Original posted on January 28, 2012:
I vividly remember four events while working at the power plant where I was at the brink of death. I’m sure there were many other times, but these four have been etched in my memory almost 30 years later. Of those four memorable events, Curtis Love was by my side (so to speak) to share the wonder of two of those moments. This is a story about one of those times when you are too busy at the time to realize how close you came to catching that ride to the great power plant in the sky, until the middle of the night when you wake up in a cold sweat trying to catch your breath.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, safety is the number one priority at the power plant. But what is safe and what isn’t is relative. If you are the person that has to walk out onto a plank hanging out over the top ledge on the boiler in order to replace a section of boiler tube before the boiler has cooled down below 160 degrees, you might not think it is safe to do that with only an extra long lanyard tied to your waist and a sheer drop of 200 feet to the bottom ash hopper below (which I incidentally didn’t have to do as an electrician, but had to hear about after some other brave he-man had the privilege), you might not think that this is safe. But the Equipment Support Supervisor who has spent too many years as an engineer behind his desk doesn’t see anything wrong with this as long as you don’t fall. So, he tells you to do it, just don’t fall.
Safety is also relative to the date when something occurs. In 1994 OSHA implemented new rules for confined spaces. A confined space is any place that’s hard to enter and exit, or a place where you might be trapped in an enclosure because of converging walls. So, before 1994, there were no safety rules specific to confined spaces.
No rules meant that when I was on labor crew it was perfectly safe to crawl into a confined space and wind and twist your way around obstacles until the small oval door that you entered (18 inches by 12 inches) was only a distant memory as you are lying down in the bottom section of the sand filter tank with about 22 inches from the bottom of the section to the top requiring you to lie flat as you drag yourself around the support rods just less than 2 feet apart. Oh. and wearing a sandblast helmet…
and holding a sandblaster hose…
with a straight through Sandblast Nozzle….
Which means, the person sandblasting has no way of turning off the sand or the air on their own. If you wanted to turn off the sand, you had to bang the nozzle against the side of the tank and hope that the person outside monitoring the sandblaster was able to hear you above the roar of the Sandblaster and the Industrial Vacuum.
You also had a drop light that left you all tangled in wires and hoses that blew air on your face so that you could breathe and a 4 inch diameter vacuum hose that sucked the blasted sand and rust away, while the sandblaster blasts away the rust from all things metal less than a foot away from your face, because the air is so full of dust, that’s as far as you can see while holding the drop light with the other hand next to the sandblast hose. The air that blows through the sandblaster is hot, so you begin to sweat inside the heavy rain suit that you wear to protect the rest of you from sand that is ricocheting everywhere, but you don’t feel it as long as cool air is blowing on your face.
The week I spent lying flat trying to prop up my head while sandblasting the bottom section of both sand filter tanks gave me time to think about a lot of things…. which leads us to Curtis Love…. Not that it was Curtis Love that I was thinking about, but that he enters the story some time in the middle of this week. When I least expected it.
Curtis Love was a janitor at the plant when I first joined the Sanitation Engineering Team after my four summers of training as a “summer help”. Curtis was like my mother in some ways (and in other ways not – obviously). He was always looking for something to worry about.
For instance, one Monday morning while we were sitting in our Monday Morning Janitor safety meeting and Pat Braden had just finished reading the most recent safety pamphlet to us and we were silently pondering the proper way to set the outriggers on a P&H Crane, Jim Kanelakos said, “Hey Curtis. Don’t you have your mortgage at the Federal Bank in Ponca City?” Curtis said, “Yeah, why?” Jim continued, “Well I heard this morning on the news that the bank was foreclosing on all of their home mortgages.”
Curtis said that he hadn’t heard that, but that as soon as it was 9:00 am he would call the bank to find out what he needed to do so that he wouldn’t lose his house. About that time I gave a report on the number of fiddleback spiders I had killed in the main switchgear the previous week (See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“). It seemed like no one was listening to my statistics as Doris Voss was still pondering the P&H Crane hand signals, and Curtis was shuffling his feet in worry and Ronnie Banks was staring off into space, as if he was stunned that Monday was already here again, and Jim Kanelakos was snickering under his breath.
When the meeting was over and we were standing up, Jim told Curtis, “Hey Curtis. I was just kidding. The bank really isn’t foreclosing on their mortgages.” Curtis replied, “I don’t know. I better call them to check anyway.” Jim replied, “Curtis, I just made that up! I was playing a joke on you.” Curtis said, “I better check anyway, because it still is possible that they could be foreclosing on their mortgages”. So Jim just gave up trying to explain.
I know you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at me now, but there were only two of us at the plant that were small enough to crawl through the portal into the Sand Filter tanks (Ed Shiever and myself), because not only was it very tight, but the entry was so close to the edge of the building that you had to enter the hole by curving your body around the corner and into the tank.
I have tried to paint a of picture of the predicament a person is in when they are laying in this small space about 20 feet from the small portal that you have to crawl through. with their airline for the sandblast helmet, the sandblast hose, the drop light cord and the 4 inch vacuum hose all wound around the support rods that were not quite 2 feet apart in all directions. Because this is where I was when without my giving the signal (by banging the sandblast nozzle on the tank three times), the sand stopped flowing from the nozzle and only air was hissing loudly.
This meant one of two things. The sandblast machine had just run out of sand, or someone was shutting the sandblaster off because it was time for lunch. I figured it was time for lunch, because I didn’t think it had been more than 10 minutes since the sand had been refilled and amid the roaring blasts and the howling sucking vacuum hose, I thought I had caught the sound of a rumbling stomach from time to time.
The next thing that should happen after the sand has blown out of the sandblast hose, is that the air to the sandblaster should stop blowing. And it did…. but what wasn’t supposed to happen, that did, was that the air blowing through my sandblast hood allowing me to breathe in this sea of rusty dust shut off at the same time! While still pondering what was happening, I suddenly realized that without the air supply to my hood, not only could I not breathe at all, but my sweat-filled rain suit that I was wearing suddenly became unbearably hot and dust began pouring into my hood now that the positive pressure was gone.
I understood from these various signs of discomfort that I needed to head back to the exit as quickly as possible, as I was forced by the thick dust to hold my breath. I pulled my hood off of my head and everything went black. I had moved more than a foot away from the drop light. I knew that the exit was in the direction of my feet on the far side of the tank, so I swung around a row of support rods and dragged myself along by the rods as quickly as I could unable to see or take a breath. Working my way around the drop light cable, the air hose, the sandblast hose and the vacuum hose as I pulled myself along trying to make out where the exit could be. Luckily before I passed out from the lack of air, I had figured correctly and I found myself at the exit where in one motion I pulled myself out to fresh air and the blinding light of the day gasping for air.
Furious that someone had turned off my air, I ran out of the sand filter building to the sandblast machine where I found Curtis Love of all people. Up to this point, Curtis had never had the privilege to operate the sandblaster and was not aware of the proper sequence to shutting down the machine…. without shutting off the air to my hood. Incidentally, both the sandblaster and the air hose to the sandblast hood were being fed from the same regular plant air supply (which OSHA might have frowned upon back as far as 1983, and which caused you to blow black oily stuff out of your nose for a few days).
Needless to say, about the time that I came bolting out of the sand filter building Curtis had figured out that he had shut off the wrong valve. He was apologizing profusely in one long drawn out sentence….. “Kevin, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I’m sorry, I’m really sorry….” I stopped myself short as my hands were flying toward the area where his neck would have been, if Curtis had had a neck.
I looked over toward the crew cab parked nearby. It was full of hungry labor crew “he-men in training” all smiling and chuckling. At that moment I knew that both Curtis and I had been on the receiving end of what could be construed as a “power plant joke” (refer to the post about Gene Day to learn more about those: “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“). So, I spent the next 30 seconds as Curtis and I piled into the crew cab telling Curtis that is was all right, he didn’t have to feel bad about it. Evidently, someone had told Curtis how to shutdown the sandblaster, but failed to tell him exactly which valve to turn off when turning off the air to the sandblaster.
Needless to say. Lunch tasted extra good that day. Possibly the rusty dust added just the right amount of iron to my sandwich.
