Originally Posted May 18, 2012
George Pepple was the chemist at the plant when I first arrived in 1979. His last name is pronounced “Pep-Lee”. A chemist plays an important role in a power plant. The plant treats their own water and has it’s own sewage system. The chemist spends their time with these activities.
They do other things like check ground water for contaminates, and lake water for bacteria, and a host of other things. Hydrochloric Acid is used to balance the PH of the water. As far as I know, George Pepple was the only one at the plant with a PhD, which gave him the title of Doctor. No one called him Dr. Pepple (which sounds like a soda pop). We either called him George or Pepple (Pep Lee) or both. He had a sort of Einsteinian simplicity about him. To me he was the perfect combination of Einstein and Mr. Rogers from “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”:
One other thing I would like to add about George was that he developed a special process for Cupric chloride leaching of copper sulfides. This was a patented process (1982) which is now owned by the Phelps Dodge Corporation which is a copper and gold mining company. As humble as George Pepple was, he never mentioned this to anyone at the plant as far as I know.
When he would page someone on the PA system (gray phones), he would always do it in a straight monotone voice. putting no accents on any of the words and he would always repeat his page twice. Like this: “PaulMullonLineOne. PaulMullonLineOne.”
Before I get to the point where George is dancing in the acid, I first need to tell you about Gary Michelson, since he had a role to play in this jig. In an earlier post: In Memory of Sonny Karcher, A True Power Plant Man, I remarked that Sonny Karcher had told people when he introduced me to them that I was going to college to learn to be a writer (which wasn’t exactly true. The writing part I mean…. I was going to college… and.. well… I am writing now), and that I was going to write about them. In doing so, some people took me in their confidence and laid before me their philosophy of life.
Jerry Mitchell being one of them (as you can read in an earlier post about “A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“). Jerry had filled me with his own sense of humility, where it was important to build true friendships and be a good and moral person. His philosophy was one of kindness to your fellow man no matter what his station in life. If there was someone you couldn’t trust, then stay clear of them.
Gary Michelson was another person that wished to bestow upon me his own personal wisdom. We worked for about 3 days filtering the hydraulic oil in the dumper car clamps and in the coal yard garage. While there, he explained to me why it was important to be the best in what you do. If you are not number one, then you are nobody. No one remembers who came in second.
He viewed his job performance and his station in life as a competition. It was him against everyone else. He didn’t care if he didn’t get along with the rest of the people in the shop (which he didn’t) because it is expected that other people would be jealous or resentful because he was superior to them.
According to Gary his family owned part of a uranium mine somewhere in Wyoming or Montana. He thought he might go work for his father there, because truly, he was not a True Power Plant Man. He reminded me slightly of Dinty Moore. Like a lumber Jack.
As I mentioned in the post about the “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“, Gary Michelson had the title “Millwright”. Which no one else in the shop seemed to have. He had been certified or something as a Millwright. Gary explained to me that a Millwright can do all the different types of jobs. Machinist, Mechanic, Pipe fitter, etc.
I remember him spending an entire week at a band saw cutting out wedges at different angles from a block of metal to put in his toolbox. Most mechanics at this time hadn’t been issued a toolbox unless they had brought one with them from the plant where they had transferred. Gary explained to me that his “superiority was his greatest advantage.” Those aren’t his words but it was basically what he was saying. That phrase came from my son who said that one day when he was imitating the voice of a video game villain named Xemnas.
Filtering the hydraulic oil through the blotter press was very slow until we removed most of the filters.
It was a job that didn’t require a lot of attention and after a while became boring. That gave me more time to learn about Gary. He filled the time with stories about his past and his family. Since I hadn’t met Ramblin’ Ann at this point (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was not able to contribute my share. In the middle of this job we were called away to work on a job in water treatment where a small pump needed to be re-installed.
During this time at the plant every pump, fan, mill and turbine were brought to the maintenance shop and disassembled, measured, cleaned, honed and reassembled before the plant was brought online for the first time. This is called doing a “check out” of the unit. The electricians would check every motor, every cable and every relay and alarm. The Results team (Instrument and Controls as they were later called) would check out the instrument air, the pneumatic valves and the control logic throughout the plant.
Gary had me go to the tool room and get some rubber boots and a rain suit. When we arrived at the water treatment building George Pepple was there waiting for us. The pump was in place and only the couplings needed to be connected to the acid line. Gary explained to me as he carefully tightened the bolts around the flange that you had to do it just right in order for the flange to seat properly and create a good seal. He would tighten one bolt, then the bolt opposite it until he worked his way around the flange. He also explained that you didn’t want to over-tighten it.
Anyway. When he was through tightening the couplings I was given a water hose to hold in case some acid were to spray out of the connections when the pump was turned on. After the clearance was returned and the operator had closed the breaker, George turned the pump on. When he did the coupling that Gary had so carefully tightened to just the right torque using just the right technique sprayed a clear liquid all over George Pepple’s shoes.
Gary quickly reached for the controls to turn off the pump. I immediately directed the water from the hose on George’s shoes while he began to jump up and down. In last week’s post I explained that when I was working in the River Pump forebay pit shoveling sand, there was a point when I realized that I was covered from head to foot with tiny crawling bugs, and I felt like running around in circles screaming like a little girl (See “Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down By The River“).
If I had done that, I probably would have been singing the same song and dance that George Pepple was doing at that moment. Because he indeed was screaming like a little girl (I thought). His reaction surprised me because I didn’t see the tell tale signs of sizzling bubbles and smoke that you would see in a movie when someone throws acid on someone. I continued hosing him down and after a minute or so, he calmed down to the point where he was coherent again. He had me run water on his shoes for a long time before he took them off and put on rubber boots.
After hosing off the pipes, Gary took the coupling apart and put the o-ring in place that he had left out.
I made a mental note to myself. — Always remember the o-ring.
Besides those two jobs, I never worked with Gary Michelson again. When I returned the next summer Gary was no where to be found. When I asked Larry Riley about it, he just said that they had run him off. Which is a way of saying… “He ain’t no Power Plant Man.” George Pepple on the other hand was there throughout my career at the power plant. He was a True Power Plant Man, PhD! When George was around you knew it was always “A wonderful Day in the Neighborhood”. When I would hear George Pepple paging someone on the Gray Phone (the PA system) in his own peculiar way, I would think to myself… “I like the way you say that.” (As Mr. Rogers used to say). I will leave you with that thought.
Comments from the original post:
neenergyobserver May 18, 2012
Funny isn’t it, how the ones that are the best (in their own minds) do stupid stuff like forgetting the O-ring. Apparently they can’t see for all the jaw-flapping involved in patting themselves on the back. Not that I haven’t had a few days I’d rather not talk about too.
onelifethislife May 27, 2012
You are master storyteller! I know nothing about power plants and I was right there with you. This was fantastic read! Thank you for sharing your work.
bryanneelaine May 28, 2012
LOL @ “Dinty Moore”
Originally Posted on September 21, 2012:
Not long after I became a full time Power Plant employee after I had moved from being a janitor to the labor crew in 1983, I began carpooling with 3 other Power Plant employees. An Electrician, Bill Rivers. A Chemist, Yvonne Taylor, and one of the new members of the Testing team, Rich Litzer. With such a diverse group, you can only imagine the types of topics that were discussed driving to and from work each day.
Bill Rivers usually talked about different absurdities that he encountered during his day as an electrician. How one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing, leading sometimes to very funny results. Yvonne Taylor would talk about her farm and something called School Land Lease that she farmed, and how she had to deal with the bureaucracy and the constantly changing laws. Rich Litzer would discuss how their newly formed team were learning new things at the plant and often had funny things to say about his encounters during the day.
Me? Occasionally I would lift up my head from the book I was reading (if I wasn’t the driver), and ask, “Would anyone like to hear about the training that we received from Johnson & Johnson about how to properly wax a floor using their top of the line wax, ShowPlace?” that didn’t usually jump to the top of the list of most interesting stories.
We did use ShowPlace wax by Johnson and Johnson, and they did send a representative to our plant to teach us backward Oklahoma hick janitors how to properly care for our plain tile hallways and offices. Not the fancy tile like they have these days. If you are over 50 years old, then it is probably the same type of tile that you had on the floors of your school if you went to the standard brick public elementary school like the one I used to attend.
The office area floors were sure shiny after we applied a healthy dose of ShowPlace on them. The Johnson and Johnson rep. taught us how to properly buff the floor and showed us how a properly buffed floor that was really shiny was actually less slick than a badly waxed floor.
Anyway, I digress. Waxing floors is usually something that I tend to ramble about when I have an audience that shows interest in it (which I’m still trying to find). Since I can’t see your expression, I can only suspect that you would like to hear more about Power Plant floor waxing techniques, so I just might indulge you later on in this post after I have talked about the three other people in the car.
When it was my turn to drive to work, everyone had to climb into my 1982 Honda Civic:
Bill Rivers was about 10 years younger than my father and I know he had at least 6 children (I think). Maybe more. He told me once that even he lost count. Before he came to work at the Power Plant, he lived in Columbia, Missouri (while I had lived there, coincidentally), and worked at a Tool and Die manufacturing plant.
He worked so much overtime that one day he came home and sat down to eat dinner and sitting across from him at the table was a young boy that he didn’t recognize. He figured that he was a friend one of his own kids had invited to supper, so he asked him, “What’s your name?” Come to find out, it was one of his own children.
Bill had spent so little time at home that he didn’t even recognize his own child because his children were growing up and he was missing it. Mainly because he worked so much overtime. That was when Bill decided to move to Oklahoma and go to work at the power plant. Probably at the same time when I had moved to work there also, and was still going back to Columbia to finish college before becoming a full fledged bona-fide Power plant Janitor.
