Tag Archives: machine shop

Marlin McDaniel and the Power Plant Mongoose

Marlin McDaniel caught my interest when he mentioned that he had a pet Mongoose in his office.  The only actual experience I had with a Mongoose had to do with a set of Hot Wheels that my brother and I had as kids.  In 1968 shortly after Hot Wheels came out, they had a pair of Hot Wheel cars that was advertised on TV.  Don “Snake” Prudhomme or Tom “Mongoose” McEwen.  Which do you want to be?

My brother and I had this pair of Hot Wheels.  the Snake and the Mongoose

My brother and I had this pair of Hot Wheels. the Snake and the Mongoose

Somehow I didn’t think Marlin McDaniel was talking about a fancy Matchbox car.  Especially since he said he kept it in a cage under his desk.  I knew the plant grounds was designated as a wildlife preserve, but at that time in my career, I thought that just meant that there were a lot of Construction Hands around that were still constructing the plant.

The Construction Hands that worked for Brown & Root were wild enough.  When they wanted a break from the hot sun, one of them would sneak on over to the gas station / convenience store just down the road and call the plant to report a bomb had been planted somewhere.  All the construction hands would have to report to the construction parking lot and wait until the all clear was called, which usually gave them the afternoon off.  —  That’s known as the “Law of the Hog”, which I will discuss in a much later post.

I had not been working at the coal-fired power plant very long my first summer as a summer help in 1979 before Mac (as we called Marlin McDaniel) asked me if I would like to be introduced to his mongoose.  I said, “All Right”.  Thinking…. I’m game… This sounds like a joke to me.

I don’t know if it was because I grew up with my brother and sister, where playing jokes on my sister was a mainstay of entertainment (not to mention a reason for having a close relationship with my dad’s belt, or my mom’s hair brush), but I seemed to be able to smell a joke a mile away.

So, I eagerly awaited to see what Mac actually meant by having a “Mongoose in a cage under his desk”.  You see, as I mentioned above.  I had never had a personal relationship with a regular goose let alone a French one.  Well.  “Mon goose” sounded French to me.  Like “ce qui est?”  “c’est mon goose”  —  Well.  I had a number of years of French, but I didn’t remember the French word for Goose… which is actually “oie”.

Since the actual nature of a real mongoose was lost to me through my own ignorance, I had no fear of meeting a mongoose in a case and actually wondered if it was furry if I might be able to pet it.  So when Mac took this small wire cage out from under his desk and showed it to me, I was not apprehensive that a real mongoose with razor sharp teeth and a terrible disposition was in the little hut in the middle of the cage with his tail sticking out.

Mac explained to me that he must be sleeping and that if he tapped on the cage a little it might wake him up.  He tapped the cage a couple of times when all of a sudden out leaped the mongoose.  I don’t mean that he jumped out of his hut.  I mean that he leaped completely out of the cage.  In one swift motion this ball of fur came flying out of the side of the cage, leaping over the top and  aiming toward my face.

I stepped out of the way and the mongoose landed on the ground in the office and it laid there.  To me, it looked like a squirrel tail with something attached to it.  I recognized right away that this was a joke that was supposed to make me jump in fear.  Only, Mac had never met my sister.  A leaping mongoose wasn’t half as scary as a raging sister that has just had a joke played on her.

I used to have a collection of wasp nest that I kept on my dresser shelves when I was young.  I had considered myself the “Fearless Wasp Hunter” as a kid.  Whenever I found a wasp nest, I just had to have it for my collection.

I had Wasps nests like this only minus the wasps

I had Wasps nests like this only minus the wasps

So, I was used to being chased by angry wasps as well.  I don’t know how many times they chased me down only to knock me head over heels when they caught be by slamming into me with their stingers.  They get rather peeved when you throw rocks at their home to try to knock the wasp nest off of the eave of a house.

That is why while I was on the labor crew in 1983 and we were on our way out to the dam in the crew cab I remained calm when a yellow jacket wasp flew in the window.

A crew cab is a pickup truck that has a full back seat.

