Tag Archives: Navy

Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill — Repost

Originally Posted March 9, 2012.  I have added some pictures and slightly edited:

I had the feeling it would be an interesting day when the first thing that Stanley Elmore asked me when I sat down for our morning meeting was, “Kevin, are you afraid of heights?”  Well, since before that day I hadn’t been afraid of heights, I told him I wasn’t.  Then Stanley, who liked most of all to joke around with people, started hinting through facial expressions of excitement (such as grinning real big and raising his eyebrows up to where his hair line used to be when he was younger) and by uttering sounds like “boy, well, yeah…. huh, I guess we’ll see” while shaking his head as if in disbelief.  He told me to get with Aubrey after the meeting because there was a job I needed to help him out with.

Aubrey Cargill was our painter.  He worked out of the garage that I worked out of the last 3 years of working as a summer help.  There was a paint room in the back of the garage on the side where the carpenter, Fred Hesser built cabinets and other great works of art.  He was the best carpenter I have ever met, as well as one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known.  He wasn’t in the category of Power Plant man, as he didn’t involve himself in most of the power plant operations or maintenance, but to this day, Power Plant Men from all over Oklahoma can visit Sooner Plant on overhaul and admire the woodworking masterpieces created by Carpenter Fred many years earlier.

I had worked with Aubrey my first year as a summer help.  The garage hadn’t been built yet, and Aubrey had not been assigned as a painter, as both units were still under construction.  Aubrey was was the same age as my father and in his mid-forties that first summer.  His favorite buddy was Ben Hutchinson.  Whereever one went, the other was not far away.  All during the first summer, the lake on the hill was still being filled by pumping water up from the Arkansas river.

Most of the last two weeks that summer I worked with Aubrey and Ben picking up driftwood along the dikes that were built on the lake to route the water from the discharge from the plant to the far side of the lake from where the water enters the plant to cool the condensers.  The idea is that the water has to flow all the way around the lake before it is used to cool the condenser again.  So, Ben and Aubrey took turns driving a big dump truck down the dike while I walked down one side of the dike around the water level and Aubrey or Ben walked down the other side, and we would toss wood up the dike into the dump truck.

A Ford Dump Truck

A Dump Truck

This was quite a throw, and often resulted in a big log being tossed up the dike just to hit the side of the dump truck creating a loud banging sound.  Anyway, when you consider that there are probably about 6 miles of dikes all together, it was quite a task to clean up all the driftwood that had accumulated in this man made lake.  After doing this for two weeks I learned the true meaning of the word “bursitis”.

After the morning meeting with Stanley Elmore I followed Aubrey into the carpenter shop, where he pointed to two buckets of paint that I was to carry, while he grabbed a canvas bag filled with large paint brushes and other painting tools and some white rope that looked like it had the seat of wooden swing on one end.  Aubrey nodded to Fred, and I understood by this that Fred had created the wooden swing that had four pieces of rope knotted through each of the corners of the seat and were connected to the main rope using some kind of small shackle.  When I asked Aubrey what that was, he told me that it is was a Boatswain Chair.  “Oh.” I think I said, “It looks like a swing.”

On the way to the boilers, we stopped by the tool room and I checked out a safety belt.  I could see Aubrey nodding at Bud Schoonover about my having to check out a safety belt, and what implication that had.  I of course preferred to think that my fellow employees would not purposely put me in harms way, so I went along acting as if I was oblivious to whatever fate awaited me.

We took the elevator on #1 Boiler to the 11th floor (which is actually about 22 stories up.  There are only 12 stops on the boiler elevator, but the building is really 25 stories to the very top.  So Power Plant men call the extra floors things like 8 1/2 when you get off the elevator where it says 8, and go up one flight of stairs.

Aubrey explained to me that we need to paint a drain pipe that is below us a couple of floors that goes down from there to just above floor 7 1/2 where it turns.  He said that he could paint the rest, but he needed my help to paint the pipe where it drops straight down, because there isn’t any way to reach it, except by dropping someone off the side of the boiler over a handrail and lowering them down to the pipe, and that turned out to be me.