Bill Rivers always seemed to be having fun, and usually at the expense of someone else. He was constantly playing jokes on someone, and his most common target was Sonny Kendrick, the Electrical Specialist. Sonny was somewhat gullible, and so, Bill would weave some very complicated stories together to draw Sonny’s attention and string it along until Sonny was totally believing something preposterous.
Sonny wasn’t gullible like Curtis Love was gullible. Sonny knew that Bill Rivers was always trying to pull something over on him. So, Bill would just see how far along he could string Sonny until Sonny realized that everything Bill was saying was just made up in his head. — Then Bill Rivers would spend the rest of the week chuckling about it. Which usually aggravated Sonny to no end.
Sonny Kendrick was the only Electrical Specialist at the plant. I suppose he had some electronics training that allowed him to hold that honored position. His real name is Franklin Floyd Kendrick. I first met Sonny when I was the janitor for the Electric Shop.
People would call him “Baby Huey”. Since I didn’t know who Baby Huey was, I just figured that it was some character that reminded them of Sonny. So, when I had the opportunity, I looked up Baby Huey (this was a number of years before the Internet). I still wasn’t sure why, unless they were talking about a different Baby Huey:
Bill Rivers had a son that was in High School at the time, and he had the same Algebra teacher that my brother Greg had when he was trying to learn Algebra. The teacher had a real problem teaching algebra to high school students, and Bill asked me if I would tutor his son in Algebra.
When I first met Bill’s son, (I think his name was either Jerard or Bryan, I don’t remember now – well, that’s not too surprising considering even Bill Rivers forgot his name once), his life ambition was to graduate from High School and work as a mechanic in an auto garage and drive motorcycles. I tried to show him how interesting and fun Algebra and Math in general could be, so each time I went to meet with him, I would bring him either a math puzzle or a book with a story about a mathematician, or a neat Mathematical oddity… such as imaginary numbers, and things like that.
Later, long after Bill had moved to another Power Plant in Konawa, Oklahoma, I saw Bill, and he told me that he his son was working toward becoming a dentist. I don’t know if he was ever able to fulfill his dream, but when I visit Oklahoma, I keep my eye out for a guy on a motorcycle with a Dentist symbol on the back of his Harley Davidson jacket. Because that would probably be him.
Anyway, while the four of us were carpooling together, the person that did the most talking was Yvonne Taylor. Now, I like Yvonne Taylor. I liked her a lot. But she was the main reason why I was never able to practice my Ramblin’ Ann rambles (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space With a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“) because she was usually in the midst of exercising her right to ramble as well.
Since she was my elder, (almost my mother’s age), I always let her go first, which usually meant there wasn’t much of a chance for anyone to go second. I finally just decided this would be a great time to read. So I started reading books about different sorts of religions around the world. With the Bhagavad Gita being one of my favorite ones.
I always had a certain attraction to Yvonne, because she had a son named Kevin (which is my name), and a daughter named Kelley (My girlfirend’s name at the time was Kelly, now she is my wife). And her son and daughter were about the same age as my future wife and I were.
In the midst of rambles emanating from Yvonne, I would look up every time I would hear, “Kelley said this, or Kevin said that….” She did say one thing one time that I have always remembered and I have tried to follow. Yvonne said that you never want to buy a house that is West of the place where you work. Especially if it is any distance away.
I believe it was when she lived in Michigan, she had to drive a long way East every day, and the sun was glaring in her eyes all the way to work. Then when she had to drive home going West in the evening, the sun was glaring in her eyes as it was going down. So, when you live West of your workplace, you have to drive with the sun in your eyes every day, both ways, and you just pray and pray for rain or at least a cloudy day.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Yvonne’s husband, Pat, had a dad with last name Taylor (obviously), and his mom’s Maiden Name was Songer. My Grandmother’s last name is Taylor (by marriage), and my wife Kelly has a Grandmother who’s maiden name was Songer. So there was that as well.
Unfortunately for Yvonne, was that by the time we arrived at the plant in the morning, she was usually slightly hoarse. I don’t know if it was the morning air… or maybe… it could have possibly been the rambling…. So, when she would have to page someone on the PA system (The Gaitronics Gray Phone), she sounded a little bit like the wicked witch. Just like some clothes can cause someone to look fatter than other clothes, the Gray Phone system had a tendency to make one’s voice more “tinny” than it actually is. Especially if your voice is hoarse, and high pitched already.
So, whenever I heard Yvonne paging someone and I was in the Electric shop or with the janitor crew, I would say, “Yvonne just has the sexiest voice I’ve ever heard. I can’t hardly Stand it!!” Those who were hearing me for the first time would give me a look like I must be crazy. And Well… who knows for sure. I think the Electricians knew for sure.
Rich Litzer lived just up the street from me, so I would drive by his house and pick him up, or I would park my car at his house and we would take his car, and we would meet Bill Rivers and Yvonne Taylor at the local Bowling Alley, since it was on the main drag out of town on Washington Street in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Rich was a great guy to carpool with because he usually had a lighthearted story to tell about something that happened at home, or we would talk about something else equally not serious. Later he was relocated downtown in Corporate Headquarters, and I didn’t see him for a long time.
Then one day, Rich and Ron Madron came down to Austin, Texas (where I live now) after I had moved down to work for Dell, to go to a school or conference, and I was able to meet them for dinner. That was the last time I saw Rich or Ron, and that was about 9 or 10 years ago (now 16 years).
At this point I was going to rambl… I mean…. talk more about how we used to wax the floor when I was a janitor, however, I have decided to leave that for another post “Wax On, Wax Off and other Power Plant Janitorial Secrets“.
Today when I finally found out that the post I was going to write was about my carpooling with Bill Rivers, Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer, I went to the Internet and looked up the latest news on my old friends. To my surprise, I found that Yvonne’s husband Patrick, died on September 12, just 9 days ago.
I don’t think I ever met Patrick in person, however, I used to hear about his daily activities for the 2 1/2 years from October 1982 through December 1985 when I used to carpool with Yvonne. Learning about Patrick’s death has saddened me because I know how much Yvonne loved and cared for Patrick. I know she has four sons and two daughters that are there to comfort her. I offer Yvonne my condolences and I wish her all the best.
Comment from Previous Post:
Originally posted 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 June 14, 2013:
When I first watched the movie “The Goonies”, I recognized right away that the script was inspired from another Pirate treasure movie I had watched when I was a child. I have never seen the movie again, and it was probably a made for TV movie or something that has been lost in the archives years ago. I’m sure that Steven Spielberg when he was growing up must have been inspired by this movie when he wrote the script to Goonies, because this was a movie that had inspired us when we were young.
You see… In the movie I had watched as a kid, some children that were trying to save their family or an old house or something similar to the Goonies story, found a clue to where a Pirate treasure was buried. The clue had something to do with a “crow’s nest”. It turned out that the model of a ship that had been sitting on the mantle piece in the old house had another clue in the pole holding the crow’s nest. This clue had holes in the paper, and when held up to a certain page in a certain book, it gave them another clue to where there was a hidden passageway. Which led them one step closer to the treasure.
Anyway. As a child, this inspired us (and I’m sure a million other kids) to play a game called “Treasure Hunt”. It was where you placed clues all around the house, or the yard, or the neighborhood (depending on how ambitious of a treasure hunt you were after), with each clue leading to the other clue, and eventually some prize at the end.
Why am I telling you this story about this movie that I watched when I was a child? Well, because I felt this same way all over again when I became an electrician at a coal-fired power plant out in the country in north central Oklahoma. Here is why.
I used to carpool to work from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the power plant 25 miles north of town with another electrician named Bill Rivers. He had kept urging me to become an electrician along with Charles Foster, who had suggested that I take some electric courses to prepare for the job. Once I became an electrician, Charles Foster, my foreman, would often send me with Bill Rivers to repair anything that had to do with electronics. Bill Rivers was good at troubleshooting electronic equipment, and well, he was generally a good troubleshooter when he wasn’t getting himself into trouble.
I remember the morning when Charles told me to go with Bill to go fix the incessant humming that was coming over the PA system…. “What?” I asked him. “I can’t hear you over the loud hum coming over the PA system.” — No not really… We called the Gai-tronics PA system the “Gray Phone” because the phones all over the plant where you could page people and talk on 5 different lines was gray.
I walked into the electric lab where Bill Rivers was usually hanging out causing Sonny Kendrick grief. I hadn’t been in the electric shop very long at this point. I think it was before the time when I went to work on the Manhole pumps (see the post Power Plant Manhole Mania). In the lab there was an electric cord going from a plug-in on the counter up into the cabinet above as if something inside the cabinet was plugged in…. which was true. I asked Bill what was plugged in the cabinet and he explained that it was the coffee maker.
You see, our industrious plant manager had decided that all coffee at the plant had to come from the authorized coffee machines where a dime had to be inserted before dispensing the cup of coffee. This way the “Canteen committee” could raise enough money to…. uh…. pay for the coffee. So, all rogue coffee machines had to go. There was to be no free coffee at the plant.
So, of course, the most logical result of this mandate was to hide the coffee maker in the cabinet in case a wandering plant manager or one of his undercover coffee monitor minions were to enter the lab unexpectedly. Maintaining the free flow of coffee to those electricians that just had to silently protest the strong arm tactics of the Power Plant Coffee Tax by having a sort of… “Tea Party” or was it a “Coffee Party”.
I told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him fix the hum on the gray phones. Bill Rivers said, “Great! Then let us play a game. let’s call it, ‘Treasure Hunt’.”
