Favorites Post #79
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 back and forth 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 – which was probably me).
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. 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:
Favorites Post #68
This was originally posted on January 7, 2012
When I heard the sad news of the death of Sonny Karcher on 11/11/11 (November 11, 2011), 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, The first two mechanics I worked with were Sonny and Larry Riley. 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 was on 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. We were supposed to work on 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 recognize the word “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 (pronounced “three quarter 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 the list 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 punch line of 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 and the gate was actually a window in A foreman’s office next to the tool room). — not the regular gate that has been in the tool room for the past 35 years.
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. See the post “Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal“.
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 — See the post: “Experiencing Maggots, Mud and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball“), 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 the plant.
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 and points out that they have a lot of green pastures as he lets him through the gates.
Favorites Post #60
Originally posted on: June 1, 2012
The first couple of years while I worked as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant Coal Cleanup was performed on weekends by volunteer He-Men that wanted to make a few extra dollars. As a summer help, I needed all the extra money I could get. My wages during the first year (1979) were $3.89 an hour.
This jumped to $5.84 an hour when I worked on the weekend, so you can imagine the thrill I had at receiving a paycheck that included the extra money made by doing “Coal Cleanup”. Another great advantage to doing coal cleanup on the weekends was that I was able to carpool with different people. So, during the first summer instead of just riding to work with Steve Higginbotham (See the post “Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy late for the Boiler Blowdown“), I caught a lot of rides with real Power Plant Men like Dale Hull, David Hankins, Jerry Mitchell, Preston Jenkins and Marlin McDaniel (Yeah. Marlin McDaniel as an A Foreman would volunteer for coal cleanup some times. Maybe it was when we were short a few people).
Coal Cleanup really became important during the second half of the first summer because Unit 1 was getting ready to go online. There was a major flaw in the Coal Conveyor logic when the conveyors first started conveying coal from the coal pile to the coal silos just above the bowl mills. What would happen was the same thing that happens if someone were to fall down at the top of a crowded escalator going up. Everyone behind that person would be shoved right on top of them if there wasn’t an emergency stop button to stop the escalator.
All the conveyors had a safety cord alongside the entire length that could be pulled to stop the conveyor in an emergency, but this was something different.
To give you an idea… once the coal on the coal pile has been fed onto either Belts 4, 5, 6 or 7, from there the coal is dropped onto either belt 8 or 9. That carries the coal up to the coal Crusher which has a bin above the crusher that can be filled with coal. If the bin gets too full, then conveyor 8 and/or 9 would stop. When that happens, belts 4, 5, 6 or 7 should stop also…. only they didn’t. Belts 8 and 9 continued dumping coal into the crusher bin until it filled up and then coal fell out all over the top of the crusher tower around belts 8 and 9 until the coal tripped the belt by hitting the safety cord on the side of the belt. Belts 4, 5, 6 and 7 continued dumping coal onto belts 8 and 9, which caused the coal to backup and spill out all over the floor until the coal piled up high enough to trip the safety cord on the side of the belt.
In the picture of the power plant on the side of this post, there is one long conveyor that goes from the coalyard to the plant. It is about 1/2 mile long. This is where belts 10 and 11 carry the coal from the crusher, which crushes the coal down from big pieces the size of baseballs down to the size of walnuts.
At the top of the Transfer tower the coal from belts 10 and 11 are dumped onto belts 12 and 13 which carry the coal up to the Surge Bin Tower where the coal is dumped into the Surge bin. When the Surge Bin fills up, it stops belts 12 and/or 13 and it should also stop belts 10 and 11 and the feeders that feed the coal into the crusher at the bottom of the crusher bin… only they didn’t.
They continued dumping coal into the Surge bin, which filled up and spilled coal all over the surge bin until belts 12 and 13 tripped, at which point, coal began spilling out all over the transfer tower filling up both floors of the transfer tower with tons of coal. The same thing would happen at the bottom of Belt 10 and 11, where the crusher feeders kept feeding coal down to belts 10 and 11, which spilled out all over the bottom floor of the crusher tower.
I have worked in the transfer tower where the coal was higher than the windows and you had to bend over because your head would hit the ceiling on the floor at the foot of belt 12 and 13. It was almost dangerous enough to picture yourself sliding down the pile of coal and slipping right out one of the windows (which had been broken out by the pile of coal). To give you an idea of what this felt like, it was then a straight drop of 150 feet to the concrete below.
If that doesn’t seem like enough coal spills, then picture this… The coal from the Surge Bin tower fed onto belts 14, 15, 18 and 19 which in turn fed onto belts 16 and 17, 20 and 21. These last 4 belts were in what was called the “Tripper Gallery”. These 4 belts would dump coal into 12 coal silos (6 on each unit) that would feed the bowl mills. These are big silos about 5 stories tall.
The same thing would happen to these belts leaving piles of coal at the bottom of the surge bin in the surge bin tower and all along the tripper gallery because when the coal silos were full, the tripper was supposed to move to the next silo and dump coal until it was full, and keep moving until all the silos were full. Only, the tripper wasn’t working correctly, so it wouldn’t detect that the silo was full so the belt would keep dumping coal and would end up spilling coal all over the entire tripper gallery which runs about 100 feet or so.
So, our first experience with doing coal cleanup was like being on a chain gang where we shoveled coal from morning until night trying to clean up these 15 or so major coal spills from the Trippers on back to the the first belts 4, 5, 6 and 7 by shoveling the coal back onto the conveyor while it was running. In some cases, we had to shovel the coal away from the belt before the belt could even run (as was the case with belts 12 and 13). So, you can imagine how shoveling coal one scoop at a time made it seem like you were not getting anywhere fast. 3 or 4 men could all be shoveling on one pile of coal for 30 minutes and not even make a noticeable dent in the pile. That is why when I went to the tool room to choose a shovel, instead of picking a regular shovel, I picked a large scoop shovel used to scoop grain.
Even though each scoop of coal was heavier, it seemed more satisfying to see the bigger dent in the pile of coal with each shovelful. I remember one day after we had shoveled coal all day from morning until late at night only to come back into work the next morning to the new piles of coal just as big as the ones we had shoveled the day before. Once we had cleaned everything up they started up the conveyors again only to have it do the same thing as before.
