Originally posted May 2, 2014:
Last week I mentioned in the post “Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes” that Jim Padgett called me at 2:15 am one morning to tell me that the coal dumper was broken and he needed for me to come out to the plant to work on it. You may have wondered why a plant electrician living in North Central Oklahoma would answer the phone in the middle of the night when it most certainly meant that they would have to crawl out of bed and go to work to fix something that was broken. Why not just roll over and pretend that the phone never rang?
You see… I knew when the phone rang that it was the power plant, because in the 20 years that I worked at the plant, just about every time the phone rang after midnight it meant that I would have to get dressed, and drive 30 miles to the plant to work on something that was most likely going to be in a dusty dirty place. You could always count on the coal train dumper switchgear being covered with coal dust. That was the usual point of failure past the “witching hour”.
I suppose I could say there were two reasons why a Power Plant Man would answer the phone. One was that they were just all around nice guys and they wanted to help out any chance they could. The other reason was because of the pay.
Even though working at the power plant was perhaps one of the best jobs in the neighborhood (being the only job in the neighborhood, since the plant ground consisted of its own neighborhood out in the middle of nowhere), that didn’t mean that the pay was especially lucrative. That is, if a Power Plant Man had to rely on their base pay alone it would be difficult. So, in order to help the Brave Men and Women of Power Plant Fame pay their bills, many opportunities were provided for working overtime.
Think about this. What if, when I answered the call to save the day (uh… I mean the night) and spent 35 minutes driving out to the plant only to fix the problem in fifteen minutes? Then I would spend another 35 minutes driving back home with my clothes all full of coal dust, only to be paid a measly 15 minutes of over time? Even at double time, that would only be 30 minutes of pay. That would hardly cover the gas and the laundry soap.
Early in the life of this particular plant, it became apparent that something had to be done to motivate the heroic masters of Power Plant Maintenance to make the long lonely drive down Highway 177 at the wee hours of the morning. So, certain methods were devised to coax the restful souls to the phones when they rang. Once they answered the phone, then sheer guilt was enough to drag them out of the sack. It was that moment when the phone first began to ring, before the reasoning part of the brain kicked in and the more base reflexes such as those that were out to make an extra buck reacted instinctively that needed to be targeted.
So “Black Time” was introduced to the plant. Black time had probably been around long before the plant came into existence, but it came in handy when someone had to be called out in the middle of the night. Black time was the time that a person would be paid even though they didn’t actually work during that time. So, when a Power Plant Man was called out in the middle of the night, they would be guaranteed at least two hours of overtime even though they may only work for 15 minutes.
This would help defray the cost of gas and time for driving both ways to and from the plant. Anything from 7:30 pm to 7:00 am was paid as double-time. That is two times the normal base salary. So, two hours at double time came out to four hours of pay, or as much pay as someone would make for half of a day at work. That was some incentive for disturbing a Power Plant Man from their pleasant dreams of adventuring through the Power Plant Kingdom where the rule was always “Might For Right”. — Well, at least that’s what I was dreaming some of the time when the phone rang.
If Black Time wasn’t enough, it was taken a step further when the six hour rule was introduced. The Six Hour Rule was added fairly early on in the life of the Power Plant and went through a few variations when I was working at the plant. When it was first introduced, it came across as if someone downtown had made the decision that when someone is disturbed from their sleep during certain hours of their sleep cycle, it directly impacted their safety. Hence the Six Hour Rule was born.
Originally it worked like this…. The hours of midnight to 6:00 am were considered the prime sleeping hours for Heroic Power Plant Men. During this time, it was deemed that all Power Plant Men should be tucked in their beds dreaming of ways to work safely during the following day. Whenever this time period was disturbed, then the Electric Company should provide the loyal Power Plant Man for answering the call of duty during a time of early morning emergency by giving him back the same number of hours in black time so that he could go home and continue his all-important dreams and regeneration.
So, if I had been called out at one o’clock in the morning to work on something, and it took me two hours to fix it, then I could come into work two hours later in the morning. The first two hours of my regular work day would be payed as “Black Time”. — Makes sense… right? Two hours of work…. Come in two hours late in the morning…. black time… Easy to calculate.
This provided a pretty good incentive for going out to work in the middle of the night. First, you would get at least 2 hours of double time. Second, you would be able to make up for lost sleep by coming in late in the morning without having to lose any pay. You could also come in at the regular time and leave early in the afternoon if you wanted.
Well… That lasted for a few years, then the rules for the 6 hour rule began to change. Originally, even if the job was only 15 minutes, the least amount of black time that you would get was 2 hours. After all, it was an hour of driving for the large majority of the Power Plant Men that lived in a civilized village of more than 50 people. Later, the Six Hour Rule was changed so that only the actual time worked would count for the six hour rule.
This meant that if I drove all the way out to the plant to work on something that only took 15 minutes, then I could only come in 15 minutes late then next morning, even though I had spent at least an hour and 45 minutes away from my dreams of serving nobly in the Power Plant Palace. In that case the six hour rule didn’t apply anymore. I figured that someone who was short-sighted had come up with that idea. I’ll explain why in a few minutes.
The next phase of the Six Hour Rule came a few years after that… It was decided that after a person had been called out at night to fight the good fight, as soon as they left the plant, the six hour rule would start counting down. Let me explain this in a little more detail….
Say, I were called out to work in the middle of the night, and I worked from 1:00 am to 3:00 am (two hours). Then I left to go home at three. The hours start counting down so that by 5:00 am, the time I had spent at the plant were no longer valid, and I was expected to show up at work at the regular time. 8:00 am. Okay. So, in more and more cases (it would seem), the six hour rule would be made meaningless.
So, with this rule in place, if I was called out at midnight, and worked until 4:00 am, for a total of 4 hours, then by 8:00 am when I was supposed to be back at work all of the four hours would have ticked off and I would have no black time. I would have to show up at 8:00 am. See how that was supposed to basically take the six hour rule and make a joke out of it? (Or so, someone thought).