Bill reached up in one of the cabinets and pulled out a blue telephone test set. I’m sure you must have seen a telephone repairman with one of these hanging from his hip. ” Oh boy.” I thought. “A new toy!”
I grabbed my tool bucket from the shop and followed Bill Rivers out into the T-G basement. This is a loud area where the steam pipes carry the steam to the Turbine to spin the Generator. It is called T-G for Turbine Generator. Bill walked over to a junction box mounted near the north exit going to unit 1. He explained that except for the gray phones in the Control-room section of the plant, all the other gray phones go through this one junction box.
Bill said that the game was to find the Gray Phone ghost. Where is the hum coming from? He showed me how the different cables coming into this one box led to Unit 1, Unit 2, the office area and the coal yard. I just had to figure out which way the hum came from. So, I went to work lifting wires off of the terminal blocks. We could hear the hum over the gray phone speakers near us, so if I were to lift the right wires, we should know right away that I had isolated the problem.
We determined that the noise was coming from Unit 1. So we took the elevator halfway up the boiler to another junction box, and then another where we traced the problem to a gray phone under the surge bin tower. It took 4 screws to remove the phone from the box. When I did, I could clearly see the problem. The box was full of water. Water had run down the conduit and into the phone box.
Bill Rivers told me that now that we found the problem, we wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again, so we drilled a small weep hole in the bottom of the box, and we took plumbers putty and stuffed it into the top of the conduit where it opened into a cable tray.
The box would fill with water when the labor crew would do coal cleanup. On labor crew we would spray the entire surge bin tower down with high powered water hoses to wash off all the coal dust. Each time, some water would end up going down the conduit into the gray phone until it grounded the circuit enough to cause a hum.
Bill and I continued searching throughout the plant for phones that were causing a hum. Most were caused by water in the box. Some were caused by circuits that had gone bad (most likely because they had water in them at some point). Those we took to the electric shop lab where we played a different kind of treasure hunt. — Let’s call it…. Finding the bad component. It reminded me of an old video game I had bought for my brother for Christmas in 1983 that winter when I gave him an Intellivision (so I could play with it). It was the latest greatest video game console at the time.
I had given my brother a game called “Bomb Squad”. Where you had a certain amount of time to diffuse a bomb by going through a circuit board cutting out components with some snippers. If you cut the wrong connection, you had to hurry up and solder it back on before the bomb blew up.
That’s what we were doing with the Gray Phones. We were testing the different components until we found one that wasn’t working correctly. Then we would replace that transistor, or capacitor, or resistor, or diode, and then test the phone by plugging it in the switchgear gray phone box and calling each other.
I have a story later about someone using this technique while fixing gray phones, only he would call himself on the gray phone where I would call Bill and Bill would call me. Someone misinterpreted this and thought the person was trying to make everyone think he was more important because he was always being paged, when he was only paging himself. He was removed from fixing gray phones for this reason, even though he was only person at the plant in Mustang Oklahoma that knew a transistor from a capacitor.
So, why am I going on about a seemingly boring story about fixing a hum on a PA system? I think it’s because to me it was like a game. It was like playing a treasure hunt. From the day I started as an electrician, we would receive trouble tickets where we needed to go figure something out. We had to track down a problem and then find a solution on how to fix it. As I said in previous posts, it was like solving a puzzle.
Each time we would fix something, someone was grateful. Either the operator or a mechanic, or the Shift Supervisor, or the person at home vacuuming their carpet, because the electricity was still flowing through their house. How many people in the world can say that they work on something that impacts so many people?
Well… I used to feel like I was in a unique position. I was able to play in a labyrinth of mechanical and electrical equipment finding hidden treasures in the form of some malfunction. As I grew older, I came to realize that the uniqueness was limited only to the novelty of my situation. If you took all the power plant men in the country, they could probably all fit in one large football stadium. But the impact on others was another thing altogether.
The point I am trying to make is that it was obvious to me that I was impacting a large portion of people in the state of Oklahoma by helping to keep the plant running smoothly by chasing down the boiler ghosts and exorcising the Coalyard demons from the coal handling equipment. Even though it isn’t so obvious to others, like the janitor, or the laborer or the person that fills the vending machine. Everyone in some way helps to support everyone else.
A cook in a restaurant is able to cook the food because the electricity and the natural gas is pumped into the restaurant by others. Then the cook feeds the mailman, who delivers that mail, that brings the check to the person waiting to go to the grocery store so they can buy food that was grown by some farmer who plowed his field on a tractor made in a huge tractor factory by a machinist after driving there in a car made by a manufacturer in Detroit who learned how to use a lathe in a Vocational school taught by a teacher who had a degree from a university where each day this person would walk to class during the winter snow wearing boots that came from a clothes store where the student had bought them from a store clerk that greeted people by saying “Good Morning! How are you today?” Cheering up all the people that they met.
I could have walked into the lab and told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him find the hum in the PA system and he could have responded by saying, “Oh really? Good luck with that!” Instead he said, “Let’s go play a game. ‘Treasure Hunt!” This attitude had set the stage for me as a Power Plant Electrician: “Let’s go have some fun and fix something today!” Where would that cook have been today if the power had gone out in his restaurant that morning all because an attitude had gotten in the way….. I wonder…
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted on July 6, 2013:
Ted Riddle and I were working for an “Acting” foreman named Willard Stark during an overhaul at the plant outside Mustang, Oklahoma the spring of ’86. Willard seemed much older than he was. I would have guessed he was in his late 60’s or early 70’s, but it turned out he was only in his mid to lower 50’s. I found out why he had aged as the overhaul unfolded.
I heard some slight grumblings from a few in the shop when Bill Bennett told me that I was going to the plant near Mustang, Oklahoma that spring. I suppose it was because since I had become an electrician in the Fall of 1983, this was already going to be my third overhaul away from our plant, and all of them ended up being major overhauls.
The reason others were grumbling about this was because when you were able to go on an extended overhaul at another plant, it meant that you were going to earn not only a lot of extra overtime, but you also received travel time, mileage and a per diem (a daily amount of money for expenses). I believe at the time the Per Diem rate was $32.00 each day. This was supposed to pay for your hotel room and your meals while you were away from your family. We lived in trailers to cut down on costs.
Others believed that I had received more than my share of the piece of this pie. I had been sent on every available overhaul since just before I had reached my first year as an electrician. So, by this time, most people would have saved up quite a sum of money. I, however, was making around $7.50 my first year, and by the time 1986 had rolled around, I was still making just under $10.00 an hour. So, overtime amounted to $14.50 an hour.
When you compared this to the first class electricians that were making around $19.00 an hour at the time, they would have been making $28.50 an hour overtime. This was about twice what I was making. So, I was a cheap date.
On December 21, 1985 I had been married (the day following my last day at Horseshoe Lake overhaul — see the post: A Slap in the Face at a Gas-Fired Power Plant), and I had used every cent I had in the world to pay for our honeymoon. I was even relying on paychecks I was receiving while I was away to finish paying for it.
So, it helped to come back and find that we were on a major overhaul at our plant on Unit 1 doing the 5 year checkout. Then finding that I was going to a major overhaul at the plant in Mustang, Oklahoma where I could live with my wife in her apartment in Oklahoma City while she finished her last semester to obtain her nursing degree from Oklahoma University. I went on the overhaul with Ted Riddle.
Ted was hired into the electric shop the previous summer. He wasn’t on my crew so I hadn’t worked much with him. He was a farmer that had an electric background. He was a bigger man than I was and had a good sense of humor. He had a steady temper and didn’t let much bother him. He would laugh at things that might bother others.
I appreciated working with Ted, because his steady mood helped to teach me that blowing my top about little things did little to help the situation. So, for this overhaul, I decided that I would try to emulate Ted Riddle by keeping up with his easy-going-ness (I know…. the dictionary couldn’t find that one).
Bob Kennedy was on this overhaul as well. He had been my acting foreman during the overhaul at Horseshoe Lake. I had described our relationship in the post: “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“. I was glad to be working with Bob again. As I mentioned, Willard Stark was our acting foreman.
For those that don’t know…. an acting foreman is someone that normally isn’t a foreman, but is appointed to lead a crew for a particular job. These men usually are the best foremen to work for, because they haven’t attended any official “manager training”. This usually made them better foremen, as the manager training had a tendency to destroy one’s character and moral integrity. — I never could figure that one out. Some people came back unscathed, but others came back with PTMD (Post-Traumatic Manager Disorder).
The plant at Mustang was the smallest gas-fired power plant that had people permanently working there. It had some smaller units that they wouldn’t run when the newer larger units weren’t running because the water treatment plant (that creates the boiler water) used more power than the small units could generate. — That amazed me. So, while we were there, I don’t think any of the units were running so they didn’t have to run the water treatment plant.
Willard Stark had spent a good portion of his life working at the plant and had a lot of stories about the plant manager and assistant manager at our plant. He had been an electrician when Bill Moler had first come to the plant as a new green electrician like me. I enjoyed sitting during lunch in Mark Thomas’s electric lab as Willard told us stories.
Willard had an incredible memory. He could remember what he was doing on any specific day decades before. We would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio during lunch, and whenever Paul would say, “….noon news and comment.” Willard would always finish the sentence by saying “…mostly comment.” I had spent a good part of my childhood listening to Paul Harvey on the radio because when I was young, we always had a radio playing in the house and the car. So, Paul Harvey’s voice was always a comfort to me. I was saddened a few years ago when he passed away.
