Tag Archives: Control Room

Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting

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.

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

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long. You can see the hoppers at the bottom

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.

Vacuum Truck

Vacuum Truck

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:

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett just after he has called me a “Scamp”

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

    1. Dan Antion August 16, 2014

      Too close.

       

    1. Ron Kilman August 16, 2014

      I remember when this happened. I know some prayers went up for James.

      They had to “decontaminate” the helicopter too. It was always amusing for me to see a hazmat worker strain at a “gnat” removing every molecule of fly ash, then take his respirator and suit off and light up his “camel” cigarette!

       

    1. Garfield Hug August 16, 2014

      Thankfully glad you made it to safety *blessings*

    1. Donna Westhoff Collins August 16, 2014

      Hope you don’t mind I posted on my Innovative Safety Solutions facebook page along with a link back to the blog. Good article!

    1. Anna Waldherr August 17, 2014

      What a harrowing account! Clearly, those of us not in the industry have no idea of its dangers.

    1. T. Foster August 19, 2014

      I remember hearing about that on the news that day. Also that Dad told us how strange it seemed that they were wearing the haz mat suits to deal with flyash.

    1. createthinklive September 14, 2014

      Work at the power plant sounds sexy: vibrators, insulators and rappers

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Power Plant Impossibilities or Processionary Caterpillars

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.

RS-232 Training Certificate

RS-232 Training Certificate – notice that this is signed by our plant manager Ron Kilman and even the Manager of Power Plant Operations Jim Gist

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.

A Compaq Portable Computer -- and early version of a Laptop

A Compaq Portable Computer — and early version of a Laptop

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.

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter used to connect to the RS-232 cable

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.

Processionary Caterpillars travelling in a circle

Processionary Caterpillars travelling in a circle

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

    1. Dan Antion September 6, 2014

      I too was led into IT by others. It was a field that was new and expanding, and a better fit for some people. Nice post. Glad to have you in our box.

    1. Dave Tarver September 6, 2014

      Kev, as you know we had just an incredible , amazing group of talent at the plant , and for the most part a group that to along with each other and looked out for each other too.
      I still think about all those guys and all that collective intelligence among them, truly truly a blessing.

    1. Ron Kilman September 6, 2014

      Facet: a part or element of something.

      God is “omni-facetted” (new word) = He has infinite facets. Since each person is His unique creation, we each are born with our own unique manifestation of a part of God. You have learned to look for, recognize, and honor that in people. I think this is your best post yet.

  1. Monty Hansen November 19, 2014

    I dub thee “True Powerplant Man”

 

Power Plant Conspiracy Theory

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…

I love this picture!

I love this picture! — not our plant but may be part of the conspiracy

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:

Helen Robinson is third from the left in the back row.

Jack Maloy is standing on the far right with the vertically striped shirt (like bars in a jail) directly behind Merl Wright kneeling before him – Coincidence?  I think not.

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”.

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

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).

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

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 the Shift Supervisor in California working with his Control Room operator trying to divert a disaster

Here is Jack the Shift Supervisor in California working with his Control Room operator trying to divert a disaster

Here is Jack Maloy and Merl Wright from the team picture above:

Jack Maloy and Merl Wright

Jack Maloy and Merl Wright

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?

Wilford Brimley in the movie playing the same job as Merl Wright

Wilford Brimley in the movie playing the same job as Merl Wright

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:

The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome

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…

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard – See how he smiled when I told him?

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?

Or…

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)

  1. Fred September 20, 2014

    I remember in the 1980’s when someone had taken one of the spare annunciator windows out and placed a hand written paper in it that said ” China Syndrome”. It was there for a while.

    1. Plant Electrician September 20, 2014

      Thanks Fred for reminding me of that.  Um… I didn’t do it!

  2. Dave Tarver September 20, 2014

    Jack was from Byng, Oklahoma- a Byng graduate he had attended Okmulgee Tech as well- He worked at Barstow, CA awhile at a plant there- and there training was far different than ours is who he learned so much- he even did some lineman training for them as well as other stuff- I don’t know all his capacity while he was there- he had a lot of experience with combined cycle unit they had but, I know one thing he was a heck of an operator- seen him do some things know one else could ever do- he had the best power plant knowledge of any of the operators ever other than Joe , he, Joe Gallahar, and Padgett were all really good ones. learned a lot from everyone.

