Tag Archives: Coalyard

In Memory of Sonny Karcher – Power Plant Man

this was originally posted on January 7, 2012.  Added a picture of Sonny Karcher:

When I heard the sad news of the death of Sonny Karcher on 11/11/11, I wished I had been able to attend his funeral.  I did reserve some amount of time that night when I heard about his death to remember the times I have spent with Sonny.  All of them good, as Sonny was always pleasant to be with even when he was mad about something.  Here are some of the first and last things I remember:

When I first worked at the Sooner power plant the summer of 1979, Sonny and Larry Riley were the first two mechanics I was assigned to work with.  They taught me how things were at the plant at that time.  Both of the units were still under construction, so there was no electricity being generated.

The first job we were to work on (my second day at the plant, since the first day was taking a safety class, and getting my hard hat and safety glasses and getting fitted for ear plugs) was a stuck check valve in the dumper sump pump pit (Not only did I not know what a check valve was, I wasn’t too sure what was meant by a dumper sump, though I did know “pump”).

It took us about an hour to take the truck to the coal yard, as a coal yard foreman Richard Nix had the key and wasn’t going to give it to us until one of his hands was ready to go with us.  So we sat in the truck parked in the north entrance of the maintenance shop for almost an hour.  When the guy was finally ready, and he had climbed in the back of the pickup, it turned out that he only needed to go as far as the parking lot… about 200 yards away (as the parking lot was at the Engineer’s shack at the time).  We dropped him off and drove up to the coal yard, and made our way down belt 2 to the sump pump pit at the tail end of the belt.

We tested the pump and saw that the water would run back into the sump once the pump stopped running.  So, it was determined that the check valve was stuck.  We drove back to the plant and took the morning break.

About an hour later, Sonny told me to go to the tool room and get the following items (which I thought was a joke, because he gave me such a strange list of tools that I didn’t recognize):   Two ¾ box ends, One four foot soft choker, a ¾ come-along, a ¾ shackle, a two foot steel choker a flat bastard file, a large channel lock, and two pry bars (I did recognize Pry Bars and shackle, which I believed was thrown in there just to make it sound legitimate).  – I wrote down the list, because I recognized right away that a joke was being played on me and I was going to play right along.

So, I went to the tool room and I asked Bud Schoonover (a very large  tall and easy going man at the time), “I need a ¾ come-along (I thought I would choose the most ridiculous item on the list first, just to get on with the joke…).  Well.  Bud turned around, walked to the back wall, took a come-along off the top of a pallet full of what appeared to be a bunch of junk, and laid it across the tool room gate window (The tool room was still being “organized” at the time).

So, I asked for two ¾ box ends (this was before anyone had been issued toolboxes by the way, that’s why we had to go to the tool room for these things).  Well, you know the rest of this part of the story.  These are all legitimate items, and I learned a lot that day and the next few weeks about the names of various tools.  I kept that list in my wallet for over 10 years as a reminder to myself of when I first came to the plant, and how much I didn’t know then.

So, Larry, Sonny and I went up to the coal yard, and went down to the tail end of #2 belt and removed the check valve from the discharge pipe and brought it back to the maintenance shop to repair.  When we returned, we went to lunch.  During lunch Sonny told me about how he was hired at Sooner plant.

He said he lived a few miles down the road and had heard that someone was building a lake up on top of the hill he could see from his property.  So, he went on over to see who was dumb enough to build a lake on top of a hill, and while he was looking around Orville Ferguson came up to him and asked  him if he was looking for a job.  Sonny said that he liked to mow grass, and Orville said that he would hire him to mow grass then.  Sonny said, if I remember correctly, that he was hired at the same time that Linda Shiever, the timekeeper, was hired and that they were the first two new hires at the plant.  The rest were already company employees that had transferred there.

After lunch we went down to the shop and took the check valve apart and what do you know….  There was a piece of coal stuck in the check valve keeping it open.  We cleaned it up and put it back together.  When we were finished, we took our afternoon break.  After break we drove back up to the coal yard and went down to the tail end of #2 Conveyor belt and put the check valve back in the discharge pipe.  When we returned to the maintenance shop, we returned the tools to the tool room and filled out our time cards.  A day’s worth of work cleaning a check valve.

I did many other things that first summer, since Sooner Plant didn’t have a yard crew yet, I worked most of the time in the maintenance shop bouncing around from crew to crew helping out.  I also did a lot of coal cleanup (especially on weekends), since the conveyor system didn’t work correctly when they started it up when they were starting to fire up unit 1.

The second day before I left at the end of the summer to go back to school, I worked again with Larry Riley and Sonny Karcher to fix the exact same check valve.  This time we jumped in a truck (we had a lot more trucks now…. Which is another story), went to the coal yard, went down #2 tunnel to the tail end of #2 Conveyor, pulled out the check valve, removed the piece of coal, put the check valve back in, went back up to the truck and back to the maintenance shop just in time for morning break. Sooner Plant had improved a lot in the short three months I worked that summer.

I worked many years with Sonny Karcher in the garage, and fixing coal handling equipment, and just about anything else.   He finally left the plant to go mow grass, when after a battle to move to the garage from coal yard maintenance to mow grass, he was told that he was going to have to go back to the coal yard to be a coal yard mechanic, because he was real good at that and they just needed him up there.  So he left.

He talked to me about it before he went, that’s how I know what was on his mind.  He said, “Kev, you remember when you first came here and I told you how they hired me to mow grass?  Well, that’s what I want to do.  Mow grass.  So I’m going to have to go back home and do just that.”

After that, the only times I remember seeing Sonny was when he was mowing grass down at Bill’s corner, with a smile on his face waving at the Sooner plant employees on their way home from work.

I can see Sonny talking to St. Peter at the gates of heaven now…..  The only words I can hear Sonny saying is, “I like to mow grass”… and St. Peter nodding with approval as he lets him through the gates.

Sonny Karcher

Sonny Karcher

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A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid

Originally Posted May 18, 2012

George Pepple was the chemist at the plant when I first arrived in 1979.  His last name is pronounced  “Pep-Lee”.  A chemist plays an important role in a power plant.  The plant treats their own water and has it’s own sewage system.  The chemist spends their time with these activities.

They do other things like check ground water for contaminates, and lake water for bacteria, and a host of other things.  Hydrochloric Acid is used to balance the PH of the water.  As far as I know, George Pepple was the only one at the plant with a PhD, which gave him the title of Doctor.  No one called him Dr. Pepple (which sounds like a soda pop).  We either called him George or Pepple (Pep Lee) or both.  He had a sort of Einsteinian simplicity about him.  To me he was the perfect combination of Einstein and Mr. Rogers from “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”:

Albert Einstein

Mister Rogers

One other thing I would like to add about George was that he developed a special process for Cupric chloride leaching of copper sulfides.  This was a patented process (1982) which is now owned by the Phelps Dodge Corporation which is a copper and gold mining company.  As humble as George Pepple was, he never mentioned this to anyone at the plant as far as I know.

When he would page someone on the PA system (gray phones), he would always do it in a straight monotone voice. putting no accents on any of the words and he would always repeat his page twice.  Like this:  “PaulMullonLineOne.  PaulMullonLineOne.”

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Before I get to the point where George is dancing in the acid, I first need to tell you about Gary Michelson, since he had a role to play in this jig.  In an earlier post: In Memory of Sonny Karcher, A True Power Plant Man, I remarked that Sonny Karcher had told people when he introduced me to them that I was going to college to learn to be a writer (which wasn’t exactly true.  The writing part I mean…. I was going to college… and.. well… I am writing now), and that I was going to write about them.  In doing so, some people took me in their confidence and laid before me their philosophy of life.

Jerry Mitchell being one of them (as you can read in an earlier post about “A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“).  Jerry had filled me with his own sense of humility, where it was important to build true friendships and be a good and moral person.  His philosophy was one of kindness to your fellow man no matter what his station in life.  If there was someone you couldn’t trust, then stay clear of them.

Gary Michelson was another person that wished to bestow upon me his own personal wisdom.  We worked for about 3 days filtering the hydraulic oil in the dumper car clamps and in the coal yard garage.  While there, he explained to me why it was important to be the best in what you do.  If you are not number one, then you are nobody.  No one remembers who came in second.

He viewed his job performance and his station in life as a competition.  It was him against everyone else.  He didn’t care if he didn’t get along with the rest of the people in the shop (which he didn’t) because it is expected that other people would be jealous or resentful because he was superior to them.

According to Gary his family owned part of a uranium mine somewhere in Wyoming or Montana.  He thought he might go work for his father there, because truly, he was not a True Power Plant Man.  He reminded me slightly of Dinty Moore.  Like a lumber Jack.

Dinty Moore

As I mentioned in the post about the “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“, Gary Michelson had the title “Millwright”.  Which no one else in the shop seemed to have.  He had been certified or something as a Millwright.  Gary explained to me that a Millwright can do all the different types of jobs.  Machinist, Mechanic, Pipe fitter, etc.

I remember him spending an entire week at a band saw cutting out wedges at different angles from a block of metal to put in his toolbox.  Most mechanics at this time hadn’t been issued a toolbox unless they had brought one with them from the plant where they had transferred.  Gary explained to me that his “superiority was his greatest advantage.”  Those aren’t his words but it was basically what he was saying.  That phrase came from my son who said that one day when he was imitating the voice of a video game villain named Xemnas.

Filtering the hydraulic oil through the blotter press was very slow until we removed most of the filters.

An Oil Blotter Press Similar to the one we had, but our press did not have “NAKIN” written on it.

It was a job that didn’t require a lot of attention and after a while became boring.  That gave me more time to learn about Gary.  He filled the time with stories about his past and his family.  Since I hadn’t met Ramblin’ Ann at this point (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was not able to contribute my share.  In the middle of this job we were called away to work on a job in water treatment where a small pump needed to be re-installed.

During this time at the plant every pump, fan, mill and turbine were brought to the maintenance shop and disassembled, measured, cleaned, honed and reassembled before the plant was brought online for the first time.  This is called doing a “check out” of the unit.  The electricians would check every motor, every cable and every relay.  The Results team (Instrument and Controls as they were later called) would check out the instrument air, the pneumatic valves and the control logic throughout the plant.

Gary had me go to the tool room and get some rubber boots and a rain suit.  When we arrived at the water treatment building George Pepple was there waiting for us.  The pump was in place and only the couplings needed to be connected to the acid line.  Gary explained to me as he carefully tightened the bolts around the flange that you had to do it just right in order for the flange to seat properly and create a good seal.  He would tighten one bolt, then the bolt opposite it until he worked his way around the flange.  He also explained that you didn’t want to over-tighten it.

