Favorites Post #31
Originally posted May 2, 2015
The electric company in Oklahoma decided late 1995 that it was about time that the employees in the company learned about the Internet. The company recognized that the vast amount of information on the Internet was very useful and encouraged everyone to start using it. A request form was available to request access to various features the Internet provided and with your Foreman’s approval, all you had to do was take a short course in Internet Etiquette and you were in (well almost). The problem with this effort was that no one bothered to teach Plant Management about the Internet, so the “Quest for the Internet” was about to begin.
As the leading computer geek at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma I had been accessing the Internet for years. I had used CompuServe and Telnet to log into the Internet before Internet Browsers and World Wide Web (WWW) were available.
I thought it was a great idea for everyone to use the Internet, so when Alan Kramer gave us the form it didn’t take long before I filled it out. Sounds pretty simple….. but unfortunately, after a short misstep on my part, a six month battle was about to begin.
The form was simple enough, you just needed to check the boxes for which part of the Internet you needed to access, and after your foreman signed it, you mailed it to Corporate Headquarters, where you would be scheduled to attend a two hour course on how to properly use the Internet in a business setting. The form was written in a curious way that sort of indicated to me that not a lot of thought had been put into it. It was either that, or the person that created the form didn’t understand the Internet very well. Here’s why:
The different parts of the Internet that you could check that you wanted to access were these: WWW, e-mail, Telnet, NewsGroups, FTP. The World Wide Web (WWW) had yet to become popular. The number of Web sites on the Internet was still less than 250,000. Compare that to today where there is almost 1 billion websites (now in 2020, there are over 2 billion).
Well, e-mail…. you know what that is (though at the time. This was something new). Telnet was the usual way I had accessed the Internet for years. I would log in through the Oklahoma State University computer using Telnet, and from there I had access to almost all of the University computers in the country as well as a lot of the Government computers. You could actually print out pages and pages of all the computers on the Internet at the time using a simple seek command.
For those of you who don’t know… Before MySpace and Facebook, NewsGroups were used to communicate to people who had similar interests. They were sort of small blog sites. — I’m not mentioning Bulletin Boards which were independently run sites you dialed up.
On a side note:
I was a member of a number of work related NewsGroups. One NewsGroup that I was active in was for Precipitators. There were about 50 people from all over the world in this group and we all were obsessed with working on precipitators. As it turned out, two of us lived in Stillwater Oklahoma. The other guy worked for a company called Nomadics that made bomb sniffing detectors called Fido. They had a tiny precipitator that collected the particles. We were on the opposite sides of the spectrum. We had a 70 foot tall, 200 foot wide and 100 foot long precipitator, where his precipitator was tiny. I thought a few times about applying for a job with them since they were only 4 miles from my house, but, since I wasn’t an engineer I didn’t think I had a chance of being hired. Besides, what is better than working at a Power plant?
End of Side Note.
FTP, the last item on the list stands for File Transport Protocol. This is how you downloaded or uploaded files after you have used Telnet to connect to a site. It would be hard to let someone have Telnet and not let them have FTP or Newsgroups, so that is why it didn’t look like the person who created the form really knew what they were asking.
I’m sorry I’m boring you with all this, but I’m explaining them for a reason. You see… I’m getting to the part where I made my “misstep”. Maybe it was meant to happen this way, because in the end, everything worked out better than it probably would have if I had just been a little more patient…. Here’s what I did…
After checking each of the boxes, next to WWW, Telnet, NewsGroup, e-mail and FTP, I went to the foremen’s office to have Alan Kramer sign the form so that I could mail it off to Corporate Headquarters. When I arrived, Alan was gone. He had left early that day for some reason, so I walked into Jasper Christensen’s office, our Supervisor of Maintenance and asked him to sign it. Big mistake.
I wrote a post recently about Jasper’s lack of computer knowledge and how I had goaded him for making a dumb computer decision, (see the post “Power Plant Trouble With Angels“). When I handed him the form, he glanced at it, and I could see the blank look on his face indicating that he didn’t understand the different terms such as Telnet, FTP and e-mail or WWW. He might have thought he knew what NewsGroups were, but most likely that would have been incorrect.
So, instead of signing the paper, he said, he would review it and get back to me. Well…. that was unexpected. The company was encouraging us to use the Internet, so I figured it was pretty much a slam dunk. From past experience I knew that Jasper was reluctant to approve anything that he didn’t fully understand, which makes some things difficult.
During the “We’ve Got the Power” Program (See the Post: “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got the Power’ Program“) I tried to elicit an approval from Jasper about a simple example of Thermodynamics that I thought was cut and dry, especially since Jasper was the Engineering Supervisor at the time. Even though I had a sound argument about how heat dissipates in the Air Preheater, he would never say that he would agree. Only that he understood what I was saying. So, when Jasper said that he would “get back to me on this” I knew what that meant. He was going to try to find out what these different things were.
Two weeks later (note… not the next day… Two Weeks!), Alan Kramer told me that Jasper had decided not to approve my request for Internet access. Somewhat peeved, I went into Jasper’s office and asked him why he wouldn’t approve my request. He responded with, “Give me reasons in writing why you need each of these items on this form.” — Oh. I figured that out right away. He had tried to find out what these things meant, but (without the Internet), it was hard to find the answers. So, he was asking me to tell him what these were.
So, I went back to the Electric Shop office and I wrote a full page paper outlining what each item was (WWW, Telnet, NewsGroups, FTP and e-mail). I also explained why I was requesting access to each of these. For Telnet and FTP, one of the reasons I used was that I would Telnet into the OSHA computer and download MSDS’s (Material Safety Data Sheets) for chemicals we had at our plant. The operators had asked me a number of times if I could give them a copy of an MSDS for chemicals. It is a government requirement to keep an MSDS for every chemical on the plant site, and I could easily download them from the OSHA.gov computer.
When I gave my explanation to Jasper, he said he would study it and get back to me later. Two weeks later (note… um… oh. you get the point. There is something about 2 weeks when it comes to Jasper’s decision-making), Jasper called me to his office and said that during a staff meeting they had discussed my request for Internet access and they had decided that I didn’t need access to the Internet to do my job.
The staff had also decided that the only thing on the list that anyone at the plant needed was e-mail and only Jim Arnold (The Supervisor of Operations) and Summer Goebel (The head engineer) needed e-mail. No one else at the plant needed anything else. — You can see why I used phrases like “Another Brilliant Idea” when describing some of Jasper’s Management decisions. Only two people at the plant needed e-mail… . Sounds funny today, huh?
A few months later, in March 1996, I was sent to Oklahoma City to learn how to install the SAP client on desktop computers. The way I was chosen was that someone downtown called each of the Power Plants and other offices and asked the receptionist who the computer geek was at the plant. Denise Anson, our receptionist gave them my name. We were supposed to change our entire financial, inventory, maintenance, and billing system over to SAP at the end of the year from our mainframe computer system. SAP is called an ERP system or Enterprise Resource Planning system. It combines almost all the computer activities in a company into one package where everything is accessible (by one hacker) in one application.
I will go into the implementation of SAP in more detail in later posts, but for now, I was just learning about installing the client application on the computers at our plant. There were a number of steps to the installation, and a lot of times it would fail. So, they gave us some troubleshooting tips and asked us to share any tips we came up with while we were doing this task.
When I returned to the plant, I went about installing SAP on each of the computers. I think we had 22 computers all together. Anyway, during this time, I was thinking that after 3 months, I would resubmit my request for the Internet, since after all, now everyone had e-mail since we had installed a computer network at the plant with Novell’s Netware in anticipation of going to SAP. It was obvious that we were progressing into the computer age with or without the plant staff.
So, I filled out another request form, and even before asking I wrote up another page of reasons why I could use each of the items on the form. One new reason was that the Thomas Register was now online. This was a large set of books that had information about every supplier and vendor in the United States (and beyond). It was used to find phone number, addresses and other fun stuff about vendors. A set of books could cost $5,000.00 each and you had to buy them every couple of years to keep them current.
I didn’t even need to waste my time writing out my reasons. When I gave the form to Alan, he signed it immediately and handed it back to me. I thanked him and mailed it off. A couple of weeks later I received a note through intra-company mail that I was signed up for an Internet class in Oklahoma City. Since I had been in trouble before with going to classes in Oklahoma City, I made sure I didn’t charge any driving time expenses to go to the class (see the post “Printing Impossible Power Plant Fast News Post“).
The lady who was teaching the class knew who I was, because she had worked with me before on computer issues at the plant. It was a simple course on computer etiquette, how the Internet worked and things we should and should not do on the Internet. At the end of the course, we were told that someone would come by our desk and install the Internet on our computers. — Well, our plant was 75 miles away and I knew that it was rare to have someone from the Computer Department come out to our plant, so I didn’t expect anything soon.
It was now the summer of 1996. I was driving down to the river pumps to clean motor filters with Charles Foster when Denise Anson called me on my radio and said that a guy from the SAP team was calling me. I asked her to patch the call to my Walkie Talkie, and she did. — new note: patching a phone call to a walkie talkie was our version of the Internet at that point.
It was the guy from Corporate Headquarters leading the effort to install all the client applications on the computers. He said they were going to have another meeting because everyone was having so much trouble with the installation. I told him that I had already successfully installed the client on all of the computers at the plant except for one, and that was because it was an old junky one that needed to be re-imaged.
The guy was surprised that we were already finished and said that our site was the first site in the company to complete the installation. Then he excitedly said, “If there is ANYTHING I can do for you, just let me know!” I glanced over at Charles who was driving the truck and could hear our conversation over the radio, and smiled.
I said, “There’s one thing. You see. Our plant is out here in the middle of nowhere. I have completed the Internet training course, but we are so far away that no one ever comes around that would install the Internet on my computer, so if you could send me the files, I’ll install it myself.” He replied, “Sure Thing Buddy! I’ll share a folder where you can go pick up the files.”
After installing the files, I realized that it was just an Internet Explorer browser. We were using Windows 3.2 at this time. After opening the browser and playing around with it for a while, I realized that there wasn’t any control around my username. That is, anyone could come into our office and log on our computer and use the browser. Then we found out that you didn’t even have to log on first (with Windows 3.2, you still booted up in DOS). The Internet was wide open. There were no real controls around the use of the Internet. The only control was just the lack of a browser on the computer!
