Originally posted September 20, 2014.
I remember the moment when it dawned on me that I may be witnessing an incredible Coal-fired Power Plant Conspiracy! I had just walked into the Control Room one morning in 1990 at the plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw the Shift Supervisor Jack Maloy and Merl Wright in a state of high concentration.
I always knew something was up when Jack Maloy was standing behind the large blue monitors near the Unit 1 Main Electric Board watching the big picture while the Control Room Operator Merl Wright was at the Main Control Panel turning knobs, tapping indicators to make sure they had the correct readings, twisting switches, holding them until red lights turned green…
Where had I seen this before? Something was telling me that everything wasn’t as it seemed. Sure… there was an emergency going on. There was no doubt about that. I knew that between Jack Maloy and Merl Wright, the current problem of the main boiler drum losing water was quickly going to be solved. I knew that Oklahoma City wasn’t going to experience any blackouts that day. This was a Cracker Jack team! But I couldn’t help thinking I had seen this somewhere before, and it was gnawing at my common sense.
Here is a picture of Jack Maloy’s team at the time:
I backed off in a corner to observe the situation while a crowd of operators began to grow to watch the master Shift Supervisor and his faithful Control Room Operator divert a disaster. Merl picked up the walkie talkie from the desk and called Larry Tapp ( Larry is the man in the light blue shirt in the front row in the middle. He’s the only one in the front row that is actually standing, while the rest are down on their knees while the picture is being taken).
Larry was on the boiler opening and closing valves. John Belusko, the Unit Supervisor was out there with him. I can’t tell you what magic they were performing, since I think that’s top secret. I figured that, because the operators seemed to be talking in code. Merl would key the microphone on the walkie talkie and say something like, “Larry, 45”. Larry would reply with something like “Quarter Turn”. “Position?”, “18 as far as I can tell”.
I translated the coded words to say: “….crawling under the path of the boom, whipped hold of a rope, secured one end to the bulwarks and then flinging the other like a lasso, caught it around the boom as it swept over his head, and at the next jerk, the spar was that way trapped and all was safe.” (Something I had read in Moby Dick, by Herman Melville).
Jack paced back and forth behind the counter with the monitors. Then he stopped and read the paper that was streaming out of the alarm printer as it continued humming as the paper piled up on the floor in front of him. Jack was a heavy smoker, and I could tell that right then he would rather be standing out on the T-G floor having a smoke at that moment. Before cigarettes were banned in the control room, Jack would have been pointing at that board with the cigarette.
When the water level began rising in the Boiler Drum, I could see the relieve on everyone’s face. I supposed it meant that a major catastrophe had been avoided due to the intricate knowledge that each operator possessed and their ability to quickly respond to any situation. This made the uneasy feeling I was having even worse. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this before. Just like Deja Vu.
It wasn’t till about a week later when my mom asked me if I knew someone at work named Jack Maloy. She had been talking to a friend of hers from Church named Louise and she mentioned that her husband worked at the Power Plant north of town. I replied by saying that I knew Jack Maloy well. He is a Shift Supervisor. She said that his wife Louise told her that Jack was a real nice person, but she wished that he would go to Church more. She hoped he would come around to that some day.
Then my mom mentioned something that brought back that feeling of uneasiness again. She said that the Maloys had moved to Oklahoma in 1979 from California. I thought that was odd that Jack had only arrived in Oklahoma in 1979, as he was a Shift Supervisor for as long as I could remember. Maybe even as far back as 1979 when I first worked at the plant as a summer help.
In that case, he would have been hired as a Shift Supervisor straight from California. — That seemed odd, since the majority of Shift Supervisors had worked their way up from Auxiliary Operator to Control Room Operator to Unit Supervisor, then finally to Shift Supervisor. Why would Jack be hired fresh from California? And how did Jack know so much about being a Shift Supervisor at our plant so quickly?
Then it dawned on me. You see…. It all went back to a lunch break about a year earlier when Charles Foster, an Electric Foreman and I were eating lunch in the Electric Shop office. When we didn’t know what to talk about, our favorite past time was to talk about movies and TV shows we had watched. We would describe the movie in detail to each other. On this particular day, Charles was doing the talking, and he was telling me about a movie that had to do with a Power Plant in California (yeah. California).
As Charles described the story, he told me that there was this Shift Supervisor named Jack (yeah… like our Shift Supervisor… Jack Maloy), and he was such a good Shift Supervisor that he could tell that there was something wrong with the Boiler Feed Pumps just by the way the coffee in his coffee cup would vibrate. Yeah. He was that good.
Charles went on to tell me about how at one part of the movie the water level was dropping in a tank and it was imperative that they raise the water level or some big disaster was going to happen. — Now you see where I’m going with this? Yeah. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? At that time, the incident in the Control Room hadn’t happened yet with Jack Maloy.
The movie sounded interesting so, when I had the opportunity, we rented the VHS tape from the video store and I watched it. Sure enough. This is what I saw….
Here is Jack Maloy and Merl Wright from the team picture above:
Very similar don’t you think? Two Shift Supervisors named Jack from California with the exact same hairstyle. Two Control Room Operators that look like Wilford Brimley. Coincidence?
Even Wilford Brimley’s hairline is the same as Merl Wright’s hairline!
For those of you who don’t know yet. The name of the movie is: The China Syndrome. It is about a nuclear Power Plant that has a near meltdown:
Need more? Ok. — hey this is fun….. So…. This movie came out in 1979. The same year that Jack Maloy shows up in Oklahoma from California. Obviously an experienced Power Plant Shift Supervisor. Merl Wright went to work 10 months earlier in 1978 at an older power plant just down the road (The old Osage plant), and then shortly after, was transferred to the same plant with Jack Maloy, only to end up working for Jack.
Need more? The China Syndrome Movie came out on March 16, 1979. Jack Maloy began working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma February 26, 1979, just two and a half weeks earlier.
I mentioned this coincidence to Charles Foster one day, but as far as I know, I never mentioned it again to anyone else… Maybe Scott Hubbard, since he was my best friend as well…
So, here are my thoughts about this….
