I was five years old the first time I witnessed a shootout between two people the summer of 1966. One person was a law enforcement officer and the other person was apparently a criminal. The criminal who had run out into the middle of the street decided to stand his ground and turned around to face the Sheriff who had been calling to him to stop… “In the name of the law” I think he said. They paused for a moment, and then in a flurry of bullets the criminal fell to the ground. The crowd that had gathered around in that brief moment clapped.
I had never seen a dead body before that day.
The scene I had witnessed happened on the north side of Oklahoma City, just across I-35 from a restaurant called “The Surrey House”. It was a famous restaurant in Oklahoma City since the mid 1950’s, known for having the best pies around. We had traveled all the way from Stillwater Oklahoma to eat at this restaurant several times in the past 2 years before this incident occurred.
That particular day after we had eaten, we took a short jog across I-35 to go for a stroll down a street that had a western feel to it, much like the stockyard area of Fort Worth, Texas. At that time, this particular stretch of the Interstate Highway was different than any Interstate I had ever seen in my five informative years of existence.
You could pull off into the restaurant without taking a “formal” exit. You could even cross the highway at a couple of places by just jogging across the center median and pulling off the side of the road directly into another place of business.
As a side note:
In 1966, this particular section of I-35 was under construction. It was still under construction when we left Oklahoma in 1967 to move to Columbia, Missouri. Oh… and it was still under construction when we returned to Oklahoma in 1978. In fact. This particular stretch of I-35 was under construction for about 33 years. It was known as a “Boondoggle”. It was the laughing stock of the Interstate Highway system. It did look nice when it was finally finished some time around 1990.
At This time this small stretch of highway was still referred to as Route 66.
End Side note.
As fate would have it, August 14, 1999, when my son was 4 years old and my daughter was 9, we returned to the same street where I had witnessed the shootout 33 years earlier. The buildings were much the same, only they had a better coat of paint than when I was a child. As fate would also have it, another shootout occurred very similar to the one I had witnessed as a boy. The players were obviously not the same as before, but it did involve another lawman and another criminal. The criminal ended up with his gun being shot out of his hand then he was dragged off in handcuffs. Again, the crowd that had gathered clapped.
Here is a picture of the street where the shootout occurred:
When I was a child and we entered this small town across from the Surrey House Restaurant, this is what the entrance looked like:
When I returned with my children, here is closer to what it looked like:
As you can tell by now, I am talking about an amusement park. As a child, it was more of a place where you just strolled around and looked at the western stores and the people dressed up in western outfits, who would occasionally break out into shootouts and play tunes on tinny pianos in mocked up saloons.
When we returned 33 years later, Frontier City had turned into a full fledged amusement parks with roller coasters and water rides. It still had the occasional shootouts that would spill out into the streets when some Black Bart character would call the Sheriff out into the street for a one-on-one “discussion”.
I suppose you think I must have slipped off my usual “Power Plant” topic. Actually, the day my children were standing there watching the shootout at Frontier City, all of the people standing with us worked at the Electric Company. Frontier City had been closed to the public on August 14 (and 21) and was only allowing Power Plant Men and other Electric Company employees in the gate on those dates.
There was a sort of a rivalry within the Electric Company that I had found existed about 3 years earlier in 1996 when some lineman were at our plant from what might be called the T&D department. This stands for Transmission and Distribution. In other words, the department where the linemen and transformer people worked.
One of the linemen told me while we were working in the substation that the company really didn’t need Power Plants anymore. When I asked him why, he explained that since Electricity is bought on the open market now, the company could buy their electricity from anybody. It didn’t matter who. The company didn’t need to own the plants.
Not wanting to start a “turf war”, I kept to myself the thought that the Electric Company that produces the electricity is the one making the money just as much as the one with the wire going to the house. Do you think you can just buy electricity as cheap as you can from our power plants? After all, our electric company could produce electricity cheaper (at the time) than any other electric company our size in the country.
So, when we were walking around Frontier City going from ride to ride, I half expected to see a mock shootout between a Power Plant Man and a Lineman. Fortunately, I don’t think one incident of that nature occurred that day. If you keep reading, you may find out why.
Some time in mid-July the employees of the Electric Company in Central Oklahoma received a letter in the mailbox inviting them to spend a day at Frontier City. You might think this is a misuse of Electric Company funds to pay for the use of an amusement park for two days just for your employees… After all, this came out of someone’s electric bill.
You will notice on the invite below that the company was thanking everyone for their hard work and long hours and for working safely through a difficult time.
Wouldn’t you know I would keep a copy….
You may wonder what difficult time an Electric Company in Oklahoma could possibly face, and I suppose the first thing that comes to many people’s minds are “tornadoes”. In this case you would be right. We had a very trying year with the storms over Oklahoma that had ripped through Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999.
We call this a tragedy, and it was. Over 3,000 homes had nothing but concrete slabs where their homes used to be, as an F5 tornado tore through populated areas in the Oklahoma City area. Throughout all this destruction 36 people lost their lives. This is a very small number considering the amount of destruction.
The evening of May 3 at my home outside Stillwater, Oklahoma when I had arrived home from work, I swept the bugs and dust out of our storm shelter, which was an 8 foot by 8 foot cube with 8 inch reinforced concrete walls buried in the ground outside my bedroom window. The top of it looked like a patio with a big stainless steel plated wooden door. I stocked the storm shelter with some fresh water and snacks.
We knew tornadoes were heading our way. The weather experts on KFOR and KWTV in Oklahoma City were telling us all day the paths where tornadoes were likely to appear. The majority of the people in Central Oklahoma were bracing themselves for tornadoes all afternoon. With experts like Gary England, Oklahoma City usually found themselves well warned when tornadoes were on their way.
My wife was working as a Charge Nurse at the Stillwater Medical Center. I remember sitting on the edge of the bed in my bedroom watching the F5 tornado entering Oklahoma City. The tornadoes had traveled 85 miles from Lawton Texas, growing as they moved across the state.
As the tornado tore through large residential areas in Oklahoma City I called my daughter, Elizabeth (Ebit) into my room and with tears in my eyes I told her we needed to pray for the people in Oklahoma City because this tornado we were watching on TV was destroying hundreds of people’s lives right before our eyes.
Less than an hour later we entered our own storm shelter as another F5 tornado was within 5 miles of our house. My wife, Kelly was still at the hospital moving patients to safety in the basement where we had taken shelter from tornadoes when we lived on 6th street.
We spent that night going in and out of our storm shelter as tornadoes passed close by. The F5 tornado that came close to our house took out the High Voltage power lines coming from our Power Plant to Oklahoma City for a 10 mile stretch.
There were a total of 74 tornadoes that night in Oklahoma City and Kansas.
The Electric Company was scrambling to supply power to a city that had been crippled by a tornado 5 miles wide. We still had one high voltage line on the 189 KV substation intact where we could funnel electricity to the rest of the state that still had an intact transmission system.
The Oklahoma Electric Company had more experience with tornado damage than any other company in the country. They often donated their time helping out other companies in their time of need.
With the help of electric companies from nearby states, electricity was restored as quickly as possible. The men and women who work for the Electric Company in Oklahoma are the real heroes of the wild west. It is the lineman that is called out in an emergency like this.
Linemen work until the job is complete when an emergency like this occurs. Sometimes they are on the job for days at a time, resting when they can, but not returning to the comfort of their own bed until power is turned on for the Million plus customers that they serve. The lineman had completed their work repairing this natural disaster without any serious injuries.
That day at Frontier City, the heroes of the day were the T&D crews that spent a significant part of their lives working to repair the damage caused by these tornadoes. Even though there may have been some sort of rivalry between T&D and Power Supply (that is, the Power Plant employees), any Power Plant Man that came across one of the T&D linemen that day at Frontier City, tipped their hat to them (if not literally, then through their expression of gratitude).
As grateful as the Power Plant Men were for the hard work and dedication of the linemen during that time of emergency, the people who were truly grateful were the countless families who had their power restored in a timely manner. Sitting in your house in the dark trying to find out if another tornado is on the way or wondering if the food in your refrigerator is going to spoil, and water is going to be restored is a frightening thought when your family is counting on you to make everything right.
Ticker tape parades are reserved for returning soldiers from victories. Invitations to the White House are usually extended to dignitaries and distinguished individuals and basketball teams. Statues are raised for heroes who have made their mark on the nation. Pictures of our Founding Fathers are placed on our currency. All of these are great ways to honor our heroes.
