a bear. Ronnie Banks was that way, and so was Dave McClure. Ronnie reminded me of a bear because he walked like one. Dave reminded me of a bear because he was a big scruffy Power Plant Man. He was gentle like Gentle Ben in the TV show Gentle Ben. I didn’t hear the theme song for Gentle Ben when I worked around these two. Instead I heard this song because this song captured their personality much better:
Direct Link: Bare Necessities.
Ron Kilman, the Plant manager (yeah. I have a song for him too). But I wanted to say that Ron Kilman had his own clerk (secretary) that sort of acted like a receptionist when you entered his office. Her name is Jean Kohler. She was the same age as my mother. Unlike hearing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony as I do with my mom, when I would have the opportunity to talk with Jean Kohler, she was such a lady that the following song would immediately come to my mind:
Direct Link: Lady.
I don’t have a picture of Jean Kohler, so you will just have to picture a very nice prim and proper lady with a perfectly sweet smile.
Ron Kilman’s theme song was The William’ Tell Overture. I guess because of the pace that he usually had to work. I listen to this song often because it helps me work. The song is longer than most people are used to hearing, so, I’ll just send you a link to the part that most people are familiar:
Direct Link: Lone Ranger.
In the Power Plant there were a few “sour apples”. In my posts I generally like to focus on the True Power Plant Men and their accomplishments. Occasionally when the topic is right, I may mention those of a less savory character…. Without saying much more than that, whenever I would encounter Jim Arnold, who was the Supervisor over the engineers, and later the head of Operations and later, the head of Maintenance, several songs would come to mind. The theme of the songs were songs like this one:
Direct Link: You’re So Vain.
I searched everywhere for a picture of Jim Arnold and this was the only one I could find:
What more can I say? I will leave it at that. Now you can see why someone would think that I listen to an eclectic selection of music. Because I worked with such a diverse bunch of Power Plant Men and Women!
The Electric Shop had tried for three years to win the Safety Slogan of the Year award. Not because we thought we were safer than any of the other teams at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, but because we really liked pizza (see the post: “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe“) . When the plant was downsized in 1994, the electric shop no longer existed as it had before. We had become cross-functional teams (See the post: “Crossfunctional Power Plant Dysfunction“). It looked as if our dream of winning the Power Plant Safety Pizza was no longer in our grasp.
My carpooling buddy, Toby O’Brien had moved from our plant as a Plant Engineer to the Safety Department in Oklahoma City. He was working with Julia Bevers and Chris McAlister. Chris had also moved from our plant as a labor crew hand to the Safety Department (This was a great opportunity for Chris!).
Bill Green our new plant manager introduced a jar of beads during his first safety meeting. We each picked a bead randomly from the jar through a small hole in the top. Then Bill Green pointed out that the color of bead represented the result of doing something unsafe.
The green color meant that nothing happened. The other colors reach represented a different type of accident that occurred. The ratio of beads in the jar represented the likelihood of each type of accident happening. There was one black bead in the jar. That meant that you died when you did something unsafe. I used to keep the number of each color of marble in my wallet, but that piece of paper disintegrated over the years.
The types of accidents were something like: First Aid Case, Reportable Accident, Lost Work Day Accident, Hospitalized, and Death.
A couple of months after the downsizing, the Safety department announced that they were going to have a Safety contest. The contest would be held at each plant and it involved each of the supervisor’s computers. The prize for the contest was that the winning team would be able to eat a free lunch with complements from the safety team.
Great! Shortly after the electric shop is busted up and we were scattered to the wind, we finally had one last chance to win the ever illusive Power Plant Safety Pizza! Only, how were we going to do it? I was working on Alan Kramer’s team. My old foreman Andy Tubbs (not old in the sense that he was an old man… old in that he was my former foreman) was now one of the other supervisors with only my old bucket buddy (you know what I mean… not “old” old) Diana Brien as the electrician on his team.
Before I go further to explain my conflict during this contest, let me explain how the contest worked.
The supervisors had new computers that ran using Windows 3.1. Back then, the screensaver on the computer didn’t just shut down the monitor like most of them do today. Instead, they showed some kind of message, or picture or something animated that kept moving around so that your monitor didn’t get burned in with an image that was constantly on your screen, such as your wallpaper and your icons.
The Safety Department said that each team should come up with some way to display the idea of “Safety” using a screensaver. They suggested using the screensaver that let you type in a message that would scroll across the screen when the screensaver was turned on. That was a simple built-in screensaver that came with Windows 3.1.
Then the Safety Department would come to the plant on a particular day and judge each of the computer’s screensaver and announce the winner. Sounds simple enough.
We first heard about the Safety Slogan Screensaver contest in our Monday Morning Meeting with our team. Alan Kramer said we should come up with a good slogan that we could put on our scrolling message screensaver. I kept my mouth shut at the time, because I didn’t know exactly how to proceed. I was having a feeling of mixed loyalty since my old Electric Shop Team with Andy Tubbs as our foreman had written over 300 safety slogans and had purposely been blocked from winning the Prized Pizza each year.
Not long after the morning meeting, Andy Tubbs came up to me in the Electric Shop and said, “We have to win this contest! That Pizza should be ours! I need you to come up with the best screensaver you can that will blow the others away.” I gave him my usual answer when Andy asked me to do something (even when he was no longer my foreman). I said, “Ok, I’ll see what I can do.”
I went down our list of safety slogans looking for the best slogan I could find. Here are a few of them:
“Having an accident is never convenient, So always make Safety a key ingredient.”
“Take the time to do it right, Use your goggles, save your sight.”
“To take the lead in the ‘Safety Race’, You must pay attention to your work place.”
“Unsafe conditions can be resolved, If we all work together and get involved.”
