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 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 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 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 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 are 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 another 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 is still working at the plant today and is one of this country’s leading Turbine mechanics and he can still tell a story like no one else. He is no longer heavy. He is rather thin. 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.