Tag Archives: Oklahoma State University

Back to Plain Ol’ Power Plant Back Pain

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.

A Cast Iron Floor drain cover similar to this

A Cast Iron Floor drain cover was missing from the drain

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….

Lumbars don't really crack. The discs indicated in blue become damaged

Lumbars don’t really crack. The discs indicated in blue become damaged

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.

Sonny as he is today

Sonny Kendrick as he is today or… yesterday…

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”?

The Squatty Potty Logo

The Squatty Potty Logo

Don’t we all have “I ‘heart’ 2 Squat” tee-shirts?

See how happy you can be to Squat?

See how happy you can be to Squat?

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.

A Back Support Belt

A Back Support Belt

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.

Our Pocket Protectors were freebies given to us by vendors so they would have advertisements on them like these

Our Pocket Protectors were freebies given to us by vendors so they would have advertisements on them like these

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:

    1. tellthetruth1 Ocotber 18, 2014

      I can remember getting into a taxi whilst in my late teens, turning in the seat to sling a bag in the back seat, only to pull something in my back. The pain lasted for ages.

      These days, it’s arthritis being the culprit. Back pain is as bad as everybody says it is.

      Good page 🙂

  1. Scott Hubbard October 21, 2014

    Wasn’t the back alert pen given to someone in the garage to try out. Rumor is they didn’t like it because it kept going off all day every time they bent over.
    Hmmmmmm

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Power Plant Men Learned Themselves Proper English

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 Foster

Charles Foster

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!

The Practical English and the Command of Words Course

The Practical English and the Command of Words Course

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?”

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

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 Patch to Dialogue Course

The Patch to Dialogue Course

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!).

This shows ways to kill dialogue and way to improve it

This shows ways to kill dialogue and way to improve it

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:

Jim Arnold in all of his awesomeness

Jim Arnold in all of his awesomeness

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.

Hitting the Power Plant HR Cardboard Ceiling

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.

SAP Logo

SAP Logo

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?).

A programming book like this

A programming book like this

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.

My screen at the time

My screen at the time

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.

Mark Romano

Mark Romano

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).

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

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.

Bill Green

Bill Green

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….

SAP water drops

SAP water drops

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.

HR Supervisor sucked down a whirlpool

HR Supervisor sucked down a 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….

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

Darlene Mitchell

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.

Power Plant Train Wreck

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:

Age of the employees at the Power Plant in 1996

Age of the employees at the Power Plant in 1996

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.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

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.

Brent Kautzman

Brent Kautzman

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.

Bill Green

Bill Green

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.

My instruction manual on how to use Windows

Here is my instruction manual on how to use Windows

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”:

Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters

Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters

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:

Out of the Crisis by W. Edward Deming

Out of the Crisis by W. Edward Deming

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.

Stanley Robbins

Stanley Robbins

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.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

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.

Toby Teaches Power Plant Time Management

Sometime in December, 2000 Dell flew a group of Oklahoma State University students to Austin along with students from all over the country to interview for jobs.  During one interview I had with a manager named Lisa Larson, she asked me how I would handle situations where I am asked to do too many things at the same time.  I replied that I don’t ever worry about that.  I have found that by managing my time properly, I never find myself in a situation where I don’t have enough time or I feel overwhelmed.

Of course, I could see the look of disbelief, since she worked for Dell, and had experienced an overload of work beyond what normal humans can endure.  I knew that the answer she was waiting to hear was that I would prioritize my tasks and do the more important ones or those tasks that had to be completed right away first.  Instead I choose to tell her about Toby O’Brien, a Power Plant Engineer.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

You can see the confidence Toby demonstrates in the picture above.  He is so confident he doesn’t even use a Pocket Protector.  None of his pens ever leak.

I didn’t use Toby’s name during the interview.  Instead I opened up the large briefcase I was carrying with me and took out my Time Management Planner:

My Day Runner Time Management Planner

My Day Runner Time Management Planner

In August 1998 Toby mentioned to me that the staff at the plant had taken a course in how to manage their time.  The core object in the course was using a rather sophisticated planner.  You see, there aren’t just regular calendars in a planner, there are note pages you can use during meetings, weekly pages, and daily pages.  A place to keep your contacts.  Even a section to keep business cards.  I think my favorite section was a place to just write down ideas.  The header at the top of the page was “Ideas”.

I had just started a new semester at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma and I was ramping up the number of courses I was taking simultaneously, while working full time.  I had told Toby that I was determined not reduce the time I spent with my children in the evenings, so I had to figure out how to complete all my course work on time, and not let it interfere with the rest of my day.

Toby explained that the first thing you do in the morning is that you write down in the daily planner section everything that you will be doing that day, and what time you will be doing it.  Then as much as possible, you stick to that plan.  When you are doing one task, you don’t have to worry about all the other things you have to accomplish during the day, because you know when you will be working on them, so it allows you to focus on your task at hand.

He even was going so far as not taking phone calls or would ask to call them back when he was available when he was working on a task and then would schedule some time to call the person back.

Toby spent a good hour or so showing me how he used his daily planner.  The company was even paying for the additional sheets they used in the planners.  So, that evening I went to Office Depot and purchased my Day Runner planner with extra sections that I thought would be helpful.

At the time, I was driving back and forth between Stillwater and the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, usually twice each day, as I would leave at certain times to take a class, then drive back to work afterward, using an hour and a half of vacation as well as the half hour for lunch as I would eat on the way.

So, what would a typical Power Plant Planner look like for any particular day for someone working in the Maintenance Department?  Well, if the Power Plant Man was really proactive, and wrote everything down, then it may look something like this….

  1. Turn off the Alarm… scratch behind…. scratch bald spot on head… kiss wife on cheek…. climb out of bed….
  2. Gather clean clothes from dresser, and any supplement clothes needed from the hamper…. take shower…. brush teeth… shave.
  3. Eat a hearty breakfast – for tonight we dine in hell!… (oh… sorry… that’s not Power Plant Men.. That’s Spartans… close, but different).
  4. Make some sandwiches for lunch or use leftovers from last night’s dinner and put them in the lunch box.

