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Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley

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

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

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

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

Yep. That's the Marlboro Man

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

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

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

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

This is the best picture I could find of Jim Heflin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Power Plant Man Becomes An Unlikely Saint

Originally Posted on April 7, 2012:

My wife came home from work one night in the early 90’s.  She was a charge nurse at the Stillwater Oklahoma Medical Center at the time.  She said that she was taking care of a patient that was one of the mostly saintly people she had ever met.  He was going to die soon and she thought I might know who he was because he used to work at the Power Plant.

When she gave me his name I was surprised to learn that he was on his deathbed, and yes.  I did know him.  I agreed with her.  He is and always had been a saintly person.  The funny thing was that I felt that very few people really knew him as I did.  Many people knew him enough to not think he would be classified in the “Saint” category, and I knew why this was also.  I knew him so well quite by chance when I first came to the plant, and I made a decision about how to answer a common question that was being asked of me at the time.

As a summer help it was known that I was a college student, so the obvious question was, why was I going to school, and what did I want to be when I graduated.  I could tell this was a rowdy bunch of men that enjoyed their day at work, and so I told them that I wasn’t sure yet what my degree would be, but I thought I might like to become a writer.  I told them this hoping that they would bite where I could set the hook (in a fisherman sort of way), and they did.

The first person that asked me that question was Sonny Karcher, and when I told him that I thought I might be a writer, he took the bait and asked, “Are you going to write about us?”  At the time, I had no plans about doing that, but I thought if they thought so, then they might fill my ears with the unique wisdom each of them seemed to have.  So I answered, “I don’t know.  I haven’t thought about it, but I suppose I might.”

That’s all it took.  After that, every time Sonny introduced me to somebody, he would say, “This is Kevin.  He’s our new summer help.  He’s going to college to be a writer, and he’s going to write all about us!”  This produced the behavior I was hoping it would.  That was that a number of Power Plant Men took me “under their wing” and bestowed upon me their own particular wisdom.  For hours on end, as I worked with various men, they would tell me how things are in the world and how I should respond to them.  Their own particular Philosophy Of Life.

At the time I really had not considered writing about my experiences at the power plant, but now that I am much older and the wisdom of these great men seem to be dying away, I thought that it would be a good idea to put these out there on the Internet where nothing ever really goes away.

I have refrained from mentioning the name of this Unlikely Saint until now because I think that if I mentioned it up front some Power Plant Men would read it and think I was just tremendously off my rocker and not read any further.  So I prefaced my story with how I came to know this particular Power Plant Man enough to understand what my wife was saying when she told me about this Saint on the general medical (3rd) floor of the hospital.

Maybe I will refrain just a little while longer to tell you a few things that this man told me.  It was obvious that he felt as if he was talking to me as a father would talk to a son.  He was only two years younger than my own father.  The one thing that sticks in my mind most is when he told me, “Kev, some day you may be a foreman or a supervisor running this plant, but always remember this…. Never forget where you came from.  Never forget that there was a time when you first began and knew nothing.  Don’t ever forget your friends.  Don’t forget who you really are.”  I have reminded myself of this often and made it part of my own  “Philosophy of Life”.  Years later when I became an electrician, he stopped by the electric shop and reminded me once again.

As an Aside comment, my mother tried to help me with this by referring to me as “My Son, The Janitor” when introducing me to someone for years after I had become an electrician.  I was always proud to be called a janitor, and I would not try to correct her, because even though I was an electrician, I knew inside that I was also still a janitor.  Today, even though my title may be “Business Systems Analyst” working for Dell (and now Senior Software Engineer working for General Motors), I also still carry around in the back of my head the title of “Janitor”.

I wish I had a picture to share of this Power Plant Man (I have one somewhere, but I am not able to find it just now), because if you could see him, you would think… this guy?

This Power Plant Man brings Hercules to mind, though, he didn't look anything like him

This Power Plant Man brings Hercules to mind, though, he didn’t look anything like him

His skin was darkened from smoking so heavily all his life.  Emphysema is what killed him while he was still relatively young.  His belly grew over the years to become larger than his stocky barrel chest.  His head nodded while he listened to you and especially when managers were talking as if he was laughing to himself because he knew what they were really saying.  His clothes were always clean, which left everyone with the impression that he never did any work.

I remember one day while we were inspecting the dumper (where the coal is dumped out of the railway cars), as it had not been in-service for very long and everything needed to be inspected.  I followed him down the stairway into the dumper going down into the darkness.  There were lights down there, but they didn’t give off much light because the coal dust absorbs the light instead of reflecting it.  So, you can shine a flashlight and it doesn’t fill the room with its glow as it might in a room painted with white paint.  To me the place was eerily unreal until I had been down there enough times to keep my bearings on where we were going.

Anyway, I followed him down into the dark damp dumper where every handrail, every light fixture and every step was covered with coal dust.  We had some wrenches and we were tight checking the rollers on the conveyors.  When we were finished we found ourselves at the ground level exit of #2 Conveyor.  I looked at this Power Plant Man and he didn’t have spot of coal on him.  I, on the other hand, was black from top to bottom.  My hardhat was black, my arms, my face, my jeans.  All black.

Then this Power Plant Man told me some more words from the wise…. “When you get to be good, you will remain as clean as I am.”  This had as much impact on me as when Master Po told Kwai Chang Caine (In the Kung Fu TV series) that when he can walk on the rice paper and not leave a trace, then he will be a Shaolin Monk.

Master Po teaches Kwai Chang Caine about the ways of the force

Master Po teaches Kwai Chang Caine about the ways of the force

It seemed impossible to me that he could have worked right alongside me, actually doing more work than I was doing, and he came out pristine while I came out looking like a bat out of hell (or Pigpen times ten).  But there it was.

So, for years whenever I worked in a coal handling area, his words always rang in my mind.  I considered it a challenge.  I realized that there were times when it would be impossible to come out clean, like when you are sandblasting a tank, or working inside the Precipitator wading through fly ash up to your waist.  But when doing my regular job, I made a real effort to remain as clean as possible.

It made me happy to think that others might think that I wasn’t working hard enough to be in the True Power Plant Man League because my clothes were clean, because to me, it was a tribute to my own Shaolin Master…. Jerry Mitchell.  Yes.  Power Plant Men…. Jerry Mitchell.

Before Jerry came to work at the power plant, he used to work on jet engines.  Like many genuine Power Plant Men, he was a leader in the field of mechanics.  I have a list as long as my arm of great men that work as Power Plant Men that are each near the top of the list of experts in their fields of knowledge.  Jerry was one of them.

He built the engine in the blue corvette that he used to drive to work each day.  He machined the parts himself.  It could go from 0 to 80 and back to 0 from the main gate to the highway  — how many yards is that? 200 yards maybe 300  He demonstrated it once to me.  He was wondering if I was interested in buying it because he knew I didn’t own a car.

I think that I realized the true character of Power Plant Men from Jerry, because he had very little tolerance for those imposters that hung around Power Plant Men looking for a way to belittle them, or spread rumors to hurt their reputations, etc. because nothing bothers a pseudo-Heman like a True Power Plant Man, because it is like turning on a bright light and watching the roaches scurry away.  Jerry could tell their character a mile away.

I will give you a “for instance”…  One day as we pulled the truck up to the Maintenance Shop, Jerry told me to follow him and not say anything, just listen, because I was going to be shocked by the conversation that was about to take place.  I wondered how he knew as I walked up to an older foreman approaching a lady who was a Brown and Root construction hand (you could tell by the hardhat).

So I stood next to the man and listened.  He asked her how her night was last night and she began by describing the time she spent in a bar and she repeated the conversation she had with a man that was trying to pick her up.  Without going into too much detail, I will say that she ended the conversation with the man in the bar by saying that she was looking for a meal, not a snack, and proceeded to talk about another man in the bar and how she could tell that he was the kind of man she was looking for in more than descriptive terms.

She finished by telling the older man that the man she left with and her had a “Jolly good time” (my words, not hers) for at least 4 hours non-stop with more than enough details thrown in.  The older man was amused and hee-hawed about it slapping his knee in amusement.

Jerry nodded to me and we left.  We walked outside of the shop and Jerry asked me, “Have you ever heard anyone talk like that before, let alone a lady?”  I admitted that I hadn’t.  Then he said, “That man that she was talking to is her father.”

I was thoroughly shocked and greatly disturbed.  I had just heard a flowing river of filth spew from this person’s mouth as she was talking to her own father, and his response was to be amused by it.  When Jerry told me this I looked at him in shock, and he looked back at me with his head nodding as it did often.  His face had the regular straight poker face he usually wore, but his eyes told me that he was very saddened by this.  He said he felt it was important for me to know.

