Originally Posted on April 7, 2012:
My wife came home from work one night in the early 90’s. She was a charge nurse at the Stillwater Oklahoma Medical Center at the time. She said that she was taking care of a patient that was one of the mostly saintly people she had ever met. He was going to die soon and she thought I might know who he was because he used to work at the Power Plant.
When she gave me his name I was surprised to learn that he was on his deathbed, and yes. I did know him. I agreed with her. He is and always had been a saintly person. The funny thing was that I felt that very few people really knew him as I did. Many people knew him enough to not think he would be classified in the “Saint” category, and I knew why this was also. I knew him so well quite by chance when I first came to the plant, and I made a decision about how to answer a common question that was being asked of me at the time.
As a summer help it was known that I was a college student, so the obvious question was, why was I going to school, and what did I want to be when I graduated. I could tell this was a rowdy bunch of men that enjoyed their day at work, and so I told them that I wasn’t sure yet what my degree would be, but I thought I might like to become a writer. I told them this hoping that they would bite where I could set the hook (in a fisherman sort of way), and they did.
The first person that asked me that question was Sonny Karcher, and when I told him that I thought I might be a writer, he took the bait and asked, “Are you going to write about us?” At the time, I had no plans about doing that, but I thought if they thought so, then they might fill my ears with the unique wisdom each of them seemed to have. So I answered, “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it, but I suppose I might.”
That’s all it took. After that, every time Sonny introduced me to somebody, he would say, “This is Kevin. He’s our new summer help. He’s going to college to be a writer, and he’s going to write all about us!” This produced the behavior I was hoping it would. That was that a number of Power Plant Men took me “under their wing” and bestowed upon me their own particular wisdom. For hours on end, as I worked with various men, they would tell me how things are in the world and how I should respond to them. Their own particular Philosophy Of Life.
At the time I really had not considered writing about my experiences at the power plant, but now that I am much older and the wisdom of these great men seem to be dying away, I thought that it would be a good idea to put these out there on the Internet where nothing ever really goes away.
I have refrained from mentioning the name of this Unlikely Saint until now because I think that if I mentioned it up front some Power Plant Men would read it and think I was just tremendously off my rocker and not read any further. So I prefaced my story with how I came to know this particular Power Plant Man enough to understand what my wife was saying when she told me about this Saint on the general medical (3rd) floor of the hospital.
Maybe I will refrain just a little while longer to tell you a few things that this man told me. It was obvious that he felt as if he was talking to me as a father would talk to a son. He was only two years younger than my own father. The one thing that sticks in my mind most is when he told me, “Kev, some day you may be a foreman or a supervisor running this plant, but always remember this…. Never forget where you came from. Never forget that there was a time when you first began and knew nothing. Don’t ever forget your friends. Don’t forget who you really are.” I have reminded myself of this often and made it part of my own “Philosophy of Life”. Years later when I became an electrician, he stopped by the electric shop and reminded me once again.
As an Aside comment, my mother tried to help me with this by referring to me as “My Son, The Janitor” when introducing me to someone for years after I had become an electrician. I was always proud to be called a janitor, and I would not try to correct her, because even though I was an electrician, I knew inside that I was also still a janitor. Today, even though my title may be “Business Systems Analyst” working for Dell (and now Senior Software Engineer working for General Motors), I also still carry around in the back of my head the title of “Janitor”.
I wish I had a picture to share of this Power Plant Man (I have one somewhere, but I am not able to find it just now), because if you could see him, you would think… this guy?
His skin was darkened from smoking so heavily all his life. Emphysema is what killed him while he was still relatively young. His belly grew over the years to become larger than his stocky barrel chest. His head nodded while he listened to you and especially when managers were talking as if he was laughing to himself because he knew what they were really saying. His clothes were always clean, which left everyone with the impression that he never did any work.
I remember one day while we were inspecting the dumper (where the coal is dumped out of the railway cars), as it had not been in-service for very long and everything needed to be inspected. I followed him down the stairway into the dumper going down into the darkness. There were lights down there, but they didn’t give off much light because the coal dust absorbs the light instead of reflecting it. So, you can shine a flashlight and it doesn’t fill the room with its glow as it might in a room painted with white paint. To me the place was eerily unreal until I had been down there enough times to keep my bearings on where we were going.
Anyway, I followed him down into the dark damp dumper where every handrail, every light fixture and every step was covered with coal dust. We had some wrenches and we were tight checking the rollers on the conveyors. When we were finished we found ourselves at the ground level exit of #2 Conveyor. I looked at this Power Plant Man and he didn’t have spot of coal on him. I, on the other hand, was black from top to bottom. My hardhat was black, my arms, my face, my jeans. All black with coal dust.
Then this Power Plant Man told me some more words from the wise…. “When you get to be good, you will remain as clean as I am.” This had as much impact on me as when Master Po told Kwai Chang Caine (In the Kung Fu TV series) that when he can walk on the rice paper and not leave a trace, then he will be a Shaolin Monk.
It seemed impossible to me that he could have worked right alongside me, actually doing more work than I was doing, and he came out pristine while I came out looking like a bat out of hell (or Pigpen times ten). But there it was.
So, for years whenever I worked in a coal handling area, his words always rang in my mind. I considered it a challenge. I realized that there were times when it would be impossible to come out clean, like when you are sandblasting a tank, or working inside the Precipitator wading through fly ash up to your waist. But when doing my regular job, I made a real effort to remain as clean as possible.
It made me happy to think that others might think that I wasn’t working hard enough to be in the True Power Plant Man League because my clothes were clean, because to me, it was a tribute to my own Shaolin Master…. Jerry Mitchell. Yes. Power Plant Men…. Jerry Mitchell.
Before Jerry came to work at the power plant, he used to work on jet engines. Like many genuine Power Plant Men, he was a leader in the field of mechanics. I have a list as long as my arm of great men that work as Power Plant Men that are each near the top of the list of experts in their fields of knowledge. Jerry was one of them.
He built the engine in the blue corvette that he used to drive to work each day. He machined the parts himself. It could go from 0 to 80 and back to 0 from the main gate to the highway — how many yards is that? 200 yards maybe 300 He demonstrated it once to me. He was wondering if I was interested in buying it because he knew I didn’t own a car.
I think that I realized the true character of Power Plant Men from Jerry, because he had very little tolerance for those impostors that hung around Power Plant Men looking for a way to belittle them, or spread rumors to hurt their reputations, etc. because nothing bothers a pseudo-He-man like a True Power Plant Man, because it is like turning on a bright light and watching the roaches scurry away. Jerry could tell their character a mile away.
I will give you a “for instance”… One day as we pulled the truck up to the Maintenance Shop, Jerry told me to follow him and not say anything, just listen, because I was going to be shocked by the conversation that was about to take place. I wondered how he knew as I walked up to an older coal yard foreman approaching a lady who was a Brown and Root construction hand (you could tell by the hardhat).
So I stood next to the man and listened. He asked her how her night was last night and she began by describing the time she spent in a bar and she repeated the conversation she had with a man that was trying to pick her up. Without going into too much detail, I will say that she ended the conversation with the man in the bar by saying that she was looking for a meal, not a snack, and proceeded to talk about another man in the bar and how she could tell that he was the kind of man she was looking for in more than descriptive terms.
She finished by telling the older man that the man she left with and her had a “Jolly good time” (my words, not hers) for at least 4 hours non-stop with more than enough details thrown in. The older man was amused and hee-hawed about it slapping his knee in amusement.
Jerry nodded to me and we left. We walked outside of the shop and Jerry asked me, “Have you ever heard anyone talk like that before, let alone a lady?” I admitted that I hadn’t. Then he said, “That man that she was talking to is her father.”
I was thoroughly shocked and greatly disturbed. I had just heard a flowing river of filth spew from this person’s mouth as she was talking to her own father, and his response was to be amused by it. When Jerry told me this I looked at him in shock, and he looked back at me with his head nodding as it did often. His face had the regular straight poker face he usually wore, but his eyes told me that he was very saddened by this. He said he felt it was important for me to know.
I have often kept that poor old man and his lost soul of a daughter in my prayers. This man worked in the plant until the 1987-88 downsizing. Whenever I would see him working in the coal yard, I would remember that I needed to add him and his daughter to my prayers.
So in ending I will say this about Jerry Mitchell, as I say with all the True Power Plant Men I know. I have always considered Jerry a good friend. Jerry was always a good friend to me, and I know that he is a Saint in Heaven today. He never spoke a religious word in the years that I knew him, but I know that his large barrel chest held a tremendous heart.
When I think of Jerry today, I remember riding to Stillwater with him in his blue Corvette. As we drove by a row of trees in a creek bottom he suddenly said, “What is that noise? Do I hear Cicadas?” I said, “Yeah, sounds like it.” He replied, “I haven’t heard Cicada in years! After working around Jet engines for so long I could no longer hear the sound of bugs. My hearing is returning!” That was the only time I saw Jerry’s expression change from his constant straight face to a smile of satisfaction. I am 100% sure by the time Jerry made it to Heaven he was able to hear the harps very clearly.
Originally posted September 14, 2012:
I found out soon after I arrived at the Coal-fired power plant in Oklahoma the first summer I worked as a summer help that Safety was Job Number One. I was given a hard hat and safety glasses the first day I was there, and I watched a safety film on how to lift with my legs and not with my back. I thought the hard hat made me look really cool. Especially with the safety glasses that looked like someone wore as a scientist during the 1950s. Dark and square.
I used to keep a pair with me when I went back to school. When I was a senior at the University of Missouri, Columbia, while working at the Bakery on Broadway, I kept a pair with me at all times, along with a hat that I had stol…um…. borrowed from my dad and always forgot to return. (In fact, I still have that hat to this day).
That way, whenever someone suspected who I was, I would put on my glasses and hat and people would think I was Clark Kent. Anyway…. I diverse. I never thought about it being an Inspector Clouseau hat until one winter morning in the parking lot at the plant Louise Gates (later Louise Kalicki) called me Inspector Clouseau.