As most attempts at being underhanded without actually just coming out and telling us that it was decided that the Honorable Power Plant Men no longer needed their six hours of prime sleeping time to work safely the next day, the opposite effect was the result. Kind of like raising the minimum wage to help the workers, when you put more people out of work.
When the six hour rule was changed to count down from the time you left the plant, was when I made the most money from the six hour rule. I racked up loads of black time from this change as well as most Power Plant Men that were called out before Morning Prayers (Lauds). Here is how and why:
Suppose the phone rings and it is 1 o’clock in the morning. You decide to answer it and get called out to work on something that takes 15 minutes. You finish the job some time around 2:15 am (because, after all, you had to drive all the way out to the plant). What should you do now? If you go back home and go to bed, then because of the way the 6 hour rule worked, you would certainly have to come back to work at 8 o’clock. — hmm… You will still have collected 2 hours of double time. That’s something.
Look at the alternatives. What if you went to the shop and worked on some other tasks while you were already there? For Power Plant Maintenance Men, there is always something that needs to be fixed. You may even ask the Shift Supervisor, “While I’m here, is there anything else you want me to work on?” Shift Supervisors just love having their own personal maintenance man in the middle of the night eager to help. There is always something they could find that needs fixing.
So, instead of turning around and going home, invariably, after the 15 minute job was over, I would end up doing other jobs for the Shift Supervisor until morning. Well, once 6:00 am rolled around, it was really too late to drive home and then wait an hour and drive back. So, I would just stay until 8.
Now look what happened! Instead of 2 hours of double time, I worked from 2:00 to 8:00 with all but the last hour at double time, the last hour at time and a half. That comes to 11 1/2 hours of my base salary. Compare that to the 4 hours I would have received for 2 hours of double time.
But here is the best part. 8:00 rolls around. We have our morning meeting. Since I worked for 4 hours of the special 6 hours from midnight to 6, I get to leave at noon and get paid black time for the rest of the day.
What fun! Every time the six hour rule was reigned in to reduce black time it produced more black time. And how was that safer? The final tweaks to the 6 hour rule before it was basically abolished a few years later came during the fall of 1991. I’m not saying that this alone was the reason, but in 1992, the Power Plant had the highest Accident Rate since 1983. Somewhere around 23 accidents. Given that in 1983, we had 50% more employees, 1991 had a much higher accident rate.
The number of call-outs in the early hours of the morning were not as common as I may have made them out to be. So, I don’t mean to claim that the change in the six hour rule was ever the cause of even one additional accident. I studied all the accidents that happened that year, and even though some of them were the result of fatigue, it was usually because they had worked an extra long shift – over 12 hours, and were injured because they were tired. Not because they were affected by the six hour rule. The question was never asked if the person had been called out the night before.
Even though (as far as we know, because we never asked the question) the six hour rule changes didn’t directly cause any particular accident that year, it was a symptom of an overarching problem. A certain apathy toward safety had crept into the plant. The previous years, we had an excellent safety record. One of our best years was in 1987. I believe we had only 3 accidents that entire year. None of them serious.
I will discuss Safety in various other posts, so I won’t belabor the point now. The point I wanted to make from this post was that by focusing on the bottom line, or some other performance metric without putting your most important asset first (The Power Plant Man), almost always guarantees the opposite results.
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted August 2, 2014
Scott, Toby and I were all sitting in the front seat of Scott’s pickup truck on our way home from the coal-fired power plant in North Cental Oklahoma, because this particular pickup didn’t have a back seat. I guess that’s true for most pickup now that I think about it. It was in the fall of 1993 and I was on one of my rants about Power Plant Safety (again).
Scott Hubbard was focusing on the road and he was smiling. I think it was because the person that was talking on NPR (National Public Radio) had a pleasant voice.
Come to think of it… Scott was usually smiling.
I was going on and on about how the plant needed to take a completely didn’t approach to safety. I thought that we just looked at each accident as an isolated case and because of that we were missing the point. The point was that no one really goes to work with the idea that they want to do something that will hurt them. Power Plant Men in general don’t like having accidents. Not only does it hurt, but it is also embarrassing as well. Who doesn’t want that 20 year safety sticker?
I was in the middle of my safety rant all prepared to continue all the way from the plant to Stillwater, about 20 miles away when Toby quickly interrupted me. He said that he had received a safety pamphlet in the mail the other day that was saying the same things I had just said. It had talked about a way to change the culture of the plant to be more safe. Not using the same old techniques we were used to like Safety Slogan Programs (I was thinking…. but what about the Safety Slogan Pizza award at the end of the year? Would that go away? See the Post: “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe“). Toby said that he read it and then set it aside as just another one of the many safety sales pitches a Plant Engineer might receive in a week.
He said he only remembered the pamphlet because I had just made a statement that was word-for-word right out of the safety pamphlet. I had said that the only way to change the Power Plant Safety Culture was to change the behavior first. Don’t try to change the culture in order to change the behavior. When I had earned my degree in Psychology years earlier, I had been told by one of my professors that the area of Psychology that works the best is Behavioral Psychology.
To some, this might sound like treating the symptoms instead of the actual cause of a problem. If your not careful that may be what you end up doing and then you ignore the root of the problem, which brings you back to where you were before you tried to change anything in the first place. Toby said he would give the pamphlet to me the next day.
So, the rest of the ride home was much more pleasant. Instead of finishing my rant about Safety, we just listened to the pleasant voices on National Public Radio. I was excited about the idea that someone might have a solution that I believed offered the best chance to change the direction of Safety at the plant away from blaming the employee, to doing something to prevent the next accident.