Power Plant Men and Linemen do not need this sort of gesture to know that what they do for mankind is a tremendous benefit to society. If you would like to honor some great heroes of our day, then if you are ever travelling through Oklahoma and you see a bright orange truck travelling down the highway with an Electric Company Logo on it, then give them a honk and a wave. They will know what you mean. When they wave back, know that you have just been blessed by some of the greatest men and women of our generation.
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 on June 16, 2012:
I have mentioned before that Sonny Karcher was one of the first Power Plant Men that taught me how to work my way up the ladder of Power Plant Ingenuity (In the post titled, In Memory of Sonny Karcher A True Power Plant Man). I used to come home from work after Steve Higginbotham dropped me off at the duplex where we were living at the time, and my family couldn’t wait to hear what Sonny Karcher had said or done that day.
Soon after I had arrived at the plant one day, after coming back from the coal yard, Sonny had just dropped me off at the front of the Maintenance shop where I was going to the tool room to get some tools for something we were going to work on. Sonny was going to drive around behind the tool room in a yellow Cushman cart to pick up some larger equipment, and I was going to meet him there.
As he was backing out of the shop he suddenly made a motion with his left hand. To me it looked like he was making the movement that someone would make if they were taking the lid off of a jar. I thought this meant that he wanted me to do something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.
Various things went through my head, such as, I should get something to help remove lids from barrels. Or I needed to look inside of a jar to find one of the parts I was going to pick up. Nothing made much sense to me, so I waved for him to come back.
When he did, I asked him what he wanted me to do. He asked me what I meant. I told him that when he made that motion to open a jar, I couldn’t figure out what he wanted. So he told me. “I was just waving goodbye.”
He gave me a big smile and backed out of the shop again. Each time Sonny Karcher waved goodbye, he used a different motion with his hand. Sometimes he would look like he was twirling something on his finger. Sometimes it seemed like he was trying to get something sticky off of his fingers. Sometimes he just drew circles in the air with a couple of fingers. Other times he looked like he was giving an awkward kind of salute. Sonny made an art out of simple things like a wave goodbye.
That first summer it seemed like everyone was always munching on Sunflower seeds. There were bags of sunflower seeds everywhere you looked. Sonny already looked somewhat like a chipmunk with puffy round cheeks that formed from years of wearing a grin on his face. They were extra prominent when his cheeks were full of sunflower seeds. These were seeds still in their shells.
So, it was normal to see someone take a step back while standing around talking, turn their head and drop a few sunflower seed shells from their mouth into the floor drains that were spaced evenly across the maintenance shop floor. There came a time when those drains had to be cleaned out because it seemed that every drain was packed solid full of sunflower seed shells.
Sunflowers weren’t the only items found in the drains, since chewing (or dipping) tobacco (such as Skoal) was used by a lot of the men in the Power Plant.
Cleaning out a drain full of sunflower seeds, dipping tobacco and spit was a job that might cause a lot of people to gag, and I know I had to fight it back at the time. Most of the time I felt like I was having too much fun to get paid for working at the plant, but when it came time for cleaning out those drains, I felt like I was really working very hard for the $3.89 an hour that I was getting paid my first summer (1979) as a summer help.
But anyway, back to Sonny. I remember one evening when I came home after working with Sonny during the day, and we were sitting around the dinner table eating supper when my dad said something surprising. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember what my response was. It came out before I thought what I was saying, and I said it with the same surprised smile Sonny would have. I replied, “Well S–t the bed!” With a heavy emphasis on each word.
That was a common phrase that Sonny used, and it was his response to anything surprising. Needless to say, I don’t normally use four letter words that have to be edited out of a post. It was just the matter of fact way that Sonny would use that phrase that made it seem all right to say at the time. If I remember correctly, both my mom and my dad stared at me for a second in disbelief, then broke out laughing as they had never heard that particular phrase. It was kind of like hearing “…Bless his heart” for the first time when used following an obvious insult.
In the year 1990 the Power Plant had a program that they called, “We’ve Got the Power”. I will talk more about this in a later post, so I will just say that it was a program where we broke up into teams and tried to find ways to save the company money. But long before “We’ve Got the Power”, there was Sonny Karcher. He was often trying to figure out how we could make electricity cheaper, or even come up with other ways of making a profit.
One day Sonny asked me this, “Kev, your smart because you learn things from all those books at school so tell me this… someone said the other day that diamonds are made out of coal. Is that true?” I told him it was. Then he said, “Well, what if we had one of those big dirt movers full of coal drive over some coal a bunch of times, would we be able to make diamonds?”
I told him that wouldn’t work because it takes a lot more pressure to make a diamond. So, he asked me if it would work if we put some coal on the railroad track and we let an entire train full of coal run over it. Would it make a diamond then? I assured him that even that wouldn’t make a diamond. He accepted it and just said, “Well, it’s too bad since we have that big pile of coal there, we ought to be able to come up with some way of making them into diamonds.
Another time when we were cleaning out the fish baskets at the intake (a job as smelly as it sounds) next to the 4 big intake pumps. These are the pumps that pump around 189,000 gallons of water per minute each. Sonny told me how big those pumps were and how much water they pumped. Then he said, “You know, that entire boiler is there just to make steam to turn the turbine to make electricity. It seems to me that we could just take these four pumps and have them pump water through the turbine and have it turn the turbines, then we wouldn’t need those big boilers. Why don’t we do something like that?” I assured Sonny that we would never be able to make enough electricity to make up for the electricity it took to turn the pumps that were pumping the water. He shook his head and said that it just seemed to him that those pumps could turn that turbine pretty fast.
One day I watched as Sonny watched another Power Plant man walk into the shop with a new type of lunch box. It was an Igloo Little Playmate. Sonny made a comment about how neat this guy’s new lunch box was. It was a new design at the time.
Sonny immediately went out and bought one. The next week he came to work with his shiny new Little Playmate lunch box. I admit. I went and bought one myself a few weeks later. But this was the beginning of a trend that I noticed with Sonny. I began to notice that Sonny seemed to pick one item from each of the people he admired, and went and bought one for himself. Or he would pick up a phrase that someone else would say, and would start using that.
At first I thought it might just be a coincidence, so I started to test my hypothesis. When I would see something new that Sonny brought to work, I would look around to see who else had one of those, and sure enough. Someone close by would have one. Then I would hear Sonny talk a certain way. His accent would change and he would say something like he was imitating someone else, and usually I could tell right away who talked like that and knew that Sonny had borrowed that phrase from that person.
Some may think that this would be annoying, but I think with Sonny it was an act of endearment. It was his way of connecting with those people that he admired. Sonny had a small yellow orange Ford truck and I figured that someone else must have a truck like that, so I started looking all around for one like it. It took me a couple of weeks, but one morning while we were carpooling our way to the power plant, we came up behind the same kind of truck that Sonny had on its way to the plant. It was green instead of yellow, but it was undoubtedly the same model of truck. It was owned by Ken Reece, who was the manager over the tool room and warehouse.
Sonny imitated a voice that had me puzzled for a while. I had checked out all the Power Plant Men around trying to figure out who Sonny was imitating. Every once in a while Sonny would change his way of talking when he was making a point where he would let his lower lip come forward and work its way left and right as he talked, and he would close one eye more than the other and talk in a strange sort of a southern drawl. I just knew he was imitating someone because it was so different than just the regular Sonny.
Finally, one day when I was walking through the shop I heard someone in the welding area talking just like Sonny would talk when he used that voice. There was no mistake. That had to be the person. I could hear every inflection in his voice and it had to be the voice that Sonny was imitating because it had been much more honed and refined to give just the right effect. So, I changed the course I was travelling so that I could make my way around to the welders to see who it was that was talking like that.
There in the middle of the welding shop was a heavier set man standing in the middle of a group of welders telling a story. Everyone was listening to him quietly just as if it was story time at the library. So, I stopped and watched. This man wasn’t wearing an Electric Company hard hat. He was wearing a Brown and Root hard hat, which indicated that he worked for the construction company that was building the plant.
This guy was undoubtedly a master storyteller. When it came to the climactic part of the story, the bottom of his mouth would stick out with his lip moving left and right and left again, and one eye was partially closed to show the intensity of the situation and the drawl would intensify. Finally. I had found the man that Sonny Karcher had admired enough to take one of his favorite traits and connect it to himself. I could see why Sonny admired him so much. He had everyone within listening distance captivated by his story.
