Tag Archives: Bill Green

Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

Originally Posted May 25, 2013;

Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline.  The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators.  This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust.  The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”.  The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust.  When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air (or 99.999%).

Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop.  These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator.  I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post:  Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant.  It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years.  You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant.  I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.

When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it.  He likes to get dirty.”  At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop.  Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning…  Now those words took on their full meaning.

I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning.  Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post:  Singing’ Along with Sonny Kendrick).  I was his chance to be lifted from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey.  I had accepted that.  I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.

So, here I was…  One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post:  Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door).  Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers.  I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit.  Just a rain suit.

A man wearing a half faced respirator -- not me... just an image I found on Google Images

A man wearing a half faced respirator — not me… just an image I found on Google Images

Not a lot of protection….

I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul.  I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string.  I had  a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.

A notepad like this

A notepad like this

So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world.  It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon.  We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point.  We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.

Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart.  He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above.  At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me.  Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip.  There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.

Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip.  Then even lower.  About 10 feet above us.  A third clip.  — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It pays to Listen“),  then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….”  A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn.

Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate.  Every clip must be in their place.  Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so.  Ok.  I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 clips per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and  7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…

Bill explained….. Clean each insulator.  there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place.There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers.  there were 84 hoppers,   Great.  Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks….  Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof.  two on each section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension house on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a clip or broken.  Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force.  That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below.  Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each.  There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers.  In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.

Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates.  In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly.  There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers.   This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul.  Oh.  And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.

So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units).  Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator. For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators.  Some of my closest friends were precipitator components.  Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.

We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me.  I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment.  I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.

Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in the boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas….  I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home…. Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”.  I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash.  I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby…  Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it.  He apologized.  He explained that he meant it with affection.

At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it.  The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter.  That meant that they would infiltrate your filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs.  Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.

I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu.  This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so.  I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth.  I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.

I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator.  So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters.  They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles.  I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.

To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell.  The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors.  Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals….  Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.

You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate.  Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.

I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post:  A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff.  He said it had some kind of  a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….

He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell.  You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.

There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name).  She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical.  Unfortunately, we never found out what it was.  In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces.  This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.

I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of  an electron microscope.  I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one.  I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.

So, I just continued wearing the organic filters.  This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms.  Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator.  When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands.  They knew everything I did.

One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job.  One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma.  They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had.  They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.

Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be.  I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously.  No.  I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it.  I loved it.   I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.

I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator.  I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them.  Coaxing them.  Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job.  If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”.  Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7.  But they were each my friends in their own way.

You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?”  I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me.  I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.

I have my own understanding of who I should be.  My wife may call it “stubbornness”, and that may be what it is.  I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again….  What was I going to do?  Give up?  How could I do that to a friend?  I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma.  That isn’t going to change who I am.”

Today I am called an IT Business Analyst.  I work for Dell  Computers (now I work for General Motors).  It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world.  I see the same pattern.  When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job.  You become invaluable.  Almost irreplaceable.  People look to you for answers.  They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business.  I am glad to be able to serve them.

Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?”  Arnold replied, “Oh.  nothing anyone wants.”  (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators.  No.  I wouldn’t do that.  Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.

Scott Hubbard

Charles Foster

Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good.  His son, Tim Foster has taken his place.  One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator.  I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim….  I know Scott understands….

Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them….  Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness.   Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly…  Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good…  next row….

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Crossfunctional Power Plant Dysfunction

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had gone from 360 employees in 1987 down to 124 employees on August 1, 1994 after the second downsizing.  Monday morning when we arrived at work, the maintenance department met in the main break room to be told how we were going to survive the loss of 100 employees.  With only 7 electricians left, I kept trying to add up on my fingers how we could possibly keep up with all the work we had to do.

Jasper Christensen stood up and after saying that he understood how we must feel about our present situation, he told us that we will have to each work harder.  I shook my head in disbelief (inside my head only… I didn’t really shake my head, as it was frozen with the same blank stare everyone else was wearing).  I knew we weren’t going to be working harder.  — What does that really mean anyway.  I thought he should have said, “We will each have to work “smarter” because we can’t really work “harder”.  Jasper was a nice person, but he never really was much for words so I gave him a pass on this one.  After all, he never really took a course in motivational speaking.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

Interestingly, the three people in charge at the plant, Jasper, Jim Arnold and Bill Green were all 53 years old, and only within 4 months in age from each other.  They all belonged to the “old school way of doing things” (see the post:  “From Pioneers to Power Plant Managers“).  As Jasper continued in his speech I noticed that gone was any talk of working together to achieve our goals.  I immediately felt that we had just rolled back our management to a time before our first downsizing in 1987 when the Evil Plant Manager used to rule the plant with an iron fist.

I felt this way because we were being told how we were going to change everything we do without giving any of our own input.  For instance, we would no longer have a Quality Action Team.  That was disbanded immediately.  We would no longer hold Quality Team meetings (we were also told that the Quality process was not going away, though we couldn’t see how it was going to work).  The Safety Task Force did survive.

We were also told that we would no longer fill out any forms unless they are requested by someone.  It seems that we had over 1,300 forms that were being filled out at the plant and most of them were never being used for anything, so, unless someone requested a form, we wouldn’t just fill them out for the sake of filling them out.  This was actually a good idea.  I know we filled out forms in triplicate each week when we did transformer and substation inspections.  Most of those were never looked at, I’m sure.

It turned out later that we needed only about 400 of the 1300 forms our plant was churning out each month.

We were told we wouldn’t be doing Substation inspections.  That was not our responsibility.  It would be done by the Transmission and Distribution division instead.  I was beginning to see how management was trying to figure out how 7 electricians were going to “work harder”.  The answer at the moment was that we were going to do less.  The purpose of the Substation and Transformer checks each week was to look for problems while they were minor instead of waiting for a catastrophe to happen.

We were told that we were not going to “Gold Plate” our work.  We were going to just do what it took to complete the task without worrying about polishing it up to make it “perfect” (which is what real Power Plant Men do).  Instead we were going to “Farm Fix it”.  I’ll go more into this subject with a separate post.

We were then told that we would no longer have an Electric Shop and an Instrument and Controls shop.  We would from then on all meet in the Mechanical Maintenance shop.  We were not supposed to go to the Electric Shop or the Instrument and Controls shops for breaks because we were all going to be cross-functional.  We are all Maintenance now.  No longer specialized (sort of).

We were going to have four Maintenance teams.  Each one will have mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians and Instrument and controls people.  Each member on each team would learn to do each other’s jobs to a degree.

An electrician will learn how to tack weld.  A mechanic will learn how to run conduit and pull wire.  An instrument and controls person will learn how to use the lathe.  We would each learn enough about each job in order to perform minor tasks in each area without having to call the expert in that skill.

When the meeting was over, we each met with our own foremen.  Alan Kramer was my new foreman.  He used to be a foreman in the Instrument and Controls shop.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

It became apparent that even though Jasper had come across as if everything had already been decided and that this was the way it was going to be, things hadn’t really been ironed out yet.  Actually, this was just a first pass.  The main goal was for us to figure out how to get all the work done that needed to be done.  I was still an electrician and I was still responsible for working on electrical jobs.

One really good part of the new situation was that I was now on the same team as Charles Foster.  We had always been very good friends, but I hadn’t worked on the same team as Charles since my first year as an electrician in 1984, ten years earlier when he was my first foreman in the electric shop (See the post:  “New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop“).  We were the two electricians on Alan Kramer’s team.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

Besides the fact that everyone was very bitter over the despicable treatment of our fellow Power Plant Men that were laid off the previous Friday (see the post: “Power Plant Downsizing Disaster and the Left Behinds“), we knew that we had to figure out how to make this new arrangement work.  We knew our upper management was using the old tyrannical style of management, but we also knew that at this point, they needed every one of us.  They couldn’t go around firing us just because we spoke our mind (which was good for me, because, I was still in the process of learning how to keep my mouth shut when that was the most beneficial course of action).

As Dysfunctional as our upper management seemed to be at the moment, our new teams embraced the idea of our new Cross-Functional teams with some minor changes.  First, we still needed to see ourselves as electricians, instrument and controls, machinists, welders and mechanics.  We each had our own “certifications” and expertise that only a person with that trade could perform.

Charles and I would still go to the electric shop in the morning before work began, and during lunch and breaks.  Our electric equipment to perform our job was there, and we still needed to maintain a stock of electric supplies.  The same was true for the Instrument and Controls crew members.

Even today, after having been gone from the Power Plant for 13 1/2 years, the electric shop office phone still has my voice on the voice mail message.  I know, because a couple of years ago, when it was accidentally erased, Tim Foster (Charles Foster’s son), asked me to record a new message so they could put it back on the phone.  I considered that a great honor to be asked by True Power Plant Men to record their voice mail message on the electric shop phone.  The Phone number by the way is:  (405) 553-29??.  Oh.  I can’t remember the last two digits.  🙂

Once the kinks were worked out of the cross-functional team structure, it worked really well.  I just kept thinking…. Boy, if we only had a group of supportive upper management that put their plant first over their own personal power needs, this would be great.  The True Power Plant Men figured out how to work around them, so that in spite of the obstacles, within about 4 years, we had hit our stride.

Let me give you an example of how well the cross-functional teams worked compared to the old conventional way we used to work.  I will start by describing how we used to do things….  Let’s say that a pump breaks down at the coal yard…

Horizontal pump

Horizontal pump

— start here —

An operator creates the Maintenance Order (M.O.).  It is eventually assigned to a crew of mechanics.  (start the clock here).  When they have time, they go to the coal yard to look over the problem.  Yep.  The pump is not working.  They will have to take it back to the shop to fix it.

A Maintenance Order is created for the electricians to unwire the motor.  The electricians receive the maintenance order and prioritize it.  They finally assign it to a team to go work on it.  Say, in one week from the time they received the M.O.  The electrician goes to the control room to request a clearance on the pump.  The next day the electrician unwires the motor.  They complete the maintenance order at the end of the day and send it back up to the A Foreman.

The completed electric maintenance order is sent back to the mechanics letting them know that the motor for the pump has been unwired.  When they receive it, a couple of days later, they schedule some time that week to go work on the pump.  At that time, they bring the motor to the electric shop so that it can be worked on at the same time.

The motor and the pump is worked on some time during the next week.

A machinist is needed to re-sleeve a bearing housing on either the motor or the pump or both.  So, an M.O. is created for the machinist to work on creating a sleeve in an end bell of the motor or the pump.

Gary (Stick) McCain

Gary (Stick) McCain — Machinist Extraordinaire

The electricians inform the mechanics when the motor is ready.  When they are done with the pump, and they have put it back in place, they put the motor back.  Then they create an M.O. for the Machinist to line up the motor and the pump before the coupling is installed.

The Machinists prioritize their work and at some point, let’s say a couple of days, they make it up to the motor and work on aligning the pump and the motor.

During the re-installation, it is decided that a bracket that has worn out needs to be welded back.  So, an M.O. is created for the welders to replace the bracket before the motor can be rewired.

The welders prioritize their work, and in a week (or two) they finally have time to go weld the bracket.

George Clouse

George Clouse – Welding Wizard

They return their M.O. completed to the mechanics who then tell the electricians that they can re-wire the motor.

The electricians prioritize their work and when they have time to go re-wire the motor, they wire it up.  After wiring it, they go to the control room to have the operators help them bump test the motor to make sure it runs in the right direction.  An entire day goes by until the electrician receives a call saying that the operator is ready to bump test the motor.  The electrician and/or mechanic meets the operator at the pump to bump test the motor.  Once this test is performed, the mechanic re-couples the motor.

The electrician then removes his clearance on the pump and it is put back into service.  The M.O.s are completed.