The next day, after we arrived at the plant, I made my way up to the front offices to Toby’s desk so that he could give me the safety pamphlet he had mentioned on the ride home. When he gave it to me, the title caught my eye right away. It was a pamphlet for a book called: “The Behavior-Based Safety Process, Managing Involvement for an Injury-Free Culture”. Now I was really excited. This sounded like it was exactly what I had been talking about with Toby and Scott. I sent off for the book right away.
When the book arrived I wanted to climb on the roof of my house and yell “Hallelujah!” I was suddenly one with the world! As I read through the book my chin became chapped because my head was nodding up and down in agreement so much that the windy draft caused by the bobbing motion chafed my chin.
I finished the book over the weekend. When I returned to work on Monday, I wrote another quick letter to the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman and the Assistant Plant Manager, Ben Brandt telling them that I would like to discuss an idea for a new safety program…. um…. process. Process is better than Program… as we learned in Quality Training. A process is the way you do something. A program is something you do, and when it’s over, you stop doing it.
Later that week, I met with Ron Kilman, Ben Brandt and Jasper Christensen in Ben’s office.
I had just read the book for the second time, I had already had 5 dreams about it, and I had been talking about it non-stop to Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard in the electric shop for days. So, I felt confident that I was prepared for the meeting. I still remember it well.
Ron asked me to explain how this new process would work and so I started right in….
In order for this process to work, you have to understand that when an accident occurs, it is the system that is broken. It isn’t the employee’s “fault”. That is, the employee didn’t wake up in the morning thinking they were going to work today to have an accident. Something went wrong along the way, and that is what you have to focus on in order to improve safety. Not so much the employee, but the entire system.
If people are unsafe, it is because “The System” has trained them to work unsafe (for the most part…. — there will always be someone like Curtis Love…. accidents sometimes traveled 45 miles just to attack Curtis Love).
The trick is to identify the problems with the system, and then take steps to improve them. Ben was nodding as if he didn’t quite buy what I was saying. Ron had looked over at Ben and I could tell that he was skeptical as well (as I knew they would, and should be…. I had already demonstrated that I was a major pain in the neck on many occasions, and this could have been just another attempt to wreak havoc on our plant management). So Ron explained a scenario to me and asked me how we would go about changing the system to prevent these accidents in the future….
Ron said, Bill Gibson went down to work on the Number 1 Conveyor Belt (at the bottom of the dumper where the coal is dumped from the trains).
While he was down there, he noticed that some bolts needed to be tightened. The only tool he had with him that could possibly tighten the bolts was a pair of Channel Locks.
All of us had a pair of Channel Locks. One of the most Handy-dandiest Tools around.
Ron continued…. So, instead of going back to the shop and getting the correct size wrench to tighten the bolts, Bill used the channel locks to tighten them. He ended up spraining his wrist. Now how are you going to prevent that?
I replied…. One of the most common causes for accidents is using the wrong tool. There are usually just a few reasons why the wrong tool is used. If you fix those reasons, then you can prevent this from happening. The main and obvious reason why this accident occurred was because the right tool wasn’t there with him. This could be fixed a number of ways. Bill and his team could have a small bag that they carry around that had the most likely tools they might need for inspecting the conveyors. They might have another bag of tools that they use when they need to go inspect some pumps… etc.
Another solution may be to mount a box on the wall at the bottom of the dumper and put a set of wrenches and other important tools in it. If that box had been there and Bill had found the loose bolts, he only would have to walk a few feet to get the right tool instead of trudging all the way back up to the shop and then all the way back down.
It wasn’t that Bill didn’t want to use the right tool. He didn’t want to bruise his wrist. He just wanted to tighten the bolts.
— This had their attention… I was able to quickly give them a real action that could be taken to prevent a similar accident in the future if they would take the effort to change the “System”. Even Ben Brandt leaned back in his chair and started to let his guard down a little.
This was when I explained that when someone does something, the reason they do it the way they do is comes down to the perceived consequences of their actions…
We were always being drilled about the ABC’s of First Aid from Randy Dailey during our yearly safety training. That is when you come across someone lying unconscious, you do the ABC’s by checking their Airway, the Breathing and their Circulation. I introduced Ron, Ben and Jasper to the ABC’s of Safety. Something completely different. The ABC’s of Safety are: Antecedents, Behavior and Consequences.
An Antecedent is something that triggers a particular behavior. In Bill’s case, it was finding the loose bolts on Conveyor 1. It triggered the behavior to tighten the bolts. Bill chose to use the wrong tool because the correct tool was not immediately available, so he weighed the consequences. The possible behavior choices were:
- I could use the pair of channel locks here in my pocket.
- I could spend the next 20 minutes climbing the 100 feet up out of the dumper and go over to the shop and grab a wrench and walk all the way back down here.
- I could leave the bolts loose and come back later when I have the right tool.
The consequences of these behaviors are:
- I could be hurt using the channel locks, but I haven’t ever hurt myself using them before, and the chances are small.
- I could be late for lunch and I would be all worn out after climbing back up to the shop. The chances of me being all worn out by the time I was done was very high.
- The loose bolts could fail if I waited to tighten them, and that could cause more damage to the equipment that would cause a lot more work in the future. The chance of this is low.
The behavior that a person will choose is the one that has an immediate positive consequence. If the odds of being hurt is small, it will not stop someone from doing something unsafe. Also, if the negative consequence is delayed, it will not weigh in the decision very highly. Positive consequences outweigh negative consequences.
So, in this case, the obvious choice for Bill was to use the channel locks instead of going back to get the right tool.
When I finished explaining this to Ron and Ben, (Jasper was nodding off to sleep at this point)… Ben asked where I came up with all of this. That was when I reached down and picked up the book that was sitting in my lap. I put it on the table. I said, I read about it in here:
Ben grabbed the book and quickly opened up the front cover and saw that I had written my name inside the cover. He said, “It’s a good thing you put your name in here or you would have just lost this book.” I told him he could read it if he wanted.