So, here is what I did next. I went to every computer at the plant (except the staff’s computers) and installed the Internet Explorer browser on them. At each computer, I gave the Power Plant Men the same course I had taken downtown. I told them what they should do and what they shouldn’t. I showed them how the browser worked, and how to setup shortcuts, and other things. Before long every Power Plant Man and Woman at the plant was cruising the Internet except the staff…. After all… they had decided that all they needed was e-mail and only for Summer Goebel and Jim Arnold.
A few weeks (probably 2 weeks, since this IS Jasper) after I had taught all the Power Plant Men at the plant how to use the Internet, Jasper Christensen’s voice came over the radio…. “Kevin! I want to see you in my office right away!”. Okay. The gig was up. I recognized that tone of voice from Jasper. The showdown was about to begin. I was about to be chewed out for making the Internet available to everyone. Maybe even fired. I didn’t know how upset he was going to be when he found out.
As I walked from the Electric Shop to the far corner of the Maintenance Shop to Jasper’s office, I articulated in my mind what I would say. I had decided that the best defense was to explain that all I did was install the Internet browser on the computers. I didn’t have access to actually grant anyone access to the Internet. If everyone has access to the Internet, it isn’t because I gave them access. — This was true.
I took a deep breath just before entering Jasper’s office. I went in his office with the most straight face I could muster. “Here it comes,” I thought…. the six month battle for the Internet is coming to a head. Jasper said, “I want to ask you a question about the Internet.” Trying not to choke on my words and looking as if I was interested by cocking my head a little, I replied, “Yeah? What is it?” I was conscious of my thumb hanging in my right front pocket. I thought it gave me that down home innocent rustic look.
Then Jasper picked up a magazine sitting on his desk and said, “There is this article in this engineering magazine, and it has this website that you can visit. How would I go to that site?” — Oh my Gosh!!!! I wanted to laugh out loud with joy! I wasn’t about to be chewed out at all. He just wanted the computer geek to show him how to use the Internet browser that had been recently installed on his computer!
Jasper obviously hadn’t taken the Internet course, otherwise he would know where the address bar is at the top…… So, I said, “Let me show you.” I walked over to his computer and walked him through each step of the process. When we were done, he turned to look at me and smiled. He said, “Thank you.” I said, “Anytime. Just let me know if you have any other questions.” I turned and walked out of the office.
As I walked back to the Electric Shop Office, I met Charles Foster who wanted to know how it went, as he had heard Jasper call me on the radio. I told him that the battle for the Internet was now over. Jasper has now become a “user”. Life was good.
Favorites Post #25
Originally posted January 24, 2015
The Electric Shop had tried for three years to win the Safety Slogan of the Year award. Not because we thought we were safer than any of the other teams at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, but because we really liked pizza (see the post: “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe“) . When the plant was downsized in 1994, the electric shop no longer existed as it had before. We had become cross-functional teams (See the post: “Crossfunctional Power Plant Dysfunction“). It looked as if our dream of winning the Power Plant Safety Pizza was no longer in our grasp.
My carpooling buddy, Toby O’Brien had moved from our plant as a Plant Engineer to the Safety Department in Oklahoma City. He was working with Julia Bevers and Chris McAlister. Chris had also moved from our plant as a labor crew hand to the Safety Department (This was a great opportunity for Chris!).
Bill Green our new plant manager introduced a jar of beads during his first safety meeting. We each picked a bead randomly from the jar through a small hole in the top. Then Bill Green pointed out that the color of bead represented the result of doing something unsafe.
The green color meant that nothing happened. The other colors reach represented a different type of accident that occurred. The ratio of beads in the jar represented the likelihood of each type of accident happening. There was one black bead in the jar. That meant that you died when you did something unsafe. I used to keep the number of each color of marble in my wallet, but that piece of paper disintegrated over the years.
The types of accidents were something like: First Aid Case, Reportable Accident, Lost Work Day Accident, Hospitalized, and Death.
A couple of months after the downsizing, the Safety department announced that they were going to have a Safety contest. The contest would be held at each plant and it involved each of the supervisor’s computers. The prize for the contest was that the winning team would be able to eat a free lunch with complements from the safety team.
Great! Shortly after the electric shop is busted up and we were scattered to the wind, we finally had one last chance to win the ever illusive Power Plant Safety Pizza! Only, how were we going to do it? I was working on Alan Kramer’s team. My old foreman Andy Tubbs (not old in the sense that he was an old man… old in that he was my former foreman) was now one of the other supervisors with only my old bucket buddy (you know what I mean… not “old” old) Diana Brien as the electrician on his team.
Before I go further to explain my conflict during this contest, let me explain how the contest worked.
The supervisors had new computers that ran using Windows 3.1. Back then, the screensaver on the computer didn’t just shut down the monitor like most of them do today. Instead, they showed some kind of message, or picture or something animated that kept moving around so that your monitor didn’t get burned in with an image that was constantly on your screen, such as your wallpaper and your icons.
The Safety Department said that each team should come up with some way to display the idea of “Safety” using a screensaver. They suggested using the screensaver that let you type in a message that would scroll across the screen when the screensaver was turned on. That was a simple built-in screensaver that came with Windows 3.1.
Then the Safety Department would come to the plant on a particular day and judge each of the computer’s screensaver and announce the winner. Sounds simple enough.
We first heard about the Safety Slogan Screensaver contest in our Monday Morning Meeting with our team. Alan Kramer said we should come up with a good slogan that we could put on our scrolling message screensaver. I kept my mouth shut at the time, because I didn’t know exactly how to proceed. I was having a feeling of mixed loyalty since my old Electric Shop Team with Andy Tubbs as our foreman had written over 300 safety slogans and had purposely been blocked from winning the Prized Pizza each year.
Not long after the morning meeting, Andy Tubbs came up to me in the Electric Shop and said, “We have to win this contest! That Pizza should be ours! I need you to come up with the best screensaver you can that will blow the others away.” I gave him my usual answer when Andy asked me to do something (even when he was no longer my foreman). I said, “Ok, I’ll see what I can do.”
I went down our list of safety slogans looking for the best slogan I could find. Here are a few of them:
“Having an accident is never convenient, So always make Safety a key ingredient.”
“Take the time to do it right, Use your goggles, save your sight.”
“To take the lead in the ‘Safety Race’, You must pay attention to your work place.”
“Unsafe conditions can be resolved, If we all work together and get involved.”
After thumbing through the entire list, I knew we really needed something else. So, I began to think of alternate screen savers. One caught my attention. It was called “Spotlight”. It came with the “After Dark 2.0 Screensavers” (best known for the “Flying Toaster” screensaver). I had found a freeware version that did the same thing. You can see how the spotlight works at 7:15 on the video below (just slide the time bar over to 7:15):
For those who can’t view YouTube videos directly through the above picture, here is the direct link: “After Dark Screensavers“.
The spotlight screensaver basically turns your screen dark, then has a circle (or spotlight) where you can see the background screen behind it. It roams around on your desktop showing only that portion of your wallpaper at a time. You can adjust the size of the circle and the speed that it moves around the screen.
Taking our safety slogans, I began creating a wallpaper for the computer screen by filling it with little one liner safety slogans. I also added yellow flags to the wallpaper because that was a symbol for safety at our plant (for more information why see the post: “Power Plant Imps and Accident Apes“).
With the help of Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard (both Power Plant electricians), when I was finished the wallpaper looked like this:
I printed this out in black and white, but the slogans were written in different colors.
I arranged Andy’s icons on his desktop so they were around the edge of the screen. That way they didn’t cover up the safety slogans. I set the speed of the spotlight to very slow and and the size of the spotlight so that it was just big enough to see each safety slogan. The effect worked out real well. Imagine a dark screen with a spotlight moving randomly around the screen exposing each safety slogan (and yellow flag… don’t forget about those) as it went.
Besides the electricians, no one else knew that I was working on this for Andy. As far as Alan Kramer knew, I was on his side in this contest. I even kept Toby O’Brien in the dark about it, because I knew that he was going to be one of the judges and even though he knew how much winning the Safety Pizza meant to me. I didn’t want to influence his decision. Besides, this Safety Screensaver was going to win. It was the coolest screensaver around. The trick was to keep it hidden from the other teams until it was time for the Safety Department to judge it.
I had the impression from Toby that he had purposely talked the Safety Department into this contest to give me a chance to win the Safety Pizza at our plant. Scott Hubbard and I had carpooled with Toby throughout the years we were trying to win that pizza, and I think he just felt our pain enough that when he was in the position, he was trying to pay us back for our effort.
The screensaver judging was done during the morning, and was going to be announced that afternoon during the monthly safety meeting. A short time before the Safety Meeting began, Toby O’Brien came up to me and in an apologetic manner told me that the safety slogan winner probably wasn’t going to be who I thought it was. I figured that was because he thought I was hoping Alan Kramer’s team was going to win since that was my team. I just smiled back and told him that it was all right.
It was announced during the safety meeting that Andy Tubbs’ team won the contest, and all the electricians were happy. I think it was at that point that Alan Kramer realized that I had helped Andy with his screensaver. He looked at me as if I had betrayed him. I said something like, “Andy Tubbs has been trying to win a safety contest for years. It’s about time.”
The following week, when Andy’s team was given their prize for winning the safety screensaver contest, he brought two pizzas to the electric shop and we all sat around the table relishing in the pepperonis. We had finally received our Power Plant Safety Pizza! Even though I really like pizza anytime, the pizza that day tasted especially good.
I don’t know if we ever told Toby that when Andy Tubbs team won, we all won. Maybe some day he will read this story and know…. “The Rest of the Story”.