A red crew cab like this only the bed of the truck was longer

A red crew cab like this only the bed of the truck was longer

I was sitting in the middle in the back seat.  Larry Riley skid the truck to a stop and everyone piled out of the truck.  Larry, Doretta, Ronnie, Jim and Bill all jumped out and went over the guard rail to escape the wrath of the wasp in the truck.  I remained in my seat and leaned forward so that I could see the front seat.  I picked up the stunned wasp by the wings and flicked it out the open door.  The others safely returned and we drove on.  —  that was me… The fearless wasp hunter.

Yellow Jacket Wasp

Yellow Jacket Wasp

Anyway, back to the Mongoose cage.  If you would like to learn how to make a trick mongoose cage all by your lonesome, you can go to this link:

How to build a Mongoose Cage

I only wish they had a picture of it.  As it turns out a Mongoose hunts Cobra.  Later in life I read a story to my daughter written by Rudyard Kipling called “Rikki Tikki Tavi” where a mongoose hunts down a cobra in a garden.  It was then that I remembered Mac’s mongoose in a cage and how I was too ignorant to know to be frightened.

Mongoose and Cobra in mortal combat

Mongoose and Cobra in mortal combat

Mac, along with Sonny Karcher first introduced me to Power Plant Humor.  I brought some of this home with me.  The second summer after hearing Mac and others call our Hard hats “Turtle Shells”, I caught some box turtles in my parent’s backyard and painted hard hat names on them using my sister’s nail polish.  I had three turtles in the backyard labelled “Ken”, “Mac” and “Stan” for Ken Scott, Marlin McDaniel and Stanley Elmore.  I probably would have had more, but there were only 3 turtles that frequented our back patio.

I heard a rumor that Marlin McDaniel moved to Elberta, UT where he lives to this day.  I don’t know if it’s true.  I think he would be about 70 years old today.  He was a true Power Plant Machinist that didn’t fit too well as an A Foreman.

Especially since he had to deal with the Evil Plant Manager at the time.  He was bitter about his whole Coal-fired power plant experience since he wasn’t told the truth in the first place that prompted him to take the job at the plant.  So he left to go back to the plant where he came from.

The last time I talked to Mac he was in the gas-fired power plant in Midwest City standing behind a lathe machining away as happy as could be.

This is what the typical lathe looks like in a machine shop.

This is what the typical lathe looks like in a machine shop.

Actually, his expression looked like someone who was thinking about the next joke he was going to play, or story he was going to tell.  I maybe have mentioned it before,  Mac reminds me of Spanky from the “Little Rascals”.  I wish I could see him one more time.

Marlin McDaniel always reminded me of Spanky from Little Rascals

Marlin McDaniel was the spittin’ image of Spanky from Little Rascals

Belt Buckle Mania And Turkeys During Power Plant Man Downtime

Power Plant Welders need a large stock of specialized Welding Rods.  Mechanics need all sizes of wrenches, files, hones and calibers.  Electricians need a good pair of side cutters, strippers, red, yellow, orange and blue wire nuts, butt splices and Electrical tape.  Instrument and Controls need all kinds of transmitters, converters, pressure gauges, and PLCs.  The one thing Every True Power Plant Man needed was a Stainless Steel, highly decorated, colorful and sturdy Belt buckle.  A couple of post ago I talked about the machinist that were around in the beginning when I first arrived at the plant.  I mentioned that any True Power Plant Machinist could create just about any part needed at the plant.  One such piece of quality craftsmanship was the Oval Belt Buckle:

A plain example of an oval belt buckle

You see, When you take a Stainless Steal Pipe and you cut it at an angle, the resulting shape is an oval just right to make a belt buckle:

By cutting the end of the pipe at an angle you get the oval shape of the belt buckle

During those first couple of years when the machinists were correcting mistakes made by the manufacturers of all types of motors, pumps and fans, between jobs, a machinist had a little down time when they could let their lathes, mills, bandsaws and drills cool off some.  It was during this time that the creativity of the machinists were revealed to the rest of the Power Plant Men.  In those early days, even more than their hard hat stickers, the Belt Buckle was the status symbol of any Power Plant Man driving a pickup truck with a gun rack in the back window.  Making the belt buckle in very high demand at the plant.

Power Plant men were on the lookout for any kind of colored stone or odd shaped piece of metal that could be used to adorn their own specially machined belt buckle supplied by the Power Plant Machine Shop.  Stainless Steel Nuts and small pieces of pipe were machined down to make ornamental designs to fit in the center of belt buckle.  Copper pieces could be used to add color along with the colorful stones found lying about in the pasture.

