Originally posted August 16, 2014.
I knew that we had our work cut out for us when Unit 1 was taken offline for a major overhaul on February 19, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I had learned to expect the unexpected. I just never suspected this to happen. As acting foreman, I had a crew that consisted of a few of our own electricians, as well as a number of contract workers. I was also coordinating efforts between Brown & Root contractors that were going to be doing some major work inside the Precipitator (that takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler) during the 12 weeks we were going to be offline and a Vacuum Truck Company that was going to vacuum ash out of the hoppers where the ash is collected and blown through pipes to the coal yard to be trucked away to make concrete.
When I inspected the precipitator during the first week, I had found numerous hoppers that had filled up with ash. One in particular hopper was so full that the ash had built up between the plates over 5 feet above the top of the hopper. Because of this, I had to coordinate with hoppers that were available for the Brown and Root contractors to begin building scaffolding, and those hoppers the vacuum truck needed to vacuum out first.
I had learned to deal with full hoppers the first time I entered the precipitator back when I was on the Labor Crew in 1983. Since that day, I had understood the potential dangers lying in wait. Especially with hoppers full of ash. See the Post “Angel of Death Passes By the Precipitator Door“.
The crew I was directly managing was on the Precipitator roof working on vibrators, insulators, transformers and rappers. I worked inside the precipitator aligning plates, and removing broken wires and cleaning insulators. The vacuum truck company vacuumed out the full hoppers by attaching a vacuum hose from a large vacuum truck to clean out pipes at the bottom of the hoppers. The Brown and Root crew climbed into the hoppers through an access door near the bottom of the hopper and constructed scaffolding in order to work at the top of the hoppers immediately below the plates.
This operation had been going on for 3 days and had seemed to be going smoothly. The Brown and Root crews and the vacuum truck crews were working shifts 24 hours a day. I would come in the morning and see the progress that had been made during the night. We kept a sheet taped to a beam in the hopper area that the vacuum truck would update when they had finished a hopper, and the Brown and Root crew indicated where they had finished building their scaffold.
On Thursday March 3, 1994, just after lunch, instead of making my way out to the precipitator to continue my work, I went up to the office area to meet in the conference room with the Safety Task Force. I was the leader of the task force, and we were meeting with upper management to work out some issues that I outlined in last week’s post. See “Taking Power Plant Safety To Task“. As you may have noticed, the last two weekly posts are a continuation of a long story.
Our meeting began shortly after 12:30 and we were discussing ways in which the Safety Task Force could work in a more cooperative way with the Maintenance Supervisor, Ken Scott. I felt that we were making good progress. We seemed to have come up with a few solutions, and we were just working out the details.
At 1:10 pm, the Electric A Foreman knocked on the door and opened it. He explained that there had been an accident at the precipitator in one of the hoppers and he thought that I might have been in the hopper at the time. He was checking to see if I was in the meeting. Once he was assured that I was all right, he left (presumably to tell the rest of my crew that I was not involved in the accident).
At this point, my head started to spin. What could have happened? None of my crew would have been in the hoppers. Maybe someone fell off of a scaffold and hurt themselves. I know I had locked out all of the electricity to the precipitator and grounded the circuits that have up to 45,000 volts of electricity when charged up, so, I’m pretty sure no one would have been electrocuted. Bill’s voice seemed real shaky when he entered the room, and when he saw me he was very relieved.
When working in a Power Plant, the Power Plant Men and Women become like a real family. Everyone cares about each other. Bill Bennett in some ways was like a father to me. In other ways, he was like an older brother. The nearest picture I have of Bill is a picture of Bill Cosby, as they looked similar:
I don’t know how long I was staring off into space counting my crew and thinking about what each of them would be doing. I was sure they were all on the roof. I knew that if a Brown & Root hand had been hurt that their own Safety Coordinator would be taking care of their injury. The thought of someone being hurt in a hopper sent flashbacks of the day I nearly dived off into the hopper full of ash ten and a half years earlier.
After about 5 minutes, Bill Bennett came back to the conference room, where we were still trying to focus on the task at hand. I don’t remember if we were doing any more good or not since I wasn’t paying any attention. Bill said that he needed for me to leave the meeting because they needed me out at the precipitator. Someone had been engulfed in fly ash!
Then I realized that the first time Bill had come to the room to check on me, he had mentioned that. I think I had blocked that from my mind. He had said that someone had been engulfed in ash, and they couldn’t tell if it was me or someone else. That was why he was so shaken up. Bill had thought that I may have died, or at least been seriously injured. The pain he was feeling before he saw me sitting in the room, alive and well, flooded my thoughts.
I quickly stood up and left the room. Bill and I quickly made our way to the precipitator. He said that Life Flight was on the way. One of the vacuum truck workers had climbed into the hopper to get the last bits of ash out of the hopper when a large amount of ash had broken loose above him and immediately engulfed him in the hopper.
When that happened there was a large boom and a cloud of ash came pouring out from the side of the precipitator. Scott Hubbard, who would have been my twin brother if I had been able to pick my own twin brother (though I never had a real twin brother)… heard the boom on the roof and when he looked down and saw the cloud of ash, immediately thought that I may have been hurt. I suppose he had called Bill Bennett on the radio and told him.
As we arrived at the precipitator, a young man was being carried out on a stretcher. A Life Flight from Oklahoma City was on it’s way, and landed just a few minutes later. I looked at the man all covered with ash. I could see how someone may have mistaken him for me. He was dressed like I was. A white t-shirt and jeans. He was unconscious.
Without going into detail as to the cause of the accident, as that will be in a later post, let me tell you about the heroic Power Plant Men and their actions before I had arrived on the scene…
James Vickers, a 26 year old vacuum truck worker, had climbed in the hopper carrying a shovel. He had a hole watch standing out the door keeping an eye on him. They had sucked out the hopper from the outside pipes and had banged on the walls in order to knock down any ash build up on the sides until they figured they had cleaned out the hopper.
James had opened the door to the hopper, and maybe because he saw some buildup on the hopper walls, he decided to climb in the hopper in order to knock it down with the shovel. While he was doing this, a large amount of ash that had bridged up in the plates above was knocked free all at once and immediately filled up the hopper probably more than half full.
James was crammed down into the throat of the hopper, which at the bottom is only about 8 inches in diameter with a plate across the middle about 2 feet above the throat of the hopper. He was immediately knocked unconscious by the impact.
The person assigned to be the hole watch was standing at the door to the hopper and when the ash fell down, he was knocked back about 6 or 7 feet when the ash came pouring out of the door. Panicking, He ran to the edge of the walkway yelling for help. Luckily, he was not also knocked unconscious, or this would pretty much have been the end of the story.
Men came running. Especially a couple of Power Plant Men working in the area. I wish I could remember who they were. When I try to think of the most heroic Power Plant Men I knew at the plant at the time, the list is about a long as my arm, so it is hard to narrow it down.
The Power Plant Men began to frantically dig the ash out of the hopper to uncover James Vickers. When they reached his head, they immediately cleared his face to where they could perform Mouth-to-Mouth resuscitation. They began breathing for James as soon as they could, and continued mouth-to-mouth as they dug out more of the ash.
As they dug the ash out, they were using their hardhats for shovels. When they tried to move James, they found that he had been crammed down into the bottom of the hopper to where he was trapped in the throat of the hopper. Heroically they continued without hesitation to breath for James, while simultaneously working to free him from the hopper. The shovel had been wedged into the bottom of the hopper with him.
Almost immediately after the accident happened, the control room became aware that someone had been engulfed in a hopper, they called Life Flight in Oklahoma City. A helicopter was immediately dispatched. By the time James was safely removed from the hopper, placed on a stretcher and carried out to the adjacent field, the Life Flight Helicopter was landing to take him to the Baptist Medical Center. I would say the helicopter was on the ground a total of about 3 or so minutes before it was took off again.
Bill and I inspected the hopper where the accident had taken place. On the ground below under the grating was a pile of ash, just like I had experienced years before when I almost bailed off into the hopper to look for my flashlight. I was suddenly filled with a tremendous amount of sorrow.
I was sorry for James Vickers, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. I was sorry for Bill Bennett who thought for a while that I had died in that hopper. I remembered hanging by one finger in a hopper only two rows down from this one, ten years ago with my life hanging by a thread, and I just wanted to cry.
So, I gave Bill a big hug as if I was hugging my own father and just started to cry. The whole thing was just so sad.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….