This Brown and Root hand soon became an employee of the Electric Company within a couple of weeks after I left at the end of the summer (on September 9, 1979). This heavier set person was still working at the plant when I first posted this story last year, but has since retired. He was one of this country’s leading Turbine mechanics and he can still tell a story like no one else. He is no longer as heavy. He is rather thin in comparison. He improved his health after realizing that if he really loved his family, he needed to take better care of himself.
I consider this True Power Plant Man, Ray Eberle, to be a dear friend of mine. I have never met anyone that looked more like my own grandfather than Ray. Not that he was that much older. No. He looked almost exactly like my grandfather looked when he was Ray’s age. There was no nicer man than my dad’s dad, and there is no nicer Power Plant Man than Ray Eberle.
Comments from the re-post:
Originally Posted on August 3, 2012 (I added a picture of Walt Oswalt):
The second summer as Summer Help at the Coal-fired Power Plant, was when I first worked out of the Automotive garage. It wasn’t finished during the first summer. The second summer when I began working in the garage, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley, Doug House and Ken Conrad were the regular workers that mowed the fields using tractors with brush hogs, as I have explained in previous posts. A summer help that also worked with us from Ponca City named David Foster was also able to mow grass using one of the new Ford tractors that we painted Orange to easily identify them as belonging to the Electric Company in Oklahoma.
I learned to drive the tractors later in the summer when I worked irrigating the fields in our attempt to grow grass (as told in the post “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It Pays To Listen“). The next summer I was able to mow grass using a Brush Hog pulled behind a tractor:
It didn’t take long before I had to mow grass on the side of the dam (and other levies). The side of the dam has a very sharp incline, so while mowing grass on the side of the dam you sat more on the side of the tractor seat than on the seat itself. Heavy weights were put on the front of the tractor and the back tires on the tractor were turned around so that they were farther apart than they would be otherwise. This gave the tractor a lower, wider profile and a lower center of gravity helping to keep it from rolling over sideways down the slope.
I had watched Jim, Larry, Ken and David mow grass along some very steep inclines the summer before without any tractors tumbling over, so I felt like it must be safe, even though looking at the tractors they still seemed a little “top heavy”.
It was quite an eerie feeling the first time I actually mowed a slope this steep. I experienced the same feeling as you have on a roller coaster when it hits the top of the hill and flings you down real fast when the tractor tire on the downhill side of the tractor rolls into a washed out spot on the dam causing the tractor to roll over just a little farther than you are used to. It was definitely an adrenaline rush each time this happened, because it felt like the tractor was going to roll over.
That is when I remembered the story about the little engine that was trying to pull the train over the steep mountain, and he kept chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” over and over. So, between each decade of the Rosary that I was saying while counting Hail Mary’s on my fingers, I added in an “I Think I can…” as an added prayer before the next “Our Father”.
In the time that I worked as a summer help we never turned over a tractor while mowing on a slope. That isn’t to say that the tractors didn’t start to tip over. It’s just that if you realize that the large back tractor tire has left the ground and is spinning freely, you could quickly turn the steering wheel downhill so that the tractor would turn downhill preventing it from rolling completely over. The weight of the brush hog on the back helped to keep the tractor snug against the sloping dam.
Years later, after I left the Power Plant, in 2006, my father’s best friend, Tom Houghton, a Veterinarian in Lakeland, Florida was killed in a tractor accident at his family’s farm in Polo, Missouri. This greatly effected my father. He has not recovered from the loss of his friend still today. As I was mowing grass and picturing my sudden demise if a tractor were to roll down the hill, my main concern was the sorrow my family would have felt by my death. Needless to say… I never toppled a tractor.
It was during that same summer in 1981 that I first worked with the Power Plant Icon Walt Oswalt. Every plant must have at least one person like Walt. He is the type of person that once he has something in his mind about how to do something, nothing is going to change it. I know many different stories about Walt Oswalt that have been shared with me, but this is one of my own. Walt is a sandy-haired Irish-looking man that always reminded me of the little old man, Jackie Wright, on the Benny Hill Show.
I now have an actual picture of Walt that I found laying around….
One Saturday while I had caught a ride to the Power Plant to do “coal cleanup” the crew was asked who would like to wash down belts 10 and 11. These are the 1/2 mile long belts that go from the coalyard all the way up to the plant. You can see them on the left side of the picture of the plant on the side of this post. Finding the opportunity for a challenge, I volunteered.
I made my way up to the top of the Transfer tower where I found Walt Oswalt. He was working out of the coalyard at the time and was helping us wash down 10 and 11 belt. Wearing rainsuits and rubber boots we began at the top and worked our way down. It didn’t look like this belt had been washed down for a while. We could blast the tin enclosure with the high pressure hoses we were using to completely wash off all the coal dust that had built up over time. This looked like it was going to be a fun job.
Then Walt pointed out to me that most of our work was under the belt where the coal had built up almost solid up to the belt itself so that the coal was rubbing on the rubber Uniroyal conveyor belt. Remember, if the conveyor belt goes up, it has to go back down also. So underneath the conveyor is where the belt returns. it is a big loop.
So, Walt Oswalt and I spent the rest of the day laying on the grating so we could see under the belts washing the coal down the slope of belt 10 and 11. Under the conveyor is another set of rollers that the rubber conveyor belt rides on it’s return trip to the Crusher Tower. During this time there were two chants that came to my mind…. One was, “Whistle While you Work”, since we seemed to be in some kind of coal mine working away like the Seven Dwarfs (you know… Walt Disney… Walt Oswalt). The other one was the song, “Workin’ In a Coal Mine” (…goin’ down down).
At one particular spot the coal had built up and packed itself in there so much that one of the rollers wasn’t able to turn and the belt was just rubbing on the roller. After we had washed the coal away we could see that the roller was not able to turn still because the belt had worn it flat on one side.
Walt called the Control Room to shutdown the belt so that we could look at it. We could see that the roller was bad. For some reason the other belt (11) was out of commission so without this belt running, no coal was being sent up to the plant. The coal silos and the surge bin hold enough coal for a while but not for too long during the summer when the units need to run at their maximum rate to supply the electricity needed by the customers. We could have the belt shutdown for a while, but not for too long.
I followed Walt down the belt to the Crusher Tower wondering what he had in mind. He didn’t tell me what we were going to do, so I just gathered my clues by watching what he did. When we came out of the belt and left the Crusher I was surprised that it was already dark outside. When I had left the Maintenance Shop it had been morning. Now it was dark. We had spent the entire day (12 hours at this point) in Belt 10 and 11. I didn’t remember ever taking a break or eating lunch or even going to the bathroom. Just holding the high pressure water hose, directing the stream down under the belt… all day.
We walked over to a new building that was still being built called the Coalyard Maintenance Building. This was the new building that was going to be used by the new Labor Crew in a few months. Outside the building to one side was a Conex Box, as I have described before. This is the kind of large box that you see on the CSX train commercials that are being transported by trains.
We used them to store equipment used for specific jobs or crews. In this case, the Conex box had conveyor equipment in it. Walt found a long straight roller that is used under the Number 10 and 11 belts and tied it to a 2 wheel dolly. We rolled it back to the Crusher Tower and began the long trek back up the belt. I was pulling the dolly and Walt was carrying some large wrenches.
When we arrived at the spot where the roller had been worn, Walt called the control room to let them know we were beginning to work. We pulled the safety cords on the side of the conveyor to ensure that the belt would not start, even though we were assured that a Clearance had been placed on the breaker in the Main Switchgear (where I began my first war with the spiders a year later. See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“).
Walt climbed over the belt and I stayed on the main walkway. We worked upside down for a while unbolting the roller. At one point we decided we needed some more suitable tools and headed back down the belt to the Coalyard Garage where the heavy equipment is serviced and brought back some large ratchet wrenches and sockets with an extension.
I think the chant, “I think I can, I think I can” was running through my head on our second trip back up the conveyor belt. I think it was around 10pm. We finished changing the roller and decided to leave the old one laying in the walkway for the night. Walt said he would bring it back to the coalyard on Monday morning.
We made our way back to the Maintenance shop where I took off the rain suit and rubber boots that I had been wearing all day and put my regular boots back on. I went up to the control room and asked if anyone could give me a ride to Stillwater since the evening shift of operators were just getting off at 11pm. I believe it was Charles Buchanan that gave me a ride home that night in his little beat up pickup truck.