—  End here.  The time it took to repair the pump and put it back in service would commonly take one month —

Now see what happens when you have a cross-functional team working on it….(and be amazed).

— Start here —

The maintenance team receives a ticket (M.O.) from the planner that a pump is broken at the coal yard.  A mechanic goes and looks at it and determines it needs to be repaired.  He calls his Electrician Teammate and tells him that the motor needs to be unwired in order to fix the pump.  The electrician goes to the control room and takes a clearance on the pump.

The electrician then goes to the switchgear and waits for the operator to place the clearance.  When that is completed, the electrician goes to the pump and unwires the motor.  While there, he helps the mechanic pull the motor and put it aside.  The electrician determines there if the motor needs to be worked on.  If possible, it is repaired in place, or the motor is brought to the electric shop at the same time as the pump.  It is determined that the pump needs to be worked on, so they work together to bring it to the shop where the mechanics work on the pump.  Any machinist work is done at that time.

When the pump is being put back in place, the bracket is found broken, so they call the welder on their team who comes up and welds it back on.  The machinist comes with the electrician and the mechanic to align the motor.  The operators are called to bump test the motor.  As soon as the test is over, the coupling is installed.  The clearance is removed and the pump is put back in place.

— End here.  The pump can now be repaired within one week instead of four weeks.  Often the pump can be repaired in days instead of weeks. —

The reason why the cross-functional teams worked so well is that we all had the same priority.  We all had the same job and we had all the skills on our team to do all the work.  This was a fantastic change from working in silos.

This was “Working Smarter”, not “Working Harder”.  Ever since that day when we first learned that we had to “Work Harder” I always cringe when I hear that phrase.  To me, “Working Harder” means, “Working Dumber”.  Today I am a big advocate of Cross-Functional Teams.  I have seen them work successfully.  There was only one catch which I will talk about later.  This worked beautifully, but keep in mind… We had cross-functional teams made of the best Power Plant Men on the planet!  So, I may have a lopsided view of how successful they really work in the general public.

Final Battle for the Illusive Power Plant Safety Pizza

The Electric Shop had tried for three years to win the Safety Slogan of the Year award.  Not because we thought we were safer than any of the other teams at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, but because we really liked pizza (see the post: “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe“) .  When the plant was downsized in 1994, the electric shop no longer existed as it had before.  We had become cross-functional teams (See the post: “Crossfunctional Power Plant Dysfunction“).  It looked as if our dream of winning the Power Plant Safety Pizza was no longer in our grasp.

My carpooling buddy, Toby O’Brien had moved from our plant as a Plant Engineer to the Safety Department in Oklahoma City.  He was working with Julia Bevers and Chris McAlister.  Chris had also moved from our plant as a labor crew hand to the Safety Department (This was a great opportunity for Chris!).

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

Bill Green our new plant manager introduced a jar of beads during his first safety meeting.  We each picked a bead randomly from the jar through a small hole in the top.  Then Bill Green pointed out that the color of bead represented the result of doing something unsafe.

The green color meant that nothing happened.  The other colors reach represented a different type of accident that occurred.  The ratio of beads in the jar represented the likelihood of each type of accident happening.  There was one black bead in the jar.  That meant that you died when you did something unsafe.  I used to keep the number of each color of marble in my wallet, but that piece of paper disintegrated over the years.

The types of accidents were something like:  First Aid Case, Reportable Accident, Lost Work Day Accident, Hospitalized, and Death.

Bill Green

Bill Green

A couple of months after the downsizing, the Safety department announced that they were going to have a Safety contest.  The contest would be held at each plant and it involved each of the supervisor’s computers.  The prize for the contest was that the winning team would be able to eat a free lunch with complements from the safety team.

Great!  Shortly after the electric shop is busted up and we were scattered to the wind, we finally had one last chance to win the ever illusive Power Plant Safety Pizza!  Only, how were we going to do it?  I was working on Alan Kramer’s team.  My old foreman Andy Tubbs (not old in the sense that he was an old man… old in that he was my former foreman) was now one of the other supervisors with only my old bucket buddy (you know what I mean…  not “old” old) Diana Brien as the electrician on his team.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Before I go further to explain my conflict during this contest, let me explain how the contest worked.

The supervisors had new computers that ran using Windows 3.1.  Back then, the screensaver on the computer didn’t just shut down the monitor like most of them do today.  Instead, they showed some kind of message, or picture or something animated that kept moving around so that your monitor didn’t get burned in with an image that was constantly on your screen, such as your wallpaper and your icons.

The Safety Department said that each team should come up with some way to display the idea of “Safety” using a screensaver.  They suggested using the screensaver that let you type in a message that would scroll across the screen when the screensaver was turned on.  That was a simple built-in screensaver that came with Windows 3.1.

Then the Safety Department would come to the plant on a particular day and judge each of the computer’s screensaver and announce the winner.  Sounds simple enough.

We first heard about the Safety Slogan Screensaver contest in our Monday Morning Meeting with our team.  Alan Kramer said we should come up with a good slogan that we could put on our scrolling message screensaver.  I kept my mouth shut at the time, because I didn’t know exactly how to proceed.  I was having a feeling of mixed loyalty since my old Electric Shop Team with Andy Tubbs as our foreman had written over 300 safety slogans and had purposely been blocked from winning the Prized Pizza each year.

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

Not long after the morning meeting, Andy Tubbs came up to me in the Electric Shop and said, “We have to win this contest!  That Pizza should be ours!  I need you to come up with the best screensaver you can that will blow the others away.”  I gave him my usual answer when Andy asked me to do something (even when he was no longer my foreman).  I said, “Ok, I’ll see what I can do.”

I went down our list of safety slogans looking for the best slogan I could find.  Here are a few of them:

“Having an accident is never convenient, So always make Safety a key ingredient.”

“Take the time to do it right, Use your goggles, save your sight.”

“To take the lead in the ‘Safety Race’, You must pay attention to your work place.”

“Unsafe conditions can be resolved, If we all work together and get involved.”

After thumbing through the entire list, I knew we really needed something else.  So, I began to think of alternate screen savers.  One caught my attention.  It was called “Spotlight”. It came with the  “After Dark 2.0 Screensavers” (best known for the “Flying Toaster” screensaver). I had found a freeware version that did the same thing.  You can see how the spotlight works at 7:15 on the video below (just slide the time bar over to 7:15):

For those who can’t view YouTube videos directly through the above picture, here is the direct link:  “After Dark Screensavers“.

The spotlight screensaver basically turns your screen dark, then has a circle (or spotlight) where you can see the background screen behind it.  It roams around on your desktop showing only that portion of your wallpaper at a time.  You can adjust the size of the circle and the speed that it moves around the screen.

Taking our safety slogans, I began creating a wallpaper for the computer screen by filling it with little one liner safety slogans.  I also added yellow flags to the wallpaper because that was a symbol for safety at our plant (for more information why see the post: “Power Plant Imps and Accident Apes“).

See the Yellow Flag Before the Accident Happens

See the Yellow Flag Before the Accident Happens

With the help of Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard (both Power Plant electricians), when I was finished the wallpaper looked like this:

Safety Slogan Wallpaper

Safety Slogan Wallpaper

I printed this out in black and white, but the slogans were written in different colors.

I arranged Andy’s icons on his desktop so they were around the edge of the screen.  That way they didn’t cover up the safety slogans.  I set the speed of the spotlight to very slow and and the size of the spotlight so that it was just big enough to see each safety slogan.  The effect worked out real well.  Imagine a dark screen with a spotlight moving randomly around the screen exposing each safety slogan (and yellow flag… don’t forget about those) as it went.

Besides the electricians, no one else knew that I was working on this for Andy. As far as Alan Kramer knew, I was on his side in this contest.  I even kept Toby O’Brien in the dark about it, because I knew that he was going to be one of the judges and even though he knew how much winning the Safety Pizza meant to me.  I didn’t want to influence his decision.  Besides, this Safety Screensaver was going to win.  It was the coolest screensaver around.  The trick was to keep it hidden from the other teams until it was time for the Safety Department to judge it.

I had the impression from Toby that he had purposely talked the Safety Department into this contest to give me a chance to win the Safety Pizza at our plant.  Scott Hubbard and I had carpooled with Toby throughout the years we were trying to win that pizza, and I think he just felt our pain enough that when he was in the position, he was trying to pay us back for our effort.

The screensaver judging was done during the morning, and was going to be announced that afternoon during the monthly safety meeting.  A short time before the Safety Meeting began, Toby O’Brien came up to me and in an apologetic manner told me that the safety slogan winner probably wasn’t going to be who I thought it was.  I figured that was because he thought I was hoping Alan Kramer’s team was going to win since that was my team.  I just smiled back and told him that it was all right.

It was announced during the safety meeting that Andy Tubbs’ team won the contest, and all the electricians were happy.  I think it was at that point that Alan Kramer realized that I had helped Andy with his screensaver.  He looked at me as if I had betrayed him.  I said something like, “Andy Tubbs has been trying to win a safety contest for years.  It’s about time.”

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

The following week, when Andy’s team was given their prize for winning the safety screensaver contest, he brought two pizzas to the electric shop and we all sat around the table relishing in the pepperonis.  We had finally received our Power Plant Safety Pizza!  Even though I really like pizza anytime, the pizza that day tasted especially good.

Power Plant Pepperoni Pizza

Power Plant Pepperoni Pizza

I don’t know if we ever told Toby that when Andy Tubbs team won, we all won.  Maybe some day he will read this story and know…. “The Rest of the Story”.

In case you can’t read all the little safety slogans on the wallpaper, here is a list of them:

Safety First.  Be Safe.  Safety begins here.  Watch your step.  Check your boundaries.  Have Good Posture.  Haste makes waste.  Bend your knees.  Avoid Shortcuts.  Be Safe or Be Gone.  Know your chemicals.  Check O2 before Entry.  Use Safety Guards.  Know your limit.  Report Spills.  Safety is job #1.  Beware of Pinch Points.  Buckle up.  Safety is no accident.  Impatience kills.  Strive to Survive.  Protect your hearing.  Use the right tool.  Keep your back straight.  Drive friendly.  Keep Aisles clear.  Don’t take chances.  Prevention is the cure.  Safety is your job.  Communicate with others.  Always tie off.  Don’t cut corners.  Wear your glasses.  Act safe.  Barricade Hazards.  Use your respirator.  Be responsible.  Lock it out.  Plug your ears.  Stay fit.  Safety never hurts.  Don’t block exits.  Be aware of your surroundings.  Safety is top priority.    Don’t be careless.  Pick up your trash.  Think Ahead.  Slippery When Wet.  Think Safety.  Don’t hurry.  Report Hazards.  Wear your gloves.  Save your eyes.  No Running.  Wear your Safety Belt.  Plan Ahead.  Avoid Backing.  Use your Safety Sense.  Good Housekeeping.  Get Help.  Keep Cylinders Chained.  Protect your hands.  Don’t improvise.  Beware of hazards.  Get the Safety Habit.  Be Prepared.  Gear up for Safety.  Use your PPE.  Do not litter.  Zero Accidents.  Don’t be a Bead (a reference to Bill Green’s jar of beads).  Eat Right.  Keep Floors clean.  Watch out.  Safety Pays.  Drive Safely.  Take Safety Home.  Know Safety, use Safety.  Read the MSDS.  Cotton Clothes Prevents Burns.  Follow the rules.  Wear your hard hat.  Watch out for your buddy.  Test your Confined space.  Remember the Yellow Flag.  Safe Mind, Sound Body.  Clean up your spills.  Don’t take risks.  Beware of Ice.  Watch out for the other guy.  Obey the rules.  Don’t tailgate.  Circle for safety.  Safety Me, Safety You.  Protect your Toes.  Knowing is not enough.  When in doubt, Check it out.  Falls can kill.  Be Alert!  Avoid slick spots.  Safety is a team event.  Almost is not enough.  Avoid the Noise.  Give Safety your all.  And finally…  This Space for Rent.

