Originally posted December 28, 2013:
Times were changing in 1987 when the electric company in Oklahoma decided that they needed to downsize the company in order to change with the new business environment. I always seemed to think that the executives down at corporate headquarters in Oklahoma City knew that the old pioneers in charge of the Power Plants would be very difficult customers when it came to the new business model.
Like I said…. Times were changing. The digital era was being introduced to the power industry. We had already upgraded the precipitator controls to make them computerized. Other areas of the plant were going to be next. Especially the employees. Of course, none of us knew that quite yet, except Bill Rivers, who was a natural visionary, and he was gone.
Side story time:
I had always been interested in computers and programming from the time I was a sophomore in High School when I had just turned 15 years old. My friend Jesse Cheng had introduced me to one of the first programmable calculators, the HP-25.
This was the most wonderful Christmas present I had ever received. I literally felt myself fainting when I opened the present and found that I had been given a pair of cowboy boots, only to find an HP-25 calculator inside when I opened it up. Ralphie had nothing on me that day.
It was much like the Christmas Story with Ralphie. I had tried every with way to convince my parents that using a slide rule in High School was passe (pronounced “pass A”). All the other students in my advanced chemistry class were using calculators, and I was still stuck with my dad’s old circular slide rule. It was a pretty neat one, I’ll grant you that, but it just… well….. I could work things out on paper faster than I could use the slide rule.
I introduced my friend Jesse Cheng in the post “Why Do Power Plant Men Always Lose the Things They Love Most“. He had an HP-25 calculator and had loaned it to me to take a Chemistry test. He showed me how it used Reverse Polish Notation, which is different than a normal calculator, but more like a computer.
The calculator could be programmed with 49 steps. Because it had a stack built right into it, and the reason it used Reversed Polish Notation, we could create all sorts of games with just those 49 steps. The book that came with the calculator had a moon landing game. We made more sophisticated games, like one called Battleship.
Anyway. Because of this early exposure with actually programming something in a logical manner, I was eager to learn more about programming. During college, my calculator was often sitting on my desk in the dorm room running a long program to help me perfect a random number generator. Finally in my Junior year in college, my calculator was completely fried.
After I was married at the end of 1985, I began subscribing to a magazine called “Compute”. It had actual programs in it in Basic. I would read the programs to learn how it worked, but at that point, I didn’t own a computer, so all I could do was dream about writing programs.
It wasn’t until Thanksgiving 1987 when I went to visit my ol’ friend Jesse Cheng in Columbia, Missouri who was interning as a medical doctor that I felt a sudden need to have a computer of my own. He had built a computer using a Heath Kit and we used it to play two computer games. One was called Starflight:
The other was called F15 Strike Eagle:
When I returned home I was pretty eager to buy a computer. Up until that time, every time my wife and I had gone to the mall, I always had stopped in the computer stores to look at the latest computers. I never had really considered buying one. But now, they had 20 megabyte hard drives! And you could play these terrific games like Starflight and F-15 Strike Eagle.
So, one day after we had left the mall, and my wife could see the look on my face, she finally said…. “Why don’t you go and buy one?” I asked her, “Are you sure? Because you know what is going to happen if I get a computer. I’ll be playing on it all the time.” She said, “No. I want you to go buy one.” So we turned around and went back to the mall.
That was the start of my journey into the world of computers.
End of Side Story.
As I explained in the post “Boppin’ with Bif during the Power Plant Downsizing“, the company offered an early retirement package for everyone 55 years old and older. They would give them full benefits to leave. This meant that our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey, as well as the assistant plant manager, Bill Moler and the Plant Manager, Eldon Waugh were all going to retire some time in August 1987.
We had a retirement party for Leroy Godfrey out in the country at Diana Brien’s house. A bunch of the electricians were there including Mark Meeks, who Leroy knew at the time was the one that was going to be laid off. Mark commented about that later when he was told that he was losing his job that Leroy had sat there and smiled at him while we were at the party. Mark knew Leroy didn’t like him, but hadn’t expected to be the one to go since everyone thought it would be Gary Wehunt, since he was the newest member in the shop.
I explained in the post, “The Passing of an Old School Power Plant Man — Leroy Godfrey” what Leroy’s management style was like. It was very top-down, if you know what I mean. It was like, “Because I told you so.” No need to explain anything. That was the world of Power Plant Management up to that point.
I think Corporate Headquarters realized that this needed to change in order for the company to compete in a world where electric companies could no longer count on the Corporation Commission to guarantee a sustainable electric rate or even a set number of customers. The world of electric power was changing rapidly and the company needed to move on from the mentality that it could be run like a “good ol’ boys” club.
It is easier to teach young dogs new tricks than older and crankier ones. It looked to me like this was a logical choice when looking back using hindsight. I think the company was making a bold move. I don’t think they really had much of a choice if they wanted to survive.
So, we had the main retirement party at the plant where people stood up and told stories about the old guys that were retiring. Nothing much happened there except the part where Leroy Godfrey’s daughter stood up and said that we just had to work with him, while she had to live with him… see the post about Leroy above for the full story about that.
Then the following Monday. I believe it was August 17, 1987, everyone was told to meet in the main break room for a meeting with our new management. That was when we were introduced to our new plant manager, Ron Kilman.
I remember a certain part of the meeting very well. Ron said something funny. It didn’t matter exactly what he said. I don’t even remember what it was. Probably something self-deprecating. I leaned over to Charles Foster, who had been my foreman for a while (on that day, it was officially Andy Tubbs). I said, “I didn’t know Plant Managers could tell jokes!”
Charles looked back at me and I raised my eyebrows and tilted my head while the corners of my mouth went down. — This was one of the signals I had learned while carpooling with Bud Schoonover when I needed to communicate with Dick Dale without saying anything out loud (see the post: Carpooling with Bud Schoonover“. This particular expression meant, “Maybe this won’t be such a bad thing.”
Ron Kilman remained the plant manager at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma for the next 7 years. The stories that I will post during this next year will all be at least partially from this time period. During this time, there were some decisions that Ron made that I applauded, and others that even he would admit he wished he hadn’t made.
All in all, I think that Ron has a good heart and that those times when he did make a rash decision, it was evident that he was falling back to his “management training” and not managing from his heart. Old School management training left a lot to be desired.
During the 7 years from 1987 to 1994, the power plant saw a lot of changes. Some I have alluded to already. Such as the move to computerize everything. The other was a total change in how management works. Or at least that was the attempt.
People were willing to step out of their regular day-to-day jobs and try new things that they thought would help the plant. Many of these things were successful. Some of them failed, but not so miserably as they would have if the earlier management had been around. The employees felt as if they had more of a say in how the plant ran instead of feeling like they were just a bunch of tools running around fixing things.
I have a quote from Ron Kilman that said it all one day after a catastrophe had occurred. It summed up his management style as opposed to his assistant manager, Ben Brandt. I will relay the exact story later, but for now I’ll just say that when Ben Brandt saw what happened, the first thing that he said was, “Who did this?” When Ron Kilman saw what had happened, the first thing he said was, “How can we prevent this from happening again?”
Ben’s approach was from the old school of thought. Blame and punish the culprit. Later when we were drastically changing the way process improvements took place, my favorite quote from Ben Brandt is, “I am the obstacle! We aren’t going to change because I say so.” We all had to agree. He was definitely the obstacle.
Ron’s approach was one more like a leader. “Let’s get the job done right.” Sure, he is human, so the decisions weren’t always perfect, but I think in general, he was leading where other people may have been dragging.
Well… I will say no more for now… I look forward to writing stories about this time period during this next year. I’m sure there are a lot of those at the plant just as eager to see how I portray the different events that took place during this time.
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Originally posted February 28, 2014:
One day, seemingly out of the blue, a van drove into the parking lot of the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. It was carrying some people that had come to our plant to perform drug tests on everyone in the plant. The test consisted of each one of us going into the Men’s rest room (or Women’s rest room, depending on the usual one you occupied) and peeing into a small bottle while someone stood behind you keeping their eye on you. This was the first time drug testing like this had taken place at the plant. A few years earlier, in order to find “druggies”, the “snitch” was hired to go around and try to coax people to go hide somewhere and do drugs with the snitch. I wrote about this in the post “Power Plant Snitch“.
This was different. The first time, it would obviously have been a case of entrapment to have someone come around and ask you to go to a janitor closet somewhere and smoke an illegal substance. Drug testing was more objective. If the drug test came up positive, you knew you were either guilty of taking illegal drugs or you were pregnant (or… maybe that was the other test). We had heard before that we may at any time be subjected to drug testing, so when the people showed up to actually do it, I don’t think many people were surprised.
For the most part, there were few people that had an issue with going into the bathroom and peeing in a small bottle. There were, however, a couple of exceptions. The person that I remember had the most problem with it was Diana Brien. She said that when she went in to try to pee in a bottle with someone watching her, she just couldn’t do it. I figured this must be a problem more with women then men. For one reason. Men are always standing there peeing into something with other people standing right next to them watching them.
Just today when I was at work peeing into the urinal at work, I turned to the right and said, “Hey Tom! How’s it going?” Tom said, “Fine buddy! How are things with you?” I replied, “Oh, you know. I’m still here. That’s something.” We both nodded and went about our business. Something tells me the same thing doesn’t happen in the Women’s restroom.
With Power Plant Men, it is even more cordial than that. We tend to take showers in groups in one big community shower, where in the women’s locker room, they each had their own stall with a curtain. I only know because as an electrician, I had to go in there to change light bulbs.
The cordial nature of Power Plant Men in the shower came to my attention one day when I was a janitor cleaning out the bathroom in the Coalyard Maintenance building where the Labor Crew was housed. I remember hearing a conversation between Dale Mitchell and Chuck Morland as they were coming out of the shower. Dale told Chuck, “Gee Chuck, after seeing you, I have to question my manhood….” He went on to describe why. I won’t go into detail, but it had to do with Chuck Morland having a lot more “Manhood” than Dale had. You can probably guess that while I was around the corner mopping out the stalls where the toilets were, I was doing my best not to laugh out loud.
It literally took Dee all day to drum up enough nerve to go take the drug test. She kept drinking coffee, and water, but every time she had to go pee in front of the person from Corporate Headquarters, she froze up. By the end of the day, she had peed in the bottle, and it was over. Of the 250 employees, I don’t know if any were found to have been on drugs. After the warning, I wouldn’t have thought so. We were under the impression that if it was determined that you were on drugs, then they would take you to someplace where a more trustworthy test could be performed. If you were found to be on drugs, then we thought at that point that you would lose your job.