After thumbing through the entire list, I knew we really needed something else. So, I began to think of alternate screen savers. One caught my attention. It was called “Spotlight”. It came with the “After Dark 2.0 Screensavers” (best known for the “Flying Toaster” screensaver). I had found a freeware version that did the same thing. You can see how the spotlight works at 7:15 on the video below (just slide the time bar over to 7:15):
For those who can’t view YouTube videos directly through the above picture, here is the direct link: “After Dark Screensavers“.
The spotlight screensaver basically turns your screen dark, then has a circle (or spotlight) where you can see the background screen behind it. It roams around on your desktop showing only that portion of your wallpaper at a time. You can adjust the size of the circle and the speed that it moves around the screen.
Taking our safety slogans, I began creating a wallpaper for the computer screen by filling it with little one liner safety slogans. I also added yellow flags to the wallpaper because that was a symbol for safety at our plant (for more information why see the post: “Power Plant Imps and Accident Apes“).
With the help of Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard (both Power Plant electricians), when I was finished the wallpaper looked like this:
I printed this out in black and white, but the slogans were written in different colors.
I arranged Andy’s icons on his desktop so they were around the edge of the screen. That way they didn’t cover up the safety slogans. I set the speed of the spotlight to very slow and and the size of the spotlight so that it was just big enough to see each safety slogan. The effect worked out real well. Imagine a dark screen with a spotlight moving randomly around the screen exposing each safety slogan (and yellow flag… don’t forget about those) as it went.
Besides the electricians, no one else knew that I was working on this for Andy. As far as Alan Kramer knew, I was on his side in this contest. I even kept Toby O’Brien in the dark about it, because I knew that he was going to be one of the judges and even though he knew how much winning the Safety Pizza meant to me. I didn’t want to influence his decision. Besides, this Safety Screensaver was going to win. It was the coolest screensaver around. The trick was to keep it hidden from the other teams until it was time for the Safety Department to judge it.
I had the impression from Toby that he had purposely talked the Safety Department into this contest to give me a chance to win the Safety Pizza at our plant. Scott Hubbard and I had carpooled with Toby throughout the years we were trying to win that pizza, and I think he just felt our pain enough that when he was in the position, he was trying to pay us back for our effort.
The screensaver judging was done during the morning, and was going to be announced that afternoon during the monthly safety meeting. A short time before the Safety Meeting began, Toby O’Brien came up to me and in an apologetic manner told me that the safety slogan winner probably wasn’t going to be who I thought it was. I figured that was because he thought I was hoping Alan Kramer’s team was going to win since that was my team. I just smiled back and told him that it was all right.
It was announced during the safety meeting that Andy Tubbs’ team won the contest, and all the electricians were happy. I think it was at that point that Alan Kramer realized that I had helped Andy with his screensaver. He looked at me as if I had betrayed him. I said something like, “Andy Tubbs has been trying to win a safety contest for years. It’s about time.”
The following week, when Andy’s team was given their prize for winning the safety screensaver contest, he brought two pizzas to the electric shop and we all sat around the table relishing in the pepperonis. We had finally received our Power Plant Safety Pizza! Even though I really like pizza anytime, the pizza that day tasted especially good.
I don’t know if we ever told Toby that when Andy Tubbs team won, we all won. Maybe some day he will read this story and know…. “The Rest of the Story”.
In case you can’t read all the little safety slogans on the wallpaper, here is a list of them:
Safety First. Be Safe. Safety begins here. Watch your step. Check your boundaries. Have Good Posture. Haste makes waste. Bend your knees. Avoid Shortcuts. Be Safe or Be Gone. Know your chemicals. Check O2 before Entry. Use Safety Guards. Know your limit. Report Spills. Safety is job #1. Beware of Pinch Points. Buckle up. Safety is no accident. Impatience kills. Strive to Survive. Protect your hearing. Use the right tool. Keep your back straight. Drive friendly. Keep Aisles clear. Don’t take chances. Prevention is the cure. Safety is your job. Communicate with others. Always tie off. Don’t cut corners. Wear your glasses. Act safe. Barricade Hazards. Use your respirator. Be responsible. Lock it out. Plug your ears. Stay fit. Safety never hurts. Don’t block exits. Be aware of your surroundings. Safety is top priority. Don’t be careless. Pick up your trash. Think Ahead. Slippery When Wet. Think Safety. Don’t hurry. Report Hazards. Wear your gloves. Save your eyes. No Running. Wear your Safety Belt. Plan Ahead. Avoid Backing. Use your Safety Sense. Good Housekeeping. Get Help. Keep Cylinders Chained. Protect your hands. Don’t improvise. Beware of hazards. Get the Safety Habit. Be Prepared. Gear up for Safety. Use your PPE. Do not litter. Zero Accidents. Don’t be a Bead (a reference to Bill Green’s jar of beads). Eat Right. Keep Floors clean. Watch out. Safety Pays. Drive Safely. Take Safety Home. Know Safety, use Safety. Read the MSDS. Cotton Clothes Prevents Burns. Follow the rules. Wear your hard hat. Watch out for your buddy. Test your Confined space. Remember the Yellow Flag. Safe Mind, Sound Body. Clean up your spills. Don’t take risks. Beware of Ice. Watch out for the other guy. Obey the rules. Don’t tailgate. Circle for safety. Safety Me, Safety You. Protect your Toes. Knowing is not enough. When in doubt, Check it out. Falls can kill. Be Alert! Avoid slick spots. Safety is a team event. Almost is not enough. Avoid the Noise. Give Safety your all. And finally… This Space for Rent.
One of the most exhilarating moments a Power Plant Man may experience is when, while wearing a pair of high voltage gloves, they crank the handle of a High Voltage Switch closed in a substation. The booming sound of the electricity crackling overhead and the echoing off of the hills and trees a mile away comes rumbling back! I never could understand why the training required to be a certified substation switchman had to be the most boring class a Power Plant Man had to sit through.