In case you can’t read all the little safety slogans on the wallpaper, here is a list of them:
Safety First. Be Safe. Safety begins here. Watch your step. Check your boundaries. Have Good Posture. Haste makes waste. Bend your knees. Avoid Shortcuts. Be Safe or Be Gone. Know your chemicals. Check O2 before Entry. Use Safety Guards. Know your limit. Report Spills. Safety is job #1. Beware of Pinch Points. Buckle up. Safety is no accident. Impatience kills. Strive to Survive. Protect your hearing. Use the right tool. Keep your back straight. Drive friendly. Keep Aisles clear. Don’t take chances. Prevention is the cure. Safety is your job. Communicate with others. Always tie off. Don’t cut corners. Wear your glasses. Act safe. Barricade Hazards. Use your respirator. Be responsible. Lock it out. Plug your ears. Stay fit. Safety never hurts. Don’t block exits. Be aware of your surroundings. Safety is top priority. Don’t be careless. Pick up your trash. Think Ahead. Slippery When Wet. Think Safety. Don’t hurry. Report Hazards. Wear your gloves. Save your eyes. No Running. Wear your Safety Belt. Plan Ahead. Avoid Backing. Use your Safety Sense. Good Housekeeping. Get Help. Keep Cylinders Chained. Protect your hands. Don’t improvise. Beware of hazards. Get the Safety Habit. Be Prepared. Gear up for Safety. Use your PPE. Do not litter. Zero Accidents. Don’t be a Bead (a reference to Bill Green’s jar of beads). Eat Right. Keep Floors clean. Watch out. Safety Pays. Drive Safely. Take Safety Home. Know Safety, use Safety. Read the MSDS. Cotton Clothes Prevents Burns. Follow the rules. Wear your hard hat. Watch out for your buddy. Test your Confined space. Remember the Yellow Flag. Safe Mind, Sound Body. Clean up your spills. Don’t take risks. Beware of Ice. Watch out for the other guy. Obey the rules. Don’t tailgate. Circle for safety. Safety Me, Safety You. Protect your Toes. Knowing is not enough. When in doubt, Check it out. Falls can kill. Be Alert! Avoid slick spots. Safety is a team event. Almost is not enough. Avoid the Noise. Give Safety your all. And finally… This Space for Rent.
Originally posted December 14, 2012:
I have heard the relationship between Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick referred to as the “Punch and Judy Show”. Ok. I thought. Punch and Judy. Sounds like a show from the early 50’s. Must have been a comedy. I thought that for a long time until one day I ran across a brief history of the Punch and Judy Show. It turned out that Punch and Judy was a puppet show from the time of Queen Anne of England. She was queen of England from 1702 to 1714. I could only find a painting of Queen Anne. Didn’t anyone ever think about taking her photograph?
Anyway, once I learned more about Punch and Judy, I realized that this was probably a better description of the Rivers – Sonny relationship than those people realized. It turns out in the first version of the Punch and Judy show, Punch actually strangles his child and beats his wife Judy to death and beats up on other people as well. I suppose that was “entertainment” back then. Now we only have things like “The Terminator”!
I carpooled with Bill Rivers at this particular time when I was a janitor and while I was on labor crew (except during the summer when I carpooled with my summer help buddies). Each day Bill Rivers would explain about some trick he had played on Sonny that day. The one thing that amazed Bill the most was that every day he could play a joke on Sonny, and each day, Sonny would fall for it.
This reminded me of when I was in Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri and I used to borrow a pencil from my friend Bryan Treacy each day and each day I would chew it up to the point where it was practically useless. I had to come up with different diversionary tactics each day, but somehow I was able to coax a wooden pencil from my friend. Before he would realize what he had done, I had already chewed it up from one end to the next. I liked to think that I was tricking Bryan each day, but I also thought that it was odd that Bryan would have a new pencil every time, and he probably made sure that his mom kept a full stock of pencils just for my enjoyment in eating them (I also wondered if I was getting lead poisoning from all the yellow paint I was ingesting).
Bryan Treacy today is a doctor living in Moore Oklahoma (and now back in Columbia Missouri). I would like to drop by his office without seeing him some time just to see if he has any wooden pencils laying about that I could leave all chewed up. I wonder if he would realize I had been there. He might read this blog from time-to-time, so I may have just blown my cover.
I mentioned Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick because they were the first two electricians that I worked for before becoming an electrician. I worked on the precipitator while I was on the Labor Crew. See the Post:
I also mentioned before that I owe my decision to become a Power Plant Electrician to Charles Foster an Electrical B Foreman at the time. I was a janitor and cleaning the electric shop office and lab were part of my duty. How I came to be the janitor of the electric shop is explained further in the post:
I had found the floor scrubbing machine in ill repair. Charles helped me put it back in running condition. He explained how to take care of the batteries and to keep them properly charged.
When the electric shop had an opening they tried to recruit me while I was still a janitor, but the Evil Plant Manager had a rule at the time that when you were a janitor, the only place you could go from there was onto the Labor Crew. That was when Mike Rose was hired to become a backup for Jim Stevenson that worked on the air conditioning and freeze protection. I knew about the janitor ruling so I didn’t have my hopes up. Besides, at the time I didn’t have any electrical background.
Charles asked me to take the electrical courses that were offered by the company. The company offered correspondence courses, and in about 3 weeks, I had signed up for them, read the books, and taken the tests. While I was on the labor crew I signed up for a House wiring course at the Vo-Tech. I was taking that course when I learned that Larry Burns was moving from our electric shop to go to another plant. It was then that I applied for the job as a plant electrician.
The main power transformer for Unit 1 had been destroyed by the heat wave that summer (1983) when the plant had tested it’s durability on the hottest day. The unit was offline for a couple of months while GE created a new transformer and shipped it to us.
After the main power transformer was destroyed and it took so long to ship in a new one, it was decided that we would keep a spare on hand. That way if it went bad again, we could swap them out quickly. That is probably the best assurance that we wouldn’t lose that transformer again. We had that spare transformer sitting around for years collecting taxes. I’m sure we must have paid for it a few times over again.
During the time that the unit was offline, and we weren’t shaking boiler tubes or cutting the ash out of the economizer tubes, I was working with Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick on the precipitator. The precipitator (by the way), is what takes the smoke (ash) out of the exhaust, so you don’t see smoke coming out of the smokestacks.
Bill and Sonny were pretty well sure that I was going to be selected to fill the opening in the Electric Shop, so they were already preparing me to work on the precipitator. Of all the jobs in the electric shop, this one had more to do with electronics than any of the others. That gave “being an electrician” a whole new dimension. I was even looking forward to taking an Electronics course at the Vo-Tech in the spring.
I was getting updates from Bill and Sonny about the progress of the job opening and they were telling me about the battle that was going on between the Evil Plant Manager and the Electrical Supervisor. Eldon Waugh, the plant manager at the time wanted Charles Peavler to be chosen as the electrician. He had an electrical background, because he had wired his barn once.
The ultimate reason why the plant manager wanted Charles Peavler to be the new electrician was because I had been placed on the blacklist due to the incident that took place earlier that I had described in the post:
Thanks to Larry Riley’s performance review, and his purposeful procrastination of the Plant Manager’s request to modify my performance review, and Charles Foster’s insistence that they follow the procedures that were laid out in the new Employee Application Program (known as the EAP), the argument stopped with Charles Foster’s statement: “Let’s just take whoever has the best performance rating as it is laid out in the company policy and leave it at that.” I was chosen to fill the position for the opening in the Electric Shop.
I was actually called to Eldon Waugh’s office while I was sandblasting the Sand Filter Tank. See Post:
When I arrived in Eldon’s office I was covered from head to toe in sandblast dust. My hair was all disheveled and my shirt was soaked with sweat. Jack Ballard (the head of HR) was sitting there along with Leroy Godfrey and Charles Foster. I knew what it was about because according to Bill Rivers on the way home the day before, they had already decided that they were going to accept me for the position.
Eldon Waugh explained that I was being offered the job that I had applied for in the electric shop. I felt really humbled at the time. Even though I was expecting it, I felt surprised that it was actually happening. To me, being an electrician was like the greatest job in the world. The electricians were like an elite team of super heroes.
I had the occasion to watch the electricians while I was a janitor in their shop and many of them were like these super intelligent beings that could quickly look at a blueprint and grab their tool bucket and head out to fix the world. I was very grateful for the opportunity, and at the same time apprehensive. I wasn’t sure if I had the quality of character and intelligence to become a part of this team. This was truly a dream come true for me.
Few times in my life has this happened to me. The day I was married. The day I became a Father. The day I drove to Dell to begin my first day as a Programmer Analyst. These were all major milestones in my life. The first major milestone was the day I became an electrician. Because of the way that I am (I don’t know…. maybe it’s because I’m half Italian), I just wanted to break out in tears and hug Eldon Waugh and cry on his shoulder. Instead, I just managed to crack a small smile.
I thanked them and started to leave. Then Jack Ballard said something interesting. As I was leaving he asked, “Uh…. Do you accept the offer?” Oh. In my surprise and elation, I hadn’t said anything but “Thank You”. Jack’s expression was that it wasn’t official until it was official. So, I replied, “Yes. I accept the offer”. “Ok then,” Jack replied. And I left to go crawl back in my hole and continue sandblasting the Sand Filter tank.
My last day on the Labor Crew was on November 4, 1983. I was leaving my Labor Crew Family behind and moving onto a new life in the electric shop. This was hard for me because I really did consider most of the people on the Labor Crew as family. Fred Crocker, Ron Luckey, Jim Kanelakos, and Ronnie Banks. Curtis Love and Chuck Moreland. Doretta Funkhouser and Charles Peavler. Jody Morse and Bob Lillibridge.
Most of all, I knew I was going to miss Larry Riley. I had worked with Larry from the day I had first arrived as a summer help in 1979. Now it was November, 1983. Larry was a hero to me. I love him dearly and if I had ever had an older brother I would have liked someone with the character and strength of Larry Riley. He remains in my prayers to this day.
The last day on the labor crew I suspected foul play. Mainly because the last day that Bill Cook was on the Labor Crew, he had asked us if we would throw Larry in the intake as a going away gift. I had worked with Bill when we were summer help together and I felt like I owed him one, so I told him I would help.
As we were driving from the Coalyard Maintenance building (the home of the labor crew) to the plant maintenance shop that day, Bill Cook, who was driving, suddenly turned toward the intake pumps and stopped the truck. By the time Larry had figured out what was going on, we had dragged Larry out of the truck and I was carrying him over to the Intake and getting ready to throw him in.
