Tag Archives: Conoco Oil Refinery

Power Plant Christmas Star Shines over Ponca City

When my children were young and the season was right and I had finished telling them all the Gene Day stories, when they were in just the right Christmas spirit, I would tell them about the Power Plant Christmas Star and how it would shine brightly over Ponca City, Oklahoma around Christmas time, calling shepherds and Power Plant Operators to come and see what technological miracle had taken place on Bonnie Drive on the North End of the thriving community known as Ponca City (Did I actually make an entire paragraph out of one sentence? — Geez.  This is why my English Teacher was always slapping my hand — Catholic school…. you can imagine how that was).

The story actually begins way before the Christmas season starts, but some time after Christmas decorations have gone up in Target and Wal-Mart.  That is, some time after Halloween, but before Thanksgiving.  November, 1984 was the first time I had a hint that something big was going to be happening soon.  At the time, I had been an electrician for one year, and since that time, a new machinist had arrived at the plant named Randy Dailey.  We thought he looked a lot like Barney Fife, only he seemed to be a lot smarter.  Here is a picture of the two.  See what you think.

Barney Fife played by Don Knotts in the Andy Griffith Show

Barney Fife played by Don Knotts in the Andy Griffith Show

 

Randy Dailey looking like Barney-Fife's Smarter Brother

Randy Dailey looking like Barney-Fife’s Smarter Brother

Ok.  I admit it.  that’s not really Randy Dailey.  That really is Barney Fife’s Smarter Brother.  Here is a real picture of Randy Dailey:

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

I happened to be walking through the machinist shop at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma on my way to the tool room when I noticed a big pile of large cans stacked up next to the large press.  These cans were about the size of a large can of beans.

Large Can of Power Plant Beans

Large Can of High Fiber Power Plant Beans – makes me hungry

The labels had been removed from all the cans, so I couldn’t tell if they were beans, corn, Hawaiian Punch, or what.  Only Randy Dailey knew for sure.  He had set up some sort of assembly line where he was punching holes through these cans in the shapes of stars and Christmas trees, and I don’t even remember what else.  Ginger Bread Men maybe…. Hopefully Randy will comment at the bottom of this post to answer the unanswered questions about the can decorations and not leave a comment about how I look more like Barney Fife than he does and how he actually looks more like Cary Grant.

 

Cary Grant

Cary Grant trying to look like Randy Dailey

One could only imagine what Randy was going to do with hundreds of cans with Christmas designs punched out around them.  I know that one could only imagine that, because I was one.  No one else seemed puzzled about the cans, so I pretended not to be puzzled also.  It seemed to work, because no one stopped me on the way to the tool room to ask me about the puzzled look on my face.  Which was surprisingly not that uncommon since I walked around a lot puzzled by a great many things.

I figured that some day all this can punching (as opposed to cow punching which is something entirely different) would some day make sense to me.  Each year, Randy would do the same thing.  He would fill the machine shop with cans and then proceed to punch Christmas Trees and stars into them.  It finally made sense to me two years later.  After I had moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma.

My wife and I were sitting around one night in our luxurious two bedroom, one bath, one dog house in Ponca City trying to decide what to do for our first wedding anniversary.

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma (thanks Google for the picture.  Actually thanks Google for all the pictures, except the one with Randy Dailey)

I suggested that we try to solve the riddle of the Randy Dailey Christmas cans.  My wife was not at all surprised, because during our wedding night a year earlier I had made up a story called “Barney Frumpkin, the Christmas Pumpkin”, so, solving a riddle like Randy Dailey’s Christmas Cans seemed right up my alley and in no way out of the ordinary.

Ok.  Here is a side story about Barney Frumpkin the Christmas Pumpkin.  Keep in mind that I just whipped this one out off the top of my head and it was 30 years ago tomorrow (December 21, 1985):

Once upon a time there was a pumpkin patch out in the country by a small town.
Each year the people from the town would go out to the pumpkin patch to pick out a pumpkin before Halloween,
in order to make Jack-O-Lanterns and/or Pumpkin Pie.
This one particular year, there was one pumpkin in the patch named Barney Frumpkin.
He had heard from the other pumpkins that the farmer had been talking to someone and said,
“Tomorrow the people from the town will be here to pick their own special pumpkin, so I want everything to be just perfect.”
All the pumpkins were excited about being chosen by a family, but none were as excited as Barney Frumpkin.
Barney stretched and stretched himself as much as he could to try to stand out as a very special pumpkin.
He could imagine himself shining bright orange among the green vines.
When the day finally arrived, Barney was as excited as he could be as children and parents walked through the pumpkin patch,
Each family looking for their own special Halloween Pumpkin.
As each family came near to Barney, he would wish as hard as he could wish that this would be the family for him.
Each time throughout the day, as each family walked by Barney, none of them so much as gave him a second glance.
Toward the end of the day, as the crowds began to thin, Barney suddenly came to the realization that he was all alone.
No one had chosen him to be their special Halloween Pumpkin.
What Barney didn’t know was that he had a very large black spot on one side that made him look like he was rotten.

As the sun set that day, Barney was left all alone in the pumpkin patch.
All the other pumpkins had been picked and carried away.
Barney Frumpkin sat in the patch and cried.
No one heard him except you and I.

As each day began, the sun was lower in the sky and the nights became colder.
Soon there was snow on the ground that left Barney Frumpkin rather wrinkled and dry.
Barney felt as if the world had left him behind and he wanted to die.
So, he just laid there in the withered pumpkin patch sinking slower into the ground.
Shivering in the snow one night, he thought he could hear songs coming from the village.
In the distance people were singing carols of happiness and joy.
In the darkness Barney felt as if his life was coming to an end.
Then suddenly Barney became aware of a different sound.
The sound of someone humming quietly to their self.
Unknown to Barney, it was an evil witch making her way through the pumpkin patch.
Back to the hovel she would call home if she had a heart.
The people of the town called her a witch and she had no friends.
As she approached Barney, the moon peered out from behind a cloud to take a look.
The witch was about to step on Barney Frumpkin when the moonlight appeared.
The witch stopped in her tracks and looked down at the shriveled pumpkin at her feet.
The one with the large black spot on the side.
She had never seen such a wonderful site in all the days of her life.
It was the perfect pumpkin laying right there in front of her!
Without hesitation, the witch carefully picked up the pumpkin.
She smiled a smile that was so big that the cloud covering the rest of the moon scurried away,
Allowing the moonlight to brighten up the pumpkin patch.
The witch hugged Barney Frumpkin with as much care as she could muster.
She carefully carried him home to her hovel which would now become a home.
Barney was so surprised that for a while he was in shock.
He wasn’t sure what had happened because suddenly everything had turned dark.
It wasn’t until he saw the fire in the fireplace that he realized that someone had taken him home.
The witch set Barney on a table close to the fire where Barney could look around the room.
Standing close by, he saw the witch leaning toward him.
Barney Frumpkin had never seen such a beautiful site!
Barney Frumpkin, the Christmas Pumpkin and the Witch lived happily ever after.

A rotten Pumpkin like Barney Frumpkin

A rotten Pumpkin like Barney Frumpkin

End of Side Story.  Back to the mystery about Randy Dailey and his Christmas cans.

So, I went to the kitchen and took the phone book out of the drawer and looked up Randy’s address…. hmm…. Bonnie Drive.  In 1986, we didn’t have the World Wide Web, so I couldn’t Google the address.  So, I looked in the middle of the phone book to where they had inserted maps of the town, and found the street.

Kelly and I climbed into our car and drove north up Union Street to Lora Street and over to Bonnie Drive.  The mystery of the Christmas Cans was immediately solved even before we had turned the corner.  The entire neighborhood was lit up.  Randy’s Christmas Cans were lined up and down both sides of the street, up and down each drive way on the block and each can had a light shining in it so that you could see the punched out Christmas Trees and Stars shining brightly.

Randy’s house was easy to see halfway up the street because it was all lit up.

Randy's House

Randy’s House

You can see the Flag Pole in the front and the Ham Radio tower in the backyard.  Well, the Ham Radio tower had a large star on the top of it, and there were strings of lights coming down on all sides.  The entire street was lit up with Christmas lights and those in front of Randy’s house had a light show going that was fantastic.  Randy had programmed the lights himself.  The Nativity Scene on the front lawn was like none I had ever seen before.  I wish Randy would send me a picture of it (I would put it in this post).

So, the Christmas story that I told my Children went something like this:

The Evil Plant Manager (Eldon Waugh) had issued a decree that no Christmas Lights would be visible on the plant grounds.  And the Power Plant Men were distraught.  Then there were unknown sounds coming from the machine shop.  They went, “Punch, Punch, Punch.  Zing.  Punch, Punch, Punch, Zing…” Like that.

Cans were quietly being donated while the lone Power Plant Elf (Randy Dailey) punched out designs on cans.  Careful to keep them hidden where the Evil Plant Manager wouldn’t see them.  Which was easy, because he never dared to stroll through any shop where work might be happening.

Then when Christmas Eve came, and the Operators were keeping watch over the boilers at night, An Angel of the Lord appeared to them and said, “Lo!  Climb to the top of Unit 2 Boiler and look yonder North toward Ponca City!”

And Lo!  When the Power Plant Operators and any other Shepherds that happened to be nearby (the cattlemen were all tucked in their beds with visions of Salt Licks dancing in their heads.  Apparently, cattlemen don’t need to keep watch at night like Shepherds do.. unless they are trying to catch cow tippers).

Cow licking a Salt lick

Cow licking a Salt lick

Anyway, the Operators and any other shepherds that happened to be nearby climbed up the 250 stairs (or took the elevator), and gazed upon the Conoco Oil Refinery lighting up the night sky, they became puzzled.

Then the Angel said, “No. Over that way.”  And Lo!  The Power Plant Men of Operator Fame gazed upon a Star shining brightly in the night!  With streams of light coming down in a fantastic light show specially programmed for the occasion to elicit maximum emotions.

And the Angel said unto the Power Plant Men and any stray Shepherds, “Be not afraid!  I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people!  Know that today, this very power plant has supplied the electricity to power The Star of Ponca City!  To honor the baby Jesus that was born 2,000 years ago in the town of Bethlehem!  The Son of God!”

When the Angel of God had left them, the Power Plant Men said to one another, “Let us go to Ponca City (during our midnight lunch break) and see Randy Dailey’s Christmas Star and all the magical Christmas Cans for ourselves!”

So, they hurried off to their pickup trucks and created a convoy of Ford and Chevy’s and an occasional GMC and Dodge Ram and raced up Highway 177 to Ponca City.  Arriving at Randy’s house, they found the Nativity Scene of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus and they were amazed!  They spread the word to all the Power Plants letting them know how important it was to keep the Star of Ponca City burning for all to see.  Then they all returned back to work.

nativity_scene

And now you know…. The rest of the Story!  Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Good Night!

 

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Power Plant Trouble With Angels

Okay, so, no one ever called me an Angel unless it was one of the fallen type.  I suppose the closest was when Bill Bennett, our A Foreman at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma would call me a scamp.  I don’t know why, but I always seemed to be in trouble over one thing or another.  Well… maybe I do know why.

Not long after Bill Bennett left during the downsizing in 1994, when our Supervisor over Maintenance was Jasper Christensen, we had received newer computers all around the plant.  That is, except for the Electric Shop, because we had acquired one a year or so before so that we could program Eeprom Chips.

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

I helped install the computers all around the plant.  I had run the Ethernet cables and installed the jacks so they could be connected to the plant computer network.  I had become the computer person for the plant by default, since I had learned how everything worked on my own.

When we received all the new computers, we were told that we had to keep an inventory of all the computer programs that we were using on each computer to make sure that we weren’t using pirated software.  So, when we installed any program on a computer we were supposed to notify our Supervisor, who in this case was Jasper Christensen.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

I sort of felt sorry for Jasper at times, because, it’s sort of like when you don’t get to choose your parents…. Jasper didn’t get to choose who was working for him exactly.  So, he was stuck with me.

