Originally posted November 16, 2013:
Most of us have watched the Alfred Hitchcock Thriller “The Birds” at least once in their life. When I was young it used to come on TV around Thanksgiving about the same time that Wizard of Oz would rerun. What a mix of movies to watch after eating turkey in one of our Italian relative’s house in Kansas City as I was growing up. During those years of sitting passively by watching the birds gang up on the humans, it never occurred to me that some day I might take part in my own private version of “Blackbird Wars” amid the playground equipment found in a typical Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
A tale like this is best starts out with the line, “It was a cold and windy night…” That was close. My story begins with, “It was a dark and cold winter morning…” Unit 1 was on overhaul. That meant that it was offline while we climbed inside the inner workings of the boiler, precipitator, Turbine and Generator in order to perform routine yearly maintenance. Being on overhaul also meant that we came to work earlier in the morning and we left later in the evening. Since it was in the middle of the winter, it also meant that we came to work in the dark, and we left for home in the dark…. These were dark times at the Power Plant for those of us on long shifts.
At this time in my career I was working on Unit 1 precipitator by myself. I had my own agenda on what needed to be done. Sometimes I would have contractors working with me, but for some reason, we had decided that we didn’t need them for this overhaul. Maybe because it was an extra long one and I would have plenty of time to complete my work before it was over.
I can remember grabbing my tool bucket and heading for the precipitator roof to begin my day of calibrating vibrators and checking rappers to make sure they were operating correctly. I was wearing my winter coat over my coveralls because it was cold outside. In Oklahoma, 20 degrees was pretty cold. 20 degrees in Oklahoma with 30 mile an hour winds gives you a pretty low wind chill…. which chills you to the bone.
I had a red stocking liner on my hardhat that wrapped around my forehead that kept my head warm.
All bundled up, I left the shop through the Turbine Room basement and headed toward the breezeway between Unit 1 and 2. I climbed the stairs up the Surge Bin Tower until I had reached the landing where you can go to either Unit 1 or 2 precipitator roofs. Using rote memory after having performed this same task every morning for the past month and a half, I turned toward Unit 1.
The Precipitator is a big box that takes the ash out of the exhaust from boiler. It drops the ash into hoppers where it is transported to the coalyard into large silos, where trucks haul it away to make concrete for roads and buildings. The precipitator roof is full of large transformers (84 of them), 168 vibrators that shake the 29568 high voltage wires in the precipitator, and 672 rappers that bang on the 7560 metal plates. The transformers are used to collect the ash using “static cling”. The rappers and vibrators are used to knock the ash into the hoppers.
The Precipitator roof is a very noisy place when all the rappers and vibrators are running. It is covered with a sheet metal roof. It wasn’t originally designed that way, but someone with foresight thought that it would be a great idea to insulate the precipitator roof. In doing so, they needed to add a roof to keep the insulation from being exposed to the weather.
It wasn’t noisy that morning as I reached the ladder and quickly tied my tool bucket to a rope hanging down from above. It was dark, and lonely and quiet. Well. There were some lights, but this morning, the light from the precipitator didn’t seem to shine much as I pulled myself up the ladder. When I reached the top I turned around and sat at the top of the ladder and began pulling my tool bucket up.
It was at that moment when I realized that something was much different than usual. I had spent a couple of years working on the precipitator roof and inside and I had become friends with each of the transformers, and I even knew the unique sounds of each of the vibrators. I could tell when a rapper wasn’t rapping correctly. There would be a slight sucking sound as the rapper was drawn up into the cylinder…. There was a slight pause, then it would drop onto an anvil that was connected to the plate rack. But this morning everything was turned off. Yet, I could feel that there was something wrong.
There was a strange hum. I was trying to place it as I grabbed each foot of rope and pulled my bucket closer. There was more than a hum… There was a weird muffled sound all around. I had a chill down my back as if I was being watched. I quickly grabbed the handle of the bucket and stood up and turned around. I was ready to spot whoever it was that was spying on me!
What I saw immediately sucked the breath out of me. The precipitator is 200 feet wide and 120 feet long. Every inch as far as I could see was black. Not just the equipment, but the air itself.
During the night a cold wave had moved into Oklahoma from the north. With it, it had brought a horde of blackbirds. Thousands upon thousands of them. They had found refuge from the cold blasting wind in the precipitator roof enclosure. Safe and warm and undisturbed….. That is, until I arrived.
It was as if the blackbirds had discovered me at the same time I had found them. They suddenly burst into a frenzy.
I stood there in wonder for a few moments watching the swirling mass of blackness obscuring what little light was given off by the 100 watt Mercury Vapor lights. As I began to move toward the walkway the flying mass of feathers parted so that the birds kept a safe distance from me. As I grabbed the rungs of the ladder, I suddenly realized why keeping an aviary at a Power Plant is not a good idea. A warm moist gooey mass squished between my fingers as I pulled myself up the ladder and onto the walkway.
I took a few steps to where a package of WypAlls was laying on the walkway and pulled out a couple of heavy duty sheets of durable wiping material:
I decided that I was going to try to chase the birds out of the shelter so I began waving a couple of rags around as I walked down the walkway. All it did was cause the birds to bunch up in corners away from me. They would circle back around behind me. So, when I reached the other end of the roof, I climbed down to one of the rapper control cabinets and powered it up.
The rappers and vibrators began their music. A medley of humming and clanking. I went to each of the 14 cabinets on the roof turning on each of them until the entire roof had risen to a symphony of buzzing and banging. Music to my ears. After wiping down a few places where I needed to work, I spent some time testing and taking notes so that I could make adjustments in the control cabinet after I had made my way around each rapper and vibrator in that area. Then I left for break.
The sun was now up and daylight was shining through the openings in the precipitator roof. When I returned from break the hoard of blackbirds had decided to continue their journey south.
There was one time when I was working as an electrician at the Power Plant where I felt close to being a bird myself. It was when I had to travel to the top of the 500 foot smoke stack to repair some equipment. I was not only at the top of the smokestack, but I was literally sitting on the edge of it and shimming my way around it.
Why me? Well. Our A Foreman, Bill Bennett summed it up like this…. “Have Kevin do it. He likes heights.” Sure. Just like he said I liked to get dirty, so put me in a coal bin to fix a proximity switch. Or, just like he said that I liked climbing in holes in the ground, so I was assigned the job of fixing all the manhole pumps at the plant. What could I say? At some point, he was right. I couldn’t argue with him. Especially since he would call me a “scamp” with such endearment (See the post “Tales of a Tall Power Plant A Foreman“).
Well. You learn something new every day when working at a power plant, and I sure learned something that day. Quite a few things. I already knew that inside the tall concrete smoke stack was another smoke stack made out of brick. The outer stack would sway in the strong Oklahoma wind, while the brick stack inside would remain steady. On a windy day, at the very top, the stack would sway as much as six inches.
On this particular day I rode on top of the stack elevator to the top so that I could climb up onto the rim where the lightning rods were placed about 6 feet apart around the top.
When the wind is blowing there is a certain amount of a difference in the electric potential at the top of the stack as there is on the ground, so you could hear a slight crackling sound around the lightning rods even though it was a clear sunny day. I was wearing a safety belt and as I stopped to work, I would clip the lanyard to the closest lightning rod knowing full well that if I decided to jump off the stack, the lightning rod would just bend and the lanyard would just slide off the end.
I was not in any mood to do any jumping that day. I was there to fix jumpers instead. You see, there is a metal cap on the top rim of the smoke stack. Actually, there is a metal rim on the top of both smoke stacks. The concrete one and the brick stack inside the concrete stack. And there was supposed to be a set of jumpers around the top of the stacks connecting the two metal caps together electrically. This way, if perchance a bolt of lightning hit the inside stack, then the electricity would be routed to the outer rim and down the large grounding cables to the ground grid 500 feet below.
As I shimmied around the top of the stack, I became aware that as far as I could see… clear to the horizon, there wasn’t anything higher than me. At first this threw me a little off balance, because I usually focused on other objects to help me keep my bearings. In this case, only the other smoke stack was as high as me. So, I focused on the rim where I was sitting and tried as hard as I could to ignore the fact that I was a tenth of a mile up in the air.
I removed the broken jumpers and replaced them with the new ones. I didn’t think these new jumpers would last long considering that as the stack swayed back and forth, it would quickly wear the jumpers in two. But, there was some regulation or something that said they had to be replaced, and so that was why I was there.
I noticed while I was working on the top of the stack that birds were flying around below me. Actually, most of them were way below me. Few birds would fly as high as the stacks, and they were usually the predatory types that liked to swoop down on unsuspecting pigeons below. It felt a little odd to be working and looking down at birds flying when it is so normal to look up to see birds. From up there, a large flock of birds like those in “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock didn’t look so intimidating. They were nothing but small dots far below.
Comment from original post:
Originally posted February 28, 2014:
One day, seemingly out of the blue, a van drove into the parking lot of the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. It was carrying some people that had come to our plant to perform drug tests on everyone in the plant. The test consisted of each one of us going into the Men’s rest room (or Women’s rest room, depending on the usual one you occupied) and peeing into a small bottle while someone stood behind you keeping their eye on you. This was the first time drug testing like this had taken place at the plant. A few years earlier, in order to find “druggies”, the “snitch” was hired to go around and try to coax people to go hide somewhere and do drugs with the snitch. I wrote about this in the post “Power Plant Snitch“.
This was different. The first time, it would obviously have been a case of entrapment to have someone come around and ask you to go to a janitor closet somewhere and smoke an illegal substance. Drug testing was more objective. If the drug test came up positive, you knew you were either guilty of taking illegal drugs or you were pregnant (or… maybe that was the other test). We had heard before that we may at any time be subjected to drug testing, so when the people showed up to actually do it, I don’t think many people were surprised.