On the roof of the Baptist Medical Center, a Triage unit had been setup waiting for the helicopter to arrive with James. Hazardous Waste protective suits were being worn by the people that were going to begin treating James. They had heard that he had been engulfed in hazardous chemicals which consisted of: Silica, Aluminum Oxide, Hexavalent Chromium, arsenic and other unsavory and hard to pronounce chemicals. The Life Flight People on the helicopter had to be scrubbed down by the Hazmat team as soon as they exited the helicopter to clean off the hazardous Fly Ash. The news reporters were all standing by reporting the incident.
Yes. The same fly ash that I went swimming in every day during the overhaul. The same fly ash that I tracked through the Utility Room floor when I came home at night. The same fly ash used to create highways all across the country. It’s true it has some carcinogenic material in it. I’m sure I have my share of Silica in my lungs today, since it doesn’t ever really clear out of there.
Besides the psychological trauma of a near-death experience, Jame Vickers was fairly unharmed considering what he went through. He came out of the ordeal with an eye infection. Randy Dailey pointed out that this was because the Safety Coordinator from Brown & Root had opened his eyes to check if he was alive when he was laying on the stretcher, and had let ash get in his eyes. Otherwise, he most likely wouldn’t have developed an eye infection.
When I arrived at home that evening I explained to my wife what had happened. She had heard something on the news about it, but hadn’t realized they were talking about our plant since the person was in Oklahoma City when the reporters were talking about it.
All I can say is… Some Safety Meetings in the past have been pretty boring, but nothing made me want to improve my Safety Attitude like the Safety Meeting we had that afternoon. I’m glad that I had to experience that only once in my career as a Plant Electrician.
Comments from the original post
I can remember four occasions while working at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I was told that something was impossible when I was already doing it. I mentioned two of those times in the posts “Toby O’Brien and doing the Impossible” and “Printing Impossible Fast News Post“. One day in May, 1992, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City to take some training. There was a new kind of network that I was going to be responsible to create at our plant. During the training, I learned a little about how to hook up the RS-232 connectors to the Dumb Terminals I was installing throughout the plant. During the training, I also learned a lot about what was impossible.
I mentioned installing all the dumb terminals in an earlier post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“. I won’t go into the details about running the cables throughout the plant because I already covered that in the earlier post. What I would rather talk about is the narrow understanding at the time about the possibilities of networking instead of the impossibilities that I was learning by everyone that tried to teach me the laws of physics through common sense.
After I was done installing the terminals in the most obvious places, some people came and asked me if there was a way to install computer ports in some unlikely places. Some were sort of “out-of-the-way”. For instance, Phil Harden asked if I could install a network jack in the middle of the Bowl Mill area so that the Instrument and Controls team could wheel their portable Compaq computer out there and run diagnostics on the equipment while connected to the network.
I also installed a jack in the environmental controls shack out by Unit 1 smoke stack for Tony Mena. Of course, I installed one in the Precipitator Control Room since that’s where I worked a lot, and a computer hooked to the network came in handy more than once. I was always eager to run network cable and hookup computers. It was one of my favorite past times.
One time early in 1993, the A Foreman’s office was going to be renovated. It was going to take about a month or more for the construction, so all the foremen needed somewhere to stay when the office was going to be out of commission. Tom Gibson asked me one day how many computers and printers I could hook up in the conference room. I told him as many as he wanted. For one thing, it was only just down the hall from the Telephone room where the X.25 modems connected to the microwave transmitter on the top of Unit 1 Boiler.
Since this was going to be temporary, I didn’t want to mount a lot of network jacks all over the conference room… well, maybe a few…. The rest, I just strung down the wall from the ceiling. I think all together we had 8 computers and a printer installed in that room.
During this time, we had a new clerk come to the plant. This was a rare occasion because it was rare that anyone ever left the plant. Jana Allenbaugh (later Jana Green) was our new clerk. She arrived on the first day when I had setup all the computers and everyone was moving out of the foremen’s office upstairs for their temporary stay.
I was just hooking up the printer, so I sent a long drawn out warning letter to the printer so that when I hooked it up in the Telephone room, it would start printing it out. I had done this before with Charles Patton… only, I don’t think Charles ever read what printed out…. See the post “Dick Dale and the Power Plant Printer Romance“. This time I printed out a warning to Jana from the printer itself. it told her that as a new employee, she probably needed to know not to trust anyone who wears a yellow hard hat. They were not to be trusted. Because they treated printers with disrespect. Hardly noticing them, and only talking to them when their paper gets stuck. It went on from there, but that was about the gist of it.
Anyway. Up to this point, I haven’t pointed out the areas of impossibilities that I was performing against all advice from those who knew better.
You see in 1992, when I had attended the training course in Oklahoma City to teach me all about the finer aspects of hooking up RS-232 connectors, I was told that this technology had it’s limitations. The most important being the distance from the modem you can install a printer without having some sort of other switch to boost the signal.
I was installing network cable that at the time was called “Cat 1”. That was about the lowest grade wire you could use for data. Actually, it wasn’t even considered fit for data, just voice. Well. I was using it…. all the documentation said that when using Cat1, you had to be within 50 feet from the switch. Well, in a plant where the control room was a good 100 yards from the telephone room, by the time you went up and down through ceiling, conduits, cable trays and wall, by the time the cable made it to the control room, it was at least 500 feet.
When running cable out to the shack by the smokestack I was able to use Cat 2 cable. This allowed a network cable to be around 500 feet long. When I ran this cable, it turned out to be longer than 1500 feet long. At least three times longer than the possible amount to run a network cable using this type of cable…. yet, I ran it, and Tony used it.
I know that if someone had asked Russell downtown at the Corporate Headquarters IT department, he would have said that this was as impossible as printing out the Fast News article on an IBM printer that I had printed out downtown. The truth was that there was a little data integrity lost by running a cable farther than possible by the laws of physics, but the system could easily handle the bad packets by resending them. The user never noticed that the connection was a little slower. No one ever complained that they couldn’t connect to the network.
A year after I had taken the initial training in hooking up network equipment, we learned all about the Quality process and how to think outside the box. See, “Power Plant Men have a Chance to Show Their Quality“. Between my father telling me that there is no word “Can’t” and Bob Kennedy saying that “I have a tool for that”, I had come to the conclusion that just about anything that needs to be done can be done. We just have to figure out how.
After we had taken the classes to learn about the quality process, one day I went to Ron Kilman’s office and I gave him a piece of paper. On it was a story about Processionary Caterpillars. It was significant, I thought, because it demonstrates what happens when people refuse to thing “outside the box”. The story goes like this:
Processionary Caterpillars feed upon pine needles. They move through the trees in a long procession, one leading and the others following – each with his eyes half closed and his head snugly fitted against the rear extremity of his predecessor.
Jean-Henri Fabre, the great French naturalist, after patiently experimenting with a group of the caterpillars, finally enticed them to the rim of a large flower pot. He succeeded in getting the first one connected up with the last one, thus forming a complete circle, which started moving around in a a procession, with neither a beginning nor end.
The naturalist expected that after a while they would catch on to the joke, get tired of their useless march and start off in some new direction. But not so….
Through sheer force of habit, the living, creeping circle kept moving around the rim of the pot – around and around, keeping the same relentless pace for seven days and seven nights – and would doubtless have continued longer had it not been for sheer exhaustion and ultimate starvation.
Incidentally, an ample supply of food was close at hand and plainly visible, but it was outside the range of the circle so they continued along the beaten path.
They were following instinct – habit – custom – tradition – precedent – past experience – standard practice – or whatever you may choose to call it, but they were following it blindly.
They mistook activity for accomplishment. They meant well – but went no place.
This post may seem like I am doing some bragging about my ability to think outside the box. My personality may be more apt to brag about my accomplishments than to recognize that everything I do and know is a gift from God. But in this case there is more to it than that. You see, even though my grandfather who was a sharecropper who worked his entire life farming land that didn’t belong to him, he was able to invent equipment to make his life easier. He could look at something in a catalog and build it…. I didn’t inherit this gene. I had to learn this way of thinking.
I used to get in arguments all the time at the power plant because I believed that I could do things that were equivalent to walking on water. It drove the engineers mad… Actually, they were mad all right, but just at me… .not in their minds…. Why was I so sure? I had been trained by the best.
If you have been reading my blog for the past two and a half years, you will know what I’m talking about…. I was trained by the best to think outside the box. To Power Plant Men, the Quality process was not a way to find out how to come up with quality ideas…. it was just a way to demonstrate what they already knew in a way where the Engineers and management could understand the benefit.
Here are some of the Power Plant Men that taught me the most about thinking outside the box:
Larry Riley, who taught me that you really can play music by the way you operate a backhoe.
Ken Conrad, who taught me that no matter how complicated a task, by breaking it down into simple steps, it is as simple as “Sweet Pea”.
Jim Heflin, who taught me that when all else fails, shake your head and say to yourself… “Well…. there it is…. let’s try that again a different way….”
