Tag Archives: Mitsubishi

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

Originally Posted July 21, 2012:

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

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

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

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

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

Otto from the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip

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

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

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

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

Kind of like this

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

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

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

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

A tractor just like this

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

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

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

Like this only with a mop handle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmm…. What does he think about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Heflin

Jim Heflin

 

Comment from previous Repost

  1. Ron   July 24, 2013:

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

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Power Plant Summer Help Sanity Check

Originally Posted December 7, 2012:

What happens to a million dollar forest when left to the fate of two Power Plant Summer Help?  I can tell you; the result is not good.  Before I explain this statement, let me introduce some summer help to you so that you will have a deeper understanding of my summer help career.  It spanned 4 summers for a total of 12 months.

I would like to start out by saying that there were a few summer help that I thought were very intelligent and goodhearted people.  A dear friend of mine named Tim Flowers, who was a friend that I met while attending Oklahoma University my first year in school, was one of the smartest people you might run across in your lifetime.  He was also a very hard worker who didn’t mind putting his entire effort into his work.

Blake Tucker from Pawnee also had a brilliant mind and had an honorable work ethic.  He was fresh out of High School when he first went to work as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma.  During his years as a summer help, I spent a lot of time with him working on mathematical calculations and on programming feats of magic.

Bill Cook, though he didn’t put his back into his work the way some would have liked to see, he did go on to work at the power plant on the labor crew a year and a half before I finally made it onto that team of singularly distinguished characters.  Bill confided in me, and I consider him a friend, though I haven’t seen him in 30 years.

David Foster became a friend of mine the second summer when we were were summer help together. He only worked at the plant that one summer, but I talked to him a few times during the years when he was in college and I would run into him coming out of church or on campus.  His father was a dentist in Ponca City.

This leaves me with all the rest of the summer help that worked with me during those 4 summers.  I wrote a post about the first summer help I worked with that really didn’t fit the requirements, since you were supposed to be going to school in order to be a summer help.  That was Steve Higginbotham.  He was 34 at the time and not planning on attending school in the fall.  You can read more about him in the post:  Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown

Steve was a less than energetic person, but I could understand his lack of enthusiasm.  He had been dealt a shorthand in his life and he was making the best out of his situation.  What I found hard to understand were summer help that were fresh out of High School that were given the opportunity to work at an illustrious palace of a Power Plant, and they just didn’t want to work.

When I was leaving the house at age 14 to go to my first job where I was working for someone other than myself (I began selling tomatoes from my garden door-to-door at age 8), my dad told me something that became the core of my work ethic.  He said, “Son.”  Well, I don’t remember if he actually said “Son.” but it was something like that.  Maybe he said “Kevin, before you go, I want to tell you something.”  He said that I should do my best at whatever job they give me.  I should do a job that I would be proud to show others.  He never wanted to hear anything that would make him ashamed of me.

It was a thrill to go work at a German Restaurant as a dishwasher making $1.50 an hour.  I worked my tail off each night.  I didn’t know there was anything called “breaks”, and I focused on keeping ahead of the work so that I wouldn’t become swamped.

So, it was hard for me, by the time I was 20, to see summer help come to the plant and work real hard at not working.  Young football players from Pawnee, who you would think would be able to put their best foot forward, were usually standing around talking smack about that one doofus of a summer help that wanted to get to work right away.  That one guy that liked wearing his face shield and ear muffs hanging down from his hard hat swinging the industrial weedeater to-and-fro all day long.

One with two handles like this one

One with two handles like this one (I like reusing pictures from old posts)

This one group of summer help that were hired that summer all seemed to have the same bug, except for Bill  Cook.  Bill didn’t get along with them because he wasn’t from the same bully class that they graduated.  At one point during the summer the tension between them and Bill rose to such a level that they had to handle it the only way left.

Bill had to meet one of them outside the gate after quittin’ time to settle matters.  The truth of the matter was that Bill had done nothing to stir up their ire.  They just didn’t like him.  It seemed to be a personality issue with them.  From what I understand, the cowards received what was coming to them as usually happens when they have mistook someone to be a weakling and easy pickings.

To illustrate the intelligence of this particular group of summer help (there were 3 of them), let me describe an instance where they were struggling real hard to keep from working.  I didn’t understand their desire to keep doing what they were doing in the first place, so I wasn’t about to stay in the situation all afternoon.

Stanley Elmore had told us to mow the area around the main parking lot.  This included the area by the main entrance.  At that time there were sections of grass on all sides of the parking lot including the side by the garage (which is not there today).  Stanley sent me and the 3 of them (not Bill Cook.  I think he knew the tension between them and tried to work it so that Bill could be doing other things) out to mow this area with regular push mowers.

It was just after lunch when we started.  I knew right away that the three amigos wanted to make this job last all afternoon.  I think they were afraid that when they finished they would be sent to the park to empty the trash cans of the foul rotten fish guts and soiled baby diapers.  A job that would make most summer help puke and even bring water to the eyes of a True Power Plant Man.

Well.  I grabbed one of the lawn mowers and headed out across the drive to the grass and started mowing around and around one stretch of grass.  By the time the others had dragged their mowers out and took their time starting them, I had finished one stretch of grass and went around to the other side of the parking lot to work on that side as well.

The grass on the far side of the parking lot wrapped around by the welding shop and over to the front entrance.  So, once this entire section was done, we would be finished.  It really wasn’t that much grass to mow.  Not when you had 4 lawn mowers all going around in a counter clockwise direction.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three huddle together to have a quick discussion.  I knew they were going to try to thwart my efforts to quickly finish this job so they didn’t have to move on to the next adventure.  I also knew that there wasn’t anyway they were going to be able to stop me.

They had tried to stop me before earlier when we were going out to cut weeds down a long right-of-way.  One of them had let his weedeater string out real far so that the strings were sticking out about 2 feet.  He started his weedeater up so that the strings were whining and turned around so that the strings grabbed my leg and before I knew it I was flat on my back with a stabbing pain in my knee.  My kneecap had been knocked out of the socket, which I quickly hit with the palm of my  hand to knock it back over from the side of my knee.

I could see that this had been pre-planned by their reaction.  I think they thought it would take me out of commission or make me angry so they could watch me lose my top.  The guy that did it apologized in a half sarcastic way and I told him it was all right.  I wiped the dust off of my pants and grabbed my weedeater and went to work.  I could see them at the back of the truck standing there wondering where their plan had failed.

Anyway, back to mowing the grass around the parking lot.  I was able to tell immediately what they had planned.  Their idea was to hem me in and mow very slowly so that I would have no where to go but to follow along behind one of them travelling at a snails pace.  They were so slow they would take one step, wait a second, then take another step, etc.

So, as I came up behind one of them I suddenly took a left turn and cut a new path through the grass without even slowing down.  I quickly came to the other side of the curb, and I turned left again and was heading back in the direction I came from just as if nothing was wrong.

I knew the law of physics.  Newton’s First Law of Physics.  If a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion unless it is acted on by another force.  Well.  The mind of the weak have little force.  Newton was not only one of my favorite Physicist, he was one of my favorite Mathematicians as well.

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Well.  He did like sitting in the park under an apple tree.  — So how did they keep the grass mowed back in 1642?  Maybe they trained the grass just to stay small.  Why don’t we have grass that just stays short?  We could do that easy enough.