Pipe Flange

Anyway.  When he was through tightening the couplings I was given a water hose to hold in case some acid were to spray out of the connections when the pump was turned on.  After the clearance was returned and the operator had closed the breaker, George turned the pump on.  When he did the coupling that Gary had so carefully tightened to just the right torque using just the right technique sprayed a clear liquid all over George Pepple’s shoes.

Gary quickly reached for the controls to turn off the pump.  I immediately directed the water from the hose on George’s shoes while he began to jump up and down.  In last week’s post I explained that when I was working in the River Pump forebay pit shoveling sand, there was a point when I realized that I was covered from head to foot with tiny crawling bugs, and I felt like running around in circles screaming like a little girl (See “Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down By The River“).

If I had done that, I probably would have been singing the same song and dance that George Pepple was doing at that moment.  Because he indeed was screaming like a little girl (I thought).  His reaction surprised me because I didn’t see the tell tale signs of sizzling bubbles and smoke that you would see in a movie when someone throws acid on someone.  I continued hosing him down and after a minute or so, he calmed down to the point where he was coherent again.  He had me run water on his shoes for a long time before he took them off and put on rubber boots.

After hosing off the pipes, Gary took the coupling apart and put the o-ring in place that he had left out.

Rubber O-Ring

I made a mental note to myself.  — Always remember the o-ring.

Besides those two jobs, I never worked with Gary Michelson again.  When I returned the next summer Gary was no where to be found.  When I asked Larry Riley about it, he just said that they had run him off.  Which is a way of saying…  “He ain’t no Power Plant Man.”  George Pepple on the other hand was there throughout my career at the power plant.  He was a True Power Plant Man, PhD!  When George was around you knew it was always “A wonderful Day in the Neighborhood”.  When I would hear George Pepple paging someone on the Gray Phone (the PA system) in his own peculiar way, I would think to myself… “I like the way you say that.” (As Mr. Rogers used to say).  I will leave you with that thought.

Comments from the original post:

  1. neenergyobserver May 18, 2012

    Funny isn’t it, how the ones that are the best (in their own minds) do stupid stuff like forgetting the O-ring. Apparently they can’t see for all the jaw-flapping involved in patting themselves on the back. Not that I haven’t had a few days I’d rather not talk about too.

    1. Plant Electrician May 25, 2012

      Nebraska, if you think that was dumb, wait until you read the next post.

      1. neenergyobserver May 25, 2012

        Well, that was dumb, but not the dumbest either of us has seen. I’ll look forward to it.

  2. onelifethislife May 27, 2012

    You are master storyteller! I know nothing about power plants and I was right there with you. This was fantastic read! Thank you for sharing your work.

    1. Plant Electrician May 27, 2012

      Thank you for your kind words.

      1. onelifethislife May 27, 2012

        You are most welcome!!

  3. bryanneelaine May 28, 2012

    LOL @ “Dinty Moore”

     

    Ron Kilman May 23, 2013

    Great story! Thanks,
    I remember George as – competent, consistent, happy, supportive, and a great “team player”.

Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal

Originally posted on:  June 1, 2012

The first couple of years while I worked as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant Coal Cleanup was performed on weekends by volunteer He-Men that wanted to make a few extra dollars.  As a summer help, I needed all the extra money I could get.  My wages during the first year (1979) were $3.89 an hour.

This jumped to $5.84 an hour when I worked on the weekend, so you can imagine the thrill I had at receiving a paycheck that included the extra money made by doing “Coal Cleanup”.  Another great advantage to doing coal cleanup on the weekends was that I was able to carpool with different people.  So, during the first summer instead of just riding to work with Steve Higginbotham (See the post “Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy late for the Boiler Blowdown“), I caught a lot of rides with real Power Plant Men like Dale Hull, David Hankins, Jerry Mitchell, Preston Jenkins and Marlin McDaniel (Yeah.  Marlin McDaniel as an A Foreman would volunteer for coal cleanup some times.  Maybe it was when we were short a few people).

Coal Cleanup really became important during the second half of the first summer because Unit 1 was getting ready to go online.  There was a major flaw in the Coal Conveyor logic when the conveyors first started conveying coal from the coal pile to the coal silos just above the bowl mills.  What would happen was the same thing that happens if someone were to fall down at the top of a crowded escalator going up.  Everyone behind that person would be shoved right on top of them if there wasn’t an emergency stop button to stop the escalator.

Escalator

All the conveyors had a safety cord alongside the entire length that could be pulled to stop the conveyor in an emergency, but this was something different.

To give you an idea… once the coal on the coal pile has been fed onto either Belts 4, 5, 6 or 7, from there the coal is dropped onto either belt 8 or 9.  That carries the coal up to the coal Crusher which has a bin above the crusher that can be filled with coal.  If the bin gets too full, then conveyor 8 and/or 9 would stop.  When that happens, belts 4, 5, 6 or 7 should stop also…. only they didn’t.  Belts 8 and 9 continued dumping coal into the crusher bin until it filled up and then coal fell out all over the top of the crusher tower around belts 8 and 9 until the coal tripped the belt by hitting the safety cord on the side of the belt.  Belts 4, 5, 6 and 7 continued dumping coal onto belts 8 and 9, which caused the coal to backup and spill out all over the floor until the coal piled up high enough to trip the safety cord on the side of the belt.

In the picture of the power plant on the side of this post, there is one long conveyor that goes from the coalyard to the plant.  It is about 1/2 mile long.  This is where belts 10 and 11 carry the coal from the crusher, which crushes the coal down from big pieces the size of baseballs down to the size of walnuts.

The long belts 10 and 11 were like these only they are in a metal enclosure so the coal didn’t spill out on the ground.

At the top of the Transfer tower the coal from belts 10 and 11 are dumped onto belts 12 and 13 which carry the coal up to the Surge Bin Tower where the coal is dumped into the Surge bin.  Now when the Surge Bin fills up, it stops belts 12 and/or 13 and it should also stop belts 10 and 11 and the feeders that feed the coal into the crusher at the bottom of the crusher bin… only they didn’t.

They continued dumping coal into the Surge bin, which filled up and spilled coal all over the surge bin until belts 12 and 13 tripped, at which point, coal began spilling out all over the transfer tower filling up both floors of the transfer tower with tons of coal.  The same thing would happen at the bottom of Belt 10 and 11, where the crusher feeders kept feeding coal down to belts 10 and 11, which spilled out all over the bottom floor of the crusher tower.

I have worked in the transfer tower where the coal was higher than the windows and you had to bend over because your head would hit the ceiling on the floor at the foot of belt 12 and 13.  It was almost dangerous enough to picture yourself sliding down the pile of coal and slipping right out one of the windows (which had been broken out by the pile of coal).  To give you an idea of what this felt like, it was then a straight drop of 150 feet to the concrete below.

If that doesn’t seem like enough coal spills, then picture this…  The coal from the Surge Bin tower fed onto belts 14, 15, 18 and 19 which in turn fed onto belts 16 and 17, 20 and 21.  These last 4 belts were in what was called the “Tripper Gallery”.  These 4 belts would dump coal into 12 coal silos (6 on each unit) that would feed the bowl mills. These are big silos about 5 stories tall.

The same thing would happen to these belts leaving piles of coal at the bottom of the surge bin in the surge bin tower and all along the tripper gallery because when the coal silos were full, the tripper was supposed to move to the next silo and dump coal until it was full, and keep moving until all the silos were full.  Only, the tripper wasn’t working correctly, so it wouldn’t detect that the silo was full so the belt would keep dumping coal and would end up spilling coal all over the entire tripper gallery which runs about 100 feet or so.

So, our first experience with doing coal cleanup was like being on a chain gang where we shoveled coal from morning until night trying to clean up these 15 or so major coal spills by shoveling the coal back onto the conveyor while it was running.  In some cases, we had to shovel the coal away from the belt before the belt could even run (as was the case with belts 12 and 13).  So, you can imagine how shoveling coal one scoop at a time made it seem like you were not getting anywhere fast.  3 or 4 men could all be shoveling on one pile of coal for 30 minutes and not even make a noticeable dent in the pile.  That is why when I went to the tool room to choose a shovel, instead of picking a regular shovel, I picked a large scoop shovel used to scoop grain.

Scoop Shovel

Regular Shovel

Even though each scoop of coal was heavier, it seemed more satisfying to see the bigger dent in the pile of coal with each shovelful.  I remember one day after we had shoveled coal all day from morning until late at night only to come back into work the next morning to the new piles of coal just as big as the ones we had shoveled the day before.

After 2 years of volunteer coal cleanup which was becoming less volunteer and more rotational since the list of volunteers was growing smaller, Ray Butler pointed out that it didn’t make much sense to pay a first class machinist overtime to shovel coal when you could create a labor crew and pay them bottom dollar to do coal cleanup all the time, as well as other dirty jobs that no one really wanted to do (such as suck out sewage pits and other sump pits around the plant).

That was when the Labor crew was formed.  While I was in my 3rd year as a summer help (1981).  Bill Cook was a summer help then that stayed on as a labor crew hand at the end of the summer.  By the 4th summer as summer help, the only time we did coal cleanup was when there was a major spill, which was only a couple of times all summer.

I will write later about coal cleanup with Dale Hull.  I also remember doing coal-cleanup with Preston Jenkins one weekend.  I hadn’t carpooled with him to work, but I caught a ride back to Stillwater with him because my ride left at the end of a full day, and I decided to stay behind to add a few extra dollars to my bank account.  We left a couple of hours later around seven o’clock.

I climbed into the back of Preston’s Camaro.  I apologized for being so dirty, as I was covered from head-to-toe in coal-dust and my clothes were soaked with coal-dust permeated sweat.  Preston said that he didn’t mind.  I soon found out why.

When I climbed into the backseat of his car, I noticed that the upholstery that covered the seat back of the back seat was stained with some blackish-brownish um…. something.  Anyway.  I decided to sit on the passenger side of the back seat instead of behind the driver side because that side wasn’t nearly as stained.  As we drove down the highway toward home, I quickly learned why the seat back was so stained.

Being the “good-ol’ boy” that Preston was, when he climbed into the car, he took out his can of Skoal and put a pinch between his cheek and gums:

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums.... Never tried it myself.

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums…. Never tried it myself.