What if Jack Maloy was the Shift Supervisor being portrayed in the movie “The China Syndrome”? He needed to move out of California just before the movie came out just in case someone found out his true identity. Being a Shift Supervisor at a Nuclear Power Plant, he would surely be in high demand at any Electric Company. Our particular Power Plant was in an out-of-the-way location. Sort of like a “witness protection program”.
I don’t know Merl’s earlier background, so I can still think that he moved to Oklahoma from California and began working for the Electric Company on April 24, 1978 just two weeks before I moved to Oklahoma from Columbia, Missouri. Since I don’t know any better, I can continue thinking this. It makes it more fun that way. — Of course, Merl, who may on occasion read this blog, may correct me in the comment section below…
So, what was it that I was experiencing that morning when I walked in the control room? I mean… What was I “really” experiencing? If, suppose, Jack and Merl really are the two that were in the control room when the “China Syndrome” almost occurred? Was it just an innocent crisis where the water level somehow decided to drop to a dangerously low level all by itself because of a faulty valve that was supposed to be closed, but was really open?
Was Jack and Merl trying to relive the excitement they had felt years earlier when they worked in a nuclear plant and they almost melted a hole all the way from there to China? Was this what experienced bored Power Plant Heroes do during downtime? I suppose it’s possible. It could have been a drill drummed up to test the acuity of the operators. To keep them on their toes. All “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion” just like on the Pequod in Moby Dick.
Something to think about.
Today Merl still lives in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Jack Maloy has moved to Cape Carol, Florida with his wife Louise. I suppose now that he has more time on his hand, hopefully he has given up smoking and is now making his wife happy by attending Church regularly. We can only hope he is at peace, on the opposite side of the United States from California so he doesn’t accidentally run into his old cohorts.
We are all glad that on his way to Florida from California that Jack decided to stop for 25 or so years in Oklahoma to Supervise the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the middle of the countryside…. As Charles Champlin from the Los Angeles Times said of the movie “The China Syndrome” — “Stunning and Skillfully Executed!” — Yeah. That describes Merl and Jack. Either way… Conspiracy or not. These two men are my heroes!
I wish Merl and Jack the best rest of their lives!
Comments from the original post: (one of my most commented posts)
Originally posted September 27, 2014, added a picture of Bud
When I say that Bud Schoonover is known as “Elvin”, I don’t mean to imply that he was Elvin in nature. What I mean to say is that he did not necessarily possess the qualities of an elf. Well, except for his smile, which is somewhat Elvish-like. Bud’s smile was usually more like a look of warning for those who didn’t know him well. I have always said that he reminded me of a six foot, 5 inch tall, white Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son, and about 75 to 100 pounds heavier.
What I mean by saying that Bud is known as “Elvin” is that is what his Mother called him when he was born. Though somewhere along the line he became known as Bud; Not from his middle name… because I think that was Floyd. Bud was my good friend and carpooling buddy (See the post “Carpooling with Bud Schoonover“). Maybe that was why people called him Bud. Because he was everyone’s “buddy”.
I don’t mean to make it sound like Bud has passed away, because as far as I know, he is still an active Republican voter living on South Palm Street in Ponca City. I also don’t want you to think that I was only friends with Bud Schoonover because he was a good carpooling buddy. No. Bud had all sorts of talents. He gave great weather reports each morning when we would gather to take our trek to the Power Plant some 20 miles away, as I mentioned in the other post about Bud (since first writing this post, Bud has passed away. See the post: Dynamic Power Plant Trio – And Then There was One).
I don’t think that there was anyone at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma that didn’t like Bud. There was just something naturally likable about him. Bud worked in the tool room and the warehouse ever since the day I first arrived at the plant in 1979. — Well, the warehouse wasn’t much of a warehouse back then. It just had stuffed piled up against the walls. No shelves, No storage racks. No drawers and bins full of parts.
Bud is four years and 26 days younger than my own father, and four years and 18 days younger than Elvis Presley.
He will be 76 years old this January. Needless to say, Bud retired from the Power Plant in 1994 after having just turned 55. At his going away party, some guys at the plant fixed up a Wal-Mart shopping cart with a bunch of accessories attached to it so that he would be properly equipped when he went to work at Wal-Mart as a Greeter. — For those of you who don’t know…. Wal-Mart used to hire elderly people to greet people when you walked into the store. They might pull a cart out of the stack of carts and give it to you if you looked like you were in need of a cart.
Bud was extra careful when working in the warehouse. He wanted to make sure that he was getting everything right, so he would check, and double check, and then check again…. just to make sure everything matched. One good example of this was when he was tasked with ordering a half set of coal burner nozzles and tips for the boiler.
There were 24 of these Coal burner nozzle and tips in the boiler. The nozzles costing about $13,000 and the tips ran somewhere around $4,000 each.
There was another assembly that attached to the end with the hole on the side that allowed the nozzle to change the pitch it was called the Tip.
So, Bud wanted to make sure he created the order correctly. So, when Bud placed the order with the supplier, he not only included the Supplier’s part number, but he also included the manufacturer’s part number. Just to make sure they knew they were sending the correct part, he even sent them the old manufacturing part number that they used a few years before they changed their part numbering system. — So, when he sent the order, it had all three part number for the 12 nozzles. He did the same thing with the smaller piece for the end of the nozzle.
To Bud’s surprise, one bright sunny morning in December, 1989 (well, it may not have been that sunny that day), guess what showed up at the loading dock? 12 nozzles with the suppliers part number, 12 nozzles with the manufacturer’s part number, and 12 more nozzles with the manufacturer’s old part number! Yeah…. Didn’t count on that one.
I think I know how Bud must have felt when that happened. Probably the same way I felt the morning I was summoned to the front office to pick up my mail, only to find a stack of a couple hundred envelopes from all over the company after printing something out on all the printers in the company (See “Power Plant Customer Service Team Gone Wild“). I think Bud took these things in more in stride than most people might. His reaction to finding out that the order he had created for $156,000 had suddenly turned into $468,000 was probably something like…. “Oh Geez. I sure don’t want to do that again!”