He explained how the safety belt worked.  He said that I clip the lanyard in the ring at the top of the boatswain chair so that if I slip off the chair I wouldn’t fall all the way down, and then he could gradually lower me on down to the landing.  he didn’t explain to me at the time that the weight of my body free-falling three feet before coming to the end of the lanyard would have been a sufficient enough force to snap the white rope in half.  I guess he didn’t know about that.  But that was ok for me, because I didn’t know about it either — at the time.  We didn’t use Safety Harnesses at that time.  Just a belt around the waist.

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

So as I tied the canvas bag to the bottom of the chair, I saw Aubrey quickly wrap the rope around the handrail making some sort of half hitch knot.  I wasn’t too sure about that so I asked Aubrey where he learned to tie a knot like that and he told me in the Navy.  That was all I needed to hear.  As soon as he told me he learned knot tying in the Navy, I felt completely secure.  I figured if anyone knew the right way to tie a knot it’s someone in the Navy.

I clipped the lanyard in the shackle at the top of the boatswain chair and headed over the handrail.  I situated the chair to where I had my feet through it when I went over and the chair was up by my waist.  As I lowered myself down, I came to rest on the boatswain chair some 210 feet up from the ground.

It is always windy in this part of Oklahoma in the summer, and the wind was blowing that day, so, I began to spin around and float this way and that.  That continued until Aubrey had lowered me down to the pipe that I was going to paint and I was able to wrap my legs around it and wait for my head to stop spinning.

Then Aubrey lowered down another rope that had a bucket of paint tied to it.   Then I began my job of painting the pipe as Aubrey had hold of the rope and was slowly lowering me down.  Luckily Aubrey didn’t have to sneeze, or wasn’t chased by a wasp while he was doing this.  Thinking about that, I kept my legs wrapped around the pipe pretty tight just in case Aubrey had a heart attack or something.

The pipe really did need painting.  So, I knew this wasn’t completely just a joke to toss me out on a swing in the middle of the air hanging onto a rope with one hand while attempting to paint a pipe.  It had the red primer on it that most of the piping had before it was painted so it looked out of place with all the other silver pipes, but I couldn’t help thinking about Jerry Lewis in the Movie, “Who’s Minding the Store” where Jerry Lewis is told to paint the globe on the end of a flagpole that is located out the window on a top floor of the building, and he begins by trying to climb out on the flagpole with a bucket of paint in his mouth with little success.  But like Jerry, I figured it had to be done, so I just went ahead and did it.

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Fortunately, I found out right away that I wasn’t afraid of heights, even at this height and under these conditions.  So, instead of fainting away, I just painted away and finally ended up on floor 7  1/2 which is right next to the Tripper Gallery.  I think I finished this a little after morning break but I don’t think Aubrey wanted to stop for break just to lower me down and then have to start from the top again lowering me all the way down one more time.

This brings me to another point.  Notice where I landed.  Right next to the Tripper Gallery.  Power Plant ingenuity has a way of naming parts of the plant with interesting names.  The first time I heard that we were going to the tripper gallery to shovel coal, I half expected to see paintings lining the walls.  It sounded like such a nice place to visit…. “Tripper Gallery”.  It sort of rolls off your tongue.  Especially if you try saying it with a French accent.

The Tripper Gallery is neither eloquent nor French.  It is where the coal from the coal yard is dumped into the Coal Silos just above the Bowl Mills.  — Yes.  Bowl Mills.  I know.  It sounds like a breakfast cereal.  Almost like Malt-O-Meal in a bowl.  So, the Tripper Gallery is a long narrow room (hence the word Gallery), and there are two machines called Trippers that travels from one silo to the next dumping coal from the conveyor belt down into the coal silo, and when the silo is full, a switch is triggered (or tripped) which tells the machine to go to the next silo.  Since the switch “trips” and tells the machine to move, they call the machine the “Tripper”.

I know.  That last paragraph didn’t have anything to do with painting the drain pipe.  But I thought since I mentioned the Tripper Gallery, I might as well explain what it is.  Anyway, when we returned to the shop I watched as Stanley Elmore went over to Aubrey to see how I did when I found out he was going to drop me over the side of the boiler in a wooden chair.  I could see that Aubrey gave him a good report because Stanley looked a little disappointed that this Power Plant Joke (even though essential), hadn’t resulted in visibly shaking me up.

