Some of you may be aware that an empty grain silo can explode if the dust from the grain is allowed to build up and an ignition source begins a chain reaction that causes the entire grain silo to explode like a bomb. I haven’t heard about a grain explosion for a few years. Maybe that is because a lot of effort is put into keeping the silo clean. Think of how much easier it would be for a coal dust explosion. After all… we know that coal when turned into a fine powder is highly combustible.
When you are covered in coal dust from head-to-toe day after day you seem to forget just how explosive the coal dust you are washing down can be. Our coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was concerned after our downsizing in 1994 that by eliminating the labor crew from the roster of available Power Plant Jobs, that the operators may not be able to keep the entire coal handling system free from coal dust.
The plant had already experienced a major explosion the year before (in 1996) the “Dust Collector Task Force” was formed (See the post: “Destruction of a Power Plant God“). It was clear that the question had been asked by those concerned, “Are there any other areas in the plant that could suddenly explode?” Two electricians were asked to be on the Dust Collection Task Force. Jimmy Moore and myself.
We had a salesman of our brand of Dust Collectors come to the plant and train us on the proper maintenance of the dust collectors that were already in place. When he arrived he showed us a video that showed examples of plants that had explosions caused by coal dust. Here is a picture I found on Google of a coal dust explosion at a power plant:
We heard a story about a coal plant where the explosion began at the coal yard, worked its way up the conveyor system, blew up the bowl mills and threw debris onto the main power transformer, which also blew up. Ouch. We thought it would be a good idea to do something about our coal dust problems. Stopping an ounce of coal dust is worth a pound of explosives… as the saying goes.
The Instrument and Controls person on our team was Danny Cain. He had become a Power Plant employee a year before the downsizing and had been at the plant for about four years at this point.
When we began looking at our dust collectors, we found that the dust collectors on the dumper had been rusted out over the past 18 years since they were first put into operation. the reason was that they were located down inside the dumper building below ground where they were constantly exposed to coal and water. I hadn’t seen them actually running for years. They were definitely going to have to be replaced with something.
Okay class… I know this is boring, but you have to learn it!
We had some fairly new dust collectors on the crusher tower and the coal reclaim, but they didn’t seem to be doing their job. They used instrument air (which is clean, dehumidified air) in order to flush the coal off of some bags inside. When they were installed, new instrument air compressors were installed in the coal yard just to handle the extra “instrument air” load for the dust collectors. The very expensive and large dust collectors just didn’t seem to be doing anything to “collect” the dust.
You can see that the dust collector is very large. You actually have to climb on top of them to change out the bags inside.
When the dust collector sales man came to talk to us about dust collection, in the middle of his “Proper Maintenance” speech he happened to mention something about…. “…and of course, if you don’t have the air pulse set at exactly 32 milliseconds, the dust collector isn’t going to work at all.” “Wait! What did he say?” What pulse?”
He explained that Instrument air is puffed through the collector bags with exactly a 32 millisecond pulse at a predetermined interval. If the pulse is longer or shorter, then it doesn’t work as well. The idea is that it creates a ripple down the bag which shakes the dust free. We had been studying our dust collectors in the coal yard, and the interval had been completely turned off and the instrument air was constantly blowing through the dust collectors. This guy was telling us that it was just supposed to be a quick pulse.
Everyone in the room looked at each other with stunned silence. The salesman just looked at us and said…. “It’s right there in the instruction manual….” pointing his finger at the page. We thought (or said)… “Instruction manual? We have an instruction manual?”
We said, “Class dismissed! Let’s go to the coalyard after lunch and see about adjusting the “pulse” on the dust collectors.
In order to measure a pulse of 32 milliseconds, I needed the oscilloscope that I kept out at the precipitator control room to measure the “Back Corona” when trying to adjust the cabinets to their optimal voltage. I ran out to the precipitator and retrieved it and brought it with me to the coal yard along with my tool bucket and my handy dandy little screwdriver in my pocket protector:
When we arrived at the crusher tower where the two long belts sent coal to the Power Plant 1/2 mile away, one of the belts was running. coal dust was puffing around the equipment making the room hazy, which was normal. Water hoses were kept running on the floor trying to wash at least some of the dust down the drain. This was a typical day in the coal handling system. Coal dust everywhere.
I opened the control cabinet for the dust collector and hooked up the oscilloscope.
When we arrived there was no pulsing. The instrument air was on all the time. So, I flipped a switch which put it in a pulse mode. The pulse time was set up to the maximum setting of about a minute (that meant that when the pulse turned on, it stayed on for a minute). As I was playing with the controls, three of the task force members were standing up on the walkway between the two belts watching the discharge from the dust collector (you see, after the dust collector collected the dust, it dropped it back onto the conveyor belt just up the belt from where the coal dropped onto the belt). Nothing was coming out of the chute.
As I adjusted the setting down from one minute to one second, I had to keep changing settings on the oscilloscope to measure how long the air took to turn on and off. When I finally had the pulse down within 1/10 of a second (which is 100 milliseconds), then I could easily measure the 32 millisecond interval that we needed. I was beginning to think that this wasn’t going to really do anything, but I remembered that I had seen stranger things on the precipitator controls where the difference between a couple of milliseconds is like night and day.
When the pulse was down to 35 milliseconds I looked up toward the conveyor system because I heard a couple of people yelling. They were running down the walkway as coal dust came pouring out of the dust collector chute causing a big cloud of dust to puff up. We all ran outside and waited for the dust to settle. We felt like cheering!
We were practically in disbelief that all we had to do was adjust the pulse of air to the right millisecond pulse and the dust collector began working. This meant a lot more than a working dust collector. This also meant that we needed only a fraction of the instrument air (literally about 1/20,000) than we had been using.
In other words. The new Instrument Air Compressors at the coal yard that had been installed to help boost air pressure at the coal yard since the installation of the dust collectors were really never needed. And all this was done by turning a screwdriver on a small potentiometer in a control cabinet. It pays to read the manual.
Along with some rewiring of the controls to the dust collector system, and a redesign of the apron around the dust chutes by Randy Dailey and Tim Crain, the coal handling areas became practically dust free as long as regular preventative maintenance was performed.
That is, everywhere except for the coal dumper. This is where the coal trains dump their coal into a hopper which is then carried on three conveyors out to the coal pile.
You can see the conveyor going up to the building right next to the coal pile. That is from the dumper which is the small off white building next to the fly ash silos. The crusher tower is the tall thin building at the end of the long belts going up to the plant.
We still had a problem with the dumper. The cost of buying new dust collectors and putting them outside where they wouldn’t be so quickly corroded by the harsh environment was “too costly”. Jim Arnold, the maintenance Supervisor made that clear. We had to come up with another solution.
Without a dust collector, the solution was “Dust Suppression”. That is, instead of collecting the dust when it is stirred up, spray the coal with a chemical that keeps the dust down in the first place. This was a good idea, except that it had to be turned off for three months during the winter months when it could freeze up.
A company called Arch Environmental Equipment came and talked to us about their dust suppression system.
They showed us something called: The “Dust Shark”.
The dust shark sprayed the belt on the side with the coal and scraped the bottom side in order to make sure it was clean when it passed through. This was the solution for the dumper. It also worked well at other locations in the plant where you could use it to keep the area clean from coal when the coal was wet from the rain and would stick to the belt.
The task force was considered a success. I have two side stories before I finish with this post.
The first is about Danny Cain.
Danny was a heavy smoker. He had a young look so that he looked somewhat younger than he was. He had been born in July, 1964 (just ask the birthday phantom), so he was 33 during July 1997 when we were working on the task force, but he looked like someone still in college. Whenever he would pull out a cigarette and put it in his mouth, he suddenly looked like he was still in High School.