During the “We’ve Got the Power” program (see the post “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power“), the HR and Warehouse director, Linda Dallas asked us if we would put in a proposal to scrap the extra nozzles since these nozzles were very big. She didn’t think it would look good if her own team created the proposal since she was already responsible for the warehouse. We had two people from the warehouse on our We’ve Got the Power team, Dick Dale and Darlene Mitchell, so she thought we could do something out the conundrum. Two nozzles fit on a pallet, taking up space all over the warehouse.
We could save money just by scrapping it because we wouldn’t have to pay taxes on the parts. It cost too much to return them to the supplier because the restocking fee was too high. — And E-Bay didn’t exist back then.
Instead of accepting our proposal, it was decided that instead of just changing out half of the nozzles during the next outage, they would just replace all of the nozzles. This reduced the number of nozzles left in the warehouse to a more manageable number. So, Bud’s Faux Pas, may have just helped increase the efficiency of the boiler significantly with the replacement of the nozzles which may have translated into savings of unknown millions of dollars, of which Bud received no credit… But that’s okay. Bud wasn’t one to seek credit for his ingenious accidental idea of triple ordering boiler Nozzles.
One of the favorite stories I would tell my children as they were growing up when they would ask me to tell them a Bud Schoonover story was the story about the last tool in the tool room. — This is Bud’s own special way of handling the restocking of the tool room. It goes like this…. For instance….
If you went to the tool room to ask for a yellow flashlight and it happened to be the last yellow flashlight in the tool room, and it was Bud Schoonover’s week to man the tool room, then you would hear something like this:
“I can’t give you a yellow flashlight, because I only have one left.” — You may want to respond with something like, “But Bud, if there’s one left, then why can’t I have it?” Bud’s reply would be, “Because if I give you the last one, then I’d have to order more.”
At this point, you may want to start over asking if you can have a yellow flashlight, with the hope that Bud may have forgotten that he was down to his last yellow flashlight…. You might even phrase it a little differently… You might say something like, “Well… Can I just borrow a yellow flashlight for a few hours? At least for as long as I have to do some work in the dark?” — I have seen this approach almost work. He would stop and think about it like Andy Griffith in “No Time For Sergeants” trying to answer questions being asked by the Psychiatrist:
Then the next question you may ask (I know, since I asked it more than once) is: “So, Bud, how about ordering some more yellow flashlights.” Bud would reply with something like, “No. I don’t really want to order anything this week.”, as he nods in the direction of the computer monitor sitting on the desk just to his left… — Oh…. computer shy…. that’s why. Not comfortable ordering stuff on the computer (especially after ordering all those coal burner nozzles).
I can understand that. He is the same age as my own father, and my dad at that time would literally call me at least one time every single day to ask me a computer question. Like…. “How do I move a paragraph from one part of a document to another part?” — “Um… Yeah Dad, (for the hundredth time), you do it like this….”
There’s something about every one of my friends and family that were born between December 30, 1934 and January 27th 1939. They all had the same problem with computers. Must be that particular generation born within that four year period. I’m sure Elvis, who was born right in the middle of that time frame (on January 8, 1935), would have had the same trouble with the PC if he had lived long enough. — I know… I know… I just saw him the other day myself.
Anyway, there was one sure fire way to get that tool that I needed from the tool room while Bud Schoonover was manning the front gate, and that was to volunteer to go to the warehouse and pick up a box of the parts yourself and carry them back and hand them to Bud, while taking one out for yourself. — And the time I needed a flashlight, I did just that.
One time I went to the tool room in the middle of the winter when we had water pipes that were frozen and I needed a propane torch to heat the pipe to melt the ice. Bud told me that he couldn’t give me a propane torch because he only had one left. I looked up two racks over from the gate and could see at least two boxes of propane bottles on the top shelf.
I told Bud that I wouldn’t be taking his last bottle of propane, because there was at least two bottles right up there on that shelf. Bud insisted that he only had one bottle of propane left and he couldn’t give it to me. So, while smiling at Bud and explaining that I could see the two bottles right up there on the top of the shelf,… with one hand on his shoulder (which was about a whole foot taller than my head), and the other hand unlocking the gate, I told him I would show him.
So, I stepped into the tool room, and said, “It’s ok Bud, I won’t take your last bottle of Propane, but I do have to take this bottle here, because we have a water pipe that is frozen solid, and I need to use the propane torch to warm it up. Here… I”ll just take this one, and you can keep this other one here….”
As I walked back out the tool room smiling all the time at Bud, who was just staring at me with a worried look finally lowered his shoulders which had been creeping up closer to his ears as I had sidestepped him to get to the propane bottle.
The funny thing was that by the end of the week, there would be a whole list of parts and tools that only had one left in the tool room. Bud would consider it a successful week if he could make it through the week without having to get on the computer and order some more parts. He knew that next Monday, when Dick Dale
or Darlene Mitchell
arrived, they would restock the shelves, and he would be in the warehouse filling the orders and bringing them over on a two wheeler to the tool room. And the world would be right once again.
As I mentioned above, since originally posting this post, Bud Schoonover had joined Dick Dale in the warehouse of Paradise. Here is the latest picture of Bud:
Power Plant Pigeons actually believe that the entire reason Power Plants were built in the first place was to provide new rent-free Pigeon roosts for Power Plant Pigeons. Large lakes are placed alongside the Power Plant so that the pigeons can spend their days frolicking away in the immense Pigeon Bird Bath supplied by the electric company. Fields of grain are planted throughout the power plant realm in order to provide a nutritional diet to Power Plant Pigeons. Even men with bright yellow hardhats are supplied for pigeons to fly over and target practice their Power Plant Pigeon Poop dropping skills by aiming at the bright hardhat dots below.
I wrote about the pursuit to remove Power Plant Pigeons from the Power Plant Realm two years ago when I wrote the post “Poison Pill for Power Plant Pigeons“. In that post I explained how we had put out live traps to capture Power Plant Pigeons. Jody Morse taught me that it was better to persuade than to try to force the pigeons into the live traps.
After I joined the electric shop, we came up with a few other ways to rid the area of pigeons. This was more of a personal crusade, since I spent a lot of time working on the roof of the precipitator, which was a favorite haunt of Power Plant pigeons. I had spent a lot of time with a broom sweeping up the Power Plant Pigeon leavings only to come back a few weeks later to find the entire area redecorated with artistic renditions of Salvadore Dali paintings of melting clocks.
