Tag Archives: Jim Heflin

Harmonizing with Dick Dale on Power Plant Christmas Harmonicas

Originally posted December 20, 2013.  Added additional news about Richard at the bottom of the post:

I think it was while we were sitting in the lunch room eating lunch while I was still a janitor when the subject of harmonicas came up.  Dick Dale must have asked me if I played a musical instrument, because that was my usual reply,  “I play the harmonica… and the Jew’s Harp.”  Just about everyone knows what a Harmonica looks like.  I suppose most people in Oklahoma knows what a Jew’s Harp is.  It’s that instrument you put in your mouth and you flip the little lever and it makes a vibrating twanging sound.

A Jew's Harp

A Jew’s Harp

Dick Dale, worked in the warehouse, and we had been friends since my second year as a summer help.  He told me that he always wanted to learn to play the harmonica.  I told him I learned by just playing around on it.  I never took lessons or used a harmonica book or anything.

When I was growing up, my dad knew how to play the harmonica, so we had one laying around the house all the time.  So, one day when I was a kid, I picked it up and started playing with it.  It took about five minutes before my older sister ran to my mom and complained about me making a racket.  My mom told me to take it outside.  So, I not only learned the harmonica by playing around with it,  I was usually sitting alone in the woods while I was  learning it.  I have found that under these conditions, there is usually some basic part of the skill that is left out.  So, I knew that my harmonica playing was never really up to snuff.

In the spring of 1983, I joined the labor crew, and I no longer ate lunch in the break room.  I kept it in mind that Dick Dale wanted to learn to play the harmonica, so some time during the summer, I purchased a Hohner Marine Band Harmonica for him, and I began creating a song book with the songs that I knew how to play.  I made up my own notation.  The holes in the harmonica were numbered, so I wrote the numbers of the holes I would blow in, and put an arrow above the number pointing up or down to indicate whether I was blowing in the hole, or sucking the air through the hole.

A Hohner Marine Band Harmonica

A Hohner Marine Band Harmonica

During the summer I talked to Dick Dale a few times, and he was having trouble with his family.  He was getting a divorce from his wife of fifteen years.  He was pretty upset about that, because all along he thought he was happily married.  This turned out not to be the case.  In the process, Dick moved from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Ponca City.  I was living in Stillwater at the time.

When winter came around, my friend Tim Flowers, who was a summer help for two summers at the plant, including the summer I was on the labor crew, came to visit me in Stillwater.  I had bought a harmonica for him for Christmas, and I told him I wanted to go visit Dick Dale in Ponca City and take him his Harmonica for Christmas, along with the booklet I had handwritten (as we didn’t have computers back in those days….).

So, I called up Dick to make sure it would be all right if we dropped by for a little while.  He was at home in his new house, and said he would be delighted if we came by.  Dick knew Tim Flowers from the time he had been a summer help.  While Tim and I were carpooling, Dick would be carpooling with Mike Gibbs, and sometimes on the way home, we would play car tag going down the highway.

One day after a Men’s Club dinner at the plant, while we were leaving, I was in the front of the line of cars heading for the main gate.  In those days, there weren’t two separate gates (one for entering, and one for exiting).  So, the one gate had to open almost all the way up before the person exiting could go through the gate.

When I pulled up to the gate, I pulled up on the entrance side, and Dick and Mike pulled up on the exit side.  We had been racing with each other up to the main gate….  Dick was revving up the engine of his pickup truck which could easily outrun my little blue 1982 Honda Civic.  I had to be more cunning to stay in front of Richard (yeah.  I liked to call him Richard).

1982_Honda_Civic

A 1982 Honda Civic

As the gate opened, I was on the side where I could go through the gate first.  The way it worked was that as soon as I crossed the threshold of the gate, the gate would stop opening.  then, as I went through it, I drove over to the exit side and ran over the closed loop of the gate, so that the gate closed again leaving Richard and Mike waiting behind the closed gate as we made our escape.

Of course, as soon as we were out on the main highway, it didn’t take long for Richard to make up the mile lead I had gained while he had to wait for the gate to close and re-open.  So, the only way I could prevent him from passing me was by weaving over in the passing lane when he attempted to pass me, and then back again, when he returned to the right lane.

Eventually he was able to go around me, but from that day forward, whenever we were travelling home at the end of the day, and we were following each other, we would both meander back and forth across the highway on the way home…. when it was safe of course.  Since we were out in the country, on a seldom traveled rode, that was usually not a problem.  This came to an end when Richard moved to Ponca City.

When Tim Flowers and I arrived at Richard’s house in Ponca City that Christmas holiday, we surprised him when we handed him his very own harmonica with the booklet that I had written.  He invited us inside and we sat for a while as I explained to him how the booklet worked.  He said he appreciated it, and that he would work on learning how to play his harmonica so that we could play together.

We sat around and made terrible music together for a while.  Then, because I didn’t want to impose on Richard too much, we left to go back to Stillwater.  A couple of weeks later after the holiday, Richard said he had been practicing on the harmonica and he really appreciated the Christmas present.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but two and a half years later I was going to move to Ponca City after I was married, and my wife graduated from nursing school.  That was when Dick Dale, Jim Heflin, Bud Schoonover and I began carpooling together (See the post:  Carpooling with Bud Schoonover).  At the time Dick said that he had hoped to get over the tragedy of his marriage by the end of the year.  He had heard that it took a year to get over 5 years.  Since he had been married for 15 years, he figured by the end of 3 years he should be feeling like he was over it.

The only other person at the plant that I can remember that ever heard me playing the harmonica was Arthur Hammond.  He asked me one day in 1986 if I would bring my harmonica to work so that he could hear me play it.  So, I did, and while we were driving down to the Arkansas River to check batteries, I played some “harmonica blues” for him.  It was just stuff I was making up.

I had seen this movie called “Crossroads” with Ralph Macchio.  In the movie Ralph’s character is trying to learn how to play the Blues guitar from an old and once famous blues musician.  There are two things you learn as the movie unfolds.  The first is that in order to really know how to play the blues, you had to have experienced a real “Blue” time in your life.  So you had to play with the feeling that you had experienced.  The second thing was that Ralph had to play his guitar against a contract guitar player chosen by the devil in order to save the old man’s soul.

Crossroads (1986)

Crossroads (1986)

So, what was I supposed to do?  I had been blessed most of my life.  I hadn’t really experienced any “real” blues.  As Art was driving the pickup truck down to the river, I tried to dream up the bluest thoughts I could.  I thought…. what if the world ran out of chocolate…..  That would ruin everybody’s mood.  I piped out a few sorrowful sounding notes on the harmonica to try and portray my disappointment living without chocolate….. that sounded kind of lame.

Then I thought, wasn’t I upset that one time when I was a summer help and I stayed over to help feed the foremen that were having a dinner in the break room and Pat Braden and I fed the foremen, and no one offered me any food, so I had to go hungry for a couple of hours before I could go home and eat some leftovers at home.  I think I felt kind of blue that day…..  so I cupped my hand over the harmonica, tilted my head to the side and tried to remember that painful time as I shook my hand up and down so that the harmonica would make the sad “whaaa whaa” sound.

I drummed up a few more sad thoughts, and I thought I was really floundering as my debut as a blues harmonica player, so I paused for a few minutes to try and make myself feel bad about doing such a poor job playing the harmonica hoping that it would help.  Then Art said, “Hey.  You are pretty good!”  “What?”  I thought, “Oh… That’s Art, trying to be polite.”  “Thank you,” I said.  Boy.  How pitiful is that?  Surely I should feel bad enough now to play some blues at least a little better….

Anyway, a mile or two later, I decided to give it up.  I put the harmonica back in my pocket and told Art that was all I could do for now.  Finally.  We had some peace and quiet the rest of the way to the river.  I remembered that my sister would always run screaming to my mom when I was younger and blew a few notes on the harmonica, and here Art patiently listened and even complimented my playing.  Gee.  What a true friend he was.

Later, Dick Dale remarried, and as far as I could tell, he was a much happier person a few years after that.  I did what I could to help him.  Though, I think at times I confused him a little.  I will relay a story about that in a few weeks.

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

Richard Dale died at the age of 64 on Christmas Day, 2008.  He can now be heard in concert in Heaven playing the mouth organ.  Since I don’t play the regular harp, I hope one day to stand alongside him playing the Jew’s Harp.  Richard’s Mother Maurine Dale joined him in Heaven last month (November, 2015) at the age of 98.

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Dynamic Power Plant Trio — And Then There Was One

I began writing this Power Plant blog on January 1, 2012.  The reason I did was because the first Power Plant Man I had met at the plant my first day on the job was Sonny Karcher and he had recently died.  I had always led Sonny to believe that someday I would be a writer and I would write stories about the Power Plant Men.

When Sonny died on November 11, 2011, and Saint Peter gladly welcomed him through the Pearly Gates (as they needed someone special to mow the grass on the green pastures), Sonny realized that I had never really intended to set the wonderful stories of great heroes of Power Plant Fame down on paper.

Sonny being Sonny, made sure to send messengers (of sorts) to me reminding me of the commitment I had made to him many years earlier (in 1979) to spread the Wisdom of Power Plant Men to the rest of the world.  What could I say?  I had told him when he asked if I was going to write about the Power Plant Men that “maybe…. I hadn’t thought about it…”  I knew that was just as good as a commitment to Sonny.

My very first Power Plant Post was about Sonny and how that first day on the job as a summer help opened up a whole new world to me full of wonders that some take for granted in the Power Plant Kingdom (see the Post “In Memory of Sonny Karcher – Power Plant Man“).

During the very first job I ever did with Sonny and Larry Riley, I went to the tool room to obtain a list of tools that to me sounded like the first of many Power Plant Man jokes that were to be played on me… As it turned out… there really was a tool called a “Come-along” and a soft choker and 3/4 box ends (who would’ve thunk it?).

When I went to the tool room to ask for these tools, as I walked up to the entrance I came face-to-face with a tall bear of a man.  He had a grin on his face as he stood there at the gate to the tool room.  I would say he was a big man… bigger than Daniel Boone, who was also said to have been a big man (according to the song about him).

Bud Schoonover was his name.  When I asked him for the tools waiting for the joke to begin, he handed me each tool one-by-one as I asked for them.  As I left the gate carrying a load of tools in my arm I said, “Thanks Bud.”  He grinned back at me as if he knew…..  I wasn’t sure exactly what he knew, but he looked at me as if he did anyway.

That first encounter with Bud may have seemed relatively insignificant, but I have always remembered that moment as it is etched firmly in my mind.  I didn’t know it at the time that over the years Bud and I were going to become great friends.

I suppose that some day when I’m old (oh!  I’m almost there now!), and I can’t remember what stories I have already told to my grandchildren, if I ever have any, or to the person standing behind me in the line at the grocery store, I will tell them over and over again about the first time I ever met Bud Schoonover.  I will tell them that story as an introduction to all the other stories about Bud that I love to tell.

In past Power Plant Posts about Bud Schoonover, I have often said that there was something about Bud that reminded me of Aunt Esther on the TV Show, Sanford and Son, only a lot bigger, whiter and more male.

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

The reason was  that Aunt Ester had the same squint as Bud, and she would protrude her chin out the same way as Bud when he was telling you something important.

Tonight when I was eating dinner with my parents at the Olive Garden in Round Rock Texas, I asked them “Do you remember Bud Schoonover?”  My dad immediately said, “Yeah!  I remember Bud Schoonover!”  Not that he had ever met Bud in person…  He had only heard about him off and on for the last 36 years.  Everyone in my family knew Bud Schoonover.