I’m not saying that I was a bad person, or that I wasn’t good at being an electrician.  I was just annoying.  I was always up to some sort of something that no one really told me to do.

One example of this was that I had a CompuServe account, and I would use it to access stock quotes at the end of the day.  I would save them to a file, and then each week, I would pin up charts of our 401k stocks on the bulletin board in the electric shop.  Power Plant Men would come into the shop to see how their stocks were doing.  At this time, the “Internet” hadn’t been introduced to the plant and people didn’t really know much about it.  I would connect to CompuServe through a dial up modem.

 

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

I had a 14,400 baud modem with compression that made it more like 104,000 baud which was really fast for that time.   However, when the World Wide Web became available to CompuServe users, I found that even at that speed, it took a long time just to load one web page if it had a picture on it.  The Internet was just around the corner.  I’ll write a post about how it was introduced at the plant next week.

I diligently kept a log of all the software we had on our company computer.  Whenever I would upgrade CompuServe to the latest version, I would send a form to Jasper letting him know that I now had that version of software on the electric shop computer.  We also had installed other software, such as Reflex, which was sort of a hybrid between Excel and Access.  This was still a DOS based computer.  Windows 3.1 was on it, but a lot of our programs were still run in the DOS mode.

About 6 months after all the new computers arrived, we requested that the computer in the electric shop be replaced, because it was older, and we were using it for more and more things.  The computer arrived about a month after it was approved.

This time, an IT guy from Oklahoma City brought the computer to the plant.  This computer was better than all the other computers in the plant, mainly because it was newer.  At that time, computers were quickly improving.  If you waited six months more it would have even been a better computer.  While the IT guy was in the neighborhood, he installed some software on all the computers.

I was working on the Unit 2 Precipitator with Charles Foster the day that the Electric Shop received the new computer.  Alan Kramer, our Foreman, called me on the radio (walkie talkie)…  He did this because we were using radios a lot more, and were talking about shutting down the Gray Phone PA system all together.

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

Alan said that Jasper wanted to use the new Electric Shop computer at the Conoco Cogen (which stands for Cogeneration) plant in Ponca City.  We needed to take it to Ponca City and use the computer that was there for the electric shop. — Before I tell you my response…. let me tell you about the computer at the Cogen plant.

First, let me explain what a Cogeneration plant is…. This is a small power plant that uses waste gases from the Conoco (Continental Oil) Oil Refinery to create steam to turn the generator to produce electricity.  In exchange for using the waste gases from the refinery, the Power Plant gave any left over steam back to the refinery so they could use it in their refinery.  Plus, we would give the refinery the electricity that we produced.  Any electricity left over, we sold to our customers.

So, there was a desktop computer sitting on a desk in a small control room that allowed the control room at our power plant to dial into it and monitor the plant to see how it was working.  The connection was rather slow even though it had a dedicated phone line to connect to the plant.

The computer itself, even though it was somewhat older than the new computer we received for the electric shop, was sitting idle most of the time.  Even when it was working, it was never processing much.  The problem with the computer being slow wasn’t the computer itself, it was the Network connection back to the plant.

So, when Jasper had said that he was going to replace that computer with our much faster one that we had ordered, I was a little perturbed.  This meant that the nice new fast computer that we had specially ordered so that we could do our job was going to be sitting idle in Ponca City collecting dust doing next to nothing and it wasn’t going to make anything faster as far as the control room was concerned and we would be stuck with a computer that was somewhat older than the one that the computer person had just replaced.

So, in the most smarmy voice I could muster I replied over the radio, “Oh Great!  Another one of Jasper’s ‘Scathingly Brilliant Ideas’!”  I knew the phrase “Scathingly Brilliant Idea” from the movie “Trouble With Angels”.  It seemed like an appropriate remark at the time.

Trouble With Angels

Trouble With Angels

I knew that Jasper would be listening, because he had his walkie talkie set on scan so that he could hear everything we were saying.  Alan Kramer came right back after my remark and said, “Watch it Kevin.  You know who might be listening.”  I said, “Oh.  I know who’s listening.”

Approximately five minutes later, Jasper Christensen called me on the radio and asked me to meet him in his office.  “Okay.  Here it comes,” I thought.  On my way down from the roof of the precipitator I was formulating my argument as to why it was a terrible idea to take the best computer at the plant and send it to Ponca City to sit idle in a room by itself when I could easily put it to a lot of use.  I never really was able to present my arguments.

When I arrived at Jasper’s office, he told me that he wanted me to take CompuServe off of the computer in the electric shop.  I knew why.  I thought I knew why.  I figured it was because I had just insulted him on the radio.  I’m sure that was part of it, but it wasn’t the only reason.

I pressed Jasper on the issue and told him that I used CompuServe to download the stock prices for our 401k so that everyone can see how their stocks are doing and I post them on the bulletin board.  Jasper came back with “That has nothing to do with your job.”  I replied with, “I’m providing a service for our teams, just like the candy and coke machines.  I’m paying for the service myself.  I’m not charging anything.”  Jasper disagreed that I was providing a useful service.

Then Jasper said that the IT guy found a virus on one of the computers and since I was the only person at the plant that had connected to anything like CompuServe, the virus must have come from me.  When I asked him which computer had the virus, he didn’t know.  I told Jasper I better go find out, because if there was a virus on one of the computers, we need to clean it up right away.

This was at a time when McAfee’s Viruscan software was freeware.  I always had an updated copy of it that I would run on the computers.  I had checked all the computers at the plant recently, so I was surprised to hear that one of them had a virus.  Jasper told me that the IT guy was up in Bill Green’s office.  Bill Green was the plant manager.

Bill Green

Bill Green

As I was leaving Jasper’s office, I paused and turned around and asked Jasper one last question….. “Do you want me to only remove the CompuServe application, or do you want me to stop accessing CompuServe? Because I can access CompuServe without the application on the computer.  The application just makes it easier to navigate around.”  This question puzzled Jasper.  He said he would have to get back at me on that.  — So, at that point (I thought to myself), I’ll wait until Jasper gets back to me on that before I remove the software.

I knew that he knew nothing about computers, and I knew that this would confuse him.  That’s why I asked it.  I wanted him to know that if he made me remove CompuServe because he was mad at me for making my smartaleck remark about moving the computer to Ponca City it wasn’t going to make much difference to me anyway.

So, I walked back up to him as he was sitting at his desk, and I said, “Jasper.  I know that I’m the only person in this plant that has given you a list of all the programs on the computer I use.  I let you know every time I even upgrade to a new version.  I am the only person in the plant that follows the rules when it comes to what is on the computers.  I know that there has been personal software added to just about every computer at this plant.  I am the only person that has told you what software I am using.  So, just keep it in mind that you are trying to punish the only person that is following the rules.”  Then I left.

I went upstairs to Bill Green’s office where I found the IT guy running a scan on Bill’s computer.  I asked him about the virus he found.  He said that he was running a Microsoft virus scanner on the computers and on the one in the chemists lab, there was one file that was questionable.  The scan said it was a possible virus, but couldn’t tell what virus it was.

I asked the IT guy what the name of the file was.  He handed me a post it note with the file name on it.  I recognized it right away.  It was a GLink file.  GLink is the application that we used to access the mainframe computer in order to work on our Maintenance Orders, or to look up parts, and any other computer related activities.

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

I had been given a beta test version of GLink that I installed on the Chemists computer for Toby O’Brien about a year earlier when he asked me to help him find a way to connect to the Prime computer downtown so that he could work on CAD drawings from the plant.  IT had sent this Beta version of GLink to me because it could connect to the switch twice as fast as the current GLink and they were glad to let us try it out.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

About that time, Bill Green came into the office and I told him that the “supposed” virus on the Chemist computer was given to us by IT and that it probably wasn’t a virus anyway, it just acted like one because it connected to a switch a certain way which was unusual.  The IT guy was still standing there and he agreed that it just indicated that it might be a virus and probably wasn’t really one.

Then I told Bill Green that Jasper had told me to remove CompuServe from the computer in our shop.  He said that he and Jasper had talked about it and were concerned that I might download a virus from CompuServe.  I assured him that I only downloaded stock prices and MSDS sheets (Material Safety Data Sheets) from OSHA.  Everything I downloaded was in text format and would not contain a virus.

The IT guy agreed that at that time, CompuServe was very careful about viruses as they had been hit with one about 6 months earlier.  Now they scanned everything they let you download.  Bill said, “Well, that’s between you and Jasper.”  —  That’s all I needed to hear.  I knew that Jasper would forget about it and never “get back with me” on it.

As you can tell, if you’ve been reading the posts this year, I am constantly becoming more involved in computers at this point in my career.  For good or bad, it was a concern for people like Jasper and Bill.  I knew a lot more than they did to the point that they would call me to help them learn how to use their computers.  They didn’t know if they could trust me.  Luckily for them, even though I was mischievous, I wouldn’t do anything to invade someone’s privacy, or hurt plant operations.

It did seem like I was always in trouble over one thing or another.  It was often brought on by someone’s misunderstanding about what the problem really was, and their feeble incorrect attempt to fix it…. and… well….(let’s face it) my big mouth.

What Coal-Fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery

Power Plant Men working for a large Coal-Fired Power Plant have the kind of culture where Cleanliness is next to “Leroy Godfrey-ness”.  If you knew Leroy Godfrey, then you would know that he was a perfectionist in a lot of ways.  Or… Well, he expected the Plant Electricians to be anyway.  A few years after becoming an electrician, there was some work being done by Ben Davis, one of our best electricians, at the Conoco (Continental) Oil Refinery twenty miles north of the plant in Ponca City.

Conoco (Now Philips 66) Oil refinery

Conoco (Now Philips 66) Oil refinery in Ponca City

Being a low level Electrician Apprentice, I was not included in whatever was happening at the Refinery.  I didn’t work at the refinery for many years.  When I finally did go to Conoco, I wished I hadn’t.

What was happening?  A Co-Generation plant was being built there.  It is called a “Co-Generation” plant because it serves two purposes.  Waste gas from the refinery is used to fire the boiler that produces the steam to turn the turbine.  Any steam left over is sent over to the refinery to supplement their own needs.  The electricity is used by the refinery and any left over electricity is sold by the Electric Company for a profit.  So, in a sense, it is a “Co-Existence”.

For the most part, Power Plant Men were looking for opportunities to get in a company truck and leave the plant grounds to work on something outside the confines of the plant where they work every day, week in and week out.  Trips to the river pumps or the parks on our lake were always nice, because you would see wildlife along the way.  You could look out over the Arkansas River in the morning as the sun was rising and feel the cool breeze and smell the pastures nearby.

Trips to Enid to our small peaking units were fun too, because we were able to work on some different equipment out in a quiet substation where mud daubers were the only sound until the units came online.  The drive to Enid was nice because the 45 mile trip across the countryside is pleasant and the traffic is very light.  You can go for miles without seeing another car.

After only a couple of visits to the Conoco Oil Refinery, I never looked forward to the 20 minute drive from the plant when we had to work on the Co-Generation Plant co-owned by our company and the Oil Refinery.  There were a few things about the refinery that bothered me about working there.  One annoying factor was the hideous smell.

I had lived in Ponca City for three years and the sour odor that poured out of the Oil Refinery to the south of our house generally blew right up our street.  One winter morning I remember stepping out of our rental house into the dark on my way to work, and the exhaust from the oil refinery must have been blowing directly down the street to our house where I lived because when I took a breath I gagged immediately and was at the point of vomiting on the front lawn.

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma in 1986-89 with about 600 sq. ft. of living space

A side note…

My wife and I lived in this tiny house shortly after we were married.  Kelly was an RN (nurse) at the local hospital working the night shift while I was an electrician at the Power Plant during the day.  I had the philosophy that if we started by living in a dump and saved our money, then as we gradually worked our way up to a bigger house, we would feel as if life was getting better, and we never had to worry about money, since we always lived well below our means.