Working with Ted Riddle cracked me up. He would notice things that I was totally oblivious to (yeah. I see it. A preposition at the end of a sentence). For instance, one day while we were working, Ted asked me if I ever noticed how Bob Kennedy drinks water out of his jar. I told him I hadn’t noticed.
You see, Bob had this jar that looked like a pickle jar that he brought to work each day filled with water. During lunch, he would drink out of this jar. Ted said, “Watch Bob during lunch today. Tell me what you think.” So as I was sitting next to Bob during lunch listening to Paul Harvey, and Willard Stark telling us what he did on any particular date in the past that Paul Harvey might mention, I kept one eye on Bob.
As Bob lifted his jar to his mouth I watched as he began to drink. I immediately knew what Ted had wanted me to see. As Bob took a drink, he slowly tilted the jar up until the water reached his mouth. As the jar was being tilted, Bob’s upper lip would reach way into the jar as far as it could, quivering in anticipation of a cool drink of fresh water. The upper lip of a camel came to my mind.
With all my might, I struggled to keep a straight face as I turned my head slowly to look over at Ted who had a grin from ear-to-ear….. ok. I’ll show you the picture of Andy Griffith again that I included in my post from last week, just so you can see what I saw when I looked over at Ted:
I think I almost choked on my ham sandwich as I swallowed while trying to keep my composure.
Another day while Ted and I were cleaning ignitors on the shop work bench Ted asked me if I had noticed what Randy Oxley and Jimmy Armafio were working on. I told him I hadn’t noticed. Ted said that if he’s not mistaken Randy Oxley has been coming into the shop all morning with the same piece of conduit. He bends it, then cuts a little off the end and re-threads it.
So, the next time Randy came into the shop I noticed he had a piece of one and a half inch conduit in his hand. It was about 3 1/2 feet long and had a couple of bends in it. Randy hooked the conduit up in the large conduit bender and using his measuring tape carefully lined it up as Armafio stood back and watched. He bent the conduit a little, then put it in the bandsaw and cut off a few inches. Then he put it in the vice on the work bench and proceeded to thread the end of the conduit.
Then Jimmy and Randy left. Ted said that if he wasn’t mistaken, that’s the same piece of conduit Randy has been working on all morning. So, as we continued the boring job of cleaning the 30 or so ignitors piled on our workbench, I told Ted about the time I was at the plant at Horseshoe Lake and Randy had told a Mechanical A foreman Joe Balkenbush (I think his first name was Joe), who was Randy’s uncle on his mom’s side, that Randy was the best electrician at the plant at Mustang, only he was the only one that knew it.
I mentioned this meeting and the reason for it in the post: “Bobbin Along with Bob Kennedy” (See the link above). Sure enough, a little while later, Randy came back to the shop with the same piece of conduit and performed the same procedure of bending, cutting and threading and scadoodling.
A little while later the electrical B foremen came out into the shop (I can’t remember his name for the life of me… I can see his face – maybe something Campbell), and asked us if we knew how to run conduit. We assured him that we did. I had been thoroughly trained by Gene Roget and Ted, well, as it turned out, Ted was a crackerjack conduit hand.
The foremen took us up onto the boiler and asked us if we could run some conduit from one place to another. He sounded apologetic when he asked if that would be all right. We assured him it was no problem. We would get right on it.
On the way back to the shop, as we were coming down from the boiler, Ted tapped my shoulder and pointed down to the bottom of a light fixture. He said, “Hey! Isn’t that the piece of conduit that Randy has been working on all morning?” Sure enough. There is was. He finally bent it and cut it to fit! Well… The rest of this part of the story is that instead of running back and forth to the shop to bend and cut and thread conduit, Ted and I grabbed a conduit stand, and the appropriate tools and hauled them up on the boiler.
We carried about 40 foot of conduit up there and began bending, cutting and threading and mounting the conduit. We finished just before lunch. As I mentioned above, Ted was a heck of a conduit person. He knew exactly what he was doing. We carried all the equipment back to the shop.
After lunch Ted and I went back to cleaning ignitors. The foreman saw us out of the window of the office and came out and asked us why we weren’t working on the conduit. When we told him we were done, he had a look of disbelief. He left the shop (to go check out our work). Ted and I smiled at each other.
A little while later the foreman returned with the electric supervisor. The electric supervisor asked us if we wouldn’t mind working on some more jobs to run conduit. Ted told him that we were there to do whatever they needed. I nodded in agreement.
During the rest of the overhaul we worked to repair broken conduit, pull wire and install new conduit where needed. Mark Thomas, the electric specialist, that was about my age, asked if he could use us to pull and mount some new controls. He said he wouldn’t let the others in the shop touch it because he would just have to follow through and redo it when they were done. So, we did that also.
We did get in trouble one day when we went to install some conduit over a control room just off of the T-G floor. We noticed that all of the lights were out except a couple, so we found a couple of large boxes of light bulbs and replaced the burned out bulbs. The Electric Foreman came running up to us a little while later and said, “What are you trying to do? Run us out of business?”
With looks on our faces that conveyed that we didn’t understand what he meant, he explained that in small plants like this one, they don’t have a budget like the bigger plants. They can’t afford to keep the lights burning all over the plant all the time. So, we were only supposed to replace lights in the immediate area where we had to work. Now the foreman had to figure out where he was going to find the money to buy another box of light bulbs. — These were incandescent bulbs that don’t have a long life span.
I had mentioned in an earlier post called Resistance in a Coal-fire Power Plant that Bill Rivers had been given a bum deal when another person had accused him of cutting off the leads of electronic components so that no one could check them to see if they were really bad (which doesn’t make any sense given that you could still check them no matter how short the leads are). Well, I found that the same situation had existed in this plant.
There was this one guy that sat in the electric shop Lab (not the same electric shop lab where Willard and Mark Thomas hung out), working on Gray Phones all day. Ted had asked me if I had noticed how many gray phone boxes were missing gray phones (gray phones are the PA system in a plant. You could go to any one of them and page someone).
Ted would point to empty gray phone boxes as we walked through the plant. He told me that they have one electrician that doesn’t do anything else but sit in the electric lab working on gray phones. That is all he does. When we asked Willard about it, he told us this story.
Mark Thomas used to work on all the gray phones, and kept them all running in good order. When Mark worked on a gray phone, sometimes to make sure it is working, he would page himself. Just to make sure that part worked. I understood this. When I was working on gray phones with Bill Rivers, he would page me, or I would page him, just to test it.
If you were working by yourself, it would make sense that you would page yourself instead of bugging someone else several times a day while you went from one gray phone to the next. Anyway, people accused Mark Thomas of trying to make himself more important by making others think that he was being paged all the time by paging himself.
Now, anyone with any sense would know how lame of an idea that is. I mean, anyone would recognize Mark Thomas’s voice. The plant wasn’t that big. There weren’t that many people working there. Everyone knew everyone else. Mark was obviously just working on gray phones.
So, after the foreman accused him of trying to promote his self importance by paging himself several times a day, Mark said, “Fine! Let someone else work on the gray phones!” Mark was by far the most intelligent person at the plant. He obviously didn’t need to artificially promote his reputation by making a fool of himself.
So, they gave the job of gray phone maintenance to someone that didn’t understand electronics. They even bought an expensive gray phone test set to help him out. So each day he would sit in the lab smoking his pipe staring at an ever-growing pile of gray phones. At one point, Ted and I offered to fix them all for him. He said, “That’s ok. It keeps me in the air conditioning.
I know in later times, Mark Thomas went on to greater successes within the company. I believe that Willard stayed around until there was a downsizing and he was able to early retire. I mentioned at the beginning that Willard looked a lot older than he really was. Willard brought this to my attention. He showed me a picture of himself a few years earlier. It was of him standing by a car wearing a suit.
He reminded me of an actor from an old movie, though, I can’t remember the actor’s name at the moment. Willard said that in the past few years he aged rapidly. It happened when the previous foreman had retired. Willard had seniority in the shop and had been at the plant most of his life. He knew what he was doing, and had filled in as foreman many times. He really expected to become the foreman.
Nevertheless, they gave the job to someone from somewhere else who didn’t know the plant, or even much about being a foreman. This upset Willard so much that he said he just gave up. He said the stress from that experience aged him. Mark Thomas agreed.
Mark had his own encounter with this attitude when he decided to retreat to his lab off and away from the electric shop. Willard and Mark, the two electricians that really knew what they were doing at the plant had sequestered themselves in their own hideaway where they would sit each day listening to Paul Harvey at lunch and biding their time until the next phase of their life came around.
Originally posted January 17, 2014. I added more to the story:
When I first moved to Ponca City in 1986 I carpooled each day to the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma with Dick Dale, Jim Heflin and Bud Schoonover (See the post: “Carpooling Adventures with Bud Schoonover“). Dick Dale had moved to Ponca City a couple of years earlier after his divorce. He didn’t want to continue living in Stillwater where he felt as if everyone knew about his tragic situation. We had been friends from the first day we met (which is often the case with Power Plant Men) when I was a summer help working out of the garage and he worked in the tool room and warehouse.
I wrote about Dick Dale this past Christmas, when I talked about his situation (See the post: “Harmonizing with Dick Dale on Power Plant Christmas Harmonicas“). I knew that even though it was a few years later, Richard was still feeling the impact from this emotional trauma. One day I found the opportunity to play a “Power Plant” joke on him that I thought might help lift his spirits.
I recently wrote another post about how I had installed dumb terminals around the plant so that regular workers would be able to access the mainframe computer downtown in Corporate Headquarters in order to see their work orders, or look up parts in the warehouse, etc. (See the post: “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“). In most places where I installed terminals, I also installed large IBM printers that printed using continuous feed paper.