I have often kept that poor old man and his lost soul of a daughter in my prayers.  This man worked in the plant until the 1987-88 downsizing.  Whenever I would see him working in the coalyard, I would remember that I needed to add him and his daughter to my prayers.

So in ending I will say this about Jerry Mitchell, as I say with all the True Power Plant Men I know.  I have always considered Jerry a good friend.  Jerry was always a good friend to me, and I know that he is a Saint in Heaven today.  He never spoke a religious word in the years that I knew him, but I know that his large barrel chest held a tremendous heart.

When I think of Jerry today, I remember riding to Stillwater with him in his blue Corvette.  As we drove by a row of trees in a creek bottom he suddenly said, “What is that noise?  Do I hear Cicadas?”  I said, “Yeah, sounds like it.”  He replied, “I haven’t heard Cicada in years!  After working around Jet engines for so long I could no longer hear the sound of bugs.  My hearing is returning!”  That was the only time I saw Jerry’s expression change from his constant straight face to a smile of satisfaction.  I am 100% sure by the time Jerry made it to Heaven he was able to hear the harps very clearly.

What’s That Strange Power Plant Smell?

Originally posted July 18, 2014

Given that a large Coal-fired Power Plant is like a small city complete with a water treatment system to supply drinking water to thirsty Power Plant Men, and it’s own complete sewage system to handle the volumes of human waste and toxic run-off, when I ask, “What is that strange smell?” You may expect the answer to be something like “Honeysuckle?” If you thought, rotten fish, diesel oil, ozone or sweaty arm pits, you would, of course, be wrong. Those are all the usual smells found in a Power Plant. Every so often, a smell would come by that would make you stop in your tracks and wonder…. “What’s that strange smell?”

Over the course of the 20 years I worked in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were times when a new smell would just come out of no where. There were other times when they would sneak up on me gradually, so that I wouldn’t even notice them until they were gone…. Then I would wonder why it was that I didn’t notice them when they were there.

One such smell that stung me like a bee would happen when I was on overhaul and I was walking out to the precipitator all covered in a fly ash suit from head-to-toe wearing a full face respirator with duct tape around all of the seams.

 

This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

I was walking in the breezeway between the two boilers when I suddenly smelled a sharp sort of smell. It was a strange chemical I hadn’t ever noticed before. I looked around to see where it was coming from. There wasn’t anyone around, and I didn’t see anything chemical spill in the area that would account for it.

As I walked toward the precipitator, I looked up as I walked under the surge bin tower in time to see an operator coming down the stairs. He was smoking a cigarette. Besides that, everything else looked normal, except that the smell was almost overwhelming me at that point.

I went and climbed in the precipitator where I worked until break. When I came out, I blew the dust off of myself with a tiny instrument air hose that we kept on either side of the precipitator for just such an occasion. After the fly ash had been blown off of my suit, I leaned forward and pulled my respirator off of my face and breathed the fresh air.

Later that week, when I was heading back out to the precipitator and had just left the electric shop all dressed up in my suit, I had a whiff of that same smell. I couldn’t mistake it. It was a unique chemical smell. looking around, there wasn’t anyone or anything near me that would have been emitting such a toxic smell.

As I walked around the condenser to head toward the boiler, I saw that a couple of mechanics were carrying some planks of wood and laying them by the condenser in order to build a scaffold once they opened the condenser. One of the guys was smoking a cigarette. I wondered… Could it be a cigarette that smells so rancid? It didn’t seem likely, since I began detecting the smell when I was more than 40 yards away from the operator when he was descending from the Surge bin tower. I shouldn’t be able to smell a cigarette from that distance.

After a few more instances, I realized that it was cigarettes that I was smelling. I was amazed by how far away I could detect a cigarette when I was wearing my respirator. I figured that after it had filtered out all the particles bigger than 2 microns, the only particles and odors that were entering my respirator were easily detectable by my nose. And they didn’t smell anything like a cigarette.

I became so astute at detecting smokers, that one time I was walking through the breezeway with an unfortunate contract worker that had been commandeered to work with me, I was dressed in my fly ash suit and respirator. My helper wasn’t because he was going to be my hole watch while I was inside. I suddenly smelled that, now familiar, scent. I spun around once and then turned to the guy walking with me, who hardly knew who I was, and said, “Someone is smoking a cigarette!”

He looked around and no one was in sight. He said, “There isn’t anyone here.” I said, “Oh, there’s someone with a cigarette all right.” About that time a truck pulled around the end of the precipitator about 50 yards away with a couple of welders pulling a welding machine behind. Their windows were open, and hanging out of the driver side window was an arm, with a hand on the end holding a cigarette. As it drove by us, I pointed to the cigarette and said, “See. Cigarette.” He kept insisting I couldn’t have smelled that cigarette that far away… But with my respirator on, I could easily smell it.

One of the other strange Power Plant smell that I encountered during my tenure at the Power Plant was also while I was wearing my respirator and working in the precipitator. Only, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was gone. Then I did everything I could to find the source of that smell, because to me, it was a sweet smell of success, even though it smelled more like a sweaty arm pit, or maybe even something worse.

I mentioned this smell in the post: “Moonwalk in a Power Plant Precipitator“. The precipitator is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler, and collects it in hoppers and then blows it a half mile to a silo on a hill by the coal pile, where it is trucked away to be made into concrete.

It was my job during an outage to repair the inside of the precipitator, and I was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the ash gathering abilities of this large piece of equipment.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

I knew at certain times during an outage that the ash that had built up on the plates would all of the sudden decide to cake up and fall off in chunks leaving a perfectly clean plate. When that happened, then the odds of the precipitator running real well when we came back online was a lot better.

I also knew that after working long hours in the precipitator for a couple of weeks, I would feel all worn out like I had a flu. I would have to drag myself out of bed in the morning and I would even catch myself falling asleep on my feet inside the precipitator while I was inspecting it. I always figured it was just because we were working 10 or 12 hour days and I was getting older. Yeah…. 30 years old, and I was feeling every bit of it.

Then one day when I went to the tool room to get a couple of boxes of respirator filters Bud Schoonover told me that he couldn’t give me the regular hepa filter that I was used to using. I already knew that the regular filters weren’t good enough, so I asked him what else he had. He said, “Well…… I have some of these here…” I have mentioned that if Bud had been African American and a little bit skinnier and shorter, he would have been the spittin’ image of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son’s. He would make this same expression:

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Bud handed me a box of filters labeled: Organic Vapor Filter:

 

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard.  It had a cotton looking filter on the top

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard. It had a cotton looking filter on the top

It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t have much choice. I could see that it had a carbon filter on it as well as the regular filter, so I thought it would be all right.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the precipitator wearing the Organic Vapor filter was that the air inside the precipitator didn’t smell any different than the air outside. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to smelling a “boiler” sort of smell. After a couple of weeks that smell would turn more rancid. Sort of a sour smell. When I noticed that I wasn’t smelling the sour smell I quickly broke the seal on my filter and sniffed the air to verify that the filter was really blocking the stench that built up in the precipitator the past few weeks. Sure enough.

Then I noticed that I was no longer feeling tired in the morning. I was able to work all day without feeling fatigued. I came to the conclusion that whatever that smell was that was being blocked by this respirator had been causing me to feel ill. Now that it was gone I was beginning to believe that 30 years old wasn’t that old after all.

I was already curious about the smell in the precipitator because I had noticed that after a day or so after it showed up, the ash would just flake off of the plates in the precipitator. If we could find out what it was, maybe we could inject something in the inlet of the precipitator when it was online and needed to be cleaned after a bad start-up or after it had been running a while to make it run more efficiently.

So, I went to our resident Doctor of Chemistry, George Pepple. I wrote a post about him, see “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. I explained to him about the smell and about how this particular filter filtered it out when a Hepa filter didn’t. And the effect it had on the ash on the plates. He listened intensely and I could tell that I had made him excited. There are only so many chemicals a plant chemist deals with on a normal basis, so when Dr. Pepple had an opportunity to explore something new, he jumped at the opportunity.

When I took him to the precipitator, he could smell the odor even before we began climbing the stairs up to the open hatchways. He described it as a sewage type of odor. Which I hadn’t really thought of before, but come to think of it, that would explain why an organic vapor filter would work on it. I suggested that the sulfur in the ash might be giving it that.

I had analyzed the chemicals that made up the coal that we received at our plant from Wyoming and I had tried to figure out how it might combine with moisture to create a new chemical. George explained that when the coal burns under such a high temperature, a lot of the chemicals are sort of encapsulated in ways that are not easily predictable.

George suggested that we approach this as a Safety issue and contact the Safety Department in Oklahoma City and have them see if they can put an analyzer in the precipitator to detect the chemical. When I contacted them, I talked with a lady called Julia Bevers (thanks Fred for reminding me of her last name). She told me to call her when the odor was strong during the next outage and she would bring some chemical detectors to the plant and I could place them in there and let them run overnight to collect samples.