One day when when Bill Bennett strolled into the electric shop…. well… “Strutted” is a better word to describe Bill Bennett’s type of strolling. Bill was a skinnier version of a skinny Bill Cosby… for those of you who have not heard me mention him before….
Anyway, Bill strutted into the electric shop carrying a box one day and brought it into the office. He told me that he had ordered some equipment that was going to help me on the precipitator roof with the pigeons. He pulled a smaller box out of the big box and handed it to me. It was a highly technical piece of equipment known as a Sonic Bird Repeller:
Bill had bought 8 of these. Four for each precipitator. They were guaranteed to keep the pigeons away. Evidently they make a high pitched noise that you can’t hear, but the pigeons can and it annoys the heck out of them. I thanked Bill for thinking about me.. I think I was so touched by his concern that I gave him a hug…. or… maybe that was for some other reason…. it’s been a while. This was some time around 1989.
Anyway. I took four of the boxes and headed for the precipitator roof to try them out. On the way there as I was thinking about the noise that these four bird repellers were going to make, I hoped that the birds were going to be able to hear the annoying sound emanating from the little speakers over the incredibly loud noises of 168 vibrators buzzing constantly and the 672 rappers all banging away as 20 pound slugs of metal pound their anvils in order to shake the ash from the plates inside the precipitator.
You see, the roof of the precipitator is one of the noisiest places on the Power Plant Planet next to all the steam lines pushing thousands of pounds of pressure of steam through them, or next to the large fans blowing air into and out of the boiler. — Actually, the plant was a noisy place in general… so I just hoped that the bird repellers were going to be successful in their attempt to annoy the pigeons with their imperceptible buzzing noise, or whatever noise they made.
When I arrived on the roof, I placed the 4 sonic bird repellers in the four strategic positions on the roof in order to cover the widest area possible…. that is, toward the four corners where the four electrical plug-ins were mounted on the coffin houses. It was thoughtful of the construction hands to have placed those four receptacles just where I wanted to plug in the four sonic bird repellers ten years later.
I tried to see if I could hear anything when I turned them on, but I didn’t hear anything. I figured that was a good thing since I wasn’t supposed to hear anything according to the instructions. So, at least they passed the first test.
I hoped that this wasn’t a situation where the “Emperor Has No Clothes”, except in this case “The Sonic Bird Repeller Has No Sound”. How could I tell? I figured I would wait around and see what happened.
They didn’t interrupt the melodic symphony of rappers and vibrators as they beat and buzzed out their rendition of Brandenburg’s Concerto #3…. well, that’s what I liked to pretend anyway, since I had to spend hours at a time listening to them as I tested and adjusted rappers and vibrators as part of my normal Precipitator Roof Maintenance program.
I thought I would hang around for a while and do some adjustments on the rapper/vibrator cabinets while the pigeons all fled the scene in order to escape the atrocious sonic repellent rhapsody emanating from those four tyrannical jukeboxes I had just placed on the roof. Glancing over my shoulder from time to time, I kept a watch on Fred and Mabel that were perched on one of the side beams not too far from one of the Sonic Sound Machines. They seemed to be more interested in what I was doing than being annoyed by the new song in town.
I could have swore that after a half hour or so, those two pigeons had developed a new way of bobbing their heads as they hid from me. It was normal for the pigeons to climb along the beams overhead and periodically peak over the edge to see what I was up to. I didn’t mind too much when their little heads were peering over the side, it was only when their tails waved over the side that I became attentive. That was always a bad sign. They did it so nonchalantly as if they were just trying to turn around on that narrow beam so they could head back in the other direction, but I knew better.
We kept the Sonic Repellers on the roof for about eight months. I never really noticed a decrease in the pigeon population, but I do think a few operators changed their routine hangout to some other part of the boiler. Even Glenn Morgan stopped hanging out around the transformers where he used to go hide when he was trying to “meditate” somewhere where he wouldn’t be disturbed.
I finally figured out that even though I couldn’t hear the sonic bird repellers they would give me a headache. I don’t normally have headaches, so when I do, I know something out of the ordinary is happening…. such as I am being poisoned by Carbon Monoxide, or Curtis Love is telling me how sorry he is that he almost killed me again, or in this case…. I am working for a long period of time in the vicinity of one of the sonic bird repellers. After I figured that out, I would turn them off when I was working around them and my headaches would cease.
I suspected that when we were not on the precipitator roof, the smarter bunch of Power Plant Pigeons probably re-calibrated the repellers so that they would cause headaches in humans, so the pesky humans would leave the pigeons in peace. They weren’t smart enough to figure out that all I had to do was unplug them temporarily. So their backup plan was to drop special packages on my shoulder while I was working under tail causing me to forget to plug the sonic repellers back on when I left in a hurry to go wash up.
After the failed and back-fired experiment with the Sonic Bird Repellers, Bill Bennett had another course of action up his sleeve. He had contacted someone that was known as “The Bird Lady”. She had her own company where she would go around and persuade pigeons (and other birds) to leave their roosts using another unconventional means that was deemed “less cruel” than feeding them to the welder ET (who had moved to Muskogee anyway), and outright poisoning them (which was against company policy).
Her approach was to give them something more like “food poisoning” without killing them. After first meeting her in Bill Bennett’s office, I followed her to her car in the parking lot. She opened her trunk and took a bucket and filled it with grain from a larger tub. then she took some kind of powder and poured it in the bucket. Then she stirred the bucket of grain until the powder had worked its way throughout the grain. She was wearing the same kind of gloves you would wear if you were doing dishes and didn’t want to get dishpan hands.
She explained that the powder contained her special mixture of cayenne peppers and other spices that would upset even the most hardened pigeon gizzard in the Power Plant Kingdom. After they ate her grain, they would decide that the food around this establishment just isn’t up to code and they will fly away to find “greener pastures”.
I took her to the top of the precipitator and she poured some piles of grain not far from where I had tried the sonic bird repellers a couple of years earlier. She didn’t want to place the grain out in the open where the regular songbirds and other flying beasties would eat it.