I remember when I was young, every child had their own trampoline in their bedroom. When your mom or dad confined you to your room, you could always find entertainment by jumping on the bed. Then throwing up the blanket and letting it fall in a way that created a big blanket bubble, then you could plop yourself down in the middle as the mushroomed bed sheet burped the air out.
Once when I was young, my dad took my brother and me to Saint Louis because he was attending a meeting. He was in the meeting most of the day, as we stayed in the hotel room. This was back when you didn’t have 24 hour cable TV. The day whizzed by as my brother and I jumped around between the two beds. Leaping as high as we could, and pouncing from one bed to the other. When our dad arrived after a day in meetings, he didn’t find a couple of young boys staring at the walls, he found two worn out kids who had just had one of the funnest days we could remember…. being cooped up in a hotel room all day long.
Contrast that to the first time I attended Substation Switchman Certification training.
The instructor explained at the beginning of the day long class that he was required to read through the company policies and procedures on substation switching before we were allowed to take the test. There were a number of procedures that were practically duplicates of each other, so we had to listen to the same boring documents being read to us over and over again throughout the day. This didn’t include just the switching procedures in the switchyard. It also included the clearance procedures required before and after the switching has occurred.
Six hours later, I thought my eyelids had grown little lead weights on the end of every eyelash (and if you have ever seen how many eyelashes I have, you would know how serious of a situation this was).
That wasn’t the worst of it. Switchman training back then was required every two years. Think about this. I was an electrician for 18 years. During that time, I had to take Switchman training 7 times! Each time the instructor had to read the entire text of the switchman policies and procedures. Think of the most boring lecture or sermon you ever had to sit through, then multiply it by six, and you will understand the agony we had to endure each time to receive the Certified Switchman card for our wallets.
During the summer of 1995, after we had downsized to where we only had 7 electricians at the large coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, we decided we needed to train more operators to be switchman. After all, they had the clearance part down already, and basically did lower voltage switching in the switchgears. It made a lot of sense.
We told the switchman trainer that we wanted to add some hands-on practical training to the course to try to make training more exciting. Andy Tubbs, the foreman who was also an electrician and long time switchman, worked to arrange it so that we could have the operators switch out a section of the substation after they had learned the boring part of their training.
After an entire day of sitting in a classroom. The switchmen trainees had a real life opportunity to watch and experience switching out a real section of the substation. They could wear the high voltage gloves and open the switches.
We also took switching orders and added some errors to them, and asked the students to review the orders to see if they would approve the switching before they went to the substation and to make any corrections necessary. This is one of the steps a switchman is required to do before going out to switch. They have to review each step of the switching and approve them.
Two years later in 1997, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City and become certified as a Switchman Trainer. I remember going to the training center just north of Norman Oklahoma where I met our instructor, Harry McRee. He was a trainer in his early 50’s. He had been a safety trainer for years.
Harry explained to us that he would like to make the switchman training more interesting, but the company’s requirements demanded that all of the documentation be read through entirely every time a person was re-certified. Since the documentation took most of the day to read, his hands were sort of tied when it came to making the class more interesting.
To give you an idea… here is how many steps it takes just to take a clearance on a breaker in a plant…. We had to review each step of the process:
As a side note… In 1993, I had received a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans. My emphasis was on Adult Education. So, when I went back to the plant and began developing the class for our plant, I thought I should be able to come up with some way to make the class more interesting.
I also thought that if it was possible for a couple of kids to keep themselves entertained all day just with a couple of beds in a hotel room, then something should be able to be done to make this ultra-boring class, more entertaining.
Since I was the “computer person” at the plant, I decided that I would use my computer as a learning aid. I went to our substations and took pictures of everything I could find, so I could add them to a PowerPoint Project. PowerPoint was fairly new at the time, so I decided to dazzle the class with animated fly-ins and popups, and cool transitions. I also consolidated the various documents so that I wasn’t repeating myself throughout the day. I brought my computer from home and set it up in the conference room.
I also employed my daughter Elizabeth to help me. I figured if she could teach some of the training, and the students could see that even a seven year old can learn this, then maybe they would be a little more interested. I had recently bought a new Ball Camera for my computer. It was a new thing to have a camera on your computer. They weren’t really used for things like Skype back then, since you only had 28,800 baud modems, which doesn’t give you very much bandwidth. So needless to say. No one in the room knew what that little white ball was.
I had my daughter dress up in one of my wife’s lab coats and wear over-sized glasses to give her the look of a teacher. Then we created a number of short film clips that gave specific instructions. Here are a few screenshots from the short videos we made:
At any moment her video would come flying in and she would often say….. “Look Class! I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”
She would also fly in and say, “Pay Attention! This is on the test!”
There were still a couple of videos that the switchmen-in-training had to watch that were boring, especially since we had all watched them many times in our careers. I knew that during the videos, many would be falling asleep, so, I took my ball camera with me and kept it sitting on the table while we went through the training. No one really knew what it was.
While we were watching the first boring video, I sat looking at my computer monitor, which no one in the room could see. What I was doing was acting like I wasn’t paying any attention to anyone when I really was. I had the ball camera in my hand. I was looking for anyone who was dozing off. Then I would take a movie clip of them nodding off. Some fighting to keep their eyes open. Others leaning way back in their chair with their mouth hanging wide open fast asleep.
I took the movie clips and put them about 5 slides later in the next section we were going to cover. Just when they were ready to be bored from the next section of the class, I would present a slide to them with movie clips of them sleeping during the videos and Elizabeth would slide in from the bottom of the slide and say, “Look Class! I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”
That was the clincher. Once they realized that I had taken movie clips of them sleeping in the class just a few minutes earlier, they were all wide awake the rest of the day. No one dared to nod off again. It worked great! When the second video was playing, you can be sure that everyone in the room was wide-eyed and wide awake.