Power Plant Trouble With Angels

Okay, so, no one ever called me an Angel unless it was one of the fallen type.  I suppose the closest was when Bill Bennett, our A Foreman at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma would call me a scamp.  I don’t know why, but I always seemed to be in trouble over one thing or another.  Well… maybe I do know why.

Not long after Bill Bennett left during the downsizing in 1994, when our Supervisor over Maintenance was Jasper Christensen, we had received newer computers all around the plant.  That is, except for the Electric Shop, because we had acquired one a year or so before so that we could program Eeprom Chips.

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

I helped install the computers all around the plant.  I had run the Ethernet cables and installed the jacks so they could be connected to the plant computer network.  I had become the computer person for the plant by default, since I had learned how everything worked on my own.

When we received all the new computers, we were told that we had to keep an inventory of all the computer programs that we were using on each computer to make sure that we weren’t using pirated software.  So, when we installed any program on a computer we were supposed to notify our Supervisor, who in this case was Jasper Christensen.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

I sort of felt sorry for Jasper at times, because, it’s sort of like when you don’t get to choose your parents…. Jasper didn’t get to choose who was working for him exactly.  So, he was stuck with me.

I’m not saying that I was a bad person, or that I wasn’t good at being an electrician.  I was just annoying.  I was always up to some sort of something that no one really told me to do.

One example of this was that I had a CompuServe account, and I would use it to access stock quotes at the end of the day.  I would save them to a file, and then each week, I would pin up charts of our 401k stocks on the bulletin board in the electric shop.  Power Plant Men would come into the shop to see how their stocks were doing.  At this time, the “Internet” hadn’t been introduced to the plant and people didn’t really know much about it.  I would connect to CompuServe through a dial up modem.

 

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

I had a 14,400 baud modem with compression that made it more like 104,000 baud which was really fast for that time.   However, when the World Wide Web became available to CompuServe users, I found that even at that speed, it took a long time just to load one web page if it had a picture on it.  The Internet was just around the corner.  I’ll write a post about how it was introduced at the plant next week.

I diligently kept a log of all the software we had on our company computer.  Whenever I would upgrade CompuServe to the latest version, I would send a form to Jasper letting him know that I now had that version of software on the electric shop computer.  We also had installed other software, such as Reflex, which was sort of a hybrid between Excel and Access.  This was still a DOS based computer.  Windows 3.1 was on it, but a lot of our programs were still run in the DOS mode.

About 6 months after all the new computers arrived, we requested that the computer in the electric shop be replaced, because it was older, and we were using it for more and more things.  The computer arrived about a month after it was approved.

This time, an IT guy from Oklahoma City brought the computer to the plant.  This computer was better than all the other computers in the plant, mainly because it was newer.  At that time, computers were quickly improving.  If you waited six months more it would have even been a better computer.  While the IT guy was in the neighborhood, he installed some software on all the computers.

I was working on the Unit 2 Precipitator with Charles Foster the day that the Electric Shop received the new computer.  Alan Kramer, our Foreman, called me on the radio (walkie talkie)…  He did this because we were using radios a lot more, and were talking about shutting down the Gray Phone PA system all together.

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

Alan said that Jasper wanted to use the new Electric Shop computer at the Conoco Cogen (which stands for Cogeneration) plant in Ponca City.  We needed to take it to Ponca City and use the computer that was there for the electric shop. — Before I tell you my response…. let me tell you about the computer at the Cogen plant.

First, let me explain what a Cogeneration plant is…. This is a small power plant that uses waste gases from the Conoco (Continental Oil) Oil Refinery to create steam to turn the generator to produce electricity.  In exchange for using the waste gases from the refinery, the Power Plant gave any left over steam back to the refinery so they could use it in their refinery.  Plus, we would give the refinery the electricity that we produced.  Any electricity left over, we sold to our customers.

So, there was a desktop computer sitting on a desk in a small control room that allowed the control room at our power plant to dial into it and monitor the plant to see how it was working.  The connection was rather slow even though it had a dedicated phone line to connect to the plant.

The computer itself, even though it was somewhat older than the new computer we received for the electric shop, was sitting idle most of the time.  Even when it was working, it was never processing much.  The problem with the computer being slow wasn’t the computer itself, it was the Network connection back to the plant.

So, when Jasper had said that he was going to replace that computer with our much faster one that we had ordered, I was a little perturbed.  This meant that the nice new fast computer that we had specially ordered so that we could do our job was going to be sitting idle in Ponca City collecting dust doing next to nothing and it wasn’t going to make anything faster as far as the control room was concerned and we would be stuck with a computer that was somewhat older than the one that the computer person had just replaced.

So, in the most smarmy voice I could muster I replied over the radio, “Oh Great!  Another one of Jasper’s ‘Scathingly Brilliant Ideas’!”  I knew the phrase “Scathingly Brilliant Idea” from the movie “Trouble With Angels”.  It seemed like an appropriate remark at the time.

Trouble With Angels

Trouble With Angels

I knew that Jasper would be listening, because he had his walkie talkie set on scan so that he could hear everything we were saying.  Alan Kramer came right back after my remark and said, “Watch it Kevin.  You know who might be listening.”  I said, “Oh.  I know who’s listening.”

Approximately five minutes later, Jasper Christensen called me on the radio and asked me to meet him in his office.  “Okay.  Here it comes,” I thought.  On my way down from the roof of the precipitator I was formulating my argument as to why it was a terrible idea to take the best computer at the plant and send it to Ponca City to sit idle in a room by itself when I could easily put it to a lot of use.  I never really was able to present my arguments.

When I arrived at Jasper’s office, he told me that he wanted me to take CompuServe off of the computer in the electric shop.  I knew why.  I thought I knew why.  I figured it was because I had just insulted him on the radio.  I’m sure that was part of it, but it wasn’t the only reason.

I pressed Jasper on the issue and told him that I used CompuServe to download the stock prices for our 401k so that everyone can see how their stocks are doing and I post them on the bulletin board.  Jasper came back with “That has nothing to do with your job.”  I replied with, “I’m providing a service for our teams, just like the candy and coke machines.  I’m paying for the service myself.  I’m not charging anything.”  Jasper disagreed that I was providing a useful service.

Then Jasper said that the IT guy found a virus on one of the computers and since I was the only person at the plant that had connected to anything like CompuServe, the virus must have come from me.  When I asked him which computer had the virus, he didn’t know.  I told Jasper I better go find out, because if there was a virus on one of the computers, we need to clean it up right away.

This was at a time when McAfee’s Viruscan software was freeware.  I always had an updated copy of it that I would run on the computers.  I had checked all the computers at the plant recently, so I was surprised to hear that one of them had a virus.  Jasper told me that the IT guy was up in Bill Green’s office.  Bill Green was the plant manager.

Bill Green

Bill Green

As I was leaving Jasper’s office, I paused and turned around and asked Jasper one last question….. “Do you want me to only remove the CompuServe application, or do you want me to stop accessing CompuServe? Because I can access CompuServe without the application on the computer.  The application just makes it easier to navigate around.”  This question puzzled Jasper.  He said he would have to get back at me on that.  — So, at that point (I thought to myself), I’ll wait until Jasper gets back to me on that before I remove the software.

I knew that he knew nothing about computers, and I knew that this would confuse him.  That’s why I asked it.  I wanted him to know that if he made me remove CompuServe because he was mad at me for making my smartaleck remark about moving the computer to Ponca City it wasn’t going to make much difference to me anyway.

So, I walked back up to him as he was sitting at his desk, and I said, “Jasper.  I know that I’m the only person in this plant that has given you a list of all the programs on the computer I use.  I let you know every time I even upgrade to a new version.  I am the only person in the plant that follows the rules when it comes to what is on the computers.  I know that there has been personal software added to just about every computer at this plant.  I am the only person that has told you what software I am using.  So, just keep it in mind that you are trying to punish the only person that is following the rules.”  Then I left.

I went upstairs to Bill Green’s office where I found the IT guy running a scan on Bill’s computer.  I asked him about the virus he found.  He said that he was running a Microsoft virus scanner on the computers and on the one in the chemists lab, there was one file that was questionable.  The scan said it was a possible virus, but couldn’t tell what virus it was.

I asked the IT guy what the name of the file was.  He handed me a post it note with the file name on it.  I recognized it right away.  It was a GLink file.  GLink is the application that we used to access the mainframe computer in order to work on our Maintenance Orders, or to look up parts, and any other computer related activities.

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

I had been given a beta test version of GLink that I installed on the Chemists computer for Toby O’Brien about a year earlier when he asked me to help him find a way to connect to the Prime computer downtown so that he could work on CAD drawings from the plant.  IT had sent this Beta version of GLink to me because it could connect to the switch twice as fast as the current GLink and they were glad to let us try it out.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

About that time, Bill Green came into the office and I told him that the “supposed” virus on the Chemist computer was given to us by IT and that it probably wasn’t a virus anyway, it just acted like one because it connected to a switch a certain way which was unusual.  The IT guy was still standing there and he agreed that it just indicated that it might be a virus and probably wasn’t really one.

Then I told Bill Green that Jasper had told me to remove CompuServe from the computer in our shop.  He said that he and Jasper had talked about it and were concerned that I might download a virus from CompuServe.  I assured him that I only downloaded stock prices and MSDS sheets (Material Safety Data Sheets) from OSHA.  Everything I downloaded was in text format and would not contain a virus.

The IT guy agreed that at that time, CompuServe was very careful about viruses as they had been hit with one about 6 months earlier.  Now they scanned everything they let you download.  Bill said, “Well, that’s between you and Jasper.”  —  That’s all I needed to hear.  I knew that Jasper would forget about it and never “get back with me” on it.

As you can tell, if you’ve been reading the posts this year, I am constantly becoming more involved in computers at this point in my career.  For good or bad, it was a concern for people like Jasper and Bill.  I knew a lot more than they did to the point that they would call me to help them learn how to use their computers.  They didn’t know if they could trust me.  Luckily for them, even though I was mischievous, I wouldn’t do anything to invade someone’s privacy, or hurt plant operations.

It did seem like I was always in trouble over one thing or another.  It was often brought on by someone’s misunderstanding about what the problem really was, and their feeble incorrect attempt to fix it…. and… well….(let’s face it) my big mouth.

Corporate Executive Kent Norris Meets Power Plant Men

I wonder if Kent Norris felt proud when his boss Wayne Beasley told him that he was being assigned to manage the eight Power Plant Men that were coming to Corporate Headquarters for the next 10 weeks to help prepare for the transition to SAP.  I’m sure he had no idea what he was signing up to do.  For the next 12 weeks, Kent bravely endured one torture after the other.

Kent Norris was a young Corporate Executive working for the Electric Company in Central Oklahoma when the Power Plant Men showed up at his doorstep August 6, 1996.  I wish I had a picture of Kent (Kent… I know you read this blog… if you send me your picture, I’ll add it to this post), because then you could see right away that he would be the perfect person for playing jokes.  Just like Gene Day back at the Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

See, you can tell by Gene Day’s expression that this guy was just right for Power Plant Jokes.  Kent Norris was much like Gene in this respect, and the best part was that he was young and wasn’t from a plant, so he had never experienced the Power Plant Lifestyle of perpetual joke playing (see the post “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“).

At the plant, Power Plant jokes are such a way of life that they include a section on the timecard to enter the number of Power Plant Jokes performed during the day, along with how many were successfully implemented.  This was used to create a PPJ (for Power Plant Joke) Quotient that would go on your performance appraisal each year.  That way you could set your stretch goals for the following year.