Because of the laws of motion and the size of my lawn mower and the speed in which I was mowing, I had calculated that I should be able to finish mowing the entire area in about 15 more minutes (or 900 seconds) if I were to do it all myself.  — Funny how things run through your mind when you are mowing grass.  No wonder Sonny Karcher loved mowing grass so much.

Sonny Karcher

Anyway.  That little story illustrates my point about how some summer help put all their brain power into thinking about how to stay out of work that they couldn’t even conceive of someone thinking outside the box.  How difficult was it for me to just turn and mow a patch of grass out in the middle of the stretch of grass we were mowing?

Once they realized that there wasn’t anyway to stop me, they went ahead and finished their job.  I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to stand out in the sun in 100 degree temperature anyway pretending to mow grass.  Didn’t they know that just made the day seem longer?

It was during that summer that the plant manager was sold on the idea of planting a forest around the coal yard to prevent the wind from blowing all the coal away (Oklahoma is windy).  So, a million dollars was spent to hire a company to plant a number of rows of trees along the south road next to the coal yard.  When the trees were planted, they were sickly little sticks.  The summer help were sent to go water them from time-to-time using the small Mitsubishi tractor pulling a trailer with a tank of water on it.

A tractor just like this

A tractor just like this

I have to admit that I never gave the idea much hope.  The ground where the trees were planted was hard clay.  The company that received the million dollars hardly even put any real usable tree-growing dirt in the hole when they planted the trees.

The trees were planted very close together so that you couldn’t mow around them on a tractor.  So, when the weeds started growing tall (…as tall as the trees) and the field had been mowed, Stanley sent a couple of the lazy summer help up there to weed eat around the trees.

I had been told some time in my childhood that one of the fastest ways to kill a tree was to strip the bark off all the way around the tree.  Not just strip the bark, but cut a little into the tree itself around the base of the tree.  If you did this, the tree would die.  The only actual living part of the tree is the outside section.  Here is a link to a site that describes the part of a tree and a picture from that site:

How Does A Tree Grow

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

So, do I need to go on?  That’s right.  When the summer help had finished trimming the verge around the trees their fate had been sealed.  Two summer help in a matter of an hour totally wiped out the million dollar tree experiment.  They had stripped the bark clean around every tree.

Not to be outdone.  The Plant Manager spent 2 million dollars to have larger trees installed with plenty of good soil around the embankments on the north side of the coal pile.  These were good healthy trees.There was even an irrigation system installed to make sure they were properly watered.  This worked at least a year or two.  Long enough for a lot of the trees to catch hold.  The only problem is that the wind almost always blows from the west or the south defeating the purpose of the “windbreak” on the north side of the coal pile.

Ok.  One more summer help story before I go.  A friend of mine named Ben Cox became a summer help for a summer the fourth summer I worked as a summer help (how many times can I use the word summer in one sentence?).  I had worked with him at the Bakery in Columbia, Missouri and he had followed me home that summer to try his hand at summer helping at the power plant.  Tim Flowers and I had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail.  I have mentioned Ben Cox before in the story about Ramblin’ Ann.  He and I used to tag team Ramblin’ Ann just to keep our sanity.  See the link below as a refresher on Ramblin’ Ann:

Ed Sheiver Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann

Ben wasn’t the most physically fit, and we didn’t want to see him have a heart attack at such an early age.  Ben, however, held his own as best he could and survived a summer of working outdoors.  He actually did better than Tim and I expected.

One day when we were driving to the coal yard Ben asked me why there were large hills of sand piled up across the road from the intake.  Instead of telling him that the sand had been dredged out of the intake channel when they were filling the lake and sand was being pumped from the river up to the lake with the water, I told him something else…

I told Ben that they kept the large piles of sand there in case they ran out of coal.  They would burn the sand as a last resort.  I explained that they didn’t like to burn sand because it burned hotter than coal and it turned into glass in the boiler and really messed things up.  But if there was a long coal strike and they totally ran out of coal, they would have to burn sand in order to keep producing electricity.

Tim and I watched closely as Ben mulled this over in his mind.  At first he didn’t believe me, but after I explained why we didn’t burn sand all the time, you could start to see the wheels turning in his mind.  Burning sand…. wow!  There is sand all over the place!  I never told him differently.  I’m sure if he tried to sell the idea to someone, he would have found out quick enough.

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman December 12, 2012:

Your stories are so good! They bring back memories I hadn’t thought of for years. The part about “burning sand” reminded me of the Brown & Root engineer that was looking for an easy way to put holes in a thick set of blueprints. “Someone” (Kenneth Palmer or John Blake might have been involved) convinced him that shooting them with a 22 would be the easiest way to do the job. He then proceeded to take a new set of prints and totally destroy them!

Power Plant Summer Help Sanity Check

Originally Posted December 7, 2012:

What happens to a million dollar forest when left to the fate of two Power Plant Summer Help?  I can tell you; the result is not good.  Before I explain this statement, let me introduce some summer help to you so that you will have a deeper understanding of my summer help career.  It spanned 4 summers for a total of 12 months.

I would like to start out by saying that there were a few summer help that I thought were very intelligent and goodhearted people.  A dear friend of mine named Tim Flowers, who was a friend that I met while attending Oklahoma University my first year in school, was one of the smartest people you might run across in your lifetime.  He was also a very hard worker who didn’t mind putting his entire effort into his work.

Blake Tucker from Pawnee also had a brilliant mind and had an honorable work ethic.  He was fresh out of High School when he first went to work as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma.  During his years as a summer help, I spent a lot of time with him working on mathematical calculations and on programming feats of magic.

Bill Cook, though he didn’t put his back into his work the way some would have liked to see, he did go on to work at the power plant on the labor crew a year and a half before I finally made it onto that team of singularly distinguished characters.  Bill confided in me, and I consider him a friend, though I haven’t seen him in 30 years.

David Foster became a friend of mine the second summer when we were were summer help together. He only worked at the plant that one summer, but I talked to him a few times during the years when he was in college and I would run into him coming out of church or on campus.  His father was a dentist in Ponca City.

This leaves me with all the rest of the summer help that worked with me during those 4 summers.  I wrote a post about the first summer help I worked with that really didn’t fit the requirements, since you were supposed to be going to school in order to be a summer help.  That was Steve Higginbotham.  You can read more about him in the post:  Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown

Steve was a less than energetic person, but I could understand his lack of enthusiasm.  He had been dealt a shorthand in his life and he was making the best out of his situation.  What I found hard to understand were summer help that were fresh out of High School that were given the opportunity to work at an illustrious palace of a Power Plant, and they just didn’t want to work.

When I was leaving the house at age 14 to go to my first job where I was working for someone other than myself (I began selling tomatoes from my garden door-to-door at age 10), my dad told me something that became the core of my work ethic.  He said, “Son.”  Well, I don’t remember if he actually said “Son.” but it was something like that.  Maybe he said “Kevin, before you go, I want to tell you something.”  He said that I should do my best at whatever job they give me.  I should do a job that I would be proud to show others.  He never wanted to hear anything that would make him be ashamed of me.

It was a thrill to go work at a German Restaurant as a dishwasher making $1.50 an hour.  I worked my tail off each night.  I seldom took breaks, and I focused on keeping ahead of the work so that I wouldn’t become swamped.