As we flew down the highway like a Texan heading for Stillwater, Preston would lean his head out the window and squirt out a wad of spit.  It would dance in the air like a little fairy just before it would be sucked into the back window of his car and splat against the seat back of the back seat.  Yep that explained it all right.  I always wondered if he knew, never having to sit in the back seat of his own car.

During the first summer when I was able to catch a ride with David Hankins a couple of times.  He was the crane operator at the time and drove a black Trans Am.  He was a black man with a very broad chest that never seemed to tire while doing coal cleanup.  From the first day he always treated me with great respect which in turn gave me a great respect for him.  I had him classified as a true Power Plant Man.

The second summer when I had been back at the plant for a couple of weeks, one day when Jim Heflin and I were going somewhere in a yellow Cushman cart, I asked Jim why I hadn’t seen David Hankins around.

A Cushman Cart Like this only Yellow

Jim (who hadn’t been at the plant the first summer) stopped the cart in the middle of the road and looked at me very solemnly and told me that David Hankins had died in a car accident in the spring.  He had been going home from a Men’s Club event when he was killed.  Because of this, alcoholic beverages were no longer allowed at Men’s Club events.  As with all the people I have worked with at the power plant, I keep David Hankins in my memory and I often think about him to this day.  David Hankins was a True Power Plant Man.

Comments from the original Post:

  1. neenergyobserver June 1, 2012 as 6:28 pm

    We’ve lost so many friends over the years, in the plants and on the line, especially when they were relaxing on their way home. You, and David’s family have my very belated condolences.

    Somebody, somewhere, needs to teach engineers a course on Conveyor Logic 101, I’ve seen the same thing happen in nearly every plant (from automotive, rarely, to meat packing, often) I’ve been in. Or they could, just for once in their life, shut their pie-hole and listen to people like you and me.

    1. Plant Electrician June 1, 2012 at 11:39 pm

      Thanks Nebraska.

      We were often exhausted while driving home from work when we had been working a lot of overtime. It was a wonder sometimes that we were able to keep the car on the road.

      My uncle Bill Breazile worked for the Utility company in Nebraska City where someone closed a breaker while he was working on a line. He was in the hospital for about 6 months healing from his burns. This was about 30 years ago. He has since passed away. It takes a special person to be a lineman. Putting their life on the line every time they reach out to do their job.

      1. neenergyobserver June 2, 2012 at 10:42 am

        Not that different from you. It’s all about planning your work, and doing it right, and safely. You and I know that 480 will kill you just as quick as 7200 if you get careless. That’s why almost all (old) linemen and electricians are in some sense stolid and unexcitable.

  2. jackcurtis July 14, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    Industrial America returns in stories and comments in places like this, from the only place it still exists: the minds of those who were part of it. Industrial America was a giant; those who manned it were giant tamers and it seems to me, very much the special breed illuminated in these posts…

    Comment from last repost:

    1. Dan Antion June 3, 2014

      I remember a time when I would have chose the bigger shovel, perhaps in the early 70’s. I was moving steel in a manufacturing plant. Carrying three bars on each shoulder seemed better than the two they suggested. We finished earlier, had to do other work, but somehow it felt better. Thanks for another interesting story and a wake-up call to younger days. Thanks also for the explanations. I love mechanical things and I get the impression that these plants are one big mechanical adventure.

“I Think I Can, I Think I Can” and Other Power Plant Chants

Originally Posted on August 3, 2012 (I added a picture of Walt Oswalt):

The second summer as Summer Help at the Coal-fired Power Plant, was when I first worked out of the Automotive garage.  It wasn’t finished during the first summer.  The second summer when I began working in the garage, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley, Doug House  and Ken Conrad were the regular workers that mowed the fields using tractors with brush hogs, as I have explained in previous posts.  A summer help that also worked with us from Ponca City named David Foster was also able to mow grass using one of the new Ford tractors that we painted Orange to easily identify them as belonging to the Electric Company in Oklahoma.

I learned to drive the tractors later in the summer when I worked irrigating the fields in our attempt to grow grass (as told in the post “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It Pays To Listen“).  The next summer I was able to mow grass using a Brush Hog pulled behind a tractor:

brushhog

Almost Like this without the safety guards and just about as new

It didn’t take long before I had to mow grass on the side of the dam (and other levies).  The side of the dam has a very sharp incline, so while mowing grass on the side of the dam you sat more on the side of the tractor seat than on the seat itself.  Heavy weights were put on the front of the tractor and the back tires on the tractor were turned around so that they were farther apart than they would be otherwise.  This gave the tractor a lower, wider profile and a lower center of gravity helping to keep it from rolling over sideways down the slope.

Tractor Weights that fit on the front of the tractor

I had watched Jim, Larry, Ken and David mow grass along some very steep inclines the summer before without any tractors tumbling over, so I felt like it must be safe, even though looking at the tractors they still seemed a little “top heavy”.

The dam had a slope this steep but  much was taller

It was quite an eerie feeling the first time I actually mowed a slope this steep.  I experienced the same feeling as you have on a roller coaster when it hits the top of the hill and flings you down real fast when the tractor tire on the downhill side of the tractor rolls into a washed out spot on the dam causing the tractor to roll over just a little farther than you are used to.  It was definitely an adrenaline rush each time this happened, because it felt like the tractor was going to roll over.

That is when I remembered the story about the little engine that was trying to pull the train over the steep mountain, and he kept chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” over and over.  So, between each decade of the Rosary that I was saying while counting Hail Mary’s on my fingers, I added in an “I Think I can…” as an added prayer before the next “Our Father”.

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

In the time that I worked as a summer help we never turned over a tractor while mowing on a slope.  That isn’t to say that the tractors didn’t start to tip over.  It’s just that if you realize that the large back tractor tire has left the ground and is spinning freely, you could quickly turn the steering wheel downhill so that the tractor would turn downhill preventing it from rolling completely over.  The weight of the brush hog on the back helped to keep the tractor snug against the sloping dam.

Years later, after I left the Power Plant, in 2006, my father’s best friend, Tom Houghton, a Veterinarian in Lakeland, Florida was killed in a tractor accident at his family’s farm in Polo, Missouri.  This greatly effected my father.  He has not recovered from the loss of his friend still today.  As I was mowing grass and picturing my sudden demise if a tractor were to roll down the hill, my main concern was the sorrow my family would have felt by my death.  Needless to say… I never toppled a tractor.

It was during that same summer in 1981 that I first worked with the Power Plant Icon Walt Oswalt.  Every plant must have at least one person like Walt.  He is the type of person that once he has something in his mind about how to do something, nothing is going to change it.  I know many different stories about Walt Oswalt that have been shared with me, but this is one of my own.  Walt is a sandy-haired Irish-looking man that always reminded me of the little old man, Jackie Wright, on the Benny Hill Show.

Walt reminded me of Jackie Wright only with more hair

I now have an actual picture of Walt that I found laying around….

Walt Oswalt

Walt Oswalt — See the resemblence?  not much more hair

One Saturday while I had caught a ride to the Power Plant to do “coal cleanup” the crew was asked who would like to wash down belts 10 and 11.  These are the 1/2 mile long belts that go from the coalyard all the way up to the plant.  You can see them on the left side of the picture of the plant on the side of this post.  Finding the opportunity for a challenge, I volunteered.

I made my way up to the top of the Transfer tower where I found Walt Oswalt.  He was working out of the coalyard at the time and was helping us wash down 10 and 11 belt.  Wearing rainsuits and rubber boots we began at the top and worked our way down.  It didn’t look like this belt had been washed down for a while.  We could blast the tin enclosure with the high pressure hoses we were using to completely wash off all the coal dust that had built up over time.  This looked like it was going to be a fun job.

Then Walt pointed out to me that most of our work was under the belt where the coal had built up almost solid up to the belt itself so that the coal was rubbing on the rubber Uniroyal conveyor belt.  Remember, if the conveyor belt goes up, it has to go back down also.  So underneath the conveyor is where the belt returns.  it is a big loop.

Directly underneath this conveyor is the return for the belt

So, Walt Oswalt and I spent the rest of the day laying on the grating so we could see under the belts washing the coal down the slope of belt 10 and 11.  Under the conveyor is another set of rollers that the rubber conveyor belt rides on it’s return trip to the Crusher Tower.  During this time there were two chants that came to my mind…. One was, “Whistle While you Work”, since we seemed to be in some kind of coal mine working away like the Seven Dwarfs (you know…  Walt Disney… Walt Oswalt).  The other one was the song, “Workin’ In a Coal Mine” (…goin’ down down).

Disney’s Seven Dwarfs Mining

At one particular spot the coal had built up and packed itself in there so much that one of the rollers wasn’t able to turn and the belt was just rubbing on the roller.  After we had washed the coal away we could see that the roller was not able to turn still because the belt had worn it flat on one side.

Walt called the Control Room to shutdown the belt so that we could look at it.  We could see that the roller was bad.  For some reason the other belt (11) was out of commission so without this belt running, no coal was being sent up to the plant.  The coal silos and the surge bin hold enough coal for a while but not for too long during the summer when the units need to run at their maximum rate to supply the electricity needed by the customers.  We could have the belt shutdown for a while, but not for too long.

I followed Walt down the belt to the Crusher Tower wondering what he had in mind.  He didn’t tell me what we were going to do, so I just gathered my clues by watching what he did.  When we came out of the belt and left the Crusher I was surprised that it was already dark outside.  When I had left the Maintenance Shop it had been morning.  Now it was dark.  We had spent the entire day (12 hours at this point) in Belt 10 and 11.  I didn’t remember ever taking a break or eating lunch or even going to the bathroom.  Just holding the high pressure water hose, directing the stream down under the belt… all day.

We walked over to a new building that was still being built called the Coalyard Maintenance Building.  This was the new building that was going to be used by the new Labor Crew in a few months. Outside the building to one side was a Conex Box, as I have described before.  This is the kind of large box that you see on the CSX train commercials that are being transported by trains.

A Conex Box

We used them to store equipment used for specific jobs or crews.  In this case, the Conex box had conveyor equipment in it.  Walt found a long straight roller that is used under the Number 10 and 11 belts and tied it to a 2 wheel dolly.  We rolled it back to the Crusher Tower and began the long trek back up the belt.  I was pulling the dolly and Walt was carrying some large wrenches.

When we arrived at the spot where the roller had been worn, Walt called the control room to let them know we were beginning to work.  We pulled the safety cords on the side of the conveyor to ensure that the belt would not start, even though we were assured that a Clearance had been placed on the breaker in the Main Switchgear (where I began my first war with the spiders a year later.  See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“).