I told Danny that one day. I was always one to discourage people from smoking…. He seemed a little hurt, and I said I was just calling it like I saw it. He was standing outside the electric shop smoking one day, so I took the air monitor that I used when I had to go in the precipitator and asked Danny if I could borrow his lit cigarette for a moment.
I put the butt of the cigarette up to the intake hose for the monitor about long enough for a puff and then I handed it back to him. The monitor measures the amount of Oxygen in the air, the amount of explosive gases, the amount of Carbon Monoxide and the amount of H2S gas (Hydrogen Sulfide, an extremely toxic gas). The monitor, as expected began beeping…
What we didn’t expect to see was that not only did the Carbon Monoxide peg out at 999 parts per million, but the H2S went out the roof as well. In fact, everything was bad. The Percent explosive was at least 50% and the oxygen level was low. It took about 5 minutes before the meter measured everything clean again. Danny didn’t want to see that.
I said, “Danny? Carbon Monoxide Poisoning! Hello???!!!”
When we were on the Dust Collector Task Force, at one point we had to program “Programmable Logic Controllers” (or PLCs). I had been to an Allen Bradley school a few years earlier where we had learned the basics for this. Here is my certificate from 9 years earlier…
When Danny and I sat down to program the controller, it became clear that he expected the programming task to take a couple of weeks. He started out by drawing some high level logic on the white board. I said… “wait… wait… let’s just start programming the thing.” He told me that wasn’t the way we did things. First we had to figure out the entire program, then we would program it.
The PLCs we were going to program were just some small ones we had bought to run the dust sharks and the dust collectors… Here’s one like it.
I told Danny when I program something I find that its a lot easier and quicker if we just program it as we understand the requirements and then that way we can test it as we go. Then when we figure out what we need, we will be done. In fact… it took us 4 hours and we were done… not two weeks.
End of the Danny Cain Side Story…. On to the second side story… much shorter….
I think it was March 2003 (the power plant men can remind me)…. a year and a half after I had left the plant, the Coal Dumper blew up. It was the middle of the night, a coal train had finished dumping the coal about an hour earlier. No one was in the dumper at the time and the entire dumper exploded. The roof of the dumper, as I was told, was blown off of the building. No injuries or deaths. The “Dust Shark” Dust Suppression system had been turned off because it was winter.
I suppose that the insurance company ended up paying for that one. I don’t know. This is what happens when you say that it is too expensive to replace the dust collectors and instead you buy one of these:
I always loved playing with numbers, and thanks to the Birthday Phantom at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I knew everyone’s birthdays. so in 1996 I decided that I would chart them all on a graph. When I compiled them all, I found that the Power Plant was in for one heck of a train wreck. The entire basis that enabled the plant the size of a small city to run with a total of 121 employees was going to start crumbling within the next 13 years.
The original chart I made was in pencil. Here is a simple column chart of the employee ages from Excel:
Now study this chart for a minute…. The youngest person in the plant was 31. There was one. The oldest were four who were 56. If you take everyone from age 40 to 49, you have 70 employees, or 58% of the entire Power Plant population. So, in a 10 year period, the plant was going to lose a majority of their employees due to retirement. 35% were going to be retired within a 5 year period.
How did this happen? How is it that the youngest Power Plant Man was 31 years old and the age between the oldest and the youngest was only 26 years? This happened because of two situations.
The first one is that people rarely ever left the Power Plant, so new hires were rare. The second situation was that we had a downsizing in 1988 when the employees 55 and older were early retired. Then in 1994, we had another downsizing where everyone over 50 years old were early retired. So, we kept lopping off the older employees, without a need to hire anyone new.
There were three entry level jobs when I first hired on as a full time employee. I went through all of them. Summer Help, Janitor and Laborer. None of these jobs existed at the plant anymore. This had given new employees an introduction into Power Plant Life. It also gave the foremen an opportunity to pick those employees that had the natural “Power Plant Man” quality that was needed to work in this particular environment.
I brought my chart to the team and showed them how a train wreck was just down the road. Someone at Corporate Headquarters must have figured this out, so a couple of things were done to try and combat this situation. I’m sure the same problem must have existed at all of the power plants.
The first thing that was done was that the retirement policy was changed. Instead of having to wait until you were 60 to retire with full benefits, you could retire with full benefits when your age and your years of service added up to 80 or more. A couple of years after that policy went into effect, we calculated that Jim Arnold had 100 points when you added his age and his years of service.
As a side note:
When we added up Gene Day’s years of Service and his age it added up to 80. That’s because, even though he was 80 years old, no one could remember whether he ever did any service…. That’s why I didn’t include him in the chart above.
Sure. Gene had been hanging around at the Power Plants since they discovered electricity, but it never occurred to him to retire. He just walked around with his orange stapler (an Oklahoma State University fan). Anyway… I digress… Somehow, whenever I talk about being old, Gene Day always seems to pop up in my mind. I can see him waving his finger at me now (In case you’re wondering… read this post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“, or “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“).
Back to the story:
The idea was that we should have people begin to leave the plant now instead of all waiting until they were the regular retirement age, so they could be replaced with younger souls. There was only one catch and the reason why a Power Plant this size could be run with only 121 employees…. well… it had grown to 122 by this time since Brent Kautzman had been hired in the Instrument and Controls department. He was 31 years old when he was hired. I remember his birthday since it was the same date as my parent’s anniversary.
The reason that the Power Plant could operate with so few employees was because the majority of the employees at the plant had many years of experience. The majority of the employees had over 20 years or more with the company. In fact, I had another chart that I had made at the time that showed how many years of experience we would lose each year that we had a large number of people retiring. In just one year we would have lost over 220 years of experience if something hadn’t been done soon.
The company decided to hire young inexperienced employees fresh out of vo-tech and begin training them to work at a power plant. They opened a new position at each of the plants to lead the training efforts. Someone that had some computer skills and could work with employees to help teach them in the ways of Power Plant Maintenance. A training program to head off an impending train wreck.
I won’t go into too much detail about how this worked but it consisted of building a training room where new hires would take computer courses then would work part time in the plant learning how things worked. Then they would take tests and if they passed them, they could move forward with the next part of their training. All they needed were people willing to give it a try with the understanding that if they didn’t pass their tests, they would lose their jobs by a certain time period.
Training Supervisor…. I think that was the name of the job opening that came out in October, 1997. I was ready for this one. I had a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans, with an emphasis on Adult Education. I was the computer whiz at the plant. I could even write the entire training software from scratch with the help and knowledge of the Power Plant Men and Women.
The only problem with this job was that it was understood that at first the new training supervisor was going to have to be spending a lot of time going between the different plants with the training supervisors at each of the plants. I had just started going back to school at Oklahoma State University to work toward a Computer Science degree. If I had to travel a lot right away, my studies were going to have to be put on hold.
Even though I was looking forward to earning a Computer Science degree in the next four years, I thought that the Training Supervisor job would be a dream job for me, so I applied for it. My education could wait. I interviewed for it with Bill Green, the plant manager, who was the reporting manager for the job.
I explained to him that 50% of the work that I did when studying for my Masters in Religious Education (MRE) was learning techniques on how to teach adults. I had already shown my ability to do this using the computer when I taught the Switchman Training (see the post: “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with ‘Boring’“). I had also taught almost the entire plant how to use Windows when it first came out.
I had created my own little Windows Manual that stepped people through opening up Microsoft Applications and how to maneuver around.
The Windows Icon was actually the Window Wingding character used for the Flying Windows Screensaver. I just added the colors to it.
Most of the people at the plant thought that I was a shoe-in for this job. I was custom designed for it. When the job was given to someone else, I was a little disappointed, but I was also relieved. This meant that I could go on with my work toward my degree. The job was given to Stanley Robbins. Stanley was a coal yard operator, and a very nice person.
One thing I had learned a long time ago with Scott Hubbard was that when someone is given a job that you really want, it isn’t the person who receives the job that should upset you. They were chosen by someone else. Through no fault of their own. This was a terrific opportunity for Stanley.