After 2 years of volunteer coal cleanup which was becoming less volunteer and more rotational since the list of volunteers was growing smaller, Ray Butler pointed out that it didn’t make much sense to pay a first class machinist overtime to shovel coal when you could create a labor crew and pay them bottom dollar to do coal cleanup all the time, as well as other dirty jobs that no one really wanted to do (such as suck out sewage pits and other sump pits around the plant).
That was when the Labor crew was formed. While I was in my 3rd year as a summer help (1981). Bill Cook was a summer help then that stayed on as a labor crew hand at the end of the summer. By the 4th summer as summer help, the only time we did coal cleanup was when there was a major spill, which was only a couple of times all summer.
I will write later about coal cleanup with Dale Hull. I also remember doing coal-cleanup with Preston Jenkins one weekend. I hadn’t carpooled with him to work, but I caught a ride back to Stillwater with him because my ride left at the end of a full day, and I decided to stay behind to add a few extra dollars to my bank account. We left a couple of hours later around seven o’clock.
I climbed into the back of Preston’s Camaro. I apologized for being so dirty, as I was covered from head-to-toe in coal-dust and my clothes were soaked with coal-dust permeated sweat. Preston said that he didn’t mind. I soon found out why.
When I climbed into the backseat of his car, I noticed that the upholstery that covered the seat back of the back seat was stained with some blackish-brownish um…. something. Anyway. I decided to sit on the passenger side of the back seat instead of behind the driver side because that side wasn’t nearly as stained. As we drove down the highway toward home, I quickly learned why the seat back was so stained.
Being the “good-ol’ boy” that Preston was, when he climbed into the car, he took out his can of Skoal and put a pinch between his cheek and gums:
As we flew down the highway like a Texan heading for Stillwater, Preston would lean his head out the window and squirt out a wad of spit. It would dance in the air like a little fairy just before it would be sucked into the back window of his car and splat against the seat back of the back seat. Yep that explained it all right. I always wondered if he knew, never having to sit in the back seat of his own car.
During the first summer when I was able to catch a ride with David Hankins a couple of times. He was the crane operator at the time and drove a black Trans Am. He was a black man with a very broad chest that never seemed to tire while doing coal cleanup. From the first day he always treated me with great respect which in turn gave me a great respect for him. I had him classified as a true Power Plant Man.
The second summer when I had been back at the plant for a couple of weeks, one day when Jim Heflin and I were going somewhere in a yellow Cushman cart, I asked Jim why I hadn’t seen David Hankins around.
Jim (who hadn’t been at the plant the first summer) stopped the cart in the middle of the road and looked at me very solemnly and told me that David Hankins had died in a car accident in the spring. He had been going home from a Men’s Club event when he was killed. Because of this, alcoholic beverages were no longer allowed at Men’s Club events. As with all the people I have worked with at the power plant, I keep David Hankins in my memory and I often think about him to this day. David Hankins was a True Power Plant Man.
Comments from the original Post:
neenergyobserver June 1, 2012 as 6:28 pm
We’ve lost so many friends over the years, in the plants and on the line, especially when they were relaxing on their way home. You, and David’s family have my very belated condolences.
Somebody, somewhere, needs to teach engineers a course on Conveyor Logic 101, I’ve seen the same thing happen in nearly every plant (from automotive, rarely, to meat packing, often) I’ve been in. Or they could, just for once in their life, shut their pie-hole and listen to people like you and me.
Plant Electrician June 1, 2012 at 11:39 pm
We were often exhausted while driving home from work when we had been working a lot of overtime. It was a wonder sometimes that we were able to keep the car on the road.
My uncle Bill Breazile worked for the Utility company in Nebraska City where someone closed a breaker while he was working on a line. He was in the hospital for about 6 months healing from his burns. This was about 30 years ago. He has since passed away. It takes a special person to be a lineman. Putting their life on the line every time they reach out to do their job.
neenergyobserver June 2, 2012 at 10:42 am
Not that different from you. It’s all about planning your work, and doing it right, and safely. You and I know that 480 will kill you just as quick as 7200 if you get careless. That’s why almost all (old) linemen and electricians are in some sense stolid and unexcitable.
jackcurtis July 14, 2012 at 12:59 pm
Industrial America returns in stories and comments in places like this, from the only place it still exists: the minds of those who were part of it. Industrial America was a giant; those who manned it were giant tamers and it seems to me, very much the special breed illuminated in these posts…
Comment from last repost:
Favorites Post #50
Originally posted May 3, 2013:
Diana Lucas entered the Electric Foreman’s office one morning at the Coal-fired Power Plant almost in a rage! I didn’t understand why at first, and I also couldn’t quite tell if she was really in a rage, or if she was just excited about something, because she seemed to be both at once. Which I guess is the case when one is in a rage, but there seemed to be a tint of amusement in her rage which was the cause of my confusion.
Bill Bennett our A Foreman had come to the shop a little earlier than usual that morning and was apparently waiting for Diane’s entrance, foreseeing her reaction. Bill had hopped up out of his chair and immediately tried to explain to Diane (yeah, her name was Diana, but most called her Diane. Well, actually, most everyone called her Dee). Diana Brien (as she was later named) seemed a little more musical than Diane Brien. Maybe it is just the Italian in me that likes to put vowels on the end of names.
Anyway, Diane was saying something like, she couldn’t believe that Bill had actually hired some particular person as a contract worker for our shop. Bill responded to her by pointing out that he would be working for her this time. If she wanted, she could have this guy doing the dirtiest and rottenest (rottenest? really? Is that a real word?) jobs. This seemed to calm her down a little and the two of them walked out into the shop.
Charles Foster, one of the electrical foremen, and my closest friend turned to me and explained that Diana and some others in the shop (Ben Davis, and I think and even Andy Tubbs) had worked for this guy when they were working for Brown and Root building the plant. He was a supervisor that was disliked by most of the people that worked for him because, well, according to Diana, he was some kind of slave driver.
When I finally understood the rage emanating from the Lady ‘lectrician, I decided I would amble out into the shop to prepare for my day performing feats of electrical magic. I also figured I would take a gander at the new figure of the old man leaning against the workbench to see the center of the conflict and to stare it in the face. I figured if I had a good close look at him, I would be able to see inside his character. I already disliked him before I walked out of the office after hearing how he had treated my mentors.