  3. sacredhandscoven September 21, 2014

    LOL You hooked me in early on this one, but as soon as you said “by the way the coffee in his coffee cup would vibrate” I knew which track we were on an enjoyed the rest of the ride. Reminded me of the movie and also the very real stress of Three Mile Island. Funny how your “conspiracy theory” brought those feelings of terror back more than 35 years after I was sitting glued to the TV every day when I came home from high school!

  4. Ron Kilman September 22, 2014

    Great story! And 2 great men. Thanks for the memories.

  5. spill71 September 23, 2014

    awesome conspiracy story…maybe Jack knew just how to mess with the system, just so he could save it, all in hopes that they would make another movie out of his job.
    So anyway, I really enjoyed that. Thanks for sharing.

  6. chriskeen September 29, 2014

    We got The China Syndrome from the library based on this post! Good movie, it does seem very coincidental the way Jack just sort of appeared at your plant right before the movie came out. I love a good conspiracy theory 😉

  7. dweezer19 September 30, 2014

    God, I must be old. China Syndrome came to mind as soon as you said near tragedy in California plant! I saw this in the theater fresh out of high school. Jane and Jack were incredible by the way. Interesting theories. Anything is possible. And probable. Nice post.

  1. bmackela October 22, 2014

    Good post. Did you ever talk to Jack about California?

    1. Plant Electrician October 22, 2014

      No. I didn’t want to open that can of worms. 🙂

Flying Leap off of a Power Plant Hot Air Duct

I was standing in the elevator on my way to the control room from the electric shop the morning of October 11, 1995 when a strange call came over the radio.  It sounded like Danny Cain, one of the Instrument and Controls Technicians on my team (or crew, as we used to call them before the reorganization).  Most of what he said was garbled, but from what I could catch from Danny’s broadcast was that there was a man down on a unit 2 hot air duct.  Danny’s voice sounded as if he was in a panic.

About that time, the elevator door opened and I stepped out.  I thought to myself… “Hot Air Duct?”  Where is a hot air duct?  I had been running around this plant since 1979 when they were still building the plant, and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember where a hot air duct was at that moment.  I may have been panicking myself.  So, I did the only thing I could think of at the time….

I walked briskly into the control room and asked the Unit 1 Control Room operator… “Where is a hot air duct?”  It must have sounded like a pretty stupid question coming from someone who rarely admitted that they didn’t know everything, but I have asked my share of stupid questions in my lifetime and most of the time, after the blank stare, someone gives me the answer.  This time, the answer was “In the bottom ash area under the boiler.”

I quickly left the control room without saying another word.  I’m not sure why I didn’t yell something out like, “Help!  Help!  There’s a man down on a Unit 2 Hot Air Duct!”  I guess it didn’t even occur to me.  I just darted out the door and down the stairs to the ground level (six flights of stairs).  I kept saying to myself… “Hot Air Duct…  Hot Air Duct…”  I jogged across the Turbine-Generator basement floor and into the breezeway between the T-G building and Unit 2 Boiler.  I picked up my pace once I was out in the open, and quickly made my way through the door to the spot where years before in 1983 I had seen Bob Lillibridge being swallowed alive by the Boiler Ghost (See the post: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost“).

Once inside the boiler enclosure, I realized that the Hot Air Ducts were the ducts that came from the Primary Air Fans into the Bowl Mills where the coal is ground into powder and blown into the boiler.  The air is heated first by going through the Air Preheater which gets it’s heat from the exhaust from the boiler.  It was pretty dark around the Hot Air Ducts.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler.  you can see the Hot Air at the very bottom.  That’s going through the Hot Air Ducts

As I approached I yelled out for Danny who immediately yelled in the same stressed far off voice “Help!”  His voice came from the top of the second Hot Air Duct.  I could hear a struggle going on up there, so I ran over to the ladder and quickly climbed up.  When I reached the top of the ladder, I saw Danny Cain and Alan Kramer (Our foreman) also, wrestling with a man that I had never seen before.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

Alan was behind him with his arms wrapped around the man’s arms  and his legs wrapped around his chest (I’ll call this guy Michael, since that turned out to be his name…. Michael Hyde) as the man flailed his arms kicking his feet.  The three of them were rolling around on the top of the Hot Air Duct (which is a coal dusty dark place).  Oh.  Did I mention that it was hot?  Michael was a contract worker and this was his first day on the job.

