Originally Posted February 14, 2014:
There has been reports on the news this week about someone who has been shooting transformers in PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric) substations in California. It is interesting that the national news is picking up this story now even though the FBI has been investigating similar attacks since December, and even earlier attacks against PG&E as early as last April, 2013.
These reports always catch my attention because back in the early 1990’s, the electric company where I worked in Oklahoma had their own episode when a shooter was going around shooting at substation transformers, and high voltage electric lines. At that time it was OG&E, not PG&E that was being plagued by someone that seemed to be randomly attacking the electric grid.
Back in early 1993, the first transformer that was shot by a high powered rifle using armor piercing bullets was in the middle of Stillwater Oklahoma near the Pizza Hut on Perkins Road. It is easy to remember the location, because it later became very significant when it came down to finding out who might be responsible.
Much like the reaction in California this week, everyone was alerted to keep a watch for anyone acting suspicious near substations and high voltage electric lines.
I enjoy watching a TV show called Forensic Files. It shows how important facts are collected that finally lead to a conviction of someone who has murdered someone. It is amazing how so many clues are left behind that can be used to prove who is the guilty person.
I suppose the main point that I walk away with after watching a show like this is that criminals are generally pretty stupid. Especially the really smart ones. I guess it’s because if they were really smart, then they wouldn’t have turned to a life of crime in the first place. Maybe it’s like the lazy people that work harder avoiding work than they would if they just did their job.
Of course, working at the Power Plant during this time meant that we were all put on a kind of “high alert”. We were extra suspicious of cars parked down side roads near our plant. Our security guards doubled up a little on their rounds on the lookout for someone suspicious. In a weird way it brought me back to when I was a dishwasher one summer at the Sirloin Stockade in Stillwater.
When I first moved to Stillwater in the Spring of 1978, right out of High School, I went to work as a dishwasher/busboy/cook at the local Sirloin Stockade franchise restaurant. This is not the newer company Sirloin Stockade that is on Perkins road today. No. This one was on the Strip next to the Oklahoma State University campus. It was privately owned.
One night during that summer there was a mass murder committed at a Sirloin Stockade in Oklahoma City after the restaurant had closed. All of the employees had been forced into the freezer and they were all shot in the head. At the time, no one knew the motive. It could have been that the murderer (or murderers) could have been upset with Sirloin Stockades in general.
For the rest of the summer, the manager Ken Low, who also managed a hamburger joint up the street for the same owner, would leave the Sirloin Stockade when the restaurant was just closing at 9:00 to go close the other restaurant. He would leave a young 17 year old boy in charge of closing up the restaurant and getting it ready for when it opened the next morning. Yeah…. That was me.
I didn’t think it was a coincidence that Ken had suddenly gained a lot of confidence in my ability to handle closing the entire restaurant all by myself the same week that the Sirloin Stockade Massacre happened in Oklahoma City. Ken was a friend of mine and I understood him well enough.
Me. I was fearless anyway. I always seemed to be missing that gene. So, I just felt that if some murderer came busting in the back door, I would, of course, defend myself by using the handle of the broom I was using to sweep the floor. Well. I was 17. So, of course I was invincible.
end of side story.
The same question was being asked about the person that was shooting the transformers and high voltage lines. It seemed as if he had a grievance with the electric company. So, when a witness had seen a man going down a remote country road in the same area where a high voltage electric line was shot, and a sketch of a possible suspect was created, they turned to the employees for help.
I wasn’t much help because I lack the imagination to take a composite drawing and extrapolate it into a person that I know. If someone were to draw a picture of me and ask me who I thought it was, I probably wouldn’t have a clue. I guess I lack that gene also.
Other Power Plant Men thought they knew who the drawing depicted. It reminded them of a former employee at the Power Plant. His name was Clyde Bateman. When others told me that, I thought, “Yeah. I suppose it could be him.”
Clyde had been a chemist at the plant. He had been fired a year or two before. It wasn’t that he wasn’t doing his job well. His problem was that some days he just wouldn’t show up for work without leaving any word. It would have been all right if he would have called the plant to let his manager, George Pepple know that he wasn’t going to be able to make it that day. He just wouldn’t say anything until he returned.
Clyde had been given the appropriate number of warnings and was told that if he didn’t show up to work again without leaving word that he wouldn’t be in, he was going to be fired. So, the next time that happened, he was “let go”. No one likes that to happen, because you know that there is some underlying reason for such odd behavior, but we had to keep the plant running, and when you rely on a certain number of employees to keep it going, what can you do?
This by itself wouldn’t make one suspicious that he might turn into someone that would flip his lid and start shooting at electric company assets. The psychological profile looked more like a Timothy McVeigh type character. For those of you who are from other countries that read this blog, Timothy McVeigh was a “homegrown” terrorist that decided to blow up a Federal Building in the middle of Oklahoma City one day (along with a number of other accomplices, most of which have never been identified), and he needlessly killed a lot of innocent people.
I didn’t know Clyde that well, so when others suggested that it might be Clyde, I was skeptical. Then, as the investigation went forward, I learned that Clyde was more like Timothy McVeigh than I had realized. — Well. At the time, no one had heard of Timothy McVeigh, since that hadn’t happened yet.
Power Plant Men that knew him said that he owned some land behind our power plant and he would go out there at times and blow things up. He like high powered rifles and all that. I thought that might be an indication, but it still didn’t convince me. I also liked to blow things up and I would enjoy shooting high powered rifles if I had the opportunity. I’m sure many Power Plant Men would enjoy doing the same.
Remember. This was back when it was still all right to play cowboys and Indians, and cops and robbers. This was before eating your Pop-Tart until it was in the shape of gun was never given a second thought. You could even take a Cowboy doll onto a plane with a tiny 1/2 inch plastic gun in the holster without being afraid that the TSA would take it away.
Anyway. It was later discovered that Clyde Bateman lived in a trailer park behind the Braum’s on Perkins Road in Stillwater.
This was important because his trailer was only about 250 yards from the first transformer that had been shot. Ok. With all the other things, this finally convinced me. They were on the right track. I think the OSBI (Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation) was on his trail and were keeping close tabs on him. It seems like they even asked us at the plant to not try to contact him or let him know that he was a suspect.
Scott Hubbard, a True Power Plant Electrician was out inspecting the equipment in the substation one day when he noticed a hole in one of the 345KV breaker operating arm enclosures. Scott thought it looked a lot like a bullet hole, so he alerted the control room. The control room contacted the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department to come out and look at it.
Sure enough. It was a bullet hole. The OSBI recovered the bullet from inside the pipe. Luckily where the bullet had entered, it had missed hitting anything that would have damaged the equipment. If the shooter had been a lineman, or an electrician, or from the T&D department, he would have not shot the part that he did. It looked like a critical part if you didn’t know better. So, the shooter was not familiar with the equipment he was shooting. That was clear.
Not only that, but there were much worse targets in the area that would have caused real damage. So, luckily this was not someone who did a lot of homework. It was interesting that the first transformer was only a block away from where Clyde lived, and the last shot was at the plant where he used to work.
The breaker was at a spot where he would have had to know to park on a dirt road a mile away and walk across a field to get the shot that he did. All the plant employees knew that road well. It was where the public had to go if they wanted to fish in the discharge channel where the warm water exits the condensers. The fish like it there.
With all that said, Clyde Bateman was due in court in Ponca City on August 11, 1993. Not for being the shooter that everyone was looking for, but for another offense. I don’t remember exactly what it was. He never showed up. Clyde took his own life that morning. After that day, there were no more shootings associated with this particular shooter. it was understood by the employees at the plant that the matter was behind us now. Business was back to usual.
I mentioned earlier that Clyde turned out to be more of a Timothy McVeigh type than we had originally thought. I didn’t mean that he was that way because he liked guns, because any self respecting Power Plant Man knows that if you care about your family and want to keep them safe, that a handy firearm is the best way to stop an intruder.
Clyde was an activist. I found this out only today when I decided to write about him. I found a very interesting case that the U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit ruled on only two and a half months after Clyde’s death. You see, Clyde had filed a complaint against the Federal Government alleging that the entire body of federal environmental laws were unconstitutional, because its enactment allegedly exceeded the authority granted in the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, and lacked any other source of constitutional support. The District Court had ruled that Clyde had no standing. So he appealed it to the US Appeals Court.
The Appeals court ruled unanimously that Clyde didn’t have any standing to bring this complaint against the Federal Government because (no… not that he was already dead) he hadn’t demonstrated that he was injured by the law. They didn’t rule that he was wrong about his complaint, only that he didn’t have any standing to file the complaint.
So, as Paul Harvey would have said, “Now you know the rest of the story.” If you want to read more about the Appeal Courts decision, you can find it here: “Clyde Bateman v United States of America“
A year after I joined the electricians in the electric shop, Howard Chumbley became my foreman. One day when we were talking about going to the old Osage Plant up the road to clean up a PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) spill, he explained that “In His Day” they used to clean their tools in a vat of transformer oil that was full of PCBs. I remember him telling us that it was normal for him to be up to his elbows in the stuff. They never thought it might be harmful. Now we were getting ready to go up to the old plant to clean up a small spill and I was going to have to suit up in a special hazardous waste suit. I wrote about our experience in the post: “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace“.
Now we know about the hazard of developing cancer by having PCBs in your system. Today we know a lot of things we didn’t know back then. We know that Asbestos causes Mesothelioma. We know that Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) destroy the ozone layer. We know that Twinkies are one of the few foods that will be around after a nuclear holocaust.
Years before I became an electrician, the Electric Company had stopped using oil with PCBs. There was still an effort to clean it up from the older plants. At the new coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma, we didn’t have a problem with PCBs. We had other problems. Some of which we didn’t know about (well, we knew something, just not so much) at the time.
A very prominent responsibility of mechanics and electricians was to clean oily equipment. Pumps and motors, breakers, fans, mills. All kinds of equipment. Almost everything was lubricated one way or another with oil. Solvent was used to remove the oil when the equipment needed to be cleaned.
We had a standard kind of solvent at our plant. I believe it was called “Standard Solvent 350”. See…. It was a Standard solvent. Even had the word Standard in the name. One of the key ingredients of this standard solvent is a solvent known as “Stoddard Solvent”. This solvent worked real good when cleaning up equipment like motors and pumps and other oily equipment. Many times we were “Up to our elbows” in this solvent.
We had a barrel in the corner of the electric shop close to the door to the main switchgear where we could put a motor and scrub it clean while solvent poured out of a flexible nozzle on the motor, your shirt, your pants, your work boots, and the floor. Some days during overhauls when we would work cleaning motors for 10 hours each day, I would come home from work drenched in solvent. My wife would make me take my clothes off in the utility room where I could put them directly into the washing machine where Oxydol could go to work on it right away.
