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Blowing it with Power Plant Retracts and Wall Blowers

Originally Posted February 23, 2013:

I never gave it much thought that when I was on the labor crew at the Coal-fired Power Plant in Oklahoma and we had to go in the boiler to shake the boiler tubes, that next to the portals where you would climb into the boiler there were long metal benches where you could sit just outside while you rested between moments when the dynamiters were getting ready to set off their explosives. (All right… right off the bat…. a run-on sentence the size of a paragraph… I can tell it’s going to be a long night).

To learn more about the dynamiters and shaking boiler tubes you can read the post: Cracking a boiled Egg in the Boiler. At other times while I was on the labor crew, I had heard these same benches making a tremendous sound that you could hear from a few landings away. It sounded like a large steam leak would sound, and at the same time, you could hear some kind of mechanical gears or something running and maybe a chain clanging. I didn’t really understand what the purpose these long benches served then, only that it was a good place to put the water jug and the box of fly ash suits to keep them from being stepped on.

It was after I had become an electrician that these long metal benches took on another meaning. I found out that they were called “Retracts”. I was told that they called them retracts because what they do is they run a long metal pipe into the boiler and then Retract it back. Ok. I thought it was rather odd to name something for a seemingly insignificant part of the function. After I understood what they were used for, I thought I could come up with a lot better name than “Retract”.

After all, we had equipment like “Honey Wagon” , “Coffin Houses”, “Clinker Grinder”. All really descriptive names. So, when Charles Foster told me to go with Diane Lucas (later Diane Brien) to work on 7R retract, I was expecting to go find some little lever going back and forth making a sound like “brrrr…oops…..brrr…..oops” as it swung back and forth. I would name something like that a “Retract”.

Actually, I would like to have been able to have kept a couple of Retracts in my pocket so that when I would smart off to Leroy Godfrey our Electrical Supervisor, I could pull one out and press the button and… “swoop”! Retracted!

So, what is a Retract? Well. In the story that I linked to above about the cracked egg in the boiler, I explained how when I was on the labor crew we had to go in the boiler and tie ropes to these hanging boiler tubes and then shake them back and forth to clean out the hard ash that had built up on them. Well, The Retract would sort of do that when the boiler was online. They would clean out the tubes in the reheat area of the boiler for the most part.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

What it would do is this. It seemed like 7R retract was about 40 feet long (someone at the plant can correct me if I’m wrong about the length). When it would turn on, it would start rotating a pipe about that long and start pushing it into the boiler. Once the nozzle at the end of the pipe was in the boiler a couple of feet steam would start blasting down the pipe to the nozzle on the end that would shoot the steam out at right angles to the pipe. As the pipe rotated, it would be shooting out steam in a circular motion as the pipe slowly traversed into the boiler.

You see… My dentist told me a long time ago that I should Floss my teeth more if I didn’t want to wear dentures when I was older. By keeping the bits of food out from between my teeth, not only did my breath smell better, but my gums could remain healthy as well. So, I listened to him and started flossing. Retracts are kind of like that.

The Retracts were designed to clean out the areas of the boiler where the ash would build up the most causing the efficiency of the boiler to be degraded. So at certain times of the day, the Control Room operator will push a button on the side panel (at least that was what they used to do… now they probably click an icon on their computer) and it would start the cycle of the retracts going in and out one at a time cleaning out the boiler.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler. I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers... no, not really.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler. I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers… no, not really. Sorry the picture is a little small

Anyway. I finally learned what those long metal benches were for and it fascinated me. I wonder how long it took before someone said what now would seem obvious…. “Hey. Instead of having to bring the boiler offline every week or so, how about if we just create this boiler flossing equipment that cleans the boiler out while it is online?”

It made me wonder about the other equipment around the plant. I’ll bet there was a good use for just about everything. And you know what? I think I was right. Instead of just putting all that equipment all over the place for us to play on like a big jungle gym, everything seemed to have a real good purpose.

After 4 years working as a summer help, and one more year as a janitor and on the labor crew, I thought I had seen just about everything in the plant. When I became an electrician, all of the sudden a whole new world opened up to me. Even that bench I had been sitting on turned into a monster machine that blasted away ash clinkers while the rest of us lay at home in our beds dreaming of chocolate, and dragons, and um… other things people dream about.

So, what about the Wall Blower? Well. These are like the retracts, only they are much smaller. they were placed around the walls of the main boiler at strategic locations to blast clinkers that may be building up along the main wall of the boiler. The area in the boiler diagram up above called the Water Wall.

For some reason (and I’m sure it’s a good one), From what was called floor 6 1/2, though it was actually about the 13th floor, on down was an area called the “Boiler Enclosure”. This meant that when you walked up to the boiler, you first had to go through a door and enter an enclosed area around the boiler. 7th floor and above, the boiler was outside.

I’ve been to plants where the entire boiler was enclosed, and I’ve seen some that didn’t look like any of it was enclosed, so I figure this was a happy median between the two. It meant that if it was raining outside and you needed to work on the boiler, it made a big difference how high up you had to go as to whether you needed your rain suit or not.

I mention this because one day I had to go by myself to work on a wall blower that was on the 6 and 1/2 floor just at the top of the boiler enclosure. The wall blower was naturally situated right next to the boiler. and all the heat generated from the boiler and the piping that came from the bowl mills that blew the coal into the furnace had made the area very hot. The Wall blower had been tripping the breaker and I was supposed to go fix it.

I brought an infrared temperature gun with me and found that the area where the wall blower was mounted was 160 degrees. Maybe it was that high because it was the middle of a hot summer day, and with everything else going on, all the heat trapped right at the top of the boiler enclosure, it had just turned into a huge easy-bake oven.

When I touched the metal door to the control panel on the side of the wall blower, it burned my fingers. I had to use my tee-shirt as a rag to keep from burning myself. I could only stand next to the wall blower for about 30 seconds and then I had to walk back over the doorway and breathe some fresh air and cool off for a minute before going back.

After opening the control panel, I could see what the problem was right away. The insulation on the wires going to the terminal block had the insulation dripping off the wires. The insulation was melting.

I went back to the shop and found some wire that was designed for high temperatures, because obviously someone had used the wrong type of wire when assembling this particular wall blower, given it’s location on the boiler.

High Temperature Wire

High Temperature Wire

Because of the intense heat where I was standing when trying to rewire the wall blower, I was not able to take very big breaths. I had to breathe very shallow, or not at all. So, I would go up to the blower and work as fast as I could removing a screw or putting a new wire down and then I would go back to the doorway about 60 feet from the wall blower and cool off.

As I mentioned in the post about the Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew, when you are in this intense heat, your hardhat becomes soft like a baseball cap. In this case, I wasn’t in the heat long enough for this to happen, though I was sweating like a pig.

I had been doing this for a while when an operator showed up wondering what I was doing. His name was Jim Waller and he had been watching me from a distance. He said he was trying to figure out what I was up to because he would see me show up at the doorway and stand there for a while not doing anything, then turning around like I had forgotten something only to show up again about 1/2 minute later.

When he couldn’t figure out what I was doing on his own, he decided to take a closer look. I found him standing at the doorway waiting for me to arrive with a puzzled look on his face. I was tempted to just say nothing and just stand there and take a few breathes and then go back to the wall blower and continue my work.

I couldn’t do that however, when Jim asked me what I was doing. Jim was one of the nicest and most normal operators you could run across. I just couldn’t joke with him (as if he was Gene Day). So, I told him I was working on that wall blower over there, but that it was so hot that I had to keep coming to the doorway to cool off.

Jim Waller had come to work for the electric company a month before I began my last summer as summer help in 1982. At the time that I was working on the wall blower in 1984 I was just about to become 24 years old, and a couple of months later, he was going to be 29. Like Gene Day, you instantly knew when you saw Jim that he you liked him. He sort of had that Jim Nabors kind of smile.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger. He had the same likable demeanor.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger. He had the same likable demeanor.

Unlike Gene Day, I never felt like playing a joke on Jim. For some reason, Jim just seemed like too nice of a guy. Where Gene had a slight sort of hidden orneriness about him, Jim was just purely a “good guy”.

This past Christmas eve, five days before Jim turned 57 years old, he passed away after a sudden illness. When the guys at the power plant told me about it, I was sad for their loss and for his family. For Jim, on the other hand…. I think he has always had one foot in heaven from the day I met him. I think he finally stepped the rest of the way through the gate.

For someone like me. If I am ever able to make it to heaven, I’m sure there will be a big to-do about it, because someone would have won the pot and I’m sure the odds would have been high against it. However, the day Jim arrived, it was probably more like “business as usual”. — “Oh, Jim’s arrived….. Like no one didn’t see that coming….” If I could say something to Jim now (and being Catholic, I’m allowed to do that), I would ask Jim, “Put in a good word for all the Power Plant Men!” Because I know that Jim’s word is as good as gold. Here is a real picture of Jim, a true Power Plant Man:

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

 

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman February 23, 2013:

Good post on Jim, Kevin. Now, what is a “normal operator”? 🙂
I remember doing several jobs in super hot areas where I had to wear a heavy coat and gloves to keep from getting burned. Had to take off rings and wrist watch too. Needed to take off my glasses, but then I couldn’t see.

 

Lap o’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant

Originally Posted on April 12, 2013:

I witnessed a fast approaching Wall Cloud coming south from Tulsa when I was on overhaul at the Muskogee Oklahoma Coal-fired Power Plant the fall 1984. I stood outside of the Unit 6 electric shop looking north watching the darkness approaching at an alarming rate. As it approached I could see debris flying up from the highway a half mile away telling me that we were in for one heck of a wind.

It looked similar to this wall cloud, only the front of it was rotating horizontally

It looked similar to this wall cloud, only the front of it was rotating horizontally

I suppose I was mesmerized because all I did was stand there and stare at it. Maybe I thought, “At least if this blows me away, I can spend my last moments staring down a tornado. I watched as the wind hit the precipitator and stirred up the piles of ash under it and blew it away as if someone was blowing out a birthday candle.

The wall cloud rolled right over the top of me looking like a big steamroller wheel. At the same time the wind hit me knocking me back. I couldn’t breathe because of the dust and I took two steps to the electric shop door and dodged inside. The walls rattled as the wind buffeted the building. All I could think of was, “Cool!”

We found out a few minutes later that 4 miles south of us by the Fort Howard Paper plant a tornado dropped out of the cloud and touched down.

That was only one of many exciting moments at the Muskogee Power Plant. Last week I talked about how there must have been something in the water there that made people think and act a little differently than they otherwise would (See Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant). I said that because of the “interesting” way people thought and acted in Muskogee. This is the story about the day I think I drank some of the water by mistake.

Each morning when I was waiting for the work to start in the electric shop, two electricians, Jay Harris and Richard Moravek had a ritual that they performed before heading off to work on the precipitators for the day. One of them would hum a note, then together they would sing a short jingle that went like this: “Nestles makes the very best…….. Chooooocolate!!!” Richard would whistle as he sang, just like the Nestle’s Rabbit– Every morning without fail.

The Nestle's Rabbit

The Nestle’s Rabbit

Both Richard and Jay were soldiers. Jay was a young soldier that knew my brother from the Marine Reserves. He would train with him in the TOW Anti-Tank unit somewhere around Broken Arrow. Richard…. Well… Richard was a Vietnam Veteran that had seen a lot of combat.

