Tag Archives: Dell

Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals

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.

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

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:

A DEC terminal like this.

A DEC terminal like this.

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?

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter

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:

 A Serial RS232-DB9 9-Pin Female to RJ45 Adapter

A Serial RS232-DB9 9-Pin Female to RJ45 Adapter

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.

St. Anthony of Padua

St. Anthony of Padua

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.”

An old intercom sort of like this only in a box that sat on the desk and it had more switches

An old intercom sort of like this only older and in a box that sat on the desk and it had more switches

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:

A dual RJ45 Wall Jack

A dual RJ45 Wall Jack

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…

An RJ45 Cable

An RJ45 Cable has 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:

The pin configuration for an RJ45 connector

The pin configuration for an RJ45 connector

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.

Craig Henry. Engineer and Gentleman

Craig Henry. Engineer and Gentleman

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.

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Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis

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.

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

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

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.

Ben Davis

Ben Davis

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.

AVO Multi-Amp SR-76 Relay Test Set

AVO Multi-Amp SR-76 Relay Test Set

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.

A panel of Protective Relays

A panel of Protective Relays

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.

A stack of 8 Track Tapes

A stack of 8 Track Tapes

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.

This is the book we used in class

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.

Weary of Power Plant Drug Testing

Originally posted February 28, 2014:

One day, seemingly out of the blue, a van drove into the parking lot of the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. It was carrying some people that had come to our plant to perform drug tests on everyone in the plant. The test consisted of each one of us going into the Men’s rest room (or Women’s rest room, depending on the usual one you occupied) and peeing into a small bottle while someone stood behind you keeping their eye on you. This was the first time drug testing like this had taken place at the plant. A few years earlier, in order to find “druggies”, the “snitch” was hired to go around and try to coax people to go hide somewhere and do drugs with the snitch. I wrote about this in the post “Power Plant Snitch“.

This was different. The first time, it would obviously have been a case of entrapment to have someone come around and ask you to go to a janitor closet somewhere and smoke an illegal substance. Drug testing was more objective. If the drug test came up positive, you knew you were either guilty of taking illegal drugs or you were pregnant (or… maybe that was the other test). We had heard before that we may at any time be subjected to drug testing, so when the people showed up to actually do it, I don’t think many people were surprised.

For the most part, there were few people that had an issue with going into the bathroom and peeing in a small bottle. There were, however, a couple of exceptions. The person that I remember had the most problem with it was Diana Brien. She said that when she went in to try to pee in a bottle with someone watching her, she just couldn’t do it. I figured this must be a problem more with women then men. For one reason. Men are always standing there peeing into something with other people standing right next to them watching them.

A urine drug test bottle

A urine drug test bottle

Just today when I was at work peeing into the urinal at work, I turned to the right and said, “Hey Tom! How’s it going?” Tom said, “Fine buddy! How are things with you?” I replied, “Oh, you know. I’m still here. That’s something.” We both nodded and went about our business. Something tells me the same thing doesn’t happen in the Women’s restroom.

With Power Plant Men, it is even more cordial than that. We tend to take showers in groups in one big community shower, where in the women’s locker room, they each had their own stall with a curtain. I only know because as an electrician, I had to go in there to change light bulbs.

The cordial nature of Power Plant Men in the shower came to my attention one day when I was a janitor cleaning out the bathroom in the Coalyard Maintenance building where the Labor Crew was housed. I remember hearing a conversation between Dale Mitchell and Chuck Morland as they were coming out of the shower. Dale told Chuck, “Gee Chuck, after seeing you, I have to question my manhood….” He went on to describe why. I won’t go into detail, but it had to do with Chuck Morland having a lot more “Manhood” than Dale had. You can probably guess that while I was around the corner mopping out the stalls where the toilets were, I was doing my best not to laugh out loud.

It literally took Dee all day to drum up enough nerve to go take the drug test. She kept drinking coffee, and water, but every time she had to go pee in front of the person from Corporate Headquarters, she froze up. By the end of the day, she had peed in the bottle, and it was over. Of the 250 employees, I don’t know if any were found to have been on drugs. After the warning, I wouldn’t have thought so. We were under the impression that if it was determined that you were on drugs, then they would take you to someplace where a more trustworthy test could be performed. If you were found to be on drugs, then we thought at that point that you would lose your job.

A few weeks before the drug tests began, when they were warning us that they were coming they said that if any of us had a drinking or a drug problem, they should come forward soon and ask for help. If you asked for help, then the company would provide services for you that would help you with your problem. If you later failed the drug test and you hadn’t asked for help, then you were going to be fired.

There was one person in our shop that we figured wasn’t going to be able to pass the drug test. That was Michael Rose. He drank so much that his blood alcohol level was normally high enough that if you were in an underground coal conveyor tunnel and the lights all went out, all you had to do was prick his finger and light it with your lighter, and you had a mini-torch until you were able to find your way out. When he passed the drug test it was pretty plain that either the test wasn’t worth a flip, or they weren’t testing for the type of alcohol Mike consumed.

In the following years, drug tests were supposedly administered by random. I will tell you why I say, “supposedly”. Some time after the initial drug test, one morning, our team was told to all get in a truck with our foreman and drive to Ponca City to a clinic and have a drug test taken. I think this was a blood test. It was done in such a rushed way, it was like they were on to someone, but didn’t want to just have that one person go take the test. That way, no one would be upset by being singled out to go take a drug test. At least that is what it seemed.

I remember our team all sitting there in the waiting room waiting to be tested. We each went in one at a time. When we were done, we drove back to the plant, and nothing was ever found (as far as we knew). I thought maybe this was the second level test because some anomaly had showed up on one of our initial tests. Anyway, it seems like all of us passed the second round of drug tests.

After that, about once ever year or two, a set of people would be randomly chosen from the plant to be drug tested. I know when most of those drug tests occurred because I was randomly chosen more times than not to be tested. In the next 10 years, I was tested at least 5 more times. So much so that I began to wonder why. It seemed as if every time there was a “random” drug test, I was chosen. I was usually with a different bunch of Power Plant Men, but each time I was there. Was I just so lucky? I am you know. I wrote a post about that. See “Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck“.

I may have just been paranoid, but it came as less of a surprise each time. The tests even became more sophisticated. Eventually, there was a chart on the side of the bottle you peed in. So, not only did it take your temperature, but it also measured your urine to see if you were trying to cheat the test.

A color chart for a drug test that includes a test to see if you have been cheating on the test.

A color chart for a drug test that includes a test to see if you have been cheating on the test.

I didn’t mind taking the tests. I figured it might as well be me than any of the other Power Plant Men. Why bother them? We were all clean.

It was when I was watching a movie once where someone sniffed some cocaine up their nose that an idea came to me as to why I might be singled out to take the drug test each couple of years. You see, I had the habit of wiping my nose with the back of my hand. Not because I had the sniffles, but because it was irritated all the time.

When I was in college I had my nose broken one night when a friend, Jeff Firkins and I were going for a walk in Columbia, Missouri. It was around two in the morning, and somehow we just ended up in Douglas Park spinning around on a merry-go-round.

A merry-go-round like this, only less colorful

A merry-go-round like this, only less colorful

My friends from Columbia who read this blog know that when you were Caucasian in the spring of 1980, it is not a clever idea to go play on the merry-go-round in Douglas Park at night. I seem to remember looking very Caucasian in 1980.

We were having so much fun that we didn’t mind when a couple of local park dwellers came and gave us a subtle hint that they wanted us to leave their turf. So, eventually, it ended with a scuffle between myself and 4 other guys in which I ended up with a broken nose. I knew that I had a cut across my nose from one guy’s ring, but I didn’t realize it was actually broken until many years later when an ear, nose and throat doctor x-rayed it and showed it to me.

I thought that because I was always rubbing my nose, then Louise Kalicki was suggesting to the drug testers that I would be likely candidate for sniffing something up my nose. I didn’t mind disappointing them each time. The nearest I came to sniffing something up my nose was when I worked in the bakery and I ate a lot of powdered donuts.

When I left the electric company in 2001, in order to go work for Dell, I had to take a drug test. I had to go to a local doctor in Stillwater, Oklahoma and have my blood drawn. Then that was the end of it. After working for Dell for 12 years, I have not been subjected to repeated drug testing. Working in a corporate environment is much different, however than working in a power plant.

I think it is much more of a factor when the Power Plant Men and Women that work in a Power Plant are on drugs. I certainly wouldn’t want to work around someone on drugs in a power plant. There are too many ways in which someone could be hurt or killed. Driving heavy equipment, or operating machinery that could crush you in a heartbeat, you want to make sure that the person in the driver’s seat is fully functional and aware.

There was only one time when I was at the plant where I can remember that someone was fired because they were on the job while they were intoxicated. It was an unfortunate case, because the poor guy had things going on in his life at the time that were only exacerbated by him losing his job. I think at one point, he became so low after being fired that someone described him as a bum roaming the streets of Tulsa.

I had only wished that it had been possible for him to have kept his dignity and been offered help. I know those things aren’t always possible and there were other factors involved I’m sure. Just a side note. I believe that this man, whom I have always held in the highest regard, finally picked himself up by his bootstraps and regained his self respect.

As I mentioned earlier, Mike Rose passed his drug test that day, to everyone’s surprise. Even he was surprised. One weekend he had been called out to work to fix the air conditioner for the logic room. When Bill Bennett called Mike, Mike told him that he had been drinking and he wasn’t really fit to go to work at the moment. Bill assured him that it would be all right, if he could only go out and get the logic room air conditioner fixed quickly.

The logic room is the room that houses the plant computer that runs all the equipment in the plant (or it did at the time). It didn’t like being warm. If you can imagine the heat in the middle of the summer in Oklahoma. The plant operation was going to be jeopardized if something wasn’t done quickly. Jim Stevenson had already been fired because of the Snitch that I mentioned at the top of the post. So at the time, Mike was the only option available.

Mike went to work and found that the main relay to the air conditioning unit wasn’t picking up. So, in his inebriated state, he took a block of wood and pressed it against the lever that manually pushed the relay in, and closed the door on it so that the block of wood was pinned between the door and the lever. Keeping the air conditioner running. Needless to say, there was a legitimate reason why the relay wasn’t picking up, and by Monday morning the unit had burned up.

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

This is a large air conditioner a third of the size than the one that Mike Rose worked on

I think it was Leroy (or it may have been Tom Gibson) wanted to fire him right away for going to work drunk and destroying the air conditioner. Bill Bennett came to his rescue and pointed out that Mike had warned him before he came to work that he was drunk and Bill had assured him that it would be all right just this once. What could you say? I suppose shoulders were shrugged and life at the Power Plant went on as usual. I don’t think the drug testing ever amounted to anything. When someone was let go, it wasn’t because they had peed in a bottle.

