Tag Archives: Backhoe

Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley

Originally posted February 25, 2012.  I added Larry’s Picture at the end:

When I first began working at the power plant (in 1979), one of the people I spent a good deal of time with was Larry Riley.  I was 18 and knew very little about  tools, equipment, power plants and how to speak in the Power Plant language.  I quickly found out that in those early days, when the plant was still under construction, a lot of people turned to Larry Riley when they were faced with an obstacle and didn’t know how to approach it.

Larry Riley was a 24 year old genius.  I was amazed by his vast knowledge of seemingly disparate areas of expertise.  When he was asked to do something, I never heard him say that he didn’t know how.  He just went and did it.  So, after I asked Larry how old he was, I asked him how long he had been at the plant.  He hadn’t been there very long, but he had worked in the construction department before transferring to the power plant.

Larry Riley already at the age of 24 had a beat up hard hat full of hard hat stickers.  One indicating that he was a certified industrial truck driver.  I think he had about 5 safety stickers and various other hard hat stickers.  He was a thin clean cut dark haired young man with a moustache that sort of reminded me of the Marlboro Man’s moustache.  He walked like he had a heavy burden on his back and he was rarely seen without a cigarette in his mouth.

Yep. That's the Marlboro Man

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I worked with Larry off and on throughout my years as a summer help and during that time Larry taught me the following things (to name a few):  How to drive a tractor.  How to mend a fence.  How to bleed the air out of a diesel engine’s fuel line (which is more important than you would think).  How to operate a brush hog (a large mower on the back of a tractor).  How to free a brush hog from a chain link fence after you get one of the bat wings stuck in one.  Tie rebar, and pour concrete and operate a Backhoe.

I remember asking Larry why a backhoe was called a backhoe.  I think Sonny Karcher was in the truck at the time.  You would have thought I had asked what year the War of 1812 was fought!  I’m sure you are all chuckling while reading this (especially all the power plant men).  But for those of you who are as green as I was, I’ll tell you.  A Backhoe is called a Backhoe because the Hoe is on the Back.  Gee.  Who would have thought?

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

Later when I was a full time employee and had worked my way from being a Janitor to being on the Labor Crew, Larry Riley became my foreman.  At that point on occassion I would call him “Dad”.  He would usually disown me and deny that he had anything to do with it.  On occassion when he would own up to being my dad, he would admit that when I was real little I was dropped on my head and that’s why I acted so odd (though, I don’t know to what behavior he was referring).

There was this other guy at the plant the first summer I was there that had the unique title of “Mill Wright”.  His name was Gary Michelson.  He evidently had gone to school, taken some tests and been certified as a Mill Wright and this probably brought him a bigger paycheck than the other regular workers as well as a much bigger ego.

Gary would spend days at a time at a band saw cutting out metal wedges at different angles so that he would have them all in his pristine tool box.  I worked with him a few times during my first summer as a summer help.  I will probably talk more about Gary in a later post, but just to put it plainly…  I could tell right away that he wasn’t a real “power plant man”.

The rest of the power plant men I’m sure would agree with me.  I wouldn’t have traded Larry Riley for ten Gary Michelsons unless I was trying to help some engineers change a light bulb (actually.  I have met some good engineers along the way.  Some of them very good.  But they were not the norm.  At least not those assigned to power plants).

I have mentioned some different things that Larry had taught me and if you remember, he was the person that I worked with on my second day at the plant when Sonny Karcher and Larry had taken me to the coalyard to fix the check valve (in my post about Sonny Karcher).  There will always be one day that first comes to my mind when I think about Larry.  This is what happened:

I drove a truck down to the Picnic area on the far side of the lake from the plant.  Jim Heflin drove a Backhoe down there.  I believe he was going to dig up some tree stumps that had been left over after the “engineers” in Oklahoma City had decided where to put all the trees in the area.

What the engineers in Oklahoma City did was this:  They cut down all of the trees that were in the picnic area and planted new trees.  Some of them not more than 15 or 20 feet away from a tree that had been there for 30 years and was a good size.  So, there were a lot of stumps left over from the big hearty trees that had been cut down that needed to be removed so that the sickly little twigs that were planted there could prosper and grow without feeling inadequate growing next to a full grown he-man tree.

Anyway.  I had climbed out of the truck and was making my way around the picnic area picking up trash and putting it in a plastic bag using a handy dandy homemade trash stabbing stick.  As Jim was making his way across the “lawn” (I use the word “lawn” loosely, since the area was still fairly new and was not quite finished) when he hit a wet spot.  The Backhoe was stuck in the mud.

There wasn’t much I could do but watch as Jim used the hoe to try to drag himself out.  He rocked the backhoe back and forth.  Use the stabilizers to pick up the backhoe while trying to use the scoop to pull it forward.  I would say he worked at it for about ten minutes (even though it seemed more like half an hour).  Eventually it was time for us to head back to the plant to go to break.

Back at the plant, Jim told Larry about his predicament and asked him if he would help him get the backhoe out of the mud.  Larry said he would come along and see what he could do.  At this point, I was thinking that he would jump in the Wench Truck and go down there and just pull him out.  Instead we just climbed in the pickup truck and headed back to the park (notice how it went from being a picnic area to a park in only three paragraphs?).

When we arrived, Larry climbed into the Backhoe after making his way across the vast mud pit that Jim had created while trying to free himself before.  He fired up the Backhoe…. cigarette in mouth…  then the most fascinating thing happened…  using both feet to work the pedals, and one hand working the controls in the front and the other hand working the levers in the back, Larry picked up the backhoe using the scoop and the hoe and stabilizers and cigarette all simultaneously, he walked the backhoe sideways right out of the mud pit and onto dry land just as if it was a crab walking sideways.  I would say it took no longer than three minutes from the time he started working the controls.  Jim just looked at me in amazement.  Patted me on the back, shook his head and said, “And that’s how it’s done.”

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

This is the best picture I could find of Jim Heflin

Now that I’m on the subject of Larry Riley on a backhoe, let me tell you another one.  I have seen Larry digging a ditch so that we could run some pipe for irrigation.  Now picture this.  The bucket on the backhoe is digging a hole in the hard red clay of Oklahoma, and Larry suddenly stops and says….. “I think I felt something”.  What? (I think) Of course you did, you are operating this machine that has the power to dig a big hole in the ground in one scoop like it was nothing and Larry said he felt something?

He climbed off of the backhoe, jumped down into the ditch he was creating, kicked some clods of dirt around and lo and behold, he had just scraped clean a buried cable.  He hadn’t broken it.  He had come down on it with the bucket and had somehow “felt” this cable buried under all that dirt.  I wonder what it felt like that told him he had encountered something that wasn’t just dirt.  I think the entire labor crew just went down on one knee before his greatness for a moment of silence – all right, so we didn’t really.  But we were somewhat  impressed.

The one thing that makes Larry a True Power Plant Man with all the rest is that he performed acts of greatness like what I described above with complete humility.  I never saw a look of arrogance in Larry’s face.  He never spoke down to you and he never bragged about anything.  To this day, I still picture Larry Riley working at the power plant working feats of magic that would amaze the rest of us as he thinks that he’s just doing another day’s work.  That’s the way it is with True Power Plant Men.

Since I first created this post two years ago, I have found a picture of Larry Riley taken many years after this story:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

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Power Plant Lady of the Labor Crew

Originally Posted on October 19, 2012:

In the Power Plant posts, I generally tend to focus on the Power Plant Men that taught their Power Plant culture to me while I was fortunate enough to grace the boilers and conveyors of the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the north central plains of Oklahoma. Every once in a while during this journey there were True Power Plant Ladies that came along that took their place right alongside the Power Plant Men.

The Women generally held their own when it came to the amount of work, their tenacity, and even for some, their ability to hit a spittoon from 6 feet. — Ok. I made up the part about hitting a spittoon.  Everyone just used the floor drains for spittoons in the early days before they became responsible for cleaning them out themselves, after the summer help found more grass to mow. — The choice spitting material was…. Sunflower seed shells.

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

In the first few years, Leta Cates worked out of the welding shop (I believe… Well, she hung around there a lot), and later became a clerk. Then there was Opal Brien who was in the maintenance shop and worked in the garage one year when I was a summer help. Of course, there was Darlene Mitchell who worked in the warehouse with Dick Dale, Mike Gibbs and Bud Schoonover.

There was also Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), who was one of the Electric Shop A team super heroes.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Later came Julienne Alley that became the “Mom” of the welding shop. Some more came and went…. Especially the person that we referred to as “Mom” while I was on labor crew. Doretta Funkhouser.

I have mentioned before that the evil plant manager Eldon Waugh enjoyed manipulating his minion’s (oh… I mean employee’s) personal lives as much as he could get away with without stirring up trouble downtown. So, one of the rules he had put in place was that no one on the janitor crew could be considered for another position at the plant until they had first moved to the labor crew.

There even came a ruling later in 1983 (from Eldon and/or Bill Moler) that if it was your turn to go to Labor Crew, and you were not able to, or didn’t for some reason more than once, then you would lose your job as janitor altogether. That remained the case until Darrell Low was able to quickly move from janitor to Operator after Eldon had lost his control over the people on labor crew that he wanted to keep there, making the rule obsolete (I’m sure we had been told the rule had come from Corporate headquarters anyway).

Once on the labor crew, it was very rare that anyone left this crew to go to another position in the plant. They usually had to leave the company altogether, or find a job at another plant in order to escape. This was especially true after the summer of 1982 when the oil boom went bust in Oklahoma making jobs harder to find, and less people left the plant to go somewhere else to work.  The phrase on the first Tuesday of every month was, “Did you see that line of cars outside the gate this morning?  Be lucky you have a job.”

So, when I finally made it to the labor crew, many of the team had been there for a very long time. Others I had worked with before because we were janitors together. This included Ronnie Banks and Jim Kanelakos. Other members of the labor crew were Ron Luckey, Chuck Moreland, Fred Crocker, Bob Lillibridge, Tom Kelly, Bill Cook, Charles Peavler and Doretta Funkhouser. Larry Riley was our foreman.

While on labor crew I was able to learn how to operate a backhoe. Though I never learned the backhoe magic of Larry Riley, I was able to scoop up bottom ash and dump it into the back of Power Plant Men’s pickup trucks that needed it to fill in the parts of their driveways that had washed out at home. The very first time I operated a backhoe, I noticed right away that the brakes didn’t operate very well. You really had to play with it in order to get backhoe to not roll forward.

Backhoe

Here is a picture of a Backhoe

That was ok, because I was just loading bottom ash from a pile into a dump truck and I could just bump the backhoe right up against the dump truck and empty the scoop into the bed. That was working real good until while I was waiting for the dump truck to return after bringing the bottom ash to the place where it was dumping the ash, Jim Harrison pulled up in a shiny new Dodge Pickup. I mean…. it was brand new! He backed up by me and signalled to me from inside his truck. I was waiting there with a scoop full of bottom ash (which is a gravelly looking substance) for the dump truck to return.

My first thought was oh boy…. I shouldn’t do this…. I can hardly stop this thing and I know I will probably run right into the side of Jim’s new truck and he’s going to have a fit. So, I did the only thing I could do. I proceeded to drive around to the side of Jim’s truck to pour the load of ash into the bed of his truck.

Now… either it was Jim’s guardian angel, or it was mine (protecting me from the bodily harm Jim may have inflicted on me out of stress had I put a big dent in the side of his new truck) that stopped the backhoe just at the right spot, I’ll never know for sure. But something did. The backhoe for once stopped right where I would have liked it to stop and I dumped the ash in the truck filling it to the brim. I waved to Jim, and he drove away.