Walt climbed over the belt and I stayed on the main walkway.   We worked upside down for a while unbolting the roller.  At one point we decided we needed some more suitable tools and headed back down the belt to the Coalyard Garage where the heavy equipment is serviced and brought back some large ratchet wrenches and sockets with an extension.

Socket Wrench with extension

I think the chant, “I think I can, I think I can” was running through my head on our second trip back up the conveyor belt.  I think it was around 10pm.  We finished changing the roller and decided to leave the old one laying in the walkway for the night.  Walt said he would bring it back to the coalyard on Monday morning.

We made our way back to the Maintenance shop where I took off the rain suit and rubber boots that I had been wearing all day and put my regular boots back on.  I went up to the control room and asked if anyone could give me a ride to Stillwater since the evening shift of operators were just getting off at 11pm. I believe it was Charles Buchanan that gave me a ride home that night in his little beat up pickup truck.

I never worked directly with Charles Buchanan since he was an operator.  The first impression that one may have is that he looks like a caricature of a construction worker in a comic strip.

First Impression of Charles Buchanan

Charles reaffirmed my belief that Power Plant Men are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.  There were a few times when I caught a ride with Charles to or from the plant.  Each time I felt honored to ride in his truck.  If I think about what chant was running through my mind as we were on our way home at night, I think it would be something like the song “You’ve Got a Friend”: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend….”

That is what all real Power Plant men and linemen are like.  Wherever you look in the United States, these great men and women work tirelessly to keep you safe by providing electricity to your homes.  Something we take for granted until the power goes out.

Recently when the power went out in the east, the linemen from this electric company drove with pride, eager to help those in need:

A convoy of Electric Company Trucks on their way from Oklahoma to Indiana to help return power to millions of Americans in the dark

Below I have included the lyrics for the song “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King and her husband James Taylor.  See how well it fits those people that work around the clock bringing the power to your home:

You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend.

If the sky above you should turn dark and full of clouds
and that old north wind should begin to blow,
keep your head together and call my name out loud.
Soon I will be knocking upon your door.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there.

Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend? People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you. Well, they’ll take your soul if you let them,
oh yeah, but don’t you let them.

You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend. You’ve got a friend.
Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend. Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend.
Oh, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.

Here is a YouTube video of James Taylor singing this song:

If your aren’t able to play youtube videos directly from the picture… here is the link:  “You’ve got a Friend

Power Plant Men Fighting Fires for Fun

Originally Posted October 5, 2012:

The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked first as a summer help, then as a janitor, a labor crew hand and finally as an Electrician is located about 20 miles north of Stillwater, Oklahoma.  It just so happened that Oklahoma State University in Stillwater has one of the leading Fire Protection and Safety schools in the country.  They offer Fire Service Training for companies who need to train their employees how to fight fires.  As a summer help I was fortunate enough to take the onsite training that they provided at the power plant about every other summer to train the employees how to put out difficult fires.

It does sound like a good idea considering that there was all this coal laying around that had the habit of spontaneously igniting into smouldering embers that could easily lead to a large raging ball of flames.  In fact, the Coal Yard heavy equipment operators had to drive their large dirt movers over and over the coal on the coal pile to pack it down because if it was exposed to too much air, it would develop hot spots that would turn into smoldering piles of coal that were nearly impossible to put out.

Dirt Mover full of coal

I have seen a spot smoldering on the coal pile where a water wagon would drench it with water over and over.  That only seemed to keep it from spreading as fast.  The only way to deal with it was to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn itself out.

You would think that the OSU Fire Training Service would do a good job of teaching the employees the proper use of the fire extinguishers, and they did.  The plant was loaded with Fire Extinguishers.  As a summer help and labor crew hand, we would have to do a monthly inspection of all the plant extinguishers to check their pressures and initial the inspection sticker showing that we had been by to check it.  This was a practice that would later change to once each quarter when the Power Plant Men were strung out too thin and the labor crew no longer existed.  Even later, the operators inspected them as they made their rounds, since they walked by them during their shifts anyway.

The plant had more than just the regular chemical fire extinguishers, it had the larger roll-around type in a few places as well:

More than what is needed in your average kitchen

The Fire Training Service trained us to use this as well.  Actually, they motivated us to go out and buy fire extinguishers to put in our own homes.  Which came in handy for me one year when an air condition repairman was using a blow torch in my house to cut out the cooling coils but forgot to take out the filter first.

The moment I saw him light up his torch, I pulled out the extinguisher from under the sink and set it on the counter.  As I watched him, he suddenly started jerking back and forth.  I figured something was up, so I pulled the pin, and when he was finally able to pull the burning filter out of the air duct, I was ready to blast it with the extinguisher.  So, I gratefully thank the electric company for properly training us to use the handy dandy fire extinguishers that you might use around the house.

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

One important thing that you learn about the little extinguishers in your house is that they don’t really go very far before they run out of chemicals.  So, you have to get the job done quickly while the fire is still small and manageable.

When I first heard that we were going to be trained to fight fires the second summer I was at the plant as a summer help, I was pretty excited.  Wow… Great!!!  Fight Fires!  That sounds fun.  A day of watching safety videos and playing with fire extinguishers.  I didn’t realize at the time that there was a reason why OSU Fire Training Service was the best fire training school in the radius of about 1,000 miles.

Sure.  We watched the training videos.  We learned all about proper fire extinguisher care and maintenance.  We heard stories about how small fires turned into raging infernos that burned companies right out of business.  One thing I remember is that some large percentage of companies that have a major fire are never able to recover to the point that they go completely out of business.

If you need the exact percentage, I suggest you call up the OSU School of Fire Protection and Safety.  They probably have the latest statistic printed on their school lunch napkins, because these guys eat, drink and sleep fire safety.

Then, after they had impressed us with their Fire Safety Prowess, they said, “Let’s take about a 15 minute break, and we will meet outside just north of the water treatment plant where we will resume your lessons.  Oh, and bring your rubber boots and maybe a rain suit.”  Rain Suit?  What?  It’s about 100 degrees outside.  “I wouldn’t mind getting a little wet”, I thought to myself. — The simpleminded summer help that I was at the time.

I would describe in detail to you how they had this obstacle course of staircases and pipes and other metal structures all sitting in a big tray.  It’s enough to say that it was quite a tangled mess of a contraption.

“Interesting.” I thought… Are we going to climb the staircase  and shoot the fire from up above with our handy dandy fire extinguishers which were lined up in a row off to one side?  Climbing over pipes to fight a fire under the stairs maybe…  Do we get to use the big roll around fire extinguisher that was there too?  This looks like it might be fun.

That was when the fun began.  One of the trainers turned a valve, and then I noticed that there was a fairly large tank there also that was hooked up to the pipes that wound around the mocked up structure of a stairway and other obstacles in the large tray.  As he turned the valve, what looked like diesel or kerosene like petroleum product  came spraying out of various holes in the piping spraying everything in the tray drenching it with fuel.

This other guy had a long rod that he had lit like a large lighter only it was giant size, and after the fuel had been spraying out for a while, he lowered the flame down into the tray that now was beginning to fill up with some kind of oily substance.  He lit it and the flames quickly spread over the entire structure.  He had us go in groups of 4 people with fire extinguishers to try to put out the fire.  As their extinguishers ran out of fuel, others waiting behind would take their place trying to put out the fire.

We would chase the fire around the structure trying to put it out, but it wasn’t as easy as you would think.  If you didn’t completely suffocate it by hitting it from many different directions and in a pattern from one end to the other just right, the fire would dodge around the spray from the extinguishers to be right back where you started.  By the time we had used up all the extinguishers, we may have put the fire out about 3 times.

Rubber boots… I kept thinking…. my feet are getting hot…  You couldn’t hardly get close enough to the fire to use your fire extinguisher without getting your eyebrows singed.  I was always known for having long eyelashes, and I thought I could hear them sizzle as they brushed against my safety glasses.

That’s when they pulled the fire hose out of the fire box that was there next to the fire hydrant.  All over the plant grounds there were these red boxes.  They are lined up alongside the long conveyor belt from the coal yard to the plant (about 1/2 mile).  They were also lined up around the two silver painted million gallon number 2 Diesel tanks.  They were just about everywhere you looked (come to think of it).

I remember Summer Goebel when she was a new plant engineer one time asked me when she had first arrived, “What are all those red boxes out there?” (she was pointing out the window of the Engineer’s office).  I told her they each contained fire hose and a valve wrench to open up the fire hydrant.  I neglected to add that they also provided great shade for all the Jack and Jill rabbits that inhabited the plant grounds, which doubled as a wild life preserve.

An outdoor Power Plant fire hose cabinet and Metallic Rabbit shade tree

So, we were going to use the fire hose!  That sounded like more fun.  That is until the one guy said to the other guy (more using hand and face signals — like putting his thumb up and winking) “open ‘er up”  — so, he was using “slang” hand and face signals…

That’s when the real training began.  First of all, we all backed up because as the flames grew on their structure, the heat literally talked directly to your legs and magically told them…. “back up, or else…”  so, now that we were standing a good 50 feet away from the fire, we lined up in a row on the fire hose.

4 of us.  Four hefty Brawny Power Plant men… (well, 3 hefty brawny  power plant men, and one scrawny little runt of a summer help who actually thought he could be measured alongside them),  Isn’t that a bit much for this one 4 inch fire hose? (or was it just 3 inches?).  There were two hoses actually being used.  One to create a wide barrier of water to protect us from the heat, and another hose to shoot water through the barrier into the fire.

A couple of guys manned the large roll around fire extinguisher.  Here is an actual picture of the OSU Training Service training a group of employees at a work site to fight fires to give you a picture of what we faced:

This is an actual picture of the OSU Fire Service training plant workers to fight fires.

Notice the two different types of sprays in the picture.  I very wide spray and a narrow spray.

Like I said, these guys aren’t called the best Fire Trainers because they have pretty pamplets.  so, the first time I slipped in the mud, I thought… hmm… I suppose the rainsuit would have kept all that mud from coming into contact with my jeans, and my shirt and my ego.

Well, the most fascinating thing was that we could walk up real close to this intense fire and the wide spray of water sheltered us from the heat.

This is how you open the nozzle to create the wide barrier spray

Then with the large fire extinguisher on wheels, you could open it up on the fire by standing behind this barrier and shoot the chemicals right through the water onto the fire, and it would quickly and incredibly put out that tremendous fire when it was done right.  The other fire hose that was spraying through the barrier of water was used to cool everything down so that the fire didn’t spring right back up.  the water wasn’t going to put out an oil fire.