The yellow hard hat made me confident that I was part of the blue collar working class. Hard hats have a suspension system in them that make them look like it is riding too high on your head. You soon get used to it, but for the first couple of weeks I kept bumping into things because my hardhat made me taller than I was used to being.
This is this because of this great suspension system that causes the hat to ride so high on someone’s head. I learned about this not long after I arrived and Marlin McDaniel the A Foreman at the time told me to sort out of bunch of large steel chokers (or slings) in a wooden shack just inside the Maintenance shop by the door to the office elevator.
While I was bending over picking up the chokers (I mean…. While I was lifting with my legs and not my back…) and hanging them on pegs I suddenly found myself laying on the ground. At first I wasn’t sure what had happened because I hadn’t felt anything and it happened so fast. It seemed that my legs had just buckled under me.
I soon realized that one of the large chokers that I had just hung on a peg a couple of feet above my head had fallen off and struck me square in the middle of the hard hat. I was surprised by the force of the cable and how little I had felt. I became a true believer in wearing my hardhat whenever I was working. The steel rope had left a small gash across the hardhat that remained as a reminder to me of the importance of wearing my hardhat at all times.
Larry Riley used to comment to me that I didn’t need to wear it when we were in the truck driving somewhere. Especially when I was sitting in the middle in the back seat of the crew cab and it made it hard for him to see anything through the rear view mirror other than a yellow hard hat sticking up to the top of the cab.
During my first summer at the plant (1979), I did witness how easy it was for someone to hurt their back. I mean… really hurt their back. I was helping to carry a very large 30 foot long section of a wooden extension ladder. There were four of us. Each on one corner. I know that Tom Dean was behind me carrying one side of the back end. I believe that Ben Hutchinson and Aubrey Cargill were on the other side of the ladder.
As we were walking through the shop, Tom stepped on the floor drain just outside of the A Foreman’s office. The drain cover was missing and a wooden piece of plywood had been put in its place to cover the hole.
Large equipment had driven over the plywood and it was smashed down into the drain making a slight indention in the middle of the floor.
When Tom stepped on the piece of wood, he lost his balance, and ended up spinning himself around as he tried to remain holding onto the ladder. By doing this, he became slightly twisted, and at once he was in terrible pain. Back pain. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this one event was a critical turning point in Tom Dean’s career at the power plant. He was pretty well out the rest of the summer recuperating from the back injury.
The next summer when I returned to the plant, Tom was working in the tool room. Obviously a step down from being a mechanic. He was also very unhappy. You could tell by looking at him that he had lost the proud expression that he had wore the summer before.
I don’t remember how long Tom worked at the plant after that. I just know that it really made me sad to see someone’s life deteriorate during the snapshots that I had in my mind from the summer before to when I returned to see a man tortured not only by back pain, but by a feeling of inadequate self worth. Hurting your back is one of the most common and most serious injuries in an industrial setting. It is definitely a life changing event.
There were other tragedies during my time as a summer help and they didn’t necessarily have to do with something dangerous at work. One summer there was a young man working in the warehouse and tool room. His name was Bill Engleking (thanks Fred. I didn’t remember his name in the original post). The next summer I asked where he had gone, and I learned that one morning he had woke up and found that he had become completely blind. It turned out that he had a very serious case of diabetes. The sugar levels in his blood had reached such dangerous levels that it destroyed his optic nerves overnight.
Then there was one of the Electricians, Bill Ennis. He would say that he was “Blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other one.” He was actually blind in one eye completely, and the other eye he was color blind. So, what he said was actually true.
It happened on occasion that people visiting the plant would be seriously hurt. Everyone at the plant was trained in first aid, and Power Plant Men, being the way that they are, are always willing to do whatever it takes to help someone out in time of trouble.
One day during lunch, a man came to the plant to fill the unleaded gas tank on the side of the garage in front of the warehouse. While he was reaching over the PTO (Power Take Off), His shirt sleeve caught in the spinning PTO shaft and broke his arm.
I remember Mickey Postman explaining what happened. His crew was eating lunch in the garage when they heard someone yelling for help. When they ran out to see what had happened, they found the man tied up in the PTO with one bone from his arm sticking straight out in the air. They quickly took care of him and treated him for shock as they waited for the Ambulance from Ponca City to arrive.
It is times like this that you wish would never happen, but you are glad that you had first aid training and you know what to do. This person could easily have died from this injury if not for the quick action of Mickey Postman and the rest of his crew. I believe other Power Plant Men that were there to help was Dale Mitchell, George Alley, Don Timmons and Preston Jenkins. Mickey would know for sure. I’ll leave it up to him to remind me.
I have illustrated these tragic events to demonstrate the importance of making Safety Job Number One. The Power Plant Men didn’t have to be told by a safety video to know how important it was. They all knew examples of tragedies such as these.
Each month the plant would have the Monthly Safety Meeting, and every Monday morning each crew would have their own safety meeting. Safety pamphlets would be read, safety videos would be watched. Campaigns would be waged to re-emphasize the importance of proper lifting techniques. Everyone in the plant had to take the Defensive Driving course.
The last summer I worked as a summer help in 1982 was the first summer that everyone was required to take the Defensive Driving course. The course was being given by Nancy Brien, Nick Gleason and Ken Couri. We learned a lot of defensive driving slogans like, “Is the Pass really necessary?” “Slow down, ride to the right, ride off the road” (when an emergency vehicle is approaching), “Use the Two Second Rule” (Only, I think it was 3 seconds at that time). “Do a Circle For Safety” etc….
My friend Tim Flowers and another summer help were carpooling during that time and we made signs with those slogans on them. Then when we were driving home in my little Honda Civic, we would hold one of those signs up in the back window so that the Power Plant person that was following us home (Usually Dick Dale and Mike Gibbs) would wonder what it said, and would pull up closer to read the sign, and it would say, “Use the 3 second rule”, or “If you can read this, you are too close”.
That was when I began wearing my seat belt all the time. Before that, it was not common for people to wear seat belts. They only had the lap belt before that, and those weren’t the safest things in the world. Especially since they would get lost inside the seat. I attribute the Defensive Driving Course that I took while I was a summer help at the plant for my safe record as a driver. There were a number of tips that I learned then, that I still use all the time today.
There is one advantage to wearing a hardhat that I didn’t realize until I left the power plant in 2001. It is that you never have to worry about hair loss on the top of your head. Whenever you are outside at the plant, you always wear your hardhat and safety glasses. When I changed jobs to become a software developer at Dell, I would find that just by walking down the street in the neighborhood in Texas, I would quickly develop a sunburn on the top of my head.
During the years of wearing a hardhat, I may have been losing my hair, but it never occurred to me. Not until I had a sunburn on the top of my head. I wondered at times if people would look at me funny if I showed up for work in my cubicle at Dell (when we had cubicles) wearing a yellow hardhat. Oh, and a pair of super stylish safety glasses like those shown at the top of this post.
You know when you are young, and I’m sure this has happened to all of you at one point in your life, you dream that you get off of the school bus at your school in the morning only to find that you are still wearing your pajamas. — Yeah. I thought you would remember that one. Well. I still have dreams of showing up at my desk job wearing a hardhat and safety glasses. I don’t realize it until I lift my hardhat up to wipe the sweat off of my brow, then I quickly look around to see if anyone noticed as I stuff the hardhat under the desk.
Comment from previous post:
Jack Curtis January 22, 2014:
The safety meetings, Defensive Driving, safety glasses… it was the same way for telephone men, too. And they jumped in whenever there were problems as well. It is striking to me, to see the differences in attitudes from one generation to another…
Originally Posted on September 21, 2012:
Not long after I became a full time Power Plant employee after I had moved from being a janitor to the labor crew in 1983, I began carpooling with 3 other Power Plant employees. An Electrician, Bill Rivers. A Chemist, Yvonne Taylor, and one of the new members of the Testing team, Rich Litzer. With such a diverse group, you can only imagine the types of topics that were discussed driving to and from work each day.
Bill Rivers usually talked about different absurdities that he encountered during his day as an electrician. How one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing, leading sometimes to very funny results. Yvonne Taylor would talk about her farm and something called School Land Lease that she farmed, and how she had to deal with the bureaucracy and the constantly changing laws. Rich Litzer would discuss how their newly formed team were learning new things at the plant and often had funny things to say about his encounters during the day.
Me? Occasionally I would lift up my head from the book I was reading (if I wasn’t the driver), and ask, “Would anyone like to hear about the training that we received from Johnson & Johnson about how to properly wax a floor using their top of the line wax, ShowPlace?” that didn’t usually jump to the top of the list of most interesting stories.
We did use ShowPlace wax by Johnson and Johnson, and they did send a representative to our plant to teach us backward Oklahoma hick janitors how to properly care for our plain tile hallways and offices. Not the fancy tile like they have these days. If you are over 50 years old, then it is probably the same type of tile that you had on the floors of your school if you went to the standard brick public elementary school like the one I used to attend.
The office area floors were sure shiny after we applied a healthy dose of ShowPlace on them. The Johnson and Johnson rep. taught us how to properly buff the floor and showed us how a properly buffed floor that was really shiny was actually less slick than a badly waxed floor.
Anyway, I digress. Waxing floors is usually something that I tend to ramble about when I have an audience that shows interest in it (which I’m still trying to find). Since I can’t see your expression, I can only suspect that you would like to hear more about Power Plant floor waxing techniques, so I just might indulge you later on in this post after I have talked about the three other people in the car.
When it was my turn to drive to work, everyone had to climb into my 1982 Honda Civic:
Bill Rivers was about 10 years younger than my father and I know he had at least 6 children (I think). Maybe more. He told me once that even he lost count. Before he came to work at the Power Plant, he lived in Columbia, Missouri (while I had lived there, coincidentally), and worked at a Tool and Die manufacturing plant.