Andy Tubbs who taught me that if you think you’re so smart that you don’t need to learn anymore, then it’s time you take out the blueprints and study it some more.
Floyd Coburn taught me that when it really looks hopeless, then prayer is always the best option.
Ed Shiever taught me that when you are extremely kind to your fellow man, when things begin to fail you, everyone will come to your aid.
Earl Frazier taught me that your memories will keep you loving those important to you long past the time when those people are lovable.
Kent Cowley taught me that you can still be a gentleman even when you are a boiler rat.
Mike Crisp taught me to look to the heavens in order to really understand the metal being shaped into a part by a lathe.
Bill Thomas taught me that loyalty to your fellow Power Plant Men comes from within your own heart, and not the actions of others.
Timothy Crain taught me that everything you do is for your family, no matter what situation they may find themselves.
Dale Mitchell taught me that personal integrity allows you to open your heart to even the most difficult people.
Juliene Alley taught me that one person can be everyone’s Mother when they are pure in heart.
Jerry Dale taught me that the more complicated the puzzle, the more humor will unravel it.
Bob Rowe taught me that simplicity makes more sense than trying to make things complicated.
I have listed a few (and only a few) of the Power Plant Men that as an accumulation, taught me to think outside the small box that I was in when I initially arrived at the Power Plant in 1979 when I first arrived as a Power Plant Summer Help until 2001 when I left to begin a new career as an IT professional (ouch… what a run-on sentence). This allowed me to think outside the box. I never would have made it to that position if it hadn’t been for the wonderful men and women who led me by the hand… sometimes kicking and screaming to the lid of the box so that I could peer outside and imagine other possibilities.
Comments from the previous post
Originally posted September 20, 2014.
I remember the moment when it dawned on me that I may be witnessing an incredible Coal-fired Power Plant Conspiracy! I had just walked into the Control Room one morning in 1990 at the plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw the Shift Supervisor Jack Maloy and Merl Wright in a state of high concentration.
I always knew something was up when Jack Maloy was standing behind the large blue monitors near the Unit 1 Main Electric Board watching the big picture while the Control Room Operator Merl Wright was at the Main Control Panel turning knobs, tapping indicators to make sure they had the correct readings, twisting switches, holding them until red lights turned green…
Where had I seen this before? Something was telling me that everything wasn’t as it seemed. Sure… there was an emergency going on. There was no doubt about that. I knew that between Jack Maloy and Merl Wright, the current problem of the main boiler drum losing water was quickly going to be solved. I knew that Oklahoma City wasn’t going to experience any blackouts that day. This was a Cracker Jack team! But I couldn’t help thinking I had seen this somewhere before, and it was gnawing at my common sense.
Here is a picture of Jack Maloy’s team at the time:
I backed off in a corner to observe the situation while a crowd of operators began to grow to watch the master Shift Supervisor and his faithful Control Room Operator divert a disaster. Merl picked up the walkie talkie from the desk and called Larry Tapp ( Larry is the man in the light blue shirt in the front row in the middle. He’s the only one in the front row that is actually standing, while the rest are down on their knees while the picture is being taken).
Larry was on the boiler opening and closing valves. John Belusko, the Unit Supervisor was out there with him. I can’t tell you what magic they were performing, since I think that’s top secret. I figured that, because the operators seemed to be talking in code. Merl would key the microphone on the walkie talkie and say something like, “Larry, 45”. Larry would reply with something like “Quarter Turn”. “Position?”, “18 as far as I can tell”.
I translated the coded words to say: “….crawling under the path of the boom, whipped hold of a rope, secured one end to the bulwarks and then flinging the other like a lasso, caught it around the boom as it swept over his head, and at the next jerk, the spar was that way trapped and all was safe.” (Something I had read in Moby Dick, by Herman Melville).
Jack paced back and forth behind the counter with the monitors. Then he stopped and read the paper that was streaming out of the alarm printer as it continued humming as the paper piled up on the floor in front of him. Jack was a heavy smoker, and I could tell that right then he would rather be standing out on the T-G floor having a smoke at that moment. Before cigarettes were banned in the control room, Jack would have been pointing at that board with the cigarette.
When the water level began rising in the Boiler Drum, I could see the relieve on everyone’s face. I supposed it meant that a major catastrophe had been avoided due to the intricate knowledge that each operator possessed and their ability to quickly respond to any situation. This made the uneasy feeling I was having even worse. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this before. Just like Deja Vu.
It wasn’t till about a week later when my mom asked me if I knew someone at work named Jack Maloy. She had been talking to a friend of hers from Church named Louise and she mentioned that her husband worked at the Power Plant north of town. I replied by saying that I knew Jack Maloy well. He is a Shift Supervisor. She said that his wife Louise told her that Jack was a real nice person, but she wished that he would go to Church more. She hoped he would come around to that some day.
Then my mom mentioned something that brought back that feeling of uneasiness again. She said that the Maloys had moved to Oklahoma in 1979 from California. I thought that was odd that Jack had only arrived in Oklahoma in 1979, as he was a Shift Supervisor for as long as I could remember. Maybe even as far back as 1979 when I first worked at the plant as a summer help.
In that case, he would have been hired as a Shift Supervisor straight from California. — That seemed odd, since the majority of Shift Supervisors had worked their way up from Auxiliary Operator to Control Room Operator to Unit Supervisor, then finally to Shift Supervisor. Why would Jack be hired fresh from California? And how did Jack know so much about being a Shift Supervisor at our plant so quickly?
Then it dawned on me. You see…. It all went back to a lunch break about a year earlier when Charles Foster, an Electric Foreman and I were eating lunch in the Electric Shop office. When we didn’t know what to talk about, our favorite past time was to talk about movies and TV shows we had watched. We would describe the movie in detail to each other. On this particular day, Charles was doing the talking, and he was telling me about a movie that had to do with a Power Plant in California (yeah. California).
As Charles described the story, he told me that there was this Shift Supervisor named Jack (yeah… like our Shift Supervisor… Jack Maloy), and he was such a good Shift Supervisor that he could tell that there was something wrong with the Boiler Feed Pumps just by the way the coffee in his coffee cup would vibrate. Yeah. He was that good.
Charles went on to tell me about how at one part of the movie the water level was dropping in a tank and it was imperative that they raise the water level or some big disaster was going to happen. — Now you see where I’m going with this? Yeah. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? At that time, the incident in the Control Room hadn’t happened yet with Jack Maloy.
The movie sounded interesting so, when I had the opportunity, we rented the VHS tape from the video store and I watched it. Sure enough. This is what I saw….
Here is Jack Maloy and Merl Wright from the team picture above:
Very similar don’t you think? Two Shift Supervisors named Jack from California with the exact same hairstyle. Two Control Room Operators that look like Wilford Brimley. Coincidence?
Even Wilford Brimley’s hairline is the same as Merl Wright’s hairline!
For those of you who don’t know yet. The name of the movie is: The China Syndrome. It is about a nuclear Power Plant that has a near meltdown:
Need more? Ok. — hey this is fun….. So…. This movie came out in 1979. The same year that Jack Maloy shows up in Oklahoma from California. Obviously an experienced Power Plant Shift Supervisor. Merl Wright went to work 10 months earlier in 1978 at an older power plant just down the road (The old Osage plant), and then shortly after, was transferred to the same plant with Jack Maloy, only to end up working for Jack.
Need more? The China Syndrome Movie came out on March 16, 1979. Jack Maloy began working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma February 26, 1979, just two and a half weeks earlier.
I mentioned this coincidence to Charles Foster one day, but as far as I know, I never mentioned it again to anyone else… Maybe Scott Hubbard, since he was my best friend as well…
So, here are my thoughts about this….
What if Jack Maloy was the Shift Supervisor being portrayed in the movie “The China Syndrome”? He needed to move out of California just before the movie came out just in case someone found out his true identity. Being a Shift Supervisor at a Nuclear Power Plant, he would surely be in high demand at any Electric Company. Our particular Power Plant was in an out-of-the-way location. Sort of like a “witness protection program”.
I don’t know Merl’s earlier background, so I can still think that he moved to Oklahoma from California and began working for the Electric Company on April 24, 1978 just two weeks before I moved to Oklahoma from Columbia, Missouri. Since I don’t know any better, I can continue thinking this. It makes it more fun that way. — Of course, Merl, who may on occasion read this blog, may correct me in the comment section below…
So, what was it that I was experiencing that morning when I walked in the control room? I mean… What was I “really” experiencing? If, suppose, Jack and Merl really are the two that were in the control room when the “China Syndrome” almost occurred? Was it just an innocent crisis where the water level somehow decided to drop to a dangerously low level all by itself because of a faulty valve that was supposed to be closed, but was really open?