A few weeks before the drug tests began, when they were warning us that they were coming they said that if any of us had a drinking or a drug problem, they should come forward soon and ask for help. If you asked for help, then the company would provide services for you that would help you with your problem. If you later failed the drug test and you hadn’t asked for help, then you were going to be fired.
There was one person in our shop that we figured wasn’t going to be able to pass the drug test. That was Michael Rose. He drank so much that his blood alcohol level was normally high enough that if you were in an underground coal conveyor tunnel and the lights all went out, all you had to do was prick his finger and light it with your lighter, and you had a mini-torch until you were able to find your way out. When he passed the drug test it was pretty plain that either the test wasn’t worth a flip, or they weren’t testing for the type of alcohol Mike consumed.
In the following years, drug tests were supposedly administered by random. I will tell you why I say, “supposedly”. Some time after the initial drug test, one morning, our team was told to all get in a truck with our foreman and drive to Ponca City to a clinic and have a drug test taken. I think this was a blood test. It was done in such a rushed way, it was like they were on to someone, but didn’t want to just have that one person go take the test. That way, no one would be upset by being singled out to go take a drug test. At least that is what it seemed.
I remember our team all sitting there in the waiting room waiting to be tested. We each went in one at a time. When we were done, we drove back to the plant, and nothing was ever found (as far as we knew). I thought maybe this was the second level test because some anomaly had showed up on one of our initial tests. Anyway, it seems like all of us passed the second round of drug tests.
After that, about once ever year or two, a set of people would be randomly chosen from the plant to be drug tested. I know when most of those drug tests occurred because I was randomly chosen more times than not to be tested. In the next 10 years, I was tested at least 5 more times. So much so that I began to wonder why. It seemed as if every time there was a “random” drug test, I was chosen. I was usually with a different bunch of Power Plant Men, but each time I was there. Was I just so lucky? I am you know. I wrote a post about that. See “Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck“.
I may have just been paranoid, but it came as less of a surprise each time. The tests even became more sophisticated. Eventually, there was a chart on the side of the bottle you peed in. So, not only did it take your temperature, but it also measured your urine to see if you were trying to cheat the test.
I didn’t mind taking the tests. I figured it might as well be me than any of the other Power Plant Men. Why bother them? We were all clean.
It was when I was watching a movie once where someone sniffed some cocaine up their nose that an idea came to me as to why I might be singled out to take the drug test each couple of years. You see, I had the habit of wiping my nose with the back of my hand. Not because I had the sniffles, but because it was irritated all the time.
When I was in college I had my nose broken one night when a friend, Jeff Firkins and I were going for a walk in Columbia, Missouri. It was around two in the morning, and somehow we just ended up in Douglas Park spinning around on a merry-go-round.
My friends from Columbia who read this blog know that when you were Caucasian in the spring of 1980, it is not a clever idea to go play on the merry-go-round in Douglas Park at night. I seem to remember looking very Caucasian in 1980.
We were having so much fun that we didn’t mind when a couple of local park dwellers came and gave us a subtle hint that they wanted us to leave their turf. So, eventually, it ended with a scuffle between myself and 4 other guys in which I ended up with a broken nose. I knew that I had a cut across my nose from one guy’s ring, but I didn’t realize it was actually broken until many years later when an ear, nose and throat doctor x-rayed it and showed it to me.
I thought that because I was always rubbing my nose, then Louise Kalicki was suggesting to the drug testers that I would be likely candidate for sniffing something up my nose. I didn’t mind disappointing them each time. The nearest I came to sniffing something up my nose was when I worked in the bakery and I ate a lot of powdered donuts.
When I left the electric company in 2001, in order to go work for Dell, I had to take a drug test. I had to go to a local doctor in Stillwater, Oklahoma and have my blood drawn. Then that was the end of it. After working for Dell for 12 years, I have not been subjected to repeated drug testing. Working in a corporate environment is much different, however than working in a power plant.
I think it is much more of a factor when the Power Plant Men and Women that work in a Power Plant are on drugs. I certainly wouldn’t want to work around someone on drugs in a power plant. There are too many ways in which someone could be hurt or killed. Driving heavy equipment, or operating machinery that could crush you in a heartbeat, you want to make sure that the person in the driver’s seat is fully functional and aware.
There was only one time when I was at the plant where I can remember that someone was fired because they were on the job while they were intoxicated. It was an unfortunate case, because the poor guy had things going on in his life at the time that were only exacerbated by him losing his job. I think at one point, he became so low after being fired that someone described him as a bum roaming the streets of Tulsa.
I had only wished that it had been possible for him to have kept his dignity and been offered help. I know those things aren’t always possible and there were other factors involved I’m sure. Just a side note. I believe that this man, whom I have always held in the highest regard, finally picked himself up by his bootstraps and regained his self respect.
As I mentioned earlier, Mike Rose passed his drug test that day, to everyone’s surprise. Even he was surprised. One weekend he had been called out to work to fix the air conditioner for the logic room. When Bill Bennett called Mike, Mike told him that he had been drinking and he wasn’t really fit to go to work at the moment. Bill assured him that it would be all right, if he could only go out and get the logic room air conditioner fixed quickly.
The logic room is the room that houses the plant computer that runs all the equipment in the plant (or it did at the time). It didn’t like being warm. If you can imagine the heat in the middle of the summer in Oklahoma. The plant operation was going to be jeopardized if something wasn’t done quickly. Jim Stevenson had already been fired because of the Snitch that I mentioned at the top of the post. So at the time, Mike was the only option available.
Mike went to work and found that the main relay to the air conditioning unit wasn’t picking up. So, in his inebriated state, he took a block of wood and pressed it against the lever that manually pushed the relay in, and closed the door on it so that the block of wood was pinned between the door and the lever. Keeping the air conditioner running. Needless to say, there was a legitimate reason why the relay wasn’t picking up, and by Monday morning the unit had burned up.
I think it was Leroy (or it may have been Tom Gibson) wanted to fire him right away for going to work drunk and destroying the air conditioner. Bill Bennett came to his rescue and pointed out that Mike had warned him before he came to work that he was drunk and Bill had assured him that it would be all right just this once. What could you say? I suppose shoulders were shrugged and life at the Power Plant went on as usual. I don’t think the drug testing ever amounted to anything. When someone was let go, it wasn’t because they had peed in a bottle.
Originally posted May 9, 2014:
There were times when I was working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I wondered if there was anything that we couldn’t do. Surrounded by True Power Plant Men I found that when we were facing a seemingly impossible task, a Power Plant Man would come up with an extremely creative solution to the problem. One such example was during the “We’ve Got The Power” program. I talked about this program in an early post called “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” so I won’t go into detail here about the program itself. I will just say that we broke out into teams to find creative ways to operate more efficiently, and to cut costs.
I was a team leader of our team, and looking back I must have had two criteria in mind when I picked the team members that would be on my team. The first would have been that they were True Power Plant Men (and woman) with a higher than average intelligence. The second criteria would have been that they were friends of mine. I say this, because everyone on my team fit the bill.
During out team meetings, Terry Blevins would often say some bombastic statement that the average person may be inclined to dismiss immediately as being absurd. I say that because I remember more than once thinking that what Terry had just said wouldn’t amount to much. As it turned out, our biggest money saving ideas were those truly bombastic statements that Terry was making. One such idea had to do with the heaters on the precipitators that kept the hoppers and the insulators on the roof too hot to collect moisture.
The Precipitator is a very large box that takes the ash out of the exhaust before it goes out of the smoke stack (how many times have I made that statement in the last two years?). Anyway, the exhaust from the boiler after the coal has been turned to ash in the fireball in the boiler contains a large amount of moisture. The last thing you want to happen is for the temperature of the flue gas to fall below the dew point. When that happens, moisture collects on the structure in a form of… well… of Acid Rain. Basically eating away the precipitator and the duct work from the inside.
Somewhere along the line, it had been determined that the dewpoint of the flue gas was not higher than 250 degrees. So, as long as the structure was at least 250 degrees, no moisture would be collected. Four heaters were mounted on each of the 84 hoppers (on each of the two precipitators) and heaters were mounted on the roof around each of the insulators that held up the wire racks on both ends.
When Terry walked into the office to attend one of our first “We’ve Got The Power” team meetings, he said, I think we could save a lot of money if we did something about the heaters on the precipitator. — He may remember being greeted with blank stares (at least from me). Um. Ok. Heaters on the precipitator. I knew they were everywhere, but I never gave them much thought.
I think Terry could tell right away that I hadn’t taken his idea seriously. I don’t know. Maybe he was bothered by the sound of my eyeballs rolling around in circles as if someone has conked me on the head. So, he explained his idea further. He pointed out that the roof heaters on just one of the precipitators used about 211 kilowatt-hours and the hopper heaters used about 345 kilowatt-hours. Together it is more than half a Megawatt of power. — This definitely caught our attention. That meant that between both of the Precipitators (since we had two boilers at our plant), we could possibly save over a Megawatt of electricity every hour we could shut down the heaters.
After discussing all the aspects of the idea, we decided that in order for the idea to have any merit, we had to know if the dew point really was around 250 degrees, or was it possibly a lot lower. 250 degrees seemed high to begin with since the boiling point of water is 212 degrees. If lower, then we could have a workable idea. Originally, I wanted to tackle the task of finding the dew point. So, I went about it in a Science Experiment sort of way.
I figured that if we were able to lower the temperature of the flue gas to a known temperature below the dewpoint, and by knowing the volume of the gas, and the amount of liquid we could condense out of it, we could determine (possibly) the dew point. So, I brought my Graham Condenser to work, and Scott Hubbard and I went up to the 250 foot landing on the smoke stack with the intent of sucking a known amount of exhaust from the smoke stack while the unit was at full load.
We would run it through the condenser while running cool water through it to lower the temperature.
I could measure the output of the vacuum pump by filling up an inverted Erlemeyer flask with water and then letting the flue gas displace the water. — I always loved doing experiments like this in the 9th grade science glass with Mr. Godfrey our Physical Science Teacher (Donna Westhoff, who may sometimes read this blog was in my class and sat right behind me).
Ok. Side Story, since I mentioned Donna Westhoff from the 9th grade 1974-75 school year.