For those of you who remember, at first most dot matrix printers would feed paper from a box underneath them. they had holes down both sides of the paper where the sprockets would rotate and paper would come rolling out the top of the printer.
Ok. Here is a quick one paragraph side story…
One day when my son was 5 years old, we had to wait a while in an airport. We were sitting in a row of seats at the gate waiting. My son kept popping up slowly, jerking as he rose, from behind the row of seats and would lay over the seat back and end up head down on the chair. After doing this a few times, my wife Kelly who was becoming slightly annoyed asked him what he was doing. He said, “I’m paper coming out of the printer”. Of course, this cracked us all up.
Anyway, back to the story. By the time I had to add the dumb terminals and printers to the Garage and Warehouse, I had already been playing around on the mainframe learning all sorts of ways to get into trouble. — Well, what else was I going to do during lunch while Charles Foster and I talked about movies and stuff? I had a personal user account on the mainframe that basically gave me “God Access”. They didn’t really have anything like “Network Security” back then. — This was 1988.
Back then, we also didn’t have anything called “Email” either. It wasn’t until 1989 that CompuServe first offered real Internet e-mail to its users. When we wanted to send something to someone in the company, we either printed it out and put in an intra-company envelope and sent it by “snail” mail, or we could find out what printer they used and get the ID for the printer and send it to them. It was a code like: P1234.
Well. I had been playing with this text editor on the Honeywell mainframe called FRED. This stood for FRiendly EDitor. For those of you who know UNIX, this was pretty much the same as the VI Editor found on UNIX mainframes. The commands were the same. Today, users of Microsoft Word would be horrified to find out what you had to go through to create a document back then.
I had been practicing using this editor, and found that by using the special escape codes for the printer, I could create documents that would come out looking pretty neat. So, I had created some templates that would make it look like I was printing a Memo from some mainframe program. That was about the time that I installed the printer in the garage.
So, I created a big long document that would print out on the garage printer as soon as I connected the printer to the network. It went on and on about how the printer wasn’t happy about being placed in such a dusty environment and how it refused to be cooperative until it was moved to a cleaner place. It would spit out a bunch of sheets of paper, printing protest after protest.
Then it ended up by saying that if it wasn’t moved right away, it was going to shut down in 10 minutes and it started counting down by 30 second intervals. Then at the last minute, it counted down by 15 seconds until it counted down the last 10 seconds by feeding a sheet of paper for each second while it was counting… then it paused at the last second. Finally, it printed out at the end a concession that since it was obviously not going to be moved to someplace cleaner, it might as well give up and be cooperative.
When I installed the printer in the office in the automotive garage, I knew it would take about 30 seconds to connect the first time, and by that time, I was outside making my way back to the electric shop. By the time I arrived back in the electric shop Charles Patten, the foreman in the garage was calling me on the gray phone. The gray phone is the plant PA system:
Of course, I knew why. I answered the phone and Charles told me that something was wrong with the printer. It kept shooting paper out of it and wouldn’t stop. He had even turned it off, but when he turned it back on, it still kept feeding paper out. I told him that sounded pretty strange to me and I would be right over to see what was going on. I took my time returning to the garage giving the printer time to throw it’s tantrum.
By the time I returned, the printer had stopped ranting about being installed in a dirty environment and had given up it’s protest. Charles said that it finally stopped. I walked over to the printer and took the pile of hundred or so pages that it had printed out, and tore them off the printer and walked out with them. I don’t even know if Charles had paid any attention to what the printer was saying.
I think I was the only person that knew that I had just “attempted” to play a joke on Charles. After all, as the paper was feeding out it was carefully collecting into a nice stack in front of the printer on the floor, and unless someone picked up the stack and looked at it, they wouldn’t know that anything was even printed on it. So, in this case, the joke may have been on me. But then again, Power Plant Men are like that. If they figure a joke is being played on them, then they figure out how to turn it around so that the joker is the one that has the joke played on them. Maybe that was the case here. Charles Patten was probably one of the most intelligent foremen at the plant, so it was possible.
Anyway, back to Dick Dale. I installed the printer in the warehouse and Dick Dale, Darlene Mitchell, Mike Gibbs and Bud Schoonover were happy to be connected to the Inventory program on the mainframe….. um… yeah. sure they were…… especially Bud.
Bud Schoonover was the person that when it was his turn to run the tool room would not give you something if it was the last one. So, if I needed a flashlight and it was the last one, and I asked Bud for a flashlight, he would say that he couldn’t give it to me. Why? You might ask. Well, he would explain that if he gave the last one away, he would have to order some more. Bud didn’t like ordering things on the computer. So, in order to keep from having to order anything he simply didn’t give away the last one of any item.
Anyway. I decided one Monday during my regular lunch time computer educational moments to send a letter over to the warehouse printer addressed to Dick Dale. It was from an anonymous woman. The letter sounded like it was from someone that really had a thing for Richard and remembered how they used to work together. It also mentioned other people, like Mike Gibbs and Pat Braden and about how they used to hang around each other.
Since this was a fictitious character, I could say anything I wanted, but I wanted to put it in a time period back when I was still a summer help. Well… It wasn’t long before Dick Dale called me on the gray phone (no. I won’t post another picture of the gray phone here. I think you get the idea). He asked me to come over to the warehouse.
When I arrived, Richard showed me the letter. He was excited about it. He was trying to figure out who it could be. He thought about the people that had moved from the plant to Corporate Headquarters and wondered if it was one of them. I thought for a little while, and I couldn’t come up with who it might be (obviously), since it was me.
The next day at lunch I sent another letter to his printer. I mentioned more about the “old days” working at the plant. On the way home Richard showed it to me. I could tell that he was really excited about this. I held back my smile, but inside it felt real good to see that Richard had finally come back to life. For the past couple of years, he had been so down. Now some woman was paying attention to him, and actually was telling him that she had always liked him.
Darlene Mitchell sent a letter to the printer ID I had sent in the letter to Richard, saying the following:
Dear Ghost Writer,
This has been the most exciting thing that’s happened in the warehouse in a long time. We await your messages. Dick is really trying hard to figure this out, and if you don’t give him a little hint, his little old brains are going to get fried.
He also requests that you send his messages to his printer only, that way I won’t be able to send my message back. He takes all the fun out of everything. P)24 is his number, and if you can’t get a response out of him, I’ll be glad to put my two cents in.
I’m sure Dick would like to see you too. Maybe we can get him headed in your direction, if you tell me where that is.
So, long, see you in the funny papers.
<end of message>
On Thursday Richard called me and asked me to come over to the warehouse. He showed me the letter he had received that day. He said he was too excited. He just had to find out who it was that was sending him these letters. He said that since I knew everything there was to know about computers (a slight exaggeration), he asked me to see if I could find out where the letters were coming from.
I told him I would do what I could to see if I could track down who was sending the letters. On the way home that day, he asked me if I had any luck. I told him I was still looking into it. I told him I thought there might be a way to find a log somewhere that would tell me.
So, after lunch on Friday I walked over to the warehouse. When I entered, I signaled to Richard that I wanted to talk to him. — Remember. Richard and I had developed facial signals while carpooling with Bud Schoonover so that all we had to do was glance at each other and we instantly knew what each other was saying…
Richard and I stepped outside of the warehouse where we could be alone. He asked me if I had found the person sending him the letters. I told him I had (I knew I had to do this right or I would lose a good friend, so I said), “Yes. I have.”
I could see the look of excitement in his face. So I looked straight at him and I said, “I have been sending these letters to you.” He was stunned. He said, “What?” I said, “Richard. I have been sending them to you.”
I could see that he was very disappointed. After all. No two people could read each other’s expressions better than me and Richard. We practiced them every day. The corners of his mouth went down. The middle went up. Edges of the eyes went down. Eyes began to water. Yep. He was disappointed to say the least.
I told him I was sorry to get his hopes up. I put on the saddest look I could muster. Inside I wasn’t so sad. Actually I was pretty happy. I knew this was a tough moment for Richard, but he had spent an entire week flying high. For the first time in a long time, Richard had hope. A couple of hours of disappointment was well worth this past week.
I patted him on the back and he turned to walk back into the warehouse despondent. I went back to the electric shop.
As for my part, I continued sending Dick Dale printed messages from time to time. Just goofy messages like the following:
Sometimes when I type letters I find that the words I use are not always the typical type that I would use if I wrote a letter. The letters that I make when I write a letter aren’t the type of letters that I use when I type a letter. When I write a letter, the letters in the words are sometimes hard to distinguish, but the letters I type when i’m typing a letter are the type of letters that stand out clearly and uniformly. I can’t really say that when I type I’m right, or when I write I’m right, because I usually type a different type of letter than I write when I’m writing a letter. I typically use a different type of words when I’m typing than I use when I’m writing, so I really can’t say that writing is right when a typical typed letter is just as right as writing. That is just the type of person I am.
After a few more days, Darlene Mitchell and Dick Dale began sending me letters indicating that the warehouse workers had been taken hostage, and they had a list of hostage demands. I would write back to them. The hostage letters and my replies would make up an entire blog post just by themselves.
So, what followed this episode? Well. Within a few weeks Dick Dale had attended an event at the Presbyterian Church in Ponca City where he met a very nice woman, Jill Cowan. He began dating her, and within the year they were married on November 13, 1988.
I like to think that I had given him the kick in the pants that he needed at the time that he needed it. For that one week where he had hope, he believed that someone else really cared for him (which I really did, just not in the way he was thinking). If he could believe that, then maybe it could really be true, even if in this case it turned out to only be one of his best friends.