I didn’t wait to see who was winning before I picked sides.  I decided that whoever this Michael Hyde person was, if he was wrestling with Danny and Alan, he wasn’t getting much sympathy from me.  I grabbed the man’s legs even though I was still standing at the top of the ladder.

I wrapped one of my legs through the rungs of the ladder so that it weaved through one rung, around the next rung, and into the third rung.  At this point, even if I was knocked unconscious, I wasn’t going to fall off of this ladder.  We were 25 feet above the concrete floor.  Danny said, “Hold him down!  He’s trying to jump off the Duct!”  So, while Alan and Danny wrestled with Michael’s upper torso, I decided to take care of his legs.

About that time, others started showing up down below.  Jimmie Moore was one of the first to arrive.  I yelled down to him that we needed our rescue gear.  A stretcher and rope.  Jimmie quickly coordinated getting our safety bags down to the bottom ash area.  More people arrived.  I remember seeing Jasper Christensen looking up at me.

About that time, Michael pulled one of his feet from my grip and gave me a swift kick on the right side of my head with the heal of his boot.  I was knocked back and my hardhat went flying off into space.  Jasper said something like “Don’t fall off up there!”  Shaking my head to get rid of the pain, I assured Jasper that I couldn’t fall off of the ladder if I tried.  I had my leg locked in the rungs.

I decided at that point that the best thing I could do to keep from being kicked in the head again was to remove this guy’s boots.  So, I grabbed both of his legs and squeezed them as hard as I could so that he would feel a little bit of the pain he had just inflicted on me.  At the same time, I began unlacing his work boots and dropping them to the floor.

Danny explained that Michael had had some kind of seizure.  He had fallen down and was wobbling all over the place.  Then when it was over and he came to, he tried to jump off of the duct.

Michael continued to struggle.  He wasn’t yelling or saying anything other than grunts.  It was as if he was in a total panic.  His eyes were filled with fear.  After I had removed his boots, I continued to have one arm wrapped around both of this legs squeezing as hard as I could to keep him from pulling one away and taking another kick at my head.

At this point, an interesting idea came into my head… I suddenly thought it would be a good idea to tickle his feet.  I had two reasons for doing this… First…  It was pay back for leaving a boot heel impression across the side of my face and Second…. I thought it would distract him some from his panic.  Sort of as a counter-irritant.

More of the rescue team had arrived and Jimmie threw a rope up to me that I threw over a pipe so that a stretcher could be raised up.  Either Jimmie Moore or Randy Dailey or both then climbed up the ladder and made their way around me to the duct so they could put Michael in the stretcher.  At this point, Michael was still panicking.  He was still trying to escape our grasp.

Jimmie Moore

Jimmie Moore, Plant Electrician

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

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

The stretcher was placed alongside Michael, and with a “one two three” we raised him up and set him down in the stretcher.  We started winding the rope in and out of the stretcher to tie him down.  As soon as the ropes went around his arms, Michael stopped struggling and became calm.

Rescue Stretcher

Rescue Stretcher

It appeared that the moment Michael felt safe, the struggle was over.  We raised him up from the hot air duct and then lowered him to the ground.  As soon as he was on the ground, the Ambulance from Ponca City, Oklahoma arrived.  Evidently, as soon as the Shift Supervisor had heard “Man Down” on the radio, he called 911 in Ponca City 20 miles away to have an ambulance sent.  The timing couldn’t have been better.  Just as we were untying Michael, the EMTs arrived.

The EMTs from the ambulance put him on their own stretcher.  I picked up his boots from the ground and placed them alongside him on the stretcher and he was carried away.  After all that panic, I just wanted to go back to the Electric Shop office and calm down.

This was a happy ending to what could have been a real tragedy if Michael had been able to jump off of the air duct.  We heard about an hour later that when Michael Hyde had arrived at the hospital in Ponca City, he insisted on having a drug test taken to show that he had not taken any kind of illegal drug that would have led to his bizarre behavior.  He said that nothing like that had ever happened to him before.  There must have been something about the heat and the dark and the smell (and maybe listening to Danny talk about donuts) that must have triggered a seizure.