Ron said that he would consider what I had said, and a few day later he responded that since I had been requesting that we start up a Safety Task Force to address the plant safety concerns that he would go ahead and let us start it up, and that he wanted us to consider starting a Behavior-Based Safety Process in the future. — That will be another story…
Let me finish this post with a warning about the Behavior-Based Safety Process…
In order for this to work, it has to be endorsed from the top down, and it has to be implemented with the understanding that the employee is not the problem. Punishing employees for working unsafe will destroy any attempt to implement this process properly. Training everyone is essential. Especially management. I can’t emphasize this enough. In order to produce an accident-free culture, everyone has to keep it positive. Any changes in the system that helps prevent accidents is a good thing. Any unsafe behavior by an employee is a symptom that there is something wrong with the system that needs to be addressed. — Reprimanding an employee is destructive… unless of course, they intentionally meant to cause someone harm. — But then, they wouldn’t really be Power Plant Men, would they?
Comments from the original post:
Some of you may be aware that an empty grain silo can explode if the dust from the grain is allowed to build up and an ignition source begins a chain reaction that causes the entire grain silo to explode like a bomb. I haven’t heard about a grain explosion for a few years. Maybe that is because a lot of effort is put into keeping the silo clean. Think of how much easier it would be for a coal dust explosion. After all… we know that coal when turned into a fine powder is highly combustible.
When you are covered in coal dust from head-to-toe day after day you seem to forget just how explosive the coal dust you are washing down can be. Our coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was concerned after our downsizing in 1994 that by eliminating the labor crew from the roster of available Power Plant Jobs, that the operators may not be able to keep the entire coal handling system free from coal dust.
The plant had already experienced a major explosion the year before (in 1996) the “Dust Collector Task Force” was formed (See the post: “Destruction of a Power Plant God“). It was clear that the question had been asked by those concerned, “Are there any other areas in the plant that could suddenly explode?” Two electricians were asked to be on the Dust Collection Task Force. Jimmy Moore and myself.
We had a salesman of our brand of Dust Collectors come to the plant and train us on the proper maintenance of the dust collectors that were already in place. When he arrived he showed us a video that showed examples of plants that had explosions caused by coal dust. Here is a picture I found on Google of a coal dust explosion at a power plant:
We heard a story about a coal plant where the explosion began at the coal yard, worked its way up the conveyor system, blew up the bowl mills and threw debris onto the main power transformer, which also blew up. Ouch. We thought it would be a good idea to do something about our coal dust problems. Stopping an ounce of coal dust is worth a pound of explosives… as the saying goes.
The Instrument and Controls person on our team was Danny Cain. He had become a Power Plant employee a year before the downsizing and had been at the plant for about four years at this point.
When we began looking at our dust collectors, we found that the dust collectors on the dumper had been rusted out over the past 18 years since they were first put into operation. the reason was that they were located down inside the dumper building below ground where they were constantly exposed to coal and water. I hadn’t seen them actually running for years. They were definitely going to have to be replaced with something.
Okay class… I know this is boring, but you have to learn it!
We had some fairly new dust collectors on the crusher tower and the coal reclaim, but they didn’t seem to be doing their job. They used instrument air (which is clean, dehumidified air) in order to flush the coal off of some bags inside. When they were installed, new instrument air compressors were installed in the coal yard just to handle the extra “instrument air” load for the dust collectors. The very expensive and large dust collectors just didn’t seem to be doing anything to “collect” the dust.
You can see that the dust collector is very large. You actually have to climb on top of them to change out the bags inside.
When the dust collector sales man came to talk to us about dust collection, in the middle of his “Proper Maintenance” speech he happened to mention something about…. “…and of course, if you don’t have the air pulse set at exactly 32 milliseconds, the dust collector isn’t going to work at all.” “Wait! What did he say?” What pulse?”
He explained that Instrument air is puffed through the collector bags with exactly a 32 millisecond pulse at a predetermined interval. If the pulse is longer or shorter, then it doesn’t work as well. The idea is that it creates a ripple down the bag which shakes the dust free. We had been studying our dust collectors in the coal yard, and the interval had been completely turned off and the instrument air was constantly blowing through the dust collectors. This guy was telling us that it was just supposed to be a quick pulse.
Everyone in the room looked at each other with stunned silence. The salesman just looked at us and said…. “It’s right there in the instruction manual….” pointing his finger at the page. We thought (or said)… “Instruction manual? We have an instruction manual?”
We said, “Class dismissed! Let’s go to the coalyard after lunch and see about adjusting the “pulse” on the dust collectors.
In order to measure a pulse of 32 milliseconds, I needed the oscilloscope that I kept out at the precipitator control room to measure the “Back Corona” when trying to adjust the cabinets to their optimal voltage. I ran out to the precipitator and retrieved it and brought it with me to the coal yard along with my tool bucket and my handy dandy little screwdriver in my pocket protector:
When we arrived at the crusher tower where the two long belts sent coal to the Power Plant 1/2 mile away, one of the belts was running. coal dust was puffing around the equipment making the room hazy, which was normal. Water hoses were kept running on the floor trying to wash at least some of the dust down the drain. This was a typical day in the coal handling system. Coal dust everywhere.
I opened the control cabinet for the dust collector and hooked up the oscilloscope.
When we arrived there was no pulsing. The instrument air was on all the time. So, I flipped a switch which put it in a pulse mode. The pulse time was set up to the maximum setting of about a minute (that meant that when the pulse turned on, it stayed on for a minute). As I was playing with the controls, three of the task force members were standing up on the walkway between the two belts watching the discharge from the dust collector (you see, after the dust collector collected the dust, it dropped it back onto the conveyor belt just up the belt from where the coal dropped onto the belt). Nothing was coming out of the chute.