She came to the plant once each month for about 3 months, and that was about it. The pigeons didn’t seem to like the grain that much, so they left it alone for the most part, except when they were in the mood for Mexican.
The third and final way that we tried Power Plant Pigeon Population Control was by the use of Pellet Guns. Scott Hubbard and I were working on the precipitator roof during an overhaul and the pigeons were being extra pesky. They would pick up twigs and small rocks and stuff and would drop them on our heads in an attempt to chase us away. So, we decided to retaliate. After all, one can only take so much abuse.
So, the next day, we brought our pellet guns from home to work with us and clandestinely carried them to the precipitator roof where we could shoot the birds that were pestering us. I killed one with my first shot which really impressed Scott Hubbard, since I had never mentioned in all the years we carpooled together that I was a hunter (which I wasn’t). That was just beginner’s luck. Scott killed a few more pigeons that day, but not that many when you get down to it.
It didn’t take long for the pigeons to realize what we were up to, so they would just stay hidden on the beams over our heads. This didn’t give us the opportunity to just take pot shots at them, and since we didn’t have all day to just stand around and wait for their little heads to peer over the side of a beam, and since their tails didn’t really contain any “shootable” material, we just left them alone for the most part.
So, we finally decided to do the next best thing than to try to run the pigeons off or kill them. We decided to live with them. I had a few discussions with some of their leaders about where they should NOT poop and I agreed that I would stop calling them names like “Poop Head” hence the names “Fred” and “Mabel”. And after that we sort of got along a lot better. This was a new skill I had learned after I realized that I had to do the same thing for a couple of upper management people at the plant. If I could do it with them, certainly I could learn to get along with a group of Power Plant Pigeons.
I could end this story by saying that we lived happily ever after and maybe we did. I will share a story about what happened once when the pigeons decided to just pack up and leave one day. I can tell you. The result was not pretty. But that is a story for next year (which is only a little more than a month away).
As an addendum to this story:
Years later after I had left the Power Plant to work for Dell in Texas, one day I was while wearing one of my coveted Power Plant shirts, something happened that reminded me of the days on the Precipitator roof. I took this opportunity to let everyone around me experience a little bit of the thrill that I used to experience on a weekly basis…
While painting the ceiling in my son’s bedroom one day, I happened to drip some white paint on my shirt in just the right spot to make it look like a pigeon had pooped on my shirt. Recognizing right away the significance of this, I quickly changed my shirt into a white t-shirt to continue painting.
Instead of quickly rubbing the paint off of the shirt, which probably would have smeared all over and ruined the shirt, I let it dry just as it was. For the past 8 years I have proudly worn this shirt every opportunity I have knowing that when others see me, they will automatically assume that I have been “pooped on” by a bird.
Of course, I have no reaction when I see their inquisitive expression. I just act as if nothing is wrong, which is easy, because nothing is. Here is a picture of the shirt with the pseudo-bird dropping:
Notice that I continue wearing this shirt even though the collar has become frayed over the years. I keep expecting it to disappear one day into the box on the front doorstep that is sent off to help Disabled Vets. Even though I would be honored to have a disabled vet wear my shirt, I think it would be more likely to end up in a rag box.
I began writing this blog more than three years ago in order to share some of the stories about the great Power Plant Men and Women that I was privileged to work with for twenty years at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I have put the men and women of this plant on a well-deserved pedestal. Don’t just take my word for it. The rest of the world had their eyes fixed on our plant. Of the 700 Coal-fired Power Plants operating in the United States, there was one that stood out above all the rest. It was no wonder to me.
The Power Plant had been told that in 1995 our plant had the lowest operating and maintenance cost of any fossil fueled Power Plant in the United States. This included the cost for the fuel, which was coal being transported from Wyoming on trains. The second lowest operating Power Plant was our sister plant in Muskogee. After that was a plant in Texas that happened to sit on coal mine, and didn’t have the cost of shipping their coal 1,000 miles before they burned it.
The company was so proud of our achievements that they gave each of us a Jean Jacket with our names embroidered on it. On the upper right it said, “1995 Low Cost Award”.
I don’t do Selfies, that’s why I draped this over a chair.
A couple of years later, we were again awarded as the low cost provider of electricity in the country. This time they gave us Denim shirts. Okies like Denim… I guess you could tell. The cuff on the sleeve says, “1997 Sooner Power Plant Model Of Cost Efficiency”.
In the spring of 1998 (someone can correct me on the year), a plant manager, Mark Draper from England came to our plant to study us. He wanted to see how a group of 124 employees could run a plant the size of a small city as efficiently as we did. Throughout the year he worked on various teams to see how we operated. He wanted to learn our secret. The plant was willing to share everything with Mark.
Mark would spend a month working as a welder, then another month working as an Instrument and Controls Technician, then another in the machine shop. He continued throughout the year bouncing from job to job watching and learning. He spent a lot of time working with the Engineers. I kept waiting for him to work as an electrician.
I had our second biggest secret just waiting to show to Mark, but it seems that it never occurred to Mark that electricians had something to offer to the efficiency of the Power Plant. Because during the twelve months Mark spent at our plant, he never worked as an electrician.
The first biggest secret came in the form of an Engineer named Larry Kuennen. He had studied the way the coal burned in the boiler and had come up with ways to increase the efficiency. I’m sure Mark learned a lot from working with Larry.
I kept itching for the day that Mark Draper ended up working out of the electric shop. I was going to take him on a tour and show him how we were saving a huge amount of electricity at our plant in a way that is totally overlooked by everyone else. Without this secret, there would be no way we would have been the low cost provider of electricity. I think at the time our plant could create electricity at a rate around 1.5 cents per killowatthour (someone at the plant can correct me. It has been a while and I may be confusing this with the percent cost of IT by revenue at Dell).
Before I tell you about the report that Mark Draper gave us at the end of his year of studying the heman habits of Oklahoma Power Plant Men, let me expand on the way the electricians had increased the efficiency of the power plant. It has to do with what a foreman, Mark Fielder would refer to as “My Baby.” The precipitator.