I know that Dick Dale lived happily ever after. As I mentioned earlier, I wrote a post about Dick Dale about a time when I gave a Christmas present to Dick Dale, Christmas 1983. Well. as it turned out, my friend Richard was presented to Saint Peter at the gates of Heaven 25 years later on Christmas Day, 2008, 20 happy years after his marriage to Jill. I don’t really miss him. He is always with me in my heart to this day.
Originally posted May 30, 2014:
Unlike the story I told a few weeks ago about Jim Padgett, this is not a story about being called to work in the middle of the night by a true Power Plant Man (See post: “Making A Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes“) or even like the story that explained the “Power Plant Black Time and the Six Hour Rule“. No. This is a quick story about a sobering slap in the face I encountered when walking into the electric shop one morning at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
I think this must have been when I was on someone’s short list for a “Power Plant Joke”, or maybe I just hadn’t been paying attention a month earlier when Bill Bennett may have informed me that this morning was coming. Either way, I was totally taken off guard when I entered the shop that morning with Scott Hubbard, my Carpooling buddy.
The first indication that something was up was that there were three contract hands standing there dressed in their worn clothing indicating that they had been hired to do some kind of “manual” activity. Yep. Worn jeans with holes. Shirts slightly ripped. One guy missing the sleeves on his shirt. I think one of them had accidentally taken a shower before he showed up. He may have mixed up his Mondays and Saturdays and woke up grumpy on Saturday and took a shower on Monday.
None of the contract hands had thought about shaving for the past week or so. So, they definitely looked out of place in the shop usually occupied by professional Power Plant Electricians, who liked to keep themselves clean and generally followed good hygiene practices.
My first thought was, “Hmm…. Looks like there is some dirty job someone has to do in the shop today. I wonder what it is.” I walked into the electric shop to wait until 8:00 to come around. Bill Bennett was leaning against one of the desks talking to Charles Foster. I asked Bill, “What’s up with the Contractors?”
Bill replied, “They are here to help you.” “What am I going to be doing?” I asked curiously. “You know. Pulling wire from the Vital Service Panel to the Telephone Room in the main office.” “Oh. That.” I replied trying to remember if I could recall ever being told that I was supposed to be inheriting this particular job.
The last time I had felt like this was when I was in High School and our American History teacher told us that the semester class projects were due tomorrow and he continued to explain that we would be presenting the projects in alphabetical order. “Which means that Kevin Breazile. You will be going first.”
Side Story Time:
Class Project? Oh No! I had forgotten all about it! I was supposed to write a paper about the Roadway system in the United States, including how we were preparing to go to the Metric System.” (Like that ever happened… This was in 1976).
So, after school I went straight home and told my mom that I needed to go to the Public Library to prepare for a class project that needed to be done tomorrow. At the library I quickly grabbed a bunch of facts out of encyclopedias. I made up a few statistics about how many miles of roads there were in the United States.
Then once I was back at home, I thought about the roads in the U.S. Well, there were dirt roads, gravel roads, asphalt roads, and roads made of concrete. So. I filled a jar with dirt. One with some rocks I found out in the street. I found a piece of asphalt that had worked itself loose at the intersection by my house. I also found a chunk of concrete under our deck in the backyard where we had busted up our patio once to pour a new one…. These were my props for my presentation.
I remembered that on the way from Kansas City To Columbia Missouri along Highway 70, there was a sign that said, 100 Miles or 160 Kilometers to Columbia. There was also one just outside Saint Louis going to Columbia that said the same thing. So, I added that to my presentation. This met the requirement of how the roadways were moving to the metric system.
When the presentation began, I began handing the jars to someone in the front row to pass around the class….. Yeah. A jar of dirt. A jar of rocks, and a piece of asphalt and the chunk of concrete. I remember our teacher, Mr. Wright grabbed the chunk of Concrete when I gave it to the guy in the front row and looking it over, then pointing to a spot on it and saying, “I can see the skid marks here where I almost hit you!”
Anyway. I ended the presentation by taking the chunk of concrete after it had been passed around the class and holding it up and saying that if we continued to create roads at the same pace that we have over the last 60 years, by the year 2076 the world will look like this…. And I held up the chunk of concrete. — Of course.. I had totally made that statistic up out of thin air. — I got an A+ for that project which was worth 1/3 of our grade for the semester.
End of side story.
So, here I was again, fourteen years later, and I was being told that I had a crew of guys standing out in the shop waiting for directions on how to pull cable from the Logic room just below the control room, across the T-G building and into the middle of the Office building on the top floor. Even though the Office was on the 3rd floor, it was equivalent to the 6th floor of an office building.
From experience, I knew that the cable would have to be pulled from the logic room down to the cable spreading room below the main Switchgear, through two manholes, then up through conduit to the office area above the break room kitchen and over to the Telephone room.
I had done nothing to prepare for this. I hadn’t looked through the blueprints to find the best route. I hadn’t even seen the large spool of wire on the pallet in the Main Switchgear waiting to be used. I hadn’t even prepared myself by looking confident like I knew what I was doing….
Bill walked out the door leaving me in the office with Charles. I wasn’t sure if Charles could tell that I was completely blind-sided by this job or not. But he did give me a quick “leg up”. He said, “Seems to me that there is already power going from the VSP (for Vital Services Panel) to the Telephone room.”
Well. I already knew that I was really lucky. Especially when I asked Saint Anthony to help me find a solution to a problem. So, I quickly glanced over in the corner where Saint Anthony liked to lean against the wall while he waited for me to come to my senses and have some faith. In my mind I could see Anthony shrug like, “sounds like you might give it a try.”
So, I walked… no… I strolled out into the shop like I belonged there….. — Oh… yeah. I did. But at that particular moment I didn’t feel like it, so I thought maybe if I walked like I felt like I did, it would help me feel that way.
I asked Scott Hubbard if he could help me check to see if we had power in the Telephone Room from the Vital Services Panel. He said he would be glad to help (this was Scott’s usual response. — A True Power Plant Man Response).
I asked him to go the Telephone room while I went to the Vital Service Panel for Unit 1 in the Logic Room. Scott took his handy Dandy Voltage Checking Tool and headed off toward the Office area.
I headed for the Logic Room with a pair of Fuse Pullers:
The Vital Service Panel is mounted on the wall next to the UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply). I opened it and read the labels inside of the cover. After scanning the list of locations that were fed from this panel I found one that could have been the one circuit I was looking for.
It was cryptically labelled in pencil “Telephone Room”. Hmmm…. I wonder if this is it… My mind had quick as a snap decrypted this entry and came up with “Telephone room”. — That sure sounds like this would provide power to the Telephone room. Let’s just hope that it is labelled correctly.
I waited until Scott called me on the gray phone to tell me that he was in place by the Telephone room. He had checked all of the receptacles (plug ins) in the room, and they all had power on them.
I told him that I would remove the fuse to the circuit that looked like it provided power to the telephone room, so in about 15 seconds, he could check to see if any of the receptacles was dead. So, we did just that. I removed the fuse….. — My first thought was…. Good. I didn’t trip the unit. I would have known that right away. — You never know… pulling a fuse out of a panel labelled “Vital Services Panel” kind of leaves you to believe that the stuff in this panel is really really important.
I went back to the gray phone and waited for Scott to get back on the phone. About 15 more seconds and Scott returned. He told me that the power had turned off on one of the receptacles on the wall. I told him I was going to put the fuse back in and head up to the telephone room so that he could show me where it was.
Literally 20 minutes after I had been jolted awake by the revelation that I was supposed to lead a crew of contractors on a wire pull that I had not prepared for, I had found out that the wire was already there. No wire pull was necessary.
Scott showed me where the receptacle was, and we walked back to the electric shop. Bill Bennett was standing in the shop wondering where I had disappeared to (oops. ended the sentence with a preposition. I should know better than that. I should have said, “….where I went.”). I was still wondering in the back of my head if I had just completely forgot that Bill had ever told me about this, or maybe he had forgotten to mention it in the first place, or he had not told me on purpose just to see how I would react to the sudden revelation that I had a semi-difficult job with no time to prepare for it.
I waited for Bill to follow me into the electric shop office. Which he did. Standing there with as straight of a face as I could muster, I looked at Bill as he asked me when I was going to start pulling the wire. The Contractors are just standing around doing nothing.
I said, “The job is already done. The wire has already been pulled.” “What do you mean? It’s still in the switchgear on the pallet.” Bill responded. I shrugged and said, “We don’t need to pull wire from the Vital Services Panel. There is already a circuit from that panel to the telephone room.” I looked over at Charles and smiled. Charles smiled back. Bill said something like, “Oh… Then I wonder what we are going to do with these contractors. We have them for three days.” Then he left the office.
I thought that somehow Charles knew something about my being “setup for some kind of failure” and had this up his sleeve all along so that it would backfire. — Just my luck. With three of my best friends standing there, how could I fail…. Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and Saint Anthony.
We had the contractors sweep out switchgears for the next 3 days.
Comment from the original Post
Originally posted August 9, 2014
One of the phrases we would hear a lot at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was “Safety is Job Number One”. It’s true that this should be the case, but at times we found that safety was not the highest priority. It is easy to get caught up in the frenzy of a moment and Safety just seemed to take a second row seat to the job at hand.
Making Safety Job Number Two was usually unintentional, but sometimes on rare occasions, we found that it was quite deliberate. Not as a company policy, but due to a person’s need to exert their “Supervisory” Power over others. I mentioned one case in the post titled: “Power Plant Lock Out Tag Out, or Just Lock Out“.