For the most part, there were few people that had an issue with going into the bathroom and peeing in a small bottle. There were, however, a couple of exceptions. The person that I remember had the most problem with it was Diana Brien. She said that when she went in to try to pee in a bottle with someone watching her, she just couldn’t do it. I figured this must be a problem more with women then men. For one reason. Men are always standing there peeing into something with other people standing right next to them watching them.
Just today when I was at work peeing into the urinal at work, I turned to the right and said, “Hey Tom! How’s it going?” Tom said, “Fine buddy! How are things with you?” I replied, “Oh, you know. I’m still here. That’s something.” We both nodded and went about our business. Something tells me the same thing doesn’t happen in the Women’s restroom.
With Power Plant Men, it is even more cordial than that. We tend to take showers in groups in one big community shower, where in the women’s locker room, they each had their own stall with a curtain. I only know because as an electrician, I had to go in there to change light bulbs.
The cordial nature of Power Plant Men in the shower came to my attention one day when I was a janitor cleaning out the bathroom in the Coalyard Maintenance building where the Labor Crew was housed. I remember hearing a conversation between Dale Mitchell and Chuck Morland as they were coming out of the shower. Dale told Chuck, “Gee Chuck, after seeing you, I have to question my manhood….” He went on to describe why. I won’t go into detail, but it had to do with Chuck Morland having a lot more “Manhood” than Dale had. You can probably guess that while I was around the corner mopping out the stalls where the toilets were, I was doing my best not to laugh out loud.
It literally took Dee all day to drum up enough nerve to go take the drug test. She kept drinking coffee, and water, but every time she had to go pee in front of the person from Corporate Headquarters, she froze up. By the end of the day, she had peed in the bottle, and it was over. Of the 250 employees, I don’t know if any were found to have been on drugs. After the warning, I wouldn’t have thought so. We were under the impression that if it was determined that you were on drugs, then they would take you to someplace where a more trustworthy test could be performed. If you were found to be on drugs, then we thought at that point that you would lose your job.
A few weeks before the drug tests began, when they were warning us that they were coming they said that if any of us had a drinking or a drug problem, they should come forward soon and ask for help. If you asked for help, then the company would provide services for you that would help you with your problem. If you later failed the drug test and you hadn’t asked for help, then you were going to be fired.
There was one person in our shop that we figured wasn’t going to be able to pass the drug test. That was Michael Rose. He drank so much that his blood alcohol level was normally high enough that if you were in an underground coal conveyor tunnel and the lights all went out, all you had to do was prick his finger and light it with your lighter, and you had a mini-torch until you were able to find your way out. When he passed the drug test it was pretty plain that either the test wasn’t worth a flip, or they weren’t testing for the type of alcohol Mike consumed.
In the following years, drug tests were supposedly administered by random. I will tell you why I say, “supposedly”. Some time after the initial drug test, one morning, our team was told to all get in a truck with our foreman and drive to Ponca City to a clinic and have a drug test taken. I think this was a blood test. It was done in such a rushed way, it was like they were on to someone, but didn’t want to just have that one person go take the test. That way, no one would be upset by being singled out to go take a drug test. At least that is what it seemed.
I remember our team all sitting there in the waiting room waiting to be tested. We each went in one at a time. When we were done, we drove back to the plant, and nothing was ever found (as far as we knew). I thought maybe this was the second level test because some anomaly had showed up on one of our initial tests. Anyway, it seems like all of us passed the second round of drug tests.
After that, about once ever year or two, a set of people would be randomly chosen from the plant to be drug tested. I know when most of those drug tests occurred because I was randomly chosen more times than not to be tested. In the next 10 years, I was tested at least 5 more times. So much so that I began to wonder why. It seemed as if every time there was a “random” drug test, I was chosen. I was usually with a different bunch of Power Plant Men, but each time I was there. Was I just so lucky? I am you know. I wrote a post about that. See “Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck“.
I may have just been paranoid, but it came as less of a surprise each time. The tests even became more sophisticated. Eventually, there was a chart on the side of the bottle you peed in. So, not only did it take your temperature, but it also measured your urine to see if you were trying to cheat the test.
I didn’t mind taking the tests. I figured it might as well be me than any of the other Power Plant Men. Why bother them? We were all clean.
It was when I was watching a movie once where someone sniffed some cocaine up their nose that an idea came to me as to why I might be singled out to take the drug test each couple of years. You see, I had the habit of wiping my nose with the back of my hand. Not because I had the sniffles, but because it was irritated all the time.
When I was in college I had my nose broken one night when a friend, Jeff Firkins and I were going for a walk in Columbia, Missouri. It was around two in the morning, and somehow we just ended up in Douglas Park spinning around on a merry-go-round.
My friends from Columbia who read this blog know that when you were Caucasian in the spring of 1980, it is not a clever idea to go play on the merry-go-round in Douglas Park at night. I seem to remember looking very Caucasian in 1980.
We were having so much fun that we didn’t mind when a couple of local park dwellers came and gave us a subtle hint that they wanted us to leave their turf. So, eventually, it ended with a scuffle between myself and 4 other guys in which I ended up with a broken nose. I knew that I had a cut across my nose from one guy’s ring, but I didn’t realize it was actually broken until many years later when an ear, nose and throat doctor x-rayed it and showed it to me.
I thought that because I was always rubbing my nose, then Louise Kalicki was suggesting to the drug testers that I would be likely candidate for sniffing something up my nose. I didn’t mind disappointing them each time. The nearest I came to sniffing something up my nose was when I worked in the bakery and I ate a lot of powdered donuts.
When I left the electric company in 2001, in order to go work for Dell, I had to take a drug test. I had to go to a local doctor in Stillwater, Oklahoma and have my blood drawn. Then that was the end of it. After working for Dell for 12 years, I have not been subjected to repeated drug testing. Working in a corporate environment is much different, however than working in a power plant.
I think it is much more of a factor when the Power Plant Men and Women that work in a Power Plant are on drugs. I certainly wouldn’t want to work around someone on drugs in a power plant. There are too many ways in which someone could be hurt or killed. Driving heavy equipment, or operating machinery that could crush you in a heartbeat, you want to make sure that the person in the driver’s seat is fully functional and aware.
There was only one time when I was at the plant where I can remember that someone was fired because they were on the job while they were intoxicated. It was an unfortunate case, because the poor guy had things going on in his life at the time that were only exacerbated by him losing his job. I think at one point, he became so low after being fired that someone described him as a bum roaming the streets of Tulsa.
I had only wished that it had been possible for him to have kept his dignity and been offered help. I know those things aren’t always possible and there were other factors involved I’m sure. Just a side note. I believe that this man, whom I have always held in the highest regard, finally picked himself up by his bootstraps and regained his self respect.
As I mentioned earlier, Mike Rose passed his drug test that day, to everyone’s surprise. Even he was surprised. One weekend he had been called out to work to fix the air conditioner for the logic room. When Bill Bennett called Mike, Mike told him that he had been drinking and he wasn’t really fit to go to work at the moment. Bill assured him that it would be all right, if he could only go out and get the logic room air conditioner fixed quickly.
The logic room is the room that houses the plant computer that runs all the equipment in the plant (or it did at the time). It didn’t like being warm. If you can imagine the heat in the middle of the summer in Oklahoma. The plant operation was going to be jeopardized if something wasn’t done quickly. Jim Stevenson had already been fired because of the Snitch that I mentioned at the top of the post. So at the time, Mike was the only option available.
Mike went to work and found that the main relay to the air conditioning unit wasn’t picking up. So, in his inebriated state, he took a block of wood and pressed it against the lever that manually pushed the relay in, and closed the door on it so that the block of wood was pinned between the door and the lever. Keeping the air conditioner running. Needless to say, there was a legitimate reason why the relay wasn’t picking up, and by Monday morning the unit had burned up.
I think it was Leroy (or it may have been Tom Gibson) wanted to fire him right away for going to work drunk and destroying the air conditioner. Bill Bennett came to his rescue and pointed out that Mike had warned him before he came to work that he was drunk and Bill had assured him that it would be all right just this once. What could you say? I suppose shoulders were shrugged and life at the Power Plant went on as usual. I don’t think the drug testing ever amounted to anything. When someone was let go, it wasn’t because they had peed in a bottle.
Originally posted August 16, 2014.
I knew that we had our work cut out for us when Unit 1 was taken offline for a major overhaul on February 19, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I had learned to expect the unexpected. I just never suspected this to happen. As acting foreman, I had a crew that consisted of a few of our own electricians, as well as a number of contract workers. I was also coordinating efforts between Brown & Root contractors that were going to be doing some major work inside the Precipitator (that takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler) during the 12 weeks we were going to be offline and a Vacuum Truck Company that was going to vacuum ash out of the hoppers where the ash is collected and blown through pipes to the coal yard to be trucked away to make concrete.
When I inspected the precipitator during the first week, I had found numerous hoppers that had filled up with ash. One in particular hopper was so full that the ash had built up between the plates over 5 feet above the top of the hopper. Because of this, I had to coordinate with hoppers that were available for the Brown and Root contractors to begin building scaffolding, and those hoppers the vacuum truck needed to vacuum out first.
I had learned to deal with full hoppers the first time I entered the precipitator back when I was on the Labor Crew in 1983. Since that day, I had understood the potential dangers lying in wait. Especially with hoppers full of ash. See the Post “Angel of Death Passes By the Precipitator Door“.
The crew I was directly managing was on the Precipitator roof working on vibrators, insulators, transformers and rappers. I worked inside the precipitator aligning plates, and removing broken wires and cleaning insulators. The vacuum truck company vacuumed out the full hoppers by attaching a vacuum hose from a large vacuum truck to clean out pipes at the bottom of the hoppers. The Brown and Root crew climbed into the hoppers through an access door near the bottom of the hopper and constructed scaffolding in order to work at the top of the hoppers immediately below the plates.