Originally Posted March 2, 2012:
The first day I showed up at the Power plant to report to work as a new employee, it took me a little while to find the parking lot where I was supposed to park. There were construction people all over the place, large equipment being moved, and I had somehow turned my directions around 90 degrees when I came through the construction gate.
I started heading up to the coal yard before I told myself that the little green shack I had past back by the main plant was probably where I needed to go (I never recovered from my perception of which way was north. I always felt like west was north, so I constantly had to stop and tell myself that the coal yard was north).
So, having arrived in the parking lot about five minutes late, I was just in time to meet Steve Higginbotham the only other summer help during the summer of 1979. Well, there was one other guy, but he quickly joined a Brown and Root construction crew because he was a welder and they were getting paid a lot more than the $3.89 per hour the summer helps were blessed to receive.
So Higginbotham and I walked together into the main office that morning. He was about 35 years old with red hair, freckles and sort of reminded you of Margaret Thatcher only shorter with a more prominent forehead and wider chin and he had a Georgia accent.
He had worked as a Pinkerton guard at the plant before advancing to summer help. He explained it to me like this: “If I get my foot in the door by being a summer help, they will be more likely to hire me as a permanent employee.” (somehow, I began to think that this probably wasn’t the best strategy for Steve to take. I thought perhaps a surprise attack would be more effective, where they don’t know you at all when they hire you).
The company hired summer helps because there was a tax write-off for hiring college kids during the summer to give them a real life experience (I guess). Steve explained to me later that he really wasn’t going to college, but told them that he was going to go back to school to finish a degree so that they would hire him, but he really wasn’t going to do that.
He drove an old Ford Ranchero (which is what inspired the El Camino). It was all beat up, and had the manual gear shift on the steering column, to give you an idea of how old it was. Below is a picture of one in good condition. His car however had dents, rust, and an assortment of trash in the back, and it squeaked when it hit a pothole as the car bounced on the springs.
I didn’t own a car and had just borrowed my family’s car to drive to the plant that day, so when Steve asked me if I would like to ride with him to work each day I jumped at the opportunity. I told him where I lived and he said that he would be by to pick me up in the morning.
I am the kind of person that likes to arrive at work at least 10 or 15 minutes early, so I was getting a little anxious the next morning when Steve didn’t show up. Finally, when I was about ready to ask my parents if I could borrow the car again, his beat up old car came puttering down the street… It turned out that Steve was the kind of person that likes to show up at least 5 minutes late each day…. Something I was going to have to get used to that summer. This is an important point in the story because those 5 minutes on one particular morning made all the difference in my outlook on what it meant to be working at a “Power” plant.
First, let me tell you a little more about Steve Higginbotham, just so you can appreciate his unusual character the way that I did. As an 18 year old summer help, not having had my encounter with Ramblin’ Ann until later, where I learned the fine art of rambling (see the post: “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was amazed by the way Steve Higginbotham could talk and chew gum or sunflower seeds at the same time — all the time — non-stop. His open mouth would move in a circular motion while chewing and talking.
From the time he picked me up in the morning to the 25 mile ride to the plant, and until I arrived home in the afternoon, Steve Higginbotham was talking about something to someone and chewing either sunflower seeds or gum the entire time. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had been learning something, but I can’t think of one thing that he told me that was useful all summer. I think I paid him $15.00 each week for the privilege. Gas at the time was around 89 cents a gallon.
Twice each week we would sweep the entire maintenance shop from one end to the other. I would start going down one half, Usually the north side that has all the machine shop equipment, and Steve would start down the south side where the welders were. Invariably, he would catch an unsuspecting welder off his guard and start talking to him, and before you knew it, I had finished my side of the shop and was starting back the other way up the other side, where I would meet up with Steve and a half-dazed welder somewhere around the Welder’s lunch table, which was about 50 feet from the spot where Steve had started (I would say the shop is about 75 yards long) I didn’t mind, because I liked working and it felt good to look around at the clean floor and see that I had done something noticeable.
I had worked in a Hilton Inn restaurant as the night janitor when I was in High School, and the kitchen was almost as long as the maintenance shop. I would spend six hours each night sweeping and mopping the kitchen, and vacuuming the restaurant and bar. So, I always enjoyed sweeping the floor.
Mondays and Fridays were days where we would go to the soon-to-be park and pick up trash. The rest of the time I was able to work with the maintenance crews. For more information about picking up trash at the park, read the post: “Mud, Maggots and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball“.
All the company employees at the power plant were fitted for a special set of earplugs that were made out of a Silly Putty looking material because there was going to be a “Boiler Blowdown” on Unit 1 (which was just finishing construction). I suppose that most people (except the old timers) at the plant today have not experienced a boiler blowdown like the one that is done on a new power plant, since a new base unit hadn’t been built in a long time.
We were told that when you hear the 2 minute warning make sure you put your earplugs in, because it is going to be real loud. We were reminded the day before to have our earplugs handy the following morning because that was when the blowdowns were going to start.
A boiler blowdown is when they run a big steam pipe right off of the high pressure section of the boiler and point it out off the side of the boiler and after they have built up the pressure as high as they can go without blowing the place apart, they flop open the valve and the steam is released quickly blowing out any unwanted material from the steam tubes, such as welding rods, tin cans, shoes, lunch boxes, a lost construction foreman, or anything else that was accidentally left in the steam pipes when they were assembled.
I remember someone saying that they had a come-along go flying out of one once during a blowdown. The first blowdown was the loudest, and then after that they were slightly less forceful each time.
The next morning on the way to the plant, I could see steam shooting out of the boiler from about 10 miles away. As we pulled into the parking lot, the steam was shooting out about 100 yards from the big pipe on the side of the boiler creating a very loud rumbling sound that made your body shake all over. This is exactly how I remember what happened next…..
I climbed out of the car and looked up at the large plume of steam shooting out of the boiler and I said to Steve, “Well, that’s pretty loud, but it’s not THAT loud!” Just at the exact moment that I finished that sentence, the ground started to shake, and my lunch box and hardhat went flying as my hands went to my head to cover my ears!
I hit the ground and rolled sideways to see that the plume of steam that had been blowing out of the boiler had grown into a huge white roaring dragon about 500 yards long as it reached directly over my head to the point where the condenser discharges water back into the lake behind me! The sound was so loud my whole body was shaking from the force, as we were directly in line with the steam pipe. It continued for about a minute or less and then abruptly shutdown back to the much smaller quieter plume of steam that had been there before.
I stood up, but my legs were all wobbly. I picked up my hard hat and lunch box and wobbled my way into the maintenance shop. My ears were ringing and I remember that I couldn’t hear very good and I was pretty upset about my possible loss of hearing.
Then I wondered to myself why I hadn’t heard the two minute warning, and in my muted state I looked around at the mechanics standing around and my eyes settled on one person who was chewing on sunflower seeds or gum, and was talking to someone, though I couldn’t hear his voice — and I knew why! I couldn’t hear the 2 minute warning because we were 5 minutes late getting to work! We were always 5 minutes late!
This bummed me out the rest of the day. As the day went by my hearing was returning, and by the time we were heading home, I could hear Higginbotham talking very clearly all the way to the house. Maybe this would have been a good time for the earplugs.
That night as I lay in bed, I could hear the boiler blowdown continuing 25 miles away every half hour or so. I thought about how much power it took to create that much force. It gave me a great respect for the power harnessed in the power plant and how it takes all that power and turns the majority of it into electricity to serve the state of Oklahoma.
Originally Posted on April 20, 2012. I added a couple of pictures including an Actual picture of Ed Shiever:
The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked is out in the country and it supplies its own drinkable water as well as the super clean water needed to generate steam to turn the turbine. One of the first steps to creating drinkable water was to filter it through a sand filter. The plant has two large sand filters to filter the water needed for plant operations.
These are the same tanks I was in when I was Sandblasting under the watchful eye of Curtis Love which was the topic of the post about “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“. Before I was able to sandblast the bottom section of the sand filter tank, Ed Shiever and I had to remove all the teflon filter nozzles from the two middle sections of each tank. Once sandblasted, the tank was painted, the nozzles were replaced and the sand filter was put back in operation.