I explained last week why the eight of us were at Corporate Headquarters in the post:  “Do Power Plant Men and Corporate Headquarters Mix?” so I won’t go into that much here other than to say that we were working for 10 weeks preparing the Inventory module in SAP so that our company would be prepared to go live with SAP on January 1, 1997.  SAP is an ERP or Enterprise Resource Planning System.

SAP Logo

SAP Logo

Once all 9 of us were sitting in one cube, (eight Power Plant Men, and one young Corporate Executive, Kent Norris), that was when the opportunity for Power Plant Jokes began to take shape.  Kent sat at the table in the middle of the cube next to the telephone.

Most of the Power Plant Men had their backs to each other as they all faced the edge of the cube.  This way, a person walking into the cube could easily see the computer monitors.  I sat on the end of a table at the end of the elongated cube where I could watch everyone and no one could see my monitor (and incidentally, I had a great view of the outside world).

At first we began our harassm….uh… I mean… jokes…. on Kent by easing him into it with very simple things… When he would step out of his cube, we would do little things like put water in his pen cap so that when he went to write something down and removed the cap, water would spill on him.

 

Pen Cap used by Corporate Executives

Pen Cap used by Corporate Executives

Other minor pranks were things like, unplugging the keyboard and mouse from the computer so that Kent would think that his computer had locked up.  He tried rebooting his computer and for five minutes couldn’t figure out how to fix his computer until he found that the mouse and keyboard were unplugged, at which point, several muffled chuckles could be heard emanating from the far corners of the cube… Not from me, because I had learned the fine art of keeping a straight face in the midst of a hilarious power plant joke — after years of training.

Kent was so good at having jokes played on him that I think he enjoyed them as much as we did.  He would respond with phrases like “You guys!!!  Geez!”  The Power Plant Men were so fast at implementing jokes on the fly that all Kent had to do was turn around to talk to someone that had come to ask a question and all the wheels on his chair would be removed and hidden in various locations throughout the cube.

Ken Scott was the Supervisor of Maintenance at the Seminole Plant, who I had worked with at our plant since I first showed up as a new summer help.  He knew I was a trouble causer from day one.  I wondered how he was going to take our constant jokes with Kent, but he helped out with the rest of us, and when Kent would run off to tell his friend Rita Wing (I think that was her name) about a new joke we had just played on him, Ken Scott would break out of his straight “uninterested” expression into a big smile and laugh out loud.

Mike Gibbs and I would evaluate the day’s jokes on the way home each day.  We were carpooling from Stillwater.

Mike Gibbs

Mike Gibbs

The jokes became more elaborate over time, and I was reaching out to others beyond our cube to help out.  At the time, we were using Windows 3.2 which had small program called “Windows Popup” (I believe the file name was popup.exe).  It was sort of an old version of IMing someone before chatting was really common.  I taught our team how to use it, so that we could pop up messages on each other’s computers to coordinate our jokes while we were doing our work without having to even look at each other.

Popup means so many things now that we all use Internet Browsers.  “Windows Popup” allowed you to locate someone logged into the network, and pop a message right up in the middle of their screen.  It would include the logon name of the person popping it up.  My logon name on the computer system was BREAZIKJ.  The popup message would say Message from BREAZIKJ in the title bar, and it would display the message.  Here is an example I found on Google Images:

 

Windows Popup in Windows 3.2

Windows Popup in Windows 3.2

I had noticed that Kent often talked to the admin for Dennis Dunkelgod, a manager over the Telecommunications team.

 

Dennis Dunkelgod

Dennis Dunkelgod

I had worked with Dennis a couple of times running telephone cable at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we needed to install the computer network. I sent a Popup message to his admin asking her if she would help us play a joke on Kent.  The message was something like this…. “We are going to play a joke on Kent Norris and were wondering if you would like to help us out.”

The young lady admin didn’t know what to think when this message popped up in the middle of her computer screen, though she knew where it came from because our cube was just across the aisle from her.  She took a print screen of the message and gave it to Dennis.

Dennis, not knowing the ways of Power Plant Men didn’t know what I meant by “joke” and thought we might be planning something inappropriate.  So he came to our cube and asked who was this person BREAZIKJ.  I told him I was Kevin.  He asked me if I had sent that message.  I told him that I had sent it. (In trouble again… as usual).  As Dennis was replying Kent Norris walked into the cube and saw Dennis dressing me down.  He was saying that things like this did not belong in the workplace and he didn’t want to hear about this again!  I replied, “all right.”

Dennis left the cube, and Kent asked what was going on, so I said, “We were planning on playing a joke on you, and so I asked the admin sitting over there if she would like to help us out and it upset Dennis.”  Kent knew that Dennis was just looking out for him, so he explained that to us that Dennis misunderstood our intention.

One joke I played on Kent was this… Since he always answered the phone in our cube, I found a way to connect to a modem on the mainframe and dial out of the company (thanks Craig Henry for the tip), and then dial back in again and ring a phone….  So, I would wait until Kent hung up from the phone, which was just one second after he would say “Toodles” (which was Kent’s way of saying goodbye), then I would ring the phone and hang it back up.

Kent would answer the phone with his regular telephone answering phrase that I don’t quite remember, but it was something like, “Kent Norris, how may I help you?” only more interesting than that.  When he answered the phone the first time, he was surprised to find that no one was on the phone.  He hung it up and said, “That’s odd.”  Then throughout the week, at various times, just as Kent hung up the phone from a conversation, I would ring his phone again.

Kent began troubleshooting it… he noticed that the ring indicated that it was an outside number calling, but it seemed like the phone was malfunctioning, so he created a trouble ticket to have someone look into it.  Of course, the phone was working fine.

One day, Toby O’Brien came to my cube to ask me if I could tell him how I would do a root cause analysis on a particular accident.  Toby was working for the safety department at the time.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

I was showing him on the computer how I would make a hierarchy of causes and how each cause could be caused by something else, making something that looks like an organizational chart of causes.  While I was talking to him, Toby was looking over my shoulder at the computer screen.  Kent was talking on the phone… As I was talking to Toby, I was also listening to Kent’s conversation and I could tell he was wrapping it up, and I wanted to ring the phone.

So, as I continued talking along with Toby, I opened up the program I had configured to ring the phone and had it all ready to click the button when Kent said “Toodles”.  I could tell that Toby was a little confused by my talking to him while I was opening another program and acting oblivious to it. Still explaining to Toby as if nothing was happening I hit the call button just as Kent hung up the phone, and it immediately rang.  As Kent picked it up, I hung up and closed the program.  Kent said, “Hello this is Kent Norris….. Damn!  Kevin!” as he slammed the receiver back down on the phone.  For some reason Kent thought I was doing something, though, he couldn’t figure out what.  I just gave him a confused look.

At this point I heard a chuckle from Toby, he had a grin much like his picture above. I couldn’t hold it in much longer as my stomach was beginning to quiver and my body was shaking.  So I slunk down in my chair so Kent couldn’t see the smile on my face and put my hand over my eyes to try and concentrate on making a straight face again.  I squeaked out “…and that’s how I would do the root cause analysis on that accident.”

The climax of the Telephone joke was when one day, I set the program up for redial and left to go to the bathroom.  The phone kept calling Kent once every minute.  When I returned to the cube, Kent said, “Kevin!  Stop ringing my phone!”  I said, “I just went to the bathroom!  How could I be ringing your phone?”  At that point the phone rang and Kent said, “Pick it up!”  I picked it up and listened, and said, “There’s nobody there.  But you can’t blame me for that.”  Then I returned to my computer and turned off the program and didn’t call him anymore after that.

The most elaborate joke played on Kent began when one day Kent made the statement that he had never been to a Power Plant and no desire in the world to ever visit a Power Plant!  I think someone had asked him if he had seen the control room at one of the plants and that was his response.  So, when an opening for an operator came up at our plant, we told Kent that we had sent in his application for the Operator job at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

Kent didn’t believe us of course, he thought this was just another little joke we were playing.  We told him that we put all the right things in the application so that he was sure to get the job.  Even though he would tell us that he didn’t believe us, we could see the small hint of doubt on his face, which made it a successful small joke… but this was only the beginning.

A couple of weeks later, Kent received word that since all the engineers were up at our plant in North Central Oklahoma they were going to hold their monthly safety meeting there and Kent and Rita were going to have to drive up to the plant to attend.  Which meant, Kent didn’t have a choice, he was going to have to visit the plant after all.  What Kent didn’t know was that his boss Wayne Beasley had been updated by Ken Scott about what we had told Kent about applying him for the operations job at the plant.

We told Kent that the real reason Wayne was having the meeting at the plant was so that Kent would be able to have his interview for the operations job, because they had accepted his application.  Of course… again… he thought we were just kidding him since he said he had no desire to even visit a plant in his life.

Using Windows Popup (since IM wasn’t around yet), I sent messages to Denise Anson, the receptionist at the plant telling her about our plan with Kent. When Kent and Rita drove up to the main gate at the plant and said that it was Kent Norris and Rita Wing from Corporate Headquarters, Denise replied with, “Oh yes.  Kent Norris.  You have an interview for the operator position.”  Kent said something like, “No, I’m just going to a safety meeting.”  At this point, he couldn’t believe that the joke had actually reached the plant.

Denise messaged me using Windows Popup that he had just entered the gate…. I sent a popup to Ron Madron, who was going to ride up in the elevator with him letting him know that Kent was on his way to the parking lot…. When Kent and Rita entered the building and stood at the elevator, Ron Madron entered from the Maintenance Shop and entered the elevator with Kent and Rita.  Ron asked who they were and when Kent told Ron who he was, Ron replied with “Oh!  You’re the new operator!  Good to meet you!”  Kent could not believe that we had involved yet another person in our joke…

Ken Scott told me that he had talked to Wayne Beasley, Kent’s manager who was holding the safety meeting.  Here is his LinkedIn picture:

Wayne Beasley

Wayne Beasley

Wayne had told Ken that he was going to make an announcement during the Safety Meeting that Kent Norris was going to soon begin working at the plant as their new operator.  I messaged to Denise to ask her where Bill Green, the Plant Manager was because I wanted to fill him in on the plan.  Denise told me he was in Wayne Beasley’s Safety Meeting.

I asked her if she could go get him out of the meeting because I needed to talk to him right away.  So, she went and interrupted the safety meeting to tell Bill that I was on the phone and needed to talk to him.  When Bill answered, I told him about the elaborate joke we had been playing on Kent Norris and how Wayne Beasley was going to announce in the meeting that Kent Norris was going to become an operator at the plant.  Bill said thanks for letting him know because if he didn’t know it was a joke, he might have been upset if Wayne said that without him knowing it was coming…..

So, here is what happened in the safety meeting….. As the meeting was coming to a close, Bill Green, the Plant Manager, stood up and said, “We would all like to welcome Kent Norris to our plant and hope that he will enjoy coming to work for us as an operator.”  — The perfect execution of a power plant joke after weeks of preparation, it was executed flawlessly.

Later that afternoon when Kent came back to our cube at Corporate Headquarters, he said that was the greatest joke ever!  He couldn’t believe how we had everyone involved up to the plant manager.  We were all glad that it went off without a hitch.  We were also glad that Kent had enjoyed it so much.  He said that it wasn’t until he walked in the control room and they didn’t know who he was that he felt sure that he really wasn’t going to be an operator at the plant.

The joke where I laughed the hardest was during the last week working at Corporate Headquarters.  Wayne Beasley had come back from our plant to work where he normally worked, and he wanted to take our team out to lunch with Kent to congratulate us for doing such a good job. So, they picked a Mexican restaurant in Bricktown just east of downtown Oklahoma City.  This restaurant was chosen specifically because it offered a great opportunity for a joke to be played on Kent.

When we walked into the restaurant, Doyle Fullen, the Plant foreman and electrician from Muskogee told the waiter that it was Kent Norris’s birthday.  He told them that he was very shy and would deny that it was his birthday, but we were all bringing him out to lunch because we were celebrating it.  So, toward the end of the meal, out came the group of waiters singing Felice Navidad carrying a huge Sombrero.  Which they placed on Kent’s head!