I know my memory of my first encounter with Bill Boyd is not what really happened, because in my mind I have embellished it and have rewritten it in order to include thoughts that came from deep within me. So, even though I probably walked out into the shop and glanced over at this old codger standing there, picked up my tool bucket and walked out the door, I remember it quite differently….. This is how I remember that moment (the one that really didn’t happen….. well, not exactly)….
In my mind I remember walking into the shop and noticing this tall lanky older man hunched over birdlike, almost like a raven, as his nose reminded me of a beak. A cranky looking man. He looked tired. Worn out. Like it was a struggle for him to take each breath. I thought, “Ok. This raven has come home to roost. Only he doesn’t know what hornets nest he has just stepped into.”
Sure enough. Bill Boyd was given one distasteful job after another. At least, I think that was the intention. He was tasked to sweep out the main switchgear and the other switchgears around the plant. Anything that was repetitive and boring. He worked away at his tasks without complaint. Slowly and steadily.
I noticed that Bill Boyd was taking a lot of pride in his work no matter how menial the task was. He was very meticulous. A couple of years later when he came back to work for us again, he was working for me. And at that time I had him cleaning out both of the Precipitator control cabinet rooms.
Not only did he clean the rooms to where you could eat on the floor, but he also opened each of the cabinets and vacuumed them out, and changed every one of the 4 inch square filters (2 each of the 84 cabinets in each of the two rooms — for a total of 336) filters by cutting them out of sheets of blue and white filter material using a large pair of scissors.
Bill Boyd liked to tell stories about different jobs he had throughout his career. He had worked in various places around the world. He had held all types of jobs. I think he helped build most of the important monuments that exist in the world today. At least that might be the impression you might have by listening to him tell his stories. I couldn’t disagree with him too much. After all, he was working at the most monumental Power Plant of all time right then. If he was lucky enough to do that, then I suspect that most of what he was saying was true.
One day just at the end of the day when it was time to leave for the day, I walked out of the electric office into the shop and headed for the door. Just as I passed Bill Boyd, he said rather force-ably to Andy Tubbs, “What did you say?” Andy said something back to him, and glancing back I saw that Bill had a surprised and confused look on his face.
So, as we were walking to the parking lot I asked Andy what he had said. Andy said that he told Bill that his stories couldn’t be true. Bill had asked him why he thought that. Andy had replied, “Because if you did all the things you say you did, you would have to be 200 years old!” I laughed at that. I thought…. well…. he probably is that old.
So, Now that I have introduced you to Bill Boyd, here is the more interesting parts of the story of Bill Boyd’s tenure at the Power Plant Palace. I have three small stories that I still often think about:
The first one is rather short, so I’ll start there…. I walked into the electric shop office one morning before it was time to begin my work day and sat in a chair. Bill Boyd was already there sitting across the room from me, silently meditating….. well…. he might have been mildly snoring…. I don’t remember exactly. Anyway. There was just the two of us in the room.
I suddenly noticed that there was a strange ticking sound. A very definite tick tick tick, like a pocket watch, only a little louder. I rose from my chair and looked around the room trying to figure out what was ticking…. It’s strange to think about it, because right outside the east wall (no. actually the north wall… I just always had my directions turned 90 degrees) of the office was the roaring steam pipes shooting high pressure steam into the turbines, creating the electricity that lit up the state of Oklahoma.
Even amid the roar of the steam pipes, I could hear this ticking. I approached Bill, and sure enough. Bill was ticking. Looking at his trousers, and his shirt pocket, I didn’t see anything that looked like a chain that may have a pocket watch connected.
The thought of a time bomb went through my head. I also had thoughts of being late for an important date, and thoughts of lunch, among other things…..
So, I returned to my seat, then I hollered out to him, “Bill!” He stirred from his sleep, um… I mean, his morning meditation…. I continued, “Bill, you are ticking!” Looking confused, he said, “What?” I replied, “You are ticking.” Bill asked, “You can hear that?” I assured him I could. He said, “Well, that’s my ticker. My pacemaker.”
Whoa. I was listening to his pacemaker from across the room! Crazy! So, after that I would hear his pacemaker all the time he was around. I guess once I had tuned into the frequency, I couldn’t get it out of my head…. I sort of had it in the back of my head that I hoped that I didn’t hear it miss a beat…. I never did… it just kept on ticking.
The next story has to do with finding a buried cable. Bill Bennett brought this specialized cable finder down to the shop one day and told us that we had to mark an underground cable that went from the main substation up to the front gate to a transformer. It has cost a lot of money. Someone was going to be doing some digging in the area and they wanted to make sure they didn’t cut into this cable because it was the main station power to the substation relay house.
This cable finder had one piece that you placed on the ground above where you knew the cable was buried, and then you walked along with a sensor picking up the signal from the cable.
I was all excited to go try out our newfangled cable finder. Unfortunately, we were trying to find a cable underneath some very high voltage lines (189,000 volts) leaving the substation, which rendered the sophisticated cable finder completely useless. There was too much electrical interference from our surroundings. We were picking up signals all over the place.
So, after trying to find the cable all day without success, and upon returning to the shop disillusioned with our new toy, Bill Boyd said, “I can help you find the cable.” As we wondered what he meant, he repeated, “I can find the cable for you.”
I don’t remember if it was Andy, or if I asked him just how he was going to do that. Bill replied, “By using a divining rod.” Huh? A divining rod? Yep. He was serious. The next day he came to work with two metal rods about 2 1/2 feet long, bent at one end so that you could hold them and they would point straight out in front of you.
So, I drove him over to the substation and Bill tried to use the divining rods to find the cable. He paced back and forth holding the rods up by his face, with his shoulders hunched over like a vulture… or was it a raven? After pacing back and forth for about 20 minutes he returned to the truck and said he couldn’t find the cable because the wind was blowing too hard.
The wind in Oklahoma generally begins blowing about 8 o’clock in the morning during the summer, and doesn’t let up until…. well… until… maybe the end of the summer, if you’re lucky. So, we went back to the shop. Bill Bennett was waiting to see if he was successful. Leroy Godfrey had bet that he would find the cable. We said it was too windy.
The next morning when we were driving to work, I looked out in the field by the substation and there was Bill Boyd all by himself walking slowly along with the two metal rods sticking straight out from his face.
When I arrived at the shop, I jumped in the truck and headed out to the field. Bill said that he found the cable. It wasn’t where we originally thought. It was about 25 yards over from there. He showed me that as he walked over a certain spot that his rods moved from being straight out, to swing out to the side. When he held the two rods farther apart, when he walked over the same spot, the rods came together. Bill said. The point where they cross is where the cable. is.