Lizzie Borden meets Power Plant Man

Originally posted March 8, 2014. Added comments from the original post:

I have many stories that I am going to write about the extraordinary Power Plant Men in North Central Oklahoma from 1988 to 1994 this year, but it happened that I was watching a recorded episode of Forensic Files (otherwise known as Mystery Detectives) on TV tonight and it made me remember…. The story I was watching was about a women that was kidnapped in Pennsylvania June 1988 and murdered in order to draw the husband to a location where the kidnapper could collect the ransom and murder the husband. The man guilty of the crime was found to be a person that shared a pew in the Presbyterian Church with the couple but held a grudge against the husband for turning him down for a loan at the bank a few months earlier.

While I watched this show, I flashed back to June 9, 1988 and suddenly remembered the moment I was standing in the parts cage in the back of the electric shop in the main switchgear at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Okahoma when I heard about the murder of Mark Stepp.

Mark Stepp was an Instrument and Controls employee at our plant. Both he and his wife had been brutally murdered while they slept in their home in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Mark Stepp had been shot once and stabbed many times. His wife Delores had been stabbed to death an excessive amount of times until she was passed dead. I cringe to think about it to this day.

The next thing that entered my mind while watching this video was one month earlier on May 6, 1988. We had a new Electrical Supervisor, Tom Gibson, and he had sent Terry Blevins and I with two of the Instrument and Controls men to Tulsa to a class at Nelson Electric to learn how to program an Allen Bradley PLC (programmable Logic controller).

PLC Training Certificate

PLC Training Certificate

When I think about this instance, I remember Ron Madron driving us to Tulsa to the training (Ron. I know you read this post, so you an correct me if I’m wrong). It could have been Glenn Morgan. One thing I definitely remember is that Mark Stepp was with us that day.

Terry Blevins

My dear friend Terry Blevins

The reason I remember that Mark was with us that day, was because when the training was over around 1:30 or 2:00 pm. Mark didn’t want to go directly back to the plant. He wanted to go for a ride around Tulsa. This wouldn’t be so peculiar, except that a little more than a month later, Mark Stepp was brutally shot and stabbed to death while he slept in his bed along with his wife.

Somehow I always felt that Mark’s behavior the day when we went to learn how to program Allen Bradley Programmable Logic Controllers was somehow related to his death. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. I’ll let you decide.

So, let me describe what happened early morning on June 8, 1988 (or 6/8/88 for those of you who are fascinated with numbers like I am). In the middle of the night, someone walked into Mark Stepp and his wife’s Dolore’s bedroom, and shot Mark Stepp in the neck. Then proceeded to stab Mark Stepp and his wife an excessive amount of times until they were past dead. I lost count of the number of stab wounds. They were stabbed so many times.

I remember first hearing about this when I had walked into the electric shop parts cage when I had gone there to look for some receptacle boxes.  Andy Tubbs came into the cage and told me about the murder. The entire Instrument and Control Shop was on “high alert”. Suppose this person was murdering Instrument and Controls Power Plant Men at our plant! That day, no one really knew the motive.

I think some people from our plant were interviewed about the murder. I don’t know. I do know that Francine Stepp, their daughter was often mentioned in the discussion. She was on the same Softball team with her mother and father and many people at the plant were on this same softball team. They were all concerned with her well-being since after spending the night at her friend’s house, she came home and found her parents murdered in their bed.

During the next month while the police were investigating the crime, many revelations came out about Mark Stepp and his wife Dolores. None of which surprised me, though, it may have surprised those that worked more closely with Mark. You see, Mark has showed his true colors that day when we had all driven together to Tulsa to go to training.

When training had finished for the day, Terry Blevins and I (and Ron Madron, if he was the person driving) had counted on getting back to the plant in time to go home at a decent time. Mark Stepp, on the other hand had something else in mind. He wanted to go for a drive through Tulsa.

This didn’t make much sense to me at first, since I couldn’t figure out why someone wouldn’t want to return to the plant in plenty of time to fill out our time cards and get ready to go home to our wives and children (well… I didn’t have any children at the time, but I do remember wanting to go home at the regular time).

It didn’t make sense to me until we were driving down what seemed to be the frontage road of I-44 at the time and we came up to 6410 E. 11th Street. A similar thing happened to me just last week when a friend of mine was celebrating his 20th year at Dell and a person from Security who was playing a joke on my friend pulled into a location at 6528 North Lamar in Austin Texas. My gut sucked up like I was going to be sick as his friend pulled up to the entrance and proclaimed that this was the second part of his 20 year anniversary present. Well. my friend happened to be in like mind with me, which felt a sudden urge of betrayal and confusion. I’ll let you do your own homework at this point.

Mark Stepp asked us if we wanted to stop at a “Gentleman’s Club”. Really? With three die-hard Power Plant Men in the car? The rest of us unanimously voted to go back to the plant. Ok. That was an indicator that Mark had something going on with his life that was not quite wholesome.

I bring this up because later I was not surprised to learn during the investigation of Mark Stepp’s murder that he had been involved with a group that included “Wife Swapping”. I know there were a lot of rumors going around at the time that one of the persons involved in the murder must have been involved in the occult, and that it made sense given the manner of death. None of this surprised me.

At one point we learned that videotapes had been found in the house of hidden tapes of their daughter while she thought she had privacy in her bathroom or bedroom. I don’t know if this was true or not, but I wasn’t surprised if it had been true. Actually, after that day in Tulsa, nothing surprised me about Mark Stepp anymore.

I don’t mean to sound cruel. I grieved when I learned about Mark and his wife’s death as much as many other Power Plant Men. No matter the circumstances. It was a great tragedy. Whatever hatred had been the cause of this murder, it had been caused by tragic events proceeding this murder, I have no doubt.

I say this, because within a month of the murder, the murderer had been located. It turned out to be their own daughter Francine. I didn’t know the family at all, and I have never met Francine. Other Power Plant people knew them much better. As I said, they were on a softball team together. Francine played on a team with her mother and father. This came as a shock to them all.

Many people blamed her accomplice Cindy Sue Wynn. Francine’s parents had told Francine that they didn’t like Cindy and wanted her to stay away from her. The story is that Francine was spending the night at Cindy’s house when they devised a plot to kill Mark and Delores. Francine was 18 years old at the time, and was a Freshman at Oklahoma State University. If you would like to learn more about the murder you can find articles from the Daily Oklahoman here: “Two Stillwater Teens Facing Death Charges” and “Man Says he Heard Death Plot“.

They both pleaded guilty and Cindy was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 1990, two years later, Cindy pleaded to be placed on a “pre-parole” program which was denied. Francine was sentenced to life in prison. Since that tragic day, Francine Stepp was eligible for parole in 2003. She was denied parole then, and has since been up for parole in 2006, 2009 and 2012. Francine’s next parole hearing is June 2015.

Francine Stepp

Francine Stepp

Just like the day that Jim Stevenson walked out of the shop telling Bill Ennis about the Snitch stealing the portable generator (See the post, “Power Plant Snitch“), I sat back and didn’t say anything when I heard about Francine’s conviction. What I had to say really wasn’t relevant. Just because it didn’t shock me that this particular daughter was so easily talked into murdering her parents by her friend, what I knew was no proof that she had been abused as a child.

Francine has now served 26 years in prison for murdering her parents. Her accomplice has been out of jail for at least 16 years. Francine is now over 44 years old. After 25 years, I think someone needs to take a fresh look at the motive as to why she would have wanted to take the life of her parents. Was it really because her parents didn’t want her to “play” with Cindy? Does that make much sense? Especially with all the other possible motives floating around.

I have recently been watching reruns of “Forensic Files” (also known as Mystery Detectives) on Headline News (CNN). I keep waiting for the episode about Francine Stepp running to her neighbor’s house on the morning of June 8, 1988 screaming that her parents have been murdered. Knowing full well that she had murdered them… But what really was the motive?

Was it really that her parents didn’t let this 18 year old girl spend time with her friend? Then how was she spending the night with her on June 7? Which parent hasn’t forbidden their child to play with someone because they were a bad influence? When did that ever do any good or amount to a hill of beans?

The little time I had spent with Mark Stepp a couple of months before his murder gave me a small glimpse into his life, and maybe the life of his daughter. I didn’t really know the guy. I do know, however, that a true Power Plant Man wouldn’t try to drag three other married Power Power Plant Men (though I was only a pseudo-Power Plant Man myself), to an indecent “Gentleman’s Club” (especially while on the clock).

So, I have to wonder. Will anyone go to Francine’s defense June 2015? Does she even care anymore? I don’t think she even showed up to her own parole hearing in 2012. She has spent many more years in prison than out of it in her life so far. If she was released, what would she do? Can you start your life over again when it came to a halt when you were only 18?

This is a hard post for me to write. I have a daughter who is 24 years old this month. She was born almost 2 years after this tragic event took place, and one year after Francine was convicted of murdering her parents. During my own daughter’s entire life, Francine has been in jail for murdering her parents. Her father worked at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

If Mark Stepp could speak from the grave today at Francine’s next parole hearing, I wonder what he would say? I only know what those at the plant who knew her would say. They all thought she got along with her parents. They thought her parents were proud of her. Billy Joel sang a song called “The Stranger“. It is about looking in the mirror and seeing that other side of you that you don’t let anyone else see. I suppose some people really have one of those lives where they aren’t really honest with the rest of the world. Billy Joel did, evidently. Maybe Mark Stepp did as well.

I have known for a while that I had to write about this story. I have dreaded this post. I am glad to have finally written it. Now I can put it behind me.

Comments from the original Post:

    1. Ron March 8, 2014

      Wow – I hadn’t thought about Mark’s murder in years. This verse gives me hope: Mark 4:22 For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.

      Thanks for another great story!

    1. Jessamine in PDX March 8, 2014:

      Wow, that’s an intense story. It certainly seems like there was more going on with Francine than anyone knew. Sad all around, but a very interesting post.

    1. Dan Antion  March 30, 2014:

      I can only imagine how hard this was to write. Nice job, I hope writing this helps you in some way. It is amazing how friends can detect something below the surface in other friends. I know that feeling, but nothing like this.

    1. Jack Curtis March 31, 2014:

      Hard to read, too. But if we are to understand our species, we have to know such things. And we need to understand when we raise kids … and when we vote, too.