When Ted Riddle and I were working for Willard Stark on an overhaul at the gas plant outside Mustang Oklahoma during the spring of 1986, Willard said one day that he wanted to show us something. I explained Willard’s situation at the plant in a post called “Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark“.
He was a good example of what I would call a “Contrarian.” That is, he seemed to buck the system often. He thought outside the box a lot. I realized this right way when we would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio during lunch. Every time Paul Harvey would say, “…Noon News and Comment” Willard would always finish the sentence by saying, “Mostly Comment.” I figured then that he had to be a contrarian, because who would ever think that Paul Harvey wasn’t the best person in the world to bring the News to our private little power plant world.
So, when Willard said he was wanted us to see something “with our own eyes”, I figured this was going to be something good. Probably some kind of secret place where you could hide and take a nap if the day wore on too long, or something like that. Well… It didn’t turn out to be that kind of “something”, but it was something.
Willard took a small metal pan and put some Stoddard Solvent in it. The old gas plant used straight Stoddard Solvent, unlike the more sophisticated Coal-fired plant where Ted Riddle and I normally worked. We walked out into the turbine-generator (T-G) floor. He placed the pan of solvent on the floor, took a WypAll (which is a strong paper rag) and dropped it into the pan:
Then he bent down and with his lighter, he lit the WypAll on fire. We watched as the flames grew higher and higher. Willard watched our expressions. We had been under the understanding that Solvent was not flammable. He explained that technically, Stoddard Solvent is not considered “Flammable”, but it is considered “Combustible”. Combustible means that it burns.
Stoddard Solvent doesn’t ignite fast enough to be considered “Flammable”. At least that’s the way Willard explained it to us. Willard said he wanted us to be aware of this fact when we have our bodies all soaked in solvent, that if we were to catch on fire for some reason, we were going to go up in flames just like that WypAll. We both appreciated the advice.
I didn’t begin this post expecting to say that much about Stoddard Solvent, but just in case you were really wondering what it is, maybe this picture will explain it to you:
I hope that cleared it up for you. You have to wonder why they put that “Oh Oh” down there at the bottom. Almost as if something is supposed to go wrong.
The solvent I really wanted to talk about was one that was used more exclusively in the electric shop. It is called Trichloroethylene 1.1.1. You see, a lot of equipment that we cleaned in the electric shop needed to be cleaned spotless. Solvent 350 would leave a film when it dried. So, in the electric shop when we needed to clean something with electric contacts we would use something called “Electro Contact Cleaner”:
This was very expensive compared to the regular solvent. So, I was surprised when Ben Davis and I first went on an overhaul in Muskogee, and they had this exact same contact cleaner in 55 gallon barrels:
I remember John Manning showing us a few of these barrels that they had ordered for the overhaul. I think my jaw dropped. By my calculation, one barrel like this would cost over $3,000.00. I figured if it was in cans, it would have cost three times that amount. The advantage of using Contact cleaner was that it dried clean. It didn’t leave a residue.
Trichloroethylene 1.1.1 was like that. It didn’t leave a residue when it dried. I think this will become obvious to you when you see what it really is:
You can see right off the bat that this is going to dry clean… I mean…. it’s obvious… right? I think the CLs on three of the corners indicate that it “Cleans” 3 times better than other solvents.
Anyway. This stuff evaporated quickly so when you were up to your elbows in this solvent, it felt cool because it would evaporate causing a cooling effect. It had a very peculiar smell. It also made you feel a little dizzy when you were using it. Especially when you had to breathe in a lot of it in a confined area. Having fans blowing on you seemed to make it worse, because it would increase the evaporation rate filling the air with more solvent.
It was known at the time that Trichloroethylene would destroy your liver when it gets into your blood stream. There was no quicker way of injecting the solvent into your blood stream than by inhaling it. Finally OSHA decided that this solvent was no longer safe to be used in a plant setting. It could only be used in small quantities like “White Out”.
Gee… Who remembers White Out?
The last time I heard about white out was in a blonde joke about someone using white out on the computer monitor. Who types anymore on a typewriter? I think anyone today that would choose to type on a typewriter would be the type of person that would prefer a typewriter eraser over white out.
I take that back. The last time I heard about White Out was on a show like 60 Minutes where they were showing young kids in Panama or another Central American country being hooked on tubs of White Out. They would sit around all day taking quick whiffs from a tub of White Out. — Why? Because it contained Trichloroethylene and it would give you a buzz.
My dad, a Veterinary professor at Oklahoma State University had told me about the dangers of Trichloroethylene around the time I told him about Bill McAlister using WD-40 on his elbows to ease the pain of his arthritis. Sonny Karcher had asked me to talk to my dad about it to see if he knew why WD-40 would help Arthritis.
My father (I’ll call him Father in this paragraph, because in this paragraph, he’s being more “sophisticated”) told me that WD-40 had the same chemical in it that Veterinarians used on horses to help their joints when they hurt. Then he warned me that the solvent in WD-40 soaks right into your skin and when it does it carries other toxic chemicals into your body than just the arthritis lineament. So, he told me to tell Sonny not to use it often.
So, anyway, we had to find a replacement for Trichloroethylene. Tom Gibson and Bill Bennett went to work ordering samples of other kinds of solvents that salesmen were saying would be a good replacement. One of the first that we tried was called Orange Solvent. It had a real nice Orange smell. Sort of like drinking Tang.
It had a couple of problems. First, I would be more inclined to drink it since it smelled so good, and I was a fan of Tang at the time.
The second problem with the Orange Solvent was that it didn’t seem to clean very well. We were used to something cutting the oil and contact grease quickly. the Orange Solvent didn’t cut the mustard (so to speak).
One day during overhaul at our plant, Bill Bennett gave us a barrel of some new kind of solvent. It was supposed to be comparable in it’s cleaning ability to Trichloroethylene (could you imagine Red Skelton trying to say that word?)
Bill wanted Andy Tubbs and me (I know! It seems as if it should be “Andy Tubbs and I”, but “me” is the correct way to say it) to use the new solvent on the main power transformer main bus connectors. They are normally covered with No-Ox Grease so this would be a good test.
So, Andy and I carried the large extension ladder out to the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer and leaned it up against the back side (the transformer’s backside, not ours). We climbed up to the open hatchways and crawled in. We hung a small yellow blower in the doorway to blow fresh air on us.
Andy and I had everything setup and we were ready to work. We both just fit in the small area with the large bus work between us. We began using our rags soaked in the new solvent on the silver plated bus. I don’t remember how well the solvent cleaned the bus. I just remember thinking that this solvent sure did evaporate quickly. Especially with the blower fan right next to us.
I also remember looking over at Andy crouched across from me. He was looking down at the bus. Then his entire body seemed to swivel around as if he was on some kind of swing which caused him to tilt up the side of the enclosure. I watched his face, and he seemed to be saying something to me, only I couldn’t make it out.
I think I said something like “Huh?” Then about that time all kinds of brightly lit flowers were circling around my head and my arms seemed to be floating in front of me. I heard Andy say with a slur, “We butter git outta here…” His voice sounded like it was in a pipe…. Well, we sort of were sitting in a pipe… He started to move toward the hatchway.
I remember briefly thinking that I was just fine enjoying the interesting scenery. By now there were bright lights streaming toward me from all sides. Then I thought. “No. I better leave.” So, I struggled to pull myself into the hatchway. It was big enough that we could both pull ourselves out together.
I began climbing down the ladder head first. It was about 15 feet to the ground. I was completely out of the hatch with my body completely upside down on the ladder before I decided that it would be better if I turned over and went down feet first. Somehow I managed to swing my feet down and around without falling off the ladder. I think Andy was pretty much in the same predicament as I was.
Once we were on the ground, we hobbled into the electric shop and sat down. We told Bill Bennett that this was not a good solvent to use. I don’t even want to remember what the name of the solvent was. If I mentioned it, someone may put it in some tubs of white out and sell it to kids in Panama, because Trichloroethylene had nothing on this.
I suppose we finally found a replacement solvent. Though, I don’t remember what it was. All I do know is that it was quite an adventure trying to find one. Maybe we just used a lot of Electro contact cleaner after that.
Like Howard Chumbley, who told stories about being up to his elbows in transformer oil made with PCBs, I can now tell my fellow teammates at work, “Yeah. I remember the days when we were up to our elbows in Trichloroethylene. Never gave it a second thought.” Only, their reaction would be a little different than ours were in the electric shop office. They might raise their eyes up from their computer monitors and look across the cubicle at me for a moment. Then give me a look like “there goes that crazy old guy that used to work in a power plant again. Hasn’t he told us that story about 50 times already?” Well…. That solvent and stuff. It makes you forget things…. I can’t remember what I have already said.
Comments from the original Post:
Originally Posted April 18, 2014:
When I was an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma I inherited working on the Precipitators from Sonny Kendrick, the Electrical Specialist in the electric shop. One time after I had been struggling with the performance of the precipitator trying to lower the emissions of Fly Ash going out of the smoke stacks, I encountered a very odd situation.
One morning as I was walking out to the precipitator as I passed the Unit 1 boiler I noticed that a couple of tanker trailers were sitting outside the bottom ash area. Hoses had been attached to one of them and were running up the side of the boiler. What looked like a pump was running. I didn’t have a clue what was in the tanker. I figured it was just some routine thing that power plants did every so often to make things more interesting. You wouldn’t believe how many times Power Plant Men would come up with new and interesting things just to keep me in awe. (Of course, I am easily amazed).
Anyway, I didn’t really pay much attention to the tanker on the way to the precipitator. I just walked around the tankers that were there and entered the precipitator switchgear and up the stairs to the Precipitator control room where 84 control cabinets were waiting for my attention. On the way into the switchgear I had glanced up at the smoke stacks and noticed that the exhaust from the boiler was looking pretty good.
As I walked passed the control cabinets that controlled the back of the precipitator, I was surprised to find that they were powered up all the way and there wasn’t any sparking happening. Well. I thought. Maybe they are at low load and not much is happening inside the precipitator this morning.
As I walked between the two rows of cabinets toward the cabinets that controlled the transformers near the intake of the precipitator, my surprise turned into astonishment. I had never seen the front cabinets powered up to such a high level with no sparking. Everything was 180 degrees from the way I had left the cabinets the evening before when I was struggling to adjust the power to lower the emissions.
After going through each of the cabinets adjusting the power levels higher only to find that I was able to easily increase the performance even further, I returned to the electric shop for break. When I arrived in the electric shop office I told Charles that something very strange had happened this morning and I’m trying to figure it out, because all of the sudden the precipitator was operating at maximum efficiency.
After break I walked back out to the precipitator control room past the tanker trailers and found that everything was still running smoothly. “My work is done” I thought. I decided to go to the top of the precipitator and start working on fixing malfunctioning vibrators for the rest of the day.