The Machinist would carefully mill the pieces down to just the right thickness.  The stainless steel oval cut from the pipe was carefully milled to give the proper curve to make the belt buckle just the right shape.  Different types of epoxy was used as filler to hold everything in place.  Even “Jewelers Rouge” was used to polish the belt buckle until it shined like silver and the stones as if they had been placed in a tumbler to give them the perfect smooth surface.

A block of Jewelers Rouge used for polishing Jewelry

I remember the day when Sonny Karcher asked me if I wanted to have my very own specially designed belt buckle.  At the time I was not knowledgeable enough to realize the great treasure that was being offered to me for free.  I just looked down at my skinny waist (it’s a wonder I can remember that many inches ago) and thought that it wouldn’t be easy to swing a Weed Wacker with a big oval belt buckle scraping across my abdomen, so I politely declined.  If I had known better, I would have agreed, and taken my prize home to hang on the wall as memento of my early power plant days.

At the time there were a lot of things about the power plant men that I didn’t fully appreciate until years later.  For instance,  their generosity.  They were always looking out for each other and if they found a bargain somewhere, they let everyone else in on it.  That was one way you could tell a True Power Plant Man from the imitation wannabee’s.

During the first summer Ray Butler came up to me and said that a guy was selling 100 pound sacks of potatoes, and was wondering if I would go in on it with him, since he really only wanted 50 pounds.  If I did, he would let me keep the gunny sack.  I believe the 50 pounds of potatoes cost about $15.  My mom had to figure out about 15 different ways to make potatoes, because we ate potatoes until they were growing out of our ears… (oh wait, that’s what you do when you don’t wash your ears properly).  Anyway, before we were done with that bag of potatoes my dad and possibly even my brother and I were eating them raw like turnips as the Potato Gun hadn’t been invented yet.

A Spud Gun

Another time a peach orchard just up the road toward Marland Oklahoma was letting you go and pick your own peaches and buy them by the box full for a real good price, so after work, we all headed over to the peach orchard where the man that owned the orchard would drive you around the orchard in a trailer to where the ripe peaches were so that you could go around and pick all the peaches you wanted to take home.

In those early days, people could bring different types of produce and vegetables and other types of food products from their farms and sell them to their fellow power plant men for a good discount.  That is, until the evil plant manager realized that it was taking money out of the Canteen Fund, which he felt was his own responsibility to make sure the coffers of the Canteen were always kept overflowing.  — Until one year when they were going to show enough profit to have to pay taxes…

Anyway.  The Canteen fund was used to purchase turkeys for the workers at Thanksgiving.  One year when the fund didn’t have enough money to buy turkeys, the men at the power plant bailed the hay in the pastures that surrounded the north end of the lake, and sold the bails to pay for the turkeys.  Then when Corporate Headquarters got wind of it, they insisted that the hay belonged to the Electric Company, and therefore could not be used to buy turkeys for the workers of just that one plant that had used their own money to fill the money box at the plant.  And that was the end of the free turkeys for Thanksgiving.  Kind of took the “Thanks” out of the giving…  Needless to say, the hay wasn’t bailed much after that, it was just brush hogged like a right-of-way.  I’m sure there is a Turkey out there somewhere that is grateful to Corporate Headquarters, but it isn’t the kind of mindless Turkey that cared more about messing with someone’s morale than about the efficiency of a Power Plant.  It was amazing how much of a morale booster a free turkey can be.  Just think about it.  Here were Top Power Plant hands at the time making close to $20 an hour or $160 a day who went home with a big grin on their face just like Bob Cratchit when Ebenezer Scrooge gave him the Giant Goose for Christmas, so they could hear their own children say, “God Bless Us, every one!”

The Scrooge from Corporate Headquarters or was he?

Although, the truth be known, it was found out a few years later that the evil plant manager used the excuse that “It Came Down From Corporate Headquarters” often to make unpopular policies at our plant, where Corporate Headquarters was not aware that their good and friendly nature was being tarnished by a rogue plant manager in some distant Power Plant Land far far away up north in the wastelands of Oklahoma.

