Yesterday at 8:12pm (CDT) the 10,000th person visited the Power Plant Man site. With only 39 posts, that is an average of 256 views per post. That may seem a lot since I have only 67 followers. The truth is that most people come to this site by accident. They are usually searching for something that I have mentioned, and once they read one, they often read two or three more before going on their way. I will not stand on my laurels because if I have learned one thing from Power Plant Men, and the Power Plant Safety Process is that, when you become comfortable doing a dangerous job, that is when an accident is most likely to happen.
Isn’t that when a young driver seems to become careless? They drive carefully for the first couple of months when they have just learned how to drive, and then when they feel confident about their driving ability, they begin to cut safety corners, and the next thing you know an accident occurs. That was one lesson we learned in our Defensive Driving Course.
In the spring of 1986, while I was an electrician at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I went with another electrician, Ted Riddle, to work on a Major Overhaul for three months in Oklahoma City at a Power Plant just North of Mustang. While we worked there, we would eat lunch with a man well into his 50’s that was our acting foreman for the overhaul. His name was Willard Stark. During lunch we would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio. When Paul would mention a date back 20 years in the past, Willard would be able to tell us what he was doing on that day, many years earlier. I was fascinated by his ability. I will probably talk about Willard more in a later post, but today, I mention him only because of his ability to remember what happened on dates long gone by.
Now, when that I am almost the same age as Willard was then, I am beginning to see that certain dates hold a special significance. The more memorable the experience, either for the good or the bad, and I seem to remember what day it happened. That leads me to one of the memorable dates in my past life at the Power Plant. The particular date was July 15, 1980. I was working at the power plant during my second summer when I was normally working out of the garage. But Stanley Elmore had told me to go to the Maintenance Shop and get with Ray Butler, because he was going to have me do some cleaning up around the shop.
When I arrived, Ray told me to go over and wait with this new hand that they had just hired the day before, and he would be over there in a few minutes when he finished what he was doing. I walked over to the young man (I say young, but he was 6 years older than I was. He was 25) named Kerry Lewallen. I introduced myself to him, and we waited together for a few minutes until Ray came over and told us to get a forklift and move some crates that were nearby over to the Warehouse, and then meet him there to help build some shelves in the warehouse to store the larger material on pallets.
The reason I remember this day so well was because of what happened right after Ray walked away. Kerry looked at me and asked me if I wanted to drive the forklift. Well. I really did want to drive the forklift, because I thought it would be fun, but from my experience at the plant, I noticed that people like Larry Riley had a Hard Hat Sticker that said: “Certified Operator Industrial Powered Trucks”. So, I explained to Kerry that I wasn’t Certified to drive a forklift. Kerry had only worked there one day before that day, and even though he probably had a lot of experience driving a forklift (as most Power Plant Men did), he didn’t feel comfortable driving the forklift either.
So, we waited for Ray to come back and Ray asked if we were going to go get the forklift. Then Kerry said something that I have never forgotten, and that I have used repeatedly throughout my career at the Power Plant, as well as my current career. He explained to Ray, “I would like to, but I haven’t been circumcised to drive the forklift.” I watched Ray as he listened, and I noticed a very faint smile as he realized what Kerry meant to say. Ray agreed, and said he would take care of it. I believe that was the day he took us to the warehouse and circumcised both of us to drive the forklift right then and there.
I couldn’t wait to get home and show my parents. As you can see, I was so proud of my new hardhat sticker, I didn’t put it on my hardhat, I just brought it home and framed it and hung it on the wall. That was July 15, 1980. It was kind of like my “Come to Jesus” moment in my Power Plant journey.
Kerry Lewallen, as it turned out was a great welder, as were all the True Power Plant Welders. He stayed on at the plant to become one of the True Power Plant Men that worked side-by-side with the other great welders in the boilers welding boiler tubes, or in the bowl mill welding inside them in the tremendous heat that mere mortals like myself found totally unbearable.
As with Jerry Mitchell, my wife came home one day and told me about this very nice person that she worked with as a Nurse in the Stillwater Medical Center. She described her as being a very honest and pleasant person to work with. She also told me that she was married to someone that worked at the Power Plant. Her name was Vicki Lewallen, Kerry’s wife.
Through the years, there were many opportunities where we received Hardhat stickers. Most of them were safety related. Each year we would receive a safety sticker, if we hadn’t had an accident. It would indicate how many years in a row it has been that we have been accident free. I received my last safety sticker the last day I worked at the Power Plant during my going away party.