So, it was hard for me, by the time I was 20, to see summer help come to the plant and work real hard at not working.  Young football players from Pawnee, who you would think would be able to put their best foot forward, were usually standing around talking smack about that one doofus of a summer help that wanted to get to work right away.  That one guy that liked wearing his face shield and ear muffs hanging down from his hard hat swinging the industrial weedeater to-and-fro all day long.

One with two handles like this one

One with two handles like this one (I like reusing pictures from old posts)

This one group of summer help that were hired that summer all seemed to have the same bug, except for Bill  Cook.  Bill didn’t get along with them because he wasn’t from the same bully class that they graduated.  At one point during the summer the tension between them and Bill rose to such a level that they had to handle it the only way left.

Bill had to meet one of them outside the gate after quittin’ time to settle matters.  The truth of the matter was that Bill had done nothing to stir up their ire.  They just didn’t like him.  It seemed to be a personality issue with them.  From what I understand, the cowards received what was coming to them as usually happens when they have mistook someone to be a weakling and easy pickings.

To illustrate the intelligence of this particular group of summer help (there were 3 of them), let me describe an instance where they were struggling real hard to keep from working.  I didn’t understand their desire to keep doing what they were doing in the first place, so I wasn’t about to stay in the situation all afternoon.

Stanley Elmore had told us to mow the area around the main parking lot.  This included the area by the main entrance.  At that time there were sections of grass on all sides of the parking lot including the side by the garage.  Stanley sent me and the 3 of them (not Bill Cook.  I think he knew the tension between them and tried to work it so that Bill could be doing other things) out to mow this area with regular push mowers.

It was just after lunch when we started.  I knew right away that the three amigos wanted to make this job last all afternoon.  I think they were afraid that when they finished they would be sent to the park to empty the trash cans of the foul rotten fish guts and soiled baby diapers.  A job that would make most summer help puke and even bring water to the eyes of a True Power Plant Man.

Well.  I grabbed one of the lawn mowers and headed out across the drive to the grass and started mowing around and around one stretch of grass.  By the time the others had dragged their mowers out and took their time starting them, I had finished one stretch of grass and went around to the other side of the parking lot to work on that side as well.

The grass on the far side of the parking lot wrapped around by the welding shop and over to the front entrance.  So, once this entire section was done, we would be finished.  It really wasn’t that much grass to mow.  Not when you had 4 lawn mowers all going around in a counter clockwise direction.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three huddle together to have a quick discussion.  I knew they were going to try to thwart my efforts to quickly finish this job so they didn’t have to move on to the next adventure.  I also knew that there wasn’t anyway they were going to be able to stop me.

They had tried to stop me before earlier when we were going out to cut weeds down a long right-of-way.  One of them had let his weedeater string out real far so that the strings were sticking out about 2 feet.  He started his weedeater up so that the strings were whining and turned around so that the strings grabbed my leg and before I knew it I was flat on my back with a stabbing pain in my knee.  My kneecap had been knocked out of the socket, which I quickly hit with the palm of my  hand to knock it back over from the side of my knee.

I could see that this had been pre-planned by their reaction.  I think they thought it would take me out of commission or make me angry so they could watch me lose my top.  The guy that did it apologized in a half sarcastic way and I told him it was all right.  I wiped the dust off of my pants and grabbed my weedeater and went to work.  I could see them at the back of the truck standing there wondering where their plan had failed.

Anyway, back to mowing the grass around the parking lot.  I was able to tell immediately what they had planned.  Their idea was to hem me in and mow very slowly so that I would have no where to go but to follow along behind one of them travelling at a snails pace.  They were so slow they would take one step, wait a second, then take another step, etc.

So, as I came up behind one of them I suddenly took a left turn and cut a new path through the grass without even slowing down.  I quickly came to the other side of the curb, and I turned left again and was heading back in the direction I came from just as if nothing was wrong.

I knew the law of physics.  Newton’s First Law of Physics.  If a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion unless it is acted on by another force.  Well.  The mind of the weak have little force.  Newton was not only one of my favorite Physicist, he was one of my favorite Mathematicians as well.

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Well.  He did like sitting in the park under an apple tree.  — So how did they keep the grass mowed back in 1642?  Maybe they trained the grass just to stay small.  Why don’t we have grass that just stays short?  We could do that easy enough.

Because of the laws of motion and the size of my lawn mower and the speed in which I was mowing, I had calculated that I should be able to finish mowing the entire area in about 15 more minutes (or 900 seconds) if I were to do it all myself.  — Funny how things run through your mind when you are mowing grass.  No wonder Sonny Karcher loved mowing grass so much.

Anyway.  That little story illustrates my point about how some summer help put all their brain power into thinking about how to stay out of work that they couldn’t even conceive of someone thinking outside the box.  How difficult was it for me to just turn and mow a patch of grass out in the middle of the stretch of grass we were mowing?

Once they realized that there wasn’t anyway to stop me, they went ahead and finished their job.  I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to stand out in the sun in 100 degree temperature anyway pretending to mow grass.  Didn’t they know that just made the day seem longer?

It was during that summer that the plant manager was sold on the idea of planting a forest around the coal yard to prevent the wind from blowing all the coal away (Oklahoma is windy).  So, a million dollars was spent to hire a company to plant a number of rows of trees along the south road next to the coal yard.  When the trees were planted, they were like sickly little sticks.  The summer help were sent to go water them from time-to-time using the small Mitsubishi tractor pulling a trailer with a tank of water on it.

A tractor just like this

A tractor just like this

I have to admit that I never gave the idea much hope.  The ground where the trees were planted was hard clay.  The company that received the million dollars hardly even put any real usable tree-growing dirt in the hole when they planted the trees.

The trees were planted very close together so that you couldn’t mow around them on a tractor.  So, when the weeds started growing tall and the field had been mowed, Stanley sent a couple of the lazy summer help up there to weed eat around the trees.

I had been told some time in my childhood that one of the fastest ways to kill a tree was to strip the bark off all the way around the tree.  Not just strip the bark, but cut a little into the tree itself around the base of the tree.  If you did this, the tree would die.  The only actual living part of the tree is the outside section.  Here is a link to a site that describes the part of a tree and a picture from that site:

How Does A Tree Grow

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

So, do I need to go on?  That’s right.  When the summer help had finished trimming the verge around the trees their fate had been sealed.  Two summer help in a matter of an hour totally wiped out the million dollar tree experiment.  They had stripped the bark clean around every tree.

Not to be outdone.  The Plant Manager spent 2 million dollars to have larger trees installed with plenty of good soil around the embankments on the north side of the coal pile.  These were good healthy trees.There was even an irrigation system installed to make sure they were properly watered.  This worked at least a year or two.  Long enough for a lot of the trees to catch hold.  The only problem is that the wind almost always blows from the west or the south defeating the purpose of the “windbreak” on the north side of the coal pile.

Ok.  One more summer help story before I go.  A friend of mine named Ben Cox became a summer help for a summer the fourth summer I worked as a summer help (how many times can I use the word summer in one sentence?).  I had worked with him at the Bakery in Columbia, Missouri and he had followed me home that summer to try his hand at summer helping at the power plant.  Tim Flowers and I had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail.  I have mentioned Ben Cox before in the story about Ramblin’ Ann.  He and I used to tag team Ramblin’ Ann just to keep our sanity.  See the link below as a refresher on Ramblin’ Ann:

Ed Sheiver Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann

Ben wasn’t the most physically fit, and we didn’t want to see him have a heart attack at such an early age.  Ben, however, held his own as best he could and survived a summer of working outdoors.  He actually did better than Tim and I expected.