This operation had been going on for 3 days and had seemed to be going smoothly. The Brown and Root crews and the vacuum truck crews were working shifts 24 hours a day. I would come in the morning and see the progress that had been made during the night. We kept a sheet taped to a beam in the hopper area that the vacuum truck would update when they had finished a hopper, and the Brown and Root crew indicated where they had finished building their scaffold.
On Thursday March 3, 1994, just after lunch, instead of making my way out to the precipitator to continue my work, I went up to the office area to meet in the conference room with the Safety Task Force. I was the leader of the task force, and we were meeting with upper management to work out some issues that I outlined in last week’s post. See “Taking Power Plant Safety To Task“. As you may have noticed, the last two weekly posts are a continuation of a long story.
Our meeting began shortly after 12:30 and we were discussing ways in which the Safety Task Force could work in a more cooperative way with the Maintenance Supervisor, Ken Scott. I felt that we were making good progress. We seemed to have come up with a few solutions, and we were just working out the details.
At 1:10 pm, the Electric A Foreman knocked on the door and opened it. He explained that there had been an accident at the precipitator in one of the hoppers and he thought that I might have been in the hopper at the time. He was checking to see if I was in the meeting. Once he was assured that I was all right, he left (presumably to tell the rest of my crew that I was not involved in the accident).
At this point, my head started to spin. What could have happened? None of my crew would have been in the hoppers. Maybe someone fell off of a scaffold and hurt themselves. I know I had locked out all of the electricity to the precipitator and grounded the circuits that have up to 45,000 volts of electricity when charged up, so, I’m pretty sure no one would have been electrocuted. Bill’s voice seemed real shaky when he entered the room, and when he saw me he was very relieved.
When working in a Power Plant, the Power Plant Men and Women become like a real family. Everyone cares about each other. Bill Bennett in some ways was like a father to me. In other ways, he was like an older brother. The nearest picture I have of Bill is a picture of Bill Cosby, as they looked similar:
I don’t know how long I was staring off into space counting my crew and thinking about what each of them would be doing. I was sure they were all on the roof. I knew that if a Brown & Root hand had been hurt that their own Safety Coordinator would be taking care of their injury. The thought of someone being hurt in a hopper sent flashbacks of the day I nearly dived off into the hopper full of ash ten and a half years earlier.
After about 5 minutes, Bill Bennett came back to the conference room, where we were still trying to focus on the task at hand. I don’t remember if we were doing any more good or not since I wasn’t paying any attention. Bill said that he needed for me to leave the meeting because they needed me out at the precipitator. Someone had been engulfed in fly ash!
Then I realized that the first time Bill had come to the room to check on me, he had mentioned that. I think I had blocked that from my mind. He had said that someone had been engulfed in ash, and they couldn’t tell if it was me or someone else. That was why he was so shaken up. Bill had thought that I may have died, or at least been seriously injured. The pain he was feeling before he saw me sitting in the room, alive and well, flooded my thoughts.
I quickly stood up and left the room. Bill and I quickly made our way to the precipitator. He said that Life Flight was on the way. One of the vacuum truck workers had climbed into the hopper to get the last bits of ash out of the hopper when a large amount of ash had broken loose above him and immediately engulfed him in the hopper.
When that happened there was a large boom and a cloud of ash came pouring out from the side of the precipitator. Scott Hubbard, who would have been my twin brother if I had been able to pick my own twin brother (though I never had a real twin brother)… heard the boom on the roof and when he looked down and saw the cloud of ash, immediately thought that I may have been hurt. I suppose he had called Bill Bennett on the radio and told him.
As we arrived at the precipitator, a young man was being carried out on a stretcher. A Life Flight from Oklahoma City was on it’s way, and landed just a few minutes later. I looked at the man all covered with ash. I could see how someone may have mistaken him for me. He was dressed like I was. A white t-shirt and jeans. He was unconscious.
Without going into detail as to the cause of the accident, as that will be in a later post, let me tell you about the heroic Power Plant Men and their actions before I had arrived on the scene…
James Vickers, a 26 year old vacuum truck worker, had climbed in the hopper carrying a shovel. He had a hole watch standing out the door keeping an eye on him. They had sucked out the hopper from the outside pipes and had banged on the walls in order to knock down any ash build up on the sides until they figured they had cleaned out the hopper.
James had opened the door to the hopper, and maybe because he saw some buildup on the hopper walls, he decided to climb in the hopper in order to knock it down with the shovel. While he was doing this, a large amount of ash that had bridged up in the plates above was knocked free all at once and immediately filled up the hopper probably more than half full.
James was crammed down into the throat of the hopper, which at the bottom is only about 8 inches in diameter with a plate across the middle about 2 feet above the throat of the hopper. He was immediately knocked unconscious by the impact.
The person assigned to be the hole watch was standing at the door to the hopper and when the ash fell down, he was knocked back about 6 or 7 feet when the ash came pouring out of the door. Panicking, He ran to the edge of the walkway yelling for help. Luckily, he was not also knocked unconscious, or this would pretty much have been the end of the story.
Men came running. Especially a couple of Power Plant Men working in the area. I wish I could remember who they were. When I try to think of the most heroic Power Plant Men I knew at the plant at the time, the list is about a long as my arm, so it is hard to narrow it down.
The Power Plant Men began to frantically dig the ash out of the hopper to uncover James Vickers. When they reached his head, they immediately cleared his face to where they could perform Mouth-to-Mouth resuscitation. They began breathing for James as soon as they could, and continued mouth-to-mouth as they dug out more of the ash.
As they dug the ash out, they were using their hardhats for shovels. When they tried to move James, they found that he had been crammed down into the bottom of the hopper to where he was trapped in the throat of the hopper. Heroically they continued without hesitation to breath for James, while simultaneously working to free him from the hopper. The shovel had been wedged into the bottom of the hopper with him.
Almost immediately after the accident happened, the control room became aware that someone had been engulfed in a hopper, they called Life Flight in Oklahoma City. A helicopter was immediately dispatched. By the time James was safely removed from the hopper, placed on a stretcher and carried out to the adjacent field, the Life Flight Helicopter was landing to take him to the Baptist Medical Center. I would say the helicopter was on the ground a total of about 3 or so minutes before it was took off again.
Bill and I inspected the hopper where the accident had taken place. On the ground below under the grating was a pile of ash, just like I had experienced years before when I almost bailed off into the hopper to look for my flashlight. I was suddenly filled with a tremendous amount of sorrow.
I was sorry for James Vickers, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. I was sorry for Bill Bennett who thought for a while that I had died in that hopper. I remembered hanging by one finger in a hopper only two rows down from this one, ten years ago with my life hanging by a thread, and I just wanted to cry.
So, I gave Bill a big hug as if I was hugging my own father and just started to cry. The whole thing was just so sad.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….
On the roof of the Baptist Medical Center, a Triage unit had been setup waiting for the helicopter to arrive with James. Hazardous Waste protective suits were being worn by the people that were going to begin treating James. They had heard that he had been engulfed in hazardous chemicals which consisted of: Silica, Aluminum Oxide, Hexavalent Chromium, arsenic and other unsavory and hard to pronounce chemicals. The Life Flight People on the helicopter had to be scrubbed down by the Hazmat team as soon as they exited the helicopter to clean off the hazardous Fly Ash. The news reporters were all standing by reporting the incident.
Yes. The same fly ash that I went swimming in every day during the overhaul. The same fly ash that I tracked through the Utility Room floor when I came home at night. The same fly ash used to create highways all across the country. It’s true it has some carcinogenic material in it. I’m sure I have my share of Silica in my lungs today, since it doesn’t ever really clear out of there.
Besides the psychological trauma of a near-death experience, Jame Vickers was fairly unharmed considering what he went through. He came out of the ordeal with an eye infection. Randy Dailey pointed out that this was because the Safety Coordinator from Brown & Root had opened his eyes to check if he was alive when he was laying on the stretcher, and had let ash get in his eyes. Otherwise, he most likely wouldn’t have developed an eye infection.
When I arrived at home that evening I explained to my wife what had happened. She had heard something on the news about it, but hadn’t realized they were talking about our plant since the person was in Oklahoma City when the reporters were talking about it.
All I can say is… Some Safety Meetings in the past have been pretty boring, but nothing made me want to improve my Safety Attitude like the Safety Meeting we had that afternoon. I’m glad that I had to experience that only once in my career as a Plant Electrician.
Comments from the original post
Power Plant Pigeons actually believe that the entire reason Power Plants were built in the first place was to provide new rent-free Pigeon roosts for Power Plant Pigeons. Large lakes are placed alongside the Power Plant so that the pigeons can spend their days frolicking away in the immense Pigeon Bird Bath supplied by the electric company. Fields of grain are planted throughout the power plant realm in order to provide a nutritional diet to Power Plant Pigeons. Even men with bright yellow hardhats are supplied for pigeons to fly over and target practice their Power Plant Pigeon Poop dropping skills by aiming at the bright hardhat dots below.
I wrote about the pursuit to remove Power Plant Pigeons from the Power Plant Realm two years ago when I wrote the post “Poison Pill for Power Plant Pigeons“. In that post I explained how we had put out live traps to capture Power Plant Pigeons. Jody Morse taught me that it was better to persuade than to try to force the pigeons into the live traps.
After I joined the electric shop, we came up with a few other ways to rid the area of pigeons. This was more of a personal crusade, since I spent a lot of time working on the roof of the precipitator, which was a favorite haunt of Power Plant pigeons. I had spent a lot of time with a broom sweeping up the Power Plant Pigeon leavings only to come back a few weeks later to find the entire area redecorated with artistic renditions of Salvadore Dali paintings of melting clocks.
One day when when Bill Bennett strolled into the electric shop…. well… “Strutted” is a better word to describe Bill Bennett’s type of strolling. Bill was a skinnier version of a skinny Bill Cosby… for those of you who have not heard me mention him before….