I never worked directly with Charles Buchanan since he was an operator. The first impression that one may have is that he looks like a caricature of a construction worker in a comic strip.
Charles reaffirmed my belief that Power Plant Men are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. There were a few times when I caught a ride with Charles to or from the plant. Each time I felt honored to ride in his truck. If I think about what chant was running through my mind as we were on our way home at night, I think it would be something like the song “You’ve Got a Friend”: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend….”
That is what all real Power Plant men and linemen are like. Wherever you look in the United States, these great men and women work tirelessly to keep you safe by providing electricity to your homes. Something we take for granted until the power goes out.
Recently when the power went out in the east, the linemen from this electric company drove with pride, eager to help those in need:
Below I have included the lyrics for the song “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King and her husband James Taylor. See how well it fits those people that work around the clock bringing the power to your home:
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend.
If the sky above you should turn dark and full of clouds
and that old north wind should begin to blow,
keep your head together and call my name out loud.
Soon I will be knocking upon your door.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there.
Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend? People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you. Well, they’ll take your soul if you let them,
oh yeah, but don’t you let them.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend. You’ve got a friend.
Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend. Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend.
Oh, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.
Here is a YouTube video of James Taylor singing this song:
If your aren’t able to play youtube videos directly from the picture… here is the link: “You’ve got a Friend“
Originally Posted on November 17, 2012:
Louise Gates seemed reluctant to approach me to ask if I wanted to make a donation for flowers for Grant Harned’s funeral. Of course I did. He was a good friend of mine. We had many carpooling adventures before he left his job as the plant receptionist to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma where he died a little more than a year later in May 1984 in an automobile accident.
Thomas “Grant” Harned had obtained a degree in business from Oklahoma State University before accepting the job at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma. He told me that he thought that once he had his foot in the door that he would be able to advance up the HR chain until he worked his way into a business department downtown at Corporate Headquarters. Downtown is synonymous for Oklahoma City.
Like many struggling new Power Plant men such as Ed Shiever, Dale Hull and others, Thomas lived in a modest student rental apartment near campus. Grant lived on West Miller Avenue just off of Main Street in Stillwater. Soon after I had become a janitor and the summer helps I had been carpooling with had left, I began carpooling with Grant.
Grant was a tall thin man with sandy hair and a moustache that reminded me a lot of Gary McCain (also known as Stick). I have a picture of him around here somewhere that I found many years after his death when we were cleaning out the office that Louise Gates (now Kalicki) had obtained upon becoming the supervisor over HR. It is a picture of him sitting at the receptionist desk.
Louise gave me a picture of myself that had been taken when I was a janitor, and as I filed through the other pictures I found Grant’s photo. I knew no one else at the plant would want the picture as few knew him or even remembered him by that time. So I took it as well. Some day when I find where I have placed those pictures, I will post them. (I found the picture since the original post).
As I mentioned, Grant was just out of the Business College at OSU and he was fired up, ready to make a difference. He had all sorts of ideas that he shared with me about how the plant and the company business processes could be improved.
He reminds me now of myself years later when I was carpooling with Scott Hubbard and Toby O’Brien and how I would talk about having smart electricity instead of the same dumb electricity we have had for the past 100 years. Except that Grant’s ideas were about business processes, where my ideas were about electrons moving through a conductor.
For Power Plant Men, carpooling is a way of getting into other Power Plant Men’s minds and understanding them from the inside out. Each day while driving back and forth from the plant you are basically locked into a confined space with one or more other individuals with nothing but your thoughts, or NPR or in the case of Dale Hull and Ricky Daniels… Beer.
In the case of Grant Harned, he soon became frustrated. He had graduated from school and wanted to make a difference somehow. And he wanted it to happen right away. He would tell his manager Jack Ballard his ideas about how he thought things could change, and each time Jack would shoot it down.
I’m not saying that Grant had great business changing ideas that would change the way Power Plants all over the country operated. He just wanted to be listened to, and he didn’t understand that there were built-in reasons why we did it the way we did. The most important was that “We had been doing it this way for 35 years, and we’re not going to change it now.”
For some reason that rubbed Grant the wrong way. Maybe because he couldn’t help thinking outside the box. He obviously had trouble understanding the benefit of doing something the same way for 35 years. I guess he must have missed the class where “because I said so” was a solid business case. If he had stuck around long enough Ben Brandt would have explained that to him.
Anyway. It is true that Power Plant business processes before Grant’s time and for a while after, were based on doing things the same way it has always been done. I suppose that is why electricity for all those years was the same boring thing…. 60 cycles (60 Hz or 50 Hz in Europe) Alternating Current. Regular Sine wave, perfectly generated. Each wave identical to each other. — But I’ll talk about electricity later. At this time I was still a janitor.
Grant finally decided that he was going to look for another job because he realized that he didn’t have a future at the power plant. He had been trained as a business person and there was little opportunity to display and cultivate his new found skills at a power plant in the middle of the countryside where everyone was content with the way things were.
Before he left, he gave me some cassette tapes that he used to play on the way to and from work. I kept them for years until I had worn them out listening to them in my car. Two of the tapes were The Rolling Stones, one of his favorite bands.
I said goodbye to Grant when he left, but I never forgot him. Each year on All Souls Day (November 2), I remember him and David Hankins. He, like most of the men I have carpooled with over the years was like a brother to me. Those that weren’t brothers, were fathers.
It didn’t occur to me until after I first wrote the original post that years later, I too went to Oklahoma State University while I was working at the plant to obtain a degree from the Business College, Spears School of Business. As with Grant, the Electric Company had no use for someone with my newfound skills, so I moved south to Round Rock, Texas to work for Dell. I wonder if Grant was looking down giving me a thumbs up as I walked to the podium to get my diploma.
I mentioned that I don’t know where I placed his Power Plant picture, but I do have other pictures (before I recently found it):
Evidently someone else remembers Grant as I do. I found these picture of him on a memorial site online. There is a comment there that says this of Grant: “Was known in school and by friends as Grant. He had a great sense of humor and would always make you laugh.”
I agreed with Grant. He really didn’t belong at the power plant. Power Plant life and culture at the time was not geared toward “continuous improvement” and Six Sigma. It was about coming home safely at night to your family and doing a good days worth of work and having something to show for it. He was young and ambitious.
I cherish the time I spent with Grant driving to and from work. I remember many of the conversations that we had. Many of them philosophical in nature. Some having to do with the regular questions people have about life and God. I know that he was being drawn toward something greater, and in the end I pray that he found it.
Originally posted January 18, 2013:
The day I became an electrician at the coal-fired power plant, I suddenly became an expert in electricity. I think it was on Tuesday, just one day after joining the electric shop that I was walking through the welding shop when someone stopped me and asked me how they would wire their living room with different light switches at different corners and make it work correctly. As if I had been an electrician for years. Luckily I was just finishing a house wiring course at the Indian Meridian Vo-Tech in Stillwater, Oklahoma and they had us figure out problems just like those.
Within the first week, George Alley brought a ceiling fan to the shop that he had picked up somewhere and was wondering if we could get it to work. My foreman Charles Foster thought it would be a good small project for me to work on to help me learn about electrical circuits.
After all, this ceiling fan could go slow, medium and fast, and it could go forward or reverse. Only at the moment, all it would do was sit there and hum when you hooked up the power. — So that was my first “unofficial” project, since the main goal was to make George happy so that he would help us out when we needed something special from the mechanics.
When I was a janitor, I had observed the electricians preparing to go to work in the morning, and often, one of them would go to the print cabinets at one end of the shop and pull out a blueprint and lay it across the work table and study it for a while. Then they would either put it back or fold it and put it in their tool bucket and head out the door to go do a job. Now, it was my turn.
Andy Tubbs was one of the two people that played the best jokes on me when I was a janitor. Larry Burns was the other person, and he was the person I was replacing as he had moved to another plant. Andy was the one that had taken the handle off of my push broom the moment I had my back turned so that when I turned around to grab my broom, only the broom head was on the floor, while the broom handle was across the counter by the lab, and Andy was across the other side of the room trying to act like he wasn’t paying attention, but with an expression like he had just played a darn good joke. — I actually had to go back into the bathroom I was cleaning so that I could laugh out loud. I was really impressed by Andy’s ability to play a good joke.