Was Jack and Merl trying to relive the excitement they had felt years earlier when they worked in a nuclear plant and they almost melted a hole all the way from there to China? Was this what experienced bored Power Plant Heroes do during downtime? I suppose it’s possible. It could have been a drill drummed up to test the acuity of the operators. To keep them on their toes. All “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion” just like on the Pequod in Moby Dick.
Something to think about.
Today Merl still lives in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Jack Maloy has moved to Cape Carol, Florida with his wife Louise. I suppose now that he has more time on his hand, hopefully he has given up smoking and is now making his wife happy by attending Church regularly. We can only hope he is at peace, on the opposite side of the United States from California so he doesn’t accidentally run into his old cohorts.
We are all glad that on his way to Florida from California that Jack decided to stop for 25 or so years in Oklahoma to Supervise the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the middle of the countryside…. As Charles Champlin from the Los Angeles Times said of the movie “The China Syndrome” — “Stunning and Skillfully Executed!” — Yeah. That describes Merl and Jack. Either way… Conspiracy or not. These two men are my heroes!
I wish Merl and Jack the best rest of their lives!
Comments from the original post: (one of my most commented posts)
Long before Facebook ever graced the pages of our browsers, Power Plant Birthday reminders began appearing in the Outlook E-mail Inboxes of Power Plant men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. Today it seems commonplace to be reminded of your friends birthdays as your smartphone pops up a message to remind you. In 1997, a strange event began happening at the plant. It sent some scurrying about to find the culprit. Others found it funny. Some worried that their secrets were about to be revealed. One person was totally surprised by the response (me).
January 3, 1997 Charles Foster and I went to our morning meeting with our team in the main break room where we would meet every morning to go over the work for the day. Alan Kramer began the meeting by asking me a direct question. He said something like, “Kevin. Do you know anything about emails from the Birthday Phantom?” I asked him what he meant, and he went on to explain.
Alan said that when someone opened up Outlook to check their e-mail that morning, shortly after they opened it up, an e-mail appeared in their inbox that was from themselves. So, when Alan had logged in that morning, he received an e-mail from Alan Kramer. When he opened it, it had a subject of “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday”. The body of the e-mail said, “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday. He is 48 years old today. Please wish him a Happy Birthday. The Birthday Phantom.”
It happened that when Wayne Cranford opened his own e-mail, the subject said, “Happy Birthday Wayne Cranford!” and the body of the email had the happy birthday song, “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday dear Wayne. Happy Birthday to you. The Birthday Phantom.
So, after Alan explained this to me, he looked at me again with a rather stern look and said, “Kevin. Did you do this?” What could I say? So, I said, “Why is it that whenever something like this happens, I’m always the first one to be blamed for it?” I knew at that point that Alan’s next response was going to mean the difference between night and day, so I put on the most indignant look I could.
Alan said, “Well. I just had to ask.” I shrugged like I understood and glanced over at Charles Foster who had a stunned look hidden behind his best poker face. Something like this:
You see…. about a year earlier, before we were using Microsoft Outlook, we were using Novell’s Groupwise for email. Alan Kramer had come to me and asked me if I had done something “wrong” in regard to emails. It turned out that I was innocent of any “wrongdoing” in that instance (well, almost). Charles Foster was my witness.
What had happened was that one day, Danny Cain, who was the Instrument and Controls person on our team had come into the electric shop office to make a phone call to someone at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City. I think it was Ed Mayberry. Email was a new idea for most people at the plant.
While Danny was on the phone, I turned to the computer sitting on the desk across the room from Danny and wrote an e-mail to the person that Danny was talking to telling him not to believe a word Danny was saying… whatever it was…. it wasn’t important. I just thought it would be funny to send an email to Ed about Danny while he was talking to Danny on the phone.
The subject of the email was “Danny Cain”. As Danny was talking on the phone, he happened to turn around just as I was clicking “Send”, and he saw his name in the subject line. Charles was sitting there next to me, as we were on break at the time. Danny quickly asked what I was doing and why did he see his name on an e-mail. I put on the guiltiest look I could and said, “Oh. Nothing. Nothing at all.” Rolling my eyes with obvious guilt.
I didn’t know how much this bugged Danny until a couple of days later Alan came into the electric shop office and said he needed to ask me a serious question. I could tell he was upset with me. He asked, “Have you been reading other people’s emails?” I was confused by the question, because I didn’t relate it to Danny from the other day. So both Charles and I looked confused.
I told Alan that not only had I not read other people’s emails, but even if I could, I wouldn’t because I considered other people’s emails private. Then I explained to him that Novell’s Groupwise email was very secure, and I wouldn’t know how to hack into their email if I had a desire. Which I didn’t.
Still confused by why Alan would ask the question both Charles and I asked Alan what this was all about. He didn’t want to say who it was that told him they thought I was reading their emails, but after we pressed him, he told us that Danny Cain said he saw me reading his email when he was in the office. Then both Charles and I knew what this was all about.
I explained to Alan that I was just joking around with Danny at the time. I reasoned with Alan that I would have to be pretty stupid to wait until Danny was standing a few feet away from me before I decided to read his emails. Alan accepted my explanation. Especially since it was backed by one of the most honest people at the plant, Charles Foster.
So, fast forward to November 6, 1996. We were now using Outlook. That was about as secure as a bag of Oreo cookies in a kindergarten classroom.
I was sitting in the electric shop office with Charles during lunch, and I had just finished writing some fun little programs that automated pulling stock prices from the Internet and putting them in Excel each day. I asked Charles, “What shall I do next?”
Charles thought for a few moments and said, “You know when we were still all in the electric shop before the downsizing, how when it was someone’s birthday we used to celebrate it by bringing a cake and having a lunch or something for that person? Well. We don’t do anything now. Can you come up with something that will help celebrate birthdays?”
After brainstorming ideas, we settled on sending emails and the “Birthday Phantom” was born. I thought it would be neat to learn how to write programs that used the Outlook API, sending emails, and stuff like that. So, I went to work during my lunch breaks writing the program.
It only took a week or so to get it working, and then we ran a bunch of tests on it until we settled on having the emails be sent by the same person that is receiving the email when they log on the computer. Each time a person logs on the computer, the program would be kicked off.
The first thing it would do was check to see if the person had already logged on that day. If they had logged on before, then it would shutdown because I didn’t want it to send more than one email for the same day, even if the person used a different computer.
The next thing it would check was if the person was on an exception list. We had decided that it was best to keep the plant manager and his cronies… um… I mean, his staff from receiving emails, as we didn’t think they would appreciate it since they didn’t have much use for such things. If the person logging on was on the exceptions list, the application would shutdown.
Then, it would check to see if it was anyone’s birthday that day. If it was, then it would send an email from the person logged on, to the person logged on. If it was the birthday of the person logging on, then it would modify the email so that it was personalized to say happy birthday to them.
There were little tweeks I made while testing the application before we went live with it. First, I added little things like making sure the gender was correct. So, if it was a woman’s birthday, then it would say “…wish her a happy birthday”.
Charles and I decided that the application would start running on January 1, 1997. So, during December, I made sure it was setup on all the computers in the plant except those belonging to the staff. This brings us to January 3, 1997, when Wayne Cranford was the first Power Plant Man to have a birthday.
As I hinted above, Alan’s response to my indignation at being accused of creating the Birthday Phantom would have determined how short-lived the Birthday Phantom would have been. Since Alan didn’t pursue the inquiry I didn’t offer any more information.
For instance. A few minutes after the meeting was over, I walked over the control room, and the control room operators were all standing around talking about the Birthday Phantom. David Evans asked me if I was the Birthday Phantom. I responded the same way I did with Alan, I said, “Why is it that when something like this happens, I am always the first person to be accused?” David responded with, “Yeah, but are you the Birthday Phantom?” Well. I wasn’t the type of person to blatantly lie, so I had to admit that “Yes. I’m the Birthday Phantom, but don’t tell anyone.” The Control room operators said they would all keep it to themselves (yeah. right).
Though some people thought the Birthday Phantom was a nuisance, others thought that their personal emails were at risk, and that the Birthday Phantom could be stealing their emails. Whenever I heard that anyone was upset (such as Alan) with the Birthday Phantom, I just added them to the exceptions list and they never received another Birthday Phantom email.
Jim Padgett, a Shift Supervisor, had received a Birthday Phantom email one day, and called IT to report it as they were trying to track down the program to figure out where it was coming from. Jim Cave told me that Padgett had the IT guy on the phone and he was logged into his computer to watch what happened when he logged on and opened up Outlook to try and find what was sending the emails.