    1. Libby August 27, 2014:

      I can’t for the life of me find the person’s name who wrote this, but I wanted to thank them for doing so. I went to school with Francine and had some of the same classes, but we did not know each other well. I always wondered what happened on that night and why she did it. She was very quiet in high school and as the years progressed she seemed to go from being ‘shy quiet’ to ‘angry quiet’ if that makes sense. I knew absolutely nothing about her life whatsoever so this is just an outsider’s observation. Reading the news made one think that she was this monster. I mean who could fathom killing their parents? However, none of us knew what Francine had to deal with in her life. To be able to commit this type of crime possibly points to some deep-seated anger and animosity. Your input gave me a little snippet of another viewpoint and I thank you for that and I’m sure Francine would as well.
      You say you dreaded this post and I’m sure it was very difficult for you. I hope it released anything you were carrying within you. Thank you again as it has shed some light for me and hopefully others as well

    1. Cameron September 4, 2014

      I would encourage anyone reading this post (and the author of this post) to read the book “Unlikely Assassins: The Shocking True Story of a Couple Savagely Murdered by Their Own Teenage Daughter”. It is a book about this murder and contains a lot of information that was gathered while interviewing the detectives involved in this case.

      Ann September 24, 2014

      I knew Dee at OSU – as a student and as a coworker. She shared stories about her family, and I believed her and Mark to be loving, involved parents. I was saddened and shocked to hear about these deaths, Francine’s involvement and the things they were involved in. It looks like Dee and Mark were not the only victims in this family. It reminds me that we never know everything about our friends and acquaintances, and that we need to remember to pray constantly for others.

When Enough Power Plant Stuff Just Ain’t Enough

Originally posted March 21, 2014:

As a young novice Power Plant Summer Help, I had watched seasoned Power Plant Men measure the distance between two points by walking between them and multiplying the number of steps by three. At first I wondered how they could be sure that their strides were all exactly three feet apart. Because the end result of these actions usually came out pretty close to their estimate, over time I began to think that the length of the stride of any respectable Power Plant Man must naturally be three feet.

So, one day when I was working on going to pull a cable from one manhole to the next, I decided I wanted to know the distance before I pulled a lot of cable off of the cable reel. So, I remember that I grabbed the tape measure out of my tool bucket and began walking at as normal of a gait as I could.

I thought if I measured the first step, or even the last step I took that it would somehow be a different size because I wasn’t moving at my normal speed. So. I figured I would surprise myself by just stopping at some random step as I walked between the two manholes.

I don’t know if anyone was watching me as I stood out in the field just north of the two smokestacks, if they were watching me, then they would have seen me pause and stand still for a moment looking down. Start messing around with my feet. Then take a few more steps. Pause once more and do the same thing.

What I was doing was stopping in the middle of my stride when I had just put a foot down, before I lifted the other foot and with my Stanley metal tape measure, I was measuring the distance from the back of one heel to the back of the other heel.

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

A Standard Power Plant Issued Stanley PowerLock 25 foot metal Tape Measure

I can’t say that I was too disappointed to find that my stride was not exactly three feet. I hadn’t figured I was completely Power Plant Man material anyway. It turned out to be exactly 30 inches. Or two and a half feet. So, I realized I was about 3/4 Power Plant Man measured by my stride.

I found that I could easily walk between two points and measure the distance with great accuracy by multiplying the number of steps by two and a half feet. With great knowledge comes great responsibility…. or…um… something like that. Hence the story about how enough was not quite enough.

During the spring of 1992 I was tasked with running telephone cable to various points around the plant. We were going to begin installing a new computer network known as the “Ethernet”. When I first heard the name, I thought they were referring to something in space, where it used to be the belief that there was an area called the “Ether”. But as it turned out, it was the regular network that is still in use today.

Dennis Dunkelgod from Oklahoma City had come to the plant with a bunch of drawing much like they did a few years earlier when they wanted me to install the Dumb Terminals all over the place. (See Post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“). This time the diagrams included places where PCs were going to be placed. And where the network server was going to be setup. This required much better quality wiring than the dumb terminals.

So, Dennis saw to it that I had 1/2 mile of 100 pair telephone cable to run from the main plant up to the coalyard. Along with the cable came a box of 25-pair punchdown blocks. I’m sure you’ve seen punchdown blocks in movies when someone is tapping into a phone line, so they go up to these punchdown blocks and hook their handset up to the wires and listen in.

Telephone punch down block

Telephone punchdown block

One of the places where I needed to place a number of computers was in the warehouse and the warehouse office. There were no good phone lines running to this building. There were barely enough to take care of the phones that were in the office at the time. So, I needed to figure out how to run the telephone cable to the warehouse which was the southern-most building in the main plant grounds.

Across the drive from the warehouse was the garage. When I looked at the phone panel in the garage, this looked like a good place to tap into the phone system. There were two 25 pair blocks in this building for only one phone. Enough for all the computers in the garage and the warehouse.

All I needed to do now was figure out how to pull a 50 pair telephone cable from the garage over to the warehouse. After looking for the conduit that brought the existing cable into the garage, I was able to determine how it went over to a hand hole at the north corner of the building and then over to a manhole not far away.

A hand hole was a shallow hole in the ground that has buried conduit coming into it. Our handholes had a large piece of concrete covering it.

A man standing in a handhole

A man standing in a handhole

When I looked at the handhole I suddenly remembered that in during the week of March 21, 1981 I had visited the Power Plant to pick up my application to apply for working as a summer help for my 3rd summer. I was wearing a beard that day when I arrived. While I was in college, I usually wore a beard in the winter to keep my face warm because I rode my bike a lot, and it helped keep my face warm.

I had my friend Tim Flowers with me that day because he was going to apply to be a pre-novice Power Plant Man and work as a summer help also that summer. It was snowing that day and it was almost 4:30pm. Quittin’ Time by the time I had said hello to the many Power Plant Men that I hadn’t seen since the previous summer.

We were heading back out to the parking lot when I heard someone hollering at me. I looked over toward the garage and there was Jim Heflin sitting on a backhoe digging a ditch. He had turned off the backhoe so that I could hear him yelling at me.

A Backhoe

Here is a picture of a backhoe

The Backhoe that Jim was on didn’t have a cab on it. He was all bundled up trying to keep warm. I believe when he pulled down his face warmer, he too was wearing a beard. He said that before he could go home that day he had to finish this rush job to dig a ditch all around the back and side of the garage.

When I returned the next summer Jim asked me if I remembered him digging the ditch in the snow that day in March. I told him I did. Then he said, “Come here.” We walked around the side of the garage, and sure enough. There was the ditch still open leading around the side and back of the garage. He said, “It was such a rush job I had to stay out in the snow digging this ditch before I could go home, and it has been left untouched since then.

The reason I bring this up, was because the ditch he had been digging was for the conduit that went from the handhole around the back of the garage and over to the warehouse. Later that summer the Construction crew from downtown came out to the plant and laid the conduit in the ditch and covered it back up. So, I knew how the cable needed to run from handhole to handhole over to the warehouse. Oh. Before I forget. Here is a picture of Jim Heflin with a beard:

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

So, back to figuring out how to get the cable to that warehouse. I measured how far it was from the punch down blocks to where it went down into the ground. From there I walked with my normal gait (which I knew was exactly 30 inches – remember?) counting my steps.

I measured how many steps it was to each handhole and over to the warehouse. where the conduit came up out of the ground and went into the warehouse. In this manner I calculated that I needed 775 feet exactly.

I figured I didn’t want to use the 100 pair cable. That was a lot more cable than we would ever need for this job, so I went up to Bill Bennett’s office and told him that I needed 775 feet of 50-pair telephone cable to go from the garage to the warehouse. He said that he would order some.

I don’t remember what time it was when I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking that the length of cable was just going to reach the telephone junction box, and not enough to comfortably reach the punch down blocks halfway up the junction box. So, when I arrived at work in the morning I went straight to Bill’s office and told him that I should have ordered at least 800 feet of cable instead of 775, just to be safe. Bill told me that he had already placed the order for 775 feet. It was too late to change it.

I thought to myself… surely when you order 775 feet of cable they will send some reasonable amount, like 1000 feet. Would they really cut it off at 775 feet exactly. So, I told myself it would be all right.

Sure enough. a couple of days later a reel of 50 pair telephone cable showed up in the electric shop. In big numbers written on the side of the real in red marker were the numbers “775 ft.” Oh geez.

Ok. Somehow I was going to have to make this work. Cross my fingers that maybe my stride was only 28 and a half inches now instead of 30 inches and I had measured it longer than it really was.

So, I pulled the cable from the garage, through the manholes over to the warehouse. In order to pull it from the last handhole into the junction box in the warehouse I had strapped some mule tape to it that I had strung earlier through the conduit using a fish tape. I remember going inside and beginning to pull the last bit of the cable to the junction box hoping to see the end of the cable come up out the conduit.

As I was pulling the cable, I could feel the cable beginning to bind up as it was tightening up in the last handhole. I was still only holding mule tape when I couldn’t pull anymore. Meaning that I didn’t have any cable yet.

So, I went back to the garage and pushed as much cable into the conduit that I could and still punch down the wires on the punchdown block. I even lowered the punchdown block in the junction box hoping that the extra foot would help. Then I went to each handhole and pulled the cable from the garage in the direction of the warehouse until it was as tight around the corners as it would go.

I had managed to pull an extra 2 feet or so into the last handhole. Now all I had left was to go into the warehouse and pull the mule tape to see if the cable would reach the junction box. — Suspense. Yeah. I know.

When I pulled the last 2 feet of cable from the handhole into the junction box, the end of the cable came out. But only about 1 foot of cable was in the junction box. A punchdown block is about 1 foot long.

So, in order to be able to punch the telephone cable down on the punch down block, I had to put the punchdown block at the bottom of the junction box, right where the cable came out of the conduit. On both ends of the cable, I never had to cut one inch of cable from either end. After making sure I had every inch of cable pulled tight through every handhole, I punched down both ends using the handy dandy Telephone wire punchdown tool.

Telephone wire punch down tool

Telephone wire punch down tool

I told myself that from now on, I was always going to throw in a couple hundred extra feet whenever someone asks me how much cable I need. That was too close! You would have thought I learned my lesson.

Now, 22 years later, I still have the same problem as a business analyst at Dell. Part of my job is estimating how long it is going to take to complete various parts of a project. I always make the same mistake and try to over-analyze it so that I can give a really accurate value. The problem is, that I don’t take into account that things take longer than you would think because of factors out of our control.

My project managers know me well enough to take the number that I give them and add a decent amount of time to my estimates. I even tell them that they should because I always underestimate the time. I always estimate how long it would take me to do it personally and I’m not usually the person that is actually writing the code.

Through the last 12 and a half years while working at Dell, I have never missed a go-live date. Oh. Just like this story, we finish on time, but with little or no time to spare. We are always up to the wire. Beginning right when I said we would and ending on the date we planned. Believe me. Just as I pulled every inch of slack out of that cable that day, we end up doing the same with the progress of our projects.

So, I guess I still haven’t learned to properly pad my estimates to reduce the risk of falling short. I think it has something to do with my personality and the way everything has to be mathematically calculated in my head.

Comments form the original post:

    1. NEO March 21, 2014

      Hah! my stride (heel to toe) is 3 feet, two strides to the link. That’s what practice does.