I worked on the precipitator roof until noon, and then went back to the shop for lunch. I sat with Charles as we talked about movies we had seen. Charles was telling me about how the song for Ghostbusters had been on the radio. When the song said,
“If there’s something strange
in your neighborhood
Who ya gonna call?
Charles’ son Tim (not having seen the movie) thought that instead of saying “Ghostbusters” they were saying “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!” Besides being exceptionally cute, it was also an honor for Charles for him to hear Tim sing, “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!”
After lunch was over I went back out to the precipitator control room to check on the cabinets one more time. To my surprise when I walked through the row of cabinets, they were sparking again as they had been the day before! Not quite as bad, but bad enough that I had to go through the cabinets and adjust them back down almost to the levels where I had them before.
It took longer to adjust the cabinets down than it did to raise them in the morning. When break time came along, I was too engrossed in adjusting the cabinets to notice, so I continued working through break. It must have taken me close to three hours. At that time I was still using a small screwdriver on some potentiometers inside each of the cabinets to make the adjustments.
About the time I finished, all the sudden something happened. The cabinets began acting the way I had seen them in the morning! All the sparking stopped and the cabinets began powering up to the highest point they could go based on where I had set them. Ok. Now I needed to find out what was going on!
I walked out of the precipitator and headed for the Control Room. I walked past the tanker trailers and noticed that the pump was running again. I hadn’t thought about it, but when I had walked by them a few hours earlier they had been turned off. This was curious. I figured that it was more than a coincidence.
Pat Quiring was the Unit 1 Control Room operator when I arrived. I asked him what has been going on with Unit 1. I explained to him that when I arrived in the morning I found the precipitator running smoothly, then later it wasn’t, and just a few minutes ago, something happened again and there it was. Pat said two things were going on that day.
One thing was that we had been burning a pile of sand that had been soaked with oil. They had been mixing it with the coal at the coalyard and blowing it into the boiler with the pulverized coal in order to dispose of the hazardous waste. Hmm.. This was a possibility. I couldn’t see how the sand would make a difference, but maybe the mixture of the chemicals in the oil had something to do with it.
Then I asked him. “What about those tankers on the side of the boiler? Why are they there?” Pat said that we were also burning Vertan. Well, not “burning” exactly. We were destroying it in the boiler, because it was chemical waste that needed to be disposed and it is easily destroyed into it’s chemical components in the heat of the boiler.
“Vertan? What’s Vertan?” I asked Pat. He said it was some chemical used to clean boiler tubes. These tankers had been sent to our plant from another plant that had just had the boiler tubes cleaned, and we were just burning it off to get rid of it. They had a schedule they were using to burn the Vertan. They couldn’t just get rid of it all at once because it caused a buildup in the economizer that caused the airflow to be affected through the tail end of the boiler.
So, I wondered, maybe this has to do with airflow. Diverting the airflow to different parts of the precipitator could definitely affect things. The cabinets out in the middle of the precipitator definitely had different electrical properties than those out on the edge.
I suddenly realized that this was 1988 and the Internet was not readily available to the typical user, and the World Wide Web still had a few years before it was widely going to be used. Frustrated that I couldn’t just go “Google” something for another ten years, I did the next best thing that I could do. I decided to pay a visit to our Power Plant Doctor! I wrote about Doctor George Pepple in the post “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. He was the head Power Plant Chemist.
I went to the Chemistry Lab and found George working away on some diabolical experiment. No. Not really, he was probably just testing some water samples. When Dr. Pepple was working on any kind of chemical test, he did it with such mastery and grace that it always reminded me of a mad scientist.
I asked George about Vertan. He explained to me that it was a chemical that was mixed in water and pumped through the boiler tubes to clean out calcium buildup and the like. I mentioned to him that I thought it may be affecting the operation of the precipitator and I was curious to know more about it.
Professor Pepple then explained to me that Vertan was called TetraAmmonia EDTA. EDTA? Yeah, he said, “Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid”. He said this just like my Animal Learning Professor, Dr. Anger used to say “Scopalamine” (See the Post “Poison Pill for Power Plant Pigeons“).
I wrote down this information and I continued monitoring the progress of the precipitator throughout the rest of the week. Each time the pumps were running on the Vertan trailers, the precipitator operated as if it was new and completely clean. Each time the pumps turned off, the precipitator reverted back to the regular mode of operation, only it would be a little better each time. By the time all the Vertan had been destroyed in the boiler, the precipitator was running very well on it’s own.
Over the weekend I went to the University Library at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and Looked up TetraAmmonia EDTA. Not much had been written about it. I was able to find an article about it in a Journal. It had the chemical composition.
A few years later when the Internet became available I was able to find a better model of the Vertan molecule:
I mentioned that at the same time that the Vertan was being burned in the boiler, we were also blowing contaminated sand into the boiler in order to burn off oil that had soaked into the sand. At one point, I had to go work on the head end of the number 10 long belt to find a 480 volt ground in a circuit. When I arrived, I could see where the oil from the sand had caused the coal to cake up on the belt and cause a big mess where the conveyor dumped the coal onto the belt 12.
There didn’t seem to be any correlation between the times that sand was being burned. The process for burning the sand lasted a lot longer than burning off the Vertan. By the time that the sand was burned off, the precipitator was humming away operating at near maximum efficiency. So, it seemed as if the sand didn’t have anything to do with the increase in performance.
I was convinced that burning Vertan in the boiler was more convincing. If not Vertan, then just injecting water could have been a factor. Since the Vertan was in water and they were pumping large amounts of water into the fireball in order to destroy the Vertan. Maybe the increase in Humidity had something to do with the improvement.
A couple of years later when the “We’ve Got The Power” Program was underway (See the Post, “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“). Terry Blevins and I were investigating the idea that Vertan could be used to improve the performance of the precipitator. We found that Ammonia Injection was used to treat Precipitators.
This is done by injecting ammonia into the intake of the precipitator to treat it when it was performing poorly. This reinforced our idea that Vertan was the main reason that the precipitator had responded favorably during that time since Vertan broke down into Ammonia at high temperatures. Even then, we didn’t exclude the possibility that the increase of humidity may have also played a role.
Another team had the idea that injecting sand into the intake of the precipitator would improve the performance of the precipitator by sandblasting the ash off of the plates. They had seen this happen when sand had been burned earlier. I had rejected this idea as being viable. I knew that the velocity of the airflow in the precipitator was no faster than 4 miles an hour. Hardly fast enough to keep grains of sand airborne.
It was worth a try though, and the other team pursued the idea and ran a test by injecting the sand. It definitely wouldn’t hurt anything to try. The idea was rejected by the Steering Committee (Ron Kilman), based on my input, even though something extraordinary happened during the test. When this happened, I became the instant enemy of the team leader.
I will cover this dilemma in a later post (possibly next week). For now I will just leave you with the knowledge that because I had chosen Vertan over Sand, I had definitely made an enemy of a True Power Plant Man.
Originally posted June 13, 2014:
When discussing Telephones at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I have to remember that some of my readers have a completely different perspective of telephones than me. My children grew up probably never seeing a real rotary dial phone except in movies or old TV shows. It might be a little hard for them to imagine a telephone being a possible murder weapon. Telephones have come a long way since I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s.
When you turned the dial on a Rotary phone you put your finger in the hole on the number you want to dial and then you swing it around until your finger bumps up against the metal bracket. When you pull your finger out of the hole, the phone sends a rapid succession of pulses to the telephone company telling them what number you just dialed. It was very… well…. tedious and manual…. and not even electronic. It was electric signals and switches. “Mechanical” is the word I think I’m trying to say.
Even the way you received a dial tone was by sending something called a “Ring-to-ground” signal to the telephone company. That would happen when you would lift the receiver off the hook. There are only two wires used to communicate in an old phone and only one of those had voltage on it. when you ground that wire (called the “Ring”) momentarily, the phone company would then send a dial tone to your phone.
You could actually do this on a dead phone line at times when the phone company had shut off your service. On an old pay phone, when the proper coin was inserted in the phone, the coin itself was used to ground the ring wire, thus telling the telephone company to send the dial tone, allowing you to use the phone. In 1983 there was a movie called “Wargames”.
I had learned about how these telephones worked from Bill Rivers just before going to watch this movie. During the movie Matthew Broderick’s character needed to make a phone call at a pay phone but didn’t have a coin. By taking the mouthpiece off of the transmitter, and using a metal pop top he found on the ground, he was able to ground the “ring” wire to the pay phone, and he received a dial tone. There was a good ol’ boy sitting behind me in the movie theater that said, “You can’t do that!” — Being the newly educated smart (-alec) guy I was, I turned around and said, “Yeah. You really can.”
Anyway. This isn’t a story so much about how old phones work. I just wanted to bring the younger readers back-to-date on phones since now they don’t really call them telephones anymore. It is more like, “Smart Phone” and “Cell Phone”, “Mobile Phone” or just “Phone”. The phone in the house isn’t even referred to as a telephone. We now call them “Home Phone” to distinguish them from the actual phones that we use.
Anyway, when I joined the electric shop in 1983, I learned about the phone system. We didn’t use the older Rotary Dial phones at the plant. We were one step up. We had “Touch Tone” Phones.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, we had our own telephone computer at the Power Plant. It was called a ROLM phone system. See the post “A Slap In the Face at a Gas-fired Power Plant“.
To give you an idea of the technology used by this phone system, you connected to it using a “teletype” terminal that you connected to a telephone by clipping the receiver in a cradle. Then you dialed the phone computer. When you connected, it was at 300 Baud. Think of 300 bytes per second, only using audio…. like a fax machine. — It was like connecting using a modem. 300 baud meant that when it typed out the results on the paper that scrolled out the top, you could watch it as it slowly printed out each line. The maximum speed of the terminal was 300 baud.
In this picture you can see the cradle in the back where the phone receiver would fit in those two rubber cups.
After many years of going to the lab to connect to the telephone computer to make changes and to monitor the telephone traffic, in 1992 I decided to bring my 8088 computer to work and set it on the desk in the electric shop. We didn’t have our own computer yet. At that time the only people that had computers were office workers and the Shift Supervisor. We had started a computer club and having a computer in the shop was a big help. I had just replaced this computer at home with a 486.
I had a modem on my computer, so I tried connecting to the telephone computer, and it worked! So, sometimes during lunch when Charles Foster and I were sitting there talking about movies we had seen while eating vegetables from his garden, I would connect to the ROLM computer and just watch the call log. I could see whenever someone was dialing in and out of the plant.