Larry had worked with me long enough to know that once I had set my mind on something, there was no turning back. He had tried to escape from my grip, but I had him where he couldn’t escape. As I climbed with him over the guard rail and headed toward the edge of the water, Larry said the only possible thing that could make me stop in my tracks. He said, “Please Kevin. Don’t do this.”
I was paralyzed. Stuck between my word with Bill Cook that I would help him throw Larry in the brink, and a plea from someone who meant the world to me. There wasn’t but one choice to make. I set Larry down. I walked back to the truck and I told Bill, “I’m sorry. I can’t do it.” I returned to my seat in the back of the crew cab. Without my help, no one else had the resolve and strength to follow through with Bill’s wish. We drove on to the Maintenance Shop.
So, on my last day on the Labor Crew, I thought that something similar might be planned for me. As soon as we left to go to work that morning, I headed up Belt 10 and 11. That is the long belt on the left side of the power Plant picture on the upper right side of this post…. Ok. I’ll post it here:
Once up 10 & 11 and 12 & 13, I was in the Surge bin tower. (The Surge Bin Tower is the white building you can see between the two boilers near the top that has the conveyor belt entering it from the left). From there, I roamed around looking for some coal to clean up. I figured I would stay far away from my labor crew buddies that day.
At the end of the day, I traveled back down belts 10 & 11 and headed into the office in the Coalyard Maintenance building to fill out my last timecard as a Laborer. Beginning next Monday on November 7, I would be an “Electrician.” Along with the empty feeling at the bottom of my heart was a feeling of excitement for the new adventure that awaited me.
Originally Posted January 4, 2013:
November 7, 1983 I walked into the electric shop from the Power Plant Parking Lot with Bill Rivers. Bill was an electrician that I had been carpooling with off and on for almost a year. I remember walking in the door and the first thing I noticed were two guys leaning against the counter by the coffee pot that I hadn’t seen before. They looked like a couple of Electrical Contract hands.
When I came in the door, Bill told them that I was the new electrician. They both looked very surprised. The tall one told me that his name was Art Hammond and that this was his first day as an electrician in the shop also. He had just been hired. The shorter guy introduced himself as Gene Roget (it is a French name pronounced “Row jay” with a soft J). I could tell by his shock and look of disappointment at my young appearance and obvious lack of experience that he had been expecting to be hired permanently along with Arthur.
My new foreman was Charles Foster, the person that had asked me to think about becoming an electrician in the first place. Charles was a calm mild mannered person that made it clear to me the first day that I could call him Charles, or Foster or even Chuck, but don’t call him Charlie. Ok. I made a note of that in my mind….. When the need arises to really irritate Charles, I should remember to call him Charlie. — Just a side note… That need never did arise. I did think it was funny that I had referred to my previous foreman Larry Riley as my Foster Father, and now I actually had a Foster for a Foreman. The electric shop had a short Monday Morning Safety Meeting and then I officially began my 18 year career as an electrician.
I could go on and on about how Charles Foster and I became the best of friends. I could fill up post after post of the things we did and the hundreds of conversations we had each day at lunch…. and um…. I suppose I will in good time. Today I just want to focus on what we did the first day. The first thing Charles told me after making it clear that “Charlie” was not the way to address him, was to tell me that he believed that the way I would become a good electrician was for him to not tell me much about how he would do something, but instead, he would let me figure it out myself. And if I made a mistake. That was all right. I would learn from it.
I really hated making mistakes, and I wished at the time that he would let me follow him around telling me his electrical wisdom. Finally, in my mind I thought, “Ok. If Charles didn’t mind my making mistakes, then I will try not to mind it either.” It was hard at first, but eventually, I found that making mistakes was the highlight of my day sometimes… Sometimes not… I’m sure I will talk a lot about those in the coming months.
I followed Charles up to Bill Bennett’s office. He was our A foreman, and there was a cabinet in his office where he kept all the new electrician tools. I was given a used black five gallon bucket and a tool pouch to carry my tools. Like my first day as a summer help, I had to learn the name of a lot of new tools that day. There were crimpers, side cutters, Lineman’s Pliers, strippers and Holding Screwdrivers. I was given a special electrician pocket knife and was told that I would have to keep it very sharp. I had all sizes of screwdrivers and nut drivers. I put all the tools including the tool pouch into the black plastic bucket.
Bill Bennett was a tall very thin black man. He was a heavy smoker. This showed on his face as he looked older than I thought he really was. He spoke with a gruff voice from years of smoking. He was a very likable person (like most Power Plant Men). He told me that they had tried really hard to get me in the electric shop because the two men in the corner offices really didn’t want me to move off of the labor crew. He explained that I owed my new career to Charles Foster who gallantly went to bat for me. I told him I was grateful.
I was also given a Pocket Protector and a pair of small screwdrivers (one a philips screw driver). Charles explained that I would probably use these small screwdrivers more than any of the other tools. I also was given a small notebook and a pen. All of this went into my pocket protector. Which went into the vest pocket on my flannel shirt.
We went back down to the electric shop and Charles introduced me to Gene Roget again and Charles asked Gene if he would help me organize my tools and teach me some of the basics around being an electrician. Gene said that the first thing I needed to do was to lubricate my new tools. It just doesn’t do to have tools that are stiff. So, we worked on lubricating them and we even went down to the machine shop to get some abrasive paste called “jewelers rouge” that we worked into the tools to loosen them up. Gene took his side cutters and threw them up in the air and as they flew up, they rapidly opened and closed making a rattling sound. He caught them as they came down as if they were tied on his hand like a YoYo.
I worked the tools back and forth. Lubricating them and rubbing the abrasive paste in the joint. I had no coordination, so when I would try throwing my pliers in the air like Gene did, they would end up on the other end of the workbench, or across the room. So, I didn’t try it too often when others were around where I might injure someone. I thought. I’ll work on that more when I’m alone or just Gene is around. He had good reflexes and was able to quickly dodge my miss-thrown tools.
After Lunch Charles said that we had a job up at the coalyard that we needed to work on. He told me to grab my tool bucket and the multimeter from the cabinet. The electricians referred to it as the “Simpson”.
This was before each of us were issued our very own digital Fluke Mulimeter a few years later. I’m sure the old electricians are chuckling to remember that we used to use these old Multimeters. Charles explained to me that when you are checking voltage with the meter, that after you turn the dial to check voltage, always touch the two leads together to make sure the meter doesn’t move before touching the electric wires. This is done because if something happens that causes the meter to still be on “Resistance”, then when you check the voltage, the meter or the leads could explode possibly causing an injury. I had observed the electricians in the shop doing this back when I was a janitor, and now I knew why.
Charles explained that we needed to find out why the heater in the small pump room on the northwest corner of the dumper wasn’t running. So, we went to coalyard and found the space heater mounted along the wall. We tested it to make sure it wasn’t running. After checking the circuits with the multimeter on a panel on the wall, we found that we needed to replace a small fuse block because it had become corroded from all the coal dust and moisture.
I had seen electrical he-men go up to a panel and hold a screwdriver in their hand out at arms length and unscrew screws rapidly, one at a time. Bill Rivers had been doing that up on the precipitator roof when I was working with him while I was still on the Labor Crew. He could unscrew screws from a terminal block faster than I could unwrap Hershey Kisses.
So, when Charles told me to remove the fuse block from the panel, I thought this would be an easy task. I pulled out a screwdriver from my handy dandy tool bucket and with one hand holding the screwdriver, and the other hand steadying it by holding onto the stem of the screwdriver I moved toward the panel. Charles stopped me by saying something like: “Rule number one. Never use two hands. Especially when you are working on something hot.” Ok. I see.. If one hand is touching the metal screwdriver, and I come into contact with the screw which is electrified, then… um… yeah. Ok. I dropped one hand to my side and proceeded to remove the fuse block. That other hand remained at my side for the next 18 years when working on something hot (something is hot when it has the electricity turned on).
I explained above that I was pretty uncoordinated when it came to flipping my side cutters up into the air trying to act impressive like I knew what I was doing. Well. I couldn’t hold a screwdriver steady for the life of me. I tried to match up the head of the screwdriver with the slot in the screw, but I was pretty wobbly. It was kind of embarrassing. The truth had come out. This guy can’t even hold a screwdriver still. How is he ever going to become a real electrician?
Using all my concentration, I fumbled about and began working the screw out of the fuse block, when suddenly the screwdriver slipped slightly and Pow! Sparks flew. I had shorted the screwdriver between the screw and the hot post on the fuse block. There was a quick flash of light and a loud pop. Geez. The first time I’m working on something, what do I do? I blew it….. literally.
Well. Charles pointed out. The electricity is off now. Go ahead and change out the fuse block, then we will find out where the source of power is for it. So, I changed it out…. Feeling a little down that my new screwdriver now had a neat little notch on the blade where the electricity had melted off a corner of my screwdriver (I carried that notched screwdriver around for the next 10 years before I replaced it). We found the breaker that had been tripped in a DP Panel (which stands for Distribution Panel) in the Dumper Air Handler room and turned it back on. We checked the heater and it was working.
At the end of the day, when Bill Bennett came down to the shop to see how my first day went, Charles told him that I had jumped right into it and already had a notch in my screwdriver to prove it. Both Bill and Charles were good-natured about it. I filled out my timecard which told a short story about my first adventure as an electrician.
As I walked to the parking lot with Bill Rivers to go home, I was thinking that even though I had been full of nerves all day, this had to be one of the most exciting days of my life. I was actually one of the electricians now. I had the feeling that somehow something was going to happen and they were going to tell me that they made a mistake and that I would have to go back to the labor crew. That was a feeling that haunted me for about 3 months after moving to the electric shop.
Comments from the original post:
Ron Kilman January 5, 2013
Your memory still amazes me. It’s like you kept a copy of every day’s time card. I’ll bet your time cards take up a whole room at Sooner!
Great article. I still have some of the tools I was given on my first day in the Results Dept. at the Horseshoe Lake Plant in June, 1970 (don’t tell the Evil Plant Manager).