During the summer of 1993, everyone at the plant learned about the Quality Process. I talked about this in the post: “A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“. I had joined the Action Team. This was a team of Power Plant Men that reviewed proposals turned in by the quality teams in order to determine if they had enough merit to be implemented. If they did, we would approve them. If we decided an idea was not appropriate enough to be implemented, we sent it back to the team that had written the proposal with an explanation why it was rejected.
Our team had turned in a proposal to create a Safety Task Force. One that would act like an Action Team similar to the one formed for the Quality Process. It seemed like a logical progression. I was the main proponent of the Safety Task Force, but to tell you the truth, it wasn’t all my idea.
Not only had other members of our Quality Team mentioned forming a Safety Task Force, but so did our Electric Supervisor, Tom Gibson. He had called me to his office one day on the pretense of me getting in trouble…. I say that, because whenever he would call me on the gray phone and respond, “Kevin. I want to see you in my office right now.” that usually meant that I had stepped on someone’s toes and I was in for a dressing down…
— Was I the only one that had this experience? It seemed that way. But then, I was usually the one “expanding my bubble” (as Charles Foster would say). When I arrived at Tom’s office, he asked me if I would ask our team to create a proposal for a Safety Task Force. I told him that I’m sure we would. We had already talked about it a couple of times in our meetings.
I didn’t mind playing “Bad Cop” in the game of “Good Cop, Bad Cop”. That is, it never bothered me to be the one that pushed an unpopular issue that really needed pushing. Where someone else would follow-up as the “Good Cop” in a way that takes away the bitter taste I left as “Bad Cop” by proposing the same solution I proposed only with a more positive twist.
At the time, I figured that Tom Gibson was going to be “Good Cop” in this effort since he had pulled me aside and asked me to initiate the proposal. As it turned out, I ended up playing both Bad Cop and Good Cop this time. I played the Good Cop when Ron Kilman had met with me to discuss a new Safety Idea. The Behavior-Based Safety Process. See the Post: “ABC’s of Power Plant Safety“.
I proposed the Safety Task Force in a sort of “Bad Cop” negative manner. That is, I had pointed out how our current system was failing, and other negative approaches. When I explained how the Behavior-Based Safety Process works as “Good Cop”, Ron had told me to go ahead and form the Safety Task Force.
I asked for volunteers to join the Safety Task Force. After I received a list of people that wanted to be on the Task Force, I chose a good cross-section of different roles and teams from both Maintenance and Operations. I had lofty visions of telling them all about the Behavior-Based Safety Process, and then going down the road of implementing this process at the plant.
I didn’t realize that the Power Plant Men had different ideas about what a Safety Task Force should be doing. They weren’t really interested in trying out some new Safety “Program”. I tried explaining that this was a “Process” not a “Program”, just like the Quality Process. They weren’t buying it.
We had Ground Rules that we created the first day that kept me from ramming anything down their throats, so I went along with the team and listened to their ideas. It turned out that even though the Power Plant Men on the Safety Task Force didn’t want to hear about my “beloved” Behavior-Based Safety Process, they did have good ideas on how to improve safety at the plant.
We decided that we would ask for Safety Proposals just like the Quality Process did. It was felt that the Safety Task Force didn’t have any real “authority” and a lot of people at the plant thought that without the authority to really do anything, the task force was going to be an utter failure.
We decided that the best way to show that the Task Force was going to be a successful force of change toward a safer Power Plant, we would ask for ideas on how to improve the safety at the plant. When we did, we were overwhelmed by the response. Safety Concerns poured in from all over the plant.
At one point we had over 250 active safety ideas that we had decided were worth pursuing. The members of the team would investigate the ideas assigned to them and see what it would take to make the requested changes. Because of the overwhelming response, it didn’t make much sense taking all the approved requests to the Plant Manager. So, in many cases, we decided that a trouble ticket would be sufficient.
I posted the progress of all the active ideas each week on every official bulletin board in the plant. This way, everyone could follow the progress of all of the ideas. As they were successfully completed, they went on a list of Safety Improvements, that I would post next to the list of active proposals.
I think the members of the Safety Task Force might have been getting big heads because at first it appeared that we were quickly moving through our list of plant Safety Improvements. A lot of the improvements were related to fixing something that was broken that was causing a work area to be unsafe. I say, some of us were developing a “big head” because, well, that was what had happened to me. Because of this, I lost an important perspective, or a view of the ‘Big Picture”.
I’ll give you an example that illustrates the “conundrum” that had developed.
We had created some trouble tickets to fix some pieces of equipment, and walkways, etc, that posed a safety risk. After several weeks of tracking their progress, we found that the trouble tickets were being ignored. It seemed that this came on all of the sudden. When we had first started the task force, many of our trouble tickets were being given a high priority, and now, we were not able to succeed in having even one trouble ticket completed in a week.
After going for two weeks without one of the trouble tickets being worked on, I went to Ron Kilman, the Plant Manager to see if we could have some of his “Top Down” support. To my surprise, he gave me the exact same advice that our Principal, Sister Francis gave our Eighth Grade class at Sacred Heart School in Columbia, Missouri when we ran to her with our problems.
Ok. Side Story:
Three times when I was in the eighth grade, our class asked Sister Francis to meet with us because we had an “issue” with someone. One was a teacher. We had a personal issue with the way she conducted herself in the class. Another was a boy in the 7th grade, and the fact that we didn’t want him to go with us on our yearly class trip because he was too disruptive. The third was a general discontent with some of the boys in the 5th and 6th grade because of their “5th and 6th grade” behavior.
In each case, Sister Francis told us the same thing (well almost the same thing). In the first two cases, she told us we had to handle them ourselves. We had to meet with the teacher and explain our problem and how we wanted her to change. We also had to meet with the boy in the seventh grade and personally tell him why we weren’t going to let him go on our trip. In each case it was awkward, but we did it.
In the case of the 5th and 6th graders, Sister Francis just said, “When you were in the 5th grade, if you acted the way these 5th graders acted to an eighth grader, what would happen? Well. Deal with this as you see fit. We all knew what she meant. When we were in the fifth grade, if we treated the eighth graders the way these guys treated us, they would have knocked us silly.
So, the next morning when I was approached by a fifth grader displaying the disrespectful behavior, I gave him a warning. When my warning was greeted with more “disrespect”, I did just what an eighth grader would have done when I was a fifth grader. I pushed him down the stairs. — Not hard. He didn’t tumble over or anything, but he ran straight to Sister Francis and told her what I had done.
Sister Francis came up to our room and told me to go to the principal’s office. — We only had 14 people in the Eighth Grade, so it wasn’t hard to find me. I protested that I was only doing what she authorized us to do the previous day. She agreed, but then she also explained that she had to respond the same way she would have responded to the eighth graders three years earlier if they had done the same thing.
I could tell by her expression, that my “punishment” was only symbolic. From that day on, the 5th and 6th graders that had been plaguing our class were no longer in the mood to bother us. We had gained their respect.
End of Side Story.
So, what did Ron Kilman tell me? He told me that if we were going to be a successful Safety Task Force, then we would need the cooperation of Ken Scott. Ken was the Supervisor of the Maintenance Shop and the one person that had been holding onto our trouble tickets. Ron said, “You will have to work this out with Ken yourself.” — Flashes of Ron Kilman wearing a black nun’s robe flashed through my head, and suddenly I felt my knuckles become sore as if they had been hit by a ruler. — No, I’m not going to draw you a picture.
So, we did what would have made Sister Francis proud. We asked Ken Scott to meet with us to discuss our “issue”. We pointed out to him that the trouble tickets we had submitted were safety issues and should have a higher priority. We also pointed out that we had not had one safety related trouble ticket completed in almost three weeks.
Then it was Ken’s turn…. He said, “Just because you say that something is a safety issue doesn’t make it one. Some of the trouble tickets submitted were to fix things that have been broken for years. I don’t think they are related to safety. I think people are using the safety task force to push things that they have wanted for a long time, and are just using “safety” as a way to raise the priority. Some of these ideas are costly. Some would take a lot of effort to complete and we have our normal tickets to keep the plant running.” — Well, at least when Ken stopped talking we knew exactly where he stood. He had laid out his concerns plain and clear.
The Safety Task Force members used some of the tools we had learned during the Quality Process, and asked the next question…. So, how do we resolve this issue? Ken said that he would like to be consulted on the ideas before a trouble ticket is created to see if it would be an appropriate route to take.
It was obvious now that we had been stepping all over Ken’s Toes and our “demands” had just made it worse. Ken felt like we had been trying to shove work down his throat and he put a stop to it. After hearing his side of the story, we all agreed that we would be glad to include Ken in all the safety issues that we thought would require a trouble ticket.
From that point, we had much more cooperation between Ken Scott and the Safety Task Force. Ken really wasn’t a problem at all when it came down to it. The way we had approached the situation was the real issue. Once we realized that, we could change our process to make it more positive.
This worked well with Ken, because he was forthright with us, and had spoken his mind clearly when we asked. This didn’t work with everyone of the people that pushed back. We had one person when we asked him if he could explain why he was blocking all our attempts to make changes, his only reply was “Because I am the barrier! I don’t have to tell you why!” That is another story. I’m not even sure that story is worth telling. I know that at least one person that reads this blog regularly knows who I am referring to, because he was in the room when this guy said that…. He can leave a comment if he would like….
The Power Plant Men and Women knew that a major downsizing was going to occur throughout the company on Friday, July 29, 1994. The upper management had already experienced the preliminary stages of this particular downsizing since it started at the top. Over a four month period that started with an early retirement, it worked its way down the ranks until the actual Power Plant Men at the plant in North Central Oklahoma were going to be downsized on that one day.
