Tag Archives: Jim Padgett

Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes

Originally posted April 25, 2014:

Later in life, thinking back to when I was young, I sometimes wonder at how my first real friend, Mark Schlemper remained my friend throughout my childhood.  I remember as a boy, there were times when I wasn’t the friendliest friend.  Sometimes I was downright selfish.  Mark, on the other hand, was always considerate.  Not in an Eddie Haskell way, but in a sincere way.  I learned a lot about being a kinder person from Mark, and I’m forever grateful.

Mark Schlemper with his Mother. Two very good people.

My favorite picture of Mark Schlemper with his Mother

I think if Mark had not been my friend during my childhood, then this story would have a very different ending.

Last Friday (April 18, 2014), I posted a story called “Vertan or Sand and Making Enemies of a Power Plant Man“.  At the end of that post I explained that I had become the enemy of a team leader during the “We’ve Got The Power” program.  I explained this program in the post:  “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“.  With all that said, here is the story:

I was a plant electrician at a coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we took part in the “We’ve Got The Power” program.  At the time, I was in charge of maintaining the Unit 1 precipitator.  The precipitator is what takes the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler, so that you don’t normally see smoke coming out of a Power Plant Smokestack.

My bucket buddy in the Electric Shop, Diana Brien was on a team that tried an experiment on the Unit 1 precipitator by injecting sand into the intake duct in the hope that it would increase the performance.  I didn’t put much faith in the experiment, because it was based on something that had happened almost a year earlier when sand was burned in the boiler in order to burn off the oil that had been soaked into the sand.

I hadn’t seen any sand build up in front of the precipitator during the next overhaul, and didn’t believe that any of it had been able to make it’s way through the economizer and the air preheaters to the precipitator.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler.  The precipitator is after the air preheater where it is labelled “Flue gas”

When Ron Kilman asked me about it, I said that I didn’t think it would do any good, but also, it wouldn’t do any harm either, so I told Ron that I couldn’t see any reason not to do the experiment.  Who knows.  Maybe something unexpected would happen.  — Something did, but not quite in the way anyone would have expected.

On the day of the experiment, sand was blown into the intake duct of the precipitator.  When the experiment was taking place, Diana Brien sat at the precipitator computer behind the Unit 1 Alarm Panel in the Control Room.  She was printing out readings every so many minutes as the experiment progressed.

At times, I walked by and checked on her to see how it was going.  One time when I was standing there watching the readings on the computer, all of the sudden the Opacity shot up.  Opacity is used to measure how much smoke is going out of the smoke stack.  Something definitely happened to cause a large puff of smoke.

I switched screens to look at the power on each of the control cabinets.  After a few seconds I found that cabinet 1A10 had zero Volts on the secondary side of the transformer.  It should have been somewhere above 40 Kilovolts.  The cabinet hadn’t tripped, but it wasn’t charging up the plates.  Cabinet 1A10 was in the very back row of the precipitator, and when the power shuts off on the cabinet it readily lets go of the ash that had built up on it when the rappers on the roof strike the plates.

When I saw the puff occur, I knew where to go look, because this happened whenever one of the back cabinets was turned off.  I told Dee that it looked like a fuse had blown on the cabinet.  The ash was going to continue billowing out of the precipitator for a couple of hours if I didn’t go do something about it.  So, I told Dee that I was going to go to the Precipitator Control Room and replace the fuse.

I passed through the electric shop to grab my tool bucket and headed out to the precipitator.  When I arrived, I found the cabinet just as it had indicated on the computer.  The fuse had obviously failed.  Interesting timing.  Coincidence?  I thought it was.  The fuses controlling the back cabinets were usually the ones that blew because we ran them at a much higher voltage than the rest of the cabinets (at the time).

This is a picture of the exact fuse I replaced, except the writing was pink instead of blue

This is a picture of the exact fuse I replaced, except the print was orange instead of blue

I quickly replaced the fuse (after attaching grounding cables to the leads, and using a pair of high voltage gloves).  Then I powered the cabinet back on.

 

High Voltage gloves like this

High Voltage gloves like this

I returned to the Control Room and told Dee that I replaced the fuse on cabinet 1A10.  The opacity had returned to normal.  I watched a few more minutes to make sure everything had stabilized, and then I left.

When Ron Kilman was evaluating the results of the experiment, he could plainly see that something strange had happened.  Smoke had been pouring out of the smoke stack in the middle of the experiment.  So, he asked me what I thought about it.

First of all, as a disclaimer, our team had our own experiments we had been conducting on the precipitator in hopes of coming up with money savings ideas.  So, when I told Ron what had happened with the fuse blowing, I wondered if he would trust me to tell the truth, since I had my own skin in the game.

I explained in detail to Ron how the fuse had blown and that I was standing next to Dee watching the computer when the smoke started blowing out of the stack.  I could tell that a fuse had blown by looking at the readings, so I went out and replaced the fuse.  I told him that fuses do blow periodically in the back of the precipitator, but I couldn’t explain why it happened to fail at that particular time.  After I gave him my explanation, he seemed satisfied that I was telling the truth.

I think a token amount of points were awarded to the team because something obviously had happened during the experiment, though it wasn’t clear that sand had anything to do with it.  On the other hand, our team was awarded a large amount of points for increasing the precipitator performance using a different method that I may bring up in a later post.  To the team that burned the sand, this looked a lot like foul play.

The leader of the team was the Shift Supervisor Jim Padgett.  He became very upset when he found out that I had gone to the precipitator control room during the experiment and worked on the equipment.  Our team had been awarded a lot of points that was enough to purchase the dining room table set that I have in my dining room today:

Dining Room Table received as an award from the "We've Got The Power" program

Dining Room Table received as an award from the “We’ve Got The Power” program

It became known throughout the control room and the electric shop that Jim Padgett viewed me as his enemy.  The other electricians would jokingly refer to Jim as my “friend”, knowing that Jim had basically declared “war” on me.  Any time someone in the shop would have something to say about Jim, they would say, “Kevin’s friend” Jim Padgett….”

When I first became aware that Jim was upset with me, I understood why.  If I had been in his shoes I would probably feel the same way.  It’s a rotten feeling when you believe that someone has cheated you out of something important.  So, I decided up front that I was going to become Jim’s best friend.  This is where I think my memory of Mark Schlemper with his patience for me as a boy helped me with this decision.

I had determined that any time Jim asked me to do something I wouldn’t hesitate to help him.  It took about a year before Jim could look at me without grimacing.  Finally, one day, he asked me if I would go look at something for him to see if we needed a clearance, or if it was something that could be fixed right away.  It was something minor, but I knew that this was an indicator that the ice was finally beginning to melt.  I was able to fix the problem on the spot, and returned to let him know.

Once we were on semi-speaking terms again, I took an opportunity one day to ask Jim if he would like to join our Computer Club.  I had started a Computer Club in the Electric Shop.  Anyone could join it for a one time fee of $5.00 that was used to buy shareware and disk cases.  For a while I also published a newsletter letting the members of the club know what games and such we had that could be checked out.

Once Jim Padgett joined the Computer Club, it was much easier to have a regular conversation outside of the normal daily business.  I had put the thought in my mind when I decided that Jim was going to become my best friend that nothing would make me happier than to be able to do something for Jim.  That way, no matter what I was doing at the time, if Jim asked me to do something for him, I would drop whatever I was doing and do my best to help.

I could go on and on explaining how gradually over time, not only was Jim my friend, but Jim acted more and more as if I was his friend as well.  Let me just say that the entire process took almost exactly ten years.  I can remember the exact moment when Jim indicated to me that I had become his friend.

Here is what happened:

The phone next to my bed rang at 2:15 in the morning on Thursday February 17, 2000.  I instantly knew what it meant when the phone rang in the middle of the night.  It meant that someone at the plant was calling because there was a problem.  Who else would be up on in the middle of the night?  The night shift of course.

When I answered the phone, Jim Padgett said, “I hate to wake you up buddy.”  I replied, “No.  That’s okay.  What’s up?”  Jim explained that the dumper was down and a train was about halfway through dumping the coal and everything was dead in the water.  I said, “Ok.  I’ll be right out.”

I turned to Kelly and told her that I had to go fix the dumper.  She already knew of course.  I pulled on a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and on the way out the door, I slipped on my work boots and laced them up.  Then I drove the 30 miles out to the plant.

It was just before 3:00 am when I arrived.  I grabbed my hardhat from the electric shop and took the elevator up to the Control Room.  Jim apologized again and told me that how the dumper acted when it shutdown.  I went back down the elevator to the electric shop where I grabbed the key to the pickup truck and my tool bucket and left the electric shop into the cool night air.

Power Plants at night take on magical properties.  It’s hard to explain.  Lights shining from the 25 story boilers, noises from steam pipes.  Hums from motors and transformers.  Night Hawks screeching.

When I arrived at the coalyard, I went straight into the Dumper Switchgear where the relays that controlled the dumper were mounted.  Having worked on the dumper for the past 17 years, I could troubleshoot the circuits in my sleep.  — Actually, I may have done just that.  It didn’t take long, and I had replaced a contact on a relay that had broken and had the Coalyard Operator test the dumper long enough to know it was going to work.

When I returned back to Control Room Jim was sitting in the Shift Supervisor’s office.  I walked in and showed him the small relay contact that had caused the failure.  Jim, looked at me and said something that I thought only a friend would say so casually.  I won’t use his exact words, though I remember not only the exact words, I remember his exact expression.  He indicated to me that he had passed some gas, and he was apologizing about it.  I replied, “Well.  That happens.” (No.  Not the other thing that happens).  I told him I was going to go home.  It was about 3:40 by that time.

Jim wished me a good night, and smiling with gratitude, thanked me again for coming  out.  As I was going back to the parking lot, and on the way home driving through the dark, tired from being woken up in the middle of the night, I had a great feeling of peace.  That brief conversation with Jim just before I left was so pleasant in an odd way that I knew we had become friends.  This was such a long way from where we had been 10 years earlier when Jim had literally wanted to kill me (well, not that he actually would…).

When I arrived home, I peeled my clothes off in the utility room to keep from tracking coal all over the house.  I set the small broken relay contact on the kitchen table as a token to my wife, so she could see why I was called out when she wakes up in the morning.  I climbed back into bed around 4:15 to sleep for another two hours.