Julia had said that she had heard that I was known as “Mr. Safety” at the plant. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was in the habit of complaining. And a number of the things I would complain about were safety issues.

Anyway, during the next outage as soon as I smelled the smell emanating from the precipitator I gave her a call and the next morning I received a call from Toby O’Brien, the Plant Engineer Extraordinaire.  He called me and told me that Julia the Safety Lady was there in his office looking for me.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

So, I went to Toby’s office and met “The Safety Lady.” I know I didn’t look at all like she expected. I was in a worn tee-shirt, not tucked in (on purpose) and worn out steal-toed boots. When I took her out to the Precipitator, I decided to take her across the Turbine Generator room and out the Third floor to the boiler where we walked through the boiler and over to the precipitator up and down ladders.

When we walked across the Turbine Floor, I didn’t have my usual pair of ear plugs hanging around my neck (they were in my pocket). As it was rather loud, Julia turned and said, “Shouldn’t we be wearing earplugs?” I replied, “Huh?” As if I couldn’t hear her. — I just love playing Power Plant Jokes on people that don’t even know what you’re up to… I’m sure when we were done, she went straight back to Toby and told him how shocked she was to find out how unsafe I was. — Me trying to keep a straight face the entire time.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

To shorten a longer story, Julia gave me some indicators that would detect two different types of chemicals that she thought may be the culprit. I left the detectors in the precipitator overnight and then sent them back to Oklahoma City for analysis. They both came back negative leaving us with a mystery chemical.

Anyway, I never did find out what was causing that strange smell….

There was another strange smell that used to pop up in the Electric Shop when I had first become an electrician, but that just turned out to be one of our fellow electricians that liked to walk up to a group of electricians standing around talking, and then let loose a “silent but deadly” and then walk away and stand from a distance to see our reaction.

I won’t mention who that was, unless someone would like to leave a comment about that below….. Anyway. we all knew who it was when that happened as the electricians would yell out his name as the crowd quickly dispersed.

I decided to take a different approach. I would stand there thinking, trying to analyze the odor to see if I could tell what exactly this person had for supper the night before. I could tell one day when I said “Beef Stroganoff” and his face turned red that I had guessed pretty close to the mark….. That was the last time this noble Power Plant Man did that to a crowd of electricians….. at least when I was standing there… I can’t attest to any other time…. as I wasn’t there.

But I suppose that is proof that even early in my career I was interested in finding the source of that “strange smell”.

What’s That Strange Power Plant Smell?

Originally posted July 18, 2014

Given that a large Coal-fired Power Plant is like a small city complete with a water treatment system to supply drinking water to thirsty Power Plant Men, and it’s own complete sewage system to handle the volumes of human waste and toxic run-off, when I ask, “What is that strange smell?” You may expect the answer to be something like “Honeysuckle?” If you thought, rotten fish, diesel oil, ozone or sweaty arm pits, you would, of course, be wrong. Those are all the usual smells found in a Power Plant. Every so often, a smell would come by that would make you stop in your tracks and wonder…. “What’s that strange smell?”

Over the course of the 20 years I worked in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were times when a new smell would just come out of no where. There were other times when they would sneak up on me gradually, so that I wouldn’t even notice them until they were gone…. Then I would wonder why it was that I didn’t notice them when they were there.

One such smell that stung me like a bee would happen when I was on overhaul and I was walking out to the precipitator all covered in a fly ash suit from head-to-toe wearing a full face respirator with duct tape around all of the seams.

 

This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

I was walking in the breezeway between the two boilers when I suddenly smelled a sharp sort of smell. It was a strange chemical I hadn’t ever noticed before. I looked around to see where it was coming from. There wasn’t anyone around, and I didn’t see anything chemical spill in the area that would account for it.

As I walked toward the precipitator, I looked up as I walked under the surge bin tower in time to see an operator coming down the stairs. He was smoking a cigarette. Besides that, everything else looked normal, except that the smell was almost overwhelming me at that point.

I went and climbed in the precipitator where I worked until break. When I came out, I blew the dust off of myself with a tiny instrument air hose that we kept on either side of the precipitator for just such an occasion. After the fly ash had been blown off of my suit, I leaned forward and pulled my respirator off of my face and breathed the fresh air.

Later that week, when I was heading back out to the precipitator and had just left the electric shop all dressed up in my suit, I had a whiff of that same smell. I couldn’t mistake it. It was a unique chemical smell. looking around, there wasn’t anyone or anything near me that would have been emitting such a toxic smell.

As I walked around the condenser to head toward the boiler, I saw that a couple of mechanics were carrying some planks of wood and laying them by the condenser in order to build a scaffold once they opened the condenser. One of the guys was smoking a cigarette. I wondered… Could it be a cigarette that smells so rancid? It didn’t seem likely, since I began detecting the smell when I was more than 40 yards away from the operator when he was descending from the Surge bin tower. I shouldn’t be able to smell a cigarette from that distance.

After a few more instances, I realized that it was cigarettes that I was smelling. I was amazed by how far away I could detect a cigarette when I was wearing my respirator. I figured that after it had filtered out all the particles bigger than 2 microns, the only particles and odors that were entering my respirator were easily detectable by my nose. And they didn’t smell anything like a cigarette.

I became so astute at detecting smokers, that one time I was walking through the breezeway with an unfortunate contract worker that had been commandeered to work with me, I was dressed in my fly ash suit and respirator. My helper wasn’t because he was going to be my hole watch while I was inside. I suddenly smelled that, now familiar, scent. I spun around once and then turned to the guy walking with me, who hardly knew who I was, and said, “Someone is smoking a cigarette!”

He looked around and no one was in sight. He said, “There isn’t anyone here.” I said, “Oh, there’s someone with a cigarette all right.” About that time a truck pulled around the end of the precipitator about 50 yards away with a couple of welders pulling a welding machine behind. Their windows were open, and hanging out of the driver side window was an arm, with a hand on the end holding a cigarette. As it drove by us, I pointed to the cigarette and said, “See. Cigarette.” He kept insisting I couldn’t have smelled that cigarette that far away… But with my respirator on, I could easily smell it.

One of the other strange Power Plant smell that I encountered during my tenure at the Power Plant was also while I was wearing my respirator and working in the precipitator. Only, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was gone. Then I did everything I could to find the source of that smell, because to me, it was a sweet smell of success, even though it smelled more like a sweaty arm pit, or maybe even something worse.

I mentioned this smell in the post: “Moonwalk in a Power Plant Precipitator“. The precipitator is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler, and collects it in hoppers and then blows it a half mile to a silo on a hill by the coal pile, where it is trucked away to be made into concrete.

It was my job during an outage to repair the inside of the precipitator, and I was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the ash gathering abilities of this large piece of equipment.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

I knew at certain times during an outage that the ash that had built up on the plates would all of the sudden decide to cake up and fall off in chunks leaving a perfectly clean plate. When that happened, then the odds of the precipitator running real well when we came back online was a lot better.

I also knew that after working long hours in the precipitator for a couple of weeks, I would feel all worn out like I had a flu. I would have to drag myself out of bed in the morning and I would even catch myself falling asleep on my feet inside the precipitator while I was inspecting it. I always figured it was just because we were working 10 or 12 hour days and I was getting older. Yeah…. 30 years old, and I was feeling every bit of it.

Then one day when I went to the tool room to get a couple of boxes of respirator filters Bud Schoonover told me that he couldn’t give me the regular hepa filter that I was used to using. I already knew that the regular filters weren’t good enough, so I asked him what else he had. He said, “Well…… I have some of these here…” I have mentioned that if Bud had been African American and a little bit skinnier and shorter, he would have been the spittin’ image of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son’s. He would make this same expression:

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Bud handed me a box of filters labeled: Organic Vapor Filter:

 

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard.  It had a cotton looking filter on the top

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard. It had a cotton looking filter on the top

It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t have much choice. I could see that it had a carbon filter on it as well as the regular filter, so I thought it would be all right.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the precipitator wearing the Organic Vapor filter was that the air inside the precipitator didn’t smell any different than the air outside. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to smelling a “boiler” sort of smell. After a couple of weeks that smell would turn more rancid. Sort of a sour smell. When I noticed that I wasn’t smelling the sour smell I quickly broke the seal on my filter and sniffed the air to verify that the filter was really blocking the stench that built up in the precipitator the past few weeks. Sure enough.

Then I noticed that I was no longer feeling tired in the morning. I was able to work all day without feeling fatigued. I came to the conclusion that whatever that smell was that was being blocked by this respirator had been causing me to feel ill. Now that it was gone I was beginning to believe that 30 years old wasn’t that old after all.