Anyway, not long after our first of many fire fighting training sessions that we had throughout the years, the night that we were actually fighting the dragon in the boiler (See the Post, “Where do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today“), the Control Room came over the gray phone (PA system) saying that there was a fire on the turbine room floor.

A bunch of power plant he-men dropped the lance they were using to pierce the dragon and ran off to fight the fire.  It turned out to be a barrel full of oily rags that had spontaneously combusted.  The fire refused to go out for a long time.  It kept re-igniting until the contents had completely burned up.

I remained in the bottom ash area as I was still reeling from the steaming hot water that had been spewed all over me.  A little while later the men were back ready to grab the lance and go back to work on the boiler around 10pm (this after a full day of coal cleanup from 8am that morning).

The one important topic that they ingrained into our minds while we were taking the training was that you have to know when the fire is too big to fight.  We had learned what our equipment could do and what it couldn’t do.  So, we had the knowledge to realize that if the fire is too big, then it is time to get out of there and call the professionals.  The only problem was that the nearest professionals were about 20 minutes away.  A lot can burn down in that amount of time…. but that is a story for another time.  I see the grin on the power plant men’s faces.  They know what I am talking about.

Comments from Previous Repost:

  1. coffeegrounded  October 6, 2014

    I am extremely proud of my 2006 graduate of OSU’s Fire Protection program! My son-in-law went on to establish his own fire protection services company in Northern California.

    Go OSU!

    Very interesting article; thanks for sharing. I’m forwarding this post to my #1 son. Seeing this article and knowing the integrity of the program is gratifying and greatly appreciated. (My own parents lost their lives in a house fire.) Thanks for spreading the word on fire safety.

  2. Ron Kilman October 7, 2014

    Great story and reminder. After your original post I checked our little fire extinguisher in our kitchen. The pressure gauge was still in the green but it was 10 years old. So we decided to see if it still worked. It did – emptied all the chemical with good pressure. We replaced it with a new one and my wife got some “hands on” experience. Thanks for the reminder.

Power Plant Lady of the Labor Crew

Originally Posted on October 19, 2012:

In the Power Plant posts, I generally tend to focus on the Power Plant Men that taught their Power Plant culture to me while I was fortunate enough to grace the boilers and conveyors of the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the north central plains of Oklahoma. Every once in a while during this journey there were True Power Plant Ladies that came along that took their place right alongside the Power Plant Men.

The Women generally held their own when it came to the amount of work, their tenacity, and even for some, their ability to hit a spittoon from 6 feet. — Ok. I made up the part about hitting a spittoon.  Everyone just used the floor drains for spittoons in the early days before they became responsible for cleaning them out themselves, after the summer help found more grass to mow. — The choice spitting material was…. Sunflower seed shells.

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

In the first few years, Leta Cates worked out of the welding shop (I believe… Well, she hung around there a lot), and later became a clerk. Then there was Opal Brien who was in the maintenance shop and worked in the garage one year when I was a summer help. Of course, there was Darlene Mitchell who worked in the warehouse with Dick Dale, Mike Gibbs and Bud Schoonover.

There was also Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), who was one of the Electric Shop A team super heroes.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Later came Julienne Alley that became the “Mom” of the welding shop. Some more came and went…. Especially the person that we referred to as “Mom” while I was on labor crew. Doretta Funkhouser.

I have mentioned before that the evil plant manager Eldon Waugh enjoyed manipulating his minion’s (oh… I mean employee’s) personal lives as much as he could get away with without stirring up trouble downtown. So, one of the rules he had put in place was that no one on the janitor crew could be considered for another position at the plant until they had first moved to the labor crew.

There even came a ruling later in 1983 (from Eldon and/or Bill Moler) that if it was your turn to go to Labor Crew, and you were not able to, or didn’t for some reason more than once, then you would lose your job as janitor altogether. That remained the case until Darrell Low was able to quickly move from janitor to Operator after Eldon had lost his control over the people on labor crew that he wanted to keep there, making the rule obsolete (I’m sure we had been told the rule had come from Corporate headquarters anyway).

Once on the labor crew, it was very rare that anyone left this crew to go to another position in the plant. They usually had to leave the company altogether, or find a job at another plant in order to escape. This was especially true after the summer of 1982 when the oil boom went bust in Oklahoma making jobs harder to find, and less people left the plant to go somewhere else to work.  The phrase on the first Tuesday of every month was, “Did you see that line of cars outside the gate this morning?  Be lucky you have a job.”

So, when I finally made it to the labor crew, many of the team had been there for a very long time. Others I had worked with before because we were janitors together. This included Ronnie Banks and Jim Kanelakos. Other members of the labor crew were Ron Luckey, Chuck Moreland, Fred Crocker, Bob Lillibridge, Tom Kelly, Bill Cook, Charles Peavler and Doretta Funkhouser. Larry Riley was our foreman.

While on labor crew I was able to learn how to operate a backhoe. Though I never learned the backhoe magic of Larry Riley, I was able to scoop up bottom ash and dump it into the back of Power Plant Men’s pickup trucks that needed it to fill in the parts of their driveways that had washed out at home. The very first time I operated a backhoe, I noticed right away that the brakes didn’t operate very well. You really had to play with it in order to get backhoe to not roll forward.

Backhoe

Here is a picture of a Backhoe

That was ok, because I was just loading bottom ash from a pile into a dump truck and I could just bump the backhoe right up against the dump truck and empty the scoop into the bed. That was working real good until while I was waiting for the dump truck to return after bringing the bottom ash to the place where it was dumping the ash, Jim Harrison pulled up in a shiny new Dodge Pickup. I mean…. it was brand new! He backed up by me and signalled to me from inside his truck. I was waiting there with a scoop full of bottom ash (which is a gravelly looking substance) for the dump truck to return.

My first thought was oh boy…. I shouldn’t do this…. I can hardly stop this thing and I know I will probably run right into the side of Jim’s new truck and he’s going to have a fit. So, I did the only thing I could do. I proceeded to drive around to the side of Jim’s truck to pour the load of ash into the bed of his truck.

Now… either it was Jim’s guardian angel, or it was mine (protecting me from the bodily harm Jim may have inflicted on me out of stress had I put a big dent in the side of his new truck) that stopped the backhoe just at the right spot, I’ll never know for sure. But something did. The backhoe for once stopped right where I would have liked it to stop and I dumped the ash in the truck filling it to the brim. I waved to Jim, and he drove away.

Later when I went back to the Coal Yard Maintenance building (where the Labor Crew called home) I saw Jim in the office, so I went to talk to him. I smiled and said, “I hope I didn’t make you nervous dumping that ash in your truck.” Jim said “No.” It didn’t bother him one bit. He said he knew I could handle it.

So I told him that was the first time I had ever operated a backhoe and the brakes don’t work too well, and I wasn’t even sure if I could keep the backhoe from running into the side of his truck. I remember Jim’s reaction. He said, “Ok, now I’m nervous.” Having done my share of passing the nervous energy over to Jim, I went next door to the break room to enjoy my lunch.

You would think that with Doretta being the only woman on the crew, she would have had it much easier than the rest of us. She was about a 29 year old lady that had a daughter at home. I know because she used to wear a shirt that had her daughter’s face on it. She was working to make a living like most everyone else on the labor crew. Doretta worked right alongside the rest of us when it came to Coal Cleanup, washing down the conveyor system using high pressure water hoses.

She worked right alongside me while we tied the rebar for the concrete floor of the new sandblast building that was going to be built behind the water treatment building. She worked with me in the sump pit between the precipitator and the smoke stacks with the Honey Wagon Sewer company that was helping us suck out the crud from the bottom of the pit. (This was before we had bought our own Honey Wagon). They call it a “Honey Wagon”, because, well… it is used to suck out things like Outhouses. You know how much that smells like Honey….. right? Um… ok.

We finally bought a Honey Wagon like this

Most surprising to me, Doretta worked cleaning boiler tubes in the boiler when the unit was offline and we needed to shake tubes to knock out the ash, or even use crosscut saw blades welded end on end to cut through the ash packed in the boiler economizer section.

I’m talking about two man crosscut saws. Welded end-on-end

This lady was a survivor. That is how she struck me.

Most of the time Doretta worked with a smile on her face. In fact, she had a smile embedded on her face from years of smiling to the point that her eyes smiled. Even though (as I found out in the course of my time on the Labor Crew), Doretta had a very rough period of her life, she hadn’t let it beat her down, and she was happy to be working on the labor crew, doing what most people would think was a thankless job.

It is true that when something needed to be typed, (Desktop computers were not available yet), Doretta would do the typing for Larry. She would also cut our hair. Being paid our modest salary (mine was $5.75 per hour at the time), we couldn’t afford to go to the barber every other week to have our hair trimmed, so Doretta would set up shop and one-by-one, we would go sit in the chair and she would cut our hair. Just like a mom would do.

I figured that since we were calling Doretta “Mom”, it only made sense that we would call Larry “Dad”. Larry’s reaction to my calling him “Dad” was more like Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker that he was Luke’s father. “Nooooooo!!!!” Except I was the little Darth Vader telling Larry I was his son…

The little Darth Vader from the Volkwagen commercial

Larry disowned me for a while as I have mentioned in an earlier post called “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“. He finally came around to admitting it when I continued calling him Dad. But he explained that he dropped me on my head when I was a baby and that was why I was so strange. So, Larry was our Labor Crew Dad, and Doretta was our Labor Crew mom.

It came to no surprise later when Doretta Funkhouser left the plant to become Doretta Riley. It seemed natural to me that my Labor Crew Mom and Dad would be married. I don’t know if that resolved the issue of my illegitimate Power Plant birth. I don’t remember anyone referring to me as a bastard after that. at least not in relation to my questionable origin, and at least not directly to my face. Though I do know of a few people during the years that would have thought that would have been an appropriate title for me.

I remember on one occasion when we were hauling scaffolding up onto the boiler to prepare for an outage, and I was working with Doretta using the large wench on floor 8 1/2 (I think), when Doretta came back from checking something at the bottom of the boiler. She said something to me then that puzzled me for a while. I didn’t understand it at first, but later came to know why she said what she did.