As I adjusted the setting down from one minute to one second, I had to keep changing settings on the oscilloscope to measure how long the air took to turn on and off. When I finally had the pulse down within 1/10 of a second (which is 100 milliseconds), then I could easily measure the 32 millisecond interval that we needed. I was beginning to think that this wasn’t going to really do anything, but I remembered that I had seen stranger things on the precipitator controls where the difference between a couple of milliseconds is like night and day.
When the pulse was down to 35 milliseconds I looked up toward the conveyor system because I heard a couple of people yelling. They were running down the walkway as coal dust came pouring out of the dust collector chute causing a big cloud of dust to puff up. We all ran outside and waited for the dust to settle. We felt like cheering!
We were practically in disbelief that all we had to do was adjust the pulse of air to the right millisecond pulse and the dust collector began working. This meant a lot more than a working dust collector. This also meant that we needed only a fraction of the instrument air (literally about 1/20,000) than we had been using.
In other words. The new Instrument Air Compressors at the coal yard that had been installed to help boost air pressure at the coal yard since the installation of the dust collectors were really never needed. And all this was done by turning a screwdriver on a small potentiometer in a control cabinet. It pays to read the manual.
Along with some rewiring of the controls to the dust collector system, and a redesign of the apron around the dust chutes by Randy Dailey and Tim Crain, the coal handling areas became practically dust free as long as regular preventative maintenance was performed.
That is, everywhere except for the coal dumper. This is where the coal trains dump their coal into a hopper which is then carried on three conveyors out to the coal pile.
You can see the conveyor going up to the building right next to the coal pile. That is from the dumper which is the small off white building next to the fly ash silos. The crusher tower is the tall thin building at the end of the long belts going up to the plant.
We still had a problem with the dumper. The cost of buying new dust collectors and putting them outside where they wouldn’t be so quickly corroded by the harsh environment was “too costly”. Jim Arnold, the maintenance Supervisor made that clear. We had to come up with another solution.
Without a dust collector, the solution was “Dust Suppression”. That is, instead of collecting the dust when it is stirred up, spray the coal with a chemical that keeps the dust down in the first place. This was a good idea, except that it had to be turned off for three months during the winter months when it could freeze up.
A company called Arch Environmental Equipment came and talked to us about their dust suppression system.
They showed us something called: The “Dust Shark”.
The dust shark sprayed the belt on the side with the coal and scraped the bottom side in order to make sure it was clean when it passed through. This was the solution for the dumper. It also worked well at other locations in the plant where you could use it to keep the area clean from coal when the coal was wet from the rain and would stick to the belt.
The task force was considered a success. I have two side stories before I finish with this post.
The first is about Danny Cain.
Danny was a heavy smoker. He had a young look so that he looked somewhat younger than he was. He had been born in July, 1964 (just ask the birthday phantom), so he was 33 during July 1997 when we were working on the task force, but he looked like someone still in college. Whenever he would pull out a cigarette and put it in his mouth, he suddenly looked like he was still in High School.
I told Danny that one day. I was always one to discourage people from smoking…. He seemed a little hurt, and I said I was just calling it like I saw it. He was standing outside the electric shop smoking one day, so I took the air monitor that I used when I had to go in the precipitator and asked Danny if I could borrow his lit cigarette for a moment.
I put the butt of the cigarette up to the intake hose for the monitor about long enough for a puff and then I handed it back to him. The monitor measures the amount of Oxygen in the air, the amount of explosive gases, the amount of Carbon Monoxide and the amount of H2S gas (Hydrogen Sulfide, an extremely toxic gas). The monitor, as expected began beeping…
What we didn’t expect to see was that not only did the Carbon Monoxide peg out at 999 parts per million, but the H2S went out the roof as well. In fact, everything was bad. The Percent explosive was at least 50% and the oxygen level was low. It took about 5 minutes before the meter measured everything clean again. Danny didn’t want to see that.
I said, “Danny? Carbon Monoxide Poisoning! Hello???!!!”
When we were on the Dust Collector Task Force, at one point we had to program “Programmable Logic Controllers” (or PLCs). I had been to an Allen Bradley school a few years earlier where we had learned the basics for this. Here is my certificate from 9 years earlier…
When Danny and I sat down to program the controller, it became clear that he expected the programming task to take a couple of weeks. He started out by drawing some high level logic on the white board. I said… “wait… wait… let’s just start programming the thing.” He told me that wasn’t the way we did things. First we had to figure out the entire program, then we would program it.
The PLCs we were going to program were just some small ones we had bought to run the dust sharks and the dust collectors… Here’s one like it.
I told Danny when I program something I find that its a lot easier and quicker if we just program it as we understand the requirements and then that way we can test it as we go. Then when we figure out what we need, we will be done. In fact… it took us 4 hours and we were done… not two weeks.
End of the Danny Cain Side Story…. On to the second side story… much shorter….
I think it was March 2003 (the power plant men can remind me)…. a year and a half after I had left the plant, the Coal Dumper blew up. It was the middle of the night, a coal train had finished dumping the coal about an hour earlier. No one was in the dumper at the time and the entire dumper exploded. The roof of the dumper, as I was told, was blown off of the building. No injuries or deaths. The “Dust Shark” Dust Suppression system had been turned off because it was winter.
I suppose that the insurance company ended up paying for that one. I don’t know. This is what happens when you say that it is too expensive to replace the dust collectors and instead you buy one of these:
Bill Green, the Plant Manager at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma stopped me in the hallway August 17, 1998. He told me that we were going to have a new Plant Engineer working for us in two weeks and she had heard that we had a Confined Space Rescue team and she wanted to join it. I told Bill that I looked forward to having a new member on our team. We had been a team for 4 years and some new blood would be great.