All right. I wasn’t really buying this. I guess it must have showed on my face, or maybe I actually let out a snicker….. I’m not sure… I suppose it was the look of disbelieve, because I’m not prone to snicker, even when confronted with total insanity I usually just act as if it is normal. I suppose that’s because I had grown up with an Italian Mother (you don’t ever want to snicker at an Italian Mother). So, Bill turned and handed the rods to me and said, “Try it.”
So I took the two rods in my hands:
I slowly walked forward with the two rods sticking out in front of me. As I approached the spot where he had indicated the cable was buried the two rods parted until they became lined up with each other. The left one pointing left, the right pointing right. No Way! I backed up, and as I did the rods came back together. I moved forward again and they went apart! I could hear the mild excited chuckling behind me.
We took a can of orange spray paint and made a mark on the ground. then we moved about 20 feet away from that mark and did it again. Sure enough… there it was again. We marked the ground every 20 feet all the way up to the main gate. And get this. It even worked where the cable was buried under the railroad tracks. I walked down the middle of the railroad track and could tell right where the cable was buried underneath it.
So, after that, I kept my own pair of divining rods in my garage. Bill explained that you could bury a new pipe under the ground and you would not be able to find it, but after something runs through it, like water or electricity or even a wad of rags, you can find it using the divining rods.
One day a few years later, my brother was visiting my house when I lived out in the country and he was talking about someone who claimed to use a divining rod to find something, and I told him that I had a divining rod and you can use it to find cables and sewer lines and water pipes with it. — Of course, he had the same reaction I did, so we went out in the front yard and I told him how to hold them, and let him find out for himself. It only takes once. The result is so noticeable, it doesn’t leave any question in your mind when it happens.
Okay. The last story….
It turned out that over the years as Bill Boyd would come to the plant as a contract worker, we came to be friends. One day he invited me to his daughter’s recital (or maybe it was his great-great-granddaughter. I never could tell exactly how old Bill was) at Oklahoma State University where she was playing the Cello in a chamber orchestra. I was honored to be invited by him and my wife and I joined Bill and his wife as we listened to his daughter play. One day he told me the story of when he was working in Germany in 1959 and he bought a Cornelius Ryan novel called The Longest Day. After listening to his story, he told me that he wanted me to have the book.
The next day, he showed up to work with three books. The first book was from 1959. The next one was 1966, and the third one was 1974. But you could tell they were all a set, and by the way that Bill Boyd held them, they were important to him. So I accepted his gift with thanks.
I have kept books with care since the day that I received them, as I have kept my memory of Bill Boyd. A true Power Plant Raven.
Comment from the original Post:
Favorites Post #43
Originally Posted: May 4, 2012.
I wrote an earlier post about days some people would have liked to take back. There was one day that I would like to take back. It was the day Ken Conrad was teaching me how to setup and operate the two large water cannons that we used to irrigate the plant grounds.
During my second summer as a summer help (1980), when I had about 6 weeks left of the summer, I was asked to take over the watering of the plant grounds because Ken Conrad was needed to do other jobs and this was taking too much of his time.
The first summer I worked as a summer help, whenever it rained, by the time you had walked from the Engineer’s Shack parking lot to the Welding Shop entrance, you felt like someone 10 feet tall. Because the entire distance would turn into a pool of red mud and as you took each step, you grew taller and taller as the mud stuck to your feet. Just before you entered the maintenance shop, you could scrape your feet on a Boot Scraper to whittle you down to size so that you would fit through the doorway.
The entire main plant grounds would be nothing but mud because there wasn’t any grass. It had all been scraped or trampled away while building the plant and now we were trying to grow grass in places where only weeds had dared to trod before.
When trucks drove into the maintenance garage, they dropped mud all over the floor. It was the summer help’s job the first summer to sweep up the shop twice each week. If it had been raining, I usually started with a shovel scraping up piles of mud. So, I recognized the importance of quickly growing grass.
The day that Ken Conrad was explaining to me how to setup and operate the water cannons, I was only half paying attention. “I got it. Roll out the plastic fiber fire hose, unhook the water cannon from the tractor, let out the cable. turn it on the fire hydrant… Done….” That was all I heard.
What Ken was saying to me was a lot different. it had to do with all the warnings about doing it the correct way. I think in my mind I wasn’t listening because I was thinking that it really wasn’t all that difficult. I was really just eager to have the opportunity to finally drive a tractor.
So, here is what happened the next morning when I went to setup the first water cannon to water the field just north of the water treatment plant up to the Million Gallon #2 Diesel Oil Tanks berms. I thought… ok… Step one: roll out the hose… Hmmm… hook it up to the fire hydrant, and then just pull the water gun forward with the tractor and it should unroll the hose….
Well. my first mistake was that I hadn’t disengaged the spool so that it would turn freely, so when I pulled the tractor forward, off popped the connector on the end of the hose attached to the fire hydrant. That’s when I remembered Ken telling me not to forget to disengage the spool before letting out the hose. That’s ok. Ken showed me how to fix that.
I beat on it with a hammer to knock out the clamp and put it back on the end of the hose after I had cut off a piece with my pocket knife to have a clean end. Disengaged the spool, and tried it again… Nope. Pulled the end off again… I was letting it out too fast. That’s when I remembered Ken Conrad telling me not to let the hose out too fast or it would pull the end off. I repaired the connector on the hose again.
After finally laying the hose out and hooking it up to the water cannon, I disconnected the water cannon from the tractor and hooked up the hose and began pulling the steel cable out of the cable spool by pulling the tractor forward. Well, at first the water cannon wanted to follow me because you had to disengage that spool also, (as Ken had showed me).
So I thought I could just drag the water cannon back around to where it started, but that wasn’t a good idea because I ended up pulling off the connector on the fire hose again, only on the other end than before. Anyway, after repairing the hose at least three times and getting everything in position twice, I was finally ready to turn on the water.
That was when things turned from bad to worse. The first thing I did was turned on the fire hydrant using a large wrench where the water pressure instantly blew the hose out of the connector and water poured out into a big mud puddle by the time I could turn it off. then I remembered that Ken had told me to remember to make sure the screw valve was closed when you turned on the fire hydrant or else you will blow the end off of the hose….