    Power Plant Lunch Box

    Power Plant Lunch Box

  5.  Just before exiting the house, put on the steel-toed boots airing out just inside the garage.

    Steel Toed Boots

    Steel Toed Boots

  6. Drive the car to the carpooling location…. Pile into one car with everyone else…. Drive to plant while discussing the latest hunting and fishing adventures.
  7. After arriving at the plant 15 minutes early, sit around and drink a cup of coffee with the rest of the crew while waiting for the morning meeting to begin… Pass along any words of wisdom that suddenly popped up in the shower that morning to the rest of the crew…. Listen to some of their dumb ideas and act as if they are taken seriously while still trying to work out the terrific ideas of your own.  Chuckle at the minor “your fly is open” type jokes being played on each other.
  8. Attend the morning team meeting and receive the jobs that need to be completed that day.  Listen to the latest Power Plant Jokes played the previous day and share some that were entered in the planner that might be useful today.
  9. Leave the meeting with your bucket buddy and begin work.

    My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

    My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien (not related to Toby O’Brien)

  10. Gather tools needed for job… Get any supplies needed from the tool room.  Talk to the tool room attendant.

    Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

    Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

  11. Go to the Control Room to obtain any clearances needed to perform tasks… talk to the control room operators about their day… Play a joke on Gene Day.

    Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

    Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

  12. Take the first break while waiting for the clearances to be put on the breakers in the switchgear.
  13. Play dominoes… Trump… or Uno during break as a team building activity. Accuse others of cheating.

    Dominoes

    Dominoes

  14. Check Breaker after break and sign clearance form…. Ask the operator how his day is going…. then perform the job safely…. dispose of any trash generated during the job.  Bandage any cuts and rub any bruises that may have been created during the job.
  15. Return clearance…. talk to the control room operators some more.  Give Gene Day suspicious glances.
  16. Strut through maintenance shop with confidence while going to the office to ask which job to do next since the first job was completed flawlessly and sooner than expected.
  17. Continue steps 10, 11 and 12 until it is time for lunch.
  18. Go to the regular lunch spot and talk to friends and learn the latest gossip and play more Dominoes, Trump or Uno (or backgammon).

    Uno Card Game

    Uno Card Game

  19. Repeat the same activities during the afternoon with the exception that a closer watch is kept on the nearest watch or clock.
  20. Take afternoon break at the same table as morning break playing the same game as before with the same people as before…

    Power Plant Playing Cards

    Power Plant Playing Cards

  21. Return to work magically fixing equipment paying even more attention to the time.
  22. Migrate to the Foreman’s office 30 minutes before “Quittin’ Time” to fill out time card.  Call each other any new names that were thought up during the day (what I would call, “Terms of Endearment”).  Play small minor jokes on teammates while completing the time card.
  23. Wait until the exact time before leaving the shop and returning to the car in the parking lot.
  24. Ride back to town with the rest of the dirty smelly Power Plant Carpoolers…. talk about any frustrating encounters from the day’s work…. Discuss any news from Corporate Headquarters designed to confuse Power Plant Men…. Fall asleep… snore….dream about the day…. wake up just as the car arrives at the carpooling spot.
  25. Climb into your own car and go home.
  26. Leave dirty smelly boots in the garage…. take off dirty shirt and pants and put them directly in the washing machine…

    Yeah. Just like this

    Yeah. these

  27. Take a shower….kiss wife… hug kids….(kick annoying cat when no one’s looking)… tell the wife about the day…. listen to wife talk about her day….eat supper.

That just about does it.  I found it a little difficult to put all that in the daily planner, especially since it was the same every day, except for when we had emergencies, and I couldn’t plan for those, unless they were part of a planned Power Plant Joke made to look like an emergency.

Anyway, back to Toby…If it hadn’t been for Toby teaching me Time Management, I would have had a much tougher time going to school while working at the same time.  I was able to keep my three worlds apart without them interfering with each other (except for all the driving back and forth).

I almost never did my school work while I was at work, and I didn’t do them at home either unless I had to write a paper on the computer.  So, I spent my evenings with my family… then I woke up at 4:00 each morning and went to the University and found a quiet place to do my homework before going to class and driving out to work.

After 4 years I graduated with a 4.0 grade point in the Business College with an MIS degree (Management Information Systems).  That was when I was hired by Dell.  I will go into the details about that in another post.

For now I just want to thank Toby for introducing me to the idea that managing your time properly can make a world of a difference.  If you noticed in the picture of the planner above, I haven’t used it since 2002.  That’s because new technologies came around that changed the way we manage our time.

Today at work I use Outlook to capture all my scheduled activities.  Microsoft Project can be used to assign tasks with a duration that tells you how long the task should take.  Another Microsoft tool OneNote is a big help for just taking notes and organizing your work.

So, even though I no longer have to buy pages for the Day Runner Planner each year, I still have the concept in my mind that while I am working on one task, I shouldn’t need to worry about another one because I have scheduled time during my day to work on those.  So I can concentrate on the task at hand.  By doing that, you never had the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Lisa Larson, who was interviewing me from Dell didn’t look too convinced when I showed her my Day Runner Planner, but I was offered the job anyway.  I don’t think it was because I had good time management skills… I think it had more to do with the fact that I had worked so many years with “True Power Plant Men and Women” that it was hopeful that some of their genuine concern for others and their attitude of dedication had rubbed off on me.

Power Plant Control Room Operator and the Life of Pi

Whenever I walked into the Control Room at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw Jim Cave manning the helm, I couldn’t help but smile.  I would do the same thing when Gene Day was standing there, but for a different reason.  Jim just seemed to make everyone feel at ease.  There is something special about his personality that rubs everyone the right way.

Jim worked for the company the first summer in 1979 when I was working as a summer help in the maintenance shop.  I really didn’t know him until he became a control room operator and I was in the electric shop.  He was always one of the brighter bulbs in the box.

When I first met Jim Cave, the first thing that came to mind was that he reminds me of a News reporter.  He looks like someone that you would think would be telling you the daily news on TV.  He has that likeable face that you would trust to tell you the news each day.  Everyone wanted to have their picture taken with Jim because he automatically brightened up the photograph.  Thanks to Jim’s Facebook page, I have some pictures to show you.

Chuck Crabtree, Bill Epperson and Jim Cave (from right to left)

Chuck Crabtree, Bill Epperson and Jim Cave (from left to right)

Actually, I think all of the pictures of operators that I have used in my posts over the years have come from Jim Cave’s Facebook photos.  You can see from the picture above that Jim Cave seems to stand out as someone who might be a reporter on the nightly news.