This is the type of Wench Hoist we were operating, only ours was powered by high pressure air. Not electricity

She said that it made her mad that people were trying to get me fired, when I’m a decent person, while there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to stay. She was referring to the wrath of Waugh after we had embarassed him in front of Martin Louthan when we had confronted them about not being allowed to be considered for the Testing jobs, (See the post “Take A Note Jan” said the Manager of Power Production“). Eldon was trying to dig up dirt on anyone that had caused his embarassment and had targetted me as one person to fire.

What had happened when Doretta had gone down to the foot of the boiler was that one or more of the “Pseudo” Power Plant Men-in-training had made an insulting reference to the past hardships that Doretta experienced in her life. I wasn’t aware of this until Eldon and Bill Moler questioned me about it a few weeks later when I was called to the office to see if I knew anything about the incident.

When they told me what had been said I became visibly upset to the point that I could hardly respond. Not because I didn’t want to answer their questions (which I didn’t, because I knew they were on their witch hunt which included me as well), but because when I learned that a couple of people on our crew had gravely insulted someone that I deeply cared about, I was both angry and upset. It was upsetting that someone would insult a struggling mother who was doing what she could to take care of her children only to be berated by others that worked closely with me.

After Doretta left the plant to marry Larry, I only saw her at a few Christmas Parties after that. She still had the same smile. I hope that she was able to find peace in her life, and that her family is doing well today. And that’s the story of my Labor Crew Mom and Dad.

Comments from the original post:

  1. Spent a little time on the picket line with the Navajo Local, District 65, in the Navajo Nation – when they were out on strike in 1987. Forget the lass’s name; but, the leader of the Local was a young Navajo woman, married with a couple of kids at home, who operated the biggest dragline at the Peabody Mine.

    Helluva skill.

  2. Gotta say, this is one of the more unusual blog posts I’ve seen in a while: different subject, funny, and well-written, too.

    Not my normal fare, but you’ve got a new follower… :)

  3. Your evocative stories return me to my years as a riveter… your subjects were the kind of people who built this country’s industry, I think. And I still think you have a book here…

A Power Plant Halloween Election Story

Originally posted on October 27, 2012:

I can’t say that the Coal-fired Power Plant located in the middle of the North Central Plains of Oklahoma had visitors on Halloween Night trick-or-treating looking for candy.  I have mentioned before that we had an evil plant manager when I first arrived as a summer help at the plant that did what he could to make life miserable for his employees.  That would sometimes send chills up your spine.

I could tell you stories about the coffin houses on top of the precipitators.  I already told you about the Bug Wars in the Basement (see: “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“), and even about the Boiler Ghost that ate Bob Lillibridge (See: “Bob Liilibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost“).  Instead, I’ll tell a simple story about the Evil Plant Manager and his bees.

A Honey Bee

One time out of the blue when I was a summer help in 1980, the Plant Manager asked me in a suspiciously benevolent voice if I would stay after work to help him tend to his bees.  You see.  Eldon Waugh was a beekeeper.

Beekeeping is a noble profession, and I admire their ability to make a good thing out of a seemingly bad situation.  Sonny Karcher was a beekeeper.  Sonny was a Hero of Mine.

The plant grounds was a great place for bees because we had fields full of clover.  But Eldon and bees?  I have a slightly different take on it. Bees are industrious workers that are single-minded.  They each have their job, and they go about doing it.  They are willing to give their life for their hive and in that way, are sort of unsung heroes.  Or maybe bees do sing about their heroes and we just don’t know it.  Maybe their buzzing away is at times a lament for those who have worked their wings away to the point that they are no longer able to contribute.

Sort of reminds you of a Power Plant Man.

Since I was carpooling at the time and didn’t have my own car, Eldon said that he would drive me back to Stillwater and drop me off at the corner of Washington and Lakeview where I normally was let off, where I would walk up to the University Estates where my parents lived (and still do – or did when I first wrote this post.  Now they live across the street from me in Round Rock, Texas).  So I went to Eldon’s office when I finished work that day, and I followed him down to his pickup truck.  We drove up by the coalyard where he had a trailer that had a bunch of white boxes lined up, which housed his beehives.

Beehives like this only lined up on a trailer

Eldon Waugh gave me a hood that beekeepers wear to keep the bees from finding out what the beekeeper really looks like so the bees don’t attack them later when they are flying by and realize that they are the person that keeps interrupting their beehive.

No. That’s not me. This is a picture I found on Google Images

Eldon explained to me that when a bee stings you, you don’t grab the stinger and pull it out because that injects the bee’s venom into your body when you squeeze it.  Instead you take a straight edge, like a knife or piece of thin cardboard or something similar and you scrape it off.

That’s when I realized that Eldon had only given me a hood.  He hadn’t given me a full beekeeper suit like I would see on TV or in the neighborhood when I was young and some beekeeper came to collect a swarm of bees that had settled in a tree across the street from our house.

Eldon proceeded to open the beehive boxes and inspect them.  He had me hold things while he was doing this.  He showed me things like how the Queen was kept in a smaller box inside the bigger one that kept it from leaving.  Somehow this reminded me of the ball of fire in the boiler that produced the steam that turns the turbine that makes the electricity at the plant.

When he went to open one box he told me that this particular box had bees that were more troublesome than the other bees, and they liked to sting.  “Ok.” I thought.  “Thanks for letting me know.”  Like that was going to help.

I had already resigned myself to the idea of being stung by a bee that was unhappy that the beekeeper had called an unscheduled inspection of the beehive when Eldon jumped back; Pulled off his hood and started batting around in the air.  Sure enough.  A bee had climbed up under his hood and had stung him on the back of the neck.

I took a key out of my pocket and scraped the stinger off as he whimpered and pointed to where the stinger was jabbing him.  The bee was on his collar making peace with his maker (because bees die after they sting you) as I wiped him away. Besides that one incident, the rest of the time went smoothly.  Eldon inspected his beehives.  It seemed like he was looking for mold or moisture or some such thing.  He was satisfied.  When we left he gave me a jar of his “Eldon Waugh” Honey that he used to sell at the Farmer’s Market in Stillwater.  Then he drove me back to Stillwater.

There was something surreal about this experience, and in a few days, I was compelled to write a poem about it.  This is not a poem about Beekeepers in General.  This is a poem about Eldon Waugh, the Beekeeper as I saw him.  I don’t know where I placed it, so I can’t quote it now, so I’ll remake it up the best I can.  You have to excuse me, because I am not a poet (as you could tell with the Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost story), so bear with me.  It is short:

The Beekeeper

Bees diligently gathering nectar,

Weaving honey for the hive.

Pouring life into their work,

Spending energy for queen to stay alive.

Beekeeper gives shelter to be safe,

Benevolent ruler over all.

Sharing fields of flowers of his making,

Protecting helpless and small.

When time to pay the dues,

Beekeeper expects all to comply.

If one tries to deny his share,

Sting him once and you will die.

Why is this a Halloween story?  I know I speak harshly of Eldon Waugh and I know that when he went home he had a family like everyone else.  I know that Bill Moler his assistant plant manager was the same way.  If you met him at Church or somewhere else, he would treat you with the dignity that you deserved.  Something happened to them when they drove through the plant gates (I felt), that made them think they were invulnerable and all powerful.  Like Mister Burns in the Simpsons (as I was reminded this week).

Mr. Burns. The Evil Plant Manager. Amazing similar to the Evil Plant Manager at our plant.

Mr. Burns. The Evil Plant Manager. Amazingly similar to the Evil Plant Manager at our plant.

It was Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton) in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 that said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men”.   At this particular power plant, because it was so far removed from Corporate Headquarters and any other Electric Company departments, the situation allowed the Plant Manager to be an absolute ruler.  There wasn’t anyone there to look out for the employees.

A union had come through when the power plant was first coming online trying to get the plant to vote to join the union.  Many employees had worked for unions before, and they preferred the tyranny of the evil plant manager over the stifling corruption of the union.

I remember the first summer I was at the plant (in 1979) when everyone was abuzz about the union election.  Some people thought it would stop this “absolute power” syndrome infesting the two top dogs.  Those employees that had worked for unions warned the rest that to me sounded like joining a union was like selling their soul to the devil.  Some had even left their former employers to escape what they referred to as the “manipulation of their morals”.  It came down to voting for the lesser of two evils.

I would like to point out that Lord Acton said that Great men are almost “Always” bad.  There are exceptions.  There was one great liberating moment in Power Plant history at our plant that occurred in 1987 the day that our new plant manager arrived at our plant.  His name is Ron Kilman.

Ron called the maintenance department to a meeting to introduce himself to us in the main break room.  I remember that when he began speaking he told us a joke about himself.  I don’t recall the joke, but I do remember the reaction of the room.  I’m sure our reaction puzzled Ron, because we were all stunned.

I gave Charles Foster a look that said, “I didn’t know Plant Managers could joke!”  There must be some mistake.  No rattling of chains.  No “sacrifice your lives and families to provide honey for my table.”  Ron was a rather likable person.  It didn’t fit.  What was he doing as a Plant Manager?

Throughout the almost 7 years that Ron was the plant manager, we were free from the tyranny of the “Beekeeper”.  I have invited Ron to read my blog posts because he is one Plant Manger that even though he wasn’t one of the True Power Plant Men in the field showing their character daily by fighting dragons and saving fair maidens, he was our benevolent dictator that had the power to put his thumb down on the rest, but choosing “Might for Right” as King Arthur preferred.

King Arthur

Ok, so Ron Kilman doesn’t look exactly like King Arthur.  That would be stretching it a little.  Also… I’m sure some people found some reason to not like Ron Kilman through the years that he was Plant Manager.  That would be because he made some unpopular decisions from time to time.  That is the life of a Plant Manager.

When Ron first came to the plant, he really wanted to stay at the level of the regular working person. I believe that he meant it when he told us that.  As the years went by, the demands of managing the large plant occupied so much of his time that little time was left to spend with the people he cared about.

I remember him saying that his manager demanded him to be downtown in Corporate Headquarters so many days a week, and that left him little time at the plant. He asked me what I thought would be a solution to this problem.  I told him that I thought he should have a representative that would stay at the plant in his stead that would perform Plant activities and report to him directly.  Sort of as an extension of himself.  I was not thinking of his Assistant Plant Manager because he had his own job to do.

I was sometimes taken aback when Ron would ask a question like that because it surprised me that he valued my opinion. I will discuss Ron Kilman and why I believe that he is a man of great character in a later post.  I only mention him here to show the contrast between Eldon Waugh and Ron.  Both were in a position of ultimate power over their employees.  One took the high road, and one took the low.  Neither of them had ever been to Scotland as far as I know (ok.  I had to add another rhyme…  geez).