We had a special call in number into the plant that allowed you to make “trunk” calls. This is another term you don’t hear much anymore. You see….. for the younger readers (again)…. long distant calls used to cost a lot of money. You would be charged by how many minutes you were on the call. During the day, it could be as high as $3.00 a minute to call across the country. Amazing huh? Because today, most of you with cell phones and even your land lines (which are rarely real land lines anymore) long distant phone calls are now free with your phone plan.
Yeah, if you wanted to call someone in the next town over, you would have to pay a fee for every minute you were on the call…. That was when AT&T had a monopoly on the phone lines in the United States. Sure, you only payed $7.00 each month for your phone, but you could only call people in your immediate area or you would be charged extra.
A Trunk line gave you access to a much wider area. The Electric company had a trunk line that gave them access to most of Oklahoma. You could dial into a local number that would connect you to the company phone system. Then after entering the correct password number, you could dial access numbers that would take you to another office location in the electric company. Once on that phone system, you could dial to get an outside line, and then dial a local number in that area.
Our plant had three access numbers that allowed you to dial out locally to Stillwater, Ponca City and Pawnee. This was useful when a foreman needed to call people out to work. They could dial into the plant, then back out to one of these other towns and then dial the local phone number of the crew member they were trying to reach without incurring a personal charge on their phone line.
So, here I was in 1992 during lunch watching the phone traffic in and out of the plant (not exactly NSA style, but sort of), when I saw something unexpected. A long string of numbers showed up. Someone had dialed in on the Stillwater trunk, then dialed out to the Corporate Headquarters trunk, then out to Oklahoma City and from there they placed a long distance call to a phone number in the same area code. The prefix on the phone number was familiar to me. It was a Ponca City phone number. I had lived in Ponca City for three years when I had been married, from 1986 to 1989. I knew a Ponca City phone number when I saw one.
I thought this was odd, because it wouldn’t be normal for someone to dial from Stillwater through out plant to Oklahoma City only to call a Ponca City phone number when they could have dialed the local Ponca City access code. Then they wouldn’t have had to make a long distance call which bypassed our trunk call system causing the electric company to be billed for the long distance telephone call.
At the time I was a CompuServe user. This was when the World Wide Web was in it’s infancy. I was still using a DOS computer. When I connected to the Internet, it was either by using my dad’s Internet account from Oklahoma State University where I would use Telnet to access a bunch of mainframe computers all over the country, or I would use the DOS-based version of CompuServe. CompuServe was the king of Internet access before America Online came around and seemingly overnight made CompuServe obsolete.
In 1992, CompuServe had a service where you could look up phone numbers and find out whose number it was. Imagine that! Yeah. That was one of the neatest features on CompuServe! That and getting stock quotes. — Like I said…. There was no “www.whitepages.com” online. The only catch to using the reverse phone number feature, was that it was like making a long distance call. It cost money. You were charged by the minute for using the CompuServe reverse telephone number service, with the least amount being a dollar.
So, I bit the bullet and accessed the Phone Number lookup section of CompuServe. I quickly typed in the number. When the name and address of the user popped up, I quickly hit “Print Screen”, and then exited the service. My fee came to $1.00, but at least I knew what number had been dialed in Ponca City.
Charles, Scott Hubbard and I were a little excited by the time Terry Blevins walked into the electric shop office after lunch was over, I told him what I had seen.
When I told Terry the name of the person that had received the long distance call, he recognized the name right away. When I gave him the address, he was sure he knew who it was. The phone number belonged to the Music Director at the Ponca City High School. His son was attending college in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Well, that sort of cinched it. We had a pretty good idea who had made the call. It was a college student calling home, who had been given the phone number most likely by a fellow student who knew the code to call home in Oklahoma City. So, the only local access code this guy knew was how to dial through our plant to Oklahoma City and back out where he was free (but it was not free for us) to make a long distance call home.
Armed with this knowledge, I headed up to the front office. I went straight to the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman’s office. I told Ron what I had found. I explained in detail how the person had dialed from Stillwater into our plant and then to Oklahoma City and out and then placed a long distance call to Ponca City leaving us with the phone bill. Since it was the middle of the day, the cost of a long distance call was not cheap.
I told Ron that I had used CompuServe to lookup the phone number and that Terry had said that it belonged to the Music Director at the Ponca City High School and that he had a son in college in Stillwater. I was all ready to pounce on this guy. This was a fraudulent use of the telephone service and there were some pretty strict laws then about stealing long distance from someone else.
Ron, being the more level-headed of the two of us thought about it for a minute and said, “What would be the best way to stop this from happening?” — Oh. Well. I was so intent on catching the culprit, I hadn’t thought about that angle…. “Well….” I said, “We could change the pass code used to log into our phone system. We would just have to tell our supervisors what the new number is.”
Ron asked me what it would take to do that. I told him I could do it in two minutes. We quickly settled on a new 4 digit pass code and I left his office and returned to the electric shop and made the change essentially turning the tables on the Telephone Interloper. I suppose the college student in Stillwater was lucky that our plant manager at the time was the type to forgive and forget.
Three years later the entire electric company phone system was replaced by a new AT&T computer which was managed by AT&T. As you can tell… Technology just keeps moving forward making seemingly really neat new inventions quickly obsolete.
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted July 4, 2014. Added some pictures:
I never would have guessed that playing Power Plant Man jokes on Gene Day would have led me to the “Uh Oh!” moment I later encountered when I was told in no uncertain terms that the President of the Electric Company, James G. Harlow Junior was personally upset with something I had done. I had learned my first year as a summer help at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that “One ‘Uh Oh’ wipes out all previous ‘Atta Boys’!” I could tell by the way the Electric Supervisor, Tom Gibson’s ears were glowing red that this was considered a little more serious than I had first realized.
I have mentioned in previous posts that playing jokes on Gene Day was one of my favorite Power Plant Man Pastimes. See the post, “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“. Also see, “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“. My lunch breaks were usually consumed with learning more about how to program the Honeywell mainframe computer used by just about all the company processes that actually ran the company from payroll, to billing, to work orders and Inventory. I figured that as I learned more about the computer system, the more elaborate jokes I would be able to play on Gene.
Already I had learned about the escape codes used by the large IBM printers that were used throughout the company at the time. This allowed me to create graphic images on the printer as well as large bold letters.
Besides the telephone and inter-company mail, printers were the only other way to communicate to non-present Power Plant Men in 1989. We had not yet been introduced to e-mail. I was one of the few people in the company that had an e-mail address on the mainframe, and the only other person that I knew that I could write to was Craig Henry, a Corporate Engineer downtown.
Much like the first time when I met Gene Day, when I first encountered Craig Henry, I could tell right away that he was a down-to-earth person that would shoot straight. Craig probably wouldn’t remember this far into the past that I would reach out to him occasionally just to say “Hi” and to pick his brain about how the corporate IT infrastructure was setup. I figured since he was one of the few people in the company that even knew what an e-mail address was at the time, he most likely had more knowledge about such things than the average person in Corporate Headquarters.
After finding out that Gene Day would go work out at the Rock Gym in Stillwater, Oklahoma after work, and I had played the joke on him with the notes from the private investigator, I used my knowledge of Printer Escape codes to write documents on the mainframe that when printed out would turn on the graphic commands on the printer so that I could print out pictures. I don’t mean that I would have a saved picture that I would send to a printer like we might do today. No. I had to create these pictures one pixel at a time using commands in a UNIX document on the mainframe. It was all codes that would not make sense to anyone that didn’t know the graphic commands of the IBM printers.
I had been teasing Gene Day about meeting up with a young “coed” from the University at the Gym each day. I would do this by printing out messages on the Control Room printer by the the Shift Supervisor’s office when I knew that Gene Day was there filling in as the Shift Supervisor. They were usually notes from someone that called herself “Bunny”. Usually they were short notes or “love letters” from Bunny just saying something about how she enjoyed her time with Gene at the Gym.
At the bottom I would sign it “Bunny” then under it, the printer would read the graphic commands and create a small Playboy Bunny symbol under the name. At the end, the document would send a command that would put the printer back into the text mode.
Of course. Whenever I walked into the control room shortly after, just to see how the precipitator was doing, Gene Day would confront me about the notes. With a grin on his face he would say, “This isn’t funny! What if my wife found one of these notes?” — Like that was ever going to happen…. unless he was like me, and likes to save everything.
In order to create the bunny at the bottom I had to create the pixels in small blocks of 9 pixel patterns. Here is the code I used to create the bunny:
In the last couple of weeks I have written about how the Power Plant Men were introduced to the “Quality Process” (otherwise known as “Six Sigma”). We had created teams with our crews and we met once each week to come up with Quality ideas. By August, 1993, I had received my official Certificate Certifying that I had completed all the QuickStart training and was on my way to making a difference in the Power Plant World!
So, what do these two events have in common and how did this lead the President of the Electric Company to send out a search warrant on a lowly (lowlife is more like it) Plant Electrician in North Central Oklahoma? Well. This is what happened…
First you have to remember that in 1993, the Internet was not easily accessible by the general public. Company e-mail was still not a reality in our company. We had dumb terminals and large IBM printers. That was the extent of most employees interaction with a computer. Each printer had a designation. It was a five character ID beginning with a “P”. So, the printer in the Electric Shop Office might be…. P1234. I needed to know this number if I wanted to send something to it.
At the time, the only thing people had to send to each other were requests for things from the mainframe systems that were used to run the company. So, for instance, if you wanted to request some parts from the warehouse at our plant, we would send over a list of parts to the warehouse printer where Dick Dale and Darlene Mitchell would pick it up and go retrieve the parts. So, the people that used the terminals and computers with mainframe emulators on them knew the most commonly used printer numbers in the plant.
If you wanted to send something to someone in Oklahoma City, or to the Power Plant in Muskogee, then you would have to call over there and ask the person what their Printer ID is so you can be sure you are sending your request to the appropriate printer. Without e-mail, and any other form of computerized communication. This was the only way at the time.
So, after our Customer Service Team was formed, we would meet once each week to brainstorm new ideas that would benefit the company. Andy Tubbs was our team leader, as he was our foreman.
The other members of our Customer Service Team were Diana Brien, Scott Hubbard, Sonny Kendrick, Ben Davis and Gary Wehunt. I haven’t properly introduced my bucket buddy Diana Brien in a post before. I have recently obtained a photograph that I can share:
We were called bucket buddies because we carried tool buckets with us whenever we went to work on something. They doubled as our stool and tripled as our trash can.
Thursday, July 15, 1993 during our Quality Brainstorming session, while we were pouring out ideas like…. “What if we changed out the street lights at the plant so that they would be different colors…. wouldn’t that help morale?…. and “How about if we wrapped fluorescent Christmas lights around the high voltage electric lines between here and Oklahoma City so that they could light up the night with colorful lights during the Christmas Season?”….. And other ingenious Brainstorming ideas that are bound to pull up an occasional brilliant idea….. well. One such idea popped up!