Before I tell you about how Jim Cave has his own story pertaining to the Life of Pi, let me show you a couple of more photos of Operators who couldn’t resist posing with Jim Cave:

Eddie Hickman and Jim Cave

Eddie Hickman and Jim Cave

Jim Cave and Bill Hoffman

Jim Cave and Bill Hoffman

Yipes. Notice how comfortable Jim is standing between Gene Day and Joe Gallahar

Yipes. Notice how comfortable Jim is standing between Gene Day and Joe Gallahar?  Joe.  Is that a Mandolin?

You can see that no matter the situation, Jim is always smiling.  I can’t think of any time that I saw Jim that he wasn’t smiling a genuine smile.

Now that I have embarrassed Gene Day by showing him wearing short shorts (which was the full intent of this post.  The rest about Jim Cave is just to put it in some sort of context), I will begin the actual story…

A new computer was installed one day that was called a VAX system. Instead of being a large mainframe computer in cabinets, this one sat out in the middle of the floor.

a VAX server

a VAX server

This allowed the control room to monitor readings from most of the power plant systems right there on a computer monitor.  This was a new thing at the time.  A few years after it was installed, a new program was installed on a computer on the counter behind the Control Room operator’s desk.  The software was called PI.

OSIsoft software called PI

OSIsoft software called PI

As a side note:  This software was being used by Koch Industry to control oil pipelines across the country.  I’ll tell you how I know below.

When a program like this is first installed, it isn’t of much use.  The reason is that in order to monitor everything, the screens have to be setup.  You can see by the screenshots above that each graph, icon and connecting line has to be defined and setup in order to show you a full picture of what is happening.

If a lot of effort is put into building the screens, then this application not only becomes a great benefit to the control room operators, it also benefits the entire operation of the plant.

We had the same situation with SAP.  We had installed SAP in 1997 at the Electric Company, but the real benefit comes when an effort is made up front to put in all the expert data to make it useful.  While Ray Eberle and I were working to put the expert data into SAP, this new PI system was installed in the Control Room.  In order to make it useful, screens needed to be built.

Jim Cave with Allen Moore

Jim Cave with Allen Moore standing in the control room

Notice the alarm panels are still there in the picture in 2005.

Some operators weren’t too keen on the computer since they had been staring at these alarm panels all their adult life, and they were just in tune with the power plant as they could be.  Paper recorders, gauges that you might have to tap every now and then to take an accurate reading… colored red, yellow, blue and red lights.  Red Level gauges, Counters, Knobs to turn, Switches to toggle.  Buttons to push.  All of these things gave the operator a physical connection to the power plant system.  Who needs a computer?

Jim Cave saw the benefit right away.  He took the Pi Manual out and began reading it.  He learned how to create new screens and add components.  Then he began the work of giving “Life to Pi”.

Each time Jim added a new system to Pi, the operators saw the benefit of using this tool more and more (like Allen Moore).

In 2000, Jim Cave had built a complete set of screens, releasing the Power of PI upon the Control Room Operators making their jobs easier and giving them much more insight into the operation of the plant that they never would have dreamed 5 years earlier.  (except for Bill Rivers who had predicted this day 17 years earlier when no one would believe him).

Jim Cave’s Shift Supervisor, Gary Wright wanted to recognize Jim Cave for the tremendous effort he put forth to build the PI system into every Power Plant Operator’s dream.  So, he went to Bill Green the Plant Manager and told him that he would like to do something special for Jim to recognize all the effort he put into the Pi system.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

A young picture of Gary Wright in the front row with Glasses and red hair. Oh, and Gene Day in the Orange Shirt… finally wearing some decent pants.

Bill replied to Gary by asking if Jim did this while he was on the job, or did he come in during his own time to work on it.  Gary replied that Jim had done this while still performing his job of Control Room operator through his own initiative.  It wasn’t part of his regular job.  Bill clarified, “But this work was done while Jim was on the clock?” “Yes”, Gary answered.  “Then Jim was just doing his job”, Bill replied.

Bill Green

Bill Green

At this same time, I was having a conflict of my own that I was trying to work through.  I will go into more detail in a later post, but here it is in a nutshell….

I had been going to the university to get a degree called “Management Information Systems” or MIS from the business college at Oklahoma State University.  I had been applying for jobs in the IT department in our company, but for reasons I will discuss later, I was not allowed to move to the IT department, even when I had only one semester left before graduating with the degree.

My problem was that I was being offered jobs from various companies when I graduated in May.  Boeing in Wichita even gave me a job offer and wanted me to leave school and to work for them on the spot for having a computer and an electrical background to work on military jets, (which sounded real cool).  The electric company had been paying all of my tuition and fees and 75% of the cost of the books.  So, my education had been paid by the company.  I told Boeing that above all, I wanted to finish my degree before I began my career in IT.

I felt as if I owed the electric company my allegiance and that I would stay with them, and that is why I kept applying for jobs within the company.  I felt that way until the day I heard this story about Gary Wright trying to recognize Jim Cave for his extra effort.

When I heard Bill’s response was, “He was just doing his job…”, it suddenly hit me….  The company paying for my tuition was one of my benefits.  I didn’t owe the company anything in return for that.  I had already given them what was due.  I had been their employee and had done my job.  I no longer felt the need to “pay back” the company by staying.  I had already paid them with my service.  I actually remember saying that out loud to Ray Eberle.  “The company paying for my education is my benefit.”

This was a turning point in my job search.  I felt perfectly free after that to accept a job from another company.  Bill’s response to Gary Wright had opened my eyes.  I felt perfectly at ease accepting the job offer from Dell the following month.  It’s too bad that it took snubbing Jim Cave’s extraordinary effort by the plant manager to put my understanding of my situation in the proper light.

During that time, I had a job offer that I had turned down from Koch Industry in Wichita because they didn’t offer me as much pay as some of the other job offers I had received.  A month later they called me back and asked me to go for another interview in a different department.

When I showed up for the interview, it was with the SCADA department.  SCADA stands for Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition.  That is what the electric company called the system that opens and closes breakers remotely.  Koch Industries uses the same type of system to control the pipelines across the country from their one location in Wichita.

After the interview, they showed me around the office.  When we walked into the lab, one person showed me the computer system they were using to control all the pipelines, and lo and behold…. it was the PI system.  The same one that Jim Cave had learned in the control room at our Power Plant.  They offered me a job in that department as well for a little more.