Richard had a metal plate in his forehead. He could tap it and you could hear it tink. “Tink, Tink, Tink.” He was a forward observer in Vietnam. They usually had a life expectancy of a couple of weeks. Richard had survived. He was attached to a group of Rangers.

Richard explained to me one time that he used to use a big M60 machine gun like Sylvester Stallone used in the movie Rambo. Only, he couldn’t shoot two of them at a time, and he couldn’t walk forward with it either like Rambo. He could only walk backward because the machine gun would knock you down.

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

I know that Richard suffered from the effects of Agent Orange and was fighting the cancer it caused at one point in his life. He died in November 6, 2007. He left behind a son named Richard that has commented to me that his dad was “A Great Man.”

If I keep talking about the people that I met while I was at Muskogee, I will never get to the story that I want to tell, because heroes seemed to be all over the place. Another electrician was Ellis Moore, who was in Vietnam while he was in the Army. He was still Shell Shocked from his experience there.

He told me stories about how his unit would be patrolling through the woods, and they would hear some gunfire, and they would just all put their backs to each other and would shoot blindly in all directions.

They were frightened and figured that was the only way they were going to stay alive. Ellis had an odd look on his face when he told me this story. One that told me that he had seen things that were too horrible to bring back into his mind.

This leads me to my story…. It began on a Friday afternoon about 2pm. I was working with Ben Davis, a fellow electrician from our plant in North Central Oklahoma.

I enjoyed working with Ben Davis during the overhaul. Ben was one of the most calm and normal person you could find. He was probably the most sane person in the electric shop. He didn’t care what other people thought about him. When he told you what he thought, you could count on it being the truth.

Ben Davis

Ben Davis

When I was dressing up in rags, (See the post From Power Plant Rags to Riches), Ben just looked a little concerned that I may have lost my sanity, but that didn’t keep him from treating me with the respect and dignity that I wasn’t even maintaining for myself.

We were working on 6A Forced Draft Fan and we made a measurement with the large Meggar indicating that the insulation might be a little weak somewhere in the motor.

We weren’t sure what the acceptable level of deviation was from the norm, so we decided that we would find Don Spears and ask him. Don was the Electrical Supervisor at Muskogee at the time. He was the splittin’ image of Oklahoma University’s Football Coach Barry Switzer’s bigger brother.

Don Spears looked like Barry Switzer's Older Brother. Bigger and Meaner

Don Spears looked like Barry Switzer’s Older Brother. Bigger and Meaner

Ben and I talked to John Manning, the Electrical B Foreman, and he agreed that we should talk to Don, and would let him know that we were looking for him when he returned from a meeting he was attending.

We waited around in the Unit 6 electric shop until around 3 o’clock. At 3 o’clock on Friday, we liked to bug out early to head home to our families. At lunch I would go to the trailer down by the river and pack up my stuff in my car and then park it outside the electric shop so that when 3 o’clock rolled around, we could dodge out the door and head for home.

Only this time, we were waiting around for Don to show up. We finally decided…. What the heck…. We can talk to him on Monday. We bolted out the door, and Ben and I headed back toward Stillwater at breakneck speed.

Come Monday morning, I pulled up to the electric shop parking lot, and who do you think was standing there just waiting for me? Yep. Don Spears. With his hands on his hips, and his big Football Coach stance trying his darnedest to look just like Barry Switzer telling his team at half time that they were going to have to do better than that.

I happened to pull up to the shop about the same time that Ben did. Don Spears immediately lit into us. He said, “You left early on Friday didn’t you!!!” I said, “What? Surely not!”

Don replied that he came looking for us around 3:30 and we were no where to be found. He paged us but we didn’t answer. I responded by telling him that we must have been out working on a motor and couldn’t hear him because it was too noisy.

Of course, Don wasn’t going to buy that. He said this Friday he wanted to us to meet him in his office at 4:00. He was going to make sure we didn’t leave early. Ben and I assured him that we would be there.

So, next Friday at lunch Don came down to the shop and said….. “Remember. I want to see you in my office at 4:00 sharp. We both told him that we would be there, come rain or shine.

3 o’clock rolled around and we headed for home… I don’t think I stopped laughing until I was in Tulsa. It is always fun to play an on-going joke with someone. Especially when that someone could pulverize you with one simple punch.

So, you can imagine what I saw when I arrived at the Unit 6 Electric Shop next Monday Morning….

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

Yep. That was Don. He was standing there with his feet spread apart just like Paul Bunyan. His hands were on his hips and he looked rather mad. He said, “You Did it Again!!! You left early!”

I said, “What do you mean we left early?” He said, “You didn’t come to my office at 4:00!” “Oh, ” I said, “I can’t believe we forgot! Sorry! It must have slipped our mind.”

I know. I was being rotten, but this was just too much fun.

So, here comes next Friday. Same routine. At lunch I drove down to the trailer down by the river (the Arkansas River) and packed up my stuff and parked my car outside the Unit 6 Electric Shop expecting to leave out of there around 3 o’clock

Around 2:30 in the afternoon, Ben and I were working on something in the shop getting ready to clean up and head on home. Don Spears was sitting in the electric shop office in a chair right inside the door where he could look out and watch our every move.

As 3 o’clock rolled by, there was Don Spears with his face plastered to the window in the door not taking his eyes off of us, with a big grin on his face. Ben said something like “it looks like he has us this time.”

So, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands…. I walked in the office and sat down right on Don Spear’s lap. He looked at me totally surprised. I put my arms around his neck and I looked him straight in the eyes…..

Don sat there stunned. He couldn’t move, and he couldn’t speak. With the most sincere expression I could muster up, while looking in his eyes as dreamily as I could, I said, “You are just the cutest thing. I can’t hardly STAND it!” (Imagine saying that to Barry Switzer’s bigger brother). Then I stood up and sort of danced out into the shop.

I turned my head just enough to see Don darting out the back door to the office in the other direction. I turned to Ben and said, “Let’s go!” Out we went, and we were on our way home.

Come next Monday morning….. Ok…. I figured…. here it comes…. I drove up to the electric shop parking lot and there was Barry…. I mean Don… smoking a cigarette pacing back and forth in front of the electric shop door.  What?  No hands on his hips?

As I approached him he said, “I know what you’re up to!” I said in a calm voice with as straight of a face that I could muster… “What do you mean?” He said, “I talked to Bill Bennett (the A Foreman at our plant). He told me that you are just using ‘Psychology’ on me” (by the way, I do have a degree in Psychology).

I replied, “I am? What do you mean?” He said, “You know what I mean.” I looked confused as if I didn’t know what he was talking about. He continued, “Bill told me all about you.” I said something like, “Bill is a great guy.” Then I walked into the shop.

The next Friday…. Don was no where to be seen. The remainder of the overhaul, Don was keeping his distance. I don’t think we caught sight of him the next 4 weeks. It seemed that I had finally spooked him. From that point on, he decided that he didn’t care so much if we bugged out early.

Blowing it with Power Plant Retracts and Wall Blowers

Originally Posted February 23, 2013:

I never gave it much thought that when I was on the labor crew at the Coal-fired Power Plant in Oklahoma and we had to go in the boiler to shake the boiler tubes, that next to the portals where you would climb into the boiler there were long metal benches where you could sit just outside while you rested between moments when the dynamiters were getting ready to set off their explosives. (All right… right off the bat…. a run-on sentence the size of a paragraph… I can tell it’s going to be a long night).

To learn more about the dynamiters and shaking boiler tubes you can read the post: Cracking a boiled Egg in the Boiler. At other times while I was on the labor crew, I had heard these same benches making a tremendous sound that you could hear from a few landings away. It sounded like a large steam leak would sound, and at the same time, you could hear some kind of mechanical gears or something running and maybe a chain clanging. I didn’t really understand what the purpose these long benches served then, only that it was a good place to put the water jug and the box of fly ash suits to keep them from being stepped on.

It was after I had become an electrician that these long metal benches took on another meaning. I found out that they were called “Retracts”. I was told that they called them retracts because what they do is they run a long metal pipe into the boiler and then Retract it back. Ok. I thought it was rather odd to name something for a seemingly insignificant part of the function. After I understood what they were used for, I thought I could come up with a lot better name than “Retract”.

After all, we had equipment like “Honey Wagon” , “Coffin Houses”, “Clinker Grinder”. All really descriptive names. So, when Charles Foster told me to go with Diane Lucas (later Diane Brien) to work on 7R retract, I was expecting to go find some little lever going back and forth making a sound like “brrrr…oops…..brrr…..oops” as it swung back and forth. I would name something like that a “Retract”.

Actually, I would like to have been able to have kept a couple of Retracts in my pocket so that when I would smart off to Leroy Godfrey our Electrical Supervisor, I could pull one out and press the button and… “swoop”! Retracted!

So, what is a Retract? Well. In the story that I linked to above about the cracked egg in the boiler, I explained how when I was on the labor crew we had to go in the boiler and tie ropes to these hanging boiler tubes and then shake them back and forth to clean out the hard ash that had built up on them. Well, The Retract would sort of do that when the boiler was online. They would clean out the tubes in the reheat area of the boiler for the most part.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

What it would do is this. It seemed like 7R retract was about 40 feet long (someone at the plant can correct me if I’m wrong about the length). When it would turn on, it would start rotating a pipe about that long and start pushing it into the boiler. Once the nozzle at the end of the pipe was in the boiler a couple of feet steam would start blasting down the pipe to the nozzle on the end that would shoot the steam out at right angles to the pipe. As the pipe rotated, it would be shooting out steam in a circular motion as the pipe slowly traversed into the boiler.

You see… My dentist told me a long time ago that I should Floss my teeth more if I didn’t want to wear dentures when I was older. By keeping the bits of food out from between my teeth, not only did my breath smell better, but my gums could remain healthy as well. So, I listened to him and started flossing. Retracts are kind of like that.

The Retracts were designed to clean out the areas of the boiler where the ash would build up the most causing the efficiency of the boiler to be degraded. So at certain times of the day, the Control Room operator will push a button on the side panel (at least that was what they used to do… now they probably click an icon on their computer) and it would start the cycle of the retracts going in and out one at a time cleaning out the boiler.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler. I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers... no, not really.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler. I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers… no, not really. Sorry the picture is a little small

Anyway. I finally learned what those long metal benches were for and it fascinated me. I wonder how long it took before someone said what now would seem obvious…. “Hey. Instead of having to bring the boiler offline every week or so, how about if we just create this boiler flossing equipment that cleans the boiler out while it is online?”

It made me wonder about the other equipment around the plant. I’ll bet there was a good use for just about everything. And you know what? I think I was right. Instead of just putting all that equipment all over the place for us to play on like a big jungle gym, everything seemed to have a real good purpose.

After 4 years working as a summer help, and one more year as a janitor and on the labor crew, I thought I had seen just about everything in the plant. When I became an electrician, all of the sudden a whole new world opened up to me. Even that bench I had been sitting on turned into a monster machine that blasted away ash clinkers while the rest of us lay at home in our beds dreaming of chocolate, and dragons, and um… other things people dream about.

So, what about the Wall Blower? Well. These are like the retracts, only they are much smaller. they were placed around the walls of the main boiler at strategic locations to blast clinkers that may be building up along the main wall of the boiler. The area in the boiler diagram up above called the Water Wall.

