Tag Archives: coal

Power Plant Christmas Story

Originally posted on December 21, 2012:

December, 1998 my brother who is now a full Colonel in the United States Marine Corp (and now has retired from the Marine Corp.). sent me the following poem about Santa Claus visiting a Marine on the night before Christmas. I, in turn, sat down and in about 30 minutes wrote a poem about Santa Claus visiting the house of a Power Plant Man. Words flowed out as easily as Ralph writing about his wish to have a Red Rider BB gun.

First, here is the Marine story, and then after that, you can read the one about Santa and the Power Plant Man. Notice the similarities….

I made the title for the Marine Poem a link to the website where I found a recent copy of the Marine Christmas Story:

Marine’s ‘Twas the night before Christmas

By Nathan Tabor

‘Twas the night before Christmas, he lived all alone,

in a one-bedroom house made of plaster and stone.

I had come down the chimney with presents to give
and to see just who in this home did live.

I looked all about, a strange sight I did see,
no tinsel, no presents, not even a tree.

No stocking by mantle, just boots filled with sand,
on the wall hung pictures of far distant lands.

With medals and badges, awards of all kinds,
a sober thought came through my mind.

For this house was different, it was dark and dreary;
I found the home of a soldier, once I could see clearly.

The soldier lay sleeping, silent, alone,
curled up on the floor in this one bedroom home.

The face was so gentle, the room in such disorder,
not how I pictured a United States soldier.

Was this the hero of whom I’d just read?
Curled up on a poncho, the floor for a bed?

I realized the families that I saw this night,
owed their lives to these soldiers who were willing to fight.

Soon round the world, the children would play,
and grownups would celebrate a bright Christmas Day.

They all enjoyed freedom each month of the year,
because of the soldiers, like the one lying here.

I couldn’t help wonder how many lay alone,
on a cold Christmas Eve in a land far from home.

The very thought brought a tear to my eye,
I dropped to my knees and started to cry.

The soldier awakened and I heard a rough voice,
“Santa don’t cry, this life is my choice;

I fight for freedom, I don’t ask for more,
my life is my God, my Country, my Corps.

“The soldier rolled over and drifted to sleep,
I couldn’t control it, I continued to weep.

I kept watch for hours, so silent and still
and we both shivered from the cold night’s chill.

I didn’t want to leave on that cold, dark night,
this guardian of honor so willing to fight.

Then the soldier rolled over, with a voice soft and pure,
whispered, “Carry on Santa, It’s Christmas Day, all is secure.

“One look at my watch, and I knew he was right.
“Merry Christmas my friend, and to all a good night!”

Semper Fi

And now for the story where Santa visits the Power Plant Man!!!

Merry Christmas Power Plant Men
by Kevin Breazile

Twas the night before Christmas, as I flew through the snow,
To a house full of kids, wife, dog and Jay Leno.
I came down the chimney with presents to share,
And to see what kind of he-man actually lived there.

I looked all about, and oh what a sight!
Four kids in their beds, without much of a fight!
A dirty pair of jeans, and a shirt full of holes,
Boots full of coal dust, worn shoestrings and soles.

A hardhat was hung by the chimney to dry,
With safety stickers, scratches, and earplugs nearby.
I felt that something was stirring in my chest,
And I knew that this man was different from the rest.

I had heard about men like this from watching Roseanne,
But now I was in the house of a Power Plant Man!
I looked down the hallway and what should I see,
A tool bag hanging behind the Christmas tree.

As I approached it to look at his shiny side cutters,
I heard a strange sound, like a motor that sputters.
There on the recliner laid back as far as it can,
Lay the worn body of the Power Plant Man!

The hole in his sock showed a big toe that was callous,
From trudging all day through his Power Plant Palace.
His face was unshaven, his clothes were a mess,
He needed a shower, of that I confess.

I knew through the nation all people could stay,
Warm in their houses, all night and all day.
From the power that hummed at the speed of light,
And silently flowed through the houses at night.

Day after day, and year after year,
Blizzards and storms with nothing to fear.

As the Power Plant Man lay on his chair fast asleep,
I thought about others like him that work just to keep,
Our world safe from the cold and the heat and the night,
By keeping us warm, or cool and in light.

I looked in my bag for a gift I could give,
To the Power Plant Man who helps others to live.
I found that nothing seemed quite enough,
For the Power Plant Man had all “The Right Stuff”.

As I looked through my bag for the perfect choice,
I suddenly heard a muffled cigarette voice.
The Power Plant Man had stirred with a shock,
And all that he said was, “just leave me some socks.”

Then he rolled on his side, and scratched his behind,
And a tear swelled in my eye that left me half blind,
I knew Power Plant Men were selfless inside.
They lived to serve others with courage and pride.

I pulled out some socks and put them under the tree,
Then I walked nimbly back to go up the chimney.

Before I rose to return to my sled,
I picked up his hardhat and placed it on my head.
It was then that I realized the soot on my brow,
Had come from his hardhat I put on just now.

I often get soot on my clothes and my face,
But tonight I had been blessed by the man in this place.

So as I flew through the night to finish my plan,
I took with me some of the soot from that Power Plant Man!

Simplify

Merry Christmas to all! And to all a Good Night!!!!

santa-claus3

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New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop

Originally Posted January 4, 2013:

November 7, 1983 I walked into the electric shop from the Power Plant Parking Lot with Bill Rivers. Bill was an electrician that I had been carpooling with off and on for almost a year. I remember walking in the door and the first thing I noticed were two guys leaning against the counter by the coffee pot that I hadn’t seen before. They looked like a couple of Electrical Contract hands.

When I came in the door, Bill told them that I was the new electrician. They both looked very surprised. The tall one told me that his name was Art Hammond and that this was his first day as an electrician in the shop also. He had just been hired. The shorter guy introduced himself as Gene Roget (it is a French name pronounced “Row jay” with a soft J). I could tell by his shock and look of disappointment at my young appearance and obvious lack of experience that he had been expecting to be hired permanently along with Arthur.

My new foreman was Charles Foster, the person that had asked me to think about becoming an electrician in the first place. Charles was a calm mild mannered person that made it clear to me the first day that I could call him Charles, or Foster or even Chuck, but don’t call him Charlie. Ok. I made a note of that in my mind….. When the need arises to really irritate Charles, I should remember to call him Charlie. — Just a side note… That need never did arise. I did think it was funny that I had referred to my previous foreman Larry Riley as my Foster Father, and now I actually had a Foster for a Foreman. The electric shop had a short Monday Morning Safety Meeting and then I officially began my 18 year career as an electrician.

I could go on and on about how Charles Foster and I became the best of friends. I could fill up post after post of the things we did and the hundreds of conversations we had each day at lunch…. and um…. I suppose I will in good time. Today I just want to focus on what we did the first day. The first thing Charles told me after making it clear that “Charlie” was not the way to address him, was to tell me that he believed that the way I would become a good electrician was for him to not tell me much about how he would do something, but instead, he would let me figure it out myself. And if I made a mistake. That was all right. I would learn from it.

I really hated making mistakes, and I wished at the time that he would let me follow him around telling me his electrical wisdom. Finally, in my mind I thought, “Ok. If Charles didn’t mind my making mistakes, then I will try not to mind it either.” It was hard at first, but eventually, I found that making mistakes was the highlight of my day sometimes… Sometimes not… I’m sure I will talk a lot about those in the coming months.

I followed Charles up to Bill Bennett’s office. He was our A foreman, and there was a cabinet in his office where he kept all the new electrician tools. I was given a used black five gallon bucket and a tool pouch to carry my tools. Like my first day as a summer help, I had to learn the name of a lot of new tools that day. There were crimpers, side cutters, Lineman’s Pliers, strippers and Holding Screwdrivers. I was given a special electrician pocket knife and was told that I would have to keep it very sharp. I had all sizes of screwdrivers and nut drivers. I put all the tools including the tool pouch into the black plastic bucket.

A black tool bucket like this

A black tool bucket like this

Bill Bennett was a tall very thin black man. He was a heavy smoker. This showed on his face as he looked older than I thought he really was. He spoke with a gruff voice from years of smoking. He was a very likable person (like most Power Plant Men). He told me that they had tried really hard to get me in the electric shop because the two men in the corner offices really didn’t want me to move off of the labor crew. He explained that I owed my new career to Charles Foster who gallantly went to bat for me. I told him I was grateful.

I was also given a Pocket Protector and a pair of small screwdrivers (one a philips screw driver). Charles explained that I would probably use these small screwdrivers more than any of the other tools. I also was given a small notebook and a pen. All of this went into my pocket protector. Which went into the vest pocket on my flannel shirt.

Our Pocket Protectors were freebies given to us by vendors so they would have advertisements on them like these

Our Pocket Protectors were freebies given to us by vendors so they would have advertisements on them like these

We went back down to the electric shop and Charles introduced me to Gene Roget again and Charles asked Gene if he would help me organize my tools and teach me some of the basics around being an electrician. Gene said that the first thing I needed to do was to lubricate my new tools. It just doesn’t do to have tools that are stiff. So, we worked on lubricating them and we even went down to the machine shop to get some abrasive paste called “jewelers rouge” that we worked into the tools to loosen them up. Gene took his side cutters and threw them up in the air and as they flew up, they rapidly opened and closed making a rattling sound. He caught them as they came down as if they were tied on his hand like a YoYo.

Wire Cutters similar to what I had

Wire Cutters similar to what I had

I worked the tools back and forth. Lubricating them and rubbing the abrasive paste in the joint. I had no coordination, so when I would try throwing my pliers in the air like Gene did, they would end up on the other end of the workbench, or across the room. So, I didn’t try it too often when others were around where I might injure someone. I thought. I’ll work on that more when I’m alone or just Gene is around. He had good reflexes and was able to quickly dodge my miss-thrown tools.

After Lunch Charles said that we had a job up at the coalyard that we needed to work on. He told me to grab my tool bucket and the multimeter from the cabinet. The electricians referred to it as the “Simpson”.