Anyway, I sometimes wonder how many power plant men that were around in the first days before both units went live still have one or more of those quality built belt buckles made exclusively by Power Plant Machinists for Power Plant Men.  If so, they ought to take them down from the fireplace mantle or remove it from the glass case and dust it off and bring it to work some day just to show the New Generation X Power Plant newbies (or pups as we used to call them) what it was like living in the Power Plant Kingdom back when the great towering stacks were being raised, and the boilers were being built like skyscrapers out in the middle of the countryside.

Then they can gather them around by the boiler and open one of the small hatchways so that the orange glow of the fireball inside can illuminate the grating and the eager faces of the young power plant men waiting to hear the stories of brave men long ago who were rewarded with free turkeys at Thanksgiving.  They can recall how proud they were to take the Free Turkeys home to their families all waiting eagerly by the window to watch as their father braved the Oklahoma west wind and dust storms to find his way to their door.  Greeting them with hugs and the proud acknowledgement of how much the Electric Company appreciated their father enough to give his family one free turkey every year.  Can you hear it?  Is that my son by the fireplace?  Did he just say what I thought he said?  Yes.  It was.  He said, “God Bless Us, Every One!”

Chief Among Power Plant Machinists

Lawrence Hayes was the foreman over the machinists when I first arrived at the power plant, but Ray Butler was undoubtedly the Chief.  He was actually the Chief of the Otoe-Missouri Indian tribe, for a time, that was located just to the north and west of the plant grounds.  The Machinists I can remember from the first summer is Don Burnett, Johnnie Keys, Ray Butler and Lawrence Hayes.  Being a Machinist in a power plant is something that few people can pull off, but those that do, can create just about any metal part that is needed in the plant.

The machinists fascinated me when I first arrived at the plant in 1979.  One side of the entire maintenance shop was the machine shop and it was filled with all different kinds of machining equipment.  I recognized some of the equipment like the lathes, but other machines, like the mill, were something new.  Then there is  this very large lathe.  It was monstrous.  I wondered what kind of part would be machined with that big lathe.

This is what the typical lathe looks like in a machine shop

Even though the power plant machinists came from very diverse backgrounds, they all have two important traits in common.  They are very patient  and they are perfectionists.  The first summer as a summer help both of the units were still under construction and the mechanics were all busy going through the entire plant disassembling each piece of equipment and measuring it and cleaning it and putting it back together.  Often they would find something that didn’t meet the Electric Companies specifications, so it would be sent to the machinist to fix.  Very precise measurements were being used, and if there was a 3 thousandth inch gap (.003), and the company wanted it to be no more than 2 thousandths of an inch (.002)…. then it was the job of the machinist to add a sleeve and machine the part down until it was precisely where it was supposed to be.

I learned very little about the lives of the machinists because they were always standing behind the lathes watching vigilantly as the metal shavings were flying off of the parts, but I did learn a few things about some of them.  First of all, each one of the machinists seemed to care about you right away.  Don Burnett, a tall and very thin man with a friendly face, worked in a Zinc Smelting plant before he had come to work at the power plant.  One time while he was working there, some molten zinc was accidentally poured down the back of his boot burning his heel.  It was then that he decided that he would start looking for a different line of work.  I went fishing with him and some other guys once, where he told me some more things about his life.  Then a few years later, he moved to the Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma, where I saw him a couple of times while on overhaul down there.

Johnnie Keys would be perfectly cast as a hillbilly.  He had a scruffy beard (this was before beards were no longer allowed in 1983 due to the problem with obtaining a seal on your respirator) and if you put an old leather hat on him, he would look like this:

Like this, only younger and with a shorter beard

When you ask Johnnie to create something for you, you can be sure that he will do the best he can.  One time years later when I was an electrician, I asked Johnnie if he could take a piece of plexiglass and cut out 8 rectangles in it so that I could mount it in an electrical box so that a bunch of breakers could be accessed, without someone worrying about getting into the electricity.  This is the control box that was used for the vent fans that were installed around the turbine room floor.  As far as I know, it is still there today.  Anyway, Johnnie brought it back to the electric shop when he was finished and it was perfect.  He had a couple of holes in it so that I could put two standoffs to mount the plexiglass in the box.