So, the day that Stanley began his new job, Bill Green was seen showing him around the plant, since he had spent most of his 18 year career up the hill at the coal yard. Stanley and Bill entered the electric shop and Bill asked where we kept the Electric Shop copy of the electrical blueprints. I showed him the cabinets where they were kept. Then they left.
About an hour later, Bill and Stanley returned to the shop and Bill came up to me and said that he had talked to Jerry McCurry in the training department in Oklahoma City (that is Corporate Headquarters), and he was looking for an audio book by Tom Peters, but Jerry said that I had checked it out. He wanted Stanley to read it. I told him that I had returned that audio book a couple of months ago, and now had a different audio book checked out at the time.
I took Bill and Stanley into the Electric Shop office and showed them a copy of a Tom Peters audio book that was my own personal copy “In Search of Excellence”, and gave it to Stanley and told him he was free to borrow it, as well as any of the other “motivational” business books I had, including a textbook on Organizational Behavior that I kept on the top of the filing cabinet to read during lunch when we couldn’t think of a fitting lunch time topic. I had another Tom Peters book on the bookshelf Stanley was free to read, “Thriving on Chaos”:
And a book left over from our “Quality Process” days that I had rushed out to buy the day I first heard about it from our Quality instructor:
Bill Green, our Plant Manager, who had never spent much time in the electric shop quickly learned a lot about me in those few minutes that he never knew. What he learned was that I was an avid student of just about anything I could learn. I had read every book in the Electric Company library and was now going through their list of Audio Books. I showed him the library catalog and explained to Stanley how to check out books. — Everything was still done through Intra-Company mail in 1997.
Even though I was intent on being as helpful as I could to Stanley (and I think Stanley would back me up on that. I always supported Stanley any way I could), at the same time I wanted to impress upon Bill Green that if he was really serious about making the Training Supervisor job a real success, he didn’t really pick the most qualified candidate.
With that said, I think Stanley became a great Training Supervisor. He was forever grateful for the opportunity for this position. He stated that to me over and over. I was glad for Stanley.
I was also relieved for myself, because my dream of becoming a “real” programmer was still a possibility. I continued with my school and was able to graduate in 2001. That is another story for a later time.
Six months after the training team had been chosen, and the trainers had settled into their positions, we heard that the company had purchased a specialized “Training Package” for about $400,000. With additional cost for each module that was added. Ray Eberle can tell me the price for each module, but it ran somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 for each one.
The training modules included one for each type of equipment in the plant. So, for instance, there was a module for a large vertical pump, and there was one for a large horizontal pump, and one for a small one, etc. Ray knew the prices because he was evaluating the course material for them to see if they were correct.
Ray came up to me one day and said he was embarrassed for the company who was creating the modules, because between a set of modules, they were nothing more than copying and pasting the same incorrect material in each one of them. The set of modules he was reviewing added up to $120,000, and they were all wrong.
I had looked at the application that we had bought and I could easily see that I could have written a much better program with the help of people like Ray and the other Power Plant Men to give me information. We were going to be spending over $750,000 for a computer training program that we could have created ourselves and then the company could have marketed it to other electric companies who were looking for a training program.
After I received my Computer Science degree I spent years working for Dell creating computer applications that performed any sort of feat that was required.
The train wreck finally hit the plant a few years ago, as a mass exodus of retirees left the plant. I wasn’t there to see it, so I don’t know if the plant ended up with a larger group of employees or not. I know that Stanley has retired, but I still picture him at the plant training new hires to become Power Plant Men.
Whenever I walked into the Control Room at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw Jim Cave manning the helm, I couldn’t help but smile. I would do the same thing when Gene Day was standing there, but for a different reason. Jim just seemed to make everyone feel at ease. There is something special about his personality that rubs everyone the right way.
Jim worked for the company the first summer in 1979 when I was working as a summer help in the maintenance shop. I really didn’t know him until he became a control room operator and I was in the electric shop. He was always one of the brighter bulbs in the box.
When I first met Jim Cave, the first thing that came to mind was that he reminds me of a News reporter. He looks like someone that you would think would be telling you the daily news on TV. He has that likeable face that you would trust to tell you the news each day. Everyone wanted to have their picture taken with Jim because he automatically brightened up the photograph. Thanks to Jim’s Facebook page, I have some pictures to show you.
Actually, I think all of the pictures of operators that I have used in my posts over the years have come from Jim Cave’s Facebook photos. You can see from the picture above that Jim Cave seems to stand out as someone who might be a reporter on the nightly news.
Before I tell you about how Jim Cave has his own story pertaining to the Life of Pi, let me show you a couple of more photos of Operators who couldn’t resist posing with Jim Cave:
You can see that no matter the situation, Jim is always smiling. I can’t think of any time that I saw Jim that he wasn’t smiling a genuine smile.
Now that I have embarrassed Gene Day by showing him wearing short shorts (which was the full intent of this post. The rest about Jim Cave is just to put it in some sort of context), I will begin the actual story…
A new computer was installed one day that was called a VAX system. Instead of being a large mainframe computer in cabinets, this one sat out in the middle of the floor.
This allowed the control room to monitor readings from most of the power plant systems right there on a computer monitor. This was a new thing at the time. A few years after it was installed, a new program was installed on a computer on the counter behind the Control Room operator’s desk. The software was called PI.
As a side note: This software was being used by Koch Industry to control oil pipelines across the country. I’ll tell you how I know below.
When a program like this is first installed, it isn’t of much use. The reason is that in order to monitor everything, the screens have to be setup. You can see by the screenshots above that each graph, icon and connecting line has to be defined and setup in order to show you a full picture of what is happening.
If a lot of effort is put into building the screens, then this application not only becomes a great benefit to the control room operators, it also benefits the entire operation of the plant.
We had the same situation with SAP. We had installed SAP in 1997 at the Electric Company, but the real benefit comes when an effort is made up front to put in all the expert data to make it useful. While Ray Eberle and I were working to put the expert data into SAP, this new PI system was installed in the Control Room. In order to make it useful, screens needed to be built.
Notice the alarm panels are still there in the picture in 2005.
Some operators weren’t too keen on the computer since they had been staring at these alarm panels all their adult life, and they were just in tune with the power plant as they could be. Paper recorders, gauges that you might have to tap every now and then to take an accurate reading… colored red, yellow, blue and red lights. Red Level gauges, Counters, Knobs to turn, Switches to toggle. Buttons to push. All of these things gave the operator a physical connection to the power plant system. Who needs a computer?
Jim Cave saw the benefit right away. He took the Pi Manual out and began reading it. He learned how to create new screens and add components. Then he began the work of giving “Life to Pi”.
Each time Jim added a new system to Pi, the operators saw the benefit of using this tool more and more (like Allen Moore).
In 2000, Jim Cave had built a complete set of screens, releasing the Power of PI upon the Control Room Operators making their jobs easier and giving them much more insight into the operation of the plant that they never would have dreamed 5 years earlier. (except for Bill Rivers who had predicted this day 17 years earlier when no one would believe him).
Jim Cave’s Shift Supervisor, Gary Wright wanted to recognize Jim Cave for the tremendous effort he put forth to build the PI system into every Power Plant Operator’s dream. So, he went to Bill Green the Plant Manager and told him that he would like to do something special for Jim to recognize all the effort he put into the Pi system.
Bill replied to Gary by asking if Jim did this while he was on the job, or did he come in during his own time to work on it. Gary replied that Jim had done this while still performing his job of Control Room operator through his own initiative. It wasn’t part of his regular job. Bill clarified, “But this work was done while Jim was on the clock?” “Yes”, Gary answered. “Then Jim was just doing his job”, Bill replied.
At this same time, I was having a conflict of my own that I was trying to work through. I will go into more detail in a later post, but here it is in a nutshell….