      But I have learned to add 10% to everything (nearly), somehow it always gets used. 🙂

    1. jerrychicken March 24, 2014

      In the early 70s I was an assistant to a surveyor in a large electrical contractors when we tendered for, and won, a contract to rewire a local Town Hall, the unusual thing about the job being that the engineers had specified pyro (fireproof) cable throughout the building, some of which was large three phase stuff and very expensive.

      We scaled up the runs from a 1:100 drawing and placed the orders according to those measurements, each of the large cables being cut specially for that run – every single length was wrong when it was installed, short by several feet.

      It took a lot of measuring on site to realize that the drawings were totally inaccurate, this was a Town Hall that had been built in stone around 150 years earlier and some of the walls were two or three feet thick, on the drawings they looked like standard stud walls.

      Expensive lesson to learn but I kept my job 🙂

    1. Jonathan Caswell March 24, 2014

      Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
      MEASURING YOUR STRIDE—IS THAT ANYTHING FOR A NOVICE LIKE LOOKING FOR SNIPE IS FOR A YOUNG BOY SCOUT?

  1. They always told me to expect things that needed measurement to be available in one of only two quantities: Too much, or too little. I discovered for myself that cutting something to fit where it was needed inevitably reclassified it from on of those categories to the other …

Power Plant Pilfering and Being Peeved with Peavler

Originally posted April 5, 2014:

Today, work ended in a strange way.  I was working away at Dell when I had a call with a business partner to go over some configuration of our timekeeping application.  When I joined the call, the person on the other end of the line, who usually sounded like a normal woman with a slightly Hispanic accent sounded more like an insect alien with a very nervous tic.

I tried several quick remedies on my computer to resolve the audio issues I was experiencing.  You see, at Dell, when we use the telephone, we are actually using our computer with a headset attached.  After shutting down a few processes that I knew were not necessary in the hope of clearing up our communication, I thought that maybe rebooting my computer would be the simple solution.  That was the lesson I had learned back at the gas-powered power plant in Harrah Oklahona in 1985.

Ellis Rook had told me back then that he didn’t mess with trying to figure out why the phone system wasn’t working.  Whenever there was a problem, he preferred to just reload the program from disk, which took about a half an hour.  No worries that all the phones in the plant would be down for a half an hour as the Rolm Phone computer was rebooting.  So, I rebooted my system, since restarting the communication program didn’t work.

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

When my computer rebooted and I attempted to log in, when the screen would go blank just before the moment when you would expect the wallpaper to show up, my computer would indicate that it was logging me off and then would shutdown only to restart again….  Drats!  …and I had this important call with my coworker that I was sure had not really changed into the alien that had been talking to me moments before.

I tried this a couple more times, and each time the computer would shutdown and restart.  So, I swiveled around in my chair and turned to my current manager who was sitting across the bullpen cube from me and I said, “My computer has crashed.”  It just keep restarting.  She replied, “Go take it down to the computer clinic and have them fix it.  They are great!  They will fix you up right away.

Like this only bigger to fit seven docking stations

Our bullpen cube is like this only bigger to fit seven docking stations.  adding an extra seat in the back and one extra on each side

On a side note, I just want to add that my current manager at Dell has been the absolute most influential manager I have ever met next to Charles Foster.  She has perfected the art of “Expanding her bubble”.  Charles taught me this technique many years ago.

So, on a side note of a side note, let me just tell you what my former foreman Charles Foster at the Power Plant did once.  He ordered some equipment for everyone in the electric shop which ran into a few “extra” dollars.  When he was called on the carpet to explain why he thought he had the authority to make this purchase, he explained it this way:

“When I went to ‘manager training’ they told me that during your career you will have times where it will be necessary to perform activities that you are not sure you are able to perform, so you should go ahead and try them.  If you get your hand slapped, you just pull back and don’t do that again.’  This is called ‘Expanding your bubble’.  I was just  expanding my bubble.”  He said Ben Brandt, the assistant plant manager, looked at him with a blank stare for a moment, and then told him that he was free to go.  Evidently, according to the listening devices that we had hidden in his office, Ben turned to Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor, and said, “That’s a pretty good explanation.”

I bring this encounter up, because my current manager, Ali Levin, of whom I also have the greatest respect, just recently had an opportunity to expand her bubble.  She was so successful that those around her that know what she has accomplished just stare in awe at her.  I predict that within the next decade this young lady will have become the CIO (Chief Information Officer) of a Fortune 500 company (mark my word).

So, what does this all have to do with Charles Peavler and Power Plant Pilfering?  Well.  The final verdict from the super technicians down in our computer repair lab, said that since it was Friday afternoon, I wouldn’t be able to have my computer back in working order until Monday morning.  Which meant that I would have to go all weekend without being able to log in and perform feats of magic on my laptop.

Ok.  I was resigned to go home early and wait patiently until Monday morning when I could begin popping up various applications and flipping between them and the multiple Instant Message windows talking to various business customers throughout the day as I performed the satisfying dance of my day-to-day job.  So.  I left work early.

This evening as I sat down to create a post about Power Plant Men and my previous life working as an electrician at a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahama, the sudden loss of my computer flashed me back to a time when someone that was working with me experienced a similar loss.  Instead of a laptop.  This electrician had lost a set of “Jumpers”.

 

Electric Jumpers

Electric Jumpers

Ok.  These jumpers don’t look like much, I know.  But jumpers are almost as important to a plant electrician as a laptop is to an IT developer at Dell.  That is, you just can’t get your work done without it.

So, it was either Donald Relf or Bob Eno who was working with me on Friday, March 29, 1993.  During overhaul, we had been calibrating precipitator control cabinets all day.  Much like today, April 5, 2014 when my computer died.  At the end of the day as we were packing up our equipment Bob or Donald, I don’t remember, saw me leave my tool bucket next to the old typewriter stand that we were using as a portable workbench.  He asked me if it was safe to leave our tool buckets there over the weekend.

I assured him that the coal-fired plant in North Central Oklahoma hired only “top-notch” Power Plant Men.  His tools would be perfectly safe sitting out in the Precipitator control room over the weekend.  I was so confident because I had always left my tools where I was working in the precipitator during overhaul and I had never had anything stolen.  If anything, someone may have left me a present of chocolate behind only because they knew that I always did favors for chocolate.

You can imagine my surprise when we returned to the Precipitator Control Room on Unit 1 on Monday morning only to find that Bob (or Donald) had their jumpers missing from their tool bucket.  We each used 5 gallon buckets to carry our tools.  Mine had been untouched.  No extra chocolate that day, but no unsavory fingerprints were detected.

A black tool bucket like this

I had a black tool bucket like this

As it turned out, we relied on Bob’s (or Donald’s) jumpers to do our job, so we actually had to return to the electric shop and create a new set of jumpers for him.  I felt so ashamed.  After all, I had so proudly explained that only those with the greatest integrity worked at our plant, and he didn’t have to worry about leaving his tools, and here I was having to cover for his losses.  This was the only time in the 20 years I worked at the Power Plant where someone had stolen something from a tool bucket when they weren’t purposely playing a joke on me.

When I found time that day, I went to the control room and asked the Shift Supervisor if he could tell me who worked as the Unit 1 auxiliary operator over the weekend.  I knew that this would narrow the culprit down to three people.  He looked through his logs and said that Darrell Low, Charles Peavler and Jim Kanelakos had Unit 1 over the weekend.

Knowing how the shifts worked, I knew that each of these people had walked through the Unit 1 precipitator exactly 3 times over the weekend, before we returned on Monday morning. I also knew that no one else would have ventured to stroll through the Precipitator control room who was working over the weekend on overhaul.  I knew this because of all the hundreds of hours I had already spent in this control room over the weekend, only one operator per shift ever visited.  It was usually my reminder to take a break and go to the bathroom and buy something from a vending machine before returning.

I studied this list.  Hmmm….. Darrell Low….  A person with impeccable character.  Would love to play a good joke when given the change, but honest as the day is long.  Jim Kanelakos…. Devious at times, but personally a very good friend.  A person so dear to me that I him kept personally in my daily prayers.  Charles Peavler… well… by the title of this post…. you already know the rest of the story.

I eliminated Darrell immediately since I knew his character and I would trust him with my life (which I actually would at times when he would place clearances for me).  I suspected Peavler right off, but I thought I would make sure that Jim Kanelakos wasn’t just playing a joke on me first.  So, I approached him and asked him if he had taken a pair of jumpers from a tool bucket in the Precipitator control room over the weekend.

At first Jim looked at me with a hurt feeling that I thought might be a perfect expression if he was playing a joke on me.  He was holding the look of sorrow and hurt that I would actually accuse him vaguely of stealing a pair of jumpers from a tool bucket.  When I pressed him on the issue.  The hurt look changed to a look of resolve and he said directly, “No.  I didn’t take them.”

I knew immediately that he was telling me the truth.  Jim and I had worked together with Charles Peavler on the labor crew together.  We actually used to analyse his behavior as sort of a joke, and kind of a refresher of our Psychology background.  Jim Kanelakos had earned a Masters Of Arts in Psychology, while I had a bachelors in the same field.  So, we used to have fun joking around together about the unusual behavior of Peavler.

Charles Peavler looked like the Sergeant on Gomer Pyle.  Except that he had chewed tobacco so long that his lower lip was permanently curled so that he looked like Popeye.  I say that because they had the same lower jaw and the same amount of hair on his head:

Popeye

Popeye or is it Charles Peavler

Once I was certain that Charles Peavler had taken the Jumpers from Bob’s (or Donald’s – I’m relying on one of you telling me which one) tool bucket, I approached him with the attitude that I already knew it was him.  I came up to him in the Control room and said, “Charles!  You know that pair of jumpers that you took from that tool bucket over the weekend?  I need those back!”

I  explained to him that I had told the visiting electrician that it was safe to leave his tools there because no one would touch his stuff.  So, I felt personally responsible to get the jumpers back.  Charles immediately denied that he had taken the jumpers.  He said that he didn’t know what I was talking about.  I told him that I had checked, and he was the only person over the weekend that would have taken them.  So, I needed them back.  He continued to deny that he had taken them.

As the overhaul was lasting a few weeks longer, I continually approached Charles in the middle of the control room where the Control Room operators were within earshot asking him to give the jumpers back to me.  I would tell him how I need them so that we could continue our work.  Also I would explain each time that the reputation of our Power Plant was at stake.

Finally one day he said, “Well.  I don’t have them here.  I took them home.” — That was a great relief to me.  I had been continually accusing him day after day of taking those jumpers.  I was finally glad to find out I hadn’t been accusing someone falsely, which was always a vague thought in the back of my mind.  The moment he told me he had taken the jumpers home, I jumped on him (not literally – though the thought occurred to me).  I said, “I need those jumpers back!”