For some reason (and I’m sure it’s a good one), From what was called floor 6 1/2, though it was actually about the 13th floor, on down was an area called the “Boiler Enclosure”. This meant that when you walked up to the boiler, you first had to go through a door and enter an enclosed area around the boiler. 7th floor and above, the boiler was outside.

I’ve been to plants where the entire boiler was enclosed, and I’ve seen some that didn’t look like any of it was enclosed, so I figure this was a happy median between the two. It meant that if it was raining outside and you needed to work on the boiler, it made a big difference how high up you had to go as to whether you needed your rain suit or not.

I mention this because one day I had to go by myself to work on a wall blower that was on the 6 and 1/2 floor just at the top of the boiler enclosure. The wall blower was naturally situated right next to the boiler. and all the heat generated from the boiler and the piping that came from the bowl mills that blew the coal into the furnace had made the area very hot. The Wall blower had been tripping the breaker and I was supposed to go fix it.

I brought an infrared temperature gun with me and found that the area where the wall blower was mounted was 160 degrees. Maybe it was that high because it was the middle of a hot summer day, and with everything else going on, all the heat trapped right at the top of the boiler enclosure, it had just turned into a huge easy-bake oven.

When I touched the metal door to the control panel on the side of the wall blower, it burned my fingers. I had to use my tee-shirt as a rag to keep from burning myself. I could only stand next to the wall blower for about 30 seconds and then I had to walk back over the doorway and breathe some fresh air and cool off for a minute before going back.

After opening the control panel, I could see what the problem was right away. The insulation on the wires going to the terminal block had the insulation dripping off the wires. The insulation was melting.

I went back to the shop and found some wire that was designed for high temperatures, because obviously someone had used the wrong type of wire when assembling this particular wall blower, given it’s location on the boiler.

High Temperature Wire

High Temperature Wire

Because of the intense heat where I was standing when trying to rewire the wall blower, I was not able to take very big breaths. I had to breathe very shallow, or not at all. So, I would go up to the blower and work as fast as I could removing a screw or putting a new wire down and then I would go back to the doorway about 60 feet from the wall blower and cool off.

As I mentioned in the post about the Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew, when you are in this intense heat, your hardhat becomes soft like a baseball cap. In this case, I wasn’t in the heat long enough for this to happen, though I was sweating like a pig.

I had been doing this for a while when an operator showed up wondering what I was doing. His name was Jim Waller and he had been watching me from a distance. He said he was trying to figure out what I was up to because he would see me show up at the doorway and stand there for a while not doing anything, then turning around like I had forgotten something only to show up again about 1/2 minute later.

When he couldn’t figure out what I was doing on his own, he decided to take a closer look. I found him standing at the doorway waiting for me to arrive with a puzzled look on his face. I was tempted to just say nothing and just stand there and take a few breathes and then go back to the wall blower and continue my work.

I couldn’t do that however, when Jim asked me what I was doing. Jim was one of the nicest and most normal operators you could run across. I just couldn’t joke with him. So, I told him I was working on that wall blower over there, but that it was so hot that I had to keep coming to the doorway to cool off.

Jim Waller had come to work for the electric company a month before I began my last summer as summer help in 1982. At the time that I was working on the wall blower in 1984 I was just about to become 24 years old, and a couple of months later, he was going to be 29. Like Gene Day, you instantly knew when you saw Jim that he you liked him. He sort of had that Jim Nabors kind of smile.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger. He had the same likable demeanor.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger. He had the same likable demeanor.

Unlike Gene Day, I never felt like playing a joke on Jim. For some reason, Jim just seemed like too nice of a guy. Where Gene had a slight sort of hidden orneriness about him, Jim was just purely a “good guy”.

This past Christmas eve, five days before Jim turned 57 years old, he passed away after a sudden illness. When the guys at the power plant told me about it, I was sad for their loss and for his family. For Jim, on the other hand…. I think he has always had one foot in heaven from the day I met him. I think he finally stepped the rest of the way through the gate.

For someone like me. If I am ever able to make it to heaven, I’m sure there will be a big to-do about it, because someone would have won the pot and I’m sure the odds would have been high against it. However, the day Jim arrived, it was probably more like “business as usual”. — “Oh, Jim’s arrived….. Like no one didn’t see that coming….” If I could say something to Jim now (and being Catholic, I’m allowed to do that), I would ask Jim, “Put in a good word for all the Power Plant Men!” Because I know that Jim’s word is as good as gold. Here is a real picture of Jim, a true Power Plant Man:

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

 

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman February 23, 2013:

Good post on Jim, Kevin. Now, what is a “normal operator”? 🙂
I remember doing several jobs in super hot areas where I had to wear a heavy coat and gloves to keep from getting burned. Had to take off rings and wrist watch too. Needed to take off my glasses, but then I couldn’t see.

 

Lap o’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant

Originally Posted on April 12, 2013:

I witnessed a fast approaching Wall Cloud coming south from Tulsa when I was on overhaul at the Muskogee Oklahoma Coal-fired Power Plant the fall 1984. I stood outside of the Unit 6 electric shop looking north watching the darkness approaching at an alarming rate. As it approached I could see debris flying up from the highway a half mile away telling me that we were in for one heck of a wind.

It looked similar to this wall cloud, only the front of it was rotating horizontally

It looked similar to this wall cloud, only the front of it was rotating horizontally

I suppose I was mesmerized because all I did was stand there and stare at it. Maybe I thought, “At least if this blows me away, I can spend my last moments staring down a tornado. I watched as the wind hit the precipitator and stirred up the piles of ash under it and blew it away as if someone was blowing out a birthday candle.

The wall cloud rolled right over the top of me looking like a big steamroller wheel. At the same time the wind hit me knocking me back. I couldn’t breathe because of the dust and I took two steps to the electric shop door and dodged inside. The walls rattled as the wind buffeted the building. All I could think of was, “Cool!”

We found out a few minutes later that 4 miles south of us by the Fort Howard Paper plant a tornado dropped out of the cloud and touched down.

That was only one of many exciting moments at the Muskogee Power Plant. Last week I talked about how there must have been something in the water there that made people think and act a little differently than they otherwise would (See Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant). I said that because of the “interesting” way people thought and acted in Muskogee. This is the story about the day I think I drank some of the water by mistake.

Each morning when I was waiting for the work to start in the electric shop, two electricians, Jay Harris and Richard Moravek had a ritual that they performed before heading off to work on the precipitators for the day. One of them would hum a note, then together they would sing a short jingle that went like this: “Nestles makes the very best…….. Chooooocolate!!!” Richard would whistle as he sang, just like the Nestle’s Rabbit– Every morning without fail.

The Nestle's Rabbit

The Nestle’s Rabbit

Both Richard and Jay were soldiers. Jay was a young soldier that knew my brother from the Marine Reserves. He would train with him in the TOW Anti-Tank unit somewhere around Broken Arrow. Richard…. Well… Richard was a Vietnam Veteran that had seen a lot of combat.

Richard had a metal plate in his forehead. He could tap it and you could hear it tink. “Tink, Tink, Tink.” He was a forward observer in Vietnam. They usually had a life expectancy of a couple of weeks. Richard had survived. He was attached to a group of Rangers.

Richard explained to me one time that he used to use a big M60 machine gun like Sylvester Stallone used in the movie Rambo. Only, he couldn’t shoot two of them at a time, and he couldn’t walk forward with it either like Rambo. He could only walk backward because the machine gun would knock you down.

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

I know that Richard suffered from the effects of Agent Orange and was fighting the cancer it caused at one point in his life. He died in November 6, 2007. He left behind a son named Richard that has commented to me that his dad was “A Great Man.”

If I keep talking about the people that I met while I was at Muskogee, I will never get to the story that I want to tell, because heroes seemed to be all over the place. Another electrician was Ellis Moore, who was in Vietnam while he was in the Army. He was still Shell Shocked from his experience there.

He told me stories about how his unit would be patrolling through the woods, and they would hear some gunfire, and they would just all put their backs to each other and would shoot blindly in all directions.

They were frightened and figured that was the only way they were going to stay alive. Ellis had an odd look on his face when he told me this story. One that told me that he had seen things that were too horrible to bring back into his mind.

This leads me to my story…. It began on a Friday afternoon about 2pm. I was working with Ben Davis, a fellow electrician from our plant in North Central Oklahoma.

I enjoyed working with Ben Davis during the overhaul. Ben was one of the most calm and normal person you could find. He was probably the most sane person in the electric shop. He didn’t care what other people thought about him. When he told you what he thought, you could count on it being the truth.

Ben Davis

Ben Davis

When I was dressing up in rags, (See the post From Power Plant Rags to Riches), Ben just looked a little concerned that I may have lost my sanity, but that didn’t keep him from treating me with the respect and dignity that I wasn’t even maintaining for myself.

We were working on 6A Forced Draft Fan and we made a measurement with the large Meggar indicating that the insulation might be a little weak somewhere in the motor.

We weren’t sure what the acceptable level of deviation was from the norm, so we decided that we would find Don Spears and ask him. Don was the Electrical Supervisor at Muskogee at the time. He was the splittin’ image of Oklahoma University’s Football Coach Barry Switzer’s bigger brother.

Don Spears looked like Barry Switzer's Older Brother. Bigger and Meaner

Don Spears looked like Barry Switzer’s Older Brother. Bigger and Meaner

Ben and I talked to John Manning, the Electrical B Foreman, and he agreed that we should talk to Don, and would let him know that we were looking for him when he returned from a meeting he was attending.

We waited around in the Unit 6 electric shop until around 3 o’clock. At 3 o’clock on Friday, we liked to bug out early to head home to our families. At lunch I would go to the trailer down by the river and pack up my stuff in my car and then park it outside the electric shop so that when 3 o’clock rolled around, we could dodge out the door and head for home.

Only this time, we were waiting around for Don to show up. We finally decided…. What the heck…. We can talk to him on Monday. We bolted out the door, and Ben and I headed back toward Stillwater at breakneck speed.

Come Monday morning, I pulled up to the electric shop parking lot, and who do you think was standing there just waiting for me? Yep. Don Spears. With his hands on his hips, and his big Football Coach stance trying his darnedest to look just like Barry Switzer telling his team at half time that they were going to have to do better than that.

I happened to pull up to the shop about the same time that Ben did. Don Spears immediately lit into us. He said, “You left early on Friday didn’t you!!!” I said, “What? Surely not!”

Don replied that he came looking for us around 3:30 and we were no where to be found. He paged us but we didn’t answer. I responded by telling him that we must have been out working on a motor and couldn’t hear him because it was too noisy.

Of course, Don wasn’t going to buy that. He said this Friday he wanted to us to meet him in his office at 4:00. He was going to make sure we didn’t bug out early. Ben and I assured him that we would be there.

So, next Friday at lunch Don came down to the shop and said….. “Remember. I want to see you in my office at 4:00 sharp. We both told him that we would be there, come rain or shine.

3 o’clock rolled around and we headed for home… I don’t think I stopped laughing until I was in Tulsa. It is always fun to play an on-going joke with someone. Especially when that someone could pulverize you with one simple punch.

So, you can imagine what I saw when I arrived at the Unit 6 Electric Shop next Monday Morning….

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

Yep. That was Don. He was standing there with his feet spread apart just like Paul Bunyan. His hands were on his hips and he looked rather mad. He said, “You Did it Again!!! You left early!”