I don’t remember which one of our brilliant brainstorming ideas conjured up this idea, but Andy Tubbs suddenly blurted out…. “What if we had the Printer IDs added as a column in the Corporate Directory? — You see, each quarter we received an updated copy of the Corporate Phone Book. It included the names and office phone numbers of all the Electric Company employees. It also included their mail code. So, if you wanted to send something through inter-company mail to them, you would know where to send it. Our mail code was PP75. That was the code for our power plant.
So, what if we added a column where we had the printer ID that each person would use for people to send printed requests, among other things? This was Brilliant! We could just make this proposal and send it downtown to Corporate Headquarters where it would be lost in the “mail”. Or we could do more research to prove that it was a possible proposal that was really do-able.
So, I suggested…. Well… I can print a form out on every printer in the entire company requesting that they include all the names of all the people that use that printer and mail it through inter-company mail back to me at PP75. — I had recently uncovered a special printer command that allowed me to do this hidden away on the Honeywell mainframe. So, we took a vote and it was decided that we would pursue this proposal. I set to work on creating the form that I would send to every printer. If we could not only send the proposal to the Communications department downtown, but also a list of everyone and their printers, the work would already have been done for them.
I wanted to send a real fancy letter because I had already created a header using the Quality print settings on the printers. I had created a Company Logo that (I thought) ingeniously used the backspace command to create two words with one word on top of the other in the middle of a sentence…. Our company began as Oklahoma Gas and….. in the logo, I wanted the word Gas to be on top of the word And as it was in our company logo in smaller letters than the others. So… after playing around with it for a while, I created the logo and had it saved on the mainframe.
After attaching the header to the form, I included a message that told the person that discovered the form on the printer to add the names of all people who used the printer below and to send the form to Kevin Breazile at PP75. As I mentioned. In order to make the form look pretty, I turned on the Quality Print settings on the printer at the beginning of the document. Like the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice….. I didn’t know a good way to turn off all the settings I changed to revert the printers back to their original settings.
I ran the command to send the document to every printer on the print server and away they went…. A copy printed out on the printer in the Electric Shop office so I knew it was working. Copies printed out on the other 12 printers at our plant. They also printed out on the 500 other printers throughout Oklahoma. — With the thought that “My work here is done.” I went back to work repairing plant electric equipment.
The following Monday I had the day off. When I returned to work on Tuesday, Denise Anson called me from the front office. She said that I had a large stack of mail. I thought, “Oh good!” Results from our request on Thursday have arrived! I hurried up to the front office.
When I entered the mail cubicle I was surprised to see how big the pile of envelopes were. The stack of inter-company envelopes was over two feet high. “Um…. Thanks….” I said to Denise. I picked up the stack and headed back to the Electric Shop to sort out the forms.
After opening the first few envelopes. I suddenly came to an astonishing discovery. Not only did the form print out on the large mainframe IBM printers used in office areas, it also had printed out on other types of printers…. I opened one envelope and found the form printed out on a “Work Order” printer. The paper size was different than the standard paper size, and I hadn’t put a page feed at the end of the document, so, it had left the paper in the middle of the page…. “Uh Oh”.
My “Uh Oh” changed to “UH OH!” after opening a few more of the inter-company envelopes. I found that the form had printed out on Pay Check Printers! And Billing Printers! “UH OH!” quickly changed to “OH NO!” When I read comments like “Under no circumstances print anything on this Printer Again!!!!” I realized I had really messed things up. By changing the font size and the quality settings, the billing, payroll and work order printers all had to be manually reset and the jobs that printed out paychecks, customer bills and employee work orders had to be re-run!
After taking all the forms out of their envelopes, the stack of papers was over 4 inches thick, just to give you an idea about how many responses we had.
A couple of hours later, Tom Gibson called me to his office. “Uh Oh.” (remember… One “uh oh” erases all previous “atta boy”s). When I entered Tom’s office, I could tell that something was definitely wrong. Like I mentioned earlier. Tom’s ears were beet red…. and in case you don’t know what a beet looks like. Here is one:
Of course… I knew what this was all about, only I didn’t know yet, how Tom had found out about it…. Tom began by saying…. “Ron Kilman just received a call from James Harlow asking him who is Kevin Breazile and why is he printing something out on my printer? Ron didn’t like the fact that he wasn’t aware that you had sent something to the President of the Company’s printer.
Sorry. That’s the biggest picture I could find of James Harlow….
Um what could I say? So, I said this…
“Well. This was a quality idea that our team had. We wanted to collect the names of people that used each printer so that we could send in a proposal to have the printer ID added in the Corporate Directory.”
I didn’t mention that Harlow’s Secretary had returned the form with all the people that used his computer as I had requested, because I knew that the President of the Electric Company was not asking because he was upset that I had printed something out on his printer. No. He had probably been told that the reason the bills were late being sent to the one million customers that month was because some kook had messed up their printers and the jobs had to be run over again causing the delay. So, I thought it was best not to go down that route at this time…
So, I stuck with my story, which was the truth…. I had printed out the forms on all the printers as part of a quality idea by our CST. — I also didn’t mention that three years earlier, Tom had asked me to learn everything I could about the company computer, because he believe that the computer was going to be the wave of the future.
Even though Tom believed my explanation, he told me…. “Kevin, Ron never wants this to happen again, therefore, you are never to send anything out of this plant without Ron Kilman’s personal approval. Is that clear?”
I replied to Tom that this was unreasonable. I send things to other departments all the time. I send Substation Inspection forms, and blueprint revisions and all sorts of other forms downtown all the time. Ron Kilman wouldn’t want to waste his time approving all those things….
Tom thought about it and revised his statement…. “Then, don’t ever send out anything that isn’t part of your normal daily job without Ron’s approval first.” — Ok. I thought…. this works, since everything I do is part of my normal daily job…. Even printing out forms on all the printers in the company… since that was part of our normal “Quality Process” Customer Service Team activity…. So, I happily agreed. And I left Tom’s office happy that I hadn’t joined the ranks of the unemployed.
That was one thing about working at the plant at this time. As long as your heart was in the right place…. That is, you tried your best to keep the electricity humming through the electric lines…. then the chances of being fired for messing up, even as big of a mess up as this, most often didn’t end up by losing your job.
I sometimes think that this was my biggest mess up of all time… however…. after this episode was over… there was a part two to this story….. Believe it or not…. Someone else in the company was overjoyed about what I had just done. They had been trying to do something similar for a long time, only to be told that it was impossible. — Doing the Impossible… I was good at that… Part two of this story is a story for another day…
Since this is a repost of this story, I have written part two, which you can read here: “Printing Impossible Power Plant Fast News Post“.
Does anyone know where the phrase, “Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back” came from? I’m sure there is a story behind that one. Maybe even a lot of different origins. I can distinctly remember a day in the Power Plant when a Power Plant Man stepped on a crack and broke his own back.
I remember looking out of the seventh floor window of my friends dorm room when I was a freshman in college watching students returning from classes about 6 months before the Power Plant Man broke his back. I was watching closely to see if any of them were purposely missing the cracks as they walked down the sidewalk toward the entrance. Out of about 20 people two of them purposely stepped over every crack in the sidewalk.
In the post “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One” I told the story about four of us were carrying a very long extension ladder through the maintenance shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma one summer morning in 1979 when Tom Dean stepped on a crack (well, it was a cracked piece of plywood that had been placed over a floor drain because the floor grate was missing), and when as he stepped on it, he lost his balance enough to twist himself around. By the time he stopped twirling, he was in immense pain as he had destroyed any chance for comfort for the next 6 months.
So, I could understand the dangers of stepping on cracks even when they appear to be insignificant. What that has to do with my mom I’m not sure. However, one day when my sister was walking with my mom on the campus of Oklahoma State University, my sister may have stepped on a crack at that time, as well as my mom, which sent her plummeting the five feet to the ground resulting in a broken hip.
This makes me wonder that since the times have changed, it may be time to change the saying to something else. Maybe something like “Smoke some crack, break your parent’s piggy bank” would be more appropriate for these times. Oh well, I’ve never been much of a poet.
Anyway, back to the subject of back pain.
The number one favorite topic during Safety Meetings at the Power Plant was Back Safety. We were told (and rightly so) that accidents where the back is injured cost the company and the employee more than any other injury. Once you really hurt your back, you can expect to have back pain the rest of your life. It only takes one time. — Times may have changed since 1979, so that now you can have some excellent back surgeries to help correct your back injuries. Even with these, you will never be completely free from back pain.
In the Power Plant Post, “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe” I told a story about how our team came up with hundreds of safety slogans in an attempt to win the coveted Power Plant Safety Award Pizza at the end of the year. A Pizza that continued to allude us for 2 and a half years. During our meetings to invent the most catchy safety slogans, Andy Tubbs (or was it Ben Davis) came up with a slogan that said, “Lift with your legs, not your back. Or you may hear a lumbar crack”. — See. I wish I could come up with doozies like that! This takes the idea of a crack and a back and turns it around, if you think about it. Now instead of a crack hurting your back, its about a strain on your back creating a crack. — I know… probably just a coincidence….
One morning Sonny Kendrick, our electric specialist at the time, while sitting in the electric lab during break, let out a whopper of a sneeze. When he did, he suddenly knew what it felt like to experience tremendous back pain. One sneeze and he was out of commission for many weeks.
One day, when Charles Foster, my very close friend, and electric foreman, were talking about back pain, I realized that a good portion of Power Plant Men suffered with back pain. — At the risk of sounding like Randy Dailey teaching our Safety Class, I’m going to repeat myself, “You only have to hurt your back one time to have a lifetime of back pain.”
The company would focus a lot of their safety training around the importance of proper lifting techniques in order to prevent back accidents (not to be confused with backing accidents which is when you back out of a parking space — which is also a common accident — though usually less severe — unless you happen to be a Ford Truck). We would learn how to lift with our legs and not with our back.
You see, it wasn’t just that one sneeze that caused Sonny’s plunge into Back Pain Hell, and it wasn’t just stepping on the cracked plywood floor drain cover that broke Tom’s back (I know “Broke Back” is a misnomer since the back isn’t exactly broke). The problem is more systemic than that. This is just the final result of maybe years of neglecting your back through various unsafe activities.
The two important points I remember from watching the safety videos during our monthly safety meetings was that when you slouch while sitting, you put a needless strain on your lower back. So, by sitting with good posture, you help prevent a future of pain. The second point I remember is that you need to keep your stomach muscles strong. Strong stomach muscles take the weight off of your back when you’re just doing your regular job.
The big problem that finally causes the disc in your lumbar region of your spine to break after neglecting it through these other means is to lift a heavy object by bending over to pick it up instead of lifting the load with your legs. So, the phrase that we always heard was “Lift with your Legs. Not your Back”. You do this by bending your knees instead of just your hips.