Later when I went back to the Coal Yard Maintenance building (where the Labor Crew called home) I saw Jim in the office, so I went to talk to him. I smiled and said, “I hope I didn’t make you nervous dumping that ash in your truck.” Jim said “No.” It didn’t bother him one bit. He said he knew I could handle it.

So I told him that was the first time I had ever operated a backhoe and the brakes don’t work too well, and I wasn’t even sure if I could keep the backhoe from running into the side of his truck. I remember Jim’s reaction. He said, “Ok, now I’m nervous.” Having done my share of passing the nervous energy over to Jim, I went next door to the break room to enjoy my lunch.

You would think that with Doretta being the only woman on the crew, she would have had it much easier than the rest of us. She was about a 29 year old lady that had a daughter at home. I know because she used to wear a shirt that had her daughter’s face on it. She was working to make a living like most everyone else on the labor crew. Doretta worked right alongside the rest of us when it came to Coal Cleanup, washing down the conveyor system using high pressure water hoses.

She worked right alongside me while we tied the rebar for the concrete floor of the new sandblast building that was going to be built behind the water treatment building. She worked with me in the sump pit between the precipitator and the smoke stacks with the Honey Wagon Sewer company that was helping us suck out the crud from the bottom of the pit. (This was before we had bought our own Honey Wagon). They call it a “Honey Wagon”, because, well… it is used to suck out things like Outhouses. You know how much that smells like Honey….. right? Um… ok.

We finally bought a Honey Wagon like this

Most surprising to me, Doretta worked cleaning boiler tubes in the boiler when the unit was offline and we needed to shake tubes to knock out the ash, or even use crosscut saw blades welded end on end to cut through the ash packed in the boiler economizer section.

I’m talking about two man crosscut saws. Welded end-on-end

This lady was a survivor. That is how she struck me.

Most of the time Doretta worked with a smile on her face. In fact, she had a smile embedded on her face from years of smiling to the point that her eyes smiled. Even though (as I found out in the course of my time on the Labor Crew), Doretta had a very rough period of her life, she hadn’t let it beat her down, and she was happy to be working on the labor crew, doing what most people would think was a thankless job.

It is true that when something needed to be typed, (Desktop computers were not available yet), Doretta would do the typing for Larry. She would also cut our hair. Being paid our modest salary (mine was $5.75 per hour at the time), we couldn’t afford to go to the barber every other week to have our hair trimmed, so Doretta would set up shop and one-by-one, we would go sit in the chair and she would cut our hair. Just like a mom would do.

I figured that since we were calling Doretta “Mom”, it only made sense that we would call Larry “Dad”. Larry’s reaction to my calling him “Dad” was more like Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker that he was Luke’s father. “Nooooooo!!!!” Except I was the little Darth Vader telling Larry I was his son…

The little Darth Vader from the Volkwagen commercial

Larry disowned me for a while as I have mentioned in an earlier post called “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“. He finally came around to admitting it when I continued calling him Dad. But he explained that he dropped me on my head when I was a baby and that was why I was so strange. So, Larry was our Labor Crew Dad, and Doretta was our Labor Crew mom.

It came to no surprise later when Doretta Funkhouser left the plant to become Doretta Riley. It seemed natural to me that my Labor Crew Mom and Dad would be married. I don’t know if that resolved the issue of my illegitimate Power Plant birth. I don’t remember anyone referring to me as a bastard after that. at least not in relation to my questionable origin, and at least not directly to my face. Though I do know of a few people during the years that would have thought that would have been an appropriate title for me.

I remember on one occasion when we were hauling scaffolding up onto the boiler to prepare for an outage, and I was working with Doretta using the large wench on floor 8 1/2 (I think), when Doretta came back from checking something at the bottom of the boiler. She said something to me then that puzzled me for a while. I didn’t understand it at first, but later came to know why she said what she did.

This is the type of Wench Hoist we were operating, only ours was powered by high pressure air. Not electricity

She said that it made her mad that people were trying to get me fired, when I’m a decent person, while there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to stay. She was referring to the wrath of Waugh after we had embarassed him in front of Martin Louthan when we had confronted them about not being allowed to be considered for the Testing jobs, (See the post “Take A Note Jan” said the Manager of Power Production“). Eldon was trying to dig up dirt on anyone that had caused his embarassment and had targetted me as one person to fire.

What had happened when Doretta had gone down to the foot of the boiler was that one or more of the “Pseudo” Power Plant Men-in-training had made an insulting reference to the past hardships that Doretta experienced in her life. I wasn’t aware of this until Eldon and Bill Moler questioned me about it a few weeks later when I was called to the office to see if I knew anything about the incident.

When they told me what had been said I became visibly upset to the point that I could hardly respond. Not because I didn’t want to answer their questions (which I didn’t, because I knew they were on their witch hunt which included me as well), but because when I learned that a couple of people on our crew had gravely insulted someone that I deeply cared about, I was both angry and upset. It was upsetting that someone would insult a struggling mother who was doing what she could to take care of her children only to be berated by others that worked closely with me.

After Doretta left the plant to marry Larry, I only saw her at a few Christmas Parties after that. She still had the same smile. I hope that she was able to find peace in her life, and that her family is doing well today. And that’s the story of my Labor Crew Mom and Dad.

Comments from the original post:

  1. Spent a little time on the picket line with the Navajo Local, District 65, in the Navajo Nation – when they were out on strike in 1987. Forget the lass’s name; but, the leader of the Local was a young Navajo woman, married with a couple of kids at home, who operated the biggest dragline at the Peabody Mine.

    Helluva skill.

  2. Gotta say, this is one of the more unusual blog posts I’ve seen in a while: different subject, funny, and well-written, too.

    Not my normal fare, but you’ve got a new follower… :)

  3. Your evocative stories return me to my years as a riveter… your subjects were the kind of people who built this country’s industry, I think. And I still think you have a book here…

When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough

Originally posted March 21, 2014:

As a young novice Power Plant Summer Help, I had watched seasoned Power Plant Men measure the distance between two points by walking between them and multiplying the number of steps by three. At first I wondered how they could be sure that their strides were all exactly three feet apart. Because the end result of these actions usually came out pretty close to their estimate, over time I began to think that the length of the stride of any respectable Power Plant Man must naturally be three feet.

So, one day when I was working on going to pull a cable from one manhole to the next, I decided I wanted to know the distance before I pulled a lot of cable off of the cable reel. So, I remember that I grabbed the tape measure out of my tool bucket and began walking at as normal of a gait as I could.

I thought if I measured the first step, or even the last step I took that it would somehow be a different size because I wasn’t moving at my normal speed. So. I figured I would surprise myself by just stopping at some random step as I walked between the two manholes.

I don’t know if anyone was watching me as I stood out in the field just north of the two smokestacks, if they were watching me, then they would have seen me pause and stand still for a moment looking down. Start messing around with my feet. Then take a few more steps. Pause once more and do the same thing.

What I was doing was stopping in the middle of my stride when I had just put a foot down, before I lifted the other foot and with my Stanley metal tape measure, I was measuring the distance from the back of one heel to the back of the other heel.

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

I can’t say that I was too disappointed to find that my stride was not exactly three feet. I hadn’t figured I was completely Power Plant Man material anyway. It turned out to be exactly 30 inches. Or two and a half feet. So, I realized I was about 3/4 Power Plant Man measured by my stride.

I found that I could easily walk between two points and measure the distance with great accuracy by multiplying the number of steps by two and a half feet. With great knowledge comes great responsibility…. or…um… something like that. Hence the story about how enough was not quite enough.

During the spring of 1992 I was tasked with running telephone cable to various points around the plant. We were going to begin installing a new computer network known as the “Ethernet”. When I first heard the name, I thought they were referring to something in space, where it used to be the belief that there was an area called the “Ether”. But as it turned out, it was the regular network that is still in use today.

Dennis Dunkelgod from Oklahoma City had come to the plant with a bunch of drawing much like they did a few years earlier when they wanted me to install the Dumb Terminals all over the place. (See Post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“). This time the diagrams included places where PCs were going to be placed. And where the network server was going to be setup. This required much better quality wiring than the dumb terminals.

So, Dennis saw to it that I had 1/2 mile of 100 pair telephone cable to run from the main plant up to the coalyard. Along with the cable came a box of 25-pair punchdown blocks. I’m sure you’ve seen punchdown blocks in movies when someone is tapping into a phone line, so they go up to these punchdown blocks and hook their handset up to the wires and listen in.

Telephone punch down block

Telephone punchdown block

One of the places where I needed to place a number of computers was in the warehouse and the warehouse office. There were no good phone lines running to this building. There were barely enough to take care of the phones that were in the office at the time. So, I needed to figure out how to run the telephone cable to the warehouse which was the southern-most building in the main plant grounds.

Across the drive from the warehouse was the garage. When I looked at the phone panel in the garage, this looked like a good place to tap into the phone system. There were two 25 pair blocks in this building for only one phone. Enough for all the computers in the garage and the warehouse.

All I needed to do now was figure out how to pull a 50 pair telephone cable from the garage over to the warehouse. After looking for the conduit that brought the existing cable into the garage, I was able to determine how it went over to a hand hole at the north corner of the building and then over to a manhole not far away.

A hand hole was a shallow hole in the ground that has buried conduit coming into it. Our handholes had a large piece of concrete covering it.

A man standing in a handhole

A man standing in a handhole

When I looked at the handhole I suddenly remembered that in during the week of March 21, 1981 I had visited the Power Plant to pick up my application to apply for working as a summer help for my 3rd summer. I was wearing a beard that day when I arrived. While I was in college, I usually wore a beard in the winter to keep my face warm because I rode my bike a lot, and it helped keep my face warm.

I had my friend Tim Flowers with me that day because he was going to apply to be a pre-novice Power Plant Man and work as a summer help also that summer. It was snowing that day and it was almost 4:30pm. Quittin’ Time by the time I had said hello to the many Power Plant Men that I hadn’t seen since the previous summer.

We were heading back out to the parking lot when I heard someone hollering at me. I looked over toward the garage and there was Jim Heflin sitting on a backhoe digging a ditch. He had turned off the backhoe so that I could hear him yelling at me.

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

The Backhoe that Jim was on didn’t have a cab on it. He was all bundled up tying to keep warm. I believe when he pulled down his face warmer, he too was wearing a beard. He said that before he could go home that day he had to finish this rush job to dig a ditch all around the back and side of the garage.

When I returned the next summer Jim asked me if I remembered him digging the ditch in the snow that day in March. I told him I did. Then he said, “Come here.” We walked around the side of the garage, and sure enough. There was the ditch still open leading around the side and back of the garage. He said, “It was such a rush job I had to stay out in the snow digging this ditch before I could go home, and it has been left untouched since then.

The reason I bring this up, was because the ditch he had been digging was for the conduit that went from the handhole around the back of the garage and over to the warehouse. Later that summer the Construction crew from downtown came out to the plant and laid the conduit in the ditch and covered it back up. So, I knew how the cable needed to run from handhole to handhole over to the warehouse. Oh. Before I forget. Here is a picture of Jim Heflin with a beard:

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

So, back to figuring out how to get the cable to that warehouse. I measured how far it was from the punch down blocks to where it went down into the ground. From there I walked with my normal gait (which I knew was exactly 30 inches – remember?) counting my steps.

I measured how many steps it was to each handhole and over to the warehouse. where the conduit came up out of the ground and went into the warehouse. In this manner I calculated that I needed 775 feet exactly.

I figured I didn’t want to use the 100 pair cable. That was a lot more cable than we would ever need for this job, so I went up to Bill Bennett’s office and told him that I needed 775 feet of 50-pair telephone cable to go from the garage to the warehouse. He said that he would order some.