I figured that if we lived far below our means, our means would keep growing.  Living just below your means meant always staying in the same economic spot (how many sentences can I put the words “means” and “meant” right next to each other?).  The quality of Life doesn’t get much better.  When living well below your means, life continues to get better even if your job stays the same your entire life.  I had figured that I was going to be a plant electrician until the day I retired, so, this was my way of planning ahead.

My wife endured living in this tiny house one block away from the railroad tracks traveled by the coal trains on their way to our plant (which shook our house as they passed) for three years before we moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma where we lived with more than twice the square feet and no smell from the oil refinery.

end of side note…

I started out by saying that the culture at our Power Plant was that Cleanliness was very important.  I suppose this was true at the Oil Refinery as well, only, it seemed that even though the clutter was all picked up, there was something “inherently” dirty about the oil refinery.  I’m not sure how to describe it, but you just felt like you didn’t want to touch anything because it was going to leave some sort of dirty film on you.  It was….. grimy (one could say… oily… well… it was an oil refinery).

Our Power Plant is in North Central Oklahoma, and during the summer going for an entire month with over 100 degree weather every day was not uncommon.  There are parts of the plant where you had to work some times where the temperature reached 160 degrees.  Of course, you can’t stay in that environment very long, and those areas are generally not the areas of choice when choosing which job to work on next.

One hot summer day in 1996, Charles Foster and I had to go to the oil refinery to our Co-Generation plant to fix an Air Conditioner Condenser Fan Motor.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

This isn’t like one of those fans on the side of your house in the box that you know as your “air conditioner” that blows hot air out when the air conditioner in your house is running, though it performs the same task, only on a much bigger scale.

A large air conditioner about the size of the one that Mike Rose worked on

No.  Even bigger than this air conditioner

When you entered the oil refinery you had to wear a long blue cloak or coat called “Nomex” (pronounced “No Mex”).

A Blue Nomex Coat

A Blue Nomex Coat  which can be worn by Mexicans.  That rumor is just not true.

The reason for wearing this heavy “woolen” coat was to help save your life in case you happened to be around the next time (next time?) something exploded, blasting flames in your direction.  — Yeah…. comforting huh?  Knowing that this flame retardant coat was going to keep you from being burned alive when something exploded in the refinery.  Oh joy.

Everyone in the refinery was wearing these blue coats.  It was a requirement before you could drive your pickup through the security gate.

Once inside the gate, Charles and I checked our clearances to make sure it was safe to work on unwiring the motor that was mounted under the air conditioner coils.  Another fan was running that was turning a large fan blade blowing hot air down next to us.  We had brought our own fans to blow cooler air on us while we worked on the motor.  This particular motor weighed about 400 lbs, to give you an idea of the size of motor we were repairing.

A motor much like this one

A motor much like this one only mounted vertically

Charles and I had brought a temperature gun to check how hot everything was when we were working.

An Infrared Thermometer

An Infrared Thermometer

When we checked the temperature, we found that the area where we had to stand was 160 degrees.  The motor itself was even hotter than that.  We had to wear leather gloves just to work on it without burning our hands.  Asbestos gloves would have rendered us useless because they make you feel like you are wearing “Hulk Hands” where your fingers are about 2 inches wide.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

See what I mean?

Hulk Hands

Hulk Hands

The air was too hot to breathe except for quick shallow breaths.  Even though we had a fan blowing directly on us, we took turns approaching the motor, turning some bolts a couple of times, and then quickly moving out of the area to where we could be in the cooler 105 degree temperature.

There is nothing like a mild irritation (such as working in extreme heat) to motivate you to hurry up a job.  Charles and I worked diligently to remove the motor and then lowered it down with a platform hand lift that we kept in the shop.

A platform Lift Hand Truck like the one we used

A platform Lift Hand Truck like the one we used only ours had a hydraulic lift on it.  This one has a hand crank.

This fan motor was on the roof of a building, so once we had removed the motor from where it was mounted, we still had to lower it down to the back of the truck which was backed up to the side of the building.  Once in the truck, we brought it back to the plant where we could work on it.

When you first went to work in the oil refinery you had to take a specially designed safety course when you are issued your Nomex coat.  During that class, you are told that if you hear the sirens go off, that generally means that there are some toxic gases being released accidentally in the plant, you are supposed to take action quickly.

The funniest (or not so funniest) instructions was that when the sirens go off, you are supposed to run in the opposite direction away from the sirens.  Which sort of reminds me of Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail when they had to run away from the viscous fighting rabbit. Yelling “Run Away!  Run Away!”  Great safety evacuation plan.  — Plan of action:  “Run!!!”

Battling the Killer Rabbit in the Search for the Holy Grail

Battling the Killer Rabbit in the Search for the Holy Grail

The toxic gas that everyone was worried about is called Hydrogen Sulfide or H2S.  This is the gas that smells like rotten eggs.  The only problem is that when there is more than the minimal amount of H2S in the air, you can’t smell it anymore because it quickly deadens your sense of smell.

Hydrogen Sulfide Warning Sign

Hydrogen Sulfide Warning Sign

Another fun reason to not want to go work in the Oil Refinery.

Anyway, Charles and I safely reversed the process to return the motor to its rightful place mounted on the bottom of the coils on the roof.

A few times I had to go to work at the Co-Generation plant because something was broken (like the fan motor), but most of the time that we went to the plant was to do our quarterly battery inspections.  For more information about battery inspections, you can read this post: “Importance of Power Plant Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance“.

I have told you all the reasons why I didn’t enjoy working at the Oil Refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma.  There were reasons why I did enjoy it.  I suppose if you have been reading my posts, you will know the most obvious answer to that question (oh.  I guess I didn’t really ask a question… but if I had…).  The only redeeming factor with working at the Co-Generation plant at the oil refinery was being able to work with the best Power Plant Men and Women in the country.

I have given you an example above when I worked with Charles Foster.  I also worked with Scott Hubbard and Diana Brien.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Both of them top class electricians and First Class Friends.  Just to be able to work side-by-side with such terrific people made me forget about the poison gases.  I didn’t mind the heat.  I even forgot I was wearing the heavy suffocating Nomex Coat.  What’s a little grime when your friend tells you about their day?  About what they are planning for the weekend?  Or the rest of their life?

Actually, I think that’s what made everything about working both at the Oil Refinery and the Power Plant itself the most enjoyable job I can imagine.  Sure.  We had a culture of “cleanliness” at the plant but I think it was the culture of “friendliness” that really made all the difference.  It was also the most painful part the day I finally left the Power Plant to adventure out to find the rest of the world in 2001.

Power Plant Millennium Experience

I suppose most people remember where they were New Year’s Eve at midnight on Saturday, January 1, 2000.  That is a night I will never forget.  Some people were hiding in self-made bunkers waiting for the end of the world which never came, others were celebrating at home with their families and friends.  I suppose some people went on with their lives as if nothing was different that night.  Not my family.  My wife and two children spent the night at the Power Plant waiting to see if all of the testing we had performed the last two years had covered all possible failures of the Y2K scare.

A small group of Power Plant Men had been chosen to attend a party with our families in the main conference room at the Power Plant.  All the food and drinks were supplied by the company.  Our Plant Manager, Bill Green was there.  Children were given the opportunity to rest in some other room as it reached their bedtimes.

Two years before this fateful night, the company was in full swing preparing for the Y2K computer disaster that had been foretold by those who knew that many computer systems only used two digits for the year instead of all four.  so, when the year 2000 rolled around, it would suddenly show up in the computer as 00, which didn’t compute as a year in some systems. After all, you can’t divide something by 00.  Suddenly, the time between events that just happened before midnight and those that happen just after midnight are 100 years apart in the wrong direction.

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was completed in 1979 and 1980, so, my first thought was that by that time, computers were far enough along to know better.  The Instrument and Controls Power Plant Men along with the Plant Engineers decided that the best way to check their systems was to change the clocks on the computers one at a time to just before midnight on New Year’s Eve and see what happens.

I thought that was a pretty ingenious way to go about testing the computer systems.  By changing the clock on each system one at a time to New Year’s Eve and watching it roll over to the new Millennium, you learn right away if you have a problem, and you have contained the disaster to one system at a time while you test it.  By doing this, it turned out that there was a problem with one system at the Co-Generation plant at the Continental Oil Refinery 20 miles north of the plant.

I wrote a post about the Co-Generation Plant in a previous post: “What Coal-fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery“.  When it was discovered that the computer at the Conoco Oil Refinery Power Plant would crash on New Year’s Eve, it was decided that we would just roll the clock back to 1950 (or so), and we wouldn’t have to worry about it for another 50 years.  The thought was that by that time, this computer would be replaced.

This was the original thought which caused the Y2K problem in the first place.  No one thought in the 1960’s that their computer systems would still be operating when the year 2000 came around, so they didn’t bother to use four digits for the year.  Disk space was expensive at that time, and anything that could save a few bytes was considered an improvement instead of a bug.

My wife wasn’t too pleased when I told her where we were going to spend New Year’s Eve when Y2K rolled around, but then again, where would you rather be if a worldwide disaster happened and the electricity shutdown across the country?  I would think the Power Plant would be the best place.  You could at least say, “I was in the actual Control Room at a Power Plant watching them throw the switch and light up Oklahoma City!”  Besides, we usually spent New Year’s Eve quietly at home with our kids.

Even though we were fairly certain everything had been accounted for, it was the unknown computer system sitting out there that no one had thought about that might shut everything down.  Some system in a relay house in a substation, or some terrorist attack.  So, there we sat watching the New Year roll in on a big screen TV at one end of the break room.  Children’s movies were being shown most of the evening to keep the young occupied while we waited.

I thought that Jim Arnold, the Supervisor over the Maintenance Department, wanted me in the break room at the Power Plant so that he could keep an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t going to be causing trouble that night.  Jim never really trusted me….  I suppose that was because strange things would happen when I was around.  Of course, I would never do anything that would jeopardize the operation of the Power Plant, but that didn’t stop me from keeping Jim guessing.

No.  Not really.  I was there because I had a way with computers.  I was the computer go to person at the plant, and if anything happened to any of them, I would probably be the person that could whisper it back into service.  Also, if for some reason the Generators tripped, I was a switchman that could open and close switches in the substation and start the precipitator back up and run up to the top of the boiler if the boiler elevator broke down and get it started back up.

Except for my natural affinity for computers, any of the electricians in the Power Plant could do all those other things.  I think there was just a little “prejudice” left over about me from when Bill Bennett our past A foreman used to say, “Let Kevin do it.  He doesn’t mind getting dirty”  (or…. he likes to climb the boiler, or…. he likes confined spaces, or… Kevin likes to stay up at all hours of the night working on things… I could go on… that was Bill’s response when someone asked him who should do the really grimy jobs  — of course… to some degree…. he was usually right).

I was actually a little proud to be told that I was going to have to spend New Year’s Eve at the Power Plant.  I had almost 17 years of experience as a Power Plant Electrician at that time, and I felt very comfortable working on any piece of equipment in the plant.  If it was something I had never worked on before, then I would quickly learn how it worked… As I said, all the electricians in the plant were the same way.  It was our way of life.

At 11:00 pm Central Time, we watched as the ball dropped in Time Square in New York City.  The 10 or so Power Plant Men with their families sat in anticipation waiting…. and waiting… to see if the lights went out in New York….  Of course you know now that nothing happened, but we were ready to jump into a crisis mode if there were any reports of power failures across the country.

You see…. The electric grid on the east side of the Rocky Mountains is all connected together.  If the power grid were to go down in one area, it could try dragging down the rest of the country.  If protective relays in substations across the country don’t operate flawlessly, then a blackout occurs in a larger area than just one particular area covered by one electric company.