So, I repaired the hose again, and reconnected it (standing in mud now). Closed the screw-type valve and turned on the fire hydrant. Then I opened the screw-type valve and the end of the hose blew off again… Then I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me to make sure I open the valve very slowly otherwise I would blow the connector off of the hose. So I repaired the hose again and hooked everything up (while standing in a bigger mud puddle) and tried it again.
I opened the valve slowly and the water cannon began shooting water out as I opened the valve up further and further… until a hole blew out in the middle of the hose shooting water all over the tractor. So I turned off the water again as I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me not to open the valve very far or it would start to blow out holes in the hose. I went and patched the hole the way that Ken Conrad has showed me and went back to try it again… walking through mud over to the fire hydrant, where there was an increasingly larger puddle.
I remember that it was around lunch time when I was standing in the middle of that field covered with mud standing in what looked like a mud hole that pigs would just love, trying to repair a hole in the hose for the 3rd or 4th time that it dawned on me how different my morning would have been if I had only paid more attention to Ken when he was explaining everything to me the day before.
I skipped lunch that day. Finally around 1 o’clock the water cannon was on and it was shooting water out about 40 yards in either direction. I spent that entire day making one mistake after the other. I was beat (and soaked in mud) by the time to go home.
After sleeping on it I was determined not to let the experience from the day before intimidate me. I had learned from my mistakes and was ready to tackle the job of watering the mud in hopes that the sprigs of grass would somehow survive the 100 degree heat. As a matter of fact, the rest of the next 6 weeks the temperature was over 100 degrees every day (yeah. Every day the temperature was over 100 degrees that summer). This was Oklahoma.
When I first took over for Ken, the watering was being done in three shifts. I watered during the day, the other summer help watered in the evening and a fairly new guy named Ron Hunt watered during the late night shift (not the Ron Hunt of Power Plant Man Fame, but a guy that eventually moved to the plant in Midwest City and became an operator). After two weeks, they did away with the night shift and I was put on 7 – 12s. that is 7 days a week, 12 hour days.
I didn’t own a car so, I had to catch a ride with someone in the morning in order to be at the plant by 6am. Then I had to catch a ride back to Stillwater in the evening when I left at 6:30pm each day of the week. The Operators and the security guards worked out good for this.
I would ride to work in the morning with whichever operator was kind enough to pick me up at the corner of Washington and Lakeview (where I had walked from my parent’s house) and whichever security guard that was going that way in the evening.
I found out after a few days on this job that Colonel Sneed whose office was in the Engineer’s Shack was in charge of this job. So he would drive by and see how things were going. After a while I had a routine of where I would put the water cannons and where I would lay the Irrigation pipes. He seemed to be well pleased and even said that I could go to work for him when I was done with this job.
I told him that I was going to go back to school in a few weeks and he said that he would be waiting for me the next summer. Only Colonel Sneed, who was an older man with silver hair wasn’t there when I returned the next summer. He had either retired or died, or both. I never was sure which. I did learn a few years later that he had died, but I didn’t know when.
Besides the first day on that job, the only other memorable day I had was on a Sunday when there wasn’t anyone in the maintenance shop, I remember parking the yellow Cushman cart out in the shade of 10 and 11 belts (That is the big long belt that you see in the power plant picture on the right side of this post) where I could see both water cannons and the irrigation pipes.
I was watching dirt devils dance across the coal pile. This was one of those days when the wind is just right to make dirt devils, and there was one after the other travelling from east to west across the coal pile.
The Security guard was on his way back from checking the dam when he stopped along the road, got out of his jeep and sat on the hood and watched them for 5 or 10 minutes. For those of you who might not know, a dirt devil looks like a miniature tornado-in-training as it kicks up the dirt from the ground. These dirt devils were actually “coal devils” and they were black. They were lined up one after the other blowing across the the huge black pile of coal. You can see the size of the coal pile from this Google Image:
Then as the security guard on the hill and I were watching the coal pile, this long black finger came flying up from the coal pile reaching higher and higher into the sky twirling itself into one huge coal devil 1,000 feet tall! It traveled toward me from the coalyard and across the intake coming straight toward where I was. It ended up going directly between the two smoke stacks which are each 500 feet tall. This coal devil was easily twice the size of the smoke stacks. Tall and Black. After it went between the smoke stacks it just faded like dust devils do and it was gone.
As the monstrous black coal devil was coming toward the plant, the security guard had jumped in his jeep and headed down to where I was parked. He was all excited and asked me if I had seen how big that was. We talked about the dust devils for a few minutes, then he left and I went back to watching the water cannons and irrigation pipes.
I had to wonder if that big coal devil had been created just for our benefit. It seemed at the time that God had been entertaining us that Sunday by sending small dust devils across the coal pile, and just as they do in Fireworks shows, he had ended this one with the big grand Finale by sending the monster-sized coal devil down directly between the smoke stacks.
Some times you just know when you have been blessed by a unique experience. We didn’t have cameras on cell phones in those days, and I’m not too quick with a camera anyway, but at least the guard and I were able to share that moment.
I began this post by explaining why it is important to listen to a Power Plant Man when he speaks and ended it with the dust devil story. How are these two things related? As I pointed out, I felt as if I had been given a special gift that day. Especially the minute it took for the monster coal devil to travel almost 1/2 mile from the coal yard through the smoke stacks.
It may be that one moment when a Power Plant Man speaks that he exposes his hidden wisdom. If you aren’t paying close attention, you may miss it. I did Ken Conrad an injustice the day he explained how to run the irrigation equipment and it cost me a day of pure frustration, but the real marvel was that as I made each mistake I could remember Ken telling me about that.
Ken had given me a full tutorial of the job I was about to do. How many people would do that? If I had only been listening, I would have heard Ken telling me much more than how to do the job. I would have seen clearly how Ken cared enough about me to spend all the time it took to thoroughly teach me what he knew.
That is the way it is with True Power Plant Men. Ken could have said, “roll out the hose, pull out the cable,, turn the water on … and good luck…”, but he didn’t. he went through every detail of how to make my job easier. I may have felt blessed when the monster coal devil flew between the stacks, but it was that day a couple of weeks earlier when Ken had taken the time and showed his concern that I had really been blessed.
I didn’t recognize it at the time. But as time goes by and you grow older, the importance of simple moments in your life come to light. My regret is that I didn’t realize it in time to say “Thank You Ken.” If I could take back that day, I would not only listen, I would appreciate that someone else was giving me their time for my sake. If I had done that. I’m sure I would have ended the day by saying, “Thank you Ken.”