I was already curious about the smell in the precipitator because I had noticed that after a day or so after it showed up, the ash would just flake off of the plates in the precipitator. If we could find out what it was, maybe we could inject something in the inlet of the precipitator when it was online and needed to be cleaned after a bad start-up or after it had been running a while to make it run more efficiently.

So, I went to our resident Doctor of Chemistry, George Pepple. I wrote a post about him, see “Power Plant Door Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. I explained to him about the smell and about how this particular filter filtered it out when a Hepa filter didn’t. And the effect it had on the ash on the plates. He listened intensely and I could tell that I had made him excited. There are only so many chemicals a plant chemist deals with on a normal basis, so when Dr. Pepple had an opportunity to explore something new, he jumped at the opportunity.

When I took him to the precipitator, he could smell the odor even before we began climbing the stairs up to the open hatchways. He described it as a sewage type of odor. Which I hadn’t really thought of before, but come to think of it, that would explain why an organic vapor filter would work on it. I suggested that the sulfur in the ash might be giving it that.

I had analyzed the chemicals that made up the coal that we received at our plant from Wyoming and I had tried to figure out how it might combine with moisture to create a new chemical. George explained that when the coal burns under such a high temperature, a lot of the chemicals are sort of encapsulated in ways that are not easily predictable.

George suggested that we approach this as a Safety issue and contact the Safety Department in Oklahoma City and have them see if they can put an analyzer in the precipitator to detect the chemical. When I contacted them, I talked with a lady called Julia Bevers (thanks Fred for reminding me of her last name). She told me to call her when the odor was strong during the next outage and she would bring some chemical detectors to the plant and I could place them in there and let them run overnight to collect samples.

Julia had said that she had heard that I was known as “Mr. Safety” at the plant. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was in the habit of complaining. And a number of the things I would complain about were safety issues.

Anyway, during the next outage as soon as I smelled the smell emanating from the precipitator I gave her a call and the next morning I received a call from Toby O’Brien, the Plant Engineer Extraordinaire called me and told me that Julia the Safety Lady was there in his office looking for me.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

So, I went to Toby’s office and met “The Safety Lady.” I know I didn’t look at all like she expected. I was in a worn tee-shirt, not tucked in (on purpose) and worn out steal-toed boots. When I took her out to the Precipitator, I decided to take her through across the Turbine Generator room and out the Third floor to the boiler where we walked through the boiler and over to the precipitator up and down ladders.

When we walked across the Turbine Floor, I didn’t have my usual pair of ear plugs hanging around my neck (they were in my pocket). As it was rather loud, Julia turned and said, “Shouldn’t we be wearing earplugs?” I replied, “Huh?” As if I couldn’t hear her. — I just love playing Power Plant Jokes on people that don’t even know what you’re up to… I’m sure when we were done, she went straight back to Toby and told him how shocked she was to find out how unsafe I was. — Me trying to keep a straight face the entire time.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

To shorten a longer story, Julia gave me some indicators that would detect two different types of chemicals that she thought may be the culprit. I let the detectors in the precipitator overnight and then sent them back to Oklahoma City for analysis. They both came back negative leaving us with a mystery chemical.

Anyway, I never did find out what was causing that strange smell….

There was another strange smell that used to pop up in the Electric Shop when I had first become an electrician, but that just turned out to be one of our fellow electricians that liked to walk up to a group of electricians standing around talking, and then let loose a “silent but deadly” and then walk away and stand from a distance to see our reaction.

I won’t mention who that was, unless someone would like to leave a comment about that below….. Anyway. we all knew who it was when that happened as the electricians would yell out his name as the crowd quickly dispersed.

I decided to take a different approach. I would stand there thinking, trying to analyze the odor to see if I could tell what exactly this person had for supper the night before. I could tell one day when I said “Beef Stroganoff” and his face turned red that I had guessed pretty close to the mark….. That was the last time this noble Power Plant Man did that to a crowd of electricians….. at least when I was standing there… I can’t attest to any other time…. as I wasn’t there.

But I suppose that is proof that even early in my career I was interested in finding the source of that “strange smell”.

A Power Plant Man Becomes An Unlikely Saint

Originally Posted on April 7, 2012:

My wife came home from work one night in the early 90’s.  She was a charge nurse at the Stillwater Oklahoma Medical Center at the time.  She said that she was taking care of a patient that was one of the mostly saintly people she had ever met.  He was going to die soon and she thought I might know who he was because he used to work at the Power Plant.

When she gave me his name I was surprised to learn that he was on his deathbed, and yes.  I did know him.  I agreed with her.  He is and always had been a saintly person.  The funny thing was that I felt that very few people really knew him as I did.  Many people knew him enough to not think he would be classified in the “Saint” category, and I knew why this was also.  I knew him so well quite by chance when I first came to the plant, and I made a decision about how to answer a common question that was being asked of me at the time.

As a summer help it was known that I was a college student, so the obvious question was, why was I going to school, and what did I want to be when I graduated.  I could tell this was a rowdy bunch of men that enjoyed their day at work, and so I told them that I wasn’t sure yet what my degree would be, but I thought I might like to become a writer.  I told them this hoping that they would bite where I could set the hook (in a fisherman sort of way), and they did.  The first person that asked me that question was Sonny Karcher, and when I told him that I thought I might be a writer, he took the bait and asked, “Are you going to write about us?”  At the time, I had no plans about doing that, but I thought if they thought so, then they might fill my ears with the unique wisdom each of them seemed to have.  So I answered, “I don’t know.  I haven’t thought about it, but I suppose I might.”

That’s all it took.  After that, every time Sonny introduced me to somebody, he would say, “This is Kevin.  He’s our new summer help.  He’s going to college to be a writer, and he’s going to write all about us!”  This produced the behavior I was hoping it would.  That was that a number of Power Plant Men took me “under their wing” and bestowed upon me their own particular wisdom.  For hours on end, as I worked with various men, they would tell me how things are in the world and how I should respond to them.  Their own particular Philosophy Of Life.

At the time I really had not considered writing about my experiences at the power plant, but now that I am much older and the wisdom of these great men seem to be dying away, I thought that it would be a good idea to put these out there on the Internet where nothing ever really goes away.

I have refrained from mentioning the name of this Unlikely Saint until now because I think that if I mentioned it up front some Power Plant Men would read it and think I was just tremendously off my rocker and not read any further.  So I prefaced my story with how I came to know this particular Power Plant Man enough to understand what my wife was saying when she told me about this Saint on the general medical (3rd) floor of the hospital.

Maybe I will refrain just a little while longer to tell you a few things that this man told me.  It was obvious that he felt as if he was talking to me as a father would talk to a son.  He was only two years younger than my own father.  The one thing that sticks in my mind most is when he told me, “Kev, some day you may be a foreman or a supervisor running this plant, but always remember this…. Never forget where you came from.  Never forget that there was a time when you first began and knew nothing.  Don’t ever forget your friends.  Don’t forget who you really are.”  I have reminded myself of this often and made it part of my own  “Philosophy of Life”.  Years later when I became an electrician, he stopped by the electric shop and reminded me once again.

As an Aside comment, my mother tried to help me with this by referring to me as “My Son, The Janitor” when introducing me to someone for years after I had become an electrician.  I was always proud to be called a janitor, and I would not try to correct her, because even though I was an electrician, I knew inside that I was also still a janitor.  Today, even though my title may be “Business Systems Analyst” working for Dell (and now Senior Software Engineer working for General Motors), I also still carry around in the back of my head the title of “Janitor”.

I wish I had a picture to share of this Power Plant Man (I have one somewhere, but I am not able to find it just now), because if you could see him, you would think… this guy?

This Power Plant Man brings Hercules to mind, though, he didn't look anything like him

This Power Plant Man brings Hercules to mind, though, he didn’t look anything like him

His skin was darkened from smoking so heavily all his life.  Emphysema is what killed him while he was still relatively young.  His belly grew over the years to become larger than his stocky barrel chest.  His head nodded while he listened to you and especially when managers were talking as if he was laughing to himself because he knew what they were really saying.  His clothes were always clean, which left everyone with the impression that he never did any work.

I remember one day while we were inspecting the dumper (where the coal is dumped out of the railway cars), as it had not been in-service for very long and everything needed to be inspected.  I followed him down the stairway into the dumper going down into the darkness.  There were lights down there, but they didn’t give off much light because the coal dust absorbs the light instead of reflecting it.  So, you can shine a flashlight and it doesn’t fill the room with its glow as it might in a room painted with white paint.  To me the place was eerily unreal until I had been down there enough times to keep my bearings on where we were going.