That morning when I arrived at the plant, the first thing I learned was that about the time that my alarm had woken me up that morning, Jim Padgett had left his shift and driven to his home in Ponca City.  When he walked in the door to his house, he collapsed and died instantly of a heart attack.  That would have been about 3 hours after the moment that we had said goodbye.

 

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

I grieved for Jim’s wife Jane, who had worked for a while at the plant before marrying Jim, but I didn’t grieve for Jim.  Something told me, and maybe it was Jim, that he was at peace.  In the moment that I heard about Jim’s death, I burned the conversation we had just had that morning into my mind so that I would never forget it.

To this day whenever I know that someone is upset with me for something that I have done to them personally (which still happens occasionally), I am determined that they will become one of my best friends.  I will do anything for that person if they ask (unless, of course it is to “not be their friend”).  I have my childhood friend Mark Schlemper to thank for the attitude that helped me decide to reach out to Jim Padgett.  Without that experience while growing up, Jim and I would never have become friends.

I would like to leave you with a song that reminds me of Jim whenever I hear it.  It is called “Bright Eyes” from the movie “Watership Down”. Art Garfunkel sings it:

Note:  If you are not able to watch the video above, try clicking this link:  Bright Eyes, Art Garfunkel

 

Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion April 26, 2014

    I’m glad that you were able to work through a tough situation and reach the point of friendship. although, it does make the loss harder to accept.

  2. Jack Curtis May 6, 2014

    Your story would have been a matter of course for my grandparents and immediately understood and admired by my parents. I suspect that telling it to today’s children might draw blank stares …

    Midwestern values likely still include such behaviors, at least for a reasonable number of people. I doubt many folk on the coasts would identify with it. We have lost a lot and have yet to learn the price of that, seems to me.

Power Plant Birthday Phantom

Long before Facebook ever graced the pages of our browsers, Power Plant Birthday reminders began appearing in the Outlook E-mail Inboxes of Power Plant men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Today it seems commonplace to be reminded of your friends birthdays as your smartphone pops up a message to remind you.  In 1997, a strange event began happening at the plant.  It sent some scurrying about to find the culprit.  Others found it funny.  Some worried that their secrets were about to be revealed.  One person was totally surprised by the response (me).

January 3, 1997 Charles Foster and I went to our morning meeting with our team in the main break room where we would meet every morning to go over the work for the day.  Alan Kramer began the meeting by asking me a direct question.  He said something like, “Kevin.  Do you know anything about emails from the Birthday Phantom?”  I asked him what he meant, and he went on to explain.

Alan Kramer

Our Foreman Alan Kramer

Alan said that when someone opened up Outlook to check their e-mail that morning, shortly after they opened it up, an e-mail appeared in their inbox that was from themselves.  So, when Alan had logged in that morning, he received an e-mail from Alan Kramer.  When he opened it, it had a subject of “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday”.  The body of the e-mail said, “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday.  He is 48 years old today.  Please wish him a Happy Birthday.  The Birthday Phantom.”

Jim Kanelakos in in the middle in the back (third from the left) with the red plaid shirt standing behind Vonzell Lynn

Wayne Cranford is front and center on one knee between David Evans and John Costello

It happened that when Wayne Cranford opened his own e-mail, the subject said, “Happy Birthday Wayne Cranford!”  and the body of the email had the happy birthday song,  “Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday dear Wayne.  Happy Birthday to you.  The Birthday Phantom.

So, after Alan explained this to me, he looked at me again with a rather stern look and said, “Kevin.  Did you do this?”  What could I say?  So, I said, “Why is it that whenever something like this happens, I’m always the first one to be blamed for it?”  I knew at that point that Alan’s next response was going to mean the difference between night and day, so I put on the most indignant look I could.

Alan said, “Well.  I just had to ask.”  I shrugged like I understood and glanced over at Charles Foster who had a stunned look hidden behind his best poker face.  Something like this:

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

You see…. about a year earlier, before we were using Microsoft Outlook, we were using Novell’s Groupwise for email.  Alan Kramer had come to me and asked me if I had done something “wrong” in regard to emails.  It turned out that I was innocent of any “wrongdoing” in that instance (well, almost).  Charles Foster was my witness.

What had happened was that one day, Danny Cain, who was the Instrument and Controls person on our team had come into the electric shop office to make a phone call to someone at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  I think it was Ed Mayberry.  Email was a new idea for most people at the plant.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

While Danny was on the phone, I turned to the computer sitting on the desk across the room from Danny and wrote an e-mail to the person that Danny was talking to telling him not to believe a word Danny was saying… whatever it was…. it wasn’t important.  I just thought it would be funny to send an email to Ed about Danny while he was talking to Danny on the phone.

The subject of the email was “Danny Cain”.  As Danny was talking on the phone, he happened to turn around just as I was clicking “Send”, and he saw his name in the subject line.  Charles was sitting there next to me, as we were on break at the time.  Danny quickly asked what I was doing and why did he see his name on an e-mail.  I put on the guiltiest look I could and said, “Oh.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.”  Rolling my eyes with obvious guilt.

I didn’t know how much this bugged Danny until a couple of days later Alan came into the electric shop office and said he needed to ask me a serious question.  I could tell he was upset with me.  He asked, “Have you been reading other people’s emails?”  I was confused by the question, because I didn’t relate it to Danny from the other day.  So both Charles and I looked confused.

I told Alan that not only had I not read other people’s emails, but even if I could, I wouldn’t because I considered other people’s emails private.  Then I explained to him that Novell’s Groupwise email was very secure, and I wouldn’t know how to hack into their email if I had a desire.  Which I didn’t.

 

Novell's Groupwise

Novell’s Groupwise

Still confused by why Alan would ask the question both Charles and I asked Alan what this was all about.  He didn’t want to say who it was that told him they thought I was reading their emails, but after we pressed him, he told us that Danny Cain said he saw me reading his email when he was in the office.  Then both Charles and I knew what this was all about.

I explained to Alan that I was just joking around with Danny at the time.  I reasoned with Alan that I would have to be pretty stupid to wait until Danny was standing a few feet away from me before I decided to read his emails.  Alan accepted my explanation.  Especially since it was backed by one of the most honest people at the plant, Charles Foster.

So, fast forward to November 6, 1996.  We were now using Outlook.  That was about as secure as a bag of Oreo cookies in a kindergarten classroom.

I was sitting in the electric shop office with Charles during lunch, and I had just finished writing some fun little programs that automated pulling stock prices from the Internet and putting them in Excel each day.  I asked Charles, “What shall I do next?”

Charles thought for a few moments and said, “You know when we were still all in the electric shop before the downsizing, how when it was someone’s birthday we used to celebrate it by bringing a cake and having a lunch or something for that person?  Well.  We don’t do anything now.  Can you come up with something that will help celebrate birthdays?”

After brainstorming ideas, we settled on sending emails and the “Birthday Phantom” was born.  I thought it would be neat to learn how to write programs that used the Outlook API, sending emails, and stuff like that.  So, I went to work during my lunch breaks writing the program.

It only took a week or so to get it working, and then we ran a bunch of tests on it until we settled on having the emails be sent by the same person that is receiving the email when they log on the computer.  Each time a person logs on the computer, the program would be kicked off.

The first thing it would do was check to see if the person had already logged on that day.  If they had logged on before, then it would shutdown because I didn’t want it to send more than one email for the same day, even if the person used a different computer.

The next thing it would check was if the person was on an exception list.  We had decided that it was best to keep the plant manager and his cronies… um… I mean, his staff from receiving emails, as we didn’t think they would appreciate it since they didn’t have much use for such things.  If the person logging on was on the exceptions list, the application would shutdown.

Then, it would check to see if it was anyone’s birthday that day.  If it was, then it would send an email from the person logged on, to the person logged on.  If it was the birthday of the person logging on, then it would modify the email so that it was personalized to say happy birthday to them.

There were little tweeks I made while testing the application before we went live with it.  First, I added little things like making sure the gender was correct.  So, if it was a woman’s birthday, then it would say “…wish her a happy birthday”.

Charles and I decided that the application would start running on January 1, 1997.  So, during December, I made sure it was setup on all the computers in the plant except those belonging to the staff.  This brings us to January 3, 1997, when Wayne Cranford was the first Power Plant Man to have a birthday.

As I hinted above, Alan’s response to my indignation at being accused of creating the Birthday Phantom would have determined how short-lived the Birthday Phantom would have been.  Since Alan didn’t pursue the inquiry I didn’t offer any more information.

For instance.  A few minutes after the meeting was over, I walked over the control room, and the control room operators were all standing around talking about the Birthday Phantom.  David Evans asked me if I was the Birthday Phantom.  I responded the same way I did with Alan, I said, “Why is it that when something like this happens, I am always the first person to be accused?”  David responded with, “Yeah, but are you the Birthday Phantom?”  Well.  I wasn’t the type of person to blatantly lie, so I had to admit that “Yes.  I’m the Birthday Phantom, but don’t tell anyone.”  The Control room operators said they would all keep it to themselves (yeah.  right).

Though some people thought the Birthday Phantom was a nuisance, others thought that their personal emails were at risk, and that the Birthday Phantom could be stealing their emails.  Whenever I heard that anyone was upset (such as Alan) with the Birthday Phantom, I just added them to the exceptions list and they never received another Birthday Phantom email.

Jim Padgett, a Shift Supervisor, had received a Birthday Phantom email one day, and called IT to report it as they were trying to track down the program to figure out where it was coming from.  Jim Cave told me that  Padgett had the IT guy on the phone and he was logged into his computer to watch what happened when he logged on and opened up Outlook to try and find what was sending the emails.

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left standing next to Jim Cave in the Jean Jacket.

Jim Cave said that the IT guy was sounding hopeful that he was going to finally be able to catch the Birthday Phantom when all of the sudden he said, “Oh!  That’s a Wiley One!”  I came to understand that in Oklahoma City, the IT department was taking this so seriously that they assigned two people full time for two weeks to try and find the culprit (I added Jim Padgett to the exception list, so he didn’t receive any more emails).

I hadn’t thought about it when I was writing the application, but back at Corporate Headquarters, they thought that the application had somehow gained access to the HR system in order to find the birthdays of each employee.  Even though, things like Birthdays and Social Security Numbers were not as sensitive in 1997 (for instance, the plant manager’s Social Security Number was 430-68-….  You really didn’t think I would put his Social Security number here did you?), if someone was accessing the HR database, that would have been serious.