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

This was before each of us were issued our very own digital Fluke Mulimeter a few years later. I’m sure the old electricians are chuckling to remember that we used to use these old Multimeters. Charles explained to me that when you are checking voltage with the meter, that after you turn the dial to check voltage, always touch the two leads together to make sure the meter doesn’t move before touching the electric wires. This is done because if something happens that causes the meter to still be on “Resistance”, then when you check the voltage, the meter or the leads could explode possibly causing an injury. I had observed the electricians in the shop doing this back when I was a janitor, and now I knew why.

Charles explained that we needed to find out why the heater in the small pump room on the northwest corner of the dumper wasn’t running. So, we went to coalyard and found the space heater mounted along the wall. We tested it to make sure it wasn’t running. After checking the circuits with the multimeter on a panel on the wall, we found that we needed to replace a small fuse block because it had become corroded from all the coal dust and moisture.

I had seen electrical he-men go up to a panel and hold a screwdriver in their hand out at arms length and unscrew screws rapidly, one at a time. Bill Rivers had been doing that up on the precipitator roof when I was working with him while I was still on the Labor Crew. He could unscrew screws from a terminal block faster than I could unwrap Hershey Kisses.

So, when Charles told me to remove the fuse block from the panel, I thought this would be an easy task. I pulled out a screwdriver from my handy dandy tool bucket and with one hand holding the screwdriver, and the other hand steadying it by holding onto the stem of the screwdriver I moved toward the panel. Charles stopped me by saying something like: “Rule number one. Never use two hands. Especially when you are working on something hot.” Ok. I see.. If one hand is touching the metal screwdriver, and I come into contact with the screw which is electrified, then… um… yeah. Ok. I dropped one hand to my side and proceeded to remove the fuse block. That other hand remained at my side for the next 18 years when working on something hot (something is hot when it has the electricity turned on).

I explained above that I was pretty uncoordinated when it came to flipping my side cutters up into the air trying to act impressive like I knew what I was doing. Well. I couldn’t hold a screwdriver steady for the life of me. I tried to match up the head of the screwdriver with the slot in the screw, but I was pretty wobbly. It was kind of embarrassing. The truth had come out. This guy can’t even hold a screwdriver still. How is he ever going to become a real electrician?

A small fuse block like this.

A small fuse block like this.

Using all my concentration, I fumbled about and began working the screw out of the fuse block, when suddenly the screwdriver slipped slightly and Pow! Sparks flew. I had shorted the screwdriver between the screw and the hot post on the fuse block. There was a quick flash of light and a loud pop. Geez. The first time I’m working on something, what do I do? I blew it….. literally.

Well. Charles pointed out. The electricity is off now. Go ahead and change out the fuse block, then we will find out where the source of power is for it. So, I changed it out…. Feeling a little down that my new screwdriver now had a neat little notch on the blade where the electricity had melted off a corner of my screwdriver (I carried that notched screwdriver around for the next 10 years before I replaced it).  We found the breaker that had been tripped in a DP Panel (which stands for Distribution Panel) in the Dumper Air Handler room and turned it back on. We checked the heater and it was working.

At the end of the day, when Bill Bennett came down to the shop to see how my first day went, Charles told him that I had jumped right into it and already had a notch in my screwdriver to prove it. Both Bill and Charles were good-natured about it. I filled out my timecard which told a short story about my first adventure as an electrician.

As I walked to the parking lot with Bill Rivers to go home, I was thinking that even though I had been full of nerves all day, this had to be one of the most exciting days of my life. I was actually one of the electricians now. I had the feeling that somehow something was going to happen and they were going to tell me that they made a mistake and that I would have to go back to the labor crew. That was a feeling that haunted me for about 3 months after moving to the electric shop.

 

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron Kilman January 5, 2013
    Your memory still amazes me. It’s like you kept a copy of every day’s time card. I’ll bet your time cards take up a whole room at Sooner!

    Great article. I still have some of the tools I was given on my first day in the Results Dept. at the Horseshoe Lake Plant in June, 1970 (don’t tell the Evil Plant Manager).

  2. NEO January 5, 2013

    I’ve got a few screwdrivers like that myself. Goes with the territory. Good post :-)

    Coments from previous repost:

      1. Jonathan Caswell January 9, 2014

        MY BROTHER NATE GOT MY DAD’S TOOLBOX—WITH ALL THE INERESTING STUFF IN IT.

    1. justturnright January 10, 2014

      Classic:
      “The first time I’m working on something, what do I do? I blew it….. literally.”
      I really DO need to stop by here more often.
      Great writing, partner. As always…

      Your “Spider” post is still my favorite, but this one was awfully good.

Serving Mankind Power Plant Style

Originally Posted on February 15, 2013:

My first job, where I wasn’t working for myself, was when I was 14 years old and I became a dishwasher in a German Restaurant called Rhinelanders in Columbia Missouri. It felt good feeding dishes through the dishwasher, and scrubbing pots and pans because I knew that in the scheme of things I was helping to feed the customers the best German food in a 60 mile radius. Later when I went to work for the Hilton Inn as a dishwasher, I was serving a lot more people as they would host banquets with 100’s of people at one time. After that I went to work for Sirloin Stockade as a dishwasher, busboy and finally a cook. The number of people that would go through that restaurant in one day dwarfed the number of people we would serve at the Hilton Inn.

The Hilton Inn had a large automated dishwasher to handle the banquet crowd

The Hilton Inn had a large automated dishwasher to handle the banquet crowd

Nothing prepared me for the massive amount of people whose lives are touched each day by a Power Plant Electrician! Or any Power Plant employee for that matter. Our plant alone could turn the lights on for over one million people in their homes, offices and factories. As a summer help mowing grass and cleaning up the park each week removing dirty diapers and rotting fish innards it never really had the impact that becoming an electrician did.

Part of the routine as an electrician was to do preventative maintenance on equipment to keep things in good working order. We performed substation inspections, emergency backup battery checks. We changed brushes on the generator exciter, performed elevator inspections and checked cathodic protection to make sure it was operational. At certain times of the year we would check out the plant freeze protection to make sure the pipes weren’t going to freeze come winter. I also worked on maintaining the precipitator equipment. All of these things were needed to keep the plant running smoothly, but, though they were each fun in their own way, they didn’t have the impact on me that fixing something that was broken did. (ok. two paragraphs ending in the word “did”… what does that tell you?).

I used to love getting a Maintenance Order that said that something was broken and we needed to go fix it. It may have been a motor that had a bad bearing, or a cooling system that had shutdown, or the Dumper that dumped the coal trains had quit working. One of my “speci-alities” (I know. I misspelled that on purpose), was working on elevators. — I will save my elevator stories for later.

When I was working on something that was broken, I could see more clearly how my job was related to keeping the lights on throughout the area of Oklahoma where our company served the public. Depending on what you were working on, one wrong slip of the screwdriver and “pow”, I could make the lights blink for 3 million people. I will talk more about certain events that happened throughout the years that I worked at the plant where things that happened at the plant were felt throughout our electric grid.

Sometimes even as far away as Chicago and Tennessee. There was a “club” for people that shut a unit down. It was called the “500 Club”. It meant that you tripped the unit when it was generating 500 or more Megawatts of power. I can say that “luckily”, I never was a member of that club.

Ok, so a broken elevator doesn’t directly impact the operation of the plant, but it was, during more than one occasion, a life threatening situation considering that a few times the elevator would pick the most opportune time to stall between 200 and 225 feet up the elevator shaft full of elderly visitors that were touring our flagship Power Plant on their way back down from experiencing the great view of the lake from the top of the boiler. (I know. My college English Professor would have a heyday with that run-on sentence). — actually, that sentence was so long, I think I’ll make it the only sentence in the entire paragraph, — well, except for my comments about it….

Charles Foster, my foreman and best friend, took me up to the top of the boiler soon after I became an electrician and showed me the “Elevator Penthouse”. I know. “Elevator Penthouse”… Sounds like a nice place…. Well. It wasn’t bad after you swept out the dead moths, beetles and crickets that had accumulated since the last Elevator Inspection. It was a noisy room on the top of the elevator shaft where the elevator motor buzzed as it pulled the elevator up and let it down. Stopping on floors where someone had pushed a button.

I told you earlier that my elevator stories will be in a later post, so for this story, I’ll just say that Charles set me down on my tool bucket (which doubled as my portable stool and tripled as my portable trash can), in front of a panel of about 100 relays all picking up and dropping out as the elevator made its way up and down. He told me to study the blueprints that hung on the side of the panel and watch the relays until I understood how it all worked.

So, one afternoon, I sat there for about 4 hours doing nothing but watching relays light up and drop out. On the other side of that panel were the main relays. There were relays there we called “Christmas Tree” relays because they looked like a fir tree. I made some notes on a piece of paper about the sequence that the relays would pick up and drop out that I kept in my wallet.

I used those notes years later (in 2000) when I was writing task lists in SAP (our Enterprise Resource Planning computer system) on how to troubleshoot the elevator controls. Anyway, that was how I learned all about how elevator logic works. You know what? It is just like writing a computer program using computer code. It is basically a set of instructions with rules built-in, only it was done with relays.

A Montgomery Elevator Penthouse similar to the boiler elevator penthouses

A Montgomery Elevator Penthouse similar to the boiler elevator penthouses. The Christmas tree relays are halfway down on the right side of the left panel

Well. Back to helping humanity…. So, usually when we were working on something that was broken there was an operator somewhere that was waiting for the equipment to be repaired so that they could go on with their job. Sometimes the Shift Supervisor would be calling us asking us periodically when we were going to be done because they were running low on coal in the silos and were going to have to lower the load on the units if we didn’t hurry up. It was times like that when you fixed the kill switch on the side of the 10 or 11 conveyor that supply the coal to the plant from the coalyard that you really understood just where you stood with your fellow man.

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard

I am writing about this not because I want to pat myself on the back. Though I often did feel really proud as I returned to the truck with my tool bucket after coming down from a conveyor after fixing something. I would feel like taking a bow, though I was often by myself in situations like that when I wasn’t with my “bucket buddy”. At least the Shift Supervisor and the control room operators were very grateful when you would fix something critical to keeping the plant operating at full steam (and I mean that literally…. The electricity is made by the steam from the boiler that turned the turbine that spun the generator).