When it came to the part where they took their test, they could use any notes they had taken. Since Elizabeth had popped in and notified them about the parts that were going to be on the test, they were all prepared. Here is a copy of the test they took:
Isn’t it funny that back then, you regularly used your Social Security Number for things like this? We wouldn’t think of doing that today.
Later, after the class was over, Harry McRee, the trainer that had trained me in Oklahoma City, had heard how I had made the class interesting. So, he called me and asked if he could come out to our plant and see what I had done. When he arrived I showed him all my material and gave him a copy of the PowerPoint and videos. I told him he was free to use them however he wanted.
Because of this, I was asked to train the Power Plant Man in some other areas including general Windows training. When a job to be the “official” trainer opened up at the plant, I applied for it…. but that is a topic for another post. See the post “Power Plant Train Wreck“.
The electricians on our crew must have heard Gary Wehunt say the phrase “…of a morning” a dozen times before someone brought it to his attention. I think it was Andy Tubbs while we were sitting in our Monday Morning Safety Meeting. He said, “What did you just say?” Gary repeated himself, “I do ‘such and such’ of a morning.” “Of a morning? What does that mean?” Gary asked, “What? Of a Morning. Isn’t that right?”
It’s true that there is a certain “Power Plant Speak” that seems unique to people that work in factories, power plants, line crews and other such situations. I can speak only for the power plants where I worked. I would describe the type of speech as “colorful”. Not in a vulgar sort of way, but in a flowery way.
Power Plant Men in general didn’t curse as you may see them depicted in movies. The majority of Power Plant Men I worked with had too much respect for each other to use foul language, and those that did usually apologized when something slipped out. Saying things like, “Sorry Kev, you had to hear that.”
I was watching a show the other day on TV with my wife and it showed a group of men using vulgar language while talking about women. I told my wife, I have worked around men in a number of Power Plants and I have never heard someone talk disrespectfully about women like that in the workplace. For the most part, the men and women at a Power Plant are the cream of the crop when it comes to decency.
The people who had a tendency to use foul language were the “old-timers”. Especially if they were an old-timer supervisor. It seems that the culture before the 80’s was that using foul language was a normal way of communicating. Even upper level supervisors would yell at people using curse words that today would seem very inappropriate. I just caught the tail end of that, and it seemed to come mainly from the construction hands that were building the plant. See the post: “A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“.
When I say that Power Plant Speak is colorful, I mean that the words they use are… unique.
Sometimes Power Plant Men used inappropriate words without knowing what they meant. When something isn’t working properly, a Power Plant Man may say that it is “Gilflirted”. This was a common word used by Power Plant Men, but few of them actually knew the exact meaning. When Martin Prigmore told Diana Brien and me what it really meant one day, I didn’t believe him (yes. “me” is the proper word to use in this sentence. Not “I”).
He said his grandfather had told him what it meant in relation to a horse. According to the Urban Dictionary, it is exactly what Martin said. To us, Gilflirted just meant, “It’s fouled up.” Almost no one knew the wiser. (Before you go looking for the exact meaning, let me just say that it is a disgusting word. You should probably pass this one up. I wish I didn’t know). I remember my mom telling my sister when we were young not to use words and phrases when she didn’t understand the meaning. Now I know why.
I used to keep a dictionary of words that Charles Foster, my first electric foreman and my foremost friend used that were “variations” of words that he meant to say.
Charles knew that he didn’t say some words correctly, and he especially didn’t write them well. He had dyslexia so he was never a good speller. I would check his spelling before he would send an important memo to someone. Here is a post about when we figured out that Charles was Dyslexic: “Personal Power Plant Hero – Charles Foster“.
Here are some of the words Charles would use: Sipherned: This meant to Siphon something. Dasunul: This meant Decimal. Telepoly (prounounced similar to Monopoly): This meant Telepathy (this was my favorite). When we would both be thinking the same thing at the same time (which was often), Charles would say, “We’ve got that Telepoly going on here.”
Here are some more words…. Litatur: Literature. Tindency: Tendency. Stratety: Strategy. etc…I think you get the point.
So, when the company offered a course called: Practical English and the Command of Words… We jumped on it. Maybe this way we could learn us some good English!
This is probably the best English course I ever had…. um… I mean “took”. Geez. You can see, I learned a lot…. I still have a tough time when it comes to writing run-on sentences. This course has 48 lessons each of which would make a great Monday Morning Safety Meeting Topic… only it doesn’t deal with Safety, unless… you could argue… It is a safer workplace when people can communicate better….. okay. Yeah. I know. That’s stretching it. But it would be fun. It was created by the “English Language Institute of America, Inc.”
Each topic in this course had an interesting title, like “Negatives from Positives”. Or “Dangerous Resemblances”… Sounds like a murder mystery. How about “Perplexing Plurals”? “Fragrance, Odor or Aroma?” — Yeah. The title of an English class.
I had a couple of takeaways from this course that I still remind myself today. The first one is to not end a sentence with a preposition. Because a Preposition implies that something is supposed to follow…. I remember I used to bug my foreman Alan Kramer when he would end sentence with “….at”, which seemed to be the most common preposition ending word at the plant. “Where’re you at?” I used to repeat the word “At” whenever Alan would finish a sentence with “At”. I know I was driving him up the wall. The second one was “….to”. Like “Where’re you going to?”
In order to get around ending a sentence with the word “At”, I remember the foremen trying to change the sentence like this…. “Where’re you at… Kevin?” That’s great! The sentence no longer ended with a preposition, but it still wasn’t “King’s English” was it? <smile>
The easy solution to this is to stop the contraction “Where’re you” and spread it out to make “Where are you?” No need for the “At”. The contraction is what confuses the sentence. You can say “Where are you going?” instead of “Where’re you going to?” Just don’t contract “where’re” and drop the preposition.