Google Image of Large Sombrero

Google Image of Large Sombrero

We all sang Felice Navidad at the top of our lungs and clapped and laughed.  I laughed so hard at Kent’s culmination of Power Plant Jokes!  Rarely in my life have I laughed so hard as Kent stood there under this huge sombrero looking humiliated and at the same time proud to be so well loved by the Power Plant Men!

The week ended on Friday afternoon around 3pm, as each of us started leaving one at a time to drive back home for the last time.  Doyle and Bob Christy left first because they had the farthest to drive.  the rest of us left some time later.  Each saying goodbye to Kent a couple at a time…. until Kent was left sitting in the bullpen cube all by himself.  Thinking…. “I’m finally rid of these bozos!”

Unknown to Kent, the majority of us didn’t exactly leave the building… instead  we each went into the bathroom where I was the last to enter…..  I carried a bag that was full of 12 cans of various colors of Silly String:

 

Power Plant Silly String

Power Plant Silly String

Once everyone was ready, we snuck up to the side of the cube where we could hear Kent typing on a computer and with all 12 cans the six of us sprayed silly string over the cube totally covering Kent in Silly String.  That was our last goodbye.  We couldn’t leave without one more Power Plant Man Joke!

A week or two after I returned to the plant, I received the following letter through Intra-Company mail:

Note I received from Kent after I returned home to our power plant

Note I received from Kent after I returned home to our power plant

For years after, and up to today, I consider Kent Norris a dear friend.  One day when I was at the Stillwater Public Library during their yearly book sale, I found a book that I just had to buy for Kent.  It was perfect!  I sent it by intra-company mail.  Kent thanked me for it…. I figured it would remind him of the time he spent trying to Corral a passel of Power Plant Men!  Oh… here is a picture of the book:

Tootle the Power Plant Coal Train

Tootle the Power Plant Coal Train.  See the coal spilling out?

Hitting the Power Plant HR Cardboard Ceiling

I spent 12 weeks in Oklahoma City in 1996 working in an office building while the Power Plant Men came to the rescue and caused a culture shock for some who had never experienced a group of Power Plant Men so closely packed in an office cubicle before.  The effect can almost be the same as if you have too many radioactive particles compressed together causing a chain reaction ending in a tremendous explosion.  Having survived this experience I became intrigued with the idea of working in an office on a computer instead of carrying a tool bucket up 25 flights of stairs to fix the boiler elevator.

Our team had been in Oklahoma City when we were converting the Electric Company in Oklahoma to a new financial and planning system known as SAP.  See the post:  “Corporate Executive Kent Norris Meets Power Plant Men“.  One other person from out plant was in Oklahoma City for the entire 9 months it took to roll out SAP.  That was Linda Dallas, our HR Supervisor at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

SAP Logo

SAP Logo

Linda Dallas was on the core SAP team which was a coveted spot for one not so obvious reason.  The few people that were on the core team were learning how to implement SAP in a fairly large public electric company.  The consulting company Ernst and Young were teaching them how to build SAP screens and configure the application as well as how to run a large project.  —  Do you see where I’m going?

I went out and bought a book on programming SAP myself just in case I had a chance to play around with it when we were in Oklahoma City. I read the book, but unfortunately the opportunity to mess with SAP never came up (or did it?).

A programming book like this

A programming book like this

Mark Romano, the engineer that was coordinating our efforts during the project tried to have me assigned to the testing team for SAP, but the SAP guys said they didn’t need anyone else…. For more about Mark Romano, read this post:  “Power Plant Marine Battles with God and Wins“.  Consequently, when Mark told me that the testing team positions were just as coveted as the core team and they didn’t want an outsider coming in and showing them up, I understood.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet…. SAP was an up and coming terrific software package that took practically your entire company’s computer activities and put them in one all encompassing application.  People experienced in SAP were far and few between, so anyone looking for people with SAP experience were finding the pickins rather slim (as in Slim Pickens).  Because of this, most of the people involved in the core SAP implementation could basically write their ticket when it came to finding a job with a company trying to implement SAP in 1996-97.

I thanked Mark for putting in a good word for me with the testing team.  I also told him that the first time I actually am able to use SAP, I will break it within 10 minutes just so the testing team can see how it’s done.  —  I had a lot of experience with “Negative testing” as it is called in IT.  That is when you do what you can to try to break the application.

I like the word “consequently” today, so I’m going to use it again…. Consequently, when Linda Dallas came back to our plant to show us all how to use SAP, here is what happened….

We went to the small conference room where I had setup about 15 computers all hooked up to the company’s Intranet.  The team from Oklahoma City had actually brought the computers.  I had just run all the network cables to the room so they could train people 15 at a time.  The trainers wanted to “lock down” the computers so that they only had SAP on them and not other things like “Solitaire” that might distract the Power Plant Trainees.

Here is what happened when I showed up for my class….  Linda Dallas was teaching it along with one other guy from Corporate Headquarters…. I’ll call him “Jack”… for various reasons, but mainly because I can’t remember his name…  Jack told us that the computers we were using were stripped down so that it didn’t have games like Minesweeper and Solitaire on them, (as did all the regular Windows NT computers).

The first thing I did when he told us that was to browse over to the electric shop computer through the network and copy the minesweeper and the solitaire games from the computer in the electric shop to my training computer…..  See how rotten I used to be (yeah… used to be…  Huh?  What’s that?)…  Then I opened Solitaire and started playing it while they explained how to go into SAP and start doing our jobs.

They showed us the Inventory section.  That had all the parts in the company in it.  That was the part of the application I had helped implement in our small way.

When they showed us the inventory section, I realized right away how I could break SAP, so I proceeded to open 10 different screens of the SAP client, and began some crazy wildcard searches on each one of them.  The application came to a grinding halt. (for any developers reading this… let’s call it… “SQL Injection”).

Linda, who was trying to show us how to go from screen-to-screen suddenly was staring at a screen that was going no where.  She tried to explain that they were still having some performance issues with the application….

I just stared at my own computer screen trying to figure out if I had a red ten to put on the black jack….  when a red-faced Jack came around the tables and saw me playing Solitaire.  I just smiled up at him and he had a confused look on his face as we waited for the screen on the projector to begin working again.

My screen at the time

My screen at the time

I knew of course what had happened and after about 5 minutes of everyone’s screen being locked up, the application finally began working again and the training continued.  — I was happy.  I had completed my testing that the testing team didn’t think they needed.  Of course, I did it to honor Mark Romano’s failed attempt to have me moved to the SAP testing team.

Mark Romano

Mark Romano

A couple of years later when I was working with Ray Eberle on a Saturday (as we were working 4 – 10s, and rotated onto a Saturday once every 4 weeks), I showed him how I could lock up SAP for the entire company any time I wanted.  Since few people were working on Saturday, I figured I could show him how it was done without causing a raucous.  It took about 35 seconds and SAP would be down for as long as I wanted.  There was a way to prevent this… but…. If the testers never test it, they would never tell the developers to fix it (I’m sure they have fixed it by now… that was 18 years ago).

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

Anyway, the story about implementing SAP isn’t really what this post is about.  It is just the preamble that explains why in the spring of 1997, Linda Dallas left as the Supervisor of HR at our plant.  She found another job in Dallas with some of the other core SAP team members implementing SAP.

When the job opening for Linda Dallas’s job came out at our plant, I figured that since I met the minimum qualification, I might as well apply for it.  Why not.  It would mean putting away my tool bucket and working on the computer a lot more, which was something I was interested in since my experience a few months earlier when I was working at Corporate Headquarters.

I knew right away that no one would really take my job application seriously.  I had all the computer related skills.  I had a degree in Psychology, and a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola with a focus on adult education.  That wasn’t really the point.  I had never been a clerk.

The natural progression of things meant that the only “real” possible pool of applicants were the women clerks in the front office.  Specifically Louise Kalicki.  Her desk was closest to Linda Dallas’s office, so, in a sense, she was “next-in-line”.

Even though I knew that the plant manager Bill Green and Jim Arnold the Maintenance Supervisor would never want me on the “staff”, I went ahead and applied for the job anyway.  I figured, it was worth the experience to apply and go through the interview process even though I wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Bill Green

Bill Green

I think Louise and I were the only two to apply for the job.  Maybe Linda Shiever did as well, as she had the most seniority at the plant.  Linda was actually the first person hired at the plant when it was first built.  Louise had been filling in for Linda Dallas for the past year while Linda Dallas had been in Oklahoma City working on SAP, so she was really a “shoe-in” for the job.

When I went up to the interview, the first thing I had to do was take a timed typing test to see if I could type 35 words a minute (I could type 70).  I had dressed up for the interview so that when I walked into the plant manager’s office, Bill Green and Jim Arnold had a little “Hee Haw” about seeing me without coal dust and fly ash coming out of my nose and ears.  I told them that “I can get cleaned up when I needed to” (notice that I used the word “get” and ended my sentence with a preposition… just so they didn’t think I was too stuck up.  See the post:  “Power Plant Men Learned Themselves Proper English“).

No one was surprised when Louise Kalicki was promoted to HR Supervisor.  She was probably the best choice when you think about it.  She had a better relationship with Bill Green and Jim Arnold than I did and a good part of the job was working with those two rascals (oh… did I actually call them rascals?  Bless their hearts).

This was right around the time that I had made my decision to go back to school to work toward a degree in Computer Science.  Working with computers was really my passion.

I have an interesting way of making decisions about what I’m going to do with my life.  I let certain events help make the decisions, instead of just jumping right in.  I had decided (knowing that it was pretty much a safe bet) that if I didn’t get the job as the HR Supervisor, then I would go down to Oklahoma State University just a few miles from my house and enroll in the Arts and Science College and work on a degree in Computer Science.

I made a lot of decisions that way.  I figured that if I was meant to do something, then it would work out that way.  If not, then, fine, I would go a different route.

Ok.  One more side story about working with Ray Eberle and SAP (See the post:  “Tales of Power Plant Prowess by Ray Eberle“)…  This happened some time around the year 2000.

SAP had this icon of a drip of water dropping and causing a ripple of waves….

SAP water drops

SAP water drops

When the application was thinking, this picture was in the upper right hand corner and it was animated, so that the water rippled out as the water dripped.  That way you could tell the difference between the application being stuck and just thinking.

This wasn’t just an animated GIF as we might have today.  It was actually a series of bitmap pictures that were all strung together into one file.  Once I figured this out, I used Paint to modify the picture.  I created three new versions….  The first one had a small ship with sails sailing across the rippling water.  The second one had a yellow fish that would leap out of the water over and over.

It was the third picture that was my masterpiece.  I reversed the flow, so that instead of the water rippling out, it came in as if it was a whirlpool sucking things down.  Then I added a small picture of our HR Supervisor’s face being sucked down into the whirlpool.

HR Supervisor sucked down a whirlpool

HR Supervisor sucked down a whirlpool

Then I created a small application that allowed people to change their water rippling animated picture to any of the four (with the regular picture being the fourth option) that they wanted quickly and easily.  I know the women in the front office liked the one with the HR supervisor being sucked down the whirlpool the best.  I won’t mention who they were, but by the following two pictures, you may be able to guess….

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

Darlene Mitchell

I would think that Bill Green would have liked the sailing ship the best since he liked to sail…. though… for some reason, I never made it around to install my “SAP add-on” on his computer (or Louise Kalicki’s for that matter, since she was the HR Supervisor).  Most of the Power Plant Men probably would like the fish jumping out of the water, since they liked fishing.  — I know… I know… I was being rotten… but it was fun.

Ok.  End of the Side Story and end of the post.