I thought to myself that if I accepted the job with Koch, then I would ask Jim to teach me what he had learned about the Pi software.  This would come in real handy.  It turned out that the offer from Dell was even better than Koch, which was my second choice if I hadn’t accepted the job at Dell.

Things have changed at the plant since the picture in 2005.  I believe it was in 2006 that the alarm panels were removed from the control room and everything was put on the computers.  The control room operators no longer have to stand in front of panels of lights and gauges and knobs and buttons and switches.  It is all viewed on computer screens.

Here is a picture of Jim sitting in front of some of those computer screens…

Jim Cave manning the Control Room Computers

Jim Cave manning the Control Room Computers

I see eleven computer monitors on the counter behind the old control panel and we can’t even see the other half of the counter.  It looks like Jim built so many screens they just kept having to add more and more monitors to show them all. — Oh.  I know that Jim didn’t create all these screens, but he did help acclimate the Control Room operators to using computers so that when the evolution to a completely computerized system did arrive, they were ready for it.

Great work Jim Cave!  Thank you for all you have done for the Electric Company in Oklahoma.  You have made a lasting difference that will carry forward to the next generation of Control Room Operators.  I don’t just mean by giving Life to PI.  Your positive attitude in times of stress to the times of boredom have blessed everyone that ever knew you.

I for one am grateful to have met and worked with a True Power Plant Man such as yourself.

Crack in Power Plant Armor leads to Gaping Hole in Logic

Sometimes when something is written on paper, it becomes carved in stone (I should copyright that phrase — oh.  as soon as I click “Publish” I will).  I saw a flaw in Power Plant logic one day in November 1994.  Corporate Headquarters for the Electric Company in Oklahoma had decided that they needed very clear job descriptions for their Job Announcement program.  We had just completed a downsizing a few months earlier and two electricians were asked to determine what prerequisites someone would need to be able to do their jobs.  My first thought was… “Is that really a smart way to go about this?”  Just think about it….  You are asking someone who just survived a downsizing to determine what it would take to replace that person with someone else…. Can you see the flaw in this logic?

It was decided that in order to be hired as an electrician, you had to have the following prerequisites:   A technical degree in an electrical field.  A minimum of five years experience as an industrial electrician.  Have a technical knowledge of how to walk on water.  Able to swing from tall buildings using four size 2 conductor cable.  Have extensive experience bending conduit.  Able to work in confined space manholes.  Can bend a one inch diameter stainless steel rod with bare hands.  Black Belt in Six Sigma.  Able to explain the meaning of each color on a resistor.  Not afraid of heights.  Willing to shovel coal. — Yep.  that’s what it requires to do my job.

I knew right away this wasn’t going to be good.  We would never find someone who can both walk on water and was willing to shovel coal.  If we ever had to replace an electrician, it would be darn impossible.  This wasn’t only true for electricians.  Every type of job in the company was given similar treatment.  I had been an electrician for 11 years at that point, and I didn’t even meet the minimum qualifications.  If I had left the company and tried to apply for a job at our plant as an electrician, I would have been turned away at the door.

Whatever minimum requirements were written down did not only apply to outside applicants.  This was required of employees applying through the internal Career Announcement Program (CAP) as well.  In other words, I never would have been able to join the electric shop from the Labor Crew as I did in 1983, with only a scant understanding of what it takes to be an electrician.  It wasn’t until a few years later that this occurred to anyone.  The minimum requirements were relaxed a little.  That was when the training program was put in place to take High  School graduates and above and allow them to train at the plant for a particular skill as I described in the post:  “Power Plant Train Wreck“.  The rest of the company had to live with their own minimum requirements.

The results of asking the employees what the minimum requirements should be for their own jobs, HR had painted themselves into a corner.  I knew why they did this.  It was because they had lawsuits in the past where someone was hired over someone else, and they thought they were more qualified for the job.  So, specific requirements for each job needed to be created…. Actually…. I think this is the opposite of what should have been done.

If I had my druthers, I would have approached this from the opposite direction… let me continue with my story and you will see why.

I started getting my degree in Management Information Systems (MIS) in 1997 at Oklahoma State University.  I was going to graduate from the business school in May 2001.  In the fall of 2000, I had only 6 credit hours (or two more classes) left.  I had started in 1999 applying for IT jobs in our company.  Many times I was asked by people in the IT department to apply for specific job openings.  I had worked with a lot of them, and they would have liked for me to work for them.

Unfortunately, at that time, here was the minimum requirements for a Software Developer:  You had to have one or more of the following:  A Bachelor Degree in Computer Science… OR Bachelor Degree in MIS with at least 9 hours of computer languages (I had the 9 hours of computer languages)… OR Bachelor Degree in a business or technically related field with 18 hours of computer science courses including 9 hours of computer languages…. OR Associate Degree in Computer Science with 9 hours of computer languages and 2 years of software development experience….. OR 8 years of directly related experience such as development in C, C++, ABAP, Visual Basic or Cobol.

Software Developer Career Announcement

Software Developer Career Announcement — Yeah.  I kept a copy….  Actually  I have a stack of about 20 job announcements where I applied.

It was that last requirement that I thought I could use.  Especially since I was well on my way to earning the degree.  I had many years writing code in Visual Basic and C.  I had taken a Cobol class already, and studied ABAP (which is used in SAP) on my own.  So, along with almost having my degree and working with IT for more than 8 years, I applied for these jobs.  Every time I did, HR would kick the application back to me and explain that I didn’t meet the minimum requirements so I was not able to be considered for the position.  Not until I had my degree in my hands.  The HR Director said that all the work I had done with IT didn’t count because I was doing it as an electrician.  She said her hands were tied.

In November 2000 the University had a career fair for students applying for IT or business careers.  So, I attended it.  It was in a large room where each of the companies had setup a booth and you walked around to each booth as the various companies explained why it would be nice to go work for their company.  They explained their benefits, and when they were done, they asked you for your resume (prounounced “rez U May” in case you’re wondering) if you were interested.

Before the career fair, I had gone to lectures on how to go through the interview process, and I had read books about how to create a good resume.  I had bought books on these subjects and read them after having gone to a lecture by the author Martin Yate.  Here are three books that came in useful in my job hunt:

Books to help find jobs by Marin Yates

Books to help find jobs by Martin Yate.  I attended his lecture about how to go through the interview process

So, here I was at a job fair dressed in a nice suit I had bought in Oklahoma City at a high end Suit store.  I had studied what color shoes, belt and tie to wear.  I had a stack of my carefully designed resumes in hand.  My wife Kelly had given me a professional haircut the night before, and I had even washed behind my ears.