Jim Cave said that the IT guy was sounding hopeful that he was going to finally be able to catch the Birthday Phantom when all of the sudden he said, “Oh! That’s a Wiley One!” I came to understand that in Oklahoma City, the IT department was taking this so seriously that they assigned two people full time for two weeks to try and find the culprit (I added Jim Padgett to the exception list, so he didn’t receive any more emails).
I hadn’t thought about it when I was writing the application, but back at Corporate Headquarters, they thought that the application had somehow gained access to the HR system in order to find the birthdays of each employee. Even though, things like Birthdays and Social Security Numbers were not as sensitive in 1997 (for instance, the plant manager’s Social Security Number was 430-68-…. You really didn’t think I would put his Social Security number here did you?), if someone was accessing the HR database, that would have been serious.
Even though the IT department was taking this very seriously, there was one timekeeper at the Power Plant that was just about climbing the walls over the Birthday Phantom. She was so concerned that I was afraid she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I was not surprised by this at all, and had actually anticipated her anxiety. Actually, the Birthday Phantom was designed for just this reason. You see, this particular timekeeper was going to be turning 40 years old one week after the first Birthday Phantom email showed up.
After the second Birthday Phantom email arrived the next Monday on January 6, announcing that Jerry Potter had just turned 36, Linda Shiever called me and asked me if I could find out how to stop the Birthday Phantom. I told her I would look into it. I did look into it for about one second. Linda was turning 40 on Friday.
On Wednesday, January 8, not only did Elvis Presley turn 62 (if he had been alive… or…. um…well, you know…) but the Birthday Phantom informed everyone at the plant that Sonny Kendrick (who was only 5 days younger than Wayne Cranford) had also turned 48 years old. Linda Shiever was thinking about calling in sick on Friday.
Linda knew that when she came to work the morning of January 10, that her cube would be full of black balloons with the number 40 on them. She had resigned herself to this a while before when she helped blow up the balloons for Louise Kalicki’s cube the previous August 23, less than 5 months earlier. The appearance of the Birthday Phantom, however, had thrown in a new element of recognition.
The morning of January 10, 1997 finally arrived, and the Birthday Phantom email notified everyone that it was not only Linda Shiever’s birthday, but it was also Gene Day’s birthday as well. Yeah. The application could handle multiple birthdays on the same day. Linda Shiever was happy to find out that the Birthday Phantom had informed the entire Power Plant that she had just turned 29. In fact, that year, every woman at the plant was turning 29 years old according to the Birthday Phantom. — That was another one of those tweeks that came out of our testing.
Gene Day, on the other hand, according to the Birthday Phantom had just turned 100 years old…. Well.. Everyone knew he was ancient (See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” and the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“). Needless to say, there was a lot less stress in the office area after that day.
The following week, when I went to the tool room to get some supplies, Darlene Mitchell stopped me and asked me if the Birthday Phantom would do her a favor. She was turning 45 years old on January 28, and she didn’t want the Birthday Phantom to tell everyone she was 29. She wanted it to say, “Today is Darlene Mitchell’s Birthday, She is 45 years old and Lovin’ it! Please wish her a Happy Birthday!” I told her I would have a talk with the Birthday Phantom and it shouldn’t be a problem.
After a month, when I was in the Control Room, Jim Cave, who was now referring to me regularly as “The Wiley One” said that the IT department had told Jack Maloy that they were no longer looking for the Birthday Phantom. They were not able to find it. The person that did it would just have to tell them who it was.
I still have the computer code I used when I wrote the program. Sometimes I take it out and read it and I remember that year when the Birthday Phantom visited the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to remind everyone that we were all growing older and as a family, we should take the time to stop and say “Happy Birthday” to each other on that one day each year when we are special.
If you have been following my posts for very long, you may have the idea that I just like to write posts about spiders. After writing two posts about Spider Wars (see posts: “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement” and “Power Plant Spider Wars II – The Phantom Menace“), another post about spiders just seems like a bit much. Even though there is a spider in this story, another appropriate title could be something like “Another night in the Life of a Power Plant Electrician”. Without further ado, here is the story.
Ninety nine times out of a hundred, when the phone rang in the middle of the night, it was the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma calling. I don’t remember a time when the Shift Supervisor on the other end of the phone wasn’t very polite. They knew they were waking someone from their sleep to ask them to drive 30 miles out to the plant in the wee hours of the morning.
The Shift Supervisor, whether it was Joe Gallahar, Jim Padgett, Jack Maloy, or Gary Wright, they would all start out with something like, “Hey, sorry to wake you buddy…”. After such an apologetic introduction, how could you be upset that your sleep had just been interrupted? Then they would proceed to tell you why they needed your assistance. For me, it was usually because the coal dumper had stopped working while a train was dumping their coal. This meant that 110 cars tied to three or four engines was sitting idle unable to move.
Each car on the train would be dumped one at a time as it was pulled through the rotary dumper. The process was automated so that the operator in the control room watching out of the window only had to push one switch to dump each car.
The train would move forward to the next car automatically as a large arm on a machine called a Positioner would come down on the coupling between the cars and pull the entire train forward to the next car.
There were so many moving parts involved in positioning the car in place and rolling it over to dump the coal, that it was common for something to go wrong. When that happened the entire process would come to a halt and the train would just have to sit there until someone came to fix it. That was usually an electrician since the dumper and the positioner was all controlled by relays much like the elevator controls, only more complicated.
This particular night, Joe Gallahar had called me. It seemed that there was an intermittent problem with the dumper that didn’t seem to make much sense and they couldn’t figure out why it was acting so strange. One of the train cars had actually been damaged as the positioner arm would start coming up from the coupling to the point where the holding arm on the other end of the dumper had come up, then the positioner arm began going back down, causing the train to move on it’s own only to have the arm on the positioner scrape the side of the train car as it rolled backward uncontrolled.
Though it was less frequent, it was not so strange to have a train damaged by erratic dumper controls. I have seen the side of a train car smashed in by the positioner arm when it decided to inappropriately come down. This night, the problem was acting like that. So, instead of damaging the train further, they decided to call me out to have a look at it.
I always had the philosophy when being called out in the middle of the night to be just as polite back to the Shift Supervisor when I answered the phone. I had a Marketing professor at Oklahoma State University named Dr. Lee Manzer, who explained this one day.
Here is a short side story about Dr. Manzer —
Dr. Manzer told a story in class one day about how he was travelling home one day from a long and difficult trip where everything had gone wrong. It was very late at night when he arrived at his house (which, incidentally was just down the street from my parent’s house), he was really beat. He went into his bedroom and began preparing for bed.
About the time he was taking off his tie, his wife rolled over in bed and welcomed him home. Then she said, “Oh, by the way. I forgot to buy milk (or maybe it was ice cream). Do you think you could run down to the store and buy some?”
Dr. Manzer explained his decision making process at that point like this: “I could either go on a rant and tell my wife what a long and tiring day I had just had and now you are asking me to go buy milk? , and then I would go get the milk. Or I could say, ‘Of course Dear. I would be glad to go buy some milk.’ Either way, I was going to go buy the milk. So, I could do it one of two ways. I could complain about it or I could be positive. I could either score points or lose them…. hmm…. Let’s see…. what did I do? I said, ‘Of course Dear.'”
— End of the side story about Dr. Lee Manzer who by the way was a terrific Marketing Professor. I understand he still teaches to this day.
So, when Joe Gallahar called me that night, and explained that the dumper was acting all erratic, Instead of saying “Yes Dear.” as that wouldn’t have been appropriate, I told him, “No problem. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” My wife Kelly knew who was on the other end of the phone when she heard my answer. She had heard it many times before. I usually only had to say one word after hanging up the phone, “Dumper”, and she knew what that meant.
A Power Plant Electrician’s spouse knows that this is part of the job. As I pulled on the jeans that I had laid out before I went to bed, Kelly would usually say something in her sleep like, “Be careful”. I would give her a hug and tell her I’ll be back in a while, even though, sometimes I would be gone for two days working on the precipitator during a start up or some major catastrophe. Usually, it was just a couple of hours before I came crawling back in bed.
This particular night I drove to work in silence with the window open so that the cool air would keep me awake. Normally I had the radio on some rock station so that I would be singing along (in my terribly off-key singing voice) in order to stay awake. Sometimes I would just take the 25 minutes of silence to just think.
My thought that night was that it was nice to be wanted. There is some comfort in knowing that the Shift Supervisor could call me with enough confidence to know that I would be able to come out on my own and fix a problem that was costing the company a large amount of money each hour the dumper was offline. Some might think that I would be annoyed to be wakened in the middle of the night to go fix something at the plant. That night, as most nights I was feeling honored.