I said, “What do you mean we left early?” He said, “You didn’t come to my office at 4:00!” “Oh, ” I said, “I can’t believe we forgot! Sorry! It must have slipped our mind.”

I know. I was being rotten, but this was just too much fun.

So, here comes next Friday. Same routine. At lunch I drove down to the trailer down by the river (the Arkansas River) and packed up my stuff and parked my car outside the Unit 6 Electric Shop expecting to leave out of there around 3 o’clock

Around 2:30 in the afternoon, Ben and I were working on something in the shop getting ready to clean up and head on home. Don Spears was sitting in the electric shop office in a chair right inside the door where he could look out and watch our every move.

As 3 o’clock rolled by, there was Don Spears with his face plastered to the window in the door not taking his eyes off of us, with a big grin on his face. Ben said something like “it looks like he has us this time.”

So, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands…. I walked in the office and sat down right on Don Spear’s lap. He looked at me totally surprised. I put my arms around his neck and I looked him straight in the eyes…..

Don sat there stunned. He couldn’t move, and he couldn’t speak. With the most sincere expression I could muster up, while looking in his eyes as dreamily as I could, I said, “You are just the cutest thing. I can’t hardly STAND it!” (Imagine saying that to Barry Switzer’s bigger brother). Then I stood up and sort of danced out into the shop.

I turned my head just enough to see Don darting out the back door to the office in the other direction. I turned to Ben and said, “Let’s go!” Out we went, and we were on our way home.

Come next Monday morning….. Ok…. I figured…. here it comes…. I drove up to the electric shop parking lot and there was Barry…. I mean Don… smoking a cigarette pacing back and forth in front of the electric shop door.  What?  No hands on his hips?

As I approached him he said, “I know what you’re up to!” I said in a calm voice with as straight of a face that I could muster… “What do you mean?” He said, “I talked to Bill Bennett (the A Foreman at our plant). He told me that you are just using ‘Psychology’ on me.”

I replied, “I am? What do you mean?” He said, “You know what I mean.” I looked confused as if I didn’t know what he was talking about. He continued, “Bill told me all about you.” I said something like, “Bill is a great guy.” Then I walked into the shop.

The next Friday…. Don was no where to be seen. The remainder of the overhaul, Don was keeping his distance. I don’t think we caught sight of him the next 4 weeks. It seemed that I had finally spooked him. From that point on, he decided that he didn’t care so much if we bugged out early.

Lap o’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant

Originally Posted on April 12, 2013:

I witnessed a fast approaching Wall Cloud coming south from Tulsa when I was on overhaul at the Muskogee Oklahoma Coal-fired Power Plant the fall 1984. I stood outside of the Unit 6 electric shop looking north watching the darkness approaching at an alarming rate. As it approached I could see debris flying up from the highway a half mile away telling me that we were in for one heck of a wind.

It looked similar to this wall cloud, only the front of it was rotating horizontally

It looked similar to this wall cloud, only the front of it was rotating horizontally

I suppose I was mesmerized because all I did was stand there and stare at it. Maybe I thought, “At least if this blows me away, I can spend my last moments staring down a tornado. I watched as the wind hit the precipitator and stirred up the piles of ash under it and blew it away as if someone was blowing out a birthday candle.

The wall cloud rolled right over the top of me looking like a big steamroller wheel. At the same time the wind hit me knocking me back. I couldn’t breathe because of the dust and I took two steps to the electric shop door and dodged inside. The walls rattled as the wind buffeted the building. All I could think of was, “Cool!”

We found out a few minutes later that 4 miles south of us by the Fort Howard Paper plant a tornado dropped out of the cloud and touched down.

That was only one of many exciting moments at the Muskogee Power Plant. Last week I talked about how there must have been something in the water there that made people think and act a little differently than they otherwise would (See Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant). I said that because of the “interesting” way people thought and acted in Muskogee. This is the story about the day I think I drank some of the water by mistake.

Each morning when I was waiting for the work to start in the electric shop, two electricians, Jay Harris and Richard Moravek had a ritual that they performed before heading off to work on the precipitators for the day. One of them would hum a note, then together they would sing a short jingle that went like this: “Nestles makes the very best…….. Chooooocolate!!!” Richard would whistle as he sang, just like the Nestle’s Rabbit– Every morning without fail.

The Nestle's Rabbit

The Nestle’s Rabbit

Both Richard and Jay were soldiers. Jay was a young soldier that knew my brother from the Marine Reserves. He would train with him in the TOW Anti-Tank unit somewhere around Broken Arrow. Richard…. Well… Richard was a Vietnam Veteran that had seen a lot of combat.

Richard had a metal plate in his forehead. He could tap it and you could hear it tink. “Tink, Tink, Tink.” He was a forward observer in Vietnam. They usually had a life expectancy of a couple of weeks. Richard had survived. He was attached to a group of Rangers.

Richard explained to me one time that he used to use a big M60 machine gun like Sylvester Stallone used in the movie Rambo. Only, he couldn’t shoot two of them at a time, and he couldn’t walk forward with it either like Rambo. He could only walk backward because the machine gun would knock you down.

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

I know that Richard suffered from the effects of Agent Orange and was fighting the cancer it caused at one point in his life. He died in November 6, 2007. He left behind a son named Richard that has commented to me that his dad was “A Great Man.”

If I keep talking about the people that I met while I was at Muskogee, I will never get to the story that I want to tell, because heroes seemed to be all over the place. Another electrician was Ellis Moore, who was in Vietnam while he was in the Army. He was still Shell Shocked from his experience there.

He told me stories about how his unit would be patrolling through the woods, and they would hear some gunfire, and they would just all put their backs to each other and would shoot blindly in all directions.

They were frightened and figured that was the only way they were going to stay alive. Ellis had an odd look on his face when he told me this story. One that told me that he had seen things that were too horrible to bring back into his mind.

This leads me to my story…. It began on a Friday afternoon about 2pm. I was working with Ben Davis, a fellow electrician from our plant in North Central Oklahoma.

I enjoyed working with Ben Davis during the overhaul. Ben was one of the most calm and normal person you could find. He was probably the most sane person in the electric shop. He didn’t care what other people thought about him. When he told you what he thought, you could count on it being the truth.

Ben Davis

Ben Davis

When I was dressing up in rags, (See the post From Power Plant Rags to Riches), Ben just looked a little concerned that I may have lost my sanity, but that didn’t keep him from treating me with the respect and dignity that I wasn’t even maintaining for myself.

We were working on 6A Forced Draft Fan and we made a measurement with the large Meggar indicating that the insulation might be a little weak somewhere in the motor.

We weren’t sure what the acceptable level of deviation was from the norm, so we decided that we would find Don Spears and ask him. Don was the Electrical Supervisor at Muskogee at the time. He was the spittin’ image of Oklahoma University’s Football Coach Barry Switzer’s bigger brother.

Don Spears looked like Barry Switzer's Older Brother. Bigger and Meaner

Don Spears looked like Barry Switzer’s Older Brother. Bigger and Meaner

Ben and I talked to John Manning, the Electrical B Foreman, and he agreed that we should talk to Don, and would let him know that we were looking for him when he returned from a meeting he was attending.

We waited around in the Unit 6 electric shop until around 3 o’clock. At 3 o’clock on Friday, we liked to bug out early to head home to our families. At lunch I would go to the trailer down by the river and pack up my stuff in my car and then park it outside the electric shop so that when 3 o’clock rolled around, we could dodge out the door and head for home.

Only this time, we were waiting around for Don to show up. We finally decided…. What the heck…. We can talk to him on Monday. We bolted out the door, and Ben and I headed back toward Stillwater at breakneck speed.

Come Monday morning, I pulled up to the electric shop parking lot, and who do you think was standing there just waiting for me? Yep. Don Spears. With his hands on his hips, and his big Football Coach stance trying his darnedest to look just like Barry Switzer telling his team at half time that they were going to have to do better than that.

I happened to pull up to the shop about the same time that Ben did. Don Spears immediately lit into us. He said, “You left early on Friday didn’t you!!!” I said, “What? Surely not!”

Don replied that he came looking for us around 3:30 and we were no where to be found. He paged us but we didn’t answer. I responded by telling him that we must have been out working on a motor and couldn’t hear him because it was too noisy.

Of course, Don wasn’t going to buy that. He said this Friday he wanted us to meet him in his office at 4:00. He was going to make sure we didn’t bug out early. Ben and I assured him that we would be there.

So, next Friday at lunch Don came down to the shop and said….. “Remember. I want to see you in my office at 4:00 sharp. We both told him that we would be there, come rain or shine.

3 o’clock rolled around and we headed for home… I don’t think I stopped laughing until I was in Tulsa. It is always fun to play an on-going joke with someone. Especially when that someone could pulverize you with one simple punch.

So, you can imagine what I saw when I arrived at the Unit 6 Electric Shop next Monday Morning….

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

Yep. That was Don. He was standing there with his feet spread apart just like Paul Bunyan. His hands were on his hips and he looked rather mad. He said, “You Did it Again!!! You left early!”

I said, “What do you mean we left early?” He said, “You didn’t come to my office at 4:00!” “Oh, ” I said, “I can’t believe we forgot! Sorry! It must have slipped our mind.”

I know. I was being rotten, but this was just too much fun.

So, here comes next Friday. Same routine. At lunch I drove down to the trailer down by the river and packed up my stuff and parked my car outside the Unit 6 Electric Shop expecting to leave out of there around 3 o’clock

Around 2:30 in the afternoon, Ben and I were working on something in the shop getting ready to clean up and head on home. Don Spears was sitting in the electric shop office in a chair right inside the door where he could look out and watch our every move.

As 3 o’clock rolled by, there was Don Spears with his face plastered to the window in the door not taking his eyes off of us, with a big grin on his face. Ben said something like “it looks like he has us this time.”

So, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands…. I walked in the office and sat down right on Don Spear’s lap. He looked at me totally surprised. I put my arms around his neck and I looked him straight in the eyes…..

Don sat there stunned. He couldn’t move, and he couldn’t speak. With the most sincere expression I could muster up, while looking in his eyes as dreamily as I could, I said, “You are just the cutest thing. I can’t hardly STAND it!” (Imagine saying that to Barry Switzer’s bigger brother). Then I stood up and walked out into the shop.

I turned my head just enough to see Don darting out the back door to the office in the other direction. I turned to Ben and said, “Let’s go!” Out we went, and we were on our way home.

Come next Monday morning….. Ok…. I figured…. here it comes…. I drove up to the electric shop parking lot and there was Barry…. I mean Don… smoking a cigarette pacing back and forth in front of the electric shop door.

As I approached him he said, “I know what you’re up to!” I said in a calm voice with as straight of a face that I could muster… “What do you mean?” He said, “I talked to Bill Bennett (the A Foreman at our plant). He told me that you are just using ‘Psychology’ on me.”

I replied, “I am? What do you mean?” He said, “You know what I mean.” I looked confused as if I didn’t know what he was talking about. He continued, “Bill told me all about you.” I said something like, “Bill is a great guy.” Then I walked into the shop.

The next Friday…. Don was no where to be seen. The remainder of the overhaul, Don was keeping his distance. I don’t think we caught sight of him the next 4 weeks. It seemed that I had finally spooked him. From that point on, he decided that he didn’t care so much if we bugged out early.