I had quickly changed into my suit in the bathroom in the office area at the Power Plant.  I quickly took the elevator down to the ground floor and stole out to the parking lot to drive the 30 miles to the Job Fair.  No one saw me leave, except Denise Anson, the receptionist.

I made my way around each aisle of booths, carefully considering each company.  I was not really interested in working as a consultant where I had to do a lot of travelling.  After all, I had a family.  I gave my resume to many companies that day, and later I had interviews with many of them.  It felt very strange as a 40 year old acting as a kid in school handing resumes to companies.  I really just wanted to stay at the Electric Company where I had worked for the past 19 years.

Then I spied the booth I was really curious to visit.  It was the Electric Companies booth.  The company where I worked.  I saw a group of students walk up to the booth and the young man from HR began his speech about why it would be great to work for the Electric Company.  I stood toward the back of the small crowd and listened.  It was weird hearing him tell us about the benefits of working for the company.

The Director of HR was standing next to him.  She was the person that kept rejecting all of my job applications through the internal job announcement program.  I waited patiently thinking… I could come up with better reasons for working for the best Electric Company in the world.  He never mentioned once that the best employees you would ever find in the entire world worked just 30 miles north on Hwy 177 at the big Power Plant on the hill.  That would have been the first thing I would have mentioned.

I waited until the young man completed his speech and then asked the students if they would like to give him their resumes.  I stood there, not moving, but smiling at the young man from HR.  After everyone else left, the man turned to me and asked me if I would like to give him my resume.  I replied as I handed him my resume by saying, “I’ll give you my resume, but I don’t think you can hire me.”

He replied, “Sure we can.” as he glanced down at my resume.  I continued, “See… I already work for the company.”  The young man brightened up and said, “I thought I recognized you!  You work at the Power Plant just north of here!”  I said, “Yeah.  You were the leader at my table during the Money Matters class.”  “Yeah!  I remember that!” He replied.

“Sure, we can hire you!” He replied.  I said, “No.  I don’t think you can.  You see.  I don’t meet the minimum requirements.”  Then I turned my gaze to the Director of HR who was now staring off into space…  The gaping hole in logic had suddenly become very apparent.  She replied very slowly…. “No… I don’t think we can hire you.”  The young man (I think his name is Ben), looked confused, so I explained….

“You see Ben… you can take resumes from all of these college students and offer them a job for when they graduate, but since I already work for the company, I have to have my degree already in my hand before I meet the requirements.  I can go to any other booth in this room and have an interview and be offered a job, but I can’t find an IT job in the company where I work because I don’t meet the minimum requirements.  Seems kind of odd.  Doesn’t it?”

I continued…. “Not only that, but the Electric Company has paid for all my classes to get my degree and 75% of my books.  I have only 6 more hours after December, and I can’t find a job with my own company.  I will probably have to go to another company that is guaranteeing a job when I graduate.  Does that make sense?”

Application to be reimbursed for summer courses in 1999

Application to be reimbursed for summer courses I took in 1999 — notice how cheap school was back then.  Also notice that I crammed 10 hours into one session of summer school.

The HR Director was still staring off into space.  She knew as soon as I opened my mouth who I was.  She had personally signed each rejection letter to me.

So, what had happened?  It had happened a few years earlier when the employees were asked what the minimum requirements should be for someone to be hired for their jobs.  That led them down a path of closed doors instead of opening up opportunities.

Here is what I would have done instead… I would have done what other companies do… Minimum Requirements:  “Team Player.  Able to work well with others.  Demonstrated an ability to learn new skills.”  — Who wouldn’t want an employee like that?  Sure.  Add some “Desired attributes” on the end like: Able to bend conduit.  Able Walk on Water, etc.

I had spent about an hour at the career fair handing my resume to potential employers before I left.  I drove back to the plant.  On the way back to the plant I was having this sinking feeling that I was not going to be able to stay with the Electric Company.  I can’t describe how sad I was at this thought.

I couldn’t just stick around at the plant hoping that once I had a degree in my hands that I would be able to move into the IT department.  For all I knew, our own plant manager could have been telling HR that I couldn’t leave the plant because I was the only person that worked inside the precipitator.  I had been flown around the country to interview with different companies who were now offering me jobs.  Those offers wouldn’t still be there if I waited until I graduated, so I had to make a decision soon.

I knew that the Plant Manager Bill Green kept asking the Supervisor over Maintenance about my degree because Jim Arnold would ask me from time-to-time, “What’s that degree you’re getting again?”  I would say, “Management Information Systems” in the Business College.  Jim would go back to Bill and say, “Oh.  You don’t have to worry about Kevin leaving.  No one wants someone with that degree” (Yeah.  Heard that from someone that heard it first hand).

When I arrived back at the plant, I walked in the entrance and hurried to the elevator.  I waved at Denise as I quickly walked by the receptionist window and quickly went into the men’s room to change back into my jeans and tee-shirt and work boots.  No one else saw me.  I returned to work with Ray Eberle in the Print Room to work on SAP.  Ray asked me how it went…

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

I told Ray about my adventure and my encounter at the Electric Company booth.  Ray came to the same realization that I had on the way back to the plant… I wasn’t going to be able to stay with the company.  I was going to have to move on…

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

Originally Posted July 21, 2012:

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

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

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

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

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

Otto from the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip

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

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

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

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

Kind of like this

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

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

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

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

A tractor just like this

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

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

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

Like this only with a mop handle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmm…. What does he think about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Heflin

Jim Heflin

 

Comment from previous Repost

  1. Ron   July 24, 2013:

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

Why Stanley Elmore and Other Power Plant Questions

Originally posted September 7, 2012:

Why Stanley Elmore?  I suppose that was on the mind of a few Power Plant Men when the foreman for the new Automotive Garage and Yard crew was chosen in 1980.  What did Stanley have that the rest of the Power Plant Men lacked?  Why did Stanley accept such a position in a power plant out in the middle of nowhere in the plains of Oklahoma?  I have some thoughts about these questions and others that I will share with the rest of the Power Plant Kingdom.