He worked so much overtime that one day he came home and sat down to eat dinner and sitting across from him at the table was a young boy that he didn’t recognize. He figured that he was a friend one of his own kids had invited to supper, so he asked him, “What’s your name?” Come to find out, it was one of his own children.
Bill had spent so little time at home that he didn’t even recognize his own child because his children were growing up and he was missing it. Mainly because he worked so much overtime. That was when Bill decided to move to Oklahoma and go to work at the power plant. Probably at the same time when I had moved to work there also, and was still going back to Columbia to finish college before becoming a full fledged bona-fide Power plant Janitor.
Bill Rivers always seemed to be having fun, and usually at the expense of someone else. He was constantly playing jokes on someone, and his most common target was Sonny Kendrick, the Electrical Specialist. Sonny was somewhat gullible, and so, Bill would weave some very complicated stories together to draw Sonny’s attention and string it along until Sonny was totally believing something preposterous.
Sonny wasn’t gullible like Curtis Love was gullible. Sonny knew that Bill Rivers was always trying to pull something over on him. So, Bill would just see how far along he could string Sonny until Sonny realized that everything Bill was saying was just made up in his head. — Then Bill Rivers would spend the rest of the week chuckling about it. Which usually aggravated Sonny to no end.
Sonny Kendrick was the only Electrical Specialist at the plant. I suppose he had some electronics training that allowed him to hold that honored position. His real name is Franklin Floyd Kendrick. I first met Sonny when I was the janitor for the Electric Shop.
People would call him “Baby Huey”. Since I didn’t know who Baby Huey was, I just figured that it was some character that reminded them of Sonny. So, when I had the opportunity, I looked up Baby Huey (this was a number of years before the Internet). I still wasn’t sure why, unless they were talking about a different Baby Huey:
Bill Rivers had a son that was in High School at the time, and he had the same Algebra teacher that my brother Greg had when he was trying to learn Algebra. The teacher had a real problem teaching algebra to high school students, and Bill asked me if I would tutor his son in Algebra.
When I first met Bill’s son, (I think his name was either Jerard or Bryan, I don’t remember now – well, that’s not too surprising considering even Bill Rivers forgot his name once), his life ambition was to graduate from High School and work as a mechanic in an auto garage and drive motorcycles. I tried to show him how interesting and fun Algebra and Math in general could be, so each time I went to meet with him, I would bring him either a math puzzle or a book with a story about a mathematician, or a neat Mathematical oddity… such as imaginary numbers, and things like that.
Later, long after Bill had moved to another Power Plant in Konawa, Oklahoma, I saw Bill, and he told me that he his son was working toward becoming a dentist. I don’t know if he was ever able to fulfill his dream, but when I visit Oklahoma, I keep my eye out for a guy on a motorcycle with a Dentist symbol on the back of his Harley Davidson jacket. Because that would probably be him.
Anyway, while the four of us were carpooling together, the person that did the most talking was Yvonne Taylor. Now, I like Yvonne Taylor. I liked her a lot. But she was the main reason why I was never able to practice my Ramblin’ Ann rambles (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space With a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“) because she was usually in the midst of exercising her right to ramble as well.
Since she was my elder, (almost my mother’s age), I always let her go first, which usually meant there wasn’t much of a chance for anyone to go second. I finally just decided this would be a great time to read. So I started reading books about different sorts of religions around the world. With the Bhagavad Gita being one of my favorite ones.
I always had a certain attraction to Yvonne, because she had a son named Kevin (which is my name), and a daughter named Kelley (My girlfirend’s name at the time was Kelly, now she is my wife). And her son and daughter were about the same age as my future wife and I were.
In the midst of rambles emanating from Yvonne, I would look up every time I would hear, “Kelley said this, or Kevin said that….” She did say one thing one time that I have always remembered and I have tried to follow. Yvonne said that you never want to buy a house that is West of the place where you work. Especially if it is any distance away.
I believe it was when she lived in Michigan, she had to drive a long way East every day, and the sun was glaring in her eyes all the way to work. Then when she had to drive home going West in the evening, the sun was glaring in her eyes as it was going down. So, when you live West of your workplace, you have to drive with the sun in your eyes every day, both ways, and you just pray and pray for rain or at least a cloudy day.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Yvonne’s husband, Pat, had a dad with last name Taylor (obviously), and his mom’s Maiden Name was Songer. My Grandmother’s last name is Taylor (by marriage), and my wife Kelly has a Grandmother who’s maiden name was Songer. So there was that as well.
Unfortunately for Yvonne, was that by the time we arrived at the plant in the morning, she was usually slightly hoarse. I don’t know if it was the morning air… or maybe… it could have possibly been the rambling…. So, when she would have to page someone on the PA system (The Gaitronics Gray Phone), she sounded a little bit like the wicked witch. Just like some clothes can cause someone to look fatter than other clothes, the Gray Phone system had a tendency to make one’s voice more “tinny” than it actually is. Especially if your voice is hoarse, and high pitched already.
So, whenever I heard Yvonne paging someone and I was in the Electric shop or with the janitor crew, I would say, “Yvonne just has the sexiest voice I’ve ever heard. I can’t hardly Stand it!!” Those who were hearing me for the first time would give me a look like I must be crazy. And Well… who knows for sure. I think the Electricians knew for sure.
Rich Litzer lived just up the street from me, so I would drive by his house and pick him up, or I would park my car at his house and we would take his car, and we would meet Bill Rivers and Yvonne Taylor at the local Bowling Alley, since it was on the main drag out of town on Washington Street in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Rich was a great guy to carpool with because he usually had a lighthearted story to tell about something that happened at home, or we would talk about something else equally not serious. Later he was relocated downtown in Corporate Headquarters, and I didn’t see him for a long time.
Then one day, Rich and Ron Madron came down to Austin, Texas (where I live now) after I had moved down to work for Dell, to go to a school or conference, and I was able to meet them for dinner. That was the last time I saw Rich or Ron, and that was about 9 or 10 years ago (now 16 years).
At this point I was going to rambl… I mean…. talk more about how we used to wax the floor when I was a janitor, however, I have decided to leave that for another post “Wax On, Wax Off and other Power Plant Janitorial Secrets“.
Today when I finally found out that the post I was going to write was about my carpooling with Bill Rivers, Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer, I went to the Internet and looked up the latest news on my old friends. To my surprise, I found that Yvonne’s husband Patrick, died on September 12, just 9 days ago.
I don’t think I ever met Patrick in person, however, I used to hear about his daily activities for the 2 1/2 years from October 1982 through December 1985 when I used to carpool with Yvonne. Learning about Patrick’s death has saddened me because I know how much Yvonne loved and cared for Patrick. I know she has four sons and two daughters that are there to comfort her. I offer Yvonne my condolences and I wish her all the best.
Comment from Previous Post:
Originally Posted on February 15, 2013:
My first job, where I wasn’t working for myself, was when I was 14 years old and I became a dishwasher in a German Restaurant called Rhinelanders in Columbia Missouri. It felt good feeding dishes through the dishwasher, and scrubbing pots and pans because I knew that in the scheme of things I was helping to feed the customers the best German food in a 60 mile radius. Later when I went to work for the Hilton Inn as a dishwasher, I was serving a lot more people as they would host banquets with 100’s of people at one time. After that I went to work for Sirloin Stockade as a dishwasher, busboy and finally a cook. The number of people that would go through that restaurant in one day dwarfed the number of people we would serve at the Hilton Inn.
Nothing prepared me for the massive amount of people whose lives are touched each day by a Power Plant Electrician! Or any Power Plant employee for that matter. Our plant alone could turn the lights on for over one million people in their homes, offices and factories. As a summer help mowing grass and cleaning up the park each week removing dirty diapers and rotting fish innards it never really had the impact that becoming an electrician did.
Part of the routine as an electrician was to do preventative maintenance on equipment to keep things in good working order. We performed substation inspections, emergency backup battery checks. We changed brushes on the generator exciter, performed elevator inspections and checked cathodic protection to make sure it was operational. At certain times of the year we would check out the plant freeze protection to make sure the pipes weren’t going to freeze come winter. I also worked on maintaining the precipitator equipment. All of these things were needed to keep the plant running smoothly, but, though they were each fun in their own way, they didn’t have the impact on me that fixing something that was broken did. (ok. two paragraphs ending in the word “did”… what does that tell you?).
I used to love getting a Maintenance Order that said that something was broken and we needed to go fix it. It may have been a motor that had a bad bearing, or a cooling system that had shutdown, or the Dumper that dumped the coal trains had quit working. One of my “speci-alities” (I know. I misspelled that on purpose), was working on elevators. — I will save my elevator stories for later.
When I was working on something that was broken, I could see more clearly how my job was related to keeping the lights on throughout the area of Oklahoma where our company served the public. Depending on what you were working on, one wrong slip of the screwdriver and “pow”, I could make the lights blink for 3 million people. I will talk more about certain events that happened throughout the years that I worked at the plant where things that happened at the plant were felt throughout our electric grid.
Sometimes even as far away as Chicago and Tennessee. There was a “club” for people that shut a unit down. It was called the “500 Club”. It meant that you tripped the unit when it was generating 500 or more Megawatts of power. I can say that “luckily”, I never was a member of that club.
Ok, so a broken elevator doesn’t directly impact the operation of the plant, but it was, during more than one occasion, a life threatening situation considering that a few times the elevator would pick the most opportune time to stall between 200 and 225 feet up the elevator shaft full of elderly visitors that were touring our flagship Power Plant on their way back down from experiencing the great view of the lake from the top of the boiler. (I know. My college English Professor would have a heyday with that run-on sentence). — actually, that sentence was so long, I think I’ll make it the only sentence in the entire paragraph, — well, except for my comments about it….
Charles Foster, my foreman and best friend, took me up to the top of the boiler soon after I became an electrician and showed me the “Elevator Penthouse”. I know. “Elevator Penthouse”… Sounds like a nice place…. Well. It wasn’t bad after you swept out the dead moths, beetles and crickets that had accumulated since the last Elevator Inspection. It was a noisy room on the top of the elevator shaft where the elevator motor buzzed as it pulled the elevator up and let it down. Stopping on floors where someone had pushed a button.