It took about a week.  Each day whether he was on the day shift or the night shift or the evening shift, since we were on overhaul working a lot of overtime, he was not able to escape me.  I would go up to him and ask him, “Did you bring those jumpers today? ”  Each time in the middle of the control room, quite loudly.

Finally, about a week after he admitted having the jumpers when I asked him about it in the middle of the control room, he went into the locker room and soon returned with the pair of jumpers and handed them to me.  I quickly returned them to Bob (or Donald), and apologized profusely for the inconvenience.  I didn’t tell him exactly what had happened to the jumpers, only that I had finally tracked them down.

I guess, he didn’t know that I knew him so well.  So well in fact that to this day, I have kept Charles Peavler also in my prayers every day.  When he lost his mother in on April 1, 2000 (fourteen years this week), I felt his loss also.  He left the plant on July 29, 1994 during the last (and the worst) downsizing the Power Plant ever experienced.  To this day, though I was peeved with Peavler back then, I still care for him deeply.  I don’t think he was a “True Power Plant Man”, but neither was Jim Kanelakos or myself.

Some day Charles will meet our maker.  When he does, he will be able to say,  “Yeah.  I did steal a pair of jumpers once.  But I ended up by giving them back.”  I clearly remember the look of relief that day when Charles placed those jumpers in my hand.  It was if a heavy burden had been lifted.  Actually, by that time I had decided that it was as important for Charles to give back those jumpers as it was for Bob (or Donald) to get them back.  Something had compelled him to lift that pair of jumpers, I think it was an opportunity for him to face reality.  I thought that he was having a “Come to Jesus” moment when he confessed.

I often wondered what Charles’ mother Opal Peavler would have thought of Charles.  I suppose she finally found out.  I suspect that by the time she found out, that Charles had mended his ways.  After all, he was on his way when we had danced this dance in the middle of the control room that week in 1992.  He did finally admit that he had stolen something.  I’m sure he thought at the time that an electrician could easily make a new pair of first class jumpers.  We wouldn’t care that someone had come along and taken one measly pair of jumpers.

Actually, if Charles had ever come to the electric shop and asked any electrician for a pair of jumpers, any one of the electricians would have been glad to whip up a pair as if by magic.  I think it was just that one moment when he was alone with a tool bucket staring at him and a  perfectly prepared pair of jumpers were gleaming up at him that in a moment of weakness, he decided he could pilfer this pair without anyone knowing.

To tell you the truth.  I was very proud of Charles Peavler the day he placed those jumpers in my hand.  Geez.  I didn’t realize until after I finished this post that I have a picture of Peavler:

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

Charles Peavler is the one standing on the left with the Pink shirt.

 

 

Power Plant Spider Wars II — The Phantom Menace

I suppose we are all  born with certain phobias.  Some people are scared of spiders.  Some people can’t stand the sight of snakes.  When I was young just speaking to a girl was the most terrifying thing I encountered.  I never liked spiders, but I didn’t have a great fear of them.  But there were times in my life when faced with an overwhelming spider army, I wondered if I should fear spiders a little more than I did.  This is one of those stories my children would want to hear when they were in the mood for a horror story.

If you are terrified by spiders, then stop reading this post now.  I don’t want to be responsible for any injuries that may occur when you fly backward off of your chair while reading this post.

I wrote a Power Plant man post three years ago called “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“.  I began that story by mentioning that there were two distinct times in my life when I went Head-to-Head with a horde of spiders.  The second time I fought side-by-side with my trusty friend and carpooling buddy, Scott Hubbard.  This post is about the second Power Plant Spider War.

I believe it was the beginning of an overhaul during October, 1997 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Scott Hubbard and I knew where we would be working.  It was the Precipitator.  The big structure that sat between the boiler and the smoke stacks.  It took the ash out of the boiler exhaust before blowing it out of the stack.  Scott and I always worked on the precipitators during overhauls.  No one else ever wanted to volunteer for that job.  It was a dirty, thankless job that the rest of the plant tried their best to ignore.  Yet, if not maintained properly, would waste more power than all the other equipment in the plant combined.

Anyway, it was a Monday morning at the beginning of the overhaul and Scott and I decided to carry some tools to the enclosed Precipitator roof to prepare for the next three weeks of work ahead of us.  It was an hour earlier than we would normally begin working because overhauls meant working long days.  So, we usually came to work in the dark, and left for home in the dark.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

Scott and I climbed the ladder to the precipitator roof from the walkway just below.  When we did, we were confronted with a site we were not expecting to see, and one that we will never forget.  In the previous Spider Wars post, when I walked into the basement below the main switchgear, I was confronted with a black moving mass of bugs, spiders and snakes….  This time, we were standing, staring what looked like a snow storm had blown through the precipitator transformers.

There are 84  eight foot tall transformers on the precipitator roof in 3 rows of 28.  Each row has the transformers staggered back and forth like the black squares on two rows on a checker board.  The row of transformers we were standing in front of was completely covered in spider webs. — Let me say it again…. Completely covered in spider webs!  Not just spider webs strung between the transformers…. No….. It was a solid net of spider webs from the ground to the top of the entire row of transformers.

Spider Webs covering the ground in Australia

Spider Webs covering the ground in Australia gives you a little idea of our problem, only our spider webs stretched 8 feet from the transformer stand to the top

Scott and I were going to be spending the next three weeks on this precipitator roof working on all of the transformers.  I don’t remember exactly how long we stood there staring at this “Kingdom of Spiders”.  It seemed like a long time, but I suspect it was actually about 15 seconds.  We decided right away that we couldn’t even begin to ground out all the transformers (which was required before opening the precipitator doors) until we had cleared out the spiders.

The spiders that were in these webs were not your typical garden variety.  They were a special kind of Daddy Long Leg called a Cellar Spider.

Cellar Spider

Cellar Spider

They are also known as “Invisible Spiders” because when they are disturbed, they vibrate so fast that they seem to disappear.  We were easily facing well over 200,000 of these spiders.

So that you can see what we were going against, here is a short video I found on You Tube:

For those who are not able to view YouTube videos directly from the picture, here is the link:  Pholcidae Vibrating

Scott and I decided to go the the tool room and pick up 4 propane torches and some extra propane bottles.  The only thing we could think to do was to burn them out.

Power Plant Propane torch

Power Plant Propane torch

We went straight to work knowing that this was going to be a long slow process.  I began on one row of transformers and Scott took the next one over.  I began from the walkway with a propane torch in each hand, I began burning away the spider webs which quickly melted away in the flames.  Spiders went crazy.  They were scurrying throughout the mass of webs.  Not necessarily trying to get away, they were more interested in standing their ground and trying to intimidate me into leaving them alone.

After clearing the ladder that led down into a section of transformers, I descended down. into the mass of webs, burning them away as I went.  I was wearing my Carhartt coveralls, leather gloves, safety glasses and my hard hat.

 

Carhartt Coveralls

Carhartt Coveralls

Once down between the transformers, I had to burn away the webs over my head.  Massive amounts of spiders were being burned.  Many of them were dropping on me from all directions.  I knew that even though these spiders are poisonous, they are not able to bite a human because of the shape of their mouth.  I just hoped that the spiders knew that, so they wouldn’t try.

I could feel spiders crawling down my neck, inside my hardhat, up my pant legs, around my safety glasses and the sleeves of my coveralls.  Talk about getting the Willies.  I could take one hand and wipe off 10 or 20 spiders from one arm at a time.  I would just point the propane torch at my coverall sleeve and they would all quickly turn to crisp.

As I was working my way down the row of transformers, if someone else had entered the precipitator roof and seen me in there, it would look as if I had been caught by the spiders and wrapped up alive.  There were times when I looked a lot like this picture, only with Cellar Spiders….

Person covered in spider webs from the movie "Kingdom of Spiders"

Person covered in spider webs from the movie “Kingdom of Spiders”

While I was in this situation, I kept having a feeling of claustrophobia, as if I was being smothered by the spider webs crawling with massive amounts of spiders.  I did my best to fight this feeling by concentrating on the task.  I pretended in my mind that I was back in my bedroom as a child cleaning my room.

When I was young my bedroom would be so messy, you couldn’t walk across the floor.  I would start in one corner of my room and clean it systematically by expanding out from that one spot, making sure that everything behind me was clean.  That’s what Scott and I were doing.  As we moved through the thick mass of webs, we made sure that we had a clear path back to the ladder.

Another thought that entered my mind was “What would happen if this massive ball of spider web were to all go up in flames at once?”  Luckily that never happened.  The webs just melted. The spiders were so thick that the burning flesh from the spiders gave off the same odor as any other burning flesh, which is a very unpleasant smell.

As I pointed out, when Cellar Spiders are agitated, they vibrate up and down very quickly, so as I was burning my way through the webs, the webs were shaking every which way.  There is a good video that shows a cellar spider in India vibrating so fast that it appears to become invisible.  Watch this:

Here is the direct link:  Vibrating Cellar Spider

After a day and a half, we had completely wiped out the spider population on the roof of the precipitator and were ready to go to work.  I had also taken a few of these spiders home with me.  Some had climbed down into my clothes, so that when I was home and took off my shirt and pants, out came some spiders.  It wasn’t long before we had our own colony of cellar spiders at our house.  They tried taking over my garage.

A few years later when I moved to Texas to work for Dell, some came along with me.  I would find them in my garage, and various places around the house.  I don’t think they liked living in Texas though.  It was probably too hot for them.  They eventually died out, so that I haven’t seen a cellar spider in my house for many years.

One day in 2003 when I was working at Dell on a project, and was sitting in a small team room, a cellar spider crawled out of my laptop bag and climbed up the wall next to me.  When I saw it, I pointed it out to the consultant I was working with and showed him how the spiders vibrate when you disturb them.  I also told him this story about the day when we went to battle a solid wall of Daddy Long Legs that had taken over the precipitator roof at the Power plant where I used to work.  That spider stayed in the team room with us for about a week until I think it died of boredom.

It was clear why the spiders had invaded the roof of the precipitator.  It was always full of flying bugs because the lights were always on.  At night, moths, gnats and flies would fly around the light fixtures.  It was a warm protected environment.  We had worked to clear the pigeons out of the enclosed roof area, so they weren’t going to keep the spider population down.

I think there was another reason the Cellar Spiders liked the Precipitator roof.  I suspect that these spiders use their vibrating skills when they are mating to attract each other.  Well.  The roof of the precipitator has 168 vibrators that are used to shake the ash off of the wires inside precipitator.  Vibrators are always buzzing on the precipitator roof.

I suppose to a little Cellar Spider brain (I know… they don’t really have brains), the precipitator roof must have seemed like a Holy Temple to them with all those vibrators buzzing constantly.