To our surprise, a few months later, Michael Hyde showed up at our plant again.  This time, he came with a couple of other people.  They were from the Oklahoma Safety Council.  During our monthly safety meeting, many of us were presented with an award for rescuing Michael.  Even though my part in the rescue was rather small, I was very proud to have been recognized that day.  We were each given a plaque.  Here is mine:

Plaque given to me for my part in the rescue

Plaque given to me for my part in the rescue

Alan Kramer and Danny Cain had both been invited to Oklahoma City to receive their awards as they were directly involved in saving Michael’s life.  Here is the plaque that Alan was given:

Alan Kramer's Plaque for his Safety Award

Alan Kramer’s Plaque for his Safety Award

A plaque was also given to the plant from the Oklahoma Safety Council which as far as I know is still mounted by the office elevator on the first floor:

Plaque from the Oklahoma Safety Council

Plaque from the Oklahoma Safety Council

Michael said he wanted to thank each of us personally for rescuing him that day.  I shook his hand.  I told him that I was the one that was squeezing his legs so hard and tickling his feet.  I don’t think he remembered much of that moment.

I have a side story to this one and I wonder if this is the place to tell it.  I suppose so, as long as I keep it short….

A number of months after this incident occurred, I began to develop a sore throat on the right side of my throat.  I thought at first that it was Strep Throat because it hurt quite a lot.  I just waited around for it to either go away or develop into a full blown cold, so I didn’t do anything for a few months.  The pain was localized at one spot in my throat.

Then one day, my right ear began to hurt and I decided it was time to go see the doctor about it.  When I visited my family doctor, he took a throat culture and surprisingly it came back clean.  No strep throat.  I explained that it was a constant pain, and now it had moved up to my ear as well.  So, he sent me to Tulsa to an Ears Nose and Throat Doctor who was supposed to be real good.

When I went to him, after a couple of examinations, he came to the conclusion that I had a TMJ problem (TMJ is Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction).  So, he sent me to a TMJ person in Stillwater.  I went to him, and he x-rayed my head and gave me some medicine to try to stop the pain, but nothing worked.

At times the right side of my face would hurt real bad, and at work if we took the temperature gun and pointed it at the right side of my face, we would find that it was about 2 or 3 degrees colder than the left side.

I went to a good TMJ person in Enid Oklahoma, and he made a mouthpiece for me to wear which seemed to lower the number of times each day that I would feel intense pain up and down the right side of my face…. all along, the pain continued to get worse.

To make a longer story shorter, through the years, the pain continued to grow until each time (about 6 times each day) my head would hurt, it would hurt from the top of my head down to my throat on the right side.

I never knew for sure if this was a result of being kicked in the head during our struggle that day, along with a combination of a bad dentist in Stillwater named Doctor Moore who wrestled with my teeth one day to the point that I wanted to punch him back.  After going to many types of doctors (Neurologists, Endocrinologists, Oral Surgeons, etc) and dentists, having root canals, and medications and mouthpieces, nothing seemed to help.  The pain continued to grow.

I finally had a name for my condition after many years, my dad pointed out to me that according to my symptoms, in the Merck Manual, my condition would be called:  Trigeminal Neuralgia.  I told that to the Neurologist and he agreed.  There really wasn’t any treatment for it, only medication to cut down on the pain.

After 14 years, I decided I had taken enough pain medication and just decided to let the pain happen.  It would only last for 10 minutes at a time, and medication didn’t really help that much anyway.

This past summer the pain became so frequent that every hour I was having 10 minutes of terribly excruciating pain that was leaving me almost immobile.  So, I called the doctor to make and appointment.  I had decided that this was too unbearable.  On Tuesday, July 8, 2014 I called the doctor and made an appointment for July 17, the Thursday of the following week.  On July 10, the pain was so bad that for the first time since I had this pain, I actually stayed home from work because I was not able to get any sleep.

July 11, 2014, After sitting up all night in a chair, I prepared to go to work.  That morning, to my surprise, the pain had stopped coming every hour.  That day at work, I had no pain.  When I came home that evening, as I prepared to go out to dinner with my son Anthony, I felt the pain coming back.  Anthony could tell, so we just waited a few minutes, and it was over.  The pain wasn’t as harsh as it had been…..  That was the last time I ever had an attack of pain on my face.  It just went away and never came back.

It has now been over 6 months and I have not had one attack of pain on my face (With this repost, it has now been 5 years).  After 16 years of pain, it just went away in one day.  Could there have been a reason?  I think so… You see, my mom had been doing something on the side.  She had sent my name to a group to have them ask their founder to pray for me to God.

