this was originally posted on January 7, 2012. Added a picture of Sonny Karcher:
When I heard the sad news of the death of Sonny Karcher on 11/11/11, I wished I had been able to attend his funeral. I did reserve some amount of time that night when I heard about his death to remember the times I have spent with Sonny. All of them good, as Sonny was always pleasant to be with even when he was mad about something. Here are some of the first and last things I remember:
When I first worked at the Sooner power plant the summer of 1979, Sonny and Larry Riley were the first two mechanics I was assigned to work with. They taught me how things were at the plant at that time. Both of the units were still under construction, so there was no electricity being generated.
The first job we were to work on (my second day at the plant, since the first day was taking a safety class, and getting my hard hat and safety glasses and getting fitted for ear plugs) was a stuck check valve in the dumper sump pump pit (Not only did I not know what a check valve was, I wasn’t too sure what was meant by a dumper sump, though I did know “pump”).
It took us about an hour to take the truck to the coal yard, as a coal yard foreman Richard Nix had the key and wasn’t going to give it to us until one of his hands was ready to go with us. So we sat in the truck parked in the north entrance of the maintenance shop for almost an hour. When the guy was finally ready, and he had climbed in the back of the pickup, it turned out that he only needed to go as far as the parking lot… about 200 yards away (as the parking lot was at the Engineer’s shack at the time). We dropped him off and drove up to the coal yard, and made our way down belt 2 to the sump pump pit at the tail end of the belt.
We tested the pump and saw that the water would run back into the sump once the pump stopped running. So, it was determined that the check valve was stuck. We drove back to the plant and took the morning break.
About an hour later, Sonny told me to go to the tool room and get the following items (which I thought was a joke, because he gave me such a strange list of tools that I didn’t recognize): Two ¾ box ends (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 it sound legitimate). – I wrote down the list, because I recognized right away that a joke was being played on me and I was going to play right along.
So, I went to the tool room and I asked Bud Schoonover (a very large tall and easy going man at the time), “I need a ¾ come-along (I thought I would choose the most ridiculous item on the list first, just to get on with the joke…). Well. Bud turned around, walked to the back wall, took a come-along off the top of a pallet full of what appeared to be a bunch of junk, and laid it across the tool room gate window (The tool room was still being “organized” at the time and the gate was actually a window in the office next to the tool room).
So, I asked for two ¾ box ends (this was before anyone had been issued toolboxes by the way, that’s why we had to go to the tool room for these things). Well, you know the rest of this part of the story. These are all legitimate items, and I learned a lot that day and the next few weeks about the names of various tools. I kept that list in my wallet for over 10 years as a reminder to myself of when I first came to the plant, and how much I didn’t know then.
So, Larry, Sonny and I went up to the coal yard, and went down to the tail end of #2 belt and removed the check valve from the discharge pipe and brought it back to the maintenance shop to repair. When we returned, we went to lunch. During lunch Sonny told me about how he was hired at Sooner plant.
He said he lived a few miles down the road and had heard that someone was building a lake up on top of the hill he could see from his property. So, he went on over to see who was dumb enough to build a lake on top of a hill, and while he was looking around Orville Ferguson came up to him and asked him if he was looking for a job. Sonny said that he liked to mow grass, and Orville said that he would hire him to mow grass then. Sonny said, if I remember correctly, that he was hired at the same time that Linda Shiever, the timekeeper, was hired and that they were the first two new hires at the plant. The rest were already company employees that had transferred there.
After lunch we went down to the shop and took the check valve apart and what do you know…. There was a piece of coal stuck in the check valve keeping it open. We cleaned it up and put it back together. When we were finished, we took our afternoon break. After break we drove back up to the coal yard and went down to the tail end of #2 Conveyor belt and put the check valve back in the discharge pipe. When we returned to the maintenance shop, we returned the tools to the tool room and filled out our time cards. A day’s worth of work cleaning a check valve.
I did many other things that first summer, since Sooner Plant didn’t have a yard crew yet, I worked most of the time in the maintenance shop bouncing around from crew to crew helping out. I also did a lot of coal cleanup (especially on weekends), since the conveyor system didn’t work correctly when they started it up when they were starting to fire up unit 1.