Ed Shiever and I were the only two that were skinny enough and willing enough to crawl through the small entrance to the tanks. The doorway as I mentioned in an earlier post is a 12-inch by 18-inch oval. Just wide enough to get stuck. So, I had to watch what I ate for lunch otherwise I could picture myself getting stuck in the small portal just like Winnie the Pooh after he had eaten all of Rabbits honey.
Ed Shiever was a janitor at the time, and was being loaned to the labor crew to work with me in the sand filter tank. Ed was shorter than average and was a clean-cut respectable person that puts you in the mind of Audey Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II.
For those power plant men that know Ed Shiever, but haven’t ever put him and Audey Murphy together in their mind will be surprised and I’m sure agree with me that Ed Shiever looked strikingly similar to Audey Murphy at the time when we were in the sand filter tank (1983).
Before I explain what happened to Ed Shiever while we spent a couple of weeks holed up inside the sand filter tanks removing the hundreds of teflon nozzles and then replacing them, I first need to explain how I had come to this point in my life when Ed and I were in this echo chamber of a filter tank. This is where Ann Bell comes into the story. Or, as my friend Ben Cox and I referred to her as “Ramblin’ Ann”.
I met Ramblin’ Ann when I worked at The Bakery in Columbia Missouri while I was in my last year of college at the University of Missouri. I was hired to work nights so that I could handle the drunks that wandered in from nearby bars at 2 a.m.. Just up the street from The Bakery were two other Colleges, Columbia College and Stephen’s College which were primarily girls schools. Ramblin’ Ann attended Stephen’s College.
She had this uncanny knack of starting a sentence and never finishing it. I don’t mean that she would stop halfway through the sentence. No. When Ann began the first sentence, it was just molded into any following sentences as if she not only removed the periods but also the spaces between the words.
She spoke in a seemly exaggerated Kentucky accent (especially when she was talking about her accent, at which point her accent became even more pronounced). She was from a small town in Kentucky and during the summers she worked in Mammoth Cave as a tour guide (this is an important part of this story… believe it or not).
A normal conversation began like this: “Hello Ann, how is it going?” “WellHiKevin!Iamjustdoinggreat!IhadagooddayatschooltodayYouKnowWhatIMean? IwenttomyclassesandwhenIwenttomymailboxtopickupmymailIrealizedthatthistownisn’t likethesmalltownIcamefromin KentuckybecausehereIamjustboxnumber324 butinthetownwhereIcamefrom (breathe taken here) themailmanwouldstopbymyhousetogiveusthemailandwouldsay, “Hi Ann, how are you today?” YouKnowWhatImean? AndIwouldsay, “WellHiMisterPostmansirIamdoingjustgreattodayHowareYoudoing?”YouknowwhatImean? (sigh inserted here) SoItIsSureDifferentlivinginabigtownlikethisandwhenIthinkbackonmyclassesthatIhadtoday andIthinkabouthowmuchitisgoingtochangemylifeandallbecauseIamjustlearning somuchstuffthatIhaveneverlearnedbefore IknowthatwhenIamOlderandI’mthinkingbackonthisdayandhowmuchitmeanstome, IknowthatIamgoingtothinkthatthiswasareallygreatdayYouKnowWhatIMean?” (shrug added here)….
The conversation could continue on indefinitely. So, when my girlfriend who later became my wife came to visit from Seattle, I told her that she just had to go and see Ramblin’ Ann Bell, but that we had to tell her that we only have about 15 minutes, and then we have to go somewhere else because otherwise, we would be there all night nodding our heads every time we heard “…Know What I Mean?”
My roommate Barry Katz thought I was being inconsiderate one day when he walked in the room and I was sitting at the desk doing my homework and occasionally I would say, “Uh Huh” without looking up or stopping my work, so after sitting there watching me for a minute he asked me what I was doing and I told him I was talking to Ann Bell and I pointed to the phone receiver sitting on the desk.
I could hear the “You Know What I Mean”s coming out of the receiver and each time I would say, “Uh Huh”. So, when he told me that wasn’t nice, I picked up the receiver and I said to Ramblin’ Ann, “Hey Ann, Barry is here, would you like to talk to him?” and I handed it to him.
He sat down and asked Ann how she was doing…. 10 minutes or so and about 150 “Uh Huh”‘s later, Barry looked over at me and slowly started placing the receiver back on the desktop repeating “Uh Huh” every so many seconds.
Anyway. The reason I told you this story about Ramblin’ Ann was because after a while I began to imitate Ann. I would start ramblin’ about something, and it was almost as if I couldn’t stop.
If you have ever read the story about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll would transform into Mr. Hyde by drinking a potion. But eventually he started turning into Mr. Hyde randomly without having to drink the potion. Well, that is what had happened to me. In some situations, I would just start to ramble non-stop for as long as it takes to get it all out… Which Ed Shiever found out was a very long time.
You see, Ed Shiever and I worked in the Sand filter tanks for an entire week removing the nozzles and another week putting them back in. the entire time I was talking non-stop to him. while he just worked away saying the occasional “uh huh” whenever I said, “you know what I mean?”, though I didn’t say it as much as Ramblin’ Ann did. I could never match her prowess because my lung capacity just wasn’t as much.
Ed Shiever was a good sport though, and patiently tolerated me without asking to be dismissed back to be a janitor, or even to see the company Psychiatrist…. Well, we didn’t have a company psychiatrist at the time.
It wasn’t until a few years later when Ronald Reagan went to visit Mammoth Cave during the summer, that this event with Ed Shiever came back to me. You see… Ann Bell had been a tour guide at Mammoth Cave during the summer, and as far as I knew still was. My wife and I both realized what this could mean if Ronald Reagan toured Mammoth Cave with Ann Bell as his tour guide.
Thoughts about a Manchurian Candidate Conspiracy came to mind as we could imagine the voice of Ann Bell echoing through the cave as a very excited Ramblin’ Ann explained to Ronald Reagan how excited she was and how much this was going to mean to her in her life, and how she will think back on this time and remember how excited she was and how happy she will be to have those memories and how much she appreciated the opportunity to show Ronald Reagan around in Mammoth Cave… with all of this echoing and echoing and echoing….
We had watched this on the evening news and it was too late to call to warn the President of the United States not to go in the cave with Ann Bell, so we could only hope for the best. Unfortunately, Ronald’s memory seemed to be getting worse by the day after his tour of Mammoth Cave and started having a confused look on his face as if he was still trying to parse out the echoes that were still bouncing in his head.
Of course, my wife and I felt like we were the only two people in the entire country that knew the full potential of what had happened.
So this started me thinking… Poor Ed Shiever, one of the nicest people you could ever meet, had patiently listened to me rambling for two entire weeks in an echo chamber just like the President. I wondered how much impact that encounter had on his sanity. So, I went to Ed and I apologized to him one day for rambling so much while we were working in the Sand Filter tank, hoping that he would forgive me for messing up his future.
He said, “Sure, no problem.” Just like that. He was all right. He hadn’t lost his memory or become confused, or even taken up rambling himself. I breathed a sigh of relief. Ed Shiever had shown his true character under such harsh conditions and duress.
I’m just as sure today as I was then that if Ed Shiever had been with Audey Murphy on the battlefield many years earlier, Ed would have been standing right alongside him all the way across the enemy lines. In my book, Ed Shiever is one of the most decorated Power Plant Men still around at the Power Plant today.
I finally found an actual picture of Ed Shiever:
Originally posted July 27, 2012:
There were two distinct times in my life at the Power Plant Kingdom where I went Head-to-Head (or tête-à-tête as they say in France) with a horde of spiders. The second time I fought side-by-side with my trusty friend Scott Hubbard, that I knew wouldn’t desert me when things went from bad-to-worse (for some reason I find myself using a lot of hyphens-to-day). The first battle, however, I had to face alone, armed only with a push broom and a shovel.
It all started a few months after I became a janitor at the power plant (in 1982). I had received my Psychology degree at the University of Missouri and I was well on my way to becoming a certified “sanitation engineer” (as my Grandmother corrected me after I once told her I was a janitor).