Tonight I told my parents that Bud Schoonover died the Wednesday before last on May 27 (2015).  They were surprised to hear that.  My mom said, “How old was he?” (a common question asked by older people… I have found).

I had always talked about Bud as he was when I knew him, which made him seem timelessly younger.  I told them he was 76.  “Oh.  He was young” answered my 80 year old dad.  “Yeah Dad… He was.”  I responded.

I have written many posts where I talked about Bud Schoonover these past 3 1/2 years.  A couple were pretty much solely dedicated to spreading Bud’s special Wisdom about the rest of the world… as Sonny Karcher insists to this day…  My first post about Bud is called “Carpooling with Bud Schoonover“.  This is one of the first posts I wrote after talking about Sonny Karcher and Larry Riley, as Bud Schoonover has always been one of my favorite Power Plant Men of all time.

Last September I wrote a post called “Elvin Power Plant Tool Room Adventures With Bud“.  This post relays a number of my favorite stories about Bud.  The most endearing story is the one where Bud would never let you check out a tool or supply if it was the last one left.  It would crack me up the entire day when I would go to the tool room to get some supply only to have Bud tell me that he couldn’t let me have it because he only had one left.

As a new 18 year old summer help in 1979, Bud Schoonover offered me some advice that I decided to take.  As I was sweeping the floor of the Maintenance Shop near the tool room one day, Bud waved me over, and he said, “Let me tell you something.”  “What is it?” I asked.   He said, “Maybe it’s not such a good idea to wear a shirt that says ‘Kiss Me I’m Left Handed’ at a plant that’s just about made up of all guys (my sister had bought that shirt for me).  I decided that maybe he was right about that.  I couldn’t get away with it the way that Betty White (I think that was her name), another warehouse worker could when she wore the shirt that said, “Eat Your Heart Out! I’m married!”  That was Bud… looking out for me right from the start.

I mentioned earlier that Bud and I were destined to become good friends, and we did just that.  For three years from May 1986 to May 1989 we carpooled together with Dick Dale and Jim Heflin.  The Carpooling adventures came from the 750 round trips Bud Schoonover, Jim and Richard and I took to and from the Power Plant each morning.

Each day carpooling with Bud was special to me.  Three years may not seem like a long time in a person’s life, but we actually drove together around 750 days in those three years.  Each day.  Four larger men all crammed into one car.  My poor Honda Civic could hardly move when the four of us were in the car.  My gas mileage went from 40 miles per gallon down to 30 with all of us in the car.  — It’s true.  A 1982 Honda Civic 1300 would go 40 miles on a gallon of gas!

A 1982 Honda Civic

A 1982 Honda Civic

750 days of talking to Bud Schoonover, Dick Dale and Jim Heflin (well, Jim left after two years to try his luck somewhere else). Bud, Jim, Richard (I always liked calling Dick Dale, “Richard” though everyone else called him Dick) were the Dynamic Trio.  The three of them were the best of friends.  Each day as they drove to work I felt like I was a fifth (or a fourth) wheel invited to a family get together.  You couldn’t find three brothers closer than Bud Schoonover, Dick Dale and Jim Heflin.  They had carpooled together before I showed up in 1986.

I rarely think of any of these three men without thinking about the other two.  I picture them together all climbing out of my Honda Civic in the parking lot at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma after we had driven the 20 miles from Ponca City to the plant all crammed in my car.  It always reminded me of one of those circus cars that pulls into the tent during the show and a bunch of people come pouring out and you wonder how did all those big guys fit in that little car.

Clown Car found on Google Images

Clown Car found on Google Images

Last year I wrote a post about Dick Dale (see the post “Dick Dale and the Power Plant Printer Romance“).  that post begins with this sentence…. “When I first moved to Ponca City I carpooled to the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma with Dick Dale, Jim Heflin and Bud Schoonover.”  I wonder how many times my parents and my children (and my coworkers) have heard me begin a story with that sentence….

My daughter thought for many years that the one year in 1993 at the Christmas Party in Ponca City when Bud Schoonover dressed up as Santa Claus, that this Santa was the real one!  She told me on the way back home to Stillwater that she could look in Santa’s (Bud’s) eyes and tell that this Santa was the “Real Santa Claus!”  She was always so happy to have actually met the real one when everyone else just met Mall Santas.

In actuality, Bud was so shy when the children came up to sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas that he could only smile and look down at them with tears welling up in his eyes.  I remember when he looked over at me standing by as he was listening to my daughter.  He had nothing but love in his eyes.

In the story about the Printer Romance I mentioned that Dick Dale died on Christmas Day in the year 2008.

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

Now I am writing a post about the second person of the Dynamic Trio that has finally found their peace and are once again joined together as family.  Richard and Bud I know you are together again.  I know because today the two of you asked me to look for Jim Heflin, the third brother in your Power Plant Family.

So, before I sat down to write this post this evening, I opened Facebook at Bud’s and Richard’s urging and searched for Jim Heflin.  I don’t know how many there were, but there were a lot of Jim Heflins.  I didn’t know what Jim would look like since I hadn’t seen him for the past 27 years.  After scrolling down a few pages of Jim Heflins, one person caught my eye….  Could this be Jim?

One way to find out…. I looked at Jim’s friends, and sure enough….. There was Brenda (Bulldog) Heflin.  This was my long lost friend.  The last of the Dynamic Trio.  Still alive and still with the same eyes…..

You see… over the past years, I have written stories about Jim Heflin too…. See the post “Power Plant Adventures with Jim Heflin”  I have described Jim as giving you the impression of a friendly Hound Dog….

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

Well, here is the Facebook picture of the Jim Heflin I found tonight.  I know it’s him.  He has the same eyes that used to roll around when he would walk up to me to pat me on the back and tell me some words of wisdom….

 

Jim Heflin

Jim Heflin

I have missed my friend Jim Heflin, along with Bud and Richard until today.  Now I feel like I have them back again.

Why did Richard and Bud want me to find Jim?   They wanted me to tell Jim that they are back together again after all these years.  I think they also wanted me to reach out to Jim for another reason as well…. Well… I’ll see about that…. How about it Jim?

I sent Jim a Friend request.  That sounds real funny to me.  To send a “Friend Request” to someone that I have held close to my heart since the first day I met him in May 1980.

Maybe some day Jim and I will be up there with Richard and Bud and we can go for a ride together….. I can see us now all crammed in that Fiery Chariot.  Bud telling us about the weather report…. “Sunny”… of course….  Jim staring out the window up at the sun trying to pull up a sneeze (as Jim would sneeze in sunlight some times)… Richard and I rolling our eyes at each other as the Chariot comes to a halt in the middle of the stars because some school bus full of little angels has stopped and put out the Stop Sign three clouds over…. — Sonny Karcher, out in the Green Pastures on his tractor mowing the grass smiling at me for finally writing these stories…

From now on, I will keep to the straight and narrow so that one day I can be up there with my friends.  All the True Power Plant Men that have gone before me.  For now, I will just remember them….

Let me just end by saying, “Way to go Bud!  I Love You Man!”

Bud Schoonover

My friend forever – Bud Schoonover

A Day in the Life of Power Plant Man and the Sign Hangin’ Chain Gang

Originally Posted July 21, 2012:

No one knows more about having to put up with the antics of Summer Help than the Power Plant Man Jim Heflin.  Though Jim wasn’t completely a True Power Plant Man, he was nevertheless certified as a Bonafide Caretaker of Summer Help Helpers.

I understood after a couple of years of being a Summer Help myself that the reason that Summer Help were called by that name was because they really did indeed need help.  Though some may think that this help could best be found in the company of a licensed Therapist, most of the time what they really needed was a good dose of Summer Help chores to keep them out of trouble and to teach them the fine art of labor in its most tedious and repetitious form.

Though I’m not sure, it could have been Jim Heflin that talked Stanley Elmore into allowing the summer help to attach the signs to the barbed wire fence that surrounded the Electric Company property that enclosed the Power Plant itself as well as the lake that was built to be used as cooling water in the condenser.  I say that because it didn’t seem like it was a long time after I had answered the phone one day in the garage and I found Jim Heflin’s wife on the other end of the line calling to talk to Jim, that we were assigned to the task of installing the signs.

Jim wasn’t in the shop at the time so she told me to tell Jim that his wife Brenda had called.

It just so happened that my girlfriend at the time (who I later married and lived happily ever after) and I had a joke character that we would talk about named “Brenda Bulldog”.  It is a long story to tell about Brenda Bulldog, so I’ll just say that it has to do with “Otto” in the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip, and his girlfriend “Polly Bulldog” who is always suspicious of another bulldog named “Brenda Bulldog”.  I’m sure that you all have the same sort of characters that you talk about in your family… um… don’t you?

Otto from the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip

So, obviously, when she told me that her name was Brenda, I just had to respond as Otto would respond.  So I said in a gruff but excited voice (rolling the “R” in the word Brenda in my throat), “Brenda Bulldog?!?”  Jim’s Wife responded by asking what I had said, so I responded back exactly as I had the first time, “Brenda Bulldog?!?”

I guess she misunderstood my intentions because she sounded obviously disgruntled as she explained to me in no uncertain terms that she was not a bulldog.  I answered back by insisting that this was, “Brenda Bulldog!” She repeated again that she was not a bulldog and told me to just tell Jim to call her at home when he returned to the garage.

When Jim came back from the Maintenance Shop I told him that his wife had called, and I added, “By the way.  I called her “Brenda Bulldog”.  I explained to him that I just couldn’t help it when I heard her name was Brenda, I just had to say “Brenda Bulldog”.  I couldn’t help it.  It just came out.  He looked a little mystified by my explanation and quickly went into the office to call home.

I guess in hindsight, after having met Brenda in person it probably wasn’t a good idea to have called her “Brenda Bulldog”.  First of all, not only did Jim Heflin have the face that reminded you of a likable Basset hound, but Brenda really did kind of remind you of a bulldog (a slight underbite).  If I had known that earlier, I am sure I would have insisted that she was Brenda Poodle.  That would be the most logical response given the circumstance.

Kind of like this

A couple of days later a pickup truck was backed up to the garage and in the back were bundles of thin metal signs.  Each sign was about the size of a piece of paper.  the sign was white and had red lettering.  There were two different signs.  One that indicated that this was the Property of the Electric company and that a person should only enter at designated areas.  The other had a set of warnings or rules, which I can’t remember anymore.

There were 4,500 of each type of sign.  It was our job to take the signs and to bolt them together with small nuts and bolts that were supplied in buckets.  As we bolted them together we placed them in boxes and put them in the back of the truck, where we went around the fence line surrounding the lake and the plant and every third section of fence (about 30 feet) we would mount the sign onto the barbed wire fence.  It would take about 4,500 of each of the signs to completely cover the perimeter of the property.

In the back of my mind I could hear Jim Heflin say to Stanley Elmore after he hung up the call with his wife, “Stanley.  Wouldn’t it be a good chore for the summer help to hang all those signs around the 25 mile perimeter of the electric company property?”  And Stanley replying, “Jim!  That’s a brilliant idea!”

So began the long trek of hanging signs.  We had a small blue Mitsubishi Tractor that we used to travel around the fence line in areas where the truck couldn’t easily go.

A tractor just like this

It had a small trailer on the back of it that we would pile a bunch of sign assemblies (the two signs bolted together).  Then we would walk or ride behind the tractor as we went from fence post to fence post mounting the signs evenly between the posts every third section.

This was a brilliant way to teach the young and inexperienced summer help the art of patience as well as the art of subservience.  This way, later in life when the summer help became a Power Plant Man-in-Training, or even a mechanic or electrician and was asked to do something that may seem boring to the average citizen, all the summer help had to do was remember the time they had to hang 4,500 signs on barbed wire fences and even the most boring tasks seemed like an exciting ride on a roller coaster in comparison.