I knew that Donna’s father was a fire fighter, because one day during a special outing when we were with a group of bicycling Junior High School students and a teacher, we stopped at Donna Westhoff’s house to get a drink of water. On the walls in her house were different types of fire fighting treasures. Donna explained that her father was a fire fighter… That was the Spring of 1975 in Columbia, Missouri
Fast forward 16 years later (1991) at the Power Plant in the middle of nowhere in North Central Oklahoma. Just about a year after the story I’m telling now…. I left the logic room and went to catch the elevator to the Control room. When the doors opened, Tony Mena was in there with a bunch of college age students giving them a tour of the plant. I entered the elevator and turned around to face the door as it closed.
As I was standing there, I suddenly became aware that the person standing next to me was staring right at me. So, I turned to see who it was. Standing next to me was someone that looked very familiar wearing a big grin as if she knew who I was. I recognized her, and while my mind was going through filing cabinets of memories trying to index this particular person, I asked her, “Don’t I know you?” She shook her head and said, “I’m Donna Westhoff!”
As the elevator door opened and we stepped out, Donna and I began talking about what we were both doing there. She was surprised to find that I had become an electrician at a power plant instead of some kind of scientist in a lab somewhere. Donna was going to school in Stillwater where one of the best Fire Fighting Schools in the country is found. Following in her father’s footsteps, I thought. After a while I could tell that Tony was getting a little perturbed that the wisdom he was imparting about the fire protection system on the Turbine Generator wasn’t being absorbed by Donna, so I cut our conversation short. It turned out that a very good friend of hers lived just two houses from where we lived, and her friend’s mother was my landlord. Peggy Pickens.
Ok. End of the side story, and another example of how I occasionally run into friends from my childhood in the most unexpected places (see the post: “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“).
So. Scott Hubbard and I tried using the Graham Condenser and the Erlenmeyer Flask, but we quickly found out that this wasn’t big enough, to capture a large enough quantity. So, we increased the size of the condenser by winding a garden hose around inside of a water bucket and filling it with ice. Then we captured all the water that condensed in the hose.
When it finally came down to it. Even though it was fun trying to do this experiment halfway up the 500 foot smoke stack, I never was able to figure out how to calculate the dew point given the data I had collected.
That’s when we decided to look at dew point sensors in the parts catalogs. If we could stick a probe down into the precipitator and measure the dew point directly in the flue gas, that would be best. After looking at a few in the catalog, Terry Blevins said he thought he could make one. So, he went to work.
The next day he came in with an inch and a half conduit with hoses hanging out the back and a homemade sensor on the other end. I won’t go into detail how the sensor was built because some day Terry may want to patent this thing because, as it turned out, it was so sensitive that it could detect my breathe from about a foot away. If I breathed out of my mouth toward the sensor, it would detect the moisture in my breath. This was perfect!
We went to work on the roof of the precipitator sticking the probe down into different sections of the precipitator. It not only measured the moisture, it also had thermocouples on it that we used to accurately measure the temperature of the sensor as we varied the temperature by blowing cold air through the conduit using the same ice bucket and hose from before.
I could go into a lot of detail about how we performed our experiments, but it would only excite me and bore you. So, let me just say that we came up with two very important results. First of all, at full load when the humidity outside was at 100% the dew point was around 150 degrees! A full 100 degrees below what the plant had originally assumed. This was very important, because a lot of energy was spent trying to keep the flue gas above 250 degrees, and just by lowering it down to 210 degrees, still a safe amount above the dew point, that extra energy could be used to create electricity.
The second thing that we discovered was that the middle sections of the precipitator was a lot cooler inside than the outer fields. We realized that this was caused by the air preheater coils that rotated between the flue gas and the Primary Air intake duct. This took the last amount of heat possible from the exhaust and transferred it to the air going into the boiler so that it was already hot when it was used to burn the coal. Because of the way the air preheater coils rotated, the part of the duct toward the middle of the precipitator was a lot cooler than the air on the outside.
Lower temperatures in the precipitator increased the performance, so we decided that if we could mix the air around as it was going into the precipitator so that the outer edges were cooler, then it would increase the overall performance. One suggestion was to put a mobile home in the duct work because in Oklahoma it was a known fact that mobile homes attracted tornadoes and it would probably cause a tornadic reaction that would mix up the flue gases. — We just couldn’t figure out how to convince management to put a mobile home in the duct between the economizer and the precipitator.
Thanks to Terry’s handy dandy Dew Point Sensor, we were able to prove that the hopper and roof heaters could be lowered to where we set the thermostat at 180 degrees. At that setting the heaters that used to always run at 250 degrees would remain off anytime the ambient temperature was above 45 degrees. In Oklahoma, that is most of the year. This turned out to save over $350,000 per year in energy savings at a cost of about 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Not to mention the unknown savings from being able to lower the flue gas temperature by 40 degrees.
Originally posted May 30, 2014:
Unlike the story I told a few weeks ago about Jim Padgett, this is not a story about being called to work in the middle of the night by a true Power Plant Man (See post: “Making A Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes“) or even like the story that explained the “Power Plant Black Time and the Six Hour Rule“. No. This is a quick story about a sobering slap in the face I encountered when walking into the electric shop one morning at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
I think this must have been when I was on someone’s short list for a “Power Plant Joke”, or maybe I just hadn’t been paying attention a month earlier when Bill Bennett may have informed me that this morning was coming. Either way, I was totally taken off guard when I entered the shop that morning with Scott Hubbard, my Carpooling buddy.
The first indication that something was up was that there were three contract hands standing there dressed in their worn clothing indicating that they had been hired to do some kind of “manual” activity. Yep. Worn jeans with holes. Shirts slightly ripped. One guy missing the sleeves on his shirt. I think one of them had accidentally taken a shower before he showed up. He may have mixed up his Mondays and Saturdays and woke up grumpy on Saturday and took a shower on Monday.
None of the contract hands had thought about shaving for the past week or so. So, they definitely looked out of place in the shop usually occupied by professional Power Plant Electricians, who liked to keep themselves clean and generally followed good hygiene practices.
My first thought was, “Hmm…. Looks like there is some dirty job someone has to do in the shop today. I wonder what it is.” I walked into the electric shop to wait until 8:00 to come around. Bill Bennett was leaning against one of the desks talking to Charles Foster. I asked Bill, “What’s up with the Contractors?”
Bill replied, “They are here to help you.” “What am I going to be doing?” I asked curiously. “You know. Pulling wire from the Vital Service Panel to the Telephone Room in the main office.” “Oh. That.” I replied trying to remember if I could recall ever being told that I was supposed to be inheriting this particular job.
The last time I had felt like this was when I was in High School and our American History teacher told us that the semester class projects were due tomorrow and he continued to explain that we would be presenting the projects in alphabetical order. “Which means that Kevin Breazile. You will be going first.”
Side Story Time:
Class Project? Oh No! I had forgotten all about it! I was supposed to write a paper about the Roadway system in the United States, including how we were preparing to go to the Metric System.” (Like that ever happened… This was in 1976).
So, after school I went straight home and told my mom that I needed to go to the Public Library to prepare for a class project that needed to be done tomorrow. At the library I quickly grabbed a bunch of facts out of encyclopedias. I made up a few statistics about how many miles of roads there were in the United States.
Then once I was back at home, I thought about the roads in the U.S. Well, there were dirt roads, gravel roads, asphalt roads, and roads made of concrete. So. I filled a jar with dirt. One with some rocks I found out in the street. I found a piece of asphalt that had worked itself loose at the intersection by my house. I also found a chunk of concrete under our deck in the backyard where we had busted up our patio once to pour a new one…. These were my props for my presentation.
I remembered that on the way from Kansas City To Columbia Missouri along Highway 70, there was a sign that said, 100 Miles or 160 Kilometers to Columbia. There was also one just outside Saint Louis going to Columbia that said the same thing. So, I added that to my presentation. This met the requirement of how the roadways were moving to the metric system.
When the presentation began, I began handing the jars to someone in the front row to pass around the class….. Yeah. A jar of dirt. A jar of rocks, and a piece of asphalt and the chunk of concrete. I remember our teacher, Mr. Wright grabbed the chunk of Concrete when I gave it to the guy in the front row and looking it over, then pointing to a spot on it and saying, “I can see the skid marks here where I almost hit you!”
Anyway. I ended the presentation by taking the chunk of concrete after it had been passed around the class and holding it up and saying that if we continued to create roads at the same pace that we have over the last 60 years, by the year 2076 the world will look like this…. And I held up the chunk of concrete. — Of course.. I had totally made that statistic up out of thin air. — I got an A+ for that project which was worth 1/3 of our grade for the semester.
End of side story.
So, here I was again, fourteen years later, and I was being told that I had a crew of guys standing out in the shop waiting for directions on how to pull cable from the Logic room just below the control room, across the T-G building and into the middle of the Office building on the top floor. Even though the Office was on the 3rd floor, it was equivalent to the 6th floor of an office building.
From experience, I knew that the cable would have to be pulled from the logic room down to the cable spreading room below the main Switchgear, through two manholes, then up through conduit to the office area above the break room kitchen and over to the Telephone room.
I had done nothing to prepare for this. I hadn’t looked through the blueprints to find the best route. I hadn’t even seen the large spool of wire on the pallet in the Main Switchgear waiting to be used. I hadn’t even prepared myself by looking confident like I knew what I was doing….
Bill walked out the door leaving me in the office with Charles. I wasn’t sure if Charles could tell that I was completely blind-sided by this job or not. But he did give me a quick “leg up”. He said, “Seems to me that there is already power going from the VSP (for Vital Services Panel) to the Telephone room.”
Well. I already knew that I was really lucky. Especially when I asked Saint Anthony to help me find a solution to a problem. So, I quickly glanced over in the corner where Saint Anthony liked to lean against the wall while he waited for me to come to my senses and have some faith. In my mind I could see Anthony shrug like, “sounds like you might give it a try.”
So, I walked… no… I strolled out into the shop like I belonged there….. — Oh… yeah. I did. But at that particular moment I didn’t feel like it, so I thought maybe if I walked like I felt like I did, it would help me feel that way.
I asked Scott Hubbard if he could help me check to see if we had power in the Telephone Room from the Vital Services Panel. He said he would be glad to help (this was Scott’s usual response. — A True Power Plant Man Response).
I asked him to go the Telephone room while I went to the Vital Service Panel for Unit 1 in the Logic Room. Scott took his handy Dandy Voltage Checking Tool and headed off toward the Office area.