Even though the IT department was taking this very seriously, there was one timekeeper at the Power Plant that was just about climbing the walls over the Birthday Phantom.  She was so concerned that I was afraid she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  I was not surprised by this at all, and had actually anticipated her anxiety.  Actually, the Birthday Phantom was designed for just this reason.  You see, this particular timekeeper was going to be turning 40 years old one week after the first Birthday Phantom email showed up.

After the second Birthday Phantom email arrived the next Monday on January 6, announcing that Jerry Potter had just turned 36, Linda Shiever called me and asked me if I could find out how to stop the Birthday Phantom.  I told her I would look into it.  I did look into it for about one second.  Linda was turning 40 on Friday.

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

On Wednesday, January 8, not only did Elvis Presley turn 62 (if he had been alive… or…. um…well, you know…) but the Birthday Phantom informed everyone at the plant that Sonny Kendrick (who was only 5 days younger than Wayne Cranford) had also turned 48 years old.  Linda Shiever was thinking about calling in sick on Friday.

Linda knew that when she came to work the morning of January 10, that her cube would be full of black balloons with the number 40 on them.  She had resigned herself to this a while before when she helped blow up the balloons for Louise Kalicki’s cube the previous August 23, less than 5 months earlier.  The appearance of the Birthday Phantom, however, had thrown in a new element of recognition.

The morning of January 10, 1997 finally arrived, and the Birthday Phantom email notified everyone that it was not only Linda Shiever’s birthday, but it was also Gene Day’s birthday as well.  Yeah.  The application could handle multiple birthdays on the same day.  Linda Shiever was happy to find out that the Birthday Phantom had informed the entire Power Plant that she had just turned 29.  In fact, that year, every woman at the plant was turning 29 years old according to the Birthday Phantom. — That was another one of those tweeks that came out of our testing.

Gene Day, on the other hand, according to the Birthday Phantom had just turned 100 years old…. Well.. Everyone knew he was ancient (See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” and the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“).  Needless to say, there was a lot less stress in the office area after that day.

The following week, when I went to the tool room to get some supplies, Darlene Mitchell stopped me and asked me if the Birthday Phantom would do her a favor.  She was turning 45 years old on January 28, and she didn’t want the Birthday Phantom to tell everyone she was 29.  She wanted it to say, “Today is Darlene Mitchell’s Birthday, She is 45 years old and Lovin’ it!  Please wish her a Happy Birthday!”  I told her I would have a talk with the Birthday Phantom and it shouldn’t be a problem.

Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

Darlene Mitchell, a dear friend of the Birthday Phantom

After a month, when I was in the Control Room, Jim Cave, who was now referring to me regularly as “The Wiley One” said that the IT department had told Jack Maloy that they were no longer looking for the Birthday Phantom.  They were not able to find it.  The person that did it would just have to tell them who it was.

I still have the computer code I used when I wrote the program.  Sometimes I take it out and read it and I remember that year when the Birthday Phantom visited the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to remind everyone that we were all growing older and as a family, we should take the time to stop and say “Happy Birthday” to each other on that one day each year when we are special.

Birthday Phantom Code

Page 1 of the Birthday Phantom Code

Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes

Originally posted April 25, 2014:

Later in life, thinking back to when I was young, I sometimes wonder at how my first real friend, Mark Schlemper remained my friend throughout my childhood.  I remember as a boy, there were times when I wasn’t the friendliest friend.  Sometimes I was downright selfish.  Mark, on the other hand, was always considerate.  Not in an Eddie Haskell way, but in a sincere way.  I learned a lot about being a kinder person from Mark, and I’m forever grateful.

Mark Schlemper with his Mother.  Two very good people.

My favorite picture of Mark Schlemper with his Mother

I think if Mark had not been my friend during my childhood, then this story would have a very different ending.

Last Friday (April 18, 2014), I posted a story called “Vertan or Sand and Making Enemies of a Power Plant Man“.  At the end of that post I explained that I had become the enemy of a team leader during the “We’ve Got The Power” program.  I explained this program in the post:  “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“.  With all that said, here is the story:

I was a plant electrician at a coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we took part in the “We’ve Got The Power” program.  At the time, I was in charge of maintaining the Unit 1 precipitator.  The precipitator is what takes the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler, so that you don’t normally see smoke coming out of a Power Plant Smokestack.

My bucket buddy in the Electric Shop, Diana Brien was on a team that tried an experiment on the Unit 1 precipitator by injecting sand into the intake duct in the hope that it would increase the performance.  I didn’t put much faith in the experiment, because it was based on something that had happened almost a year earlier when sand was burned in the boiler in order to burn off the oil that had been soaked into the sand.

I hadn’t seen any sand build up in front of the precipitator during the next overhaul, and didn’t believe that any of it had been able to make it’s way through the economizer and the air preheaters to the precipitator.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler.  The precipitator is after the air preheater where it is labelled “Flue gas”

When Ron Kilman asked me about it, I said that I didn’t think it would do any good, but also, it wouldn’t do any harm either, so I told Ron that I couldn’t see any reason not to do the experiment.  Who knows.  Maybe something unexpected would happen.  — Something did, but not quite in the way anyone would have expected.

On the day of the experiment, sand was blown into the intake duct of the precipitator.  When the experiment was taking place, Diana Brien sat at the precipitator computer behind the Unit 1 Alarm Panel in the Control Room.  She was printing out readings every so many minutes as the experiment progressed.

At times, I walked by and checked on her to see how it was going.  One time when I was standing there watching the readings on the computer, all of the sudden the Opacity shot up.  Opacity is used to measure how much smoke is going out of the smoke stack.  Something definitely happened to cause a large puff of smoke.

I switched screens to look at the power on each of the control cabinets.  After a few seconds I found that cabinet 1A10 had zero Volts on the secondary side of the transformer.  It should have been somewhere above 40 Kilovolts.  The cabinet hadn’t tripped, but it wasn’t charging up the plates.  Cabinet 1A10 was in the very back row of the precipitator, and when the power shuts off on the cabinet it readily lets go of the ash that had built up on it when the rappers on the roof strike the plates.

When I saw the puff occur, I knew where to go look, because this happened whenever one of the back cabinets was turned off.  I told Dee that it looked like a fuse had blown on the cabinet.  The ash was going to continue billowing out of the precipitator for a couple of hours if I didn’t go do something about it.  So, I told Dee that I was going to go to the Precipitator Control Room and replace the fuse.

I passed through the electric shop to grab my tool bucket and headed out to the precipitator.  When I arrived, I found the cabinet just as it had indicated on the computer.  The fuse had obviously failed.  Interesting timing.  Coincidence?  I thought it was.  The fuses controlling the back cabinets were usually the ones that blew because we ran them at a much higher voltage than the rest of the cabinets (at the time).

This is a picture of the exact fuse I replaced, except the writing was pink instead of blue

This is a picture of the exact fuse I replaced, except the print was orange instead of blue

I quickly replaced the fuse (after attaching grounding cables to the leads, and using a pair of high voltage gloves).  Then I powered the cabinet back on.

 

High Voltage gloves like this

High Voltage gloves like this

I returned to the Control Room and told Dee that I replaced the fuse on cabinet 1A10.  The opacity had returned to normal.  I watched a few more minutes to make sure everything had stabilized, and then I left.

When Ron Kilman was evaluating the results of the experiment, he could plainly see that something strange had happened.  Smoke had been pouring out of the smoke stack in the middle of the experiment.  So, he asked me what I thought about it.

First of all, as a disclaimer, our team had our own experiments we had been conducting on the precipitator in hopes of coming up with money savings ideas.  So, when I told Ron what had happened with the fuse blowing, I wondered if he would trust me to tell the truth, since I had my own skin in the game.

I explained in detail to Ron how the fuse had blown and that I was standing next to Dee watching the computer when the smoke started blowing out of the stack.  I could tell that a fuse had blown by looking at the readings, so I went out and replaced the fuse.  I told him that fuses do blow periodically in the back of the precipitator, but I couldn’t explain why it happened to fail at that particular time.  After I gave him my explanation, he seemed satisfied that I was telling the truth.

I think a token amount of points were awarded to the team because something obviously had happened during the experiment, though it wasn’t clear that sand had anything to do with it.  On the other hand, our team was awarded a large amount of points for increasing the precipitator performance using a different method that I may bring up in a later post.  To the team that burned the sand, this looked a lot like foul play.

The leader of the team was the Shift Supervisor Jim Padgett.  He became very upset when he found out that I had gone to the precipitator control room during the experiment and worked on the equipment.  Our team had been awarded a lot of points that was enough to purchase the dining room table set that I have in my dining room today:

Dining Room Table received as an award from the "We've Got The Power" program

Dining Room Table received as an award from the “We’ve Got The Power” program

It became known throughout the control room and the electric shop that Jim Padgett viewed me as his enemy.  The other electricians would jokingly refer to Jim as my “friend”, knowing that Jim had basically declared “war” on me.  Any time someone in the shop would have something to say about Jim, they would say, “Kevin’s friend” Jim Padgett….”

When I first became aware that Jim was upset with me, I understood why.  If I had been in his shoes I would probably feel the same way.  It’s a rotten feeling when you believe that someone has cheated you out of something important.  So, I decided up front that I was going to become Jim’s best friend.  This is where I think my memory of Mark Schlemper with his patience for me as a boy helped me with this decision.

I had determined that any time Jim asked me to do something I wouldn’t hesitate to help him.  It took about a year before Jim could look at me without grimacing.  Finally, one day, he asked me if I would go look at something for him to see if we needed a clearance, or if it was something that could be fixed right away.  It was something minor, but I knew that this was an indicator that the ice was finally beginning to melt.  I was able to fix the problem on the spot, and returned to let him know.

Once we were on semi-speaking terms again, I took an opportunity one day to ask Jim if he would like to join our Computer Club.  I had started a Computer Club in the Electric Shop.  Anyone could join it for a one time fee of $5.00 that was used to buy shareware and disk cases.  For a while I also published a newsletter letting the members of the club know what games and such we had that could be checked out.

Once Jim Padgett joined the Computer Club, it was much easier to have a regular conversation outside of the normal daily business.  I had put the thought in my mind when I decided that Jim was going to become my best friend that nothing would make me happier than to be able to do something for Jim.  That way, no matter what I was doing at the time, if Jim asked me to do something for him, I would drop whatever I was doing and do my best to help.