The Precipitator is the piece of equipment that uses more power than just about everything else at the plant combined. It takes the ash out of the exhaust before it goes out of the smoke stack. That is why you don’t see smoke coming out of the smoke stack on a coal-fired Power Plant when it’s running. When a precipitator is running efficiently, it should be able to take out 99.97% of the ash from the exhaust from the boiler.
The amount of ash going out of the smoke stack is measured by opacity. That is, how much do the particles in the exhaust block a ray of light shining across the stack. We tried to keep the opacity below 5%. I think we legally had to keep it below 20%, but anything above 8% didn’t look good when you drove by the plant. You would be able to see the smoke.
The precipitator at our plant used Static electricity to collect the ash. Like I said, it used a lot of electricity. Megawatts of power. The secret is that Static electricity shouldn’t use much power. Practically none. If you calculated the work that actually had to be done, it was miniscule compared to running a conveyor or a big fan or a bowl mill. This meant that 90% or more of the electricity used by an Electrostatic precipitator is wasted energy. It is leaking, and in many cases actually working against collecting the ash. A fine tuned electrostatic precipitator shouldn’t use much electricity.
We had found a number of ways at our plant to manipulate the electric pulse used to charge the plates in the precipitator in order to reduce the wasted electricity. When everything ran correctly, when the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator could have an opacity close to 0% using less than 100 Kilowatts (yes. I said Kilowatts) of power. This was so unheard of that the company that manufactured our controls refused to believe it even when they were standing in the Precipitator Control Room watching it operate.
To put this in perspective. One winter day, while I was tuning the precipitator, the space heaters in the Precipitator control room was using more power to heat the room than the entire precipitator was using to remove the ash at full load. The opacity was almost 0%.
Another side story about this is that at one point, the opacity monitor was measuring a negative 0.2%. Tony Mena, the Instrument and Controls Technician worked on calibrating the monitor. He would take it to the logic room and set it up on some stands there that had the same measurements as the stack. No matter how many times he calibrated the monitor, he was still coming out with -.1 or -.2% when he hooked it up to the smoke stack. The final conclusion was that the precipitator was operating so efficiently that the exhaust going out of the smoke stack was cleaner than the ambient air. — I know… I know… impossible… right?
I’ll admit, it wasn’t just the manipulation of the electric pulse, it was also sensitive to the temperature of the exhaust and the amount of sulfur in the coal. We burned Wyoming coal which has a very low amount of sulfur. This made it more challenging.
I couldn’t wait to show this to Mark Draper, the UK Plant Manager. This was my baby, and I was proud of it. Only, Mark never showed up.
One day I saw a man with a clipboard walking around the precipitator hoppers writing something down as he studied them. So, I walked up to him. I could tell right away that he was someone from England that had come as part of Mark Drapers crew of spectators. I asked him if he was interested in learning how we ran our precipitators.
I thought, maybe this is someone who is finally interested in how we save tons of money in operating cost each year by not wasting it on the precipitator. He was an engineer taking notes on our ash transport system. He wasn’t interested in how we operated the controls. He said in England they just throw the switch and power up the precipitator to full power and let it go at that. — A total waste of power and it’s less efficient. I couldn’t even convince him to take a walk through the control cabinets just to see the voltage and amp meters.
Oh well, I thought… This would just be our plant’s little secret. No one else seems to want to know about it.
At the end of the year during our monthly safety meeting, Mark Draper gave us a report of his findings. He went through a lot of bullet points in a PowerPoint Presentation. — Yeah. We were beginning to get fancy with the computers around that time.
The first thing that Mark brought up was this…. He said that there was no way he was going to be able to go back to England and repeat what he had learned here. The reason was that the Fine Power Plant Men and Women at our plant came to work each day and began working at 8:00. They took close to a 20 minute break in the morning and in the afternoon. They took a 40 minute lunch (Breaks were technically 15 minutes and lunch was 30, but…. you know how it is… you have to stretch them a little). He explained that at our plant, we had about 6 and a half hours each day of productive time. 6-1/2 hours of actually working on something.
In England, this was impossible. When the workers arrived at the plant in England, they took a long time getting ready for work. They took longer breaks and longer lunches, and at the end of the day, they would take a long time to take a shower and clean up. Almost an hour to clean up at the end of the day. In England they were lucky when they were able to get 4 hours of actual work out of their workers. Because of union agreements and such, they were helpless to change this culture.
Mark was impressed at the amount of pride people took doing their jobs. I will paraphrase what Mark told us: He could tell that the Oklahoma Power Plant Men and Women wanted to do a good job. They received satisfaction by applying their skills to their work. In England, the attitude of the worker was more like this was just a job. Their real satisfaction in life was when they left the plant. In Oklahoma, when the Power Plant Men left the plant, they left with more of a feeling of pride over doing a good job.
Mark did offer us some advice on how we could better ourselves. He did give us his honest opinion about some things that he thought we might do better. They sounded more like they were coming from his Plant Manager training than from his experience at our plant.
As Mark never did work with the electricians, I was never able to work with him. Others who did, found Mark to be very friendly. I know that some also kept in touch with him long after he left to go back to England. I missed the opportunity to befriend Mark. I wish I had.
Mark Draper must have had a tremendous amount of character to be able to persuade those in England that he should take off an entire year to go work at a Power Plant in Oklahoma U.S.A.. Just think of the commitment he was making to leave his home for a year to go work alongside skilled labor in another country.
I didn’t know Mark personally like a lot of the other Power Plant Men did, but after I originally posted this post (yesterday), a Control Room Operator, Jim Cave who knew Mark better told these stories to me:
Mark told me that he wanted to live a normal American life while in the states. Bill Green had bought him a gift of an outdoor grill. The first opportunity that he had to use it he told me that he grilled the family some burgers and then they all went and sat in the car and ate them!
He also went and bought some American jeans so he would blend in with the workers. He caught all kinds of grief from the guys when they noticed his jeans didn’t have any back pockets! His wife had to go back to the store and buy him some “guy” pants.
He WAS a very nice and very smart guy. The cultural differences were interesting. He came into the control room one day asking me for “a pair of steps”. We had no idea that he wanted a ladder.