For years, my mom had supported a Catholic mission group called:  Pontifical Institute For Foreign Missions.  This organization was founded 164 years ago and the group was trying to have the Bishop who founded the Mission canonized as a Saint.  In order to do that, they needed to have at least three miracles associated with his intercessory prayers.  His name is  Bishop Angelo Ramazzotti.

Bishop Angelo Ramazzotti

Bishop Angelo Ramazzotti

What this means is, that as a group, we ask that (pray to) Bishop Angelo Ramazzotti (who we believe is in Heaven with Jesus) ask Jesus to heal us (or something miraculous for a good cause).  If the person (me, in this case) appears to have been miraculously and instantly healed, then an investigation is done to determine if it can be certified as a miracle.

If three such miracles have been certified after intercessory prayers have been asked of Bishop Angelo, then he could be Canonized as a Saint.  To be Canonized means that he is more or less “Recognized” as someone that is in Heaven with God.  It doesn’t mean in anyway that everyone in heaven has to be canonized.  It just means that if you want to ask a Saint in Heaven to pray for you to God, then you can be pretty darn sure, this guy is good friends with God.  Just like asking your own family to pray for you.  You would be more inclined to ask someone that you know is more “Holy” if you really need to see some results.

Well, that is what my mom had done the week before the pain suddenly went away.

If the pain that I had for the past 16 years was caused in part by the kick in the head in 1995, and this condition I had is somehow used to help Canonize Bishop Angelo Ramazzotti, then I am glad to have been a part of it.  All along, I figured that something good would come out of all that pain, I just never imagined what that might be.  Now that it’s gone, it’s sort of like missing an old friend…. only….. NOT.

Sometimes it just takes a good kick in the head to get things moving.

Power Plant Birthday Phantom

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 Kramer

Our Foreman Alan Kramer

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.”

Jim Kanelakos in in the middle in the back (third from the left) with the red plaid shirt standing behind Vonzell Lynn

Wayne Cranford is front and center on one knee between David Evans and John Costello

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:

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

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.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

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.

 

Novell's Groupwise

Novell’s Groupwise

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 Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left standing next to Jim Cave in the Jean Jacket.

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.

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

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.

Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

Darlene Mitchell, a dear friend of the Birthday Phantom

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.

Birthday Phantom Code

Page 1 of the Birthday Phantom Code

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.

Power Plant Spider in the Eye

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.

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

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

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.

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

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.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my 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:

A spider almost like this

A spider almost like this

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.

Corporate Executive Kent Norris Meets Power Plant Men

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.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

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.

SAP Logo

SAP Logo

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.

 

Pen Cap used by Corporate Executives

Pen Cap used by Corporate Executives

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.

Mike Gibbs

Mike Gibbs

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:

 

Windows Popup in Windows 3.2

Windows Popup in Windows 3.2

I had noticed that Kent often talked to the admin for Dennis Dunkelgod, a manager over the Telecommunications team.

 

Dennis Dunkelgod

Dennis Dunkelgod

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.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

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 Beasley

Wayne Beasley

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!

Google Image of Large Sombrero

Google Image of Large Sombrero

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:

 

Power Plant Silly String

Power Plant 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:

Note I received from Kent after I returned home to our power plant

Note I received from Kent after I returned home to our power plant

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:

Tootle the Power Plant Coal Train

Tootle the Power Plant Coal Train.  See the coal spilling out?

Toby Teaches Power Plant Time Management

Sometime in December, 2000 Dell flew a group of Oklahoma State University students to Austin along with students from all over the country to interview for jobs.  During one interview I had with a manager named Lisa Larson, she asked me how I would handle situations where I am asked to do too many things at the same time.  I replied that I don’t ever worry about that.  I have found that by managing my time properly, I never find myself in a situation where I don’t have enough time or I feel overwhelmed.

Of course, I could see the look of disbelief, since she worked for Dell, and had experienced an overload of work beyond what normal humans can endure.  I knew that the answer she was waiting to hear was that I would prioritize my tasks and do the more important ones or those tasks that had to be completed right away first.  Instead I choose to tell her about Toby O’Brien, a Power Plant Engineer.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

You can see the confidence Toby demonstrates in the picture above.  He is so confident he doesn’t even use a Pocket Protector.  None of his pens ever leak.