One day when we were driving to the coal yard Ben asked me why there were large hills of sand piled up across the road from the intake.  Instead of telling him that the sand had been dredged out of the intake channel when they were filling the lake and sand was being pumped from the river up to the lake with the water, I told him something else…

I told Ben that they kept the large piles of sand there in case they ran out of coal.  They would burn the sand as a last resort.  I explained that they didn’t like to burn sand because it burned hotter than coal and it turned into glass in the boiler and really messed things up.  But if there was a long coal strike and they totally ran out of coal, they would have to burn sand in order to keep producing electricity.

Tim and I watched closely as Ben mulled this over in his mind.  At first he didn’t believe me, but after I explained why we didn’t burn sand all the time, you could start to see the wheels turning in his mind.  Burning sand…. wow!  There is sand all over the place!  I never told him differently.  I’m sure if he tried to sell the idea to someone, he would have found out quick enough.

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman December 12, 2012:

Your stories are so good! They bring back memories I hadn’t thought of for years. The part about “burning sand” reminded me of the Brown & Root engineer that was looking for an easy way to put holes in a thick set of blueprints. “Someone” (Kenneth Palmer or John Blake might have been involved) convinced him that shooting them with a 22 would be the easiest way to do the job. He then proceeded to take a new set of prints and totally destroy them!

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

Originally Posted July 21, 2012:

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

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

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

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

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

Otto from the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip

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

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

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

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

Kind of like this

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

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

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

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

A tractor just like this

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

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

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

Like this only with a mop handle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmm…. What does he think about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Heflin

Jim Heflin

 

Comment from previous Repost

  1. Ron   July 24, 2013:

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

Power Plant Summer Help Sanity Check –Repost

Originally Posted December 7, 2012:

What happens to a million dollar forest when left to the fate of two Power Plant Summer Help?  I can tell you; the result is not good.  Before I explain this statement, let me introduce some summer help to you so that you will have a deeper understanding of my summer help career.  It spanned 4 summers for a total of 12 months.

I would like to start out by saying that there were a few summer help that I thought were very intelligent and goodhearted people.  A dear friend of mine named Tim Flowers, who was a friend that I met while attending Oklahoma University my first year in school, was one of the smartest people you might run across in your lifetime.  He was also a very hard worker who didn’t mind putting his entire effort into his work.

Blake Tucker from Pawnee also had a brilliant mind and had an honorable work ethic.  He was fresh out of High School when he first went to work as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma.  During his years as a summer help, I spent a lot of time with him working on mathematical calculations and on programming feats of magic.

Bill Cook, though he didn’t put his back into his work the way some would have liked to see, he did go on to work at the power plant on the labor crew a year and a half before I finally made it onto that team of singularly distinguished characters.  Bill confided in me, and I consider him a friend, though I haven’t seen him in 30 years.

David Foster became a friend of mine the second summer when we were were summer help together. He only worked at the plant that one summer, but I talked to him a few times during the years when he was in college and I would run into him coming out of church or on campus.  His father was a dentist in Ponca City.

This leaves me with all the rest of the summer help that worked with me during those 4 summers.  I wrote a post about the first summer help I worked with that really didn’t fit the requirements, since you were supposed to be going to school in order to be a summer help.  That was Steve Higginbotham.  You can read more about him in the post:

Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown

Steve was a less than energetic person, but I could understand his lack of enthusiasm.  He had been dealt a shorthand in his life and he was making the best out of his situation.  What I found hard to understand were summer help that were fresh out of High School that were given the opportunity to work at an illustrious palace of a Power Plant, and they just didn’t want to work.

When I was leaving the house at age 14 to go to my first job where I was working for someone other than myself (I began selling tomatoes from my garden door-to-door at age 10), my dad told me something that became the core of my work ethic.  He said, “Son.”  Well, I don’t remember if he actually said “Son.” but it was something like that.  Maybe he said “Kevin, before you go, I want to tell you something.”  He said that I should do my best at whatever job they give me.  I should do a job that I would be proud to show others.  He never wanted to hear anything that would make him be ashamed of me.

It was a thrill to go work at a German Restaurant as a dishwasher making $1.50 an hour.  I worked my tail off each night.  I seldom took breaks, and I focused on keeping ahead of the work so that I wouldn’t become swamped.

So, it was hard for me, by the time I was 20, to see summer help come to the plant and work real hard at not working.  Young football players from Pawnee, who you would think would be able to put their best foot forward, were usually standing around talking smack about that one doofus of a summer help that wanted to get to work right away.  That one guy that liked wearing his face shield and ear muffs hanging down from his hard hat swinging the industrial weedeater to-and-fro all day long.

One with two handles like this one

One with two handles like this one (I like reusing pictures from old posts)

This one group of summer help that were hired that summer all seemed to have the same bug, except for Bill  Cook.  Bill didn’t get along with them because he wasn’t from the same bully class that they graduated.  At one point during the summer the tension between them and Bill rose to such a level that they had to handle it the only way left.

Bill had to meet one of them outside the gate after quittin’ time to settle matters.  The truth of the matter was that Bill had done nothing to stir up their ire.  They just didn’t like him.  It seemed to be a personality issue with them.  From what I understand, the cowards received what was coming to them as usually happens when they have mistook someone to be a weakling and easy pickings.

To illustrate the intelligence of this particular group of summer help (there were 3 of them), let me describe an instance where they were struggling real hard to keep from working.  I didn’t understand their desire to keep doing what they were doing in the first place, so I wasn’t about to stay in the situation all afternoon.

Stanley Elmore had told us to mow the area around the main parking lot.  This included the area by the main entrance.  At that time there were sections of grass on all sides of the parking lot including the side by the garage.  Stanley sent me and the 3 of them (not Bill Cook.  I think he knew the tension between them and tried to work it so that Bill could be doing other things) out to mow this area with regular push mowers.

It was just after lunch when we started.  I knew right away that the three amigos wanted to make this job last all afternoon.  I think they were afraid that when they finished they would be sent to the park to empty the trash cans of the foul rotten fish guts and soiled baby diapers.  A job that would make most summer help puke and even bring water to the eyes of a True Power Plant Man.

Well.  I grabbed one of the lawn mowers and headed out across the drive to the grass and started mowing around and around one stretch of grass.  By the time the others had dragged their mowers out and took their time starting them, I had finished one stretch of grass and went around to the other side of the parking lot to work on that side as well.

The grass on the far side of the parking lot wrapped around by the welding shop and over to the front entrance.  So, once this entire section was done, we would be finished.  It really wasn’t that much grass to mow.  Not when you had 4 lawn mowers all going around in a counter clockwise direction.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three huddle together to have a quick discussion.  I knew they were going to try to thwart my efforts to quickly finish this job so they didn’t have to move on to the next adventure.  I also knew that there wasn’t anyway they were going to be able to stop me.

They had tried to stop me before earlier when we were going out to cut weeds down a long right-of-way.  One of them had let his weedeater string out real far so that the strings were sticking out about 2 feet.  He started his weedeater up so that the strings were whining and turned around so that the strings grabbed my leg and before I knew it I was flat on my back with a stabbing pain in my knee.  My kneecap had been knocked out of the socket, which I quickly hit with the palm of my  hand to knock it back over from the side of my knee.