I had been going to the university to get a degree called “Management Information Systems” or MIS from the business college at Oklahoma State University. I had been applying for jobs in the IT department in our company, but for reasons I will discuss later, I was not allowed to move to the IT department, even when I had only one semester left before graduating with the degree.
My problem was that I was being offered jobs from various companies when I graduated in May. Boeing in Wichita even gave me a job offer and wanted me to leave school and to work for them on the spot for having a computer and an electrical background to work on military jets, (which sounded real cool). The electric company had been paying all of my tuition and fees and 75% of the cost of the books. So, my education had been paid by the company. I told Boeing that above all, I wanted to finish my degree before I began my career in IT.
I felt as if I owed the electric company my allegiance and that I would stay with them, and that is why I kept applying for jobs within the company. I felt that way until the day I heard this story about Gary Wright trying to recognize Jim Cave for his extra effort.
When I heard Bill’s response was, “He was just doing his job…”, it suddenly hit me…. The company paying for my tuition was one of my benefits. I didn’t owe the company anything in return for that. I had already given them what was due. I had been their employee and had done my job. I no longer felt the need to “pay back” the company by staying. I had already paid them with my service. I actually remember saying that out loud to Ray Eberle. “The company paying for my education is my benefit.”
This was a turning point in my job search. I felt perfectly free after that to accept a job from another company. Bill’s response to Gary Wright had opened my eyes. I felt perfectly at ease accepting the job offer from Dell the following month. It’s too bad that it took snubbing Jim Cave’s extraordinary effort by the plant manager to put my understanding of my situation in the proper light.
During that time, I had a job offer that I had turned down from Koch Industry in Wichita because they didn’t offer me as much pay as some of the other job offers I had received. A month later they called me back and asked me to go for another interview in a different department.
When I showed up for the interview, it was with the SCADA department. SCADA stands for Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition. That is what the electric company called the system that opens and closes breakers remotely. Koch Industries uses the same type of system to control the pipelines across the country from their one location in Wichita.
After the interview, they showed me around the office. When we walked into the lab, one person showed me the computer system they were using to control all the pipelines, and lo and behold…. it was the PI system. The same one that Jim Cave had learned in the control room at our Power Plant. They offered me a job in that department as well for a little more.
I thought to myself that if I accepted the job with Koch, then I would ask Jim to teach me what he had learned about the Pi software. This would come in real handy. It turned out that the offer from Dell was even better than Koch, which was my second choice if I hadn’t accepted the job at Dell.
Things have changed at the plant since the picture in 2005. I believe it was in 2006 that the alarm panels were removed from the control room and everything was put on the computers. The control room operators no longer have to stand in front of panels of lights and gauges and knobs and buttons and switches. It is all viewed on computer screens.
Here is a picture of Jim sitting in front of some of those computer screens…
I see eleven computer monitors on the counter behind the old control panel and we can’t even see the other half of the counter. It looks like Jim built so many screens they just kept having to add more and more monitors to show them all. — Oh. I know that Jim didn’t create all these screens, but he did help acclimate the Control Room operators to using computers so that when the evolution to a completely computerized system did arrive, they were ready for it.
Great work Jim Cave! Thank you for all you have done for the Electric Company in Oklahoma. You have made a lasting difference that will carry forward to the next generation of Control Room Operators. I don’t just mean by giving Life to PI. Your positive attitude in times of stress to the times of boredom have blessed everyone that ever knew you.
I for one am grateful to have met and worked with a True Power Plant Man such as yourself.
Sometimes when something is written on paper, it becomes carved in stone (I should copyright that phrase — oh. as soon as I click “Publish” I will). I saw a flaw in Power Plant logic one day in November 1994. Corporate Headquarters for the Electric Company in Oklahoma had decided that they needed very clear job descriptions for their Job Announcement program. We had just completed a downsizing a few months earlier and two electricians were asked to determine what prerequisites someone would need to be able to do their jobs. My first thought was… “Is that really a smart way to go about this?” Just think about it…. You are asking someone who just survived a downsizing to determine what it would take to replace that person with someone else…. Can you see the flaw in this logic?
It was decided that in order to be hired as an electrician, you had to have the following prerequisites: A technical degree in an electrical field. A minimum of five years experience as an industrial electrician. Have a technical knowledge of how to walk on water. Able to swing from tall buildings using four size 2 conductor cable. Have extensive experience bending conduit. Able to work in confined space manholes. Can bend a one inch diameter stainless steel rod with bare hands. Black Belt in Six Sigma. Able to explain the meaning of each color on a resistor. Not afraid of heights. Willing to shovel coal. — Yep. that’s what it requires to do my job.
I knew right away this wasn’t going to be good. We would never find someone who can both walk on water and was willing to shovel coal. If we ever had to replace an electrician, it would be darn impossible. This wasn’t only true for electricians. Every type of job in the company was given similar treatment. I had been an electrician for 11 years at that point, and I didn’t even meet the minimum qualifications. If I had left the company and tried to apply for a job at our plant as an electrician, I would have been turned away at the door.
Whatever minimum requirements were written down did not only apply to outside applicants. This was required of employees applying through the internal Career Announcement Program (CAP) as well. In other words, I never would have been able to join the electric shop from the Labor Crew as I did in 1983, with only a scant understanding of what it takes to be an electrician. It wasn’t until a few years later that this occurred to anyone. The minimum requirements were relaxed a little. That was when the training program was put in place to take High School graduates and above and allow them to train at the plant for a particular skill as I described in the post: “Power Plant Train Wreck“. The rest of the company had to live with their own minimum requirements.
The results of asking the employees what the minimum requirements should be for their own jobs, HR had painted themselves into a corner. I knew why they did this. It was because they had lawsuits in the past where someone was hired over someone else, and they thought they were more qualified for the job. So, specific requirements for each job needed to be created…. Actually…. I think this is the opposite of what should have been done.
If I had my druthers, I would have approached this from the opposite direction… let me continue with my story and you will see why.
I started getting my degree in Management Information Systems (MIS) in 1997 at Oklahoma State University. I was going to graduate from the business school in May 2001. In the fall of 2000, I had only 6 credit hours (or two more classes) left. I had started in 1999 applying for IT jobs in our company. Many times I was asked by people in the IT department to apply for specific job openings. I had worked with a lot of them, and they would have liked for me to work for them.
Unfortunately, at that time, here was the minimum requirements for a Software Developer: You had to have one or more of the following: A Bachelor Degree in Computer Science… OR Bachelor Degree in MIS with at least 9 hours of computer languages (I had the 9 hours of computer languages)… OR Bachelor Degree in a business or technically related field with 18 hours of computer science courses including 9 hours of computer languages…. OR Associate Degree in Computer Science with 9 hours of computer languages and 2 years of software development experience….. OR 8 years of directly related experience such as development in C, C++, ABAP, Visual Basic or Cobol.
It was that last requirement that I thought I could use. Especially since I was well on my way to earning the degree. I had many years writing code in Visual Basic and C. I had taken a Cobol class already, and studied ABAP (which is used in SAP) on my own. So, along with almost having my degree and working with IT for more than 8 years, I applied for these jobs. Every time I did, HR would kick the application back to me and explain that I didn’t meet the minimum requirements so I was not able to be considered for the position. Not until I had my degree in my hands. The HR Director said that all the work I had done with IT didn’t count because I was doing it as an electrician. She said her hands were tied.
In November 2000 the University had a career fair for students applying for IT or business careers. So, I attended it. It was in a large room where each of the companies had setup a booth and you walked around to each booth as the various companies explained why it would be nice to go work for their company. They explained their benefits, and when they were done, they asked you for your resume (prounounced “rez U May” in case you’re wondering) if you were interested.