For years after this event I would occasionally wake up in a sweat suddenly in the middle of the night, throwing the sheets off my bed in a panic because I felt spiders crawling all over me.  My wife would wake up wondering if I was all right.  I would realize that it was just a dream (or was it?) and go back to bed.

Ok.  I have a side spider story about this:

When I was in the second grade, occasionally, I would wake up at night after having a dream where I picked up a spider in my hand, only to feel a spider really sitting in my hand. I would yell for my parents who would come running to my room (which I shared with my sister and brother).  I would tell my parents that a big spider was on my hand.   My dad would pull my mattress away from the wall and look under my sheets and under the mattress, but would never find a spider.  So, then I would go back to bed.

This happened about three times during a 3 month period.  The same thing.  I would wake up feeling like there was a big spider in the palm of my hand.  Each time, my dad would come and check it out, but never find a spider.

Then came the day that we moved out of the “Married Student Housing” where we lived in Columbia, Missouri to move into a real house where I only had to share my bedroom with my brother.  I was in my bedroom when my dad took my bed apart to load it into the U-Haul.  As he pulled my bed away from the wall, there was a very large wolf spider on the wall.  I yelled out, “There!  That’s the spider that has been crawling on me at night!

 

Wolf Spider

Wolf Spider

End of Side Spider Story

I would like to point out one more thing before I end this post.  It was always an honor to work alongside my friend Scott Hubbard.  I could not have had a better partner during this Spider War.  He had my back throughout this conflict.  Those that work around Scott every day may not realize the amount of bravery and outstanding character that he possesses.  Scott is truly one of the best Power Plant Men I was ever blessed to work with.

 

Power Plant Networks to Condor Passwords

It had been established early on at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that I was generally a troublemaker.  All three of the Plant Managers that managed the plant during my tenure can attest to that.  One Plant Manager, Ron Kilman, who reads this blog has been learning over the last couple of years, just what troublemaker I really was, as he reads these posts (oh.  He knew I caused trouble when he was there, but not everything).

I was the “computer guy” at the plant.  Though I was an electrician, the IT Support Department in Oklahoma City, 75 miles away deferred daily computer issues to me.  The IT Networking Department had me run all their networking cables all over the plant, as I have mentioned before.  Anywhere someone wanted a computer installed, I was the only person at the plant that would be assigned the task.

Even though I usually tell you stories about great Power Plant Men and their outstanding achievements, today, I must confess will be solely about myself.  It will illustrate why I never could categorize myself as a “True Power Plant Man” like all the Heroes of Power Plant Fame.  Even though there are countless ways I can demonstrate this, I will focus on the Plant Computer network and the role I played.

I was pretty much a self-study when it came to computer networks.  A few trips to Hastings Bookstore, and I had enough Networking books to be dangerous.  Though I never took a test to be certified, I read the Novell Netware 4 CNA (Certified Netware Administrator) manuals.

Novell's Netware 4 Administrator Guide

Novell’s Netware 4 Administrator Guide

I also read books about different ways people hack into networks, such as the book, “Hacking Exposed”.

 

A good book to read in the bathroom

A good book to read in the bathroom

After pulling the 100 pair telephone cable from the back of the main switchgear to the coal yard by myself for the most part, and crawling through the ceilings in the office area stringing network cable through the rafters and punched down all the wires connecting them to the switches in the telephone room, I sort of felt like I owned the computer network at our plant.

After the server rack was installed, and the Novell Netware was up and running, then suddenly, I realized that the networking people downtown didn’t want some electrician poking his nose into their network.  This was different than the mainframe.  When we just had the mainframe, I had free reign to reek as much havoc on the system as I wanted…. Of course…. I never wanted to do that, it just happened sometimes.  I chocked those times up as learning experiences.

The networking people downtown in Corporate Headquarters at that time had one major weakness….  They couldn’t administer the network remotely (this was 1995 and Windows servers were something new).  So, when something needed to be done on the server at our plant, they had two choices.

They could get in a car (or truck) and drive 75 miles to our plant, then spend 10 minutes working on the network at our plant, then drive 75 miles back to Oklahoma City during going home traffic.  Or, they could call me and have me connect them to the server using a modem and PC Anywhere (A software that allowed a person to remote into a computer and take control of it).  Then from a computer on our network, they could log into the computer and access the server.

 

PC Anywhere software

PC Anywhere software

Needless to say, about once each week, I would go up to the engineer’s office to a computer that they would dial into. The computer had PC Anywhere installed and I would start up it up and grant them access to take control.  While they were doing this, I would be talking to them on the phone.  I could watch everything they were doing.

I could see the username they were using to log in, but like today, I couldn’t see the password they were using as it just came across as asterisks.  I really wanted to be able to access the network myself.  I thought it would help advance my knowledge so that when I did take the Netware CNA tests, I would have some hands on experience.  I really wanted to become a Network Administrator.  I guess I was sort of a Network Administrator Groupie at the time.  I looked up to Network Administrators like they were guru’s with special knowledge.

I talked to the networking people in Oklahoma City to see if a lowly electrician like me could have some kind of limited network administrator account on the network so that I could learn about networking.  I told them I was studying to become a System Administrator.  They looked into it, but never came back with anything.

I had read about how hackers would capture passwords by capturing keystrokes from the keyboard.   I had done something like this, only the other way around when I was writing little DOS prank programs that changed the values on the keyboards so that when you pressed an “A” it would come out as a “B” instead.  I had one that would turn your caps lock on and leave the cap lock light off.  I would have it on a timer, so that it could randomly make you type everything in CAPS in the middle of your sentence.  You know… just fun little things like that.  I suppose today, these would be categorized as viruses, if I had made them so that they would propagate across the network.

I knew how to manipulate the keyboard using things called “Interrupts”.  So, I just reversed that process and using Debug, I was able to create a small assembly language program that would capture all the keystrokes from the keyboard and log them to a file.  I had learned Assembly Language from Peter Norton, the same guy who later created Norton’s Utilities and Norton’s Anti-virus.  Here is my book:

 

Peter Norton's Assembly Language Book (1986)

Peter Norton’s Assembly Language Book (1986)

So, one day when the network guy from Oklahoma City dialed into the modem I tested the program to see if it would capture keystrokes even though they weren’t coming directly from the keyboard, but from PC Anywhere.  To my surprise, when he had finished doing his task, and had logged off, I opened up the log file, and sure enough, all the keystrokes were logged.  I could plainly see where he logged onto the server by typing in his username and password.

The password reminded me of a friend of mine from High School, because his e-mail address was Condor… something…. The password was: condor.  So, I quickly logged into the server using the username and password and created a new Network Administrator account called something like:  “Admin_sa”  I gave it “God” access.  So, after that I could log into the network and look around to see how the system was configured.

I know this was underhanded, and today would be highly illegal, but back then, all this network stuff was new and I was learning this along with the rest of the IT department downtown.  The only difference was that I was an Electrician at a Power Plant many miles away.  I only used that new Administrator account a few times to look at configuration settings as I read through the Netware books.  I never changed any settings or did anything devious…. at least not when we were on the Novell Netware Network.  I think the thrill of capturing a password and setting up my own account was enough.

My philosophy changed later when we moved to a Windows NT Network.  That had so many holes in security that it deserved to be played with.  It wasn’t too long later that the Netware Network was replaced, which made all my studying for the Netware Administrator useless.  I couldn’t understand at the time why we would want to move away from such a secure network to one that had such a bad design that it left itself wide open to hackers (even today, 20 years later Microsoft still has to patch their servers every month!).

I could quickly write a Word document that would reformat your hard drive just by opening it up.  In fact, Charles Foster one time asked me if I could come up with a way to install AOL on his aunt’s computer in California (or some such place), who knows nothing about computers.  So, I created a Word document (since she did have Word on her computer already. and added a macro to it, that installed AOL and other software, and all she had to do was double click on the Word document icon.  By the time it opened up to where she could read it, it had installed all the software she needed.

Once we were on the Windows network, the attitude of the IT network people changed.  They were more flexible.  They could maintain the network from downtown, so they only called me when they needed someone to log directly into the front of the server, which I did for them whenever they needed it.  They began to feel more comfortable with me over time, and the support people downtown sort of granted me all the access I needed at the plant.

I think the reason I finally gained the trust of the IT Support team was because I would listen to their personal problems.  This was something I had learned as a kid.  I used to go around the neighborhood and make friends with all the dogs.  That way, when we were playing hide and seek in the middle of the night, I could creep around behind houses, and the dogs wouldn’t bark at me.  They would come up to me wagging their tails.  It gave me a great advantage.  So, by letting the IT Support people tell me about their personal problems, they would trust me.  And then when I asked them for favors, they were happy to help out.

At that point (when we were on the Windows Network), I could sit in the Electric Shop and access every computer in the plant.  For a few things, I had to actually visit a computer, but for a lot of things, I could just access the computer remotely.  I have a few stories that I will tell this year that will give you some insight into how I used this power to better mankind…. well, I suppose it depends on how you look at it.

Later on, when I went to work for Dell in 2001, I put away all my “trouble causing” hacking stuff and decided that now that I am working in IT, I should join the Good Side of the Force.  That didn’t mean that I didn’t do some fun stuff.  Actually, some of the really good hacking stuff I had learned at the plant became very useful when I was in IT and could create applications on my own using the knowledge I had gained.

There was one time at Dell that I had to hack into database files that had crashed in order to extract the data.  I would never have had the confidence to even try that if I hadn’t first learned programming from the ground up at the Power Plant.

I think it was Leslie Hale, a consulting manager from Concur (an expense reporting application) ask me at a Concur conference in 2010 how I hacked all of our credit card account numbers from their database when they were encrypted.  He said his team had been trying to figure out how I could have done that so quickly.  They normally charged $30,000 to migrate the credit card account numbers from their on-premise system to their hosted application.  Of course, they have the encryption keys.  I told them, I could do it myself by tomorrow and save the $30,000.  They didn’t believe me, until the next day I uploaded a file to them with all the employees and account numbers.  Dell was happy they didn’t have to pay the $30,000 for something that should have been part of the migration costs already.

I know I often caused our plant supervisor’s a few mild stomach ulcers.  I think they just kept me around because either they felt sorry for me, or they thought that some day I might actually come to something.  I finally left the plant in 2001 to pursue a life in IT at Dell.  The journey to that end is another story, to be told later.  Without all the support I received at the Electric Company, I never would have been able to make that change in my life.  It all began one day when the Electric Supervisor, Tom Gibson told me in 1988 that he wanted me to learn all I could about computers.  I guess, that was the moment when I began “expanding my bubble.”

UK Kudos for Okie Power Plant

I began writing this blog more than three years ago in order to share some of the stories about the great Power Plant Men and Women that I was privileged to work with for twenty years at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  I have put the men and women of this plant on a well-deserved pedestal.  Don’t just take my word for it.  The rest of the world had their eyes fixed on our plant.  Of the 700 Coal-fired Power Plants operating in the United States, there was one that stood out above all the rest.  It was no wonder to me.