I headed for the Logic Room with a pair of Fuse Pullers:
The Vital Service Panel is mounted on the wall next to the UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply). I opened it and read the labels inside of the cover. After scanning the list of locations that were fed from this panel I found one that could have been the one circuit I was looking for.
It was cryptically labelled in pencil “Telephone Room”. Hmmm…. I wonder if this is it… My mind had quick as a snap decrypted this entry and came up with “Telephone room”. — That sure sounds like this would provide power to the Telephone room. Let’s just hope that it is labelled correctly.
I waited until Scott called me on the gray phone to tell me that he was in place by the Telephone room. He had checked all of the receptacles (plug ins) in the room, and they all had power on them.
I told him that I would remove the fuse to the circuit that looked like it provided power to the telephone room, so in about 15 seconds, he could check to see if any of the receptacles was dead. So, we did just that. I removed the fuse….. — My first thought was…. Good. I didn’t trip the unit. I would have known that right away. — You never know… pulling a fuse out of a panel labelled “Vital Services Panel” kind of leaves you to believe that the stuff in this panel is really really important.
I went back to the gray phone and waited for Scott to get back on the phone. About 15 more seconds and Scott returned. He told me that the power had turned off on one of the receptacles on the wall. I told him I was going to put the fuse back in and head up to the telephone room so that he could show me where it was.
Literally 20 minutes after I had been jolted awake by the revelation that I was supposed to lead a crew of contractors on a wire pull that I had not prepared for, I had found out that the wire was already there. No wire pull was necessary.
Scott showed me where the receptacle was, and we walked back to the electric shop. Bill Bennett was standing in the shop wondering where I had disappeared to (oops. ended the sentence with a preposition. I should know better than that. I should have said, “….where I went.”). I was still wondering in the back of my head if I had just completely forgot that Bill had ever told me about this, or maybe he had forgotten to mention it in the first place, or he had not told me on purpose just to see how I would react to the sudden revelation that I had a semi-difficult job with no time to prepare for it.
I waited for Bill to follow me into the electric shop office. Which he did. Standing there with as straight of a face as I could muster, I looked at Bill as he asked me when I was going to start pulling the wire. The Contractors are just standing around doing nothing.
I said, “The job is already done. The wire has already been pulled.” “What do you mean? It’s still in the switchgear on the pallet.” Bill responded. I shrugged and said, “We don’t need to pull wire from the Vital Services Panel. There is already a circuit from that panel to the telephone room.” I looked over at Charles and smiled. Charles smiled back. Bill said something like, “Oh… Then I wonder what we are going to do with these contractors. We have them for three days.” Then he left the office.
I thought that somehow Charles knew something about my being “setup for some kind of failure” and had this up his sleeve all along so that it would backfire. — Just my luck. With three of my best friends standing there, how could I fail…. Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and Saint Anthony.
We had the contractors sweep out switchgears for the next 3 days.
Comment from the original Post
Originally posted June 21, 2014. I updated dates and added some new things.
I don’t know if anyone of us knew what to expect Wednesday morning January 13 , 1993 when we were told to go to a meeting in the break room that was going to take all day. We were supposed to be in some kind of training. Everyone at the plant was going to have to go through whatever training we were having. Training like this always seemed funny to me for some reason. I think it was because the hodgepodge of welders, mechanics, machinists, electricians and Instrument and Controls guys seemed so out of place in their coal-stained worn out old jeans and tee shirts.
I remember walking into the break room and sitting down across the table from Paul Mullon. He was a new chemist at the time. He had just started work that day. We became friends right away. Scott Hubbard, Paul and I were carpooling buddies. He always looked a lot younger than he really was:
See how much younger he looks? — Oh. That’s what I would always say about Gene Day because he was always as old as dirt. Even when he was young. Paul is only four years older than I am, but he still looks like he’s a lot younger than 70. Even his great great grand daughter is saluting him in this photo. Actually. I love Paul Mullon as if he was my own brother. He still looks younger than my younger brother who is four years younger than I am. People used to think that he was his own daughter’s boyfriend.
When our training began, the plant manager at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, Ron Kilman came in and told us that we were going to learn about the “Quality Process”. He explained that the Quality Process was a “Process”, not a “Program” like the “We’ve Got The Power Program” we had a few years earlier. This meant that it wasn’t a one time thing that would be over any time soon. The Quality Process was something that we will be able to use the rest of our lives.
At this point they handed out a blue binder to each of us. The title on the front said, “QuickStart – Foundations of Team Development”. A person from a company called “The Praxis Group”, Rick Olson from Utah (when I originally posted this last year, I couldn’t remember his name. Then I found my Quality book and it had Rick’s name in it). I had looked Rick Olson up to see if he was a member of CompuServe and there was Rick Olson from Ogden, Utah. When I asked him if he was from Ogden, he told me he was from Provo, Utah.
One of the first things Rick asked us to do was to break up into teams of four or five and we were asked to come up with 3 facts about ourselves. Two of which were true and one that was false. Then our team mates were asked to vote on which fact they thought was the false one. The only one I remember from that game was that Ben Brandt had dinner with the Bill Clinton on one occasion when he was Governor of Arkansas. — At least, I think that was what it was… Maybe that was the fact that was false.
The purpose of this game was to get to know each other…. Well…. We had all been working with each other for the past 15 years, so we all knew each other pretty good by that time. Except for someone new like Paul. I think my false fact was that I had hitchhiked from Columbia, Missouri to New Orleans when I was in college. — That was an easy one. Everyone knew that I had hitchhiked to Holly Springs National Forest in Mississippi, not New Orleans.
Anyway, after we knew each other better, we learned about the different roles that members of our teams would have. Our “Quality” teams were going to be our own crews. Each team was going to have a Leader, a Facilitator, a Recorder, and if needed (though we never really needed one), a Logistics person. The Logistics person was just someone that found a place where the team could meet. We always just met in the Electric Shop office. I wanted to be “Facilitator”.
We learned about the importance of creating Ground Rules for our Quality Meetings. One of the Ground rules we had was to be courteous to each other. Another was to “Be willing to change” (I didn’t think this really belonged as a “Ground Rule”. I thought of it more as a “Nice to have” given the present company). Another Ground Rule was to “Discuss – Don’t Lecture”. One that I thought was pretty important was about “Confidentiality”. We had a ground rule that essentially said, “What happens in a team meeting… Stays in the team meeting.”
I recently found a list of the Quality teams that were formed at our plant. Here is a list of the more interesting names and which team it was: Barrier Reliefs (that was our team — Andy Tubbs team). Rolaids (Ted Holdges team). Elmore and the Problem Solvers (Stanley Elmore’s team… of course). Spit and Whittle (Gerald Ferguson’s Team). Foster’s Mission (Charles Foster’s team). Sooner Elite (Engineer’s team). Boiler Pukes (Cleve’s Smith’s Welding crew I believe). Quality Trek (Alan Kramer’s Team). Designing Women (Linda Dallas’s Team). There were many more.
I think all the Power Plant Quality Teams had the same “Mission Statement”. It was “To Meet or Exceed our Customer’s Expectations”. I remember that the person that was teaching all this stuff to us was really good at motivating us to be successful. As we stepped through the “QuickStart” training manual, the Power Plant He-men were beginning to see the benefit of the tools we were learning. There were those that would have nothing to do with anything called “Quality”, just because… well…. it was a matter of principle to be against things that was not their own idea.
Later they gave us a the main Quality binder that we used for our team meetings:
When we began learning about the different quality tools that we could use to solve problems, I recognized them right away. I hadn’t learned any “Quality Process” like Six Sigma at that time, but I was about to graduate from Loyola University in New Orleans in a couple of months with a Masters of Religious Education (MRE) where I had focused my courses on Adult Education. Half of my classes were about Religious topics, and the other half was about how to teach adults. The same methods were used that we learned about in this training.
It just happened that I had spent the previous three years learning the same various quality tools that the Power Plant Men were being taught. We were learning how to identify barriers to helping our customers and breaking them down one step at at time. We also learned how to prioritize our efforts to break down the barriers by looking at where we had control and who we were trying to serve… such as ourselves or others. I remember we tried to stay away from things that were “Self Serving.”
We learned how to do something called a “Barrier Walk”. This was where we would walk around the plant almost as if we were looking at it for the first time to find barriers we hadn’t noticed before. We also learned how to brainstorm ideas by just saying whatever came to our minds no matter how silly they may sound without anyone putting anyone down for a dumb idea. Rick called each barrier that your customer encountered a “SPLAT”. Our goal was to reduce “SPLAT”s. I think at one point we even discussed having stickers that said “SPLAT” on them that we could put on barriers when we located them.
When we implemented a quality idea, we were taught to do a “Things Gone Right, Things Gone Wrong” exercise so that we could improve future projects. This had two columns. On one side you listed all the good things (which was generally fairly long), and on the other, all the things that went wrong (which was a much shorter list). This was done so that we could consider how to avoid the things that didn’t work well.
We learned how to make proposals and turn them into a team called “The Action Team”. I was on this team as the Facilitator for the first 6 months. Sue Schritter started out as our Action Team Leader. The other Action team members in the beginning were: Richard Allen, John Brien, Jim Cave, Robert Grover, Phil Harden, Alan Hetherington, Louise Kalicki, Bruce Klein, Johnnie Keys, Kerry Lewallen, Ron Luckey and George Pepple.
The Power Plant Men learned that there were five S’s that would cause a proposal to fail.
One of those was “Secrecy”. If you are going to propose something that affects others, then you have to include them in the decision making up front or else even if you think it’s a great idea, others may have legitimate reasons for not implementing it, and you would have wasted your time.
The second was “Simplicity”. It follows along with Secrecy in that if you just threw the idea together without considering all the others that will be affected by the change, then the proposal would be sent back to you for further study.
The third was “Subjectivity”. This happens when something just sounds like a good idea. All the facts aren’t considered. The solutions you may be proposing may not be the best, or may not even really deal with the root of a problem. You might even be trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist, or is such a small problem that it isn’t worth the effort.
The fourth was “Superficiality”. This happens when the outcomes from the proposal are not carefully considered. Things like, what are the long term effects. Or, What is the best and worst case of this proposal… Those kind of things are not considered.
The last one is “Self-Serving”. If you are doing this just because it benefits only your own team and no one else, then you aren’t really doing much to help your customers. Most likely it may even be causing others an inconvenience for your own benefit.