While I’m on the subject, shortly after I became an electrician, I was sitting in the electric shop office talking to Charles when he stopped and said, “Wait…. Listen….” We paused, waiting for something…. A few seconds later, the sound of a hoot owl came over the PA system (what we called the “Gray Phone”). Charles said, It’s an interesting coincidence that the only time the perfect sound of a hoot owl comes over the Gray Phone is when Andy Tubbs is riding in an elevator by himself or with a close friend.
I had been sent with Andy Tubbs and Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), to go to the coal yard and figure out why some circuit for the train gate was not working. Andy had pulled out the blueprints and was studying them. I came up alongside him and looked at all the blue lines running here and there with circles with letters and numbers, and what I recognized as open and closed switches….
Andy stopped and gave me a momentary lecture on the nature of electricity. It was so perfectly summed up, that for years whenever I thought about the nature of electricity, I always began with remembering what Andy told me. He said this:
“Think of electricity like water in a hose. Voltage is the water pressure. Amperage is the amount of water going through the hose. You can have the nozzle on the end of the hose shut off so that no water is coming out and then you have no amperage, but you will still have the pressure as long as it is turned on at the source so you will still have voltage.”
“In these diagrams, you just have to figure out how the water is going to get from one side to the other. These circles are things like relays or lights or motors. When the electricity makes it through them, they turn on as long as the electricity can make it all the way to the other side.”
That was it! That was my lesson in ‘lectricity. All I needed to know. The blueprints were big puzzles. I loved working puzzles. You just had to figure out how you were going to get something to run, and that meant that certain relays had to pickup to close switches that might pick up other relays to close other switches. I found that most of the electricians in the shop were good at working all sorts of puzzles.
Andy went to the cabinet and grabbed one of the Simpson multimeters and a handset for a telephone that had red and black wires wrapped around it.
I was puzzled by this at first. I thought I would just wait to see what we did with it instead of ask what it was for. We grabbed our tool buckets (which also doubled as a stool and tripled as a trash can as needed), and put them in the substation truck. The other truck was being manned by the designated electrician truck driver for that week. We needed a truck that we could drive around in without having to hold up the truck driver.
We drove to the coalyard and went into the dumper switchgear. Andy and Diane opened up a large junction box that was full of terminal blocks with wires going every which way in an orderly fashion. They located a couple of wires, and Andy unwrapped the wires from the handset while Diane removed the screws holding the wires to the terminal block. Then Andy clipped one wire from the telephone handset to each of the two wires and handed me the phone.
Diane told me that they were going to drive down toward the train gate where the railroad tracks come into the plant and try to find these wires on the other end. So, what they needed me to do was to talk on the phone so when they find my voice, they will know that they have the right wires. Diane said, “Just say anything.” Then they left the switchgear and I could hear them drive away in the truck.
Well. This was my opportunity to just talk to no one for a while without interruption. How many times do you get to do that in one day? Probably only when you are on the way to work and back again if you aren’t carpooling with anyone. Or you’re sittin’ on your “thinkin’ chair” in a single occupant restroom. So, I just kicked into Ramblin’ Ann mode and let myself go. I believe my monologue went something like this:
“The other day I was walking through a field, and who should I run across, but my old friend Fred. I said, ‘Well, Hi Fred, how is it going?’ and Fred told me that he was doing just fine, but that he had lost his cow and was wondering if I could help him look for it. I told him I couldn’t right now because I was helping some people find a wire at the moment, and if I became distracted, we might not only lose the cow, but we might lose the wires as well, so I better just keep on talking so that my friends on the other end can find the wires they are looking for. After that I went to the store and I picked up three cans of peas. I thought about getting four cans of peas but settled on three and brought them to the checkout counter, and while I was waiting in line I noticed that the little boy in front of me with his mom was looking at me as if he wanted to have one of my cans of peas, so I quickly made it clear to him that I was buying these cans of peas for myself by sliding them further away from him and glaring at him. Luckily the boy wasn’t persistent otherwise I would have broken down and given him a can of peas because he was looking kind of hungry and I was feeling sorry for him, though, I didn’t want him to know how I was feeling, so I put on a grim expression….”
Needless to say… My monologue went on for another 15 minutes. Yes… .15 minutes. I had expected Andy and Diane to have returned earlier, but I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to find the other end of the wires, so I just kept on ramblin’ to the best of my ability. It’s like what it says in the Bible. If we wrote down everything I said, it would have filled many volumes. Being a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann came in handy that day. For more about Ramblin’ Ann, you can read the following post:
When Andy and Diane returned they said that they had found the wires right away, but that they had sat there for a while just listening to me ramble. They said I was cracking them up. They also mentioned that they thought I was completely crazy. Well. I was glad that they found the wires and that my rambling abilities had come in handy.
Five months after I had joined the electric shop, Andy and I were sent to Oklahoma City to learn about a new kind of electric troubleshooting. It was called “Digital Electronics”. I had just finished my electronics class at the Vo-Tech, and so I was eager to put it into practice. Andy and I went to a two day seminar where we learned to troubleshoot what was basically a PC motherboard of 1984. We used a special tool called a digital probe and learned how the processor worked with the memory chips and the bios. It wasn’t like a motherboard is today. It was simple.
It was just designed for the class so that we could use the digital probe to follow the different leads from the chips as the electric pulses turned on and off.
At the time I was thinking that this was a waste of time. I had been learning all about troubleshooting electronic circuits from Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick. I couldn’t see how this was going to be useful. I didn’t know that within a couple of years, most of our electronic circuits in the precipitator controls were all going to be replaced with digital controls, and this was exactly what I was going to need to know.
So, Andy and I spent two days learning all the basics of how new computers were going to be working. This was the same year that Michael Dell was beginning his new computer company further down I-35 in Austin Texas. Who would have thought that 18 years later I would be working for Dell. But that’s another lifetime away…
Comments from the original post:
Early in my career at the Seminole Plant I learned when someone paged you on the gray phone, you should always check the earpiece of the phone before you put it on your ear – it might be full of clear silicone calk (or worse). Also, at the end of the day when you reach to pick up your lunch box, you should pick it up gently. Someone could have slipped a full bottle of mercury (like 20 pounds) in it. This prevents you from pulling the handle off your lunch box or hearing it crash to the floor, smashing everything in its path. It’s amazing what Power Plant Men are capable of doing.
Plant Electrician January 19, 2013:
We used hand lotion in the electric shop for the gray phone trick. I remember Andy catching an unsuspecting operator in the main switchgear more than once.
Hand lotion is much nicer than silicone caulk!
Originally posted February 1, 2013:
It is vitally important that a manhole cover be round. By just being square or even oval, it could mean death to some unsuspecting electrician. You see, only a perfectly round manhole cover will never be able to fall down into a manhole. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t fit a bigger circle through a smaller circle. An oval or square cover could fall through the hole when turned just right but not a round one. A typical cast iron manhole can weigh up to 500 pounds.
Not long after becoming an electrician, and shortly after the Rivers and the Rose story that I mentioned last week (see the Post “Rivers and Rose in the Power Plant Palace“), we had a cable really go to ground between the main plant and the coalyard. The cable that went to ground was called a 500 MCM cable. What this means is that 500,000 circles of 1 mil (or one milli-inch) in diameter can be put in a circle that is 500 MCM in diameter. A typical 500 MCM cable is good for a 400 amp load at 6900 volts.
For large industrial circuits, 3 phases of electricity are used instead of just one like you have in your house. With three phases of electricity, you have a constant amount of power being applied to the entire circuit at all times. With a one phase circuit, you have zero power 120 times every second. So with any “decent” power circuit, you have 3 phases of electricity.
The cable that went to ground was the coalyard station power cable. Not only were there three phases of power, but for each phase there were two 500 MCM cables. That means that this circuit was good for 800 amps of power at 6,900 volts. Giving you a capacity of 5.5 Megawatts (or 5 million, 500 thousand watts) of power. These cables were so big that a typical industrial Wire cable chart doesn’t even go this high:
In a Coal-fired power plant, you have a redundant system for everything. So, the coalyard wasn’t completely in the dark. It had just swapped over to the redundant circuit. — This always amused me. In my English and Poetry classes in College I would have points taken off for being “redundant”, but in the power plant this was necessary to keep the plant running at all times.
As I said 15 years later, when I was training operators and electricians to be certified substation switchmen, “I know this is boring, but you have to learn it…” (but that is another story).