The Power Plant had been told that in 1995 our plant had the lowest operating and maintenance cost of any fossil fueled Power Plant in the United States.  This included the cost for the fuel, which was coal being transported from Wyoming on trains.  The second lowest operating Power Plant was our sister plant in Muskogee.  After that was a plant in Texas that happened to sit on coal mine, and didn’t have the cost of shipping their coal 1,000 miles before they burned it.

The company was so proud of our achievements that they gave each of us a Jean Jacket with our names embroidered on it.  On the upper right it said, “1995 Low Cost Award”.

1995 Low Cost Award Jean Jacket

1995 Low Cost Award Jean Jacket

I don’t do Selfies, that’s why I draped this over a chair.

A couple of years later, we were again awarded as the low cost provider of electricity in the country.  This time they gave us Denim shirts.  Okies like Denim… I guess you could tell.  The cuff on the sleeve says, “1997  Sooner Power Plant Model Of Cost Efficiency”.

Denim Shirt awarded for being the 1997 "Model of Cost Efficiency"

Denim Shirt awarded for being the 1997 “Model of Cost Efficiency”

In the spring of 1998 (someone can correct me on the year), a plant manager, Mark Draper from England came to our plant to study us.  He wanted to see how a group of 124 employees could run a plant the size of a small city as efficiently as we did.  Throughout the year he worked on various teams to see how we operated.  He wanted to learn our secret.  The plant was willing to share everything with Mark.

Mark Draper

Mark Draper

Mark would spend a month working as a welder, then another month working as an Instrument and Controls Technician, then another in the machine shop.  He continued throughout the year bouncing from job to job watching and learning.  He spent a lot of time working with the Engineers.  I kept waiting for him to work as an electrician.

I had our second biggest secret just waiting to show to Mark, but it seems that it never occurred to Mark that electricians had something to offer to the efficiency of the Power Plant.  Because during the twelve months Mark spent at our plant, he never worked as an electrician.

The first biggest secret came in the form of an Engineer named Larry Kuennen.  He had studied the way the coal burned in the boiler and had come up with ways to increase the efficiency.  I’m sure Mark learned a lot from working with Larry.

I kept itching for the day that Mark Draper ended up working out of the electric shop.  I was going to take him on a tour and show him how we were saving a huge amount of electricity at our plant in a way that is totally overlooked by everyone else.  Without this secret, there would be no way we would have been the low cost provider of electricity.  I think at the time our plant could create electricity at a rate around 1.5 cents per killowatthour (someone at the plant can correct me.  It has been a while and I may be confusing this with the percent cost of IT by revenue at Dell).

Before I tell you about the report that Mark Draper gave us at the end of his year of studying the heman habits of Oklahoma Power Plant Men, let me expand on the way the electricians had increased the efficiency of the power plant.  It has to do with what a foreman, Mark Fielder would refer to as “My Baby.”  The precipitator.

Mark Fielder

Mark Fielder

The Precipitator is the piece of equipment that uses more power than just about everything else at the plant combined.  It takes the ash out of the exhaust before it goes out of the smoke stack.  That is why you don’t see smoke coming out of the smoke stack on a coal-fired Power Plant when it’s running.  When a precipitator is running efficiently, it should be able to take out 99.97% of the ash from the exhaust from the boiler.

The amount of ash going out of the smoke stack is measured by opacity.  That is, how much do the particles in the exhaust block a ray of light shining across the stack.  We tried to keep the opacity below 5%.  I think we legally had to keep it below 20%, but anything above 8% didn’t look good when you drove by the plant.  You would be able to see the smoke.

The precipitator at our plant used Static electricity to collect the ash.  Like I said, it used a lot of electricity.  Megawatts of power.  The secret is that Static electricity shouldn’t use much power.  Practically none.  If you calculated the work that actually had to be done, it was miniscule compared to running a conveyor or a big fan or a bowl mill.  This meant that 90% or more of the electricity used by an Electrostatic precipitator is wasted energy.  It is leaking, and in many cases actually working against collecting the ash.  A fine tuned electrostatic precipitator shouldn’t use much electricity.

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

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

We had found a number of ways at our plant to manipulate the electric pulse used to charge the plates in the precipitator in order to reduce the wasted electricity.  When everything ran correctly, when the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator could have an opacity close to 0% using less than 100 Kilowatts (yes.  I said Kilowatts) of power.  This was so unheard of that the company that manufactured our controls refused to believe it even when they were standing in the Precipitator Control Room watching it operate.

To put this in perspective.  One winter day, while I was tuning the precipitator, the space heaters in the Precipitator control room was using more power to heat the room than the entire precipitator was using to remove the ash at full load.  The opacity was almost 0%.

Another side story about this is that at one point, the opacity monitor was measuring a negative 0.2%.  Tony Mena, the Instrument and Controls Technician worked on calibrating the monitor.  He would take it to the logic room and set it up on some stands there that had the same measurements as the stack.  No matter how many times he calibrated the monitor, he was still coming out with -.1 or -.2% when he hooked it up to the smoke stack.  The final conclusion was that the precipitator was operating so efficiently that the exhaust going out of the smoke stack was cleaner than the ambient air.  — I know… I know… impossible… right?

I’ll admit, it wasn’t just the manipulation of the electric pulse, it was also sensitive to the temperature of the exhaust and the amount of sulfur in the coal.  We burned Wyoming coal which has a very low amount of sulfur.  This made it more challenging.

I couldn’t wait to show this to Mark Draper, the UK Plant Manager.  This was my baby, and I was proud of it.  Only, Mark never showed up.

One day I saw a man with a clipboard walking around the precipitator hoppers writing something down as he studied them.  So, I walked up to him.  I could tell right away that he was someone from England that had come as part of Mark Drapers crew of spectators.  I asked him if he was interested in learning how we ran our precipitators.

I thought, maybe this is someone who is finally interested in how we save tons of money in operating cost each year by not wasting it on the precipitator.  He was an engineer taking notes on our ash transport system.  He wasn’t interested in how we operated the controls.  He said in England they just throw the switch and power up the precipitator to full power and let it go at that.  — A total waste of power and it’s less efficient.  I couldn’t even convince him to take a walk through the control cabinets just to see the voltage and amp meters.

Oh well, I thought…  This would just be our plant’s little secret.  No one else seems to want to know about it.

At the end of the year during our monthly safety meeting, Mark Draper gave us a report of his findings.  He went through a lot of bullet points in a PowerPoint Presentation. — Yeah.  We were beginning to get fancy with the computers around that time.

The first thing that Mark brought up was this…. He said that there was no way he was going to be able to go back to England and repeat what he had learned here.  The reason was that the Fine Power Plant Men and Women at our plant came to work each day and began working at 8:00.  They took close to a 20 minute break in the morning and in the afternoon.  They took a 40 minute lunch (Breaks were technically 15 minutes and lunch was 30, but…. you know how it is… you have to stretch them a little).  He explained that at our plant, we had about 6 and a half hours each day of productive time.  6-1/2 hours of actually working on something.

In England, this was impossible.  When the workers arrived at the plant in England, they took a long time getting ready for work.  They took longer breaks and longer lunches, and at the end of the day, they would take a long time to take a shower and clean up.  Almost an hour to clean up at the end of the day.  In England they were lucky when they were able to get 4 hours of actual work out of their workers.  Because of union agreements and such, they were helpless to change this culture.

Mark was impressed at the amount of pride people took doing their jobs.  I will paraphrase what Mark told us:  He could tell that the Oklahoma Power Plant Men and Women wanted to do a good job.  They received satisfaction by applying their skills to their work.  In England, the attitude of the worker was more like this was just a job.  Their real satisfaction in life was when they left the plant.  In Oklahoma, when the Power Plant Men left the plant, they left with more of a feeling of pride over doing a good job.

Mark did offer us some advice on how we could better ourselves.  He did give us his honest opinion about some things that he thought we might do better.  They sounded more like they were coming from his Plant Manager training than from his experience at our plant.

As Mark never did work with the electricians, I was never able to work with him.  Others who did, found Mark to be very friendly.  I know that some also kept in touch with him long after he left to go back to England.  I missed the opportunity to befriend Mark.  I wish I had.

Mark Draper must have had a tremendous amount of character to be able to persuade those in England that he should take off an entire year to go work at a Power Plant in Oklahoma U.S.A.. Just think of the commitment he was making to leave his home for a year to go work alongside skilled labor in another country.

I didn’t know Mark personally like a lot of the other Power Plant Men did, but after I originally posted this post (yesterday), a Control Room Operator, Jim Cave who knew Mark better told these stories to me:

  • Mark told me that he wanted to live a normal American life while in the states. Bill Green had bought him a gift of an outdoor grill. The first opportunity that he had to use it he told me that he grilled the family some burgers and then they all went and sat in the car and ate them!
  •  He also went and bought some American jeans so he would blend in with the workers. He caught all kinds of grief from the guys when they noticed his jeans didn’t have any back pockets! His wife had to go back to the store and buy him some “guy” pants.
  •  He WAS a very nice and very smart guy. The cultural differences were interesting. He came into the control room one day asking me for “a pair of steps”. We had no idea that he wanted a ladder.

Mark did make sense when he said that what he saw at our plant he would not be able to reproduce in England.  The truth was that what Mark saw at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was something that few plants in the United States could reproduce.  I have been attempting to make this point each week for the past 3 years.

There was something very special at this Power Plant during the 20 years when I worked there.  Something you are not going to find just anywhere.  The plant housed a collection of some of the most fantastic minds and personalities on the planet.  They had somehow all come together to perform a team that not only produced the “Model of Cost Efficiency” as it said on our shirts, but had also created a group of extraordinary teamwork.

Whenever I sat in a meeting like the Monthly Safety Meeting, where the entire maintenance department was present, as I looked around the room, I honestly could see that for the most part we were more of a family than we were employees.  I was lucky to have been invited to be a part of this family.  Kudos to you all.

Games Power Plant Men Play

When I first became an electrician at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, my foreman Charles Foster and I would sit each day at lunch and talk about movies we had seen.  We would go into detail explaining each scene to each other so that when I actually watched a movie that Charles had described, I felt as if I had seen it already.  In the years that followed, after we had described to each other just about every movie we could remember, we moved on to playing games.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

Sure, there were those jokes we would play now and then, but I’m not talking about those.  This was something different.  One of the games that we played was Chess.

I brought a computerized chessboard to work one day that had pieces on a board that you pressed down when you wanted to move a piece, then you moved it and pressed down on the square where you placed the piece in order for the board to keep track where all the pieces were on the board.