The second day before I left at the end of the summer to go back to school, I worked again with Larry Riley and Sonny Karcher to fix the exact same check valve. This time we jumped in a truck (we had a lot more trucks now…. Which is another story), went to the coal yard, went down #2 tunnel to the tail end of #2 Conveyor, pulled out the check valve, removed the piece of coal, put the check valve back in, went back up to the truck and back to the maintenance shop just in time for morning break. Sooner Plant had improved a lot in the short three months I worked that summer.
I worked many years with Sonny Karcher in the garage, and fixing coal handling equipment, and just about anything else. He finally left the plant to go mow grass, when after a battle to move to the garage from coal yard maintenance to mow grass, he was told that he was going to have to go back to the coal yard to be a coal yard mechanic, because he was real good at that and they just needed him up there. So he left.
He talked to me about it before he went, that’s how I know what was on his mind. He said, “Kev, you remember when you first came here and I told you how they hired me to mow grass? Well, that’s what I want to do. Mow grass. So I’m going to have to go back home and do just that.”
After that, the only times I remember seeing Sonny was when he was mowing grass down at Bill’s corner, with a smile on his face waving at the Sooner plant employees on their way home from work.
I can see Sonny talking to St. Peter at the gates of heaven now….. The only words I can hear Sonny saying is, “I like to mow grass”… and St. Peter nodding with approval and points out that they have a lot of green pastures as he lets him through the gates.
Originally posted on February 18, 2012.
I worked at Sooner Coal-fired power plant about a month during the summer of 1979 before I heard about the Indian curse that had been placed on the plant before they started construction. It came up by chance in a conversation with Sonny Karcher and Jerry Mitchell when we were on our way to the coalyard to do something. I was curious why Unit 1 was almost complete but Unit 2 still had over a year left before it was finished even though they both looked pretty much identical. When I asked them that question I didn’t expect the answer that I received, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to hear about an Indian Curse. It did explain, however, that when we drove around by Unit 2. Sonny would tense up a little looking up at the boiler structure as if he expected to see something.
The edge of the plant property is adjacent to the Otoe-Missouria Indian Tribe. It was said that for some reason the tribe didn’t take too kindly to having a huge power plant larger than the nearby town of Red Rock taking up their view of the sunrise (at least until the tax revenue started rolling in from the plant building the best school in the state at the time). So it was believed that someone in the Indian tribe decided to place a curse on the plant that would cause major destruction.
I heard others say that the plant was built on Holy Indian Burial ground. At the time it seemed to me that this was a rumor that could easily be started and very hard to prove false. Sort of like a “Poltergeist” situation. Though, if it was true, then it would seem like the burial site would most likely be located around the bottom of Unit 2 boiler (right at the spot where I imagined the boiler ghost creeping out to grab Bob Lillibridge 4 years later. See the post Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost).
I am including an aerial picture of the immediate plant grounds below to help visualize what Jerry and Sonny showed me next.
This is a Google Earth Image taken from their website of the power plant. In this picture you can see the two tall structures; Unit 1 on the right with Unit 2 sitting right next to it just like the two boilers that you see in the picture of the plant to the right of this post. They are each 250 feet tall. About the same height as a 25 story building. Notice that next to Unit 2 there is a wide space of fields with nothing there. The coalyard at the top is extended the same distance but the coal is only on the side where the two units are. This is because in the future 4 more units were planned to be built in this space. Sooner Lake was sized to handle all 6 units when it was built. But that is another story.
At the time of this story the area next to Unit 2 between those two roads you see going across the field was not a field full of flowers and rabbits and birds as it is today. It was packed full of huge metal I-Beams and all sorts of metal structures that had been twisted and bent as if some giant had visited the plant during the night and was trying to tie them all into pretzels.
Sonny explained while Jerry drove the truck around the piles of iron debris that one day in 1976 (I think it was) when it was very windy as it naturally is in this part of Oklahoma, in the middle of the day the construction company Brown and Root called off work because it was too windy. Everyone had made their way to the construction parking lot when all of the sudden Unit 2 boiler collapsed just like one of the twin towers. It came smashing down to the ground. Leaving huge thick metal beams twisted and bent like they were nothing more than licorice sticks. Amazingly no one was killed because everyone had just left the boilers and were a safe distance from the disaster.
Needless to say this shook people up and those that had heard of an Indian Curse started to think twice about it. Brown and Root of course had to pay for the disaster, which cost them dearly. They hauled the pile of mess off to one side and began to rebuild Unit 2 from the ground up. This time with their inspectors double checking the torque (or tightness) of every major bolt.