It actually came in handy having a Psychology degree. Power Plant men would sometimes approach me when I was working by myself to stop and have a conversation that usually started like this: “So, someone told me you are a Psychiatrist.” I would correct them and tell them that I am a janitor and I only have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology which makes me a properly trained janitor able to sweep the floor in confidence knowing that “I’m OK, and You’re OK.” (which was a joke lost on everyone at the plant except for Jim Kanelakos, who was also a janitor with a Masters in Psychology).
Then they would usually want to talk about problems they were having. I would lean on my broom and listen. Nodding my head slightly to show I was listening. After a while the person would finish and thank me for listening and go on back to work.
The most important thing I learned while obtaining a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology was that Psychology is an art, not a science. Though certain scientific methods are used in many areas, especially in Behavioral Psychology. Being an art, means that the person must possess the talent for being a Psychologist. This is as important as being properly trained. So I never assumed the role of a real Psychologist, I rather tried my best to just be a friend. I found that worked well.
As I mentioned, James Kanelakos was also a janitor at the Power Plant. Which meant that between the 5 janitors and our leader Pat Braden, two of us not only had degrees, but both of them were in Psychology (with James having the Masters degree, and I as his pupil with the Bachelors).
Before I proceed with my battle with the spiders, I should mention a little about the dynamics of our Janitorial crew.
James Kanelakos was obviously Greek. With a name like Kanelakos, it was rather obvious. He looked the part also, with a graying moustache that made him look like a Greek sailor. He never was a “True Power Plant Man” and he would be glad to hear me say that. Instead he was a person that at the time acted as if he was biding his time at the plant waiting for something else to happen.
Though he never mentioned it, I know that he was also part Irish, and every now and then I would see the Irish come out. He was a family man, and in that sense he reminded me of my own father (who was also part Irish). He was only 35 years old at the time, but he acted as if he had lived longer. He smoked a pipe like my father did. As far as I know, he always remained married to his wife Sandy, and together they raised two children, a daughter and a son. That was where his heart really was.
He made no secret that his family came before anything else. Not that he would say it straight out to your face, but you could tell it in the way he interacted with others. Like I said, Jim was there “biding his time”, changing his career at a time when he needed something… else. Maybe to strengthen his priorities. He said once that he left the office to go work outside.
Then there was Doris Voss. She was an unlikely site to see in the Power Plant Palace (especially later when she became an operator). She was a “Church-going Fundamentalist” who made it clear to me that Catholics, such as myself, were doomed to hell for various reasons. I always enjoyed our… um… discussions.
I thought it was quite appropriate during Christmas when the janitors drew names from Jim’s Greek Sailor’s hat and I drew Doris’s name to give her a very nice leather-bound Catholic Version of the Family Bible. I later heard her talking to Curtis Love about it in the kitchen. He was telling her that she shouldn’t read it and she told him that it looked pretty much the same as hers and she didn’t see anything wrong with it. Needless-to-say, I was rarely condemned to a regular Catholic’s fate after that.
Curtis Love, as I explained in the post called “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“, was very gullible. It was easy to play a joke on Curtis. Too easy. He didn’t take them well, because he would rather believe what you were joking about before believing that you were joking at all. Because of this, it never occurred to me to play a joke on Curtis. Some how, though, it is hard to explain, Curtis reminded me of Tweedledee. Or was it Tweedledum?
Then there was Ronnie Banks. I talked about Ronnie Banks before in the post where Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost. He was like a likable young bear standing up on his hind legs. You could joke around with him and he was fun to be around. He acted like he enjoyed your company. Interestingly though, none of the people on our team would ever be classified as “True Power Plant Men”. We were more like an odd assortment of Misfits.
Pat Braden was our lead Janitor. He was by far the nicest person one could ever work for. He constantly had a smile on his face. He smiled when he talked, he smiled when he walked, and he especially smiled when he stood up from a chair and became dizzy from his blood pressure medicine. He had a daughter at home that he really loved. He reminded me of the goodhearted Red Skelton.
Now back to the Spider Wars and the bugs in the basement.
When I first became a janitor, I was assigned to clean the Control room and to sweep half of the turbine room floor and the Control room elevator landings and stairs. I always enjoyed being a janitor. I first became a janitor when I was 15 years old Sophomore in High School working the night shift (from 11pm to 6am) at a Hilton Inn in Columbia, Missouri.
To me it was a dream job. Sure, I couldn’t keep my own room cleaned, but put a push broom in my hand and pay me $2.50 an hour and I could clean all night. When I began as a janitor at the power plant, I was making $5.15 an hour. Double what I was making at the hotel cleaning the kitchen, the restaurant and the bar in the wee hours of the morning.
Anyway. I went to work cleaning the control room like there was no tomorrow. I would shampoo the carpet once each week. I would clean on the top and the back of the Alarm Panel. I know I made Ted Holdge (Supervisor of Operations) real nervous once when I laid a vacuum cleaner on the top of the Main Electric Panel (That’s what I call it. it was the Control panel where you synced up the unit when it was coming online) and I started vacuuming the top of it. He actually jumped out of his chair in the Shift Supervisor’s office and stood there and watched me closely. It obviously had never been cleaned before. I was trying to get rid of a strange odor in the control room that eventually, I found out was years of burned coffee in the coffee maker in the break room. I even had to scrub the walls in the kitchen to remove the odor from the entire control room.
Anyway. I was getting to know the Control Room operators, and I was thinking that maybe someday when I had progressed past janitor and labor crew that one day I may become an operator also.
One day Pat Braden came to me and told me that I was going to have to move down to be the janitor of the Electric Shop. There were many reasons. The first was that Curtis wanted to be an operator and he thought that if he worked around them that they would get to know him and would want him to join their ranks and he had more seniority than I did, so he had first pick. The second reason was that for some reason, since Curtis had been the janitor of the Electric Shop he had been bitten twice by a brown recluse spider, which had invaded the janitor closet downstairs. If he were to be bitten again, he might lose his job for being unsafe.
I didn’t mind. Cleaning the Electric shop meant that I also was able to clean the Engineers Shack and the Brown and Root Building next to it. I also decided that the main switchgear which was where the Janitor closet was located needed to be kept clean to cut down on the onslaught of the poisonous brown recluse spiders (which in Oklahoma is a regular house spider).
My first day as a Janitor in the Electric Shop as soon as I opened the door to the janitor closet, I could see why Curtis had been bitten by a Brown Recluse (not twice, but three times — the last time he didn’t tell Pat. He showed me, but just went straight to the doctor for the required shots to counteract the poison. Not wanting to lose his job). The janitor closet was full of them. They were all over the little 4 foot by 6 foot closet.
Thus began the first war on spiders at the coal fired power plant. The closet was also being used to store Freon and other air conditioning equipment used by Jim Stevenson the Air Conditioning expert in the Electric Shop. I decided then and there to move all the equipment out of the closet. The spiders were practicing “Duck and Cover” drills all over this equipment so it had to go.
My main weapon against the spiders were my boots. When I spied a spider, I stomped on it quickly. I asked Pat Braden to order a case of insecticide to help me combat the spiders. The next day he pulled a two-wheeler up to the closet with two cases and said, “Here is your order sir!” (picture Red Skelton saying that).
I had cleaned the shelves, the cabinet and the floor of the janitor closet, and there was no place for spiders to hide in there anymore. Each morning when I arrived, there was always more spiders there. 3 or 4 at least waiting for me in the closet. All Brown Recluse.
I surveyed the combat zone and realized that spiders were all over the main switchgear. So I decided I was going to sweep the switchgear regularly and kill every spider I saw to wipe them out for good.
So I laid down floor sweep (cedar chips with red oil) to keep the dust down, and began at one corner and worked my way across the switchgear sweeping and killing spiders. I kept a body count. I taped a paper in the janitor closet to keep track of my daily kill. My first day I killed over 200 spiders.
I thought surely in a short time, I will have wiped out the spider population. After sweeping the switchgear I laid down a blanket of Insecticide (equivalent to Agent Orange in Vietnam). If I could kill any bugs that are around, the spiders would leave. The insecticide didn’t kill the spiders. they would just duck under the switchgear and then come out an hour later to be standing where I left them before. So I kept stomping them out.