I don’t remember what time it was when I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking that the length of cable was just going to reach the telephone junction box, and not enough to comfortably reach the punch down blocks halfway up the junction box. So, when I arrived at work in the morning I went straight to Bill’s office and told him that I should have ordered at least 800 feet of cable instead of 775, just to be safe. Bill told me that he had already placed the order for 775 feet. It was too late to change it.

I thought to myself… surely when you order 775 feet of cable they will send some reasonable amount, like 1000 feet. Would they really cut it off at 775 feet exactly. So, I told myself it would be all right.

Sure enough. a couple of days later a reel of 50 pair telephone cable showed up in the electric shop. In big numbers written on the side of the real in red marker were the numbers “775 ft.” Oh geez.

Ok. Somehow I was going to have to make this work. Cross my fingers that maybe my stride was only 28 and a half inches now instead of 30 inches and I had measured it longer than it really was.

So, I pulled the cable from the garage, through the manholes over to the warehouse. In order to pull it from the last handhole into the junction box in the warehouse I had strapped some mule tape to it that I had strung earlier through the conduit using a fish tape. I remember going inside and beginning to pull the last bit of the cable to the junction box hoping to see the end of the cable come up out the conduit.

As I was pulling the cable, I could feel the cable beginning to bind up as it was tightening up in the last handhole. I was still only holding mule tape when I couldn’t pull anymore. Meaning that I didn’t have any cable yet.

So, I went back to the garage and pushed as much cable into the conduit that I could and still punch down the wires on the punchdown block. I even lowered the punchdown block in the junction box hoping that the extra foot would help. Then I went to each handhole and pulled the cable from the garage in the direction of the warehouse until it was as tight around the corners as it would go.

I had managed to pull an extra 2 feet or so into the last handhole. Now all I had left was to go into the warehouse and pull the mule tape to see if the cable would reach the junction box. — Suspense. Yeah. I know.

When I pulled the last 2 feet of cable from the handhole into the junction box, the end of the cable came out. But only about 1 foot of cable was in the junction box. A punchdown block is about 1 foot long.

So, in order to be able to punch the telephone cable down on the punch down block, I had to put the punchdown block at the bottom of the junction box, right where the cable came out of the conduit. On both ends of the cable, I never had to cut one inch of cable from either end. After making sure I had every inch of cable pulled tight through every handhole, I punched down both ends using the handy dandy Telephone wire punchdown tool.

Telephone wire punch down tool

Telephone wire punch down tool

I told myself that from now on, I was always going to throw in a couple hundred extra feet whenever someone asks me how much cable I need. That was too close! You would have thought I learned my lesson.

Now, 22 years later, I still have the same problem as a business analyst at Dell. Part of my job is estimating how long it is going to take to complete various parts of a project. I always make the same mistake and try to over-analyze it so that I can give a really accurate value. The problem is, that I don’t take into account that things take longer than you would think because of factors out of our control.

My project managers know me well enough to take the number that I give them and add a decent amount of time to my estimates. I even tell them that they should because I always underestimate the time. I always estimate how long it would take me to do it personally and I’m not usually the person that is actually writing the code.

Through the last 12 and a half years while working at Dell, I have never missed a go-live date. Oh. Just like this story, we finish on time, but with little or no time to spare. We are always up to the wire. Beginning right when I said we would and ending on the date we planned. Believe me. Just as I pulled every inch of slack out of that cable that day, we end up doing the same with the progress of our projects.

So, I guess I still haven’t learned to properly pad my estimates to reduce the risk of falling short. I think it has something to do with my personality and the way everything has to be mathematically calculated in my head.

Comments form the original post:

    1. NEO March 21, 2014

      Hah! my stride (heel to toe) is 3 feet, two strides to the link. That’s what practice does.

      But I have learned to add 10% to everything (nearly), somehow it always gets used. 🙂

    1. jerrychicken March 24, 2014

      In the early 70s I was an assistant to a surveyor in a large electrical contractors when we tendered for, and won, a contract to rewire a local Town Hall, the unusual thing about the job being that the engineers had specified pyro (fireproof) cable throughout the building, some of which was large three phase stuff and very expensive.

      We scaled up the runs from a 1:100 drawing and placed the orders according to those measurements, each of the large cables being cut specially for that run – every single length was wrong when it was installed, short by several feet.

      It took a lot of measuring on site to realise that the drawings were totally inaccurate, this was a Town Hall that had been built in stone around 150 years earlier and some of the walls were two or three feet thick, on the drawings they looked like standard stud walls.

      Expensive lesson to learn but I kept my job 🙂

    1. Jonathan Caswell March 24, 2014

      Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
      MEASURING YOUR STRIDE—IS THAT ANYTHING FOR A NOVICE LIKE LOOKING FOR SNIPE IS FOR A YOUNG BOY SCOUT?

  1. They always told me to expect things that needed measurement to be available in one of only two quantities: Too much, or too little. I discovered for myself that cutting something to fit where it was needed inevitably reclassified it from on of those categories to the other …

Power Plant Lady of the Labor Crew

Originally Posted on October 19, 2012:

In the Power Plant posts, I generally tend to focus on the Power Plant Men that taught their Power Plant culture to me while I was fortunate enough to grace the boilers and conveyors of the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the north central plains of Oklahoma. Every once in a while during this journey there were True Power Plant Ladies that came along that took their place right alongside the Power Plant Men.

The Women generally held their own when it came to the amount of work, their tenacity, and even for some, their ability to hit a spittoon from 6 feet. — Ok. I made up the part about hitting a spittoon.  Everyone just used the floor drains for spittoons in the early days before they became responsible for cleaning them out themselves, after the summer help found more grass to mow. — The choice spitting material was…. Sunflower seed shells.

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

In the first few years, Leta Cates worked out of the welding shop (I believe… Well, she hung around there a lot), and later became a clerk. Then there was Opal Brien who was in the maintenance shop and worked in the garage one year when I was a summer help. Of course, there was Darlene Mitchell who worked in the warehouse with Dick Dale, Mike Gibbs and Bud Schoonover.

There was also Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), who was one of the Electric Shop A team super heroes.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Later came Julienne Alley that became the “Mom” of the welding shop. Some more came and went…. Especially the person that we referred to as “Mom” while I was on labor crew. Doretta Funkhouser.

I have mentioned before that the evil plant manager Eldon Waugh enjoyed manipulating his minion’s (oh… I mean employee’s) personal lives as much as he could get away with without stirring up trouble downtown. So, one of the rules he had put in place was that no one on the janitor crew could be considered for another position at the plant until they had first moved to the labor crew.

There even came a ruling later in 1983 (from Eldon and/or Bill Moler) that if it was your turn to go to Labor Crew, and you were not able to, or didn’t for some reason more than once, then you would lose your job altogether. That remained the case until Darrell Low was able to quickly move from janitor to Operator after Eldon had lost his control over the people on labor crew that he wanted to keep there, making the rule obsolete (I’m sure we had been told the rule had come from Corporate headquarters anyway).

Once on the labor crew, it was very rare that anyone left this crew to go to another position in the plant. They usually had to leave the company altogether, or find a job at another plant in order to escape. This was especially true after the summer of 1982 when the oil boom went bust in Oklahoma making jobs harder to find, and less people left the plant to go somewhere else to work.  The phrase on the first Tuesday of every month was, “Did you see that line of cars outside the gate this morning?  Be lucky you have a job.”

So, when I finally made it to the labor crew, many of the team had been there for a very long time. Others I had worked with before because we were janitors together. This included Ronnie Banks and Jim Kanelakos. Other members of the labor crew were Ron Luckey, Chuck Moreland, Fred Crocker, Bob Lillibridge, Tom Kelly, Bill Cook, Charles Peavler and Doretta Funkhouser. Larry Riley was our foreman.

While on labor crew I was able to learn how to operate a backhoe. Though I never learned the backhoe magic of Larry Riley, I was able to scoop up bottom ash and dump it into the back of Power Plant Men’s pickup trucks that needed it to fill in the parts of their driveways that had washed out at home. The very first time I operated a backhoe, I noticed right away that the brakes didn’t operate very well. You really had to play with it in order to get backhoe to not roll forward.

Backhoe

Here is a picture of a Backhoe

That was ok, because I was just loading bottom ash from a pile into a dump truck and I could just bump the backhoe right up against the dump truck and empty the scoop into the bed. That was working real good until while I was waiting for the dump truck to return after bringing the bottom ash to the place where it was dumping the ash, Jim Harrison pulled up in a shiny new Dodge Pickup. I mean…. it was brand new! He backed up by me and signalled to me from inside his truck. I was waiting there with a scoop full of bottom ash (which is a gravelly looking substance) for the dump truck to return.

My first thought was oh boy…. I shouldn’t do this…. I can hardly stop this thing and I know I will probably run right into the side of Jim’s new truck and he’s going to have a fit. So, I did the only thing I could do. I proceeded to drive around to the side of Jim’s truck to pour the load of ash into the bed of his truck.

Now… either it was Jim’s guardian angel, or it was mine (protecting me from the bodily harm Jim may have inflicted on me out of stress had I put a big dent in the side of his new truck) that stopped the backhoe just at the right spot, I’ll never know for sure. But something did. The backhoe for once stopped right where I would have liked it to stop and I dumped the ash in the truck filling it to the brim. I waved to Jim, and he drove away.

Later when I went back to the Coal Yard Maintenance building (where the Labor Crew called home) I saw Jim in the office, so I went to talk to him. I smiled and said, “I hope I didn’t make you nervous dumping that ash in your truck.” Jim said “No.” It didn’t bother him one bit. He said he knew I could handle it.

So I told him that was the first time I had ever operated a backhoe and the brakes don’t work too well, and I wasn’t even sure if I could keep the backhoe from running into the side of his truck. I remember Jim’s reaction. He said, “Ok, now I’m nervous.” Having done my share of passing the nervous energy over to Jim, I went next door to the break room to enjoy my lunch.

You would think that with Doretta being the only woman on the crew, she would have had it much easier than the rest of us. She was about a 29 year old lady that had a daughter at home. I know because she used to wear a shirt that had her daughter’s face on it. She was working to make a living like most everyone else on the labor crew. Doretta worked right alongside the rest of us when it came to Coal Cleanup, washing down the conveyor system using high pressure water hoses.

She worked right alongside me while we tied the rebar for the concrete floor of the new sandblast building that was going to be built behind the water treatment building. She worked with me in the sump pit between the precipitator and the smoke stacks with the Honey Wagon Sewer company that was helping us suck out the crud from the bottom of the pit. (This was before we had bought our own Honey Wagon). They call it a “Honey Wagon”, because, well… it is used to suck out things like Outhouses. You know how much that smells like Honey….. right? Um… ok.

We finally bought a Honey Wagon like this

Most surprising to me, Doretta worked cleaning boiler tubes in the boiler when the unit was offline and we needed to shake tubes to knock out the ash, or even use crosscut saw blades welded end on end to cut through the ash packed in the boiler economizer section.

I’m talking about two man crosscut saws. Welded end-on-end

This lady was a survivor. That is how she struck me.

Most of the time Doretta worked with a smile on her face. In fact, she had a smile embedded on her face from years of smiling to the point that her eyes smiled. Even though (as I found out in the course of my time on the Labor Crew), Doretta had a very rough period of her life, she hadn’t let it beat her down, and she was happy to be working on the labor crew, doing what most people would think was a thankless job.

It is true that when something needed to be typed, (Desktop computers were not available yet), Doretta would do the typing for Larry. She would also cut our hair. Being paid our modest salary (mine was $5.75 per hour at the time), we couldn’t afford to go to the barber every other week to have our hair trimmed, so Doretta would set up shop and one-by-one, we would go sit in the chair and she would cut our hair. Just like a mom would do.