So, to make a rather boring lecture shorter, I will skip the part about how we had a hypot from the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department brought in so big that it had to come in a van. They attached it to the cables to find where the short to ground was located. I’ll skip the part about how it was decided to replace the faulty cables going to the coalyard 1/2 mile away. I’ll also skip the part about how Charles Foster was able to finagle the use of Stanley Elmore’s precious blue Mitsubishi mini-tractor to try to pull the cables from one manhole to the next (the first time anyone outside the garage was able to operate his most beloved tractor…..).
Oh, and I’ll skip the part about how 1000 feet of this cable cost about $10,000 and we had six cable to replace for a cost of about $320,000 just for the cable… I’ll also skip the part about how this little tractor was too small to pull the cables through the manholes from manhole to manhole up to the coalyard, so we sent in for the big guns from the T&D department to use their equipment that pulled the cables through the manholes as easy as pulling the wool over Gene Day’s eyes while playing a joke on him. (Don’t get me wrong…. I know in his heart, Gene Day really appreciated a good joke. Gene Day is one of the best men I have ever been able to call “Friend” — which I would do shortly after playing a joke on him, after I returned to consciousness).
Anyway, after this episode was all over it was decided that something needed to be done about how all the manholes from the plant to the coalyard were always full of water. You see, the manholes were easily deeper than the lake level so water naturally leaked into them. Each of them had a pump in them that was supposed to keep them dry, but somewhere along the line, in the 5 years the plant had been in operation, each manhole pump had failed at one time or other… When pumping out the first manhole, it took days, because as you pumped out that first manhole, water would run from one manhole to the other as you actually ended up pumping out all the manholes down to the point where the cables went from one manhole to the other.
So, none other than the “newbie” was appointed as the keeper of the Manhole pumps. Yep. That would be me. So, for the next few months I spent almost all my times pumping out manholes and repairing all the pumps that had been submerged in water for years. This was my first real job.
This was my real introduction to becoming a real plant electrician (You can see how I really like using the word “real”). The most common job of an electrician was to take a motor that had failed or was scheduled to be overhauled and repair it and put it back in place to continue on it’s “tour of duty”. It’s amazing how you can take a motor that has failed, and you can “rebuild” it and put it back in operation. — This has come in handy at home as the cooling fan motor on the air conditioner unit on your house goes out every few years. I have yet to call an air conditioner man to my current house where I have lived for 11 1/2 years (now 16 years).
I remember that Charles Foster had told me that “paperwork” was very important when it came to motors. A history had to be kept. Certain steps had to be performed before, during and after repairing a motor. It had to be meggared properly (see the post from last week to learn more about meggars: Rivers and a Rose of the Power Plant Palace).
So, I asked Ben Davis if he could show me what I needed to do to fix a motor. His immediate indignant response was, “What? You don’t know how to fix a motor?” My response was, “No, I don’t know. Would you show me?” Ben, who up to that point had presented himself with displeasure at my presence in the shop, suddenly smiled and said, “Sure! Let me show you what you need to do!”
Ben showed me all the steps you go through to repair and “document” a motor repair in great detail. I was glad that I had found that Ben was just putting on a front of disgust at my presence in the Electric shop only to show me at the “proper” time that I had been “misjudging” him as being a grumpy person when he wasn’t really….
I had figured, before this time, that Ben really had a kind heart because I figured that if Diane Lucas and Andy Tubbs, who I both admired greatly considered Ben as a good friend, then he must really be a good guy underneath, even though he was keeping this hidden from me.
I knew the moment he smiled at my response when I told him I really didn’t know anything, that Ben had a kind heart. He couldn’t hide it any longer. If I had asked the same thing to OD McGaha, one of the other B Foremen in the shop, for instance, he would have told me to go to hell. But not Ben.
I have more to tell you about Ben, but I’ll save that for a later post. For now, I’ll just say that though Ben may not have known it during the time I spent as an electrician, he has always been close to my heart. I have always had Ben and his family in my daily prayers from the day that he smiled at me and explained to me how to repair a motor.
So, how does a lone newbie electrician pull a 500 pound lid off of a manhole by himself? Well. He uses a Manhole cover puller of course.
Ok. Our manhole cover puller wasn’t blue like this, but it had a similar shape. With a simple tool like this a 500 pound manhole cover could be popped out of the hole and dragged away. So, I used this tool as my one man crew (myself) went from manhole to manhole, where I pumped each out and lowered a ladder into each hole and disconnecting the drenched motor and brought it back to the shop where I dried it out (using the hot box in the shop that doubled as a heater for lunches), and repaired it and re-installed it.
We had all the manholes in the plant identified. I painted the numbers on each lid with orange paint. It was while I was working in the manholes 15 feet below ground that I appreciated the round manhole. I knew that as long as that manhole cover was round, it couldn’t accidentally be knocked into the hole only to crush me to death below.
Other things were of concern in the manholes where I worked… For instance, many of these holes had been underwater for at least a couple of years, and the entire manhole was covered with a kind of slime. there were also high voltage cables that had splices in some of the manholes, and I remember Gene Roget telling me that he had seen sparks flying off of some of them when they were hypoting the cables looking for the ground. The dank smell of the manholes made you think that there were probably some kind of “swamp gases” in there.
Nevertheless, when I grew weary of dragging the heavy shellacked wooden ladder from hole to hole, I devised a way to climb down into the manholes using the drain pipe from the motor. This was before OSHA had implemented all the confined spaces rules in 1994 that would have prevented me from entering a manhole alone. I was improvising and taking a risk of falling and hurting myself each time I entered a manhole.
I ran into one of the reasons for not leaving a person in a manhole alone one time when I was working in a manhole near the intake house and another crew drove up and parked their truck near the hole I was working in. I remember that while I was working there, I suddenly became nauseous. Not sure why, I climbed out of the hole.
The truck that had been left idling nearby had been emitting toxic fumes that had looked for the lowest place they could settle, and that happened to be in the manhole where I was working. After that, I always kept an ear out for any motor vehicles nearby when I was in a manhole.
Ten years later, in 1994, OHSA added some new laws to the books that made it mandatory to have a “hole watch” stand outside a hole watching you while you worked in a manhole. You even had to have a safety harness tied to a safety hoist so that if you passed out while in a manhole the hole watch could pull you out without having to enter the hole.
Needless to say. I got my feet wet as an electrician popping in and out of manholes like the gopher in the arcade that you try to bop on the head.
One interesting story that happened during this time happened when Blake Tucker, who had been a summer help with me in the garage, and then later became a summer help in the electric shop, was sitting with me while we were going to fix a pump in manhole 215 (I believe this is the number of the manhole next to the intake where the fly ash pipes go over the intake).
The hole was full of water, and the pump had naturally tripped the breaker….. For some reason I decided to go into the intake switchgear and reset the 120 volt breaker to the pump in the Distribution Panel. When I did. I returned to the hole where Blake was waiting for me. I reached down into the hole with my foot and I kicked the drain pipe that rose from the pump and made a 90 degree turn up close to the entrance.
When I kicked the pipe, the motor actually began running. We could see it 15 feet below us in the clear water running. It was an open face motor, meaning that it wasn’t sealed and made to be a submersible pump, yet it was running under water. A year later we decided that it made more sense to replace all the open motors with submersible pumps.
Blake Tucker and I watched for 1/2 hour as the pump sucked out the water from the manhole. When the level of the water reached the top of the motor, the outboard fan that had been slowly rotating all of the sudden kicked into high gear and we could see that the pump had been running at full speed all along.
This fascinated me. I figured the water must have been pure enough not to be too conductive (pure water is a natural insulator…. oddly enough). We could easily see this pump through 15 feet of water, so it must have been pretty clean. That was the only time I have ever seen an open motor happily running submersed in water… It is not something you see every day….. for instance…. It is not every day that you see a janitor with a Psychology major acting like an electrician sitting beside a manhole staring down into the darkness in a power plant either. But there you are…
Originally Posted on February 15, 2013:
My first job, where I wasn’t working for myself, was when I was 14 years old and I became a dishwasher in a German Restaurant called Rhinelanders in Columbia Missouri. It felt good feeding dishes through the dishwasher, and scrubbing pots and pans because I knew that in the scheme of things I was helping to feed the customers the best German food in a 60 mile radius. Later when I went to work for the Hilton Inn as a dishwasher, I was serving a lot more people as they would host banquets with 100’s of people at one time. After that I went to work for Sirloin Stockade as a dishwasher, busboy and finally a cook. The number of people that would go through that restaurant in one day dwarfed the number of people we would serve at the Hilton Inn.