I also titled this post as a “Halloween Election” story.  I told you the scary part… that was the story about the beekeeper, in case you forgot to be frightened by it.  I also threw in the part about the Union Election as a meager attempt to rid the plant of total managerial tyranny.  But the real reason I made this a story about an Election is because of the striking similarity between Ron Kilman and Mitt Romney. My Gosh!  Have any of you noticed this?  Am I the only one that sees the resemblance?  Notice the chin, the hairline and even the gray side burns.

Ron Kilman

Mitt Romney

Happy Halloween, and good luck with the next election.

Comment from last Repost:

  1. Ron   October 30, 2013

    Thanks, Kevin. I appreciate your kind words. And thanks for inviting me to receive these posts. I love reading them and remembering my days with the Power Plant Men at Sooner. And by the way, we lived in University Estates too (at 30 Preston Circle).

Power Plant Weir Boxes and other Beautiful Sites

Originally Posted on November 10, 2012:

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” A line from the movie Apocalypse Now, may come to mind when reading the title stating that the Power Plant has sites of beauty. Especially the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. What could you find of beauty at a Power plant with a coal pile, and large metal structures?

The answer is found almost everywhere you look. I have mentioned before that the plant property is largely a wildlife preserve. A large man-made lake was constructed on a hill to provide cooling water for the plant condenser. In the process a veritable Shangri-La was created where wildlife could live in peace and comfort protected by the Power Plant Humans that maintained the grounds.

The second and third summers that I worked at the plant as a summer help, in 1980 and 1981, in order to go to work, I left my parent’s house from the back door each morning. From there, I walked behind three houses, where I climbed over a barbed wire fence into a field. I crossed the field and came out onto the dead end of a dead end road, where I walked over to Lakeview Drive. From there I walked about a quarter mile to the corner of Washington where I would catch a ride with whoever I was carpooling with at the time (usually Stanley Elmore).

During the summer of 1980, when I began working the 12 hour shifts 7 days a week to do the irrigation for the new grass we were trying to grow (see the post “When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays To Listen“). When I needed to be at work at 6 am each morning, I walked through the field at 5:15, the sky would just be at the point where you could vaguely see. I didn’t bring a flashlight so the first few weeks were more like feeling my way through the dark, looking for any clues to help guide me to the road and back to civilization. Luckily the cow (or bull) in the field didn’t seem to pay me any mind.

As the summer progressed, my trek to the corner was a little lighter each day. until I could comfortably see where I was walking. I bring this up because on one particular morning I came across something that I have never forgotten, and I’m sure I will never see again. After climbing over the barbed wire fence and turning to go down toward the road, I found myself at the edge of a field of Queen Anne’s lace that was left over from the year before. That is, the dead stalks of Queen Anne’s Lace (very similar to Hemlock).

I’m sure you have all seen Queen Anne’s Lace at one time or other if you have ever been in a field in the summer, as it is found everywhere in the United States.

Queen Anne’s Lace in a field

The Queen Anne’s Lace I saw was all dead, so the field was full of stalks that looked like this:

The ground was literally covered with these stalks, so that it blanketed the entire section of the field. Across the top of every one of the hundreds of thousands of stalks where the head of the plant formed a kind of bowl shape, a spider had weaved a blanket of web on each plant. The webs were all highlighted with morning dew as the sun had just enough light to brighten the dew on the webs so that the field appeared as if it had a magic blanket of silk laid across the top of it.

When I came to the edge of the field of Queen Anne’s stalks all covered with dew covered webs I just stood there in amazement. I knew that I was going to be the only person to ever view this beautiful site. So, I tried to absorb as much of it into my brain as I could. I realized that God had the thousands of tiny spiders work through the night weaving these webs and that He had materialized the dew softly across the field.

Similar to this, but the webs were finer making them look like little blanket on each plant

I knew I couldn’t remain there all morning and there was no way around the quilt of webs, so I finally had to bring myself to walk through the masterpiece. I mention this moment in my Power Plant life because you never know where something of great beauty is going to show up.

This brings us back to the plant where there are hidden places around the lake called Weir Boxes. Those who regularly work with Weir Boxes use them to measure the water flow through an irrigation system. The plant used weir boxes to measure the amount of leakage from the various dams around the main lake and an auxiliary lake used as a holding pond for water before being released to the lake once it is tested for purity.

The plant Weir Boxes look a lot like this

The flow rate can be measured by the amount of water flowing through the V shaped notch. When the lake was first built it was important to monitor the 6 weir boxes located around the lake to make sure the dams were stable and were not leaking. The water that leaked through the dam was generally routed through the weir boxes that were placed at the foot of the dry side of the dam by the use of a kind of “french drains” that were put in place when the dam was built.

As a summer help, when it came time each month for the weir boxes to be checked, we would climb into a pickup with some industrial sized Weed Eaters in the back and head for a trip around the lake. We would locate each weir box, and clean out any weeds or brush around them. Then we would mow a path through the weeds from the road to the weir boxes so the person coming by to inspect the weir box wouldn’t have to walk through the high brush to the box, possibly stepping on snakes and other native scary creatures.  That task was left to us.

When we did this task, it was usually the first thing we did in the morning. I know to Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, he loved the smell of Napalm in the morning, but I was more partial to the smell of freshly shredded weeds and grass. It was the only cool part of the day. It was only going to get hotter and stickier from there. So, I have always had a pleasant memory of doing Weir Box detail.

This reminds me of a trick that Stanley Elmore, the foreman over the summer helps, taught me. Since we would spend days on end going down a roadside with either a heavy duty weed wacker

Weed Chopper

Or an Industrial Weed Eater with saw blades strapped onto a shoulder harness chopping weeds all day:

One with two handles like this one

Stanley told me that in order to keep the mosquitoes away, you eat a banana in the morning before you leave the shop. For some reason by eating the banana, the mosquitoes would leave you alone. It worked like a charm, and I made sure that my mom had a stock of bananas in the house for my lunchbox each morning. It wasn’t until later that it was discovered that Avon had a skin oil product that repelled mosquitoes while leaving your skin soft and plush and nice smelling at the same time. It is called: “Skin So Soft”.

So now the secret is out why the Big Brawny He-man Power Plant Men smell so good and have such Beautiful Skin (no. I’m just kidding. They don’t really have beautiful skin — believe me!). It later became marketed as an insect repellent. It is still that way today. I suspect that the secret ingredient in Skin So Soft is Banana Oil.

Another trick that Bill McAllister taught me was that when Arthritis is bothering you, you just spray some WD-40 on your joints and rub it in, and it fixes it right up.

A can of WD-40

I told my dad, a Veterinary Professor at Oklahoma State University, about this. He told me that WD-40 had the same solvent in it that was used by veterinarians to rub medication on horses that helps the medication absorb into the animal. He warned that using WD-40 on your joints to lubricate your arthritic joints may make them feel better, but at the same time it pulls in the other chemicals found in the product that you wouldn’t want in your body.

The first summer when I was a summer help and I was in a truck driving around the perimeter of the new lake, that was still being filled, with Dee Ball looking for anything unusual, we spied what at first looked like a Muskrat near the edge of the water.

A Muskrat

Dee stopped the truck and climbed out to get a closer look. A Muskrat looks somewhat like a big rat and sort of like a beaver. What we were seeing looked more like an otter than a beaver.

An otter

But it wasn’t quite like an otter either. It was more furry. and dark. Dee knew what it was after watching it for a minute. He told me. “That is a Mink”. My first thought was how does Dee Ball know what a Mink is? He sounded so definite. To me Dee Ball, though he was in his early 40’s at the time, looked like an old farmer who had a hard life. He acted half crazy part of the time, though he was always respectful and kind. At least he wasn’t mad at you very long for playing a joke on him.

So, later I went and looked it up, and you know what? He was right. He had told me that it was unusual for Minks to be this far south, and again I wondered how he knew so much about something that wasn’t even from around there. He said that the mink must have followed the Arkansas river on down to the lake.

Pointing toward the north with his finger… and tracing it down until he pointed at the lake…. (that way he could show me how he was processing the journey of the Mink to the lake). I thought maybe some ranger had put posters up around the lakes up north letting the animal life know that a new animal preserve had opened up in Northern Oklahoma where even a Mink could live in peace knowing they would be safe from hunters and trappers.

This is what we saw. An American Mink

I remember Dee telling me that it was the tail of the mink that gave it away.

I have mentioned in the Post about “Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down By The River” that Bald Eagles migrate to the Power Plant every winter. This brings bird watchers to the lake to watch the Eagles. There is a link to view an Eagle’s nest on the Web.

The Cameras on Sooner Lake North of Stillwater

I have had the privilege along with the other Power Plant Men to watch these majestic birds, the symbol of the strength of our nation, each winter while I worked at the plant. I have seen a bald eagle swoop down onto the lake and grab a fish from the water.

Bald Eagle Catching a Fish

What a beautiful site!

The plant itself has a beauty of its own. When you visit the plant at night, you find that it takes on a surreal atmosphere. The same hissing of steam through the pipes is heard. The same vibration of the boiler and the bowl mills can be felt. But the plant lights up like a ship on the ocean.

The lake on the hill with the Power Plant in the distance at sunset

You can’t see the light here, but if you ever travel from Stillwater to Ponca City during the night, you see what looks like a huge ship lit up floating above the landscape off in the distance. It is truly a beautiful site.

Power Plant Summer Help Sanity Check

Originally Posted December 7, 2012:

What happens to a million dollar forest when left to the fate of two Power Plant Summer Help?  I can tell you; the result is not good.  Before I explain this statement, let me introduce some summer help to you so that you will have a deeper understanding of my summer help career.  It spanned 4 summers for a total of 12 months.

I would like to start out by saying that there were a few summer help that I thought were very intelligent and goodhearted people.  A dear friend of mine named Tim Flowers, who was a friend that I met while attending Oklahoma University my first year in school, was one of the smartest people you might run across in your lifetime.  He was also a very hard worker who didn’t mind putting his entire effort into his work.

Blake Tucker from Pawnee also had a brilliant mind and had an honorable work ethic.  He was fresh out of High School when he first went to work as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma.  During his years as a summer help, I spent a lot of time with him working on mathematical calculations and on programming feats of magic.

Bill Cook, though he didn’t put his back into his work the way some would have liked to see, he did go on to work at the power plant on the labor crew a year and a half before I finally made it onto that team of singularly distinguished characters.  Bill confided in me, and I consider him a friend, though I haven’t seen him in 30 years.