Anyway, I followed him down into the dark damp dumper where every handrail, every light fixture and every step was covered with coal dust.  We had some wrenches and we were tight checking the rollers on the conveyors.  When we were finished we found ourselves at the ground level exit of #2 Conveyor.  I looked at this Power Plant Man and he didn’t have spot of coal on him.  I, on the other hand, was black from top to bottom.  My hardhat was black, my arms, my face, my jeans.  All black.  Then this Power Plant Man told me some more words from the wise…. “When you get to be good, you will remain as clean as I am.”  This had as much impact on me as when Master Po told Kwai Chang Caine (In the Kung Fu TV series) that when he can walk on the rice paper and not leave a trace, then he will be a Shaolin Monk.

Master Po teaches Kwai Chang Caine about the ways of the force

Master Po teaches Kwai Chang Caine about the ways of the force

It seemed impossible to me that he could have worked right alongside me, actually doing more work than I was doing, and he came out pristine while I came out looking like a bat out of hell (or Pigpen times ten).  But there it was.  So, for years whenever I worked in a coal handling area, his words always rang in my mind.  I considered it a challenge.  I realized that there were times when it would be impossible to come out clean, like when you are sandblasting a tank, or working inside the Precipitator wading through fly ash up to your waist.  But when doing my regular job, I made a real effort to remain as clean as possible.  It made me happy to think that others might think that I wasn’t working hard enough to be in the True Power Plant Man League because my clothes were clean, because to me, it was a tribute to my own Shaolin Master…. Jerry Mitchell.  Yes.  Power Plant Men…. Jerry Mitchell.

Before Jerry came to work at the power plant, he used to work on jet engines.  Like many genuine Power Plant Men, he was a leader in the field of mechanics.  I have a list as long as my arm of great men that work as Power Plant Men that are each near the top of the list of experts in their fields of knowledge.  Jerry was one of them.  He built the engine in the blue corvette that he used to drive to work each day.  He machined the parts himself.  It could go from 0 to 80 and back to 0 from the main gate to the highway  — how many yards is that? 200 yards maybe 300  He demonstrated it once to me.  He was wondering if I was interested in buying it because he knew I didn’t own a car.

I think that I realized the true character of Power Plant Men from Jerry, because he had very little tolerance for those imposters that hung around Power Plant Men looking for a way to belittle them, or spread rumors to hurt their reputations, etc. because nothing bothers a pseudo-Heman like a True Power Plant Man, because it is like turning on a bright light and watching the roaches scurry away.  Jerry could tell their character a mile away.

I will give you a “for instance”…  One day as we pulled the truck up to the Maintenance Shop, Jerry told me to follow him and not say anything, just listen, because I was going to be shocked by the conversation that was about to take place.  I wondered how he knew as I walked up to an older foreman approaching a lady who was a Brown and Root construction hand (you could tell by the hardhat).  So I stood next to the man and listened.  He asked her how her night was last night and she began by describing the time she spent in a bar and she repeated the conversation she had with a man that was trying to pick her up.  Without going into too much detail, I will say that she ended the conversation with the man in the bar by saying that she was looking for a meal, not a snack, and proceeded to talk about another man in the bar and how she could tell that he was the kind of man she was looking for in more than descriptive terms.  She finished by telling the older man that the man she left with and her had a “Jolly good time” (my words, not hers) for at least 4 hours non-stop with more than enough details thrown in.  The older man was amused and hee-hawed about it slapping his knee in amusement.

Jerry nodded to me and we left.  We walked outside of the shop and Jerry asked me, “Have you ever heard anyone talk like that before?”  I admitted that I hadn’t.  Then he said, “That man that she was talking to is her father.”  I was thoroughly shocked and greatly disturbed.  I had just heard a flowing river of filth spew from this person’s mouth as she was talking to her own father, and his response was to be amused by it.  When Jerry told me this I looked at him in shock, and he looked back at me with his head nodding as it did often.  His face had the regular straight poker face he usually wore, but his eyes told me that he was very saddened by this.  He said he felt it was important for me to know.

I have often kept that poor old man and his lost soul of a daughter in my prayers.  This man worked in the plant until the 1987-88 downsizing.  Whenever I would see him working in the coalyard, I would remember that I needed to add him and his daughter to my prayers.

So in ending I will say this about Jerry Mitchell, as I say with all the True Power Plant Men I know.  I have always considered Jerry a good friend.  Jerry was always a good friend to me, and I know that he is a Saint in Heaven today.  He never spoke a religious word in the years that I knew him, but I know that his large barrel chest held a tremendous heart.

When I think of Jerry today, I remember riding to Stillwater with him in his blue Corvette.  As we drove by a row of trees in a creek bottom he suddenly said, “What is that noise?  Do I hear Cicadas?”  I said, “Yeah, sounds like it.”  He replied, “I haven’t heard Cicada in years!  After working around Jet engines for so long I could no longer hear the sound of bugs.  My hearing is returning!”  That was the only time I saw Jerry’s expression change from his constant straight face to a smile of satisfaction.  I am 100% sure by the time Jerry made it to Heaven he was able to hear the harps very clearly.

Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley

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

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

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

Yep.  That's the Marlboro Man

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

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

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

This is the best picture I could find of Jim Heflin

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

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

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

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

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

What’s That Strange Power Plant Smell?

Given that a large Coal-fired Power Plant is like a small city complete with a water treatment system to supply drinking water to thirsty Power Plant Men, and it’s own complete sewage system to handle the volumes of human waste and toxic run-off, when I ask, “What is that strange smell?”  You may expect the answer to be something like “Honeysuckle ”   If you thought, rotten fish,  diesel oil, ozone or sweaty arm pits, you would, of course, be wrong.  Those are all the usual smells found in a Power Plant.  Every so often, a smell would come by that would make you stop in your tracks and wonder…. “What’s that strange smell?”

Over the course of the 20 years I worked in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were times when a new smell would just come out of no where.  There were other times when they would sneak up on me gradually, so that I wouldn’t even notice them until they were gone….  Then I would wonder why it was that I didn’t notice them when they were there.

One such smell that stung me like a bee would happen when I was on overhaul and I was walking out to the precipitator all covered in a fly ash suit from head-to-toe wearing a full face respirator with duct tape around all of the seams.

 

This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

I was walking in the breezeway between the two boilers when I suddenly smelled a sharp sort of smell.  It was a strange chemical I hadn’t ever noticed before.  I looked around to see where it was coming from.  There wasn’t anyone around, and I didn’t see anything chemical spill in the area that would account for it.

As I walked toward the precipitator, I looked up as I walked under the surge bin tower in time to see an operator coming down the stairs.  He was smoking a cigarette.  Besides that, everything else looked normal, except that the smell was almost overwhelming me at that point.

I went and climbed in the precipitator where I worked until break.   When I came out, I blew myself off with a tiny instrument air hose that we kept on either side of the precipitator for just such an occasion.  After the fly ash had been blown off of my suit, I leaned forward and pulled my respirator off of my face and breathed the fresh air.

Later that week, when I was heading back out to the precipitator and had just left the electric shop all dressed up in my suit, I had a whiff of that same smell.  I couldn’t mistake it.  It was a unique chemical smell.  looking around, there wasn’t anyone or anything near me that would have been emitting such a toxic smell.

As I walked around the condenser to head toward the boiler, I saw that a couple of mechanics were carrying some planks of wood and laying them by the condenser in order to build a scaffold once they opened the condenser.  One of the guys was smoking a cigarette.  I wondered… Could it be a cigarette that smells so rancid?  It didn’t seem likely, since I began detecting the smell when I was more than 40 yards away from the operator when he was descending from the Surge bin tower.  I shouldn’t be able to smell a cigarette from that distance.

After a few more instances, I realized that it was cigarettes that I was smelling.  I was amazed by how far away I could detect a cigarette when I was wearing my respirator.  I figured that after it had filtered out all the particles bigger than 2 microns, the only particles and odors that were entering my respirator were easily detectable by my nose.  And they didn’t smell anything like a cigarette.

I became so astute at detecting smokers, that one time I was walking through the breezeway with an unfortunate contract worker that  had been commandeered to work with me, I was dressed in my fly ash suit and respirator. My helper wasn’t because he was going to be my hole watch while I was inside.  I suddenly smelled that, now familiar, scent.  I spun around once and then turned to the guy walking with me, who hardly knew who I was, and said, “Someone is smoking a cigarette!”

He looked around and no one was in sight.  He said, “There isn’t anyone here.”  I said, “Oh, there’s someone with a cigarette all right.”  About that time a truck pulled around the end of the precipitator about 50 yards away with a couple of welders pulling a welding machine behind.  Their windows were open, and hanging out of the driver side window was an arm, with a hand on the end holding a cigarette.  As it drove by us, I pointed to the cigarette and said, “See.  Cigarette.”  He kept insisting I couldn’t have smelled that cigarette that far away… But with my respirator on, I could easily smell it.