I didn’t place this on a hardhat either. Well. I was walking out the door leaving my hardhat behind (so to speak). I don’t remember how long the Plant Manager Eldon Waugh had worked for the electric company, (about 40 years) but just a couple of months before he retired, while driving back to the plant from Oklahoma City, he took an exit off of I-35 behind a semi-truck. The truck stopped on the ramp realizing that he had taken the wrong exit and proceeded to back up. He ran into the company truck that Eldon was driving causing an accident. This was enough to ruin Eldon’s perfect safety record just months before he retired. The thought was that Eldon should have not pulled up so close to the truck, or have kept the truck in line with the driver’s side mirror so that he knew he was there.
Throughout the years that I worked at the plant we would have different Safety programs or initiatives that would help to drive our safe behavior. Since back injuries were a major concerned, we would watch films about lifting properly. Since we worked with heavy equipment we would watch videos about people being injured while working with dozers, and other big tractors. One video that we watched was called: “Shake Hands With Danger”. You can watch it here on YouTube:
This is a classic Safety film shown at the Power Plant periodically. I always thought we should have been provided with popcorn when we watched these. Harry in this film reminds me of a cross between Ken Conrad and Darrell Low. The “Old timer” reminds me of Mike Lafoe. I could go on.
When our new plant manager Ron Kilman arrived after Eldon Waugh, he had us watch a film where there was a fatal race car accident. When they looked more closely at the accident, it turned out that there were many things that had to happen wrong that led up to the accident. When an accident occurs on the race track, a Yellow Flag is raised, and everyone gets in line and takes it slow around the track until the accident is cleared. In the movie, the thought was that it would have been helpful if the yellow flag had come out each time someone was about to do something wrong “Before” the accident happened.
The foremen at the plant were given yellow flags to put on their desks as a reminder to see yellow flags whenever you see something that has the potential to be dangerous. We were even given yellow flag stickers to put on our hardhat. — By now, you probably know what I did with mine. Yep. I have it right here. I keep it by my bedside as a reminder:
At one point during the years at the plant, we created a Safety Task Force. When Bill Gibson was the head of the Task Force, he used his Safety imagination to come up with some customized Hardhat Safety Stickers that people at our plant would appreciate. One of the more patriotic Hardhat Safety Stickers looked like this:
I didn’t receive one of the stickers that he came up with that I really liked because I was away at the time on an overhaul when they were being handed out. Many years later, when I mentioned it to the guys at the plant in an e-mail, I was given a stack of them by Randy Dailey the next time I visited the plant. Randy Dailey the Plant Machinist that was known as “Mister Safety” himself. Thanks to Randy Dailey I am able to show you a hardhat safety sticker that was created based on a particular phrase that was going around the plant at the time:
That really says it all doesn’t it. The real truth about Power Plant Men. They really do care about each other. The close bond between the Power Plant Men is what kept us safe. In the “Shake Hands with Danger” at one point, it mentions that each person should “Watch out for the other guy.”
That is how our plant remained as safe as it did throughout the years that I was there. When I received the Hardhat Safety Sticker for working 20 years without an accident, it wasn’t because I was always being safe in every job I was doing, because that wasn’t always true. It was because there were enough Power Plant Men and Women looking out for me that decreased my odds of being injured by decreasing the number of times that I would end up doing something stupid and getting myself hurt or killed.
So, not only do I thank all the True Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with throughout those years, but so does my wife and my two children. One little mistake at the wrong time. One extra time of Shaking Hands with Danger, and I might not have come home one day from work. It was more than luck that kept me safe. I thank each and everyone of the Power Plant People that I worked with throughout my career for watching out for the other guy.
I learned very quickly my first summer as a summer help at the power plant that one of the worst smells a human being can experience is the smell of rotting fish and maggots. Every Monday and Friday I would go with Dee Ball down to the two park areas with plastic bags and my Handy Dandy Homemade trash stabbing tool and plastic bags to clean up where the fishermen had been fishing. There were a few trash cans out there that we would load into the back of the truck and haul off to the junkyard located at the perimeter of our main plant grounds. There was always a well baked pile of fish guts and soiled disposable baby diapers flowing over the top of the trash cans. Most of which had been baking in the hot sun for at least a day or two, and sometimes all week. The diapers came from families that came to swim in the swimming area. At that time they had piled some sand in one area and put some buoys out in the water to keep the boats away and tied a raft out away from the shore a short distance.