I could go on and on explaining how gradually over time, not only was Jim my friend, but Jim acted more and more as if I was his friend as well.  Let me just say that the entire process took almost exactly ten years.  I can remember the exact moment when Jim indicated to me that I had become his friend.

Here is what happened:

The phone next to my bed rang at 2:15 in the morning on Thursday February 17, 2000.  I instantly knew what it meant when the phone rang in the middle of the night.  It meant that someone at the plant was calling because there was a problem.  Who else would be up on in the middle of the night?  The night shift of course.

When I answered the phone, Jim Padgett said, “I hate to wake you up buddy.”  I replied, “No.  That’s okay.  What’s up?”  Jim explained that the dumper was down and a train was about halfway through dumping the coal and everything was dead in the water.  I said, “Ok.  I’ll be right out.”

I turned to Kelly and told her that I had to go fix the dumper.  She already knew of course.  I pulled on a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and on the way out the door, I slipped on my work boots and laced them up.  Then I drove the 30 miles out to the plant.

It was just before 3:00 am when I arrived.  I grabbed my hardhat from the electric shop and took the elevator up to the Control Room.  Jim apologized again and told me that how the dumper acted when it shutdown.  I went back down the elevator to the electric shop where I grabbed the key to the pickup truck and my tool bucket and left the electric shop into the cool night air.

Power Plants at night take on magical properties.  It’s hard to explain.  Lights shining from the 25 story boilers, noises from steam pipes.  Hums from motors and transformers.  Night Hawks screeching.

When I arrived at the coalyard, I went straight into the Dumper Switchgear where the relays that controlled the dumper were mounted.  Having worked on the dumper for the past 17 years, I could troubleshoot the circuits in my sleep.  — Actually, I may have done just that.  It didn’t take long, and I had replaced a contact on a relay that had broken and had the Coalyard Operator test the dumper long enough to know it was going to work.

When I returned back to Control Room Jim was sitting in the Shift Supervisor’s office.  I walked in and showed him the small relay contact that had caused the failure.  Jim, looked at me and said something that I thought only a friend would say so casually.  I won’t use his exact words, though I remember not only the exact words, I remember his exact expression.  He indicated to me that he had passed some gas, and he was apologizing about it.  I replied, “Well.  That happens.” (No.  Not the other thing that happens).  I told him I was going to go home.  It was about 3:40 by that time.

Jim wished me a good night, and smiling with gratitude, thanked me again for coming  out.  As I was going back to the parking lot, and on the way home driving through the dark, tired from being woken up in the middle of the night, I had a great feeling of peace.  That brief conversation with Jim just before I left was so pleasant in an odd way that I knew we had become friends.  This was such a long way from where we had been 10 years earlier when Jim had literally wanted to kill me (well, not that he actually would…).

When I arrived home, I peeled my clothes off in the utility room to keep from tracking coal all over the house.  I set the small broken relay contact on the kitchen table as a token to my wife, so she could see why I was called out when she wakes up in the morning.  I climbed back into bed around 4:15 to sleep for another two hours.

That morning when I arrived at the plant, the first thing I learned was that about the time that my alarm had woken me up that morning, Jim Padgett had left his shift and driven to his home in Ponca City.  When he walked in the door to his house, he collapsed and died instantly of a heart attack.  That would have been about 3 hours after the moment that we had said goodbye.

 

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

I grieved for Jim’s wife Jane, who had worked for a while at the plant before marrying Jim, but I didn’t grieve for Jim.  Something told me, and maybe it was Jim, that he was at peace.  In the moment that I heard about Jim’s death, I burned the conversation we had just had that morning into my mind so that I would never forget it.

To this day whenever I know that someone is upset with me for something that I have done to them personally (which still happens occasionally), I am determined that they will become one of my best friends.  I will do anything for that person if they ask (unless, of course it is to “not be their friend”).  I have my childhood friend Mark Schlemper to thank for the attitude that helped me decide to reach out to Jim Padgett.  Without that experience while growing up, Jim and I would never have become friends.

I would like to leave you with a song that reminds me of Jim whenever I hear it.  It is called “Bright Eyes” from the movie “Watership Down”. Art Garfunkel sings it:

Note:  If you are not able to watch the video above, try clicking this link:  Bright Eyes, Art Garfunkel

 

Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion April 26, 2014

    I’m glad that you were able to work through a tough situation and reach the point of friendship. although, it does make the loss harder to accept.

  2. Jack Curtis May 6, 2014

    Your story would have been a matter of course for my grandparents and immediately understood and admired by my parents. I suspect that telling it to today’s children might draw blank stares …

    Midwestern values likely still include such behaviors, at least for a reasonable number of people. I doubt many folk on the coasts would identify with it. We have lost a lot and have yet to learn the price of that, seems to me.

Power Plant Birthday Phantom

Long before Facebook ever graced the pages of our browsers, Power Plant Birthday reminders began appearing in the Outlook E-mail Inboxes of Power Plant men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Today it seems commonplace to be reminded of your friends birthdays as your smartphone pops up a message to remind you.  In 1997, a strange event began happening at the plant.  It sent some scurrying about to find the culprit.  Others found it funny.  Some worried that their secrets were about to be revealed.  One person was totally surprised by the response (me).

January 3, 1997 Charles Foster and I went to our morning meeting with our team in the main break room where we would meet every morning to go over the work for the day.  Alan Kramer began the meeting by asking me a direct question.  He said something like, “Kevin.  Do you know anything about emails from the Birthday Phantom?”  I asked him what he meant, and he went on to explain.

Alan Kramer

Our Foreman Alan Kramer

Alan said that when someone opened up Outlook to check their e-mail that morning, shortly after they opened it up, an e-mail appeared in their inbox that was from themselves.  So, when Alan had logged in that morning, he received an e-mail from Alan Kramer.  When he opened it, it had a subject of “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday”.  The body of the e-mail said, “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday.  He is 48 years old today.  Please wish him a Happy Birthday.  The Birthday Phantom.”

Jim Kanelakos in in the middle in the back (third from the left) with the red plaid shirt standing behind Vonzell Lynn

Wayne Cranford is front and center on one knee between David Evans and John Costello

It happened that when Wayne Cranford opened his own e-mail, the subject said, “Happy Birthday Wayne Cranford!”  and the body of the email had the happy birthday song,  “Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday dear Wayne.  Happy Birthday to you.  The Birthday Phantom.

So, after Alan explained this to me, he looked at me again with a rather stern look and said, “Kevin.  Did you do this?”  What could I say?  So, I said, “Why is it that whenever something like this happens, I’m always the first one to be blamed for it?”  I knew at that point that Alan’s next response was going to mean the difference between night and day, so I put on the most indignant look I could.

Alan said, “Well.  I just had to ask.”  I shrugged like I understood and glanced over at Charles Foster who had a stunned look hidden behind his best poker face.  Something like this:

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

You see…. about a year earlier, before we were using Microsoft Outlook, we were using Novell’s Groupwise for email.  Alan Kramer had come to me and asked me if I had done something “wrong” in regard to emails.  It turned out that I was innocent of any “wrongdoing” in that instance (well, almost).  Charles Foster was my witness.

What had happened was that one day, Danny Cain, who was the Instrument and Controls person on our team had come into the electric shop office to make a phone call to someone at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  I think it was Ed Mayberry.  Email was a new idea for most people at the plant.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

While Danny was on the phone, I turned to the computer sitting on the desk across the room from Danny and wrote an e-mail to the person that Danny was talking to telling him not to believe a word Danny was saying… whatever it was…. it wasn’t important.  I just thought it would be funny to send an email to Ed about Danny while he was talking to Danny on the phone.

The subject of the email was “Danny Cain”.  As Danny was talking on the phone, he happened to turn around just as I was clicking “Send”, and he saw his name in the subject line.  Charles was sitting there next to me, as we were on break at the time.  Danny quickly asked what I was doing and why did he see his name on an e-mail.  I put on the guiltiest look I could and said, “Oh.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.”  Rolling my eyes with obvious guilt.

I didn’t know how much this bugged Danny until a couple of days later Alan came into the electric shop office and said he needed to ask me a serious question.  I could tell he was upset with me.  He asked, “Have you been reading other people’s emails?”  I was confused by the question, because I didn’t relate it to Danny from the other day.  So both Charles and I looked confused.

I told Alan that not only had I not read other people’s emails, but even if I could, I wouldn’t because I considered other people’s emails private.  Then I explained to him that Novell’s Groupwise email was very secure, and I wouldn’t know how to hack into their email if I had a desire.  Which I didn’t.

 

Novell's Groupwise

Novell’s Groupwise

Still confused by why Alan would ask the question both Charles and I asked Alan what this was all about.  He didn’t want to say who it was that told him they thought I was reading their emails, but after we pressed him, he told us that Danny Cain said he saw me reading his email when he was in the office.  Then both Charles and I knew what this was all about.

I explained to Alan that I was just joking around with Danny at the time.  I reasoned with Alan that I would have to be pretty stupid to wait until Danny was standing a few feet away from me before I decided to read his emails.  Alan accepted my explanation.  Especially since it was backed by one of the most honest people at the plant, Charles Foster.

So, fast forward to November 6, 1996.  We were now using Outlook.  That was about as secure as a bag of Oreo cookies in a kindergarten classroom.

I was sitting in the electric shop office with Charles during lunch, and I had just finished writing some fun little programs that automated pulling stock prices from the Internet and putting them in Excel each day.  I asked Charles, “What shall I do next?”

Charles thought for a few moments and said, “You know when we were still all in the electric shop before the downsizing, how when it was someone’s birthday we used to celebrate it by bringing a cake and having a lunch or something for that person?  Well.  We don’t do anything now.  Can you come up with something that will help celebrate birthdays?”

After brainstorming ideas, we settled on sending emails and the “Birthday Phantom” was born.  I thought it would be neat to learn how to write programs that used the Outlook API, sending emails, and stuff like that.  So, I went to work during my lunch breaks writing the program.

It only took a week or so to get it working, and then we ran a bunch of tests on it until we settled on having the emails be sent by the same person that is receiving the email when they log on the computer.  Each time a person logs on the computer, the program would be kicked off.