I know this is becoming boring as I list the different things we learned that week in 1993. Sorry about that. I will cut it short by not talking about the “Empowerment Tool” that we learned about, or even the importance of Control Charts and go right to the best tool of them all. One that Power Plant Men all over can relate to. It is called the “Fishbone Diagram”.
There are few things that Power Plant Men like better than Fishing, so when we began to learn about the Fishbone diagram I could see that even some of the most stubborn skeptics couldn’t bring themselves to say something bad about the Fishbone diagram. Some were even so enthusiastic that they were over-inflating the importance (and size) of their Fishbone diagrams! — This along with the Cause and Effect chart were very useful tools in finding the root cause of a problem (or “barrier” as we referred to them).
All in all, this was terrific training. A lot of good things were done as a result to make things more efficient at the plant because of it. For the next year, the culture at the plant was being molded into a quality oriented team. This worked well at our particular plant because the Power Plant Men employed there already took great pride in their work. So, the majority of the crews fell in behind the effort. I know of only one team at the coal yard where the entire team decided to have nothing to do with it.
When training was done, I told Rick that I thought that his company would really benefit by having a presence on the Internet. As I mentioned in last week’s post “Turning the Tables on a Power Plant Interloper” During this time the World Wide Web did not have browsers and modems did not have the bandwidth at this point, so CompuServe was the only service available for accessing the Internet for the regular population.
I asked Rick if he had heard about CompuServe. He said he had not heard of it. I told him that I thought the Internet was going to be the place where training would be available for everyone eventually and he would really benefit by starting a “Quality” Forum on CompuServe, because there wasn’t anything like that on the Internet at the time. I remember the puzzled look he gave me as he was leaving. I realized he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. Few people knew about the Internet in those days….
I have a number of stories about how the Quality Process thrived at the Power Plant over the next year that I will share. I promise those stories will not be as boring as this one.
Originally posted July 27, 2012:
There were two distinct times in my life at the Power Plant Kingdom where I went Head-to-Head (or tête-à-tête as they say in France) with a horde of spiders. The second time I fought side-by-side with my trusty friend Scott Hubbard, that I knew wouldn’t desert me when things went from bad-to-worse (for some reason I find myself using a lot of hyphens-to-day). The first battle, however, I had to face alone, armed only with a push broom and a shovel.
It all started a few months after I became a janitor at the power plant (in 1982). I had received my Psychology degree at the University of Missouri and I was well on my way to becoming a certified “sanitation engineer” (as my Grandmother corrected me after I told her I was a janitor).
It actually came in handy having a Psychology degree. Power Plant men would sometimes approach me when I was working by myself to stop and have a conversation that usually started like this: “So, someone told me you are a Psychiatrist.” I would correct them and tell them that I am a janitor and I only have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology which makes me a properly trained janitor able to sweep the floor in confidence knowing that “I’m OK, and You’re OK.” (which was a joke lost on everyone at the plant except for Jim Kanelakos, who was also a janitor with a Masters in Psychology).
Then they would usually want to talk about problems they were having. I would lean on my broom and listen. Nodding my head slightly to show I was listening. After a while the person would finish and thank me for listening and go on back to work.
The most important thing I learned while obtaining a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology was that Psychology is an art, not a science. Though certain scientific methods are used in many areas, especially in Behavioral Psychology. Being an art, means that the person must possess the talent for being a Psychologist. This is as important as being properly trained. So I never assumed the role of a real Psychologist, I rather tried my best to just be a friend. I found that worked well.
As I mentioned, James Kanelakos was also a janitor at the Power Plant. Which meant that between the 5 janitors and our leader Pat Braden, two of us not only had degrees, but both of them were in Psychology (with James having the Masters degree, and I as his pupil with the Bachelors).
Before I proceed with my battle with the spiders, I should mention a little about the dynamics of our Janitorial crew.
James Kanelakos was obviously Greek. With a name like Kanelakos, it was rather obvious. He looked the part also, with a graying moustache that made him look like a Greek sailor. He never was a “True Power Plant Man” and he would be glad to hear me say that. Instead he was a person that at the time acted as if he was biding his time at the plant waiting for something else to happen.
Though he never mentioned it, I know that he was also part Irish, and every now and then I would see the Irish come out. He was a family man, and in that sense he reminded me of my own father (who was also part Irish). He was only 35 years old at the time, but he acted as if he had lived longer. He smoked a pipe like my father did. As far as I know, he always remained married to his wife Sandy, and together they raised two children, a daughter and a son. That was where his heart really was.
He made no secret that his family came before anything else. Not that he would say it straight out to your face, but you could tell it in the way he interacted with others. Like I said, Jim was there “biding his time”, changing his career at a time when he needed something… else. Maybe to strengthen his priorities. He said once that he left the office to go work outside.
Then there was Doris Voss. She was an unlikely site to see in the Power Plant Palace (especially later when she became an operator). She was a “Church-going Fundamentalist” who made it clear to me that Catholics, such as myself, were doomed to hell for various reasons. I always enjoyed our… um… discussions.
I thought it was quite appropriate during Christmas when the janitors drew names from Jim’s Greek Sailor’s hat and I drew Doris’s name to give her a very nice leather-bound Catholic Version of the Family Bible. I later heard her talking to Curtis Love about it in the kitchen. He was telling her that she shouldn’t read it and she told him that it looked pretty much the same as hers and she didn’t see anything wrong with it. Needless-to-say, I was rarely condemned to a regular Catholic’s fate after that.
Curtis Love, as I explained in the post called “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“, was very gullible. It was easy to play a joke on Curtis. Too easy. He didn’t take them well, because he would rather believe what you were joking about before believing that you were joking at all. Because of this, it never occurred to me to play a joke on Curtis. Some how, though, it is hard to explain, Curtis reminded me of Tweedledee. Or was it Tweedledum?
Then there was Ronnie Banks. I talked about Ronnie Banks before in the post where Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost. He was like a likable young bear standing up on his hind legs. You could joke around with him and he was fun to be around. He acted like he enjoyed your company. Interestingly though, none of the people on our team would ever be classified as “True Power Plant Men”. We were more like an odd assortment of Misfits.
Pat Braden was our lead Janitor. He was by far the nicest person one could ever work for. He constantly had a smile on his face. He smiled when he talked, he smiled when he walked, and he especially smiled when he stood up from a chair and became dizzy from his blood pressure medicine. He had a daughter at home that he really loved. He reminded me of the goodhearted Red Skelton.
Now back to the Spider Wars and the bugs in the basement.
When I first became a janitor, I was assigned to clean the Control room and to sweep half of the turbine room floor and the Control room elevator landings and stairs. I always enjoyed being a janitor. I first became a janitor when I was 15 years old Sophomore in High School working the night shift (from 11pm to 6am) at a Hilton Inn in Columbia, Missouri.
To me it was a dream job. Sure, I couldn’t keep my own room cleaned, but put a push broom in my hand and pay me $2.50 an hour and I could clean all night. When I began as a janitor at the power plant, I was making $5.15 an hour. Double what I was making at the hotel cleaning the kitchen, the restaurant and the bar in the wee hours of the morning.
Anyway. I went to work cleaning the control room like there was no tomorrow. I would shampoo the carpet once each week. I would clean on the top and the back of the Alarm Panel. I know I made Ted Holdge (Supervisor of Operations) real nervous once when I laid a vacuum cleaner on the top of the Main Electric Panel (That’s what I call it. it was the Control panel where you synced up the unit when it was coming online) and I started vacuuming the top of it. He actually jumped out of his chair in the Shift Supervisor’s office and stood there and watched me closely. It obviously had never been cleaned before. I was trying to get rid of a strange odor in the control room that eventually, I found out was years of burned coffee in the coffee maker in the break room. I even had to scrub the walls in the kitchen to remove the odor from the entire control room.
Anyway. I was getting to know the Control Room operators, and I was thinking that maybe someday when I had progressed past janitor and labor crew that one day I may become an operator also.
One day Pat Braden came to me and told me that I was going to have to move down to be the janitor of the Electric Shop. There were many reasons. The first was that Curtis wanted to be an operator and he thought that if he worked around them that they would get to know him and would want him to join their ranks and he had more seniority than I did, so he had first pick. The second reason was that for some reason, since Curtis had been the janitor of the Electric Shop he had been bitten twice by a brown recluse spider, which had invaded the janitor closet downstairs. If he were to be bitten again, he might lose his job for being unsafe.
I didn’t mind. Cleaning the Electric shop meant that I also was able to clean the Engineers Shack and the Brown and Root Building next to it. I also decided that the main switchgear which was where the Janitor closet was located needed to be kept clean to cut down on the onslaught of the poisonous brown recluse spiders (which in Oklahoma is a regular house spider).
My first day as a Janitor in the Electric Shop as soon as I opened the door to the janitor closet, I could see why Curtis had been bitten by a Brown Recluse (not twice, but three times — the last time he didn’t tell Pat. He showed me, but just went straight to the doctor for the required shots to counteract the poison. Not wanting to lose his job). The janitor closet was full of them. They were all over the little 4 foot by 6 foot closet.
Thus began the first war on spiders at the coal fired power plant. The closet was also being used to store Freon and other air conditioning equipment used by Jim Stevenson the Air Conditioning expert in the Electric Shop. I decided then and there to move all the equipment out of the closet. The spiders were practicing “Duck and Cover” drills all over this equipment so it had to go.
My main weapon against the spiders were my boots. When I spied a spider, I stomped on it quickly. I asked Pat Braden to order a case of insecticide to help me combat the spiders. The next day he pulled a two-wheeler up to the closet with two cases and said, “Here is your order sir!” (picture Red Skelton saying that).
I had cleaned the shelves, the cabinet and the floor of the janitor closet, and there was no place for spiders to hide in there anymore. Each morning when I arrived, there was always more spiders there. 3 or 4 at least waiting for me in the closet. All Brown Recluse.
I surveyed the combat zone and realized that spiders were all over the main switchgear. So I decided I was going to sweep the switchgear regularly and kill every spider I saw to wipe them out for good.
So I laid down floor sweep (cedar chips with red oil) to keep the dust down, and began at one corner and worked my way across the switchgear sweeping and killing spiders. I kept a body count. I taped a paper in the janitor closet to keep track of my daily kill. My first day I killed over 200 spiders.
I thought surely in a short time, I will have wiped out the spider population. After sweeping the switchgear I laid down a blanket of Insecticide (equivalent to Agent Orange in Vietnam). If I could kill any bugs that are around, the spiders would leave. The insecticide didn’t kill the spiders. they would just duck under the switchgear and then come out an hour later to be standing where I left them before. So I kept stomping them out.