One of the other strange Power Plant smell that I encountered during my tenure at the Power Plant was also while I was wearing my respirator and working in the precipitator.  Only, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was gone.  Then I did everything I could to find the source of that smell, because to me, it was a sweet smell of success, even though it smelled more like a sweaty arm pit, or maybe even something worse.

I mentioned this smell in the post: “Moonwalk in a Power Plant Precipitator“.  The precipitator is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler, and collects it in hoppers and then blows it a half mile to a silo on a hill by the coal pile, where it is trucked away to be made into concrete.

It was my job during an outage to repair the inside of the precipitator, and I was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the ash gathering abilities of this large piece of equipment.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

I knew at certain times during an outage that the ash that had built up on the plates would all of the sudden decide to cake up and fall off in chunks leaving a perfectly clean plate.  When that happened, then the odds of the precipitator running real well when we came back online was a lot better.

I also knew that after working long hours in the precipitator for a couple of weeks, I would feel all worn out like I had a flu.  I would have to drag myself out of bed in the morning and I would even catch myself falling asleep on my feet inside the precipitator while I was inspecting it.  I always figured it was just because we were working 10 or 12 hour days and I was getting older.  Yeah…. 30 years old, and I was feeling every bit of it.

Then one day when I went to the tool room to get a couple of boxes of respirator filters Bud Schoonover told me that he couldn’t give me the regular hepa filter that I was used to using.  I already knew that the regular filters weren’t good enough, so I asked him what else he had.  He said, “Well…… I have some of these here…”  I have mentioned that if Bud had been African American and a little bit skinnier and shorter, he would have been the spittin’ image of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son’s.  He would make this same expression:

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Bud handed me a box of filters labeled:  Organic Vapor Filter:

 

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard.  It had a cotton looking filter on the top

Like This filter, only without the purple plastic guard. It had a cotton looking filter on the top

It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t have much choice.  I could see that it had a carbon filter on it as well as the regular filter, so I thought it would be all right.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the precipitator wearing the Organic Vapor filter was that the air inside the precipitator didn’t smell any different than the air outside.  I wasn’t used to that.  I was used to smelling a “boiler” sort of smell.  After a couple of weeks that smell would turn more rancid.  Sort of a sour smell.  When I noticed that I wasn’t smelling the sour smell I quickly broke the seal on my filter and sniffed the air to verify that the filter was really blocking the stench that built up in the precipitator the past few weeks.  Sure enough.

Then I noticed that I was no longer feeling tired in the morning.  I was able to work all day without feeling fatigued.  I came to the conclusion that whatever that smell was that was being blocked by this respirator had been causing me to feel ill.  Now that it was gone I was beginning to believe that 30 years old wasn’t that old after all.

I was already curious about the smell in the precipitator because I had noticed that after a day or so after it showed up, the ash would just flake off of the plates in the precipitator.  If we could find out what it was, maybe we could inject something in the inlet of the precipitator when it was online and needed to be cleaned after a bad start-up or after it had been running a while to make it run more efficiently.

So, I went to our resident Doctor of Chemistry, George Pepple.  I wrote a post about him, see “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“.  I explained to him about the smell and about how this particular filter filtered it out when a Hepa filter didn’t.  And the effect it had on the ash on the plates.  He listened intensely and I could tell that I had made him excited.  There are only so many chemicals a plant chemist deals with on a normal basis, so when Dr. Pepple had an opportunity to explore something new, he jumped at the opportunity.

When I took him to the precipitator, he could smell the odor even before we began climbing the stairs up to the open hatchways.  He described it as a sewage type of odor.  Which I hadn’t really thought of before, but come to think of it, that would explain why an organic vapor filter would work on it.  I suggested that the sulfur in the ash might be giving it that.

I had analyzed the chemicals that made up the coal that we received at our plant from Wyoming and I had tried to figure out how it might combine with moisture to create a new chemical.  George explained that when the coal burns under such a high temperature, a lot of the chemicals are sort of encapsulated in ways that are not easily predictable.

George suggested that we approach this as a Safety issue and contact the Safety Department in Oklahoma City and have them see if they can put an analyzer in the precipitator to detect the chemical.  When I contacted them, I talked with a lady called Julia Bevers (thanks Fred for reminding me of her last name).  She told me to call her when the odor was strong during the next outage and she would bring some chemical detectors to the plant and I could place them in there and let them run overnight to collect samples.

Julia had said that she had heard that I was known as “Mr. Safety” at the plant.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it was because I was in the habit of complaining.  And a number of the things I would complain about were safety issues.

Anyway, during the next outage as soon as I smelled the smell emanating from the precipitator I gave her a call and the next morning I received a call from Toby O’Brien, the Plant Engineer  Extraordinaire called me and told me that Julia the Safety Lady was there in his office looking for me.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

So, I went to Toby’s office and met “The Safety Lady.”  I know I didn’t look at all like she expected.  I was in a worn tee-shirt, not tucked in (on purpose) and worn out steal-toed boots.   When I took her out to the Precipitator, I decided to take her through across the Turbine Generator room and out the Third floor to the boiler where we walked through the boiler and over to the precipitator up and down ladders.

When we walked across the Turbine Floor, I didn’t have my usual pair of ear plugs hanging around my neck (they were in my pocket).  As it was rather loud, Julia turned and said, “Shouldn’t we be wearing earplugs?”  I replied, “Huh?”  As if I couldn’t hear her.  — I just love playing Power Plant Jokes on people that don’t even know what you’re up to…  I’m sure when we were done, she went straight back to Toby and told him how shocked she was to find out how unsafe I was.  — Me trying to keep a straight face the entire time.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

To shorten a longer story, Julia gave me some indicators that would detect two different types of chemicals that she thought may be the culprit.  I let the detectors in the precipitator overnight and then sent them back to Oklahoma City for analysis.  They both came back negative leaving us with a mystery chemical.

Anyway, I never did find out what was causing that strange smell….

There was another strange smell that used to pop up in the Electric Shop when I had first become an electrician, but that just turned out to be one of our fellow electricians that liked to walk up to a group of electricians standing around talking, and then let loose a “silent but deadly” and then walk away and stand from a distance to see our reaction.

I won’t mention who that was, unless someone would like to leave a comment about that below…..  Anyway.  we all knew who it was when that happened as the electricians would yell out his name as the crowd quickly dispersed.

I decided to take a different approach.  I would stand there thinking, trying to analyze the odor to see if I could tell what exactly this person had for supper the night before.  I could tell one day when I said “Beef Stroganoff” and his face turned red that I had guessed pretty close to the mark…..  That was the last time this noble Power Plant Man did that to a crowd of electricians….. at least when I was standing there… I can’t attest to any other time…. as I wasn’t there.

But I suppose that is proof that even early in my career I was interested in finding the source of that “strange smell”.

A Power Plant Man Becomes An Unlikely Saint — Repost

Originally Posted on April 7, 2012:

My wife came home from work one night in the early 90’s.  She was a charge nurse at the Stillwater Oklahoma Medical Center at the time.  She said that she was taking care of a patient that was one of the mostly saintly people she had ever met.  He was going to die soon and she thought I might know who he was because he used to work at the Power Plant.

When she gave me his name I was surprised to learn that he was on his deathbed, and yes.  I did know him.  I agreed with her.  He is and always had been a saintly person.  The funny thing was that I felt that very few people really knew him as I did.  Many people knew him enough to not think he would be classified in the “Saint” category, and I knew why this was also.  I knew him so well quite by chance when I first came to the plant, and I made a decision about how to answer a common question that was being asked of me at the time.

As a summer help it was known that I was a college student, so the obvious question was, why was I going to school, and what did I want to be when I graduated.  I could tell this was a rowdy bunch of men that enjoyed their day at work, and so I told them that I wasn’t sure yet what my degree would be, but I thought I might like to become a writer.  I told them this hoping that they would bite where I could set the hook (in a fisherman sort of way), and they did.  The first person that asked me that question was Sonny Karcher, and when I told him that I thought I might be a writer, he took the bait and asked, “Are you going to write about us?”  At the time, I had no plans about doing that, but I thought if they thought so, then they might fill my ears with the unique wisdom each of them seemed to have.  So I answered, “I don’t know.  I haven’t thought about it, but I suppose I might.”

That’s all it took.  After that, every time Sonny introduced me to somebody, he would say, “This is Kevin.  He’s our new summer help.  He’s going to college to be a writer, and he’s going to write all about us!”  This produced the behavior I was hoping it would.  That was that a number of Power Plant Men took me “under their wing” and bestowed upon me their own particular wisdom.  For hours on end, as I worked with various men, they would tell me how things are in the world and how I should respond to them.  Their own particular Philosophy Of Life.