Power Plant Train Wreck

I always loved playing with numbers, and thanks to the Birthday Phantom at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I knew everyone’s birthdays. so in 1996 I decided that I would chart them all on a graph.  When I compiled them all, I found that the Power Plant was in for one heck of a train wreck.  The entire basis that enabled the plant the size of a small city to run with a total of 121 employees was going to start crumbling within the next 13 years.

The original chart I made was in pencil.  Here is a simple column chart of the employee ages from Excel:

Age of the employees at the Power Plant in 1996

Age of the employees at the Power Plant in 1996

Now study this chart for a minute….  The youngest person in the plant was 31.  There was one.  The oldest were four who were 56.  If you take everyone from age 40 to 49, you have 70 employees, or  58% of the entire Power Plant population.  So, in a 10 year period, the plant was going to lose a majority of their employees due to retirement.  35% were going to be retired within a 5 year period.

How did this happen?  How is it that the youngest Power Plant Man was 31 years old and the age between the oldest and the youngest was only 26 years?  This happened because of two situations.

The first one is that people rarely ever left the Power Plant, so new hires were rare.  The second situation was that we had a downsizing in 1988 when the employees 55 and older were early retired.  Then in 1994, we had another downsizing where everyone over 50 years old were early retired.  So, we kept lopping off the older employees, without a need to hire anyone new.

There were three entry level jobs when I first hired on as a full time employee.  I went through all of them.  Summer Help, Janitor and Laborer.  None of these jobs existed at the plant anymore.  This had given new employees an introduction into Power Plant Life.  It also gave the foremen an opportunity to pick those employees that had the natural “Power Plant Man” quality that was needed to work in this particular environment.

I brought my chart to the team and showed them how a train wreck was just down the road.  Someone at Corporate Headquarters must have figured this out, so a couple of things were done to try and combat this situation.  I’m sure the same problem must have existed at all of the power plants.

The first thing that was done was that the retirement policy was changed.  Instead of having to wait until you were 60 to retire with full benefits, you could retire with full benefits when your age and your years of service added up to 80 or more.  A couple of years after that policy went into effect, we calculated that Jim Arnold had 100 points when you added his age and his years of service.

As a side note:

When we added up Gene Day’s years of Service and his age it added up to 80.  That’s because, even though he was 80 years old, no one could remember whether he ever did any service….  That’s why I didn’t include him in the chart above.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Sure.  Gene had been hanging around at the Power Plants since they discovered electricity, but it never occurred to him to retire.  He just walked around with his orange stapler (an Oklahoma State University fan). Anyway… I digress…  Somehow, whenever I talk about being old, Gene Day always seems to pop up in my mind.  I can see him waving his finger at me now (In case you’re wondering… read this post:  “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“, or “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“).

Back to the story:

The idea was that we should have people begin to leave the plant now instead of all waiting until they were the regular retirement age, so they could be replaced with younger souls.  There was only one catch and the reason why a Power Plant this size could be run with only 121 employees…. well… it had grown to 122 by this time since Brent Kautzman had been hired in the Instrument and Controls department.  He was 31 years old when he was hired.  I remember his birthday since it was the same date as my parent’s anniversary.

Brent Kautzman

Brent Kautzman

The reason that the Power Plant could operate with so few employees was because the majority of the employees at the plant had many years of experience.  The majority of the employees had over 20 years or more with the company.  In fact, I had another chart that I had made at the time that showed how many years of experience we would lose each year that we had a large number of people retiring.  In just one year we would have lost over 220 years of experience if something hadn’t been done soon.

The company decided to hire young inexperienced employees fresh out of vo-tech and begin training them to work at a power plant.  They opened a new position at each of the plants to lead the training efforts.  Someone that had some computer skills and could work with employees to help teach them in the ways of Power Plant Maintenance.  A training program to head off an impending train wreck.

I won’t go into too much detail about how this worked but it consisted of building a training room where new hires would take computer courses then would work part time in the plant learning how things worked.  Then they would take tests and if they passed them, they could move forward with the next part of their training.  All they needed were people willing to give it a try with the understanding that if they didn’t pass their tests, they would lose their jobs by a certain time period.

Training Supervisor…. I think that was the name of the job opening that came out in October, 1997.  I was ready for this one.  I had a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans, with an emphasis on Adult Education.  I was the computer whiz at the plant.  I could even write the entire training software from scratch with the help and knowledge of the Power Plant Men and Women.

The only problem with this job was that it was understood that at first the new training supervisor was going to have to be spending a lot of time going between the different plants with the training supervisors at each of the plants.  I had just started going back to school at Oklahoma State University to work toward a Computer Science degree.  If I had to travel a lot right away, my studies were going to have to be put on hold.

Even though I was looking forward to earning a Computer Science degree in the next four years, I thought that the Training Supervisor job would be a dream job for me, so I applied for it.  My education could wait.  I interviewed for it with Bill Green, the plant manager, who was the reporting manager for the job.

Bill Green

Bill Green

I explained to him that 50% of the work that I did when studying for my Masters in Religious Education (MRE) was learning techniques on how to teach adults.  I had already shown my ability to do this using the computer when I taught the Switchman Training (see the post: “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with ‘Boring’“).  I had also taught almost the entire plant how to use Windows when it first came out.

I had created my own little Windows Manual that stepped people through opening up Microsoft Applications and how to maneuver around.

My instruction manual on how to use Windows

Here is my instruction manual on how to use Windows

The Windows Icon was actually the Window Wingding character used for the Flying Windows Screensaver.  I just added the colors to it.

Most of the people at the plant thought that I was a shoe-in for this job.  I was custom designed for it.  When the job was given to someone else, I was a little disappointed, but I was also relieved.  This meant that I could go on with my work toward my degree.  The job was given to Stanley Robbins.  Stanley was a coal yard operator, and a very nice person.

One thing I had learned a long time ago with Scott Hubbard was that when someone is given a job that you really want, it isn’t the person who receives the job that should upset you.  They were chosen by someone else.  Through no fault of their own.  This was a terrific opportunity for Stanley.

So, the day that Stanley began his new job, Bill Green was seen showing him around the plant, since he had spent most of his 18 year career up the hill at the coal yard.  Stanley and Bill entered the electric shop and Bill asked where we kept the Electric Shop copy of the electrical blueprints.  I showed him the cabinets where they were kept. Then they left.

About an hour later, Bill and Stanley returned to the shop and Bill came up to me and said that he had talked to Jerry McCurry in the training department in Oklahoma City (that is Corporate Headquarters), and he was looking for an audio book by Tom Peters, but Jerry said that I had checked it out.  He wanted Stanley to read it.  I told him that I had returned that audio book a couple of months ago, and now had a different audio book checked out at the time.

I took Bill and Stanley into the Electric Shop office and showed them a copy of a Tom Peters audio book that was my own personal copy “In Search of Excellence”, and gave it to Stanley and told him he was free to borrow it, as well as any of the other “motivational” business books I had, including a textbook on Organizational Behavior that I kept on the top of the filing cabinet to read during lunch when we couldn’t think of a fitting lunch time topic.  I had another Tom Peters book on the bookshelf Stanley was free to read, “Thriving on Chaos”:

Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters

Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters

And a book left over from our “Quality Process” days that I had rushed out to buy the day I first heard about it from our Quality instructor:

Out of the Crisis by W. Edward Deming

Out of the Crisis by W. Edward Deming

Bill Green, our Plant Manager, who had never spent much time in the electric shop quickly learned a lot about me in those few minutes that he never knew.  What he learned was that I was an avid student of just about anything I could learn.  I had read every book in the Electric Company library and was now going through their list of Audio Books.  I showed him the library catalog and explained to Stanley how to check out books.  — Everything was still done through Intra-Company mail in 1997.

Even though I was intent on being as helpful as I could to Stanley (and I think Stanley would back me up on that.  I always supported Stanley any way I could), at the same time I wanted to impress upon Bill Green that if he was really serious about making the Training Supervisor job a real success, he didn’t really pick the most qualified candidate.

With that said, I think Stanley became a great Training Supervisor.  He was forever grateful for the opportunity for this position.  He stated that to me over and over.  I was glad for Stanley.

Stanley Robbins

Stanley Robbins

I was also relieved for myself, because my dream of becoming a “real” programmer was still a possibility.  I continued with my school and was able to graduate in 2001.  That is another story for a later time.

Six months after the training team had been chosen, and the trainers had settled into their positions, we heard that the company had purchased a specialized “Training Package” for about $400,000.  With additional cost for each module that was added.  Ray Eberle can tell me the price for each module, but it ran somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 for each one.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

The training modules included one for each type of equipment in the plant.  So, for instance, there was a module for a large vertical pump, and there was one for a large horizontal pump, and one for a small one, etc.  Ray knew the prices because he was evaluating the course material for them to see if they were correct.

Ray came up to me one day and said he was embarrassed for the company who was creating the modules, because between a set of modules, they were nothing more than copying and pasting the same incorrect material in each one of them.  The set of modules he was reviewing added up to $120,000, and they were all wrong.

I had looked at the application that we had bought and I could easily see that I could have written a much better program with the help of people like Ray and the other Power Plant Men to give me information.  We were going to be spending over $750,000 for a computer training program that we could have created ourselves and then the company could have marketed it to other electric companies who were looking for a training program.

After I received my Computer Science degree I spent years working for Dell creating computer applications that performed any sort of feat that was required.

The train wreck finally hit the plant a few years ago, as a mass exodus of retirees left the plant.  I wasn’t there to see it, so I don’t know if the plant ended up with a larger group of employees or not.  I know that Stanley has retired, but I still picture him at the plant training new hires to become Power Plant Men.

Power Plant Confined Space Rescue Team Takes It to the Next Level

Bill Green, the Plant Manager at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma stopped me in the hallway August 17, 1998.  He told me that we were going to have a new Plant Engineer working for us in two weeks and she had heard that we had a Confined Space Rescue team and she wanted to join it.  I told Bill that I looked forward to having a new member on our team.  We had been a team for 4 years and some new blood would be great.

Bill Green

Bill Green

Bill told me that the new engineer’s name was Theresa Acedansky and that she was a volunteer fire fighter.  She was coming to work for us from Foster Wheeler I thought that Acedansky was a unique name.  I thought that I would spend some of my spare lunch times looking up Theresa on the Internet.

At the time, there were some Internet search engines such as Excite that would crawl the web looking for all the available pages on the Internet, and give you a complete list of every page found.  In 1998, I think the number of web pages were still in the millions, so it wasn’t the daunting list that we have today.  Google and Bing own the search tools today, and they only give you what they want to show you.  So, back then, when I searched on “Acedansky”, I found basically everything ever written that had that word in it.

By the time that Miss Acedansky arrived at our plant on August 31, 1998, I pretty much knew her work background (Remember, this was before LinkedIn that began in 2003) and where she had graduated high school.  I knew about her sister in Pennsylvania (I think it was), and her mother in Florida who worked at a Catholic Church.  I had basically stalked this person I had never set eyes on for the two weeks prior to her arrival.

I did all this gathering of information because I was (as Bill Bennett used to call me) a “scamp” or a “rascal”.  I figured that anything I could find could be used to introduce Theresa to the fine art of “Power Plant Jokes”.  Just as I had compiled my list for Gene Day in order to help him work through his psychological problems (See the post “The Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“), I figured I could offer a similar service to Theresa when she arrived.

I think I might have been able to spook her a little a couple of weeks after she arrived when I pinged her on ICQ, which was one of the few direct chat windows at the time.

The ICQ Logo

The ICQ Logo

She was easy to find since her ICQ number was listed on a fire fighter web site.  When I began asking her about how her sister was doing in whatever town she was in, and how her mom liked Florida since she had moved there (and I knew about when), she said, “Gee, I didn’t realize that I had talked so much about myself.”