Blowing it with Power Plant Retracts and Wall Blowers

Originally Posted February 23, 2013:

I never gave it much thought that when I was on the labor crew at the Coal-fired Power Plant in Oklahoma and we had to go in the boiler to shake the boiler tubes, that next to the portals where you would climb into the boiler there were long metal benches where you could sit just outside while you rested between moments when the dynamiters were getting ready to set off their explosives. (All right… right off the bat…. a run-on sentence the size of a paragraph… I can tell it’s going to be a long night).

To learn more about the dynamiters and shaking boiler tubes you can read the post: Cracking a boiled Egg in the Boiler. At other times while I was on the labor crew, I had heard these same benches making a tremendous sound that you could hear from a few landings away. It sounded like a large steam leak would sound, and at the same time, you could hear some kind of mechanical gears or something running and maybe a chain clanging. I didn’t really understand what the purpose of these long benches served then, only that it was a good place to put the water jug and the box of fly ash suits to keep them from being stepped on.

It was after I had become an electrician that these long metal benches took on another meaning. I found out that they were called “Retracts”. I was told that they called them retracts because what they do is they run a long metal pipe into the boiler and then Retract it back. Ok. I thought it was rather odd to name something for a seemingly insignificant part of the function. After I understood what they were used for, I thought I could come up with a lot better name than “Retract”.

After all, we had equipment like “Honey Wagon” , “Coffin Houses”, “Clinker Grinder”. All really descriptive names. So, when Charles Foster told me to go with Diane Lucas (later Diane Brien) to work on 7R retract, I was expecting to go find some little lever going back and forth making a sound like “brrrr…oops…..brrr…..oops” as it swung back and forth. I would name something like that a “Retract”.

Actually, I would like to have been able to have kept a couple of Retracts in my pocket so that when I would smart off to Leroy Godfrey our Electrical Supervisor, I could pull one out and press the button and… “swoop”! Retracted!

So, what is a Retract? Well. In the story that I linked to above about the cracked egg in the boiler, I explained how when I was on the labor crew we had to go in the boiler and tie ropes to these hanging boiler tubes and then shake them back and forth to clean out the hard ash that had built up on them. Well, The Retract would sort of do that when the boiler was online. They would clean out the tubes in the reheat area of the boiler for the most part.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

What it would do is this. It seemed like 7R retract was about 40 feet long (someone at the plant can correct me if I’m wrong about the length). When it would turn on, it would start rotating a pipe about that long and start pushing it into the boiler. Once the nozzle at the end of the pipe was in the boiler a couple of feet steam would start blasting down the pipe to the nozzle on the end that would shoot the steam out at right angles to the pipe. As the pipe rotated, it would be shooting out steam in a circular motion as the pipe slowly traversed into the boiler.

You see… My dentist told me a long time ago that I should Floss my teeth more if I didn’t want to wear dentures when I was older. By keeping the bits of food out from between my teeth, not only did my breath smell better, but my gums could remain healthy as well. So, I listened to him and started flossing. Retracts are kind of like that.

The Retracts were designed to clean out the areas of the boiler where the ash would build up the most causing the efficiency of the boiler to be degraded. So at certain times of the day, the Control Room operator will push a button on the side panel (at least that was what they used to do… now they probably click an icon on their computer) and it would start the cycle of the retracts going in and out one at a time cleaning out the boiler.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler.  I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers... no, not really.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler. I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers… no, not really. Sorry the picture is a little small

Anyway. I finally learned what those long metal benches were for and it fascinated me. I wonder how long it took before someone said what now would seem obvious…. “Hey. Instead of having to bring the boiler offline every week or so, how about if we just create this boiler flossing equipment that cleans the boiler out while it is online?”

It made me wonder about the other equipment around the plant. I’ll bet there was a good use for just about everything. And you know what? I think I was right. Instead of just putting all that equipment all over the place for us to play on like a big jungle gym, everything seemed to have a real good purpose.

After 4 years working as a summer help, and one more year as a janitor and on the labor crew, I thought I had seen just about everything in the plant. When I became an electrician, all of the sudden a whole new world opened up to me. Even that bench I had been sitting on turned into a monster machine that blasted away ash clinkers while the rest of us lay at home in our beds dreaming of chocolate, and dragons, and um… other things people dream about.

So, what about the Wall Blower? Well. These are like the retracts, only they are much smaller. they were placed around the walls of the main boiler at strategic locations to blast clinkers that may be building up along the main wall of the boiler. The area in the boiler diagram up above called the Water Wall.

For some reason (and I’m sure it’s a good one), From what was called floor 6 1/2, though it was actually about the 13th floor, on down was an area called the “Boiler Enclosure”. This meant that when you walked up to the boiler, you first had to go through a door and enter an enclosed area around the boiler. 7th floor and above, the boiler was outside.

I’ve been to plants where the entire boiler was enclosed, and I’ve seen some that didn’t look like any of it was enclosed, so I figure this was a happy median between the two. It meant that if it was raining outside and you needed to work on the boiler, it made a big difference how high up you had to go as to whether you needed your rain suit or not.

I mention this because one day I had to go by myself to work on a wall blower that was on the 6 and 1/2 floor just at the top of the boiler enclosure. The wall blower was naturally situated right next to the boiler. and all the heat generated from the boiler and the piping that came from the bowl mills that blew the coal into the furnace had made the area very hot. The Wall blower had been tripping the breaker and I was supposed to go fix it.

I brought an infrared temperature gun with me and found that the area where the wall blower was mounted was 160 degrees. Maybe it was that high because it was the middle of a hot summer day, and with everything else going on, all the heat trapped right at the top of the boiler enclosure, it had just turned into a huge easy-bake oven.

When I touched the metal door to the control panel on the side of the wall blower, it burned my fingers. I had to use my tee-shirt as a rag to keep from burning my self. I could only stand next to the wall blower for about 30 seconds and then I had to walk back over the doorway and breathe some fresh air and cool off for a minute before going back.

After opening the control panel, I could see what the problem was right away. The insulation on the wires going to the terminal block had the insulation dripping off the wires. The insulation was melting.

I went back to the shop and found some wire that was designed for high temperatures, because obviously someone had used the wrong type of wire when assembling this particular wall blower, given it’s location on the boiler.

High Temperature Wire

High Temperature Wire

Because of the intense heat where I was standing when trying to rewire the wall blower, I was not able to take very big breaths. I had to breathe very shallow, or not at all. So, I would go up to the blower and work as fast as I could removing a screw or putting a new wire down and then I would go back to the doorway about 60 feet from the wall blower and cool off.

As I mentioned in the post about the Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew, when you are in this intense heat, your hardhat becomes soft like a baseball cap. In this case, I wasn’t in the heat long enough for this to happen, though I was sweating like a pig.

I had been doing this for a while when an operator showed up wondering what I was doing. His name was Jim Waller and he had been watching me from a distance. He said he was trying to figure out what I was up to because he would see me show up at the doorway and stand there for a while not doing anything, then turning around like I had forgotten something only to show up again about 1/2 minute later.

When he couldn’t figure out what I was doing on his own, he decided to take a closer look. I found him standing at the doorway waiting for me to arrive with a puzzled look on his face. I was tempted to just say nothing and just stand there and take a few breathes and then go back to the wall blower and continue my work.

I couldn’t do that however, when Jim asked me what I was doing. Jim was one of the nicest and most normal operators you could run across. I just couldn’t joke with him. So, I told him I was working on that wall blower over there, but that it was so hot that I had to keep coming to the doorway to cool off.

Jim Waller had come to work for the electric company a month before I began my last summer as summer help in 1982. At the time that I was working on the wall blower in 1984 I was just about to become 24 years old, and a couple of months later, he was going to be 29. Like Gene Day, you instantly knew when you saw Jim that he you liked him. He sort of had that Jim Nabors kind of smile.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger.  He had the same likable demeanor.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger. He had the same likable demeanor.

Unlike Gene Day, I never felt like playing a joke on Jim. For some reason, Jim just seemed like too nice of a guy. Where Gene had a slight sort of hidden orneriness about him, Jim was just purely a “good guy”.

This past Christmas eve, five days before Jim turned 57 years old, he passed away after a sudden illness. When the guys at the power plant told me about it, I was sad for their loss and for his family. For Jim, on the other hand…. I think he has always had one foot in heaven from the day I met him. I think he finally stepped the rest of the way through the gate.

For someone like me. If I am ever able to make it to heaven, I’m sure there will be a big to-do about it, because someone would have won the pot and I’m sure the odds would have been high against it. However, the day Jim arrived, it was probably more like “business as usual”. — “Oh, Jim’s arrived….. Like no one didn’t see that coming….” If I could say something to Jim now (and being Catholic, I’m allowed to do that), I would ask Jim, “Put in a good word for all the Power Plant Men!” Because I know that Jim’s word is as good as gold. Here is a real picture of Jim, a true Power Plant Man:

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

 

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman February 23, 2013:

Good post on Jim, Kevin. Now, what is a “normal operator”? 🙂
I remember doing several jobs in super hot areas where I had to wear a heavy coat and gloves to keep from getting burned. Had to take off rings and wrist watch too. Needed to take off my glasses, but then I couldn’t see.

 

Lap o’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant — Repost

Originally Posted on April 12, 2013:

I witnessed a fast approaching Wall Cloud coming south from Tulsa when I was on overhaul at the Muskogee Oklahoma Coal-fired Power Plant the fall 1984. I stood outside of the Unit 6 electric shop looking north watching the darkness approaching at an alarming rate. As it approached I could see debris flying up from the highway a half mile away telling me that we were in for one heck of a wind.

It looked similar to this wall cloud, only the front of it was rotating horizontally

It looked similar to this wall cloud, only the front of it was rotating horizontally

I suppose I was mesmerized because all I did was stand there and stare at it. Maybe I thought, “At least if this blows me away, I can spend my last moments staring down a tornado. I watched as the wind hit the precipitator and stirred up the piles of ash under it and blew it away as if someone was blowing out a birthday candle.

The wall cloud rolled right over the top of me looking like a big steamroller wheel. At the same time the wind hit me knocking me back. I couldn’t breathe because of the dust and I took two steps to the electric shop door and dodged inside. The walls rattled as the wind buffeted the building. All I could think of was, “Cool!”

We found out a few minutes later that 4 miles south of us by the Fort Howard Paper plant a tornado dropped out of the cloud and touched down.

That was only one of many exciting moments at the Muskogee Power Plant. Last week I talked about how there must have been something in the water there that made people think and act a little differently than they otherwise would (See Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant). I said that because of the “interesting” way people thought and acted in Muskogee. This is the story about the day I think I drank some of the water by mistake.

Each morning when I was waiting for the work to start in the electric shop, two electricians, Jay Harris and Richard Moravek had a ritual that they performed before heading off to work on the precipitators for the day. One of them would hum a note, then together they would sing a short jingle that went like this: “Nestles makes the very best…….. Chooooocolate!!!” Richard would whistle as he sang, just like the Nestle’s Rabbit– Every morning without fail.

The Nestle's Rabbit

The Nestle’s Rabbit

Both Richard and Jay were soldiers. Jay was a young soldier that knew my brother from the Marine Reserves. He would train with him in the TOW Anti-Tank unit somewhere around Broken Arrow. Richard…. Well… Richard was a Vietnam Veteran that had seen a lot of combat.