Anyway, Bill strutted into the electric shop carrying a box one day and brought it into the office. He told me that he had ordered some equipment that was going to help me on the precipitator roof with the pigeons. He pulled a smaller box out of the big box and handed it to me. It was a highly technical piece of equipment known as a Sonic Bird Repeller:
Bill had bought 8 of these. Four for each precipitator. They were guaranteed to keep the pigeons away. Evidently they make a high pitched noise that you can’t hear, but the pigeons can and it annoys the heck out of them. I thanked Bill for thinking about me.. I think I was so touched by his concern that I gave him a hug…. or… maybe that was for some other reason…. it’s been a while. This was some time around 1989.
Anyway. I took four of the boxes and headed for the precipitator roof to try them out. On the way there as I was thinking about the noise that these four bird repellers were going to make, I hoped that the birds were going to be able to hear the annoying sound emanating from the little speakers over the incredibly loud noises of 168 vibrators buzzing constantly and the 672 rappers all banging away as 20 pound slugs of metal pound their anvils in order to shake the ash from the plates inside the precipitator.
You see, the roof of the precipitator is one of the noisiest places on the Power Plant Planet next to all the steam lines pushing thousands of pounds of pressure of steam through them, or next to the large fans blowing air into and out of the boiler. — Actually, the plant was a noisy place in general… so I just hoped that the bird repellers were going to be successful in their attempt to annoy the pigeons with their imperceptible buzzing noise, or whatever noise they made.
When I arrived on the roof, I placed the 4 sonic bird repellers in the four strategic positions on the roof in order to cover the widest area possible…. that is, toward the four corners where the four electrical plug-ins were mounted on the coffin houses. It was thoughtful of the construction hands to have placed those four receptacles just where I wanted to plug in the four sonic bird repellers ten years later.
I tried to see if I could hear anything when I turned them on, but I didn’t hear anything. I figured that was a good thing since I wasn’t supposed to hear anything according to the instructions. So, at least they passed the first test.
I hoped that this wasn’t a situation where the “Emperor Has No Clothes”, except in this case “The Sonic Bird Repeller Has No Sound”. How could I tell? I figured I would wait around and see what happened.
They didn’t interrupt the melodic symphony of rappers and vibrators as they beat and buzzed out their rendition of Brandenburg’s Concerto #3…. well, that’s what I liked to pretend anyway, since I had to spend hours at a time listening to them as I tested and adjusted rappers and vibrators as part of my normal Precipitator Roof Maintenance program.
I thought I would hang around for a while and do some adjustments on the rapper/vibrator cabinets while the pigeons all fled the scene in order to escape the atrocious sonic repellent rhapsody emanating from those four tyrannical jukeboxes I had just placed on the roof. Glancing over my shoulder from time to time, I kept a watch on Fred and Mabel that were perched on one of the side beams not too far from one of the Sonic Sound Machines. They seemed to be more interested in what I was doing than being annoyed by the new song in town.
I could have swore that after a half hour or so, those two pigeons had developed a new way of bobbing their heads as they hid from me. It was normal for the pigeons to climb along the beams overhead and periodically peak over the edge to see what I was up to. I didn’t mind too much when their little heads were peering over the side, it was only when their tails waved over the side that I became attentive. That was always a bad sign. They did it so nonchalantly as if they were just trying to turn around on that narrow beam so they could head back in the other direction, but I knew better.
We kept the Sonic Repellers on the roof for about eight months. I never really noticed a decrease in the pigeon population, but I do think a few operators changed their routine hangout to some other part of the boiler. Even Glenn Morgan stopped hanging out around the transformers where he used to go hide when he was trying to “meditate” somewhere where he wouldn’t be disturbed.
I finally figured out that even though I couldn’t hear the sonic bird repellers they would give me a headache. I don’t normally have headaches, so when I do, I know something out of the ordinary is happening…. such as I am being poisoned by Carbon Monoxide, or Curtis Love is telling me how sorry he is that he almost killed me again, or in this case…. I am working for a long period of time in the vicinity of one of the sonic bird repellers. After I figured that out, I would turn them off when I was working around them and my headaches would cease.
I suspected that when we were not on the precipitator roof, the smarter bunch of Power Plant Pigeons probably re-calibrated the repellers so that they would cause headaches in humans, so the pesky humans would leave the pigeons in peace. They weren’t smart enough to figure out that all I had to do was unplug them temporarily. So their backup plan was to drop special packages on my shoulder while I was working under tail causing me to forget to plug the sonic repellers back on when I left in a hurry to go wash up.
After the failed and back-fired experiment with the Sonic Bird Repellers, Bill Bennett had another course of action up his sleeve. He had contacted someone that was known as “The Bird Lady”. She had her own company where she would go around and persuade pigeons (and other birds) to leave their roosts using another unconventional means that was deemed “less cruel” than feeding them to the welder ET (who had moved to Muskogee anyway), and outright poisoning them (which was against company policy).
Her approach was to give them something more like “food poisoning” without killing them. After first meeting her in Bill Bennett’s office, I followed her to her car in the parking lot. She opened her trunk and took a bucket and filled it with grain from a larger tub. then she took some kind of powder and poured it in the bucket. Then she stirred the bucket of grain until the powder had worked its way throughout the grain. She was wearing the same kind of gloves you would wear if you were doing dishes and didn’t want to get dishpan hands.
She explained that the powder contained her special mixture of cayenne peppers and other spices that would upset even the most hardened pigeon gizzard in the Power Plant Kingdom. After they ate her grain, they would decide that the food around this establishment just isn’t up to code and they will fly away to find “greener pastures”.
I took her to the top of the precipitator and she poured some piles of grain not far from where I had tried the sonic bird repellers a couple of years earlier. She didn’t want to place the grain out in the open where the regular songbirds and other flying beasties would eat it.
She came to the plant once each month for about 3 months, and that was about it. The pigeons didn’t seem to like the grain that much, so they left it alone for the most part, except when they were in the mood for Mexican.
The third and final way that we tried Power Plant Pigeon Population Control was by the use of Pellet Guns. Scott Hubbard and I were working on the precipitator roof during an overhaul and the pigeons were being extra pesky. They would pick up twigs and small rocks and stuff and would drop them on our heads in an attempt to chase us away. So, we decided to retaliate. After all, one can only take so much abuse.
So, the next day, we brought our pellet guns from home to work with us and clandestinely carried them to the precipitator roof where we could shoot the birds that were pestering us. I killed one with my first shot which really impressed Scott Hubbard, since I had never mentioned in all the years we carpooled together that I was a hunter (which I wasn’t). That was just beginner’s luck. Scott killed a few more pigeons that day, but not that many when you get down to it.
It didn’t take long for the pigeons to realize what we were up to, so they would just stay hidden on the beams over our heads. This didn’t give us the opportunity to just take pot shots at them, and since we didn’t have all day to just stand around and wait for their little heads to peer over the side of a beam, and since their tails didn’t really contain any “shootable” material, we just left them alone for the most part.
So, we finally decided to do the next best thing than to try to run the pigeons off or kill them. We decided to live with them. I had a few discussions with some of their leaders about where they should NOT poop and I agreed that I would stop calling them names like “Poop Head” hence the names “Fred” and “Mabel”. And after that we sort of got along a lot better. This was a new skill I had learned after I realized that I had to do the same thing for a couple of upper management people at the plant. If I could do it with them, certainly I could learn to get along with a group of Power Plant Pigeons.
I could end this story by saying that we lived happily ever after and maybe we did. I will share a story about what happened once when the pigeons decided to just pack up and leave one day. I can tell you. The result was not pretty. But that is a story for next year (which is only a little more than a month away).
As an addendum to this story:
Years later after I had left the Power Plant to work for Dell in Texas, one day I was while wearing one of my coveted Power Plant shirts, something happened that reminded me of the days on the Precipitator roof. I took this opportunity to let everyone around me experience a little bit of the thrill that I used to experience on a weekly basis…
While painting the ceiling in my son’s bedroom one day, I happened to drip some white paint on my shirt in just the right spot to make it look like a pigeon had pooped on my shirt. Recognizing right away the significance of this, I quickly changed my shirt into a white t-shirt to continue painting.
Instead of quickly rubbing the paint off of the shirt, which probably would have smeared all over and ruined the shirt, I let it dry just as it was. For the past 8 years I have proudly worn this shirt every opportunity I have knowing that when others see me, they will automatically assume that I have been “pooped on” by a bird.
Of course, I have no reaction when I see their inquisitive expression. I just act as if nothing is wrong, which is easy, because nothing is. Here is a picture of the shirt with the pseudo-bird dropping:
Notice that I continue wearing this shirt even though the collar has become frayed over the years. I keep expecting it to disappear one day into the box on the front doorstep that is sent off to help Disabled Vets. Even though I would be honored to have a disabled vet wear my shirt, I think it would be more likely to end up in a rag box.
If you have been following my posts for very long, you may have the idea that I just like to write posts about spiders. After writing two posts about Spider Wars (see posts: “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement” and “Power Plant Spider Wars II – The Phantom Menace“), another post about spiders just seems like a bit much. Even though there is a spider in this story, another appropriate title could be something like “Another night in the Life of a Power Plant Electrician”. Without further ado, here is the story.
Ninety nine times out of a hundred, when the phone rang in the middle of the night, it was the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma calling. I don’t remember a time when the Shift Supervisor on the other end of the phone wasn’t very polite. They knew they were waking someone from their sleep to ask them to drive 30 miles out to the plant in the wee hours of the morning.
The Shift Supervisor, whether it was Joe Gallahar, Jim Padgett, Jack Maloy, or Gary Wright, they would all start out with something like, “Hey, sorry to wake you buddy…”. After such an apologetic introduction, how could you be upset that your sleep had just been interrupted? Then they would proceed to tell you why they needed your assistance. For me, it was usually because the coal dumper had stopped working while a train was dumping their coal. This meant that 110 cars tied to three or four engines was sitting idle unable to move.