Okay. Another lesson about prepositions is that if you can’t just drop it, then you are probably using the wrong words and you need to reword the entire sentence… Take this sentence… “Who do you work for?” You wouldn’t just say, “Who do you work?” That’ doesn’t sound right… “Work” is not the right word. What you are really asking is, “Where are you employed?” — oh… sorry for the lesson…. English class is dismissed… by the way… in all my years in school, I never made an A in English. The best grade I had was a B+.
The second “takeaway” from this course was to never use the word “Get” or “Got” or one of their other words like “getting” or”gotten”, etc. There is always a better word. “Get” could mean too many different things. “I’ve got it.” What does that mean? I figured it out? I found it? I retrieved it? or even… “Enough already!” How about “I have it”. there’s a contraction again “I’ve” that has caused a person to throw in an extra word.
Whenever you want to use the word “Get” stop and ask yourself, what do I really want to say. there is always a better word. It is annoying because script writers for television shows should learn this lesson. Every day (almost), I hear someone on TV say, “I’ve got to have it!” (instead of “I need it”) or some such thing. Once you start listening for it, you hear it everywhere. Oh. Sorry… I did say… English Class dismissed… didn’t I?
I’m not sure how many Power Plant Men took the English course, but when it was over, once while walking through the Welding Shop at the beginning of break time I heard out of the corner of my ear, one welder asking the other…. “Tea?” My first thought was “Geez! They really took this “English” stuff seriously… until I heard the follow-up question…. “Sweet or UnSweet?”
There was another course that I think every person at the plant had to take. It was called “The Path To Dialogue”. Well, this says “The Path Of Dialogue”, but it seemed like we always called it the “Path To Dialogue”, which seems more like going down a path, I suppose.
The course talked about each section of that diagram on the first page. Let me blow up the diagram for you… (No! Not like that!).
Down at the bottom, you can see the different ways that people use to try to kill the conversation. Recognize any of these? One side is withdrawing and the other side is, “Meet me out behind the barn (or in the elevator, as the case may be).” The course started with the bottom of the pyramid and worked upward.
The course actually taught the student how to ask questions in a way that promoted a dialogue instead of working to crush it. This is a very useful course that was given to us by the Praxis Institute in 1995. Everyone took it, but not everyone bought into the idea.
Just as during the Confined Space training, a few people who were in upper management (like Jim Arnold for instance) didn’t think things like this applied to them. “A ‘Path To Dialogue’ is fine and dandy for the peons that work for me, but all I need to do is tell you what to do and the discussion is over.” The rest of us learned some very valuable lessons from this course. Oh. Just as a reminder… Here is Jim Arnold in all of his glory:
Years later, what I learned in this course comes in handy in my job today. I run into a lot of things like “Monologuing” and “Hiding”. The worst one is “Politicking”. I still have to check myself to make sure I’m not doing the same thing.
I have always thought that the True Power Plant Men were made from “The Right Stuff”. Taking these courses didn’t make them better people. They were great men and women all along. These courses just helped them express themselves better so that other people could understand what great people worked at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
The thought of educating skilled labor to be better speakers and to give them the tools to communicate better with each other may slip the minds of plant managers around the globe. I think that when a company steps up to the plate and shows that educating their own employees is an important part of their culture it tells the workers that they are respected.
The Electric Company always had a pro-education policy. They would pay for your school as long as it had something to do with working for an Electric Company. I had taken advantage of this benefit many times. I took a lot of Vo-tech courses since we had a nice Vo-tech school just down the road from my house.
Around the year 1995, this policy became even more generous. They said that they would pay 100% of the tuition and fees for employees attending an accredited school, and they would even pay 75% of the books required for the courses. They even broadened the types of degrees you could take to almost anything.
Living in a college town, I found this to be a very enticing proposition. I didn’t act on it right away. I suppose I was waiting for a certain catalyst to kick me out the door.
The catalyst came one day during the spring of 1997 when my wife Kelly, who was working on a Masters for Healthcare Administration at Oklahoma State University, came home one night from class and said, “Kevin. We had a speaker in class today who owns a software company here in Stillwater. He described the type of employee he wants to hire, and he described you perfectly. You need to go back to school and get a degree in Computer Science! What do you think?”
I had to think about this…. Going back to college, while working is a difficult task. I did that before when I obtained my Masters in Religious Education from Loyola a few years earlier. That took three years. I always loved programming computers, only I had considered it more of a hobby than a job. This would require a full four years of school if it was even possible, since I would have to work it around my job. All of these questions went through my mind…
I thought and thought. Then I thought about it some more…. Then…. 5 seconds after Kelly had asked me what I thought…. I had made up my mind…. “Okay. I’ll do it.” I’ll tell you more about that experience in some other posts.
When I finally was enrolled, it turned out that since I had already taken English back when I was earning my degree in Psychology in 1982, I didn’t have to take it again! That was good… I was ready this time though. I had taken the “Power Plant King’s English!” It entitled me to continue working at the “Power Plant Palace” just up the road north of town.
Originally posted January 18, 2013:
The day I became an electrician at the coal-fired power plant, I suddenly became an expert in electricity. I think it was on Tuesday, just one day after joining the electric shop that I was walking through the welding shop when someone stopped me and asked me how they would wire their living room with different light switches at different corners and make it work correctly. As if I had been an electrician for years. Luckily I was just finishing a house wiring course at the Indian Meridian Vo-Tech in Stillwater, Oklahoma and they had us figure out problems just like those.
Within the first week, George Alley brought a ceiling fan to the shop that he had picked up somewhere and was wondering if we could get it to work. My foreman Charles Foster thought it would be a good small project for me to work on to help me learn about electrical circuits.
After all, this ceiling fan could go slow, medium and fast, and it could go forward or reverse. Only at the moment, all it would do was sit there and hum when you hooked up the power. — So that was my first “unofficial” project, since the main goal was to make George happy so that he would help us out when we needed something special from the mechanics.