Ken reminds me of my dad, who, though not a power plant man per se (he was an electrical engineer, that’s pretty close,right?), would give us way more details than we thought we needed. And now I see myself doing it to my grandson (age 11), who is likely to roll his eyes and say, “I already know that!”, when I know darn well he doesn’t. Then I try to resist doing the “I told you so” dance when he finds out he doesn’t already know that. Unfortunately, he does not resist doing the dance when we find out that he did, in fact, already know it!
zensouth May 5, 2012
I like your blog because the stories are always substantial. It takes a while to take in all the flavor of it, like sampling a fine meal or a rich pastry. I do dislike the visual theme, but I think it forces me to concentrate on the content of the story.
Plant Electrician May 5, 2012
Thanks Zen, I understand your feelings. A coal-fired power plant is hardly a normal setting. It was built way out in the country because no one really wants one in their backyard. It was the place I called home for many years. I know that when I left I took with me silicon-based ash, a couple of pounds of coal dust and asbestos particles in my lungs. I will not be surprised the day the doctor tells me that I have mesothelioma. I realized after I left, that it wasn’t the place, it was the people that were so dear to me that I called “home”.
jackcurtis May 13, 2012
I’ve served time with similar folk, people who had more time for a kid learning a job than the kid had for them. Two things stuck besides an entirely different evaluation of those people over time…first one was the old (now): “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you know that ain’t so.” And the other was, remembering the old guys who had patience with you along the way, it’s always like remembering your parents and you pay it forward…(and I still think you have a book in you)
Favorites Post #42
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 with coal dust.
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 impostors 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-He-man 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 coal yard 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 coal yard, 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.
Favorites Post #38
Originally posted on July 6, 2012:
I suppose that many parents while raising their children would hear them say, “Dad, can you read that story to us again about the pirates that go to the island to find the treasure but Jim Hawkins fights them single-handed?” Or their children might say to their mother, “Will you tell us the story again about how you met daddy?” In my household, my children would say, “Dad, tell us another story about how you played a joke on Gene Day when you were working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in Oklahoma? Those are always the best!”
As I pointed out in my third post this year called “Power Plant Humor And Joking With Gene Day” the first time I met Gene Day, I could tell that he was the type of person that would take a joke well, or so I thought…. One of the favorite stories my daughter would like for me to tell her as she was growing up was the one where I had created a Psychological Profile of Gene Day, who at that time was an Auxiliary Operator.
It began one day when I was leaving the electric shop through the Turbine Generator (T-G) building ground floor. A very noisy location as large steam pipes wound around under the Turbines where the steam caused a rumbling or whining sound. It was normal when walking through this area to reach up to the ear plugs that were draped over your shoulders and put them in your ears because the decibels were dangerously high if you were exposed earplug-less too long.
I stepped from the landing leading from the electric shop and started toward number 1 boiler when I spied Gene Day making his way around the first floor of the T-G building inspecting equipment and marking his documents indicating that they were operating correctly. As I saw him turn toward my direction I quickly dodged behind the nearest metal pillar (I-Beam). I peaked my head out from behind the pillar and took out the notepad that was in my back pocket, and the pen from my vest pocket pocket protector.
Gene saw me and gave me a suspicious look as I began feverishly writing in my notepad while looking from my notepad back to Gene and then back to what I was writing. After I had done this for about 10 seconds or so, I put my pad away, my pen back in the pocket protector and strolled away toward unit 1 to continue my work.
It happened that this particular week was Gene’s week to monitor the equipment in the T-G building, so throughout the week he would be making his way somewhere around the T-G building with his clipboard in hand. Each time I encountered him I would do the same thing. I would visibly hide behind a beam and write notes in my notepad. I saw Gene rather frequently during the week because the majority of the time, I left the electric shop by going through the T-G room to one of the boilers and then to the precipitators, where I spent most of my time working at this time in my career (but that is another story for a later time).
Each time, Gene would watch me suspiciously knowing that I was just messing with him, but not exactly sure what I was “up to”. At the time, I wasn’t sure either. So I just wrote down what I saw Gene doing, that way, if he ran over and grabbed my notepad from me, it wouldn’t say anything other than what I saw.
It had happened at the plant a few years earlier when I was a janitor that the company had hired an efficiency expert to monitor the employees at the plant. He would walk around the plant with a stopwatch observing the employees. When he saw them he would write notes on his clipboard. It became very unnerving because you would walk around the corner and there he would be standing writing something down about you.
I went to the Assistant Plant Manager Bill Moler and told him that this creepy guy keeps showing up in the main switchgear by the janitors closet. And every time he sees me, he writes something down. I told Bill that it really bothered me. He explained that he is an efficiency expert and he has a certain path that he takes throughout the day and takes a snapshot of what the workers are doing at that moment and writes it down. By doing that he calculates how efficient we are. It seemed pretty silly to me, because most mechanics when they saw him coming put their tools down and did nothing while he walked by until he was out of sight again.
When I was on the labor crew a few weeks later, and I was blowing coal dust off of all the I-Beams above the bowl mills with a high pressure air hose, I looked down, and through my fogged up goggles I could see this guy standing directly under me. I was about 50 feet above him crawling across an I-Beam with the air hose blowing black dust everywhere. He had crossed my barrier tape to go into the bowl mill area to see how efficient I was being.
I was so mad I turned off my air hose, climbed down the wall Spiderman-like (no. not head first) and went straight into the A-Foreman’s office and told Marlin McDaniel that the Efficiency Expert had crossed my barrier tape and was standing directly under me as I was blowing down the beams with air.
It turned out that the Efficiency Expert had gone upstairs to complain that some guy in the bowl mill had dumped a bunch of coal dust on him while he was monitoring him from below. Evidently, he wasn’t expert enough to know you weren’t supposed to cross someone’s barrier tape without permission, as was indicated on the caution tags that were tied to the barrier tape. From that point on, the efficiency expert (now in lowercase) had to be accompanied by someone from the plant to make sure he wasn’t breaking any safety rules and putting himself at harm.
To make a long side story short, we turned out to be so efficient, people came from all over the world to study us. Somebody downtown hired the efficiency expert full time, but later he was laid off during the first downsizing.