I figured that if we were calling Doretta “Mom”, it only made sense that we would call Larry “Dad”. Larry’s reaction to my calling him “Dad” was more like Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker that he was Luke’s father. “Nooooooo!!!!” Except I was the little Darth Vader telling Larry I was his son…

The little Darth Vader from the Volkwagen commercial

Larry disowned me for a while as I have mentioned in an earlier post called “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“. He finally came around to admitting it when I continued calling him Dad. But he explained that he dropped me on my head when I was a baby and that was why I was so strange. So, Larry was our Labor Crew Dad, and Doretta was our Labor Crew mom.

It came to no surprise later when Doretta Funkhouser left the plant to become Doretta Riley. It seemed natural to me that my Labor Crew Mom and Dad would be married. I don’t know if that resolved the issue of my illegitimate Power Plant birth. I don’t remember anyone referring to me as a bastard after that. at least not in relation to my questionable origin, and at least not directly to my face. Though I do know of a few people during the years that would have thought that would have been an appropriate title for me.

I remember on one occasion when we were hauling scaffolding up onto the boiler to prepare for an outage, and I was working with Doretta using the large wench on floor 8 1/2 (I think), when Doretta came back from checking something at the bottom of the boiler. She said something to me then that puzzled me for a while. I didn’t understand it at first, but later came to know why she said what she did.

This is the type of Wench Hoist we were operating, only ours was powered by high pressure air. Not electricity

She said that it made her mad that people were trying to get me fired, when I’m a decent person, while there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to stay. She was referring to the wrath of Waugh after we had embarassed him in front of Martin Louthan when we had confronted them about not being allowed to be considered for the Testing jobs, (See the post “Take A Note Jan” said the Manager of Power Production“). Eldon was trying to dig up dirt on anyone that had caused his embarassment and had targetted me as one person to fire.

What had happened when Doretta had gone down to the foot of the boiler was that one or more of the “Pseudo” Power Plant Men-in-training had made an insulting reference to the past hardships that Doretta experienced in her life. I wasn’t aware of this until Eldon and Bill Moler questioned me about it a few weeks later when I was called to the office to see if I knew anything about the incident.

When they told me what had been said I became visibly upset to the point that I could hardly respond. Not because I didn’t want to answer their questions (which I didn’t, because I knew they were on their witch hunt which included me as well), but because when I learned that a couple of people on our crew had gravely insulted someone that I deeply cared about, I was both angry and upset. It was upsetting that someone would insult a struggling mother who was doing what she could to take care of her children only to be berated by others that worked closely with me.

After Doretta left the plant to marry Larry, I only saw her at a few Christmas Parties after that. She still had the same smile. I hope that she was able to find peace in her life, and that her family is doing well today. And that’s the story of my Labor Crew Mom and Dad.

Comments from the original post:

  1. Spent a little time on the picket line with the Navajo Local, District 65, in the Navajo Nation – when they were out on strike in 1987. Forget the lass’s name; but, the leader of the Local was a young Navajo woman, married with a couple of kids at home, who operated the biggest dragline at the Peabody Mine.

    Helluva skill.

  2. Gotta say, this is one of the more unusual blog posts I’ve seen in a while: different subject, funny, and well-written, too.

    Not my normal fare, but you’ve got a new follower… :)

  3. Your evocative stories return me to my years as a riveter… your subjects were the kind of people who built this country’s industry, I think. And I still think you have a book here…

When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough

Originally posted March 21, 2014:

As a young novice Power Plant Summer Help, I had watched seasoned Power Plant Men measure the distance between two points by walking between them and multiplying the number of steps by two. At first I wondered how they could be sure that their strides were all exactly two feet apart. Because the end result of these actions usually came out pretty close to their estimate, over time I began to think that the length of the stride of any respectable Power Plant Man must naturally be three feet.

So, one day when I was working on going to pull a cable from one manhole to the next, I decided I wanted to know the distance before I pulled a lot of cable off of the cable reel. So, I remember that I grabbed the tape measure out of my tool bucket and began walking at as normal of a gait as I could.

I thought if I measured the first step, or even the last step I took that it would somehow be a different size because I wasn’t moving at my normal speed. So. I figured I would surprise myself by just stopping at some random step as I walked between the two manholes.

I don’t know if anyone was watching me as I stood out in the field just north of the two smokestacks, if they were watching me, then they would have seen me pause and stand still for a moment looking down. Start messing around with my feet. Then take a few more steps. Pause once more and do the same thing.

What I was doing was stopping in the middle of my stride when I had just put a foot down, before I lifted the other foot and with my Stanley metal tape measure, I was measuring the distance from the back of one heel to the back of the other heel.

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

I can’t say that I was too disappointed to find that my stride was not exactly three feet. I hadn’t figured I was completely Power Plant Man material anyway. It turned out to be exactly 30 inches. Or two and a half feet. So, I realized I was about 3/4 Power Plant measured by my stride.

I found that I could easily walk between two points and measure the distance with great accuracy by multiplying the number of steps by two and a half feet. With great knowledge comes great responsibility…. or…um… something like that. Hence the story about how enough was not quite enough.

During the spring of 1992 I was tasked with running telephone cable to various points around the plant. We were going to begin installing a new computer network known as the “Ethernet”. When I first heard the name, I thought they were referring to something in space, where it used to be the belief that there was an area called the “Ether”. But as it turned out, it was the regular network that is still in use today.

Dennis Dunkelgod from Oklahoma City had come to the plant with a bunch of drawing much like they did a few years earlier when they wanted me to install the Dumb Terminals all over the place. (See Post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“). This time the diagrams included places where PCs were going to be placed. And where the network server was going to be setup. This required much better quality wiring than the dumb terminals.

So, Dennis saw to it that I had 1/2 mile of 100 pair telephone cable to run from the main plant up to the coalyard. Along with the cable came a box of 25-pair punchdown blocks. I’m sure you’ve seen punchdown blocks in movies when someone is tapping into a phone line, so they go up to these punchdown blocks and hook their handset up to the wires and listen in.

Telephone punch down block

Telephone punchdown block

One of the places where I needed to place a number of computers was in the warehouse and the warehouse office. There were no good phone lines running to this building. There were barely enough to take care of the phones that were in the office at the time. So, I needed to figure out how to run the telephone cable to the warehouse which was the southern-most building in the main plant grounds.

Across the drive from the warehouse was the garage. When I looked at the phone panel in the garage, this looked like a good place to tap into the phone system. There were two 25 pair blocks in this building for only one phone. Enough for all the computers in the garage and the warehouse.

All I needed to do now was figure out how to pull a 50 pair telephone cable from the garage over to the warehouse. After looking for the conduit that brought the existing cable into the garage, I was able to determine how it went over to a hand hole at the north corner of the building and then over to a manhole not far away.

A hand hole was a shallow hole in the ground that has buried conduit coming into it. Our handholes had a large piece of concrete covering it.

A man standing in a handhole

A man standing in a handhole

When I looked at the handhole I suddenly remembered that in during the week of March 21, 1981 I had visited the Power Plant to pick up my application to apply for working as a summer help for my 3rd summer. I was wearing a beard that day when I arrived. While I was in college, I usually wore a beard in the winter to keep my face warm because I rode my bike a lot, and it helped keep my face warm.

I had my friend Tim Flowers with me that day because he was going to apply to be a pre-novice Power Plant Man and work as a summer help also that summer. It was snowing that day and it was almost 4:30pm. Quittin’ Time by the time I had said hello to the many Power Plant Men that I hadn’t seen since the previous summer.

We were heading back out to the parking lot when I heard someone hollering at me. I looked over toward the garage and there was Jim Heflin sitting on a backhoe digging a ditch. He had turned off the backhoe so that I could hear him yelling at me.

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

The Backhoe that Jim was on didn’t have a cab on it. He was all bundled up tying to keep warm. I believe when he pulled down his face warmer, he too was wearing a beard. He said that before he could go home that day he had to finish this rush job to dig a ditch all around the back and side of the garage.

When I returned the next summer Jim asked me if I remembered him digging the ditch in the snow that day in March. I told him I did. Then he said, “Come here.” We walked around the side of the garage, and sure enough. There was the ditch still open leading around the side and back of the garage. He said, “It was such a rush job I had to stay out in the snow digging this ditch before I could go home, and it has been left untouched since then.

The reason I bring this up, was because the ditch he had been digging was for the conduit that went from the handhole around the back of the garage and over to the warehouse. Later that summer the Construction crew from downtown came out to the plant and laid the conduit in the ditch and covered it back up. So, I knew how the cable needed to run from handhole to handhole over to the warehouse. Oh. Before I forget. Here is a picture of Jim Heflin with a beard:

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

So, back to figuring out how to get the cable to that warehouse. I measured how far it was from the punch down blocks to where it went down into the ground. From there I walked with my normal gait (which I knew was exactly 18 inches – remember?) counting my steps.

I measured how many steps it was to each handhole and over to the warehouse. where the conduit came up out of the ground and went into the warehouse. In this manner I calculated that I needed 775 feet exactly.

I figured I didn’t want to use the 100 pair cable. That was a lot more cable than we would ever need for this job, so I went up to Bill Bennett’s office and told him that I needed 775 feet of 50-pair telephone cable to go from the garage to the warehouse. He said that he would order some.

I don’t remember what time it was when I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking that the length of cable was just going to reach the telephone junction box, and not enough to comfortably reach the punch down blocks halfway up the junction box. So, when I arrived at work in the morning I went straight to Bill’s office and told him that I should have ordered at least 800 feet of cable instead of 775, just to be safe. Bill told me that he had already placed the order for 775 feet. It was too late to change it.

I thought to myself… surely when you order 775 feet of cable they will send some reasonable amount, like 1000 feet. Would they really cut it off at 775 feet exactly. So, I told myself it would be all right.

Sure enough. a couple of days later a reel of 50 pair telephone cable showed up in the electric shop. In big numbers written on the side of the real in red marker were the numbers “775 ft.” Oh geez.

Ok. Somehow I was going to have to make this work. Cross my fingers that maybe my stride was only 17 and a half inches now instead of 18 inches and I had measured it longer than it really was.

So, I pulled the cable from the garage, through the manholes over to the warehouse. In order to pull it from the last handhole into the junction box in the warehouse I had strapped some mule tape to it that I had strung earlier through the conduit using a fish tape. I remember going inside and beginning to pull the last bit of the cable to the junction box hoping to see the end of the cable come up out the conduit.

As I was pulling the cable, I could feel the cable beginning to bind up as it was tightening up in the last handhole. I was still only holding mule tape when I couldn’t pull anymore. Meaning that I didn’t have any cable yet.

So, I went back to the garage and pushed as much cable into the conduit that I could and still punch down the wires on the punchdown block. I even lowered the punchdown block in the junction box hoping that the extra foot would help. Then I went to each handhole and pulled the cable from the garage in the direction of the warehouse until it was as tight around the corners as it would go.

I had managed to pull an extra 2 feet or so into the last handhole. Now all I had left was to go into the warehouse and pull the mule tape to see if the cable would reach the junction box. — Suspense. Yeah. I know.

When I pulled the last 2 feet of cable from the handhole into the junction box, the end of the cable came out. But only about 1 foot of cable was in the junction box. A punchdown block is about 1 foot long.

So, in order to be able to punch the telephone cable down on the punch down block, I had put the punchdown block at the bottom of the junction box, right where the cable came out of the conduit. On both ends of the cable, I never had to cut one inch of cable from either end. After making sure I had every inch of cable pulled tight through every handhole, I punched down both ends using the handy dandy Telephone wire punchdown tool.

Telephone wire punch down tool

Telephone wire punch down tool

I told myself that from now on, I was always going to throw in a couple hundred extra feet whenever someone asks me how much cable I need. That was too close! You would have thought I learned my lesson.