Mark did make sense when he said that what he saw at our plant he would not be able to reproduce in England. The truth was that what Mark saw at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was something that few plants in the United States could reproduce. I have been attempting to make this point each week for the past 3 years.
There was something very special at this Power Plant during the 20 years when I worked there. Something you are not going to find just anywhere. The plant housed a collection of some of the most fantastic minds and personalities on the planet. They had somehow all come together to perform a team that not only produced the “Model of Cost Efficiency” as it said on our shirts, but had also created a group of extraordinary teamwork.
Whenever I sat in a meeting like the Monthly Safety Meeting, where the entire maintenance department was present, as I looked around the room, I honestly could see that for the most part we were more of a family than we were employees. I was lucky to have been invited to be a part of this family. Kudos to you all.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Originally posted on February 18, 2012.
I worked at Sooner Coal-fired power plant about a month during the summer of 1979 before I heard about the Indian curse that had been placed on the plant before they started construction. It came up by chance in a conversation with Sonny Karcher and Jerry Mitchell when we were on our way to the coalyard to do something. I was curious why Unit 1 was almost complete but Unit 2 still had over a year left before it was finished even though they both looked pretty much identical. When I asked them that question I didn’t expect the answer that I received, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to hear about an Indian Curse. It did explain, however, that when we drove around by Unit 2. Sonny would tense up a little looking up at the boiler structure as if he expected to see something.
The edge of the plant property is adjacent to the Otoe-Missouria Indian Tribe. It was said that for some reason the tribe didn’t take too kindly to having a huge power plant larger than the nearby town of Red Rock taking up their view of the sunrise (at least until the tax revenue started rolling in from the plant building the best school in the state at the time). So it was believed that someone in the Indian tribe decided to place a curse on the plant that would cause major destruction.
I heard others say that the plant was built on Holy Indian Burial ground. At the time it seemed to me that this was a rumor that could easily be started and very hard to prove false. Sort of like a “Poltergeist” situation. Though, if it was true, then it would seem like the burial site would most likely be located around the bottom of Unit 2 boiler (right at the spot where I imagined the boiler ghost creeping out to grab Bob Lillibridge 4 years later. See the post Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost).
I am including an aerial picture of the immediate plant grounds below to help visualize what Jerry and Sonny showed me next.
This is a Google Earth Image taken from their website of the power plant. In this picture you can see the two tall structures; Unit 1 on the right with Unit 2 sitting right next to it just like the two boilers that you see in the picture of the plant to the right of this post. They are each 250 feet tall. About the same height as a 25 story building. Notice that next to Unit 2 there is a wide space of fields with nothing there. The coalyard at the top is extended the same distance but the coal is only on the side where the two units are. This is because in the future 4 more units were planned to be built in this space. Sooner Lake was sized to handle all 6 units when it was built. But that is another story.
At the time of this story the area next to Unit 2 between those two roads you see going across the field was not a field full of flowers and rabbits and birds as it is today. It was packed full of huge metal I-Beams and all sorts of metal structures that had been twisted and bent as if some giant had visited the plant during the night and was trying to tie them all into pretzels.
Sonny explained while Jerry drove the truck around the piles of iron debris that one day in 1976 (I think it was) when it was very windy as it naturally is in this part of Oklahoma, in the middle of the day the construction company Brown and Root called off work because it was too windy. Everyone had made their way to the construction parking lot when all of the sudden Unit 2 boiler collapsed just like one of the twin towers. It came smashing down to the ground. Leaving huge thick metal beams twisted and bent like they were nothing more than licorice sticks. Amazingly no one was killed because everyone had just left the boilers and were a safe distance from the disaster.
Needless to say this shook people up and those that had heard of an Indian Curse started to think twice about it. Brown and Root of course had to pay for the disaster, which cost them dearly. They hauled the pile of mess off to one side and began to rebuild Unit 2 from the ground up. This time with their inspectors double checking the torque (or tightness) of every major bolt.
This brings to mind the question… If a 250 foot tall boiler falls in the prairie and no one is injured… Does it make a sound?
In the years that followed, Sooner Plant took steps to maintain a good relationship with the Otoe Missouria tribe. Raymond Lee Butler a Native American from the Otoe Missouria tribe and a machinist at the plant was elected chief of their tribe (or chairman as they call it now). But that (as I have said before) is another story.
Comment from Earlier Post:
I was there the day unit 2 fell, I was walking to the brass shack, just came down from unit 2 when we noticed the operator of the Maniwoc 5100 crane did not secure the crane ball to the boiler or the crane to keep it from swaying in the wind. I kept watching the crane ball slamming into the steel causing the boiler to sway and within a minute I watched it fall from 50 yards away and took off running,the whole unit was going up quick because B&R were behind schedule,and the most of the steel hadn’t been torqued yet by the bolt up crew.
Originally Posted March 2, 2012:
The first day I showed up at the Power plant to report to work as a new employee, it took me a little while to find the parking lot where I was supposed to park. There were construction people all over the place, large equipment being moved, and I had somehow turned my directions around 90 degrees when I came through the construction gate. I started heading up to the coal yard before I told myself that the little green shack I had past back by the main plant was probably where I needed to go (I never recovered from my perception of which way was north. I always felt like west was north, so I constantly had to stop and tell myself that the coal yard was north).
So, having arrived in the parking lot about five minutes late, I was just in time to meet Steve Higginbotham the only other summer help during the summer of 1979. Well, there was one other guy, but he quickly joined a Brown and Root construction crew because he was a welder and they were getting paid a lot more than the $3.89 per hour the summer helps were blessed to receive.
So Higginbotham and I walked together into the main office that morning. He was about 35 years old with red hair, freckles and sort of reminded you of Margaret Thatcher only shorter with a more prominent forehead and wider chin and he had a Georgia accent.
He had worked as a Pinkerton guard at the plant before advancing to summer help. He explained it to me like this: “If I get my foot in the door by being a summer help, they will be more likely to hire me as a permanent employee.” (somehow, I began to think that this probably wasn’t the best strategy for Steve to take. I thought perhaps a surprise attack would be more effective, where they don’t know you at all when they hire you).