For those power plant men who knew me as a janitor, now maybe they can understand how I could find so much enjoyment sweeping the turbine room floor (about the size of a football field) over and over with a red dust mop.

Like this only with a mop handle

Anyway, during our time while traversing the wilds along the fence line, it gave the summer help time to think.  I was working with a good friend of mine by the name of Tim Flowers.  We had become friends while I had attended Oklahoma University in Norman my first year in college (before going to Missouri University in Columbia for my last 3 years).  So, my fourth year as a summer help, Tim came to work alongside me.

Jim Heflin and Ken Conrad (as well as Opal Ward — or was it Opal Brien at the time) used to take turns shuffling us around the fence line.  When we were with Jim Heflin we would spend our time in the intellectual pursuit of inventing new “Burning Cat” jokes.

This was a skill I had picked up from my father who was a Veterinary Professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.  He had come home one day from work with the latest copy of a Veterinary journal.  In the journal was a set of “Burning Cat” jokes that he read to me.  I’m sure you must already know them.

There were jokes like, “Why did the Burning Cat cross the road?” “So that it could burn on the other side.”  Or “Knock, Knock”  “Who’s there?”  “Burning”, “Burning who?”  “Burning Cat.”  Or “What did one burning cat say to the other burning cat when he met him in a bar?”  “That’s silly.  Everyone knows that a burning cat can’t talk when they’re on fire.”

We made it a goal to come up with at least one new burning cat joke every day.  This came in handy later on when I was in my last year in college and I became known as the “Burning Cat Man” in Columbia, Missouri as I would tell burning cat jokes to the workers at the Subway every time my friend Ben Cox and I would go there to eat a sub sandwich.  I would be introduced as “The Burning Cat Man” when customers would come in while we were there.

When we were with Ken Conrad we would think about more esoteric subjects like, “What does a cow think about while it is chewing it’s cud?”

Hmmm…. What does he think about?

We would go on and on speculating “Maybe the cow is meditating about the full meaning of life and whether or not the self is the center of his being or is it somewhere else, or is it just that he’s thinking that his ear itches and he can’t reach it with his tail.  He can only twitch it”

We would think about these things as we would be passing some cows standing opposite across the fence.   We would wonder if they stood around trying to think up jokes that would entertain themselves since they had to stand out in the hot sun all day.  Maybe they thought about burning cats, or even chickens crossing the road.

At first we couldn’t tell if Ken was even listening to us until one time, the tractor started to swerve a bit and he pulled it to a stop so that he could turn around and tell us that we were the strangest bunch of kids he had ever run across.  But I could tell that we had started him thinking about it.  I’m pretty sure that it was on his mind for quite a while.  “What is that cow thinking about?”

Every once in a while I knew that Ken Conrad had gained some enlightenment because he would suddenly turn to me and say, “Hey Sweet Pea!”  And then he would grin real big.  Yep.  He knew.  The meaning of life was within his grasp.

Anyway, long story short, before all the signs were hung by the barbed wire with care (as if it was Christmas in July), I went up to the main office and asked Eldon Waugh if I could talk to him.  He was the plant manager.  The one I often have referred to as the “Evil Plant Manager”.  Mostly because I think he would have liked that title.  He worked so hard to obtain it.

I asked him if he had an opening at the plant because I would like to go to work there permanently.  He said there was a janitor position opening up and if it was all right with Ken Scott he would hire me.  So he paged Ken and asked him to come up to his office.

When he arrived, Eldon asked Ken if he thought they ought to hire me because I wanted to work at the plant full time.  Ken said that he would be happy to hire me on as a janitor.

I don’t know if Ken realized at the time how much trouble I would cause in the years that followed, because I always had come across as a fairly decent person up to that point.  I don’t know if he ever regretted his decision.  I’m pretty sure that Eldon did and I know that Bill Moler regretted it when he returned from his summer vacation to find me standing in the janitor closet across from his office.

He was none too happy about it.  Especially since he considered it his job to do the hiring for people in the maintenance shop.  Bill knew that I had already expressed my willingness to open my mouth and reveal my innermost thoughts right to someone’s face at the most inappropriate moments.  I used to explain that I took after my Italian Mother who always spoke twice before thinking.

That was how I was able to escape the sign hangin’ chain gang and became the Janitor that I was always meant to be!  Years later the words had worn off of the signs, but the white signs were still hanging from those barbed wire fences for as long as I can remember.  Now that I think about it, I wonder what Jim Heflin was thinking when I became a janitor and he still had to tote babbling summer helps around the wilderness in the hot sun with an endless supply of Burning Cat Jokes.

Was he wishing that he had thought twice before he spoke about having us hang the signs?  Or maybe he didn’t and I just imagined that he was slightly upset all because I had said those two impulsive words….. “Brenda Bulldog!”

Jim Heflin

Jim Heflin

 

Comment from previous Repost

  1. Ron   July 24, 2013:

    Good Story!
    I still remember my first job as a “Summer Student” at the Mustang Plant (1967). Ben Snow and I worked from the top of the turbine room crane and changed out all the burned-out light bulbs (1,000 watt incandescent). Boy – that was one HOT job!

Harmonizing with Dick Dale on Power Plant Christmas Harmonicas

Originally posted December 20, 2013.  Added additional news about Richard at the bottom of the post:

I think it was while we were sitting in the lunch room eating lunch while I was still a janitor when the subject of harmonicas came up.  Dick Dale must have asked me if I played a musical instrument, because that was my usual reply,  “I play the harmonica… and the Jew’s Harp.”  Just about everyone knows what a Harmonica looks like.  I suppose most people in Oklahoma knows what a Jew’s Harp is.  It’s that instrument you put in your mouth and you flip the little lever and it makes a vibrating twanging sound.

A Jew's Harp

A Jew’s Harp

Dick Dale, worked in the warehouse, and we had been friends since my second year as a summer help.  He told me that he always wanted to learn to play the harmonica.  I told him I learned by just playing around on it.  I never took lessons or used a harmonica book or anything.

When I was growing up, my dad knew how to play the harmonica, so we had one laying around the house all the time.  So, one day I as a kid, I picked it up and started playing with it.  It took about five minutes before my older sister ran to my mom and complained about me making a racket.  My mom told me to take it outside.  So, I not only learned the harmonica by playing around with it,  I was usually sitting alone in the woods while I was  learning it.  I have found that under these conditions, there is usually some basic part of the skill that is left out.  So, I knew that my harmonica playing was never really up to snuff.

In the spring of 1983, I joined the labor crew, and I no longer ate lunch in the break room.  I kept it in mind that Dick Dale wanted to learn to play the harmonica, so some time during the summer, I purchased a Hohner Marine Band Harmonica for him, and I began creating a song book with the songs that I knew how to play.  I made up my own notation.  The holes in the harmonica were numbered, so I wrote the numbers of the holes I would blow in, and put an arrow above the number pointing up or down to indicate whether I was blowing in the hole, or sucking the air through the hole.

A Hohner Marine Band Harmonica

A Hohner Marine Band Harmonica

During the summer I talked to Dick Dale a few times, and he was having trouble with his family.  He was getting a divorce from his wife of fifteen years.  He was pretty upset about that, because all along he thought he was happily married.  This turned out not to be the case.  In the process, Dick moved from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Ponca City.  I was living in Stillwater at the time.

When winter came around, my friend Tim Flowers, who was a summer help for two summers at the plant, including the summer I was on the labor crew, came to visit me in Stillwater.  I had bought a harmonica for him for Christmas, and I told him I wanted to go visit Dick Dale in Ponca City and take him his Harmonica for Christmas, along with the booklet I had handwritten (as we didn’t have computers back in those days….).

So, I called up Dick to make sure it would be all right if we dropped by for a little while.  He was at home in his new house, and said he would be delighted if we came by.  Dick knew Tim Flowers from the time he had been a summer help.  While Tim and I were carpooling, Dick would be carpooling with Mike Gibbs, and sometimes on the way home, we would play car tag going down the highway.

One day after a Men’s Club dinner at the plant, while we were leaving, I was in the front of the line of cars heading for the main gate.  In those days, there weren’t two separate gates (one for entering, and one for exiting).  So, the one gate had to open almost all the way up before the person exiting could go through the gate.

When I pulled up to the gate, I pulled up on the entrance side, and Dick and Mike pulled up on the exit side.  We had been racing with each other up to the main gate….  Dick was revving up the engine of his pickup truck which could easily outrun my little blue 1982 Honda Civic.  I had to be more cunning to stay in front of Richard (yeah.  I liked to call him Richard).

1982_Honda_Civic

A 1982 Honda Civic

As the gate opened, I was on the side where I could go through the gate first.  The way it worked was that as soon as I crossed the threshold of the gate, the gate would stop opening.  then, as I went through it, I drove over to the exit side and ran over the closed loop of the gate, so that the gate closed again leaving Richard and Mike waiting behind the closed gate as we made our escape.

Of course, as soon as we were out on the main highway, it didn’t take long for Richard to make up the mile lead I had gained while he had to wait for the gate to close and re-open.  So, the only way I could prevent him from passing me was by weaving over in the passing lane when he attempted to pass me, and then back again, when he returned to the right lane.

Eventually he was able to go around me, but from that day forward, whenever we were travelling home at the end of the day, and we were following each other, we would both meander back and forth across the highway on the way home…. when it was safe of course.  Since we were out in the country, on a seldom traveled rode, that was usually not a problem.  This came to an end when Richard moved to Ponca City.

When Tim Flowers and I arrived at Richard’s house in Ponca City that Christmas holiday, we surprised him when we handed him his very own harmonica with the booklet that I had written.  He invited us inside and we sat for a while as I explained to him  how the booklet worked.  He said he appreciated it, and that he would work on learning how to play his harmonica so that we could play together.

We sat around and made terrible music together for a while.  Then, because I didn’t want to impose on Richard too much, we left to go back to Stillwater.  A couple of weeks later after the holiday, Richard said he had been practicing on the harmonica and he really appreciated the Christmas present.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but two and a half years later, I moved to Ponca City after I was married, and my wife graduated from nursing school.  That was when Dick Dale, Jim Heflin, Bud Schoonover and I began carpooling together (See the post:  Carpooling with Bud Schoonover).  At the time Dick said that he had hoped to get over the tragedy of his marriage by the end of the year.  He had heard that it took a year to get over 5 years.  Since he had been married for 15 years, he figured by the end of 3 years he should be feeling like he was over it.

The only other person at the plant that I can remember that ever heard me playing the harmonica was Arthur Hammond.  He asked me one day in 1986 if I would bring my harmonica to work so that he could hear me play it.  So, I did, and while we were driving down to the Arkansas River to check batteries, I played some “harmonica blues” for him.  It was just stuff I was making up.

I had seen this movie called “Crossroads” with Ralph Macchio.  In the movie Ralph’s character is trying to learn how to play the Blues guitar from an old and once famous blues musician.  There are two things you learn as the movie unfolds.  The first is that in order to really know how to play the blues, you had to have experienced a real “Blue” time in your life.  So you had to play with the feeling that you had experienced.  The second thing was that Ralph had to play his guitar against a contract guitar player chosen by the devil in order to save the old man’s soul.

Crossroads (1986)

Crossroads (1986)

So, what was I supposed to do?  I had been blessed most of my life.  I hadn’t really experienced any “real” blues.  As Art was driving the pickup truck down to the river, I tried to dream up the bluest thoughts I could.  I thought…. what if the world ran out of chocolate…..  That would ruin everybody’s mood.  I piped out a few sorrowful sounding notes on the harmonica to try and portray my disappointment living without chocolate….. that sounded kind of lame.