When I was a janitor, I had observed the electricians preparing to go to work in the morning, and often, one of them would go to the print cabinets at one end of the shop and pull out a blueprint and lay it across the work table and study it for a while. Then they would either put it back or fold it and put it in their tool bucket and head out the door to go do a job. Now, it was my turn.
Andy Tubbs was one of the two people that played the best jokes on me when I was a janitor. Larry Burns was the other person, and he was the person I was replacing as he had moved to another plant. Andy was the one that had taken the handle off of my push broom the moment I had my back turned so that when I turned around to grab my broom, only the broom head was on the floor, while the broom handle was across the counter by the lab, and Andy was across the other side of the room trying to act like he wasn’t paying attention, but with an expression like he had just played a darn good joke. — I actually had to go back into the bathroom I was cleaning so that I could laugh out loud. I was really impressed by Andy’s ability to play a good joke.
While I’m on the subject, shortly after I became an electrician, I was sitting in the electric shop office talking to Charles when he stopped and said, “Wait…. Listen….” We paused, waiting for something…. A few seconds later, the sound of a hoot owl came over the PA system (what we called the “Gray Phone”). Charles said, It’s an interesting coincidence that the only time the perfect sound of a hoot owl comes over the Gray Phone is when Andy Tubbs is riding in an elevator by himself or with a close friend.
I had been sent with Andy Tubbs and Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), to go to the coal yard and figure out why some circuit for the train gate was not working. Andy had pulled out the blueprints and was studying them. I came up alongside him and looked at all the blue lines running here and there with circles with letters and numbers, and what I recognized as open and closed switches….
Andy stopped and gave me a momentary lecture on the nature of electricity. It was so perfectly summed up, that for years whenever I thought about the nature of electricity, I always began with remembering what Andy told me. He said this:
“Think of electricity like water in a hose. Voltage is the water pressure. Amperage is the amount of water going through the hose. You can have the nozzle on the end of the hose shut off so that no water is coming out and then you have no amperage, but you will still have the pressure as long as it is turned on at the source so you will still have voltage.”
“In these diagrams, you just have to figure out how the water is going to get from one side to the other. These circles are things like relays or lights or motors. When the electricity makes it through them, they turn on as long as the electricity can make it all the way to the other side.”
That was it! That was my lesson in ‘lectricity. All I needed to know. The blueprints were big puzzles. I loved working puzzles. You just had to figure out how you were going to get something to run, and that meant that certain relays had to pickup to close switches that might pick up other relays to close other switches. I found that most of the electricians in the shop were good at working all sorts of puzzles.
Andy went to the cabinet and grabbed one of the Simpson multimeters and a handset for a telephone that had red and black wires wrapped around it.
I was puzzled by this at first. I thought I would just wait to see what we did with it instead of ask what it was for. We grabbed our tool buckets (which also doubled as a stool and tripled as a trash can as needed), and put them in the substation truck. The other truck was being manned by the designated electrician truck driver for that week. We needed a truck that we could drive around in without having to hold up the truck driver.
We drove to the coalyard and went into the dumper switchgear. Andy and Diane opened up a large junction box that was full of terminal blocks with wires going every which way in an orderly fashion. They located a couple of wires, and Andy unwrapped the wires from the handset while Diane removed the screws holding the wires to the terminal block. Then Andy clipped one wire from the telephone handset to each of the two wires and handed me the phone.
Diane told me that they were going to drive down toward the train gate where the railroad tracks come into the plant and try to find these wires on the other end. So, what they needed me to do was to talk on the phone so when they find my voice, they will know that they have the right wires. Diane said, “Just say anything.” Then they left the switchgear and I could hear them drive away in the truck.
Well. This was my opportunity to just talk to no one for a while without interruption. How many times do you get to do that in one day? Probably only when you are on the way to work and back again if you aren’t carpooling with anyone. Or you’re sittin’ on your “thinkin’ chair” in a single occupant restroom. So, I just kicked into Ramblin’ Ann mode and let myself go. I believe my monologue went something like this:
“The other day I was walking through a field, and who should I run across, but my old friend Fred. I said, ‘Well, Hi Fred, how is it going?’ and Fred told me that he was doing just fine, but that he had lost his cow and was wondering if I could help him look for it. I told him I couldn’t right now because I was helping some people find a wire at the moment, and if I became distracted, we might not only lose the cow, but we might lose the wires as well, so I better just keep on talking so that my friends on the other end can find the wires they are looking for. After that I went to the store and I picked up three cans of peas. I thought about getting four cans of peas but settled on three and brought them to the checkout counter, and while I was waiting in line I noticed that the little boy in front of me with his mom was looking at me as if he wanted to have one of my cans of peas, so I quickly made it clear to him that I was buying these cans of peas for myself by sliding them further away from him and glaring at him. Luckily the boy wasn’t persistent otherwise I would have broken down and given him a can of peas because he was looking kind of hungry and I was feeling sorry for him, though, I didn’t want him to know how I was feeling, so I put on a grim expression….”
Needless to say… My monologue went on for another 15 minutes. Yes… .15 minutes. I had expected Andy and Diane to have returned earlier, but I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to find the other end of the wires, so I just kept on ramblin’ to the best of my ability. It’s like what it says in the Bible. If we wrote down everything I said, it would have filled many volumes. Being a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann came in handy that day. For more about Ramblin’ Ann, you can read the following post:
When Andy and Diane returned they said that they had found the wires right away, but that they had sat there for a while just listening to me ramble. They said I was cracking them up. They also mentioned that they thought I was completely crazy. Well. I was glad that they found the wires and that my rambling abilities had come in handy.