Bill told me that the new engineer’s name was Theresa Acedansky and that she was a volunteer fire fighter. She was coming to work for us from Foster Wheeler I thought that Acedansky was a unique name. I thought that I would spend some of my spare lunch times looking up Theresa on the Internet.
At the time, there were some Internet search engines such as Excite that would crawl the web looking for all the available pages on the Internet, and give you a complete list of every page found. In 1998, I think the number of web pages were still in the millions, so it wasn’t the daunting list that we have today. Google and Bing own the search tools today, and they only give you what they want to show you. So, back then, when I searched on “Acedansky”, I found basically everything ever written that had that word in it.
By the time that Miss Acedansky arrived at our plant on August 31, 1998, I pretty much knew her work background (Remember, this was before LinkedIn that began in 2003) and where she had graduated high school. I knew about her sister in Pennsylvania (I think it was), and her mother in Florida who worked at a Catholic Church. I had basically stalked this person I had never set eyes on for the two weeks prior to her arrival.
I did all this gathering of information because I was (as Bill Bennett used to call me) a “scamp” or a “rascal”. I figured that anything I could find could be used to introduce Theresa to the fine art of “Power Plant Jokes”. Just as I had compiled my list for Gene Day in order to help him work through his psychological problems (See the post “The Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“), I figured I could offer a similar service to Theresa when she arrived.
I think I might have been able to spook her a little a couple of weeks after she arrived when I pinged her on ICQ, which was one of the few direct chat windows at the time.
She was easy to find since her ICQ number was listed on a fire fighter web site. When I began asking her about how her sister was doing in whatever town she was in, and how her mom liked Florida since she had moved there (and I knew about when), she said, “Gee, I didn’t realize that I had talked so much about myself.”
What is easy to find on someone today on the Internet took a little more work back then, and people didn’t realize the vast amount of knowledge available at your fingertips.
Since Theresa was joining our Confined Space Team and would need the proper training, we took advantage of the situation to have the rest of us trained again. It had been four years since we had formal training. We made arrangements to have a Confined Space Training team from Dallas come up and teach us.
We practiced tying knots in our rescue rope behind our backs in the dark wearing our leather rescue gloves.
The padding across the palm of the rescue gloves we used were to keep from burning your hands when you were rappelling down a rope. With the formal training we were given the opportunity to once again put on SCBAs and go through a smoke-filled maze crawling through tunnels to rescue someone.
After our training Randy Dailey, “Mr. Safety” from our team suggested that we meet regularly with the rest of the Confined Space Rescue Teams in order to learn “Best Practices” from each other. So, we contacted the other teams and began meeting regularly at each of the plants, or some other spot where we could all meet together.
When we arrived at the Muskogee Power Plant to meet with the rest of the Confined Space Teams, we found that the entire team at Muskogee had all become certified EMTs (which means Emergency Medical Technician).
The Muskogee Plant was right across the Arkansas river from Muskogee where Firefighters and rescue teams were close by. Our plant in North Central Oklahoma was out in the country, 25 miles from the nearest rescue team.
We took the idea that our Confined Space Rescue Team should all be trained EMTs, which was positively received… if we wanted to go out and do it ourselves. That may have been easy if we all lived in the same town, but as it was, it is 45 miles from Ponca City to Stillwater, or Pawnee, or Perry, the four towns where Power Plant Men in North Central Oklahoma resided. So, all of us taking training as a team on our own was not practical. So, that never happened.
We did, however, become very proficient in tying someone down in a stretcher. Our team practiced tying someone into a stretcher until it took us only one minute and 37 seconds to have someone completely hog-tied down in a stretcher to the point that they couldn’t move.
We demonstrated this to our plant during one of our monthly safety meetings by tying up our Plant Manager Bill Green in a stretcher so that he couldn’t move more than an inch in any direction. Then we proved it by picking him, turning him over so that he was facing the floor. Then swivelling him around so that he was upside down with his head toward the floor and his feet up in the air. We showed how his head didn’t slide down to touch the rail on the stretcher.
I think as we were swiveling our Plant Manager around all tied up in the stretcher, Bill was asking himself if this was such a good idea. At the same time, the members of the rescue team were thinking this would be a good time to ask Bill again if we could be trained EMTs. I can say that it felt good to take the Plant Manager and set him on his head, I wish someone had taken a picture… but alas, we didn’t have cell phones with cameras at that time.
In 1999 we held a “Confined Space Rescue Conference” in Oklahoma City. Harry McRee did some rescue team training for us at the training facility in Oklahoma City where the rescuers had to be lowered down into a tank in the dark in order to rescue their rescue dummy. It was there that I met with Harry about the Switchman Training I had been doing at our plant (see the post: “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with Boring“). I have kept Harry’s card since the first day I met him. He was a very likable person and I suppose still is to this day.
Because we had officially called this a “Conference” (I think so that we could repeat it each year around the same time), we had T-Shirts made:
This has been my favorite “company” shirt I have ever worn (out). There are various reasons I think that I like this shirt so much. One reason may be that it is made with very sturdy material. Sure, it’s cotton, but it’s made with what is called “SuperWeight” cotton (from Gildan Activewear). It has kept this shirt from falling apart even though I have worn it regularly over the past 16 years.
Or maybe because Green is my favorite color because it reminds me of grass and trees, and um… other green things. Ok… no…. I admit it…. It’s really because of what the shirt says and what it represents. See here is what is written on the shirt:
There is the pride of having served on the Confined Space Rescue Team for the number one best Electric Company in the country (and therefore in the world).
No. I think the real reason I like wearing this shirt is because to me, it brings me back to the days when I worked with some of the best people that God ever thought to create. The Power Plant Men and Women found in North Central Oklahoma. It is this reason that I keep looking for this shirt to come back to my closet from the laundry so that I can put it on again. When it does, I wear it for several days at a time.