Then I thought, wasn’t I upset that one time when I was a summer help and I stayed over to help feed the foremen that were having a dinner in the break room and Pat Braden and I fed the foremen, and no one offered me any food, so I had to go hungry for a couple of hours before I could go home and eat some leftovers at home.  I think I felt kind of blue that day…..  so I cupped my hand over the harmonica, tilted my head to the side and tried to remember that painful time as I shook my hand up and down so that the harmonica would make the sad “whaaa whaa” sound.

I drummed up a few more sad thoughts, and I thought I was really floundering as my debut as a blues harmonica player, so I paused for a few minutes to try and make myself feel bad about doing such a poor job playing the harmonica hoping that it would help.  Then Art said, “Hey.  You are pretty good!”  “What?”  I thought, “Oh… That’s Art, trying to be polite.”  “Thank you,” I said.  Boy.  How pitiful is that?  Surely I should feel bad enough now to play some blues at least a little better….

Anyway, a mile or two later, I decided to give it up.  I put the harmonica back in my pocket and told Art that was all I could do for now.  Finally.  We had some peace and quiet the rest of the way to the river.  I remembered that my sister would always run screaming to my mom when I was younger and blew a few notes on the harmonica, and here Art patiently listened and even complimented my playing.  Gee.  What a true friend he was.

Later, Dick Dale remarried, and as far as I could tell, he was a much happier person a few years after that.  I did what I could to help him.  Though, I think at times I confused him a little.  I will relay a story about that in a few weeks.

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

Richard Dale died at the age of 64 on Christmas Day, 2008.  He can now be heard in concert in Heaven playing the mouth organ.  Since I don’t play the regular harp, I hope one day to stand alongside him playing the Jew’s Harp.  Richard’s Mother Maurine Dale joined him in Heaven last month (November, 2015) at the age of 98.

Dynamic Power Plant Trio — And Then There Was One

I began writing this Power Plant blog on January 1, 2012.  The reason I did was because the first Power Plant Man I had met at the plant my first day on the job was Sonny Karcher and he had recently died.  I had always led Sonny to believe that someday I would be a writer and I would write stories about the Power Plant Men.

When Sonny died on November 11, 2011, and Saint Peter gladly welcomed him through the Pearly Gates (as they needed someone special to mow the grass on the green pastures), Sonny realized that I had never really intended to set the wonderful stories of great heroes of Power Plant Fame down on paper.

Sonny being Sonny, made sure to send messengers (of sorts) to me reminding me of the commitment I had made to him many years earlier (in 1979) to spread the Wisdom of Power Plant Men to the rest of the world.  What could I say?  I had told him when he asked if I was going to write about the Power Plant Men that “maybe…. I hadn’t thought about it…”  I knew that was just as good as a commitment to Sonny.

My very first Power Plant Post was about Sonny and how that first day on the job as a summer help opened up a whole new world to me full of wonders that some take for granted in the Power Plant Kingdom (see the Post “In Memory of Sonny Karcher – Power Plant Man“).

During the very first job I ever did with Sonny and Larry Riley, I went to the tool room to obtain a list of tools that to me sounded like the first of many Power Plant Man jokes that were to be played on me… As it turned out… there really was a tool called a “Come-along” and a soft choker and 3/4 box ends (who would’ve thunk it?).

When I went to the tool room to ask for these tools, as I walked up to the counter I came face-to-face with a tall bear of a man.  He had a grin on his face as he stood there at the gate to the tool room.  I would say he was a big man… bigger than Daniel Boone, who was also said to have been a big man (according to the song about him).

Bud Schoonover was his name.  When I asked him for the tools waiting for the joke to begin, he handed me each tool one-by-one as I asked for them.  As I left the gate carrying a load of tools in my arm I said, “Thanks Bud.”  He grinned back at me as if he knew…..  I wasn’t sure exactly what he knew, but he looked at me as if he did anyway.

That first encounter with Bud may have seemed relatively insignificant, but I have always remembered that moment as it is etched firmly in my mind.  I didn’t know it at the time that over the years Bud and I were going to become great friends.

I suppose that some day when I’m old (oh!  I’m almost there now!), and I can’t remember what stories I have already told to my grandchildren, if I ever have any, or to the person standing behind me in the line at the grocery store, I will tell them over and over again about the first time I ever met Bud Schoonover.  I will tell them that story as an introduction to all the other stories about Bud that I love to tell.

In past Power Plant Posts about Bud Schoonover, I have often said that there was something about Bud that reminded me of Aunt Esther on the TV Show, Sanford and Son, only a lot bigger, whiter and more male.

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

The reason was  that Aunt Ester had the same squint as Bud, and she would protrude her chin out the same way as Bud when he was telling you something important.

Tonight when I was eating dinner with my parents at the Olive Garden in Round Rock Texas, I asked them “Do you remember Bud Schoonover?”  My dad immediately said, “Yeah!  I remember Bud Schoonover!”  Not that he had ever met Bud in person…  He had only heard about him off and on for the last 36 years.  Everyone in my family knew Bud Schoonover.

Tonight I told my parents that Bud Schoonover died the Wednesday before last on May 27 (2015).  They were surprised to hear that.  My mom said, “How old was he?” (a common question asked by older people… I have found).

I had always talked about Bud as he was when I knew him, which made him seem timelessly younger.  I told them he was 76.  “Oh.  He was young” answered my 80 year old dad.  “Yeah Dad… He was.”  I responded.

I have written many posts where I talked about Bud Schoonover these past 3 1/2 years.  A couple were pretty much solely dedicated to spreading Bud’s special Wisdom about the rest of the world… as Sonny Karcher insists to this day…  My first post about Bud is called “Carpooling with Bud Schoonover“.  This is one of the first posts I wrote after talking about Sonny Karcher and Larry Riley, as Bud Schoonover has always been one of my favorite Power Plant Men of all time.

Last September I wrote a post called “Elvin Power Plant Tool Room Adventures With Bud“.  This post relays a number of my favorite stories about Bud.  The most endearing story is the one where Bud would never let you check out a tool or supply if it was the last one left.  It would crack me up the entire day when I would go to the tool room to get some supply only to have Bud tell me that he couldn’t let me have it because he only had one left.

As a new 18 year old summer help in 1979, Bud Schoonover offered me some advice that I decided to take.  As I was sweeping the floor of the Maintenance Shop near the tool room one day, Bud waved me over, and he said, “Let me tell you something.”  “What is it?” I asked.   He said, “Maybe it’s not such a good idea to wear a shirt that says ‘Kiss Me I’m Left Handed’ at a plant that’s just about made up of all guys (my sister had bought that shirt for me).  I decided that maybe he was right about that.  I couldn’t get away with it the way that Betty White (I think that was her name), another warehouse worker could when she wore the shirt that said, “Eat Your Heart Out! I’m married!”  That was Bud… looking out for me right from the start.

I mentioned earlier that Bud and I were destined to become good friends, and we did just that.  For three years from May 1986 to May 1989 we carpooled together with Dick Dale and Jim Heflin.  The Carpooling adventures came from the 750 round trips Bud Schoonover, Jim and Richard and I took to and from the Power Plant each morning.

Each day carpooling with Bud was special to me.  Three years may not seem like a long time in a person’s life, but we actually drove together around 750 days in those three years.  Each day.  Four larger men all crammed into one car.  My poor Honda Civic could hardly move when the four of us were in the car.  My gas mileage went from 40 miles per gallon down to 30 with all of us in the car.  — It’s true.  A 1982 Honda Civic 1300 would go 40 miles on a gallon of gas!

A 1982 Honda Civic

A 1982 Honda Civic

750 days of talking to Bud Schoonover, Dick Dale and Jim Heflin (well, Jim left after two years to try his luck somewhere else). Bud, Jim, Richard (I always liked calling Dick Dale, “Richard” though everyone else called him Dick) were the Dynamic Trio.  The three of them were the best of friends.  Each day as they drove to work I felt like I was a fifth (or a fourth) wheel invited to a family get together.  You couldn’t find three brothers closer than Bud Schoonover, Dick Dale and Jim Heflin.  They had carpooled together before I showed up in 1986.

I rarely think of any of these three men without thinking about the other two.  I picture them together all climbing out of my Honda Civic in the parking lot at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma after we had driven the 20 miles from Ponca City to the plant all crammed in my car.  It always reminded me of one of those circus cars that pulls into the tent during the show and a bunch of people come pouring out and you wonder how did all those big guys fit in that little car.

Clown Car found on Google Images

Clown Car found on Google Images

Last year I wrote a post about Dick Dale (see the post “Dick Dale and the Power Plant Printer Romance“).  that post begins with this sentence…. “When I first moved to Ponca City I carpooled to the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma with Dick Dale, Jim Heflin and Bud Schoonover.”  I wonder how many times my parents and my children (and my coworkers) have heard me begin a story with that sentence….

My daughter thought for many years that the one year in 1993 at the Christmas Party in Ponca City when Bud Schoonover dressed up as Santa Claus, that this Santa was the real one!  She told me on the way back home to Stillwater that she could look in Santa’s (Bud’s) eyes and tell that this Santa was the “Real Santa Claus!”  She was always so happy to have actually met the real one when everyone else just met Mall Santas.

In actuality, Bud was so shy when the Children came up to sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas that he could only smile and look down at them with tears welling up in his eyes.  I remember when he looked over at me standing by as he was listening to my daughter.  He had nothing but love in his eyes.

In the story about the Printer Romance I mentioned that Dick Dale died on Christmas Day in the year 2008.

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

Now I am writing a post about the second person of the Dynamic Trio that has finally found their peace and are once again joined together as family.  Richard and Bud I know you are together again.  I know because today the two of you asked me to look for Jim Heflin, the third brother in your Power Plant Family.

So, before I sat down to write this post this evening, I opened Facebook at Bud’s and Richard’s urging and searched for Jim Heflin.  I don’t know how many there were, but there were a lot of Jim Heflins.  I didn’t know what Jim would look like since I hadn’t seen him for the past 27 years.  After scrolling down a few pages of Jim Heflins, one person caught my eye….  Could this be Jim?

One way to find out…. I looked at Jim’s friends, and sure enough….. There was Brenda (Bulldog) Heflin.  This was my long lost friend.  The last of the Dynamic Trio.  Still alive and still with the same eyes…..

You see… over the past years, I have written stories about Jim Heflin too…. See the post “Power Plant Adventures with Jim Heflin”  I have described Jim as giving you the impression of a friendly Hound Dog….

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

Well, here is the Facebook picture of the Jim Heflin I found tonight.  I know it’s him.  He has the same eyes that used to roll around when he would walk up to me to pat me on the back and tell me some words of wisdom….

 

Jim Heflin

Jim Heflin

I have missed my friend Jim Heflin, along with Bud and Richard until today.  Now I feel like I have them back again.

Why did Richard and Bud want me to find Jim?   They wanted me to tell Jim that they are back together again after all these years.  I think they also wanted me to reach out to Jim for another reason as well…. Well… I’ll see about that…. How about it Jim?

I sent Jim a Friend request.  That sounds real funny to me.  To send a “Friend Request” to someone that I have held close to my heart since the first day I met him in May 1980.