Ok. I know you are all thinking the same thing I am thinking (right? Yeah. You are). Bending both your knees and hips saves your back. Isn’t there another word for when you bend your knees and hips at the same time? — Yeah. Yet, I don’t remember hearing it during any of our Safety Videos. — Oh. It was implied, they just never came out and said it…. What they really mean to say is, “Squat”. Yeah. “Squat”. When you bend your knees and hips, isn’t that “Squatting?”
Times have changed…. I mean….. Doesn’t everyone today have a “Squatty Potty”?
Don’t we all have “I ‘heart’ 2 Squat” tee-shirts?
To learn more, you can watch this video:
This doesn’t just work with the Squatty Potty to help you drop your loads, it also works when lifting heavy loads. So, remember the next time you are going to bend over to pick something up…. Squat instead.
Other lifting tips include keeping the load close to your body and not holding your breath but tightening your stomach muscles, and don’t lift something too bulky by yourself. Don’t twist your body when picking something up, face the load directly. A weightlifter once told me that when you lift, feel the weight on the heel of your feet, not on the balls of your feet.
Randy Dailey, the Safety Guru of our Power Plant, and an expert machinist invented a pen that you could put in your pocket protector in your shirt pocket that would alert you by beeping if you leaned over too far. It was an ingenious device to remind you to lift with your legs instead of your back.
In one of the safety videos we watched about back safety, there was a short stalky scientist that explained the dynamics of lifting and how easy it was to put a tremendous strain on your back by leaning over and picking something up. He said that “People choose the more simple way to pick something up. Not the easiest way.”
Doesn’t that sound like the same thing? Isn’t the simplest way the easiest way? Well. You would think so, but it isn’t always the case. This Doctor of Back-ology went on to explain his statement. He explained that the simplest way to pick up an object on the floor is to bend at the hip. It is one movement. Bend at the hip. — However…. The easiest way to pick up the object is to bend both your knees and your hips to pick up the object. Since you keep your back straight and you lift with your leg muscles that are the most powerful muscles in your body. He avoided using the word, “Squat”, but that’s what he meant.
In order to reduce back injuries at the plant, the company made back belts available at the plant.
Note that this picture not only shows a Power Plant Man wearing a Back Support Belt, but he also is wearing the right kind of Tee-Shirt. It has a vest pocket where you can put a Pocket Protector for your little screwdriver and your Back Alert Pen created by Randy Dailey.
The use of back belts was new around the late 1980’s. Even though we had them available through the tool room when we wanted them, few people wore them. The warehouse team wore them a lot. I suppose that is because they were lifting and moving things all day long.
In the warehouse Bob Ringwall, Darlene Mitchell and Dick Dale used to have back belts on when I would visit the warehouse to pick up a part, or to visit my friends. I don’t remember if Bud Schoonover would wear a back belt. How’s this for a slogan…. “Be a Safety Black Belt…. When Lifting, wear your Back Belt.” I know. I should stop when I’m ahead, only I’m so far behind now I may never catch up.
There was a question about whether wearing a back belt was really a good idea. It was thought that people might tend to substitute using their stomach muscles while lifting with the back belt, resulting in weaker stomach muscles. So we were cautioned not to go around wearing back belts all day long. Only when we were going to be doing a job where we had to do a lot of lifting. I suppose now, after years of research, there is a lot more data to tell us one way or the other. I haven’t heard what the latest injury jury has said on this subject.
Even though I titled this post “…Plain Ol’ Power Plant Back Pain”, there is nothing plain about back pain. I just thought it sounded like a catchy title.
I was lucky enough that during the 20 years I spent working at the Power Plant, I never really hurt my back. To this day, I have been able to avoid living with perpetual pain in my back. — I have been accused of causing pain in other people’s necks. Also, I don’t think the many times that people told me I was a pain in their back side, they were referring to the Lumbar region. I think they meant an area just below the tailbone. I hope that by bringing to their attention the benefits of the Squatty Potty that I have been able to relieve (or prevent) a little of that lower lumbar pain.
Now when someone says, “You don’t know Squat”, you can correct them!
Comments from the original post:
The electricians on our crew must have heard Gary Wehunt say the phrase “…of a morning” a dozen times before someone brought it to his attention. I think it was Andy Tubbs while we were sitting in our Monday Morning Safety Meeting. He said, “What did you just say?” Gary repeated himself, “I do ‘such and such’ of a morning.” “Of a morning? What does that mean?” Gary asked, “What? Of a Morning. Isn’t that right?”
It’s true that there is a certain “Power Plant Speak” that seems unique to people that work in factories, power plants, line crews and other such situations. I can speak only for the power plants where I worked. I would describe the type of speech as “colorful”. Not in a vulgar sort of way, but in a flowery way.
Power Plant Men in general didn’t curse as you may see them depicted in movies. The majority of Power Plant Men I worked with had too much respect for each other to use foul language, and those that did usually apologized when something slipped out. Saying things like, “Sorry Kev, you had to hear that.”
I was watching a show the other day on TV with my wife and it showed a group of men using vulgar language while talking about women. I told my wife, I have worked around men in a number of Power Plants and I have never heard someone talk disrespectfully about women like that in the workplace. For the most part, the men and women at a Power Plant are the cream of the crop when it comes to decency.
The people who had a tendency to use foul language were the “old-timers”. Especially if they were an old-timer supervisor. It seems that the culture before the 80’s was that using foul language was a normal way of communicating. Even upper level supervisors would yell at people using curse words that today would seem very inappropriate. I just caught the tail end of that, and it seemed to come mainly from the construction hands that were building the plant. See the post: “A Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“.
When I say that Power Plant Speak is colorful, I mean that the words they use are… unique.
Sometimes Power Plant Men used inappropriate words without knowing what they meant. When something isn’t working properly, a Power Plant Man may say that it is “Gilflirted”. This was a common word used by Power Plant Men, but few of them actually knew the exact meaning. When Martin Prigmore told Diana Brien and me what it really meant one day, I didn’t believe him (yes. “me” is the proper word to use in this sentence. Not “I”).
He said his grandfather had told him what it meant in relation to a horse. According to the Urban Dictionary, it is exactly what Martin said. To us, Gilflirted just meant, “It’s fouled up.” Almost no one knew the wiser. (Before you go looking for the exact meaning, let me just say that it is a disgusting word. You should probably pass this one up. I wish I didn’t know). I remember my mom telling my sister when we were young not to use words and phrases when she didn’t understand the meaning. Now I know why.
I used to keep a dictionary of words that Charles Foster, my first electric foreman and my foremost friend used that were “variations” of words that he meant to say.
Charles knew that he didn’t say some words correctly, and he especially didn’t write them well. He had dyslexia so he was never a good speller. I would check his spelling before he would send an important memo to someone. Here is a post about when we figured out that Charles was Dyslexic: “Personal Power Plant Hero – Charles Foster“.
Here are some of the words Charles would use: Sipherned: This meant to Siphon something. Dasunul: This meant Decimal. Telepoly (prounounced similar to Monopoly): This meant Telepathy (this was my favorite). When we would both be thinking the same thing at the same time (which was often), Charles would say, “We’ve got that Telepoly going on here.”
Here are some more words…. Litatur: Literature. Tindency: Tendency. Stratety: Strategy. etc…I think you get the point.
So, when the company offered a course called: Practical English and the Command of Words… We jumped on it. Maybe this way we could learn us some good English!
This is probably the best English course I ever had…. um… I mean “took”. Geez. You can see, I learned a lot…. I still have a tough time when it comes to writing run-on sentences. This course has 48 lessons each of which would make a great Monday Morning Safety Meeting Topic… only it doesn’t deal with Safety, unless… you could argue… It is a safer workplace when people can communicate better….. okay. Yeah. I know. That’s stretching it. But it would be fun. It was created by the “English Language Institute of America, Inc.”
Each topic in this course had an interesting title, like “Negatives from Positives”. Or “Dangerous Resemblances”… Sounds like a murder mystery. How about “Perplexing Plurals”? “Fragrance, Odor or Aroma?” — Yeah. The title of an English class.
I had a couple of takeaways from this course that I still remind myself today. The first one is to not end a sentence with a preposition. Because a Preposition implies that something is supposed to follow…. I remember I used to bug my foreman Alan Kramer when he would end sentence with “….at”, which seemed to be the most common preposition ending word at the plant. “Where’re you at?” I used to repeat the word “At” whenever Alan would finish a sentence with “At”. I know I was driving him up the wall. The second one was “….to”. Like “Where’re you going to?”
In order to get around ending a sentence with the word “At”, I remember the foremen trying to change the sentence like this…. “Where’re you at… Kevin?” That’s great! The sentence no longer ended with a preposition, but it still wasn’t “King’s English” was it? <smile>
The easy solution to this is to stop the contraction “Where’re you” and spread it out to make “Where are you?” No need for the “At”. The contraction is what confuses the sentence. You can say “Where are you going?” instead of “Where’re you going to?” Just don’t contract “where’re” and drop the preposition.
Okay. Another lesson about prepositions is that if you can’t just drop it, then you are probably using the wrong words and you need to reword the entire sentence… Take this sentence… “Who do you work for?” You wouldn’t just say, “Who do you work?” That’ doesn’t sound right… “Work” is not the right word. What you are really asking is, “Where are you employed?” — oh… sorry for the lesson…. English class is dismissed… by the way… in all my years in school, I never made an A in English. The best grade I had was a B+.
The second “takeaway” from this course was to never use the word “Get” or “Got” or one of their other words like “getting” or”gotten”, etc. There is always a better word. “Get” could mean too many different things. “I’ve got it.” What does that mean? I figured it out? I found it? I retrieved it? or even… “Enough already!” How about “I have it”. there’s a contraction again “I’ve” that has caused a person to throw in an extra word.
Whenever you want to use the word “Get” stop and ask yourself, what do I really want to say. there is always a better word. It is annoying because script writers for television shows should learn this lesson. Every day (almost), I hear someone on TV say, “I’ve got to have it!” (instead of “I need it”) or some such thing. Once you start listening for it, you hear it everywhere. Oh. Sorry… I did say… English Class dismissed… didn’t I?
I’m not sure how many Power Plant Men took the English course, but when it was over, once while walking through the Welding Shop at the beginning of break time I heard out of the corner of my ear, one welder asking the other…. “Tea?” My first thought was “Geez! They really took this “English” stuff seriously… until I heard the follow-up question…. “Sweet or UnSweet?”
There was another course that I think every person at the plant had to take. It was called “The Path To Dialogue”. Well, this says “The Path Of Dialogue”, but it seemed like we always called it the “Path To Dialogue”, which seems more like going down a path, I suppose.