Nothing prepared me for the massive amount of people whose lives are touched each day by a Power Plant Electrician! Or any Power Plant employee for that matter. Our plant alone could turn the lights on for over one million people in their homes, offices and factories. As a summer help mowing grass and cleaning up the park each week removing dirty diapers and rotting fish innards it never really had the impact that becoming an electrician did.
Part of the routine as an electrician was to do preventative maintenance on equipment to keep things in good working order. We performed substation inspections, emergency backup battery checks. We changed brushes on the generator exciter, performed elevator inspections and checked cathodic protection to make sure it was operational. At certain times of the year we would check out the plant freeze protection to make sure the pipes weren’t going to freeze come winter. I also worked on maintaining the precipitator equipment. All of these things were needed to keep the plant running smoothly, but, though they were each fun in their own way, they didn’t have the impact on me that fixing something that was broken did. (ok. two paragraphs ending in the word “did”… what does that tell you?).
I used to love getting a Maintenance Order that said that something was broken and we needed to go fix it. It may have been a motor that had a bad bearing, or a cooling system that had shutdown, or the Dumper that dumped the coal trains had quit working. One of my “speci-alities” (I know. I misspelled that on purpose), was working on elevators. — I will save my elevator stories for later.
When I was working on something that was broken, I could see more clearly how my job was related to keeping the lights on throughout the area of Oklahoma where our company served the public. Depending on what you were working on, one wrong slip of the screwdriver and “pow”, I could make the lights blink for 3 million people. I will talk more about certain events that happened throughout the years that I worked at the plant where things that happened at the plant were felt throughout our electric grid.
Sometimes even as far away as Chicago and Tennessee. There was a “club” for people that shut a unit down. It was called the “500 Club”. It meant that you tripped the unit when it was generating 500 or more Megawatts of power. I can say that “luckily”, I never was a member of that club.
Ok, so a broken elevator doesn’t directly impact the operation of the plant, but it was, during more than one occasion, a life threatening situation considering that a few times the elevator would pick the most opportune time to stall between 200 and 225 feet up the elevator shaft full of elderly visitors that were touring our flagship Power Plant on their way back down from experiencing the great view of the lake from the top of the boiler. (I know. My college English Professor would have a heyday with that run-on sentence). — actually, that sentence was so long, I think I’ll make it the only sentence in the entire paragraph, — well, except for my comments about it….
Charles Foster, my foreman and best friend, took me up to the top of the boiler soon after I became an electrician and showed me the “Elevator Penthouse”. I know. “Elevator Penthouse”… Sounds like a nice place…. Well. It wasn’t bad after you swept out the dead moths, beetles and crickets that had accumulated since the last Elevator Inspection. It was a noisy room on the top of the elevator shaft where the elevator motor buzzed as it pulled the elevator up and let it down. Stopping on floors where someone had pushed a button.
I told you earlier that my elevator stories will be in a later post, so for this story, I’ll just say that Charles set me down on my tool bucket (which doubled as my portable stool and tripled as my portable trash can), in front of a panel of about 100 relays all picking up and dropping out as the elevator made its way up and down. He told me to study the blueprints that hung on the side of the panel and watch the relays until I understood how it all worked.
So, one afternoon, I sat there for about 4 hours doing nothing but watching relays light up and drop out. On the other side of that panel were the main relays. There were relays there we called “Christmas Tree” relays because they looked like a fir tree. I made some notes on a piece of paper about the sequence that the relays would pick up and drop out that I kept in my wallet.
I used those notes years later (in 2000) when I was writing task lists in SAP (our Enterprise Resource Planning computer system) on how to troubleshoot the elevator controls. Anyway, that was how I learned all about how elevator logic works. You know what? It is just like writing a computer program using computer code. It is basically a set of instructions with rules built-in, only it was done with relays.
Well. Back to helping humanity…. So, usually when we were working on something that was broken there was an operator somewhere that was waiting for the equipment to be repaired so that they could go on with their job. Sometimes the Shift Supervisor would be calling us asking us periodically when we were going to be done because they were running low on coal in the silos and were going to have to lower the load on the units if we didn’t hurry up. It was times like that when you fixed the kill switch on the side of the 10 or 11 conveyor that supply the coal to the plant from the coalyard that you really understood just where you stood with your fellow man.
I am writing about this not because I want to pat myself on the back. Though I often did feel really proud as I returned to the truck with my tool bucket after coming down from a conveyor after fixing something. I would feel like taking a bow, though I was often by myself in situations like that when I wasn’t with my “bucket buddy”. At least the Shift Supervisor and the control room operators were very grateful when you would fix something critical to keeping the plant operating at full steam (and I mean that literally…. The electricity is made by the steam from the boiler that turned the turbine that spun the generator).
No. I am writing about this because it would hit home to me at times like these how much each of us depend on each other. We all know about how important it is to have a police force keeping order and having fire fighters and paramedics on standby to rush to protect families in time of distress. People in jobs like those are as obvious as the soldiers that protect our nation.
I think the majority of us have a much bigger impact on the rest of society than we realize. I think the Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with never gave it much thought. Like the person washing dishes in a restaurant, they didn’t look at themselves as heroes. But they are (I know… Sentence fragment). Each day they moved through an environment where a boiler ghost could reach out and grab them. They distinctively know that they are standing next to a dragon that could wake up at any moment and blast them from the face of the earth, but they don’t let it deter them from the immediate job at hand.
When the boilers were being brought on line for the first time in 1979 and 1980, when you walked through the boiler area, you carried a household straw broom with you that you waved in front of you like someone knocking spider webs out of the way (I called it searching for the boiler ghost). It was explained to me at the time that this was done to detect if there was steam leaking from the pipes. If steam was leaking from some of the pipes, you wouldn’t be able to see it, but if you stepped into the flow of the steam, it could cut you in half before you even realized there was something wrong. When the steam hit the broom, it would knock the broom to the side, and you would know the leak was there. Kind of like the canary in the mine.
I remember one day when everyone was told to leave Unit 1 boiler because during an emergency, the entire boiler was at risk of melting to the ground. If not for the quick action of brave Power Plant Men, this was avoided and the lights in the hospitals in Oklahoma City and the rest of Central Oklahoma didn’t blink once. The dragon had awakened, but was quickly subdued and put back in its place.
I entitled this post “Serving Mankind Power Plant Style”, but isn’t that what we all do? If we aren’t serving Mankind, then why are we here? Today I have a very different job. I work at Dell Inc., the computer company. Our company creates computers for people around the world. We create and sell a computer about once every 2 seconds. At the electric company we had about 3,000 people that served 3 million. At Dell, we provide high quality computers for a price that allows even lower income families to enter the computer age. Computers allow families to connect with each other and expand their lives in ways that were not even conceived of a few years ago.
Even though I spend my days serving my internal customers at Dell, I know that in the big scheme of things along with over 100,000 other employees, I am helping to impact the lives of over a billion people worldwide! I wouldn’t be able to do much if down the road the brave men and women at a Power Plant weren’t keeping the lights on. It is kind of like the idea of “Pay it Forward.”
So, the bottom line of this post is… All life is precious. Whatever we do in this life, in one way or other, impacts the rest of us. We go through life thinking that we live in a much smaller bubble than we really do. The real bubble that we live in is this planet and just like every cell in our body is in some way supported by the other cells, it is that way with us. Don’t discount what you do in life. It may seem insignificant, but the smile you give to someone today will be “paid forward” and will impact every one of us.
Comments from the Original Post:
Far too few understand this, very well said, my friend.
Ron Kilman February 16, 2013
I remember one time at the Seminole Plant when we had a steam leak on a Unit 2 throttle valve. You could hear it (over the roar of the turbine room) but you couldn’t see it (superheated steam is invisible). Martin Louthan and Ralph McDermott found the leak with a “red rag” on the end of a broomstick.
Life is precious, or it’s just another commodity, right? And that’s right down the center of the Left/Right divide…
Abortion debates sit astride that divide; healthcare is now crossing it as government undertakes how much to spend on various age groups.
Another side of it provided the sense of responsibility that led Power Plant Men to sacrifice and risk when those were needed. At one time, those attitudes would have been taken for granted, normal and to be expected… something that comes clear in all the Power Plant stories.