Richard had a metal plate in his forehead. He could tap it and you could hear it tink. “Tink, Tink, Tink.” He was a forward observer in Vietnam. They usually had a life expectancy of a couple of weeks. Richard had survived. He was attached to a group of Rangers.

Richard explained to me one time that he used to use a big M60 machine gun like Sylvester Stallone used in the movie Rambo. Only, he couldn’t shoot two of them at a time, and he couldn’t walk forward with it either like Rambo. He could only walk backward because the machine gun would knock you down.

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

I know that Richard suffered from the effects of Agent Orange and was fighting the cancer it caused at one point in his life. He died in November 6, 2007. He left behind a son named Richard that has commented to me that his dad was “A Great Man.”

If I keep talking about the people that I met while I was at Muskogee, I will never get to the story that I want to tell, because heroes seemed to be all over the place. Another electrician was Ellis Moore, who was in Vietnam while he was in the Army. He was still Shell Shocked from his experience there.

He told me stories about how his unit would be patrolling through the woods, and they would hear some gunfire, and they would just all put their backs to each other and would shoot blindly in all directions.

They were frightened and figured that was the only way they were going to stay alive. Ellis had an odd look on his face when he told me this story. One that told me that he had seen things that were too horrible to bring back into his mind.

This leads me to my story…. It began on a Friday afternoon about 2pm. I was working with Ben Davis, a fellow electrician from our plant in North Central Oklahoma.

I enjoyed working with Ben Davis during the overhaul. Ben was one of the most calm and normal person you could find. He was probably the most sane person in the electric shop. He didn’t care what other people thought about him. When he told you what he thought, you could count on it being the truth.

When I was dressing up in rags, (See the post From Power Plant Rags to Riches), Ben just looked a little concerned that I may have lost my sanity, but that didn’t keep him from treating me with the respect and dignity that I wasn’t even maintaining for myself.

We were working on 6A Forced Draft Fan and we made a measurement with the large Meggar indicating that the insulation might be a little weak somewhere in the motor.

We weren’t sure what the acceptable level of deviation was from the norm, so we decided that we would find Don Spears and ask him. Don was the Electrical Supervisor at Muskogee at the time. He was the splittin’ image of Oklahoma University’s Football Coach Barry Switzer’s bigger brother.

Don Spears looked like Barry Switzer's Older Brother.  Bigger and Meaner

Don Spears looked like Barry Switzer’s Older Brother. Bigger and Meaner

Ben and I talked to John Manning, the Electrical B Foreman, and he agreed that we should talk to Don, and would let him know that we were looking for him when he returned from a meeting he was attending.

We waited around in the Unit 6 electric shop until around 3 o’clock. At 3 o’clock on Friday, we liked to bug out early to head home to our families. At lunch I would go to the trailer down by the river and pack up my stuff in my car and then park it outside the electric shop so that when 3 o’clock rolled around, we could dodge out the door and head for home.

Only this time, we were waiting around for Don to show up. We finally decided…. What the heck…. We can talk to him on Monday. We bolted out the door, and Ben and I headed back toward Stillwater at breakneck speed.

Come Monday morning, I pulled up to the electric shop parking lot, and who do you think was standing there just waiting for me? Yep. Don Spears. With his hands on his hips, and his big Football Coach stance trying his darnedest to look just like Barry Switzer telling his team at half time that they were going to have to do better than that.

I happened to pull up to the shop about the same time that Ben did. Don Spears immediately lit into us. He said, “You left early on Friday didn’t you!!!” I said, “What? Surely not!”

Don replied that he came looking for us around 3:30 and we were no where to be found. He paged us but we didn’t answer. I responded by telling him that we must have been out working on a motor and couldn’t hear him because it was too noisy.

Of course, Don wasn’t going to buy that. He said this Friday he wanted to us to meet him in his office at 4:00. He was going to make sure we didn’t bug out early. Ben and I assured him that we would be there.

So, next Friday at lunch Don came down to the shop and said….. “Remember. I want to see you in my office at 4:00 sharp. We both told him that we would be there, come rain or shine.

3 o’clock rolled around and we headed for home… I don’t think I stopped laughing until I was in Tulsa. It is always fun to play an on-going joke with someone. Especially when that someone could pulverize you with one simple punch.

So, you can imagine what I saw when I arrived at the Unit 6 Electric Shop next Monday Morning….

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

Yep. That was Don. He was standing there with his feet spread apart just like Paul Bunyan. His hands were on his hips and he looked rather mad. He said, “You Did it Again!!! You left early!”

I said, “What do you mean we left early?” He said, “You didn’t come to my office at 4:00!” “Oh, ” I said, “I can’t believe we forgot! Sorry! It must have slipped our mind.”

I know. I was being rotten, but this was just too much fun.

So, here comes next Friday. Same routine. At lunch I drove down to the trailer down by the river and packed up my stuff and parked my car outside the Unit 6 Electric Shop expecting to leave out of there around 3 o’clock

Around 2:30 in the afternoon, Ben and I were working on something in the shop getting ready to clean up and head on home. Don Spears was sitting in the electric shop office in a chair right inside the door where he could look out and watch our every move.

As 3 o’clock rolled by, there was Don Spears with his face plastered to the window in the door not taking his eyes off of us, with a big grin on his face. Ben said something like “it looks like he has us this time.”

So, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands…. I walked in the office and sat down right on Don Spear’s lap. He looked at me totally surprised. I put my arms around his neck and I looked him straight in the eyes…..

Don sat there stunned. He couldn’t move, and he couldn’t speak. With the most sincere expression I could muster up, while looking in his eyes as dreamily as I could, I said, “You are just the cutest thing. I can’t hardly STAND it!” (Imagine saying that to Barry Switzer’s bigger brother). Then I stood up and walked out into the shop.

I turned my head just enough to see Don darting out the back door to the office in the other direction. I turned to Ben and said, “Let’s go!” Out we went, and we were on our way home.

Come next Monday morning….. Ok…. I figured…. here it comes…. I drove up to the electric shop parking lot and there was Barry…. I mean Don… smoking a cigarette pacing back and forth in front of the electric shop door.

As I approached him he said, “I know what you’re up to!” I said in a calm voice with as straight of a face that I could muster… “What do you mean?” He said, “I talked to Bill Bennett (the A Foreman at our plant). He told me that you are just using ‘Psychology’ on me.”

I replied, “I am? What do you mean?” He said, “You know what I mean.” I looked confused as if I didn’t know what he was talking about. He continued, “Bill told me all about you.” I said something like, “Bill is a great guy.” Then I walked into the shop.

The next Friday…. Don was no where to be seen. The remainder of the overhaul, Don was keeping his distance. I don’t think we caught sight of him the next 4 weeks. It seemed that I had finally spooked him. From that point on, he decided that he didn’t care so much if we bugged out early.

Blowing it with Power Plant Retracts and Wall Blowers — Repost

Originally Posted February 23, 2013:

I never gave it much thought that when I was on the labor crew at the Coal-fired Power Plant in Oklahoma and we had to go in the boiler to shake the boiler tubes, that next to the portals where you would climb into the boiler there were long metal benches where you could sit just outside while you rested between moments when the dynamiters were getting ready to set off their explosives. (All right… right off the bat…. a run-on sentence the size of a paragraph… I can tell it’s going to be a long night).

To learn more about the dynamiters and shaking boiler tubes you can read the post: Cracking a boiled Egg in the Boiler. At other times while I was on the labor crew, I had heard these same benches making a tremendous sound that you could hear from a few landings away. It sounded like a large steam leak would sound, and at the same time, you could hear some kind of mechanical gears or something running and maybe a chain clanging. I didn’t really understand what the purpose of these long benches served then, only that it was a good place to put the water jug and the box of fly ash suits to keep them from being stepped on.

It was after I had become an electrician that these long metal benches took on another meaning. I found out that they were called “Retracts”. I was told that they called them retracts because what they do is they run a long metal pipe into the boiler and then Retract it back. Ok. I thought it was rather odd to name something for a seemingly insignificant part of the function. After I understood what they were used for, I thought I could come up with a lot better name than “Retract”.

After all, we had equipment like “Honey Wagon” , “Coffin Houses”, “Clinker Grinder”. All really descriptive names. So, when Charles Foster told me to go with Diane Lucas (later Diane Brien) to work on 7R retract, I was expecting to go find some little lever going back and forth making a sound like “brrrr…oops…..brrr…..oops” as it swung back and forth. I would name something like that a “Retract”.

Actually, I would like to have been able to have kept a couple of Retracts in my pocket so that when I would smart off to Leroy Godfrey our Electrical Supervisor, I could pull one out and press the button and… “swoop”! Retracted!

So, what is a Retract? Well. In the story that I linked to above about the cracked egg in the boiler, I explained how when I was on the labor crew we had to go in the boiler and tie ropes to these hanging boiler tubes and then shake them back and forth to clean out the hard ash that had built up on them. Well, The Retract would sort of do that when the boiler was online. They would clean out the tubes in the reheat area of the boiler for the most part.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

What it would do is this. It seemed like 7R retract was about 40 feet long (someone at the plant can correct me if I’m wrong about the length). When it would turn on, it would start rotating a pipe about that long and start pushing it into the boiler. Once the nozzle at the end of the pipe was in the boiler a couple of feet steam would start blasting down the pipe to the nozzle on the end that would shoot the steam out at right angles to the pipe. As the pipe rotated, it would be shooting out steam in a circular motion as the pipe slowly traversed into the boiler.

You see… My dentist told me a long time ago that I should Floss my teeth more if I didn’t want to wear dentures when I was older. By keeping the bits of food out from between my teeth, not only did my breath smell better, but my gums could remain healthy as well. So, I listened to him and started flossing. Retracts are kind of like that.

The Retracts were designed to clean out the areas of the boiler where the ash would build up the most causing the efficiency of the boiler to be degraded. So at certain times of the day, the Control Room operator will push a button on the side panel (at least that was what they used to do… now they probably click an icon on their computer) and it would start the cycle of the retracts going in and out one at a time cleaning out the boiler.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler.  I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers... no, not really.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler. I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers… no, not really. Sorry the picture is a little small

Anyway. I finally learned what those long metal benches were for and it fascinated me. I wonder how long it took before someone said what now would seem obvious…. “Hey. Instead of having to bring the boiler offline every week or so, how about if we just create this boiler flossing equipment that cleans the boiler out while it is online?”

It made me wonder about the other equipment around the plant. I’ll bet there was a good use for just about everything. And you know what? I think I was right. Instead of just putting all that equipment all over the place for us to play on like a big jungle gym, everything seemed to have a real good purpose.

After 4 years working as a summer help, and one more year as a janitor and on the labor crew, I thought I had seen just about everything in the plant. When I became an electrician, all of the sudden a whole new world opened up to me. Even that bench I had been sitting on turned into a monster machine that blasted away ash clinkers while the rest of us lay at home in our beds dreaming of chocolate, and dragons, and um… other things people dream about.

So, what about the Wall Blower? Well. These are like the retracts, only they are much smaller. they were placed around the walls of the main boiler at strategic locations to blast clinkers that may be building up along the main wall of the boiler. The area in the boiler diagram up above called the Water Wall.

For some reason (and I’m sure it’s a good one), From what was called floor 6 1/2, though it was actually about the 13th floor, on down was an area called the “Boiler Enclosure”. This meant that when you walked up to the boiler, you first had to go through a door and enter an enclosed area around the boiler. 7th floor and above, the boiler was outside.