Every day, my body count was around 25 to 30 spiders and this number wasn’t going down. That was when I discovered the Cable Spreader room… I had been involved in mere child’s play before I walked down some steps at the tail end of the switchgear and opened one of the two doors at the bottom.
I cannot describe to you exactly what I saw, because nothing I say can put into words what was there. I guess the best thing I can say is: Armageddon.
There were two rooms. One on each side at the bottom of some concrete steps. They are called Cable Spreader rooms and are directly beneath the switchgear. One side was unit one, the other was unit 2. They are large rooms with cable trays lining the walls and across the room at regular intervals. The floor was damp, and it was black, and it was alive. There was a small path through the room where the operator would pass through “the gauntlet” once each shift as they muttered prayers that they not be eaten alive by the black oozing mass of bugs spiders and an occasional snake.
The can of bug spray in my hand seemed completely useless. I knew what I had to do. These two rooms and the cable tunnels that ran from there underneath the T-G building were the source of my daily trouncing of the meager few spiders that decided to explore the world above to see what was happening in the switchgear. The real battle was down here in the trenches. Each room was full of thousands of spiders.
I started with a large box of Plastic Contractor bags, a box of floor sweep, a shovel and a push broom. I attacked the room the same way I used to clean my own bedroom at home when I was growing up. I started in one corner and fanned out. Not letting anything past me. always keeping a clear supply line back to the steps that led up to freedom and fresh air up above.
At first I just took a large scoop shovel and scooped up the black mass of crawling and dead bugs and dumped them in a bag, until I had enough space to sweep the dust into a pile. Then I attacked it again. Occasionally a small snake would appear upset that I had invaded his space, and into the bag it would go. Everything went in the bags. The snakes, the bugs, the spiders and the grime. There was actually a constant battle taking place down there that I was interrupting. it was bug eat bug, spider eat bug and snake eat bugs and spiders wars. Everything went in the bags.
I carefully hauled the bags out to the dumpster and out they went. It took an entire day to clean one room. Then the next day when I went back I completely cleaned it again. This time paying more attention to making it livable. I wanted these two rooms to be so clean that people could go down into these cool damp rooms in the hot summer and have a picnic down there and feel safe. — No one ever did though, but such is the life of a cable spreader room. Years later Tom Gibson setup a sort of a greenhouse down there.
After that, each day I made my rounds of the switchgear, the cable spreader rooms and the cable tunnels killing any spider that showed it’s legs. After the main battle in the two rooms and tunnels was over of countless spiders and bugs, I recorded about 230 spiders the next day by making my rounds. The next day that dropped to around 150. then 80, then 50 and on down. Finally, when I was down to 3 or 4 spiders each day, I felt like the war was over and a weekly sweeping and daily walk-through would suffice to keep the switchgear safe. This left the small janitor closet virtually free of spiders from that point.
The interesting twist of the entire battle against the spiders was that the electricians had seen my skills at “Battle Sweeping” and some of them had become impressed. They told me that I didn’t have to sweep their shop and the main switchgear because they took turns doing it. I still felt that as the janitor, with my battle hardened push broom, by paying a little more attention to detail would do a slightly better job.
The electricians didn’t really volunteer to clean the shop. Whoever was the truck driver for that week was supposed to clean the shop at least one time during the week. At $5.15 an hour, I was more of a volunteer than someone that was hired to do this chore, and I enjoyed it. So, eventually, Charles Foster (An Electrical Foreman) popped the question to me one day…. He didn’t get down on one knee when he asked me, but either way, he asked me if I would think about becoming an Electrician.
That was something I hadn’t even considered until that moment. The Electricians to me were the elite squad of Power Plant Maintenance. Like the Results guys, but with a wider range of skills it seemed. But that is a story for another time.
Since I originally posted this, I have written the post about the second war with spiders with Scott Hubbard by my side. So, if this post wasn’t enough for you… read this one: “Power Plant Spider Wars II The Phantom Menace“. For a more tame story about spiders try this one: “Power Plant Spider in the Eye“.
Originally posted September 14, 2012:
I found out soon after I arrived at the Coal-fired power plant in Oklahoma the first summer I worked as a summer help that Safety was Job Number One. I was given a hard hat and safety glasses the first day I was there, and I watched a safety film on how to lift with my legs and not with my back. I thought the hard hat made me look really cool. Especially with the safety glasses that looked like someone wore as a scientist during the 1950s. Dark and square.
I used to keep a pair with me when I went back to school. When I was a senior at the University of Missouri, Columbia, while working at the Bakery on Broadway, I kept a pair with me at all times, along with a hat that I had stol…um…. borrowed from my dad and always forgot to return. (In fact, I still have that hat to this day).
That way, whenever someone suspected who I was, I would put on my glasses and hat and people would think I was Clark Kent. Anyway…. I diverse. I never thought about it being an Inspector Clouseau hat until one winter morning in the parking lot at the plant Louise Gates (later Louise Kalicki) called me Inspector Clouseau.
The yellow hard hat made me confident that I was part of the blue collar working class. Hard hats have a suspension system in them that make them look like it is riding too high on your head. You soon get used to it, but for the first couple of weeks I kept bumping into things because my hardhat made me taller than I was used to being.
This is this because of this great suspension system that causes the hat to ride so high on someone’s head. I learned about this not long after I arrived and Marlin McDaniel the A Foreman at the time told me to sort out of bunch of large steel chokers (or slings) in a wooden shack just inside the Maintenance shop by the door to the office elevator.
While I was bending over picking up the chokers (I mean…. While I was lifting with my legs and not my back…) and hanging them on pegs I suddenly found myself laying on the ground. At first I wasn’t sure what had happened because I hadn’t felt anything and it happened so fast. It seemed that my legs had just buckled under me.
I soon realized that one of the large chokers that I had just hung on a peg a couple of feet above my head had fallen off and struck me square in the middle of the hard hat. I was surprised by the force of the cable and how little I had felt. I became a true believer in wearing my hardhat whenever I was working. The steel rope had left a small gash across the hardhat that remained as a reminder to me of the importance of wearing my hardhat at all times.
Larry Riley used to comment to me that I didn’t need to wear it when we were in the truck driving somewhere. Especially when I was sitting in the middle in the back seat of the crew cab and it made it hard for him to see anything through the rear view mirror other than a yellow hard hat sticking up to the top of the cab.
During my first summer at the plant (1979), I did witness how easy it was for someone to hurt their back. I mean… really hurt their back. I was helping to carry a very large 30 foot long section of a wooden extension ladder. There were four of us. Each on one corner. I know that Tom Dean was behind me carrying one side of the back end. I believe that Ben Hutchinson and Aubrey Cargill were on the other side of the ladder.
As we were walking through the shop, Tom stepped on the floor drain just outside of the A Foreman’s office. The drain cover was missing and a wooden piece of plywood had been put in its place to cover the hole.
Large equipment had driven over the plywood and it was smashed down into the drain making a slight indention in the middle of the floor.
When Tom stepped on the piece of wood, he lost his balance, and ended up spinning himself around as he tried to remain holding onto the ladder. By doing this, he became slightly twisted, and at once he was in terrible pain. Back pain. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this one event was a critical turning point in Tom Dean’s career at the power plant. He was pretty well out the rest of the summer recuperating from the back injury.
The next summer when I returned to the plant, Tom was working in the tool room. Obviously a step down from being a mechanic. He was also very unhappy. You could tell by looking at him that he had lost the proud expression that he had wore the summer before.
I don’t remember how long Tom worked at the plant after that. I just know that it really made me sad to see someone’s life deteriorate during the snapshots that I had in my mind from the summer before to when I returned to see a man tortured not only by back pain, but by a feeling of inadequate self worth. Hurting your back is one of the most common and most serious injuries in an industrial setting. It is definitely a life changing event.
There were other tragedies during my time as a summer help and they didn’t necessarily have to do with something dangerous at work. One summer there was a young man working in the warehouse and tool room. His name was Bill Engleking (thanks Fred. I didn’t remember his name in the original post). The next summer I asked where he had gone, and I learned that one morning he had woke up and found that he had become completely blind. It turned out that he had a very serious case of diabetes. The sugar levels in his blood had reached such dangerous levels that it destroyed his optic nerves overnight.
Then there was one of the Electricians, Bill Ennis. He would say that he was “Blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other one.” He was actually blind in one eye completely, and the other eye he was color blind. So, what he said was actually true.
It happened on occasion that people visiting the plant would be seriously hurt. Everyone at the plant was trained in first aid, and Power Plant Men, being the way that they are, are always willing to do whatever it takes to help someone out in time of trouble.
One day during lunch, a man came to the plant to fill the unleaded gas tank on the side of the garage in front of the warehouse. While he was reaching over the PTO (Power Take Off), His shirt sleeve caught in the spinning PTO shaft and broke his arm.
I remember Mickey Postman explaining what happened. His crew was eating lunch in the garage when they heard someone yelling for help. When they ran out to see what had happened, they found the man tied up in the PTO with one bone from his arm sticking straight out in the air. They quickly took care of him and treated him for shock as they waited for the Ambulance from Ponca City to arrive.
It is times like this that you wish would never happen, but you are glad that you had first aid training and you know what to do. This person could easily have died from this injury if not for the quick action of Mickey Postman and the rest of his crew. I believe other Power Plant Men that were there to help was Dale Mitchell, George Alley, Don Timmons and Preston Jenkins. Mickey would know for sure. I’ll leave it up to him to remind me.
I have illustrated these tragic events to demonstrate the importance of making Safety Job Number One. The Power Plant Men didn’t have to be told by a safety video to know how important it was. They all knew examples of tragedies such as these.
Each month the plant would have the Monthly Safety Meeting, and every Monday morning each crew would have their own safety meeting. Safety pamphlets would be read, safety videos would be watched. Campaigns would be waged to re-emphasize the importance of proper lifting techniques. Everyone in the plant had to take the Defensive Driving course.
The last summer I worked as a summer help in 1982 was the first summer that everyone was required to take the Defensive Driving course. The course was being given by Nancy Brien, Nick Gleason and Ken Couri. We learned a lot of defensive driving slogans like, “Is the Pass really necessary?” “Slow down, ride to the right, ride off the road” (when an emergency vehicle is approaching), “Use the Two Second Rule” (Only, I think it was 3 seconds at that time). “Do a Circle For Safety” etc….