What is easy to find on someone today on the Internet took a little more work back then, and people didn’t realize the vast amount of knowledge available at your fingertips.

Since Theresa was joining our Confined Space Team and would need the proper training, we took advantage of the situation to have the rest of us trained again.  It had been four years since we had formal training.  We made arrangements to have a Confined Space Training team from Dallas come up and teach us.

We practiced tying knots in our rescue rope behind our backs in the dark wearing our leather rescue gloves.

Rescue Gloves

Rescue Gloves

The padding across the palm of the rescue gloves we used were to keep from burning your hands when you were rappelling down a rope.  With the formal training we were given the opportunity to once again put on SCBAs and go through a smoke-filled maze crawling through tunnels to rescue someone.

Man wearing an SCBA

Man wearing an SCBA

After our training Randy Dailey, “Mr. Safety” from our team suggested that we meet regularly with the rest of the Confined Space Rescue Teams in order to learn “Best Practices” from each other.  So, we contacted the other teams and began meeting regularly at each of the plants, or some other spot where we could all meet together.

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

When we arrived at the Muskogee Power Plant to meet with  the rest of the Confined Space Teams, we found that the entire team at Muskogee had all become certified EMTs (which means Emergency Medical Technician).

Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma

Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma

The Muskogee Plant was right across the Arkansas river from Muskogee where Firefighters and rescue teams were close by.  Our plant in North Central Oklahoma was out in the country, 25 miles from the nearest rescue team.

We took the idea that our Confined Space Rescue Team should all be trained EMTs, which was positively received… if we wanted to go out and do it ourselves.  That may have been easy if we all lived in the same town, but as it was, it is 45 miles from Ponca City to Stillwater, or Pawnee, or Perry, the four towns where Power Plant Men in North Central Oklahoma resided.  So, all of us taking training as a team on our own was not practical.  So, that never happened.

We did, however, become very proficient in tying someone down in a stretcher.  Our team practiced tying someone into a stretcher until it took us only one minute and 37 seconds to have someone completely hog-tied down in a stretcher to the point that they couldn’t move.

Rescue Stretcher

Rescue Stretcher

We demonstrated this to our plant during one of our monthly safety meetings by tying up our Plant Manager Bill Green in a stretcher so that he couldn’t move more than an inch in any direction.  Then we proved it by picking him, turning him over so that he was facing the floor.  Then swivelling him around so that he was upside down with his head toward the floor and his feet up in the air.  We showed how his head didn’t slide down to touch the rail on the stretcher.

I think as we were swiveling our  Plant Manager around all tied up in the stretcher, Bill was asking himself if this was such a good idea.  At the same time, the members of the rescue team were thinking this would be a good time to ask Bill again if we could be trained EMTs.  I can say that it felt good to take the Plant Manager and set him on his head, I wish someone had taken a picture… but alas, we didn’t have cell phones with cameras at that time.

In 1999 we held a “Confined Space Rescue Conference” in Oklahoma City.  Harry McRee did some rescue team training for us at the training facility in Oklahoma City where the rescuers had to be lowered down into a tank in the dark in order to rescue their rescue dummy.  It was there that I met with Harry about the Switchman Training I had been doing at our plant (see the post:  “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with Boring“).  I have kept Harry’s card since the first day I met him.  He was a very likable person and I suppose still is to this day.

Harry McRee's Business Card

Harry McRee’s Business Card

Because we had officially called this a “Conference” (I think so that we could repeat it each year around the same time), we had T-Shirts made:

We even had T-Shirts made for our Confined Space Rescue Conference in 1999

We even had T-Shirts made for our Confined Space Rescue Conference in 1999

This has been my favorite “company” shirt I have ever worn (out).  There are various reasons I think that I like this shirt so much.  One reason may be that it is made with very sturdy material.  Sure, it’s cotton, but it’s made with what is called “SuperWeight” cotton (from Gildan Activewear).  It has kept this shirt from falling apart even though I have worn it regularly over the past 16 years.

Or maybe because Green is my favorite color because it reminds me of grass and trees, and um… other green things.  Ok… no…. I admit it…. It’s really because of what the shirt says and what it represents.  See here is what is written on the shirt:

Confined Space Rescue Conference Shirt up close

Confined Space Rescue Conference Shirt up close

There is the pride of having served on the Confined Space Rescue Team for the number one best Electric Company in the country (and therefore in the world).

No.  I think the real reason I like wearing this shirt is because to me, it brings me back to the days when I worked with some of the best people that God ever thought to create.  The Power Plant Men and Women found in North Central Oklahoma.  It is this reason that I keep looking for this shirt to come back to my closet from the laundry so that I can put it on again.  When it does, I wear it for several days at a time.

It isn’t that I wear it because of Pride.  I wear it for comfort.  Not the comfort from wearing a shirt with a fraying collar, but the comfort that I receive by flying back to the time we spent together as a Power Plant Team.  I wear this shirt for the same reason that I write these Power Plant Man Posts.  I wear this shirt to celebrate their lives.

So, whatever happened to Theresa Acedansky?

Since I have left the Power Plant, I have been able to return to visit four times.  One time I visited in 2004 and David Evans, a Control Room Operator told me that Theresa Acedansky, who I knew had moved to the Muskogee Power Plant, had married a Power Plant Man at the Muskogee Plant.

David Evans waits for Jim Padgett to get a cup of coffee -- Thanks Jim Cave for the picture

David Evans waits for Jim Padgett to get a cup of coffee — Thanks Jim Cave for the picture

David couldn’t remember the name of the person that she married.  Today, that isn’t hard to find.  Just this morning, I looked it up and found that Theresa married Tommy Seitz.  Knowing that, I was able then to find her on LinkedIn, only to find that we already share 35 connections.  So, I sent her a connection request.

I also learned that Theresa and Tommy now live in Oklahoma City, and that Tommy’s father died in 2010… Ok… I know… creepy huh?  We know everything we want to know about each other these days.  So… you would think I would be able to come up with a picture of Theresa….

That was a difficult one, but I did finally find one.  You see, I know that when Theresa gets involved in something she is the type of person that dives right in and puts all of her effort forward…. She did that when she was a firefighter.  She did that when she was a confined space rescuer.  She also does this with her current job as the Director of Utility Technical Learning at the Electric Company.

I knew from back in 1998 that Theresa’s middle initial was M.  I think I actually knew what the M stood for, but I can’t remember today… Maybe Maria or Mary.  This helped the search this morning.  What I did find was that Theresa is a member of a group called PRB Coal Users’ Group.  PRB stands for Powder River Basin… Which happens to be where the Electric Company buys the coal used at the Coal-fired plants.  Not only is she in the group, but she is the Vice Chairperson on the Board of Directors for this group.  Why doesn’t this surprise me?

Theresa Acedansky is the Vice Chairperson for the Power River Basin Coal Users' Group. The only woman on the Board of Directors

Theresa Acedansky (Seitz) is the Vice Chairperson for the Power River Basin Coal Users’ Group. The only woman on the Board of Directors and probably the person really in charge.

And as Paul Harvey would say, “Now we know the rest of the story…..”

Power Plant Control Room Operator and the Life of Pi

Whenever I walked into the Control Room at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw Jim Cave manning the helm, I couldn’t help but smile.  I would do the same thing when Gene Day was standing there, but for a different reason.  Jim just seemed to make everyone feel at ease.  There is something special about his personality that rubs everyone the right way.

Jim worked for the company the first summer in 1979 when I was working as a summer help in the maintenance shop.  I really didn’t know him until he became a control room operator and I was in the electric shop.  He was always one of the brighter bulbs in the box.

When I first met Jim Cave, the first thing that came to mind was that he reminds me of a News reporter.  He looks like someone that you would think would be telling you the daily news on TV.  He has that likeable face that you would trust to tell you the news each day.  Everyone wanted to have their picture taken with Jim because he automatically brightened up the photograph.  Thanks to Jim’s Facebook page, I have some pictures to show you.

Chuck Crabtree, Bill Epperson and Jim Cave (from right to left)

Chuck Crabtree, Bill Epperson and Jim Cave (from left to right)

Actually, I think all of the pictures of operators that I have used in my posts over the years have come from Jim Cave’s Facebook photos.  You can see from the picture above that Jim Cave seems to stand out as someone who might be a reporter on the nightly news.

Before I tell you about how Jim Cave has his own story pertaining to the Life of Pi, let me show you a couple of more photos of Operators who couldn’t resist posing with Jim Cave:

Eddie Hickman and Jim Cave

Eddie Hickman and Jim Cave

Jim Cave and Bill Hoffman

Jim Cave and Bill Hoffman

Yipes. Notice how comfortable Jim is standing between Gene Day and Joe Gallahar

Yipes. Notice how comfortable Jim is standing between Gene Day and Joe Gallahar?  Joe.  Is that a Mandolin?

You can see that no matter the situation, Jim is always smiling.  I can’t think of any time that I saw Jim that he wasn’t smiling a genuine smile.

Now that I have embarrassed Gene Day by showing him wearing short shorts (which was the full intent of this post.  The rest about Jim Cave is just to put it in some sort of context), I will begin the actual story…

A new computer was installed one day that was called a VAX system. Instead of being a large mainframe computer in cabinets, this one sat out in the middle of the floor.

a VAX server

a VAX server

This allowed the control room to monitor readings from most of the power plant systems right there on a computer monitor.  This was a new thing at the time.  A few years after it was installed, a new program was installed on a computer on the counter behind the Control Room operator’s desk.  The software was called PI.

OSIsoft software called PI

OSIsoft software called PI

As a side note:  This software was being used by Koch Industry to control oil pipelines across the country.  I’ll tell you how I know below.

When a program like this is first installed, it isn’t of much use.  The reason is that in order to monitor everything, the screens have to be setup.  You can see by the screenshots above that each graph, icon and connecting line has to be defined and setup in order to show you a full picture of what is happening.

If a lot of effort is put into building the screens, then this application not only becomes a great benefit to the control room operators, it also benefits the entire operation of the plant.

We had the same situation with SAP.  We had installed SAP in 1997 at the Electric Company, but the real benefit comes when an effort is made up front to put in all the expert data to make it useful.  While Ray Eberle and I were working to put the expert data into SAP, this new PI system was installed in the Control Room.  In order to make it useful, screens needed to be built.

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Jim Cave with Allen Moore standing in the control room

Notice the alarm panels are still there in the picture in 2005.

Some operators weren’t too keen on the computer since they had been staring at these alarm panels all their adult life, and they were just in tune with the power plant as they could be.  Paper recorders, gauges that you might have to tap every now and then to take an accurate reading… colored red, yellow, blue and red lights.  Red Level gauges, Counters, Knobs to turn, Switches to toggle.  Buttons to push.  All of these things gave the operator a physical connection to the power plant system.  Who needs a computer?

Jim Cave saw the benefit right away.  He took the Pi Manual out and began reading it.  He learned how to create new screens and add components.  Then he began the work of giving “Life to Pi”.

Each time Jim added a new system to Pi, the operators saw the benefit of using this tool more and more (like Allen Moore).

In 2000, Jim Cave had built a complete set of screens, releasing the Power of PI upon the Control Room Operators making their jobs easier and giving them much more insight into the operation of the plant that they never would have dreamed 5 years earlier.  (except for Bill Rivers who had predicted this day 17 years earlier when no one would believe him).

Jim Cave’s Shift Supervisor, Gary Wright wanted to recognize Jim Cave for the tremendous effort he put forth to build the PI system into every Power Plant Operator’s dream.  So, he went to Bill Green the Plant Manager and told him that he would like to do something special for Jim to recognize all the effort he put into the Pi system.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

A young picture of Gary Wright in the front row with Glasses and red hair. Oh, and Gene Day in the Orange Shirt… finally wearing some decent pants.