I told you earlier that my elevator stories will be in a later post, so for this story, I’ll just say that Charles set me down on my tool bucket (which doubled as my portable stool and tripled as my portable trash can), in front of a panel of about 100 relays all picking up and dropping out as the elevator made its way up and down. He told me to study the blueprints that hung on the side of the panel and watch the relays until I understood how it all worked.
So, one afternoon, I sat there for about 4 hours doing nothing but watching relays light up and drop out. On the other side of that panel were the main relays. There were relays there we called “Christmas Tree” relays because they looked like a fir tree. I made some notes on a piece of paper about the sequence that the relays would pick up and drop out that I kept in my wallet.
I used those notes years later (in 2000) when I was writing task lists in SAP (our Enterprise Resource Planning computer system) on how to troubleshoot the elevator controls. Anyway, that was how I learned all about how elevator logic works. You know what? It is just like writing a computer program using computer code. It is basically a set of instructions with rules built-in, only it was done with relays.
Well. Back to helping humanity…. So, usually when we were working on something that was broken there was an operator somewhere that was waiting for the equipment to be repaired so that they could go on with their job. Sometimes the Shift Supervisor would be calling us asking us periodically when we were going to be done because they were running low on coal in the silos and were going to have to lower the load on the units if we didn’t hurry up. It was times like that when you fixed the kill switch on the side of the 10 or 11 conveyor that supply the coal to the plant from the coalyard that you really understood just where you stood with your fellow man.
I am writing about this not because I want to pat myself on the back. Though I often did feel really proud as I returned to the truck with my tool bucket after coming down from a conveyor after fixing something. I would feel like taking a bow, though I was often by myself in situations like that when I wasn’t with my “bucket buddy”. At least the Shift Supervisor and the control room operators were very grateful when you would fix something critical to keeping the plant operating at full steam (and I mean that literally…. The electricity is made by the steam from the boiler that turned the turbine that spun the generator).
No. I am writing about this because it would hit home to me at times like these how much each of us depend on each other. We all know about how important it is to have a police force keeping order and having fire fighters and paramedics on standby to rush to protect families in time of distress. People in jobs like those are as obvious as the soldiers that protect our nation.
I think the majority of us have a much bigger impact on the rest of society than we realize. I think the Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with never gave it much thought. Like the person washing dishes in a restaurant, they didn’t look at themselves as heroes. But they are (I know… Sentence fragment). Each day they moved through an environment where a boiler ghost could reach out and grab them. They distinctively know that they are standing next to a dragon that could wake up at any moment and blast them from the face of the earth, but they don’t let it deter them from the immediate job at hand.
When the boilers were being brought on line for the first time in 1979 and 1980, when you walked through the boiler area, you carried a household straw broom with you that you waved in front of you like someone knocking spider webs out of the way (I called it searching for the boiler ghost). It was explained to me at the time that this was done to detect if there was steam leaking from the pipes. If steam was leaking from some of the pipes, you wouldn’t be able to see it, but if you stepped into the flow of the steam, it could cut you in half before you even realized there was something wrong. When the steam hit the broom, it would knock the broom to the side, and you would know the leak was there. Kind of like the canary in the mine.
I remember one day when everyone was told to leave Unit 1 boiler because during an emergency, the entire boiler was at risk of melting to the ground. If not for the quick action of brave Power Plant Men, this was avoided and the lights in the hospitals in Oklahoma City and the rest of Central Oklahoma didn’t blink once. The dragon had awakened, but was quickly subdued and put back in its place.
I entitled this post “Serving Mankind Power Plant Style”, but isn’t that what we all do? If we aren’t serving Mankind, then why are we here? Today I have a very different job. I work at Dell Inc., the computer company. Our company creates computers for people around the world. We create and sell a computer about once every 2 seconds. At the electric company we had about 3,000 people that served 3 million. At Dell, we provide high quality computers for a price that allows even lower income families to enter the computer age. Computers allow families to connect with each other and expand their lives in ways that were not even conceived of a few years ago.
Even though I spend my days serving my internal customers at Dell, I know that in the big scheme of things along with over 100,000 other employees, I am helping to impact the lives of over a billion people worldwide! I wouldn’t be able to do much if down the road the brave men and women at a Power Plant weren’t keeping the lights on. It is kind of like the idea of “Pay it Forward.”
So, the bottom line of this post is… All life is precious. Whatever we do in this life, in one way or other, impacts the rest of us. We go through life thinking that we live in a much smaller bubble than we really do. The real bubble that we live in is this planet and just like every cell in our body is in some way supported by the other cells, it is that way with us. Don’t discount what you do in life. It may seem insignificant, but the smile you give to someone today will be “paid forward” and will impact every one of us.
Comments from the Original Post:
Far too few understand this, very well said, my friend.
Ron Kilman February 16, 2013
I remember one time at the Seminole Plant when we had a steam leak on a Unit 2 throttle valve. You could hear it (over the roar of the turbine room) but you couldn’t see it (superheated steam is invisible). Martin Louthan and Ralph McDermott found the leak with a “red rag” on the end of a broomstick.
Life is precious, or it’s just another commodity, right? And that’s right down the center of the Left/Right divide…
Abortion debates sit astride that divide; healthcare is now crossing it as government undertakes how much to spend on various age groups.
Another side of it provided the sense of responsibility that led Power Plant Men to sacrifice and risk when those were needed. At one time, those attitudes would have been taken for granted, normal and to be expected… something that comes clear in all the Power Plant stories.
Comments from the Previous Repost:
February 20, 2014
Originally Posted May 25, 2013;
Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline. The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators. This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust. The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”. The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust. When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air (or 99.999%).
Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop. These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator. I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post: Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant. It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years. You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant. I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.
When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it. He likes to get dirty.” At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop. Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning… Now those words took on their full meaning.
I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning. Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post: Singing’ Along with Sonny Kendrick). I was his chance to be lifted from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey. I had accepted that. I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.
So, here I was… One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post: Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door). Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers. I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit. Just a rain suit.
Not a lot of protection….
I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul. I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string. I had a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.
So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world. It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon. We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point. We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.
Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart. He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above. At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me. Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip. There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.
Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip. Then even lower. About 10 feet above us. A third clip. — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It pays to Listen“), then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….” A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn.
Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate. Every clip must be in their place. Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so. Ok. I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 clips per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and 7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…
Bill explained….. Clean each insulator. there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place.There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers. there were 84 hoppers, Great. Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks…. Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof. two on each section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension house on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.
Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a clip or broken. Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.
Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force. That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below. Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each. There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers. In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.
Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates. In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly. There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers. This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul. Oh. And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.
So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units). Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator. For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators. Some of my closest friends were precipitator components. Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.
We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me. I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment. I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.
Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in the boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas…. I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home…. Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”. I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash. I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby… Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it. He apologized. He explained that he meant it with affection.
At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it. The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter. That meant that they would infiltrate your filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs. Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.
I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu. This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so. I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth. I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.
I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator. So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters. They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles. I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.
To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell. The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors. Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals…. Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.
You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate. Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.
I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post: A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff. He said it had some kind of a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….
He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell. You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.
There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name). She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical. Unfortunately, we never found out what it was. In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces. This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.
I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of an electron microscope. I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one. I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.
So, I just continued wearing the organic filters. This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms. Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator. When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands. They knew everything I did.
One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job. One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma. They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had. They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.
Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be. I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously. No. I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it. I loved it. I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.
I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator. I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them. Coaxing them. Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job. If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”. Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7. But they were each my friends in their own way.
You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?” I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me. I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.
I have my own understanding of who I should be. My wife may call it “stubbornness”, and that may be what it is. I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again…. What was I going to do? Give up? How could I do that to a friend? I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma. That isn’t going to change who I am.”
Today I am called an IT Business Analyst. I work for Dell Computers (now I work for General Motors). It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world. I see the same pattern. When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job. You become invaluable. Almost irreplaceable. People look to you for answers. They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business. I am glad to be able to serve them.
Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?” Arnold replied, “Oh. nothing anyone wants.” (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators. No. I wouldn’t do that. Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.
Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good. His son, Tim Foster has taken his place. One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator. I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim…. I know Scott understands….
Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them…. Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness. Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly… Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good… next row….
My wife used to wince a little each time I told her I would be late coming home that evening because I was going to the Men’s Club dinner after work. Not because I was going to be spending the evening at the Raccoon Lodge with Ralph Cramden:
It wasn’t because I would come home Blotto’ed after an evening of drinking. No. The reason my wife would cringe at the thought of Men’s Club was because about half the time I went to Men’s Club I would come back with some sort of prize.
You see… I have always been cursed with being lucky. It came in handy sometimes because there were times when I was flying by the seat of my pants and if I wasn’t just plain lucky, things would have ended quite suddenly and there would not have been any “rest of the story.”
Others in the Electric shop recognized that I was lucky and would try to take advantage of it by having me buy the squares in the football pots and they would pay me back. Those types of things never really worked. I tried to pass my luck on by proxy, but it didn’t seem to rub off.
Sure in the early days, Men’s Club was held offsite at a lodge. At those dinners, there were alcoholic beverages being served. That was back during the summer of 1979 when I was 18. I was barely old enough to drink the 3.2% beer from a convenience store in Oklahoma at the time.
I didn’t have a car, so I had to rely on Steve Higginbotham driving me home in his Junky Jalopy. (See the post: “Steve Higginbotham in his Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown“). He acted as if he had been drinking even if he hadn’t been… or maybe he had and I just didn’t know it.
By the summer of 1980, after David Hankins was killed in an automobile accident while driving home from a Men’s Club event, alcohol was no longer served and most Men’s Clubs at our Power Plant were held On-Site.