When relays operate properly, a blackout is contained in the smallest area possible.  There was only one problem…. Breakers in substations are now controlled by remote computer systems.  If those systems began to act erratic, then the country could have a problem.  This did not happen that night.

There was a contract worker in the engineering department at our plant who was at his home in the country during this time hunkered down in a bunker waiting for the end of the world as was foretold by the minister of his church.  He had purchased a large supply of food and water and had piled them up in his shelter along with a portable generator.  He and his family waited out the end of the world that night waiting for the rapture.  He told me about that a few months later.  He was rather disappointed that the world hadn’t ended like it was supposed to.  He was so prepared for it.

After 11 pm rolled around and there was no disaster on the east coast, things lightened up a bit.  I decided to take my son and daughter on a night tour of the plant.  So, we walked over to the control room where they could look at the control panels with all of the the lights and alarms.  Here is a picture of Jim Cave and Allen Moore standing in front of the Unit 1 Control Panel:

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Then I took each of them up to the top of the Boiler where you could look out over the lake at night from a view 250 feet high.  The Power Plant becomes a magical world at night, with the rumbling sounds from the boiler, the quiet hissing of steam muffled by the night.  The lights shining through the metal structure and open grating floors.

From the top of the boiler, you could look south and see the night lights from Stillwater, Pawnee and Perry.  Looking north, you could see Ponca City and the Oil Refinery at Conoco (later Phillips).  The only structure taller than the boilers are the smoke stacks.  There was always a special quality about the plant at night that is hard to put your finger on.  A sort of silence in a world of noise.  It is like a large ship on the ocean.  In a world of its own.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset across the lake

We returned to the break room 20 minutes before midnight, where our plant manager Bill Green and Jim Arnold tested their radios with the Control Room to make sure we were all in contact with each other.  I had carried my tool bucket up to the break room in case I needed to dash off somewhere in a hurry.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

We felt confident by this time that a disaster was not going to happen when the clock rolled over to midnight.  When the countdown happened, and the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 counted down, We cheered “Happy New Year!” and hugged one another.  I think both of my children had dozed off by this point.

Bill Green called the control room.  The word came back that everything was business as usual.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  We waited around another hour just to make sure that nothing had shutdown.  By 1:00 am on January 1, 2000, Bill Green gave us the (Bill) Green Light.  We were all free to return to our homes.

I gathered up my two children and my wife Kelly, and we drove the 25 miles back home to the comfort of our own beds.  When we went to bed early that morning after I had climbed into bed, I reached over and turned off the light on my nightstand.  When the light went out, it was because I had decided to turn it off.  Not because the world had suddenly come to an end.  A new Millennium had just begun.

Power Plant Christmas Star Shines over Ponca City

Originally posted December 20, 2014:

When my children were young and the season was right and I had finished telling them all the Gene Day stories, when they were in just the right Christmas spirit, I would tell them about the Power Plant Christmas Star and how it would shine brightly over Ponca City, Oklahoma around Christmas time, calling shepherds and Power Plant Operators to come and see what technological miracle had taken place on Bonnie Drive on the North End of the thriving community known as Ponca City (Did I actually make an entire paragraph out of one sentence? — Geez.  This is why my English Teacher was always slapping my hand — Catholic school…. you can imagine how that was).

The story actually begins way before the Christmas season starts, but some time after Christmas decorations have gone up in Target and Wal-Mart.  That is, some time after Halloween, but before Thanksgiving.  November, 1984 was the first time I had a hint that something big was going to be happening soon.  At the time, I had been an electrician for one year, and since that time, a new machinist had arrived at the plant named Randy Dailey.  We thought he looked a lot like Barney Fife, only he seemed to be a lot smarter.  Here is a picture of the two.  See what you think.

Barney Fife played by Don Knotts in the Andy Griffith Show

Barney Fife played by Don Knotts in the Andy Griffith Show

 

Randy Dailey looking like Barney-Fife's Smarter Brother

Randy Dailey looking like Barney-Fife’s Smarter Brother

Ok.  I admit it.  that’s not really Randy Dailey.  That really is Barney Fife’s Smarter Brother.  Here is a real picture of Randy Dailey:

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

I happened to be walking through the machinist shop at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma on my way to the tool room when I noticed a big pile of large cans stacked up next to the large press.  These cans were about the size of a large can of beans.

Large Can of Power Plant Beans

Large Can of High Fiber Power Plant Beans – makes me hungry

The labels had been removed from all the cans, so I couldn’t tell if they were beans, corn, Hawaiian Punch, or what.  Only Randy Dailey knew for sure.  He had set up some sort of assembly line where he was punching holes through these cans in the shapes of stars and Christmas trees, and I don’t even remember what else.  Ginger Bread Men maybe…. Hopefully Randy will comment at the bottom of this post to answer the unanswered questions about the can decorations and not leave a comment about how I look more like Barney Fife than he does and how he actually looks more like Cary Grant.

 

Cary Grant

Cary Grant trying to look like Randy Dailey

One could only imagine what Randy was going to do with hundreds of cans with Christmas designs punched out around them.  I know that one could only imagine that, because I was one.  No one else seemed puzzled about the cans, so I pretended not to be puzzled also.  It seemed to work, because no one stopped me on the way to the tool room to ask me about the puzzled look on my face.  Which was surprisingly not that uncommon since I walked around a lot puzzled by a great many things.

I figured that some day all this can punching (as opposed to cow punching which is something entirely different) would some day make sense to me.  Each year, Randy would do the same thing.  He would fill the machine shop with cans and then proceed to punch Christmas Trees and stars into them.  It finally made sense to me two years later.  After I had moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma.

My wife and I were sitting around one night in our luxurious two bedroom, one bath, one dog house in Ponca City trying to decide what to do for our first wedding anniversary.

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma (thanks Google for the picture.  Actually thanks Google for all the pictures, except the one with Randy Dailey)

I suggested that we try to solve the riddle of the Randy Dailey Christmas cans.  My wife was not at all surprised, because during our wedding night a year earlier I had made up a story called “Barney Frumpkin, the Christmas Pumpkin”, so, solving a riddle like Randy Dailey’s Christmas Cans seemed right up my alley and in no way out of the ordinary.

Ok.  Here is a side story about Barney Frumpkin the Christmas Pumpkin.  Keep in mind that I just whipped this one out off the top of my head and it was 30 years ago tomorrow (December 21, 1985):

Once upon a time there was a pumpkin patch out in the country by a small town.
Each year the people from the town would go out to the pumpkin patch to pick out a pumpkin before Halloween,
in order to make Jack-O-Lanterns and/or Pumpkin Pie.
This one particular year, there was one pumpkin in the patch named Barney Frumpkin.
He had heard from the other pumpkins that the farmer had been talking to someone and said,
“Tomorrow the people from the town will be here to pick their own special pumpkin, so I want everything to be just perfect.”
All the pumpkins were excited about being chosen by a family, but none were as excited as Barney Frumpkin.
Barney stretched and stretched himself as much as he could to try to stand out as a very special pumpkin.
He could imagine himself shining bright orange among the green vines.
When the day finally arrived, Barney was as excited as he could be as children and parents walked through the pumpkin patch,
Each family looking for their own special Halloween Pumpkin.
As each family came near to Barney, he would wish as hard as he could wish that this would be the family for him.
Each time throughout the day, as each family walked by Barney, none of them so much as gave him a second glance.
Toward the end of the day, as the crowds began to thin, Barney suddenly came to the realization that he was all alone.
No one had chosen him to be their special Halloween Pumpkin.
What Barney didn’t know was that he had a very large black spot on one side that made him look like he was rotten.

As the sun set that day, Barney was left all alone in the pumpkin patch.
All the other pumpkins had been picked and carried away.
Barney Frumpkin sat in the patch and cried.
No one heard him except you and I.

As each day began, the sun was lower in the sky and the nights became colder.
Soon there was snow on the ground that left Barney Frumpkin rather wrinkled and dry.
Barney felt as if the world had left him behind and he wanted to die.
So, he just laid there in the withered pumpkin patch sinking slower into the ground.
Shivering in the snow one night, he thought he could hear songs coming from the village.
In the distance people were singing carols of happiness and joy.
In the darkness Barney felt as if his life was coming to an end.
Then suddenly Barney became aware of a different sound.
The sound of someone humming quietly to their self.
Unknown to Barney, it was an evil witch making her way through the pumpkin patch.
Back to the hovel she would call home if she had a heart.
The people of the town called her a witch and she had no friends.
As she approached Barney, the moon peered out from behind a cloud to take a look.
The witch was about to step on Barney Frumpkin when the moonlight appeared.
The witch stopped in her tracks and looked down at the shriveled pumpkin at her feet.
The one with the large black spot on the side.
She had never seen such a wonderful site in all the days of her life.
It was the perfect pumpkin laying right there in front of her!
Without hesitation, the witch carefully picked up the pumpkin.
She smiled a smile that was so big that the cloud covering the rest of the moon scurried away,
Allowing the moonlight to brighten up the pumpkin patch.
The witch hugged Barney Frumpkin with as much care as she could muster.
She carefully carried him home to her hovel which would now become a home.
Barney was so surprised that for a while he was in shock.
He wasn’t sure what had happened because suddenly everything had turned dark.
It wasn’t until he saw the fire in the fireplace that he realized that someone had taken him home.
The witch set Barney on a table close to the fire where Barney could look around the room.
Standing close by, he saw the witch leaning toward him.
Barney Frumpkin had never seen such a beautiful site!
Barney Frumpkin, the Christmas Pumpkin and the Witch lived happily ever after.

A rotten Pumpkin like Barney Frumpkin

A rotten Pumpkin like Barney Frumpkin

End of Side Story.  Back to the mystery about Randy Dailey and his Christmas cans.

So, I went to the kitchen and took the phone book out of the drawer and looked up Randy’s address…. hmm…. Bonnie Drive.  In 1986, we didn’t have the World Wide Web, so I couldn’t Google the address.  So, I looked in the middle of the phone book to where they had inserted maps of the town, and found the street.

Kelly and I climbed into our car and drove north up Union Street to Lora Street and over to Bonnie Drive.  The mystery of the Christmas Cans was immediately solved even before we had turned the corner.  The entire neighborhood was lit up.  Randy’s Christmas Cans were lined up and down both sides of the street, up and down each drive way on the block and each can had a light shining in it so that you could see the punched out Christmas Trees and Stars shining brightly.

Randy’s house was easy to see halfway up the street because it was all lit up.

Randy's House

Randy’s House

You can see the Flag Pole in the front and the Ham Radio tower in the backyard.  Well, the Ham Radio tower had a large star on the top of it, and there were strings of lights coming down on all sides.  The entire street was lit up with Christmas lights and those in front of Randy’s house had a light show going that was fantastic.  Randy had programmed the lights himself.  The Nativity Scene on the front lawn was like none I had ever seen before.  I wish Randy would send me a picture of it (I would put it in this post).

So, the Christmas story that I told my Children went something like this:

The Evil Plant Manager (Eldon Waugh) had issued a decree that no Christmas Lights would be visible on the plant grounds.  And the Power Plant Men were distraught.  Then there were unknown sounds coming from the machine shop.  They went, “Punch, Punch, Punch.  Zing.  Punch, Punch, Punch, Zing…” Like that.

Cans were quietly being donated while the lone Power Plant Elf (Randy Dailey) punched out designs on cans.  Careful to keep them hidden where the Evil Plant Manager wouldn’t see them.  Which was easy, because he never dared to stroll through any shop where work might be happening.

Then when Christmas Eve came, and the Operators were keeping watch over the boilers at night, An Angel of the Lord appeared to them and said, “Lo!  Climb to the top of Unit 2 Boiler and look yonder North toward Ponca City!”

And Lo!  When the Power Plant Operators and any other Shepherds that happened to be nearby (the cattlemen were all tucked in their beds with visions of Salt Licks dancing in their heads.  Apparently, cattlemen don’t need to keep watch at night like Shepherds do.. unless they are trying to catch cow tippers).