Every day, my body count was around 25 to 30 spiders and this number wasn’t going down. That was when I discovered the Cable Spreader room… I had been involved in mere child’s play before I walked down some steps at the tail end of the switchgear and opened one of the two doors at the bottom.
I cannot describe to you exactly what I saw, because nothing I say can put into words what was there. I guess the best thing I can say is: Armageddon.
There were two rooms. One on each side at the bottom of some concrete steps. They are called Cable Spreader rooms and are directly beneath the switchgear. One side was unit one, the other was unit two. They are large rooms with cable trays lining the walls and across the room at regular intervals. The floor was damp, and it was black, and it was alive. There was a small path through the room where the operator would pass through “the gauntlet” once each shift as they muttered prayers that they not be eaten alive by the black oozing mass of bugs spiders and an occasional snake.
The can of bug spray in my hand seemed completely useless. I knew what I had to do. These two rooms and the cable tunnels that ran from there underneath the T-G building were the source of my daily trouncing of the meager few spiders that decided to explore the world above to see what was happening in the switchgear. The real battle was down here in the trenches. Each room was full of tens of thousands of spiders.
I started with a large box of Plastic Contractor bags, a box of floor sweep, a shovel and a push broom. I attacked the room the same way I used to clean my own bedroom at home when I was growing up. I started in one corner and fanned out. Not letting anything past me. always keeping a clear supply line back to the steps that led up to freedom and fresh air up above.
At first I just took a large scoop shovel and scooped up the black mass of crawling and dead bugs and dumped them in a bag, until I had enough space to sweep the dust into a pile. Then I attacked it again. Occasionally a small snake would appear upset that I had invaded his space, and into the bag it would go. Everything went in the bags. The snakes, the bugs, the spiders and the grime. There was actually a constant battle taking place down there that I was interrupting. it was bug eat bug, spider eat bug and snake eat bugs and spiders wars. Everything went in the bags.
I carefully hauled the bags out to the dumpster and out they went. It took an entire day to clean one room. Then the next day when I went back I completely cleaned it again. This time paying more attention to making it livable. I wanted these two rooms to be so clean that people could go down into these cool damp rooms in the hot summer and have a picnic down there and feel safe. — No one ever did though, but such is the life of a cable spreader room. Years later Tom Gibson setup a sort of a greenhouse down there.
After that, each day I made my rounds of the switchgear, the cable spreader rooms and the cable tunnels killing any spider that showed it’s legs. After the main battle in the two rooms and tunnels was over of countless spiders and bugs, I recorded about 230 spiders the next day by making my rounds. The next day that dropped to around 150. then 80, then 50 and on down. Finally, when I was down to 3 or 4 spiders each day, I felt like the war was over and a weekly sweeping and daily walk-through would suffice to keep the switchgear safe. This left the small janitor closet virtually free of spiders from that point.
The interesting twist of the entire battle against the spiders was that the electricians had seen my skills at “Battle Sweeping” and some of them had become impressed. They told me that I didn’t have to sweep their shop and the main switchgear because they took turns doing it. I still felt that as the janitor, with my battle hardened push broom, by paying a little more attention to detail would do a slightly better job.
The electricians didn’t really volunteer to clean the shop. Whoever was the truck driver for that week was supposed to clean the shop at least one time during the week. At $5.15 an hour, I was more of a volunteer than someone that was hired to do this chore, and I enjoyed it. So, eventually, Charles Foster (An Electrical Foreman) popped the question to me one day…. He didn’t get down on one knee when he asked me, but either way, he asked me if I would think about becoming an Electrician.
That was something I hadn’t even considered until that moment. The Electricians to me were the elite squad of Power Plant Maintenance. Like the Results guys, but with a wider range of skills it seemed. But that is a story for another time.
Since I originally posted this, I have written the post about the second war with spiders with Scott Hubbard by my side. So, if this post wasn’t enough for you… read this one: “Power Plant Spider Wars II The Phantom Menace“. For a more tame story about spiders try this one: “Power Plant Spider in the Eye“.
Originally Posted on August 11, 2012. Added a picture of Larry Riley:
When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry. Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew. I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.
I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry. I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.
I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:
The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day. Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there. Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.
When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”. Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum. Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers. We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood. It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.
When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale. You could spend half of a life time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was. Each day brought something new. My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal. When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.
One day in the spring of 1983 while I was a janitor when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day. I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal. This day was different.
Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Biff Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.
I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time… The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.
Below the Economizer and above the air preheater in the diagram above.
“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was probably just some kind of filter or something…. I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.
As I mentioned before… there are places like: The Tripper Gallery. Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub. The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship. Travelling Water Screens. There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Emergency Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp). Anyway, I could go on and on.
Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back online in the evening. We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time because of the heat.
So, in I went. The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand. There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness. So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in. Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen. It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart. Something like this:
Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT. I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it. I was just wearing a tee shirt. I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 160 degrees. I was wearing my hard hat with a chin strap to keep it from blowing off because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.
The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us. At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap. I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.
Anyway, I threw the lanyard for my safety belt around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet. I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot. Breathing slowly gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.
This was a new adventure for me. There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time. I suppose you grow used to it after a while. Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce. The first time it just very painful. Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.
After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning. I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant. I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face. I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.
The other one was missing. I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter. No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust. Then I thought…. No. I know I had both filters when I went in the duct. I must have lost one while I was in there. Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.
Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator. I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon-based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).
Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight. I tried tightening them, but I couldn’t screw them tight. The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight. It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time. It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.
After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break. When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out every 10 minutes.
Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen. It is what it sounds like. It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger. I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.
I did beat that screen all day. When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:
I had worn the rubber off of the mallet. When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Biff said, “What is this?” I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning. He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy. I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.
A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew. Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him. The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross. He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.
During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen. He said he had never seen anything like that before. He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.
I felt the same way about Chuck. I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it. My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.
Of course I want to keep it. It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment. The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.
It also reminds me of other things. Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.
Questions from that day have always remained with me.
How much ash did I breathe in? I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me. What did it do to my lungs?
What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard? I know now what was below me then. I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets. It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.
What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?
I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men. I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant. All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close. The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”. That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important. It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.
Originally Posted on September 21, 2012:
Not long after I became a full time Power Plant employee after I had moved from being a janitor to the labor crew in 1983, I began carpooling with 3 other Power Plant employees. An Electrician, Bill Rivers. A Chemist, Yvonne Taylor, and one of the new members of the Testing team, Rich Litzer. With such a diverse group, you can only imagine the types of topics that were discussed driving to and from work each day.
Bill Rivers usually talked about different absurdities that he encountered during his day as an electrician. How one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing, leading sometimes to very funny results. Yvonne Taylor would talk about her farm and something called School Land Lease that she farmed, and how she had to deal with the bureaucracy and the constantly changing laws. Rich Litzer would discuss how their newly formed team were learning new things at the plant and often had funny things to say about his encounters during the day.
Me? Occasionally I would lift up my head from the book I was reading (if I wasn’t the driver), and ask, “Would anyone like to hear about the training that we received from Johnson & Johnson about how to properly wax a floor using their top of the line wax, ShowPlace?” that didn’t usually jump to the top of the list of most interesting stories.
We did use ShowPlace wax by Johnson and Johnson, and they did send a representative to our plant to teach us backward Oklahoma hick janitors how to properly care for our plain tile hallways and offices. Not the fancy tile like they have these days. If you are over 50 years old, then it is probably the same type of tile that you had on the floors of your school if you went to the standard brick public elementary school like the one I used to attend.
The office area floors were sure shiny after we applied a healthy dose of ShowPlace on them. The Johnson and Johnson rep. taught us how to properly buff the floor and showed us how a properly buffed floor that was really shiny was actually less slick than a badly waxed floor.
Anyway, I digress. Waxing floors is usually something that I tend to ramble about when I have an audience that shows interest in it (which I’m still trying to find). Since I can’t see your expression, I can only suspect that you would like to hear more about Power Plant floor waxing techniques, so I just might indulge you later on in this post after I have talked about the three other people in the car.