I didn’t use Toby’s name during the interview.  Instead I opened up the large briefcase I was carrying with me and took out my Time Management Planner:

My Day Runner Time Management Planner

My Day Runner Time Management Planner

In August 1998 Toby mentioned to me that the staff at the plant had taken a course in how to manage their time.  The core object in the course was using a rather sophisticated planner.  You see, there aren’t just regular calendars in a planner, there are note pages you can use during meetings, weekly pages, and daily pages.  A place to keep your contacts.  Even a section to keep business cards.  I think my favorite section was a place to just write down ideas.  The header at the top of the page was “Ideas”.

I had just started a new semester at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma and I was ramping up the number of courses I was taking simultaneously, while working full time.  I had told Toby that I was determined not reduce the time I spent with my children in the evenings, so I had to figure out how to complete all my course work on time, and not let it interfere with the rest of my day.

Toby explained that the first thing you do in the morning is that you write down in the daily planner section everything that you will be doing that day, and what time you will be doing it.  Then as much as possible, you stick to that plan.  When you are doing one task, you don’t have to worry about all the other things you have to accomplish during the day, because you know when you will be working on them, so it allows you to focus on your task at hand.

He even was going so far as not taking phone calls or would ask to call them back when he was available when he was working on a task and then would schedule some time to call the person back.

Toby spent a good hour or so showing me how he used his daily planner.  The company was even paying for the additional sheets they used in the planners.  So, that evening I went to Office Depot and purchased my Day Runner planner with extra sections that I thought would be helpful.

At the time, I was driving back and forth between Stillwater and the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, usually twice each day, as I would leave at certain times to take a class, then drive back to work afterward, using an hour and a half of vacation as well as the half hour for lunch as I would eat on the way.

So, what would a typical Power Plant Planner look like for any particular day for someone working in the Maintenance Department?  Well, if the Power Plant Man was really proactive, and wrote everything down, then it may look something like this….

  1. Turn off the Alarm… scratch behind…. scratch bald spot on head… kiss wife on cheek…. climb out of bed….
  2. Gather clean clothes from dresser, and any supplement clothes needed from the hamper…. take shower…. brush teeth… shave.
  3. Eat a hearty breakfast – for tonight we dine in hell!… (oh… sorry… that’s not Power Plant Men.. That’s Spartans… close, but different).
  4. Make some sandwiches for lunch or use leftovers from last night’s dinner and put them in the lunch box.

    Power Plant Lunch Box

    Power Plant Lunch Box

  5.  Just before exiting the house, put on the steel-toed boots airing out just inside the garage.

    Steel Toed Boots

    Steel Toed Boots

  6. Drive the car to the carpooling location…. Pile into one car with everyone else…. Drive to plant while discussing the latest hunting and fishing adventures.
  7. After arriving at the plant 15 minutes early, sit around and drink a cup of coffee with the rest of the crew while waiting for the morning meeting to begin… Pass along any words of wisdom that suddenly popped up in the shower that morning to the rest of the crew…. Listen to some of their dumb ideas and act as if they are taken seriously while still trying to work out the terrific ideas of your own.  Chuckle at the minor “your fly is open” type jokes being played on each other.
  8. Attend the morning team meeting and receive the jobs that need to be completed that day.  Listen to the latest Power Plant Jokes played the previous day and share some that were entered in the planner that might be useful today.
  9. Leave the meeting with your bucket buddy and begin work.

    My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

    My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien (not related to Toby O’Brien)

  10. Gather tools needed for job… Get any supplies needed from the tool room.  Talk to the tool room attendant.

    Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

    Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

  11. Go to the Control Room to obtain any clearances needed to perform tasks… talk to the control room operators about their day… Play a joke on Gene Day.

    Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

    Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

  12. Take the first break while waiting for the clearances to be put on the breakers in the switchgear.
  13. Play dominoes… Trump… or Uno during break as a team building activity. Accuse others of cheating.

    Dominoes

    Dominoes

  14. Check Breaker after break and sign clearance form…. Ask the operator how his day is going…. then perform the job safely…. dispose of any trash generated during the job.  Bandage any cuts and rub any bruises that may have been created during the job.
  15. Return clearance…. talk to the control room operators some more.  Give Gene Day suspicious glances.
  16. Strut through maintenance shop with confidence while going to the office to ask which job to do next since the first job was completed flawlessly and sooner than expected.
  17. Continue steps 10, 11 and 12 until it is time for lunch.
  18. Go to the regular lunch spot and talk to friends and learn the latest gossip and play more Dominoes, Trump or Uno (or backgammon).