Now, 22 years later, I still have the same problem as a business analyst at Dell. Part of my job is estimating how long it is going to take to complete various parts of a project. I always make the same mistake and try to over-analyze it so that I can give a really accurate value. The problem is, that I don’t take into account that things take longer than you would think because of factors out of our control.

My project managers know me well enough to take the number that I give them and add a decent amount of time to my estimates. I even tell them that they should because I always underestimate the time. I always estimate how long it would take me to do it personally and I’m not usually the person that is actually writing the code.

Through the last 12 and a half years while working at Dell, I have never missed a go-live date. Oh. Just like this story, we finish on time, but with little or no time to spare. We are always up to the wire. Beginning right when I said we would and ending on the date we planned. Believe me. Just as I pulled every inch of slack out of that cable that day, we end up doing the same with the progress of our projects.

So, I guess I still haven’t learned to properly pad my estimates to reduce the risk of falling short. I think it has something to do with my personality and the way everything has to be mathematically calculated in my head.

Comments form the original post:

    1. NEO March 21, 2014

      Hah! my stride (heel to toe) is 3 feet, two strides to the link. That’s what practice does.

      But I have learned to add 10% to everything (nearly), somehow it always gets used. 🙂

    1. jerrychicken March 24, 2014

      In the early 70s I was an assistant to a surveyor in a large electrical contractors when we tendered for, and won, a contract to rewire a local Town Hall, the unusual thing about the job being that the engineers had specified pyro (fireproof) cable throughout the building, some of which was large three phase stuff and very expensive.

      We scaled up the runs from a 1:100 drawing and placed the orders according to those measurements, each of the large cables being cut specially for that run – every single length was wrong when it was installed, short by several feet.

      It took a lot of measuring on site to realise that the drawings were totally inaccurate, this was a Town Hall that had been built in stone around 150 years earlier and some of the walls were two or three feet thick, on the drawings they looked like standard stud walls.

      Expensive lesson to learn but I kept my job 🙂

    1. Jonathan Caswell March 24, 2014

      Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
      MEASURING YOUR STRIDE—IS THAT ANYTHING FOR A NOVICE LIKE LOOKING FOR SNIPE IS FOR A YOUNG BOY SCOUT?

  1. They always told me to expect things that needed measurement to be available in one of only two quantities: Too much, or too little. I discovered for myself that cutting something to fit where it was needed inevitably reclassified it from on of those categories to the other …

Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley

Originally posted February 25, 2012.  I added Larry’s Picture at the end:

When I first began working at the power plant (in 1979), one of the people I spent a good deal of time with was Larry Riley.  I was 18 and knew very little about  tools, equipment, power plants and how to speak in the Power Plant language.  I quickly found out that in those early days, when the plant was still under construction, a lot of people turned to Larry Riley when they were faced with an obstacle and didn’t know how to approach it.  Larry Riley was a 24 year old genius.  I was amazed by his vast knowledge of seemingly disparate areas of expertise.  When he was asked to do something, I never heard him say that he didn’t know how.  He just went and did it.  So, after I asked Larry how old he was, I asked him how long he had been at the plant.  He hadn’t been there very long, but he had worked in the construction department before transferring to the power plant.

Larry Riley already at the age of 24 had a beat up hard hat full of hard hat stickers.  One indicating that he was a certified industrial truck driver.  I think he had about 5 safety stickers and various other hard hat stickers.  He was a thin clean cut dark haired young man with a moustache that sort of reminded me of the Marlboro Man’s moustache.  He walked like he had a heavy burden on his back and he was rarely seen without a cigarette in his mouth.

Yep.  That's the Marlboro Man

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I worked with Larry off and on throughout my years as a summer help and during that time Larry taught me the following things (to name a few):  How to drive a tractor.  How to mend a fence.  How to bleed the air out of a diesel engine’s fuel line (which is more important than you would think).  How to operate a brush hog (a large mower on the back of a tractor).  How to free a brush hog from a chain link fence after you get one of the bat wings stuck in one.  Tie rebar, and pour concrete and operate a Backhoe.  I remember asking Larry why a backhoe was called a backhoe.  I think Sonny Karcher was in the truck at the time.  You would have thought I had asked what year the War of 1812 was fought!  I’m sure you are all chuckling while reading this (especially all the power plant men).  But for those of you who are as green as I was, I’ll tell you.  A Backhoe is called a Backhoe because the Hoe is on the Back.  Gee.  Who would have thought?

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

Later when I was a full time employee and had worked my way from being a Janitor to being on the Labor Crew, Larry Riley became my foreman.  At that point on occassion I would call him “Dad”.  He would usually disown me and deny that he had anything to do with it.  On occassion when he would own up to being my dad, he would admit that when I was real little I was dropped on my head and that’s why I acted so odd (though, I don’t know to what behavior he was referring).

There was this other guy at the plant the first summer I was there that had the unique title of “Mill Wright”.  His name was Gary Michelson.  He evidentally had gone to school, taken some tests and been certified as a Mill Wright and this probably brought him a bigger paycheck than the other regular workers as well as a much bigger ego.  He would spend days at a time at a band saw cutting out metal wedges at different angles so that he would have them all in his pristine tool box.  I worked with him a few times during my first summer as a summer help.  I will probably talk more about Gary in a later post, but just to put it plainly…  I could tell right away that he wasn’t a real “power plant man”.  The rest of the power plant men I’m sure would agree with me.  I wouldn’t have traded Larry Riley for ten Gary Michelsons unless I was trying to help some engineers change a light bulb (actually.  I have met some good engineers along the way.  Some of them very good.  But they were not the norm.  At least not those assigned to power plants).

I have mentioned some different things that Larry had taught me and if you remember, he was the person that I worked with on my second day at the plant when Sonny Karcher and Larry had taken me to the coalyard to fix the check valve (in my post about Sonny Karcher).  There will always be one day that first comes to my mind when I think about Larry.  This is what happened:

I drove a truck down to the Picnic area on the far side of the lake from the plant.  Jim Heflin drove a Backhoe down there.  I believe he was going to dig up some tree stumps that had been left over after the “engineers” in Oklahoma City had decided where to put all the trees in the area.

What the engineers in Oklahoma City did was this:  They cut down all of the trees that were in the picnic area and planted new trees.  Some of them not more than 15 or 20 feet away from a tree that had been there for 20 years and was a good size.  So, there were a lot of stumps left over from the big hearty trees that had been cut down that needed to be removed so that the sickly little twigs that were planted there could prosper and grow without feeling inadequate growing next to a full grown he-man tree.

Anyway.  I had climbed out of the truck and was making my way around the picnic area picking up trash and putting it in a plastic bag using a handy dandy homemade trash stabbing stick.  As Jim was making his way across the “lawn” (I use the word “lawn” loosely, since the area was still fairly new and was not quite finished) when he hit a wet spot.  The Backhoe was stuck in the mud.  There wasn’t much I could do but watch as Jim used the hoe to try to drag himself out.  He rocked the backhoe back and forth.  Use the stabilizers to pick up the backhoe while trying to use the scoop to pull it forward.  I would say he worked at it for about ten minutes (even though it seemed more like half an hour).  Then it was time for us to head back to the plant to go to break.

Back at the plant, Jim told Larry about his predicament and asked him if he would help him get the backhoe out of the mud.  Larry said he would come along and see what he could do.  At this point, I was thinking that he would jump in the Wench Truck and go down there and just pull him out.  Instead we just climbed in the pickup truck and headed back to the park (notice how it went from being a picnic area to a park in only three paragraphs?).

When we arrived, Larry climbed into the Backhoe after making his way across the vast mud pit that Jim had created while trying to free himself before.  He fired up the Backhoe…. cigarette in mouth…  then the most fascinating thing happened…  using both feet to work the pedals, and one hand working the controls in the front and the other hand working the levers in the back, Larry picked up the backhoe using the scoop and the hoe and stabilizers and cigarette all simultaneously, he walked the backhoe sideways right out of the mud pit and onto dry land just as if it was a crab walking sideways.  I would say it took no longer than three minutes from the time he started working the controls.  Jim just looked at me in amazement.  Patted me on the back, shook his head and said, “And that’s how it’s done.”

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

This is the best picture I could find of Jim Heflin

Now that I’m on the subject of Larry Riley on a backhoe, let me tell you another one.  I have seen Larry digging a ditch so that we could run some pipe for irrigation.  Now picture this.  The bucket on the backhoe is digging a hole in the hard red clay of Oklahoma, and Larry suddenly stops and says….. “I think I felt something”.  What? (I think) Of course you did, you are operating this machine that has the power to dig a big hole in the ground in one scoop like it was nothing and Larry said he felt something?  He climbed off of the backhoe, jumped down into the ditch he was creating, kicked some clods of dirt around and lo and behold, he had just scraped clean a buried cable.  He hadn’t broken it.  He had come down on it with the bucket and had somehow “felt” this cable buried under all that dirt.  I wonder what it felt like that told him he had encountered something that wasn’t just dirt.  I think the entire labor crew just went down on one knee before his greatness for a moment of silence – all right, so we didn’t really.  But we were somewhat  impressed.

The one thing that makes Larry a True Power Plant Man with all the rest is that he performed acts of greatness like what I described above with complete humility.  I never saw a look of arrogance in Larry’s face.  He never spoke down to you and he never bragged about anything.  To this day, I still picture Larry Riley working at the power plant working feats of magic that would amaze the rest of us as he thinks that he’s just doing another day’s work.  That’s the way it is with True Power Plant Men.

Since I first created this post two years ago, I have found a picture of Larry Riley taken many years after this story:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him.  He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Power Plant Lady of the Labor Crew — Repost

Originally Posted on October 19, 2012:

In the Power Plant posts, I generally tend to focus on the Power Plant Men that taught their Power Plant culture to me while I was fortunate enough to grace the boilers and conveyors of the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the north central plains of Oklahoma. Every once in a while during this journey there were True Power Plant Ladies that came along that took their place right alongside the Power Plant Men, and generally held their own when it came to the amount of work, their tenacity, and even for some, their ability to hit a spittoon from 6 feet. — Ok. I made up the part about hitting a spittoon. Everyone just used the floor drains for spittoons in the early days before they became responsible for cleaning them out themselves, after the summer help found more grass to mow. — The choice spitting material was…. Sunflower seed shells.

In the first few years, there was Leta Cates who worked out of the welding shop (I believe… Well, she hung around there a lot), and later became a clerk. Then there was Opal Brien who was in the maintenance shop and worked in the garage one year when I was a summer help. Of course, there was Darlene Mitchell who worked in the warehouse with Dick Dale, Mike Gibbs and Bud Schoonover. There was also Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), who was one of the Electric Shop A team super heroes. Later came Julienne Alley that became the “Mom” of the welding shop. Some more came and went…. Especially the person that we referred to as “Mom” while I was on labor crew. Doretta Funkhouser.

I have mentioned before that the evil plant manager Eldon Waugh enjoyed manipulating his minion’s (oh… I mean employee’s) personal lives as much as he could get away with without stirring up trouble downtown. So, one of the rules he had put in place was that no one on the janitor crew could be considered for another position at the plant until they had first moved to the labor crew.

There even came a ruling later in 1983 (from Eldon and/or Bill Moler) that if it was your turn to go to Labor Crew, and you were not able to, or didn’t for some reason more than once, then you would lose your job altogether. That remained the case until Darrell Low was able to quickly move from janitor to Operator after Eldon had lost his control over the people on labor crew that he wanted to keep there, making the rule obsolete (I’m sure we had been told the rule had come from Corporate headquarters anyway).