Cow licking a Salt lick

Cow licking a Salt lick

Anyway, the Operators and any other shepherds that happened to be nearby climbed up the 250 stairs (or took the elevator), and gazed upon the Conoco Oil Refinery lighting up the night sky, they became puzzled.

Then the Angel said, “No. Over that way.”  And Lo!  The Power Plant Men of Operator Fame gazed upon a Star shining brightly in the night!  With streams of light coming down in a fantastic light show specially programmed for the occasion to elicit maximum emotions.

And the Angel said unto the Power Plant Men and any stray Shepherds, “Be not afraid!  I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people!  Know that today, this very power plant has supplied the electricity to power The Star of Ponca City!  To honor the baby Jesus that was born 2,000 years ago in the town of Bethlehem!  The Son of God!”

When the Angel of God had left them, the Power Plant Men said to one another, “Let us go to Ponca City (during our midnight lunch break) and see Randy Dailey’s Christmas Star and all the magical Christmas Cans for ourselves!”

So, they hurried off to their pickup trucks and created a convoy of Ford and Chevy’s and an occasional GMC and Dodge Ram and raced up Highway 177 to Ponca City.  Arriving at Randy’s house, they found the Nativity Scene of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus and they were amazed!  They spread the word to all the Power Plants letting them know how important it was to keep the Star of Ponca City burning for all to see.  Then they all returned back to work.

nativity_scene

And now you know…. The rest of the Story!  Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Good Night!

 

Power Plant Trouble With Angels

Okay, so, no one ever called me an Angel unless it was one of the fallen type.  I suppose the closest was when Bill Bennett, our A Foreman at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma would call me a scamp.  I don’t know why, but I always seemed to be in trouble over one thing or another.  Well… maybe I do know why.

Not long after Bill Bennett left during the downsizing in 1994, when our Supervisor over Maintenance was Jasper Christensen, we had received newer computers all around the plant.  That is, except for the Electric Shop, because we had acquired one a year or so before so that we could program Eeprom Chips.

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

I helped install the computers all around the plant.  I had run the Ethernet cables and installed the jacks so they could be connected to the plant computer network.  I had become the computer person for the plant by default, since I had learned how everything worked on my own.

When we received all the new computers, we were told that we had to keep an inventory of all the computer programs that we were using on each computer to make sure that we weren’t using pirated software.  So, when we installed any program on a computer we were supposed to notify our Supervisor, who in this case was Jasper Christensen.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

I sort of felt sorry for Jasper at times, because, it’s sort of like when you don’t get to choose your parents…. Jasper didn’t get to choose who was working for him exactly.  So, he was stuck with me.

I’m not saying that I was a bad person, or that I wasn’t good at being an electrician.  I was just annoying.  I was always up to some sort of something that no one really told me to do.

One example of this was that I had a CompuServe account, and I would use it to access stock quotes at the end of the day.  I would save them to a file, and then each week, I would pin up charts of our 401k stocks on the bulletin board in the electric shop.  Power Plant Men would come into the shop to see how their stocks were doing.  At this time, the “Internet” hadn’t been introduced to the plant and people didn’t really know much about it.  I would connect to CompuServe through a dial up modem.

 

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

I had a 14,400 baud modem with compression that made it more like 104,000 baud which was really fast for that time.   However, when the World Wide Web became available to CompuServe users, I found that even at that speed, it took a long time just to load one web page if it had a picture on it.  The Internet was just around the corner.  I’ll write a post about how it was introduced at the plant next week.

I diligently kept a log of all the software we had on our company computer.  Whenever I would upgrade CompuServe to the latest version, I would send a form to Jasper letting him know that I now had that version of software on the electric shop computer.  We also had installed other software, such as Reflex, which was sort of a hybrid between Excel and Access.  This was still a DOS based computer.  Windows 3.1 was on it, but a lot of our programs were still run in the DOS mode.

About 6 months after all the new computers arrived, we requested that the computer in the electric shop be replaced, because it was older, and we were using it for more and more things.  The computer arrived about a month after it was approved.

This time, an IT guy from Oklahoma City brought the computer to the plant.  This computer was better than all the other computers in the plant, mainly because it was newer.  At that time, computers were quickly improving.  If you waited six months more it would have even been a better computer.  While the IT guy was in the neighborhood, he installed some software on all the computers.

I was working on the Unit 2 Precipitator with Charles Foster the day that the Electric Shop received the new computer.  Alan Kramer, our Foreman, called me on the radio (walkie talkie)…  He did this because we were using radios a lot more, and were talking about shutting down the Gray Phone PA system all together.

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

Alan said that Jasper wanted to use the new Electric Shop computer at the Conoco Cogen (which stands for Cogeneration) plant in Ponca City.  We needed to take it to Ponca City and use the computer that was there for the electric shop. — Before I tell you my response…. let me tell you about the computer at the Cogen plant.

First, let me explain what a Cogeneration plant is…. This is a small power plant that uses waste gases from the Conoco (Continental Oil) Oil Refinery to create steam to turn the generator to produce electricity.  In exchange for using the waste gases from the refinery, the Power Plant gave any left over steam back to the refinery so they could use it in their refinery.  Plus, we would give the refinery the electricity that we produced.  Any electricity left over, we sold to our customers.

So, there was a desktop computer sitting on a desk in a small control room that allowed the control room at our power plant to dial into it and monitor the plant to see how it was working.  The connection was rather slow even though it had a dedicated phone line to connect to the plant.

The computer itself, even though it was somewhat older than the new computer we received for the electric shop, was sitting idle most of the time.  Even when it was working, it was never processing much.  The problem with the computer being slow wasn’t the computer itself, it was the Network connection back to the plant.

So, when Jasper had said that he was going to replace that computer with our much faster one that we had ordered, I was a little perturbed.  This meant that the nice new fast computer that we had specially ordered so that we could do our job was going to be sitting idle in Ponca City collecting dust doing next to nothing and it wasn’t going to make anything faster as far as the control room was concerned and we would be stuck with a computer that was somewhat older than the one that the computer person had just replaced.

So, in the most smarmy voice I could muster I replied over the radio, “Oh Great!  Another one of Jasper’s ‘Scathingly Brilliant Ideas’!”  I knew the phrase “Scathingly Brilliant Idea” from the movie “Trouble With Angels”.  It seemed like an appropriate remark at the time.

Trouble With Angels

Trouble With Angels

I knew that Jasper would be listening, because he had his walkie talkie set on scan so that he could hear everything we were saying.  Alan Kramer came right back after my remark and said, “Watch it Kevin.  You know who might be listening.”  I said, “Oh.  I know who’s listening.”

Approximately five minutes later, Jasper Christensen called me on the radio and asked me to meet him in his office.  “Okay.  Here it comes,” I thought.  On my way down from the roof of the precipitator I was formulating my argument as to why it was a terrible idea to take the best computer at the plant and send it to Ponca City to sit idle in a room by itself when I could easily put it to a lot of use.  I never really was able to present my arguments.

When I arrived at Jasper’s office, he told me that he wanted me to take CompuServe off of the computer in the electric shop.  I knew why.  I thought I knew why.  I figured it was because I had just insulted him on the radio.  I’m sure that was part of it, but it wasn’t the only reason.

I pressed Jasper on the issue and told him that I used CompuServe to download the stock prices for our 401k so that everyone can see how their stocks are doing and I post them on the bulletin board.  Jasper came back with “That has nothing to do with your job.”  I replied with, “I’m providing a service for our teams, just like the candy and coke machines.  I’m paying for the service myself.  I’m not charging anything.”  Jasper disagreed that I was providing a useful service.

Then Jasper said that the IT guy found a virus on one of the computers and since I was the only person at the plant that had connected to anything like CompuServe, the virus must have come from me.  When I asked him which computer had the virus, he didn’t know.  I told Jasper I better go find out, because if there was a virus on one of the computers, we need to clean it up right away.

This was at a time when McAfee’s Viruscan software was freeware.  I always had an updated copy of it that I would run on the computers.  I had checked all the computers at the plant recently, so I was surprised to hear that one of them had a virus.  Jasper told me that the IT guy was up in Bill Green’s office.  Bill Green was the plant manager.

Bill Green

Bill Green

As I was leaving Jasper’s office, I paused and turned around and asked Jasper one last question….. “Do you want me to only remove the CompuServe application, or do you want me to stop accessing CompuServe? Because I can access CompuServe without the application on the computer.  The application just makes it easier to navigate around.”  This question puzzled Jasper.  He said he would have to get back at me on that.  — So, at that point (I thought to myself), I’ll wait until Jasper gets back to me on that before I remove the software.

I knew that he knew nothing about computers, and I knew that this would confuse him.  That’s why I asked it.  I wanted him to know that if he made me remove CompuServe because he was mad at me for making my smartaleck remark about moving the computer to Ponca City it wasn’t going to make much difference to me anyway.

So, I walked back up to him as he was sitting at his desk, and I said, “Jasper.  I know that I’m the only person in this plant that has given you a list of all the programs on the computer I use.  I let you know every time I even upgrade to a new version.  I am the only person in the plant that follows the rules when it comes to what is on the computers.  I know that there has been personal software added to just about every computer at this plant.  I am the only person that has told you what software I am using.  So, just keep it in mind that you are trying to punish the only person that is following the rules.”  Then I left.

I went upstairs to Bill Green’s office where I found the IT guy running a scan on Bill’s computer.  I asked him about the virus he found.  He said that he was running a Microsoft virus scanner on the computers and on the one in the chemists lab, there was one file that was questionable.  The scan said it was a possible virus, but couldn’t tell what virus it was.

I asked the IT guy what the name of the file was.  He handed me a post it note with the file name on it.  I recognized it right away.  It was a GLink file.  GLink is the application that we used to access the mainframe computer in order to work on our Maintenance Orders, or to look up parts, and any other computer related activities.

This is GLink today.  Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

I had been given a beta test version of GLink that I installed on the Chemists computer for Toby O’Brien about a year earlier when he asked me to help him find a way to connect to the Prime computer downtown so that he could work on CAD drawings from the plant.  IT had sent this Beta version of GLink to me because it could connect to the switch twice as fast as the current GLink and they were glad to let us try it out.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

About that time, Bill Green came into the office and I told him that the “supposed” virus on the Chemist computer was given to us by IT and that it probably wasn’t a virus anyway, it just acted like one because it connected to a switch a certain way which was unusual.  The IT guy was still standing there and he agreed that it just indicated that it might be a virus and probably wasn’t really one.

Then I told Bill Green that Jasper had told me to remove CompuServe from the computer in our shop.  He said that he and Jasper had talked about it and were concerned that I might download a virus from CompuServe.  I assured him that I only downloaded stock prices and MSDS sheets (Material Safety Data Sheets) from OSHA.  Everything I downloaded was in text format and would not contain a virus.

The IT guy agreed that at that time, CompuServe was very careful about viruses as they had been hit with one about 6 months earlier.  Now they scanned everything they let you download.  Bill said, “Well, that’s between you and Jasper.”  —  That’s all I needed to hear.  I knew that Jasper would forget about it and never “get back with me” on it.

As you can tell, if you’ve been reading the posts this year, I am constantly becoming more involved in computers at this point in my career.  For good or bad, it was a concern for people like Jasper and Bill.  I knew a lot more than they did to the point that they would call me to help them learn how to use their computers.  They didn’t know if they could trust me.  Luckily for them, even though I was mischievous, I wouldn’t do anything to invade someone’s privacy, or hurt plant operations.

It did seem like I was always in trouble over one thing or another.  It was often brought on by someone’s misunderstanding about what the problem really was, and their feeble incorrect attempt to fix it…. and… well….(let’s face it) my big mouth.