This brings to mind the question… If a 250 foot tall boiler falls in the prairie and no one is injured… Does it make a sound?
In the years that followed, Sooner Plant took steps to maintain a good relationship with the Otoe Missouria tribe. Raymond Lee Butler a Native American from the Otoe Missouria tribe and a machinist at the plant was elected chief of their tribe (or chairman as they call it now). But that (as I have said before) is another story which you may read here: Chief Among Power Plant Machinists.
Comment from Earlier Post:
I was there the day unit 2 fell, I was walking to the brass shack, just came down from unit 2 when we noticed the operator of the Maniwoc 5100 crane did not secure the crane ball to the boiler or the crane to keep it from swaying in the wind. I kept watching the crane ball slamming into the steel causing the boiler to sway and within a minute I watched it fall from 50 yards away and took off running,the whole unit was going up quick because B&R were behind schedule,and the most of the steel hadn’t been torqued yet by the bolt up crew.
Originally Posted on April 7, 2012:
My wife came home from work one night in the early 90’s. She was a charge nurse at the Stillwater Oklahoma Medical Center at the time. She said that she was taking care of a patient that was one of the mostly saintly people she had ever met. He was going to die soon and she thought I might know who he was because he used to work at the Power Plant.
When she gave me his name I was surprised to learn that he was on his deathbed, and yes. I did know him. I agreed with her. He is and always had been a saintly person. The funny thing was that I felt that very few people really knew him as I did. Many people knew him enough to not think he would be classified in the “Saint” category, and I knew why this was also. I knew him so well quite by chance when I first came to the plant, and I made a decision about how to answer a common question that was being asked of me at the time.
As a summer help it was known that I was a college student, so the obvious question was, why was I going to school, and what did I want to be when I graduated. I could tell this was a rowdy bunch of men that enjoyed their day at work, and so I told them that I wasn’t sure yet what my degree would be, but I thought I might like to become a writer. I told them this hoping that they would bite where I could set the hook (in a fisherman sort of way), and they did.
The first person that asked me that question was Sonny Karcher, and when I told him that I thought I might be a writer, he took the bait and asked, “Are you going to write about us?” At the time, I had no plans about doing that, but I thought if they thought so, then they might fill my ears with the unique wisdom each of them seemed to have. So I answered, “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it, but I suppose I might.”
That’s all it took. After that, every time Sonny introduced me to somebody, he would say, “This is Kevin. He’s our new summer help. He’s going to college to be a writer, and he’s going to write all about us!” This produced the behavior I was hoping it would. That was that a number of Power Plant Men took me “under their wing” and bestowed upon me their own particular wisdom. For hours on end, as I worked with various men, they would tell me how things are in the world and how I should respond to them. Their own particular Philosophy Of Life.
At the time I really had not considered writing about my experiences at the power plant, but now that I am much older and the wisdom of these great men seem to be dying away, I thought that it would be a good idea to put these out there on the Internet where nothing ever really goes away.
I have refrained from mentioning the name of this Unlikely Saint until now because I think that if I mentioned it up front some Power Plant Men would read it and think I was just tremendously off my rocker and not read any further. So I prefaced my story with how I came to know this particular Power Plant Man enough to understand what my wife was saying when she told me about this Saint on the general medical (3rd) floor of the hospital.
Maybe I will refrain just a little while longer to tell you a few things that this man told me. It was obvious that he felt as if he was talking to me as a father would talk to a son. He was only two years younger than my own father. The one thing that sticks in my mind most is when he told me, “Kev, some day you may be a foreman or a supervisor running this plant, but always remember this…. Never forget where you came from. Never forget that there was a time when you first began and knew nothing. Don’t ever forget your friends. Don’t forget who you really are.” I have reminded myself of this often and made it part of my own “Philosophy of Life”. Years later when I became an electrician, he stopped by the electric shop and reminded me once again.
As an Aside comment, my mother tried to help me with this by referring to me as “My Son, The Janitor” when introducing me to someone for years after I had become an electrician. I was always proud to be called a janitor, and I would not try to correct her, because even though I was an electrician, I knew inside that I was also still a janitor. Today, even though my title may be “Business Systems Analyst” working for Dell (and now Senior Software Engineer working for General Motors), I also still carry around in the back of my head the title of “Janitor”.