Before the career fair, I had gone to lectures on how to go through the interview process, and I had read books about how to create a good resume. I had bought books on these subjects and read them after having gone to a lecture by the author Martin Yate. Here are three books that came in useful in my job hunt:
So, here I was at a job fair dressed in a nice suit I had bought in Oklahoma City at a high end Suit store. I had studied what color shoes, belt and tie to wear. I had a stack of my carefully designed resumes in hand. My wife Kelly had given me a professional haircut the night before, and I had even washed behind my ears.
I had quickly changed into my suit in the bathroom in the office area at the Power Plant. I quickly took the elevator down to the ground floor and stole out to the parking lot to drive the 30 miles to the Job Fair. No one saw me leave, except Denise Anson, the receptionist.
I made my way around each aisle of booths, carefully considering each company. I was not really interested in working as a consultant where I had to do a lot of travelling. After all, I had a family. I gave my resume to many companies that day, and later I had interviews with many of them. It felt very strange as a 40 year old acting as a kid in school handing resumes to companies. I really just wanted to stay at the Electric Company where I had worked for the past 19 years.
Then I spied the booth I was really curious to visit. It was the Electric Companies booth. The company where I worked. I saw a group of students walk up to the booth and the young man from HR began his speech about why it would be great to work for the Electric Company. I stood toward the back of the small crowd and listened. It was weird hearing him tell us about the benefits of working for the company.
The Director of HR was standing next to him. She was the person that kept rejecting all of my job applications through the internal job announcement program. I waited patiently thinking… I could come up with better reasons for working for the best Electric Company in the world. He never mentioned once that the best employees you would ever find in the entire world worked just 30 miles north on Hwy 177 at the big Power Plant on the hill. That would have been the first thing I would have mentioned.
I waited until the young man completed his speech and then asked the students if they would like to give him their resumes. I stood there, not moving, but smiling at the young man from HR. After everyone else left, the man turned to me and asked me if I would like to give him my resume. I replied as I handed him my resume by saying, “I’ll give you my resume, but I don’t think you can hire me.”
He replied, “Sure we can.” as he glanced down at my resume. I continued, “See… I already work for the company.” The young man brightened up and said, “I thought I recognized you! You work at the Power Plant just north of here!” I said, “Yeah. You were the leader at my table during the Money Matters class.” “Yeah! I remember that!” He replied.
“Sure, we can hire you!” He replied. I said, “No. I don’t think you can. You see. I don’t meet the minimum requirements.” Then I turned my gaze to the Director of HR who was now staring off into space… The gaping hole in logic had suddenly become very apparent. She replied very slowly…. “No… I don’t think we can hire you.” The young man (I think his name is Ben), looked confused, so I explained….
“You see Ben… you can take resumes from all of these college students and offer them a job for when they graduate, but since I already work for the company, I have to have my degree already in my hand before I meet the requirements. I can go to any other booth in this room and have an interview and be offered a job, but I can’t find an IT job in the company where I work because I don’t meet the minimum requirements. Seems kind of odd. Doesn’t it?”
I continued…. “Not only that, but the Electric Company has paid for all my classes to get my degree and 75% of my books. I have only 6 more hours after December, and I can’t find a job with my own company. I will probably have to go to another company that is guaranteeing a job when I graduate. Does that make sense?”
The HR Director was still staring off into space. She knew as soon as I opened my mouth who I was. She had personally signed each rejection letter to me.
So, what had happened? It had happened a few years earlier when the employees were asked what the minimum requirements should be for someone to be hired for their jobs. That led them down a path of closed doors instead of opening up opportunities.
Here is what I would have done instead… I would have done what other companies do… Minimum Requirements: “Team Player. Able to work well with others. Demonstrated an ability to learn new skills.” — Who wouldn’t want an employee like that? Sure. Add some “Desired attributes” on the end like: Able to bend conduit. Able Walk on Water, etc.
I had spent about an hour at the career fair handing my resume to potential employers before I left. I drove back to the plant. On the way back to the plant I was having this sinking feeling that I was not going to be able to stay with the Electric Company. I can’t describe how sad I was at this thought.
I couldn’t just stick around at the plant hoping that once I had a degree in my hands that I would be able to move into the IT department. For all I knew, our own plant manager could have been telling HR that I couldn’t leave the plant because I was the only person that worked inside the precipitator. I had been flown around the country to interview with different companies who were now offering me jobs. Those offers wouldn’t still be there if I waited until I graduated, so I had to make a decision soon.
I knew that the Plant Manager Bill Green kept asking the Supervisor over Maintenance about my degree because Jim Arnold would ask me from time-to-time, “What’s that degree you’re getting again?” I would say, “Management Information Systems” in the Business College. Jim would go back to Bill and say, “Oh. You don’t have to worry about Kevin leaving. No one wants someone with that degree” (Yeah. Heard that from someone that heard it first hand).
When I arrived back at the plant, I walked in the entrance and hurried to the elevator. I waved at Denise as I quickly walked by the receptionist window and quickly went into the men’s room to change back into my jeans and tee-shirt and work boots. No one else saw me. I returned to work with Ray Eberle in the Print Room to work on SAP. Ray asked me how it went…
I told Ray about my adventure and my encounter at the Electric Company booth. Ray came to the same realization that I had on the way back to the plant… I wasn’t going to be able to stay with the company. I was going to have to move on…
I suppose most people remember where they were New Year’s Eve at midnight on Saturday, January 1, 2000. That is a night I will never forget. Some people were hiding in self-made bunkers waiting for the end of the world which never came, others were celebrating at home with their families and friends. I suppose some people went on with their lives as if nothing was different that night. Not my family. My wife and two children spent the night at the Power Plant waiting to see if all of the testing we had performed the last two years had covered all possible failures of the Y2K scare.
A small group of Power Plant Men had been chosen to attend a party with our families in the main conference room at the Power Plant. All the food and drinks were supplied by the company. Our Plant Manager, Bill Green was there. Children were given the opportunity to rest in some other room as it reached their bedtimes.
Two years before this fateful night, the company was in full swing preparing for the Y2K computer disaster that had been foretold by those who knew that many computer systems only used two digits for the year instead of all four. so, when the year 2000 rolled around, it would suddenly show up in the computer as 00, which didn’t compute as a year in some systems. After all, you can’t divide something by 00. Suddenly, the time between events that just happened before midnight and those that happen just after midnight are 100 years apart in the wrong direction.
The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was completed in 1979 and 1980, so, my first thought was that by that time, computers were far enough along to know better. The Instrument and Controls Power Plant Men along with the Plant Engineers decided that the best way to check their systems was to change the clocks on the computers one at a time to just before midnight on New Year’s Eve and see what happens.
I thought that was a pretty ingenious way to go about testing the computer systems. By changing the clock on each system one at a time to New Year’s Eve and watching it roll over to the new Millennium, you learn right away if you have a problem, and you have contained the disaster to one system at a time while you test it. By doing this, it turned out that there was a problem with one system at the Co-Generation plant at the Continental Oil Refinery 20 miles north of the plant.
I wrote a post about the Co-Generation Plant in a previous post: “What Coal-fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery“. When it was discovered that the computer at the Conoco Oil Refinery Power Plant would crash on New Year’s Eve, it was decided that we would just roll the clock back to 1950 (or so), and we wouldn’t have to worry about it for another 50 years. The thought was that by that time, this computer would be replaced.
This was the original thought which caused the Y2K problem in the first place. No one thought in the 1960’s that their computer systems would still be operating when the year 2000 came around, so they didn’t bother to use four digits for the year. Disk space was expensive at that time, and anything that could save a few bytes was considered an improvement instead of a bug.
My wife wasn’t too pleased when I told her where we were going to spend New Year’s Eve when Y2K rolled around, but then again, where would you rather be if a worldwide disaster happened and the electricity shutdown across the country? I would think the Power Plant would be the best place. You could at least say, “I was in the actual Control Room at a Power Plant watching them throw the switch and light up Oklahoma City!” Besides, we usually spent New Year’s Eve quietly at home with our kids.