At the time I really had not considered writing about my experiences at the power plant, but now that I am much older and the wisdom of these great men seem to be dying away, I thought that it would be a good idea to put these out there on the Internet where nothing ever really goes away.

I have refrained from mentioning the name of this Unlikely Saint until now because I think that if I mentioned it up front some Power Plant Men would read it and think I was just tremendously off my rocker and not read any further.  So I prefaced my story with how I came to know this particular Power Plant Man enough to understand what my wife was saying when she told me about this Saint on the general medical (3rd) floor of the hospital.

Maybe I will refrain just a little while longer to tell you a few things that this man told me.  It was obvious that he felt as if he was talking to me as a father would talk to a son.  He was only two years younger than my own father.  The one thing that sticks in my mind most is when he told me, “Kev, some day you may be a foreman or a supervisor running this plant, but always remember this…. Never forget where you came from.  Never forget that there was a time when you first began and knew nothing.  Don’t ever forget your friends.  Don’t forget who you really are.”  I have reminded myself of this often and made it part of my “Philosophy of Life”.  Years later when I became an electrician, he stopped by the electric shop and reminded me once again.

As an Aside comment, my mother tried to help me with this by referring to me as “My Son, The Janitor” when introducing me to someone for years after I had become an electrician.  I was always proud to be called a janitor, and I would not try to correct her, because even though I was an electrician, I believed I was also still a janitor.  Today, even though my title may be “Business Systems Analyst” working for Dell, I also still carry around in the back of my head the title of “Janitor”.

I wish I had a picture to share of this Power Plant Man (I have one somewhere, but I am not able to find it just now), because if you could see him, you would think… this guy?

This Power Plant Man brings Hercules to mind, though, he didn't look anything like him

This Power Plant Man brings Hercules to mind, though, he didn’t look anything like him

His skin is darkened from smoking so heavily all his life.  Emphysema is what killed him while he was still relatively young.  His belly grew over the years to become larger than his stocky barrel chest.  His head nodded while he listened to you and especially when managers were talking as if he was laughing to himself because he knew what they were really saying.  His clothes were always clean, which left everyone with the impression that he never did any work.

I remember one day while we were inspecting the dumper (where the coal is dumped out of the railway cars), as it had not been in-service for very long and everything needed to be inspected.  I followed him down the stairway into the dumper going down into the darkness.  There were lights down there, but they didn’t give off much light because the coal dust absorbs the light instead of reflecting it.  So, you can shine a flashlight and it doesn’t fill the room with its glow as it might in a room painted with white paint.  To me the place was eerily unreal until I had been down there enough times to keep my bearings on where we were going.

Anyway, I followed him down into the dark damp dumper where every handrail, every light fixture and every step was covered with coal dust.  We had some wrenches and we were tight checking the rollers on the conveyors.  When we were finished we found ourselves at the ground level exit of #2 Conveyor.  I looked at this Power Plant Man and he didn’t have spot of coal on him.  I, on the other hand, was black from top to bottom.  My hardhat was black, my arms, my face, my jeans.  All black.  Then this Power Plant Man told me some more words from the wise…. “When you get to be good, you will remain as clean as I am.”  This had as much impact on me as when Master Po told Kwai Chang Caine (In the Kung Fu TV series) that when he can walk on the rice paper and not leave a trace, then he will be a Shaolin Monk.

Master Po teaches Kwai Chang Caine about the ways of the force

Master Po teaches Kwai Chang Caine about the ways of the force

It seemed impossible to me that he could have worked right alongside me, actually doing more work than I was doing, and he came out pristine while I came out looking like a bat out of hell (or Pigpen times ten).  But there it was.  So, for years whenever I worked in a coal handling area, his words always rang in my mind.  I considered it a challenge.  I realized that there were times when it would be impossible to come out clean, like when you are sandblasting a tank, or working inside the Precipitator wading through fly ash up to your waist.  But when doing my regular job, I made a real effort to remain as clean as possible.  It made me happy to think that others might think that I wasn’t working hard enough to be in the True Power Plant Man League because my clothes were clean, because to me, it was a tribute to my own Shaolin Master…. Jerry Mitchell.  Yes.  Power Plant Men…. Jerry Mitchell.

Before Jerry came to work at the power plant, he used to work on jet engines.  Like many genuine Power Plant Men, he was a leader in the field of mechanics.  I have a list as long as my arm of great men that work as Power Plant Men that are each near the top of the list of experts in their fields of knowledge.  Jerry was one of them.  He built the engine in the blue corvette that he used to drive to work each day.  He machined the parts himself.  It could go from 0 to 80 and back to 0 from the main gate to the highway  — how many yards is that? 200 yards maybe 300  He demonstrated it once to me.  He was wondering if I was interested in buying it because he knew I didn’t own a car.

I think that I realized the true character of Power Plant Men from Jerry, because he had very little tolerance for those imposters that hung around Power Plant Men looking for a way to belittle them, or spread rumors to hurt their reputations, etc. because nothing bothers a pseudo-Heman like a True Power Plant Man, because it is like turning on a bright light and watching the roaches scurry away.  Jerry could tell their character a mile away.

I will give you a “for instance”…  One day as we pulled the truck up to the Maintenance Shop, Jerry told me to follow him and not say anything, just listen, because I was going to be shocked by the conversation that was about to take place.  I wondered how he knew as I walked up to an older foreman approaching a lady who was a Brown and Root construction hand (you could tell by the hardhat).  So I stood next to the man and listened.  He asked her how her night was last night and she began by describing the time she spent in a bar and she repeated the conversation she had with a man that was trying to pick her up.  Without going into too much detail, I will say that she ended the conversation with the man in the bar by saying that she was looking for a meal, not a snack, and proceeded to talk about another man in the bar and how she could tell that he was the kind of man she was looking for in more than descriptive terms.  She finished by telling the older man that the man she left with and her had a “Jolly good time” (my words, not hers) for at least 4 hours non-stop with more than enough details thrown in.  The older man was amused and hee-hawed about it slapping his knee in amusement.

Jerry nodded to me and we left.  We walked outside of the shop and Jerry asked me, “Have you ever heard anyone talk like that before?”  I admitted that I hadn’t.  Then he said, “That man that she was talking to is her father.”  I was thoroughly shocked and greatly disturbed.  I had just heard a flowing river of filth spew from this person’s mouth as she was talking to her own father, and his response was to be amused by it.  When Jerry told me this I looked at him in shock, and he looked back at me with his head nodding as it did often.  His face had the regular straight poker face he usually wore, but his eyes told me that he was very saddened by this.  He said he felt it was important for me to know.

I have often kept that poor old man and his lost soul of a daughter in my prayers.  This man worked in the plant until the 1987-88 downsizing.  Whenever I would see him working in the coalyard, I would remember that I needed to add him and his daughter to my prayers.

So in ending I will say this about Jerry Mitchell, as I say with all the True Power Plant Men I know.  I have always considered Jerry a good friend.  Jerry was always a good friend to me, and I know that he is a Saint in Heaven today.  He never spoke a religious word in the years that I knew him, but I know that his large barrel chest held a tremendous heart.

When I think of Jerry today, I remember riding to Stillwater with him in his blue Corvette.  As we drove by a row of trees in a creek bottom he suddenly said, “What is that noise?  Do I hear Cicadas?”  I said, “Yeah, sounds like it.”  He replied, “I haven’t heard Cicada in years!  After working around Jet engines for so long I could no longer hear the sound of bugs.  My hearing is returning!”  That was the only time I saw Jerry’s expression change from his constant straight face to a smile of satisfaction.  I am 100% sure by the time Jerry made it to Heaven he was able to hear the harps very clearly.

Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley — Repost

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

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

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

Yep.  That's the Marlboro Man

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

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

A Backhoe
Here is a picture of a backhoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

This is the best picture I could find of Jim Heflin

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

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

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

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

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

A Power Plant Man Becomes An Unlikely Saint — Repost

Originally Posted on April 7, 2012.  I edited it a little and added some pictures:

My wife came home from work one night in the early 90’s.  She was a charge nurse at the Stillwater Oklahoma Medical Center at the time.  She said that she was taking care of a patient that was one of the mostly saintly people she had ever met.  He was going to die soon and she thought I might know who he was because he used to work at the Power Plant.

When she gave me his name I was surprised to learn that he was on his deathbed, and yes.  I did know him.  I agreed with her.  He is and always had been a saintly person.  The funny thing was that I felt that very few people really knew him as I did.  Many people knew him enough to not think he would be classified in the “Saint” category, and I knew why this was also.  I knew him so well quite by chance when I first came to the plant, and I made a decision about how to answer a common question that was being asked of me at the time.