NEO January 5, 2013
I’ve got a few screwdrivers like that myself. Goes with the territory. Good post
Coments from previous repost:
Originally posted January 18, 2013:
The day I became an electrician at the coal-fired power plant, I suddenly became an expert in electricity. I think it was on Tuesday, just one day after joining the electric shop that I was walking through the welding shop when someone stopped me and asked me how they would wire their living room with different light switches at different corners and make it work correctly. As if I had been an electrician for years. Luckily I was just finishing a house wiring course at the Indian Meridian Vo-Tech in Stillwater, Oklahoma and they had us figure out problems just like those.
Within the first week, George Alley brought a ceiling fan to the shop that he had picked up somewhere and was wondering if we could get it to work. My foreman Charles Foster thought it would be a good small project for me to work on to help me learn about electrical circuits.
After all, this ceiling fan could go slow, medium and fast, and it could go forward or reverse. Only at the moment, all it would do was sit there and hum when you hooked up the power. — So that was my first “unofficial” project, since the main goal was to make George happy so that he would help us out when we needed something special from the mechanics.
When I was a janitor, I had observed the electricians preparing to go to work in the morning, and often, one of them would go to the print cabinets at one end of the shop and pull out a blueprint and lay it across the work table and study it for a while. Then they would either put it back or fold it and put it in their tool bucket and head out the door to go do a job. Now, it was my turn.
Andy Tubbs was one of the two people that played the best jokes on me when I was a janitor. Larry Burns was the other person, and he was the person I was replacing as he had moved to another plant. Andy was the one that had taken the handle off of my push broom the moment I had my back turned so that when I turned around to grab my broom, only the broom head was on the floor, while the broom handle was across the counter by the lab, and Andy was across the other side of the room trying to act like he wasn’t paying attention, but with an expression like he had just played a darn good joke. — I actually had to go back into the bathroom I was cleaning so that I could laugh out loud. I was really impressed by Andy’s ability to play a good joke.
While I’m on the subject, shortly after I became an electrician, I was sitting in the electric shop office talking to Charles when he stopped and said, “Wait…. Listen….” We paused, waiting for something…. A few seconds later, the sound of a hoot owl came over the PA system (what we called the “Gray Phone”). Charles said, It’s an interesting coincidence that the only time the perfect sound of a hoot owl comes over the Gray Phone is when Andy Tubbs is riding in an elevator by himself or with a close friend.
I had been sent with Andy Tubbs and Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), to go to the coal yard and figure out why some circuit for the train gate was not working. Andy had pulled out the blueprints and was studying them. I came up alongside him and looked at all the blue lines running here and there with circles with letters and numbers, and what I recognized as open and closed switches….
Andy stopped and gave me a momentary lecture on the nature of electricity. It was so perfectly summed up, that for years whenever I thought about the nature of electricity, I always began with remembering what Andy told me. He said this:
“Think of electricity like water in a hose. Voltage is the water pressure. Amperage is the amount of water going through the hose. You can have the nozzle on the end of the hose shut off so that no water is coming out and then you have no amperage, but you will still have the pressure as long as it is turned on at the source so you will still have voltage.”
“In these diagrams, you just have to figure out how the water is going to get from one side to the other. These circles are things like relays or lights or motors. When the electricity makes it through them, they turn on as long as the electricity can make it all the way to the other side.”
That was it! That was my lesson in ‘lectricity. All I needed to know. The blueprints were big puzzles. I loved working puzzles. You just had to figure out how you were going to get something to run, and that meant that certain relays had to pickup to close switches that might pick up other relays to close other switches. I found that most of the electricians in the shop were good at working all sorts of puzzles.
Andy went to the cabinet and grabbed one of the Simpson multimeters and a handset for a telephone that had red and black wires wrapped around it.
I was puzzled by this at first. I thought I would just wait to see what we did with it instead of ask what it was for. We grabbed our tool buckets (which also doubled as a stool and tripled as a trash can as needed), and put them in the substation truck. The other truck was being manned by the designated electrician truck driver for that week. We needed a truck that we could drive around in without having to hold up the truck driver.
We drove to the coalyard and went into the dumper switchgear. Andy and Diane opened up a large junction box that was full of terminal blocks with wires going every which way in an orderly fashion. They located a couple of wires, and Andy unwrapped the wires from the handset while Diane removed the screws holding the wires to the terminal block. Then Andy clipped one wire from the telephone handset to each of the two wires and handed me the phone.
Diane told me that they were going to drive down toward the train gate where the railroad tracks come into the plant and try to find these wires on the other end. So, what they needed me to do was to talk on the phone so when they find my voice, they will know that they have the right wires. Diane said, “Just say anything.” Then they left the switchgear and I could hear them drive away in the truck.
Well. This was my opportunity to just talk to no one for a while without interruption. How many times do you get to do that in one day? Probably only when you are on the way to work and back again if you aren’t carpooling with anyone. Or you’re sittin’ on your “thinkin’ chair” in a single occupant restroom. So, I just kicked into Ramblin’ Ann mode and let myself go. I believe my monologue went something like this:
“The other day I was walking through a field, and who should I run across, but my old friend Fred. I said, ‘Well, Hi Fred, how is it going?’ and Fred told me that he was doing just fine, but that he had lost his cow and was wondering if I could help him look for it. I told him I couldn’t right now because I was helping some people find a wire at the moment, and if I became distracted, we might not only lose the cow, but we might lose the wires as well, so I better just keep on talking so that my friends on the other end can find the wires they are looking for. After that I went to the store and I picked up three cans of peas. I thought about getting four cans of peas but settled on three and brought them to the checkout counter, and while I was waiting in line I noticed that the little boy in front of me with his mom was looking at me as if he wanted to have one of my cans of peas, so I quickly made it clear to him that I was buying these cans of peas for myself by sliding them further away from him and glaring at him. Luckily the boy wasn’t persistent otherwise I would have broken down and given him a can of peas because he was looking kind of hungry and I was feeling sorry for him, though, I didn’t want him to know how I was feeling, so I put on a grim expression….”
Needless to say… My monologue went on for another 15 minutes. Yes… .15 minutes. I had expected Andy and Diane to have returned earlier, but I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to find the other end of the wires, so I just kept on ramblin’ to the best of my ability. It’s like what it says in the Bible. If we wrote down everything I said, it would have filled many volumes. Being a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann came in handy that day. For more about Ramblin’ Ann, you can read the following post:
When Andy and Diane returned they said that they had found the wires right away, but that they had sat there for a while just listening to me ramble. They said I was cracking them up. They also mentioned that they thought I was completely crazy. Well. I was glad that they found the wires and that my rambling abilities had come in handy.
Five months after I had joined the electric shop, Andy and I were sent to Oklahoma City to learn about a new kind of electric troubleshooting. It was called “Digital Electronics”. I had just finished my electronics class at the Vo-Tech, and so I was eager to put it into practice. Andy and I went to a two day seminar where we learned to troubleshoot what was basically a PC motherboard of 1984. We used a special tool called a digital probe and learned how the processor worked with the memory chips and the bios. It wasn’t like a motherboard is today. It was simple.
It was just designed for the class so that we could use the digital probe to follow the different leads from the chips as the electric pulses turned on and off.
At the time I was thinking that this was a waste of time. I had been learning all about troubleshooting electronic circuits from Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick. I couldn’t see how this was going to be useful. I didn’t know that within a couple of years, most of our electronic circuits in the precipitator controls were all going to be replaced with digital controls, and this was exactly what I was going to need to know.
So, Andy and I spent two days learning all the basics of how new computers were going to be working. This was the same year that Michael Dell was beginning his new computer company further down I-35 in Austin Texas. Who would have thought that 18 years later I would be working for Dell. But that’s another lifetime away…
Comments from the original post:
Early in my career at the Seminole Plant I learned when someone paged you on the gray phone, you should always check the earpiece of the phone before you put it on your ear – it might be full of clear silicone calk (or worse). Also, at the end of the day when you reach to pick up your lunch box, you should pick it up gently. Someone could have slipped a full bottle of mercury (like 20 pounds) in it. This prevents you from pulling the handle off your lunch box or hearing it crash to the floor, smashing everything in its path. It’s amazing what Power Plant Men are capable of doing.
Plant Electrician January 19, 2013:
We used hand lotion in the electric shop for the gray phone trick. I remember Andy catching an unsuspecting operator in the main switchgear more than once.
Hand lotion is much nicer than silicone caulk!
Originally posted on February 9, 2013:
The phone rang Saturday morning on March 17, 1984. Since we didn’t have caller ID at that time, I had to pick up the phone to tell who was on the other end. It was my foreman Charles Foster. He said he needed to go out to the plant to do some switching in the substation and he needed someone to help him. I had been an electrician for all of 5 months and this was the first time I had been involved with switching in the substation.
When I arrived at the plant 30 minutes later, the operators in the control room were busy putting Unit 1 online. Charles Foster had brought along his son Tim Foster. Tim was about 10 years old at the time. The operators didn’t have any certified switchmen available, and so the Shift Supervisor, Jim Padgett gave the go ahead for me to go with Charles and act as the “secondary” switchman. That is, I was the one that read and re-read the instructions while Charles would actually crank the switches.
Here is a picture of a typical substation you might run across:
I found this picture on the Department of Labor website. The Main substation at the power plant was much bigger than this one. Half of the substation was the 189,000 volt substation the other half was the 345,000 volt substation. For the particular switching that we were doing that day, we were in the 189 KV end of the substation. This is where Unit 1 fed power to the world.
This was my first experience doing something in the substation other than sub inspections and Transfer Trip and Carrier tests. I was a little surprised when Charles closed one of the air break switches and there was a loud crackling sound as an arc of electricity jumped from one switch to the next. Charles told me that was nothing. Just wait until I close the main switch from the transformer on Unit 2 in the 345 KV sub up the hill.
He was right. Later when I first opened that switch, it drew an arc about 3 feet long before it broke the circuit with a loud pop. You could hear the echo of the booming arc as the sound bounced off the nearby hills…..um…. if there had been hills… It was pretty flat…. being Oklahoma and all. I suppose it was bouncing off of the Power Plant and maybe some trees off in the distance. Well. Anyway. It did echo for a while.