When it was my turn to drive to work, everyone had to climb into my 1982 Honda Civic:
Bill Rivers was about 10 years younger than my father and I know he had at least 6 children (I think). Maybe more. He told me once that even he lost count. Before he came to work at the Power Plant, he lived in Columbia, Missouri (while I had lived there, coincidentally), and worked at a Tool and Die manufacturing plant.
He worked so much overtime that one day he came home and sat down to eat dinner and sitting across from him at the table was a young boy that he didn’t recognize. He figured that he was a friend one of his own kids had invited to supper, so he asked him, “What’s your name?” Come to find out, it was one of his own children.
Bill had spent so little time at home that he didn’t even recognize his own child because his children were growing up and he was missing it. Mainly because he worked so much overtime. That was when Bill decided to move to Oklahoma and go to work at the power plant. Probably at the same time when I had moved to work there also, and was still going back to Columbia to finish college before becoming a full fledged bona-fide Power plant Janitor.
Bill Rivers always seemed to be having fun, and usually at the expense of someone else. He was constantly playing jokes on someone, and his most common target was Sonny Kendrick, the Electrical Specialist. Sonny was somewhat gullible, and so, Bill would weave some very complicated stories together to draw Sonny’s attention and string it along until Sonny was totally believing something preposterous.
Sonny wasn’t gullible like Curtis Love was gullible. Sonny knew that Bill Rivers was always trying to pull something over on him. So, Bill would just see how far along he could string Sonny until Sonny realized that everything Bill was saying was just made up in his head. — Then Bill Rivers would spend the rest of the week chuckling about it. Which usually aggravated Sonny to no end.
Sonny Kendrick was the only Electrical Specialist at the plant. I suppose he had some electronics training that allowed him to hold that honored position. His real name is Franklin Floyd Kendrick. I first met Sonny when I was the janitor for the Electric Shop.
People would call him “Baby Huey”. Since I didn’t know who Baby Huey was, I just figured that it was some character that reminded them of Sonny. So, when I had the opportunity, I looked up Baby Huey (this was a number of years before the Internet). I still wasn’t sure why, unless they were talking about a different Baby Huey:
Bill Rivers had a son that was in High School at the time, and he had the same Algebra teacher that my brother Greg had when he was trying to learn Algebra. The teacher had a real problem teaching algebra to high school students, and Bill asked me if I would tutor his son in Algebra.
When I first met Bill’s son, (I think his name was either Jerard or Bryan, I don’t remember now – well, that’s not too surprising considering even Bill Rivers forgot his name once), his life ambition was to graduate from High School and work as a mechanic in an auto garage and drive motorcycles. I tried to show him how interesting and fun Algebra and Math in general could be, so each time I went to meet with him, I would bring him either a math puzzle or a book with a story about a mathematician, or a neat Mathematical oddity… such as imaginary numbers, and things like that.
Later, long after Bill had moved to another Power Plant in Konawa, Oklahoma, I saw Bill, and he told me that he his son was working toward becoming a dentist. I don’t know if he was ever able to fulfill his dream, but when I visit Oklahoma, I keep my eye out for a guy on a motorcycle with a Dentist symbol on the back of his Harley Davidson jacket. Because that would probably be him.
Anyway, while the four of us were carpooling together, the person that did the most talking was Yvonne Taylor. Now, I like Yvonne Taylor. I liked her a lot. But she was the main reason why I was never able to practice my Ramblin’ Ann rambles (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space With a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“) because she was usually in the midst of exercising her right to ramble as well.
Since she was my elder, (almost my mother’s age), I always let her go first, which usually meant there wasn’t much of a chance for anyone to go second. I finally just decided this would be a great time to read. So I started reading books about different sorts of religions around the world. With the Bhagavad Gita being one of my favorite ones.
I always had a certain attraction to Yvonne, because she had a son named Kevin (which is my name), and a daughter named Kelley (My girlfirend’s name at the time was Kelly, now she is my wife). And her son and daughter were about the same age as my future wife and I were.
In the midst of rambles emanating from Yvonne, I would look up every time I would hear, “Kelley said this, or Kevin said that….” She did say one thing one time that I have always remembered and I have tried to follow. Yvonne said that you never want to buy a house that is West of the place where you work. Especially if it is any distance away.
I believe it was when she lived in Michigan, she had to drive a long way East every day, and the sun was glaring in her eyes all the way to work. Then when she had to drive home going West in the evening, the sun was glaring in her eyes as it was going down. So, when you live West of your workplace, you have to drive with the sun in your eyes every day, both ways, and you just pray and pray for rain or at least a cloudy day.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Yvonne’s husband, Pat, had a dad with last name Taylor (obviously), and his mom’s Maiden Name was Songer. My Grandmother’s last name is Taylor (by marriage), and my wife Kelly has a Grandmother who’s maiden name was Songer. So there was that as well.
Unfortunately for Yvonne, was that by the time we arrived at the plant in the morning, she was usually slightly hoarse. I don’t know if it was the morning air… or maybe… it could have possibly been the rambling…. So, when she would have to page someone on the PA system (The Gaitronics Gray Phone), she sounded a little bit like the wicked witch. Just like some clothes can cause someone to look fatter than other clothes, the Gray Phone system had a tendency to make one’s voice more “tinny” than it actually is. Especially if your voice is hoarse, and high pitched already.
So, whenever I heard Yvonne paging someone and I was in the Electric shop or with the janitor crew, I would say, “Yvonne just has the sexiest voice I’ve ever heard. I can’t hardly Stand it!!” Those who were hearing me for the first time would give me a look like I must be crazy. And Well… who knows for sure. I think the Electricians knew for sure.
Rich Litzer lived just up the street from me, so I would drive by his house and pick him up, or I would park my car at his house and we would take his car, and we would meet Bill Rivers and Yvonne Taylor at the local Bowling Alley, since it was on the main drag out of town on Washington Street in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Rich was a great guy to carpool with because he usually had a lighthearted story to tell about something that happened at home, or we would talk about something else equally not serious. Later he was relocated downtown in Corporate Headquarters, and I didn’t see him for a long time.
Then one day, Rich and Ron Madron came down to Austin, Texas (where I live now) after I had moved down to work for Dell, to go to a school or conference, and I was able to meet them for dinner. That was the last time I saw Rich or Ron, and that was about 9 or 10 years ago (now 16 years).
At this point I was going to rambl… I mean…. talk more about how we used to wax the floor when I was a janitor, however, I have decided to leave that for another post “Wax On, Wax Off and other Power Plant Janitorial Secrets“.
Today when I finally found out that the post I was going to write was about my carpooling with Bill Rivers, Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer, I went to the Internet and looked up the latest news on my old friends. To my surprise, I found that Yvonne’s husband Patrick, died on September 12, just 9 days ago.
I don’t think I ever met Patrick in person, however, I used to hear about his daily activities for the 2 1/2 years from October 1982 through December 1985 when I used to carpool with Yvonne. Learning about Patrick’s death has saddened me because I know how much Yvonne loved and cared for Patrick. I know she has four sons and two daughters that are there to comfort her. I offer Yvonne my condolences and I wish her all the best.
Comment from Previous Post:
Originally Posted October 5, 2012:
The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked first as a summer help, then as a janitor, a labor crew hand and finally as an Electrician is located about 20 miles north of Stillwater, Oklahoma. It just so happened that Oklahoma State University in Stillwater has one of the leading Fire Protection and Safety schools in the country. They offer Fire Service Training for companies who need to train their employees how to fight fires. As a summer help I was fortunate enough to take the onsite training that they provided at the power plant about every other summer to train the employees how to put out difficult fires.
It does sound like a good idea considering that there was all this coal laying around that had the habit of spontaneously igniting into smouldering embers that could easily lead to a large raging ball of flames. In fact, the Coal Yard heavy equipment operators had to drive their large dirt movers over and over the coal on the coal pile to pack it down because if it was exposed to too much air, it would develop hot spots that would turn into smoldering piles of coal that were nearly impossible to put out.