Five months after I had joined the electric shop, Andy and I were sent to Oklahoma City to learn about a new kind of electric troubleshooting. It was called “Digital Electronics”. I had just finished my electronics class at the Vo-Tech, and so I was eager to put it into practice. Andy and I went to a two day seminar where we learned to troubleshoot what was basically a PC motherboard of 1984. We used a special tool called a digital probe and learned how the processor worked with the memory chips and the bios. It wasn’t like a motherboard is today. It was simple.
It was just designed for the class so that we could use the digital probe to follow the different leads from the chips as the electric pulses turned on and off.
At the time I was thinking that this was a waste of time. I had been learning all about troubleshooting electronic circuits from Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick. I couldn’t see how this was going to be useful. I didn’t know that within a couple of years, most of our electronic circuits in the precipitator controls were all going to be replaced with digital controls, and this was exactly what I was going to need to know.
So, Andy and I spent two days learning all the basics of how new computers were going to be working. This was the same year that Michael Dell was beginning his new computer company further down I-35 in Austin Texas. Who would have thought that 18 years later I would be working for Dell. But that’s another lifetime away…
Comments from the original post:
Early in my career at the Seminole Plant I learned when someone paged you on the gray phone, you should always check the earpiece of the phone before you put it on your ear – it might be full of clear silicone calk (or worse). Also, at the end of the day when you reach to pick up your lunch box, you should pick it up gently. Someone could have slipped a full bottle of mercury (like 20 pounds) in it. This prevents you from pulling the handle off your lunch box or hearing it crash to the floor, smashing everything in its path. It’s amazing what Power Plant Men are capable of doing.
Plant Electrician January 19, 2013:
We used hand lotion in the electric shop for the gray phone trick. I remember Andy catching an unsuspecting operator in the main switchgear more than once.
Hand lotion is much nicer than silicone caulk!
Original post June 8, 2013:
Great people in history are known for their great quotes. Take Albert Einstein for instance. We automatically think of the one most famous thing that Einstein said whenever we hear his name. We think of “E equals M C squared.” (which explains the direct relationship between energy and matter).
In more recent history, we have Gomer Pyle saying: “Golly”, only it was drawn out so that it was more like “Go-o-o-o-llyyyyyy” (which expresses the improbable relationship between Gomer and the real Marines).
Then there was the famous line by officer Harry Callahan when he said…. “Go Ahead. Make My Day!” (which demonstrates the exact relationship showing how guns don’t kill people. People kill people).
Even more recently, we heard the famous words of Arnold Jackson while talking to his brother when he said, “What you talkin’ ’bout Willis?” (which supports the commonly held understanding that ‘Inquiring minds want to know”).
Great people are known for their great quotes.
This is true in the power plant kingdom as well. I have passed on the imcomparable wisdom of Sonny Karcher in the post: Power Plant Innovations and Imitations of Sonny Karcher. When you told him something that he found totally amazing, he would look you right in the eye with an expression of total amazement and would say, “Well….. S__t the bed!” (only, he would include the word “hi” in the middle of that second word).
I had to run home and try it on my parents during dinner one night when I first heard this as a summer help…. at first they were too proud of me to speak. When they couldn’t contain their amazement any longer, they both burst out into laughter as I continued eating my mashed potatoes.
When I became an electrician, I belonged to a group of wise souls with a multitude of quotes. I would stare in amazement as I tried to soak them all into my thick skull. Every once in a while one would squeeze in there and I would remember it.
When talking about the weather, Diana Lucas (later Brien, formerly Laughery) would say, “Chili today, Hot Tamale”. I know there were a lot more like that one.
I invite any power plant men that remember these phrases to leave a comment at the bottom of this post with a list of phrases used, because I liked to forget them so that the next time I would hear them, it would be like hearing them for the first time all over again.
Andy Tubbs would say something like “Snot me. Statue” (I am not sure if I am even saying that right…). I know that Andy had a dozen other phrases like this one.
There was an old man named John Pitts that used to work at the old Osage Plant. I wrote about this plant in an earlier Post called Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace. He would come out to our plant to work out of the electric shop on overhaul to make a few extra dollars.
One day at the end of the day, when we were all leaving for the parking lot, Andy Tubbs stepped out of the door shaking his head as if in disbelief. He had a big grin on his face, so I asked him why.
Andy said that he had asked John Pitts “What d’ya know.” John had said something that didn’t make sense, so Andy had asked him what he had said. I asked Andy what John had said. Andy told me that John Pitts had said, “It takes a big dog to weigh a ton.” When this confused Andy, he asked him for clarification, and John had replied, “Well. You asked me what I know, and I know that it takes a big dog to weigh a ton.” — You can mark that one down as a famous quote from John Pitts.
Our A foreman was a tall thin black man named Bill Bennett. He would walk into the electric shop office during lunch and sit down next to me. He would look at me with a look of total disgust. Shaking his head with disappointment, he would say to me…. “You Scamp!” He might throw in another line like, “You disgust me.” (with the emphasis on the word “disgust) or he might say “You slut.” It was times like these that I knew that Bill really cared about me. I mean… he wouldn’t say those things to just anybody.
Bill accidentally said that last phrase to Diana when she had walked into the room just after he had graced me with those words. She stood there for about one second stunned that Bill had said that to her, then she turned around and walked right back out.
I asked him what he had said, because his back was to me at the time, and he had said it under his breath like he had to me and I couldn’t hear what he said…. but I did catch the look on Diana’s face, and it wasn’t a happy expression.
He told me, and he said he probably just made a terrible mistake. I’m sure once Diana thought about it twice she would have realized that this was Bill’s way of passing on his endearment toward you.
Charles Foster was my foreman for my first year as an electrician trainee. He was my friend for all 18 years I spent as an electrician. I had the habit when I was trying to think about something of starting my sentence with the word “Well….” and then pausing. Charles would invariably finish my thought with “…that’s a deep subject.”