No. I am writing about this because it would hit home to me at times like these how much each of us depend on each other. We all know about how important it is to have a police force keeping order and having fire fighters and paramedics on standby to rush to protect families in time of distress. People in jobs like those are as obvious as the soldiers that protect our nation.

I think the majority of us have a much bigger impact on the rest of society than we realize. I think the Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with never gave it much thought. Like the person washing dishes in a restaurant, they didn’t look at themselves as heroes. But they are (I know… Sentence fragment). Each day they moved through an environment where a boiler ghost could reach out and grab them. They distinctively know that they are standing next to a dragon that could wake up at any moment and blast them from the face of the earth, but they don’t let it deter them from the immediate job at hand.

dragon

When the boilers were being brought on line for the first time in 1979 and 1980, when you walked through the boiler area, you carried a household straw broom with you that you waved in front of you like someone knocking spider webs out of the way (I called it searching for the boiler ghost). It was explained to me at the time that this was done to detect if there was steam leaking from the pipes. If steam was leaking from some of the pipes, you wouldn’t be able to see it, but if you stepped into the flow of the steam, it could cut you in half before you even realized there was something wrong. When the steam hit the broom, it would knock the broom to the side, and you would know the leak was there. Kind of like the canary in the mine.

Boiler Ghost Detector

Boiler Ghost Detector

I remember one day when everyone was told to leave Unit 1 boiler because during an emergency, the entire boiler was at risk of melting to the ground. If not for the quick action of brave Power Plant Men, this was avoided and the lights in the hospitals in Oklahoma City and the rest of Central Oklahoma didn’t blink once. The dragon had awakened, but was quickly subdued and put back in its place.

I entitled this post “Serving Mankind Power Plant Style”, but isn’t that what we all do? If we aren’t serving Mankind, then why are we here? Today I have a very different job. I work at Dell Inc., the computer company. Our company creates computers for people around the world. We create and sell a computer about once every 2 seconds. At the electric company we had about 3,000 people that served 3 million. At Dell, we provide high quality computers for a price that allows even lower income families to enter the computer age. Computers allow families to connect with each other and expand their lives in ways that were not even conceived of a few years ago.

Even though I spend my days serving my internal customers at Dell, I know that in the big scheme of things along with over 100,000 other employees, I am helping to impact the lives of over a billion people worldwide! I wouldn’t be able to do much if down the road the brave men and women at a Power Plant weren’t keeping the lights on. It is kind of like the idea of “Pay it Forward.”

So, the bottom line of this post is… All life is precious. Whatever we do in this life, in one way or other, impacts the rest of us. We go through life thinking that we live in a much smaller bubble than we really do. The real bubble that we live in is this planet and just like every cell in our body is in some way supported by the other cells, it is that way with us. Don’t discount what you do in life. It may seem insignificant, but the smile you give to someone today will be “paid forward” and will impact every one of us.

Comments from the Original Post:

  1. Far too few understand this, very well said, my friend.

  2. Amen!

    I remember one time at the Seminole Plant when we had a steam leak on a Unit 2 throttle valve. You could hear it (over the roar of the turbine room) but you couldn’t see it (superheated steam is invisible). Martin Louthan and Ralph McDermott found the leak with a “red rag” on the end of a broomstick.

  3. Life is precious, or it’s just another commodity, right? And that’s right down the center of the Left/Right divide…
    Abortion debates sit astride that divide; healthcare is now crossing it as government undertakes how much to spend on various age groups.
    Another side of it provided the sense of responsibility that led Power Plant Men to sacrifice and risk when those were needed. At one time, those attitudes would have been taken for granted, normal and to be expected… something that comes clear in all the Power Plant stories.

     

    Comments from the Previous Repost:

    Ron  February 20, 2014

    I love this story on serving others. Thanks 🙂
    You’ve probably heard of the Oklahoma City Thunder (NBA) star Kevin Durant? He’s just chosen a nick name for himself – “Servant”. Is that cool or what? I’m proud of him.

Blowing it with Power Plant Retracts and Wall Blowers

Originally Posted February 23, 2013:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Temperature Wire

High Temperature Wire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

 

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman February 23, 2013:

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

 

Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant

Originally posted April 19, 2013:

Resistance is Futile! You may have heard that before. Especially if you are a Star Trek Fan. If not, then you know that there is always some form of resistance wherever you are.

Captain Picard as Locutus trying to convince you that "Resistance is Futile"

Captain Picard as Locutus trying to convince you that “Resistance is Futile” Like that is ever going to happen

I learned a lot about resistance when I first joined the electric shop at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1984. I was assigned to work with Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers on the Precipitator during overhauls and when I wasn’t working on the manhole pumps and there wasn’t any other emergencies going on. Actually, from 1984 on, for the next 17 years I continued to work on the precipitator… (if I had only known my fate….).

Not only did I learn a lot about resistance, I also learned about capacitance, reactance, transformers, rectifiers, power supplies, diodes, transistors, op amps, and pots (also known as potentiometers). Bill Rivers was the brains of the outfit. Sonny was the Electric Specialist banished to the Precipitator by Leroy Godfrey (See Singing Along with Sonny Kendrick). Bill thought up the ideas and Sonny went to work to implement them. I just jumped in where I was needed.

The Precipitator is the large box between the boiler and the smokestack (maybe you can see this in the Power plant picture). The purpose of the electrostatic precipitator is to take the smoke (or fly ash) out of the exhaust before it went out of the smokestack.

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

The controls for the Precipitator were all electronic at that time. That meant that there were circuit boards full of resistors, capacitors, transistors, operational amplifiers, diodes and potentiometers. These circuit boards controlled the way the power was distributed throughout the precipitator wires and plates through high powered transformers, and how the rappers and vibrators operated that dropped the collected ash into the hoppers.

Bill had me take an electronics course at the Indian Meridian Vo-tech so I would know the basics. Then he taught me all the shortcuts. I had to be able to look at a resistor and tell right away what the value of resistance it was. Resistors are color-coded and you had to learn what each of the colors represented…

This for instance is a 339 ohm resistor with a 5% tolerance.

This for instance is a 339 ohm resistor with a 5% tolerance.

I was expected to know this by sight. Bill would test me. There was a mnemonic device that I was taught to remember what each color represented, but it is not appropriate to repeat it, so I won’t. It is enough to say that the colors go like this: Black, Brown, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet, Gray, White (I will never forget this my entire life). These represent the numbers zero through 9. Here is a full explanation of how to read a resistor….. just in case you are curious, or you are such a boring person that you really need some material to bring up when you are at a party and don’t know what to say:

This is how the color codes work

This is how the color codes work for resistors works

I found that having just the correct amount of resistance was very important. Too much or too less, and everything stops working.

Isn’t it that way with management also? If the management is too resistant to change, then things come to a halt. If they have too little resistance, they lose control of the situation. Depending on the circuit (or managerial decision) and what you are trying to do, it helps to have a manager that has a variable resistance to meet the needs of each situation. Resistance to change is always a balancing act.

During the first two years I was an electrician, the main control panels that controlled the operation of the precipitators were electronic. We spent a lot of time in the lab troubleshooting electric circuits looking for blown (or bad) parts that needed to be replaced. Then we would solder new components on the circuit boards and then put them back in operation. I learned how to be an electronics junky. I became addicted to fixing electronic circuit boards. It was like a game to me.

Later, the precipitator controls were changed to digital controls. That is, they were more like little computers controlling the precipitator. Instead of a bunch of circuit boards dumbly, but cleverly, doing their job, (how many commas can I use in one sentence?), little brains were added that made decisions and reacted to conditions in a much more dynamic way.

What was interesting was that one day Bill Rivers was describing how technology was going to be in the future. He said that some day, we will be able to sit in the lab and look on a computer and see what all the controls in the precipitator were doing (this was 1984). If something isn’t working right, we could just reach over, type a few keys on the computer and adjust the controls. Drink our sweet tea (a necessary staple in Oklahoma at the time), and then wait for the next crisis…. Then he would giggle at the look of disbelief on my face.

When he was telling me this, I was thinking in my head…. Well, that would be nice, but this sounds more like a pipe dream to me than reality. What does an older guy with six kids from a tool and die company in Columbia Missouri (where I grew up, by chance) know about the future of anything….. well…. anything…uh… new age…. If that is what you might call it… I found out you just don’t really know when you are sitting in front of a true “visionary” with tremendous insight.

Bill Rivers had this incredible knack for telling the future. In 1984 he was predicting computer controls in the control room where you ran the entire plant from a computer on a desk instead of using the “Big Board”.

I love this picture!

I love this picture! It makes me feel at home! This was not our plant, but is a Power Plant control room

He said you would be able to call someone on a phone you kept in your pocket or your watch like Dick Tracey.

Dick Tracy in a control room of a power plant sending commands to the hopper nozzle booster pumps

Dick Tracy in a control room of a power plant sending commands to the hopper nozzle booster pumps

I don’t know what journals Bill was reading or if he just dreamed all this stuff up in his head, or maybe he was a Star Trek Fan that believed that if you can dream it up you can do it. I do know that he picked up on subtle queues and made great inferences from them that seemed astronomically unlikely. However, I have to admit that he caught me off guard a number of times with predictions that definitely came true.

I will talk about this more in a future post, but for now I will say that we did upgrade the precipitator to where you could sit in the control room and monitor and adjust the precipitator controls (all 84 on each unit), and even each of the rappers (672 rappers) and vibrators (168 vibrators) on the roof of each precipitator. With one key on the computer I could send a plume of ash out of the smokestack that looked like the unit had just tripped, and a moment later, clean it up again. This meant that I could send smoke signals to the Osage Indian tribe 20 miles north up the Arkansas (pronounced “Are Kansas”) river, telling them that the Pow Wow would begin at sunset.

Today, I understand that the “Big Board” at the plant is just a large junction box and the plant is controlled almost (if not) completely by computers sitting on the desk. Before I left the plant in 2001, this was being transitioned slowly to computer controls. I have another story to tell some day about this, and how an operator named Jim Cave, a Power Plant Genius and true Power Plant Man of the highest integrity, was snubbed by upper management for speeding this technology along. — Another example of Power Plant Resistance….