Each car on the train would be dumped one at a time as it was pulled through the rotary dumper. The process was automated so that the operator in the control room watching out of the window only had to push one switch to dump each car.
The train would move forward to the next car automatically as a large arm on a machine called a Positioner would come down on the coupling between the cars and pull the entire train forward to the next car.
There were so many moving parts involved in positioning the car in place and rolling it over to dump the coal, that it was common for something to go wrong. When that happened the entire process would come to a halt and the train would just have to sit there until someone came to fix it. That was usually an electrician since the dumper and the positioner was all controlled by relays much like the elevator controls, only more complicated.
This particular night, Joe Gallahar had called me. It seemed that there was an intermittent problem with the dumper that didn’t seem to make much sense and they couldn’t figure out why it was acting so strange. One of the train cars had actually been damaged as the positioner arm would start coming up from the coupling to the point where the holding arm on the other end of the dumper had come up, then the positioner arm began going back down, causing the train to move on it’s own only to have the arm on the positioner scrape the side of the train car as it rolled backward uncontrolled.
Though it was less frequent, it was not so strange to have a train damaged by erratic dumper controls. I have seen the side of a train car smashed in by the positioner arm when it decided to inappropriately come down. This night, the problem was acting like that. So, instead of damaging the train further, they decided to call me out to have a look at it.
I always had the philosophy when being called out in the middle of the night to be just as polite back to the Shift Supervisor when I answered the phone. I had a Marketing professor at Oklahoma State University named Dr. Lee Manzer, who explained this one day.
Here is a short side story about Dr. Manzer —
Dr. Manzer told a story in class one day about how he was travelling home one day from a long and difficult trip where everything had gone wrong. It was very late at night when he arrived at his house (which, incidentally was just down the street from my parent’s house), he was really beat. He went into his bedroom and began preparing for bed.
About the time he was taking off his tie, his wife rolled over in bed and welcomed him home. Then she said, “Oh, by the way. I forgot to buy milk (or maybe it was ice cream). Do you think you could run down to the store and buy some?”
Dr. Manzer explained his decision making process at that point like this: “I could either go on a rant and tell my wife what a long and tiring day I had just had and now you are asking me to go buy milk? , and then I would go get the milk. Or I could say, ‘Of course Dear. I would be glad to go buy some milk.’ Either way, I was going to go buy the milk. So, I could do it one of two ways. I could complain about it or I could be positive. I could either score points or lose them…. hmm…. Let’s see…. what did I do? I said, ‘Of course Dear.'”
— End of the side story about Dr. Lee Manzer who by the way was a terrific Marketing Professor. I understand he still teaches to this day.
So, when Joe Gallahar called me that night, and explained that the dumper was acting all erratic, Instead of saying “Yes Dear.” as that wouldn’t have been appropriate, I told him, “No problem. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” My wife Kelly knew who was on the other end of the phone when she heard my answer. She had heard it many times before. I usually only had to say one word after hanging up the phone, “Dumper”, and she knew what that meant.
A Power Plant Electrician’s spouse knows that this is part of the job. As I pulled on the jeans that I had laid out before I went to bed, Kelly would usually say something in her sleep like, “Be careful”. I would give her a hug and tell her I’ll be back in a while, even though, sometimes I would be gone for two days working on the precipitator during a start up or some major catastrophe. Usually, it was just a couple of hours before I came crawling back in bed.
This particular night I drove to work in silence with the window open so that the cool air would keep me awake. Normally I had the radio on some rock station so that I would be singing along (in my terribly off-key singing voice) in order to stay awake. Sometimes I would just take the 25 minutes of silence to just think.
My thought that night was that it was nice to be wanted. There is some comfort in knowing that the Shift Supervisor could call me with enough confidence to know that I would be able to come out on my own and fix a problem that was costing the company a large amount of money each hour the dumper was offline. Some might think that I would be annoyed to be wakened in the middle of the night to go fix something at the plant. That night, as most nights I was feeling honored.
That wasn’t always the case, and I’ll soon write a post about another call out in the middle of the night where Scott Hubbard and I wondered exactly why they called us… but that’s another story.
When I arrived at the plant, I rolled my car up to the speaker at the front gate and said, “Hello” with an arrogant English accent. I don’t know why, but I always liked doing that. I think it was Billy Epperson who answered back. I told him I was here to work on the dumper. He thanked me and opened the gate and I drove the 1/2 mile down the hill to the plant parking lot. As I went over the hill, in the moonlight I could see the train up at the coal yard looking like a long silver snake.
I walked into the maintenance shop and grabbed a truck key off of the hook and drove around to the electric shop to pick up my hard hat and tool bucket.
I took the long way around to the coal yard since the train blocked the shortest route. We had a tunnel on the west end of the coal yard that went under the tracks for just this occasion.
When I arrived at the dumper, Stanley Robbins explained that he had tried troubleshooting this problem himself, but he couldn’t find anything that would explain the strange behavior. Since the last downsizing, we were all able to sort of mix our skills so that an operator could do simple electric tasks if they felt comfortable with it. Stanley knew enough to fix your normal minor dumper issues. This one was a little different.
Since I had been an electrician for the past 15 years at this point, I felt pretty confident that I would quickly find the problem and be heading back home soon. So, I walked into the dumper switchgear where the dumper controls are found. I asked Stanley to go turn on the power to the dumper so that I could watch the relays. When the power was on, I began tracing the circuits looking for the point of failure.
The problem was intermittent, and when Stanley started the dumper back up, everything seemed to be working just fine. Stanley explained that this was why they couldn’t use the dumper because they couldn’t be sure when it was going to malfunction. They had even uncoupled the train and pulled it apart right where the positioner arm was so that I could see what was happening.
Using radios (walkie talkies), I asked Stanley to move the positioner arm up and down while I checked it. He lowered it and raised it back up without any problem. When he began lowering it the second time, it suddenly stopped halfway down. Watching the controls, I could see that it indicated that it had come all the way down. It would be this case that would tell the holding arm on the far side of the dumper to go back up, which is what happened when the train rolled back earlier that night.
Then the relays rattled like they were picking up and dropping out rapidly. Then the problem cleared up again. Somehow the positioner arm had thought it had come down on the car clamps when it was still up in the air. That was not likely to happen because when something fails it usually doesn’t see what it’s supposed to see, not the other way around. It doesn’t usually see something that isn’t there.
So, I had Stanley lower the positioner arm down so that it was level with the ground, so that I could check the connections to the electric eye that was on the positioner clamp that detected the train car clamp when it came down. I couldn’t find any lose connections or anything that would explain it.
So I told Stanley that I was going to look up from under the car clamp to look at the electric eye. So, I asked him to kill the power to the positioner so that it wouldn’t move while I was doing that and crush me like a bug. Kneeling on the train track, I took my flashlight and looked up at the electric eye from under the car clamp, and this is what I saw:
This spider had built a spider web in front of the electric eye on the positioner and was sitting right in the middle causing the positioner to think it was down on the car clamp when it wasn’t. Stanley was watching me from the window of the dumper control room when he saw me stand up quickly and look up at him with a big grin on my face. I gave him a thumbs up.
You know the phrase, “Everyone has 10 minutes of fame….” It indicates that some time in most people’s lives they are famous for a brief moment. It may or may not define the rest of their life. Well. This was that spiders claim to fame. This one spider had successfully stranded a coal train with 110 cars of coal. A train crew, a coal yard operator, and one lone electrician that had traveled 30 miles to watch it act out it’s drama of catching gnats on it’s web being constantly watched by one large electric eye.
I did not drive home in silence that early morning. I laughed out loud all the way home. I still laugh to myself to this day when I think about this night. Phrases like, “Isn’t life wonderful” comes to my mind. Or “Even Spiders desire attention every now and then.” Could there have been a better malfunction than to have a spider dancing in front of an electric eye out in the plains of Oklahoma saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” and by golly. Someone did! I’m just glad it was me.
August 6, 1996 in Corporate Headquarters America, jaws began dropping a few minutes before 8 a.m. At first the security guard just thought some Power Plant Giant had taken a wrong turn and showed up at Corporate Headquarters to ask for directions. When another one showed up, this time carrying his Playmate lunch box, hard hat on his head, and lip quivering looking for a handy spittoon, the men in their suits and women in their fine dresses began running for cover. That was the day eight Power Plant Men took over the floor in the building where the Corporate Engineers usually lived.
If you want to understand the shock that emanated throughout the building, just picture the following bunch showing up on your doorstep:
We had come from the four corners of the Oklahoma Electric Company Power Plant Kingdom and we were there in Oklahoma City because Corporate America needed our help! Two Power Plant Men from each of the main Power Plants were picked to help the company transition from the old Mainframe computer system to a new computer application called SAP. SAP was going to combine all of our computer needs into one big application that runs on the new computer network.
Ernst and Young was the consulting company that was helping us install and implement SAP at our company. The company began the implementation some time in March, and the big bang go live date was going to be January 1, 1997. According to Ernst and Young, this was a physical impossibility. There was no way we could convert all of our requirements into SAP realities in such a short time.
The Maintenance Module for SAP hadn’t even been fully developed. We were actually working with SAP to design the module. Our company had demonstrated how a Best In Class Maintenance process worked, and SAP was designing their module around our needs. Everyone insisted that our aggressive timeline was too unreasonable and would never be met.
The Electric Company in Central Oklahoma had one Ace up their sleeve (well, maybe more than one)… That was “Power Plant Men!” As I mentioned in last week’s post (See the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God“), I was told on Monday, August 5, to show up for work the following day in Oklahoma City to work for 10 weeks on an SAP project.
Mike Gibbs, a mechanic from our plant was going with me. Our task was to convert all the Power Plant parts in the Inventory system in searchable strings that had a limited number of characters. Mike Gibbs used to work in the warehouse, so he was a good candidate for knowing what odd parts actually were.