It is so hard to describe the actual smell of this conglomeration of waste materials and maggots the size of grubs that I can only come close to describing the effect that it has on me when I had to inhale a whiff. I am sure that if I had ever wretched up my breakfast, it could only have made matters better. My own immune system kicked into autopilot and I was generally left holding my breathe not because the smell was so terrible, but because my auto-immune system had decided that it was better to suffocate than to suffer the intake of another breath.
Dee Ball didn’t seem to mind too much and I just took it to mean that his older and wiser soul had learned to dampen the effect through the use of cigarettes and maybe something between his cheek and gums. I wasn’t too sure how old Dee Ball was when I first met him, but later figured out that he was around 40. His hardhat looked like it was about that old. Though I would have guessed he was a little older. His body was thin and worn out. Wrinkles were already appearing around the edges of his face. He had light blue eyes that you wouldn’t notice unless he was excited, and then his eyebrows would go up and reveal a set of wide blue eyes. He wasn’t excited in general, but he was what some would call…. “jumpy”. Meaning that if you grabbed his knee and hollered at the same time he would have jumped right out of the window of a moving truck. In later years during my summer help experience, I seem to remember Ken Conrad doing that to him. After Dee pretty near jumped out of his clothes, Ken Conrad would get such a kick out of it that he would almost fall over laughing, which would make me laugh at Ken for being so goofy.
Dee taught me the fine art of using a winch truck like the one shown above, only ours was Electric Company Orange. The first day we went to the park to clean-up trash that summer, after lunch, we returned with the Winch Truck. That was my first experience being a passenger in a larger truck with Dee, and it was one I would never forget. Not because there was some great tragedy, or we saw a huge deer walk across the highway in front of us or anything grandiose like that. But because as we were driving down the highway and neither of us were talking I suddenly became aware of a new and different “puttering” sound. At first I wasn’t sure if I had heard it at all because it was so low and almost in tune with the truck motor.
Listening to it more intently I could ascertain that the sound was from somewhere inside the cab of the truck. So without being too obvious I began taking inventory of the front seat. It sounded like it was coming from somewhere between Dee and I, but there wasn’t anything there. The truck was fairly new and clean. As I began to examine Dee, I realized that the puttering sound was coming from Dee’s mouth. He was making a puttering motor-like sound as a small boy would make as he plays with his toy trucks.
When we arrived at the park I asked Dee what he had done before he had moved to the Power Plant (you may notice that I asked that of just about everyone I worked with), and he told me he used to be a truck driver for the electric company. I had the idea that he still wished he was back in a big rig rolling down the highway. Though Dee was just four years younger than my own father, I often felt like I was watching a young boy in an older man’s body. Dee enjoyed doing very simple things, and like Sonny Karcher who had told me that what he like most in life was to mow grass, I understood Dee without him having to say another word. He liked to drive trucks.
With those thoughts still rolling around in my mind when Dee backed the truck up to an old trunk of what used to be a pretty good sized tree, I began wondering if Dee Ball knew what he was doing. He turned the Winch on and had unhooked it from the back of the truck and was throwing slings around this big trunk laying longways behind the truck.
I had never seen anyone use a winch truck other than a tow truck picking up the front end of a car to tow it away. So, I stood back and observed. Dee walked back and forth, running the winch motor one way, then the other, and walking back to adjust the slings. Then as neat as it could, the tree trunk lifted up on one end and with Dee Ball at the controls, he lowered the front end down on the back of the truck. Letting some slack loose, Dee moved the slings around the back end of the trunk and began pulling the winch in. As he did this, the large trunk came to rest on the bed of the truck. Learn something new every day.
Dee Ball loved to drive trucks, but unfortunately, he had the worst luck when it came to driving them anywhere. Here are my personal experiences on three occasions. The first one was while we were in the park and I was walking around picking up trash, and Dee was slowly driving a pickup across the grass watching me and looking around for things that we might need to do while we were there, when all of the sudden he said, “huh, seems like I ran into something.” So, he tried backing up. No. That didn’t work. He was stuck on something. so, he rocked back and forth a couple of times, and when he couldn’t break free, he turned the truck off and went around front to see what had snagged him.
It turned out that he had run over a tree stump sticking up about two feet. It was in some brush, so you couldn’t see it unless you looked closely. I mentioned in an earlier post about Larry Riley that the engineers in Oklahoma City had decided exactly where the trees needed to be, so they had cut down all the trees in the area and planted new ones. Well. This was one of those trees that was unfortunate enough to have been there before the park was built. The stump was stuck between the front bumper and the radiator. Unfortunately, in his fervor to release the truck from this nemesis, he had smashed and punctured the radiator and some yellow green fluid was squirting from a tiny hole.