But for now…. back to my electronic days… before I began re-programming the Eeprom chips in the precipitator controls….

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the precipitator controls which I had a very “personal” relationship with…

Bill Rivers confided with me one day that when the new Instrument and Controls department had been formed from the “Results” department that his dream had been to become a part of this team. It meant the world to him. It was where he believed he belonged. It was one of his major goals in life.

There used to be two electrical specialists in the Power Plant. Sonny Kendrick was not always the only one. The other specialist was chosen to go to the Instrument and Controls shop. Bill Rivers wanted to move there also. He definitely had the experience and the knowledge to be a superb instrument and controls person. But Bill had this one problem.

He loved to joke around. He loved to pull strings and push buttons. I have mentioned in a previous posts that Bill would play a new joke on Sonny Kendrick every single day. As I have unfortunately found out in my own life… this tends to make them…. well….. it tends to make enemies out of those who have a chip on their shoulder. Those people who naturally feel inadequate in their abilities or their position in life. To go one step further…. anyone who feels “unloved”….. these people definitely do not like being joked with. They seem to never forgive you. My greatest regret in life is joking around with these individuals.

So, when it came time to choose who would be a part of the new Instrument and Controls shop, Bill Rivers was turned down. It was explained to him that the reason he was not given the job was because he cut off the leads of a transistor when he replaced them. — I’m not kidding. Bill Rivers had the habit of cutting off the leads of each resistor, transistor, diode or capacitor that he replaced…. this is why Monty Adams turned down his request for joining the “elite” Instrument and Controls shop (as he told Bill to his face).

Someone had told the Instrument and Controls Supervisor Monty Adams that Bill Rivers cut the leads off of transistors and resistors when he replaced them so that you couldn’t test them to see if they were all right. Implying that he didn’t want you to know whether he had replaced the transistor or resistor by mistake.

Bill Rivers took several transistors, cut the leads off of each of them and handed them to me and asked me to test them to see if they were still good or if they were bad. I took out my voltmeter, set it to ohms, and proceeded to test them as Bill Rivers had taught me. I told him…. this transistor is good….. this one is bad….

You see…. there is no way to cut the leads off of a transistor in such a way to make it impossible to tell if a transistor is good or bad…. In reality…. you cut the leads off of a bad transistor so that the person working on the circuit board knows that this is a bad transistor and doesn’t use it again by accident. This was electronics 101.

When Bill told me this story, he literally had tears in his eyes. This was because being part of the Instrument and Controls team was part of his dream. The future of his family and the entire rest of his life was decided the day he was told that he was not going to be a part of a team that he believed was his true lot in life.

I remember his exact words as he sat there in the lab alone and told me this story. He said, “… and Monty didn’t know… He didn’t know that you cut the leads…. that is standard procedure….” In Bill’s giggly way, he was crying out loud as he told me this.

From that point on….I knew that the decisions Bill made in his life were driven by that one decision to exclude him from this team. Unlike many of us that could say to ourselves…. “That is their loss”…. Bill kept this pain in his heart each day…. Every decision from that day further was effected by this event.

I calculated it out one day that I spent 414 hours driving back and forth from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the plant and back each day with Bill Rivers (along with Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer and occasionally others that needed a ride), and over that time, I became very close to Bill, even to the point of tutoring his son in Algebra (see post: How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic?).

I say this because I know about the pain that inflicted Bill River by a rash decision based on the hearsay of someone that held a grudge. I know how his entire life was changed and how it ended for Bill Rivers as a power plant employee. I know that every decision by Bill after this date was made in response to this one decision. Anyone who experienced Bill after 1983 knows what I am talking about.

I realized that today my own decisions in life help spell out my future. How some little remark may be misinterpreted, or even properly so. I realize as I write this post that how I accept or reject these events in my life, determines the future of my family. After seeing how every event in Bill’s life after that day at the power company was determined by his experience was to his detriment, I am determined not to let the same thing happened to me…..

That is why I have taken on the philosophy in my life that no matter how my actions are misinterpreted, I am determined to remain true to myself. I know what I mean, and I mean what I say, and I say what I mean, and an Elephant is Faithful 100 %.

From Horton Hatches an Egg

From Horton Hatches an Egg by Dr. Seuss

Comment from the Original Post:

  1. Ron Kilman April 21, 2013

    It’s amazing how many decisions are made based on incorrect / incomplete information (at all levels).

Power Plant Raven Comes Home to Roost

Originally posted May 3, 2013:

Diana Lucas entered the Electric Foreman’s office one morning at the Coal-fired Power Plant almost in a rage! I didn’t understand why at first, and I also couldn’t quite tell if she was really in a rage, or if she was just excited about something, because she seemed to be both at once. Which I guess is the case when one is in a rage, but there seemed to be a tint of amusement in her rage which was the cause of my confusion.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Bill Bennett our A Foreman had come to the shop a little earlier than usual that morning and was apparently waiting for Diane’s entrance, foreseeing her reaction. Bill had hopped up out of his chair and immediately tried to explain to Diane (yeah, her name was Diana, but most called her Diane. Well, actually, most everyone called her Dee). Diana Brien (as she was later named) seemed a little more musical than Diane Brien. Maybe it is just the Italian in me that likes to put vowels on the end of names.

Anyway, Diane was saying something like, she couldn’t believe that Bill had actually hired some particular person as a contract worker for our shop. Bill responded to her by pointing out that he would be working for her this time. If she wanted, she could have this guy doing the dirtiest and rottenest (rottenest? really? Is that a real word?) jobs. This seemed to calm her down a little and the two of them walked out into the shop.

Charles Foster, one of the electrical foremen, and my closest friend turned to me and explained that Diana and some others in the shop (Ben Davis, and I think and even Andy Tubbs) had worked for this guy when they were working for Brown and Root building the plant. He was a supervisor that was disliked by most of the people that worked for him because, well, according to Diana, he was some kind of slave driver.

Ok. When I finally understood the rage emanating from the Lady ‘lectrician, I decided I would amble out into the shop to prepare for my day performing feats of electrical magic. I also figured I would take a gander at the new figure of the old man leaning against the workbench to see the center of the conflict and to stare it in the face. I figured if I had a good close look at him, I would be able to see inside his character. I already disliked him before I walked out of the office after hearing how he had treated my mentors.

I know my memory of my first encounter with Bill Boyd is not what really happened, because in my mind I have embellished it and have rewritten it in order to include thoughts that came from deep within me. So, even though I probably walked out into the shop and glanced over at this old codger standing there, picked up my tool bucket and walked out the door, I remember it quite differently….. This is how I remember that moment (the one that really didn’t happen….. well, not exactly)….

In my mind I remember walking into the shop and noticing this tall lanky older man hunched over birdlike, almost like a raven, as his nose reminded me of a beak. A cranky looking man. He looked tired. Worn out. Like it was a struggle for him to take each breath. I thought, “Ok. This raven has come home to roost. Only he doesn’t know what hornets nest he has just stepped into.”

Something like this man

Something like this man

Sure enough. Bill Boyd was given one distasteful job after another. At least, I think that was the intention. He was tasked to sweep out the main switchgear and the other switchgears around the plant. Anything that was repetitive and boring. He worked away at his tasks without complaint. Slowly and steadily.

I noticed that Bill Boyd was taking a lot of pride in his work no matter how menial the task was. He was very meticulous. A couple of years later when he came back to work for us again, he was working for me. And at that time I had him cleaning out both of the Precipitator control cabinet rooms.

Not only did he clean the rooms to where you could eat on the floor, but he also opened each of the cabinets and vacuumed them out, and changed every one of the 4 inch square filters (2 each of the 84 cabinets in each of the two rooms — for a total of 336) filters by cutting them out of sheets of blue and white filter material using a large pair of scissors.

Air Filter material like this

Air Filter material like this

Bill Boyd liked to tell stories about different jobs he had throughout his career. He had worked in various places around the world. He had held all types of jobs. I think he helped build most of the important monuments that exist in the world today. At least that might be the impression you might have by listening to him tell his stories. I couldn’t disagree with him too much. After all, he was working at the most monumental Power Plant of all time right then. If he was lucky enough to do that, then I suspect that most of what he was saying was true.

One day just at the end of the day when it was time to leave for the day, I walked out of the electric office into the shop and headed for the door. Just as I passed Bill Boyd, he said rather force-ably to Andy Tubbs, “What did you say?” Andy said something back to him, and glancing back I saw that Bill had a surprised and confused look on his face.

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

So, as we were walking to the parking lot I asked Andy what he had said. Andy said that he told Bill that his stories couldn’t be true. Bill had asked him why he thought that. Andy had replied, “Because if you did all the things you say you did, you would have to be 200 years old!” I laughed at that. I thought…. well…. he probably is.

So, Now that I have introduced you to Bill Boyd, here is the more interesting parts of the story of Bill Boyd’s tenure at the Power Plant Palace. I have three small stories that I still often think about:

The first one is rather short, so I’ll start there…. I walked into the electric shop office one morning before it was time to begin my work day and sat in a chair. Bill Boyd was already there sitting across the room from me, silently meditating….. well…. he might have been mildly snoring…. I don’t remember exactly. Anyway. There was just the two of us in the room.

I suddenly noticed that there was a strange ticking sound. A very definite tick tick tick, like a pocket watch, only a little louder. I rose from my chair and looked around the room trying to figure out what was ticking…. It’s strange to think about it, because right outside the east wall (no. actually the north wall… I just always had my directions turned 90 degrees) of the office was the roaring steam pipes shooting high pressure steam into the turbines, creating the electricity that lit up the state of Oklahoma.

Even amid the roar of the steam pipes, I could hear this ticking. I approached Bill, and sure enough. Bill was ticking. Looking at his trousers, and his shirt pocket, I didn’t see anything that looked like a chain that may have a pocket watch connected.

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

Power Plant Pocket Watch worn by Old Fogies

The thought of a time bomb went through my head. I also had thoughts of being late for an important date, and thoughts of lunch, among other things…..