The first thing it would do was check to see if the person had already logged on that day.  If they had logged on before, then it would shutdown because I didn’t want it to send more than one email for the same day, even if the person used a different computer.

The next thing it would check was if the person was on an exception list.  We had decided that it was best to keep the plant manager and his cronies… um… I mean, his staff from receiving emails, as we didn’t think they would appreciate it since they didn’t have much use for such things.  If the person logging on was on the exceptions list, the application would shutdown.

Then, it would check to see if it was anyone’s birthday that day.  If it was, then it would send an email from the person logged on, to the person logged on.  If it was the birthday of the person logging on, then it would modify the email so that it was personalized to say happy birthday to them.

There were little tweeks I made while testing the application before we went live with it.  First, I added little things like making sure the gender was correct.  So, if it was a woman’s birthday, then it would say “…wish her a happy birthday”.

Charles and I decided that the application would start running on January 1, 1997.  So, during December, I made sure it was setup on all the computers in the plant except those belonging to the staff.  This brings us to January 3, 1997, when Wayne Cranford was the first Power Plant Man to have a birthday.

As I hinted above, Alan’s response to my indignation at being accused of creating the Birthday Phantom would have determined how short-lived the Birthday Phantom would have been.  Since Alan didn’t pursue the inquiry I didn’t offer any more information.

For instance.  A few minutes after the meeting was over, I walked over the control room, and the control room operators were all standing around talking about the Birthday Phantom.  David Evans asked me if I was the Birthday Phantom.  I responded the same way I did with Alan, I said, “Why is it that when something like this happens, I am always the first person to be accused?”  David responded with, “Yeah, but are you the Birthday Phantom?”  Well.  I wasn’t the type of person to blatantly lie, so I had to admit that “Yes.  I’m the Birthday Phantom, but don’t tell anyone.”  The Control room operators said they would all keep it to themselves (yeah.  right).

Though some people thought the Birthday Phantom was a nuisance, others thought that their personal emails were at risk, and that the Birthday Phantom could be stealing their emails.  Whenever I heard that anyone was upset (such as Alan) with the Birthday Phantom, I just added them to the exceptions list and they never received another Birthday Phantom email.

Jim Padgett, a Shift Supervisor, had received a Birthday Phantom email one day, and called IT to report it as they were trying to track down the program to figure out where it was coming from.  Jim Cave told me that  Padgett had the IT guy on the phone and he was logged into his computer to watch what happened when he logged on and opened up Outlook to try and find what was sending the emails.

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left standing next to Jim Cave in the Jean Jacket.

Jim Cave said that the IT guy was sounding hopeful that he was going to finally be able to catch the Birthday Phantom when all of the sudden he said, “Oh!  That’s a Wiley One!”  I came to understand that in Oklahoma City, the IT department was taking this so seriously that they assigned two people full time for two weeks to try and find the culprit (I added Jim Padgett to the exception list, so he didn’t receive any more emails).

I hadn’t thought about it when I was writing the application, but back at Corporate Headquarters, they thought that the application had somehow gained access to the HR system in order to find the birthdays of each employee.  Even though, things like Birthdays and Social Security Numbers were not as sensitive in 1997 (for instance, the plant manager’s Social Security Number was 430-68-….  You really didn’t think I would put his Social Security number here did you?), if someone was accessing the HR database, that would have been serious.

Even though the IT department was taking this very seriously, there was one timekeeper at the Power Plant that was just about climbing the walls over the Birthday Phantom.  She was so concerned that I was afraid she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  I was not surprised by this at all, and had actually anticipated her anxiety.  Actually, the Birthday Phantom was designed for just this reason.  You see, this particular timekeeper was going to be turning 40 years old one week after the first Birthday Phantom email showed up.

After the second Birthday Phantom email arrived the next Monday on January 6, announcing that Jerry Potter had just turned 36, Linda Shiever called me and asked me if I could find out how to stop the Birthday Phantom.  I told her I would look into it.  I did look into it for about one second.  Linda was turning 40 on Friday.

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

On Wednesday, January 8, not only did Elvis Presley turn 62 (if he had been alive… or…. um…well, you know…) but the Birthday Phantom informed everyone at the plant that Sonny Kendrick (who was only 5 days younger than Wayne Cranford) had also turned 48 years old.  Linda Shiever was thinking about calling in sick on Friday.

Linda knew that when she came to work the morning of January 10, that her cube would be full of black balloons with the number 40 on them.  She had resigned herself to this a while before when she helped blow up the balloons for Louise Kalicki’s cube the previous August 23, less than 5 months earlier.  The appearance of the Birthday Phantom, however, had thrown in a new element of recognition.

The morning of January 10, 1997 finally arrived, and the Birthday Phantom email notified everyone that it was not only Linda Shiever’s birthday, but it was also Gene Day’s birthday as well.  Yeah.  The application could handle multiple birthdays on the same day.  Linda Shiever was happy to find out that the Birthday Phantom had informed the entire Power Plant that she had just turned 29.  In fact, that year, every woman at the plant was turning 29 years old according to the Birthday Phantom. — That was another one of those tweeks that came out of our testing.

Gene Day, on the other hand, according to the Birthday Phantom had just turned 100 years old…. Well.. Everyone knew he was ancient (See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” and the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“).  Needless to say, there was a lot less stress in the office area after that day.

The following week, when I went to the tool room to get some supplies, Darlene Mitchell stopped me and asked me if the Birthday Phantom would do her a favor.  She was turning 45 years old on January 28, and she didn’t want the Birthday Phantom to tell everyone she was 29.  She wanted it to say, “Today is Darlene Mitchell’s Birthday, She is 45 years old and Lovin’ it!  Please wish her a Happy Birthday!”  I told her I would have a talk with the Birthday Phantom and it shouldn’t be a problem.

Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

Darlene Mitchell, a dear friend of the Birthday Phantom

After a month, when I was in the Control Room, Jim Cave, who was now referring to me regularly as “The Wiley One” said that the IT department had told Jack Maloy that they were no longer looking for the Birthday Phantom.  They were not able to find it.  The person that did it would just have to tell them who it was.

I still have the computer code I used when I wrote the program.  Sometimes I take it out and read it and I remember that year when the Birthday Phantom visited the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to remind everyone that we were all growing older and as a family, we should take the time to stop and say “Happy Birthday” to each other on that one day each year when we are special.

Birthday Phantom Code

Page 1 of the Birthday Phantom Code

Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes

Originally posted April 25, 2014:

Later in life, thinking back to when I was young, I sometimes wonder at how my first real friend, Mark Schlemper remained my friend throughout my childhood.  I remember as a boy, there were times when I wasn’t the friendliest friend.  Sometimes I was downright selfish.  Mark, on the other hand, was always considerate.  Not in an Eddie Haskell way, but in a sincere way.  I learned a lot about being a kinder person from Mark, and I’m forever grateful.

Mark Schlemper with his Mother.  Two very good people.

My favorite picture of Mark Schlemper with his Mother

I think if Mark had not been my friend during my childhood, then this story would have a very different ending.

Last Friday (April 18, 2014), I posted a story called “Vertan or Sand and Making Enemies of a Power Plant Man“.  At the end of that post I explained that I had become the enemy of a team leader during the “We’ve Got The Power” program.  I explained this program in the post:  “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“.  With all that said, here is the story:

I was a plant electrician at a coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we took part in the “We’ve Got The Power” program.  At the time, I was in charge of maintaining the Unit 1 precipitator.  The precipitator is what takes the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler, so that you don’t normally see smoke coming out of a Power Plant Smokestack.

My bucket buddy in the Electric Shop, Diana Brien was on a team that tried an experiment on the Unit 1 precipitator by injecting sand into the intake duct in the hope that it would increase the performance.  I didn’t put much faith in the experiment, because it was based on something that had happened almost a year earlier when sand was burned in the boiler in order to burn off the oil that had been soaked into the sand.

I hadn’t seen any sand build up in front of the precipitator during the next overhaul, and didn’t believe that any of it had been able to make it’s way through the economizer and the air preheaters to the precipitator.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler.  The precipitator is after the air preheater where it is labelled “Flue gas”

When Ron Kilman asked me about it, I said that I didn’t think it would do any good, but also, it wouldn’t do any harm either, so I told Ron that I couldn’t see any reason not to do the experiment.  Who knows.  Maybe something unexpected would happen.  — Something did, but not quite in the way anyone would have expected.

On the day of the experiment, sand was blown into the intake duct of the precipitator.  When the experiment was taking place, Diana Brien sat at the precipitator computer behind the Unit 1 Alarm Panel in the Control Room.  She was printing out readings every so many minutes as the experiment progressed.

At times, I walked by and checked on her to see how it was going.  One time when I was standing there watching the readings on the computer, all of the sudden the Opacity shot up.  Opacity is used to measure how much smoke is going out of the smoke stack.  Something definitely happened to cause a large puff of smoke.

I switched screens to look at the power on each of the control cabinets.  After a few seconds I found that cabinet 1A10 had zero Volts on the secondary side of the transformer.  It should have been somewhere above 40 Kilovolts.  The cabinet hadn’t tripped, but it wasn’t charging up the plates.  Cabinet 1A10 was in the very back row of the precipitator, and when the power shuts off on the cabinet it readily lets go of the ash that had built up on it when the rappers on the roof strike the plates.

When I saw the puff occur, I knew where to go look, because this happened whenever one of the back cabinets was turned off.  I told Dee that it looked like a fuse had blown on the cabinet.  The ash was going to continue billowing out of the precipitator for a couple of hours if I didn’t go do something about it.  So, I told Dee that I was going to go to the Precipitator Control Room and replace the fuse.

I passed through the electric shop to grab my tool bucket and headed out to the precipitator.  When I arrived, I found the cabinet just as it had indicated on the computer.  The fuse had obviously failed.  Interesting timing.  Coincidence?  I thought it was.  The fuses controlling the back cabinets were usually the ones that blew because we ran them at a much higher voltage than the rest of the cabinets (at the time).

This is a picture of the exact fuse I replaced, except the writing was pink instead of blue

This is a picture of the exact fuse I replaced, except the print was orange instead of blue

I quickly replaced the fuse (after attaching grounding cables to the leads, and using a pair of high voltage gloves).  Then I powered the cabinet back on.

 

High Voltage gloves like this

High Voltage gloves like this

I returned to the Control Room and told Dee that I replaced the fuse on cabinet 1A10.  The opacity had returned to normal.  I watched a few more minutes to make sure everything had stabilized, and then I left.