When I returned to the Power Plant for my second summer as a summer help in 1980, I found that the Automotive Garage had been finished and a new crew had been assigned to work from this shop.  Doug House, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley and Ken Conrad were there to welcome me.  I had only known Larry from the year before and when he saw that I was returning, he actually said he was glad to see me.  It was usually hard to tell what Larry was thinking because he kept a straight face even when he was chuckling under his breath.  So, I never really knew what he thought about me until he told the others that he was glad that I would be working there this summer.

Then the new foreman walked in.  He was a medium height stocky man that had obviously come from another plant and was well seasoned in the ways of Power Plant etiquette.  This required him to act as if I had just walked into a snake pit and my summer was going to be a living Hell working under him.   Of course I accepted this well knowing that this merely meant that he had a lot for us to do during the summer and I should enjoy myself.

There was another summer help there, David Foster.  He had been hired because he had experience driving a Tractor, and he would spend a lot of the time that summer mowing grass.  That is, until he wrecked a new brush hog while going perpendicular across a ditch at too high rate of speed.

brushhog

Almost Like this without the safety guards and just about as new

(Boy, I’m getting a lot of mileage out of that one picture of a Brush Hog).  At that point, he started working on watering the grass, as I did (and you can read about that in the post “When Power Plant Men Talk, It Pays to Listen“).

A short time after I had been there I realized that there was another resident of the garage.  It was Don Pierce that came from Construction to operate the P&H Crane used by the Plant.  Here is a Picture of the same kind of P&H Crane that Don Pierce operated for at least two of the summers that I was working out of the Garage.

A P&H Crane, just like the one at the plant

Don Pierce was a tall person with a moustache and tinted glasses.  He was chewing something often that he spit into a cup or a Coke can, that made a squeaky squirty sound each time he spit.  He always looked to me like he wore the same size jeans that he wore when he graduated from High School, even though the rest of him had filled out some.  Making him look like his upper body had been squeezed some out of his jeans.  Like Hank Hill in King of the Hill:

Don had too tight jeans like this only his belt buckle was much bigger

It didn’t take long to figure out that Stanley Elmore loved to play jokes on people.  He would get the biggest laugh from causing someone a moment of confusion.  He would shake his head and laugh and say, “oooooohhh weeee” (or something similar).  I always had a bigger kick out of watching Stanley’s reaction to someone encountering his joke than I did from the joke itself.  As you may have learned from an earlier post “Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill“, that I was the target of at least some of his jokes.  It would make me laugh to know that Stanley was playing a joke on me.

Actually, anytime during my time at the plant it made me laugh to find that someone was playing a joke on me.  I remember while I was a janitor that one day while I was cleaning out the bathroom in the Electric Shop, I would first Sweep out the bathroom and then mop it.  Many times I turned around to pick up something that was sitting just outside the door of the bathroom I found that it had moved.

Like the mop bucket had moved down to the door by the lab.  Everyone in the shop was just doing their normal job.  But when I walked out of the bathroom to find the handle missing from the push broom and Andy Tubbs and Ben Davis sitting at the break table acting like nothing was wrong, I had to walk back into the bathroom in order to keep them from seeing how hard I was laughing.

For some reason that was the funniest joke I encountered.  To turn around in one moment and have the broom handle gone and the broom itself just sitting on the floor with no handle and the obvious culprit Andy Tubbs trying his best to keep a straight face and act like he wasn’t noticing anything.  I still laugh when I think about it 30 years later.

Stanley’s jokes were of that caliber.  When Don Pierce drove to work one day on his new Harley Davidson Motorcycle,  Stanley just couldn’t resist.  He started out by asking him if he noticed that it leaked oil.  Don said it better not, because he just bought it brand new.  Stanley answered by saying that Harley Davidsons always leaked oil.

A Harley Davidson similar to the one Don Pierce had

So, while Don was out operating the P&H Crane, Stanley took a small cup of oil and poured a little oil spot under his motorcycle, just as a reminder to Don that all Harleys in 1980 leaked oil.  Then Stanley watched and waited for Don to stroll by his motorcycle in the parking lot during lunch to see what his reaction would be.  Of course, Don had been an Electric Company Construction worker long enough to spot a snow job when he saw a grease spot.  But it did make him smile to know that Stanley had gone through the trouble of putting an oil spot under his motorcycle.  —  That’s one way to know that someone really cares about you.  They are willing to take the time out of their busy day to play a little power plant joke on you.

I was able to work one-on-one with Don Pierce for about a week that summer when we had to go to the laydown yard by the main gate and organize all the spare cable, rebar, piping, et cetera into neat rows and in some kind of order like from largest to smallest.  In order to put the large reels of cable into neat rows, we would line up two rows of very large telephone poles close to each other, and then place the reels on the poles to keep them off of the ground so they would last longer, and not sink into the ground when it rained.

To give you an idea. Some of the wooden reels were taller than me

Don was operating the crane and I was doing my best to use the newly learned hand signals to direct him where to go and what to do.  There was a hand signal for everything, and I was afraid that if I stopped to itch my nose, Don would cut the engine and leave for lunch.

I had been studying this chart during break before we went to the laydown yard

We were picking up wooden telephone poles and carefully placing them in a line, and I was standing there guiding the poles into place as they were lowered to the ground.  At one point, I had signaled Don to lower the pole all the way to the ground and as I turned to undo the chokers from under the poles, I realized that the pole had been placed right on top of my feet, and I couldn’t move.  It was at times like that when I was glad that I was wearing Steel Toed Boots.  —  A must when you are working in a power plant.

Steel Toed Boots

So, finding myself stuck, I straightened myself up and signaled to Don that I wanted him to raise the pole up.  He looked a little confused as if he thought I had given him the wrong signal (again…).  But when I didn’t change my signal, he succumbed and raised the pole off the ground.  At that point, I took one step backward and with the straightest face I could muster, I signaled for Don to lower the pole back to the ground.  I saw the smile go across Don’s face when he finally realized that I had been held captive by the pole, and I smiled back because at that point, I couldn’t look serious, and what would be the point anyway.

During the first summer that Stanley was my foreman, I carpooled with him and 5 others.  We would all pile into Stanley’s station wagon and head home at the end of the day.  I would be dropped off at the corner of Washington and Lakeview Dr. in Stillwater and would walk the rest of the way home, about a mile down the road and across a field to my parent’s house.  We each paid Stanley $5.00 each week for the ride, and we didn’t have to worry about the gas and the driving.  It was left up to Stanley.