As this was our only transportation, we were sort of stuck. So, I looked around and about a mile away down at the corner of the lake where highway 177 and 15 East meet, there was an electric company construction crew putting up a large metal High Voltage Electric Pole.
Dee asked me if I would run over there and ask them if we could borrow a saw. At the time, the lake level was a probably 3 feet below being full, which meant that the park area was somewhat larger than it is now, and you could walk all the way from the park to the electric pole without having to hop over the barbed wire fence that lined the plant property. So, I jogged on over there and they were glad to help. They drove me back and we were able to free the truck from the stump. We took the truck back to the shop and removed the radiator and had it sent to a radiator repair shop in Ponca City.
The second memorable event having to do with trucks and Dee Ball was when Dee and I were sent to Oklahoma City to pick up new trucks from a large electric company vehicle garage. We were driven by another person who dropped us off. We drove the new trucks back to the plant. I was in a flat bed truck. This was like driving a U-Haul truck, as you couldn’t see through the rear view mirror because there was a black plate in the back window. It was a thrilling experience trying to maneuver through Oklahoma City traffic in a vehicle where I couldn’t see who was in the right lane because my mirror wasn’t set correctly. It wasn’t until I was off the Interstate and making my way through Perry Oklahoma before I felt like I could relax.
I returned to the plant about one hour after I had left the garage. Time went by, and Dee Ball didn’t appear. Another hour went by and still no Dee. He had been driving the large dump truck that Aubrey Cargill, Ben Hutchinson and I used later to pick up driftwood from the dikes (See the post about Aubrey). finally around 3 hours after I arrived, Dee drove the new dump truck into the shop. The most obvious problem was that the “O” was missing from “FORD” and there was a dent in it’s place that ran down the front of the truck. It turned out that Dee had been driving down the highway and his cigarette fell down onto the seat between his legs and disappeared under him. As he was flailing around trying to find his cigarette, he had run off the side of the road and hit a reflector post like they have to warn you where the edge of the road is by an exit.
The third memorable event having to do with trucks was when Dee Ball and I had been to the park to pick up trash and on the way back to the plant a quick cloudburst had come by and dumped some rain on us. When we went to the junkyard to dump out the trash, we made it down into the junkyard all right, but when it came time to leave, the truck couldn’t make it up the road because the mud was too slick on the road and the crew cab just slipped and slid back and forth. So, I ended up literally building a rock road for Dee to drive on up the hill (this was when you actually had to go out the construction gate and back in another gate to get to the junkyard). While I was finding rocks and putting them under the back wheels of the truck, Dee would back up and take a run up the hill while I was behind pushing him with all my might.
Finally after well over 1/2 hour and cutting into our lunch time, the truck was finally free. Unfortunately for me, I had been pushing the truck up the hill while placing myself behind one of the back wheels, which meant that I was covered from head to toe with mud. When we returned to the shop, I just walked into the shower and hosed myself off, clothes and all.
I wasn’t with Dee during other times, like when he took our new crew cab and while leaving the park, turned too soon after exiting the front gate and dented the side of the back door. Or when…… Well. I could go on. Needless to say, by my third summer as a summer help, there was a standing order that Dee Ball was not allowed to drive a vehicle. 2 years after that, while I was a janitor, I was walking over to the Engineering shack to sweep and mop when I saw Dee Ball come around the corner in a forklift. He was on his way to fill it up with Diesel, as I saw him pull up to the pump. I thought to myself, “Oh, I see they are letting Dee Ball drive again.” After I had mopped the floors in the engineering shack, I headed back to the main plant, and there was a winch truck pulling the forklift out of the soft ground where Dee had parked it to top off the Diesel and where it had become stuck. It put a big smile on my face for some reason.
During my first and second summer while I worked with Dee Ball, at times he would stop by a large equipment building that was located out in a field by the dam where the discharge from the river pumps poured water into the lake. Dee told me that when the plant is completed they would split the garage and have a separate yard crew. He had been told that this was going to be his shop. The place was big enough to hold a number of large tractors with brush hogs. It was run down though, and was probably used when they were building the lake and dam for the heavy equipment to be repaired and parked. Dee had been told that if he came to work at the Power Plant that he would be made the head of the yard crew. I came to learn that a lot of people were told stories like that from the Assistant Plant Manager when he was trying to coax people to move their homes north to this power plant out in the middle of nowhere. Dee was never made the head of the yard crew, and the yard crew was never separate from the garage. Dee was always pleasant and courteous and was always a joy to work with. Even when I ended up covered in mud. I will always consider him a good friend.