Once on the labor crew, it was very rare that anyone left this crew to go to another position in the plant. They usually had to leave the company altogether, or find a job at another plant in order to escape. This was especially true after the summer of 1982 when the oil boom went bust in Oklahoma making jobs harder to find, and less people left the plant to go somewhere else to work.

So, when I finally made it to the labor crew, many of the team had been there for a very long time. Others I had worked with before because we were janitors together. This included Ronnie Banks and Jim Kanelakos. Other members of the labor crew were Ron Luckey, Chuck Moreland, Fred Crocker, Bob Lillibridge, Tom Kelly, Bill Cook, Charles Peavler and Doretta Funkhouser. Larry Riley was our foreman.

While on labor crew I was able to learn how to operate a backhoe. Though I never learned the backhoe magic of Larry Riley, I was able to scoop up bottom ash and dump it into the back of Power Plant Men’s pickup trucks that needed it to fill in the parts of their driveways that had washed out at home. The very first time I operated a backhoe, I noticed right away that the brakes didn’t operate very well. You really had to play with it in order to get backhoe to not roll forward.

Backhoe

Here is a picture of a Backhoe

That was ok, because I was just loading bottom ash from a pile into a dump truck and I could just bump the backhoe right up against the dump truck and empty the scoop into the bed. That was working real good until while I was waiting for the dump truck to return after bringing the bottom ash to the place where it was dumping the ash, Jim Harrison pulled up in a shiny new Dodge Pickup. I mean…. it was brand new! He backed up by me and signalled to me from inside his truck. I was waiting there with a scoop full of bottom ash (which is a gravelly looking substance) for the dump truck to return.

My first thought was oh boy…. I shouldn’t do this…. I can hardly stop this thing and I know I will probably run right into the side of Jim’s new truck and he’s going to have a fit. So, I did the only thing I could do. I proceeded to drive around to the side of Jim’s truck to pour the load of ash into the bed of his truck. Now… either it was Jim’s guardian angel, or it was mine (protecting me from the bodily harm Jim may have inflicted on me out of stress had I put a big dent in the side of his new truck) that stopped the backhoe just at the right spot, I’ll never know for sure. But something did. The backhoe for once stopped right where I would have liked it to stop and I dumped the ash in the truck filling it to the brim. I waved to Jim, and he drove away.

Later when I went back to the Coal Yard Maintenance building (where the Labor Crew called home) I saw Jim in the office, so I went to talk to him. I smiled and said, “I hope I didn’t make you nervous dumping that ash in your truck.” Jim said “No.” It didn’t bother him one bit. He said he knew I could handle it. So I told him that was the first time I had ever operated a backhoe and the brakes don’t work too well, and I wasn’t even sure if I could keep the backhoe from running into the side of his truck. I remember Jim’s reaction. He said, “Ok, now I’m nervous.” Having done my share of passing the nervous energy over to Jim, I went next door to the break room to enjoy my lunch.

You would think that with Doretta being the only woman on the crew, she would have had it much easier than the rest of us. She was about a 29 year old lady that had a daughter at home. I know because she used to wear a shirt that had her daughter’s face on it. She was working to make a living like most everyone else on the labor crew. Doretta worked right alongside the rest of us when it came to Coal Cleanup, washing down the conveyor system using high pressure water hoses.

She worked right alongside me while we tied the rebar for the concrete floor of the new sandblast building that was going to be built behind the water treatment building. She worked with me in the sump pit between the precipitator and the smoke stacks with the Honey Wagon Sewer company that was helping us suck out the crud from the bottom of the pit. (This was before we had bought our own Honey Wagon). They call it a “Honey Wagon”, because, well… it is used to suck out things like Outhouses. You know how much that smells like Honey….. right? Um… ok.

We finally bought a Honey Wagon like this

Most surprising to me, Doretta worked cleaning boiler tubes in the boiler when the unit was offline and we needed to shake tubes to knock out the ash, or even use crosscut saw blades welded end on end to cut through the ash packed in the boiler economizer section.

I’m talking about these two man crosscut saws. Welded end-on-end

This lady was a survivor. That is how she struck me.

Most of the time Doretta worked with a smile on her face. In fact, she had a smile embedded on her face from years of smiling. Even though (as I found out in the course of my time on the Labor Crew), Doretta had a very rough period of her life, she hadn’t let it beat her down, and she was happy to be working on the labor crew, doing what most people would think was a thankless job.

It is true that when something needed to be typed, (Desktop computers were not available yet), Doretta would do the typing for Larry. She would also cut our hair. Being paid our modest salary (mine was $5.75 per hour at the time), we couldn’t afford to go to the barber every other week to have our hair trimmed, so Doretta would set up shop and one-by-one, we would go sit in the chair and she would cut our hair. Just like a mom would do.

I figured that if we were calling Doretta “Mom”, it only made sense that we would call Larry “Dad”. Larry’s reaction to my calling him “Dad” was more like Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker that he was Luke’s father. “Nooooooo!!!!” Except I was the little Darth Vader telling Larry I was his son…

The little Darth Vader from the Volkwagen commercial

Larry disowned me for a while as I have mentioned in an earlier post called “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“. He finally came around to admitting it when I continued calling him Dad. But he explained that he dropped me on my head when I was a baby and that was why I was so strange. So, Larry was our Labor Crew Dad, and Doretta was our Labor Crew mom.

It came to no surprise later when Doretta Funkhouser left the plant to become Doretta Riley. It seemed natural to me that my Labor Crew Mom and Dad would be married. I don’t know if that resolved the issue of my illegitimate Power Plant birth. I don’t remember anyone referring to me as a bastard after that. at least not in relation to my questionable origin, and at least not directly to my face. Though I do know of a few people during the years that would have thought that would have been an appropriate title for me.

I remember on one occasion when we were hauling scaffolding up onto the boiler to prepare for an outage, and I was working with Doretta using the large wench on 8 1/2 (I think), when Doretta came back from checking something at the bottom of the boiler. She said something to me then that puzzled me for a while. I didn’t understand it at first, but later came to know why she said what she did.

This is the type of Wench Hoist we were operating, only ours was powered by high pressure air. Not electricity

She said that it made her mad that people were trying to get me fired, when I’m a decent person, while there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to stay. She was referring to the wrath of Waugh after we had embarassed him in front of Martin Louthan when we had confronted them about not being allowed to be considered for the Testing jobs, (See the post “Take A Note Jan” said the Manager of Power Production“). Eldon was trying to dig up dirt on anyone that had caused his embarassment and had targetted me as one person to fire.

What had happened when Doretta had gone down to the foot of the boiler was that one or more of the “Pseudo” Power Plant Men-in-training had made an insulting reference to the past hardships that Doretta experienced in her life. I wasn’t aware of this until Eldon and Bill Moler questioned me about it a few weeks later when I was called to the office to see if I knew anything about the incident.

When they told me what had been said I became visibly upset to the point that I could hardly respond. Not because I didn’t want to answer their questions (which I didn’t, because I knew they were on their witch hunt which included me as well), but because when I learned that a couple of people on our crew had gravely insulted someone that I deeply cared about, I was both angry and upset. It was upsetting that someone would insult a struggling mother who was doing what she could to take care of her children only to be berated by others that worked closely with me.

After Doretta left the plant to marry Larry, I only saw her at a few Christmas Parties after that. She still had the same smile. I hope that she was able to find peace in her life, and that her family is doing well today. And that’s the story of my Labor Crew Mom and Dad.

Comments from the original post:

  1. Spent a little time on the picket line with the Navajo Local, District 65, in the Navajo Nation – when they were out on strike in 1987. Forget the lass’s name; but, the leader of the Local was a young Navajo woman, married with a couple of kids at home, who operated the biggest dragline at the Peabody Mine.

    Helluva skill.

  2. Gotta say, this is one of the more unusual blog posts I’ve seen in a while: different subject, funny, and well-written, too.

    Not my normal fare, but you’ve got a new follower… :)

  3. Your evocative stories return me to my years as a riveter… your subjects were the kind of people who built this country’s industry, I think. And I still think you have a book here…

When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough

As a young novice Power Plant Summer Help, I had watched seasoned Power Plant Men measure the distance between two points by walking between them and multiplying the number of steps by two.  At first I wondered how they could be sure that their strides were all exactly two feet apart.  Because the end result of these actions usually came out pretty close to their estimate, over time I began to think that the length of the stride of any respectable Power Plant Man must naturally be two feet.

So, one day when I was working on going to pull a cable from one manhole to the next, I decided I wanted to know the distance before I pulled a lot of cable off of the cable reel.  So, I remember that I grabbed the tape measure out of my tool bucket and began walking at as normal of a gait as I could.

I thought if I measured the first step, or even the last step I took that it would somehow be a different size because I wasn’t moving at my normal speed.  So.  I figured I would surprise myself by just stopping at some random step as I walked between the two manholes.

I don’t know if anyone was watching me as I stood out in the field just north of the two smokestacks, if they were watching me, then they would have saw me pause and stand still for a moment looking down.  Start messing around with my feet.  Then take a few more steps.  Pause once more and do the same thing.

What I was doing was stopping in the middle of my stride when I had just put a foot down, before I lifted the other foot and with my Stanley metal tape measure, I was measuring the distance from the back of one heel to the back of the other heel.

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

I can’t say that I was too disappointed to find that my stride was not exactly two feet.  I hadn’t figured I was completely Power Plant Man material anyway.  It turned out to be exactly 18 inches.  Or a foot and a half.  So, I realized I was about 3/4 Power Plant measured by my stride.

I found that I could easily walk between two points and measure the distance with great accuracy by multiplying the number of steps by one and a half feet.  With great knowledge comes great responsibility…. or…um… something like that.  Hence the story about how enough was not quite enough.

During the spring of 1992 I was tasked with running telephone cable to various points around the plant.  We were going to begin installing a new computer network known as the “Ethernet”.  When I first heard the name, I thought they were referring to something in space, where it used to be the belief that there was an area called the “Ether”.  But as it turned out, it was the regular network that is still in use today.

Dennis Dunkelgod from Oklahoma City had come to the plant with a bunch of drawing much like they did a few years earlier when they wanted me to install the Dumb Terminals all over the place. (See Post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“).  This time the diagrams included places where PCs were going to be placed.  And where the network server was going to be setup.  This required much better quality wiring than the dumb terminals.

So, Dennis saw to it that I had 1/2 mile of 100 pair telephone cable to run from the main plant up to the coalyard.   Along with the cable came a box of 25-pair punchdown blocks.  I’m sure you’ve seen punchdown blocks in movies when someone is tapping into a phone line, so they go up to these punchdown blocks and hook their handset up to the wires and listen in.

Telephone punch down block

Telephone punchdown block

One of the places where I needed to place a number of computers was in the warehouse and the warehouse office.  There were no good phone lines running to this building.  There were barely enough to take care of the phones that were in the office at the time.  So, I needed to figure out how to run the telephone cable to the warehouse which was the southern-most building in the main plant grounds.

Across the drive from the warehouse was the garage.  When I looked at the phone panel in the garage, this looked like a good place to tap into the phone system.  There were two 25 pair blocks in this building for only one phone.  Enough for all the computers in the garage and the warehouse.

All I needed to do now was figure out how to pull a 50 pair telephone cable from the garage over to the warehouse.  After looking for the conduit that brought the existing cable into the garage, I was able to determine how it went over to a hand hole at the north corner of the building and then over to a manhole not far away.

A hand hole was a shallow hole in the ground that has buried conduit coming into it.  Our handholes had a large piece of concrete covering it.