That wasn’t always the case, and I’ll soon write a post about another call out in the middle of the night where Scott Hubbard and I wondered exactly why they called us… but that’s another story.
When I arrived at the plant, I rolled my car up to the speaker at the front gate and said, “Hello” with an arrogant English accent. I don’t know why, but I always liked doing that. I think it was Billy Epperson who answered back. I told him I was here to work on the dumper. He thanked me and opened the gate and I drove the 1/2 mile down the hill to the plant parking lot. As I went over the hill, in the moonlight I could see the train up at the coal yard looking like a long silver snake.
I walked into the maintenance shop and grabbed a truck key off of the hook and drove around to the electric shop to pick up my hard hat and tool bucket.
I took the long way around to the coal yard since the train blocked the shortest route. We had a tunnel on the west end of the coal yard that went under the tracks for just this occasion.
When I arrived at the dumper, Stanley Robbins explained that he had tried troubleshooting this problem himself, but he couldn’t find anything that would explain the strange behavior. Since the last downsizing, we were all able to sort of mix our skills so that an operator could do simple electric tasks if they felt comfortable with it. Stanley knew enough to fix your normal minor dumper issues. This one was a little different.
Since I had been an electrician for the past 15 years at this point, I felt pretty confident that I would quickly find the problem and be heading back home soon. So, I walked into the dumper switchgear where the dumper controls are found. I asked Stanley to go turn on the power to the dumper so that I could watch the relays. When the power was on, I began tracing the circuits looking for the point of failure.
The problem was intermittent, and when Stanley started the dumper back up, everything seemed to be working just fine. Stanley explained that this was why they couldn’t use the dumper because they couldn’t be sure when it was going to malfunction. They had even uncoupled the train and pulled it apart right where the positioner arm was so that I could see what was happening.
Using radios (walkie talkies), I asked Stanley to move the positioner arm up and down while I checked it. He lowered it and raised it back up without any problem. When he began lowering it the second time, it suddenly stopped halfway down. Watching the controls, I could see that it indicated that it had come all the way down. It would be this case that would tell the holding arm on the far side of the dumper to go back up, which is what happened when the train rolled back earlier that night.
Then the relays rattled like they were picking up and dropping out rapidly. Then the problem cleared up again. Somehow the positioner arm had thought it had come down on the car clamps when it was still up in the air. That was not likely to happen because when something fails it usually doesn’t see what it’s supposed to see, not the other way around. It doesn’t usually see something that isn’t there.
So, I had Stanley lower the positioner arm down so that it was level with the ground, so that I could check the connections to the electric eye that was on the positioner clamp that detected the train car clamp when it came down. I couldn’t find any lose connections or anything that would explain it.
So I told Stanley that I was going to look up from under the car clamp to look at the electric eye. So, I asked him to kill the power to the positioner so that it wouldn’t move while I was doing that and crush me like a bug. Kneeling on the train track, I took my flashlight and looked up at the electric eye from under the car clamp, and this is what I saw:
This spider had built a spider web in front of the electric eye on the positioner and was sitting right in the middle causing the positioner to think it was down on the car clamp when it wasn’t. Stanley was watching me from the window of the dumper control room when he saw me stand up quickly and look up at him with a big grin on my face. I gave him a thumbs up.
You know the phrase, “Everyone has 10 minutes of fame….” It indicates that some time in most people’s lives they are famous for a brief moment. It may or may not define the rest of their life. Well. This was that spiders claim to fame. This one spider had successfully stranded a coal train with 110 cars of coal. A train crew, a coal yard operator, and one lone electrician that had traveled 30 miles to watch it act out it’s drama of catching gnats on it’s web being constantly watched by one large electric eye.
I did not drive home in silence that early morning. I laughed out loud all the way home. I still laugh to myself to this day when I think about this night. Phrases like, “Isn’t life wonderful” comes to my mind. Or “Even Spiders desire attention every now and then.” Could there have been a better malfunction than to have a spider dancing in front of an electric eye out in the plains of Oklahoma saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” and by golly. Someone did! I’m just glad it was me.
I wonder if Kent Norris felt proud when his boss Wayne Beasley told him that he was being assigned to manage the eight Power Plant Men that were coming to Corporate Headquarters for the next 10 weeks to help prepare for the transition to SAP. I’m sure he had no idea what he was signing up to do. For the next 12 weeks, Kent bravely endured one torture after the other.
Kent Norris was a young Corporate Executive working for the Electric Company in Central Oklahoma when the Power Plant Men showed up at his doorstep August 6, 1996. I wish I had a picture of Kent (Kent… I know you read this blog… if you send me your picture, I’ll add it to this post), because then you could see right away that he would be the perfect person for playing jokes. Just like Gene Day back at the Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked.
See, you can tell by Gene Day’s expression that this guy was just right for Power Plant Jokes. Kent Norris was much like Gene in this respect, and the best part was that he was young and wasn’t from a plant, so he had never experienced the Power Plant Lifestyle of perpetual joke playing (see the post “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“).
At the plant, Power Plant jokes are such a way of life that they include a section on the timecard to enter the number of Power Plant Jokes performed during the day, along with how many were successfully implemented. This was used to create a PPJ (for Power Plant Joke) Quotient that would go on your performance appraisal each year. That way you could set your stretch goals for the following year.
I explained last week why the eight of us were at Corporate Headquarters in the post: “Do Power Plant Men and Corporate Headquarters Mix?” so I won’t go into that much here other than to say that we were working for 10 weeks preparing the Inventory module in SAP so that our company would be prepared to go live with SAP on January 1, 1997. SAP is an ERP or Enterprise Resource Planning System.
Once all 9 of us were sitting in one cube, (eight Power Plant Men, and one young Corporate Executive, Kent Norris), that was when the opportunity for Power Plant Jokes began to take shape. Kent sat at the table in the middle of the cube next to the telephone.
Most of the Power Plant Men had their backs to each other as they all faced the edge of the cube. This way, a person walking into the cube could easily see the computer monitors. I sat on the end of a table at the end of the elongated cube where I could watch everyone and no one could see my monitor (and incidentally, I had a great view of the outside world).
At first we began our harassm….uh… I mean… jokes…. on Kent by easing him into it with very simple things… When he would step out of his cube, we would do little things like put water in his pen cap so that when he went to write something down and removed the cap, water would spill on him.
Other minor pranks were things like, unplugging the keyboard and mouse from the computer so that Kent would think that his computer had locked up. He tried rebooting his computer and for five minutes couldn’t figure out how to fix his computer until he found that the mouse and keyboard were unplugged, at which point, several muffled chuckles could be heard emanating from the far corners of the cube… Not from me, because I had learned the fine art of keeping a straight face in the midst of a hilarious power plant joke — after years of training.
Kent was so good at having jokes played on him that I think he enjoyed them as much as we did. He would respond with phrases like “You guys!!! Geez!” The Power Plant Men were so fast at implementing jokes on the fly that all Kent had to do was turn around to talk to someone that had come to ask a question and all the wheels on his chair would be removed and hidden in various locations throughout the cube.
Ken Scott was the Supervisor of Maintenance at the Seminole Plant, who I had worked with at our plant since I first showed up as a new summer help. He knew I was a trouble causer from day one. I wondered how he was going to take our constant jokes with Kent, but he helped out with the rest of us, and when Kent would run off to tell his friend Rita Wing (I think that was her name) about a new joke we had just played on him, Ken Scott would break out of his straight “uninterested” expression into a big smile and laugh out loud.
Mike Gibbs and I would evaluate the day’s jokes on the way home each day. We were carpooling from Stillwater.
The jokes became more elaborate over time, and I was reaching out to others beyond our cube to help out. At the time, we were using Windows 3.2 which had small program called “Windows Popup” (I believe the file name was popup.exe). It was sort of an old version of IMing someone before chatting was really common. I taught our team how to use it, so that we could pop up messages on each other’s computers to coordinate our jokes while we were doing our work without having to even look at each other.
Popup means so many things now that we all use Internet Browsers. “Windows Popup” allowed you to locate someone logged into the network, and pop a message right up in the middle of their screen. It would include the logon name of the person popping it up. My logon name on the computer system was BREAZIKJ. The popup message would say Message from BREAZIKJ in the title bar, and it would display the message. Here is an example I found on Google Images:
I had noticed that Kent often talked to the admin for Dennis Dunkelgod, a manager over the Telecommunications team.
I had worked with Dennis a couple of times running telephone cable at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we needed to install the computer network. I sent a Popup message to his admin asking her if she would help us play a joke on Kent. The message was something like this…. “We are going to play a joke on Kent Norris and were wondering if you would like to help us out.”
The young lady admin didn’t know what to think when this message popped up in the middle of her computer screen, though she knew where it came from because our cube was just across the aisle from her. She took a print screen of the message and gave it to Dennis.