I’ve been to plants where the entire boiler was enclosed, and I’ve seen some that didn’t look like any of it was enclosed, so I figure this was a happy median between the two. It meant that if it was raining outside and you needed to work on the boiler, it made a big difference how high up you had to go as to whether you needed your rain suit or not.

I mention this because one day I had to go by myself to work on a wall blower that was on the 6 and 1/2 floor just at the top of the boiler enclosure. The wall blower was naturally situated right next to the boiler. and all the heat generated from the boiler and the piping that came from the bowl mills that blew the coal into the furnace had made the area very hot. The Wall blower had been tripping the breaker and I was supposed to go fix it.

I brought an infrared temperature gun with me and found that the area where the wall blower was mounted was 160 degrees. Maybe it was that high because it was the middle of a hot summer day, and with everything else going on, all the heat trapped right at the top of the boiler enclosure, it had just turned into a huge easy-bake oven.

When I touched the metal door to the control panel on the side of the wall blower, it burned my fingers. I had to use my tee-shirt as a rag to keep from burning my self. I could only stand next to the wall blower for about 30 seconds and then I had to walk back over the doorway and breathe some fresh air and cool off for a minute before going back.

After opening the control panel, I could see what the problem was right away. The insulation on the wires going to the terminal block had the insulation dripping off the wires. The insulation was melting.

I went back to the shop and found some wire that was designed for high temperatures, because obviously someone had used the wrong type of wire when assembling this particular wall blower, given it’s location on the boiler.

High Temperature Wire

High Temperature Wire

Because of the intense heat where I was standing when trying to rewire the wall blower, I was not able to take very big breaths. I had to breathe very shallow, or not at all. So, I would go up to the blower and work as fast as I could removing a screw or putting a new wire down and then I would go back to the doorway about 60 feet from the wall blower and cool off.

As I mentioned in the post about the Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew, when you are in this intense heat, your hardhat becomes soft like a baseball cap. In this case, I wasn’t in the heat long enough for this to happen, though I was sweating like a pig.

I had been doing this for a while when an operator showed up wondering what I was doing. His name was Jim Waller and he had been watching me from a distance. He said he was trying to figure out what I was up to because he would see me show up at the doorway and stand there for a while not doing anything, then turning around like I had forgotten something only to show up again about 1/2 minute later.

When he couldn’t figure out what I was doing on his own, he decided to take a closer look. I found him standing at the doorway waiting for me to arrive with a puzzled look on his face. I was tempted to just say nothing and just stand there and take a few breathes and then go back to the wall blower and continue my work.

I couldn’t do that however, when Jim asked me what I was doing. Jim was one of the nicest and most normal operators you could run across. I just couldn’t joke with him. So, I told him I was working on that wall blower over there, but that it was so hot that I had to keep coming to the doorway to cool off.

Jim Waller had come to work for the electric company a month before I began my last summer as summer help in 1982. At the time that I was working on the wall blower in 1984 I was just about to become 24 years old, and a couple of months later, he was going to be 29. Like Gene Day, you instantly knew when you saw Jim that he you liked him. He sort of had that Jim Nabors kind of smile.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger.  He had the same likable demeanor.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger. He had the same likable demeanor.

Unlike Gene Day, I never felt like playing a joke on Jim. For some reason, Jim just seemed like too nice of a guy. Where Gene had a slight sort of hidden orneriness about him, Jim was just purely a “good guy”.

This past Christmas eve, five days before Jim turned 57 years old, he passed away after a sudden illness. When the guys at the power plant told me about it, I was sad for their loss and for his family. For Jim, on the other hand…. I think he has always had one foot in heaven from the day I met him. I think he finally stepped the rest of the way through the gate.

For someone like me. If I am ever able to make it to heaven, I’m sure there will be a big to-do about it, because someone would have won the pot and I’m sure the odds would have been high against it. However, the day Jim arrived, it was probably more like “business as usual”. — “Oh, Jim’s arrived….. Like no one didn’t see that coming….” If I could say something to Jim now (and being Catholic, I’m allowed to do that), I would ask Jim, “Put in a good word for all the Power Plant Men!” Because I know that Jim’s word is as good as gold. Here is a real picture of Jim, a true Power Plant Man:

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

 

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman February 23, 2013:

Good post on Jim, Kevin. Now, what is a “normal operator”?  🙂
I remember doing several jobs in super hot areas where I had to wear a heavy coat and gloves to keep from getting burned. Had to take off rings and wrist watch too. Needed to take off my glasses, but then I couldn’t see.

 

Lap o’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant

I witnessed a fast approaching Wall Cloud coming south from Tulsa when I was on overhaul at the Muskogee Oklahoma Coal-fired Power Plant the fall 1984.  I stood outside of the Unit 6 electric shop looking north watching the darkness approaching at an alarming rate.  As it approached I could see debris flying up from the highway a half mile away telling me that we were in for one heck of a wind.

It looked similar to this wall cloud, only the front of it was rotating horizontally

It looked similar to this wall cloud, only the front of it was rotating horizontally

I suppose I was mesmerized because all I did was stand there and stare at it.  Maybe I thought, “At least if this blows me away, I can spend my last moments staring down a tornado.  I watched as the wind hit the precipitator and stirred up the piles of ash under it and blew it away as if someone was blowing out a birthday candle.

The wall cloud rolled right over the top of me looking like a big steamroller wheel.  At the same time the wind hit me knocking me back.  I couldn’t breathe because of the dust and I took two steps to the electric shop door and dodged inside.  The walls rattled as the wind buffeted the building.  All I could think of was, “Cool!”

We found out a few minutes later that 4 miles south of us by the Fort Howard Paper plant a tornado dropped out of the cloud and touched down.

That was only one of many exciting moments at the Muskogee Power Plant.  Last week I talked about how there must have been something in the water there that made people think and act a little differently than they otherwise would (See Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant).  I said that because of the “interesting” way people thought and acted in Muskogee.  This is the story about the day I think I drank some of the water by mistake.

Each morning when I was waiting for the work to start in the electric shop, two electricians, Jay Harris and Richard Moravek had a ritual that they performed before heading off to work on the precipitators for the day.  One of them would hum a note, then together they would sing a short jingle that went like this:  “Nestles makes the very best…….. Chooooocolate!!!”  Richard would whistle as he sang, just like the Nestle’s Rabbit– Every morning without fail.

The Nestle's Rabbit

The Nestle’s Rabbit

Both Richard and Jay were soldiers.  Jay was a young soldier that knew my brother from the Marine Reserves.  He would train with him in the TOW Anti-Tank unit somewhere around Broken Arrow.  Richard…. Well… Richard was a Vietnam Veteran that had seen a lot of combat.

Richard had a metal plate in his forehead.  He could tap it and you could hear it tink.  “Tink, Tink, Tink.”  He was a forward observer in Vietnam.  They usually had a life expectancy of a couple of weeks.  Richard had survived.  He was attached to a group of Rangers.

Richard explained to me one time that he used to use a big M60 machine gun like Sylvester Stallone used in  the movie Rambo.  Only, he couldn’t shoot two of them at a time, and he couldn’t walk forward with it either like Rambo.  He could only walk backward because the machine gun would knock you down.

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

Rambo firing an M60 Machine Gun

I know that Richard suffered from the effects of Agent Orange and was fighting the cancer it caused at one point in his life.  He died in November 6, 2007.  He left behind a son named Richard that has commented to me that his dad was “A Great Man.”

If I keep talking about the people that I met while I was at Muskogee, I will never get to the story that I want to tell, because heroes seemed to be all over the place.  Another electrician was Ellis Moore, who was in Vietnam while he was in the Army.  He was still Shell Shocked from his experience there.

He told me stories about how his unit would be patrolling through the woods, and they would hear some gunfire, and they would just all put their backs to each other and would shoot blindly in all directions.

They were frightened and figured that was the only way they were going to stay alive.  Ellis had an odd look on his face when he told me this story.  One that told me that he had seen things that were too horrible to bring back into his mind.

This leads me to my story….  It began on a Friday afternoon about 2pm.  I was working with Ben Davis, a fellow electrician from our plant in North Central Oklahoma.

I enjoyed working with Ben Davis during the overhaul.  Ben was one of the most calm and normal person you could find.  He was probably the most sane person in the electric shop.  He didn’t care what other people thought about him.  When he told you what he thought, you could count on it being the truth.

When I was dressing up in rags, (See the post From Power Plant Rags to Riches), Ben just looked a little concerned that I may have lost my sanity, but that didn’t keep him from treating me with the respect and dignity that I wasn’t even maintaining for myself.

We were working on 6A Forced Draft Fan and we made a measurement with the large Meggar indicating that the insulation might be a little weak somewhere in the motor.

We weren’t sure what the acceptable level of deviation was from the norm, so we decided that we would find Don Spears and ask him.  Don was the Electrical Supervisor at Muskogee at the time.  He was the splittin’ image of Oklahoma University’s Football Coach Barry Switzer’s bigger brother.

Don Spears looked like Barry Switzer's Older Brother.  Bigger and Meaner

Don Spears looked like Barry Switzer’s Older Brother. Bigger and Meaner

Ben and I talked to John Manning, the Electrical B Foreman, and he agreed that we should talk to Don, and would let him know that we were looking for him when he returned from a meeting he was attending.

We waited around in the Unit 6 electric shop until around 3 o’clock.  At 3 o’clock on Friday, we liked to bug out early to head home to our families.  At lunch I would go to the trailer down by the river and pack up my stuff in my car and then park it outside the electric shop so that when 3 o’clock rolled around, we could dodge out the door and head for home.

Only this time, we were waiting around for Don to show up.   We finally decided…. What the heck…. We can talk to him on Monday.  We bolted out the door, and Ben and I headed back toward Stillwater at breakneck speed.

Come Monday morning, I pulled up to the electric shop parking lot, and who do you think was standing there just waiting for me?  Yep.  Don Spears.  With his hands on his hips, and his big Football Coach stance trying his darnedest to look just like Barry Switzer telling his team at half time that they were going to have to do better than that.

I happened to pull up to the shop about the same time that Ben did.  Don Spears immediately lit into us.  He said, “You left early on Friday didn’t you!!!”   I said, “What?  Surely not!”

Don replied that he came looking for us around 3:30 and we were no where to be found.  He paged us but we didn’t answer.  I responded by telling him that we must have been out working on a motor and couldn’t hear him because it was too noisy.

Of course, Don wasn’t going to buy that.  He said this Friday he wanted to us to meet him in his office at 4:00.  He was going to make sure we didn’t bug out early.  Ben and I assured him that we would be there.

So, next Friday at lunch Don came down to the shop and said….. “Remember.  I want to see you in my office at 4:00 sharp.  We both told him that we would be there, come rain or shine.

3 o’clock rolled around and we headed for home…  I don’t think I stopped laughing until I was in Tulsa.  It is always fun to play an on-going joke with someone.  Especially when that someone could pulverize you with one simple punch.

So, you can imagine what I saw when I arrived at the Unit 6 Electric Shop next Monday Morning….

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

Paul Bunyan Imitating Don Spears waiting for us on Monday

Yep.  That was Don.  He was standing there with his feet spread apart just like Paul Bunyan.  His hands were on his hips and he looked rather mad.  He said, “You Did it Again!!!  You left early!”