After my first experience in the substation, I decided that substations were one of the neatest places to be. I later became certified as a switchman (multiple times, as you had to renew your certification every 2 or 3 years). Eventually becoming a Switchman trainer. Later when I was with my girlfriend, and even after she became my wife, and we would drive by a substation, I had to be careful not to run off the road since I was usually straining my neck to get a closer look at the substation.
This would result in Kelly become agitated (jokingly of course) that I was paying more attention to the substations than her. To this day, when we pass a substation, my wife Kelly will still let out a “hmmph” when I exaggeratedly ogle a passing substation. I mean…. Can you blame me?
Well. Throughout the years, Substation switching became more and more safe. When I first began switching, we would just wear High Voltage rubber gloves and maybe a face shield. Later we had to wear an Arc Flash Protective suit just in case something blew up:
One time one of the switches broke and exploded in the 345 KV substation and we found a large piece of insulator 200 yards away. This suit wasn’t going to protect you from that. It was only going to keep you from being burned if there was a flash explosion.
In the early 1990’s there was what was known as the “EMF Scare”. That was the belief that the high voltage electric lines caused Leukemia. It was true that children in cities that lived near high voltage electric lines had a higher risk of having Leukemia than the general population. It also happened that these High Voltage lines ran right down major roadways, so that these same children were breathing a lot more exhaust from the cars and trucks on the road than your average person also.
Anyway. When we worked in the substation we all knew that we were being bathed in electricity. If I took my volt meter and dropped one end to the ground and held the other end up by my head, it would peg my meter out at 1000 volts. One day in the evening when it was time to go home, Scott Hubbard and I were delayed because a fuse block had burned up in a breaker panel in the 345 KV substation.
It was drizzling at the time, so you could hear the electricity about 30 feet above our heads crackling and popping. Scott and I were standing behind the pickup truck looking for spare parts in my tool bucket and I had poured out some nuts, bolts and screws onto the bed of the truck. As we were sifting through them looking for the parts we needed, both of us were thinking that I must have had some metal shavings mixed in with the nuts and bolts. When we would move them around we kept feeling like we were being stabbed by metal shavings….. It turned out that it was just sparks jumping from the truck to our fingers.
10 years after my first encounter in a substation, while I was on the Confined Space Rescue team, we had to be out at the plant at night because some people were working in the condenser and the Confined Space Rescue team had to be on site. So, while we were there, we were doing things like cleaning up shop and stuff. Ray Eberle was working with me, and he asked me if I had ever heard about holding up a fluorescent light in a substation and having it glow.
I told him that I had, and it does glow. We went to the electric shop where I retrieved a couple of new 4 foot fluorescent lamps and we headed to the 345 KV substation around midnight.
When we arrived, we climbed out of the truck, and I demonstrated how just by holding the fluorescent tube upright, it would light up:
Ray was fascinated by this, and was noticing how the tube would light up from the point where you were holding the tube on up. As he was experimenting with this new found knowledge, there was an odd popping sound that would occur about every 5 seconds. I was standing there watching Ray in the dark. Ray finally asked me…. “Where is that popping sound coming from?” I pointed down to his shoes and said. “There are sparks jumping from your shoe down to the ground.”
Looking down at his shoe in the dark, Ray could see about an inch long spark jumping from his shoe down into the large gravel we were standing on. He was startled by this and decided that he had enough scientific lessons for one night. So, we climbed back in the truck and headed back to the plant.
Anyway. During the time that we were having this EMF scare (EMF by the way stands for Electromotive Force), there had been some movie or a 60 Minutes episode on TV about it and it was causing a stir. So, people from Corporate Headquarters were going around trying to educate us about it. One way they did this was to show us how low the levels of EMFs were in the plant.
Well. You can’t convince an electrician that we aren’t constantly being bathed in electricity when we are out in the substation, because we all knew better. This guy came around with a special EMF gun just to show us how the plant was safe… We had a meeting where the engineers agreed that we hardly had any EMFs in the plant. The highest EMFs were found in a drill that mounted horizontally using an electromagnet.
When I heard this, I became skeptical of these findings. And the horizontal drill made me even more suspicious. Not that I minded the EMFs. I found them rather refreshing. They seemed to line up all my thought bubbles in my brain so that I could think better. Kind of like “magnet therapy”.
Then a couple of weeks later my suspicions were verified. Doug Link came down to the electric shop with a guy from Oklahoma City that was going to go with me out to the Substation to measure the EMF levels. — OK. I thought…. Let’s see what happens now… Because I already knew the EMF levels in the Substation just by my licking my finger and sticking it in the air…
The guy from Corporate Headquarters took out a roller with a handle much like you would have to measure long distances. Only this had a couple of probes sticking out from either side horizontally. — Now…. Horizontally is the key, and that’s why when they said the Horizontal drill had the most EMFs in the plant, I became suspicious in the first place.
You see…. EMFs have direction. The two probes on the instrument that the man was wheeling around the substation were parallel with the high voltage lines. Therefore, you wouldn’t measure EMFs between the two probes. If the probes had been turned vertically (up and down), I am sure that the voltage (and the EMFs) would have blown the circuitry in the instrument. I say that because the guy that was wheeling this thing around the substation was being very careful not to tilt it one way or the other.
My suspicions were further confirmed when we were in the relay house looking at the results from when he circled the large transformer between the 189 and the 345 subs, and there was a large spike in EMFs at one spot. When we went to look at that spot, it was at the point where the high voltage bus turned down to go into the transformer…. Just like the Horizontal drill…. The direction was across the probes. You see…. EMFs are perpendicular to the flow of electricity. Or straight down from an overhead line. I mean… duh. You had to hold the fluorescent light upright to make it glow….
Well. I thought…. What do I do? Here is a guy trying to pull the wool over our eyes to make us believe that there aren’t any EMFs out there. I felt insulted. On the other hand, I didn’t care about the EMFs. I liked the EMFs. So, after looking at Doug Link straight in the eyes with an astonished look of disbelief that this guy thought we were so gullible to believe this magic act, I decided to let it go. Let him think he relieved our worry that didn’t exist in the first place. Why ruin his day. He had to drive 70 miles back to Corporate Headquarters. Why should he go all that way back thinking that he failed in his mission? So, all I could do was smile.
Anyway. Tim Foster, the 10 year old boy that was with his father, Charles Foster the first time I went to the substation to go switching, later grew up and became an electrician himself. Not only did he become an electrician, but he became an electrician in the same electric shop where his father had worked for 30 years. He works there to this day, and I’m sure that Tim now has an occasion to go switching in the same substation where I first met him. Bathing in the same EMFs. Feeling the same thrill when you open a 345 KV air switch with a loud Pop!
Replies from Previous Post
Originally posted March 30, 2013:
When you think about it, you probably spend more time with your best friend than you ever did talking to your own father. That is, unless your father is your best friend. Charles Foster was my “Foster Father”. Though I was grateful for his effort to bring me into the Electric Shop at the Coal-Fired Plant, when I had little to no electrical experience, that wasn’t the reason why we became such good friends.
When I moved into the electric shop from the labor crew, Charles Foster was my B Foreman. He was my foreman for only the first year of the 18 years I spent as an electrician. He was my friend from the first day I met him until… well… until the end of eternity.
I found that most of the electricians were more intelligent than others it seemed. The shop had people that were Heroes in their own right. Andy Tubbs, Craig Jones, Terry Blevins, Diana Lucas and Ben Davis were what I thought of as “Delta Force” Electricians. They were sent to tackle the toughest of jobs because everyone knew that they would pour all they had into their work until the job was done.
Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers were the electronics buffs. They would work on calibrating, programming and monitoring different plant systems. These are the people that you went to when a piece of electronic equipment was on the fritz, and they would analyze, test and repair it with their endless drawers of all types of electronic parts.
There were some other electricians, such as Art Hammond, Bill Ennis, Jim Stevenson and Mike Rose that had their own special knowledge that made each of them unique (to be sure). The other two foremen were Howard Chumbley and O.D. McGaha (prounounced: Oh Dee Muh Gay Hay).
Charles Foster didn’t fall in the same category as the others. He wasn’t the type of person to wire up a Boiler Water Circulating Pump, or run conduit up the side of the boiler. Though he would do these tasks when the A-Team wasn’t around to do it. He liked to work alone, or at least alongside one other person. I felt lucky that Charles enjoyed working with me.
When I first joined the electric shop Charles made two things clear to me; don’t call him Charlie and don’t make fun of his spelling. He was sensitive about those two things. I agreed, and I never did…. call him Charlie or make fun of his spelling.
Charles knew he had a problem with spelling, and there didn’t seem to be anything he could do about it. So, I often checked over his work before he sent something. — This was before Personal Computers were available in the office with spell checkers.
During my first electrical year (1984), Charles and I would sit in the Electric Shop Office during lunch and talk about movies we had seen. We took turns relaying entire movies to each other. We would start out by saying, “Have you seen “Karate Kid”? Well you see, there was this boy who was moving to California with his mom from someplace in the east and….”
We quickly learned that we liked the same kind of movies and shows, and even more, we liked telling each other about them. It seems that we spent years during lunch talking about one movie (or TV show) after the other. I looked forward to just sitting with Charles and talking during lunch.
I noticed in the years that I worked at the Power Plant that, in general, Power Plant Men have the knack of thinking outside of the box. Charles Foster was very good at doing this, and we would have discussions about all sorts of subjects. From God and the Universe to time travel and gardening. The more we talked, the more I came to realize that this man was brilliant.
Not “Newton” brilliant, but “Einstein” brilliant…. If you know what I mean…. Newton had a great mathematical mind and used that ability to become the father of Physics. Einstein on the other hand used his ability to take an observation and mix it with his idea of reality to come up with something that seemed totally unrelated, but made sense nonetheless. This was Charles.
So, what great plans did Charles come up with? What plot to take over the world (as my current manager at Dell, Clay Worley accuses me of weekly)? He became a good father to his son and daughter and a good husband to his wife Margaret. All the things that are really important for the survival of mankind.
One day while Andy Tubbs and I were driving to the River Pump station to check the transformers during substation checks, we stopped along the roadside and I picked a stalk from a Cattail that was about ready to bloom.