Dennis, not knowing the ways of Power Plant Men didn’t know what I meant by “joke” and thought we might be planning something inappropriate. So he came to our cube and asked who was this person BREAZIKJ. I told him I was Kevin. He asked me if I had sent that message. I told him that I had sent it. (In trouble again… as usual). As Dennis was replying Kent Norris walked into the cube and saw Dennis dressing me down. He was saying that things like this did not belong in the workplace and he didn’t want to hear about this again! I replied, “all right.”
Dennis left the cube, and Kent asked what was going on, so I said, “We were planning on playing a joke on you, and so I asked the admin sitting over there if she would like to help us out and it upset Dennis.” Kent knew that Dennis was just looking out for him, so he explained that to us that Dennis misunderstood our intention.
One joke I played on Kent was this… Since he always answered the phone in our cube, I found a way to connect to a modem on the mainframe and dial out of the company (thanks Craig Henry for the tip), and then dial back in again and ring a phone…. So, I would wait until Kent hung up from the phone, which was just one second after he would say “Toodles” (which was Kent’s way of saying goodbye), then I would ring the phone and hang it back up.
Kent would answer the phone with his regular telephone answering phrase that I don’t quite remember, but it was something like, “Kent Norris, how may I help you?” only more interesting than that. When he answered the phone the first time, he was surprised to find that no one was on the phone. He hung it up and said, “That’s odd.” Then throughout the week, at various times, just as Kent hung up the phone from a conversation, I would ring his phone again.
Kent began troubleshooting it… he noticed that the ring indicated that it was an outside number calling, but it seemed like the phone was malfunctioning, so he created a trouble ticket to have someone look into it. Of course, the phone was working fine.
One day, Toby O’Brien came to my cube to ask me if I could tell him how I would do a root cause analysis on a particular accident. Toby was working for the safety department at the time.
I was showing him on the computer how I would make a hierarchy of causes and how each cause could be caused by something else, making something that looks like an organizational chart of causes. While I was talking to him, Toby was looking over my shoulder at the computer screen. Kent was talking on the phone… As I was talking to Toby, I was also listening to Kent’s conversation and I could tell he was wrapping it up, and I wanted to ring the phone.
So, as I continued talking along with Toby, I opened up the program I had configured to ring the phone and had it all ready to click the button when Kent said “Toodles”. I could tell that Toby was a little confused by my talking to him while I was opening another program and acting oblivious to it. Still explaining to Toby as if nothing was happening I hit the call button just as Kent hung up the phone, and it immediately rang. As Kent picked it up, I hung up and closed the program. Kent said, “Hello this is Kent Norris….. Damn! Kevin!” as he slammed the receiver back down on the phone. For some reason Kent thought I was doing something, though, he couldn’t figure out what. I just gave him a confused look.
At this point I heard a chuckle from Toby, he had a grin much like his picture above. I couldn’t hold it in much longer as my stomach was beginning to quiver and my body was shaking. So I slunk down in my chair so Kent couldn’t see the smile on my face and put my hand over my eyes to try and concentrate on making a straight face again. I squeaked out “…and that’s how I would do the root cause analysis on that accident.”
The climax of the Telephone joke was when one day, I set the program up for redial and left to go to the bathroom. The phone kept calling Kent once every minute. When I returned to the cube, Kent said, “Kevin! Stop ringing my phone!” I said, “I just went to the bathroom! How could I be ringing your phone?” At that point the phone rang and Kent said, “Pick it up!” I picked it up and listened, and said, “There’s nobody there. But you can’t blame me for that.” Then I returned to my computer and turned off the program and didn’t call him anymore after that.
The most elaborate joke played on Kent began when one day Kent made the statement that he had never been to a Power Plant and no desire in the world to ever visit a Power Plant! I think someone had asked him if he had seen the control room at one of the plants and that was his response. So, when an opening for an operator came up at our plant, we told Kent that we had sent in his application for the Operator job at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
Kent didn’t believe us of course, he thought this was just another little joke we were playing. We told him that we put all the right things in the application so that he was sure to get the job. Even though he would tell us that he didn’t believe us, we could see the small hint of doubt on his face, which made it a successful small joke… but this was only the beginning.
A couple of weeks later, Kent received word that since all the engineers were up at our plant in North Central Oklahoma they were going to hold their monthly safety meeting there and Kent and Rita were going to have to drive up to the plant to attend. Which meant, Kent didn’t have a choice, he was going to have to visit the plant after all. What Kent didn’t know was that his boss Wayne Beasley had been updated by Ken Scott about what we had told Kent about applying him for the operations job at the plant.
We told Kent that the real reason Wayne was having the meeting at the plant was so that Kent would be able to have his interview for the operations job, because they had accepted his application. Of course… again… he thought we were just kidding him since he said he had no desire to even visit a plant in his life.
Using Windows Popup (since IM wasn’t around yet), I sent messages to Denise Anson, the receptionist at the plant telling her about our plan with Kent. When Kent and Rita drove up to the main gate at the plant and said that it was Kent Norris and Rita Wing from Corporate Headquarters, Denise replied with, “Oh yes. Kent Norris. You have an interview for the operator position.” Kent said something like, “No, I’m just going to a safety meeting.” At this point, he couldn’t believe that the joke had actually reached the plant.
Denise messaged me using Windows Popup that he had just entered the gate…. I sent a popup to Ron Madron, who was going to ride up in the elevator with him letting him know that Kent was on his way to the parking lot…. When Kent and Rita entered the building and stood at the elevator, Ron Madron entered from the Maintenance Shop and entered the elevator with Kent and Rita. Ron asked who they were and when Kent told Ron who he was, Ron replied with “Oh! You’re the new operator! Good to meet you!” Kent could not believe that we had involved yet another person in our joke…
Ken Scott told me that he had talked to Wayne Beasley, Kent’s manager who was holding the safety meeting. Here is his LinkedIn picture:
Wayne had told Ken that he was going to make an announcement during the Safety Meeting that Kent Norris was going to soon begin working at the plant as their new operator. I messaged to Denise to ask her where Bill Green, the Plant Manager was because I wanted to fill him in on the plan. Denise told me he was in Wayne Beasley’s Safety Meeting.
I asked her if she could go get him out of the meeting because I needed to talk to him right away. So, she went and interrupted the safety meeting to tell Bill that I was on the phone and needed to talk to him. When Bill answered, I told him about the elaborate joke we had been playing on Kent Norris and how Wayne Beasley was going to announce in the meeting that Kent Norris was going to become an operator at the plant. Bill said thanks for letting him know because if he didn’t know it was a joke, he might have been upset if Wayne said that without him knowing it was coming…..
So, here is what happened in the safety meeting….. As the meeting was coming to a close, Bill Green, the Plant Manager, stood up and said, “We would all like to welcome Kent Norris to our plant and hope that he will enjoy coming to work for us as an operator.” — The perfect execution of a power plant joke after weeks of preparation, it was executed flawlessly.
Later that afternoon when Kent came back to our cube at Corporate Headquarters, he said that was the greatest joke ever! He couldn’t believe how we had everyone involved up to the plant manager. We were all glad that it went off without a hitch. We were also glad that Kent had enjoyed it so much. He said that it wasn’t until he walked in the control room and they didn’t know who he was that he felt sure that he really wasn’t going to be an operator at the plant.
The joke where I laughed the hardest was during the last week working at Corporate Headquarters. Wayne Beasley had come back from our plant to work where he normally worked, and he wanted to take our team out to lunch with Kent to congratulate us for doing such a good job. So, they picked a Mexican restaurant in Bricktown just east of downtown Oklahoma City. This restaurant was chosen specifically because it offered a great opportunity for a joke to be played on Kent.
When we walked into the restaurant, Doyle Fullen, the Plant foreman and electrician from Muskogee told the waiter that it was Kent Norris’s birthday. He told them that he was very shy and would deny that it was his birthday, but we were all bringing him out to lunch because we were celebrating it. So, toward the end of the meal, out came the group of waiters singing Felice Navidad carrying a huge Sombrero. Which they placed on Kent’s head!
We all sang Felice Navidad at the top of our lungs and clapped and laughed. I laughed so hard at Kent’s culmination of Power Plant Jokes! Rarely in my life have I laughed so hard as Kent stood there under this huge sombrero looking humiliated and at the same time proud to be so well loved by the Power Plant Men!
The week ended on Friday afternoon around 3pm, as each of us started leaving one at a time to drive back home for the last time. Doyle and Bob Christy left first because they had the farthest to drive. the rest of us left some time later. Each saying goodbye to Kent a couple at a time…. until Kent was left sitting in the bullpen cube all by himself. Thinking…. “I’m finally rid of these bozos!”