A man standing in a handhole

A man standing in a handhole

When I looked at the handhole I suddenly remembered that in during the week of March 21, 1981 I had visited the Power Plant to pick up my application to apply for working as a summer help for my 3rd summer.  I was wearing a beard that day when I arrived.   While I was in college, I usually wore a beard in the winter to keep my face warm because I rode my bike a lot, and it helped keep my face warm.

I had my friend Tim Flowers with me that day because he was going to apply to be a pre-novice Power Plant Man and work as a summer help also that summer.  It was snowing that day and it was almost 4:30pm.  Quittin’ Time by the time I had said hello to the many Power Plant Men that I hadn’t seen since the previous summer.

We were heading back out to the parking lot when I heard someone hollering at me.  I looked over toward the garage and there was Jim Heflin sitting on a backhoe digging a ditch.  He had turned off the backhoe so that I could hear him yelling at me.

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

The Backhoe that Jim was on didn’t have a cab on it.  He was all bundled up tying to keep warm.  I believe when he pulled down his face warmer, he too was wearing a beard.  He said that before he could go home that day he had to finish this rush job to dig a ditch all around the back and side of the garage.

When I returned the next summer Jim asked me if I remembered him digging the ditch in the snow that day in March.  I told him I did.  Then he said, “Come here.”  We walked around the side of the garage, and sure enough.  There was the ditch still open leading around the side and back of the garage.  He said, “It was such a rush job I had to stay out in the snow digging this ditch before I could go home, and it has been left untouched since then.

The reason I bring this up, was because the ditch he had been digging was for the conduit that went from the handhole around the back of the garage and over to the warehouse.  Later that summer the Construction crew from downtown came out to the plant and laid the conduit in the ditch and covered it back up.  So, I knew how the cable needed to run from handhole to handhole over to the warehouse.  Oh.   Before I forget.  Here is a picture of Jim Heflin with a beard:

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

So, back to figuring out how to get the cable to that warehouse.  I measured how far it was from the punch down blocks to where it went down into the ground.  From there I walked with my normal gait (which I knew was exactly 18 inches – remember?) counting my steps.

I measured how many steps it was to each handhole and over to the warehouse. where the conduit came up out of the ground and went into the warehouse.  In this manner I calculated that I needed 775 feet exactly.

I figured I didn’t want to use the 100 pair cable.  That was a lot more cable than we would ever need for this job, so I went up to Bill Bennett’s office and told him that I needed 775 feet of 50-pair telephone cable to go from the garage to the warehouse.  He said that he would order some.

I don’t remember what time it was when I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking that the length of cable was just going to reach the telephone junction box, and not enough to comfortably reach the punch down blocks halfway up the junction box.  So, when I arrived at work in the morning I went straight to Bill’s office and told him that I should have ordered at least 800 feet of cable instead of 775, just to be safe.  Bill told me that he had already placed the order for 775 feet.  It was too late to change it.

I thought to myself… surely when you order 775 feet of cable they will send some reasonable amount, like 1000 feet.  Would they really cut it off at 775 feet exactly.  So, I told myself it would be all right.

Sure enough.  a couple of days later a reel of 50 pair telephone cable showed up in the electric shop.  In big numbers written on the side of the real in red marker were the numbers “775 ft.”   Oh geez.

Ok.   Somehow I was going to have to make this work.  Cross my fingers that maybe my stride was only 17 and a half inches now instead of 18 inches and I had measured it longer than it really was.

So, I pulled the cable from the garage, through the manholes over to the warehouse.  In order to pull it from the last handhole into the junction box in the warehouse I had strapped some mule tape to it that I had strung earlier through the conduit using a fish tape.  I remember going inside and beginning to pull the last bit of the cable to the junction box hoping to see the end of the cable come up out the conduit.

As I was pulling the cable, I could feel the cable beginning to bind up as it was tightening up in the last handhole.  I was still only holding mule tape when I couldn’t pull anymore.  Meaning that I didn’t have any cable yet.

So, I went back to the garage and pushed as much cable into the conduit that I could and still punch down the wires on the punchdown block.  I even lowered the punchdown block in the junction box hoping that the extra foot would help.  Then I went to each handhole and pulled the cable from the garage in the direction of the warehouse until it was as tight around the corners as it would go.

I had managed to pull an extra 2 feet or so into the last handhole.  Now all I had left was to go into the warehouse and pull the mule tape to see if the cable would reach the junction box. — Suspense.  Yeah.  I know.

When I pulled the last 2 feet of cable from the handhole into the junction box, the end of the cable came out.  But only about 1 foot of cable was in the junction box.  A punchdown block is about 1 foot long.

So, in order to be able to punch the telephone cable down on the punch down block, I had put the punchdown block at the bottom of the junction box, right where the cable came out of the conduit.  On both ends of the cable, I never had to cut one inch of cable from either end.   After making sure I had every inch of cable pulled tight through every handhole, I punched down both ends using the handy dandy Telephone wire punchdown tool.

Telephone wire punch down tool

Telephone wire punch down tool

I told myself that from now on, I was always going to throw in a couple hundred extra feet whenever someone asks  me how much cable I need.  That was too close!  You would have thought I learned my lesson.

Now, 22 years later, I still have the same problem as a business analyst at Dell.  Part of my job is estimating how long it is going to take to complete various parts of a project.  I always make the same mistake and try to over-analyze it so that I can give a really accurate value.  The problem is, that I don’t take into account that things take longer than you would think because of factors out of our control.

My project managers know me well enough to take the number that I give them and add a decent amount of time to my estimates.  I even tell them that they should because I always underestimate the time.  I always estimate how long it would take me to do it personally and I’m not usually the person that is actually writing the code.

Through the last 12 and a half years while working at Dell, I have never missed a go-live date.  Oh.  Just like this story, we finish on time, but with little or no time to spare.  We are always up to the wire.  Beginning right when I said we would and ending on the date we planned.  Believe me.  Just as I pulled every inch of slack out of that cable that day, we end up doing the same with the progress of our projects.

So, I guess I still haven’t learned to properly pad my estimates to reduce the risk of falling short.  I think it has something to do with my personality and the way everything has to be mathematically calculated in my head.

Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley — Repost

Originally posted February 25, 2012.  I added Larry’s Picture at the end:

When I first began working at the power plant (in 1979), one of the people I spent a good deal of time with was Larry Riley.  I was 18 and knew very little about  tools, equipment, power plants and how to speak in the Power Plant language.  I quickly found out that in those early days, when the plant was still under construction, a lot of people turned to Larry Riley when they were faced with an obstacle and didn’t know how to approach it.  Larry Riley was a 24 year old genius.  I was amazed by his vast knowledge of seemingly disparate areas of expertise.  When he was asked to do something, I never heard him say that he didn’t know how.  He just went and did it.  So, after I asked Larry how old he was, I asked him how long he had been at the plant.  He hadn’t been there very long, but he had worked in the construction department before transferring to the power plant.

Larry Riley already at the age of 24 had a beat up hard hat full of hard hat stickers.  One indicating that he was a certified industrial truck driver.  I think he had about 5 safety stickers and various other hard hat stickers.  He was a thin clean cut dark haired young man with a moustache that sort of reminded me of the Marlboro Man’s moustache.  He walked like he had a heavy burden on his back and he was rarely seen without a cigarette in his mouth.

Yep.  That's the Marlboro Man

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I worked with Larry off and on throughout my years as a summer help and during that time Larry taught me the following things (to name a few):  How to drive a tractor.  How to mend a fence.  How to bleed the air out of a diesel engine’s fuel line (which is more important than you would think).  How to operate a brush hog (a large mower on the back of a tractor).  How to free a brush hog from a chain link fence after you get one of the bat wings stuck in one.  Tie rebar, and pour concrete and operate a Backhoe.  I remember asking Larry why a backhoe was called a backhoe.  I think Sonny Karcher was in the truck at the time.  You would have thought I had asked what year the War of 1812 was fought!  I’m sure you are all chuckling while reading this (especially all the power plant men).  But for those of you who are as green as I was, I’ll tell you.  A Backhoe is called a Backhoe because the Hoe is on the Back.  Gee.  Who would have thought?

A Backhoe
Here is a picture of a backhoe

Later when I was a full time employee and had worked my way from being a Janitor to being on the Labor Crew, Larry Riley became my foreman.  At that point on occassion I would call him “Dad”.  He would usually disown me and deny that he had anything to do with it.  On occassion when he would own up to being my dad, he would admit that when I was real little I was dropped on my head and that’s why I acted so odd (though, I don’t know to what behavior he was referring).

There was this other guy at the plant the first summer I was there that had the unique title of “Mill Wright”.  His name was Gary Michelson.  He evidentally had gone to school, taken some tests and been certified as a Mill Wright and this probably brought him a bigger paycheck than the other regular workers as well as a much bigger ego.  He would spend days at a time at a band saw cutting out metal wedges at different angles so that he would have them all in his pristine tool box.  I worked with him a few times during my first summer as a summer help.  I will probably talk more about Gary in a later post, but just to put it plainly…  I could tell right away that he wasn’t a real “power plant man”.  The rest of the power plant men I’m sure would agree with me.  I wouldn’t have traded Larry Riley for ten Gary Michelsons unless I was trying to help some engineers change a light bulb (actually.  I have met some good engineers along the way.  Some of them very good.  But they were not the norm.  At least not those assigned to power plants).

I have mentioned some different things that Larry had taught me and if you remember, he was the person that I worked with on my second day at the plant when Sonny Karcher and Larry had taken me to the coalyard to fix the check valve (in my post about Sonny Karcher).  There will always be one day that first comes to my mind when I think about Larry.  This is what happened:

I drove a truck down to the Picnic area on the far side of the lake from the plant.  Jim Heflin drove a Backhoe down there.  I believe he was going to dig up some tree stumps that had been left over after the “engineers” in Oklahoma City had decided where to put all the trees in the area.

What the engineers in Oklahoma City did was this:  They cut down all of the trees that were in the picnic area and planted new trees.  Some of them not more than 15 or 20 feet away from a tree that had been there for 20 years and was a good size.  So, there were a lot of stumps left over from the big hearty trees that had been cut down that needed to be removed so that the sickly little twigs that were planted there could prosper and grow without feeling inadequate growing next to a full grown he-man tree.

Anyway.  I had climbed out of the truck and was making my way around the picnic area picking up trash and putting it in a plastic bag using a handy dandy homemade trash stabbing stick.  As Jim was making his way across the “lawn” (I use the word “lawn” loosely, since the area was still fairly new and was not quite finished) when he hit a wet spot.  The Backhoe was stuck in the mud.  There wasn’t much I could do but watch as Jim used the hoe to try to drag himself out.  He rocked the backhoe back and forth.  Use the stabilizers to pick up the backhoe while trying to use the scoop to pull it forward.  I would say he worked at it for about ten minutes (even though it seemed more like half an hour).  Then it was time for us to head back to the plant to go to break.

Back at the plant, Jim told Larry about his predicament and asked him if he would help him get the backhoe out of the mud.  Larry said he would come along and see what he could do.  At this point, I was thinking that he would jump in the Wench Truck and go down there and just pull him out.  Instead we just climbed in the pickup truck and headed back to the park (notice how it went from being a picnic area to a park in only three paragraphs?).

When we arrived, Larry climbed into the Backhoe after making his way across the vast mud pit that Jim had created while trying to free himself before.  He fired up the Backhoe…. cigarette in mouth…  then the most fascinating thing happened…  using both feet to work the pedals, and one hand working the controls in the front and the other hand working the levers in the back, Larry picked up the backhoe using the scoop and the hoe and stabilizers and cigarette all simultaneously, he walked the backhoe sideways right out of the mud pit and onto dry land just as if it was a crab walking sideways.  I would say it took no longer than three minutes from the time he started working the controls.  Jim just looked at me in amazement.  Patted me on the back, shook his head and said, “And that’s how it’s done.”