My friend Tim Flowers and another summer help were carpooling during that time and we made signs with those slogans on them. Then when we were driving home in my little Honda Civic, we would hold one of those signs up in the back window so that the Power Plant person that was following us home (Usually Dick Dale and Mike Gibbs) would wonder what it said, and would pull up closer to read the sign, and it would say, “Use the 3 second rule”, or “If you can read this, you are too close”.
That was when I began wearing my seat belt all the time. Before that, it was not common for people to wear seat belts. They only had the lap belt before that, and those weren’t the safest things in the world. Especially since they would get lost inside the seat. I attribute the Defensive Driving Course that I took while I was a summer help at the plant for my safe record as a driver. There were a number of tips that I learned then, that I still use all the time today.
There is one advantage to wearing a hardhat that I didn’t realize until I left the power plant in 2001. It is that you never have to worry about hair loss on the top of your head. Whenever you are outside at the plant, you always wear your hardhat and safety glasses. When I changed jobs to become a software developer at Dell, I would find that just by walking down the street in the neighborhood in Texas, I would quickly develop a sunburn on the top of my head.
During the years of wearing a hardhat, I may have been losing my hair, but it never occurred to me. Not until I had a sunburn on the top of my head. I wondered at times if people would look at me funny if I showed up for work in my cubicle at Dell (when we had cubicles) wearing a yellow hardhat. Oh, and a pair of super stylish safety glasses like those shown at the top of this post.
You know when you are young, and I’m sure this has happened to all of you at one point in your life, you dream that you get off of the school bus at your school in the morning only to find that you are still wearing your pajamas. — Yeah. I thought you would remember that one. Well. I still have dreams of showing up at my desk job wearing a hardhat and safety glasses. I don’t realize it until I lift my hardhat up to wipe the sweat off of my brow, then I quickly look around to see if anyone noticed as I stuff the hardhat under the desk.
Comment from previous post:
Jack Curtis January 22, 2014:
The safety meetings, Defensive Driving, safety glasses… it was the same way for telephone men, too. And they jumped in whenever there were problems as well. It is striking to me, to see the differences in attitudes from one generation to another…
Originally Posted on September 21, 2012:
Not long after I became a full time Power Plant employee after I had moved from being a janitor to the labor crew in 1983, I began carpooling with 3 other Power Plant employees. An Electrician, Bill Rivers. A Chemist, Yvonne Taylor, and one of the new members of the Testing team, Rich Litzer. With such a diverse group, you can only imagine the types of topics that were discussed driving to and from work each day.
Bill Rivers usually talked about different absurdities that he encountered during his day as an electrician. How one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing, leading sometimes to very funny results. Yvonne Taylor would talk about her farm and something called School Land Lease that she farmed, and how she had to deal with the bureaucracy and the constantly changing laws. Rich Litzer would discuss how their newly formed team were learning new things at the plant and often had funny things to say about his encounters during the day.
Me? Occasionally I would lift up my head from the book I was reading (if I wasn’t the driver), and ask, “Would anyone like to hear about the training that we received from Johnson & Johnson about how to properly wax a floor using their top of the line wax, ShowPlace?” that didn’t usually jump to the top of the list of most interesting stories.
We did use ShowPlace wax by Johnson and Johnson, and they did send a representative to our plant to teach us backward Oklahoma hick janitors how to properly care for our plain tile hallways and offices. Not the fancy tile like they have these days. If you are over 50 years old, then it is probably the same type of tile that you had on the floors of your school if you went to the standard brick public elementary school like the one I used to attend.
The office area floors were sure shiny after we applied a healthy dose of ShowPlace on them. The Johnson and Johnson rep. taught us how to properly buff the floor and showed us how a properly buffed floor that was really shiny was actually less slick than a badly waxed floor.
Anyway, I digress. Waxing floors is usually something that I tend to ramble about when I have an audience that shows interest in it (which I’m still trying to find). Since I can’t see your expression, I can only suspect that you would like to hear more about Power Plant floor waxing techniques, so I just might indulge you later on in this post after I have talked about the three other people in the car.
When it was my turn to drive to work, everyone had to climb into my 1982 Honda Civic:
Bill Rivers was about 10 years younger than my father and I know he had at least 6 children (I think). Maybe more. He told me once that even he lost count. Before he came to work at the Power Plant, he lived in Columbia, Missouri (while I had lived there, coincidentally), and worked at a Tool and Die manufacturing plant.
He worked so much overtime that one day he came home and sat down to eat dinner and sitting across from him at the table was a young boy that he didn’t recognize. He figured that he was a friend one of his own kids had invited to supper, so he asked him, “What’s your name?” Come to find out, it was one of his own children.
Bill had spent so little time at home that he didn’t even recognize his own child because his children were growing up and he was missing it. Mainly because he worked so much overtime. That was when Bill decided to move to Oklahoma and go to work at the power plant. Probably at the same time when I had moved to work there also, and was still going back to Columbia to finish college before becoming a full fledged bona-fide Power plant Janitor.
Bill Rivers always seemed to be having fun, and usually at the expense of someone else. He was constantly playing jokes on someone, and his most common target was Sonny Kendrick, the Electrical Specialist. Sonny was somewhat gullible, and so, Bill would weave some very complicated stories together to draw Sonny’s attention and string it along until Sonny was totally believing something preposterous.
Sonny wasn’t gullible like Curtis Love was gullible. Sonny knew that Bill Rivers was always trying to pull something over on him. So, Bill would just see how far along he could string Sonny until Sonny realized that everything Bill was saying was just made up in his head. — Then Bill Rivers would spend the rest of the week chuckling about it. Which usually aggravated Sonny to no end.
Sonny Kendrick was the only Electrical Specialist at the plant. I suppose he had some electronics training that allowed him to hold that honored position. His real name is Franklin Floyd Kendrick. I first met Sonny when I was the janitor for the Electric Shop.
People would call him “Baby Huey”. Since I didn’t know who Baby Huey was, I just figured that it was some character that reminded them of Sonny. So, when I had the opportunity, I looked up Baby Huey (this was a number of years before the Internet). I still wasn’t sure why, unless they were talking about a different Baby Huey:
Bill Rivers had a son that was in High School at the time, and he had the same Algebra teacher that by brother Greg had when he was trying to learn Algebra. The teacher had a real problem teaching algebra to high school students, and Bill asked me if I would tutor his son in Algebra.
When I first met Bill’s son, (I think his name was either Jerard or Bryan, I don’t remember now), his life ambition was to graduate from High School and work as a mechanic in an auto garage and drive motorcycles. I tried to show him how interesting and fun Algebra and Math in general could be, so each time I went to meet with him, I would bring him either a math puzzle or a book with a story about a mathematician, or a neat Mathematical oddity… such as imaginary numbers, and things like that.
Later, long after Bill had moved to another Power Plant in Konawa, Oklahoma, I saw Bill, and he told me that he his son was working toward becoming a dentist. I don’t know if he was ever able to fulfill his dream, but when I visit Oklahoma, I keep my eye out for a guy on a motorcycle with a Dentist symbol on the back of his Harley Davidson jacket. Because that would probably be him.
Anyway, while the four of us were carpooling together, the person that did the most talking was Yvonne Taylor. Now, I like Yvonne Taylor. I liked her a lot. But she was the main reason why I was never able to practice my Ramblin’ Ann rambles (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space With a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“) because she was usually in the midst of exercising her right to ramble as well.
Since she was my elder, (almost my mother’s age), I always let her go first, which usually meant there wasn’t much of a chance for anyone to go second. I finally just decided this would be a great time to read. So I started reading books about different sorts of religions around the world. With the Bhagavad Gita being one of my favorite ones.
I always had a certain attraction to Yvonne, because she had a son named Kevin (which is my name), and a daughter named Kelley (My girlfirend’s name at the time was Kelly, now she is my wife). And her son and daughter were about the same age as my future wife and I were.
In the midst of rambles emanating from Yvonne, I would look up every time I would hear, “Kelley said this, or Kevin said that….” She did say one thing one time that I have always remembered and I have tried to follow. Yvonne said that you never want to buy a house that is West of the place where you work. Especially if it is any distance away.
I believe it was when she lived in Michigan, she had to drive a long way East every day, and the sun was glaring in her eyes all the way to work. Then when she had to drive home going West in the evening, the sun was glaring in her eyes as it was going down. So, when you live West of your workplace, you have to drive with the sun in your eyes every day, both ways, and you just pray and pray for rain or at least a cloudy day.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Yvonne’s husband, Pat, had a dad with last name Taylor (obviously), and his mom’s Maiden Name was Songer. My Grandmother’s last name is Taylor (by marriage), and my wife Kelly has a Grandmother who’s maiden name was Songer. So there was that as well.
Unfortunately for Yvonne, was that by the time we arrived at the plant in the morning, she was usually slightly hoarse. I don’t know if it was the morning air… or maybe… it could have possibly been the rambling…. So, when she would have to page someone on the PA system (The Gaitronics Gray Phone), she sounded a little bit like the wicked witch. Just like some clothes can cause someone to look fatter than other clothes, the Gray Phone system had a tendency to make one’s voice more “tinny” than it actually is. Especially if your voice is hoarse, and high pitched already.
So, whenever I heard Yvonne paging someone and I was in the Electric shop or with the janitor crew, I would say, “Yvonne just has the sexiest voice I’ve ever heard. I can’t hardly Stand it!!” Those who were hearing me for the first time would give me a look like I must be crazy. And Well… who knows for sure. I think the Electricians knew for sure.
Rich Litzer lived just up the street from me, so I would drive by his house and pick him up, or I would park my car at his house and we would take his car, and we would meet Bill Rivers and Yvonne Taylor at the local Bowling Alley, since it was on the main drag out of town on Washington Street in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Rich was a great guy to carpool with because he usually had a lighthearted story to tell about something that happened at home, or we would talk about something else equally not serious. Later he was relocated downtown in Corporate Headquarters, and I didn’t see him for a long time.
Then one day, Rich and Ron Madron came down to Austin, Texas (where I live now) after I had moved down to work for Dell, to go to a school or conference, and I was able to meet them for dinner. That was the last time I saw Rich or Ron, and that was about 9 or 10 years ago.
At this point I was going to rambl… I mean…. talk more about how we used to wax the floor when I was a janitor, however, I have decided to leave that for another post “Wax On, Wax Off and other Power Plant Janitorial Secrets“.