The people that had taken the early retirement (which was available for anyone 50 years and older) had already left a couple of months earlier. Since the downsizing was being decided from the top down, we soon learned that our Plant Manager Ron Kilman would no longer be a Plant Manager. He was too young to take the early retirement. I believe he was 47 at the time.
The person taking Ron’s place was Bill Green, a guy that was old enough to take the early retirement, but decided to stay. Bill was 53 years old at the time. Perhaps he knew in advance that he had a secure position before the deadline to choose the early retirement.
The final week when the downsizing was going to take place, several things were happening that made the entire week seem surreal (this is a word that means — sort of weird and unnatural). I was spending the week in the old Brown and Root building because we were busy training everyone at the plant about Confined Space Safety and the OSHA regulations that we had to follow.
We had to have all the OSHA training completed by August 1 in order to avoid the fines that OSHA had given us back in April (See the post: “Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor“). We had formed a confined space rescue team and taken the required Confined Space training (see the post “Finding and Defining Power Plant Confined Spaces“). We were using the old training room in the old Brown and Root Building because we wanted it to be away from the plant area where the foremen wouldn’t be bothered while they were taking their class.
The first day of training, Ben Brandt the assistant plant manager was in the the class. He was going to be a plant manager at another plant, I think it was the plant in Seminole county.
I could tell that Ben was not interested in being in the training, and given all that was going down that week, I could see why. We would say something in the class about how you had to fill out your confined space permit and turn it in to the Control Room, and Ben would shake his head in disagreement as if he didn’t think that was ever going to happen…. Well, times were changing in more ways than one that week.
Tuesday afternoon was when things really began to get weird…. We knew that Friday would be the last day for a bunch of Power Plant Men, but we didn’t yet know who. During the previous downsizing in 1987 and 1988, we at least knew who was going to leave months before they actually had to leave. Now we were down to just a few days and we still didn’t know who had a job come August 1 (next Monday).
On Tuesday afternoon, one at a time, someone would be paged on the Gaitronics Gray Phone (the plant PA system) by one of the four foremen that had survived.
We were cutting the number of first line foremen in Maintenance from 13 down to 4 and getting completely rid of two levels of management. So, that we would no longer have an A foremen and a Supervisor over each group. So, we wouldn’t have a position like an Electric Supervisor or a Mechanical Maintenance Supervisor.
Our new foremen were Andy Tubbs,
and Mark Fielder.
All great guys!
So, when one of them would page someone on the Gray Phone, we knew that they were going to be asked to meet them upstairs in the main office somewhere. Then they were told that they had a position on that person’s team.
So, picture this scenario. About 160 of the original 218 employees were waiting to learn their fate that week (the rest had retired). It was late Tuesday afternoon when Alan Hetherington told us that they had already begun calling operators to the office to tell them they had jobs. They were not calling anyone to tell them that they didn’t have a job. So, when you heard someone’s name being called, then you knew they were safe (well…. safe is a relative term).
On Wednesday just before lunch, I was called to the office by Alan Kramer. He told me he was going to be my new foreman. I hadn’t really worried about it up to that point, because, well, I just figured that I was pretty well irreplaceable since there really wasn’t anyone else that would go climbing around inside the precipitators during overhauls, so they would want to keep me around for that reason alone.
With that said, it was at least a little less stressful to actually have been told that I did have a position. After all, I had caused so much trouble the previous few years (see 50% of the posts I have written to find out how), enough for some people to hold grudges against me. So, I did have this small doubt in the back of my head that worried about that.
Alan Kramer explained to me that we would no longer have teams for each area of expertise. We wouldn’t have teams of electricians or Instrument and Controls, or Testing, etc. We would be cross-functional teams. We would learn more about that next Monday.
When I returned to the Brown and Root building, the rest of the confined space team asked me if I had a job. I told them I did. At this point, all work at the plant seemed to have ceased. Everyone was waiting around to receive a call on the Gray Phone.
At first, we thought this was going to be like the first downsizing where each person was called to the office and told if they had a job or they didn’t have a job. By Wednesday afternoon, it became apparent that things weren’t working out that way. The only people being called to the office were people that were being told they did have a job. No one was being told if they didn’t.
Either this was a cruel joke being played on the Power Plant Men and Women, or the management hadn’t really thought about the consequences of doing this. It became apparent right away to everyone including those that had been told they had a position that this was a terrible way to notify people about their future. What about those that hadn’t been called to the front office? What were they supposed to think?
About half of the Power Plant Men had received the call, when it seemed that the calls had just stopped some time on Thursday morning. We had finished our last training session in the Brown and Root building and we were just meeting as a team to discuss our next steps in creating Confined Space rescue plans. We were not making much progress, as everyone was just sitting around in a mild state of shock staring into space.
Alan Hetherington had not been called, so he figured that he wouldn’t have a job after Friday. We discussed other people that were being left out. No one on Gerald Ferguson’s team at the coal yard had been called (which included Alan). We later heard that Gerald Ferguson, all distraught that his team had been wiped out was in disbelief that they had let his entire team go. He blamed it on the fact that his team had refused to participate in the Quality Process since it was deemed “voluntary”.
By Thursday afternoon, the stress became so bad for some that they had gone to Jim Arnold and asked him point blank if they had a job after Friday and he refused to say anything to them. Preston Jenkins became so stressed out that he had to go home early because he was too sick with stress.
We knew that Bill Green was the new plant manager.
Jim Arnold was the new Supervisor of Operations and Jasper Christensen was the Supervisor of Maintenance. It seemed to us as if the downsizing was being orchestrated by Jim Arnold, as he was the one going all over the plant on Thursday and Friday coordinating things.
When we came into the office on Friday morning, all the radios had been taken from the electric shop office. I was asked to go up to the logic room and shutdown the Gray phone system. It became clear that Jim Arnold didn’t want anyone listening to what was going on throughout the day.
It was normal having Highway Patrol at the plant, because they were the regular plant guards at the front gate, but today there were a lot of them, and they were in uniform. They were escorting people off of the plant grounds one at a time. We were told that we were not supposed to interact with people being escorted off of the plant grounds. We weren’t supposed to approach them to even say goodbye.
It took the entire day to escort people out of the plant this way. It was very dehumanizing that great Power Plant Men who we had all worked alongside for years were suddenly being treated as if they were criminals and were being escorted off of the plant grounds by armed Highway Patrolmen.
It was just as devastating for those that were left behind. This was a clear indication that those people treating our friends this way were going to be our new supervisors (not our immediate foremen) and that they had a warped sense of superiority. They may have justified their actions in their minds in order to sleep at night, but the reality was that at least one person involved in this extraction of humanity was relishing in his new found power.
No one had been more left behind than the plant manager, Ron Kilman who was too young to accept the retirement package.
He knew he didn’t have a future with the company for the past couple of months as this entire saga had been unfolding at the plant. During the early retirement party for those that were leaving before the slaughter took place, Ron (an avid airplane pilot) had worn a shirt that said, “Will Fly for Food”, which he revealed by opening his outer shirt while introducing some of the retirees. This had brought an applause that was reminiscent of the first day he had arrived some seven years earlier when he told a joke during his first meeting with the plant.
There were those at the plant that had reason to dislike Ron for specific decisions that he had made during his tenure at the plant. One that comes to mind (that I haven’t already written about) is when Ray Eberle’s house was on fire and he left the plant to go fight the fire and make sure his family was safe. Ron docked his pay for the time he was not on the plant grounds since he wasn’t a member of the voluntary fire department. Ron has admitted since that time that there were certain decisions he made while he was Plant Manager that he would have changed if he could.
I felt as if I understood Ron, and knew that he was a good person that wanted to do the right thing. I also knew there were times when a Plant Manager had to make unpopular decisions. I also knew from my own experience that Ron, like everyone else was just as much human as the rest of us, and would occasionally make a decision he would later regret. The times when Ron tried docking my pay after working long overtime hours, I just worked around it by taking vacation to keep my overtime and figured that he was playing the role of Plant Manager and following the rules the way he saw fit.
Some time shortly after lunch, Ron came into the electric shop office and sat down. This was the first time in those seven years that he had come just for a visit and it was on his last day working for the company. Ron just didn’t know what to do.
He explained that no one had told him anything. No one had officially told him to leave. No one had escorted him off of the plant grounds. He wasn’t sure how he was supposed to make his exit. Was he just supposed to go to his car and drive out the gate and never return? No one told him anything.
The way Ron Kilman was treated Friday, July 29, 1994, was a clear representation of the type of people that were left in charge next Monday morning on August 1. The entire plant knew this in their heart. As much grief that was felt by the people being escorted out of the gate after years of loyal service to their company, those that were left behind felt every bit of that grief.
This was the darkest day in the history of the Power plant in North Central Oklahoma. The Power Plant Men left behind by this experience were negatively effected for years after that day. There was a bitterness and sorrow that took a long time to recover in their hearts.
The worst part of the event was that it was so unnecessary. We understood that we had to downsize. We had accepted that some of us would be leaving. Each person at our plant had a level of decency that would accept the fact that when the time came for them to leave, they would hug their friends, say goodbye and with the help of each other, the rest would help them carry their stuff to their car and say goodbye.
We were all robbed of this opportunity. Everyone, even those left behind, were suddenly treated as if we were criminals. We had a “Black Friday” at the plant before, on February 15, 1985 (see the post “Power Plant Snitch“). This time the impact was ten times worse.
All I can say to those who made the decision to handle the layoff this way is: “Shame on you! What would your Mother think if she knew what you did?”