It isn’t that I wear it because of Pride. I wear it for comfort. Not the comfort from wearing a shirt with a fraying collar, but the comfort that I receive by flying back to the time we spent together as a Power Plant Team. I wear this shirt for the same reason that I write these Power Plant Man Posts. I wear this shirt to celebrate their lives.
So, whatever happened to Theresa Acedansky?
Since I have left the Power Plant, I have been able to return to visit four times. One time I visited in 2004 and David Evans, a Control Room Operator told me that Theresa Acedansky, who I knew had moved to the Muskogee Power Plant, had married a Power Plant Man at the Muskogee Plant.
David couldn’t remember the name of the person that she married. Today, that isn’t hard to find. Just this morning, I looked it up and found that Theresa married Tommy Seitz. Knowing that, I was able then to find her on LinkedIn, only to find that we already share 35 connections. So, I sent her a connection request.
I also learned that Theresa and Tommy now live in Oklahoma City, and that Tommy’s father died in 2010… Ok… I know… creepy huh? We know everything we want to know about each other these days. So… you would think I would be able to come up with a picture of Theresa….
That was a difficult one, but I did finally find one. You see, I know that when Theresa gets involved in something she is the type of person that dives right in and puts all of her effort forward…. She did that when she was a firefighter. She did that when she was a confined space rescuer. She also does this with her current job as the Director of Utility Technical Learning at the Electric Company.
I knew from back in 1998 that Theresa’s middle initial was M. I think I actually knew what the M stood for, but I can’t remember today… Maybe Maria or Mary. This helped the search this morning. What I did find was that Theresa is a member of a group called PRB Coal Users’ Group. PRB stands for Powder River Basin… Which happens to be where the Electric Company buys the coal used at the Coal-fired plants. Not only is she in the group, but she is the Vice Chairperson on the Board of Directors for this group. Why doesn’t this surprise me?
And as Paul Harvey would say, “Now we know the rest of the story…..”
this was originally posted on January 7, 2012. Added a picture of Sonny Karcher:
When I heard the sad news of the death of Sonny Karcher on 11/11/11, I wished I had been able to attend his funeral. I did reserve some amount of time that night when I heard about his death to remember the times I have spent with Sonny. All of them good, as Sonny was always pleasant to be with even when he was mad about something. Here are some of the first and last things I remember:
When I first worked at the Sooner power plant the summer of 1979, Sonny and Larry Riley were the first two mechanics I was assigned to work with. They taught me how things were at the plant at that time. Both of the units were still under construction, so there was no electricity being generated.
The first job we were to work on (my second day at the plant, since the first day was taking a safety class, and getting my hard hat and safety glasses and getting fitted for ear plugs) was a stuck check valve in the dumper sump pump pit (Not only did I not know what a check valve was, I wasn’t too sure what was meant by a dumper sump, though I did know “pump”).
It took us about an hour to take the truck to the coal yard, as a coal yard foreman Richard Nix had the key and wasn’t going to give it to us until one of his hands was ready to go with us. So we sat in the truck parked in the north entrance of the maintenance shop for almost an hour. When the guy was finally ready, and he had climbed in the back of the pickup, it turned out that he only needed to go as far as the parking lot… about 200 yards away (as the parking lot was at the Engineer’s shack at the time). We dropped him off and drove up to the coal yard, and made our way down belt 2 to the sump pump pit at the tail end of the belt.
We tested the pump and saw that the water would run back into the sump once the pump stopped running. So, it was determined that the check valve was stuck. We drove back to the plant and took the morning break.
About an hour later, Sonny told me to go to the tool room and get the following items (which I thought was a joke, because he gave me such a strange list of tools that I didn’t recognize): Two ¾ box ends, One four foot soft choker, a ¾ come-along, a ¾ shackle, a two foot steel choker a flat bastard file, a large channel lock, and two pry bars (I did recognize Pry Bars and shackle, which I believed was thrown in there just to make it sound legitimate). – I wrote down the list, because I recognized right away that a joke was being played on me and I was going to play right along.
So, I went to the tool room and I asked Bud Schoonover (a very large tall and easy going man at the time), “I need a ¾ come-along (I thought I would choose the most ridiculous item on the list first, just to get on with the joke…). Well. Bud turned around, walked to the back wall, took a come-along off the top of a pallet full of what appeared to be a bunch of junk, and laid it across the tool room gate window (The tool room was still being “organized” at the time).
So, I asked for two ¾ box ends (this was before anyone had been issued toolboxes by the way, that’s why we had to go to the tool room for these things). Well, you know the rest of this part of the story. These are all legitimate items, and I learned a lot that day and the next few weeks about the names of various tools. I kept that list in my wallet for over 10 years as a reminder to myself of when I first came to the plant, and how much I didn’t know then.
So, Larry, Sonny and I went up to the coal yard, and went down to the tail end of #2 belt and removed the check valve from the discharge pipe and brought it back to the maintenance shop to repair. When we returned, we went to lunch. During lunch Sonny told me about how he was hired at Sooner plant.
He said he lived a few miles down the road and had heard that someone was building a lake up on top of the hill he could see from his property. So, he went on over to see who was dumb enough to build a lake on top of a hill, and while he was looking around Orville Ferguson came up to him and asked him if he was looking for a job. Sonny said that he liked to mow grass, and Orville said that he would hire him to mow grass then. Sonny said, if I remember correctly, that he was hired at the same time that Linda Shiever, the timekeeper, was hired and that they were the first two new hires at the plant. The rest were already company employees that had transferred there.
After lunch we went down to the shop and took the check valve apart and what do you know…. There was a piece of coal stuck in the check valve keeping it open. We cleaned it up and put it back together. When we were finished, we took our afternoon break. After break we drove back up to the coal yard and went down to the tail end of #2 Conveyor belt and put the check valve back in the discharge pipe. When we returned to the maintenance shop, we returned the tools to the tool room and filled out our time cards. A day’s worth of work cleaning a check valve.