The Women’s Club however was still held off-site. You see, in order to be fair, the Women’s Club was given the same amount of money that the Men’s Club was given. Only there were over 300 men and only about 15 women. So the Women had even better prizes than the Men.
I suppose it was when they decided to have Men’s Clubs in the break room at the plant that they decided they needed to do something to make it worthwhile. They tried having interesting speakers, but listening to Bill Gibson (Gib) tell jokes would only go so far. After all, even though he could tell jokes as well as any other storyteller at the plant, we could hear him any day of the week. So it was decided to start having drawings for prizes.
Prizes were good. Everyone likes prizes. After all, when you won a prize it was given to you freely. You didn’t have to put on a show or stand on your head or anything to get it. You just had to walk the gauntlet of Power Plant Men oogling your new fishing rod, or tackle box wishing they had won it instead of you, and asking you if you would like to trade it for an old busted up pair of Channel Locks.
There were some of us that seemed to win prizes all the time. Some may have even won enough prizes to furnish their house with prizes from Men’s Clubs. Me? I did a pretty good job of furnishing my garage.
Here are some of the gifts I won:
If you look closely at this picture you will see that even after 20 years, the “Heavy Duty Double Gear Cable Puller” is still in the box. — Yeah. I never had a chance to use it. Believe me…. I have been waiting desperately for the day when I can say. “I have a tool for that!” Just like Bob Kennedy used to say (See the Post, “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“). Alas… the “come-along” is still in the box.
I did use the floor jack on my riding lawn mower when i had to change the tires. The tackle box actually has Tackle in it. the cooler has been used a lot. The camping chair, not so often. I have never used the Emergency blinking light combination air compressor, that hooks up to a car battery for power.
I won many other prizes, but these are the prizes that I still have readily available in my garage. You can see that I dragged them all into the kitchen this evening for the picture. My wife was sitting on the couch when I came into the room with a floor jack under one arm, and a combination light slash air compressor under the other arm holding a tackle box in one hand the cooler in the other.
She asked me what I was doing, (with a look of anticipation). I suddenly realized that the look of hope in her eyes was because she thought that I had a momentary lapse of civility and was going to be throwing out some junk from the garage. I caught a glimpse of disappointment when I told her I was writing my blog post. — What? throw away something from the Power Plant? Do I act like I have dementia?
My son walked into the kitchen to quench his thirst and saw the assorted items arranged across the kitchen floor and asked, “Why is all this junk here in the kitchen?” I explained that I was writing my blog and these were some of the things I won at Men’s Club at the Power Plant. “Oh. Ok,” he said as he gave me a side-glance that said, “whatever dad.”
After having collected all sorts of really good junk over the years at the plant, Terry Blevins who had been a fellow electrician for 11 of the 18 years I had spent in the shop was sitting across from me during dinner and the subject of winning prizes came up.
I never liked to mention to others how I won a prize half the time I went to a Men’s Club, because they used to give the other lucky people such a hard time about it. Accusing them of cheating because they were always winning. It seemed like Fred Turner was another lucky person that came away with a lot of loot.
Anyway, When Scott Hubbard and I were talking to Terry, he mentioned that he had never won a prize at Men’s Club. What? I couldn’t believe it. He had to repeat it many times before it sunk into my thick skull. I must have had more than 20 Men’s club prizes by that time and Terry had never ever won a prize. How does that happen?
I recognized that I was lucky early on. When I was in college I would count on it. I also contributed it with having Saint Anthony as one of my best friends. He is the saint of finding lost items. Here are a couple of examples that happened in just one night.
I had arrived in Columbia, Missouri my senior year in college from Christmas break in a brand new Honda Civic. It was early January, 1982. This was the same Honda Civic I just re-posted about earlier this week (See, “How Many Power Plant Men can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic“).
My friend Ben Cox had come over to the dorm and we decided to go eat at a natural food store just northeast of the campus called the Catalpa Tree. So, we took my car. The roads were icy. That was fine with me. Not only was I lucky, but I was experienced in driving on ice, having learned to drive in Columbia.
Now, when I say the roads were icy. I mean.. with ice. Not packed snow. So, with Ben sitting next to me in the Honda, in the dark as I made my way up Locust Street going east. I was timing my speed so that I would hit 9th street (The Strollway) just as the light turned green, because if I had to stop, it would be difficult since I would be stopping on the slope of a hill and would probably start sliding back down.
Just as I arrived at 9th street the light turned green and I slid right through the intersection right on time. The only problem was that there were two cars going each direction on 9th street (one in front of the Missouri Theater and the other in front of the Calvary Episcopal Church), and they were not able to stop.
So, I was caught directly between two cars. There didn’t appear to be anyway out of this predicament. That was when I found that my new Honda Civic had a tendency to spin out of control on ice for no apparent reason.
As I slid across the intersection my car began to spin around. Just as I was in the middle of the intersection and the two other cars were skidding by me, I had turned parallel with them. As they passed by, all three cars continued spinning and going through the intersection, pirouetting as in a ballet, so that as the car going north was just passing by, the front of my car came around and pointed back in the direction of travel (I had spun 360 degrees), and I continued on my way as if nothing had happened. Whew… — Yeah. My pants were still dry at that point… — see how lucky I was? Dry Pants!
Anyway. I went one more block and parallel parked directly across from the Greyhound bus depot. Ben climbed out of the car and made some sort of comment, though I couldn’t quite hear him. I noticed he was walking a little funny. Maybe his pants weren’t as lucky.
Anyway. We walked the two blocks to the restaurant slash health food store called “The Catalpa Tree”. We ate something that had fried tofu in it that tasted like the tofu had went bad some time last summer… — No. That wasn’t part of the story about how lucky I am.
Anyway. After eating Ben and I walked back to my car. As we were approaching the car, another car began rolling back out of the Greyhound bus depot directly toward my car. There was no one behind the wheel. All that Ben and I could do was stand there and stare at it heading directly into the side of my car.
The car had rolled out into the street and was bound to smash right into my brand new car. Then all of the sudden another car came sliding down the road right between my car and the approaching one. The rogue car smashed into the side of that car instead of mine.
When the car with no driver from the bus depot came to a smashing stop, two little boy heads peered up from the front seat. You see. Their mother had left the two kids in the car while she went into the bus station to do something. She had left the car running to keep her children warm in the sub-freezing weather. Well…. oops.
After making sure that everyone was all right, I climbed into my car and drove away. Within an hour… two incidents where I could have had my new car smashed through no real fault of my own, instead I came out unscathed. — That has been the story of my life — well.. Not to tempt fate…
My luck hasn’t changed… I still end up bringing home things that I win at different functions. Sure some functions everyone comes home a winner. But there are times when it just isn’t fair to the my coworkers.
I have a number of stories since I have been at Dell, but they are all similar to this one story…. A couple of years ago, I attended a Well At Dell event where a special speaker that was a Champion Runner from Burundi Africa was speaking about everything he went through to reach this point in his life. He survived an attack during the war between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. His name is Gilbert Tuhabonye.
Tuhabonye was a lucky person. Or you may say that he has a large guardian angel. On October 21, 1993 while he was in High School, a group of Hutu attacked his school. They took more than 100 students and teachers, beat them and packed them in a school room then burned the building down with them in it. After being burned, nine hours later he took the charred bone of another student and used it to break out of the building where he ran to safety.
Anyway. I went to go listen to this remarkable man speak in a large meeting room on the Dell Campus in Round Rock, Texas on October 21, 2010. 17 years to the day after Gilbert’s tragedy, and the beginning of his new life.
I arrived early and was the first person in the room that wasn’t someone setting up the room for the event. I walked up the middle row with the pick of any seat. I went the the third row on the left and sat on the chair in the middle of the row.
The people that were setting up the room all smiled at me. They had all knew me, as I had been working out in the gym where they all worked. I said hi back to them.
Anyway at the end of the inspirational talk by Gilbert, he announced that one person in this room was going to get a free copy of his book. They just had to look under their seat and if they had a paper taped under it then they were the winner. — Of course… I had the pick of chairs in the room… so you know what happened. Yep. Here is the book:
I could go on and on… maybe I will later when I talk again about how lucky I was to just miss a falling piece of metal that would have killed me, but I had stopped to tie my shoe…
Sure I’m lucky. Today is September 27. It is one of those days that sticks in my mind because both tragedies and good things have happened on this day in the past. On September 27, 1980 I was lucky enough during a tragic situation when the world was turned upside down, that I became friends with a young beautiful person named Kelly.
Kelly became my wife 5 years and 3 months later. After all the times I have been lucky enough to win some prize even when I wasn’t really trying, I can surely say that on that one day when I really wasn’t looking, I began a relationship with the most remarkable person I have ever met. It has been exactly 33 years since that day (now almost 39 years), and I still believe that it is the luckiest day of my life.
Comment from Original Post:
Originally posted November 1, 2013:
You would think that telling time is a pretty universal past time. I used to think that myself. That is, until I went to work at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I first went to work there in 1979 as a summer help. I noticed something was different when I walked into the office to meet the Assistant Plant Manager, Bill Moler and the clock on his wall looked kind of funny. I had to stare at it for a moment before I realized what it meant:
The Power Plant Men called it Military Time because many of them had been in the military during the Vietnam War and had learned to tell time using this type of clock. When we filled out our timecards at the end of the day we put 0800 to 1600 Well. I put in the colons like this: 8:00 to 16:00 but that wasn’t the real Power Plant Man way to do it.
That wasn’t the only thing I learned about Power Plant Man time. Power Plant Men keep time in other ways. One of those ways, though it involves a clock, the time being observed isn’t the time of day. Instead it centers around five events.
Startin’ Time, Morning Break, Lunch Time and Afternoon Break and Quitin’ Time. A Power Plant Man’s day revolves around these events.
The moment Startin’ Time begins, the Power Plant Men are looking forward to Morning Break. They schedule their efforts around this event. That is, if they need to do a certain job that would run them into Morning Break, then they figure out something else to do, and push that event out until Morning Break is over.