Even though we were fairly certain everything had been accounted for, it was the unknown computer system sitting out there that no one had thought about that might shut everything down. Some system in a relay house in a substation, or some terrorist attack. So, there we sat watching the New Year roll in on a big screen TV at one end of the break room. Children’s movies were being shown most of the evening to keep the young occupied while we waited.
I thought that Jim Arnold, the Supervisor over the Maintenance Department, wanted me in the break room at the Power Plant so that he could keep an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t going to be causing trouble that night. Jim never really trusted me…. I suppose that was because strange things would happen when I was around. Of course, I would never do anything that would jeopardize the operation of the Power Plant, but that didn’t stop me from keeping Jim guessing.
No. Not really. I was there because I had a way with computers. I was the computer go to person at the plant, and if anything happened to any of them, I would probably be the person that could whisper it back into service. Also, if for some reason the Generators tripped, I was a switchman that could open and close switches in the substation and start the precipitator back up and run up to the top of the boiler if the boiler elevator broke down and get it started back up.
Except for my natural affinity for computers, any of the electricians in the Power Plant could do all those other things. I think there was just a little “prejudice” left over about me from when Bill Bennett our past A foreman used to say, “Let Kevin do it. He doesn’t mind getting dirty” (or…. he likes to climb the boiler, or…. he likes confined spaces, or… Kevin likes to stay up at all hours of the night working on things… I could go on… that was Bill’s response when someone asked him who should do the really grimy jobs — of course… to some degree…. he was usually right).
I was actually a little proud to be told that I was going to have to spend New Year’s Eve at the Power Plant. I had almost 17 years of experience as a Power Plant Electrician at that time, and I felt very comfortable working on any piece of equipment in the plant. If it was something I had never worked on before, then I would quickly learn how it worked… As I said, all the electricians in the plant were the same way. It was our way of life.
At 11:00 pm Central Time, we watched as the ball dropped in Time Square in New York City. The 10 or so Power Plant Men with their families sat in anticipation waiting…. and waiting… to see if the lights went out in New York…. Of course you know now that nothing happened, but we were ready to jump into a crisis mode if there were any reports of power failures across the country.
You see…. The electric grid on the east side of the Rocky Mountains is all connected together. If the power grid were to go down in one area, it could try dragging down the rest of the country. If protective relays in substations across the country don’t operate flawlessly, then a blackout occurs in a larger area than just one particular area covered by one electric company.
When relays operate properly, a blackout is contained in the smallest area possible. There was only one problem…. Breakers in substations are now controlled by remote computer systems. If those systems began to act erratic, then the country could have a problem. This did not happen that night.
There was a contract worker in the engineering department at our plant who was at his home in the country during this time hunkered down in a bunker waiting for the end of the world as was foretold by the minister of his church. He had purchased a large supply of food and water and had piled them up in his shelter along with a portable generator. He and his family waited out the end of the world that night waiting for the rapture. He told me about that a few months later. He was rather disappointed that the world hadn’t ended like it was supposed to. He was so prepared for it.
After 11 pm rolled around and there was no disaster on the east coast, things lightened up a bit. I decided to take my son and daughter on a night tour of the plant. So, we walked over to the control room where they could look at the control panels with all of the the lights and alarms. Here is a picture of Jim Cave and Allen Moore standing in front of the Unit 1 Control Panel:
Then I took each of them up to the top of the Boiler where you could look out over the lake at night from a view 250 feet high. The Power Plant becomes a magical world at night, with the rumbling sounds from the boiler, the quiet hissing of steam muffled by the night. The lights shining through the metal structure and open grating floors.
From the top of the boiler, you could look south and see the night lights from Stillwater, Pawnee and Perry. Looking north, you could see Ponca City and the Oil Refinery at Conoco (later Phillips). The only structure taller than the boilers are the smoke stacks. There was always a special quality about the plant at night that is hard to put your finger on. A sort of silence in a world of noise. It is like a large ship on the ocean. In a world of its own.
We returned to the break room 20 minutes before midnight, where our plant manager Bill Green and Jim Arnold tested their radios with the Control Room to make sure we were all in contact with each other. I had carried my tool bucket up to the break room in case I needed to dash off somewhere in a hurry.
We felt confident by this time that a disaster was not going to happen when the clock rolled over to midnight. When the countdown happened, and the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 counted down, We cheered “Happy New Year!” and hugged one another. I think both of my children had dozed off by this point.
Bill Green called the control room. The word came back that everything was business as usual. Nothing out of the ordinary. We waited around another hour just to make sure that nothing had shutdown. By 1:00 am on January 1, 2000, Bill Green gave us the (Bill) Green Light. We were all free to return to our homes.
I gathered up my two children and my wife Kelly, and we drove the 25 miles back home to the comfort of our own beds. When we went to bed early that morning after I had climbed into bed, I reached over and turned off the light on my nightstand. When the light went out, it was because I had decided to turn it off. Not because the world had suddenly come to an end. A new Millennium had just begun.
I was considered the one that “got away”. Power Plant Men don’t normally leave the Power Plant to go work somewhere else unless they are retiring, being laid off, or for some other compelling reason. I freely walked away of my own accord August 16, 2001. I left a job where I could have worked until the day I retired to step out into the unknown. But… that was the way I had arrived on May 7, 1979, 22 years earlier.
Just as I had driven onto the plant grounds those many years ago, unsure what I was going to encounter, I was now leaving the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to change my career and become an IT programmer for Dell Computers in Round Rock Texas. When I arrived my first day at the plant, I had no idea what I was stepping into… The day I left I was in the exact same boat.
So far, I have gone through my life accepting whatever happens as something that happens for a reason. With that in mind, I have the belief that whatever the future holds, I just need to hang in there and everything will work out for the best, even though it may not seem like it at the time. Let me tell you about this experience….
I had accepted the job offer from Dell early in January. My start date had been set for June 4, 2001. They were giving me $3,000 for moving expenses to move down to Round Rock when I finished college in May. I was being hired as an undergraduate college hire. I would be starting at a slightly smaller salary than my base salary as an electrician.
I was taking a considerable cut in salary when you consider the overtime that a Power Plant electrician racked up in a year. I figured I was starting at the bottom of the ladder in my new job, where I was pretty well topped out at the plant with no opportunity to advance in sight. Maybe in a few years my salary would catch up and surpass what I made as an electrician.
For about 10 weeks, we drove down to the Austin area and look for a house on the weekends. It became apparent soon after our house hunting began that the cost of houses was somewhat higher than they were in Stillwater Oklahoma. We finally had a contract on a house in Round Rock, just 10 minutes away from the main Dell campus.
While we were looking for a house in the Round Rock area, we kept hearing on the radio that Dell was laying off thousands of employees. The Internet bubble had burst and the drop in sales of computers was taking a toll on the company. Every time I called the recruiter, I would find that they had been laid off and I had been assigned a different recruiter. This was disheartening to say the least.
Here I was in a perfectly secure job as an electrician at the Power Plant and I was leaving it to go work for a company that was in the middle of laying off employees. My wife Kelly and I had been saying one Novena after the other that we make the correct decision about what we should do, and we had chosen Dell Computer. It just seemed like the right place to go. So, we decided to just go along with it.
We prayed the Infant Of Prague Novena every day that we made the right choice.
I gave the plant a 3 month notice that I would be leaving in June. We had timed the purchase of the house in Round Rock for Friday, June 1. I would start work the following Monday. Dell was going to send me my moving expenses on May 4th, one month before my job would begin.
On the morning of Thursday, May 3rd, our realtor in Stillwater called and said she had a contract to sell our home in Stillwater and was going to head out to our house for us to sign. I had stayed home from work that morning for that reason. We were expecting her to arrive at 9:00 am.