I have seen a spot smoldering on the coal pile where a water wagon would drench it with water over and over. That only seemed to keep it from spreading as fast. The only way to deal with it was to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn itself out.
You would think that the OSU Fire Training Service would do a good job of teaching the employees the proper use of the fire extinguishers, and they did. The plant was loaded with Fire Extinguishers. As a summer help and labor crew hand, we would have to do a monthly inspection of all the plant extinguishers to check their pressures and initial the inspection sticker showing that we had been by to check it. This was a practice that would later change to once each quarter when the Power Plant Men were strung out too thin and the labor crew no longer existed. Even later, the operators inspected them as they made their rounds, since they walked by them during their shifts anyway.
The plant had more than just the regular chemical fire extinguishers, it had the larger roll-around type in a few places as well:
The Fire Training Service trained us to use this as well. Actually, they motivated us to go out and buy fire extinguishers to put in our own homes. Which came in handy for me one year when an air condition repairman was using a blow torch in my house to cut out the cooling coils but forgot to take out the filter first.
The moment I saw him light up his torch, I pulled out the extinguisher from under the sink and set it on the counter. As I watched him, he suddenly started jerking back and forth. I figured something was up, so I pulled the pin, and when he was finally able to pull the burning filter out of the air duct, I was ready to blast it with the extinguisher. So, I gratefully thank the electric company for properly training us to use the handy dandy fire extinguishers that you might use around the house.
One important thing that you learn about the little extinguishers in your house is that they don’t really go very far before they run out of chemicals. So, you have to get the job done quickly while the fire is still small and manageable.
When I first heard that we were going to be trained to fight fires the second summer I was at the plant as a summer help, I was pretty excited. Wow… Great!!! Fight Fires! That sounds fun. A day of watching safety videos and playing with fire extinguishers. I didn’t realize at the time that there was a reason why OSU Fire Training Service was the best fire training school in the radius of about 1,000 miles.
Sure. We watched the training videos. We learned all about proper fire extinguisher care and maintenance. We heard stories about how small fires turned into raging infernos that burned companies right out of business. One thing I remember is that some large percentage of companies that have a major fire are never able to recover to the point that they go completely out of business.
If you need the exact percentage, I suggest you call up the OSU School of Fire Protection and Safety. They probably have the latest statistic printed on their school lunch napkins, because these guys eat, drink and sleep fire safety.
Then, after they had impressed us with their Fire Safety Prowess, they said, “Let’s take about a 15 minute break, and we will meet outside just north of the water treatment plant where we will resume your lessons. Oh, and bring your rubber boots and maybe a rain suit.” Rain Suit? What? It’s about 100 degrees outside. “I wouldn’t mind getting a little wet”, I thought to myself. — The simpleminded summer help that I was at the time.
I would describe in detail to you how they had this obstacle course of staircases and pipes and other metal structures all sitting in a big tray. It’s enough to say that it was quite a tangled mess of a contraption.
“Interesting.” I thought… Are we going to climb the staircase and shoot the fire from up above with our handy dandy fire extinguishers which were lined up in a row off to one side? Climbing over pipes to fight a fire under the stairs maybe… Do we get to use the big roll around fire extinguisher that was there too? This looks like it might be fun.
That was when the fun began. One of the trainers turned a valve, and then I noticed that there was a fairly large tank there also that was hooked up to the pipes that wound around the mocked up structure of a stairway and other obstacles in the large tray. As he turned the valve, what looked like diesel or kerosene like petroleum product came spraying out of various holes in the piping spraying everything in the tray drenching it with fuel.
This other guy had a long rod that he had lit like a large lighter only it was giant size, and after the fuel had been spraying out for a while, he lowered the flame down into the tray that now was beginning to fill up with some kind of oily substance. He lit it and the flames quickly spread over the entire structure. He had us go in groups of 4 people with fire extinguishers to try to put out the fire. As their extinguishers ran out of fuel, others waiting behind would take their place trying to put out the fire.
We would chase the fire around the structure trying to put it out, but it wasn’t as easy as you would think. If you didn’t completely suffocate it by hitting it from many different directions and in a pattern from one end to the other just right, the fire would dodge around the spray from the extinguishers to be right back where you started. By the time we had used up all the extinguishers, we may have put the fire out about 3 times.
Rubber boots… I kept thinking…. my feet are getting hot… You couldn’t hardly get close enough to the fire to use your fire extinguisher without getting your eyebrows singed. I was always known for having long eyelashes, and I thought I could hear them sizzle as they brushed against my safety glasses.
That’s when they pulled the fire hose out of the fire box that was there next to the fire hydrant. All over the plant grounds there were these red boxes. They are lined up alongside the long conveyor belt from the coal yard to the plant (about 1/2 mile). They were also lined up around the two silver painted million gallon number 2 Diesel tanks. They were just about everywhere you looked (come to think of it).
I remember Summer Goebel when she was a new plant engineer one time asked me when she had first arrived, “What are all those red boxes out there?” (she was pointing out the window of the Engineer’s office). I told her they each contained fire hose and a valve wrench to open up the fire hydrant. I neglected to add that they also provided great shade for all the Jack and Jill rabbits that inhabited the plant grounds, which doubled as a wild life preserve.
So, we were going to use the fire hose! That sounded like more fun. That is until the one guy said to the other guy (more using hand and face signals — like putting his thumb up and winking) “open ‘er up” — so, he was using “slang” hand and face signals…
That’s when the real training began. First of all, we all backed up because as the flames grew on their structure, the heat literally talked directly to your legs and magically told them…. “back up, or else…” so, now that we were standing a good 50 feet away from the fire, we lined up in a row on the fire hose.
4 of us. Four hefty Brawny Power Plant men… (well, 3 hefty brawny power plant men, and one scrawny little runt of a summer help who actually thought he could be measured alongside them), Isn’t that a bit much for this one 4 inch fire hose? (or was it just 3 inches?). There were two hoses actually being used. One to create a wide barrier of water to protect us from the heat, and another hose to shoot water through the barrier into the fire.
A couple of guys manned the large roll around fire extinguisher. Here is an actual picture of the OSU Training Service training a group of employees at a work site to fight fires to give you a picture of what we faced:
Notice the two different types of sprays in the picture. one very wide spray and a narrow spray.
Like I said, these guys aren’t called the best Fire Trainers because they have pretty pamphlets. so, the first time I slipped in the mud, I thought… hmm… I suppose the rainsuit would have kept all that mud from coming into contact with my jeans, and my shirt and my ego.
Well, the most fascinating thing was that we could walk up real close to this intense fire and the wide spray of water sheltered us from the heat.
Then with the large fire extinguisher on wheels, you could open it up on the fire by standing behind this barrier and shoot the chemicals right through the water onto the fire, and it would quickly and incredibly put out that tremendous fire when it was done right. The other fire hose that was spraying through the barrier of water was used to cool everything down so that the fire didn’t spring right back up. the water wasn’t going to put out an oil fire.
Anyway, not long after our first of many fire fighting training sessions that we had throughout the years, the night that we were actually fighting the dragon in the boiler (See the Post, “Where do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today“), the Control Room came over the gray phone (PA system) saying that there was a fire on the turbine room floor.
A bunch of power plant he-men dropped the lance they were using to pierce the dragon and ran off to fight the fire. It turned out to be a barrel full of oily rags that had spontaneously combusted. The fire refused to go out for a long time. It kept re-igniting until the contents had completely burned up.
I remained in the bottom ash area as I was still reeling from the steaming hot water that had been spewed all over me. A little while later the men were back ready to grab the lance and go back to work on the boiler around 10pm (this after a full day of coal cleanup from 8am that morning).
The one important topic that they ingrained into our minds while we were taking the training was that you have to know when the fire is too big to fight. We had learned what our equipment could do and what it couldn’t do. So, we had the knowledge to realize that if the fire is too big, then it is time to get out of there and call the professionals. The only problem was that the nearest professionals were about 20 minutes away. A lot can burn down in that amount of time…. but that is a story for another time. I see the grin on the power plant men’s faces. They know what I am talking about.