As a summer help it was known that I was a college student, so the obvious question was, why was I going to school, and what did I want to be when I graduated.  I could tell this was a rowdy bunch of men that enjoyed their day at work, and so I told them that I wasn’t sure yet what my degree would be, but I thought I might like to become a writer.  I told them this hoping that they would bite where I could set the hook (in a fisherman sort of way), and they did.  The first person that asked me that question was Sonny Karcher, and when I told him that I thought I might be a writer, he took the bait and asked, “Are you going to write about us?”  At the time, I had no plans about doing that, but I thought if they thought so, then they might fill my ears with the unique wisdom each of them seemed to have.  So I answered, “I don’t know.  I haven’t thought about it, but I suppose I might.”

That’s all it took.  After that, every time Sonny introduced me to somebody, he would say, “This is Kevin.  He’s our new summer help.  He’s going to college to be a writer, and he’s going to write all about us!”  This produced the behavior I was hoping it would.  That was that a number of Power Plant Men took me “under their wing” and bestowed upon me their own particular wisdom.  For hours on end, as I worked with various men, they would tell me how things are in the world and how I should respond to them.  Their own particular Philosophy Of Life.

At the time I really had not considered writing about my experiences at the power plant, but now that I am much older and the wisdom of these great men seem to be dying away, I thought that it would be a good idea to put these out there on the Internet where nothing ever really goes away.

I have refrained from mentioning the name of this Unlikely Saint until now because I think that if I mentioned it up front some Power Plant Men would read it and think I was just tremendously off my rocker and not read any further.  So I prefaced my story with how I came to know this particular Power Plant Man enough to understand what my wife was saying when she told me about this Saint on the general medical (3rd) floor of the hospital.

Maybe I will refrain just a little while longer to tell you a few things that this man told me.  It was obvious that he felt as if he was talking to me as a father would talk to a son.  He was only two years younger than my own father.  The one thing that sticks in my mind most is when he told me, “Kev, some day you may be a foreman or a supervisor running this plant, but always remember this…. Never forget where you came from.  Never forget that there was a time when you first began and knew nothing.  Don’t ever forget your friends.  Don’t forget who you really are.”  I have reminded myself of this often and made it part of my “Philosophy of Life”.  Years later when I became an electrician, he stopped by the electric shop and reminded me once again.

As an Aside comment, my mother tried to help me with this by referring to me as “My Son, The Janitor” when introducing me to someone for years after I had become an electrician.  I was always proud to be called a janitor, and I would not try to correct her, because even though I was an electrician, I believed I was also still a janitor.  Today, even though my title may be “Business Systems Analyst” working for Dell, I also still carry around in the back of my head the title of “Janitor”.

I wish I had a picture to share of this Power Plant Man (I have one somewhere, but I am not able to find it just now), because if you could see him, you would think… this guy?

This Power Plant Man brings Hercules to mind, though, he didn't look anything like him

This Power Plant Man brings Hercules to mind, though, he didn’t look anything like him

His skin is darkened from smoking so heavily all his life.  Emphysema is what killed him while he was still relatively young.  His belly grew over the years to become larger than his stocky barrel chest.  His head nodded while he listened to you and especially when managers were talking as if he was laughing to himself because he knew what they were really saying.  His clothes were always clean, which left everyone with the impression that he never did any work.

I remember one day while we were inspecting the dumper (where the coal is dumped out of the railway cars), as it had not been in-service for very long and everything needed to be inspected.  I followed him down the stairway into the dumper going down into the darkness.  There were lights down there, but they didn’t give off much light because the coal dust absorbs the light instead of reflecting it.  So, you can shine a flashlight and it doesn’t fill the room with its glow as it might in a room painted with white paint.  To me the place was eerily unreal until I had been down there enough times to keep my bearings on where we were going.

Anyway, I followed him down into the dark damp dumper where every handrail, every light fixture and every step was covered with coal dust.  We had some wrenches and we were tight checking the rollers on the conveyors.  When we were finished we found ourselves at the ground level exit of #2 Conveyor.  I looked at this Power Plant Man and he didn’t have spot of coal on him.  I, on the other hand, was black from top to bottom.  My hardhat was black, my arms, my face, my jeans.  All black.  Then this Power Plant Man told me some more words from the wise…. “When you get to be good, you will remain as clean as I am.”  This had as much impact on me as when Master Po told Kwai Chang Caine (In the Kung Fu TV series) that when he can walk on the rice paper and not leave a trace, then he will be a Shaolin Monk.

Master Po teaches Kwai Chang Caine about the ways of the force

Master Po teaches Kwai Chang Caine about the ways of the force

It seemed impossible to me that he could have worked right alongside me, actually doing more work than I was doing, and he came out pristine while I came out looking like a bat out of hell (or Pigpen times ten).  But there it was.  So, for years whenever I worked in a coal handling area, his words always rang in my mind.  I considered it a challenge.  I realized that there were times when it would be impossible to come out clean, like when you are sandblasting a tank, or working inside the Precipitator wading through fly ash up to your waist.  But when doing my regular job, I made a real effort to remain as clean as possible.  It made me happy to think that others might think that I wasn’t working hard enough to be in the True Power Plant Man League because my clothes were clean, because to me, it was a tribute to my own Shaolin Master…. Jerry Mitchell.  Yes.  Power Plant Men…. Jerry Mitchell.

Before Jerry came to work at the power plant, he used to work on jet engines.  Like many genuine Power Plant Men, he was a leader in the field of mechanics.  I have a list as long as my arm of great men that work as Power Plant Men that are each near the top of the list of experts in their fields of knowledge.  Jerry was one of them.  He built the engine in the blue corvette that he used to drive to work each day.  He machined the parts himself.  It could go from 0 to 80 and back to 0 from the main gate to the highway  — how many yards is that? 200 yards maybe 300  He demonstrated it once to me.  He was wondering if I was interested in buying it because he knew I didn’t own a car.

I think that I realized the true character of Power Plant Men from Jerry, because he had very little tolerance for those imposters that hung around Power Plant Men looking for a way to belittle them, or spread rumors to hurt their reputations, etc. because nothing bothers a pseudo-Heman like a True Power Plant Man, because it is like turning on a bright light and watching the roaches scurry away.  Jerry could tell their character a mile away.

I will give you a “for instance”…  One day as we pulled the truck up to the Maintenance Shop, Jerry told me to follow him and not say anything, just listen, because I was going to be shocked by the conversation that was about to take place.  I wondered how he knew as I walked up to an older foreman approaching a lady who was a Brown and Root construction hand (you could tell by the hardhat).  So I stood next to the man and listened.  He asked her how her night was last night and she began by describing the time she spent in a bar and she repeated the conversation she had with a man that was trying to pick her up.  Without going into too much detail, I will say that she ended the conversation with the man in the bar by saying that she was looking for a meal, not a snack, and proceeded to talk about another man in the bar and how she could tell that he was the kind of man she was looking for in more than descriptive terms.  She finished by telling the older man that the man she left with and her had a “Jolly good time” (my words, not hers) for at least 4 hours non-stop with more than enough details thrown in.  The older man was amused and hee-hawed about it slapping his knee in amusement.

Jerry nodded to me and we left.  We walked outside of the shop and Jerry asked me, “Have you ever heard anyone talk like that before?”  I admitted that I hadn’t.  Then he said, “That man that she was talking to is her father.”  I was thoroughly shocked and greatly disturbed.  I had just heard a flowing river of filth spew from this person’s mouth as she was talking to her own father, and his response was to be amused by it.  When Jerry told me this I looked at him in shock, and he looked back at me with his head nodding as it did often.  His face had the regular straight poker face he usually wore, but his eyes told me that he was very saddened by this.  He said he felt it was important for me to know.

I have often kept that poor old man and his lost soul of a daughter in my prayers.  This man worked in the plant until the 1987-88 downsizing.  Whenever I would see him working in the coalyard, I would remember that I needed to add him and his daughter to my prayers.

So in ending I will say this about Jerry Mitchell, as I say with all the True Power Plant Men I know.  I have always considered Jerry a good friend.  Jerry was always a good friend to me, and I know that he is a Saint in Heaven today.  He never spoke a religious word in the years that I knew him, but I know that his large barrel chest held a tremendous heart.

When I think of Jerry today, I remember riding to Stillwater with him in his blue Corvette.  As we drove by a row of trees in a creek bottom he suddenly said, “What is that noise?  Do I hear Cicadas?”  I said, “Yeah, sounds like it.”  He replied, “I haven’t heard Cicada in years!  After working around Jet engines for so long I could no longer hear the sound of bugs.  My hearing is returning!”  That was the only time I saw Jerry’s expression change from his constant straight face to a smile of satisfaction.  I am 100% sure by the time Jerry made it to Heaven he was able to hear the harps very clearly.