Life and Death on the Power Plant Lake

I have just finished watching the movie “Godfather II” with my son.  Toward the end of the movie Fredo Corleone and Al are going fishing.  There is a scene where the motor boat in the boat house is lowered down into the water.  I have seen one boat house like this before where the boat is hoisted out of the water in the boat house so that it can be stored dry while hovering a few feet over the water.  The Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked as a summer help had a very similar boat house.

The Power Plant had a boat house because each month during the summer months the chemist had to go to various locations in the lake to take the temperature and a water sample.  He would take the water samples back to the chemist lab where they could be analyzed.  Each bottle was carefully labeled indicating where in the lake the sample was taken.  In order to take the samples out in the middle of the lake…. A motor boat was required.  Thus the need for the boat house.

The second summer as a Summer Help I was asked to go along on this journey with George Dunagan, a new chemist at the time.  Larry Riley usually manned the motor, as it was known that the motor for the boat had a tendency to cut out and die at random times and the best person that could be counted on to fix a stranded boat out in the middle of the lake was Larry Riley.  I know I felt safe.

I have seen Larry dismantle part of the motor out in the middle of the lake, clean a fuel filter and put the thing back together again with a minimum number of tools at his disposal.  I would sit patiently as the boat rocked back and forth with the waves (Oklahoma winds usually kept a steady flow of waves) waiting for Larry to repair the motor.  I didn’t have any fear of missing lunch because Larry was in the boat.  So, I would just sit and watch the ducks and other birds fly by or look into the water to see what I could see.

Larry would pull something out of the motor and say, “Well, look at that!  No wonder this thing died.”  Right on queue.  A few minutes later and he would start the boat up again and off we would go speeding across the lake.

During the time I was a summer help, there were various tragic events that took place.  One man committed suicide by drowning at the park while his sister and wife waited on the shore to tell whoever was first to arrive.  Summer Helps were there, but I was on an errand to Oklahoma City at the time and only heard about it when I returned.  He had wrapped himself up in some brush. Evidently, he was in some kind of legal trouble at the time.

Another tragedy which was very sad was when a man was swimming with his son on his shoulders out to the dock that was placed out in the water so that swimmers could swim out to it, when he had a heart attack while his daughter was waiting for them on the shore.  When the summer help arrived, the daughter told them that her father and brother just went under the water and never came up.  One of the Summer Help, David Foster jumped in and found them both drowned.  It was a traumatic experience for him, which I’m sure lives on in his memory to this day.

Another man was fishing where the river pumps discharged into the lake.  This was a popular place to fish at a certain part of the day.  A large man had waded out into the water, and at some point fell over.  He could not swim and was also drowned.

These tragic events were a constant reminder that water sports of all kinds have their dangers.  Following Safety rules is very important.  I believe that two of those 4 people would have not drowned if they had on a life preserver.

Another more humorous tragedy (depending on how you look at it) occurred not far from the boat ramp at the park located closer to Hwy 177.  The story as I heard it was that this stubborn farmer (and I won’t mention his name, because I don’t remember it), had bought his first boat.  Not knowing much about boating, he wanted to make sure he was well equipped, so he attached the biggest motor he could buy to it.

He lowered it into water at the boat ramp at the park, and turned it around so that it pointed out into the lake.  Then he opened it up to full throttle.  The nose of the boat proceeded to point straight up in the air, and the boat sank motor first. The man swam over to the shore.  Climbed in his truck and drove away.  Leaving the boat on the floor of the lake.  Now… I figure that someone must have seen this happen, because I’m sure that the person didn’t go around telling everyone that he met what he had done… — That is, until he had a few beers in him… maybe.

I would like to tell you some more about George Dunagan, the chemist that went with us to take the water samples.  He looked like the type of person that would make a good Sergeant in the Army.  A solid facial structure, and a buzz haircut reminded me of the Sergeant Carter on the Gomer Pyle TV show.  Here is a picture of Sergeant Carter and George Dunagan when he was younger:

Sergeant Carter

George Dunagan

Or does he look more like Glenn Ford?