What Coal-Fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery

Power Plant Men working for a large Coal-Fired Power Plant have the kind of culture where Cleanliness is next to “Leroy Godfrey-ness”.  If you knew Leroy Godfrey, then you would know that he was a perfectionist in a lot of ways.  Or… Well, he expected the Plant Electricians to be anyway.  A few years after becoming an electrician, there was some work being done by Ben Davis, one of our best electricians, at the Conoco (Continental) Oil Refinery twenty miles north of the plant in Ponca City.

Conoco (Now Philips 66) Oil refinery

Conoco (Now Philips 66) Oil refinery in Ponca City

Being a low level Electrician Apprentice, I was not included in whatever was happening at the Refinery.  I didn’t work at the refinery for many years.  When I finally did go to Conoco, I wished I hadn’t.

What was happening?  A Co-Generation plant was being built there.  It is called a “Co-Generation” plant because it serves two purposes.  Waste gas from the refinery is used to fire the boiler that produces the steam to turn the turbine.  Any steam left over is sent over to the refinery to supplement their own needs.  The electricity is used by the refinery and any left over electricity is sold by the Electric Company for a profit.  So, in a sense, it is a “Co-Existence”.

For the most part, Power Plant Men were looking for opportunities to get in a company truck and leave the plant grounds to work on something outside the confines of the plant where they work every day, week in and week out.  Trips to the river pumps or the parks on our lake were always nice, because you would see wildlife along the way.  You could look out over the Arkansas River in the morning as the sun was rising and feel the cool breeze and smell the pastures nearby.

Trips to Enid to our small peaking units were fun too, because we were able to work on some different equipment out in a quiet substation where mud daubers were the only sound until the units came online.  The drive to Enid was nice because the 45 mile trip across the countryside is pleasant and the traffic is very light.  You can go for miles without seeing another car.

After only a couple of visits to the Conoco Oil Refinery, I never looked forward to the 20 minute drive from the plant when we had to work on the Co-Generation Plant co-owned by our company and the Oil Refinery.  There were a few things about the refinery that bothered me about working there.  One annoying factor was the hideous smell.

I had lived in Ponca City for three years and the sour odor that poured out of the Oil Refinery to the south of our house generally blew right up our street.  One winter morning I remember stepping out of our rental house into the dark on my way to work, and the exhaust from the oil refinery must have been blowing directly down the street to our house where I lived because when I took a breath I gagged immediately and was at the point of vomiting on the front lawn.

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma in 1986-89 with about 600 sq. ft. of living space

A side note…

My wife and I lived in this tiny house shortly after we were married.  Kelly was an RN (nurse) at the local hospital working the night shift while I was an electrician at the Power Plant during the day.  I had the philosophy that if we started by living in a dump and saved our money, then as we gradually worked our way up to a bigger house, we would feel as if life was getting better, and we never had to worry about money, since we always lived well below our means.

I figured that if we lived far below our means, our means would keep growing.  Living just below your means meant always staying in the same economic spot (how many sentences can I put the words “means” and “meant” right next to each other?).  The quality of Life doesn’t get much better.  When living well below your means, life continues to get better even if your job stays the same your entire life.  I had figured that I was going to be a plant electrician until the day I retired, so, this was my way of planning ahead.

My wife endured living in this tiny house one block away from the railroad tracks traveled by the coal trains on their way to our plant (which shook our house as they passed) for three years before we moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma where we lived with more than twice the square feet and no smell from the oil refinery.

end of side note…

I started out by saying that the culture at our Power Plant was that Cleanliness was very important.  I suppose this was true at the Oil Refinery as well, only, it seemed that even though the clutter was all picked up, there was something “inherently” dirty about the oil refinery.  I’m not sure how to describe it, but you just felt like you didn’t want to touch anything because it was going to leave some sort of dirty film on you.  It was….. grimy (one could say… oily… well… it was an oil refinery).

Our Power Plant is in North Central Oklahoma, and during the summer going for an entire month with over 100 degree weather every day was not uncommon.  There are parts of the plant where you had to work some times where the temperature reached 160 degrees.  Of course, you can’t stay in that environment very long, and those areas are generally not the areas of choice when choosing which job to work on next.

One hot summer day in 1996, Charles Foster and I had to go to the oil refinery to our Co-Generation plant to fix an Air Conditioner Condenser Fan Motor.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

This isn’t like one of those fans on the side of your house in the box that you know as your “air conditioner” that blows hot air out when the air conditioner in your house is running, though it performs the same task, only on a much bigger scale.

A large air conditioner about the size of the one that Mike Rose worked on

No.  Even bigger than this air conditioner

When you entered the oil refinery you had to wear a long blue cloak or coat called “Nomex” (pronounced “No Mex”).

A Blue Nomex Coat

A Blue Nomex Coat  which can be worn by Mexicans.  That rumor is just not true.

The reason for wearing this heavy “woolen” coat was to help save your life in case you happened to be around the next time (next time?) something exploded, blasting flames in your direction.  — Yeah…. comforting huh?  Knowing that this flame retardant coat was going to keep you from being burned alive when something exploded in the refinery.  Oh joy.

Everyone in the refinery was wearing these blue coats.  It was a requirement before you could drive your pickup through the security gate.

Once inside the gate, Charles and I checked our clearances to make sure it was safe to work on unwiring the motor that was mounted under the air conditioner coils.  Another fan was running that was turning a large fan blade blowing hot air down next to us.  We had brought our own fans to blow cooler air on us while we worked on the motor.  This particular motor weighed about 400 lbs, to give you an idea of the size of motor we were repairing.

A motor much like this one

A motor much like this one only mounted vertically

Charles and I had brought a temperature gun to check how hot everything was when we were working.

An Infrared Thermometer

An Infrared Thermometer

When we checked the temperature, we found that the area where we had to stand was 160 degrees.  The motor itself was even hotter than that.  We had to wear leather gloves just to work on it without burning our hands.  Asbestos gloves would have rendered us useless because they make you feel like you are wearing “Hulk Hands” where your fingers are about 2 inches wide.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

See what I mean?

Hulk Hands

Hulk Hands

The air was too hot to breathe except for quick shallow breaths.  Even though we had a fan blowing directly on us, we took turns approaching the motor, turning some bolts a couple of times, and then quickly moving out of the area to where we could be in the cooler 105 degree temperature.

There is nothing like a mild irritation (such as working in extreme heat) to motivate you to hurry up a job.  Charles and I worked diligently to remove the motor and then lowered it down with a platform hand lift that we kept in the shop.

A platform Lift Hand Truck like the one we used

A platform Lift Hand Truck like the one we used only ours had a hydraulic lift on it.  This one has a hand crank.

This fan motor was on the roof of a building, so once we had removed the motor from where it was mounted, we still had to lower it down to the back of the truck which was backed up to the side of the building.  Once in the truck, we brought it back to the plant where we could work on it.

When you first went to work in the oil refinery you had to take a specially designed safety course when you are issued your Nomex coat.  During that class, you are told that if you hear the sirens go off, that generally means that there are some toxic gases being released accidentally in the plant, you are supposed to take action quickly.

The funniest (or not so funniest) instructions was that when the sirens go off, you are supposed to run in the opposite direction away from the sirens.  Which sort of reminds me of Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail when they had to run away from the viscous fighting rabbit. Yelling “Run Away!  Run Away!”  Great safety evacuation plan.  — Plan of action:  “Run!!!”

Battling the Killer Rabbit in the Search for the Holy Grail

Battling the Killer Rabbit in the Search for the Holy Grail

The toxic gas that everyone was worried about is called Hydrogen Sulfide or H2S.  This is the gas that smells like rotten eggs.  The only problem is that when there is more than the minimal amount of H2S in the air, you can’t smell it anymore because it quickly deadens your sense of smell.

Hydrogen Sulfide Warning Sign

Hydrogen Sulfide Warning Sign

Another fun reason to not want to go work in the Oil Refinery.

Anyway, Charles and I safely reversed the process to return the motor to its rightful place mounted on the bottom of the coils on the roof.

A few times I had to go to work at the Co-Generation plant because something was broken (like the fan motor), but most of the time that we went to the plant was to do our quarterly battery inspections.  For more information about battery inspections, you can read this post: “Importance of Power Plant Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance“.

I have told you all the reasons why I didn’t enjoy working at the Oil Refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma.  There were reasons why I did enjoy it.  I suppose if you have been reading my posts, you will know the most obvious answer to that question (oh.  I guess I didn’t really ask a question… but if I had…).  The only redeeming factor with working at the Co-Generation plant at the oil refinery was being able to work with the best Power Plant Men and Women in the country.

I have given you an example above when I worked with Charles Foster.  I also worked with Scott Hubbard and Diana Brien.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Both of them top class electricians and First Class Friends.  Just to be able to work side-by-side with such terrific people made me forget about the poison gases.  I didn’t mind the heat.  I even forgot I was wearing the heavy suffocating Nomex Coat.  What’s a little grime when your friend tells you about their day?  About what they are planning for the weekend?  Or the rest of their life?

Actually, I think that’s what made everything about working both at the Oil Refinery and the Power Plant itself the most enjoyable job I can imagine.  Sure.  We had a culture of “cleanliness” at the plant but I think it was the culture of “friendliness” that really made all the difference.  It was also the most painful part the day I finally left the Power Plant to adventure out to find the rest of the world in 2001.

Power Plant Millennium Experience

I suppose most people remember where they were New Year’s Eve at midnight on Saturday, January 1, 2000.  That is a night I will never forget.  Some people were hiding in self-made bunkers waiting for the end of the world which never came, others were celebrating at home with their families and friends.  I suppose some people went on with their lives as if nothing was different that night.  Not my family.  My wife and two children spent the night at the Power Plant waiting to see if all of the testing we had performed the last two years had covered all possible failures of the Y2K scare.

A small group of Power Plant Men had been chosen to attend a party with our families in the main conference room at the Power Plant.  All the food and drinks were supplied by the company.  Our Plant Manager, Bill Green was there.  Children were given the opportunity to rest in some other room as it reached their bedtimes.

Two years before this fateful night, the company was in full swing preparing for the Y2K computer disaster that had been foretold by those who knew that many computer systems only used two digits for the year instead of all four.  so, when the year 2000 rolled around, it would suddenly show up in the computer as 00, which didn’t compute as a year in some systems. After all, you can’t divide something by 00.  Suddenly, the time between events that just happened before midnight and those that happen just after midnight are 100 years apart in the wrong direction.

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was completed in 1979 and 1980, so, my first thought was that by that time, computers were far enough along to know better.  The Instrument and Controls Power Plant Men along with the Plant Engineers decided that the best way to check their systems was to change the clocks on the computers one at a time to just before midnight on New Year’s Eve and see what happens.

I thought that was a pretty ingenious way to go about testing the computer systems.  By changing the clock on each system one at a time to New Year’s Eve and watching it roll over to the new Millennium, you learn right away if you have a problem, and you have contained the disaster to one system at a time while you test it.  By doing this, it turned out that there was a problem with one system at the Co-Generation plant at the Continental Oil Refinery 20 miles north of the plant.

I wrote a post about the Co-Generation Plant in a previous post: “What Coal-fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery“.  When it was discovered that the computer at the Conoco Oil Refinery Power Plant would crash on New Year’s Eve, it was decided that we would just roll the clock back to 1950 (or so), and we wouldn’t have to worry about it for another 50 years.  The thought was that by that time, this computer would be replaced.

This was the original thought which caused the Y2K problem in the first place.  No one thought in the 1960’s that their computer systems would still be operating when the year 2000 came around, so they didn’t bother to use four digits for the year.  Disk space was expensive at that time, and anything that could save a few bytes was considered an improvement instead of a bug.

My wife wasn’t too pleased when I told her where we were going to spend New Year’s Eve when Y2K rolled around, but then again, where would you rather be if a worldwide disaster happened and the electricity shutdown across the country?  I would think the Power Plant would be the best place.  You could at least say, “I was in the actual Control Room at a Power Plant watching them throw the switch and light up Oklahoma City!”  Besides, we usually spent New Year’s Eve quietly at home with our kids.