The plan was to put it in Charles’ top right hand desk drawer. The reason is that when handled just right, this brown furry “flower” (if you want to call it that) will literally explode into tens of thousands of tiny floating bits of fur. Sort of like a dandelion does when it turns white, only more furry and much more numerous. A thousand times more numerous.
When we arrived back in the shop, I walked into the office and told Charles that I had a present for him. Holding the stalk in my hand I opened his drawer. As Charles leaped out of his chair to stop me, I dropped the cattail into his drawer full of tools and odds and end parts, and it exploded into a huge ball of fur. Cattail fur went flying around the room.
Charles was genuinely upset. You see… It wasn’t bad enough that our clothes and hair and nose were being speckled with fur… Charles had allergies and this fur wasn’t helping. So Charles hurried into the shop and wheeled the Shop Vac over to the door and unraveled the hose and plugged it in to vacuum out his drawer.
Charles was trying to vacuum up the mess in his drawer before the office became flooded with the fur. He turned the vacuum on and turned around to put the end of the hose in the drawer. As he turned, Andy quickly disconnected the hose from the intake and attached it to the outtake. Notice the two holes on the front of the Shop-Vac. The bottom one is to vacuum while the top hose connect actually blows out the air.
By the time Charles plunged the end of the hose into the drawer, it was blasting air from the hose which caused just the opposite effect that Charles was hoping for. The entire room became so full of flying fur that any attempt to clean it up became impossible. I couldn’t help it, I was over in the corner laughing at the situation that Charles found himself in….. Of course… I was standing in the middle of what looked like a heavy snowstorm.
After about 5 minutes some of the flying fur had settled on the floor and the entire floor in the office was covered with what seemed like about 2 inches of fur. — Ok. So, I felt guilty about this. I hadn’t thought about Charles’ allergies. For the next 2 months (at least), each morning Charles would remind me that I was still supposed to feel bad about it by opening his drawer when he first came in, and blowing down into the drawer causing fur to stir up and fly around the room. Yeah, it was remarkable that it lasted so long.
During a Major Overhaul, the electricians do alarm checks. During this time, you go down the list of every alarm in the plant and test it to make sure it is still working as designed. There are hundreds of alarms. You take blueprints with you to go to every conceivable alarm on the unit that is down for overhaul. Then while someone is sitting in the control room watching the alarm printout and the alarm monitors, the electrician will place a jumper across the apparatus that brings in the alarm and wait until the person in the control room acknowledges the alarm.
To do this job, you need to read the wire numbers on the print and match them with the wires on the terminal blocks. Then you call the Control room on the radio and ask them if alarm so and so came in. We found out quickly that we didn’t want Charles doing either of these two jobs. Charles had the habit of reading the numbers out of order. Instead of wire number 25496, he might read 24956.
I know that some of you recognize the signs that I have described about Charles. I know that Charles felt a great frustration with his problem spelling and transposing numbers. One night in 1992, I watched a movie on TV called “The Secret” with Kirk Douglas.
I wouldn’t normally have sat and watched a movie like this because it dragged on for a while and didn’t seem to have much of a plot. What kept me glued to the TV was that the man in the movie played by Kirk Douglas was just like Charles except that he couldn’t read at all. He was very smart and was trying to hide the fact that he just couldn’t read.
When his grandson began having the same problem, he realized he had to do something about it. That was when he found out that he had Dyslexia. There are different forms or degrees of Dyslexia, but I recognized right away that this was a story about Charles Foster. I knew that his son Tim who was in High School at the time was having the same difficulty with spelling.
The next morning when I arrived in the Electric Shop Office I had to tell Charles right away (I couldn’t wait until our normal lunch time movie review) that I knew why he had so much trouble spelling and why he always jumbled his numbers around. It was because he had Dyslexia. I explained the movie to him. As I was telling this to Charles I could see that he was beginning to understand…. everything fit.
I watched as Charles soaked in what I had just told him. A lifetime of feeling like he had failed at the most simple of tasks were drying up before his eyes. He had a condition that was not only common, but was also treatable in the sense that you could learn to improve using the correct techniques. Just knowing why was good enough for Charles. He had spent years coping and working around. Now he knew why. I will never forget that moment when I was sitting in the office smiling at Charles smiling back at me.
I mentioned above that Charles reminded me of Albert Einstein. It is an interesting coincidence (or is it?) that the movie “The Secret” earned the Einstein Award from the National Dyslexia Research Foundation in 1992. It seems that Einstein, Charles Foster and Dyslexia go together.
God Bless you Charles and your wonderful family!
Comment from Previous Post:
Originally Posted May 17, 2013:
I remember the day when I walked into the Electric Shop office to begin the lunch break, and four guys from the T&D department (Transmission and Distribution) came in from the door leading to the Main Switchgear. They were obviously worn out, and were complaining. The first one said that he couldn’t believe that the guy from GE had made them work through morning break. The second guy called him a slave driver. The third guy replied that he couldn’t believe how that GE guy just kept on working from the crack of dawn without stopping all morning without even coming up for air. The fourth guy just collapsed on one of the chairs.
I remember the name of the last guy. His name was Foote. I remember him because he was real proud of his heritage. The first time I had met him, I asked him his name twice, because when he told me it was “Foote”, I wasn’t sure I heard correctly, so I asked him again. I guess that he must has guessed what was going through my mind because he must have had the same reaction from a thousand other people in the past. I figure that because my last name is Breazile (pronounced “Brazil”) and I have had many conversations with people explaining the origin of my name.
Anyway. I don’t remember Foote’s first name because I think he only had initials for his first name on his hard hat, and I’m more of a visual person when it comes to memories. I clearly remember his last. If I remember correctly, one of his ancestors was a naval officer in the Civil War, though, I don’t remember for which side. I guess it doesn’t really matter much now, since both sides were Americans, and both sides loved their country and the lives they knew — that they were fighting to hold onto or to change.
This reminds me of a side story that I must tell…. Years and years later in 1997, when I was on the Confined Space Rescue Team, one guy that was from North Dakota named Brent Kautzman was constantly being “harassed” for being a Yankee, because he came from a Northern State. This was kind of a mute (or is it “moot”) point to me, because I knew that North Dakota didn’t become a state until well after the Civil War.
Anyway, one day when Brent was trying to defend himself from the hardcore confederates of the group, he pointed out that the North won the Civil war. A couple of other members disagreed, claiming that the South was going to “rise again”. One of those that believed in the Confederate resurrection turned to me and asked me, as if I was the resident historian (well… I did have a college degree… and I did have a minor in History…. and I was known for telling the truth when it really came down to it), “Kevin…. Did the north win the Civil War?”
Not really wanting to hurt the feelings of my southern friends, and also wanting to stand by Brent who was really correct about the outcome of the Civil War, I replied with the following explanation: “Yes. The North must have won the war. Otherwise the South never would have let all the carpetbaggers from the North come down there and steal their property and their dignity.” Brent was satisfied, and the southerners had to agree with my logic. They still insisted that the South would rise again. I couldn’t argue with them about that…. It has never ceased to amaze me how bigotry can be passed down so easily.
With that said, I would say that the Power Plant Men that I worked with that believed that the “South would rise again!” didn’t really understand what that meant. I say that because they never would have given a thought that the men that they worked with that were African American such as Floyd Coburn, or Bill Bennett, were nothing less than members of their own families. I know that they each personally loved these men with all their hearts. I thought it was more of a nostalgic feeling than a desire to see the return of slavery or even the bigotry that crippled the southern states for decades after the Civil War.
End of the Side Story…. Back to the worn out T&D workers.
By the sound of it, I figured that this guy from GE (General Electric) that had come to work on one of the Main Auxiliary Transformers on Unit 2 that had a problem with the Tap Changing Mechanism, was some kind of slave driver. Some hard line guy that wanted to work our employees to the brink of exhaustion because he wanted to be done with the repairs as quickly as possible so that he could move on to some more important work. You see. For this job, GE had called on one of the top Main Power Transformer Geniuses in all the country to work on this transformer.
The T&D guys sat there for a while and then walked out into the shop to eat their lunch. Shortly after that, the slave driver from GE came in the back door…. In stepped a man that immediately reminded me of Arthur Fielder from the Boston Pops.
He sat down…. opened his brown paper bag. Pulled out his sandwich. Carefully unwrapped it and began to eat. Charles Foster and I were sitting there watching him. After hearing the horror stories from the T&D crew, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to engage this seemingly mad man in conversation, so I waited a while. I ate some cherry tomatoes and Banana peppers that Charles brought for me each day…. and with each bite, I took a bite out of my ham sandwich. Then I looked over at “Arthur Fielder….” (I don’t remember his real name).
Finally, I decided that this slave driver in sheep’s clothing (well, an old frail man costume really), might come up with some interesting conversation so I asked him…. “Say, old man…. how old are you anyway?” He looked up from the total enjoyment of his sandwich, and with food still un-swallowed said, “I’m 83.”
“83?” — Either I said that or Charles did… because we were both stunned by his answer….. “Yep… They called me out of retirement to work on this transformer. Seems I’m the only one that knows how to fix ’em. But I’m teachin’ your fellows how to do it so they don’t have to call me again.”
Charles and I were so flabbergasted by his reply that we couldn’t leave it alone. One of us (Charles and I were always on the same wavelength, so usually when one of us spoke, it was what we were both thinking)… So, one of us asked…. “You’re retired and they called you up to work on this transformer!?!? Are you such a Transformer guru that you were the only one they could send?” (hmm… must have been me…. I don’t think Charles would have used the word “Guru”. He would have used something like “expert” or “talented” or maybe “genius”). He said, “Yep. They paid me enough that I agreed to take a week away from my wife to come here to take care of business. It would have to take a lot to take me away from my Jenny.”
Then this feeble old man with the white moustache explained that he didn’t like to be away from home. Every night since when he was young he has played the piano for two hours. — Wait… I wasn’t sure if I heard that right, so I asked him…. “What? You play the piano for two hours… every night!?!?” (notice… already I have used “!?!?” twice in one post… just goes to show you how surprised I was to run across this man). He reaffirmed what he said, “Yeah. I had to find a hotel that had a piano, so I could sit in the lobby and play it before I go to bed. I can’t sleep well unless I have played the piano first.