Maybe some day Jim and I will be up there with Richard and Bud and we can go for a ride together….. I can see us now all crammed in that Fiery Chariot.  Bud telling us about the weather report…. “Sunny”… of course….  Jim staring out the window up at the sun trying to pull up a sneeze (as Jim would sneeze in sunlight some times)… Richard and I rolling our eyes at each other as the Chariot comes to a halt in the middle of the stars because some school bus full of little angels has stopped and put out the Stop Sign three clouds over…. — Sonny Karcher, out in the Green Pastures on his tractor mowing the grass smiling at me for finally writing these stories…

From now on, I will keep to the straight and narrow so that one day I can be up there with my friends.  All the True Power Plant Men that have gone before me.  For now, I will just remember them….

Let me just end by saying, “Way to go Bud!  I Love You Man!”

Bud Schoonover

My friend forever – Bud Schoonover

Harmonizing with Dick Dale on Power Plant Christmas Harmonicas

Originally posted December 20, 2013.  Added additional news about Richard at the bottom of the post:

I think it was while we were sitting in the lunch room eating lunch while I was still a janitor when the subject of harmonicas came up.  Dick Dale must have asked me if I played a musical instrument, because that was my usual reply,  “I play the harmonica… and the Jew’s Harp.”  Just about everyone knows what a Harmonica looks like.  I suppose most people in Oklahoma knows what a Jew’s Harp is.  It’s that instrument you put in your mouth and you flip the little lever and it makes a vibrating twanging sound.

A Jew's Harp

A Jew’s Harp

Dick Dale, worked in the warehouse, and we had been friends since my second year as a summer help.  He told me that he always wanted to learn to play the harmonica.  I told him I learned by just playing around on it.  I never took lessons or used a harmonica book or anything.

When I was growing up, my dad knew how to play the harmonica, so we had one laying around the house all the time.  So, one day I as a kid, I picked it up and started playing with it.  It took about five minutes before my older sister ran to my mom and complained about me making a racket.  My mom told me to take it outside.  So, I not only learned the harmonica by playing around with it.  I was usually sitting alone in the woods while I was learning it.  I have found that under these conditions, there is usually some basic part of the skill that is left out.  So, I knew that my harmonica playing was never really up to snuff.

In the spring of 1983, I joined the labor crew, and I no longer ate lunch in the break room.  I kept it in mind that Dick Dale wanted to learn to play the harmonica, so some time during the summer, I purchased a Hohner Marine Band Harmonica for him, and I began creating a song book with the songs that I knew how to play.  I made up my own notation.  The holes in the harmonica were numbered, so I wrote the numbers of the holes I would blow in, and put an arrow above the number pointing up or down to indicate whether I was blowing in the hole, or sucking the air through the hole.

A Hohner Marine Band Harmonica

A Hohner Marine Band Harmonica

During the summer I talked to Dick Dale a few times, and he was having trouble with his family.  He was getting a divorce from his wife of fifteen years.  He was pretty upset about that, because all along he thought he was happily married.  This turned out not to be the case.  In the process, Dick moved from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Ponca City.  I was living in Stillwater at the time.

When winter came around, my friend Tim Flowers, who was a summer help for two summers at the plant, including the summer I was on the labor crew, came to visit me in Stillwater.  I had bought a harmonica for him for Christmas, and I told him I wanted to go visit Dick Dale in Ponca City and take him his Harmonica for Christmas, along with the booklet I had handwritten (as we didn’t have computers back in those days….).

So, I called up Dick to make sure it would be all right if we dropped by for a little while.  He was at home in his new house, and said he would be delighted if we came by.  Dick knew Tim Flowers from the time he had been a summer help.  While Tim and I were carpooling, Dick would be carpooling with Mike Gibbs, and sometimes on the way home, we would play car tag going down the highway.

One day after a Men’s Club dinner at the plant, while we were leaving, I was in the front of the line of cars heading for the main gate.  In those days, there weren’t two separate gates (one for entering, and one for exiting).  So, the one gate had to open almost all the way up before the person exiting could go through the gate.

When I pulled up to the gate, I pulled up on the entrance side, and Dick and Mike pulled up on the exit side.  We had been racing with each other up to the main gate….  Dick was revving up the engine of his pickup truck which could easily outrun my little blue 1982 Honda Civic.  I had to be more cunning to stay in front of Richard (yeah.  I liked to call him Richard).

As the gate opened, I was on the side where I could go through the gate first.  The way it worked was that as soon as I crossed the threshold of the gate, the gate would stop opening.  then, as I went through it, I drove over to the exit side and ran over the closed loop of the gate, so that the gate closed again leaving Richard and Mike waiting behind the closed gate as we made our escape.

Of course, as soon as we were out on the main highway, it didn’t take long for Richard to make up the mile lead I had gained while he had to wait for the gate to close and re-open.  So, the only way I could prevent him from passing me was by weaving over in the passing lane when he attempted to pass me, and then back again, when he returned to the right lane.

Eventually he was able to go around me, but from that day forward, whenever we were travelling home at the end of the day, and we were following each other, we would both meander back and forth across the highway on the way home…. when it was safe of course.  Since we were out in the country, on a seldom traveled rode, that was usually not a problem.  This came to an end when Richard moved to Ponca City.

When Tim Flowers and I arrived at Richard’s house in Ponca City that Christmas holiday, we surprised him when we handed him his very own harmonica with the booklet that I had written.  He invited us inside and we sat for a while as I explained to him  how the booklet worked.  He said he appreciated it, and that he would work on learning how to play his harmonica so that we could play together.

We sat around and made terrible music together for a while.  Then, because I didn’t want to impose on Richard too much, we left to go back to Stillwater.  A couple of weeks later after the holiday, Richard said he had been practicing on the harmonica and he really appreciated the Christmas present.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but two and a half years later, I moved to Ponca City after I was married, and my wife graduated from nursing school.  That was when Dick Dale, Jim Heflin, Bud Schoonover and I began carpooling together (See the post:  Carpooling with Bud Schoonover).  At the time Dick said that he had hoped to get over the tragedy of his marriage by the end of the year.  He had heard that it took a year to get over 5 years.  Since he had been married for 15 years, he figured by the end of 3 years he should be feeling like he was over it.

The only other person at the plant that I can remember that ever heard me playing the harmonica was Arthur Hammond.  He asked me one day in 1986 if I would bring my harmonica to work so that he could hear me play it.  So, I did, and while we were driving down to the Arkansas River to check batteries, I played some “harmonica blues” for him.  It was just stuff I was making up.

I had seen this movie called “Crossroads” with Ralph Macchio.  In the movie Ralph’s character is trying to learn how to play the Blues guitar from an old and once famous blues musician.  There are two things you learn as the movie unfolds.  The first is that in order to really know how to play the blues, you had to have experienced a real “Blue” time in your life.  So you had to play with the feeling that you had experienced.  The second thing was that Ralph had to play his guitar against a contract guitar player chosen by the devil in order to save the old man’s soul.

Crossroads (1986)

Crossroads (1986)

So, what was I supposed to do?  I had been blessed most of my life.  I hadn’t really experienced any “real” blues.  As Art was driving the pickup truck down to the river, I tried to dream up the bluest thoughts I could.  I thought…. what if the world ran out of chocolate…..  That would ruin everybody’s mood.  I piped out a few sorrowful sounding notes on the harmonica to try and portray my disappointment living without chocolate….. that sounded kind of lame.

Then I thought, wasn’t I upset that one time when I was a summer help and I stayed over to help feed the foremen that were having a dinner in the break room and Pat Braden and I fed the foremen, and no one offered me any food, so I had to go hungry for a couple of hours before I could go home and eat some leftovers at home.  I think I felt kind of blue that day…..  so I cupped my hand over the harmonica, tilted my head to the side and tried to remember that painful time as I shook my hand up and down so that the harmonica would make the sad “whaaa whaa” sound.

I drummed up a few more sad thoughts, and I thought I was really floundering as my debut as a blues harmonica player, so I paused for a few minutes to try and make myself feel bad about doing such a poor job playing the harmonica hoping that it would help.  Then Art said, “Hey.  You are pretty good!”  “What?”  I thought, “Oh… That’s Art, trying to be polite.”  “Thank you,” I said.  Boy.  How pitiful is that?  Surely I should feel bad enough now to play some blues at least a little better….

Anyway, a mile or two later, I decided to give it up.  I put the harmonica back in my pocket and told Art that was all I could do for now.  Finally.  We had some peace and quiet the rest of the way to the river.  I remembered that my sister would always run screaming to my mom when I was younger and blew a few notes on the harmonica, and here Art patiently listened and even complimented my playing.  Gee.  What a true friend he was.

Later, Dick Dale remarried, and as far as I could tell, he was a much happier person a few years after that.  I did what I could to help him.  Though, I think at times I confused him a little.  I will relay a story about that in a few weeks.

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

Richard Dale died at the age of 64 on Christmas Day, 2008.  He can now be heard in concert in Heaven playing the mouth organ.  Since I don’t play the regular harp, I hope one day to stand alongside him playing the Jew’s Harp.  Richard’s Mother Maurine Dale joined him in Heaven last month (November, 2015) at the age of 98.

A Day in the Life of Power Plant Man and the Sign Hangin’ Chain Gang

Originally Posted July 21, 2012:

No one knows more about having to put up with the antics of Summer Help than the Power Plant Man Jim Heflin.  Though Jim wasn’t completely a True Power Plant Man, he was nevertheless certified as a Bonafide Caretaker of Summer Help Helpers.

I understood after a couple of years of being a Summer Help myself that the reason that Summer Help were called by that name was because they really did indeed need help.  Though some may think that this help could best be found in the company of a licensed Therapist, most of the time what they really needed was a good dose of Summer Help chores to keep them out of trouble and to teach them the fine art of labor in its most tedious and repetitious form.

Though I’m not sure, it could have been Jim Heflin that talked Stanley Elmore into allowing the summer help to attach the signs to the barbed wire fence that surrounded the Electric Company property that enclosed the Power Plant itself as well as the lake that was built to be used as cooling water in the condenser.  I say that because it didn’t seem like it was a long time after I had answered the phone one day in the garage and I found Jim Heflin’s wife on the other end of the line calling to talk to Jim, that we were assigned to the task of installing the signs.

Jim wasn’t in the shop at the time so she told me to tell Jim that his wife Brenda had called.

It just so happened that my girlfriend at the time (who I later married and lived happily ever after) and I had a joke character that we would talk about named “Brenda Bulldog”.  It is a long story to tell about Brenda Bulldog, so I’ll just say that it has to do with “Otto” in the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip, and his girlfriend “Polly Bulldog” who is always suspicious of another bulldog named “Brenda Bulldog”.  I’m sure that you all have the same sort of characters that you talk about in your family… um… don’t you?

Otto from the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip

So, obviously, when she told me that her name was Brenda, I just had to respond as Otto would respond.  So I said in a gruff but excited voice (rolling the “R” in the word Brenda in my throat), “Brenda Bulldog?!?”  Jim’s Wife responded by asking what I had said, so I responded back exactly as I had the first time, “Brenda Bulldog?!?”

I guess she misunderstood my intentions because she sounded obviously disgruntled as she explained to me in no uncertain terms that she was not a bulldog.  I answered back by insisting that this was, “Brenda Bulldog!” She repeated again that she was not a bulldog and told me to just tell Jim to call her at home when he returned to the garage.

When Jim came back from the Maintenance Shop I told him that his wife had called, and I added, “By the way.  I called her “Brenda Bulldog”.  I explained to him that I just couldn’t help it when I heard her name was Brenda, I just had to say “Brenda Bulldog”.  I couldn’t help it.  It just came out.  He looked a little mystified by my explanation and quickly went into the office to call home.