The course talked about each section of that diagram on the first page. Let me blow up the diagram for you… (No! Not like that!).
Down at the bottom, you can see the different ways that people use to try to kill the conversation. Recognize any of these? One side is withdrawing and the other side is, “Meet me out behind the barn (or in the elevator, as the case may be).” The course started with the bottom of the pyramid and worked upward.
The course actually taught the student how to ask questions in a way that promoted a dialogue instead of working to crush it. This is a very useful course that was given to us by the Praxis Institute in 1995. Everyone took it, but not everyone bought into the idea.
Just as during the Confined Space training, a few people who were in upper management (like Jim Arnold for instance) didn’t think things like this applied to them. “A ‘Path To Dialogue’ is fine and dandy for the peons that work for me, but all I need to do is tell you what to do and the discussion is over.” The rest of us learned some very valuable lessons from this course. Oh. Just as a reminder… Here is Jim Arnold in all of his glory:
Years later, what I learned in this course comes in handy in my job today. I run into a lot of things like “Monologuing” and “Hiding”. The worst one is “Politicking”. I still have to check myself to make sure I’m not doing the same thing.
I have always thought that the True Power Plant Men were made from “The Right Stuff”. Taking these courses didn’t make them better people. They were great men and women all along. These courses just helped them express themselves better so that other people could understand what great people worked at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
The thought of educating skilled labor to be better speakers and to give them the tools to communicate better with each other may slip the minds of plant managers around the globe. I think that when a company steps up to the plate and shows that educating their own employees is an important part of their culture it tells the workers that they are respected.
The Electric Company always had a pro-education policy. They would pay for your school as long as it had something to do with working for an Electric Company. I had taken advantage of this benefit many times. I took a lot of Vo-tech courses since we had a nice Vo-tech school just down the road from my house.
Around the year 1995, this policy became even more generous. They said that they would pay 100% of the tuition and fees for employees attending an accredited school, and they would even pay 75% of the books required for the courses. They even broadened the types of degrees you could take to almost anything.
Living in a college town, I found this to be a very enticing proposition. I didn’t act on it right away. I suppose I was waiting for a certain catalyst to kick me out the door.
The catalyst came one day during the spring of 1997 when my wife Kelly, who was working on a Masters for Healthcare Administration at Oklahoma State University, came home one night from class and said, “Kevin. We had a speaker in class today who owns a software company here in Stillwater. He described the type of employee he wants to hire, and he described you perfectly. You need to go back to school and get a degree in Computer Science! What do you think?”
I had to think about this…. Going back to college, while working is a difficult task. I did that before when I obtained my Masters in Religious Education from Loyola a few years earlier. That took three years. I always loved programming computers, only I had considered it more of a hobby than a job. This would require a full four years of school if it was even possible, since I would have to work it around my job. All of these questions went through my mind…
I thought and thought. Then I thought about it some more…. Then…. 5 seconds after Kelly had asked me what I thought…. I had made up my mind…. “Okay. I’ll do it.” I’ll tell you more about that experience in some other posts.
When I finally was enrolled, it turned out that since I had already taken English back when I was earning my degree in Psychology in 1982, I didn’t have to take it again! That was good… I was ready this time though. I had taken the “Power Plant King’s English!” It entitled me to continue working at the “Power Plant Palace” just up the road north of town.
I spent 12 weeks in Oklahoma City in 1996 working in an office building while the Power Plant Men came to the rescue and caused a culture shock for some who had never experienced a group of Power Plant Men so closely packed in an office cubicle before. The effect can almost be the same as if you have too many radioactive particles compressed together causing a chain reaction ending in a tremendous explosion. Having survived this experience I became intrigued with the idea of working in an office on a computer instead of carrying a tool bucket up 25 flights of stairs to fix the boiler elevator.
Our team had been in Oklahoma City when we were converting the Electric Company in Oklahoma to a new financial and planning system known as SAP. See the post: “Corporate Executive Kent Norris Meets Power Plant Men“. One other person from out plant was in Oklahoma City for the entire 9 months it took to roll out SAP. That was Linda Dallas, our HR Supervisor at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
Linda Dallas was on the core SAP team which was a coveted spot for one not so obvious reason. The few people that were on the core team were learning how to implement SAP in a fairly large public electric company. The consulting company Ernst and Young were teaching them how to build SAP screens and configure the application as well as how to run a large project. — Do you see where I’m going?
I went out and bought a book on programming SAP myself just in case I had a chance to play around with it when we were in Oklahoma City. I read the book, but unfortunately the opportunity to mess with SAP never came up (or did it?).
Mark Romano, the engineer that was coordinating our efforts during the project tried to have me assigned to the testing team for SAP, but the SAP guys said they didn’t need anyone else…. For more about Mark Romano, read this post: “Power Plant Marine Battles with God and Wins“. Consequently, when Mark told me that the testing team positions were just as coveted as the core team and they didn’t want an outsider coming in and showing them up, I understood.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet…. SAP was an up and coming terrific software package that took practically your entire company’s computer activities and put them in one all encompassing application. People experienced in SAP were far and few between, so anyone looking for people with SAP experience were finding the pickins rather slim (as in Slim Pickens). Because of this, most of the people involved in the core SAP implementation could basically write their ticket when it came to finding a job with a company trying to implement SAP in 1996-97.
I thanked Mark for putting in a good word for me with the testing team. I also told him that the first time I actually am able to use SAP, I will break it within 10 minutes just so the testing team can see how it’s done. — I had a lot of experience with “Negative testing” as it is called in IT. That is when you do what you can to try to break the application.
I like the word “consequently” today, so I’m going to use it again…. Consequently, when Linda Dallas came back to our plant to show us all how to use SAP, here is what happened….
We went to the small conference room where I had setup about 15 computers all hooked up to the company’s Intranet. The team from Oklahoma City had actually brought the computers. I had just run all the network cables to the room so they could train people 15 at a time. The trainers wanted to “lock down” the computers so that they only had SAP on them and not other things like “Solitaire” that might distract the Power Plant Trainees.
Here is what happened when I showed up for my class…. Linda Dallas was teaching it along with one other guy from Corporate Headquarters…. I’ll call him “Jack”… for various reasons, but mainly because I can’t remember his name… Jack told us that the computers we were using were stripped down so that it didn’t have games like Minesweeper and Solitaire on them, (as did all the regular Windows NT computers).
The first thing I did when he told us that was to browse over to the electric shop computer through the network and copy the minesweeper and the solitaire games from the computer in the electric shop to my training computer….. See how rotten I used to be (yeah… used to be… Huh? What’s that?)… Then I opened Solitaire and started playing it while they explained how to go into SAP and start doing our jobs.
They showed us the Inventory section. That had all the parts in the company in it. That was the part of the application I had helped implement in our small way.
When they showed us the inventory section, I realized right away how I could break SAP, so I proceeded to open 10 different screens of the SAP client, and began some crazy wildcard searches on each one of them. The application came to a grinding halt. (for any developers reading this… let’s call it… “SQL Injection”).
Linda, who was trying to show us how to go from screen-to-screen suddenly was staring at a screen that was going no where. She tried to explain that they were still having some performance issues with the application….
I just stared at my own computer screen trying to figure out if I had a red ten to put on the black jack…. when a red-faced Jack came around the tables and saw me playing Solitaire. I just smiled up at him and he had a confused look on his face as we waited for the screen on the projector to begin working again.
I knew of course what had happened and after about 5 minutes of everyone’s screen being locked up, the application finally began working again and the training continued. — I was happy. I had completed my testing that the testing team didn’t think they needed. Of course, I did it to honor Mark Romano’s failed attempt to have me moved to the SAP testing team.
A couple of years later when I was working with Ray Eberle on a Saturday (as we were working 4 – 10s, and rotated onto a Saturday once every 4 weeks), I showed him how I could lock up SAP for the entire company any time I wanted. Since few people were working on Saturday, I figured I could show him how it was done without causing a raucous. It took about 35 seconds and SAP would be down for as long as I wanted. There was a way to prevent this… but…. If the testers never test it, they would never tell the developers to fix it (I’m sure they have fixed it by now… that was 18 years ago).
Anyway, the story about implementing SAP isn’t really what this post is about. It is just the preamble that explains why in the spring of 1997, Linda Dallas left as the Supervisor of HR at our plant. She found another job in Dallas with some of the other core SAP team members implementing SAP.
When the job opening for Linda Dallas’s job came out at our plant, I figured that since I met the minimum qualification, I might as well apply for it. Why not. It would mean putting away my tool bucket and working on the computer a lot more, which was something I was interested in since my experience a few months earlier when I was working at Corporate Headquarters.
I knew right away that no one would really take my job application seriously. I had all the computer related skills. I had a degree in Psychology, and a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola with a focus on adult education. That wasn’t really the point. I had never been a clerk.
The natural progression of things meant that the only “real” possible pool of applicants were the women clerks in the front office. Specifically Louise Kalicki. Her desk was closest to Linda Dallas’s office, so, in a sense, she was “next-in-line”.
Even though I knew that the plant manager Bill Green and Jim Arnold the Maintenance Supervisor would never want me on the “staff”, I went ahead and applied for the job anyway. I figured, it was worth the experience to apply and go through the interview process even though I wouldn’t be taken seriously.
I think Louise and I were the only two to apply for the job. Maybe Linda Shiever did as well, as she had the most seniority at the plant. Linda was actually the first person hired at the plant when it was first built. Louise had been filling in for Linda Dallas for the past year while Linda Dallas had been in Oklahoma City working on SAP, so she was really a “shoe-in” for the job.
When I went up to the interview, the first thing I had to do was take a timed typing test to see if I could type 35 words a minute (I could type 70). I had dressed up for the interview so that when I walked into the plant manager’s office, Bill Green and Jim Arnold had a little “Hee Haw” about seeing me without coal dust and fly ash coming out of my nose and ears. I told them that “I can get cleaned up when I needed to” (notice that I used the word “get” and ended my sentence with a preposition… just so they didn’t think I was too stuck up. See the post: “Power Plant Men Learned Themselves Proper English“).
No one was surprised when Louise Kalicki was promoted to HR Supervisor. She was probably the best choice when you think about it. She had a better relationship with Bill Green and Jim Arnold than I did and a good part of the job was working with those two rascals (oh… did I actually call them rascals? Bless their hearts).
This was right around the time that I had made my decision to go back to school to work toward a degree in Computer Science. Working with computers was really my passion.
I have an interesting way of making decisions about what I’m going to do with my life. I let certain events help make the decisions, instead of just jumping right in. I had decided (knowing that it was pretty much a safe bet) that if I didn’t get the job as the HR Supervisor, then I would go down to Oklahoma State University just a few miles from my house and enroll in the Arts and Science College and work on a degree in Computer Science.