Bill replied to Gary by asking if Jim did this while he was on the job, or did he come in during his own time to work on it.  Gary replied that Jim had done this while still performing his job of Control Room operator through his own initiative.  It wasn’t part of his regular job.  Bill clarified, “But this work was done while Jim was on the clock?” “Yes”, Gary answered.  “Then Jim was just doing his job”, Bill replied.

Bill Green

Bill Green

At this same time, I was having a conflict of my own that I was trying to work through.  I will go into more detail in a later post, but here it is in a nutshell….

I had been going to the university to get a degree called “Management Information Systems” or MIS from the business college at Oklahoma State University.  I had been applying for jobs in the IT department in our company, but for reasons I will discuss later, I was not allowed to move to the IT department, even when I had only one semester left before graduating with the degree.

My problem was that I was being offered jobs from various companies when I graduated in May.  Boeing in Wichita even gave me a job offer and wanted me to leave school and to work for them on the spot for having a computer and an electrical background to work on military jets, (which sounded real cool).  The electric company had been paying all of my tuition and fees and 75% of the cost of the books.  So, my education had been paid by the company.  I told Boeing that above all, I wanted to finish my degree before I began my career in IT.

I felt as if I owed the electric company my allegiance and that I would stay with them, and that is why I kept applying for jobs within the company.  I felt that way until the day I heard this story about Gary Wright trying to recognize Jim Cave for his extra effort.

When I heard Bill’s response was, “He was just doing his job…”, it suddenly hit me….  The company paying for my tuition was one of my benefits.  I didn’t owe the company anything in return for that.  I had already given them what was due.  I had been their employee and had done my job.  I no longer felt the need to “pay back” the company by staying.  I had already paid them with my service.  I actually remember saying that out loud to Ray Eberle.  “The company paying for my education is my benefit.”

This was a turning point in my job search.  I felt perfectly free after that to accept a job from another company.  Bill’s response to Gary Wright had opened my eyes.  I felt perfectly at ease accepting the job offer from Dell the following month.  It’s too bad that it took snubbing Jim Cave’s extraordinary effort by the plant manager to put my understanding of my situation in the proper light.

During that time, I had a job offer that I had turned down from Koch Industry in Wichita because they didn’t offer me as much pay as some of the other job offers I had received.  A month later they called me back and asked me to go for another interview in a different department.

When I showed up for the interview, it was with the SCADA department.  SCADA stands for Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition.  That is what the electric company called the system that opens and closes breakers remotely.  Koch Industries uses the same type of system to control the pipelines across the country from their one location in Wichita.

After the interview, they showed me around the office.  When we walked into the lab, one person showed me the computer system they were using to control all the pipelines, and lo and behold…. it was the PI system.  The same one that Jim Cave had learned in the control room at our Power Plant.  They offered me a job in that department as well for a little more.

I thought to myself that if I accepted the job with Koch, then I would ask Jim to teach me what he had learned about the Pi software.  This would come in real handy.  It turned out that the offer from Dell was even better than Koch, which was my second choice if I hadn’t accepted the job at Dell.

Things have changed at the plant since the picture in 2005.  I believe it was in 2006 that the alarm panels were removed from the control room and everything was put on the computers.  The control room operators no longer have to stand in front of panels of lights and gauges and knobs and buttons and switches.  It is all viewed on computer screens.

Here is a picture of Jim sitting in front of some of those computer screens…

Jim Cave manning the Control Room Computers

Jim Cave manning the Control Room Computers

I see eleven computer monitors on the counter behind the old control panel and we can’t even see the other half of the counter.  It looks like Jim built so many screens they just kept having to add more and more monitors to show them all. — Oh.  I know that Jim didn’t create all these screens, but he did help acclimate the Control Room operators to using computers so that when the evolution to a completely computerized system did arrive, they were ready for it.

Great work Jim Cave!  Thank you for all you have done for the Electric Company in Oklahoma.  You have made a lasting difference that will carry forward to the next generation of Control Room Operators.  I don’t just mean by giving Life to PI.  Your positive attitude in times of stress to the times of boredom have blessed everyone that ever knew you.

I for one am grateful to have met and worked with a True Power Plant Man such as yourself.

Power Plant Millennium Experience

I suppose most people remember where they were New Year’s Eve at midnight on Saturday, January 1, 2000.  That is a night I will never forget.  Some people were hiding in self-made bunkers waiting for the end of the world which never came, others were celebrating at home with their families and friends.  I suppose some people went on with their lives as if nothing was different that night.  Not my family.  My wife and two children spent the night at the Power Plant waiting to see if all of the testing we had performed the last two years had covered all possible failures of the Y2K scare.

A small group of Power Plant Men had been chosen to attend a party with our families in the main conference room at the Power Plant.  All the food and drinks were supplied by the company.  Our Plant Manager, Bill Green was there.  Children were given the opportunity to rest in some other room as it reached their bedtimes.

Two years before this fateful night, the company was in full swing preparing for the Y2K computer disaster that had been foretold by those who knew that many computer systems only used two digits for the year instead of all four.  so, when the year 2000 rolled around, it would suddenly show up in the computer as 00, which didn’t compute as a year in some systems. After all, you can’t divide something by 00.  Suddenly, the time between events that just happened before midnight and those that happen just after midnight are 100 years apart in the wrong direction.

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was completed in 1979 and 1980, so, my first thought was that by that time, computers were far enough along to know better.  The Instrument and Controls Power Plant Men along with the Plant Engineers decided that the best way to check their systems was to change the clocks on the computers one at a time to just before midnight on New Year’s Eve and see what happens.

I thought that was a pretty ingenious way to go about testing the computer systems.  By changing the clock on each system one at a time to New Year’s Eve and watching it roll over to the new Millennium, you learn right away if you have a problem, and you have contained the disaster to one system at a time while you test it.  By doing this, it turned out that there was a problem with one system at the Co-Generation plant at the Continental Oil Refinery 20 miles north of the plant.

I wrote a post about the Co-Generation Plant in a previous post: “What Coal-fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery“.  When it was discovered that the computer at the Conoco Oil Refinery Power Plant would crash on New Year’s Eve, it was decided that we would just roll the clock back to 1950 (or so), and we wouldn’t have to worry about it for another 50 years.  The thought was that by that time, this computer would be replaced.

This was the original thought which caused the Y2K problem in the first place.  No one thought in the 1960’s that their computer systems would still be operating when the year 2000 came around, so they didn’t bother to use four digits for the year.  Disk space was expensive at that time, and anything that could save a few bytes was considered an improvement instead of a bug.

My wife wasn’t too pleased when I told her where we were going to spend New Year’s Eve when Y2K rolled around, but then again, where would you rather be if a worldwide disaster happened and the electricity shutdown across the country?  I would think the Power Plant would be the best place.  You could at least say, “I was in the actual Control Room at a Power Plant watching them throw the switch and light up Oklahoma City!”  Besides, we usually spent New Year’s Eve quietly at home with our kids.

Even though we were fairly certain everything had been accounted for, it was the unknown computer system sitting out there that no one had thought about that might shut everything down.  Some system in a relay house in a substation, or some terrorist attack.  So, there we sat watching the New Year roll in on a big screen TV at one end of the break room.  Children’s movies were being shown most of the evening to keep the young occupied while we waited.

I thought that Jim Arnold, the Supervisor over the Maintenance Department, wanted me in the break room at the Power Plant so that he could keep an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t going to be causing trouble that night.  Jim never really trusted me….  I suppose that was because strange things would happen when I was around.  Of course, I would never do anything that would jeopardize the operation of the Power Plant, but that didn’t stop me from keeping Jim guessing.

No.  Not really.  I was there because I had a way with computers.  I was the computer go to person at the plant, and if anything happened to any of them, I would probably be the person that could whisper it back into service.  Also, if for some reason the Generators tripped, I was a switchman that could open and close switches in the substation and start the precipitator back up and run up to the top of the boiler if the boiler elevator broke down and get it started back up.

Except for my natural affinity for computers, any of the electricians in the Power Plant could do all those other things.  I think there was just a little “prejudice” left over about me from when Bill Bennett our past A foreman used to say, “Let Kevin do it.  He doesn’t mind getting dirty”  (or…. he likes to climb the boiler, or…. he likes confined spaces, or… Kevin likes to stay up at all hours of the night working on things… I could go on… that was Bill’s response when someone asked him who should do the really grimy jobs  — of course… to some degree…. he was usually right).

I was actually a little proud to be told that I was going to have to spend New Year’s Eve at the Power Plant.  I had almost 17 years of experience as a Power Plant Electrician at that time, and I felt very comfortable working on any piece of equipment in the plant.  If it was something I had never worked on before, then I would quickly learn how it worked… As I said, all the electricians in the plant were the same way.  It was our way of life.

At 11:00 pm Central Time, we watched as the ball dropped in Time Square in New York City.  The 10 or so Power Plant Men with their families sat in anticipation waiting…. and waiting… to see if the lights went out in New York….  Of course you know now that nothing happened, but we were ready to jump into a crisis mode if there were any reports of power failures across the country.

You see…. The electric grid on the east side of the Rocky Mountains is all connected together.  If the power grid were to go down in one area, it could try dragging down the rest of the country.  If protective relays in substations across the country don’t operate flawlessly, then a blackout occurs in a larger area than just one particular area covered by one electric company.

When relays operate properly, a blackout is contained in the smallest area possible.  There was only one problem…. Breakers in substations are now controlled by remote computer systems.  If those systems began to act erratic, then the country could have a problem.  This did not happen that night.

There was a contract worker in the engineering department at our plant who was at his home in the country during this time hunkered down in a bunker waiting for the end of the world as was foretold by the minister of his church.  He had purchased a large supply of food and water and had piled them up in his shelter along with a portable generator.  He and his family waited out the end of the world that night waiting for the rapture.  He told me about that a few months later.  He was rather disappointed that the world hadn’t ended like it was supposed to.  He was so prepared for it.

After 11 pm rolled around and there was no disaster on the east coast, things lightened up a bit.  I decided to take my son and daughter on a night tour of the plant.  So, we walked over to the control room where they could look at the control panels with all of the the lights and alarms.  Here is a picture of Jim Cave and Allen Moore standing in front of the Unit 1 Control Panel:

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Then I took each of them up to the top of the Boiler where you could look out over the lake at night from a view 250 feet high.  The Power Plant becomes a magical world at night, with the rumbling sounds from the boiler, the quiet hissing of steam muffled by the night.  The lights shining through the metal structure and open grating floors.

From the top of the boiler, you could look south and see the night lights from Stillwater, Pawnee and Perry.  Looking north, you could see Ponca City and the Oil Refinery at Conoco (later Phillips).  The only structure taller than the boilers are the smoke stacks.  There was always a special quality about the plant at night that is hard to put your finger on.  A sort of silence in a world of noise.  It is like a large ship on the ocean.  In a world of its own.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset across the lake

We returned to the break room 20 minutes before midnight, where our plant manager Bill Green and Jim Arnold tested their radios with the Control Room to make sure we were all in contact with each other.  I had carried my tool bucket up to the break room in case I needed to dash off somewhere in a hurry.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

We felt confident by this time that a disaster was not going to happen when the clock rolled over to midnight.  When the countdown happened, and the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 counted down, We cheered “Happy New Year!” and hugged one another.  I think both of my children had dozed off by this point.

Bill Green called the control room.  The word came back that everything was business as usual.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  We waited around another hour just to make sure that nothing had shutdown.  By 1:00 am on January 1, 2000, Bill Green gave us the (Bill) Green Light.  We were all free to return to our homes.

I gathered up my two children and my wife Kelly, and we drove the 25 miles back home to the comfort of our own beds.  When we went to bed early that morning after I had climbed into bed, I reached over and turned off the light on my nightstand.  When the light went out, it was because I had decided to turn it off.  Not because the world had suddenly come to an end.  A new Millennium had just begun.