I guess in hindsight, after having met Brenda in person it probably wasn’t a good idea to have called her “Brenda Bulldog”.  First of all, not only did Jim Heflin have the face that reminded you of a likable Basset hound, but Brenda really did kind of remind you of a bulldog (a slight underbite).  If I had known that earlier, I am sure I would have insisted that she was Brenda Poodle.  That would be the most logical response given the circumstance.

Kind of like this

A couple of days later a pickup truck was backed up to the garage and in the back were bundles of thin metal signs.  Each sign was about the size of a piece of paper.  the sign was white and had red lettering.  There were two different signs.  One that indicated that this was the Property of the Electric company and that a person should only enter at designated areas.  The other had a set of warnings or rules, which I can’t remember anymore.

There were 4,500 of each type of sign.  It was our job to take the signs and to bolt them together with small nuts and bolts that were supplied in buckets.  As we bolted them together we placed them in boxes and put them in the back of the truck, where we went around the fence line surrounding the lake and the plant and every third section of fence (about 30 feet) we would mount the sign onto the barbed wire fence.  It would take about 4,500 of each of the signs to completely cover the perimeter of the property.

In the back of my mind I could hear Jim Heflin say to Stanley Elmore after he hung up the call with his wife, “Stanley.  Wouldn’t it be a good chore for the summer help to hang all those signs around the 25 mile perimeter of the electric company property?”  And Stanley replying, “Jim!  That’s a brilliant idea!”

So began the long trek of hanging signs.  We had a small blue Mitsubishi Tractor that we used to travel around the fence line in areas where the truck couldn’t easily go.

A tractor just like this

It had a small trailer on the back of it that we would pile a bunch of sign assemblies (the two signs bolted together).  Then we would walk or ride behind the tractor as we went from fence post to fence post mounting the signs evenly between the posts every third section.

This was a brilliant way to teach the young and inexperienced summer help the art of patience as well as the art of subservience.  This way, later in life when the summer help became a Power Plant Man-in-Training, or even a mechanic or electrician and was asked to do something that may seem boring to the average citizen, all the summer help had to do was remember the time they had to hang 4,500 signs on barbed wire fences and even the most boring tasks seemed like an exciting ride on a roller coaster in comparison.

For those power plant men who knew me as a janitor, now maybe they can understand how I could find so much enjoyment sweeping the turbine room floor (about the size of a football field) over and over with a red dust mop.

Like this only with a mop handle

Anyway, during our time while traversing the wilds along the fence line, it gave the summer help time to think.  I was working with a good friend of mine by the name of Tim Flowers.  We had become friends while I had attended Oklahoma University in Norman my first year in college (before going to Missouri University in Columbia for my last 3 years).  So, my fourth year as a summer help, Tim came to work alongside me.

Jim Heflin and Ken Conrad (as well as Opal Ward — or was it Opal Brien at the time) used to take turns shuffling us around the fence line.  When we were with Jim Heflin we would spend our time in the intellectual pursuit of inventing new “Burning Cat” jokes.

This was a skill I had picked up from my father who was a Veterinary Professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.  He had come home one day from work with the latest copy of a Veterinary journal.  In the journal was a set of “Burning Cat” jokes that he read to me.  I’m sure you must already know them.

There were jokes like, “Why did the Burning Cat cross the road?” “So that it could burn on the other side.”  Or “Knock, Knock”  “Who’s there?”  “Burning”, “Burning who?”  “Burning Cat.”  Or “What did one burning cat say to the other burning cat when he met him in a bar?”  “That’s silly.  Everyone knows that a burning cat can’t talk when they’re on fire.”

We made it a goal to come up with at least one new burning cat joke every day.  This came in handy later on when I was in my last year in college and I became known as the “Burning Cat Man” in Columbia, Missouri as I would tell burning cat jokes to the workers at the Subway every time my friend Ben Cox and I would go there to eat a sub sandwich.  I would be introduced as “The Burning Cat Man” when customers would come in while we were there.

When we were with Ken Conrad we would think about more esoteric subjects like, “What does a cow think about while it is chewing it’s cud?”

Hmmm…. What does he think about?

We would go on and on speculating “Maybe the cow is meditating about the full meaning of life and whether or not the self is the center of his being or is it somewhere else, or is it just that he’s thinking that his ear itches and he can’t reach it with his tail.  He can only twitch it”

We would think about these things as we would be passing some cows standing opposite across the fence.   We would wonder if they stood around trying to think up jokes that would entertain themselves since they had to stand out in the hot sun all day.  Maybe they thought about burning cats, or even chickens crossing the road.

At first we couldn’t tell if Ken was even listening to us until one time, the tractor started to swerve a bit and he pulled it to a stop so that he could turn around and tell us that we were the strangest bunch of kids he had ever run across.  But I could tell that we had started him thinking about it.  I’m pretty sure that it was on his mind for quite a while.  “What is that cow thinking about?”

Every once in a while I knew that Ken Conrad had gained some enlightenment because he would suddenly turn to me and say, “Hey Sweet Pea!”  And then he would grin real big.  Yep.  He knew.  The meaning of life was within his grasp.

Anyway, long story short, before all the signs were hung by the barbed wire with care, I went up to the main office and asked Eldon Waugh if I could talk to him.  He was the plant manager.  The one I often have referred to as the “Evil Plant Manager”.  Mostly because I think he would have liked that title.  He worked so hard to obtain it.

I asked him if he had an opening at the plant because I would like to go to work there permanently.  He said there was a janitor position opening up and if it was all right with Ken Scott he would hire me.  So he paged Ken and asked him to come up to his office.

When he arrived, Eldon asked Ken if he thought they ought to hire me because I wanted to work at the plant full time.  Ken said that he would be happy to hire me on as a janitor.

I don’t know if Ken realized at the time how much trouble I would cause in the years that followed, because I always had come across as a fairly decent person up to that point.  I don’t know if he ever regretted his decision.  I’m pretty sure that Eldon did and I know that Bill Moler regretted it when he returned from his summer vacation to find me standing in the janitor closet across from his office.

He was none too happy about it.  Especially since he considered it his job to do the hiring for people in the maintenance shop.  Bill knew that I had already expressed my willingness to open my mouth and reveal my innermost thoughts right to someone’s face at the most inappropriate moments.  I used to explain that I took after my Italian Mother who always spoke twice before thinking.

That was how I was able to escape the sign hangin’ chain gang and became the Janitor that I was always meant to be!  Years later the words had worn off of the signs, but the white signs were still hanging from those barbed wire fences for as long as I can remember.  Now that I think about it, I wonder what Jim Heflin was thinking when I became a janitor and he still had to tote babbling summer helps around the wilderness in the hot sun with an endless supply of Burning Cat Jokes.

Was he wishing that he had thought twice before he spoke about having us hang the signs?  Or maybe he didn’t and I just imagined that he was slightly upset all because I had said those two impulsive words….. “Brenda Bulldog!”

Jim Heflin

Jim Heflin

 

Comment from previous Repost

  1. Ron   July 24, 2013:

    Good Story!
    I still remember my first job as a “Summer Student” at the Mustang Plant (1967). Ben Snow and I worked from the top of the turbine room crane and changed out all the burned-out light bulbs (1,000 watt incandescent). Boy – that was one HOT job!

Dynamic Power Plant Trio — And Then There Was One

I began writing this Power Plant blog on January 1, 2012.  The reason I did was because the first Power Plant Man I had met at the plant my first day on the job was Sonny Karcher.  I had always led Sonny to believe that someday I would be a writer and I would write stories about the Power Plant Men.

When Sonny died on November 11, 2011, and Saint Peter gladly welcomed him through the Pearly Gates (as they needed someone special to mow the grass on the green pastures), Sonny realized that I had never really intended to set the wonderful stories of great heroes of Power Plant Fame down on paper.

Sonny being Sonny, made sure to send a messengers (of sorts) to me reminding me of the commitment I had made to him many years earlier (in 1979) to spread the Wisdom of Power Plant Men to the rest of the world.  What could I say?  I had told him when he asked if I was going to write about the Power Plant Men that “maybe…. I hadn’t thought about it…”  I knew that was just as good as a commitment to Sonny.

My very first Power Plant Post was about Sonny and how that first day on the job as a summer help opened up a whole new world to me full of wonders that some take for granted in the Power Plant Kingdom (see the Post “In Memory of Sonny Karcher – Power Plant Man“).

During the very first job I ever worked on with Sonny and Larry Riley, I went to the tool room to obtain a list of tools that to me sounded like the first of many Power Plant Man jokes that were to be played on me… As it turned out… there really was a tool called a “Come-along” and a soft choker and 3/4 box ends (who would’ve thunk it?).

When I went to the tool room to ask for these tools, as I walked up to the tool room I came face-to-face with a tall bear of a man.  He had a grin on his face as he stood there at the gate to the tool room.  I would say he was a big man… bigger than Daniel Boone, who was also said to have been a big man.

Bud Schoonover was his name.  When I asked him for the tools waiting for the joke to begin, he handed me each tool one-by-one as I asked for them.  As I left the gate carrying a load of tools in my arm I said, “Thanks Bud.”  He grinned back at me as if he knew…..  I wasn’t sure exactly what he knew, but he looked at me as if he did anyway.

That first encounter with Bud may have seemed relatively insignificant, but I have always remembered that moment as it is etched firmly in my mind.  I didn’t know it at the time that over the years Bud and I were going to become great friends.

I suppose that some day when I’m old (oh!  I’m almost there now!), and I can’t remember what stories I have already told to my grandchildren, if I ever have any, or to the person standing behind me in the line at the grocery store, I will tell them over and over again about the first time I ever met Bud Schoonover.  I will tell them that story as an introduction to all the other stories about Bud that I love to tell.

In past Power Plant Posts about Bud Schoonover, I have often said that there was something about Bud that reminded me of Aunt Esther on the TV Show, Sanford and Son, only a lot bigger, whiter and more male.

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son

The reason was  that Aunt Ester had the same squint as Bud, and she would protrude her chin out the same way as Bud when he was telling you something important.

Tonight when I was eating dinner with my parents at the Olive Garden in Round Rock Texas, I asked them “Do you remember Bud Schoonover?”  My dad immediately said, “Yeah!  I remember Bud Schoonover!”  Not that he had ever met Bud in person…  He had only heard about him off and on for the last 36 years.  Everyone in my family knew Bud Schoonover.

Tonight I told my parents that Bud Schoonover died the Wednesday before last on May 27 (2015).  They were surprised to hear that.  My mom said, “How old was he?” (a common question asked by older people… I have found).

I had always talked about Bud as he was when I knew him, which made him seem timelessly younger.  I told them he was 76.  “Oh.  He was young” answered my 80 year old dad.  “Yeah Dad… He was.”  I responded.

I have written many posts where I talked about Bud Schoonover these past 3 1/2 years.  A couple were pretty much solely dedicated to spreading Bud’s special Wisdom on the rest of the world… as Sonny Karcher insists to this day…  My first post about Bud is called “Carpooling with Bud Schoonover“.  This is one of the first posts I wrote after talking about Sonny Karcher and Larry Riley, as Bud Schoonover has always been one of my favorite Power Plant Men of all time.

Last September I wrote a post called “Elvin Power Plant Tool Room Adventures With Bud“.  This post relays a number of my favorite stories about Bud.  The most endearing story is the one where Bud would never let you check out a tool or supply if it was the last one left.  It would crack me up the entire day when I would go to the tool room to get some supply only to have Bud tell me that he couldn’t let me have it because he only had one left.