I made a lot of decisions that way. I figured that if I was meant to do something, then it would work out that way. If not, then, fine, I would go a different route.
Ok. One more side story about working with Ray Eberle and SAP (See the post: “Tales of Power Plant Prowess by Ray Eberle“)… This happened some time around the year 2000.
SAP had this icon of a drip of water dropping and causing a ripple of waves….
When the application was thinking, this picture was in the upper right hand corner and it was animated, so that the water rippled out as the water dripped. That way you could tell the difference between the application being stuck and just thinking.
This wasn’t just an animated GIF as we might have today. It was actually a series of bitmap pictures that were all strung together into one file. Once I figured this out, I used Paint to modify the picture. I created three new versions…. The first one had a small ship with sails sailing across the rippling water. The second one had a yellow fish that would leap out of the water over and over.
It was the third picture that was my masterpiece. I reversed the flow, so that instead of the water rippling out, it came in as if it was a whirlpool sucking things down. Then I added a small picture of our HR Supervisor’s face being sucked down into the whirlpool.
Then I created a small application that allowed people to change their water rippling animated picture to any of the four (with the regular picture being the fourth option) that they wanted quickly and easily. I know the women in the front office liked the one with the HR supervisor being sucked down the whirlpool the best. I won’t mention who they were, but by the following two pictures, you may be able to guess….
I would think that Bill Green would have liked the sailing ship the best since he liked to sail…. though… for some reason, I never made it around to install my “SAP add-on” on his computer (or Louise Kalicki’s for that matter, since she was the HR Supervisor). Most of the Power Plant Men probably would like the fish jumping out of the water, since they liked fishing. — I know… I know… I was being rotten… but it was fun.
Ok. End of the Side Story and end of the post.
I always loved playing with numbers, and thanks to the Birthday Phantom at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I knew everyone’s birthdays. so in 1996 I decided that I would chart them all on a graph. When I compiled them all, I found that the Power Plant was in for one heck of a train wreck. The entire basis that enabled the plant the size of a small city to run with a total of 121 employees was going to start crumbling within the next 13 years.
The original chart I made was in pencil. Here is a simple column chart of the employee ages from Excel:
Now study this chart for a minute…. The youngest person in the plant was 31. There was one. The oldest were four who were 56. If you take everyone from age 40 to 49, you have 70 employees, or 58% of the entire Power Plant population. So, in a 10 year period, the plant was going to lose a majority of their employees due to retirement. 35% were going to be retired within a 5 year period.
How did this happen? How is it that the youngest Power Plant Man was 31 years old and the age between the oldest and the youngest was only 26 years? This happened because of two situations.
The first one is that people rarely ever left the Power Plant, so new hires were rare. The second situation was that we had a downsizing in 1988 when the employees 55 and older were early retired. Then in 1994, we had another downsizing where everyone over 50 years old were early retired. So, we kept lopping off the older employees, without a need to hire anyone new.
There were three entry level jobs when I first hired on as a full time employee. I went through all of them. Summer Help, Janitor and Laborer. None of these jobs existed at the plant anymore. This had given new employees an introduction into Power Plant Life. It also gave the foremen an opportunity to pick those employees that had the natural “Power Plant Man” quality that was needed to work in this particular environment.
I brought my chart to the team and showed them how a train wreck was just down the road. Someone at Corporate Headquarters must have figured this out, so a couple of things were done to try and combat this situation. I’m sure the same problem must have existed at all of the power plants.
The first thing that was done was that the retirement policy was changed. Instead of having to wait until you were 60 to retire with full benefits, you could retire with full benefits when your age and your years of service added up to 80 or more. A couple of years after that policy went into effect, we calculated that Jim Arnold had 100 points when you added his age and his years of service.
As a side note:
When we added up Gene Day’s years of Service and his age it added up to 80. That’s because, even though he was 80 years old, no one could remember whether he ever did any service…. That’s why I didn’t include him in the chart above.
Sure. Gene had been hanging around at the Power Plants since they discovered electricity, but it never occurred to him to retire. He just walked around with his orange stapler (an Oklahoma State University fan). Anyway… I digress… Somehow, whenever I talk about being old, Gene Day always seems to pop up in my mind. I can see him waving his finger at me now (In case you’re wondering… read this post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“, or “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“).
Back to the story:
The idea was that we should have people begin to leave the plant now instead of all waiting until they were the regular retirement age, so they could be replaced with younger souls. There was only one catch and the reason why a Power Plant this size could be run with only 121 employees…. well… it had grown to 122 by this time since Brent Kautzman had been hired in the Instrument and Controls department. He was 31 years old when he was hired. I remember his birthday since it was the same date as my parent’s anniversary.
The reason that the Power Plant could operate with so few employees was because the majority of the employees at the plant had many years of experience. The majority of the employees had over 20 years or more with the company. In fact, I had another chart that I had made at the time that showed how many years of experience we would lose each year that we had a large number of people retiring. In just one year we would have lost over 220 years of experience if something hadn’t been done soon.
The company decided to hire young inexperienced employees fresh out of vo-tech and begin training them to work at a power plant. They opened a new position at each of the plants to lead the training efforts. Someone that had some computer skills and could work with employees to help teach them in the ways of Power Plant Maintenance. A training program to head off an impending train wreck.
I won’t go into too much detail about how this worked but it consisted of building a training room where new hires would take computer courses then would work part time in the plant learning how things worked. Then they would take tests and if they passed them, they could move forward with the next part of their training. All they needed were people willing to give it a try with the understanding that if they didn’t pass their tests, they would lose their jobs by a certain time period.
Training Supervisor…. I think that was the name of the job opening that came out in October, 1997. I was ready for this one. I had a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans, with an emphasis on Adult Education. I was the computer whiz at the plant. I could even write the entire training software from scratch with the help and knowledge of the Power Plant Men and Women.
The only problem with this job was that it was understood that at first the new training supervisor was going to have to be spending a lot of time going between the different plants with the training supervisors at each of the plants. I had just started going back to school at Oklahoma State University to work toward a Computer Science degree. If I had to travel a lot right away, my studies were going to have to be put on hold.
Even though I was looking forward to earning a Computer Science degree in the next four years, I thought that the Training Supervisor job would be a dream job for me, so I applied for it. My education could wait. I interviewed for it with Bill Green, the plant manager, who was the reporting manager for the job.
I explained to him that 50% of the work that I did when studying for my Masters in Religious Education (MRE) was learning techniques on how to teach adults. I had already shown my ability to do this using the computer when I taught the Switchman Training (see the post: “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with ‘Boring’“). I had also taught almost the entire plant how to use Windows when it first came out.
I had created my own little Windows Manual that stepped people through opening up Microsoft Applications and how to maneuver around.
The Windows Icon was actually the Window Wingding character used for the Flying Windows Screensaver. I just added the colors to it.
Most of the people at the plant thought that I was a shoe-in for this job. I was custom designed for it. When the job was given to someone else, I was a little disappointed, but I was also relieved. This meant that I could go on with my work toward my degree. The job was given to Stanley Robbins. Stanley was a coal yard operator, and a very nice person.
One thing I had learned a long time ago with Scott Hubbard was that when someone is given a job that you really want, it isn’t the person who receives the job that should upset you. They were chosen by someone else. Through no fault of their own. This was a terrific opportunity for Stanley.
So, the day that Stanley began his new job, Bill Green was seen showing him around the plant, since he had spent most of his 18 year career up the hill at the coal yard. Stanley and Bill entered the electric shop and Bill asked where we kept the Electric Shop copy of the electrical blueprints. I showed him the cabinets where they were kept. Then they left.
About an hour later, Bill and Stanley returned to the shop and Bill came up to me and said that he had talked to Jerry McCurry in the training department in Oklahoma City (that is Corporate Headquarters), and he was looking for an audio book by Tom Peters, but Jerry said that I had checked it out. He wanted Stanley to read it. I told him that I had returned that audio book a couple of months ago, and now had a different audio book checked out at the time.
I took Bill and Stanley into the Electric Shop office and showed them a copy of a Tom Peters audio book that was my own personal copy “In Search of Excellence”, and gave it to Stanley and told him he was free to borrow it, as well as any of the other “motivational” business books I had, including a textbook on Organizational Behavior that I kept on the top of the filing cabinet to read during lunch when we couldn’t think of a fitting lunch time topic. I had another Tom Peters book on the bookshelf Stanley was free to read, “Thriving on Chaos”:
And a book left over from our “Quality Process” days that I had rushed out to buy the day I first heard about it from our Quality instructor:
Bill Green, our Plant Manager, who had never spent much time in the electric shop quickly learned a lot about me in those few minutes that he never knew. What he learned was that I was an avid student of just about anything I could learn. I had read every book in the Electric Company library and was now going through their list of Audio Books. I showed him the library catalog and explained to Stanley how to check out books. — Everything was still done through Intra-Company mail in 1997.
Even though I was intent on being as helpful as I could to Stanley (and I think Stanley would back me up on that. I always supported Stanley any way I could), at the same time I wanted to impress upon Bill Green that if he was really serious about making the Training Supervisor job a real success, he didn’t really pick the most qualified candidate.
With that said, I think Stanley became a great Training Supervisor. He was forever grateful for the opportunity for this position. He stated that to me over and over. I was glad for Stanley.
I was also relieved for myself, because my dream of becoming a “real” programmer was still a possibility. I continued with my school and was able to graduate in 2001. That is another story for a later time.
Six months after the training team had been chosen, and the trainers had settled into their positions, we heard that the company had purchased a specialized “Training Package” for about $400,000. With additional cost for each module that was added. Ray Eberle can tell me the price for each module, but it ran somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 for each one.
The training modules included one for each type of equipment in the plant. So, for instance, there was a module for a large vertical pump, and there was one for a large horizontal pump, and one for a small one, etc. Ray knew the prices because he was evaluating the course material for them to see if they were correct.
Ray came up to me one day and said he was embarrassed for the company who was creating the modules, because between a set of modules, they were nothing more than copying and pasting the same incorrect material in each one of them. The set of modules he was reviewing added up to $120,000, and they were all wrong.
I had looked at the application that we had bought and I could easily see that I could have written a much better program with the help of people like Ray and the other Power Plant Men to give me information. We were going to be spending over $750,000 for a computer training program that we could have created ourselves and then the company could have marketed it to other electric companies who were looking for a training program.
After I received my Computer Science degree I spent years working for Dell creating computer applications that performed any sort of feat that was required.
The train wreck finally hit the plant a few years ago, as a mass exodus of retirees left the plant. I wasn’t there to see it, so I don’t know if the plant ended up with a larger group of employees or not. I know that Stanley has retired, but I still picture him at the plant training new hires to become Power Plant Men.