I did many other things that first summer, since Sooner Plant didn’t have a yard crew yet, I worked most of the time in the maintenance shop bouncing around from crew to crew helping out. I also did a lot of coal cleanup (especially on weekends), since the conveyor system didn’t work correctly when they started it up when they were starting to fire up unit 1.
The second day before I left at the end of the summer to go back to school, I worked again with Larry Riley and Sonny Karcher to fix the exact same check valve. This time we jumped in a truck (we had a lot more trucks now…. Which is another story), went to the coal yard, went down #2 tunnel to the tail end of #2 Conveyor, pulled out the check valve, removed the piece of coal, put the check valve back in, went back up to the truck and back to the maintenance shop just in time for morning break. Sooner Plant had improved a lot in the short three months I worked that summer.
I worked many years with Sonny Karcher in the garage, and fixing coal handling equipment, and just about anything else. He finally left the plant to go mow grass, when after a battle to move to the garage from coal yard maintenance to mow grass, he was told that he was going to have to go back to the coal yard to be a coal yard mechanic, because he was real good at that and they just needed him up there. So he left.
He talked to me about it before he went, that’s how I know what was on his mind. He said, “Kev, you remember when you first came here and I told you how they hired me to mow grass? Well, that’s what I want to do. Mow grass. So I’m going to have to go back home and do just that.”
After that, the only times I remember seeing Sonny was when he was mowing grass down at Bill’s corner, with a smile on his face waving at the Sooner plant employees on their way home from work.
I can see Sonny talking to St. Peter at the gates of heaven now….. The only words I can hear Sonny saying is, “I like to mow grass”… and St. Peter nodding with approval as he lets him through the gates.
Originally posted on February 18, 2012.
I worked at Sooner Coal-fired power plant about a month during the summer of 1979 before I heard about the Indian curse that had been placed on the plant before they started construction. It came up by chance in a conversation with Sonny Karcher and Jerry Mitchell when we were on our way to the coalyard to do something. I was curious why Unit 1 was almost complete but Unit 2 still had over a year left before it was finished even though they both looked pretty much identical. When I asked them that question I didn’t expect the answer that I received, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to hear about an Indian Curse. It did explain, however, that when we drove around by Unit 2. Sonny would tense up a little looking up at the boiler structure as if he expected to see something.
The edge of the plant property is adjacent to the Otoe-Missouria Indian Tribe. It was said that for some reason the tribe didn’t take too kindly to having a huge power plant larger than the nearby town of Red Rock taking up their view of the sunrise (at least until the tax revenue started rolling in from the plant building the best school in the state at the time). So it was believed that someone in the Indian tribe decided to place a curse on the plant that would cause major destruction.
I heard others say that the plant was built on Holy Indian Burial ground. At the time it seemed to me that this was a rumor that could easily be started and very hard to prove false. Sort of like a “Poltergeist” situation. Though, if it was true, then it would seem like the burial site would most likely be located around the bottom of Unit 2 boiler (right at the spot where I imagined the boiler ghost creeping out to grab Bob Lillibridge 4 years later. See the post Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost).
I am including an aerial picture of the immediate plant grounds below to help visualize what Jerry and Sonny showed me next.
This is a Google Earth Image taken from their website of the power plant. In this picture you can see the two tall structures; Unit 1 on the right with Unit 2 sitting right next to it just like the two boilers that you see in the picture of the plant to the right of this post. They are each 250 feet tall. About the same height as a 25 story building. Notice that next to Unit 2 there is a wide space of fields with nothing there. The coalyard at the top is extended the same distance but the coal is only on the side where the two units are. This is because in the future 4 more units were planned to be built in this space. Sooner Lake was sized to handle all 6 units when it was built. But that is another story.
At the time of this story the area next to Unit 2 between those two roads you see going across the field was not a field full of flowers and rabbits and birds as it is today. It was packed full of huge metal I-Beams and all sorts of metal structures that had been twisted and bent as if some giant had visited the plant during the night and was trying to tie them all into pretzels.
Sonny explained while Jerry drove the truck around the piles of iron debris that one day in 1976 (I think it was) when it was very windy as it naturally is in this part of Oklahoma, in the middle of the day the construction company Brown and Root called off work because it was too windy. Everyone had made their way to the construction parking lot when all of the sudden Unit 2 boiler collapsed just like one of the twin towers. It came smashing down to the ground. Leaving huge thick metal beams twisted and bent like they were nothing more than licorice sticks. Amazingly no one was killed because everyone had just left the boilers and were a safe distance from the disaster.
Needless to say this shook people up and those that had heard of an Indian Curse started to think twice about it. Brown and Root of course had to pay for the disaster, which cost them dearly. They hauled the pile of mess off to one side and began to rebuild Unit 2 from the ground up. This time with their inspectors double checking the torque (or tightness) of every major bolt.
This brings to mind the question… If a 250 foot tall boiler falls in the prairie and no one is injured… Does it make a sound?
In the years that followed, Sooner Plant took steps to maintain a good relationship with the Otoe Missouria tribe. Raymond Lee Butler a Native American from the Otoe Missouria tribe and a machinist at the plant was elected chief of their tribe (or chairman as they call it now). But that (as I have said before) is another story.
Comment from Earlier Post:
I was there the day unit 2 fell, I was walking to the brass shack, just came down from unit 2 when we noticed the operator of the Maniwoc 5100 crane did not secure the crane ball to the boiler or the crane to keep it from swaying in the wind. I kept watching the crane ball slamming into the steel causing the boiler to sway and within a minute I watched it fall from 50 yards away and took off running,the whole unit was going up quick because B&R were behind schedule,and the most of the steel hadn’t been torqued yet by the bolt up crew.
Originally Posted 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?
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.
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.