I wish I had a picture to share of this Power Plant Man (I have one somewhere, but I am not able to find it just now), because if you could see him, you would think… this guy?
His skin was darkened from smoking so heavily all his life. Emphysema is what killed him while he was still relatively young. His belly grew over the years to become larger than his stocky barrel chest. His head nodded while he listened to you and especially when managers were talking as if he was laughing to himself because he knew what they were really saying. His clothes were always clean, which left everyone with the impression that he never did any work.
I remember one day while we were inspecting the dumper (where the coal is dumped out of the railway cars), as it had not been in-service for very long and everything needed to be inspected. I followed him down the stairway into the dumper going down into the darkness. There were lights down there, but they didn’t give off much light because the coal dust absorbs the light instead of reflecting it. So, you can shine a flashlight and it doesn’t fill the room with its glow as it might in a room painted with white paint. To me the place was eerily unreal until I had been down there enough times to keep my bearings on where we were going.
Anyway, I followed him down into the dark damp dumper where every handrail, every light fixture and every step was covered with coal dust. We had some wrenches and we were tight checking the rollers on the conveyors. When we were finished we found ourselves at the ground level exit of #2 Conveyor. I looked at this Power Plant Man and he didn’t have spot of coal on him. I, on the other hand, was black from top to bottom. My hardhat was black, my arms, my face, my jeans. All black 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.
Originally Posted: May 4, 2012. I added some comments from the original post at the end of this post:
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 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. 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)
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:
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 earplugless 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.
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’m sure I wrote more, but I don’t remember everything… but I do remember the second from the last sentence. 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?”
Originally Posted on August 3, 2012 (I added a picture of Walt Oswalt):
The second summer as Summer Help at the Coal-fired Power Plant, was when I first worked out of the Automotive garage. It wasn’t finished during the first summer. The second summer when I began working in the garage, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley, Doug House and Ken Conrad were the regular workers that mowed the fields using tractors with brush hogs, as I have explained in previous posts. A summer help that also worked with us from Ponca City named David Foster was also able to mow grass using one of the new Ford tractors that we painted Orange to easily identify them as belonging to the Electric Company in Oklahoma.
I learned to drive the tractors later in the summer when I worked irrigating the fields in our attempt to grow grass (as told in the post “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It Pays To Listen“). The next summer I was able to mow grass using a Brush Hog pulled behind a tractor:
It didn’t take long before I had to mow grass on the side of the dam (and other levies). The side of the dam has a very sharp incline, so while mowing grass on the side of the dam you sat more on the side of the tractor seat than on the seat itself. Heavy weights were put on the front of the tractor and the back tires on the tractor were turned around so that they were farther apart than they would be otherwise. This gave the tractor a lower, wider profile and a lower center of gravity helping to keep it from rolling over sideways down the slope.
I had watched Jim, Larry, Ken and David mow grass along some very steep inclines the summer before without any tractors tumbling over, so I felt like it must be safe, even though looking at the tractors they still seemed a little “top heavy”.
It was quite an eerie feeling the first time I actually mowed a slope this steep. I experienced the same feeling as you have on a roller coaster when it hits the top of the hill and flings you down real fast when the tractor tire on the downhill side of the tractor rolls into a washed out spot on the dam causing the tractor to roll over just a little farther than you are used to. It was definitely an adrenaline rush each time this happened, because it felt like the tractor was going to roll over.
That is when I remembered the story about the little engine that was trying to pull the train over the steep mountain, and he kept chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” over and over. So, between each decade of the Rosary that I was saying while counting Hail Mary’s on my fingers, I added in an “I Think I can…” as an added prayer before the next “Our Father”.
In the time that I worked as a summer help we never turned over a tractor while mowing on a slope. That isn’t to say that the tractors didn’t start to tip over. It’s just that if you realize that the large back tractor tire has left the ground and is spinning freely, you could quickly turn the steering wheel downhill so that the tractor would turn downhill preventing it from rolling completely over. The weight of the brush hog on the back helped to keep the tractor snug against the sloping dam.