Even though we were fairly certain everything had been accounted for, it was the unknown computer system sitting out there that no one had thought about that might shut everything down.  Some system in a relay house in a substation, or some terrorist attack.  So, there we sat watching the New Year roll in on a big screen TV at one end of the break room.  Children’s movies were being shown most of the evening to keep the young occupied while we waited.

I thought that Jim Arnold, the Supervisor over the Maintenance Department, wanted me in the break room at the Power Plant so that he could keep an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t going to be causing trouble that night.  Jim never really trusted me….  I suppose that was because strange things would happen when I was around.  Of course, I would never do anything that would jeopardize the operation of the Power Plant, but that didn’t stop me from keeping Jim guessing.

No.  Not really.  I was there because I had a way with computers.  I was the computer go to person at the plant, and if anything happened to any of them, I would probably be the person that could whisper it back into service.  Also, if for some reason the Generators tripped, I was a switchman that could open and close switches in the substation and start the precipitator back up and run up to the top of the boiler if the boiler elevator broke down and get it started back up.

Except for my natural affinity for computers, any of the electricians in the Power Plant could do all those other things.  I think there was just a little “prejudice” left over about me from when Bill Bennett our past A foreman used to say, “Let Kevin do it.  He doesn’t mind getting dirty”  (or…. he likes to climb the boiler, or…. he likes confined spaces, or… Kevin likes to stay up at all hours of the night working on things… I could go on… that was Bill’s response when someone asked him who should do the really grimy jobs  — of course… to some degree…. he was usually right).

I was actually a little proud to be told that I was going to have to spend New Year’s Eve at the Power Plant.  I had almost 17 years of experience as a Power Plant Electrician at that time, and I felt very comfortable working on any piece of equipment in the plant.  If it was something I had never worked on before, then I would quickly learn how it worked… As I said, all the electricians in the plant were the same way.  It was our way of life.

At 11:00 pm Central Time, we watched as the ball dropped in Time Square in New York City.  The 10 or so Power Plant Men with their families sat in anticipation waiting…. and waiting… to see if the lights went out in New York….  Of course you know now that nothing happened, but we were ready to jump into a crisis mode if there were any reports of power failures across the country.

You see…. The electric grid on the east side of the Rocky Mountains is all connected together.  If the power grid were to go down in one area, it could try dragging down the rest of the country.  If protective relays in substations across the country don’t operate flawlessly, then a blackout occurs in a larger area than just one particular area covered by one electric company.

When relays operate properly, a blackout is contained in the smallest area possible.  There was only one problem…. Breakers in substations are now controlled by remote computer systems.  If those systems began to act erratic, then the country could have a problem.  This did not happen that night.

There was a contract worker in the engineering department at our plant who was at his home in the country during this time hunkered down in a bunker waiting for the end of the world as was foretold by the minister of this church.  He had purchased a large supply of food and water and had piled them up in his shelter along with a portable generator.  He and his family waited out the end of the world that night waiting for the rapture.  He told me about that a few months later.  He was rather disappointed that the world hadn’t ended like it was supposed to.  He was so prepared for it.

After 11 pm rolled around and there was no disaster on the east coast, things lightened up a bit.  I decided to take my son and daughter on a night tour of the plant.  So, we walked over to the control room where they could look at the control panels with all of the the lights and alarms.  Here is a picture of Jim Cave and Allen Moore standing in front of the Unit 1 Control Panel:

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Then I took each of them up to the top of the Boiler where you could look out over the lake at night from a view 250 feet high.  The Power Plant becomes a magical world at night, with the rumbling sounds from the boiler, the quiet hissing of steam muffled by the night.  The lights shining through the metal structure and open grating floors.

From the top of the boiler, you could look south and see the night lights from Stillwater, Pawnee and Perry.  Looking north, you could see Ponca City and the Oil Refinery at Conoco (later Phillips).  The only structure taller than the boilers are the smoke stacks.  There was always a special quality about the plant at night that is hard to put your finger on.  A sort of silence in a world of noise.  It is like a large ship on the ocean.  In a world of its own.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset across the lake

We returned to the break room 20 minutes before midnight, where our plant manager Bill Green and Jim Arnold tested their radios with the Control Room to make sure we were all in contact with each other.  I had carried my tool bucket up to the break room in case I needed to dash off somewhere in a hurry.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

We felt confident by this time that a disaster was not going to happen when the clock rolled over to midnight.  When the countdown happened, and the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 counted down, We cheered “Happy New Year!” and hugged one another.  I think both of my children had dozed off by this point.

Bill Green called the control room.  The word came back that everything was business as usual.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  We waited around another hour just to make sure that nothing had shutdown.  By 1:00 am on January 1, 2000, Bill Green gave us the Green Light.  We were all free to return to our homes.

I gathered up my two children and my wife Kelly, and we drove the 25 miles back home to the comfort of our own beds.  When we went to bed early that morning after I had climbed into bed, I reached over and turned off the light on my nightstand.  When the light went out, it was because I had decided to turn it off.  Not because the world had suddenly come to an end.  A new Millennium had just begun.

Power Plant Christmas Star Shines over Ponca City

Originally posted December 20, 2014:

When my children were young and the season was right and I had finished telling them all the Gene Day stories, when they were in just the right Christmas spirit, I would tell them about the Power Plant Christmas Star and how it would shine brightly over Ponca City, Oklahoma around Christmas time, calling shepherds and Power Plant Operators to come and see what technological miracle had taken place on Bonnie Drive on the North End of the thriving community known as Ponca City (Did I actually make an entire paragraph out of one sentence? — Geez.  This is why my English Teacher was always slapping my hand — Catholic school…. you can imagine how that was).

The story actually begins way before the Christmas season starts, but some time after Christmas decorations have gone up in Target and Wal-Mart.  That is, some time after Halloween, but before Thanksgiving.  November, 1984 was the first time I had a hint that something big was going to be happening soon.  At the time, I had been an electrician for one year, and since that time, a new machinist had arrived at the plant named Randy Dailey.  We thought he looked a lot like Barney Fife, only he seemed to be a lot smarter.  Here is a picture of the two.  See what you think.

Barney Fife played by Don Knotts in the Andy Griffith Show

Barney Fife played by Don Knotts in the Andy Griffith Show

 

Randy Dailey looking like Barney-Fife's Smarter Brother

Randy Dailey looking like Barney-Fife’s Smarter Brother

Ok.  I admit it.  that’s not really Randy Dailey.  That really is Barney Fife’s Smarter Brother.  Here is a real picture of Randy Dailey:

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

I happened to be walking through the machinist shop at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma on my way to the tool room when I noticed a big pile of large cans stacked up next to the large press.  These cans were about the size of a large can of beans.

Large Can of Power Plant Beans

Large Can of High Fiber Power Plant Beans – makes me hungry

The labels had been removed from all the cans, so I couldn’t tell if they were beans, corn, Hawaiian Punch, or what.  Only Randy Dailey knew for sure.  He had set up some sort of assembly line where he was punching holes through these cans in the shapes of stars and Christmas trees, and I don’t even remember what else.  Ginger Bread Men maybe…. Hopefully Randy will comment at the bottom of this post to answer the unanswered questions about the can decorations and not leave a comment about how I look more like Barney Fife than he does and how he actually looks more like Cary Grant.

 

Cary Grant

Cary Grant trying to look like Randy Dailey

One could only imagine what Randy was going to do with hundreds of cans with Christmas designs punched out around them.  I know that one could only imagine that, because I was one.  No one else seemed puzzled about the cans, so I pretended not to be puzzled also.  It seemed to work, because no one stopped me on the way to the tool room to ask me about the puzzled look on my face.  Which was surprisingly not that uncommon since I walked around a lot puzzled by a great many things.

I figured that some day all this can punching (as opposed to cow punching which is something entirely different) would some day make sense to me.  Each year, Randy would do the same thing.  He would fill the machine shop with cans and then proceed to punch Christmas Trees and stars into them.  It finally made sense to me two years later.  After I had moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma.

My wife and I were sitting around one night in our luxurious two bedroom, one bath, one dog house in Ponca City trying to decide what to do for our first wedding anniversary.

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma

The house we rented in Ponca City, Oklahoma (thanks Google for the picture.  Actually thanks Google for all the pictures, except the one with Randy Dailey)

I suggested that we try to solve the riddle of the Randy Dailey Christmas cans.  My wife was not at all surprised, because during our wedding night a year earlier I had made up a story called “Barney Frumpkin, the Christmas Pumpkin”, so, solving a riddle like Randy Dailey’s Christmas Cans seemed right up my alley and in no way out of the ordinary.

Ok.  Here is a side story about Barney Frumpkin the Christmas Pumpkin.  Keep in mind that I just whipped this one out off the top of my head and it was 30 years ago tomorrow (December 21, 1985):

Once upon a time there was a pumpkin patch out in the country by a small town.
Each year the people from the town would go out to the pumpkin patch to pick out a pumpkin before Halloween,
in order to make Jack-O-Lanterns and/or Pumpkin Pie.
This one particular year, there was one pumpkin in the patch named Barney Frumpkin.
He had heard from the other pumpkins that the farmer had been talking to someone and said,
“Tomorrow the people from the town will be here to pick their own special pumpkin, so I want everything to be just perfect.”
All the pumpkins were excited about being chosen by a family, but none were as excited as Barney Frumpkin.
Barney stretched and stretched himself as much as he could to try to stand out as a very special pumpkin.
He could imagine himself shining bright orange among the green vines.
When the day finally arrived, Barney was as excited as he could be as children and parents walked through the pumpkin patch,
Each family looking for their own special Halloween Pumpkin.
As each family came near to Barney, he would wish as hard as he could wish that this would be the family for him.
Each time throughout the day, as each family walked by Barney, none of them so much as gave him a second glance.
Toward the end of the day, as the crowds began to thin, Barney suddenly came to the realization that he was all alone.
No one had chosen him to be their special Halloween Pumpkin.
What Barney didn’t know was that he had a very large black spot on one side that made him look like he was rotten.

As the sun set that day, Barney was left all alone in the pumpkin patch.
All the other pumpkins had been picked and carried away.
Barney Frumpkin sat in the patch and cried.
No one heard him except you and I.

As each day began, the sun was lower in the sky and the nights became colder.
Soon there was snow on the ground that left Barney Frumpkin rather wrinkled and dry.
Barney felt as if the world had left him behind and he wanted to die.
So, he just laid there in the withered pumpkin patch sinking slower into the ground.
Shivering in the snow one night, he thought he could hear songs coming from the village.
In the distance people were singing carols of happiness and joy.
In the darkness Barney felt as if his life was coming to an end.
Then suddenly Barney became aware of a different sound.
The sound of someone humming quietly to their self.
Unknown to Barney, it was an evil witch making her way through the pumpkin patch.
Back to the hovel she would call home if she had a heart.
The people of the town called her a witch and she had no friends.
As she approached Barney, the moon peered out from behind a cloud to take a look.
The witch was about to step on Barney Frumpkin when the moonlight appeared.
The witch stopped in her tracks and looked down at the shriveled pumpkin at her feet.
The one with the large black spot on the side.
She had never seen such a wonderful site in all the days of her life.
It was the perfect pumpkin laying right there in front of her!
Without hesitation, the witch carefully picked up the pumpkin.
She smiled a smile that was so big that the cloud covering the rest of the moon scurried away,
Allowing the moonlight to brighten up the pumpkin patch.
The witch hugged Barney Frumpkin with as much care as she could muster.
She carefully carried him home to her hovel which would now become a home.
Barney was so surprised that for a while he was in shock.
He wasn’t sure what had happened because suddenly everything had turned dark.
It wasn’t until he saw the fire in the fireplace that he realized that someone had taken him home.
The witch set Barney on a table close to the fire where Barney could look around the room.
Standing close by, he saw the witch leaning toward him.
Barney Frumpkin had never seen such a beautiful site!
Barney Frumpkin, the Christmas Pumpkin and the Witch lived happily ever after.