So, why Stanley?  That was the question I was going to answer when I started this post.  Well.  I think I have a good reason.  All during the summer, Stanley was studying different types of weed killers that could be used around the lake without causing harm to the lake itself.  He was very conscious about keeping the lake pristine and free from poisonous chemicals.

He finally found a weed killer that was approved by the department of Agriculture at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater to be used around lakes.  By Stanley’s conscientious view of the Power Plant Property, I could see that he was a good choice for supervising the yard crew.  We did spend many hours driving down the roadways spraying the newly mowed and chopped weeds with weed killer with the knowledge that we weren’t causing more harm than good.

But that wasn’t the only reason.  I think Stanley was put over the garage crew because he took such great care with his own vehicles.  I had the opportunity to see the engine in the station wagon that ferried us to work and home each day, and when I first saw it, I was astounded.  The entire engine was cleaned and polished and even waxed!

Shiny like this engine is shiny

Even though the engine had over 100,000 miles on it, it looked brand new.  Stanley said that he keeps his engine spotless so that at the first sign of any kind of leak, he takes the steps necessary to fix it before it becomes a real problem.

I remember one Monday morning while we were on the way to work, and the Power Plant Men in the car, which included John Blake and another inspector, were talking about what they did over the weekend.  Stanley said that he spent all day Saturday cleaning his car.  I knew what he meant.  That included waxing his engine.

I had the opportunity to go to Stanley’s house one day to drop something off or pick something up, I don’t remember, but what I do remember is that when I arrived at his humble abode, the front yard, as small and normal as the rest of the neighborhood, was so well groomed.  It looked like someone had taken a scissors and carefully clipped all of the blades of grass just the right height.  The various rocks and bird bath, and other yard ornaments were placed so perfectly that it had transformed this normal little yard into a complete work of art.

A yard not near as perfect as Stanley’s

So, why was Stanley chosen to be the foreman over the yard crew and the Automotive garage?  I believe it was because he had demonstrated by the way he took care of his own property that those in the Electric Company who knew that, knew that he was a man that would take care of their property equally as well.  So, I salute Stanley for being a great foreman to work for, and never letting the work seem dull.  He treated everyone in the shop with respect (except maybe in the middle of a joke).  I wish I had a picture to show you, because I was unable to think of any actor or historical figure that reminds me of him.  There just isn’t anyone else quite like Stanley.

Comments from the original Post:

Monty Hansen:

Powerplant jokes are the greatest! I remember one time I was going on vacation (as a Control Room Operator) and my assistant was filling in for me for the first time (let’s call him “Dave”) well, anyway the Shift Supervisor asked me if I felt Dave was up to the task (Dave is an excellant operator). I told the Supervisor I had faith in Dave, but he should keep a close eye on him, so the whole time I was on vacation, the Supervisor hovered over Dave’s shoulder like a buzzing mosquito! And to add icing to the cake, on Dave’s performance appraisal the Supervisor wrote “Dave is a competent operator…but needs a little too much personal supervision!!

This is the kind of fun powerplant men have with each other, no one is closer than a CO and his assistant, and Dave was, and always will be a great friend. We’ve been to each others weddings & helped each other through divorces. He’s a Control Room Operator of his own crew now, but we still get a kick out of laughing over the good times we had working together.

Fred:

A book could/should be written on all the classic power plant jokes over the years. Some of the oldest I’ve heard from the Osage and Belle Isle vintage power plant men.

Jack Curtis:

Something that comes through these stories: There existed in those days a very different attitude toward both one’s work and one’s coworkers, at least in industrial settings. I found it in both aircraft manufacturing and the telephone business.

It doesn’t seem to exist today or at least, isn’t obvious and I think that represents an unfortunate loss to our society…

Ron:

Steel toed boots are a great safety idea around a power plant. One of the employee benefits I enjoyed while working at the WFEC Hugo power plant was a new pair of steel toed boots every year. I’ve still got a pair of them. I wore them last May while clearing tornado debris in Moore, OK. And I gave a pair to my grandson. He wears them everywhere (even to church!).

Thanks for these memories, Kevin. They’re great!

Power Plant Men Fighting Fires for Fun

Originally Posted October 5, 2012:

The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked first as a summer help, then as a janitor, a labor crew hand and finally as an Electrician is located about 20 miles north of Stillwater, Oklahoma.  It just so happened that Oklahoma State University in Stillwater has one of the leading Fire Protection and Safety schools in the country.  They offer Fire Service Training for companies who need to train their employees how to fight fires.  As a summer help I was fortunate enough to take the onsite training that they provided at the power plant about every other summer to train the employees how to put out difficult fires.

It does sound like a good idea considering that there was all this coal laying around that had the habit of spontaneously igniting into smouldering embers that could easily lead to a large raging ball of flames.  In fact, the Coal Yard heavy equipment operators had to drive their large dirt movers over and over the coal on the coal pile to pack it down because if it was exposed to too much air, it would develop hot spots that would turn into smoldering piles of coal that were nearly impossible to put out.

Dirt Mover full of coal

I have seen a spot smoldering on the coal pile where a water wagon would drench it with water over and over.  That only seemed to keep it from spreading as fast.  The only way to deal with it was to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn itself out.

You would think that the OSU Fire Training Service would do a good job of teaching the employees the proper use of the fire extinguishers, and they did.  The plant was loaded with Fire Extinguishers.  As a summer help and labor crew hand, we would have to do a monthly inspection of all the plant extinguishers to check their pressures and initial the inspection sticker showing that we had been by to check it.  This was a practice that would later change to once each quarter when the Power Plant Men were strung out too thin and the labor crew no longer existed.  Even later, the operators inspected them as they made their rounds, since they walked by them during their shifts anyway.

The plant had more than just the regular chemical fire extinguishers, it had the larger roll-around type in a few places as well:

More than what is needed in your average kitchen

The Fire Training Service trained us to use this as well.  Actually, they motivated us to go out and buy fire extinguishers to put in our own homes.  Which came in handy for me one year when an air condition repairman was using a blow torch in my house to cut out the cooling coils but forgot to take out the filter first.

The moment I saw him light up his torch, I pulled out the extinguisher from under the sink and set it on the counter.  As I watched him, he suddenly started jerking back and forth.  I figured something was up, so I pulled the pin, and when he was finally able to pull the burning filter out of the air duct, I was ready to blast it with the extinguisher.  So, I gratefully thank the electric company for properly training us to use the handy dandy fire extinguishers that you might use around the house.