I could see that this had been pre-planned by their reaction.  I think they thought it would take me out of commission or make me angry so they could watch me lose my top.  The guy that did it apologized in a half sarcastic way and I told him it was all right.  I wiped the dust off of my pants and grabbed my weedeater and went to work.  I could see them at the back of the truck standing there wondering where their plan had failed.

Anyway, back to mowing the grass around the parking lot.  I was able to tell immediately what they had planned.  Their idea was to hem me in and mow very slowly so that I would have no where to go but to follow along behind one of them travelling at a snails pace.  They were so slow they would take one step, wait a second, then take another step, etc.

So, as I came up behind one of them I suddenly took a left turn and cut a new path through the grass without even slowing down.  I quickly came to the other side of the curb, and I turned left again and was heading back in the direction I came from just as if nothing was wrong.

I knew the law of physics.  Newton’s First Law of Physics.  If a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion unless it is acted on by another force.  Well.  The mind of the weak have little force.  Newton was not only one of my favorite Physicist, he was one of my favorite Mathematicians as well.

Sir Isaac Newton  Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Well.  He did like sitting in the park under an apple tree.  — So how did they keep the grass mowed back in 1642?  Maybe they trained the grass just to stay small.  Why don’t we have grass that just stays short?  We could do that easy enough.

Because of the laws of motion and the size of my lawn mower and the speed in which I was mowing, I had calculated that I should be able to finish mowing the entire area in about 15 more minutes (or 900 seconds) if I were to do it all myself.  — Funny how things run through your mind when you are mowing grass.  No wonder Sonny Karcher loved mowing grass so much.

Anyway.  That little story illustrates my point about how some summer help put all their brain power into thinking about how to stay out of work that they couldn’t even conceive of someone thinking outside the box.  How difficult was it for me to just turn and mow a patch of grass out in the middle of the stretch of grass we were mowing?

Once they realized that there wasn’t anyway to stop me, they went ahead and finished their job.  I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to stand out in the sun in 100 degree temperature anyway pretending to mow grass.  Didn’t they know that just made the day seem longer?

It was that summer that the plant manager was sold on the idea of planting a forest around the coal yard to prevent the wind from blowing all the coal away.  So, a million dollars was spent to hire a company to plant a number of rows of trees along the south road next to the coal yard.  When the trees were planted, they were like sickly little sticks.  The summer help were sent to go water them from time-to-time using the small Mitsubishi tractor pulling a trailer with a tank of water on it.

A tractor just like this

A tractor just like this

I have to admit that I never gave the idea much hope.  The ground where the trees were planted was hard clay.  The company that received the million dollars hardly even put any real usable tree-growing dirt in the hole when they planted the trees.

The trees were planted very close together so that you couldn’t mow around them.  So, when the weeds started growing tall and the field had been mowed, Stanley sent a couple of the lazy summer help up there to weed eat around the trees.

I had been told some time in my childhood that one of the fastest ways to kill a tree was to strip the bark off all the way around the tree.  Not just strip the bark, but cut a little into the tree itself around the base of the tree.  If you did this, the tree would die.  The only actual living part of the tree is the outside section.  Here is a link to a site that describes the part of a tree and a picture from that site:

How Does A Tree Grow

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

So, do I need to go on?  That’s right.  When the summer help had finished trimming the verge around the trees their fate had been sealed.  Two summer help in a matter of an hour totally wiped out the million dollar tree experiment.  They had stripped the bark clean around every tree.

Not to be outdone.  The Plant Manager spent 2 million dollars to have larger trees installed with plenty of good soil around the embankments on the north side of the coal pile.  These were good healthy trees.There was even an irrigation system installed to make sure they were properly watered.  This worked at least a year or two.  Long enough for a lot of the trees to catch hold.  The only problem is that the wind almost always blows from the west or the south defeating the purpose of the “windbreak” on the north side of the coal pile.

Ok.  One more summer help story before I go.  A friend of mine named Ben Cox became a summer help for a summer the fourth summer I worked as a summer help (how many times can I use the word summer in one sentence?).  I had worked with him at the Bakery in Columbia, Missouri and he had followed me home that summer to try his hand at summer helping at the power plant.  Tim Flowers and I had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail.  I have mentioned Ben Cox before in the story about Ramblin’ Ann.  He and I used to tag team Ramblin’ Ann just to keep our sanity.  See the link below as a refresher on Ramblin’ Ann:

Ed Sheiver Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann

Ben wasn’t the most physically fit, and we didn’t want to see him have a heart attack at such an early age.  Ben, however, held his own as best he could and survived a summer of working outdoors.  He actually did better than Tim and I expected.

One day when we were driving to the coal yard Ben asked me why there were large hills of sand piled up across the road from the intake.  Instead of telling him that the sand had been dredged out of the intake channel when they were filling the lake and sand was being pumped from the river up to the lake with the water, I told him something else…

I told Ben that they kept the large piles of sand there in case they ran out of coal.  They would burn the sand as a last resort.  I explained that they didn’t like to burn sand because it burned hotter than coal and it turned into glass in the boiler and really messed things up.  But if there was a long coal strike and they totally ran out of coal, they would have to burn sand in order to keep producing electricity.

Tim and I watched closely as Ben mulled this over in his mind.  At first he didn’t believe me, but after I explained why we didn’t burn sand all the time, you could start to see the wheels turning in his mind.  Burning sand…. wow!  There is sand all over the place!  I never told him differently.  I’m sure if he tried to sell the idea to someone, he would have found out quick enough.

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman December 12, 2012:

Your stories are so good! They bring back memories I hadn’t thought of for years. The part about “burning sand” reminded me of the Brown & Root engineer that was looking for an easy way to put holes in a thick set of blueprints. “Someone” (Kenneth Palmer or John Blake might have been involved) convinced him that shooting them with a 22 would be the easiest way to do the job. He then proceeded to take a new set of prints and totally destroy them!

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

Originally Posted July 21, 2012:

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

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

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

Otto from the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip

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

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

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

Kind of like this

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

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

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

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

A tractor just like this

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

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

Like this only with a mop handle

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

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

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

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

Hmmm…. What does he think about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Comment from previous Repost

  1. Ron   July 24, 2013:

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

Power Plant Summer Help Sanity Check –Repost

Originally Posted December 7, 2012:

What happens to a million dollar forest when left to the fate of two Power Plant Summer Help?  I can tell you; the result is not good.  Before I explain this statement, let me introduce some summer help to you so that you will have a deeper understanding of my summer help career.  It spanned 4 summer for a total of 12 months.

I would like to start out by saying that there were a few summer help that I thought were very intelligent and goodhearted people.  A dear friend of mine named Tim Flowers, who was a friend that I met while attending Oklahoma University my first year in school, was one of the smartest people you might run across in your lifetime.  He was also a very hard worker who didn’t mind putting his entire effort into his work.

Blake Tucker from Pawnee also had a brilliant mind and had an honorable work ethic.  He was fresh out of High School when he first went to work as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma.  During his years as a summer help, I spent a lot of time with him working on mathematical calculations and on programming feats of magic.