The actual Computerized Chessboard we used

The actual Computerized Chessboard we used

This chessboard had 8 levels of difficulty when you played against the computer. Charles, Terry Blevins, Scott Hubbard and I were not really the competitive type. We were more of the team player types. So, when we played, we played against the computer as a team.

We would set the level of difficulty to the highest level, then as a team, we would spend a long time analyzing our moves. Sometimes we would discuss making our next move over several days. Actually, at the highest level, the computer would at times take up to 7 hours to decide what move to make. — This was when computers were still relatively slow.

We figured out that at level 8, the chessboard would think of all the possibilities for the next 8 moves. Once we realized that, then we knew that we had to think 9 moves ahead in order to beat it. So, you could see how together we would try several strategies that would put us ahead after we had basically forced the computer to make 9 moves… It wasn’t easy, but by realizing what we were dealing with, we were able to beat the chess computer on the highest level.

The game where we beat the computer on the highest level took us over 3 months to play and 72 turns.  The four of us had teamed up against the computer in order to beat it. I remember that I would wake up in the morning dreaming about that game of chess when we were playing it and I would be anxious to go into the electric shop to try out a move that had popped in my mind when I was in the shower.

Once we were able to beat the chess board we went on to other things.

Diana Brien (my first and only “Bucket Buddy”) and I would buy Crossword puzzle magazines and when we were in a spot where we were waiting for an operator to arrive, or for a pump to finish pumping, etc.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

We would pull out the crossword puzzle magazine and start working on them.  If we weren’t doing crossword puzzles, we were doing Word Searches, or Cryptograms… more on them in a moment.

Crossword Puzzle Book - mainstay in Power Plant Tool Buckets

Crossword Puzzle Book – mainstay in Power Plant Tool Buckets

This kept our mine sharp, and just as Fat Albert and Cosby Kids used to say, “If you’re not careful, you might learn something before you’re through.”

I had bought some Crossword puzzles that had other types of puzzles in them.  Some were pretty straightforward like Cryptograms.  That is where you have a phrase where each letter of the alphabet has been changed to another letter of the alphabet, and you have to figure out what it says.  So, for instance, an “A” may have been changed to a “D” and a “B” to a “Z” etc.  So, you end up with a sentence or two that looks like gibberish, but it actually means something once you solve the puzzle.

An example of a cryptogram magazine

An example of a cryptogram magazine

The cryptogram magazine I copied for the picture isn’t complete because of the green rectangle is blocking out part of it, but I can see that it says:  “Everyone wants to “understand” art.  Why not try to understand the song of a bird?  (Pablo Picasso).”

We were becoming expert cryptogram puzzle solvers, when one day we ran into a short cryptogram that didn’t have many words.  We tried solving this cryptogram for almost a week.  Scott Hubbard was getting frustrated with me, because I would never give up and look at the answer in the back of the book.  So, after he became so fed up with me, he finally looked in the back of the book and wrote the answer in the puzzle.  The answer was this:  “Red breasted Robin, Harbinger of Spring”

Now… how is someone supposed to figure out a puzzle like that?  I had figured on the “ing” in Spring and Harbinger but since Harbinger was barely in my vocabulary to begin with, I was never going to solve this one… I’ll have to admit.

Regardless, I was upset with Scott for looking at the answer in the back of the magazine, so I ripped out all the answers from the magazine and threw them in the dumpster so we would never be able to look at them again….. Still…. I would probably be trying to figure out “Red breasted Robin, Harbinger of Spring” to this day if Scott Hubbard hadn’t looked in the back of the book.  I just felt like I wasn’t getting my money’s worth if we looked at the answers…. Yeah.  all $3.95 worth (pretty cheap entertainment).

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

So, I have a side story to go along with working Cryptograms….

In my later life I changed jobs and went to work at Dell in Texas.  (It just so happened that the Puzzle Books we would buy were usually “Dell” puzzle books…. totally unrelated to the Dell Computer company where I worked).  That’s not really the important part of the side story, but I thought I would throw that in for good measure.

Every so often, our department would have an offsite where some team building events were held in order to… well… build teams.

One particular team building event was held in a park in Round Rock Texas where we were assigned to teams and each team was assigned to their own picnic table.  When the game began we were each given a poster board with some phrase on it… and guess what?  It was a cryptogram!

I was the only person on my team that knew how cryptograms worked, though most had seen them in the newspaper below the crossword puzzle, no one on our team had ever tried solving them.  As a team, we were supposed to solve the puzzle.  The quote was fairly long, which made it easy for someone who had been obsessed with cryptograms for years…. — Myself.

I took one look at the puzzle and said…. “That word right there is “that” and I wrote in the word “that”.  Then I began filling in all the letters that had “T”, “H” and “A”.  I quickly found a couple of “The”s which gave me the “E”, then I had one three letter word that began with an “A” and ended with an “E” that could only be the word “Are”.  Which gave me the letter “R”.  I could see that there were a couple of places that ended in “ing”, so I quickly filled those in, and as quickly as we could write all the letters into the puzzle we were done.

My director, Diane Keating, happened to be on my team.  When I first pointed to the word “That” and said, “That is the word ‘that'”, she said, “Wait, how can you tell?”  I said, “Trust me.  I know Cryptograms.”  When we had finished the puzzle within about a minute and a half, we called the person over to check it and she was amazed that we had solved the puzzle so quickly.

That is the end of the side story, except to say that I give credit to the games that Power Plant Men Play for teaching me the fine art of solving Cryptograms.  Our team came in first place…. needless to say after solving three cryptograms in a row.

There were other more complicated but equally fun types of anagram/cryptogram combination puzzles that I worked when we had worked all the cryptogram puzzles in the Dell Variety Magazines.  Eventually Charles Foster and I were looking for something different.  That was when Charles ordered a subscription to a magazine called “GAMES”.

Games Magazines used by Power Plant Men

Games Magazines used by Power Plant Men

This was a monthly magazine that was full of all sorts of new games.  Today, I understand that this magazine is more about the Video Games that are out than puzzle sort of games.  Each month we would scour the pages of the Game magazine looking for puzzles to conquer.  We worked on those for about a year.

At one point in my days as an electrician, I wrote a Battleship game for my Sharp Calculator that was a two player game.  We each had a battleship in a 100 x 100 grid, which you could move around.  It was sort of like the Battleship game where on the commercial they would say, “You Sunk My Battleship!”  Only, our ships could move and we only had one.

Not the battleship game played by Power Plant Men

Not the battleship game played by Power Plant Men

Each turn when you would plug in the coordinates to shoot at the other person’s ship, it would only tell you how much you missed by.  Then you could plot it on a graph paper and try to figure out where the other person’s ship was.  Even though it could move.  If you were close, then it would damage the other ship, and it would slow down so it couldn’t move as fast.

A Sharp Calculator like I used to program the Battleship game

A Sharp Calculator like I used to program the Battleship game

When the next person took their turn, they could see if their ship had been damaged or sunk, or even had become dead in the water….

The person was randomly assigned a home base at the beginning of the game and they could go there to repair their ship and be given more ammo in case they were running low.  If they did this more than twice, then the other guy would know because the circles they would draw on their graph paper would keep intersecting at that one point.

Anyway…. that was the calculator game I made that I played with Terry Blevins for a while.

Terry Blevins

Terry Blevins

While other Power Plant Men were playing “Rope the Bull” with an Iron rendition of a bull welders had created, some of us in the electric shop were playing different kinds of games.  Puzzles.

I think the reason that electricians like puzzles so much is because a lot of what they do from day-to-day is solve puzzles.  When something isn’t functioning and the electrician has to figure out why, they usually have to follow through a bunch of steps in order to figure out what exactly went wrong.  Solving Circuit problems are a lot like the puzzles we were playing.

Sometimes they are like “Word Searches” where you are looking for needles in the haystacks.  Sometimes they are like Cryptograms where a circuit has been wired incorrectly and you have to figure out which wire is supposed to go where.  Sometimes you get so frustrated that you just wish you could look in the back of the book at the answer page.  In real life, you don’t always have an answer page exactly.

Some of us may think that you can find all you need to know in the Bible, but there are different kinds of “Bibles” for different kinds of jobs.  In the Electric Shop we had the National Electric Code.  We had the Master Blueprints that showed us how things were supposed to be wired up.  Some times we just had to wing it and try putting words in crossword puzzle that we knew might not be the right ones, but they were the best we had at the time.

I’m just glad that I spent that time working puzzles with my friends at the Power Plant.  If solving puzzles together helps build a team, then we had the best darn team around!

Because someone asked me about the game we played against the computer… Here is the play by play (for those who know how to read Chess Playing Geek Language):

Move White Black Move White Black Move White Black
1 P-K4 P-K4 25 P-KN4 K-B1 49 R-R8 K-B5
2 N-KB3 N-QB3 26 P-N5 P-B6 50 P-B5 N-K4
3 P-Q4 PxP 27 QNPxP P-N5 51 R-B8 R-B3ch
4 NxP B-B4 28 P-B4 R-R3 52 K-N7 RxR
5 B-K3 NxN 29 K-N2 P-N6 53 KxR N-Q3
6 BxN BxB 30 BPxP R-N1 54 P-B6 N-N5
7 QxB Q-B3 31 PxP P-B3 55 P-B7 N-Q4
8 P-K5 Q-KN3 32 R-KN1 PxP 56 R-R7 N-N3ch
9 N-R3 N-K2 33 PxP R-R4 57 K-N7 K-K4
10 P-KN3 P-QB4 34 R-B2ch K-K2 58 KxP N-B1
11 Q-Q3 K-KN1csl 35 R-N7ch K-K3 59 K-N8 N-Q3
12 QxQ NxQ 36 N-B2 R-B4 60 R-Q7 K-K2
13 P-KB4 P-N3 37 K-B3 P-Q3 61 R-Q6 KxR
14 B-N2 R-N1 38 K-Q4 RxKP 62 P-B8 K-K4
15 K-QB1csl B-N2 39 N-N5ch RxN 63 P-R4 K-K5
16 KR-N1 KR-Q1 40 RxR NxP 64 P-R5 K-K4
17 N-B4 BxB 41 R-R2 K-B3 65 P-R6 K-B3
18 RxB P-N4 42 N5-R5 N-B4ch 66 P-R7 K-K4
19 N-Q6 P-B5 43 K-Q5 N-K6ch 67 P-R8 K-Q5
20 P-KR4 R-N3 44 KxP R-KB3 68 B8-B4ch K-K4
21 P-R5 N-K2 45 K-B7 N-N5 69 R8-Q5ch K-B3
22 P-R6 PxP 46 R2-R4 K-N3 70 B4-B6ch K-K2
23 R-R2 K-N2 47 RxP R-KB3 71 Q5-Q7ch K-B1
24 Q4-R1 N-N1 48 R-K7 K-N4 72 B6-B8 MATE