In General, Morning Break would begin at 9:30 (Oh. I mean 0930 — pronounced “Oh Nine Thirty”). It was supposed to be 15 minutes long, but in order to make sure you didn’t miss your break, you usually headed toward the shop 15 minutes early. Then by the time you headed back out the door to and returned to your work, another 10 to 15 minutes went by. Essentially stretching morning break from 15 minutes to 40 to 45 minutes.
This was especially true in the early days of the Power Plant. The Power Plant Men’s culture evolved over time so that the actual time spent on their 15 minute break probably shortened from 45 minutes to 30 minutes.
The idea that the employees weren’t spending every moment of their day when not on break working just confounded Plant Managers, such as the “Evil Plant Manager” that I often talk about. Our first plant manager was so tight, when he worked at a gas plant in Oklahoma City, he was known for taking rags out of the trash and putting them back in the rag box because they weren’t dirty enough.
Now that I work at Dell as a Business Systems Analyst (and since I first wrote this post, I have changed jobs and now work for General Motors) after many years of working for great managers and not-so-great managers, I am always relieved when I find that a new manager doesn’t measure you by how many hours you are sitting at the computer, but by your results.
For those that looked closely at the performance of the Power Plant Men at our particular plant, they would find that when a job needed to be done, it would be done… on time. The bottom line was that when you treat the employees with respect, they go the extra mile for you.
“Quitin’ Time” was always an interesting time. From the first day that I arrived as a summer help (1979) until the day I left 22 years later (2001), Even though “Quitin’ Time” was at 4:30 (or 1630, later changing to 1730), it really began at 4:00 (or 1600, pronounced “sixteen hundred”).
at 4:00, a half hour before it was time to go out to the parking lot and drive home, everyone would return to the shop, where they would spend the next 30 minutes cleaning up and filling out their daily timecard. The timecard was, and probably still is, a sheet of paper.
Amazing huh? You would think with the way things are that paper timecards would have disappeared a long time ago. I could be wrong about that. If it is any different at the plant today, I’ll encourage one of them to leave a comment below updating me.
There are other ways that Power Plant Men tell time. Sure, they know that there are seasons, like Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring. But it is more likely that in their minds the Power Plant Men are thinking more like this…. Instead of Summer, they would think that this is “Peak Load”. That is, the units need to stay operational because the citizens of this country are in dire need of air conditioning.
Instead of Fall, there are two thoughts running through a Power Plant Man’s mind…. Hunting Season and the start of “Overhauls”.
As hunting season nears, many Power Plant Men are staking out their territories and setting up their deer stands. Some are out practicing with their bows as Bow Season starts first before you can use a rifle. The Plant staff didn’t like their employees taking off Christmas vacation, and did everything they could to keep you in town during the holiday. But when it came down to it… The real time to worry was during hunting season.
An Overhaul is when you take one of the units offline to work on things that you can’t work on when it is running. the main area being inside the boiler. When overhauls come around, it is a chance for working a lot of overtime. The pay is good especially if you get to go to another plant to work because then you not only get to work 10 or 12 hour days, but you receive a Per Diem of somewhere from $28.50 to $35.00 each day depending on how far back you want to look.
I don’t know what the Per Diem is today. I’m sure it must be much higher. Plus you get driving time back and forth each week, and you also receive mileage! So, you can see why Power Plant Men were often very anxious to go away on overhaul.
Overhaul season ran from the Fall into the Spring. It is during that time when the electric company could take a couple of units offline at a time because the electric demand wasn’t so high.
Another season that many Power Plant Men counted on was “Fishing Season”. It wasn’t like the other seasons, because it kind of ran into a lot of the others. If the weather was right, and the rain was right and the Missus was all right with it… Then it was fishing season. There were different types of fishing. In the electric shop, “Noodling” was popular. That is when you reach under the rocks in a river and feel around for a fish and then end up catching it with your bare hands.
Another timekeeping tool used by Power Plant men was “Pay Day”. It came around every two weeks. After a while everyone was on direct deposit, so it wasn’t like they were all waiting around for someone to actually hand them a paycheck. Many did plan their trips to the mall or to the gun shows in Oklahoma City around Pay Day. It was common to live from paycheck to paycheck.
If you worked in the coalyard, then you calibrated your clock by when the next coal train was going to roll into the dumper. There was generally a steady stream of coal trains coming and going. When a coal train was late, or even early, then I think it seemed to throw some coalyard hands into a state of confusion. But, then again, now that I think about it…. Walt Oswalt usually did seem to be in a state of confusion. — I’m just joking of course….. Well… you know…
If you were a Control Room Operator, then you were in a sort of Twilight Zone, because there really was only one small window in the entire Control room and that was only so that you could look through a small telescope at the Main Power Substation in case…. well… in case you were bored and you needed to be reassured that the world still did exist out there.
In the control room, there were clocks, but the control room operators had a lot more pretty lights to look at back then. Here is my favorite picture of a Power Plant Control Room (not the one where I worked):
See all those lights? Now everything is on the computer. That way if some foreign terrorist group decides they want to shut down the electric grid, all they have to do is hack into the system and down it goes. They couldn’t do that when the control room looked like this.
It seemed that being in the control room was out of time. It didn’t matter what time of the day you went in the control room. In the morning, the afternoon, even at two in morning. It always seemed the same. There were always two control room operators sitting or standing at their posts. The Shift Supervisor was sitting in his office, or was standing somewhere nearby. Other operators were walking in and out going on their rounds. I think the Control Room operators only knew that it was time to go home because the next shift would show up to take their place.
Electricians on the other hand, had their own kind of timekeeping. Well, not all of them… ok…. well… maybe just me…. I used an oscilloscope a lot when I was working on the precipitator controls, and so very small amounts of time meant a lot to me. For instance… The regular 60 cycle electricity in your house goes from zero to about 134 volts and then back to zero about every 8 and 1/3 thousands of a second (or .00833333…).
I will talk about it later, but when you are testing tripping relays, even as little as one thousandth of a second can be important. So, telling time with an oscilloscope can vary widely.
Then there were those timekeeping Power Plant Men that kept time by how long it was going to be to retirement. It was more of a countdown. I remember one Power Plant Man saying that he only had 21 more years and then he was outta there. An even more sad story was when Charles Lay at Muskogee who was 63 asked me to figure out his retirement because he wanted to retire in 2 years. Well….. sad to say… He had only been working there for 3 or so years, so his retirement package wasn’t going to be much and had never put anything into a 401k or an IRA.
Those who spent their lives working at the plant were able to retire with great benefits. It wasn’t like a union with all the healthcare and stuff, but the company did offer a very good retirement plan for those that had been there for the long haul. I suppose at this point they are measuring time in terms of their lifetime.
What it boils down to is that some Power Plant Men measured their life one-day-at-a-time, while others just looked at the entire time of their life as one time. Some looked forward to a time when they would be able to rest, while others enjoyed their work each day.
When I think about time, I realize that an infinite number of things can take place each second. Yet, a lifetime can go by without ever grasping what is important and what is fleeting. When I think back at the time that I spent working at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, what I feel is that I was blessed by the presence of such great men and women and it was time well spent.
Comments from Original Post:
Originally posted January 3, 2014:
After the reorganization at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma during 1987, a bunch of new faces showed up at the plant. I mentioned in last week’s post that we had a new plant manager, Ron Kilman (See Post: “From Pioneers to Power Plant Managers“). In that post I also mentioned that the PC age was rapidly growing and I had bought a computer of my own and was eager to learn more. The Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey had retired, and was replaced by a guy named Tom Gibson. Tom was a good supervisor who was willing to think out of the box.
Tom gave me one of my first assignments directly by calling me to his office. Well, Leroy had never really called me to his office before. When Leroy wanted to chew you out, he was happy to come down to the Electric Shop and do it, so I didn’t really know what to expect by being “called to his office”. Believe me… it wasn’t the last time he had “called me to his office.” But it was the most satisfying time. Mainly because this time, when I arrived, Tom’s face wasn’t beet red with anger like it was on one later occasion.
This is what Tom told me to do… He said that we needed to install computer terminals all over the plant. They had a chart where they wanted the terminals to go. There were about 15 locations all over the plant including the coalyard which was about 1/2 mile from the main plant. Along with those, there were a bunch of IBM Network printers that needed to be installed with the terminals.
Then Tom told me the best part. He wanted me to do it all myself. Then he told me an even better part…. He said, (and I quote) “I want you to learn everything you can about this computer stuff. I think it will come in handy.” As my friend Stephen Todd at Dell would say, “That was the ‘Keys to the Kingdom”. I told him I would be glad to do everything he asked.
That last part later came back to haunt Tom…. but he did tell me…. learn “everything” I could about the computer. When he was referring to “The Computer”, he was talking about the company mainframe, a Honeywell system that resided in Oklahoma City at Corporate Headquarters.
The Terminals I was going to install were called “Dumb terminals”. they weren’t computers, they were just monitors with a keyboard that connected directly to a switch back in the telephone room that was connected via a microwave link directly to Oklahoma City and the Honeywell system:
So, when I returned to the electric shop, I began my “hacker” apprenticeship. One that would later allow me to harass Gene Day in the Control Room, confuse Dick Dale in the warehouse, cause headaches for the IT department downtown, and finally cause the President of the Electric Company to personally call our Plant Manager Ron asking who was this guy Kevin Breazile! Hence the reason for Tom Gibson’s beet red face a few years later. But that is another story for another time.
I had two things right away that I had to figure out. How was I going to run cables from the telephone room in the office to each of the places around the plant that needed a computer terminal and what are these funny connectors and what do I need to do with them?