He reminds me of a person on an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation where this guy Lieutenant Commander Remmick comes aboard the Enterprise and he walks around inspecting everything and asking everyone questions that make them uncomfortable and at the end asks Picard if he could come work on the Enterprise. He looked so much like him, that I thought maybe our efficiency expert went to Hollywood to become an actor.
Back to Gene Day. I suppose the thought of the efficiency expert may have been going through my mind as I was taking notes about Gene Day at work. Like I said, at the time, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it.
Oh. Let me include a picture of Gene Day:
It finally came to me on Thursday morning. This was the last day that Gene was going to be on the day shift, so I figured I might as well do something about it. So when I entered the shop that morning, I sat down at the desk of my foreman Andy Tubbs and began to write. The title at the top of the page was: “The Psychological Profile of Gene Day”.
Using the notes I had taken during the week, I wrote things like the following: “Gene Day walks around the Turbine Generator building with a clipboard in his hand trying desperately to look like he’s doing something important. He constantly hopes that someone is watching him because he dislikes doing so much work to act busy for no reason.
At times Gene Day gets paranoid and believes that he sees people spying on him from behind every corner (especially I-Beams). Sometimes Gene Day stands in the middle of the T-G floor staring up into space as if he forgot what he was supposed to be doing.” I wrote more similar observations, but I don’t remember everything… but I do remember the last two sentences. I will save that for a couple of paragraphs from now.
I took my Psychological Profile of Gene Day and went up to the Control Room. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Gene had just walked over toward the break room behind the Auxiliary Control Panel so I walked over by the Shift Supervisor’s office and I leaned against the top of the large Blue Monitor and placed the Psychological Profile on the top of the monitor in front of me.
Less than a minute later Gene came walking around behind me and seeing the paper on the top of the monitor came up behind me and looked over my shoulder and began to read….. He wasn’t trying to hide the fact that he was reading the paper, and I obviously knew he was there, and the title in large bold letters did say, “The Psychological Profile of Gene Day”. So, he read on.
I heard a few chuckles as he read through my interpretation of what he had done during the week. Then he came to the “Second from the Last Sentence”, as I could hear him reading quietly in my ear… The sentence read, “Gene Day sneaks up behind people and reads their private material over their shoulder!” — Bingo! I had him!
When he read that he grabbed me by the throat and started to Throttle me! Shaking me back and forth. This would have been a humdinger of a joke at that point, but I had one more sentence up my sleeve… ur… I mean on the paper….
As I was wavering (is that a word?) back and forth between life and death I managed to eke out something like: “Wait! There’s More!”…. Gene Day let up on me a little and looked down at the page and read the last sentence…… It read….. “Gene Day tries to strangle people who are only trying to help him by creating his Psychological Profile.”
That was all it took. Another perfect joke played on Gene Day, and I was able to live to tell about it. When Gene read that he was stunned into dismay. Giggling as hard as he could he retreated shaking his head in defeat.
Now, I know that Gene reads these posts, and he may remember this story a little differently, and I’ll give him that because Gene is older than dirt and his memory isn’t that good. But I was the one that was being strangled, and I still have a vivid image of those few moments. Not only do I, but so do my children, who will one day tell their children, who will say, “Mommy, will you tell us that story again about how Grandpa was strangled by Gene Day that time in the Control Room at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in Oklahoma?”
Favorites Post #35
Originally Posted August 24, 2012:
I remember the first time Martin Louthan, the supervisor over all the power plants, came to the Power Plant to meet with all the Power Plant Men a couple of months before Unit 1 came on line in 1979. I don’t know what he expected when he arrived, but I don’t think he expected the greeting he received when the meeting began and he asked us what we all wanted to talk about.
There were about 200 Power plant Men all crowded into the break room. Some sitting and a lot standing, as there was no vacant leaning room against the walls. Martin Louthan began the meeting by saying that he wanted to come and meet with all the Power plant men every 6 months without the management in the room so that we could all speak freely. I don’t think that Martin actually thought the Power Plant Men would actually take him up on it. But they did.
Martin Louthan was from the Old School of Power Plant Men. He was what I would call a “Power Broker” Man. You can definitely tell that he had worked his way up through the ranks of Power Plant Politics and was very comfortable in his position as ruler of all the power plants. Martin had started as a Power Plant engineer and had spent time working at almost all of the power plants that had been built up to that time, including the Osage Plant that I had talked about in an earlier blog about the Power Plant Pioneers (Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace).
Once again I must remind the reader that the Power Plant Manager at the time, Eldon Waugh enjoyed ruling over his power plant kingdom and any time he could find a way to wield his power, he would. He had created many miscellaneous rules at the plant to demonstrate this authority. Most of which were designed to be a nuisance to the average employee under his domain.
When Martin Louthan asked the crowded room if anyone had anything to say while the plant manager and their own foremen were out of the room, the Power Plant Men took the opportunity to let loose a barrage of grievances against the Power Plant Manager and his assistant.
The main topic was the rule that no one could fish on plant grounds. The Power Plant Men had been told that Oklahoma City (Corporate Headquarters) had made a rule that no one could fish in the lake from the plant grounds. This included the discharge where the warm water went into the lake from the condenser, which was not far from the engineer’s shack parking lot where everyone had to park at the time. Martin acted surprised. He said he hadn’t heard of a rule like that.
Sitting next to Martin Louthan was his secretary Janice Baker (Brady). Martin would say, “I’ll look into it. Take A note Jan! I’ll let you know what I find out.” Jan would write something down on her notepad. Then complaint after complaint kept coming, and Martin kept saying “Take a note Jan.” I remember Jan’s expression throughout the meeting. I couldn’t tell if it was one of wonder or a look of someone that was having writer’s cramp.
After a few more visits from Martin, “Take a note Jan” became a phrase at the plant for something that needed to be looked into, but we knew we would never hear about again. It wasn’t long before Martin’s 6 month meetings turned into yearly meetings, and then eventually, he stopped having meetings with the Power Plant Men all together.
The nail in the coffin of Martin Louthan’s meetings happened when I was on Labor Crew. Martin had his yearly meeting some time in the middle of the summer of 1983. I was on the labor crew that summer.
One of the main complaints that year was that the assistant plant manager and the plant manager were constantly lying to us about one thing and then another. Martin asked the Power Plant Men for an example. Well. No one could come up with one on the spot. It was something you knew when you heard it, but if you didn’t write them down, then the next day you were too busy keeping the plant operational to remember the troubles of the day before.