Years later, after I left the Power Plant, in 2006, my father’s best friend, Tom Houghton, a Veterinarian in Lakeland, Florida was killed in a tractor accident at his family’s farm in Polo, Missouri. This greatly effected my father. He has not recovered from the loss of his friend still today. As I was mowing grass and picturing my sudden demise if a tractor were to roll down the hill, my main concern was the sorrow my family would have felt by my death. Needless to say… I never toppled a tractor.
It was during that same summer in 1981 that I first worked with the Power Plant Icon Walt Oswalt. Every plant must have at least one person like Walt. He is the type of person that once he has something in his mind about how to do something, nothing is going to change it. I know many different stories about Walt Oswalt that have been shared with me, but this is one of my own. Walt is a sandy-haired Irish-looking man that always reminded me of the little old man, Jackie Wright, on the Benny Hill Show.
I now have an actual picture of Walt that I found laying around….
One Saturday while I had caught a ride to the Power Plant to do “coal cleanup” the crew was asked who would like to wash down belts 10 and 11. These are the 1/2 mile long belts that go from the coalyard all the way up to the plant. You can see them on the left side of the picture of the plant on the side of this post. Finding the opportunity for a challenge, I volunteered.
I made my way up to the top of the Transfer tower where I found Walt Oswalt. He was working out of the coalyard at the time and was helping us wash down 10 and 11 belt. Wearing rainsuits and rubber boots we began at the top and worked our way down. It didn’t look like this belt had been washed down for a while. We could blast the tin enclosure with the high pressure hoses we were using to completely wash off all the coal dust that had built up over time. This looked like it was going to be a fun job.
Then Walt pointed out to me that most of our work was under the belt where the coal had built up almost solid up to the belt itself so that the coal was rubbing on the rubber Uniroyal conveyor belt. Remember, if the conveyor belt goes up, it has to go back down also. So underneath the conveyor is where the belt returns. it is a big loop.
So, Walt Oswalt and I spent the rest of the day laying on the grating so we could see under the belts washing the coal down the slope of belt 10 and 11. Under the conveyor is another set of rollers that the rubber conveyor belt rides on it’s return trip to the Crusher Tower. During this time there were two chants that came to my mind…. One was, “Whistle While you Work”, since we seemed to be in some kind of coal mine working away like the Seven Dwarfs (you know… Walt Disney… Walt Oswalt). The other one was the song, “Workin’ In a Coal Mine” (…goin’ down down).
At one particular spot the coal had built up and packed itself in there so much that one of the rollers wasn’t able to turn and the belt was just rubbing on the roller. After we had washed the coal away we could see that the roller was not able to turn still because the belt had worn it flat on one side.
Walt called the Control Room to shutdown the belt so that we could look at it. We could see that the roller was bad. For some reason the other belt (11) was out of commission so without this belt running, no coal was being sent up to the plant. The coal silos and the surge bin hold enough coal for a while but not for too long during the summer when the units need to run at their maximum rate to supply the electricity needed by the customers. We could have the belt shutdown for a while, but not for too long.
I followed Walt down the belt to the Crusher Tower wondering what he had in mind. He didn’t tell me what we were going to do, so I just gathered my clues by watching what he did. When we came out of the belt and left the Crusher I was surprised that it was already dark outside. When I had left the Maintenance Shop it had been morning. Now it was dark. We had spent the entire day (12 hours at this point) in Belt 10 and 11. I didn’t remember ever taking a break or eating lunch or even going to the bathroom. Just holding the high pressure water hose, directing the stream down under the belt… all day.
We walked over to a new building that was still being built called the Coalyard Maintenance Building. This was the new building that was going to be used by the new Labor Crew in a few months. Outside the building to one side was a Conex Box, as I have described before. This is the kind of large box that you see on the CSX train commercials that are being transported by trains.
We used them to store equipment used for specific jobs or crews. In this case, the Conex box had conveyor equipment in it. Walt found a long straight roller that is used under the Number 10 and 11 belts and tied it to a 2 wheel dolly. We rolled it back to the Crusher Tower and began the long trek back up the belt. I was pulling the dolly and Walt was carrying some large wrenches.
When we arrived at the spot where the roller had been worn, Walt called the control room to let them know we were beginning to work. We pulled the safety cords on the side of the conveyor to ensure that the belt would not start, even though we were assured that a Clearance had been placed on the breaker in the Main Switchgear (where I began my first war with the spiders a year later. See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“).