So, I returned to my seat, then I hollered out to him, “Bill!” He stirred from his sleep, um… I mean, his morning meditation…. I continued, “Bill, you are ticking!” Looking confused, he said, “What?” I replied, “You are ticking.” Bill asked, “You can hear that?” I assured him I could. He said, “Well, that’s my ticker. My pacemaker.”

Whoa. I was listening to his pacemaker from across the room! Crazy! So, after that I would hear his pacemaker all the time he was around. I guess once I had tuned into the frequency, I couldn’t get it out of my head…. I sort of had it in the back of my head that I hoped that I didn’t hear it miss a beat…. I never did… it just kept on ticking.

The next story has to do with finding a buried cable. Bill Bennett brought this specialized cable finder down to the shop one day and told us that we had to mark an underground cable that went from the main substation up to the front gate to a transformer. Someone was going to be doing some digging in the area and they wanted to make sure they didn’t cut into this cable because it was the main station power to the substation relay house.

This cable finder had one piece that you placed on the ground above where you knew the cable was buried, and then you walked along with a sensor picking up the signal from the cable.

Sorry this picture is so small, but it shows the two pieces to the cable finder

Sorry this picture is so small, but it shows the two pieces to the cable finder

I was all excited to go try out our new fangled cable finder. Unfortunately, we were trying to find a cable underneath some very high voltage lines (189,000 volts) leaving the substation, which rendered the sophisticated cable finder completely useless. There was too much electrical interference from our surroundings.

So, after trying to find the cable all day without success, and upon returning to the shop disillusioned with our new toy, Bill Boyd said, “I can help you find the cable.” As we wondered what he meant, he repeated, “I can find the cable for you.”

I don’t remember if it was Andy, or if I asked him just how he was going to do that. Bill replied, “By using a divining rod.” Huh? A divining rod? Yep. He was serious. The next day he came to work with two metal rods about 2 1/2 feet long, bent at one end so that you could hold them and they would point straight out in front of you.

So, I drove him over to the substation and Bill tried to use the divining rods to find the cable. He paced back and forth holding the rods up by his face, with his shoulders hunched over like a vulture… or was it a raven? After pacing back and forth for about 20 minutes he returned to the truck and said he couldn’t find the cable because the wind was blowing too hard.

The wind in Oklahoma generally begins blowing about 8 o’clock in the morning during the summer, and doesn’t let up until…. well… until… maybe the end of the summer, if you’re lucky. So, we went back to the shop. Bill Bennett was waiting to see if he was successful. Leroy Godfrey had bet that he would find the cable. We said it was too windy.

The next morning when we were driving to work, I looked out in the field by the substation and there was Bill Boyd all by himself walking slowly along with the two metal rods sticking straight out from his face.

When I arrived at the shop, I jumped in the truck and headed out to the field. Bill said that he found the cable. It wasn’t where we originally thought. It was about 25 yards over from there. He showed me that as he walked over a certain spot that his rods moved from being straight out, to swing out to the side. When he held the two rods farther apart, when he walked over the same spot, the rods came together. Bill said. The point where they cross is where the cable. is.

Ok. I wasn’t really buying this. I guess it must have showed on my face, or maybe I actually let out a snicker….. I’m not sure… I suppose it was the look of disbelieve, because I’m not prone to snicker, even when confronted with total insanity I usually just act as if it is normal.  I suppose that’s because I had grown up with an Italian Mother. So, Bill turned and handed the rods to me and said, “Try it.”

So I took the two rods in my hands:

Metal Diving rods

A similar pair of divining rods. These are a lot shorter than the ones we used. Maybe they just go off the end of the picture

I slowly walked forward with the two rods sticking out in front of me. As I approached the spot where he had indicated the cable was buried the two rods parted until they became lined up with each other. The left one pointing left, the right pointing right. No Way! I backed up, and as I did the rods came back together. I moved forward again and they went apart! I could hear the mild excited chuckling behind me.

We took a can of orange spray paint and made a mark on the ground. then we moved about 20 feet away from that mark and did it again. Sure enough… there it was again. We marked the ground every 20 feet all the way up to the main gate. And get this. It even worked where the cable was buried under the railroad tracks. I walked down the middle of the railroad track and could tell right where the cable was buried underneath it.

So, after that, I kept my own pair of divining rods in my garage. Bill explained that you could bury a new pipe under the ground and you would not be able to find it, but after something runs through it, like water or electricity or even a wad of rags, you can find it using the divining rods.

One day a few years later, my brother was visiting my house when I lived out in the country and he was talking about someone who claimed to use a divining rod to find something, and I told him that I had a divining rod and you can use it to find cables and sewer lines and water pipes with it. — Of course, he had the same reaction I did, so we went out in the front yard and I told him how to hold them, and let him find out for himself. It only takes once. The result is so noticeable, it doesn’t leave any question in your mind when it happens.

Ok. The last story….

It turned out that over the years as Bill Boyd would come to the plant as a contract worker, we came to be friends. One day he invited me to his daughter’s recital (or maybe it was his great-great-granddaughter.  I never could tell exactly how old Bill was) at Oklahoma State University where she was playing the Cello in a chamber orchestra. I was honored to be invited by him and my wife and I joined Bill and his wife as we listened to his daughter play. One day he told me the story of when he was working in Germany in 1959 and he bought a Cornelius Ryan novel called The Longest Day. After listening to his story, he told me that he wanted me to have the book.

The next day, he showed up to work with three books. The first book was from 1959. The next one was 1966, and the third one was 1974. But you could tell they were all a set, and by the way that Bill Boyd held them, they were important to him. So I accepted his gift with thanks.

The three books Bill Boyd gave me

The three books Bill Boyd gave me

I have kept books with care since the day that I received them, as I have kept my memory of Bill Boyd. A true Power Plant Raven.

Comment from the original Post:

Ron Kilman May 4, 2013

As a summer student at the Mustang Plant in 1967 I was a skeptic about the use of divining rods. In the “Results” office one of the Instrument Technicians showed me how they could locate pipes under the floor. I can’t remember which technician showed me this (Bud Gray, Leldon Blue, Montie Adams, or Kenneth Palmer), but I tried them myself – and they worked! I’ll never forget my surprise.

In Pursuit of the Power Plant Gai-tronics Gray Phone Ghost

Originally Posted June 14, 2013:

When I first watched the movie “The Goonies”, I recognized right away that the script was inspired from another Pirate treasure movie I had watched when I was a child. I have never seen the movie again, and it was probably a made for TV movie or something that has been lost in the archives years ago. I’m sure that Steven Spielberg when he was growing up must have been inspired by this movie when he wrote the script to Goonies, because this was a movie that had inspired us when we were young.

The Goonies looking at the treasure map

The Goonies looking at the treasure map

You see… In the movie I had watched as a kid, some children that were trying to save their family or an old house or something similar to the Goonies story, found a clue to where a Pirate treasure was buried. The clue had something to do with a “crow’s nest”. It turned out that the model of a ship that had been sitting on the mantle piece in the old house had another clue in the pole holding the crow’s nest. This clue had holes in the paper, and when held up to a certain page in a certain book, it gave them another clue to where there was a hidden passageway. Which led them one step closer to the treasure.

Anyway. As a child, this inspired us (and I’m sure a million other kids) to play a game called “Treasure Hunt”. It was where you placed clues all around the house, or the yard, or the neighborhood (depending on how ambitious of a treasure hunt you were after), with each clue leading to the other clue, and eventually some prize at the end.

Why am I telling you this story about this movie that I watched when I was a child? Well, because I felt this same way all over again when I became an electrician at a coal-fired power plant out in the country in north central Oklahoma. Here is why.

I used to carpool to work from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the power plant 25 miles north of town with another electrician named Bill Rivers. He had kept urging me to become an electrician along with Charles Foster, who had suggested that I take some electric courses to prepare for the job. Once I became an electrician, Charles Foster, my foreman, would often send me with Bill Rivers to repair anything that had to do with electronics. Bill Rivers was good at troubleshooting electronic equipment, and well, he was generally a good troubleshooter when he wasn’t getting himself into trouble.

I remember the morning when Charles told me to go with Bill to go fix the incessant humming that was coming over the PA system…. “What?” I asked him. “I can’t hear you over the loud hum coming over the PA system.” — No not really… We called the Gai-tronics PA system the “Gray Phone” because the phones all over the plant where you could page people and talk on 5 different lines was gray.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

I walked into the electric lab where Bill Rivers was usually hanging out causing Sonny Kendrick grief. I hadn’t been in the electric shop very long at this point. I think it was before the time when I went to work on the Manhole pumps (see the post Power Plant Manhole Mania). In the lab there was an electric cord going from a plug-in on the counter up into the cabinet above as if something inside the cabinet was plugged in…. which was true. I asked Bill what was plugged in the cabinet and he explained that it was the coffee maker.

An old Coffee pot like this

An old Coffee pot like this

You see, our industrious plant manager had decided that all coffee at the plant had to come from the authorized coffee machines where a dime had to be inserted before dispensing the cup of coffee. This way the “Canteen committee” could raise enough money to…. uh…. pay for the coffee. So, all rogue coffee machines had to go. There was to be no free coffee at the plant.

So, of course, the most logical result of this mandate was to hide the coffee maker in the cabinet in case a wandering plant manager or one of his undercover coffee monitor minions were to enter the lab unexpectedly. Maintaining the free flow of coffee to those electricians that just had to silently protest the strong arm tactics of the Power Plant Coffee Tax by having a sort of… “Tea Party” or was it a “Coffee Party”.

I told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him fix the hum on the gray phones. Bill Rivers said, “Great! Then let us play a game. let’s call it, ‘Treasure Hunt’.”

Bill reached up in one of the cabinets and pulled out a blue telephone test set. I’m sure you must have seen a telephone repairman with one of these hanging from his hip. ” Oh boy.” I thought. “A new toy!”

Telephone Test Set

Power Plant Telephone Test Set

I grabbed my tool bucket from the shop and followed Bill Rivers out into the T-G basement. This is a loud area where the steam pipes carry the steam to the Turbine to spin the Generator. It is called T-G for Turbine Generator. Bill walked over to a junction box mounted near the north exit going to unit 1. He explained that except for the gray phones in the Control-room section of the plant, all the other gray phones go through this one junction box.