It just so happened that Leroy Godfrey the electrical supervisor was in the middle of a little war between the engineers because they hadn’t consulted him about the project, and so he was intent on making the job go way over budget.  I wasn’t exactly privy to this information at the time (or maybe I was).  Anyway, after I had mounted the plexiglass to the back plate of the electric box using the standoffs, and it was sitting on the workbench, Leroy came up to me and looked at it.  He said right away, “Go have the machinists put some more holes in it so that you can add more standoffs to mount the plexiglass.  Knowing full well that it didn’t need the extra mounting, I told Leroy that I believed that two standoffs will be fine because the entire assembly was going to be put in the electric box, where there wasn’t going to be much movement, and I picked up the entire assembly with the breakers and all by the plexiglass and bent it all the way around to where both ends  of the plexiglass were touching and shook the breakers up and down.  Then I put it back on the workbench and said,  “I am not going to tell the machinist to add more holes, this is perfect.”  I knew that Johnnie had worked very meticulously machining out the plexiglass and I wasn’t going to bother him with meaningless revisions.  It was at that point where Leroy Godfrey decided that I must go.  He went into the office and told Bill Bennett that he wanted to fire me.  Bill Bennett calmed him down, and it wasn’t long after that Leroy and the other old school power plant men were early retired.

Lawrence Hayes was the foreman at the time and I remember one morning while he was working on the lathe next to the foremen’s office.  He had a disturbed look on his face about something as he had a long metal rod in the lathe and was busy measuring it from different angles.  A little while later when I was passing by on the way to the tool room, Lawrence had Marlin McDaniel, the A Foreman out there and he was showing him something about the lathe.  Then some time just after lunch, Lawrence had a big wrench and was removing the mounting bolts from the Lathe, and later picked the entire thing up with the shop overhead crane and moved it down to the other end of the shop.  Over the next couple of days, the concrete where the lathe had been mounted was busted up and removed, and then re-poured, so that the mounting bolts were now properly aligned.  The enormity of this job made me realize that when these Power Plant Men knew what needed to be done to fix something, they went right ahead and did it, no matter how big the job was.

I have saved the Chief until last.  Ray Butler as I mentioned above was the Chief of the Otoe-Missouria India tribe.  They really called him “Chairman”, but I think I knew what the title really meant.

This is an actor trying to look like Ray Butler

As Ray Butler sat at a lathe or a mill working on a piece of metal, he always had the same expression.  His head was slightly tilted up so that he could see through the bottom of his bifocals and he had the most satisfied expression.  He looked as if he was watching a work of art being created before his eyes.  It didn’t matter what he was working on, he always had the same expression.  I mentioned above that the machinists (like all true power plant men), seemed to instantly care about you.  This seemed to be especially true with Ray Butler.  He was almost 7 years older than my own father.  He treated me as one of his sons.

When I had been at the plant three days of my third year as a summer help in 1981, on Wednesday May 13, I went to the break room to eat my lunch.  Ray came up to me and sat down across from me at the table.  He looked at me solemnly and told me that the Pope had just been shot.  He had heard it on the radio and knew that I was Catholic.  He said that was all that he knew other than that they had taken him to the hospital.  I could see his concern when he told me this, and I could see that he was equally concerned that this holy man across the ocean had been shot.  I thanked him for letting me know.

Ray had served in the Navy during World War II and besides the time he spent in the Navy he spent most of his life from the time he was born until his death in 2007 in Oklahoma.  He was born and died in Red Rock just a few miles from where the power plant was built.  He went to high school in Pawnee.  Even though I have seen him upset at times, he was always a man at peace.   He retired in 1988 and the day that he left I met him on his way to the control room while I was on my way to the maintenance shop.  I told him that I wished him well on his retirement and I gave him a hug.  I didn’t see him again until a few years later when we had stopped by the Indian Reservation convenience store to buy gas and when he saw me he came out to say hello and it was like meeting a close friend.  He gave me a hug and I got back in the truck and we left.  That was the last time I saw Ray Butler, but I know that if I wanted to visit with him again, I could just go take a stroll around the Pow-wow area of the Otoe-Missouria Reservation and he would not be far away.

This is where the Pow-wow is held today. The same field where Ken Conrad danced with the Bobcat years ago