After that, he began to tell us about his career in the Music Industry. He had played for many Big Band orchestras in the past. He talked about playing with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. Names that I had learned from my Aunt Pam Sorisso in Kansas City that gave me an Eight Track Tape of Big Band music when I was in College that I used to listen to often. I had become a fan of Big Band and had a great respect for these Big Band Leaders.
Here sitting in front of me was one of the geniuses of the Big Band era in the electric shop at a Coal-fired Power Plant in the middle of North Central Oklahoma. All I could think of was, “Who woulda thought it?” Though I was impressed as all get out… I tried to act calm….. I wanted to jump up with a piece of paper and ask him for his autograph….
This old guy suddenly had all my respect. It cracked me up to think that this 83 year old man was out performing the younger T&D workers. He was running them ragged (pronounced “rag ed”). He explained that he didn’t like to stop for break. It made the day go a lot faster if he just kept working until he had to stop. He wouldn’t have stop for lunch if all the workers hadn’t just dropped all their tools and left.
It amazed me even more that this man who was a big band musician of the highest caliber had ended up working for GE Not only had he worked for GE, but he had become the ultimate authority in large transformer repair. I mean…. How cool is that?
I can’t tell you how much I instantly fell in love with this guy. He had talked and talked about his days as a big band piano player. What really came out of his conversation what just how much he loved his wife. The two things he loved in the entire world was his wife and to play the piano. He said there was nothing more soothing than playing the piano. As he walked off to go back to work at the end of lunch… the only thing I could think of was one of my Big Band favorites…. Louis Armstrong….
For those people who stopped to really think about it…. This truly is….. A Wonderful World!
Comment from the Original Post
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.
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.
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.
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….
Originally Posted June 14, 2013:
When I first watched the movie “The Goonies”, I recognized right away that the script was inspired from another Pirate treasure movie I had watched when I was a child. I have never seen the movie again, and it was probably a made for TV movie or something that has been lost in the archives years ago. I’m sure that Steven Spielberg when he was growing up must have been inspired by this movie when he wrote the script to Goonies, because this was a movie that had inspired us when we were young.
You see… In the movie I had watched as a kid, some children that were trying to save their family or an old house or something similar to the Goonies story, found a clue to where a Pirate treasure was buried. The clue had something to do with a “crow’s nest”. It turned out that the model of a ship that had been sitting on the mantle piece in the old house had another clue in the pole holding the crow’s nest. This clue had holes in the paper, and when held up to a certain page in a certain book, it gave them another clue to where there was a hidden passageway. Which led them one step closer to the treasure.
Anyway. As a child, this inspired us (and I’m sure a million other kids) to play a game called “Treasure Hunt”. It was where you placed clues all around the house, or the yard, or the neighborhood (depending on how ambitious of a treasure hunt you were after), with each clue leading to the other clue, and eventually some prize at the end.
Why am I telling you this story about this movie that I watched when I was a child? Well, because I felt this same way all over again when I became an electrician at a coal-fired power plant out in the country in north central Oklahoma. Here is why.
I used to carpool to work from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the power plant 25 miles north of town with another electrician named Bill Rivers. He had kept urging me to become an electrician along with Charles Foster, who had suggested that I take some electric courses to prepare for the job. Once I became an electrician, Charles Foster, my foreman, would often send me with Bill Rivers to repair anything that had to do with electronics. Bill Rivers was good at troubleshooting electronic equipment, and well, he was generally a good troubleshooter when he wasn’t getting himself into trouble.
I remember the morning when Charles told me to go with Bill to go fix the incessant humming that was coming over the PA system…. “What?” I asked him. “I can’t hear you over the loud hum coming over the PA system.” — No not really… We called the Gai-tronics PA system the “Gray Phone” because the phones all over the plant where you could page people and talk on 5 different lines was gray.
I walked into the electric lab where Bill Rivers was usually hanging out causing Sonny Kendrick grief. I hadn’t been in the electric shop very long at this point. I think it was before the time when I went to work on the Manhole pumps (see the post Power Plant Manhole Mania). In the lab there was an electric cord going from a plug-in on the counter up into the cabinet above as if something inside the cabinet was plugged in…. which was true. I asked Bill what was plugged in the cabinet and he explained that it was the coffee maker.
You see, our industrious plant manager had decided that all coffee at the plant had to come from the authorized coffee machines where a dime had to be inserted before dispensing the cup of coffee. This way the “Canteen committee” could raise enough money to…. uh…. pay for the coffee. So, all rogue coffee machines had to go. There was to be no free coffee at the plant.
So, of course, the most logical result of this mandate was to hide the coffee maker in the cabinet in case a wandering plant manager or one of his undercover coffee monitor minions were to enter the lab unexpectedly. Maintaining the free flow of coffee to those electricians that just had to silently protest the strong arm tactics of the Power Plant Coffee Tax by having a sort of… “Tea Party” or was it a “Coffee Party”.
I told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him fix the hum on the gray phones. Bill Rivers said, “Great! Then let us play a game. let’s call it, ‘Treasure Hunt’.”
Bill reached up in one of the cabinets and pulled out a blue telephone test set. I’m sure you must have seen a telephone repairman with one of these hanging from his hip. ” Oh boy.” I thought. “A new toy!”
I grabbed my tool bucket from the shop and followed Bill Rivers out into the T-G basement. This is a loud area where the steam pipes carry the steam to the Turbine to spin the Generator. It is called T-G for Turbine Generator. Bill walked over to a junction box mounted near the north exit going to unit 1. He explained that except for the gray phones in the Control-room section of the plant, all the other gray phones go through this one junction box.
Bill said that the game was to find the Gray Phone ghost. Where is the hum coming from? He showed me how the different cables coming into this one box led to Unit 1, Unit 2, the office area and the coal yard. I just had to figure out which way the hum came from. So, I went to work lifting wires off of the terminal blocks. We could hear the hum over the gray phone speakers near us, so if I were to lift the right wires, we should know right away that I had isolated the problem.
We determined that the noise was coming from Unit 1. So we took the elevator halfway up the boiler to another junction box, and then another where we traced the problem to a gray phone under the surge bin tower. It took 4 screws to remove the phone from the box. When I did, I could clearly see the problem. The box was full of water. Water had run down the conduit and into the phone box.
Bill Rivers told me that now that we found the problem, we wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again, so we drilled a small weep hole in the bottom of the box, and we took plumbers putty and stuffed it into the top of the conduit where it opened into a cable tray.
The box would fill with water when the labor crew would do coal cleanup. On labor crew we would spray the entire surge bin tower down with high powered water hoses to wash off all the coal dust. Each time, some water would end up going down the conduit into the gray phone until it grounded the circuit enough to cause a hum.
Bill and I continued searching throughout the plant for phones that were causing a hum. Most were caused by water in the box. Some were caused by circuits that had gone bad (most likely because they had water in them at some point). Those we took to the electric shop lab where we played a different kind of treasure hunt. — Let’s call it…. Finding the bad component. It reminded me of an old video game I had bought for my brother for Christmas in 1983 that winter when I gave him an Intellivision (so I could play with it). It was the latest greatest video game console at the time.
I had given my brother a game called “Bomb Squad”. Where you had a certain amount of time to diffuse a bomb by going through a circuit board cutting out components with some snippers. If you cut the wrong connection, you had to hurry up and solder it back on before the bomb blew up.
That’s what we were doing with the Gray Phones. We were testing the different components until we found one that wasn’t working correctly. Then we would replace that transistor, or capacitor, or resistor, or diode, and then test the phone by plugging it in the switchgear gray phone box and calling each other.
I have a story later about someone using this technique while fixing gray phones, only he would call himself on the gray phone where I would call Bill and Bill would call me. Someone misinterpreted this and thought the person was trying to make everyone think he was more important because he was always being paged, when he was only paging himself. He was removed from fixing gray phones for this reason, even though he was only person at the plant in Mustang Oklahoma that knew a transistor from a capacitor.
So, why am I going on about a seemingly boring story about fixing a hum on a PA system? I think it’s because to me it was like a game. It was like playing a treasure hunt. From the day I started as an electrician, we would receive trouble tickets where we needed to go figure something out. We had to track down a problem and then find a solution on how to fix it. As I said in previous posts, it was like solving a puzzle.
Each time we would fix something, someone was grateful. Either the operator or a mechanic, or the Shift Supervisor, or the person at home vacuuming their carpet, because the electricity was still flowing through their house. How many people in the world can say that they work on something that impacts so many people?
Well… I used to feel like I was in a unique position. I was able to play in a labyrinth of mechanical and electrical equipment finding hidden treasures in the form of some malfunction. As I grew older, I came to realize that the uniqueness was limited only to the novelty of my situation. If you took all the power plant men in the country, they could probably all fit in one large football stadium. But the impact on others was another thing altogether.
The point I am trying to make is that it was obvious to me that I was impacting a large portion of people in the state of Oklahoma by helping to keep the plant running smoothly by chasing down the boiler ghosts and exorcising the Coalyard demons from the coal handling equipment. Even though it isn’t so obvious to others, like the janitor, or the laborer or the person that fills the vending machine. Everyone in some way helps to support everyone else.
A cook in a restaurant is able to cook the food because the electricity and the natural gas is pumped into the restaurant by others. Then the cook feeds the mailman, who delivers that mail, that brings the check to the person waiting to go to the grocery store so they can buy food that was grown by some farmer who plowed his field on a tractor made in a huge tractor factory by a machinist after driving there in a car made by a manufacturer in Detroit who learned how to use a lathe in a Vocational school taught by a teacher who had a degree from a university where each day this person would walk to class during the winter snow wearing boots that came from a clothes store where the student had bought them from a store clerk that greeted people by saying “Good Morning! How are you today?” Cheering up all the people that they met.
I could have walked into the lab and told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him find the hum in the PA system and he could have responded by saying, “Oh really? Good luck with that!” Instead he said, “Let’s go play a game. ‘Treasure Hunt!” This attitude had set the stage for me as a Power Plant Electrician: “Let’s go have some fun and fix something today!” Where would that cook have been today if the power had gone out in his restaurant that morning all because an attitude had gotten in the way….. I wonder…