Bill said that the game was to find the Gray Phone ghost. Where is the hum coming from? He showed me how the different cables coming into this one box led to Unit 1, Unit 2, the office area and the coal yard. I just had to figure out which way the hum came from. So, I went to work lifting wires off of the terminal blocks. We could hear the hum over the gray phone speakers near us, so if I were to lift the right wires, we should know right away that I had isolated the problem.

Gray Phone Speaker

Power Plant Gray Phone Speaker

We determined that the noise was coming from Unit 1. So we took the elevator halfway up the boiler to another junction box, and then another where we traced the problem to a gray phone under the surge bin tower. It took 4 screws to remove the phone from the box. When I did, I could clearly see the problem. The box was full of water. Water had run down the conduit and into the phone box.

Bill Rivers told me that now that we found the problem, we wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again, so we drilled a small weep hole in the bottom of the box, and we took plumbers putty and stuffed it into the top of the conduit where it opened into a cable tray.

A tub of Power Plant Plumbers Putty

A tub of Power Plant Plumbers Putty

The box would fill with water when the labor crew would do coal cleanup. On labor crew we would spray the entire surge bin tower down with high powered water hoses to wash off all the coal dust. Each time, some water would end up going down the conduit into the gray phone until it grounded the circuit enough to cause a hum.

Bill and I continued searching throughout the plant for phones that were causing a hum. Most were caused by water in the box. Some were caused by circuits that had gone bad (most likely because they had water in them at some point). Those we took to the electric shop lab where we played a different kind of treasure hunt. — Let’s call it…. Finding the bad component. It reminded me of an old video game I had bought for my brother for Christmas in 1983 that winter when I gave him an Intellivision (so I could play with it). It was the latest greatest video game console at the time.

An Intellivision Game Console

An Intellivision Game Console

I had given my brother a game called “Bomb Squad”. Where you had a certain amount of time to diffuse a bomb by going through a circuit board cutting out components with some snippers. If you cut the wrong connection, you had to hurry up and solder it back on before the bomb blew up.

Bomb Squad. It even talked to you and a siren went off if you were going to blow yourself up.

Bomb Squad. It even talked to you and a siren went off if you were going to blow yourself up.

That’s what we were doing with the Gray Phones. We were testing the different components until we found one that wasn’t working correctly. Then we would replace that transistor, or capacitor, or resistor, or diode, and then test the phone by plugging it in the switchgear gray phone box and calling each other.

I have a story later about someone using this technique while fixing gray phones, only he would call himself on the gray phone where I would call Bill and Bill would call me. Someone misinterpreted this and thought the person was trying to make everyone think he was more important because he was always being paged, when he was only paging himself. He was removed from fixing gray phones for this reason, even though he was only person at the plant in Mustang Oklahoma that knew a transistor from a capacitor.

So, why am I going on about a seemingly boring story about fixing a hum on a PA system? I think it’s because to me it was like a game. It was like playing a treasure hunt. From the day I started as an electrician, we would receive trouble tickets where we needed to go figure something out. We had to track down a problem and then find a solution on how to fix it. As I said in previous posts, it was like solving a puzzle.

Each time we would fix something, someone was grateful. Either the operator or a mechanic, or the Shift Supervisor, or the person at home vacuuming their carpet, because the electricity was still flowing through their house. How many people in the world can say that they work on something that impacts so many people?

Well… I used to feel like I was in a unique position. I was able to play in a labyrinth of mechanical and electrical equipment finding hidden treasures in the form of some malfunction. As I grew older, I came to realize that the uniqueness was limited only to the novelty of my situation. If you took all the power plant men in the country, they could probably all fit in one large football stadium. But the impact on others was another thing altogether.

The point I am trying to make is that it was obvious to me that I was impacting a large portion of people in the state of Oklahoma by helping to keep the plant running smoothly by chasing down the boiler ghosts and exorcising the Coalyard demons from the coal handling equipment. Even though it isn’t so obvious to others, like the janitor, or the laborer or the person that fills the vending machine. Everyone in some way helps to support everyone else.

A cook in a restaurant is able to cook the food because the electricity and the natural gas is pumped into the restaurant by others. Then the cook feeds the mailman, who delivers that mail, that brings the check to the person waiting to go to the grocery store so they can buy food that was grown by some farmer who plowed his field on a tractor made in a huge tractor factory by a machinist after driving there in a car made by a manufacturer in Detroit who learned how to use a lathe in a Vocational school taught by a teacher who had a degree from a university where each day this person would walk to class during the winter snow wearing boots that came from a clothes store where the student had bought them from a store clerk that greeted people by saying “Good Morning! How are you today?” Cheering up all the people that they met.

I could have walked into the lab and told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him find the hum in the PA system and he could have responded by saying, “Oh really? Good luck with that!” Instead he said, “Let’s go play a game. ‘Treasure Hunt!” This attitude had set the stage for me as a Power Plant Electrician: “Let’s go have some fun and fix something today!” Where would that cook have been today if the power had gone out in his restaurant that morning all because an attitude had gotten in the way….. I wonder…

Comments from the original post:

  1. Ron Kilman June 15, 2013:

    Great story! It’s neat how God puts us in teams to “fix stuff” and make life happen.

  2. Monty Hansen August 16, 2013:

    I wonder why they don’t make ‘em bright yellow or some other color easy to spot in an emergency? Anyway, I remember this one gray phone/speaker we had & when you’d wash down the basement if you accidentally got water in it, it would bellow throughout the plant like a sick cow moose until it finally dried out!

    1. Plant Electrician August 16, 2013:

      Thanks Monty, I remember having to stuff putty down the end of conduit from a cable tray to gray phones so that water wouldn’t run down them during washdown. We pulled a gray phone out of the box one day and water just poured out of it. We took to drilling a small hole in the bottom of some of them just to let the water drain out (as I mentioned above).

Sky Climbing in the Dark with Power Plant Boiler Rats

Originally Posted July 26, 2013:

I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was well…. surreal.

This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.

As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.

At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.

David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.

During those times I knew that something was taking place in the superheat section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.

This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.

Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Or even a normal rat like this:

Normal looking rat

Normal looking rat

No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:

rat from kootation

rat picture taken from kootation.com

Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….

Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.

If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.

A sky climber

A sky climber

You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool.

So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.

Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.

There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where John Brien was staring back at him.

There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.

We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as I fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.

By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.

I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.

I took out my multimeter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connect where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.

I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”

That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.

I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.

There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.

I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.

Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.

Comment from previous post:

  1. A.D. Everard August 3, 2014

    You tell a wonderful story and keep the reader spellbound. I love this sort of inside information!
    Coming to your blog has given me the same rush of excitement I get when I’m researching something and find a gem! Now I want to write about boiler rats! 🙂

Lifecycle of a Power Plant Lump of Coal

Originally posted August 16, 2013:

Fifty Percent of our electricity is derived from coal. Did you ever wonder what has to take place for that to happen? I thought I would walk through the lifecycle of a piece of coal to give you an idea. I will not start back when the it was still a tree in a prehistoric world where dinosaurs grew long necks to reach the branches. I will begin when the large scoop shovel digs it out of the ground and loads it onto a coal truck.

The coal is loaded onto trucks like these before it is dumped onto the train cars. This photo was found at http://www.gillettechamber.com/events/eventdetail.aspx?EventID=2827

The coal is loaded onto trucks like these before it is dumped onto the train cars. This photo was found at http://www.gillettechamber.com/events/eventdetail.aspx?EventID=2827

The coal for the power plant in North Central Oklahoma came from Wyoming. There were trains from the Black Thunder Mine and the Powder River Basin.

Coal Trains on their way to power plants

Coal Trains on their way to power plants

It’s a long ride for the lump of coal sitting in the coal train on it’s way to Oklahoma. Through Nebraska and Kansas. It’s possible for the coal to be visited by a different kind of traveler. One that we may call “A tramp.” Someone that catches a ride on a train without paying for the ticket.

One time a tramp (or a hobo, I don’t remember which), caught a ride on one of our coal trains. They forgot to wake up in time, and found their self following the lumps of coal on their next phase of the journey. You see. Once the coal reached the plant, one car at a time enters a building called the “Rotary Dumper”.

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

As each train car enters the dumper four clamps come done on the car and it rolls upside down dumping the coal into a bin below. Imagine being a tramp waking up just in time to find yourself falling into a bin full of coal. with a car full of coal dumping coal on top of you. One coal car contained 102 tons of coal (today they carry 130 tons). Today one train contains 13,300 tons of coal. This is over 26 million pounds of coal per train.

Miraculously, this passenger survived the fall and was able to call for help or someone saw him fall. He was quickly rescued and brought to safety. Needless to say, the tramp went from being penniless to being, “comfortable” very quickly. I don’t know that it made the news at the time. I think the electric company didn’t want it to become “viral” that they had dumped a hobo into a coal bin by accident. Well. They didn’t know what “going viral” meant at the time, but I’m sure they had some other phrase for it then.

Ok. Time for a Side Story:

Since I’m on the subject of someone catching a clandestine ride on a train, this is as good of a place as any to sneak in the tragic story of Mark Meeks. Well. I say it was tragic. When Mark told the story, he seemed rather proud of his experience. You see. Mark was a construction electrician. He hired on as a plant electrician in order to settle down, but in his heart I felt like he was always a construction electrician. That is, he didn’t mind moving on from place to place. Doing a job and then moving on.

Mark explained that when he was working at a construction job in Chicago where he worked for 2 years earning a ton of overtime, he figured that by the time he finished he would have saved up enough to buy a house and settle down. He was married and living in an apartment in Chicago. He didn’t spend much time at home as he was working 12 hour days at least 6 days each week. He figured that was ok, because when he was done, he would be set for life.

Unknown to him at the time, each morning when he woke up before the crack of dawn to go to work, his wife would drive to O’Hara airport and catch a plane to Dallas, Texas where she was having an affair with some guy. By the time Mark returned from work 14 hours later, she was back home. Each day, Mark was earning a ton of overtime, and his wife was burning it on airline tickets.