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

This is the best picture I could find of Jim Heflin

Now that I’m on the subject of Larry Riley on a backhoe, let me tell you another one.  I have seen Larry digging a ditch so that we could run some pipe for irrigation.  Now picture this.  The bucket on the backhoe is digging a hole in the hard red clay of Oklahoma, and Larry suddenly stops and says….. “I think I felt something”.  What? (I think) Of course you did, you are operating this machine that has the power to dig a big hole in the ground in one scoop like it was nothing and Larry said he felt something?  He climbed off of the backhoe, jumped down into the ditch he was creating, kicked some clods of dirt around and lo and behold, he had just scraped clean a buried cable.  He hadn’t broken it.  He had come down on it with the bucket and had somehow “felt” this cable buried under all that dirt.  I wonder what it felt like that told him he had encountered something that wasn’t just dirt.  I think the entire labor crew just went down on one knee before his greatness for a moment of silence – all right, so we didn’t really.  But we were somewhat  impressed.

The one thing that makes Larry a True Power Plant Man with all the rest is that he performed acts of greatness like what I described above with complete humility.  I never saw a look of arrogance in Larry’s face.  He never spoke down to you and he never bragged about anything.  To this day, I still picture Larry Riley working at the power plant working feats of magic that would amaze the rest of us as he thinks that he’s just doing another day’s work.  That’s the way it is with True Power Plant Men.

Since I first created this post two years ago, I have found a picture of Larry Riley taken many years after this story:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him.  He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Power Plant Lady of the Labor Crew — Repost

Originally Posted on October 19, 2012:

In the Power Plant posts, I generally tend to focus on the Power Plant Men that taught their Power Plant culture to me while I was fortunate enough to grace the boilers and conveyors of the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the north central plains of Oklahoma.  Every once in a while during this journey there were True Power Plant Ladies that came along that took their place right alongside the Power Plant Men, and generally held their own when it came to the amount of work, their tenacity, and even for some, their ability to hit a spittoon from 6 feet.  — Ok.  I made up the part about hitting a spittoon.  Everyone just used the floor drains for spittoons in the early days before they became responsible for cleaning them out themselves, after the summer help found more grass to mow.  — The choice spitting material was…. Sunflower seed shells.

In the first few years, there was Leta Cates who worked out of the welding shop (I believe… Well, she hung around there a lot), and later became a clerk.  Then there was Opal Brien who was in the maintenance shop and worked in the garage one year when I was a summer help.  Of course, there was Darlene Mitchell who worked in the warehouse with Dick Dale, Mike Gibbs and Bud Schoonover.  There was also Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), who was one of the Electric Shop A team super heroes.  Later came Julienne Alley that became the “Mom” of the welding shop.  Some more came and went….   Especially the person that we referred to as “Mom” while I was on labor crew.  Doretta Funkhouser.

I have mentioned before that the evil plant manager Eldon Waugh enjoyed manipulating his minion’s (oh… I mean employee’s) personal lives as much as he could get away with without stirring up trouble downtown.  So, one of the rules he had put in place was that no one on the janitor crew could be considered for another position at the plant until they had first moved to the labor crew.

There even came a ruling later in 1983 (from Eldon and/or Bill Moler) that if it was your turn to go to Labor Crew, and you were not able to, or didn’t for some reason more than once, then you would lose your job altogether.  That remained the case until Darrell Low was able to quickly move from janitor to Operator after Eldon had lost his control over the people on labor crew that he wanted to keep there, making the rule obsolete (I’m sure we had been told the rule had come from Corporate headquarters anyway).

Once on the labor crew, it was very rare that anyone left this crew to go to another position in the plant.  They usually had to leave the company altogether, or find a job at another plant in order to escape.  This was especially true after the summer of 1982 when the oil boom went bust in Oklahoma making jobs harder to find, and less people left the plant to go somewhere else to work.

So, when I finally made it to the labor crew, many of the team had been there for a very long time.  Others I had worked with before because we were janitors together.  This included Ronnie Banks and Jim Kanelakos.  Other members of the labor crew were Ron Luckey, Chuck Moreland, Fred Crocker, Bob Lillibridge, Tom Kelly, Bill Cook, Charles Peavler and Doretta Funkhouser.  Larry Riley was our foreman.

While on labor crew I was able to learn how to operate a backhoe.  Though I never learned the backhoe magic of Larry Riley, I was able to scoop up bottom ash and dump it into the back of Power Plant Men’s pickup trucks that needed it to fill in the parts of their driveways that had washed out at home.  The very first time I operated a backhoe, I noticed right away that the brakes didn’t operate very well.  You really had to play with it in order to get backhoe to not roll forward.

Backhoe

Here is a picture of a Backhoe

That was ok, because I was just loading bottom ash from a pile into a dump truck and I could just bump the backhoe right up against the dump truck and empty the scoop into the bed.  That was working real good until while I was waiting for the dump truck to return after bringing the bottom ash to the place where it was dumping the ash, Jimm Harrison pulled up in a shiny new Dodge Pickup.  I mean…. it was brand new!  He backed up by me and signaled to me from inside his truck.  I was waiting there with a scoop full of bottom ash (which is a gravelly looking substance) for the dump truck to return.

My first thought was oh boy…. I shouldn’t do this…. I can hardly stop this thing and I know I will probably run right into the side of Jimm’s new truck and he’s going to have a fit.  So, I did the only thing I could do.  I proceeded to drive around to the side of Jimm’s truck to pour the load of ash into the bed of his truck.  Now… either it was Jimm’s guardian angel, or it was mine (protecting me from the bodily harm Jimm may have inflicted on me out of stress had I put a big dent in the side of his new truck) that stopped the backhoe just at the right spot, I’ll never know for sure.  But something did.  The backhoe for once stopped right where I would have liked it to stop and I dumped the ash in the truck filling it to the brim.  I waved to Jimm, and he drove away.

Later when I went back to the Coal Yard Maintenance building (where the Labor Crew called home) I saw Jimm in the office, so I went to talk to him.  I smiled and said, “I hope I didn’t make you nervous dumping that ash in your truck.”  Jimm said “No.”  It didn’t bother him one bit.  He said he knew I could handle it.  So I told him that was the first time I had ever operated a backhoe and the brakes don’t work too well, and I wasn’t even sure if I could keep the backhoe from running into the side of his truck.  I remember Jimm’s reaction.  He said,  “Ok, now I’m nervous.”  Having done my share of passing the nervous energy over to Jimm, I went next door to the break room to enjoy my lunch.

You would think that with Doretta being the only woman on the crew, she would have had it much easier than the rest of us.  She was about a 29 year old lady that had a daughter at home.  I know because she used to wear a shirt that had her daughter’s face on it.  She was working to make a living like most everyone else on the labor crew.  Doretta worked right alongside the rest of us when it came to Coal Cleanup, washing down the conveyor system using high pressure water hoses.

She worked right alongside me while we tied the rebar for the concrete floor of the new sandblast building that was going to be built behind the water treatment building.  She worked with me in the sump pit between the precipitator and the smoke stacks with the Honey Wagon  Sewer company that was helping us suck out the crud from the bottom of the pit.  (This was before we had bought our own Honey Wagon).  They call it a “Honey Wagon”, because, well… it is used to suck out things like Outhouses.  You know how much that smells like Honey….. right?  Um… ok.

We finally bought a Honey Wagon like this

Most surprising to me, Doretta worked cleaning boiler tubes in the boiler when the unit was offline and we needed to shake tubes to knock out the ash, or even use crosscut saw blades welded end on end to cut through the ash packed in the boiler economizer section.

I’m talking about these two man crosscut saws. Welded end-on-end

This lady was a survivor.  That is how she struck me.

Most of the time Doretta worked with a smile on her face.  In fact, she had a smile embedded on her face from years of smiling.  Even though (as I found out in the course of my time on the Labor Crew), Doretta had a very rough period of her life, she hadn’t let it beat her down, and she was happy to be working on the labor crew, doing what most people would think was a thankless job.

It is true that when something needed to be typed, (Desktop computers were not available yet), Doretta would do the typing for Larry.  She would also cut our hair.  Being paid our modest salary (mine was $5.75 per hour at the time), we couldn’t afford to go to the barber every other week to have our hair trimmed, so Doretta would set up shop and one-by-one, we would go sit in the chair and she would cut our hair.  Just like a mom would do.

I figured that if we were calling Doretta “Mom”, it only made sense that we would call Larry “Dad”.  Larry’s reaction to my calling him “Dad” was more like Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker that he was Luke’s father.  “Nooooooo!!!!”  Except I was the little Darth Vader telling Larry I was his son…

The little Darth Vader from the Volkwagen commercial

Larry disowned me for a while as I have mentioned in an earlier post called “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“.  He finally came around to admitting it when I continued calling him Dad.  But he explained that he dropped me on my head when I was a baby and that was why I was so strange.  So, Larry was our Labor Crew Dad, and Doretta was our Labor Crew mom.

It came to no surprise later when Doretta Funkhouser left the plant to become Doretta Riley.  It seemed natural to me that my Labor Crew Mom and Dad would be married.  I don’t know if that resolved the issue of my illegitimate Power Plant birth.  I don’t remember anyone referring to me as a bastard after that. at least not in relation to my questionable origin, and at least not directly to my face.  Though I do know of a few people during the years that would have thought that would have been an appropriate title for me.

I remember on one occasion when we were hauling scaffolding up onto the boiler to prepare for an outage, and I was working with Doretta using the large wench on 8 1/2 (I think), when Doretta came back from checking something at the bottom of the boiler.  She said something to me then that puzzled me for a while.  I didn’t understand it at first, but later came to know why she said what she did.

This is the type of Wench Hoist we were operating, only ours was powered by high pressure air.  Not electricity

She said that it made her mad that people were trying to get me fired, when I’m a decent person, while there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to stay.  She was referring to the wrath of Waugh after we had embarassed him in front of Martin Louthan when we had confronted them about not being allowed to be considered for the Testing jobs, (See the post “Take A Note Jan” said the Manager of Power Production“).  Eldon was trying to dig up dirt on anyone that had caused his embarassment and had targetted me as one person to fire.

What had happened when Doretta had gone down to the foot of the boiler was that one or more of the “Pseudo” Power Plant Men-in-training had made an insulting reference to the past hardships that Doretta experienced in her life.  I wasn’t aware of this until Eldon and Bill Moler questioned me about it a few weeks later when I was called to the office to see if I knew anything about the incident.

When they told me what had been said I became visibly upset to the point that I could hardly respond.  Not because I didn’t want to answer their questions (which I didn’t, because I knew they were on their witch hunt which included me as well), but because when I learned that a couple of people on our crew had gravely insulted someone that I deeply cared about, I was both angry and upset. It was upsetting that someone would insult a struggling mother who was doing what she could to take care of her children only to be berated by others that worked closely with me.

After Doretta left the plant to marry Larry, I only saw her at a few Christmas Parties after that.  She still had the same smile.  I hope that she was able to find peace in her life, and that her family is doing well today.  And that’s the story of my Labor Crew Mom and Dad.

Comments from the original post:

  1. Spent a little time on the picket line with the Navajo Local, District 65, in the Navajo Nation – when they were out on strike in 1987. Forget the lass’s name; but, the leader of the Local was a young Navajo woman, married with a couple of kids at home, who operated the biggest dragline at the Peabody Mine.

    Helluva skill.

  2. Gotta say, this is one of the more unusual blog posts I’ve seen in a while: different subject, funny, and well-written, too.

    Not my normal fare, but you’ve got a new follower… :)

  3. Your evocative stories return me to my years as a riveter… your subjects were the kind of people who built this country’s industry, I think. And I still think you have a book here…