As a new 18 year old summer help in 1979, Bud Schoonover offered me some advice that I decided to take.  As I was sweeping the floor of the Maintenance Shop near the tool room one day, Bud waved me over, and he said, “Let me tell you something.”  “What is it?” I asked.   He said, “Maybe it’s not such a good idea to wear a shirt that says ‘Kiss Me I’m Left Handed’ at a plant that’s just about made up of all guys (my sister had bought that shirt for me).  I decided that maybe he was right about that.  I couldn’t get away with it the way that Betty White (I think that was her name), another warehouse worker could when she wore the shirt that said, “Eat Your Heart Out!”  That was Bud… looking out for me right from the start.

I mentioned earlier that Bud and I were destined to become good friends, and we did just that.  For three years from May 1986 to May 1989 we carpooled together with Dick Dale and Jim Heflin.  The Carpooling adventures came from the 750 round trips Bud Schoonover, Jim and Richard and I took to and from the Power Plant each morning.

Each day carpooling with Bud was special to me.  Three years may not seem like a long time in a person’s life, but we actually drove together around 750 days in those three years.  Each day.  Four larger men all crammed into one car.  My poor Honda Civic could hardly move when the four of us were in the car.  My gas mileage went from 40 miles per gallon down to 30 with all of us in the car.

A 1982 Honda Civic

A 1982 Honda Civic

750 days of talking to Bud Schoonover, Dick Dale and Jim Heflin (well, Jim left after two years to try his luck somewhere else). Bud, Jim, Richard (I always liked calling Dick Dale, “Richard” though everyone else called him Dick) were the Dynamic Trio.  The three of them were the best of friends.  Each day as they drove to work I felt like I was a fifth wheel invited to a family get together.  You couldn’t find three brothers closer than Bud Schoonover, Dick Dale and Jim Heflin.  They had carpooled together before I showed up in 1986.

I rarely think of any of these three men without thinking about the other two.  I picture them together all climbing out of my Honda Civic in the parking lot at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma after we had driven the 20 miles from Ponca City to the plant all crammed in my car.  It always reminded me of one of those circus cars that pulls into the tent during the show and a bunch of people come pouring out and you wonder how did all those big guys fit in that little car.

Clown Car found on Google Images

Clown Car found on Google Images

Last year I wrote a post about Dick Dale (see the post “Dick Dale and the Power Plant Printer Romance“).  that post begins with this sentence…. “When I first moved to Ponca City I carpooled to the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma with Dick Dale, Jim Heflin and Bud Schoonover.”  I wonder how many times my parents and my children have heard me begin a story with that sentence….

My daughter always thought that the one year in 1993 at the Christmas Party in Ponca City when Bud Schoonover dressed up as Santa Claus, that this Santa was the real one!  She told me on the way back home to Stillwater that she could look in Santa’s (Bud’s) eyes and tell that this Santa was the “Real Santa Claus!”  She was always so happy to have actually met the real one when everyone else just met Mall Santas.

In actuality, Bud was so shy when the Children came up to sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas that he could only smile and look down at them with tears welling up in his eyes.  I remember when he looked over at me standing by as he was listening to my daughter.  He had nothing but love in his eyes.

In the story about the Printer Romance I mentioned that Dick Dale died on Christmas Day in the year 2008.

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

Now I am writing a post about the second person of the Dynamic Trio that has finally found their peace and are once again joined together as family.  Richard and Bud I know you are together again.  I know because today the two of you asked me to look for Jim Heflin, the third brother in your Power Plant Family.

So, before I sat down to write this post this evening, I opened Facebook at Bud’s and Richard’s urging and searched for Jim Heflin.  I don’t know how many there were, but there were a lot of Jim Heflins.  I didn’t know what Jim would look like since I hadn’t seen him for the past 27 years.  After scrolling down a few pages of Jim Heflins, one person caught my eye….  Could this be Jim?

One way to find out…. I looked at Jim’s friends, and sure enough….. There was Brenda (Bulldog) Heflin.  This was my long lost friend.  The last of the Dynamic Trio.  Still alive and still with the same eyes…..

You see… over the past years, I have written stories about Jim Heflin too…. See the post “Power Plant Adventures with Jim Heflin”  I have described Jim as giving you the impression of a friendly Hound Dog….

The Splittin' Image of Jim Heflin

The Splittin’ Image of Jim Heflin

Well, here is the Facebook picture of the Jim Heflin I found tonight.  I know it’s him.  He has the same eyes that used to roll around when he would walk up to me to pat me on the back and tell me some words of wisdom….

 

Jim Heflin

Jim Heflin

I have missed my friend Jim Heflin, along with Bud and Richard until today.  Now I feel like I have them back again.

Why did Richard and Bud want me to find Jim?   They wanted me to tell Jim that they are back together again after all these years.  I think they also wanted me to reach out to Jim for another reason as well…. Well… I’ll see about that…. How about it Jim?

I sent Jim a Friend request.  That sounds real funny to me.  To send a “Friend Request” to someone that I have held close to my heart since the first day I met him in May 1980.

Maybe some day Jim and I will be up there with Richard and Bud and we can go for a ride together….. I can see us now all crammed in that Firey Chariot.  Bud telling us about the weather report…. “Sunny”… of course….  Jim staring out the window up at the sun trying to pull up a sneeze (as Jim would sneeze in sunlight some times)… Richard and I rolling our eyes at each other as the Chariot comes to a halt in the middle of the stars because some school bus full of little angels has stopped and put out the Stop Sign three clouds over…. — Sonny Karcher, out in the Green Pastures on his tractor mowing the grass smiling at me for finally writing these stories…

From now on, I will keep to the straight and narrow so that one day I can be up there with my friends.  All the True Power Plant Men that have gone before me.  For now, I will just remember them….

Let me just end by saying, “Way to go Bud!  I Love You Man!”

Bud Schoonover

My friend forever – Bud Schoonover

Harmonizing with Dick Dale on Power Plant Christmas Harmonicas — Repost

Originally posted December 20, 2013:

I think it was while we were sitting in the lunchroom eating lunch while I was still a janitor when the subject of harmonicas came up.  Dick Dale must have asked me if I played a musical instrument, because that was my usual reply,  “I play the harmonica… and the Jew’s Harp.”  Just about everyone knows what a Harmonica looks like.  I suppose most people in Oklahoma knows what a Jew’s Harp is.  It’s that instrument you put in your mouth and you flip the little lever and it makes a vibrating twanging sound.

A Jew's Harp

A Jew’s Harp

Dick Dale, worked in the warehouse, and we had been friends since my second year as a summer help.  He told me that he always wanted to learn to play the harmonica.  I told him I learned by just playing around on it.  I never took lessons or used a harmonica book or anything.

When I was growing up, my dad knew how to play the harmonica, so we had one laying around the house all the time.  So, one day I as a kid, I picked it up and started playing with it.  It took about five minutes before my older sister ran to my mom and complained about me making a racket.  My mom told me to take it outside.  So, I not only learned the harmonica by playing around with it.  I was usually sitting alone in the woods while I was learning it.  I have found that under these conditions, there is usually some basic part of the skill that is left out.  So, I knew that my harmonica playing was never really up to snuff.

In the spring of 1983, I joined the labor crew, and I no longer ate lunch in the break room.  I kept it in mind that Dick Dale wanted to learn to play the harmonica, so some time during the summer, I purchased a Hohner Marine Band Harmonica for him, and I began creating a song book with the songs that I knew how to play.  I made up my own notation.  The holes in the harmonica were numbered, so I wrote the numbers of the holes I would blow in, and put an arrow above the number pointing up or down to indicate whether I was blowing in the hole, or sucking the air through the hole.

A Hohner Marine Band Harmonica

A Hohner Marine Band Harmonica

During the summer I talked to Dick Dale a few times, and he was having trouble with his family.  He was getting a divorce from his wife of fifteen years.  He was pretty upset about that, because all along he thought he was happily married.  This turned out not to be the case.  In the process, Dick moved from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Ponca City.  I was living in Stillwater at the time.

When winter came around, my friend Tim Flowers, who was a summer help for two summers at the plant, including the summer I was on the labor crew, came to visit me in Stillwater.  I had bought a harmonica for him for Christmas, and I told him I wanted to go visit Dick Dale in Ponca City and take him his Harmonica for Christmas, along with the booklet I had handwritten (as we didn’t have computers back in those days….).

So, I called up Dick to make sure it would be all right if we dropped by for a little while.  He at home in his new house, and said he would be delighted if we came by.  Dick knew Tim Flowers from the time he had been a summer help.  While Tim and I were carpooling, Dick would be carpooling with Mike Gibbs, and sometimes on the way home, we would play car tag going down the highway.

One day after a Men’s Club dinner at the plant, while we were leaving, I was in the front of the line of cars heading for the main gate.  In those days, there weren’t two separate gates (one for entering, and one for exiting).  So, the one gate had to open almost all the way up before the person exiting could go through the gate.

When I pulled up to the gate, I pulled up on the entrance side, and Dick and Mike pulled up on the exit side.  We had been racing with each other up to the main gate….  Dick was revving up the engine of his pickup truck which could easily outrun my little blue 1982 Honda Civic.  I had to be more cunning to stay in front of Richard (yeah.  I liked to call him Richard).

As the gate opened, I was on the side where I could go through the gate first.  The way it worked was that as soon as I crossed the threshold of the gate, the gate would stop opening.  then, as I went through it, I drove over to the exit side and ran over the closed loop of the gate, so that the gate closed again leaving Richard and Mike waiting behind the closed gate as we made our escape.

Of course, as soon as we were out on the main highway, it didn’t take long for Richard to make up the mile lead I had gained while he had to wait for the gate to close and re-open.  So, the only way I could prevent him from passing me was by weaving over in the passing lane when he attempted to pass me, and then back again, when he returned to the right lane.

Eventually he was able to go around me, but from that day forward, whenever we were travelling home at the end of the day, and we were following each other, we would both meander back and forth across the highway on the way home…. when it was safe of course.  Since we were out in the country, on a little traveled rode, that was usually not a problem.  This came to an end when Richard moved to Ponca City.

When Tim Flowers and I arrived at Richard’s house in Ponca City that Christmas holiday, we surprised him when we handed him his very own harmonica with the booklet that I had written.  He invited us inside and we sat for a while as I explained to him  how the booklet worked.  He said he appreciated it, and that he would work on learning how to play his harmonica so that we could play together.

We sat around and made terrible music together for a while.  Then, because I didn’t want to impose on Richard too much, we left to go back to Stillwater.  A couple of weeks later after the holiday, Richard said he had been practicing on the harmonica and he really appreciated the Christmas present.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but two and a half years later, I moved to Ponca City after I was married, and my wife graduated from nursing school.  That was when Dick Dale, Jim Heflin, Bud Schoonover and I began carpooling together (See the post:  Carpooling with Bud Schoonover).  At the time Dick said that he had hoped to get over the tragedy of his marriage by the end of the year.  He had heard that it took a year to get over 5 years.  Since he had been married for 15 years, he figured by the end of 3 years he should be feeling like he was over it.

The only other person at the plant that I can remember that ever heard me playing the harmonica was Arthur Hammond.  He asked me one day in 1986 if I would bring my harmonica to work so that he could hear me play it.  So, I did, and while we were driving down to the Arkansas River to check batteries, I played some “harmonica blues” for him.  It was just stuff I was making up.

I had seen this movie called “Crossroads” with Ralph Macchio.  In the movie Ralph’s character is trying to learn how to play the Blues guitar from an old and once famous blues musician.  There are two things you learn as the movie unfolds.  The first is that in order to really know how to play the blues, you had to have experienced a real “Blue” time in your life.  So you had to play with the feeling that you had experienced.  The second thing was that Ralph had to play his guitar against a contract guitar player chosen by the devil in order to save the old man’s soul.