Unknown to Kent, the majority of us didn’t exactly leave the building… instead we each went into the bathroom where I was the last to enter….. I carried a bag that was full of 12 cans of various colors of Silly String:
Once everyone was ready, we snuck up to the side of the cube where we could hear Kent typing on a computer and with all 12 cans the six of us sprayed silly string over the cube totally covering Kent in Silly String. That was our last goodbye. We couldn’t leave without one more Power Plant Man Joke!
A week or two after I returned to the plant, I received the following letter through Intra-Company mail:
For years after, and up to today, I consider Kent Norris a dear friend. One day when I was at the Stillwater Public Library during their yearly book sale, I found a book that I just had to buy for Kent. It was perfect! I sent it by intra-company mail. Kent thanked me for it…. I figured it would remind him of the time he spent trying to Corral a passel of Power Plant Men! Oh… here is a picture of the book:
Whenever I walked into the Control Room at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw Jim Cave manning the helm, I couldn’t help but smile. I would do the same thing when Gene Day was standing there, but for a different reason. Jim just seemed to make everyone feel at ease. There is something special about his personality that rubs everyone the right way.
Jim worked for the company the first summer in 1979 when I was working as a summer help in the maintenance shop. I really didn’t know him until he became a control room operator and I was in the electric shop. He was always one of the brighter bulbs in the box.
When I first met Jim Cave, the first thing that came to mind was that he reminds me of a News reporter. He looks like someone that you would think would be telling you the daily news on TV. He has that likeable face that you would trust to tell you the news each day. Everyone wanted to have their picture taken with Jim because he automatically brightened up the photograph. Thanks to Jim’s Facebook page, I have some pictures to show you.
Actually, I think all of the pictures of operators that I have used in my posts over the years have come from Jim Cave’s Facebook photos. You can see from the picture above that Jim Cave seems to stand out as someone who might be a reporter on the nightly news.
Before I tell you about how Jim Cave has his own story pertaining to the Life of Pi, let me show you a couple of more photos of Operators who couldn’t resist posing with Jim Cave:
You can see that no matter the situation, Jim is always smiling. I can’t think of any time that I saw Jim that he wasn’t smiling a genuine smile.
Now that I have embarrassed Gene Day by showing him wearing short shorts (which was the full intent of this post. The rest about Jim Cave is just to put it in some sort of context), I will begin the actual story…
A new computer was installed one day that was called a VAX system. Instead of being a large mainframe computer in cabinets, this one sat out in the middle of the floor.
This allowed the control room to monitor readings from most of the power plant systems right there on a computer monitor. This was a new thing at the time. A few years after it was installed, a new program was installed on a computer on the counter behind the Control Room operator’s desk. The software was called PI.
As a side note: This software was being used by Koch Industry to control oil pipelines across the country. I’ll tell you how I know below.
When a program like this is first installed, it isn’t of much use. The reason is that in order to monitor everything, the screens have to be setup. You can see by the screenshots above that each graph, icon and connecting line has to be defined and setup in order to show you a full picture of what is happening.
If a lot of effort is put into building the screens, then this application not only becomes a great benefit to the control room operators, it also benefits the entire operation of the plant.
We had the same situation with SAP. We had installed SAP in 1997 at the Electric Company, but the real benefit comes when an effort is made up front to put in all the expert data to make it useful. While Ray Eberle and I were working to put the expert data into SAP, this new PI system was installed in the Control Room. In order to make it useful, screens needed to be built.
Notice the alarm panels are still there in the picture in 2005.
Some operators weren’t too keen on the computer since they had been staring at these alarm panels all their adult life, and they were just in tune with the power plant as they could be. Paper recorders, gauges that you might have to tap every now and then to take an accurate reading… colored red, yellow, blue and red lights. Red Level gauges, Counters, Knobs to turn, Switches to toggle. Buttons to push. All of these things gave the operator a physical connection to the power plant system. Who needs a computer?
Jim Cave saw the benefit right away. He took the Pi Manual out and began reading it. He learned how to create new screens and add components. Then he began the work of giving “Life to Pi”.
Each time Jim added a new system to Pi, the operators saw the benefit of using this tool more and more (like Allen Moore).
In 2000, Jim Cave had built a complete set of screens, releasing the Power of PI upon the Control Room Operators making their jobs easier and giving them much more insight into the operation of the plant that they never would have dreamed 5 years earlier. (except for Bill Rivers who had predicted this day 17 years earlier when no one would believe him).
Jim Cave’s Shift Supervisor, Gary Wright wanted to recognize Jim Cave for the tremendous effort he put forth to build the PI system into every Power Plant Operator’s dream. So, he went to Bill Green the Plant Manager and told him that he would like to do something special for Jim to recognize all the effort he put into the Pi system.
Bill replied to Gary by asking if Jim did this while he was on the job, or did he come in during his own time to work on it. Gary replied that Jim had done this while still performing his job of Control Room operator through his own initiative. It wasn’t part of his regular job. Bill clarified, “But this work was done while Jim was on the clock?” “Yes”, Gary answered. “Then Jim was just doing his job”, Bill replied.
At this same time, I was having a conflict of my own that I was trying to work through. I will go into more detail in a later post, but here it is in a nutshell….
I had been going to the university to get a degree called “Management Information Systems” or MIS from the business college at Oklahoma State University. I had been applying for jobs in the IT department in our company, but for reasons I will discuss later, I was not allowed to move to the IT department, even when I had only one semester left before graduating with the degree.
My problem was that I was being offered jobs from various companies when I graduated in May. Boeing in Wichita even gave me a job offer and wanted me to leave school and to work for them on the spot for having a computer and an electrical background to work on military jets, (which sounded real cool). The electric company had been paying all of my tuition and fees and 75% of the cost of the books. So, my education had been paid by the company. I told Boeing that above all, I wanted to finish my degree before I began my career in IT.
I felt as if I owed the electric company my allegiance and that I would stay with them, and that is why I kept applying for jobs within the company. I felt that way until the day I heard this story about Gary Wright trying to recognize Jim Cave for his extra effort.
When I heard Bill’s response was, “He was just doing his job…”, it suddenly hit me…. The company paying for my tuition was one of my benefits. I didn’t owe the company anything in return for that. I had already given them what was due. I had been their employee and had done my job. I no longer felt the need to “pay back” the company by staying. I had already paid them with my service. I actually remember saying that out loud to Ray Eberle. “The company paying for my education is my benefit.”
This was a turning point in my job search. I felt perfectly free after that to accept a job from another company. Bill’s response to Gary Wright had opened my eyes. I felt perfectly at ease accepting the job offer from Dell the following month. It’s too bad that it took snubbing Jim Cave’s extraordinary effort by the plant manager to put my understanding of my situation in the proper light.
During that time, I had a job offer that I had turned down from Koch Industry in Wichita because they didn’t offer me as much pay as some of the other job offers I had received. A month later they called me back and asked me to go for another interview in a different department.
When I showed up for the interview, it was with the SCADA department. SCADA stands for Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition. That is what the electric company called the system that opens and closes breakers remotely. Koch Industries uses the same type of system to control the pipelines across the country from their one location in Wichita.
After the interview, they showed me around the office. When we walked into the lab, one person showed me the computer system they were using to control all the pipelines, and lo and behold…. it was the PI system. The same one that Jim Cave had learned in the control room at our Power Plant. They offered me a job in that department as well for a little more.
I thought to myself that if I accepted the job with Koch, then I would ask Jim to teach me what he had learned about the Pi software. This would come in real handy. It turned out that the offer from Dell was even better than Koch, which was my second choice if I hadn’t accepted the job at Dell.
Things have changed at the plant since the picture in 2005. I believe it was in 2006 that the alarm panels were removed from the control room and everything was put on the computers. The control room operators no longer have to stand in front of panels of lights and gauges and knobs and buttons and switches. It is all viewed on computer screens.
Here is a picture of Jim sitting in front of some of those computer screens…
I see eleven computer monitors on the counter behind the old control panel and we can’t even see the other half of the counter. It looks like Jim built so many screens they just kept having to add more and more monitors to show them all. — Oh. I know that Jim didn’t create all these screens, but he did help acclimate the Control Room operators to using computers so that when the evolution to a completely computerized system did arrive, they were ready for it.
Great work Jim Cave! Thank you for all you have done for the Electric Company in Oklahoma. You have made a lasting difference that will carry forward to the next generation of Control Room Operators. I don’t just mean by giving Life to PI. Your positive attitude in times of stress to the times of boredom have blessed everyone that ever knew you.
I for one am grateful to have met and worked with a True Power Plant Man such as yourself.