Martin Louthan told the Power Plant Men that if they didn’t have any examples, then he would not be able to take any action. So, Jan didn’t have to take a note about that.
The Labor Crew bore the brunt of the next rule that came down from up above, and we were told that it had come from Oklahoma City (which is where Corporate Headquarters is located). A lot of people on labor crew had been there for a long time. Some had been there for about 2 years and were looking for an opportunity to move into maintenance or become an operator.
The economy had slowed down during those years as we were still recovering from the high unemployment and the downturn in the oil market in Oklahoma. Reaganomics hadn’t kicked in full steam yet, so those people who would have migrated onto other jobs were staying put.
Finally it was announced that a new crew was going to be started at the plant. It would be the Testing crew. An excellent opportunity for some of the people to finally leave the labor crew where they seemed to be held captive during those years.
Unfortunately for most, it was soon made known that the new positions required that the person have a college degree. It didn’t matter in what, as long as they had one. That left Jim Kanelakos and I as the only two power plant men-in-training that were eligible. I had a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology, and Jim had a Masters of Arts in Psychology.
Together we would stand out in the front of the Labor Crew building analyzing the other Power Plant Men using all of our education to help us determine the motivation for each person. Jim might say, “Do you ever notice how Charles Peavler will go off to do coal cleanup and then you don’t see him until lunch when he comes back completely clean, and nothing seems to have been cleaned?” And I would respond by saying, “Yes, I wonder how he manages to keep so clean when he’s obviously doing twice the work, both cleaning up the reclaim and messing it all back up again. What drives a man to be so… um… Productive?” Jim might respond by saying something like, “It is probably because he hates his father and this is his way of seeking revenge on him for all the times he made him clean his bedroom after his brother had messed it up.”
No. We really didn’t say that, but I’m sure we thought about it often enough.
Then came the clincher… It seems that when Eldon Waugh learned that requiring a college degree didn’t automatically disqualify all of the labor crew hands, a new rule came down. “No one already employed by the Electric Company could be considered for the job.” Again we were told, “This had come down from Oklahoma City.”
To compound the issue, a new program had been put in place just that summer called the Employee Application Program which included a new job announcement process that allowed everyone access across the company to apply for job opening anywhere in the company.
Now, this seemed like an obvious example that could be given to Martin Louthan. A perfect example of the Power plant men being lied to by the Plant Manager. Our A foreman Marlin McDaniel asked Jim Kanelakos and I to apply for the jobs. He wanted to have actual proof that the applications would not be considered even though we met the minimum qualifications.
We applied, and our applications were turned down. We went through the proper procedures and up the chain of command and asked the Supervisor of Maintenance Ken Scott to have a meeting with us to discuss the situation.
Ken listened to our grievance, and said that he would go talk to the assistant plant manager to find out what he could about the reason why we couldn’t be considered for the new testing jobs. He came back with the answer from Bill Moler, the assistant plant manager, that we could not be considered for the testing jobs because they were new positions, and no one that currently worked for the Electric Company could be considered for newly created positions. “This had come down from Oklahoma City.”
The labor crew as a group said that they wanted to have a meeting with Martin Louthan to talk about this. Ken came back and said that the next time that Martin Louthan was at the plant, he would meet with the labor crew.
Finally one day about a week later, at 4:00 we were told that Martin Louthan was at the plant and that he would be willing to meet with us. The end of our day was at 4:30. We went up to the conference room and sat down with Martin to discuss the issue. Ken Scott sat in the meeting as an advocate stating exactly what he had been told, and what had happened.
As 4:40 rolled around, I was aware that I had three people in the car waiting for me to drive them home, and I reluctantly had to leave the meeting right after Martin Louthan told us that he had never heard of such a rule that if you worked for the company you couldn’t be considered for a job. He asked to have Bill Moler and Eldon Waugh brought into the meeting.
I had to hear what happened the next day because I missed the rest of the meeting. When Bill Moler and Eldon Waugh came into the meeting, Martin Louthan asked Eldon Waugh why he didn’t consider anyone at the plant for the new testing jobs.
Eldon (the plant manager) replied by saying, “We did consider people at the plant. (which was a lie)” Then Bill Moler (the assistant plant manager) replied, “No we didn’t.” Martin asked, “Well why not?” (Maybe with a little more flowery language than I am using). Bill Moler said, “Because you told us not to.” Martin then said, “No I didn’t!” Bill Moler responded by shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Then it must have been a misunderstanding.”
That was it. The meeting was over. The misunderstanding was cleared up, but by that time the new testing crew had already been hired, and it was all water under the bridge. The Labor Crew men were still stuck digging ditches and doing coal cleanup. Martin Louthan didn’t have anymore meetings with just the Power Plant Men without the management in the room after that.
Every now and then I wonder what Jan was really writing in her notebook whenever Martin said, “Take a Note Jan.” I do know that after the first meeting, we were allowed to fish at the discharge, but only if we wore our hardhats. Our families and friends however could not. Then after much back-and-forth with Oklahoma City it was decided that not only did we not need to wear our hardhat while fishing at the discharge, but we could even bring our family and friends with us as well.
Martin Louthan retired with the other Power Broker men in the 1987-88 downsizing. The next June during the summer of 1988, Jan Brady became known as Janice Louthan, as she had married Martin Louthan. Martin’s first wife had died in 1981.
Martin lived 23 years after he retired from the Electric Company where he had worked for 40 years. He died in his home on November 29, 2010. Janice was most likely right there by his side. In my mind with her notepad handy, ready and willing to hear the words, “Take a note Jan” just one more time.
Take a look at Martin Louthan and tell me this guy doesn’t mean business…
Favorites Post #15 (posted in no particular order)
Originally Posted July 26, 2013:
I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was… well…. surreal.
This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.
As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.
At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.
Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.
David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.
During those times I knew that something was taking place in the “superheat” section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).
So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.
This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.
Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:
Or even a normal rat like this:
No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:
Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….
Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.
If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.
You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool. The nearest thing I had to a badge was the pocket protector in the vest pocket on my t-shirt.
So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.
Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.
There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where John Brien was staring back at him.
There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.
We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as I fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.
By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.
I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.
I took out my multi-meter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connector where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.
I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”
That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.
I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.
There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.
I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.
Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.