Bill Cook, though he didn’t put his back into his work the way some would have liked to see, he did go on to work at the power plant on the labor crew a year and a half before I finally made it onto that team of singularly distinguished characters.  Bill confided in me, and I consider him a friend, though I haven’t seen him in 30 years.

David Foster became a friend of mine the second summer when we were were summer help together. He only worked at the plant that one summer, but I talked to him a few times during the years when he was in college and I would run into him coming out of church or on campus.  His father was a dentist in Ponca City.

This leaves me with all the rest of the summer help that worked with me during those 4 summers.  I wrote a post about the first summer help I worked with that really didn’t fit the requirements, since you were supposed to be going to school in order to be a summer help.  That was Steve Higginbotham.  You can read more about him in the post:

Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown

Steve was a less than energetic person, but I could understand his lack of enthusiasm.  He had been dealt a shorthand in his life and he was making the best out of his situation.  What I found hard to understand were summer help that were fresh out of High School that were given the opportunity to work at an illustrious palace of a Power Plant, and they just didn’t want to work.

When I was leaving the house at age 14 to go to my first job where I was working for someone other than myself (I began selling tomatoes from my garden door-to-door at age 10), my dad told me something that became the core of my work ethic.  He said, “Son.”  Well, I don’t remember if he actually said “Son.” but it was something like that.  Maybe he said “Kevin, before you go, I want to tell you something.”  He said that I should do my best at whatever job they give me.  I should do a job that I would be proud to show others.  He never wanted to hear anything that would make him be ashamed of me.

It was a thrill to go work at a German Restaurant as a dishwasher making $1.50 an hour.  I worked my tail off each night.  I seldom took breaks, and I focused on keeping ahead of the work so that I wouldn’t become swamped.

So, it was hard for me, by the time I was 20, to see summer help come to the plant and work real hard at not working.  Young football players from Pawnee, who you would think would be able to put their best foot forward, were usually standing around talking smack about that one doofus of a summer help that wanted to get to work right away.  That one guy that liked wearing his face shield and ear muffs hanging down from his hard hat swinging the industrial weedeater to-and-fro all day long.

One with two handles like this one

One with two handles like this one (I like reusing pictures from old posts)

This one group of summer help that were hired that summer all seemed to have the same bug, except for Bill  Cook.  Bill didn’t get along with them because he wasn’t from the same bully class that they graduated.  At one point during the summer the tension between them and Bill rose to such a level that they had to handle it the only way left.

Bill had to meet one of them outside the gate after quittin’ time to settle matters.  The truth of the matter was that Bill had done nothing to stir up their ire.  They just didn’t like him.  It seemed to be a personality issue with them.  From what I understand, the cowards received what was coming to them as usually happens when they have mistook someone to be a weakling and easy pickings.

To illustrate the intelligence of this particular group of summer help (there were 3 of them), let me describe an instance where they were struggling real hard to keep from working.  I didn’t understand their desire to keep doing what they were doing in the first place, so I wasn’t about to stay in the situation all afternoon.

Stanley Elmore had told us to mow the area around the main parking lot.  This included the area by the main entrance.  At that time there were sections of grass on all sides of the parking lot including the side by the garage.  Stanley sent me and the 3 of them (not Bill Cook.  I think he knew the tension between them and tried to work it so that Bill could be doing other things) out to mow this area with regular push mowers.

It was just after lunch when we started.  I knew right away that the three amigos wanted to make this job last all afternoon.  I think they were afraid that when they finished they would be sent to the park to empty the trash cans of the foul rotten fish guts and soiled baby diapers.  A job that would make most summer help puke and even bring water to the eyes of a True Power Plant Man.

Well.  I grabbed one of the lawn mowers and headed out across the drive to the grass and started mowing around and around one stretch of grass.  By the time the others had dragged their mowers out and took their time starting them, I had finished one stretch of grass and went around to the other side of the parking lot to work on that side as well.

The grass on the far side of the parking lot wrapped around by the welding shop and over to the front entrance.  So, once this entire section was done, we would be finished.  It really wasn’t that much grass to mow.  Not when you had 4 lawn mowers all going around in a counter clockwise direction.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three huddle together to have a quick discussion.  I knew they were going to try to thwart my efforts to quickly finish this job so they didn’t have to move on to the next adventure.  I also knew that there wasn’t anyway they were going to be able to stop me.

They had tried to stop me before earlier when we were going out to cut weeds down a long right-of-way.  One of them had let his weedeater string out real far so that the strings were sticking out about 2 feet.  He started his weedeater up so that the strings were whining and turned around so that the strings grabbed my leg and before I knew it I was flat on my back with a stabbing pain in my knee.  My kneecap had been knocked out of the socket, which I quickly hit with the palm of my  hand to knock it back over from the side of my knee.

I could see that this had been pre-planned by their reaction.  I think they thought it would take me out of commission or make me angry so they could watch me lose my top.  The guy that did it apologized in a half sarcastic way and I told him it was all right.  I wiped the dust off of my pants and grabbed my weedeater and went to work.  I could see them at the back of the truck standing there wondering where their plan had failed.

Anyway, back to mowing the grass around the parking lot.  I was able to tell immediately what they had planned.  Their idea was to hem me in and mow very slowly so that I would have no where to go but to follow along behind one of them travelling at a snails pace.  They were so slow they would take one step, wait a second, then take another step, etc.

So, as I came up behind one of them I suddenly took a left turn and cut a new path through the grass without even slowing down.  I quickly came to the other side of the curb, and I turned left again and was heading back in the direction I came from just as if nothing was wrong.

I knew the law of physics.  Newton’s First Law of Physics.  If a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion unless it is acted on by another force.  Well.  The mind of the weak have little force.  Newton was not only one of my favorite Physicist, he was one of my favorite Mathematicians as well.

Sir Isaac Newton  Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Well.  He did like sitting in the park under an apple tree.  — So how did they keep the grass mowed back in 1642?  Maybe they trained the grass just to stay small.  Why don’t we have grass that just stays short?  We could do that easy enough.

Because of the laws of motion and the size of my lawn mower and the speed in which I was mowing, I had calculated that I should be able to finish mowing the entire area in about 15 more minutes (or 900 seconds) if I were to do it all myself.  — Funny how things run through your mind when you are mowing grass.  No wonder Sonny Karcher loved mowing grass so much.

Anyway.  That little story illustrates my point about how some summer help put all their brain power into thinking about how to stay out of work that they couldn’t even conceive of someone thinking outside the box.  How difficult was it for me to just turn and mow a patch of grass out in the middle of the stretch of grass we were mowing?

Once they realized that there wasn’t anyway to stop me, they went ahead and finished their job.  I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to stand out in the sun in 100 degree temperature anyway pretending to mow grass.  Didn’t they know that just made the day seem longer?

It was that summer that the plant manager was sold on the idea of planting a forest around the coal yard to prevent the wind from blowing all the coal away.  So, a million dollars was spent to hire a company to plant a number of rows of trees along the south road next to the coal yard.  When the trees were planted, they were like sickly little sticks.  The summer help were sent to go water them from time-to-time using the small Mitsubishi tractor pulling a trailer with a tank of water on it.

A tractor just like this

A tractor just like this

I have to admit that I never gave the idea much hope.  The ground where the trees were planted was hard clay.  The company that received the million dollars hardly even put any real usable tree-growing dirt in the hole when they planted the trees.