We were a cross-section of mechanics and electricians, and warehouse people. To give you an idea of how big our job was, we had over 100,000 different parts in the system. 75,000 of those parts were in the warehouse at the power plant where I worked. There were over 5,000 different types of Nuts and Bolts… just to give you an idea of the task ahead of us.
Ernst and Young said the task would take the eight regular employees four months to complete the task. The Electric Company said, “Power Plant Men can do it in 10 weeks.
We were able to use the office space used by all of the engineers because they all happened to be at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma where I normally worked because of the big explosion that destroyed part of the Turbine Generator room early Monday morning. While they packed up to begin the work of reconstruction, Mike and I packed up and headed to Oklahoma City.
Most of the “out-of-town” Power Plant Men stayed in hotels for the next 2 1/2 months, but Mike Gibbs and I decided that we couldn’t be away from our families that long, so we decided that we would drive back and forth to work each day from Stillwater, Oklahoma. This was about an hour drive with going to work traffic. We would meet in the parking lot of a Mexican Restaurant at the edge of town and take turns each day driving to Oklahoma City.
Normally, in an instance like this, we would get paid a mileage that was farther than if we drove to the plant and maybe even driving time to and from work each day, but when our Plant Manager Bill Green found out we were driving back and forth, he refused to pay us anything. He told us that it was far enough away that he would only pay for us to stay in a Hotel (which would have cost more than the mileage), he wouldn’t pay us mileage or even a per diem (which is a daily amount for expenses).
Bill Green knew that we were family men that wouldn’t want to be away from our families during the week if it was only an hour drive, so he played his card and said that we had to stay in a hotel, and he would pay the expense for that or he would pay nothing and we could drive back and forth all we wanted at our own expense, already knowing that we would rather wear our cars out and pay the extra gas each day to be with our families. I just thought this was pay back for me being so rotten all the time.
The first week I was there, I worked on converting the 5,000 different nuts, bolts and screws into cryptic search strings that all began with the three letter search word for bolt: BLT. If you wanted to search for a Bolt in the SAP inventory, you would know it begins with a the letters BLT. This only made me hungry all week, because to me, a BLT was a sandwich. A mighty good one too, I may add.
After the first week, it was decided that having Power Plant Men roaming around between offices asking each other questions about parts was a hazard waiting to happen, so the engineer that was running our project Mark Romano had a special holding pen… um… I mean, cubicle built just for us. It was decided that we should all be together in what is called a “Bullpen Cube”. All nine of us. Bullpen was a good name considering that there was a lot of bull going around for all of us.
There were nine, because a young Corporate executive had been assigned to help us with all things “Corporate”. His name is Kent Norris. He was lucky enough to stay behind to work with us, instead of having to go spend the next 2 1/2 months at our plant up north helping to repair the fire damage.
Well. I say lucky. Lucky for us, maybe not for him. After all, he was someone from “corporate” stuck in a cubicle with 8 rascally Power Plant Men that kept themselves motivated by playing practical jokes on whoever was willing to fall for them. Not ever having experienced the likes of us before, Kent was in for 2 1/2 months of relentless practical jokes being played at his expense.
I must say that we had a terrific time teasing poor Kent, but he was such fun and took our jokes so well, that we could only admire his resilience to bounce back and smile after we ran him ragged with one joke after the next. I will go into more detail about the jokes we played on Kent in a later post. For now, I am just mentioning our situation, so that you can get a picture of our situation.
Kent helped us with our expense reports each week, and showed us all the good places to eat lunch. He helped us adapt to corporate life. He even showed us how to use our temporary badges to badge in and out of the doors when we entered and left the building.
Mike Gibbs discovered a better way. He just put his badge in his wallet, and since he was tall enough, when he walked up to the badge reader, he just pressed the back pocket of his blue jeans against the badge reader, and voila! The door would open like magic! Onlookers were always staring at this strange assortment of men in blue jeans and tee shirts walking through the office building during lunch.
I tried to remember all the people that were there in the cube with us… I remember that I was there, and so was Mike Gibb from the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
Ken Scott, who was the Maintenance Superintendent at the Gas-fired Power Plant by Konawa, and David Roe who worked in the warehouse at that plant.
Doyle Fullen, an Electric Foreman from the coal fired plant in Muskogee, and Robert Christy, a mechanic also from that plant.
I believe Dan Hayer, the warehouse man, was there from the gas-fired plant in Harrah, Oklahoma on a small lake called Horseshoe Lake. I don’t remember who else was there from that plant. I remember seeing someone there, but I think he was a more of a quiet type and for some reason, his name has escaped me.
I was a sort of a computer programmer at this time, so I created small programs that would make our jobs easier. I created icons on the computers so that people didn’t have to log into the apps, and I created a couple of other small programs that just automated the monotonous manual steps that we would have to do over and over again as we plowed through the 100,000 different part descriptions.
After the first week, we had converted over 15,000 parts, and were on our way to meeting our goal.
So, how did we do? The Power Plant Men were able to convert all 100,000 parts in the inventory system to SAP in eight weeks! Two weeks ahead of schedule. This was typical for Power Plant Men, especially when you tell them it is impossible. This was another example of doing things that others said couldn’t be done.
We were all scheduled to go back to our home plants two weeks early when Mark Romano, our project manager came to our cube to give us the news… We had performed our job so well, they wanted to expand our scope. It seems that another department… I won’t mention which one, but their initials are T&D had been working on their measly 60,000 parts for the past 4 months and had only completed about 10,000 of them. They wanted to know if the Power Plant Men would be willing to give them a hand to convert the 50,000 parts in their inventory system the same way we did for Power Supply. Otherwise the go-live of January 1, would not be met since we were coming up to the end of September already.
Our Plant Managers had agreed that we could spend the next four weeks converting T&D’s parts as well, so of course, we agreed to stay on. I’m not sure if Corporate Headquarters was ever the same after that. Because we were able to stay on for the next four weeks, we were invited to an SAP banquet that we would have otherwise missed. We stood out like a sore thumb. I will write more about that banquet in a separate post as well as go into detail with some of the jokes that we played on Kent Norris.
Spending the 12 weeks in Corporate Headquarters was an important turning point in my career as a Power Plant Electrician. When we were in the bullpen cube, I was sitting in a chair where I could turn my head to the right and look out a window over the parking lot for the building. During the day I would watch people walking to-and-fro going about their business.
I had worked most of my adult life up to that point at a plant out in the country where when you climbed to the top of the 500 foot smoke stack and looked around, you could see fields and trees for 20 miles in any direction. Looking out that window at people made a big impression on me. Here I was sitting in an air conditioned office. No Coal Dust. No Fly Ash. No ear plugs to deafen the sound of steam shooting through the pipes turning the turbines. No 100 degrees in the summer. No freezing my fingers off in the winter. Just Power Plant Men quietly tapping on their computer keyboards, while they played jokes on Corporate Executive Kent. — This was the life.
I thought… things don’t get better than this. I was in computer heaven. Even though it was unconscious at the time, something stirred in me that thought… maybe… just maybe, I’m ready for a change…. I’ll wait and see what God wants me to do…
August 16, 2001 was my final day at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I had stepped onto the plant grounds May 7, 1979, 22 years earlier. Now I was leaving to change careers and moving to Round Rock, Texas to work for Dell Computers. During my final day, a going away party was held in my honor by the Power Plant Men and Women that I had the privilege to work alongside during the past 22 years.
A few minutes before the party began, I slipped into the office bathroom/locker room and changed into a navy blue suit and tie. Combed my hair. Put on black socks with my shiny black shoe. Grabbed my briefcase and headed for the break room. When I walked in the room, it was packed full of Power Plant Men and Women all waiting to say goodbye to one of their family.
Many wondered who it was that had joined their party of one of their own. Who was this person in the suit and tie? Ed Shiever told me later that he didn’t even recognize me. It wasn’t until I reached out and shook his hand that he realized that his was Kevin Breazile. The same person he had known since he was a temp employee working in the tool room.
When the Power Plant Men finally realized that I was the person they had been waiting for, they broke out in applause as I walked around shaking their hands. I would have broke out in tears if I hadn’t been thinking about what a great person each of them had been over the many years we had known each other.
I made my way to the front of the room where I had set up a computer and hooked it to the big screen TV. I had a special surprise waiting for them. One that would temporarily change the plant policy on going away parties after I was gone. I had prepared a special PowerPoint presentation for them (insert evil grin here).
I set my briefcase next to the computer on the end of the table acting as if the computer had nothing to do with the party. Then I stood there as the “going away” part of the party began.
It was typical for people to stand up and tell a story or two about the person leaving, so Jim Arnold (the Supervisor of Maintenance and part time nemesis) was first. He explained how I had been working on SAP for the past three years creating tasks lists that are used to describe each possible job in the plant.
He turned to me and asked me how many task lists I had created in the last 3 years. I replied, “About 17,800”. Jim said that this boggled his mind. It was three times more than the entire rest of the company put together.
Jim made a comment about how he wasn’t sure he would want a job where you have to dress up in a suit and tie.
Andy Tubbs stood up and presented me with my 20 year safety sticker and a leather backpack for working 20 years without an accident, which was completed on August 11, just 5 days before. I had worked four summers as a summer help, which counted as one year of service, then I had completed 19 years as a full time employee that very same week.
I like being roasted, but that didn’t really happen. A few other people told some stories about me, that I can’t recall because I was busy thinking about the PowerPoint presentation. I had memorized my entire script, and the presentation was pretty much automatic and timed, and I had to keep to my script or pause the presentation.
Then Jim Arnold asked me (Bill Green, the Plant Manager was gone that day visiting the Muskogee Plant) if I had anything I would like to say before I left…. That was the cue I had been waiting for. I replied, “Actually, I have a PowerPoint presentation right here, and I hit a key, and the TV lit up….