Crossroads (1986)

Crossroads (1986)

So, what was I supposed to do?  I had been blessed most of my life.  I hadn’t really experienced any “real” blues.  As Art was driving the pickup truck down to the river, I tried to dream up the bluest thoughts I could.  I thought…. what if the world was out of chocolate…..  That would ruin everybody’s mood.  I piped out a few sorrowful sounding notes on the harmonica to try and portray my disappointment at living without chocolate….. that sounded kind of lame.

Then I thought, wasn’t I upset that one time when I was a summer help and I stayed over to help feed the foremen that were having a dinner in the break room and Pat Braden and I fed the foremen, and no one offered me any food, so I had to go hungry for a couple of hours before I could go home and eat some leftovers at home.  I think I felt kind of blue that day…..  so I cupped my hand over the harmonica, tilted my head to the side and tried to remember that painful time as I shook my hand up and down so that the harmonica would make the sad “whaaa whaa” sound.

I drummed up a few more sad thoughts, and I thought I was really floundering as my debut as a blues harmonica player, so I paused for a few minutes to try and make myself feel bad about doing such a poor job playing the harmonica hoping that it would help.  Then Art said, “Hey.  You are pretty good!”  “What?”  I thought, “Oh… That’s Art, trying to be polite.”  “Thank you,” I said.  Boy.  How pitiful is that?  Surely I should feel bad enough now to play some blues at least a little better….

Anyway, a mile or two later, I decided to give it up.  I put the harmonica back in my pocket and told Art that was all I could do for now.  Finally.  We had some peace and quiet the rest of the way to the river.  I remembered that my sister would always run screaming to my mom when I was younger and blew a few notes on the harmonica, and here Art patiently listened and even complimented my playing.  Gee.  What a true friend he was.

Later, Dick Dale remarried, and as far as I could tell, he was a much happier person a few years after that.  I did what I could to help him.  Though, I think at times I confused him a little.  I will relay a story about that in a few weeks.

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

A Day in the Life of Power Plant Man and the Sign Hangin’ Chain Gang — Repost

Originally Posted July 21, 2012:

No one knows more about having to put up with the antics of Summer Help than the Power Plant Man Jim Heflin.  Though Jim wasn’t completely a True Power Plant Man, he was nevertheless certified as a Bonafide Caretaker of Summer Help Helpers.  I understood after a couple of years of being a Summer Help myself that the reason that Summer Help were called by that name was because they really did indeed need help.  Though some may think that this help could best be found in the company of a licensed Therapist, most of the time what they really needed was a good dose of Summer Help chores to keep them out of trouble and to teach them the fine art of labor in its most tedious and repetitious form.

Though I’m not sure, but it could have been Jim Heflin that talked Stanley Elmore into allowing the summer help to attach the signs to the barbed wire fence that surrounded the Electric Company property that enclosed the Power Plant itself as well as the lake that was built to be used as cooling water in the condenser.  I say that because it didn’t seem like it was a long time after I had answered the phone one day in the garage and I found Jim Heflin’s wife on the other end of the line calling to talk to Jim that we were assigned to the task of installing the signs.  Jim wasn’t in the shop at the time so she told me to tell Jim that his wife Brenda had called.

Well.  It just so happened that my girlfriend at the time (who I later married and lived happily ever after) and I had a joke character that we would talk about named “Brenda Bulldog”.  It is a long story to tell about Brenda Bulldog, so I’ll just say that it has to do with “Otto” in the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip, and his girlfriend “Polly Bulldog” who is always suspicious of another bulldog named “Brenda Bulldog”.  I’m sure that you all have the same sort of characters that you talk about in your family… um… don’t you?

Otto from the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip

So, obviously, when she told me that her name was Brenda, I just had to respond as Otto would respond.  So I said in a gruff but excited voice (rolling the “R” in the word Brenda in my throat), “Brenda Bulldog?!?”  Jim’s Wife responded by asking what I had said, so I responded back exactly as I had the first time, “Brenda Bulldog?!?”  Well, I guess she misunderstood my intentions because she sounded obviously disgruntled as she explained to me in no uncertain terms that she was not a bulldog.  I answered back by insisting that this was, “Brenda Bulldog!” She repeated again that she was not a bulldog and told me to just tell Jim to call her at home when he returned to the garage.

When Jim came back from the Maintenance Shop I told him that his wife had called, and I added, “By the way.  I called her “Brenda Bulldog”.  I explained to him that I just couldn’t help it when I heard her name was Brenda, I just had to say “Brenda Bulldog”.  I couldn’t help it.  It just came out.  He looked a little mystified by my explanation and quickly went into the office to call home.

I guess in hindsight, after having met Brenda in person it probably wasn’t a good idea to have called her “Brenda Bulldog”.  First of all, not only did Jim Heflin have the face that reminded you of a likable Basset hound, but Brenda really did kind of remind you of a bulldog.  If I had known that earlier, I am sure I would have insisted that she was Brenda Poodle.  That would be the most logical response given the circumstance.

Kind of like this

A couple of days later a pickup truck was backed up to the garage and in the back were bundles of thin metal signs.  Each sign was about the size of a piece of paper.  the sign was white and had red lettering.  There were two different signs.  One that indicated that this was the Property of the Electric company and that a person should only enter at designated areas.  The other had a set of warnings or rules, which I can’t remember anymore.

There were 4,500 of each type of sign.  It was our job to take the signs and to bolt them together with small nuts and bolts that were supplied in buckets.  As we bolted them together we placed them in boxes and put them in the truck, where we went around the fence line surrounding the lake and the plant and every third section of fence (about 30 feet) we would mount the sign onto the barbed wire fence.  It would take about 4,500 of each of the signs to completely cover the perimeter of the property.

In the back of my mind I could hear Jim Heflin say to Stanley Elmore after he hung up the call with his wife, “Stanley.  Wouldn’t it be a good chore for the summer help to hang all those signs around the 25 mile perimeter of the electric company property?”  And Stanley replying, “Jim!  That’s a brilliant idea!”

So began the long trek of hanging signs.  We had a small blue Mitsubishi Tractor that we used to travel around the fence line in areas where the truck couldn’t easily go.

A tractor just like this

It had a small trailer on the back of it that we would pile a bunch of sign assemblies (the two signs bolted together).  Then we would walk or ride behind the tractor as we went from fence post to fence post mounting the signs evenly between the posts every third section.

This was a brilliant way to teach the young and inexperienced summer help the art of patience as well as the art of subservience.  This way, later in life when the summer help became a Power Plant Man-in-Training, or even a mechanic or electrician and was asked to do something that may seem boring to the average citizen, all the summer help had to do was remember the time they had to hang 4,500 signs on barbed wire fences and even the most boring tasks seemed like an exciting ride on a roller coaster in comparison.  For those power plant men who knew me as a janitor, now maybe they can understand how I could find so much enjoyment sweeping the turbine room floor (about the size of a football field) over and over with a red dust mop.

Like this only with a mop handle

Anyway, during our time while traversing the wilds along the fence line, it gave the summer help time to think.  I was working with a good friend of mine by the name of Tim Flowers.  We had become friends while I had attended Oklahoma University in Norman my first year in college (before going to Missouri University in Columbia for my last 3 years).  So, my fourth year as a summer help, Tim came to work alongside me.

Jim Heflin and Ken Conrad (as well as Opal Ward — or was it Opal Brien at the time) used to take turns shuffling us around the fence line.  When we were with Jim Heflin we would spend our time in the intellectual pursuit of inventing new “Burning Cat” jokes.  This was a skill I had picked up from my father who was a Veterinary Professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.  He had come home one day from work with the latest copy of a Veterinary journal.  In the journal was a set of “Burning Cat” jokes that he read to me.  I’m sure you must already know them.  There were jokes like, “Why did the Burning Cat cross the road?” “So that it could burn on the other side.”  Or “Knock, Knock”  “Who’s there?”  “Burning”, “Burning who?”  “Burning Cat.”  Or “What did one burning cat say to the other burning cat when he met him in a bar?”  “That’s silly.  Everyone knows that a burning cat can’t talk when they’re on fire.”

We made it a goal to come up with at least one new burning cat joke every day.  This came in handy later on when I was in my last year in college and I became known as the “Burning Cat Man” in Columbia, Missouri as I would tell burning cat jokes to the workers at the Subway every time my friend Ben Cox and I would go there to eat a sub sandwich.  And then I would be introduced as “The Burning Cat Man” when customers would come in while we were there.

When we were with Ken Conrad we would think about more esoteric subjects like, “What does a cow think about while it is chewing it’s cud?”

Hmmm…. What does he think about?

We would go on and on speculating “Maybe the cow is meditating about the full meaning of life and whether or not the self is the center of his being or is it somewhere else, or is it just that he’s thinking that his ear itches and he can’t reach it with his tail.  He can only twitch it”  We would think about these things as we would be passing some cows standing opposite across the fence.   We would wonder if they stood around trying to think up jokes that would entertain themselves since they had to stand out in the hot sun all day.  Maybe they thought about burning cats, or even chickens crossing the road.

At first we couldn’t tell if Ken was even listening to us until one time, the tractor started to swerve a bit and he pulled it to a stop so that he could turn around and tell us that we were the strangest bunch of kids he had ever run across.  But I could tell that we had started him thinking about it.  I’m pretty sure that it was on his mind for quite a while.  “What is that cow thinking about?”  Every once in a while I knew that Ken Conrad had gained some enlightenment because he would suddenly turn to me and say, “Hey Sweet Pea!”  And then he would grin real big.  Yep.  He knew.  The meaning of life was within his grasp.

Anyway, long story short, before all the signs were hung by the barbed wire with care, I went up to the main office and asked Eldon Waugh if I could talk to him.  He was the plant manager.  The one I often have referred to as the “Evil Plant Manager”.  Mostly because I think he would have liked that title.  He worked so hard to obtain it.

I asked him if he had an opening at the plant because I would like to go to work there permanently.  He said there was a janitor position opening up and if it was all right with Ken Scott he would hire me.  So he paged Ken and asked him to come up to his office.  When he arrived, Eldon asked Ken if he thought they ought to hire me because I wanted to work at the plant full time.  Ken said that he would be happy to hire me on as a janitor.

I don’t know if Ken realized at the time how much trouble I would cause in the years that followed, because I always had come across as a fairly decent person up to that point.  So I don’t know if he ever regretted his decision.  I’m pretty sure that Eldon did and I know that Bill Moler regretted it when he returned from his summer vacation to find me standing in the janitor closet across from his office.  He was none too happy about it.  Especially since he considered it his job to do the hiring for people in the maintenance shop.  Bill knew that I had already expressed my willingness to open my mouth and reveal my innermost thoughts right to someone’s face at the most inappropriate moments.  I used to explain that I took after my Italian Mother who always spoke twice before thinking.

That was how I was able to escape the sign hangin’ chain gang and became the Janitor that I was always meant to be!  Years later the words had worn off of the signs, but the white signs were still hanging from those barbed wire fences for as long as I can remember.  Now that I think about it, I wonder what Jim Heflin was thinking when I became a janitor and he still had to tote babbling summer helps around the wilderness in the hot sun with an endless supply of Burning Cat Jokes.  Was he wishing that he had thought twice before he spoke about having us hang the signs?  Or maybe he didn’t and I just imagined that he was slightly upset all because I had said those two impulsive words….. “Brenda Bulldog!”

 

Comment from previous Repost

  1. Ron   July 24, 2013:

    Good Story!
    I still remember my first job as a “Summer Student” at the Mustang Plant (1967). Ben Snow and I worked from the top of the turbine room crane and changed out all the burned-out light bulbs (1,000 watt incandescent). Boy – that was one HOT job!