Ok, so I figured they plugged in the back of the terminal and then there was a Cat1 cable (no, not a Cat3, a Cat1) that plugged into that, and needed to plug into a jack in the wall that I was going to have to install. They called these funny connectors “Hoods”. The 25 pin Hoods that we used were blue. We had 9 pin hoods also that we used for the actual PCs that the clerks and the chemist were using. They had an emulator program to make them act like a dumb terminal:
In an early post called “Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck” I explained how I have always been cursed with being very lucky. Well, that’s what some may call it, but I prefer to believe that one of my best friends St. Anthony helps me out at certain times. Well, this was one time when I asked for his assistance. St. Anthony of Padua is considered the Patron Saint of lost items. So, I asked him to help me figure out how I was going to do all this work in a reasonable amount of time.
As is often the case, St. Anthony pointed me in the right direction. This particular day, he told me to tell my problem to Charles Foster. My close friend and one of the two Electric Shop foremen (not mine. I was working for Andy Tubbs). So, during lunch I told him what Tom Gibson told me to do, and showed him the blueprints where they wanted the terminals placed throughout the plant.
One of the places that needed a terminal was right there in the electric shop office. Charles looked around the office and said, “You know what? there used to be an old intercom system in this office that I think goes up to the telephone room. In fact, I think all the intercoms that were originally installed in the plant went to the telephone room.”
I vaguely remembered the intercoms when I was working as a summer help as there used to be an old box sitting in the garage when I worked for Stanley Elmore. They were later cut out and removed, because it wasn’t really practical and so it wasn’t used. Charles told me to start there, because there were intercoms everywhere. In the control room, the warehouse, and even in the coalyard! And definitely in the office area. This was just what I needed to hear. My work was already half done.
I pulled the cables out from under the desk where they had been cut and checked them out. There were definitely enough cable pairs to do the job. In most places I had to install both a terminal and a printer, so I had a lot of dual wall jacks just for this job:
There were some places where the intercom system didn’t go where I needed to install either a dumb terminal or at least connect a computer. So, I was looking for any kind of alternate way to install the jack without having to run cables all the way from the telephone room to these locations. So, I went out and bought a book about networking so that I could learn more about what was really going on. If I had bought it a few years later it might have been called “Dumb Terminals for Dummies”, but the Dummies books hadn’t come around yet.
I have since thrown that book away after using it for years to prop up the corner of our sofa bed for the times when my mom would come and visit and she would sleep on the bed, only it had a broken bracket, and the Networking book was just the right thickness to level the bed…. But there was one page in the book that I found that allowed me to hook up dumb terminals in places where there was only a phone line.
You see. When the phone lines were run throughout the plant, they used a three pair cable. Well. A phone really only uses two wires (or one pair). so, this left 4 more wires not doing anything. The only problem was that the dumb terminal used 4 pair, or 8 wires…
So, when I was reading the networking book, I ran across a diagram that made me stop and stare. I like to think that I was holding a half eaten apple in my hand and I had just taken a bite when I stopped mid-bite and stared. It would have been a nice picture to remember sort of like when the apple fell on Newton’s head. Only we didn’t have cellphones with cameras in those days, so no one was around to take my picture. The diagram I saw was this:
What? This showed 4 of the wires are nothing but grounds…. The network cable only really uses 4 of the 8 wires. Which means I only needed two pair. And guess what? The phone lines run all over the plant were 3 pair with only one pair being used! So, I was able to install the computer jacks right next to the telephone jacks and use the same cable that the telephone was using, and they all tied back to the telephone room where the main computer switch was located that connected to the Mainframe computer back in Oklahoma City through something called a Memotec X.25 Modem.
So, now that I have gone through all this detail to tell you how I was able to quickly install all these terminals and printers around the plant in a way as if it is exciting (because it is to me). I know that many of you are so bored out of your gourd that you have already stopped reading before you have reached this sentence…. I suppose those of you that are still following along are wondering “Why?”
Why would we want to install all these dumb terminals throughout a power plant that connected to the Honeywell Mainframe down at Corporate Headquarters? Well. It was because all the plant operators, mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians, instrument and controls and heavy equipment operators were going to start using it to do stuff. Yeah. All of us were being introduced to the computer age. From the janitor on up.
Each printer had 4 character ID that identified it, so if you were looking at a work order on the terminal, you could choose to print it. You just had to know the 4 character number and you could print the work order out on any computer in the company. Usually, this meant, you wanted to use the printer that was closest to you. But if you wanted to print something out for the warehouse, as long as you knew their printer ID, you could send them a printout of some part that you wanted them to retrieve for you. Then call them up and tell them you printed something out on their printer.
Ok. So the average Joe didn’t see much benefit, but it did get them used to seeing computer monitors all over the place, which at least helped them in the future when the real computers showed up. Right now, they were just “Dumb Terminals” and that’s what a lot of the operators and maintenance people thought… they are just dumb…
I, on the other hand was in hog heaven. You see. I had called downtown to the IT department and asked to get a user name so that I could log directly into the mainframe. After all, my supervisor Tom had told me to learn “everything” I could about “this computer”. So, I took him up on it. I quickly was learning UNIX commands, though at the time, I didn’t know that’s what they were called.
I began learning the Computer language called “A” before I realized there was a “B” language and a “C” language, and that C was the one that was really used at the time. As it turned out the mainframe had manuals for everything right on it. That is how I was able to cause so much trouble the next few years.
Oh, and one more interesting thing I discovered on the mainframe. It had this interesting feature called “Email”. Yeah. Only, after figuring out how to pull up a list of all the emails on the system I found that there was only a handful of people that actually had e-mail addresses. So, the only person I would email on the mainframe was an engineer named Craig Henry.
I had met him briefly once, but in the next few years, he was a valuable source of information. Email seemed like a great idea, but what good was it if there was only a few people you could send an email?
As for Craig Henry… As Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains in Casablanca, “This is the beginning of a Beautiful Friendship.” Come to think of it… Craig Henry sort of reminds me of Claude Rains… I must admit, I learned a lot more from him than he ever learned from me.
Originally posted January 24, 2014:
Reorganizations naturally shuffle things around. People are generally resistant to change and don’t like to find that their routine has been changed without having their input on how to make things better. When the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma went through a downsizing and reorganization in the latter part of 1987, my job changed slightly. Personally, I was grateful for the changes.
Before the reorganization, I had inherited both the precipitators (the large boxes at a power plant that take the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler). This meant that every overhaul, I knew what I was doing. I was working on and in the precipitator. This was generally a dirty and thankless job.
After the reorganization, however, Terry Blevins was assigned to work on the Unit 2 precipitator, while I worked on Unit 1. I will go into this in more detail later, but for this post, I’ll just point out that this meant that when Unit 2 was on an overhaul (that means the unit is taken offline for one to three months in order to fix and repair things that can only be done while it is offline) I wasn’t automatically assigned to the precipitator. So, I could work on other things.
Before the reorganization, Sonny Kendrick had the title “Electric Specialist”. After the reorganization we no longer had a specialist. I’m not sure exactly why. I know that at Muskogee, they still had a specialist in the electric shop. — I will talk about him next year (the specialist at Muskogee). Anyway, I know that Sonny, at the time, was not too happy about his change in job title. I don’t blame him. I would be too.
One of the things that the Electric Specialist did during overhauls was test tripping relays. Now that we no longer had a specialist, that was left up to whomever…. The first electricians, besides Sonny, that were assigned to relay testing was Ben Davis and myself. I had started doing it on my own and after about a week, Ben Davis was assigned to help me out.
We were on a major overhaul on Unit 2 and it had been decided that we were not only going to test the regular super-high voltage breaker relays, we were also going to test all the 480 volt switchgear relays for Unit 2, as well as the intake and coalyard switchgears. I don’t remember if we made it to the river pump switchgear, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Once we started, there was no stopping us.
When I first was told to test the relays, Bill Bennett (our A foreman) told me to have Sonny tell me how to do them. So, I walked into the lab and told Sonny that Bill had told me to ask him to help me learn how to test the protective relays on the switchgear. Sonny, not looking too happy, grabbed a small stack of manuals, walked out into the main switchgear with me, and said, “Here is the relay test set. Here are the manuals that tell you how to hook up the test set and test them.” He turned and walked away…. I was sort of hoping for a more intimate lesson…
I knew the reason Sonny was so upset. Later I learned why he would be as upset as he was to not be able to test the protective relays. It was because when you test, clean and adjust protective relays you have an immediate rush of satisfaction that you have just done something very important. Let me just say quickly (because in another post I will expound upon this), a protective relay is what keeps motors from blowing up. It is what prevents blackouts from happening across the nation. Without properly calibrated protective relays, a power company is just asking for a disaster (or… well….. their insurance company is, because they are the ones that usually end up paying for the damage — which I will also talk about in a later post).
I thought the relay test set that Sonny showed me was the neatest thing I had seen so far in the electric shop. There were two boxes that hooked together with an umbilical cord. They had dials, switches, connectors, meters and a digital readout down to the millisecond. That is, you can read the time to trip a relay down to the one thousandth of a second.
I only wish that I had a bigger picture of this relay test set so that you could admire it as much as I did. Even today it gives me goosebumps! Ok. I can imagine those relay technicians that read this blog are looking at this and thinking…. “What kind of piece of junk is this?” Hey (as Mark Fielder used to say), this was my “baby” (only he was referring to the precipitator).
So, back to the story at hand…
Even though I was having a heck of a fun time trying to figure out how to perform these relay tests by reading these manuals about the different kinds of relays, I was glad when Ben Davis was assigned to work with me. I don’t know if he had worked on relays before, but he seemed to know just what to do to hook up the test set and make things easier.
The best suggestion that Ben had right off the bat was that we should be listening to the radio while we were working. This might have been a preventative measure after the first couple of days to prevent the same situation from occurring that happened to Ed Shiever when he and I were trapped inside a confined space for a couple of weeks (See the post: “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“). Either way, it was a great idea.
You wouldn’t think that inside a switchgear 20 miles from the nearest town with a radio station, that we would have any reception on a little transistor radio, but we were able to manage. It seemed that we had to be a little creative at times with the antenna in certain locations, but, like I said. We managed.