The trees were planted very close together so that you couldn’t mow around them.  So, when the weeds started growing tall and the field had been mowed, Stanley sent a couple of the lazy summer help up there to weed eat around the trees.

I had been told some time in my childhood that one of the fastest ways to kill a tree was to strip the bark off all the way around the tree.  Not just strip the bark, but cut a little into the tree itself around the base of the tree.  If you did this, the tree would die.  The only actual living part of the tree is the outside section.  Here is a link to a site that describes the part of a tree and a picture from that site:

How Does A Tree Grow

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

So, do I need to go on?  That’s right.  When the summer help had finished trimming the verge around the trees their fate had been sealed.  Two summer help in a matter of an hour totally wiped out the million dollar tree experiment.  They had stripped the bark clean around every tree.

Not to be outdone.  The Plant Manager spent 2 million dollars to have larger trees installed with plenty of good soil around the embankments on the north side of the coal pile.  These were good healthy trees.There was even an irrigation system installed to make sure they were properly watered.  This worked at least a year or two.  Long enough for a lot of the trees to catch hold.  The only problem is that the wind almost always blows from the west or the south defeating the purpose of the “windbreak” on the north side of the coal pile.

Ok.  One more summer help story before I go.  A friend of mine named Ben Cox became a summer help for a summer the fourth summer I worked as a summer help (how many times can I use the word summer in one sentence?).  I had worked with him at the Bakery in Columbia, Missouri and he had followed me home that summer to try his hand at summer helping at the power plant.  Tim Flowers and I had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail.  I have mentioned Ben Cox before in the story about Ramblin’ Ann.  He and I used to tag team Ramblin’ Ann just to keep our sanity.  See the link below as a refresher on Ramblin’ Ann:

Ed Sheiver Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann

Ben wasn’t the most physically fit, and we didn’t want to see him have a heart attack at such an early age.  Ben, however, held his own as best he could and survived a summer of working outdoors.  He actually did better than Tim and I expected.

One day when we were driving to the coal yard Ben asked me why there were large hills of sand piled up across the road from the intake.  Instead of telling him that the sand had been dredged out of the intake channel when they were filling the lake and sand was being pumped from the river up to the lake with the water, I told him something else…

I told Ben that they kept the large piles of sand there in case they ran out of coal.  They would burn the sand as a last resort.  I explained that they didn’t like to burn sand because it burned hotter than coal and it turned into glass in the boiler and really messed things up.  But if there was a long coal strike and they totally ran out of coal, they would have to burn sand in order to keep producing electricity.

Tim and I watched closely as Ben mulled this over in his mind.  At first he didn’t believe me, but after I explained why we didn’t burn sand all the time, you could start to see the wheels turning in his mind.  Burning sand…. wow!  There is sand all over the place!  I never told him differently.  I’m sure if he tried to sell the idea to someone, he would have found out quick enough.

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman December 12, 2012:

Your stories are so good! They bring back memories I hadn’t thought of for years. The part about “burning sand” reminded me of the Brown & Root engineer that was looking for an easy way to put holes in a thick set of blueprints. “Someone” (Kenneth Palmer or John Blake might have been involved) convinced him that shooting them with a 22 would be the easiest way to do the job. He then proceeded to take a new set of prints and totally destroy them!

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

Originally Posted July 21, 2012:

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

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

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

Otto from the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip

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

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

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

Kind of like this

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

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

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

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

A tractor just like this

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

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

Like this only with a mop handle

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

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

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

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

Hmmm…. What does he think about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power Plant Summer Help Sanity Check

What happens to a million dollar forest when left to the fate on two Power Plant Summer Help?  I can tell you; the result is not good.  Before I explain this statement, let me introduce some summer help to you so that you will have a deeper understanding of my summer help career.  It spanned 4 summer for a total of 12 months.

I would like to start out by saying that there were a few summer help that I thought were very intelligent and goodhearted people.  A dear friend of mine named Tim Flowers, who was a friend that I met while attending Oklahoma University my first year in school, was one of the smartest people you might run across in your lifetime.  He was also a very hard worker who didn’t mind putting his entire effort into his work.

Blake Tucker from Pawnee also had a brilliant mind and had an honorable work ethic.  He was fresh out of High School when he first went to work as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma.  During his years as a summer help, I spent a lot of time with him working on mathematical calculations and on programming feats of magic.

Bill Cook, though he didn’t put his back into his work the way some would have liked to see, he did go on to work at the power plant on the labor crew a year and a half before I finally made it onto that team of singularly distinguished characters.  Bill confided in me, and I consider him a friend, though I haven’t seen him in 30 years.

David Foster became a friend of mine the second summer when we were were summer help together. He only worked at the plant that one summer, but I talked to him a few times during the years when he was in college and I would run into him coming out of church or on campus.  His father was a dentist in Ponca City.

This leaves me with all the rest of the summer help that worked with me during those 4 summers.  I wrote a post about the first summer help I worked with that really didn’t fit the requirements, since you were supposed to be going to school in order to be a summer help.  That was Steve Higginbotham.  You can read more about him in the post:

Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown

Steve was a less than energetic person, but I could understand his lack of enthusiasm.  He had been dealt a shorthand in his life and he was making the best out of his situation.  What I found hard to understand were summer help that were fresh out of High School that were given the opportunity to work at an illustrious palace of a Power Plant, and they just didn’t want to work.

When I was leaving the house at age 14 to go to my first job where I was working for someone other than myself (I began selling tomatoes from my garden door-to-door at age 10), my dad told me something that became the core of my work ethic.  He said, “Son.”  Well, I don’t remember if he actually said “Son.” but it was something like that.  Maybe he said “Kevin, before you go, I want to tell you something.”  He said that I should do my best at whatever job they give me.  I should do a job that I would be proud to show others.  He never wanted to hear anything that would make him be ashamed of me.

It was a thrill to go work at a German Restaurant as a dishwasher making $1.50 an hour.  I worked my tail off each night.  I seldom took breaks, and I focused on keeping ahead of the work so that I wouldn’t become swamped.

So, it was hard for me, by the time I was 20, to see summer help come to the plant and work real hard at not working.  Young football players from Pawnee, who you would think would be able to put their best foot forward, were usually standing around talking smack about that one doofus of a summer help that wanted to get to work right away.  That one guy that liked wearing his face shield and ear muffs hanging down from his hard hat swinging the industrial weedeater to-and-fro all day long.

One with two handles like this one

One with two handles like this one (I like reusing pictures from old posts)

This one group of summer help that were hired that summer all seemed to have the same bug, except for Bill  Cook.  Bill didn’t get along with them because he wasn’t from the same bully class that they graduated.  At one point during the summer the tension between them and Bill rose to such a level that they had to handle it the only way left.

Bill had to meet one of them outside the gate after quittin’ time to settle matters.  The truth of the matter was that Bill had done nothing to stir up their ire.  They just didn’t like him.  It seemed to be a personality issue with them.  From what I understand, the cowards received what was coming to them as usually happens when they have mistook someone to be a weakling and easy pickings.

To illustrate the intelligence of this particular group of summer help (there were 3 of them), let me describe an instance where they were struggling real hard to keep from working.  I didn’t understand their desire to keep doing what they were doing in the first place, so I wasn’t about to stay in the situation all afternoon.