The company hired summer helps because there was a tax write-off for hiring college kids during the summer to give them a real life experience (I guess). Steve explained to me later that he really wasn’t going to college, but told them that he was going to go back to school to finish a degree so that they would hire him, but he really wasn’t going to do that.
He drove an old Ford Ranchero (which is what inspired the El Camino). It was all beat up, and had the manual gear shift on the steering column, to give you an idea of how old it was. Below is a picture of one in good condition. His car however had dents, rust, and an assortment of trash in the back, and it squeaked when it hit a pothole as the car bounced on the springs.
I didn’t own a car and had just borrowed my family’s car to drive to the plant that day, so when Steve asked me if I would like to ride with him to work each day I jumped at the opportunity. I told him where I lived and he said that he would be by to pick me up in the morning.
I am the kind of person that likes to arrive at work at least 10 or 15 minutes early, so I was getting a little anxious the next morning when Steve didn’t show up. Finally, when I was about ready to ask my parents if I could borrow the car again, his beat up old car came puttering down the street… It turned out that Steve was the kind of person that likes to show up at least 5 minutes late each day…. Something I was going to have to get used to that summer. This is an important point in the story because those 5 minutes on one particular morning made all the difference in my outlook on what it meant to be working at a “Power” plant.
First, let me tell you a little more about Steve Higginbotham, just so you can appreciate his unusual character the way that I did. As an 18 year old summer help, not having had my encounter with Ramblin’ Ann until later, where I learned the fine art of rambling (see the post: “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was amazed by the way Steve Higginbotham could talk and chew gum or sunflower seeds at the same time — all the time — non-stop. His open mouth would move in a circular motion while chewing and talking.
From the time he picked me up in the morning to the 25 mile ride to the plant, and until I arrived home in the afternoon, Steve Higginbotham was talking about something to someone and chewing either sunflower seeds or gum the entire time. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had been learning something, but I can’t think of one thing that he told me that was useful all summer. I think I paid him $15.00 each week for the privilege. Gas at the time was around 89 cents a gallon.
Twice each week we would sweep the entire maintenance shop from one end to the other. I would start going down one half, Usually the north side that has all the machine shop equipment, and Steve would start down the south side where the welders were. Invariably, he would catch an unsuspecting welder off his guard and start talking to him, and before you knew it, I had finished my side of the shop and was starting back the other way up the other side, where I would meet up with Steve and a half-dazed welder somewhere around the Welder’s lunch table, which was about 50 feet from the spot where Steve had started (I would say the shop is about 75 yards long) I didn’t mind, because I liked working and it felt good to look around at the clean floor and see that I had done something noticeable.
I had worked in a Hilton Inn restaurant as the night janitor when I was in High School, and the kitchen was almost as long as the maintenance shop. I would spend six hours each night sweeping and mopping the kitchen, and vacuuming the restaurant and bar. So, I always enjoyed sweeping the floor.
Mondays and Fridays were days where we would go to the soon-to-be park and pick up trash. The rest of the time I was able to work with the maintenance crews. For more information about picking up trash at the park, read the post: “Mud, Maggots and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball“.
All the company employees at the power plant were fitted for a special set of earplugs that were made out of a Silly Putty looking material because there was going to be a “Boiler Blowdown” on Unit 1 (which was just finishing construction). I suppose that most people (except the old timers) at the plant today have not experienced a boiler blowdown like the one that is done on a new power plant, since a new base unit hadn’t been built in a long time. We were told that when you hear the 2 minute warning make sure you put your earplugs in, because it is going to be real loud. We were reminded the day before to have our earplugs handy the following morning because that was when the blowdowns were going to start.
A boiler blowdown is when they run a big steam pipe right off of the high pressure section of the boiler and point it out off the side of the boiler and after they have built up the pressure as high as they can go without blowing the place apart, they flop open the valve and the steam is released quickly blowing out any unwanted material from the steam tubes, such as welding rods, tin cans, shoes, lunch boxes, a lost construction foreman, or anything else that was accidentally left in the steam pipes when they were assembled. I remember someone saying that they had a come-along go flying out of one once during a blowdown. The first blowdown was the loudest, and then after that they were slightly less forceful each time.
The next morning on the way to the plant, I could see steam shooting out of the boiler from about 10 miles away. As we pulled into the parking lot, the steam was shooting out about 100 yards from the big pipe on the side of the boiler creating a very loud rumbling sound that made your body shake all over. This is exactly how I remember what happened next…..
I climbed out of the car and looked up at the large plume of steam shooting out of the boiler and I said to Steve, “Well, that’s pretty loud, but it’s not THAT loud!” Just at the exact moment that I finished that sentence, the ground started to shake, and my lunch box and hardhat went flying as my hands went to my head to cover my ears!
I hit the ground and rolled sideways to see that the plume of steam that had been blowing out of the boiler had grown into a huge white roaring demon about 500 yards long as it reached directly over my head to the point where the condenser discharges water back into the lake behind me! The sound was so loud my whole body was shaking from the force, as we were directly in line with the steam pipe. It continued for about a minute or less and then abruptly shutdown back to the much smaller quieter plume of steam that had been there before.
I stood up, but my legs were all wobbly. I picked up my hard hat and lunch box and wobbled my way into the maintenance shop. My ears were ringing and I remember that I couldn’t hear very good and I was pretty upset about my possible loss of hearing.
Then I wondered to myself why I hadn’t heard the two minute warning, and in my muted state I looked around at the mechanics standing around and my eyes settled on one person who was chewing on sunflower seeds or gum, and was talking to someone, though I couldn’t hear his voice — and I knew why! I couldn’t hear the 2 minute warning because we were 5 minutes late getting to work! We were always 5 minutes late!
This bummed me out the rest of the day. As the day went by my hearing was returning, and by the time we were heading home, I could hear Higginbotham talking very clearly all the way to the house. Maybe this would have been a good time for the earplugs.
That night as I lay in bed, I could hear the boiler blowdown continuing 25 miles away every half hour or so. I thought about how much power it took to create that much force. It gave me a great respect for the power harnessed in the power plant and how it takes all that power and turns the majority of it into electricity to serve the state of Oklahoma.