When the two years were over, Mark came home to his apartment to collect his wife and his things and go live in peace in some small town some where. That was when he learned that his wife had been having the affair and using all his money to do it. She was leaving him. Penniless.

Completely broke, Mark drifted around for a while. Finally one day he saw a train that was loaded down with wooden electric poles. Mark figured that wherever those poles were going, there was going to be work. So, he hopped on the train and traveled all the way from Minneapolis Minnesota riding in the cold, wedged between some wooden poles on one of the cars on the train.

The train finally arrived at its destination somewhere at a port in the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t remember if it was Mississippi or Louisiana. He watched as they unloaded the poles, waiting to see what jobs were going to be needed for whatever the poles were for. He watched as they took the large wooden poles and piled them up in the ocean. They were using them to build up the shoreline. There were no jobs.

It is when you have been beaten down to the point of breaking when you reach a very important point in your life. Do you give up, or do you pick yourself up and make something of yourself? Mark chose the latter. He was a natural fighter. He eventually ended up at our plant as contract help, and then was hired as a plant electrician.

End of side story.

Let’s follow the lump of coal after it is poured out of the coal train in the dumper…

The coal is fed onto a conveyor belt. Let’s call this Conveyor 1, (because that is what we called it in the plant). This has a choice to feed it onto belt 2 which leads up to the stack out tower, or it can feed the other way to where some day it was planned to add another conveyor with another stackout tower. This was going to go to a pile of coal for two other units that were never built.

Anyway, when the coal drops down on Conveyor 2, way under ground, it travels up to the ground level, and continues on its way up to the top of the stackout tower where it feeds onto Belt 3. Belt 3 is a short belt that is on an arm that swings out over the coal pile. The coal is fed onto the coal pile close to the stack out tower. I suppose it is called stack out, because the coal is stacked up next to the tower.

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack. The tower with the conveyor running up to the top is the stack out tower. Belt 3 is the arm pointing to the right in this picture

Anyway, there are large dozers (bulldozers) and dirt movers that pickup the coal and spread it out to make room for more coal from more coal trains. As mentioned above. One train now carries 26 million pounds of coal.

Dirt Mover full of coal

Dirt Mover full of coal

the coal that is spread out on the coal pile has to stay packed down otherwise it would spontaneously combust. That is, it would catch on fire all by itself. Once coal on a coal pile catches on fire it is impossible to “reasonably” put out. You can spray all the water on it you want and it won’t go out. When a fire breaks out, you just have to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn out.

In order to keep the coal from performing spontaneous combustion, the dirt movers kept it packed down. As long as the coal is packed tight, air can’t freely reach the buried coal, and it doesn’t catch fire. So, dirt movers were constantly driving back and forth on the coal pile to keep the coal well packed. Even on the picture of the coalyard above from the smoke stack, you can see two pieces of heavy equipment out on the coal pile traveling back and forth packing the coal.

Anyway, the next phase in the life of the lump of coal happens when it finds itself directly under the stack out tower, and it is fed down by a vibratory feeder onto a conveyor. In our plant, these belts were called, Belts 4, 5, 6 and 7. Belts 4 and 5 fed onto Belt 8 and belts 6 and 7 fed onto belt 9.

Belts 8 and 9 brought the coal up from under the coal pile to the top of the Crusher tower. In the picture above you can see that tower to the right of the stack out tower with the long belts coming from the bottom of the tower toward the plant. The crusher tower takes the large lumps of coal that can be the size of a baseball or a softball and crushes it down to the size of marbles and large gumballs.

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard

Coal conveyor carrying coal to the coal silos from the coalyard. This is the size of the coal after it has been crushed by the crusher

From the crusher tower the lump of coal which is now no more than a nugget of coal travels from the coal yard up to the plant on belts 10 and 11.

conveyor 10 and 11 are almost 1/2 mile long

conveyor 10 and 11 are almost 1/2 mile long

Up at the top of this belt in the distance you can see another tower. This tower is called the Transfer tower. Why? Well, because it transfers the coal to another set of belts, Belt 12 and 13. You can see them going up to the right to that tower in the middle between the two boilers.

The tower between the two boilers is called the Surge Bin tower. That basically means that there is a big bin there that can hold a good amount of coal to feed to either unit. At the bottom of the white part of the tower you can see that there is a section on each side. This is where the tripper galleries are located. There are two belts in each tripper, and two belts that feed to each tripper belt from the surge bin. So, just to keep counting, Belts 14 and 15 feed to unit one and belts 16 and 17 feed to unit 2 from the surge bin. then Belts 18 and 19 are the two tripper belts that dump coal into the 6 silos on unit one, while belts 20 and 21 feed the silos on unit 2.

Once in the Coal silos, the coal is through traveling on belts. The silos are positioned over things called bowl mills. The coal is fed from the silo into the bowl mill through something called a Gravimetric feeder, which is able to feed a specific amount of coal into the bowl mill. This is the point that basically decides how hot the boiler is going to be.

Once the coal leaves the gravimetric feeder and drops down to the bowl mill, it is bound for the boiler. The gravimetric feeder is tied right to the control room. When they need to raise load more than just a minimal amount, a control room operator increases the amount of coal being fed from these feeders in order to increase the flow of coal into the boiler….. I don’t know… maybe it’s more automatic than that now…. The computer probably does it these days.

When the nugget of coal falls into the bowl mill the long journey from the coal mine in Wyoming is almost complete. Its short life as a nugget is over and it is pulverized into powder. The powder is finer than flour. Another name for a bowl mill is “Pulverizer”. The coal comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and just before it is consumed in Oklahoma it really does become powder.

Big rollers are used to crush the coal into fine particles. The pulverized coal is blown up pipes by the primary air fans and blown directly into the boiler where they burst into flames. A bright orange flame. The color reminds me of orange sherbet Ice cream.

The color of the fireball in the boiler

The color of the fireball in the boiler

At this point an incredible thing happens to the coal that so many years ago was a part of a tree or some other plant. The chemical process that trapped the carbon from the carbon dioxide millions of years earlier is reversed and the carbon is once again combined to the oxygen as it was many millennium ago. A burst of heat is released which had been trapped after a cooling effect below the tree as it sucked the carbon out of the environment way back then.

The heat is transferred to the boiler tubes that line the boiler. The tubes heat the water and turn it into steam. The steam shoots into the turbine that turns a generator that produces the electricity that enters every house in the country. The solar power from eons ago that allowed the tree to grow is being used today to power our world. What an amazing system.

To take this one step further, the carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere today is replenishing the lost carbon dioxide from many years ago. Back when plants could breathe freely. Back before the carbon dioxide level was depleted almost to the point of the extinction of plant life on this planet. Remember, what we look on as a pollutant and a poison, to a plant is a chance to grow. The Sahara desert used to be a thriving forest. Maybe it will be again some day.

So, there is the question of global warming. We humans are so short sighted sometimes. We want to keep everything the same way we found it when we were born. We try desperately to keep animals from becoming extinct. We don’t think about the bazillions (ok, so I exaggerate) of animals that were extinct long before man arrived. It is natural for extinction to occur. That is how things evolve. We are trying to keep a system the same when it has always been changing.

Years from now we may develop ways to harness the energy from the sun or even from the universe in ways that are unimaginable today. When that time arrives, let’s just hope that we remain good stewards of the world so that we are around to see it. I believe that the use of fossil fuels, (as odd as that may seem) is a major step in reviving our planet’s natural resources.

Comments from the previous repost:

twotiretirade  August 20, 2014

Glad Mark fought the good fight, still a sad story.


Antion August 21, 2014
Great read. I love knowing how things work. As I read the sad story of the traveling electrician, I kept wondering if she could have pulled that off in today’s world of air travel.


hiwaychristian August 22, 2014
when I went to the Christian College in Eugene Oregon, they forced me to take a course in biology at the University of Oregon. I willingly sat and listened to the mix of science and evolution. I admit their perspective was intriguing.
at the end of the class, the last day, the instructor asked each one of her students to tell how the class had affected their thinking.
each one gave the politically correct answer in a variety of form. all the while I sat joyfully waiting my turn.
my response hushed the class for a moment. (it’s been some decades ago so I have to paraphrase but let it be sufficient) “I’m impressed with all the material you’ve covered. it’s astounding to think of all the things that were. but for me this class has only glorified my God. because I realize that in his wisdom he created gasoline for my car.”
you’ve covered a lot of material in your post. and I’m impressed at your diligence to complete it. I thank God for His faithfulness that he has put into you. may He prosper your testimony for the glory of His Holy Son.
By His Grace
(please overlook the syntax errors in this reply it was generated on a mobile device)

Monty Hansen November 4, 2014

We processed several hobo’s through our coal system, & injured a few, but none ever got anything from the power company. I remember we would always worried about finding a chunk of scalp or something in the grating where the tripper car drops coal down into the silo. One especially memorable event was when a coal yard operator found a down vest jacket on the coal pile and bragged about how lucky he was to find this jacket, the size even fit, but the jacket did smell a little funny. yes it was ripped off the body of a hobo by the plow above conveyor one & shot out onto the coal pile by the stackout conveyor.

It was always unnerving to have a pull cord go down in the middle of the night deep down in the coal trestle, while the belts were shut down. You’d have to go down there alone, in the dark & reset the pull cords, so the belts could be started later when needed. You knew it wasn’t a trick because the whole crew had been up in the control room together eating dinner or something. You always wondered if you might run into a real hobo – or the ghost of one.

Eating Power Plant Pickles, Peppers and Ice Cream

Pickles and Ice Cream usually makes one think of things other than Coal-Fired Power Plants, but when I think of Pickles, peppers or Ice Cream, my first thoughts are of the Electric Power Plant where I used to work. The place where I spent 20 years of my life in North Central Oklahoma. I suppose I have Charles Foster to thank for that.

I wrote about Charles earlier this year in the post “Personal Power Plant Hero – Charles Foster“. In that post I explained about how Charles and I would sit in the electric shop office at lunch time talking about movies that we had seen. We would take turns telling each other about the movies in such great detail that when it came time for me to actually watch “Mrs. Doubtfire” for the first time, I felt as if I had seen it before as Charles had explained every scene to me in technicolor.