A rotten Pumpkin like Barney Frumpkin

A rotten Pumpkin like Barney Frumpkin

End of Side Story.  Back to the mystery about Randy Dailey and his Christmas cans.

So, I went to the kitchen and took the phone book out of the drawer and looked up Randy’s address…. hmm…. Bonnie Drive.  In 1986, we didn’t have the World Wide Web, so I couldn’t Google the address.  So, I looked in the middle of the phone book to where they had inserted maps of the town, and found the street.

Kelly and I climbed into our car and drove north up Union Street to Lora Street and over to Bonnie Drive.  The mystery of the Christmas Cans was immediately solved even before we had turned the corner.  The entire neighborhood was lit up.  Randy’s Christmas Cans were lined up and down both sides of the street, up and down each drive way on the block and each can had a light shining in it so that you could see the punched out Christmas Trees and Stars shining brightly.

Randy’s house was easy to see halfway up the street because it was all lit up.

Randy's House

Randy’s House

You can see the Flag Pole in the front and the Ham Radio tower in the backyard.  Well, the Ham Radio tower had a large star on the top of it, and there were strings of lights coming down on all sides.  The entire street was lit up with Christmas lights and those in front of Randy’s house had a light show going that was fantastic.  Randy had programmed the lights himself.  The Nativity Scene on the front lawn was like none I had ever seen before.  I wish Randy would send me a picture of it (I would put it in this post).

So, the Christmas story that I told my Children went something like this:

The Evil Plant Manager (Eldon Waugh) had issued a decree that no Christmas Lights would be visible on the plant grounds.  And the Power Plant Men were distraught.  Then there were unknown sounds coming from the machine shop.  They went, “Punch, Punch, Punch.  Zing.  Punch, Punch, Punch, Zing…” Like that.

Cans were quietly being donated while the lone Power Plant Elf (Randy Dailey) punched out designs on cans.  Careful to keep them hidden where the Evil Plant Manager wouldn’t see them.  Which was easy, because he never dared to stroll through any shop where work might be happening.

Then when Christmas Eve came, and the Operators were keeping watch over the boilers at night, An Angel of the Lord appeared to them and said, “Lo!  Climb to the top of Unit 2 Boiler and look yonder North toward Ponca City!”

And Lo!  When the Power Plant Operators and any other Shepherds that happened to be nearby (the cattlemen were all tucked in their beds with visions of Salt Licks dancing in their heads.  Apparently, cattlemen don’t need to keep watch at night like Shepherds do.. unless they are trying to catch cow tippers).

Cow licking a Salt lick

Cow licking a Salt lick

Anyway, the Operators and any other shepherds that happened to be nearby climbed up the 250 stairs (or took the elevator), and gazed upon the Conoco Oil Refinery lighting up the night sky, they became puzzled.

Then the Angel said, “No. Over that way.”  And Lo!  The Power Plant Men of Operator Fame gazed upon a Star shining brightly in the night!  With streams of light coming down in a fantastic light show specially programmed for the occasion to elicit maximum emotions.

And the Angel said unto the Power Plant Men and any stray Shepherds, “Be not afraid!  I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people!  Know that today, this very power plant has supplied the electricity to power The Star of Ponca City!  To honor the baby Jesus that was born 2,000 years ago in the town of Bethlehem!  The Son of God!”

When the Angel of God had left them, the Power Plant Men said to one another, “Let us go to Ponca City (during our midnight lunch break) and see Randy Dailey’s Christmas Star and all the magical Christmas Cans for ourselves!”

So, they hurried off to their pickup trucks and created a convoy of Ford and Chevy’s and an occasional GMC and Dodge Ram and raced up Highway 177 to Ponca City.  Arriving at Randy’s house, they found the Nativity Scene of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus and they were amazed!  They spread the word to all the Power Plants letting them know how important it was to keep the Star of Ponca City burning for all to see.  Then they all returned back to work.

nativity_scene

And now you know…. The rest of the Story!  Merry Christmas to all, and to all a Good Night!

 

Power Plant Millennium Experience

I suppose most people remember where they were New Year’s Eve at midnight on Saturday, January 1, 2000.  That is a night I will never forget.  Some people were hiding in self-made bunkers waiting for the end of the world which never came, others were celebrating at home with their families and friends.  I suppose some people went on with their lives as if nothing was different that night.  Not my family.  My wife and two children spent the night at the Power Plant waiting to see if all of the testing we had performed the last two years had covered all possible failures of the Y2K scare.

A small group of Power Plant Men had been chosen to attend a party with our families in the main conference room at the Power Plant.  All the food and drinks were supplied by the company.  Our Plant Manager, Bill Green was there.  Children were given the opportunity to rest in some other room as it reached their bedtimes.

Two years before this fateful night, the company was in full swing preparing for the Y2K computer disaster that had been foretold by those who knew that many computer systems only used two digits for the year instead of all four.  so, when the year 2000 rolled around, it would suddenly show up in the computer as 00, which didn’t compute as a year in some systems. After all, you can’t divide something by 00.  Suddenly, the time between events that just happened before midnight and those that happen just after midnight are 100 years apart in the wrong direction.

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was completed in 1979 and 1980, so, my first thought was that by that time, computers were far enough along to know better.  The Instrument and Controls Power Plant Men along with the Plant Engineers decided that the best way to check their systems was to change the clocks on the computers one at a time to just before midnight on New Year’s Eve and see what happens.

I thought that was a pretty ingenious way to go about testing the computer systems.  By changing the clock on each system one at a time to New Year’s Eve and watching it roll over to the new Millennium, you learn right away if you have a problem, and you have contained the disaster to one system at a time while you test it.  By doing this, it turned out that there was a problem with one system at the Co-Generation plant at the Continental Oil Refinery 20 miles north of the plant.

I wrote a post about the Co-Generation Plant in a previous post: “What Coal-fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery“.  When it was discovered that the computer at the Conoco Oil Refinery Power Plant would crash on New Year’s Eve, it was decided that we would just roll the clock back to 1950 (or so), and we wouldn’t have to worry about it for another 50 years.  The thought was that by that time, this computer would be replaced.

This was the original thought which caused the Y2K problem in the first place.  No one thought in the 1960’s that their computer systems would still be operating when the year 2000 came around, so they didn’t bother to use four digits for the year.  Disk space was expensive at that time, and anything that could save a few bytes was considered an improvement instead of a bug.

My wife wasn’t too pleased when I told her where we were going to spend New Year’s Eve when Y2K rolled around, but then again, where would you rather be if a worldwide disaster happened and the electricity shutdown across the country?  I would think the Power Plant would be the best place.  You could at least say, “I was in the actual Control Room at a Power Plant watching them throw the switch and light up Oklahoma City!”  Besides, we usually spent New Year’s Eve quietly at home with our kids.

Even though we were fairly certain everything had been accounted for, it was the unknown computer system sitting out there that no one had thought about that might shut everything down.  Some system in a relay house in a substation, or some terrorist attack.  So, there we sat watching the New Year roll in on a big screen TV at one end of the break room.  Children’s movies were being shown most of the evening to keep the young occupied while we waited.

I thought that Jim Arnold, the Supervisor over the Maintenance Department, wanted me in the break room at the Power Plant so that he could keep an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t going to be causing trouble that night.  Jim never really trusted me….  I suppose that was because strange things would happen when I was around.  Of course, I would never do anything that would jeopardize the operation of the Power Plant, but that didn’t stop me from keeping Jim guessing.

No.  Not really.  I was there because I had a way with computers.  I was the computer go to person at the plant, and if anything happened to any of them, I would probably be the person that could whisper it back into service.  Also, if for some reason the Generators tripped, I was a switchman that could open and close switches in the substation and start the precipitator back up and run up to the top of the boiler if the boiler elevator broke down and get it started back up.

Except for my natural affinity for computers, any of the electricians in the Power Plant could do all those other things.  I think there was just a little “prejudice” left over about me from when Bill Bennett our past A foreman used to say, “Let Kevin do it.  He doesn’t mind getting dirty”  (or…. he likes to climb the boiler, or…. he likes confined spaces, or… Kevin likes to stay up at all hours of the night working on things… I could go on… that was Bill’s response when someone asked him who should do the really grimy jobs  — of course… to some degree…. he was usually right).

I was actually a little proud to be told that I was going to have to spend New Year’s Eve at the Power Plant.  I had almost 17 years of experience as a Power Plant Electrician at that time, and I felt very comfortable working on any piece of equipment in the plant.  If it was something I had never worked on before, then I would quickly learn how it worked… As I said, all the electricians in the plant were the same way.  It was our way of life.

At 11:00 pm Central Time, we watched as the ball dropped in Time Square in New York City.  The 10 or so Power Plant Men with their families sat in anticipation waiting…. and waiting… to see if the lights went out in New York….  Of course you know now that nothing happened, but we were ready to jump into a crisis mode if there were any reports of power failures across the country.

You see…. The electric grid on the east side of the Rocky Mountains is all connected together.  If the power grid were to go down in one area, it could try dragging down the rest of the country.  If protective relays in substations across the country don’t operate flawlessly, then a blackout occurs in a larger area than just one particular area covered by one electric company.

When relays operate properly, a blackout is contained in the smallest area possible.  There was only one problem…. Breakers in substations are now controlled by remote computer systems.  If those systems began to act erratic, then the country could have a problem.  This did not happen that night.

There was a contract worker in the engineering department at our plant who was at his home in the country during this time hunkered down in a bunker waiting for the end of the world as was foretold by the minister of this church.  He had purchased a large supply of food and water and had piled them up in his shelter along with a portable generator.  He and his family waited out the end of the world that night waiting for the rapture.  He told me about that a few months later.  He was rather disappointed that the world hadn’t ended like it was supposed to.  He was so prepared for it.

After 11 pm rolled around and there was no disaster on the east coast, things lightened up a bit.  I decided to take my son and daughter on a night tour of the plant.  So, we walked over to the control room where they could look at the control panels with all of the the lights and alarms.  Here is a picture of Jim Cave and Allen Moore standing in front of the Unit 1 Control Panel:

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Then I took each of them up to the top of the Boiler where you could look out over the lake at night from a view 250 feet high.  The Power Plant becomes a magical world at night, with the rumbling sounds from the boiler, the quiet hissing of steam muffled by the night.  The lights shining through the metal structure and open grating floors.

From the top of the boiler, you could look south and see the night lights from Stillwater, Pawnee and Perry.  Looking north, you could see Ponca City and the Oil Refinery at Conoco (later Phillips).  The only structure taller than the boilers are the smoke stacks.  There was always a special quality about the plant at night that is hard to put your finger on.  A sort of silence in a world of noise.  It is like a large ship on the ocean.  In a world of its own.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset across the lake

We returned to the break room 20 minutes before midnight, where our plant manager Bill Green and Jim Arnold tested their radios with the Control Room to make sure we were all in contact with each other.  I had carried my tool bucket up to the break room in case I needed to dash off somewhere in a hurry.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

We felt confident by this time that a disaster was not going to happen when the clock rolled over to midnight.  When the countdown happened, and the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 counted down, We cheered “Happy New Year!” and hugged one another.  I think both of my children had dozed off by this point.

Bill Green called the control room.  The word came back that everything was business as usual.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  We waited around another hour just to make sure that nothing had shutdown.  By 1:00 am on January 1, 2000, Bill Green gave us the Green Light.  We were all free to return to our homes.

I gathered up my two children and my wife Kelly, and we drove the 25 miles back home to the comfort of our own beds.  When we went to bed early that morning after I had climbed into bed, I reached over and turned off the light on my nightstand.  When the light went out, it was because I had decided to turn it off.  Not because the world had suddenly come to an end.  A new Millennium had just begun.