The first time, my reaction was like Andy’s when John Pitt told him that it took a big dog to weigh a ton. I said, “What?” He replied. “Well…. That’s a deep subject.” Ok. I know…. I’m slow.
Each morning when Charles would walk into the electric shop office, or when I would walk in and Charles would already be there, I would say, “good morning.” Charles would say, “Mornin’ Glory.” In the time I was in the electric shop, I must have heard that phrase over 1,000 times.
One time we were on a major overhaul on Unit 1, and we were doing check out on all the alarms in the plant that weren’t specific to Unit 2. When you do that, you go to the various devices and mimic sending the alarm by either activating a device or putting a jumper across the contacts that would send in the alarm.
In order to perform this task, we found early on that there were two people in the shop that you couldn’t assign to this job. One person was Bill Ennis.
Bill Ennis was a middle aged (ok. well… older) fellow that owned a Coast-To-Coast store in Perry, Oklahoma.
The reason you couldn’t assign Bill to do alarm checks was best put by Bill Ennis himself. He said it like this. “I’m blind in one eye, and I can’t see out of the other.” This was Bill’s famous power plant quote. What he meant was that he was color blind in one eye and he was literally blind in the other. So, he really was “blind” in one eye, and couldn’t see out of the other.
In order to do alarm checks, you needed to be able to locate wires some times by color. Well… Green and red both look the same to Bill Ennis.
So, you see, that wouldn’t be good.
The other person you didn’t want to have doing alarm checks was Charles Foster. As we found out later, this was because he has Dyslexia. So, even if he could read the 62 in the picture above, he might see it as a 26.
During alarm checks one person has to stay in the control room and watch the alarm monitor and the alarm printouts. So, as we would send in alarms to the control room the person in the control room would reply to us telling us which alarms came in. He would read the number on the screen or the printout.
In the spring of 1986, the person that was elected to sit in the control room all day and watch the alarm panel was Gary Wehunt. He was new at the plant, and didn’t know his way around much, so it was easier for him to perform this job.
The only problem was that Gary had a habit of not paying attention. He would either be daydreaming or he would be talking to someone in the control room about something other than the benefits of having a reliable alarm monitoring system.
So, while Dee (Diana), Andy and I were running around the plant sending alarms into the control room, we would be sitting there waiting for a response from Gary telling us what alarms he received. When he wouldn’t reply, we might call on the radio…. Gary, did you get an alarm?
Gary would always reply the same way. “Just now came in.” Well… we knew it didn’t take that long for an alarm to come into the control room, as the control room needed to know immediately when there was an alarm. So, some times we would send the same alarm about 20 times in a row one right after the other waiting for Gary to tell us that he received the alarm.
Finally we would just have to key the radio to call Gary, and he would jump in there and say, “Just now came in.” We had about 2,000 alarms to check, and you want to be able to move from alarm to alarm rapidly once you finally make it to a position where there are a number of alarms in the same area. But this was slowing us down.
We tried different ways to “remind” Gary that we needed to know immediately when the alarms came in, and we needed to have him give us the number of the alarm as well. But all during the overhaul, we would receive the same response from Gary…. “Just now came in.”
The last phrase that I will mention was said by Mike Rose. He was an Englishman that had moved to the U.S. from Canada where he had worked with the railroad. He pointed out that a Diesel Locomotive is really an electrical generator. A diesel engine on a train is really pulling the train using electricity generated by a turbine generator turned by a diesel engine.
I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I remember the phrase well, as it became a well used phrase in our shop after we heard it for the first time from Mike Rose. The phrase was, “Ain’t my mota.” (in this case “mota” is a slang word for motor).
So, Mike was replying to a comment that some motor was not working properly, or had burned up all together by saying “Ain’t my mota.” Which meant, “it isn’t my worry.” Actually, this was pretty much Mike’s philosophy of life altogether.
Art Hammond and I would jokingly use the phrase, “Ain’t my mota.” When faced with an obvious task that was our worry. We might stop in the middle of our work and look at one another and say, “Well…. It ain’t my mota.” then continue working away while we giggled like little kids.
When I was working in Global Employee Services Support at Dell, where I work today (now I work for General Motors), during a particular project our project team had come up with the phrase, “Nobody’s gonna die.” Which meant that when we go live with our project, if something goes wrong, everything will be all right, because… “Nobody’s gonna die.” Meaning that it isn’t going to be so bad that we can’t fix it.
When the project was over we were given tee-shirts that said on the back, “Nobody Died”. This phrase reminds me of Mike Rose’s phrase “Ain’t my Mota.”
I tried to remember any phrases I came up with myself, but I’m either just not that creative, or I have just “forgotten more than I ever knew” (which is an actual phrase used by my mother once). I was more into singing songs like Richard Moravek, when he would sing “Nestle’s makes the very best Chocolate” with Jay Harris at the Muskogee Power plant each morning before going to work.
I would break out into song by belting out the Brady Bunch song, or the Beverly Hillbillies, or some such thng. I would also make some songs up like the one about Ronnie Banks on the Labor Crew to the tune of the William Tell Overture (The Lone Ranger galloping song for the more western educated readers)…. by singing, “Ronnie Banks, Ronnie Banks, Ronnie Banks, Banks, Banks.”
Or I would sing the Wizard of Oz like this. “We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz, because because because because…. because because because because…” No… no great quotes from me.
Ok. I do remember borrowing a phrase from the movie, “Trouble with Angels.” with Haley Mills, when she would say, “Another Brilliant Idea.”
Only when I said it, it was usually for a very sarcastic reason…. For instance, (and I will write about this much later), I remember announcing on the radio on an open channel one day that this was “Another one of Jasper’s ‘Brilliant’ Ideas” I was called to his office later that day, but as you will see when I write that much later post, that it turned out it wasn’t because of the remark I had made on the channel I knew he was monitoring (much to my surprise).