Stanley Elmore had told us to mow the area around the main parking lot.  This included the area by the main entrance.  At that time there were sections of grass on all sides of the parking lot including the side by the garage.  Stanley sent me and the 3 of them (not Bill Cook.  I think he knew the tension between them and tried to work it so that Bill could be doing other things) out to mow this area with regular push mowers.

It was just after lunch when we started.  I knew right away that the three amigos wanted to make this job last all afternoon.  I think they were afraid that when they finished they would be sent to the park to empty the trash cans of the foul rotten fish guts and soiled baby diapers.  A job that would make most summer help puke and even bring water to the eyes of a True Power Plant Man.

Well.  I grabbed one of the lawn mowers and headed out across the drive to the grass and started mowing around and around one stretch of grass.  By the time the others had dragged their mowers out and took their time starting them, I had finished one stretch of grass and went around to the other side of the parking lot to work on that side as well.

The grass on the far side of the parking lot wrapped around by the welding shop and over to the front entrance.  So, once this entire section was done, we would be finished.  It really wasn’t that much grass to mow.  Not when you had 4 lawn mowers all going around in a counter clockwise direction.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three huddle together to have a quick discussion.  I knew they were going to try to thwart my efforts to quickly finish this job so they didn’t have to move on to the next adventure.  I also knew that there wasn’t anyway they were going to be able to stop me.

They had tried to stop me before earlier when we were going out to cut weeds down a long right-of-way.  One of them had let his weedeater string out real far so that the strings were sticking out about 2 feet.  He started his weedeater up so that the strings were whining and turned around so that the strings grabbed my leg and before I knew it I was flat on my back with a stabbing pain in my knee.  My kneecap had been knocked out of the socket, which I quickly hit with the palm of my  hand to knock it back over from the side of my knee.

I could see that this had been pre-planned by their reaction.  I think they thought it would take me out of commission or make me angry so they could watch me lose my top.  The guy that did it apologized in a half sarcastic way and I told him it was all right.  I wiped the dust off of my pants and grabbed my weedeater and went to work.  I could see them at the back of the truck standing there wondering where their plan had failed.

Anyway, back to mowing the grass around the parking lot.  I was able to tell immediately what they had planned.  Their idea was to hem me in and mow very slowly so that I would have no where to go but to follow along behind one of them travelling at a snails pace.  They were so slow they would take one step, wait a second, then take another step, etc.

So, as I came up behind one of them I suddenly took a left turn and cut a new path through the grass without even slowing down.  I quickly came to the other side of the curb, and I turned left again and was heading back in the direction I came from just as if nothing was wrong.

I knew the law of physics.  Newton’s First Law of Physics.  If a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion unless it is acted on by another force.  Well.  The mind of the weak have little force.  Newton was not only one of my favorite Physicist, he was one of my favorite Mathematicians as well.

Sir Isaac Newton  Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Well.  He did like sitting in the park under an apple tree.  — So how did they keep the grass mowed back in 1642?  Maybe they trained the grass just to stay small.  Why don’t we have grass that just stays short?  We could do that easy enough.

Because of the laws of motion and the size of my lawn mower and the speed in which I was mowing, I had calculated that I should be able to finish mowing the entire area in about 15 more minutes (or 900 seconds) if I were to do it all myself.  — Funny how things run through your mind when you are mowing grass.  No wonder Sonny Karcher loved mowing grass so much.

Anyway.  That little story illustrates my point about how some summer help put all their brain power into thinking about how to stay out of work that they couldn’t even conceive of someone thinking outside the box.  How difficult was it for me to just turn and mow a patch of grass out in the middle of the stretch of grass we were mowing?

Once they realized that there wasn’t anyway to stop me, they went ahead and finished their job.  I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to stand out in the sun in 100 degree temperature anyway pretending to mow grass.  Didn’t they know that just made the day seem longer?

It was that summer that the plant manager was sold on the idea of planting a forest around the coal yard to prevent the wind from blowing all the coal away.  So, a million dollars was spent to hire a company to plant a number of rows of trees along the south road next to the coal yard.  When the trees were planted, they were like sickly little sticks.  The summer help were sent to go water them from time-to-time using the small Mitsubishi tractor pulling a trailer with a tank of water on it.

A tractor just like this

A tractor just like this

I have to admit that I never gave the idea much hope.  The ground where the trees were planted was hard clay.  The company that received the million dollars hardly even put any real usable tree-growing dirt in the hole when they planted the trees.

The trees were planted very close together so that you couldn’t mow around them.  So, when the weeds started growing tall and the field had been mowed, Stanley sent a couple of the lazy summer help up there to weed eat around the trees.

I had been told some time in my childhood that one of the fastest ways to kill a tree was to strip the bark off all the way around the tree.  Not just strip the bark, but cut a little into the tree itself around the base of the tree.  If you did this, the tree would die.  The only actual living part of the tree is the outside section.  Here is a link to a site that describes the part of a tree and a picture from that site:

How Does A Tree Grow

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

So, do I need to go on?  That’s right.  When the summer help had finished trimming the verge around the trees their fate had been sealed.  Two summer help in a matter of an hour totally wiped out the million dollar tree experiment.  They had stripped the bark clean around every tree.

Not to be outdone.  The Plant Manager spent 2 million dollars to have larger trees installed with plenty of good soil around the embankments on the north side of the coal pile.  These were good healthy trees.There was even an irrigation system installed to make sure they were properly watered.  This worked at least a year or two.  Long enough for a lot of the trees to catch hold.  The only problem is that the wind almost always blows from the west or the south defeating the purpose of the “windbreak” on the north side of the coal pile.

Ok.  One more summer help story before I go.  A friend of mine named Ben Cox became a summer help for a summer the fourth summer I worked as a summer help (how many times can I use the word summer in one sentence?).  I had worked with him at the Bakery in Columbia, Missouri and he had followed me home that summer to try his hand at summer helping at the power plant.  Tim Flowers and I had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail.  I have mentioned Ben Cox before in the story about Ramblin’ Ann.  He and I used to tag team Ramblin’ Ann just to keep our sanity.  See the link below as a refresher on Ramblin’ Ann:

Ed Sheiver Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann

Ben wasn’t the most physically fit, and we didn’t want to see him have a heart attack at such an early age.  Ben, however, held his own as best he could and survived a summer of working outdoors.  He actually did better than Tim and I expected.

One day when we were driving to the coal yard Ben asked me why there were large hills of sand piled up across the road from the intake.  Instead of telling him that the sand had been dredged out of the intake channel when they were filling the lake and sand was being pumped from the river up to the lake with the water, I told him something else…

I told Ben that they kept the large piles of sand there in case they ran out of coal.  They would burn the sand as a last resort.  I explained that they didn’t like to burn sand because it burned hotter than coal and it turned into glass in the boiler and really messed things up.  But if there was a long coal strike and they totally ran out of coal, they would have to burn sand in order to keep producing electricity.

Tim and I watched closely as Ben mulled this over in his mind.  At first he didn’t believe me, but after I explained why we didn’t burn sand all the time, you could start to see the wheels turning in his mind.  Burning sand…. wow!  There is sand all over the place!  I never told him differently.  I’m sure if he tried to sell the idea to someone, he would have found out quick enough.

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

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

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

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

Otto from the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip

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

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

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

Kind of like this

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

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

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

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

A tractor just like this

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

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

Like this only with a mop handle

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

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

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

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

Hmmm…. What does he think about?

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

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

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

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

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

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