I said, “What do you mean we left early?”  He said, “You didn’t come to my office at 4:00!”  “Oh, ” I said, “I can’t believe we forgot!  Sorry!  It must have slipped our mind.”

I know.  I was being rotten, but this was just too much fun.

So, here comes next Friday.  Same routine.  At lunch I drove down to the trailer down by the river and packed up my stuff and parked my car outside the Unit 6 Electric Shop expecting to leave out of there around 3 o’clock

Around 2:30 in the afternoon, Ben and I were working on something in the shop getting ready to clean up and head on home.  Don Spears was sitting in the electric shop office in a chair right inside the door where he could look out and watch our every move.

As 3 o’clock rolled by, there was Don Spears with his face plastered to the window in the door not taking his eyes off of us, with a big grin on his face.  Ben said something like “it looks like he has us this time.”

So, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands….  I walked in the office and sat down right on Don Spear’s lap.  He looked at me totally surprised.  I put my arms around his neck and I looked him straight in the eyes…..

Don sat there stunned.  He couldn’t move, and he couldn’t speak.  With the most sincere expression I could muster up, while looking in his eyes as dreamily as I could, I said, “You are just the cutest thing.  I can’t hardly STAND it!”  (Imagine saying that to Barry Switzer’s bigger brother).  Then I stood up and walked out into the shop.

I turned my head just enough to see Don darting out the back door to the office in the other direction.  I turned to Ben and said, “Let’s go!”  Out we went, and we were on our way home.

Come next Monday morning…..  Ok…. I figured…. here it comes….  I drove up to the electric shop parking lot and there was Barry…. I mean Don… smoking a cigarette pacing back and forth in front of the electric shop door.

As I approached him he said, “I know what you’re up to!”  I said in a calm voice with as straight of a face that I could muster… “What do you mean?”  He said, “I talked to Bill Bennett (the A Foreman at our plant).  He told me that you are just using ‘Psychology’ on me.”

I replied, “I am?  What do you mean?”  He said, “You know what I mean.”  I looked confused as if I didn’t know what he was talking about.  He continued, “Bill told me all about you.”  I said something like, “Bill is a great guy.”  Then I walked into the shop.

The next Friday…. Don was no where to be seen.  The remainder of the overhaul, Don was keeping his distance.  I don’t think we caught sight of him the next 4 weeks.  It seemed that I had finally spooked him.  From that point on, he decided that he didn’t care so much if we bugged out early.

Power Plant Retracts and Wall Blowers Enough to Blow your Mind

I never gave it much thought that when I was on the labor crew at the Coal-fired Power Plant in Oklahoma and we had to go in the boiler to shake the boiler tubes, that next to the portals where you would climb into the boiler there were long metal benches where you could sit just outside while you rested between moments when the dynamiters were getting ready to set off their explosives.  (All right… right off the bat…. a run-on sentence the size of a paragraph… I can tell it’s going to be a long night).

To learn more about the dynamiters and shaking boiler tubes you can read the post:  Cracking a boiled Egg in the Boiler.  At other times while I was on the labor crew, I had heard these same benches making a tremendous sound that you could hear from a few landings away.  It sounded like a large steam leak would sound, and at the same time, you could hear some kind of mechanical gears or something running and maybe a chain clanging.  I didn’t really understand what the purpose of these long benches served then, only that it was a good place to put the water jug and the box of fly ash suits to keep them from being stepped on.

It was after I had become an electrician that these long metal benches took on another meaning.  I found out that they were called “Retracts”.  I was told that they called them retracts because what they do is they run a long metal pipe into the boiler and then Retract it back.  Ok.  I thought it was rather odd to name something for a seemingly insignificant part of the function.  After I understood what they were used for, I thought I could come up with a lot better name than “Retract”.

After all, we had equipment like “Honey Wagon” , “Coffin Houses”, “Clinker Grinder”.  All really descriptive names.  So, when Charles Foster told me to go with Diane Lucas (later Diane Brien) to work on 7R retract, I was expecting to go find some little lever going back and forth making a sound like “brrrr…oops…..brrr…..oops” as it swung back and forth.  I would name something like that a “Retract”.

Actually, I would like to have been able to have kept a couple of Retracts in my pocket so that when I would smart off to Leroy Godfrey our Electrical Supervisor, I could pull one out and press the button and… “swoop”! Retracted!

So, what is a Retract?  Well.  In the story that I linked to above about the cracked egg in the boiler, I explained how when I was on the labor crew we had to go in the boiler and tie ropes to these hanging boiler tubes and then shake them back and forth to clean out the hard ash that had built up on them.  Well, The Retract would sort of do that when the boiler was online.  They would clean out the tubes in the reheat area of the boiler for the most part.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

What it would do is this.  It seemed like 7R retract was about 40 feet long (someone at the plant can correct me if I’m wrong about the length).  When it would turn on, it would start rotating a pipe about that long and start pushing it into the boiler.  Once the nozzle at the end of the pipe was in the boiler a couple of feet steam would start blasting down the pipe to the nozzle on the end that would shoot the steam out at right angles to the pipe.  As the pipe rotated, it would be shooting out steam in a circular motion as the pipe slowly traversed into the boiler.

You see… My dentist told me a long time ago that I should Floss my teeth more if I didn’t want to wear dentures when I was older.  By keeping the bits of food out from between my teeth, not only did my breath smell better, but my gums could remain healthy as well.  So, I listened to him and started flossing.  Retracts are kind of like that.

The Retracts were designed to clean out the areas of the boiler where the ash would build up the most causing the efficiency of the boiler to be degraded.  So at certain times of the day, the Control Room operator will push a button on the side panel (at least that was what they used to do… now they probably click an icon on their computer) and it would start the cycle of the retracts going in and out one at a time cleaning out the boiler.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler.  I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers... no, not really.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler. I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers… no, not really.  Sorry the picture is a little small

Anyway.  I finally learned what those long metal benches were for and it fascinated me.  I wonder how long it took before someone said what now would seem obvious….  “Hey.  Instead of having to bring the boiler offline every week or so, how about if we just create this boiler flossing equipment that cleans the boiler out while it is online?”

It made me wonder about the other equipment around the plant.  I’ll bet there was a good use for just about everything.  And you know what?  I think I was right.  Instead of just putting all that equipment all over the place for us to play on like a big jungle gym, everything seemed to have a real good purpose.

After 4 years working as a summer help, and one more year as a janitor and on the labor crew, I thought I had seen just about everything in the plant.  When I became an electrician, all of the sudden a whole new world opened up to me.  Even that bench I had been sitting on turned into a monster machine that blasted away ash clinkers while the rest of us lay at home in our beds dreaming of chocolate, and dragons, and um… other things people dream about.

So, what about the Wall Blower?  Well.  These are like the retracts, only they are much smaller.  they were placed around the walls of the main boiler at strategic locations to blast clinkers that may be building up along the main wall of the boiler.  The area in the boiler diagram up above called the Water Wall.

For some reason (and I’m sure it’s a good one), From what was called floor 6 1/2, though it was actually about the 13th floor, on down was an area called the “Boiler Enclosure”.  This meant that when you walked up to the boiler, you first had to go through a door and enter an enclosed area around the boiler.  7th floor and above, the boiler was outside.

I’ve been to plants where the entire boiler was enclosed, and I’ve seen some that didn’t look like any of it was enclosed, so I figure this was a happy median between the two.  It meant that if it was raining outside and you needed to work on the boiler, it made a big difference how high up you had to go as to whether you needed your rain suit or not.

I mention this because one day I had to go by myself to work on a wall blower that was on the 6 and 1/2 floor just at the top of the boiler enclosure.  The wall blower was naturally situated right next to the boiler. and all the heat generated from the boiler and the piping that came from the bowl mills that blew the coal into the furnace had made the area very hot.  The Wall blower had been tripping the breaker and I was supposed to go fix it.

I brought an infrared temperature gun with me and found that the area where the wall blower was mounted was 160 degrees.  Maybe it was that high because it was the middle of a hot summer day, and with everything else going on, all the heat trapped right at the top of the boiler enclosure, it had just turned into a huge easy-bake oven.

When I touched the metal door to the control panel on the side of the wall blower, it burned my fingers.  I had to use my tee-shirt as a rag to keep from burning my self.  I could only stand next to the wall blower for about 30 seconds and then I had to walk back over the doorway and breathe some fresh air and cool off for a minute before going back.

After opening the control panel, I could see what the problem was right away.  The insulation on the wires going to the terminal block had the insulation dripping off the wires.  The insulation was melting.

I went back to the shop and found some wire that was designed for high temperatures, because obviously someone had used the wrong type of wire when assembling this particular wall blower, given it’s location on the boiler.

High Temperature Wire

High Temperature Wire

Because of the intense heat where I was standing when trying to rewire the wall blower, I was not able to take very big breaths.  I had to breathe very shallow, or not at all.  So, I would go up to the blower and work as fast as I could removing a screw or putting a new wire down and then I would go back to the doorway about 60 feet from the wall blower and cool off.

As I mentioned in the post about the Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew, when you are in this intense heat, your hardhat becomes soft like a baseball cap.  In this case, I wasn’t in the heat long enough for this to happen, though I was sweating like a pig.

I had been doing this for a while when an operator showed up wondering what I was doing.  His name was Jim Waller and he had been watching me from a distance.  He said he was trying to figure out what I was up to because he would see me show up at the doorway and stand there for a while not doing anything, then turning around like I had forgotten something only to show up again about 1/2 minute later.

When he couldn’t figure out what I was doing on his own, he decided to take a closer look.   I found him standing at the doorway waiting for me to arrive with a puzzled look on his face.  I was tempted to just say nothing and just stand there and take a few breathes and then go back to the wall blower and continue my work.

I couldn’t do that however, when Jim asked me what I was doing.  Jim was one of the nicest and most normal operators you could run across.  I just couldn’t joke with him.  So, I told him I was working on that wall blower over there, but that it was so hot that I had to keep coming to the doorway to cool off.

Jim Waller had come to work for the electric company a month before I began my last summer as summer help in 1982.  At the time that I was working on the wall blower in 1984 I was just about to become 24 years old, and a couple of months later, he was going to be 29.  Like Gene Day, you instantly knew when you saw Jim that he you liked him.  He sort of had that Jim Nabors kind of smile.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger.  He had the same likable demeanor.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger. He had the same likable demeanor.

Unlike Gene Day, I never felt like playing a joke on Jim.  For some reason, Jim just seemed like too nice of a guy.  Where Gene had a slight sort of hidden orneriness about him, Jim was just purely a “good guy”.

This past Christmas eve, five days before Jim turned 57 years old, he passed away after a sudden illness.  When the guys at the power plant told me about it, I was sad for their loss and for his family.  For Jim, on the other hand…. I think he has always had one foot in heaven from the day I met him.  I think he finally stepped the rest of the way through the gate.

For someone like me.  If I am ever able to make it to heaven, I’m sure there will be a big to-do about it, because someone would have won the pot and I’m sure the odds would have been high against it.  However, the day Jim arrived, it was probably more like “business as usual”.  — “Oh, Jim’s arrived….. Like no one didn’t see that coming….”   If I could say something to Jim now (and being Catholic, I’m allowed to do  that), I would ask Jim, “Put in a good word for all the Power Plant Men!”  Because I know that Jim’s word is as good as gold.  Here is a real picture of Jim, a true Power Plant Man:

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!