    Uno Card Game

    Uno Card Game

  19. Repeat the same activities during the afternoon with the exception that a closer watch is kept on the nearest watch or clock.
  20. Take afternoon break at the same table as morning break playing the same game as before with the same people as before…

    Power Plant Playing Cards

    Power Plant Playing Cards

  21. Return to work magically fixing equipment paying even more attention to the time.
  22. Migrate to the Foreman’s office 30 minutes before “Quittin’ Time” to fill out time card.  Call each other any new names that were thought up during the day (what I would call, “Terms of Endearment”).  Play small minor jokes on teammates while completing the time card.
  23. Wait until the exact time before leaving the shop and returning to the car in the parking lot.
  24. Ride back to town with the rest of the dirty smelly Power Plant Carpoolers…. talk about any frustrating encounters from the day’s work…. Discuss any news from Corporate Headquarters designed to confuse Power Plant Men…. Fall asleep… snore….dream about the day…. wake up just as the car arrives at the carpooling spot.
  25. Climb into your own car and go home.
  26. Leave dirty smelly boots in the garage…. take off dirty shirt and pants and put them directly in the washing machine…

    Yeah. Just like this

    Yeah. these

  27. Take a shower….kiss wife… hug kids….(kick annoying cat when no one’s looking)… tell the wife about the day…. listen to wife talk about her day….eat supper.

That just about does it.  I found it a little difficult to put all that in the daily planner, especially since it was the same every day, except for when we had emergencies, and I couldn’t plan for those, unless they were part of a planned Power Plant Joke made to look like an emergency.

Anyway, back to Toby…If it hadn’t been for Toby teaching me Time Management, I would have had a much tougher time going to school while working at the same time.  I was able to keep my three worlds apart without them interfering with each other (except for all the driving back and forth).

I almost never did my school work while I was at work, and I didn’t do them at home either unless I had to write a paper on the computer.  So, I spent my evenings with my family… then I woke up at 4:00 each morning and went to the University and found a quiet place to do my homework before going to class and driving out to work.

After 4 years I graduated with a 4.0 grade point in the Business College with an MIS degree (Management Information Systems).  That was when I was hired by Dell.  I will go into the details about that in another post.

For now I just want to thank Toby for introducing me to the idea that managing your time properly can make a world of a difference.  If you noticed in the picture of the planner above, I haven’t used it since 2002.  That’s because new technologies came around that changed the way we manage our time.

Today at work I use Outlook to capture all my scheduled activities.  Microsoft Project can be used to assign tasks with a duration that tells you how long the task should take.  Another Microsoft tool OneNote is a big help for just taking notes and organizing your work.

So, even though I no longer have to buy pages for the Day Runner Planner each year, I still have the concept in my mind that while I am working on one task, I shouldn’t need to worry about another one because I have scheduled time during my day to work on those.  So I can concentrate on the task at hand.  By doing that, you never had the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Lisa Larson, who was interviewing me from Dell didn’t look too convinced when I showed her my Day Runner Planner, but I was offered the job anyway.  I don’t think it was because I had good time management skills… I think it had more to do with the fact that I had worked so many years with “True Power Plant Men and Women” that it was hopeful that some of their genuine concern for others and their attitude of dedication had rubbed off on me.

Power Plant Control Room Operator and the Life of Pi

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.

Chuck Crabtree, Bill Epperson and Jim Cave (from right to left)

Chuck Crabtree, Bill Epperson and Jim Cave (from left to right)

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:

Eddie Hickman and Jim Cave

Eddie Hickman and Jim Cave

Jim Cave and Bill Hoffman

Jim Cave and Bill Hoffman

Yipes. Notice how comfortable Jim is standing between Gene Day and Joe Gallahar

Yipes. Notice how comfortable Jim is standing between Gene Day and Joe Gallahar?  Joe.  Is that a Mandolin?

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.

a VAX server

a VAX server

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.

OSIsoft software called PI

OSIsoft software 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.

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Jim Cave with Allen Moore standing in the control room

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.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

A young picture of Gary Wright in the front row with Glasses and red hair. Oh, and Gene Day in the Orange Shirt… finally wearing some decent pants.

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.

Bill Green

Bill Green

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…

Jim Cave manning the Control Room Computers

Jim Cave manning the Control Room Computers

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.