Today when I finally found out that the post I was going to write was about my carpooling with Bill Rivers, Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer, I went to the Internet and looked up the latest news on my old friends. To my surprise, I found that Yvonne’s husband Patrick, died on September 12, just 9 days ago.
I don’t think I ever met Patrick in person, however, I used to hear about his daily activities for the 2 1/2 years from October 1982 through December 1985 when I used to carpool with Yvonne. Learning about Patrick’s death has saddened me because I know how much Yvonne loved and cared for Patrick. I know she has four sons and two daughters that are there to comfort her. I offer Yvonne my condolences and I wish her all the best.
Comment from Previous Post:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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!
Originally posted December 14, 2012:
I have heard the relationship between Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick referred to as the “Punch and Judy Show”. Ok. I thought. Punch and Judy. Sounds like a show from the early 50’s. Must have been a comedy. I thought that for a long time until one day I ran across a brief history of the Punch and Judy Show. It turned out that Punch and Judy was a puppet show from the time of Queen Anne of England. She was queen of England from 1702 to 1714. I could only find a painting of Queen Anne. Didn’t anyone ever think about taking her photograph?
Anyway, once I learned more about Punch and Judy, I realized that this was probably a better description of the Rivers – Sonny relationship than those people realized. It turns out in the first version of the Punch and Judy show, Punch actually strangles his child and beats his wife Judy to death and beats up on other people as well. I suppose that was “entertainment” back then. Now we only have things like “The Terminator”!
I carpooled with Bill Rivers at this particular time when I was a janitor and while I was on labor crew (except during the summer when I carpooled with my summer help buddies). Each day Bill Rivers would explain about some trick he had played on Sonny that day. The one thing that amazed Bill the most was that every day he could play a joke on Sonny, and each day, Sonny would fall for it.
This reminded me of when I was in Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri and I used to borrow a pencil from my friend Bryan Treacy each day and each day I would chew it up to the point where it was practically useless. I had to come up with different diversionary tactics each day, but somehow I was able to coax a wooden pencil from my friend. Before he would realize what he had done, I had already chewed it up from one end to the next. I liked to think that I was tricking Bryan each day, but I also thought that it was odd that Bryan would have a new pencil every time, and he probably made sure that his mom kept a full stock of pencils just for my enjoyment in eating them (I also wondered if I was getting lead poisoning from all the yellow paint I was ingesting).
Bryan Treacy today is a doctor living in Moore Oklahoma. I would like to drop by his office without seeing him some time just to see if he has any wooden pencils laying about that I could leave all chewed up. I wonder if he would realize I had been there. He might read this blog from time-to-time, so I may have just blown my cover.
I mentioned Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick because they were the first two electricians that I worked for before becoming an electrician. I worked on the precipitator while I was on the Labor Crew. See the Post:
I also mentioned before that I owe my decision to become a Power Plant Electrician to Charles Foster an Electrical B Foreman at the time. I was a janitor and cleaning the electric shop office and lab were part of my duty. How I came to be the janitor of the electric shop is explained further in the post:
I had found the floor scrubbing machine in ill repair. Charles helped me put it back in running condition. He explained how to take care of the batteries and to keep them properly charged.
When the electric shop had an opening they tried to recruit me while I was still a janitor, but the Evil Plant Manager had a rule at the time that when you were a janitor, the only place you could go from there was onto the Labor Crew. That was when Mike Rose was hired to become a backup for Jim Stevenson that worked on the air conditioning and freeze protection. I knew about the janitor ruling so I didn’t have my hopes up. Besides, at the time I didn’t have any electrical background.
Charles asked me to take the electrical courses that were offered by the company. The company offered correspondence courses, and in about 3 weeks, I had signed up for them, read the books, and taken the tests. While I was on the labor crew I signed up for a House wiring course at the Vo-Tech. I was taking that course when I learned that Larry Burns was moving from our electric shop to go to another plant. It was then that I applied for the job as a plant electrician.
The main power transformer for Unit 1 had been destroyed by the heat wave that summer (1983) when the plant had tested it’s durability on the hottest day. The unit was offline for a couple of months while GE created a new transformer and shipped it to us.
After the main power transformer was destroyed and it took so long to ship in a new one, it was decided that we would keep a spare on hand. That way if it went bad again, we could swap them out quickly. That is probably the best assurance that we wouldn’t lose that transformer again. We had that spare transformer sitting around for years collecting taxes. I’m sure we must have paid for it a few times over again.
During the time that the unit was offline, and we weren’t shaking boiler tubes or cutting the ash out of the economizer tubes, I was working with Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick on the precipitator. The precipitator (by the way), is what takes the smoke (ash) out of the exhaust, so you don’t see smoke coming out of the smokestacks.
Bill and Sonny were pretty well sure that I was going to be selected to fill the opening in the Electric Shop, so they were already preparing me to work on the precipitator. Of all the jobs in the electric shop, this one had more to do with electronics than any of the others. That gave “being an electrician” a whole new dimension. I was even looking forward to taking an Electronics course at the Vo-Tech in the spring.
I was getting updates from Bill and Sonny about the progress of the job opening and they were telling me about the battle that was going on between the Evil Plant Manager and the Electrical Supervisor. Eldon Waugh, the plant manager at the time wanted Charles Peavler to be chosen as the electrician. He had an electrical background, because he had wired his barn once.
The ultimate reason why the plant manager wanted Charles Peavler to be the new electrician was because I had been placed on the blacklist due to the incident that took place earlier that I had described in the post:
Thanks to Larry Riley’s performance review, and his purposeful procrastination of the Plant Manager’s request to modify my performance review, and Charles Foster’s insistence that they follow the procedures that were laid out in the new Employee Application Program (known as the EAP), the argument stopped with Charles Foster’s statement: “Let’s just take whoever has the best performance rating as it is laid out in the company policy and leave it at that.” I was chosen to fill the position for the opening in the Electric Shop.
I was actually called to Eldon Waugh’s office while I was sandblasting the Sand Filter Tank. See Post:
When I arrived in Eldon’s office I was covered from head to toe in sandblast dust. My hair was all disheveled and my shirt was soaked with sweat. Jack Ballard (the head of HR) was sitting there along with Leroy Godfrey and Charles Foster. I knew what it was about because according to Bill Rivers on the way home the day before, they had already decided that they were going to accept me for the position.
Eldon Waugh explained that I was being offered the job that I had applied for in the electric shop. I felt really humbled at the time. Even though I was expecting it, I felt surprised that it was actually happening. To me, being an electrician was like the greatest job in the world. The electricians were like an elite team of super heroes.
I had the occasion to watch the electricians while I was a janitor in their shop and many of them were like these super intelligent beings that could quickly look at a blueprint and grab their tool bucket and head out to fix the world. I was very grateful for the opportunity, and at the same time apprehensive. I wasn’t sure if I had the quality of character and intelligence to become a part of this team. This was truly a dream come true for me.
Few times in my life has this happened to me. The day I was married. The day I became a Father. The day I drove to Dell to begin my first day as a Programmer Analyst. These were all major milestones in my life. The first major milestone was the day I became an electrician. Because of the way that I am (I don’t know…. maybe it’s because I’m half Italian), I just wanted to break out in tears and hug Eldon Waugh and cry on his shoulder. Instead, I just managed to crack a small smile.
I thanked them and started to leave. Then Jack Ballard said something interesting. As I was leaving he asked, “Uh…. Do you accept the offer?” Oh. In my surprise and elation, I hadn’t said anything but “Thank You”. Jack’s expression was that it wasn’t official until it was official. So, I replied, “Yes. I accept the offer”. “Ok then,” Jack replied. And I left to go crawl back in my hole and continue sandblasting the Sand Filter tank.
My last day on the Labor Crew was on November 4, 1983. I was leaving my Labor Crew Family behind and moving onto a new life in the electric shop. This was hard for me because I really did consider most of the people on the Labor Crew as family. Fred Crocker, Ron Luckey, Jim Kanelakos, and Ronnie Banks. Curtis Love and Chuck Moreland. Doretta Funkhouser and Charles Peavler. Jody Morse and Bob Lillibridge.
Most of all, I knew I was going to miss Larry Riley. I had worked with Larry from the day I had first arrived as a summer help in 1979. Now it was November, 1983. Larry was a hero to me. I love him dearly and if I had ever had an older brother I would have liked someone with the character and strength of Larry Riley. He remains in my prayers to this day.
The last day on the labor crew I suspected foul play. Mainly because the last day that Bill Cook was on the Labor Crew, he had asked us if we would throw Larry in the intake as a going away gift. I had worked with Bill when we were summer help together and I felt like I owed him one, so I told him I would help.
As we were driving from the Coalyard Maintenance building (the home of the labor crew) to the plant maintenance shop that day, Bill Cook, who was driving, suddenly turned toward the intake pumps and stopped the truck. By the time Larry had figured out what was going on, we had dragged Larry out of the truck and I was carrying him over to the Intake and getting ready to throw him in.
Larry had worked with me long enough to know that once I had set my mind on something, there was no turning back. He had tried to escape from my grip, but I had him where he couldn’t escape. As I climbed with him over the guard rail and headed toward the edge of the water, Larry said the only possible thing that could make me stop in my tracks. He said, “Please Kevin. Don’t do this.”
I was paralyzed. Stuck between my word with Bill Cook that I would help him throw Larry in the brink, and a plea from someone who meant the world to me. There wasn’t but one choice to make. I set Larry down. I walked back to the truck and I told Bill, “I’m sorry. I can’t do it.” I returned to my seat in the back of the crew cab. Without my help, no one else had the resolve and strength to follow through with Bill’s wish. We drove on to the Maintenance Shop.
So, on my last day on the Labor Crew, I thought that something similar might be planned for me. As soon as we left to go to work that morning, I headed up Belt 10 and 11. That is the long belt on the left side of the power Plant picture on the upper right side of this post…. Ok. I’ll post it here:
Once up 10 & 11 and 12 & 13, I was in the Surge bin tower. (The Surge Bin Tower is the white building you can see between the two boilers near the top that has the conveyor belt entering it from the left). From there, I roamed around looking for some coal to clean up. I figured I would stay far away from my labor crew buddies that day.
At the end of the day, I traveled back down belts 10 & 11 and headed into the office in the Coalyard Maintenance building to fill out my last timecard as a Laborer. Beginning next Monday on November 7, I would be an “Electrician.” Along with the empty feeling at the bottom of my heart was a feeling of excitement for the new adventure that awaited me.