Robin Williams playing Mrs. Doubtfire

Robin Williams playing Mrs. Doubtfire

The other thing that we would do during lunch, of course, was eat lunch. Being that naturally boring person that I am, I would usually bring the same ham sandwich to work each day. Day-in and day-out, I would eat a ham sandwich, and an apple, or some other kind of fruit depending on the time of year.

If it hadn’t been for Charles I never would have experienced the finer side of Power Plant Lunch Time. Charles was an avid gardener. He had a very large garden between his house and the road where he lived out in the country.

People from Pawnee, Oklahoma would judge the world economic situation just by taking a ride out in the country to take a look at how Charles’ garden was coming along. Between Charles Foster and the Farmer’s Almanac, there was little guesswork left.

I was the beneficiary of this little piece of the Garden of Eden amid the arid Oklahoma prairie. Though I never came to take it for granted, every day when I opened my lunch box to retrieve my ham sandwich with American Cheese and a bit of Miracle Whip to keep the bread from sliding off, I would be given an extra treat from one of the kindest people I know. Charles would hand me something special from his garden.

Cherry Tomatoes were a common, but always special treat.

A perfect Cherry Tomato by Shelley Hourston at dogsbestfriend.wordpress.com

A perfect Cherry Tomato by Shelley Hourston at dogsbestfriend.wordpress.com

I include this perfect photo of a cherry tomato by Shelley Hourston because this is the kind of cuisine I was subjected to on a regular basis. I almost suspect that Shelley stopped by Charles’ garden to find this tomato. It makes the question about whether the cherry tomato is a fruit or a vegetable a moot point. The real answer is that it is a feast.

Growing up as a boy in Columbia, Missouri during the 1970’s I was spoiled when it came to Dill Pickles. The best Dill pickles that money could buy could be found in Central Missouri. I don’t remember the brand. They may not even exist today. I remember the ingredients on the jar very clearly. Cucumbers, Vinegar, Salt, Dill.

Today it is hard to find a jar of Dill Pickles that actually has dill in them. I think that you shouldn’t be able to label a jar of pickles as Dill Pickles unless they are pickled with dill.

Vlassic Pickles: Ingredients: Cucumber(s), Water, Vinegar Distilled, Salt, Calcium Chloride, Polysorbate 80, Flavor(s) Natural, Yellow 5

Vlassic Pickles: Ingredients: Cucumber(s), Water, Vinegar Distilled, Salt, Calcium Chloride, Polysorbate 80, Flavor(s) Natural, Yellow 5

Where’s the Dill?

Where's the beef commercial... but what is she really looking at? A pickle! She's really thinking... Where's the Dill

Wendy’s “Where’s the beef” commercial… but what is she really looking at? A pickle! She’s really thinking… Where’s the Dill

Why am I so picky? Well. Because besides this one company in Missouri that had only the 4 main ingredients, the only other place I found a true American Dill Pickle was in the Power Plant electric shop office in North Central Oklahoma during lunch. Not only did Charles make his pickles from the cucumbers he grew in his garden, but he pickled them with the fresh dill that he also grew in his garden.

Dill

Special Power Plant Pickle Dill

I realize I have digressed. I will climb down off of the pickle barrel now and continue with the important part of this story… um… ok… I mean.. I’ll continue talking about food. One summer Charles let me come over to his house and pick cucumbers and pickle them right there in his kitchen. We scrubbed them clean, put them in the jars with some dill sprigs. Brought the vinegar just to a boil and then poured it in the jars, and sealed them shut. — Best pickles ever. Four ingredients.

Besides being granted the best pickles and tomatoes around each day for lunch, when the right season came around Charles would bring peppers. I don’t mean the large bell peppers. I mean the thin hot peppers. Like this:

Hot pepper

A Serrano Pepper

At times Charles would bring in some very small peppers where I would take one little nibble of the pepper then a couple of bites of ham sandwich just to go with it. I became so used to eating hot peppers that at home I would buy a large jar of whole jalapeno peppers just to eat like pickles. Since I’m really going to town showing pictures tonight I tried to find a large jar of whole jalapenos, but I couldn’t find one. My mouth started watering while I was searching for jalapeno on Google Images.

While I am on the subject of peppers, I will mention that many years later, when I was “sequestered” with Ray Eberle for three years working on SAP (this is another story for a later time), he introduced me to the wonderful taste of Habanero sauce on my ham sandwich. Yeah…

habanero peppers

habanero peppers

Like Charles Foster, Ray would bring in a bottle of Habanero sauce every day and let me soak my ham sandwich with it. After that, I stopped buying jars of jalapenos and started using Habanero salsa for my chips at home.

On an even farther note…. one day when I was working on some homework for a course I was taking at the University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, my daughter, Elizabeth took one of the tortilla chips from my plate and dipped it in the Habanero salsa bowl I had sitting in front of me. Without looking up, I said, “I wouldn’t do that.” Not sure what I meant and thinking that I meant that she shouldn’t steal my chips, she put the chip in her mouth.

Habanero Salsa

Habanero Salsa

After the brief moment of complete unbelief that her mouth from the jaw down had just disintegrated, she started making strange sounds as she ran to the kitchen to try to find some relief. I told her not to drink any water, that only makes it worse. I told her that the only way to fix this situation is to keep eating chips. You see…. drinking water just washes all that hot stuff into every crevice in your mouth and throat. Eating chips absorbs the heat and carries it to safety.

When I was young at one point in my life, an ice cream truck used to come through the neighborhood selling ice cream and candy. It seemed like one of those fun times when you are a child that just seems to go away when you are older. Today there is an ice cream truck that goes through our neighborhood and when I watch the children that live next door all run outside to catch it, it brings back those memories.

Today's Ice cream truck.... well... Ice cream Van...

Today’s Ice cream truck…. well… Ice cream Van…

So, imagine my surprise when an ice cream truck for adults showed up at the plant one day. I didn’t even know they existed. Charles had to explain it to me. We were walking by the break room in the office area and this man was handing boxes to the janitor, who was stashing them in a freezer. Charles asked me how much money I had on me, as we quickly headed for the office elevator.

On the way down Charles explained that we had just seen the Swan Man! The Swan man? I asked him what that meant. He explained that the Swan man traveled around the countryside delivering all kinds of food to people so that they didn’t have to go to the grocery store. Ok….. I thought. Sounds reasonable… When we reached the ground floor, we walked out of the building and there parked at the end of the sidewalk was this truck:

Schwan Truck

Schwan Truck

Wow! An Ice cream truck for adults!!! We stood around for a few minutes and when the man returned to his truck Charles and I gave him some money and we bought two boxes of Ice Cream sandwiches! Who would have thought that you could stand in the middle of the parking lot at a Power Plant in the middle of nowhere, 20 miles from the nearest city of any size, and buy ice cream from an Ice Cream Truck? I certainly never thought that would happen until it did.

Years later, when I was driving through the countryside on the way to my house outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma I spied a Schwan man driving his truck down the country road. I drove up behind him and started honking at him. My daughter, who was about 9 at the time, asked me what I was doing. I told her that she would see…. My son sitting in the back seat asked if we were going to get in trouble. I assured him that we weren’t.

After about a mile of me honking and blinking my lights at him, the Schwan man pulled over. I walked over to him. Looked at him rather seriously as he climbed out of the truck and said, “Do you have a box of Ice cream sandwiches for sale?” At that point, he put his brass knuckles back in his pocket, and re-holstered his pistol. Looked back at me with a straight face. Paused, Thought for a moment. Then said, “Sure!” He opened one of those side doors. Pulled out a box.

I handed him some money. Then returned to my car and drove home. On the way home I explained to Elizabeth about the Schwan man and about how he travels around the countryside bringing food to people. So, of course he wouldn’t mind selling me a box of Ice Cream sandwiches.

Power Plant Ice Cream Sandwich

Power Plant Ice Cream Sandwich

Anyway, back at the plant. After Charles and I figured out the Schwan Man’s schedule, we knew what day he was going to show up, so we made sure to have enough cash in our pockets to get a couple of boxes so that we could keep them in the freezer in the electric shop. It seemed like we had to eat them rather fast because our freezer wouldn’t keep them frozen hard and after a while they would get pretty soft. That was our story anyway. We didn’t want them to melt. Now. Would we?

So, thanks to Charles Foster we were able to eat like Kings in our Power Plant Palace. When Sonny Karcher, years ago used to say the phrase from a country song, “I’m just an old chunk of coal, but I’m going to be a diamond some day,” (a song by John Anderson) he was right in more ways than one. We would stagger back to the electric shop after working on a coal conveyor on the long belt, all covered with coal dust. Go in the bathroom and wash up… plop ourselves down on the chair in the office. Open our lunch boxes… and have a feast fit for a king!

I’ll leave you with the words from one of Sonny’s favorite songs the first summer I worked as a summer help back in 1979:

Hey I’m just an old chunk of coal but I’m gonna be a diamond some day
I’m gonna grow and glow till I’m so blue pure perfect
I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face
I’m gonna kneel and pray every day last I should become vain along the way
I’m just an old chunk of coal now Lord but I’m gonna be a diamond some day

I’m gonna learn the best way to walk gonna search and find a better way to talk
I’m gonna spit and polish my old rough edged self till I get rid of every single flaw
I’m gonna be the world’s best friend gonna go round shaking everybody’s hand
I’m gonna be the cotton pickin’ rage of the age I’m gonna be a diamond some day

Now I’m just an old chunk of coal…

Here’s John Anderson singing the song:

Comment from original post:

Tim Foster October 8, 2013:

Ah yes I remember that day when you came to the house to make pickles. It seemed cool that someone found Dad’s pickles so enjoyable that he wanted to come and learn how to make them. Unfortunately they have stopped making pickles but we have found some store bought ones that taste just like them. I will ask my mother every now and then if she sent Vlassic her recipe so that she would not have to smell the vinegar any longer. I wish I had inherited Dad’s green thumb but I have not as yet. My location just is not as good as his either. We are praying that this summer people will know that he is feeling better just by taking a drive out west of town to once again look upon the patch of land that has become a landmark.