At 8:30 I received a call from Dell computers that went something like this….. “Kevin, I am calling to inform you that your offer for employment has changed. Your first day will no longer be June 4, but will be August 20 (2-1/2 months later). The good news is that you still have a job with Dell, it just doesn’t start until August.”
Since I was expecting the moving expenses the following day on May 4, I asked the recruiter about that. He said that since my start date was moved to August, I wouldn’t receive the moving expenses until July. I told him that I was in the middle of buying a house in Round Rock and that I was counting on that money. He said he would see what he could do about that.
I hung up the phone and looked at Kelly who was standing there watching my face go from a normal tan to a red glow, then an ashen color all in the matter of 20 seconds. I explained to her that Dell said I still had a job, but it wouldn’t start until August.
The Realtor was going to be arriving in about 20 minutes for us to sign to sell our house. Everything was in motion. It took Kelly and I about 5 minutes to discuss our options before we decided that since we had been praying to make the right choice, we were going to go with this new development.
I called Louise Kalicki, our HR supervisor at the plant and told her that Dell had moved my start date from June 4 to August 20, and I wondered if I could stay on the extra two and a half months. I was surprised that she had an answer for me so quickly, but here is what she said, “We can keep you on until August 17, but after that date, we will no longer have a job for you.” I thanked her, and hung up the phone.
Our realtor arrived with the contract for us to sign to sell our house with five acres. When she walked in the kitchen, I told her what had just happened 1/2 hour earlier. I could see the sick look on her face after she had worked so hard for so many months to find a buyer for our house. Here I was telling her that Dell was postponing my hire date.
When I came to the part about where we decided to go ahead with our plans and sell the house and move to Round Rock, I could see all the tension that had been building up behind her ever increasing bulging eyes suddenly ease off. We signed the papers and our house was set to be sold on June 29. I had to swing a loan for the month where I bought the house in Round Rock and I sold my house in Stillwater (and hoped that the house was actually sold on time).
A few hours later I received a call from the Dell recruiter saying that he had pulled a few strings and I was going to receive my moving expenses the following day. The following week after that, the recruiter that had helped me had been laid off as well.
When my final day had arrived on August 16 (I was working 4 -10s, and my last work day that week was Thursday), I was given a going away party (see the post “Power Plant Final Presentation“). The party was over around 1:30 and I was free to leave.
I said my goodbye’s to my friends in the office area and went down to the electric shop to gather up the rest of my things and leave. Scott Hubbard asked me if he could trade his Multimeter with me since I had a fancy True RMS Multimeter and he was still using an older version. So, I traded him, and picked up my tool bucket and headed for the parking lot.
As I approached my car, I could see that Diana Brien was out there waiting for me to leave. She gave me a Chocolate Chip Cookie the size of a pizza and said she wanted to say goodbye to me and tell me that she had enjoyed being my bucket buddy all those years. I told her I was going to miss her and everyone else in the shop.
With that I climbed in my car and drove away.
When I was selling my house outside Stillwater, I thought that the thing I was going to miss the most was the wide open spaces where we lived. Our house was on a hill in the country overlooking the city of Stillwater. We had an Atrium in the living room where you could sit and look at the city lights at night and watch thunderstorms as they blasted transformers around the town.
I was moving into a neighborhood where the house next to ours was no more than 15 feet away. I thought I’m really going to miss this house…. I thought that until the moment I drove out of the parking lot at the Power Plant.
Then it suddenly hit me…. What about my family? What about all those people I have just left behind? When am I ever going to see them? The thought of missing my house never entered my mind from that moment on. It was replaced by the great pain one feels when they pack up and walk away from their family not knowing if you will ever see them again.
My heart was still back there with the Power Plant Men and Women I left behind.
The seven hour drive from the plant to Round Rock Texas was a blur. I knew that I had just closed one door and stepped into an entirely new world. I didn’t even know if I would like being a programmer when it came down to it. I had always just been a hacker and I knew I had a lot of holes in my knowledge. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be any good at my job.
To make that long story short, I have never regretted my move to Round Rock Texas. I have just gone with the flow knowing that whatever happens, it happens for a reason. After 12 1/2 years working at Dell, I changed jobs again to work for General Motors in their IT department where I am currently working with the Onstar team (and now working on Kronos).
My friends at Dell asked me the past few years… “Are you going to write about us like you do with the Power Plant Men?” My reply to that question was “I don’t know… Maybe I will. I haven’t thought about it.”
That was the same thing I told Sonny Karcher the first day I arrived at the Power Plant and he asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated college. I told him. “I don’t know. I was thinking about becoming a writer.” His next question was, “Are you going to write about us?” I replied, “Maybe I will. I haven’t thought about it.”
This story was originally posted on February 11, 2012:
There are five main power plants in the electric company in Central Oklahoma, and maintenance men from each plant would work at other plants when there was an overhaul. An overhaul is when a generator was taken off line for the purpose of doing maintenance on major parts of the plant that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. Such as repairing boiler tubes, and working on the turbine and generator. Because employees would work at other plants for months at a time, living in camping trailers or cheap hotel rooms to save money, most people were able to work with and had the opportunity to know the Power Plant Men from the other four plants.
I have noticed that most non-plant people have a general misconception about Power Plant Men when they first meet them. As a young 18 year old entering my first job with real men, I learned very quickly that they each possessed a certain quality or talent that made them unique and indispensable Sure there were some “bad apples”, but they were never really and truly Power Plant Men. They either left because of incompatibility or were promoted to upper management. I know more than once the plant hired someone new only to have them work one day and never show up again. There were few if any real Power Plant Men that ever left the plant where the character of the plant and its ability to be maintained properly wasn’t instantly changed.
While I am writing this post this evening a wake service is being held at the First Methodist Church in Moore, Oklahoma for a true Power Plant man; Jimmy Armarfio. He was an electrician at Mustang plant. I had heard some stories about Jimmy before I actually met him; most of them about humorous things that had happened to him at one time or other. Everyone liked his African accent (Jimmy was from Ghana, a country in Africa) as they would imitate his voice while telling the stories. It seems that Bill Bennett our Electrical A foreman had more than a few stories to tell.
Jimmy came to our plant on an overhaul and worked out of our electric shop. The first time I talked to Jimmy, he was leaning against a counter during lunch just finishing a book. I happened to notice when I was walking by that the book was titled “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I had read that book before, so I stopped and asked him what he thought of it. He said that it was interesting how this man who was in a prison camp in Siberia living in a miserable state could go to bed at night thinking that he had a pretty good day. I think I said something like, “Yeah, sort of like us working in this Power Plant.”
Then he said something that has always stuck in my mind. He said that in the English language there are many words that mean the same thing. For instance, for a rock, there is pebble, rock, stone and boulder. In his native language there is one word. It means “rock”. You may say, large rock, small rock, smooth rock, but there is only one word for rock. It made me reflect on the phrase, “In the beginning was the Word…” Suppose there was one word that included everything.
What I didn’t know at that time was that not only was Jimmy Armarfio from Ghana but he was the king of his tribe. Steven Trammell said that his friends referred to him as “King Jimmy” after he was elected King of his tribe. When I heard that Jimmy had died, I looked at the funeral home site and saw that one of his coworkers George Carr said the following: “Jimmy was a beloved coworker and one of my personal heroes.” Another friend, Jack Riley wrote: “It was my blessing to work with Jimmy. The most cheerful person I have had the privilege of knowing.” I have included his picture below. Jimmy Armarfio…. Take a good long look at A True Power Plant Man! A Hero and a King!
Originally Posted March 16, 2012. Leroy Godfrey passed from this earth on March 9, 2012:
One of the most ornery men I have ever met in power plant life was the Electrical Supervisor at the Power Plant named Leroy Godfrey. Compared to the Power Plant Heroes of my day, the old school Power Plant Men were from a different breed of character that I would describe more as Power Broker Men. They worked in a culture of total rule much the way dictators and despots rule their people.