George was in his mid-40s when I first met him.  He was 4 months older than my father.  He went about his business as a man that enjoyed his job.  Occasionally, something might get under his craw, and he would let you know about it, but you always knew that he was the type of person that was looking out for you, even when you thought you didn’t need it.

I considered George a True Power Plant Chemist.  He was a genius in his own field.  When I was young and I worked around George, I felt like he was passionate about his job and that he wanted to teach it to others.  He would explain to me what the different chemical processes in the Water Treatment were doing.  He would take any opportunity to explain things in detail.  Some people would think that he was kind of grumpy sometimes, and sometimes they would be right.  He cared passionately about things that involved “right” and “wrong”.  When he saw something that he considered wrong, he rarely sat still.

I considered George to be a passionate teacher that loved to see others learn.  I made it a point to stop and nod my head like I was really listening when he was telling me something because I could see the joy in his face that knowledge was being bestowed upon someone.

As he took the water samples in the lake, he explained to me why he was doing what he was doing.  How the EPA required these for so many years to show that the lake was able to cool the power plant steam back to water without disturbing the wildlife that inhabited the lake.

At that particular time, they were still taking a baseline of how the water was with just one unit running.  Later when both units are running they would see how it held up by comparing the year before when no unit was running, then this year with one, and next year with two units.

I listened intently.  Not so much because the topic interested me.  I wouldn’t tell George that I was struggling to pay attention because the particulars about how he had to label each sample and put them in order in the box were not as interesting as things that came to my own imagination.  I imagined things like… “Wouldn’t it be neat if you could breathe under water?”  Or,  “If the boat tipped over, and we were in the middle of the lake, would I stay with the boat or try to swim to the shore….”  “Was that my stomach rumbling?  Am I getting hungry already?”  I would put my own imagination aside.

I listened intently, mainly because I could see that George would brighten up to find such an attentive pupil in the boat.  I was grinning inside real big to watch George with such a satisfied look.  I suppose inside as George was explaining the world of water temperature and bacteria growth, I was thinking, “I wonder if George used to be a Sergeant in the Army.”  “Does he teach his own children the same way he does me?”.  “I wonder what George did before he came here.  Was he a chemist somewhere else?”

At the beginning of this year I began writing this Power plant Man Blog because I felt a great need to capture on paper (well.  Virtual paper anyway), some stories about the people I was blessed to work with at the Power Plant.  Sonny Karcher, who I considered a good friend had died a couple of months earlier.  I needed to write about these men, because if I didn’t, I feared these stories would be lost to the world.  These are too great of men to just fade away into history without something being left behind to record at least some memorable events in their lives.  16 days after I wrote my first post this year (on January 18, 2012), George Dunagan died in the Ponca City Medical Center.

One thing I was not surprised to learn about George was that he used to be a teacher.  He had a Master Degree in Education and had taught at the Chilocco Indian School for 11 years before going to work at the power plant.  This explained why he seemed to go into the “Teacher” mode when he was explaining something.

I also learned that he was in the U.S. Navy where he enlisted in 1954.  This didn’t surprise me either.  As I mentioned above, George reminded me of the Sergeant Carter on Gomer Pyle, and not in the humorous way, but in the way he carried himself like someone in the military.  George Dunagan reached the rank of Master Sergeant in the Army Reserves where he retired in 1994, two years after retiring from the Power Plant life.

The movie Godfather II seemed to be about how one man struggled to build a secure home for his family and fellow countrymen through any means necessary, and about how his son destroyed his own family to the point where he was left completely alone with his family destroyed at the end.

Power Plant Men had their own struggles at home.  They were not immune to family strife any more than anyone else.  The nature of their work gave them a great sense of dignity.  This sense of dignity helps relieve some stress in the family unit.  To realize every day that the work that you perform directly impacts the lives of everyone that receives the electricity being produced at the Power Plant.

When something goes wrong and a base unit trips suddenly, the lights flicker in every school room, every store and every house of 2 million people reminding us that this fragile system is so stable because of the due diligence of True Power Plant Men with the sense to care as much as George Dunagan a True Power Plant Chemist.