I will present each of the 26 slides below with the comments I made during each one. Since many of the slides are animated, I will try to describe how that worked as I made my presentation… so, hang on… this is going to be a lot of slides…. I broke it down into about 45 pictures. The Script is what I said for each slide:
Remember when Mark Draper came here for a year and when he was getting ready to leave he gave a presentation about where he thought we were doing well, and how we could improve ourselves?
I thought that since I have spent 20 years with you guys I might be able to come up with a few comments. Especially as opinionated as I am.
In 1979, I came to work here as a summer help. The plant was still being built and I was really impressed with the special quality of people I met and looked up to.
Script continues as these three pictures slide in:
Like for instance there was Sonny Karcher and another was Jerry Mitchell. It has been a while since I have seen these two guys, and I know that Jerry has passed on, but this is the way I remember them.
And of course Larry Riley was there.
Larry was the one I worked with back then that seemed to know what was going on. I will always consider him a good friend.
When I was on Labor Crew I would call him “Dad”. He would never own up to it. He said I was never the same after I fell on my head when I was a kid.
I used to get real dirty when I worked in the coal yard right alongside Jerry Mitchell. He would stay perfectly clean. He told me that I knew I was good when I could keep myself clean. —
Well. I have found a better way to do that. And once again I would like to thank OG&E for paying for my education.
I encourage all the new guys to seriously consider taking advantage of the free education benefit.
Then of course there was our Plant Manager and Assistant Manager back then.
This is how I remember them.
After hiring on permanently as a janitor in ’82, and getting on Labor crew in the spring of ’83. I was able to get into the electric shop in November 1983.
I vividly remember my first day as an electrician. The first thing I worked on, I shorted it to ground.
Script continues as Charles Foster’s picture slides in:
With no prior experience as an electrician I was allowed to join the electric shop. Charles Foster was instrumental in getting me into the shop, and I am grateful. As everyone knows, Charles is a long time friend of mine.
For years and years Charles would tell the story about how he fought tooth and nail for me against the evil Plant Manager and His diabolic Assistant who wanted me to be banished to the Labor Crew for eternity.
Not too long ago I told Charles that if he hadn’t pushed so hard to get me into the electric shop, I probably would have left OG&E and went back to school years ago ( like my mom wanted me to do), and made something of myself long before now.
These are the electricians that were there when I first joined the electric shop. These are the only ones left. I think we started out with 16.
The electricians were always a tight knit group. It amazed me to see a electricians who couldn’t stand each other sit down and play dominos three times a day, every day, year after year.
Jimmie Moore joined the shop some time later.
And of course. Bill Bennett was around back then.
When I arrived in the electric shop I was 23 years old and I replaced Diana Brien as the youngest electrician in the shop. As I leave, I am almost 41 years old, and I am still the youngest electrician. As I leave, I relinquish the title back to Diana Brien who once again will be the youngest electrician.
As a side note…. I don’t know why I forgot about Ben Davis. He reminded me after the presentation… I don’t know how… Here is a picture of Ben:
I suppose you all remember what happened on February 15th, 1985. The day we refer to as “Black Friday”. The day that the “Drug and Theft” ring was busted at Sooner Station. That was the day that a very dear friend of mine, Pat Braden, whom everyone knew as a kind easy going person turned out to be some evil leader of a theft ring.
Note: As I was saying the above statement, This mummy walked across the slide…
Note: Then Barney slide across in the other direction…
Well. I know better than that. I will always remember Pat Braden with a smile on his face. Mickey Postman, I know you would agree with me about Pat and just about everyone else who knew him well.
It has been 16 years since this took place and the company has gone through a lot of changes, but don’t ever think something like this couldn’t happen again.
Note… The hammers come in and stomp the images off the slide….
Then there was the first Reorganization. The old people retired on October 1st. That was the end of the Moler and Waugh regime.
At first we thought we were all on vacation. Our new plant manager came in the first meeting with us and told a joke.
We all looked at each other and wondered, “Can plant managers even do that?”
I’m sure you guys remember Ron Kilman. Bless his heart.
The second part of the first reorganization allowed people without jobs to find a position in the company over a 8 month period.
Note: Pictures of Scott Hubbard fly in along with the words: “Hubbard Here!” then each one disappears leaving this:
That is when Scott Hubbard joined the electric shop.
Scott and I drove to work together for a long time and we became good friends.
I’ll miss Scott when I leave. I’ll remember that “Hubbard is Here”, while I’ll be down there – in Texas.
Do you remember the Quality Process? They said it was a process and not a program because when a program is over it goes away, and a process is something that will always be here. — Yeah right.
Note: While I was saying this, the screen all of the sudden went dark as I kept talking… I could tell that people wondered if I realized that the presentation had suddenly disappeared….
This is all we have left of the Quality Process.
When I said the line “This is all we have left of the Quality Process” pointing my thumb over my shoulder with a look of disappointment on my face, the room suddenly burst out into cheers and applause as they realized that the blank screen represented the current state of the Quality process at the plant.
The first reorganization was done in a somewhat orderly manner.
They retired the old guys out first and brought in the new management, then they informed those that didn’t have positions and gave them time to find a job before they let them go.
Note: The sounds of gun shots were barely heard from the computer speaker, as splats occurred on the slide until it looked like this:
The second reorganization. Well. It was a massacre.
It was a very lousy way to do this, and very humiliating.
Jim Arnold at this point was about to jump out of his chair and stop the show (since he was instrumental in making the downsizing as brutal as possible), so I was quick to go to the next slide…
With the redesign came another Plant Manager. One of the first things I remember about Bill Green was that one morning I was stopped at the front gate and given a 9 volt battery for my smoke detector.
I took the battery home and put it in my smoke detector, and – guess what? – The battery was dead. And I thought, “Oh well. These things happen.”
Well a couple of years later, there was Bill Green handing out smoke detector batteries again.
I checked it out and sure enough, it was dead also.
Note: As I was talking during this slide, the marbles dropped in and bounced around then at the end the hat and moustache landed on Bill Green.
I am just wondering. I want to test out a theory I have. How many of you was given a dead battery?
— OK, I see. Just the trouble makers. I understand. It all makes sense to me now.
Second Note: Bill Green had a jar full of marbles and each color represented a type of injury someone has when they do something unsafe. Most of the marbles were blue and meant that nothing happened, the other colors represented increasingly worse injuries. Two marbles in the jar signified fatalities.
The numbers went like this:
Out of 575 incidents where someone does something unsafe, here are the consequences:
390 Blue Marbles: Nothing happens
113 Green Marbles: A First Aid injury
57 White Marbles: A Recordable Accident
8 Pink Marbles: Up to 30 days lost work day injury occurs
5 Red Marbles: 60 or more lost workdays injury occurs
2 Yellow Marbles: A Fatality occurs
The Maintenance workers are the best people I know. Everyone one of them has treated me with respect, and I consider each of you a friend.
You are the people I will miss. Not the coal dust, not the fly ash. — Just the people.
Note: Over the next set of slides, I showed the Power Plant Men I worked with… I will show you a couple of pictures of some slides to show you the animation that I had slide in and I’ll explain them.. I didn’t say much during the following slides. They flashed by fairly quickly:
Note: The circle with the slash over Bob Blubaugh represented him being recently fired… The story around this is on some of the last slides… and was a tragedy. The military cap landed on Randy Daily (in the lower right) because he was an Army Medic and was always in charge when it came to safety.
The donut flew up to Danny Cain because if there was ever free food somewhere, Danny would find it… Especially if they were donuts.
The words “Huh, Huh?” flew to Jody Morse, because he had the habit of saying something and ending his sentence with “Huh, Huh?”
Note: That was the end of the pictures of the Maintenance Power Plant Men…. I didn’t have pictures of the Operators, and they weren’t at the party…
Without these two, you wouldn’t get paid, and you wouldn’t get parts.
I agree with what Jerry Osborn said about Linda Shiever. There isn’t anyone out here that can do the job Linda does every day.
The maintenance foremen have treated me with respect and I would like to thank all of you for that.
Note: Then Jim Arnold flew in:
I realize that you have to do certain things some times because there is someone looking over your shoulders directing every move you make.
Note: At this point, Jim leaned forward in his chair to get a better look… wondering if that was his face on this picture of God…
Yes, Jim Arnold does take care of us, and we know that he doesn’t want to retire and leave us to fend for ourselves.
Note: There was a policy where you could retire once your age and years of service added up to 80 years. Jim Arnold’s added up to 100, but wouldn’t retire.
Note: Still talking about Jim Arnold:
Therefore he has devised a plan in case of an untimely death.
So don’t be smilin’ too big!!
Note: Still talking about Jim Arnold….
He will be able to direct the plant operations from his heavenly throne.
So don’t worry. He is NOT going away.
Second Note: At this point the PowerPoint presentation locked up on the computer… I had to shut down the presentation and restart it, and quickly go back to the next slide… I remembered the Alt-F4 closes the active application, so I was able to do this within about 15 seconds.
Do you remember when Bill Moler decided that you had to wear a hardhat to go fishin’ in the discharge?
He said it was because he wanted everyone to be safe.
As you can see, this made Johnny Keys rather upset.
Note: As I was speaking, Hardhats dropped onto the people:
Some bird might fly overhead and drop something on you.
Everyone knew the real reason. He didn’t want anyone fishing out there so he was making it more difficult to do that.
He used “Safety” as an excuse. Because of this, he lost credibility when it came to safety issues.
Note: The Hard hats disappeared and Cell phones and pagers dropped down as I said the following:
When you start making policies that use safety as an excuse, but it isn’t the real reason, you lose your credibility.
Second Note: At this point, Jim Arnold was jumping up from his seat… You see, Jim Arnold had fired Bob Blubaugh a few months earlier because Bob carried a cell phone with him while he was working. Jim told him he couldn’t use his cell phone during the day. When Bob refused to stop carrying a cell phone Jim Arnold fired him for insubordination.
Today that seems crazy as everyone carries cell phones. Jim’s excuse was that carrying a cell phone was not safe, though he couldn’t exactly explain why.