When Ron Kilman was evaluating the results of the experiment, he could plainly see that something strange had happened.  Smoke had been pouring out of the smoke stack in the middle of the experiment.  So, he asked me what I thought about it.

First of all, as a disclaimer, our team had our own experiments we had been conducting on the precipitator in hopes of coming up with money savings ideas.  So, when I told Ron what had happened with the fuse blowing, I wondered if he would trust me to tell the truth, since I had my own skin in the game.

I explained in detail to Ron how the fuse had blown and that I was standing next to Dee watching the computer when the smoke started blowing out of the stack.  I could tell that a fuse had blown by looking at the readings, so I went out and replaced the fuse.  I told him that fuses do blow periodically in the back of the precipitator, but I couldn’t explain why it happened to fail at that particular time.  After I gave him my explanation, he seemed satisfied that I was telling the truth.

I think a token amount of points were awarded to the team because something obviously had happened during the experiment, though it wasn’t clear that sand had anything to do with it.  On the other hand, our team was awarded a large amount of points for increasing the precipitator performance using a different method that I may bring up in a later post.  To the team that burned the sand, this looked a lot like foul play.

The leader of the team was the Shift Supervisor Jim Padgett.  He became very upset when he found out that I had gone to the precipitator control room during the experiment and worked on the equipment.  Our team had been awarded a lot of points that was enough to purchase the dining room table set that I have in my dining room today:

Dining Room Table received as an award from the "We've Got The Power" program

Dining Room Table received as an award from the “We’ve Got The Power” program

It became known throughout the control room and the electric shop that Jim Padgett viewed me as his enemy.  The other electricians would jokingly refer to Jim as my “friend”, knowing that Jim had basically declared “war” on me.  Any time someone in the shop would have something to say about Jim, they would say, “Kevin’s friend” Jim Padgett….”

When I first became aware that Jim was upset with me, I understood why.  If I had been in his shoes I would probably feel the same way.  It’s a rotten feeling when you believe that someone has cheated you out of something important.  So, I decided up front that I was going to become Jim’s best friend.  This is where I think my memory of Mark Schlemper with his patience for me as a boy helped me with this decision.

I had determined that any time Jim asked me to do something I wouldn’t hesitate to help him.  It took about a year before Jim could look at me without grimacing.  Finally, one day, he asked me if I would go look at something for him to see if we needed a clearance, or if it was something that could be fixed right away.  It was something minor, but I knew that this was an indicator that the ice was finally beginning to melt.  I was able to fix the problem on the spot, and returned to let him know.

Once we were on semi-speaking terms again, I took an opportunity one day to ask Jim if he would like to join our Computer Club.  I had started a Computer Club in the Electric Shop.  Anyone could join it for a one time fee of $5.00 that was used to buy shareware and disk cases.  For a while I also published a newsletter letting the members of the club know what games and such we had that could be checked out.

Once Jim Padgett joined the Computer Club, it was much easier to have a regular conversation outside of the normal daily business.  I had put the thought in my mind when I decided that Jim was going to become my best friend that nothing would make me happier than to be able to do something for Jim.  That way, no matter what I was doing at the time, if Jim asked me to do something for him, I would drop whatever I was doing and do my best to help.

I could go on and on explaining how gradually over time, not only was Jim my friend, but Jim acted more and more as if I was his friend as well.  Let me just say that the entire process took almost exactly ten years.  I can remember the exact moment when Jim indicated to me that I had become his friend.

Here is what happened:

The phone next to my bed rang at 2:15 in the morning on Thursday February 17, 2000.  I instantly knew what it meant when the phone rang in the middle of the night.  It meant that someone at the plant was calling because there was a problem.  Who else would be up on in the middle of the night?  The night shift of course.

When I answered the phone, Jim Padgett said, “I hate to wake you up buddy.”  I replied, “No.  That’s okay.  What’s up?”  Jim explained that the dumper was down and a train was about halfway through dumping the coal and everything was dead in the water.  I said, “Ok.  I’ll be right out.”

I turned to Kelly and told her that I had to go fix the dumper.  She already knew of course.  I pulled on a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and on the way out the door, I slipped on my work boots and laced them up.  Then I drove the 30 miles out to the plant.

It was just before 3:00 am when I arrived.  I grabbed my hardhat from the electric shop and took the elevator up to the Control Room.  Jim apologized again and told me that how the dumper acted when it shutdown.  I went back down the elevator to the electric shop where I grabbed the key to the pickup truck and my tool bucket and left the electric shop into the cool night air.

Power Plants at night take on magical properties.  It’s hard to explain.  Lights shining from the 25 story boilers, noises from steam pipes.  Hums from motors and transformers.  Night Hawks screeching.

When I arrived at the coalyard, I went straight into the Dumper Switchgear where the relays that controlled the dumper were mounted.  Having worked on the dumper for the past 17 years, I could troubleshoot the circuits in my sleep.  — Actually, I may have done just that.  It didn’t take long, and I had replaced a contact on a relay that had broken and had the Coalyard Operator test the dumper long enough to know it was going to work.

When I returned back to Control Room Jim was sitting in the Shift Supervisor’s office.  I walked in and showed him the small relay contact that had caused the failure.  Jim, looked at me and said something that I thought only a friend would say so casually.  I won’t use his exact words, though I remember not only the exact words, I remember his exact expression.  He indicated to me that he had passed some gas, and he was apologizing about it.  I replied, “Well.  That happens.” (No.  Not the other thing that happens).  I told him I was going to go home.  It was about 3:40 by that time.

Jim wished me a good night, and smiling with gratitude, thanked me again for coming  out.  As I was going back to the parking lot, and on the way home driving through the dark, tired from being woken up in the middle of the night, I had a great feeling of peace.  That brief conversation with Jim just before I left was so pleasant in an odd way that I knew we had become friends.  This was such a long way from where we had been 10 years earlier when Jim had literally wanted to kill me (well, not that he actually would…).

When I arrived home, I peeled my clothes off in the utility room to keep from tracking coal all over the house.  I set the small broken relay contact on the kitchen table as a token to my wife, so she could see why I was called out when she wakes up in the morning.  I climbed back into bed around 4:15 to sleep for another two hours.

That morning when I arrived at the plant, the first thing I learned was that about the time that my alarm had woken me up that morning, Jim Padgett had left his shift and driven to his home in Ponca City.  When he walked in the door to his house, he collapsed and died instantly of a heart attack.  That would have been about 3 hours after the moment that we had said goodbye.

 

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

I grieved for Jim’s wife Jane, who had worked for a while at the plant before marrying Jim, but I didn’t grieve for Jim.  Something told me, and maybe it was Jim, that he was at peace.  In the moment that I heard about Jim’s death, I burned the conversation we had just had that morning into my mind so that I would never forget it.

To this day whenever I know that someone is upset with me for something that I have done to them personally (which still happens occasionally), I am determined that they will become one of my best friends.  I will do anything for that person if they ask (unless, of course it is to “not be their friend”).  I have my childhood friend Mark Schlemper to thank for the attitude that helped me decide to reach out to Jim Padgett.  Without that experience while growing up, Jim and I would never have become friends.

I would like to leave you with a song that reminds me of Jim whenever I hear it.  It is called “Bright Eyes” from the movie “Watership Down”. Art Garfunkel sings it:

Note:  If you are not able to watch the video above, try clicking this link:  Bright Eyes, Art Garfunkel

 

Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion April 26, 2014

    I’m glad that you were able to work through a tough situation and reach the point of friendship. although, it does make the loss harder to accept.

  2. Jack Curtis May 6, 2014

    Your story would have been a matter of course for my grandparents and immediately understood and admired by my parents. I suspect that telling it to today’s children might draw blank stares …

    Midwestern values likely still include such behaviors, at least for a reasonable number of people. I doubt many folk on the coasts would identify with it. We have lost a lot and have yet to learn the price of that, seems to me.

Power Plant Birthday Phantom

Long before Facebook ever graced the pages of our browsers, Power Plant Birthday reminders began appearing in the Outlook E-mail Inboxes of Power Plant men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Today it seems commonplace to be reminded of your friends birthdays as your smartphone pops up a message to remind you.  In 1997, a strange event began happening at the plant.  It sent some scurrying about to find the culprit.  Others found it funny.  Some worried that their secrets were about to be revealed.  One person was totally surprised by the response (me).

January 3, 1997 Charles Foster and I went to our morning meeting with our team in the main break room where we would meet every morning to go over the work for the day.  Alan Kramer began the meeting by asking me a direct question.  He said something like, “Kevin.  Do you know anything about emails from the Birthday Phantom?”  I asked him what he meant, and he went on to explain.

Alan Kramer

Our Foreman Alan Kramer

Alan said that when someone opened up Outlook to check their e-mail that morning, shortly after they opened it up, an e-mail appeared in their inbox that was from themselves.  So, when Alan had logged in that morning, he received an e-mail from Alan Kramer.  When he opened it, it had a subject of “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday”.  The body of the e-mail said, “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday.  He is 48 years old today.  Please wish him a Happy Birthday.  The Birthday Phantom.”

Jim Kanelakos in in the middle in the back (third from the left) with the red plaid shirt standing behind Vonzell Lynn

Wayne Cranford is front and center on one knee between David Evans and John Costello

It happened that when Wayne Cranford opened his own e-mail, the subject said, “Happy Birthday Wayne Cranford!”  and the body of the email had the happy birthday song,  “Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday dear Wayne.  Happy Birthday to you.  The Birthday Phantom.

So, after Alan explained this to me, he looked at me again with a rather stern look and said, “Kevin.  Did you do this?”  What could I say?  So, I said, “Why is it that whenever something like this happens, I’m always the first one to be blamed for it?”  I knew at that point that Alan’s next response was going to mean the difference between night and day, so I put on the most indignant look I could.

Alan said, “Well.  I just had to ask.”  I shrugged like I understood and glanced over at Charles Foster who had a stunned look hidden behind his best poker face.  Something like this:

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

You see…. about a year earlier, before we were using Microsoft Outlook, we were using Novell’s Groupwise for email.  Alan Kramer had come to me and asked me if I had done something “wrong” in regard to emails.  It turned out that I was innocent of any “wrongdoing” in that instance (well, almost).  Charles Foster was my witness.