Walt climbed over the belt and I stayed on the main walkway. We worked upside down for a while unbolting the roller. At one point we decided we needed some more suitable tools and headed back down the belt to the Coalyard Garage where the heavy equipment is serviced and brought back some large ratchet wrenches and sockets with an extension.
I think the chant, “I think I can, I think I can” was running through my head on our second trip back up the conveyor belt. I think it was around 10pm. We finished changing the roller and decided to leave the old one laying in the walkway for the night. Walt said he would bring it back to the coalyard on Monday morning.
We made our way back to the Maintenance shop where I took off the rain suit and rubber boots that I had been wearing all day and put my regular boots back on. I went up to the control room and asked if anyone could give me a ride to Stillwater since the evening shift of operators were just getting off at 11pm. I believe it was Charles Buchanan that gave me a ride home that night in his little beat up pickup truck.
I never worked directly with Charles Buchanan since he was an operator. The first impression that one may have is that he looks like a caricature of a construction worker in a comic strip.
Charles reaffirmed my belief that Power Plant Men are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. There were a few times when I caught a ride with Charles to or from the plant. Each time I felt honored to ride in his truck. If I think about what chant was running through my mind as we were on our way home at night, I think it would be something like the song “You’ve Got a Friend”: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend….”
That is what all real Power Plant men and linemen are like. Wherever you look in the United States, these great men and women work tirelessly to keep you safe by providing electricity to your homes. Something we take for granted until the power goes out.
Recently when the power went out in the east, the linemen from this electric company drove with pride, eager to help those in need:
Below I have included the lyrics for the song “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King and her husband James Taylor. See how well it fits those people that work around the clock bringing the power to your home:
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend.
If the sky above you should turn dark and full of clouds
and that old north wind should begin to blow,
keep your head together and call my name out loud.
Soon I will be knocking upon your door.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there.
Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend? People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you. Well, they’ll take your soul if you let them,
oh yeah, but don’t you let them.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend. You’ve got a friend.
Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend. Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend.
Oh, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.
Here is a YouTube video of James Taylor singing this song:
If your aren’t able to play youtube videos directly from the picture… here is the link: “You’ve got a Friend“
Originally Posted on August 11, 2012. Added a picture of Larry Riley:
When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry. Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew. I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.
I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry. I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.
I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:
The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day. Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there. Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.
When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”. Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum. Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers. We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood. It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.
When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale. You could spend half of a life time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was. Each day brought something new. My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal. When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.
One day in the spring of 1983 while I was a janitor when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day. I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal. This day was different.
Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Biff Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.
I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time… The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.
Below the Economizer and above the air preheater in the diagram above.
“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was probably just some kind of filter or something…. I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.
As I mentioned before… there are places like: The Tripper Gallery. Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub. The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship. Travelling Water Screens. There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Emergency Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp). Anyway, I could go on and on.
Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back online in the evening. We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time because of the heat.
So, in I went. The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand. There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness. So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in. Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen. It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart. Something like this:
Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT. I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it. I was just wearing a tee shirt. I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 160 degrees. I was wearing my hard hat with a chin strap to keep it from blowing off because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.
The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us. At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap. I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.
Anyway, I threw the lanyard for my safety belt around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet. I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot. Breathing slowly gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.
This was a new adventure for me. There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time. I suppose you grow used to it after a while. Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce. The first time it just very painful. Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.
After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning. I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant. I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face. I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.
The other one was missing. I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter. No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust. Then I thought…. No. I know I had both filters when I went in the duct. I must have lost one while I was in there. Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.
Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator. I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon-based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).
Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight. I tried tightening them, but I couldn’t screw them tight. The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight. It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time. It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.
After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break. When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out every 10 minutes.
Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen. It is what it sounds like. It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger. I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.
I did beat that screen all day. When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:
I had worn the rubber off of the mallet. When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Biff said, “What is this?” I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning. He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy. I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.
A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew. Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him. The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross. He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.
During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen. He said he had never seen anything like that before. He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.
I felt the same way about Chuck. I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it. My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.
Of course I want to keep it. It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment. The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.
It also reminds me of other things. Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.
Questions from that day have always remained with me.
How much ash did I breathe in? I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me. What did it do to my lungs?
What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard? I know now what was below me then. I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets. It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.
What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?
I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men. I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant. All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close. The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”. That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important. It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.
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 of what Martin Louthan had been looking for. 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…