Comments from the Previous Repost:
February 20, 2014
Originally posted: April 15, 2013:
“Something is in the water in Muskogee.” That is what I used to say. Something that makes people feel invulnerable. That was what I attributed to David Stewart’s belief that he could jump up in a falling elevator just before it crashed into the ground and he would be saved (see After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests).
There was another story at the Muskogee Coal-fired Power Plant where this one mechanic believed that he could stick his finger in a running lawnmower and pull it out so fast that it wouldn’t cut his finger off. Of course, True Power Plant Men tried to reason with him to convince him that it was impossible…. Then there were others who said… “Ok. Prove it.”
Think about it. A lawnmower spins at the same rate that a Turbine Generator spins when it makes electricity. 3,600 time a minute. Or 60 times each second. Since the blade in a lawnmower extends in both directions, a blade would fly by your finger 120 times each second. Twice as fast as the electric current in your house cycles positive and negative.
This means that the person will have to stick their finger in the path of the lawnmower blade and pull it out within 8/1000th of a second…. IF they were able to time it so that they put their finger in the path at the precise moment that the blade passed by. Meaning that on average, the person only has 4/1000th of a second (or 0.004 seconds) to perform this feat (on average… could be a little more, could be less).
Unfortunately for this person, he was not convinced by the logicians that it was impossible, and therefore proceeded to prove his case. If you walked over and met this person in the maintenance shop at Muskogee, you would find that he was missing not only one finger, but two. Why? Because after failing the first time and having his finger chopped off, he was still so stubborn to think that he could have been wrong, so later he tried it again. Hence the reason why two of his fingers were missing.
Upon hearing this story, I came to the conclusion that there must be something in the water at Muskogee. I drank soft drinks as much as possible while I was there on overhaul during the fall of 1984.
As I mentioned in the post Power Plant Rags to Riches, in 1984 I was on overhaul at Muskogee with Ben Davis. An overhaul is when a unit is taken offline for a number of weeks so that maintenance can be performed on equipment that is only possible when the unit is offline. During this particular overhaul, Unit 6 at Muskogee was offline.
Ben and I were working out of the Unit 6 Electric shop. Ben was staying with his friend Don Burnett, a machinist that used to work at our plant when I was a summer help. Before Don worked for the electric company, he worked in a Zinc Smelting plant by Tonkawa, Oklahoma. Not only was Don an expert machinist, he was also one of the kindest people you would run across. Especially at Muskogee.
I was staying in a “trailer down by the river” by the old plant. Units one, two and three. They were older gas-fired units. I think at the time, only Unit 3 was still operational. The first 2 weeks of the overhaul, I stayed in a rectory with the Catholic priests in town. Then David Stewart offered to let me stay in his trailer down by the river for only $50 a week.
After the first couple of weeks it was decided that the 4 week overhaul had turned into a 9 week overhaul because of some complications that they found when inspecting something on the turbine. So, I ended up staying another month.
When they found out that they were going to be down for an extra 5 weeks, they called in for reinforcements, and that is when I met my new “roomie”, Steven Trammell from the plant in Midwest City. He shared the trailer for the last 4 weeks of the overhaul. From that time on, Steven and I were good friends. To this day (and I know Steven reads this blog) we refer to each other as “roomie”, even though it has been 28 years since we bunked together in a trailer…..down by the river.
I have one main story that I would like to tell with this post that I am saving until the end. It was what happened to me the day I think I accidentally drank some of the water…. (sounds like Mexico doesn’t it?). Before I tell that story, I want to introduce you to a couple of other True Power Plant Men that lived next door to “roomie” and me in another trailer down by the river (this was the Arkansas River by the way…. Yeah… The Arkansas river that flowed from Kansas into Oklahoma… — go figure. The same river that we used at our plant to fill our lake. See the post Power Plant Men taking the Temperature Down By The River).
Joe Flannery was from Seminole Plant and I believe that Chet Turner was from Horseshoe Plant, though I could be mistaken about Chet. I know he was living in south Oklahoma City at the time, so he could have been working at Seminole as well. These were two electricians that were very great guys. Joe Flannery had a nickname. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I think it was “Bam Bam”.
Joe was very strong, like Bam Bam. He also reminded me of Goober on the Andy Griffith Show, though Gary Lyons at our plant even resembled Goober more:
Chet was older than Joe by quite a lot, but I could tell that my Roomie and Joe held him in high esteem… So much so, that I might just wait on the story I was going to tell you about the time that I drank the water in Muskogee to focus more on Chet Turner… otherwise known as Chester A Turner.
I first met Chet when my roomie asked me if I wanted to go out and eat with him and our two trailer neighbors. On the way to dinner, we had to stop by a used car lot to look at what was available because Chet loved looking at cars. He had gray hair and was 60 years old at the time.
During the next 5 weeks, we went out to eat almost every night during the week with Chet and Joe. We explored Muskogee as best we could. That means that we visited about every car lot in the town. We also ate at a really good BBQ place where you sat at a picnic table and ate the BBQ on a piece of wax paper.
One night we were invited by another electrician (I think his name was Kevin Davis) to meet him at a Wal-Mart (or some other similar store) parking lot where his son was trying to win a car by being the last person to keep his hand on the car. He had already been doing it for about 4 days, and was exhausted. It would have reminded me of the times I had spent adjusting the precipitator controls after a fouled start-up, only, I hadn’t done that yet.
I was usually hungry when we were on our way to dinner, and I was slightly annoyed by the many visits to car lots when my stomach was set on “growl” mode. I never said anything about it, because I could tell that Chet was having a lot of fun looking at cars.
If only I had known Chet’s story when I met him, I would have treated him with the respect that he deserved. If I had known his history, I would have paid for his meals. It was only much later that I learned the true nature of Chet, a humble small gray-haired man that seemed happy all the time, and just went with the flow.
You know… It is sometimes amazing to me that I can work next to someone for a long time only to find out that they are one of the nation’s greatest heroes. I never actually worked with Chet, but I did sit next to him while we ate our supper only to return to the trailers down by the river exhausted from the long work days.
Let me start by saying that Chet’s father was a carpenter. Like another friend of mine, and Jesus Christ himself, Chester had a father that made furniture by hand. During World War II, Chester’s mother helped assemble aircraft for the United States Air Force.
While Chet’s mother was working building planes for the Air Force, Chet had joined the Navy and learned to be an electrician. He went to work on a ship in the Pacific called the USS Salt Lake City. It was in need of repairs, so he was assigned to work on the repairs.
While working on the ship, it was called to service, and Chet went to war. After a couple of battles where the ship was damaged from Japanese shelling it went to Hawaii to be repaired. After that, it was sent to the battle at Iwo Jima. That’s right. The Iwo Jima that we all know about. Chet was actually there to see the flag being raised by the Marines on Mount Suribachi:
Chet fought valiantly in the battle at Iwo Jima and was able to recall stories of specific attacks against targets that would make your hair stand on end to listen to. After it was all said and done, Chet was awarded the Victory Medal,
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal,
and the Philippine Liberation Campaign Ribbon.
As well as others….
At the time that I knew Chet, I didn’t know any of this about him. Isn’t that the case so many times in our lives. Think twice about that Wal-Mart Greeter when you go to the store. When you see an elderly old man or woman struggling with her cart to put her groceries in her car…. You may be looking at a hero.
I was looking at Chet thinking, “boy. This guy sure enjoys looking at cars…. I’m hungry.” This past week I was thinking about writing tonight about an event that took place while Ben and I were on overhaul at Muskogee. I thought it would be a funny story that you would enjoy. So, I asked my roomie, “What was the name of the guy that was staying with Joe Flannery in the trailer? The one with the gray hair?”
He reminded me that his name was Chet Turner. Steven told me that Chet had died a while back (on January 12, 2013, less than two weeks after I started writing about Power Plant Men) and that he was a good friend. So much so, that Steven found it hard to think about him being gone without bringing tears to his eyes. This got me thinking…. I knew Chet for a brief time. I wondered what was his story. I knew from my own experience that most True Power Plant Men are Heroes of some kind, so I looked him up.
Now you know what I found. What I have told you is only a small portion of the wonderful life of a great man. I encourage everyone to go and read about Chet Turner. The Story of Chester A. Turner
Notice the humble beginning of this man who’s father was a carpenter. Who’s mother worked in the same effort that her son did during the war to fight against tyranny. How he became an electrician at a young age, not to rule the world, but to serve mankind.
Looking at cars has taken on an entirely new meaning to me. I am honored today to have Chet forever in my memory.