What had happened was that one day, Danny Cain, who was the Instrument and Controls person on our team had come into the electric shop office to make a phone call to someone at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  I think it was Ed Mayberry.  Email was a new idea for most people at the plant.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

While Danny was on the phone, I turned to the computer sitting on the desk across the room from Danny and wrote an e-mail to the person that Danny was talking to telling him not to believe a word Danny was saying… whatever it was…. it wasn’t important.  I just thought it would be funny to send an email to Ed about Danny while he was talking to Danny on the phone.

The subject of the email was “Danny Cain”.  As Danny was talking on the phone, he happened to turn around just as I was clicking “Send”, and he saw his name in the subject line.  Charles was sitting there next to me, as we were on break at the time.  Danny quickly asked what I was doing and why did he see his name on an e-mail.  I put on the guiltiest look I could and said, “Oh.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.”  Rolling my eyes with obvious guilt.

I didn’t know how much this bugged Danny until a couple of days later Alan came into the electric shop office and said he needed to ask me a serious question.  I could tell he was upset with me.  He asked, “Have you been reading other people’s emails?”  I was confused by the question, because I didn’t relate it to Danny from the other day.  So both Charles and I looked confused.

I told Alan that not only had I not read other people’s emails, but even if I could, I wouldn’t because I considered other people’s emails private.  Then I explained to him that Novell’s Groupwise email was very secure, and I wouldn’t know how to hack into their email if I had a desire.  Which I didn’t.

 

Novell's Groupwise

Novell’s Groupwise

Still confused by why Alan would ask the question both Charles and I asked Alan what this was all about.  He didn’t want to say who it was that told him they thought I was reading their emails, but after we pressed him, he told us that Danny Cain said he saw me reading his email when he was in the office.  Then both Charles and I knew what this was all about.

I explained to Alan that I was just joking around with Danny at the time.  I reasoned with Alan that I would have to be pretty stupid to wait until Danny was standing a few feet away from me before I decided to read his emails.  Alan accepted my explanation.  Especially since it was backed by one of the most honest people at the plant, Charles Foster.

So, fast forward to November 6, 1996.  We were now using Outlook.  That was about as secure as a bag of Oreo cookies in a kindergarten classroom.

I was sitting in the electric shop office with Charles during lunch, and I had just finished writing some fun little programs that automated pulling stock prices from the Internet and putting them in Excel each day.  I asked Charles, “What shall I do next?”

Charles thought for a few moments and said, “You know when we were still all in the electric shop before the downsizing, how when it was someone’s birthday we used to celebrate it by bringing a cake and having a lunch or something for that person?  Well.  We don’t do anything now.  Can you come up with something that will help celebrate birthdays?”

After brainstorming ideas, we settled on sending emails and the “Birthday Phantom” was born.  I thought it would be neat to learn how to write programs that used the Outlook API, sending emails, and stuff like that.  So, I went to work during my lunch breaks writing the program.

It only took a week or so to get it working, and then we ran a bunch of tests on it until we settled on having the emails be sent by the same person that is receiving the email when they log on the computer.  Each time a person logs on the computer, the program would be kicked off.

The first thing it would do was check to see if the person had already logged on that day.  If they had logged on before, then it would shutdown because I didn’t want it to send more than one email for the same day, even if the person used a different computer.

The next thing it would check was if the person was on an exception list.  We had decided that it was best to keep the plant manager and his cronies… um… I mean, his staff from receiving emails, as we didn’t think they would appreciate it since they didn’t have much use for such things.  If the person logging on was on the exceptions list, the application would shutdown.

Then, it would check to see if it was anyone’s birthday that day.  If it was, then it would send an email from the person logged on, to the person logged on.  If it was the birthday of the person logging on, then it would modify the email so that it was personalized to say happy birthday to them.

There were little tweeks I made while testing the application before we went live with it.  First, I added little things like making sure the gender was correct.  So, if it was a woman’s birthday, then it would say “…wish her a happy birthday”.

Charles and I decided that the application would start running on January 1, 1997.  So, during December, I made sure it was setup on all the computers in the plant except those belonging to the staff.  This brings us to January 3, 1997, when Wayne Cranford was the first Power Plant Man to have a birthday.

As I hinted above, Alan’s response to my indignation at being accused of creating the Birthday Phantom would have determined how short-lived the Birthday Phantom would have been.  Since Alan didn’t pursue the inquiry I didn’t offer any more information.

For instance.  A few minutes after the meeting was over, I walked over the control room, and the control room operators were all standing around talking about the Birthday Phantom.  David Evans asked me if I was the Birthday Phantom.  I responded the same way I did with Alan, I said, “Why is it that when something like this happens, I am always the first person to be accused?”  David responded with, “Yeah, but are you the Birthday Phantom?”  Well.  I wasn’t the type of person to blatantly lie, so I had to admit that “Yes.  I’m the Birthday Phantom, but don’t tell anyone.”  The Control room operators said they would all keep it to themselves (yeah.  right).

Though some people thought the Birthday Phantom was a nuisance, others thought that their personal emails were at risk, and that the Birthday Phantom could be stealing their emails.  Whenever I heard that anyone was upset (such as Alan) with the Birthday Phantom, I just added them to the exceptions list and they never received another Birthday Phantom email.

Jim Padgett, a Shift Supervisor, had received a Birthday Phantom email one day, and called IT to report it as they were trying to track down the program to figure out where it was coming from.  Jim Cave told me that  Padgett had the IT guy on the phone and he was logged into his computer to watch what happened when he logged on and opened up Outlook to try and find what was sending the emails.

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left standing next to Jim Cave in the Jean Jacket.

Jim Cave said that the IT guy was sounding hopeful that he was going to finally be able to catch the Birthday Phantom when all of the sudden he said, “Oh!  That’s a Wiley One!”  I came to understand that in Oklahoma City, the IT department was taking this so seriously that they assigned two people full time for two weeks to try and find the culprit (I added Jim Padgett to the exception list, so he didn’t receive any more emails).

I hadn’t thought about it when I was writing the application, but back at Corporate Headquarters, they thought that the application had somehow gained access to the HR system in order to find the birthdays of each employee.  Even though, things like Birthdays and Social Security Numbers were not as sensitive in 1997 (for instance, the plant manager’s Social Security Number was 430-68-….  You really didn’t think I would put his Social Security number here did you?), if someone was accessing the HR database, that would have been serious.

Even though the IT department was taking this very seriously, there was one timekeeper at the Power Plant that was just about climbing the walls over the Birthday Phantom.  She was so concerned that I was afraid she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  I was not surprised by this at all, and had actually anticipated her anxiety.  Actually, the Birthday Phantom was designed for just this reason.  You see, this particular timekeeper was going to be turning 40 years old one week after the first Birthday Phantom email showed up.

After the second Birthday Phantom email arrived the next Monday on January 6, announcing that Jerry Potter had just turned 36, Linda Shiever called me and asked me if I could find out how to stop the Birthday Phantom.  I told her I would look into it.  I did look into it for about one second.  Linda was turning 40 on Friday.

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

On Wednesday, January 8, not only did Elvis Presley turn 62 (if he had been alive… or…. um…well, you know…) but the Birthday Phantom informed everyone at the plant that Sonny Kendrick (who was only 5 days younger than Wayne Cranford) had also turned 48 years old.  Linda Shiever was thinking about calling in sick on Friday.

Linda knew that when she came to work the morning of January 10, that her cube would be full of black balloons with the number 40 on them.  She had resigned herself to this a while before when she helped blow up the balloons for Louise Kalicki’s cube the previous August 23, less than 5 months earlier.  The appearance of the Birthday Phantom, however, had thrown in a new element of recognition.

The morning of January 10, 1997 finally arrived, and the Birthday Phantom email notified everyone that it was not only Linda Shiever’s birthday, but it was also Gene Day’s birthday as well.  Yeah.  The application could handle multiple birthdays on the same day.  Linda Shiever was happy to find out that the Birthday Phantom had informed the entire Power Plant that she had just turned 29.  In fact, that year, every woman at the plant was turning 29 years old according to the Birthday Phantom. — That was another one of those tweeks that came out of our testing.

Gene Day, on the other hand, according to the Birthday Phantom had just turned 100 years old…. Well.. Everyone knew he was ancient (See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” and the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“).  Needless to say, there was a lot less stress in the office area after that day.

The following week, when I went to the tool room to get some supplies, Darlene Mitchell stopped me and asked me if the Birthday Phantom would do her a favor.  She was turning 45 years old on January 28, and she didn’t want the Birthday Phantom to tell everyone she was 29.  She wanted it to say, “Today is Darlene Mitchell’s Birthday, She is 45 years old and Lovin’ it!  Please wish her a Happy Birthday!”  I told her I would have a talk with the Birthday Phantom and it shouldn’t be a problem.

Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

Darlene Mitchell, a dear friend of the Birthday Phantom

After a month, when I was in the Control Room, Jim Cave, who was now referring to me regularly as “The Wiley One” said that the IT department had told Jack Maloy that they were no longer looking for the Birthday Phantom.  They were not able to find it.  The person that did it would just have to tell them who it was.

I still have the computer code I used when I wrote the program.  Sometimes I take it out and read it and I remember that year when the Birthday Phantom visited the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to remind everyone that we were all growing older and as a family, we should take the time to stop and say “Happy Birthday” to each other on that one day each year when we are special.

Birthday Phantom Code

Page 1 of the Birthday Phantom Code

Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes

Later in life, thinking back to when I was young, I sometimes wonder at how my first real friend, Mark Schlemper remained my friend throughout my childhood.  I remember as a boy, there were times when I wasn’t the friendliest friend.  Sometimes I was downright selfish.  Mark, on the other hand, was always considerate.  Not in an Eddie Haskell way, but in a sincere way.  I learned a lot about being a kinder person from Mark, and I’m forever grateful.

Mark Schlemper with his Mother.  Two very good people.

My favorite picture of Mark Schlemper with his Mother

I think if Mark had not been my friend during my childhood, then this story would have a very different ending.

Last Friday (April 18, 2014), I posted a story called “Vertan or Sand and Making Enemies of a Power Plant Man“.  At the end of that post I explained that I had become the enemy of a team leader during the “We’ve Got The Power” program.  I explained this program in the post:  “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“.  With all that said, here is the story:

I was a plant electrician at a coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we took part in the “We’ve Got The Power” program.  At the time, I was in charge of maintaining the Unit 1 precipitator.  The precipitator is what takes the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler, so that you don’t normally see smoke coming out of a Power Plant Smokestack.