Comments from Previous Repost:
Orignally Posted on October 12, 2012:
Two years before the movie Karate Kid came out at the movies in 1984, I had learned the secret of “Wax On, Wax Off”. One that made a significant difference to my Power Plant Janitorial Powers!
My Janitorial Master was Pat Braden. He is the same age as my father. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Pat Braden reminded me of a rounder version of Red Skelton:
Pat was one of the kindest people you would ever meet. He was the head janitor when I became a janitor at the Coal-Fired Power Plant. I had worked with him off and on during the 4 summers when I had worked as a summer help. So I was glad to actually be on his crew as one of the team.
When we had a big waxing job to do, we would schedule a weekend to come in and do it. That way we could wax an entire area without interruption. We could strip off the old wax with the stripping chemicals, then neutralize it, then add the sealer, and finally end up with waxing the floors with the best wax we could buy. As I mentioned in the post “How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic“, we used Johnson Wax’s best wax: Showplace.
We had been “certified” by Johnson and Johnson to wax floors properly. This included the proper buffing techniques once the wax had been applied and had properly dried. A properly waxed and buffed floor is shiny but not a slippery floor.
We decided to spend one weekend waxing the Engineering shack. It was a tin building like a Metal Butler Building that the inspectors from Corporate Headquarters would use when they had projects at the plant. In 1982, that was pretty well all of the time, as John Blake and Gene Titus were permanent residents of the Engineers Shack.
The floor in this building had a regular tile floor like you would see in an office building in the 1960’s. Just the plain square tiles. It looked like it had never been waxed before, and was probably built on the plant grounds long before the power plant existed. The floor had been worn out by the traffic over the years. This was one building that I was expected to keep swept and mopped as part of my daily janitorial responsibilities.
Our Janitor crew consisted of Pat Braden, Doris Voss, James Kanelakos, Ronnie Banks and Curtis Love (and myself of course). We had decided a couple of days before that for lunch we would eat baked onions. “Ok”, I thought. I knew we didn’t get paid much as janitors and we had to be frugal, but I didn’t really think that we were so bad off that we had to resort to eating onions for lunch. But since no one really asked me for my vote (which would have been to bring in some pizza from Ponca City), we were having baked onions for lunch.
We spent the morning removing all the furniture from the building, and then stripping the floor (even though it looked like it had never been waxed before). Then we mopped it a couple of times. By that time it was lunch time, and we headed up to the plant break room where Doris was just finishing up baking our um…. er….. onions. Yeah.. Baked Onions….
It turned out that these were Purple Onions. The ends had been cut off of them and butter and salt and pepper had been put on each end as they were wrapped up in tinfoil like a baked potato, and then baked in the oven just as if they were baked potatoes.
Well. I was never one to complain about food, and I was determined not to show my lack of enthusiasm at the thought of eating an onion for lunch, so I sat down and put on my eager hungry expression as I waited for our (uh) feast. — Well. The joke was on me. As I began to eat the baked onion, I realized right away that it didn’t taste like any onion I had ever eaten. It was kind of sweet and…. well…. it was rather tasty! Power Plant Culture never ceases to amaze me.
Anyway, after I had eaten my share of onions, we were ready to go back to work waxing the engineers shack. We spent the rest of the day doing that (and burping onions) and when we had decided that the wax had dried enough, we carefully brought the furniture back in and put everything back in order.
So, why am I boring you with all this detail about waxing the floor in a metal building that doesn’t even exist today? Well. I have told you now about the “Wax On” part. Now comes the “Wax Off” part. The second part of my training to becoming a Jedi Janitor (hmm… snuck in a Star Wars reference I see).
Here is what happened the next Monday when I wheeled the buffing machine out of the janitor closet in the Engineer’s shack. Gene Titus (who always reminded me of Jerry Reed):
and John Blake, both were very pleased with their new shiny floor. They looked like they were anxious to show it off to someone… anyone that would come by. I was about to really impress them (I thought) with my fine buffing skills that was “really” going to make their floor shine. So, they watched closely as I attached the red buffing pad on the bottom of the buffer:
I began at the far end of the room from the doors and began buffing…. The first thing I noticed was that the buffer was literally removing the wax from the floor. Yep. It was taking it right off. Wax On…. Wax Off….. I realized that for all our stripping and neutralizing, we hadn’t taken into account the years of dirt and grime that was embedded in the tiles.
Normally John Blake was a likable sensible person. I had carpooled with him for two summers when I was a summer help. But when he saw me removing the wax from the floor he had a very concerned expression, and well, I perceived that a sort of extreme hatred was rising up in his demeanor…. I was glad that John was a quiet mild-mannered sort of person, otherwise, I think he would have walloped me one for ruining the floor that he was so proud of minutes before.
I began thinking to myself what I should do. After all. The floor really did need buffing, and buffing the floor was removing the wax. So as the buffer moved back and forth erasing the shine and bringing back the dull tiles, I thought as hard as I could muster my brain what I should do next….
I figured I would go ahead and buff the entire main room, as if I knew exactly what I was doing, not looking concerned. I don’t know if the confidence that I exhibited while removing the wax relaxed John just enough so that he could leave the building and continue his job, or if he actually stormed out in distress hoping to drown his sorrows in his morning cup of coffee…
When I finished the room with the red pad… I did what I would have done if the wax had buffed up correctly and had actually still existed on the floor…. I put the white pad on the buffer. I thought in my mind that the floor was probably so infiltrated with dust that we hadn’t done a proper job (if it was even possible) to clean the floor before applying the wax on Saturday.
So I thought I would try something that they hadn’t taught us in waxing class… I took a spray bottle and filled it with wax mixed with some water. Then I started in the same corner where I had begun removing the pride and glory of John Blake’s newly waxed dreams. I sprayed some wax and buffed it into the floor. As I guided the buffer back and forth with one hand, I sprayed the floor with the other. To my surprise, not only did it start to leave a shiny polished floor, but it left a polish that was much more clear than before. One that was almost like a mirror.
As I buffed the room from one end to the next, the entire room became brighter as the lights from the ceiling reflected from the hard polished wax. I was nearly finished with the room when John walked back in. He was immediately stunned by the brightly polished floor.
I could see his uncharacteristic desire to kill me melt away and his pleasure with his new Shangri-La abode become immediately evident. John Blake from that moment on viewed me with the respect that most Power Plant janitors normally deserve.
I was so impressed with how well the floor looked when I was done, that I went to the Brown and Root building next door and did the same thing there.
I began to wonder what other uses I could make out of this discovery… Spraying wax on the floor and buffing it right in. It finally occurred to me that the floor cleaning machine that I used to clean the Turbine room floor might benefit by adding some wax to the mixture. It had the same type of red buffer pads on it.
So, after I had scrubbed the Turbine Generator floor using the regular detergent. I cleaned out the scrubber and put just water in there and about 1/2 gallon of wax. Then I went to try out my experiment. Sure enough…. The bright red Turbine Room floor began to glow. The bright lights overhead were clearly reflected off the floor. This was very successful.
So, my next test was to sweep off the turbine-Generators themselves with a red dust mop. Then spray watered down Johnson Wax directly on the dust mop and mop away on the turbine generators:
The Turbine Generators took on the same polished shine.
I distinctly remember one Power Plant Operator that gave me a very nice complement one day for keeping the T-G floor so nicely polished. His name was Michael Hurst. He was a True Power Plant Operator.
As a lowly janitor in a plant of heroes, I found that I was treated with the same respect as everyone else. I would never forget that complement from him because I could see his earnest sincerity.
A few years ago on December 19, 2008 Michael Hurst died in Oklahoma City. What was said about Michael after his death was this: “He had a great sense of humor and a big heart… Many have been blessed with his generosity and his genuine love for people.”
I can include myself in this statement. I know that everyone shown in the picture above from Joe Gallahar (on the left) to Doris Voss (in the middle) to Pat Quiring (on the right) would agree with that testament about Michael.
There was another sentence after this one that stands on it’s own. One that is a sign of a True Power Plant Man. It was also said of Michael Hurst: “Above all else, the most important thing to him was his family.” Though I don’t have a picture of Michael’s immediately family. I believe that I have included a picture above of at least some of his extended family.