That’s why Jim jumped out of his chair… I thought it was over, and I had two more slides to go…. So, I quickly clicked to the next slide… and Jim sat back down…. whew….
I would like to say goodbye to Doug Black. I have been blessed to have been able to spend time with you the past three years.
Then Doug slid off the slide leaving a picture of Toby:
I would like to say goodbye to Toby, you have been a good friend, and I’ll stay in touch.
Note: Then Toby slid off and Ray Eberle’s picture was left:
Ray, I had to hide this picture from you, because you sat next to me as I created this presentation. I just want to say that the last three years we have spent working on SAP have meant a lot to me and you will always be one of my best friends. Thank you.
With that I will say “Good bye” to all of you. Thank you!
Note: This is a picture of Jim Arnold and Louise Kalicki stepping off of Air Force One. I super-imposed their faces over Bill and Hillary Clinton.
This is the end of the presentation…. With that I was ready to leave the plant and begin the next stage of my life. I will explain more in the post next week.
After I had left, I heard that when the next person had a going away party, Bill Green announced that PowerPoint Presentations are no longer allowed during going away parties!
Originally Posted on June 16, 2012:
I have mentioned before that Sonny Karcher was one of the first Power Plant Men that taught me how to work my way up the ladder of Power Plant Ingenuity (In the post titled, In Memory of Sonny Karcher A True Power Plant Man). I used to come home from work after Steve Higginbotham dropped me off at the duplex where we were living at the time, and my family couldn’t wait to hear what Sonny Karcher had said or done that day.
Soon after I had arrived at the plant one day, after coming back from the coal yard, Sonny had just dropped me off at the front of the Maintenance shop where I was going to the tool room to get some tools for something we were going to work on. Sonny was going to drive around behind the tool room in a yellow Cushman cart to pick up some larger equipment, and I was going to meet him there.
As he was backing out of the shop he suddenly made a motion with his left hand. To me it looked like he was making the movement that someone would make if they were taking the lid off of a jar. I thought this meant that he wanted me to do something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.
Various things went through my head, such as, I should get something to help remove lids from barrels. Or I needed to look inside of a jar to find one of the parts I was going to pick up. Nothing made much sense to me, so I waved for him to come back.
When he did, I asked him what he wanted me to do. He asked me what I meant. I told him that when he made that motion to open a jar, I couldn’t figure out what he wanted. So he told me. “I was just waving goodbye.”
He gave me a big smile and backed out of the shop again. Each time Sonny Karcher waved goodbye, he used a different motion with his hand. Sometimes he would look like he was twirling something on his finger. Sometimes it seemed like he was trying to get something sticky off of his fingers. Sometimes he just drew circles in the air with a couple of fingers. Other times he looked like he was giving an awkward kind of salute. Sonny made an art out of simple things like a wave goodbye.
That first summer it seemed like everyone was always munching on Sunflower seeds. There were bags of sunflower seeds everywhere you looked. Sonny already looked somewhat like a chipmunk with puffy round cheeks that formed from years of wearing a grin on his face. They were extra prominent when his cheeks were full of sunflower seeds. These were seeds still in their shells.
So, it was normal to see someone take a step back while standing around talking, turn their head and drop a few sunflower seed shells from their mouth into the floor drains that were spaced evenly across the maintenance shop floor. There came a time when those drains had to be cleaned out because it seemed that every drain was packed solid full of sunflower seed shells.
Sunflowers weren’t the only items found in the drains, since chewing (or dipping) tobacco (such as Skoal) was used by a lot of the men in the Power Plant.
Cleaning out a drain full of sunflower seeds, dipping tobacco and spit was a job that might cause a lot of people to gag, and I know I had to fight it back at the time. Most of the time I felt like I was having too much fun to get paid for working at the plant, but when it came time for cleaning out those drains, I felt like I was really working very hard for the $3.89 an hour that I was getting paid my first summer (1979) as a summer help.
But anyway, back to Sonny. I remember one evening when I came home after working with Sonny during the day, and we were sitting around the dinner table eating supper when my dad said something surprising. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember what my response was. It came out before I thought what I was saying, and I said it with the same surprised smile Sonny would have. I replied, “Well S–t the bed!” With a heavy emphasis on each word.
That was a common phrase that Sonny used, and it was his response to anything surprising. Needless to say, I don’t normally use four letter words that have to be edited out of a post. It was just the matter of fact way that Sonny would use that phrase that made it seem all right to say at the time. If I remember correctly, both my mom and my dad stared at me for a second in disbelief, then broke out laughing as they had never heard that particular phrase. It was kind of like hearing “…Bless his heart” for the first time when used following an obvious insult.
In the year 1990 the Power Plant had a program that they called, “We’ve Got the Power”. I will talk more about this in a later post, so I will just say that it was a program where we broke up into teams and tried to find ways to save the company money. But long before “We’ve Got the Power”, there was Sonny Karcher. He was often trying to figure out how we could make electricity cheaper, or even come up with other ways of making a profit.
One day Sonny asked me this, “Kev, your smart because you learn things from all those books at school so tell me this… someone said the other day that diamonds are made out of coal. Is that true?” I told him it was. Then he said, “Well, what if we had one of those big dirt movers full of coal drive over some coal a bunch of times, would we be able to make diamonds?”
I told him that wouldn’t work because it takes a lot more pressure to make a diamond. So, he asked me if it would work if we put some coal on the railroad track and we let an entire train full of coal run over it. Would it make a diamond then? I assured him that even that wouldn’t make a diamond. He accepted it and just said, “Well, it’s too bad since we have that big pile of coal there, we ought to be able to come up with some way of making them into diamonds.
Another time when we were cleaning out the fish baskets at the intake (a job as smelly as it sounds) next to the 4 big intake pumps. These are the pumps that pump around 189,000 gallons of water per minute each. Sonny told me how big those pumps were and how much water they pumped. Then he said, “You know, that entire boiler is there just to make steam to turn the turbine to make electricity. It seems to me that we could just take these four pumps and have them pump water through the turbine and have it turn the turbines, then we wouldn’t need those big boilers. Why don’t we do something like that?” I assured Sonny that we would never be able to make enough electricity to make up for the electricity it took to turn the pumps that were pumping the water. He shook his head and said that it just seemed to him that those pumps could turn that turbine pretty fast.
One day I watched as Sonny watched another Power Plant man walk into the shop with a new type of lunch box. It was an Igloo Little Playmate. Sonny made a comment about how neat this guy’s new lunch box was. It was a new design at the time.
Sonny immediately went out and bought one. The next week he came to work with his shiny new Little Playmate lunch box. I admit. I went and bought one myself a few weeks later. But this was the beginning of a trend that I noticed with Sonny. I began to notice that Sonny seemed to pick one item from each of the people he admired, and went and bought one for himself. Or he would pick up a phrase that someone else would say, and would start using that.
At first I thought it might just be a coincidence, so I started to test my hypothesis. When I would see something new that Sonny brought to work, I would look around to see who else had one of those, and sure enough. Someone close by would have one. Then I would hear Sonny talk a certain way. His accent would change and he would say something like he was imitating someone else, and usually I could tell right away who talked like that and knew that Sonny had borrowed that phrase from that person.
Some may think that this would be annoying, but I think with Sonny it was an act of endearment. It was his way of connecting with those people that he admired. Sonny had a small yellow orange Ford truck and I figured that someone else must have a truck like that, so I started looking all around for one like it. It took me a couple of weeks, but one morning while we were carpooling our way to the power plant, we came up behind the same kind of truck that Sonny had on its way to the plant. It was green instead of yellow, but it was undoubtedly the same model of truck. It was owned by Ken Reece, who was the manager over the tool room and warehouse.
Sonny imitated a voice that had me puzzled for a while. I had checked out all the Power Plant Men around trying to figure out who Sonny was imitating. Every once in a while Sonny would change his way of talking when he was making a point where he would let his lower lip come forward and work its way left and right as he talked, and he would close one eye more than the other and talk in a strange sort of a southern drawl. I just knew he was imitating someone because it was so different than just the regular Sonny.
Finally, one day when I was walking through the shop I heard someone in the welding area talking just like Sonny would talk when he used that voice. There was no mistake. That had to be the person. I could hear every inflection in his voice and it had to be the voice that Sonny was imitating because it had been much more honed and refined to give just the right effect. So, I changed the course I was travelling so that I could make my way around to the welders to see who it was that was talking like that.
There in the middle of the welding shop was a heavier set man standing in the middle of a group of welders telling a story. Everyone was listening to him quietly just as if it was story time at the library. So, I stopped and watched. This man wasn’t wearing an Electric Company hard hat. He was wearing a Brown and Root hard hat, which indicated that he worked for the construction company that was building the plant.
This guy was undoubtedly a master storyteller. When it came to the climactic part of the story, the bottom of his mouth would stick out with his lip moving left and right and left again, and one eye was partially closed to show the intensity of the situation and the drawl would intensify. Finally. I had found the man that Sonny Karcher had admired enough to take one of his favorite traits and connect it to himself. I could see why Sonny admired him so much. He had everyone within listening distance captivated by his story.
This Brown and Root hand soon became an employee of the Electric Company within a couple of weeks after I left at the end of the summer (on September 9, 1979). This heavier set person was still working at the plant when I first posted this story last year, but has since retired. He was one of this country’s leading Turbine mechanics and he can still tell a story like no one else. He is no longer as heavy. He is rather thin in comparison. He improved his health after realizing that if he really loved his family, he needed to take better care of himself.
I consider this True Power Plant Man, Ray Eberle, to be a dear friend of mine. I have never met anyone that looked more like my own grandfather than Ray. Not that he was that much older. No. He looked almost exactly like my grandfather looked when he was Ray’s age. There was no nicer man than my dad’s dad, and there is no nicer Power Plant Man than Ray Eberle.