My bucket buddy in the Electric Shop, Diana Brien was on a team that tried an experiment on the Unit 1 precipitator by injecting sand into the intake duct in the hope that it would increase the performance.  I didn’t put much faith in the experiment, because it was based on something that had happened almost a year earlier when sand was burned in the boiler in order to burn off the oil that had been soaked into the sand.

I hadn’t seen any sand build up in front of the precipitator during the next overhaul, and didn’t believe that any of it had been able to make it’s way through the economizer and the air preheaters to the precipitator.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler.  The precipitator is after the air preheater where it is labelled “Flue gas”

When Ron Kilman asked me about it, I said that I didn’t think it would do any good, but also, it wouldn’t do any harm either, so I told Ron that I couldn’t see any reason not to do the experiment.  Who knows.  Maybe something unexpected would happen.  — Something did, but not quite in the way anyone would have expected.

On the day of the experiment, sand was blown into the intake duct of the precipitator.  When the experiment was taking place, Diana Brien sat at the precipitator computer behind the Unit 1 Alarm Panel in the Control Room.  She was printing out readings every so many minutes as the experiment progressed.

At times, I walked by and checked on her to see how it was going.  One time when I was standing there watching the readings on the computer, all of the sudden the Opacity shot up.  Opacity is used to measure how much smoke is going out of the smoke stack.  Something definitely happened to cause a large puff of smoke.

I switched screens to look at the power on each of the control cabinets.  After a few seconds I found that cabinet 1G10 had zero Volts on the secondary side of the transformer.  It should have been somewhere above 40 Kilovolts.  The cabinet hadn’t tripped, but it wasn’t charging up the plates.  Cabinet 1G10 was in the very back row of the precipitator, and when the power shuts off on the cabinet it readily lets go of the ash that had built up on it when the rappers on the roof strike the plates.

When I saw the puff occur, I knew where to go look, because this happened whenever one of the back cabinets was turned off.  I told Dee that it looked like a fuse had blown on the cabinet.  The ash was going to continue billowing out of the precipitator for a couple of hours if I didn’t go do something about it.  So, I told Dee that I was going to go to the Precipitator Control Room and replace the fuse.

I passed through the electric shop to grab my tool bucket and headed out to the precipitator.  When I arrived, I found the cabinet just as it had indicated on the computer.  The fuse had obviously failed.  Interesting timing.  Coincidence?  I thought it was.  The fuses controlling the back cabinets were usually the ones that blew because we ran them at a much higher voltage than the rest of the cabinets (at the time).

This is a picture of the exact fuse I replaced, except the writing was pink instead of blue

This is a picture of the exact fuse I replaced, except the print was orange instead of blue

I quickly replaced the fuse (after attaching grounding cables to the leads, and using a pair of high voltage gloves).  Then I powered the cabinet back on.

 

High Voltage gloves like this

High Voltage gloves like this

I returned to the Control Room and told Dee that I replaced the fuse on cabinet 1G10.  The opacity had returned to normal.  I watched a few more minutes to make sure everything had stabilized, and then I left.

When Ron Kilman was evaluating the results of the experiment, he could plainly see that something strange had happened.  Smoke had been pouring out of the smoke stack in the middle of the experiment.  So, he asked me what I thought about it.

First of all, as a disclaimer, our team had our own experiments we had been conducting on the precipitator in hopes of coming up with money savings ideas.  So, when I told Ron what had happened with the fuse blowing, I wondered if he would trust me to tell the truth, since I had my own skin in the game.

I explained in detail to Ron how the fuse had blown and that I was standing next to Dee watching the computer when the smoke started blowing out of the stack.  I could tell that a fuse had blown by looking at the readings, so I went out and replaced the fuse.  I told him that fuses do blow periodically in the back of the precipitator, but I couldn’t explain why it happened to fail at that particular time.  After I gave him my explanation, he seemed satisfied that I was telling the truth.

I think a token amount of points were awarded to the team because something obviously had happened during the experiment, though it wasn’t clear that sand had anything to do with it.  On the other hand, our team was awarded a large amount of points for increasing the precipitator performance using a different method that I may bring up in a later post.  To the team that burned the sand, this looked a lot like foul play.

The leader of the team was the Shift Supervisor Jim Padgett.  He became very upset when he found out that I had gone to the precipitator control room during the experiment and worked on the equipment.  Our team had been awarded a lot of points that was enough to purchase the dining room table set that I have in my dining room today:

Dining Room Table received as an award from the "We've Got The Power" program

Dining Room Table received as an award from the “We’ve Got The Power” program

It became known throughout the control room and the electric shop that Jim Padgett viewed me as his enemy.  The other electricians would jokingly refer to Jim as my “friend”, knowing that Jim had basically declared “war” on me.  Any time someone in the shop would have something to say about Jim, they would say, “Kevin’s friend” Jim Padgett….”

When I first became aware that Jim was upset with me, I understood why.  If I had been in his shoes I would probably feel the same way.  It’s a rotten feeling when you believe that someone has cheated you out of something important.  So, I decided up front that I was going to become Jim’s best friend.  This is where I think my memory of Mark Schlemper with his patience for me as a boy helped me with this decision.

I had determined that any time Jim asked me to do something I wouldn’t hesitate to help him.  It took about a year before Jim could look at me without grimacing.  Finally, one day, he asked me if I would go look at something for him to see if we needed a clearance, or if it was something that could be fixed right away.  It was something minor, but I knew that this was an indicator that the ice was finally beginning to melt.  I was able to fix the problem on the spot, and returned to let him know.

Once we were on semi-speaking terms again, I took an opportunity one day to ask Jim if he would like to join our Computer Club.  I had started a Computer Club in the Electric Shop.  Anyone could join it for a one time fee of $5.00 that was used to buy shareware and disk cases.  For a while I also published a newsletter letting the members of the club know what games and such we had that could be checked out.

Once Jim Padgett joined the Computer Club, it was much easier to have a regular conversation outside of the normal daily business.  I had put the thought in my mind when I decided that Jim was going to become my best friend that nothing would make me happier than to be able to do something for Jim.  That way, no matter what I was doing at the time, if Jim asked me to do something for him, I would drop whatever I was doing and do my best to help.

I could go on and on explaining how gradually over time, not only was Jim my friend, but Jim acted more and more as if I was his friend as well.  Let me just say that the entire process took almost exactly ten years.  I can remember the exact moment when Jim indicated to me that I had become his friend.

Here is what happened:

The phone next to my bed rang at 2:15 in the morning on Thursday February 17, 2000.  I instantly knew what it meant when the phone rang in the middle of the night.  It meant that someone at the plant was calling because there was a problem.  Who else would be up on in the middle of the night?  The night shift of course.

When I answered the phone, Jim Padgett said, “I hate to wake you up buddy.”  I replied, “No.  That’s okay.  What’s up?”  Jim explained that the dumper was down and a train was about halfway through dumping the coal and everything was dead in the water.  I said, “Ok.  I’ll be right out.”

I turned to Kelly and told her that I had to go fix the dumper.  She already knew of course.  I pulled on a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and on the way out the door, I slipped on my work boots and laced them up.  Then I drove the 30 miles out to the plant.

It was just before 3:00 am when I arrived.  I grabbed my hardhat from the electric shop and took the elevator up to the Control Room.  Jim apologized again and told me that how the dumper acted when it shutdown.  I went back down the elevator to the electric shop where I grabbed the key to the pickup truck and my tool bucket and left the electric shop into the cool night air.  Power Plants at night take on magical properties.  It’s hard to explain.

When I arrived at the coalyard, I went straight into the Dumper Switchgear where the relays that controlled the dumper were mounted.  Having worked on the dumper for the past 17 years, I could troubleshoot the circuits in my sleep.  — Actually, I may have done just that.  It didn’t take long, and I had replaced a contact on a relay that had broken and had the Coalyard Operator test the dumper long enough to know it was going to work.

When I returned back to Control Room Jim was sitting in the Shift Supervisor’s office.  I walked in and showed him the small relay contact that had caused the failure.  Jim, looked at me and said something that I thought only a friend would say so casually.  I won’t use his exact words, though I remember not only the exact words, I remember his exact expression.  He indicated to me that he had passed some gas, and he was apologizing about it.  I replied, “Well.  That happens.” (No.  Not the other thing that happens).  I told him I was going to go home.  It was about 3:40 by that time.

Jim wished me a good night, and thanked me again for coming  out.  As I was going back to the parking lot, and on the way home driving through the dark, tired from being woken up in the middle of the night, I had a great feeling of peace.  That brief conversation with Jim just before I left was so pleasant in an odd way that I knew we had become friends.  This was such a long way from where we had been 10 years earlier when Jim had literally wanted to kill me (well, not that he actually would…).

When I arrived home, I peeled my clothes off in the utility room to keep from tracking coal all over the house.  I set the small broken relay contact on the kitchen table as a token to my wife, so she could see why I was called out when she wakes up in the morning.  I climbed back into bed around 4:15 to sleep for another two hours.

That morning when I arrived at the plant, the first thing I learned was that about the time that my alarm had woken me up that morning, Jim Padgett had left his shift and driven to his home in Ponca City.  When he walked in the door to his house, he collapsed and died instantly of a heart attack.  That would have been about 3 hours after the moment that we had said goodbye.

 

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

I grieved for Jim’s wife Jane, who had worked for a while at the plant before marrying Jim, but I didn’t grieve for Jim.  Something told me, and maybe it was Jim, that he was at peace.  In the moment that I heard about Jim’s death, I burned the conversation we had just had into my mind so that I would never forget it.

To this day whenever I know that someone is upset with me for something that I have done to them personally, I am determined that they will become one of my best friends.  I will do anything for that person if they ask (unless, of course it is to “not be their friend”).  I have my childhood friend Mark Schlemper to thank for the attitude that helped me decide to reach out to Jim Padgett.  Without that experience while growing up, Jim and I would never have become friends.

I would like to leave you with a song that reminds me of Jim whenever I hear it.  It is called “Bright Eyes” from the movie “Watership Down”. Art Garfunkel sings it:

Note:  If you are not able to watch the video above, try clicking this link:  Bright Eyes, Art Garfunkel