My perception of Ben Davis up to this point was that he was a “Good-ol’ boy”. That is, a country music type Oklahoman that had grown up in Shidler, Oklahoma where the major attraction in the town was the High School. To my surprise, I quickly found out that he was a connoisseur of Rock and Roll.
It wasn’t until I was in college before I realized that the easy listening station I had been listening to on our family radio at home while I was growing up was playing rock and roll songs using an orchestra with violins and clarinets instead of electric guitars. I learned from my dorm mates all about groups like Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles (yeah… can you believe it? I mean. I knew “Hey Jude”, “Let it Be” and a few others, but most of the Beatles I thought were instrumentals normally played on violins with a man waving a wand) and many others. When I found out about “Rock and Roll”, I had to go out and buy dozens of 8-track tapes, as fast as I could find them.
So, here was Ben Davis. Even better than the “Good Ol’ Boy” that I already thought he was. And he loved classical rock and roll. I can only say that the next month and a half while we tested relays all over the plant, were one of the best times I have ever spent in my life! He knew all the 60’s and 70’s rock and roll bands.
As each song would come on the radio, we would guess (well, I was guessing most of the time…. most of the time Ben already knew), what the name of the song was and the name of the band. So, not only were we doing one of the most satisfying jobs at a power plant, but I was also have a lot of fun with Ben listening to the radio! Who would have thought it? No wonder Sonny was upset he wasn’t testing relays this overhaul.
I could go on about all the different bands and their backgrounds that I learned from Ben during that overhaul, but (unlike me), you probably already know all that stuff. It never ceases to amaze me how many holes I have in my education until one is staring at me in the face.
This reminds me of a side story, and I apologize if I have told this before…. I don’t think I have….
After the Reorganization, and after I moved to Stillwater from Ponca City, Scott Hubbard (and Toby O’Brien) and I began carpooling. One morning as we were listening to NPR, Scott Hubbard mentioned something about a “cur”. I asked him, “What’s a cur?” Well, he had the exact same reaction when 11 years earlier I had asked my friends in college at Oklahoma University, Tim Flowers and Kirby Davis, “What’s an orgasm?” — See how little holes in your education can make a big impact?
Just so you don’t get caught in the same predicament… A “Cur” is a mongrel dog. Scott Hubbard couldn’t believe that someone that read the dictionary for fun wouldn’t know what a “cur” was. What the heck? I didn’t grow up in Oklahoma! — end of side story… which really isn’t a side story, since it was about a Power Plant Man — Scott Hubbard. He probably knew what a “cur” was before he could walk. — I know I haven’t told that story before! I would have remembered that.
I’m not going to go on about all the fun that I had with Ben Davis testing protective relays. I enjoy my memories, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear all about how much I looked up to this Power Plant Hero. The only thing I will add is that the time I spent with Ben during that overhaul has been etched into my memory as one of the most enjoyable times of my life. So, I’ll go onto the next step in our Protective Relay story….
A few years later, in 1993, Sonny Kendrick and Ben Davis and I were sent to “Advanced Protective Relay Maintenance” training in Dallas, Texas. I remember this time so well, I remember the address where we were went. It was at 4271 Bronze Way, Dallas, Texas. It was hosted by the same company that made that wonderful test set I pictured above. The AVO Multi-Amp Corporation.
I brought my wife Kelly and my three year old daughter Elizabeth with me. They stayed at the hotel during the day and played in the swimming pool, while I went to class.
The classes lasted four days, Monday through Thursday. That was where I learned that even though I thought our relay test set was the coolest piece of equipment in the electric shop, it turned out to be archaic by “Protective Relay Maintenance” standards. Not that it didn’t do the job…. So, in order to train us properly, they let us use our own old test set during the training so that we could see how to properly test really advanced relays such as Distant Relays, Syncro-verifier relays, Negative Sequence Relays,directional distance relays and Pilot Wire relays. — These are relays that are found in a large substation that trips high voltage lines that run long distances across the country. — I can tell you’re jealous. — Well.. I imagine it anyway. Knowing what I know now.
So, why drag you all the way to Dallas for this story? There’s a reason.
time for a second side story:
You see. Tim Flowers, whom I mentioned above, knew not too long after he met me that I have the knack of running into people that I know (or should have known in this case), would love this story. You see, I met Tim and Kirby at Oklahoma University and they drove with me to Columbia Missouri in 1979 (along with my brother Greg) when I went to register for classes at Missouri University when I decided to go back to school in my home town.
When we arrived in the town, we were hungry after driving for 8 hours straight from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Columbia, Missouri… so we stopped at Godfather’s Pizza. As we walked in, there was a girl and a guy standing at the counter ordering a pizza. The pretty girl (Pamela Ramsey) with long red hair turned and saw me. She immediately came toward me saying “Kevin Breazile!!!! You owe Me!!! Slightly shocked and pleased, I said, “What for?” She reminded me that I never gave her the pictures that were taken during the Senior Prom. You see. I had taken her to the Senior Prom.
Later I explained that this happens to me a lot. I meet people that I know in the oddest places (even though this wasn’t so odd, since I had grown up in Columbia). It was just that this was the first person we had seen since we entered town. From that point on, Tim (who later worked as a summer help at the power plant) expected that everywhere we went we would run into someone I knew….
End of the second side story. I’m sorry that this is making the post a little longer than usual. I know you have to get back to work….
So, back to the relay training course in 1993 that Ben Davis, Sonny Kendrick and I were taking in Dallas…. On Wednesday night during the training there was a dinner held in a small banquet room in the hotel. Well… of course I had to take my wife and my daughter. So here we were sitting around this table at dinner with the rest of the class of about 10 other non-Sooner Plant employees….
I decided to talk to the guy next to me. He said something back and my wife Kelly asked him, “Where in New Jersey are you from?” She had picked up on a New Jersey accent. He said, Well.. I work in the east for a company called Ebasco, but I’m really from the Midwest. (oh. That was my territory). So I asked a follow-up question. “Where in the Midwest are you from?” He said, “From Missouri.” — Oh. I thought. This is interesting. So was I.
I asked a follow-up question. “Where in Missouri are you from?” He answered…. “Columbia, Missouri.” (What? Where I had grown up?)…. So, I asked a second follow-up Question…. “What High School did you go to?” With a curious look the man answered….. “Rockbridge High School…” (Man!!! the same one as me!!!)…. The third follow-up question….. “What year did you graduate?” Now, looking really suspicious… he said, “1978”. Trying to contain my excitement… I replied….. “Oh… so, you graduated from Rockbridge High School the same year I did….”
What are the odds? There were 254 students in our graduating class. This guy who currently lived somewhere in the east is sitting next to me at a dinner of about 10 people attending Advanced Protective Relay Training in Dallas, Texas where neither of us are from, and we both graduated from the same school back in Columbia, Missouri 15 years earlier! His name is Randy Loesing. He was working for a company called Ebasco at the time. He said, “I thought I recognized you! I just wasn’t sure.” I didn’t recognize him at all until I went back home and looked in my yearbook.
It turned out that he kept in touch with two of my oldest friends from the second grade, Mark Schlemper and Brent Stewart. So we talked about them. What an incredible coincidence. Like I may have mentioned before. It happens to me all the time. It turns out that an old friend of mine from the 3rd grade in Columbia, Missouri that I used to go to his house when we were stamp collectors and had a stamp collecting club, lives 5 miles south of me today in Round Rock Texas (He’s in Pflugerville).
Russell Somers lives in the same direction and just about the same number of miles as when we were kids. Not only that, but he worked at Dell while I was working at Dell (though I didn’t know it at the time). He has an older daughter and a younger son, just like me only younger. The same is true for another 3rd grade friend that I graduated from Rockbridge Highschool and the University of Missouri with, Caryn Lile (now Caryn Iber) who lives in Wisconsin. She has a daughter and a son the same age as my kids. She was living in Tulsa when I was living in Stillwater, Oklahoma. — Like I said… happens to me all the time.
Tim Flowers realized this odd phenomenon in college. I had told him earlier that my father told me that if I was every stranded somewhere that I could look up the local Veterinarian and tell him that I was the son of Dr. James Edward Breazile, and they would help me. So, when we were hiking in the mountains in Colorado and we met a man walking along a trail in the middle of nowhere above Estes Park near the Great Divide, when I told him who I was, he gave us a curious look…. then divulged his most intimate secrets of his life and where he had stashed his most values possessions, Tim told me later. “I really thought he was going to know who you were when he gave us that funny look.” I replied. “I think he did..”
I again apologize for the length of this post. It is rare that I ramble on this long. I can thank Ramblin’ Ann for the ability to Ramble so well. I can thank Ben Davis for recognizing a rambling situation and replacing it with a rock and roll learning opportunity. As I said earlier. One of the most enjoyable times I have spent in my entire life is the time I spent with Ben Davis testing Protective Relays! Bless you Ben and I pray for you, your wife, your son and your daughter on the way to work each morning.
Today when I hear any of the hundreds of rock and roll songs come on the radio that we listened to that month and a half, I can see us testing the relays, looking off into space saying, “Rolling Stones?” “No. Steve Miller Band?” Really? I thought Browneyed Girl was sung by the Rolling Stone! It turned out that the version that we listened to was from the creator of the song, Van Morrison. Who would have thought that he would sound so much like Mick Jagger. I can see Ben saying… I see what you mean… it kind of sounds like Mick Jagger.
As an add on to this story…
I now work at General Motors in Austin Texas. My best friend in High School was a guy named Jesse Cheng (I have mentioned him in other posts, especially in reference to the phrase “Jesse! Come get your Chili!). He was two years older than me, and throughout the years we would lose track of each other and then reconnect. He went to Yale to become an Engineer, then to the University of Missouri to become a Medical Doctor, then to Harvard to earn a Masters in Public Health and Epidemiology.
It turns out that we both now work at General Motors where he works in Arlington Texas as a Medical Director and I work in IT in Austin. We can IM (Instant Message) each other whenever we want, and we talk now at least once every week.