They expect immediate respect before they elicit any behavior worthy of respect. Their position spoke for itself. They generally wore a frown on their face that has been embedded in their facial feature permanently. This was pretty much what I thought about Leroy Godfrey when I first met him.
My first real encounter with Leroy Godfrey was when I joined the electric shop as an electrician. I quickly realized that to my benefit, I was a pawn in a game that was constantly being played between Leroy Godfrey and the Assistant Plant Manager and the Plant Manager. For reasons that I will relate in a later post, Bill Moler the Assistant Plant Manager and the Plant Manager Eldon Waugh did not want me to be promoted from a Laborer to an Electrician.
As soon as Leroy Godfrey realized this, he did everything in his power to make sure I was the person chosen to fill that position. It didn’t matter to Leroy if I was the best qualified (which I turned out to be based on performance ratings), or that I had less seniority than most everyone else on the labor crew.
I first considered becoming an electrician when I was a janitor and Charles Foster an Electrical B Foreman asked me if I would be interested, because I liked to clean things and a lot of what an electrician does is clean things (believe it or not… in a power plant). I was thinking at the time that I was probably going to try to be an operator before Charles asked me that question. So, I started preparing myself by taking correspondence electrical courses offered by the company and a house wiring course at the Vo-Tech.
To make a much longer story short (as the details belong to another story), I was selected to fill the vacancy in the Electric Shop. Then I found myself under the rule of Leroy Godfrey, who was happy as a lark that I made it to the electric shop because he had won a major victory in exerting his power over his fellow power brokers, but you couldn’t tell that by looking at him. Leroy had a constant scowl on his face.
He looked like he was mad at the world. Sometimes you would walk up to him and start talking to him and he would just walk away without saying a word as if he didn’t care to hear what you had to say. Here is his picture that shows his expression when he knows he has just won the current round of whatever game he is playing at the time.
I was the type of person that was very blatantly honest when I didn’t know something. I was not a seasoned electrician when I joined the shop and I didn’t pretend that I was. I looked to my fellow crew mates to teach me everything I needed to know and they did an excellent job.
The people on my crew were all real Power Plant Men (and Lady) of the New school of thought. Once after I had been an electrician for a couple of years (2 years and 2 months to be more exact), Leroy asked me to go to the shop and get the Ductor because he wanted to test the generator shaft during an overhaul. When I asked him where the Ductor was and what did it look like, he stood there in amazement at my stupidity. He asked me over and over again to make sure he had heard me right that I didn’t know what the Ductor was.
I answered him plainly. “No. I don’t know what the Ductor is. But I’ll go get it.” He said he couldn’t believe that anyone in his electric shop wouldn’t know what a Ductor was. That is just a taste of the his management style. Actually, it turned out that I had used the Ductor before, but I didn’t remember the name. To me it was a very precise ohm meter (a milli-ohmmeter).
This is the picture of a new ductor. We had a very old model.
I could go on about different instances that took place to illustrate how Leroy managed his employees, but it isn’t really the main point of this post. It is important, I believe, to understand why the old school culture was the way it was. Leroy was very smart. He had more raw knowledge and understanding in his little finger than the plant manager and the assistant plant manager put together. Based on that, today you would have thought that he would be in a plant manager position making all the important decisions.
That is not how the system worked while Leroy was moving up in the ranks. In the era when the old school of thought prevailed, the electric company could run as inefficiently as it wanted, and it was guaranteed a 10% profit, based on revenue minus expenses and depreciation. There was little incentive to improve plant operations other than to at least maintain the capital assets by spending at least as much as depreciation on capital projects.
In this environment people were promoted into higher positions based on friendship more so than ability. So, if you were someone’s roommate in college (and we all knew examples of this), it didn’t matter if you knew anything other than how to sign your name at the bottom of a requisition, you could eventually make your way up to plant manager or even higher as long as your roommate was one step higher than you.
To someone with brains such as Leroy Godfrey, this was very frustrating. Here he was the Electrical Supervisor at a power plant with the two people above him who used political games to make major decisions. Leroy, of course, could out maneuver them based on brain power alone, and would take great pleasure in constantly proving them wrong whenever they made a decision without consulting him first. I could always tell when Leroy was happiest. It was when he had the biggest scowl on his face. I suppose it was because he was getting ready to checkmate his opponents.
I found out later by Bill Bennett our A foreman that the reason that Leroy would act like he wasn’t listening to you was because he was deaf in one ear. If you were standing on one side of him, he couldn’t hear you. So, you could be standing there talking away, and Leroy would just walk away as if he didn’t hear you, and that would be the reason.
Something happened on July 2, 1982 that changed the power plant world. Especially in Oklahoma. History will record it as July 5, but it was known in the financial world after the market closed on Friday July 2. This was the failure of the Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma City.
It was the beginning of the end of the Oil Boom of the late 70’s after the oil crisis of the mid and later 70’s. Suddenly the future demand for electricity turned downward in Oklahoma and for many years to come there would be a surplus of electricity on the market. What made it worse was that there were laws put in place to help up and coming co-generation plants that were still on the books (Such as PURPA, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978) in which small co-generation companies could feed off of the large electric companies guaranteeing their success at the detriment of the major electric companies.
During the years that followed, the electric company found that they had to compete for the electricity they sold. This is where the new school of power plant men began to shine. They had been cultivating their culture at our plant for years trying to prove their worth, not aware and not really caring that it was “who you knew” and how much you were liked by the person making the decision that determined your promotion to a higher position. The new power plant men had become experts in their fields and took pride in their work.
The board of directors of the electric company must have known that the old school employees would not cooperate with the new way of thinking, because by 1987 they decided to early retire anyone over 55 years old, and then layoff employees where the company had over compensated based on their earlier estimates of growth. A first in the history of the Electric company.
This is when Leroy and the other old school power broker men were given an incentive to early retire. At the retirement party people stood up and said things about the different retirees. Usually just funny things that may have happened to them over the years. Leroy’s daughter Terri stood up and said that she understood what the electricians must have gone through working for Leroy because, remember, she had to LIVE with him! We laughed.
To put it in perspective. Leroy worked almost his entire adult live at that point for the power company. Over 34 years. — During the years under the old school plant manager and assistant plant manager at our plant Leroy had to face one abuse after another.
To name just one instance, the plant manager conspired to discredit Leroy’s best friend to the point that he was fired in disgrace, just so that Leroy would be friendless and have to turn to them for friendship (to give you an understanding as to why I often refer to the plant manager as the “evil plant manager”). This was known to us because while the plant manager was planning this with a hired undercover “snitch”, he was taping the conversations, which were later used in court to clear Leroy’s best friend Jim Stevenson (See last Friday’s Post: Power Plant Snitch).
Can you imagine the stress this puts on a person that then has to go home at night and be a supportive husband and father? Leroy lived another 24 years after he retired from the company. That is a long time to overcome the bitterness left over from the abuse Leroy took from the Manager and Assistant Manager at the plant.
There are two things that make me believe that Leroy was finally able to find the great peace and dignity in his life that all good Power Plant Men deserve. First, it is the loving words of his daughter Terri who many years ago, couldn’t resist “feeling our pain”. ” Daddy/Poppy, your love will forever live within us. Thank you for setting such a decent moral tone and instilling your high standards in us.”
Secondly, I know now where Leroy’s greatest love has always been. He didn’t measure himself by how high he could rise in the totem pole of managerial positions in a power company. He didn’t need to prove his self worth by how much the plant depended on his knowledge.
I believe that he had one main goal in life and once that goal was fulfilled, he had no other reason to remain. You see, just two weeks prior to Leroy Godfrey’s death, his wife Lydia had passed away on February 22, 2012. Enough said. Leroy’s heart and soul is right where it has always belonged and where it remains for eternity. Alongside his wife Lydia.