David Foster became a friend of mine the second summer when we were were summer help together. He only worked at the plant that one summer, but I talked to him a few times during the years when he was in college and I would run into him coming out of church or on campus.  His father was a dentist in Ponca City.

This leaves me with all the rest of the summer help that worked with me during those 4 summers.  I wrote a post about the first summer help I worked with that really didn’t fit the requirements, since you were supposed to be going to school in order to be a summer help.  That was Steve Higginbotham.  He was 34 at the time and not planning on attending school in the fall.  You can read more about him in the post:  Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown

Steve was a less than energetic person, but I could understand his lack of enthusiasm.  He had been dealt a shorthand in his life and he was making the best out of his situation.  What I found hard to understand were summer help that were fresh out of High School that were given the opportunity to work at an illustrious palace of a Power Plant, and they just didn’t want to work.

When I was leaving the house at age 14 to go to my first job where I was working for someone other than myself (I began selling tomatoes from my garden door-to-door at age 8), my dad told me something that became the core of my work ethic.  He said, “Son.”  Well, I don’t remember if he actually said “Son.” but it was something like that.  Maybe he said “Kevin, before you go, I want to tell you something.”  He said that I should do my best at whatever job they give me.  I should do a job that I would be proud to show others.  He never wanted to hear anything that would make him ashamed of me.

It was a thrill to go work at a German Restaurant as a dishwasher making $1.50 an hour.  I worked my tail off each night.  I didn’t know there was anything called “breaks”, and I focused on keeping ahead of the work so that I wouldn’t become swamped.

So, it was hard for me, by the time I was 20, to see summer help come to the plant and work real hard at not working.  Young football players from Pawnee, who you would think would be able to put their best foot forward, were usually standing around talking smack about that one doofus of a summer help that wanted to get to work right away.  That one guy that liked wearing his face shield and ear muffs hanging down from his hard hat swinging the industrial weedeater to-and-fro all day long.

One with two handles like this one

One with two handles like this one (I like reusing pictures from old posts)

This one group of summer help that were hired that summer all seemed to have the same bug, except for Bill  Cook.  Bill didn’t get along with them because he wasn’t from the same bully class that they graduated.  At one point during the summer the tension between them and Bill rose to such a level that they had to handle it the only way left.

Bill had to meet one of them outside the gate after quittin’ time to settle matters.  The truth of the matter was that Bill had done nothing to stir up their ire.  They just didn’t like him.  It seemed to be a personality issue with them.  From what I understand, the cowards received what was coming to them as usually happens when they have mistook someone to be a weakling and easy pickings.

To illustrate the intelligence of this particular group of summer help (there were 3 of them), let me describe an instance where they were struggling real hard to keep from working.  I didn’t understand their desire to keep doing what they were doing in the first place, so I wasn’t about to stay in the situation all afternoon.

Stanley Elmore had told us to mow the area around the main parking lot.  This included the area by the main entrance.  At that time there were sections of grass on all sides of the parking lot including the side by the garage (which is not there today).  Stanley sent me and the 3 of them (not Bill Cook.  I think he knew the tension between them and tried to work it so that Bill could be doing other things) out to mow this area with regular push mowers.

It was just after lunch when we started.  I knew right away that the three amigos wanted to make this job last all afternoon.  I think they were afraid that when they finished they would be sent to the park to empty the trash cans of the foul rotten fish guts and soiled baby diapers.  A job that would make most summer help puke and even bring water to the eyes of a True Power Plant Man.

Well.  I grabbed one of the lawn mowers and headed out across the drive to the grass and started mowing around and around one stretch of grass.  By the time the others had dragged their mowers out and took their time starting them, I had finished one stretch of grass and went around to the other side of the parking lot to work on that side as well.

The grass on the far side of the parking lot wrapped around by the welding shop and over to the front entrance.  So, once this entire section was done, we would be finished.  It really wasn’t that much grass to mow.  Not when you had 4 lawn mowers all going around in a counter clockwise direction.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three huddle together to have a quick discussion.  I knew they were going to try to thwart my efforts to quickly finish this job so they didn’t have to move on to the next adventure.  I also knew that there wasn’t anyway they were going to be able to stop me.

They had tried to stop me before earlier when we were going out to cut weeds down a long right-of-way.  One of them had let his weedeater string out real far so that the strings were sticking out about 2 feet.  He started his weedeater up so that the strings were whining and turned around so that the strings grabbed my leg and before I knew it I was flat on my back with a stabbing pain in my knee.  My kneecap had been knocked out of the socket, which I quickly hit with the palm of my  hand to knock it back over from the side of my knee.

I could see that this had been pre-planned by their reaction.  I think they thought it would take me out of commission or make me angry so they could watch me lose my top.  The guy that did it apologized in a half sarcastic way and I told him it was all right.  I wiped the dust off of my pants and grabbed my weedeater and went to work.  I could see them at the back of the truck standing there wondering where their plan had failed.

Anyway, back to mowing the grass around the parking lot.  I was able to tell immediately what they had planned.  Their idea was to hem me in and mow very slowly so that I would have no where to go but to follow along behind one of them travelling at a snails pace.  They were so slow they would take one step, wait a second, then take another step, etc.

So, as I came up behind one of them I suddenly took a left turn and cut a new path through the grass without even slowing down.  I quickly came to the other side of the curb, and I turned left again and was heading back in the direction I came from just as if nothing was wrong.

I knew the law of physics.  Newton’s First Law of Physics.  If a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion unless it is acted on by another force.  Well.  The mind of the weak have little force.  Newton was not only one of my favorite Physicist, he was one of my favorite Mathematicians as well.

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Well.  He did like sitting in the park under an apple tree.  — So how did they keep the grass mowed back in 1642?  Maybe they trained the grass just to stay small.  Why don’t we have grass that just stays short?  We could do that easy enough.

Because of the laws of motion and the size of my lawn mower and the speed in which I was mowing, I had calculated that I should be able to finish mowing the entire area in about 15 more minutes (or 900 seconds) if I were to do it all myself.  — Funny how things run through your mind when you are mowing grass.  No wonder Sonny Karcher loved mowing grass so much.

Sonny Karcher

Anyway.  That little story illustrates my point about how some summer help put all their brain power into thinking about how to stay out of work that they couldn’t even conceive of someone thinking outside the box.  How difficult was it for me to just turn and mow a patch of grass out in the middle of the stretch of grass we were mowing?

Once they realized that there wasn’t anyway to stop me, they went ahead and finished their job.  I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to stand out in the sun in 100 degree temperature anyway pretending to mow grass.  Didn’t they know that just made the day seem longer?

It was during that summer that the plant manager was sold on the idea of planting a forest around the coal yard to prevent the wind from blowing all the coal away (Oklahoma is windy).  So, a million dollars was spent to hire a company to plant a number of rows of trees along the south road next to the coal yard.  When the trees were planted, they were sickly little sticks.  The summer help were sent to go water them from time-to-time using the small Mitsubishi tractor pulling a trailer with a tank of water on it.

A tractor just like this

A tractor just like this

I have to admit that I never gave the idea much hope.  The ground where the trees were planted was hard clay.  The company that received the million dollars hardly even put any real usable tree-growing dirt in the hole when they planted the trees.

The trees were planted very close together so that you couldn’t mow around them on a tractor.  So, when the weeds started growing tall (…as tall as the trees) and the field had been mowed, Stanley sent a couple of the lazy summer help up there to weed eat around the trees.

I had been told some time in my childhood that one of the fastest ways to kill a tree was to strip the bark off all the way around the tree.  Not just strip the bark, but cut a little into the tree itself around the base of the tree.  If you did this, the tree would die.  The only actual living part of the tree is the outside section.  Here is a link to a site that describes the part of a tree and a picture from that site:

How Does A Tree Grow

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

So, do I need to go on?  That’s right.  When the summer help had finished trimming the verge around the trees their fate had been sealed.  Two summer help in a matter of an hour totally wiped out the million dollar tree experiment.  They had stripped the bark clean around every tree.

Not to be outdone.  The Plant Manager spent 2 million dollars to have larger trees installed with plenty of good soil around the embankments on the north side of the coal pile.  These were good healthy trees.There was even an irrigation system installed to make sure they were properly watered.  This worked at least a year or two.  Long enough for a lot of the trees to catch hold.  The only problem is that the wind almost always blows from the west or the south defeating the purpose of the “windbreak” on the north side of the coal pile.

Ok.  One more summer help story before I go.  A friend of mine named Ben Cox became a summer help for a summer the fourth summer I worked as a summer help (how many times can I use the word summer in one sentence?).  I had worked with him at the Bakery in Columbia, Missouri and he had followed me home that summer to try his hand at summer helping at the power plant.  Tim Flowers and I had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail.  I have mentioned Ben Cox before in the story about Ramblin’ Ann.  He and I used to tag team Ramblin’ Ann just to keep our sanity.  See the link below as a refresher on Ramblin’ Ann:

Ed Sheiver Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann

Ben wasn’t the most physically fit, and we didn’t want to see him have a heart attack at such an early age.  Ben, however, held his own as best he could and survived a summer of working outdoors.  He actually did better than Tim and I expected.

One day when we were driving to the coal yard Ben asked me why there were large hills of sand piled up across the road from the intake.  Instead of telling him that the sand had been dredged out of the intake channel when they were filling the lake and sand was being pumped from the river up to the lake with the water, I told him something else…

I told Ben that they kept the large piles of sand there in case they ran out of coal.  They would burn the sand as a last resort.  I explained that they didn’t like to burn sand because it burned hotter than coal and it turned into glass in the boiler and really messed things up.  But if there was a long coal strike and they totally ran out of coal, they would have to burn sand in order to keep producing electricity.

Tim and I watched closely as Ben mulled this over in his mind.  At first he didn’t believe me, but after I explained why we didn’t burn sand all the time, you could start to see the wheels turning in his mind.  Burning sand…. wow!  There is sand all over the place!  I never told him differently.  I’m sure if he tried to sell the idea to someone, he would have found out quick enough.

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman December 12, 2012:

Your stories are so good! They bring back memories I hadn’t thought of for years. The part about “burning sand” reminded me of the Brown & Root engineer that was looking for an easy way to put holes in a thick set of blueprints. “Someone” (Kenneth Palmer or John Blake might have been involved) convinced him that shooting them with a 22 would be the easiest way to do the job. He then proceeded to take a new set of prints and totally destroy them!

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 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.