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

One important thing that you learn about the little extinguishers in your house is that they don’t really go very far before they run out of chemicals.  So, you have to get the job done quickly while the fire is still small and manageable.

When I first heard that we were going to be trained to fight fires the second summer I was at the plant as a summer help, I was pretty excited.  Wow… Great!!!  Fight Fires!  That sounds fun.  A day of watching safety videos and playing with fire extinguishers.  I didn’t realize at the time that there was a reason why OSU Fire Training Service was the best fire training school in the radius of about 1,000 miles.

Sure.  We watched the training videos.  We learned all about proper fire extinguisher care and maintenance.  We heard stories about how small fires turned into raging infernos that burned companies right out of business.  One thing I remember is that some large percentage of companies that have a major fire are never able to recover to the point that they go completely out of business.

If you need the exact percentage, I suggest you call up the OSU School of Fire Protection and Safety.  They probably have the latest statistic printed on their school lunch napkins, because these guys eat, drink and sleep fire safety.

Then, after they had impressed us with their Fire Safety Prowess, they said, “Let’s take about a 15 minute break, and we will meet outside just north of the water treatment plant where we will resume your lessons.  Oh, and bring your rubber boots and maybe a rain suit.”  Rain Suit?  What?  It’s about 100 degrees outside.  “I wouldn’t mind getting a little wet”, I thought to myself. — The simpleminded summer help that I was at the time.

I would describe in detail to you how they had this obstacle course of staircases and pipes and other metal structures all sitting in a big tray.  It’s enough to say that it was quite a tangled mess of a contraption.

“Interesting.” I thought… Are we going to climb the staircase  and shoot the fire from up above with our handy dandy fire extinguishers which were lined up in a row off to one side?  Climbing over pipes to fight a fire under the stairs maybe…  Do we get to use the big roll around fire extinguisher that was there too?  This looks like it might be fun.

That was when the fun began.  One of the trainers turned a valve, and then I noticed that there was a fairly large tank there also that was hooked up to the pipes that wound around the mocked up structure of a stairway and other obstacles in the large tray.  As he turned the valve, what looked like diesel or kerosene like petroleum product  came spraying out of various holes in the piping spraying everything in the tray drenching it with fuel.

This other guy had a long rod that he had lit like a large lighter only it was giant size, and after the fuel had been spraying out for a while, he lowered the flame down into the tray that now was beginning to fill up with some kind of oily substance.  He lit it and the flames quickly spread over the entire structure.  He had us go in groups of 4 people with fire extinguishers to try to put out the fire.  As their extinguishers ran out of fuel, others waiting behind would take their place trying to put out the fire.

We would chase the fire around the structure trying to put it out, but it wasn’t as easy as you would think.  If you didn’t completely suffocate it by hitting it from many different directions and in a pattern from one end to the other just right, the fire would dodge around the spray from the extinguishers to be right back where you started.  By the time we had used up all the extinguishers, we may have put the fire out about 3 times.

Rubber boots… I kept thinking…. my feet are getting hot…  You couldn’t hardly get close enough to the fire to use your fire extinguisher without getting your eyebrows singed.  I was always known for having long eyelashes, and I thought I could hear them sizzle as they brushed against my safety glasses.

That’s when they pulled the fire hose out of the fire box that was there next to the fire hydrant.  All over the plant grounds there were these red boxes.  They are lined up alongside the long conveyor belt from the coal yard to the plant (about 1/2 mile).  They were also lined up around the two silver painted million gallon number 2 Diesel tanks.  They were just about everywhere you looked (come to think of it).

I remember Summer Goebel when she was a new plant engineer one time asked me when she had first arrived, “What are all those red boxes out there?” (she was pointing out the window of the Engineer’s office).  I told her they each contained fire hose and a valve wrench to open up the fire hydrant.  I neglected to add that they also provided great shade for all the Jack and Jill rabbits that inhabited the plant grounds, which doubled as a wild life preserve.

An outdoor Power Plant fire hose cabinet and Metallic Rabbit shade tree

So, we were going to use the fire hose!  That sounded like more fun.  That is until the one guy said to the other guy (more using hand and face signals — like putting his thumb up and winking) “open ‘er up”  — so, he was using “slang” hand and face signals…

That’s when the real training began.  First of all, we all backed up because as the flames grew on their structure, the heat literally talked directly to your legs and magically told them…. “back up, or else…”  so, now that we were standing a good 50 feet away from the fire, we lined up in a row on the fire hose.

4 of us.  Four hefty Brawny Power Plant men… (well, 3 hefty brawny  power plant men, and one scrawny little runt of a summer help who actually thought he could be measured alongside them),  Isn’t that a bit much for this one 4 inch fire hose? (or was it just 3 inches?).  There were two hoses actually being used.  One to create a wide barrier of water to protect us from the heat, and another hose to shoot water through the barrier into the fire.

A couple of guys manned the large roll around fire extinguisher.  Here is an actual picture of the OSU Training Service training a group of employees at a work site to fight fires to give you a picture of what we faced:

This is an actual picture of the OSU Fire Service training plant workers to fight fires.

Notice the two different types of sprays in the picture.  I very wide spray and a narrow spray.

Like I said, these guys aren’t called the best Fire Trainers because they have pretty pamplets.  so, the first time I slipped in the mud, I thought… hmm… I suppose the rainsuit would have kept all that mud from coming into contact with my jeans, and my shirt and my ego.

Well, the most fascinating thing was that we could walk up real close to this intense fire and the wide spray of water sheltered us from the heat.

This is how you open the nozzle to create the wide barrier spray

Then with the large fire extinguisher on wheels, you could open it up on the fire by standing behind this barrier and shoot the chemicals right through the water onto the fire, and it would quickly and incredibly put out that tremendous fire when it was done right.  The other fire hose that was spraying through the barrier of water was used to cool everything down so that the fire didn’t spring right back up.  the water wasn’t going to put out an oil fire.

Anyway, not long after our first of many fire fighting training sessions that we had throughout the years, the night that we were actually fighting the dragon in the boiler (See the Post, “Where do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today“), the Control Room came over the gray phone (PA system) saying that there was a fire on the turbine room floor.

A bunch of power plant he-men dropped the lance they were using to pierce the dragon and ran off to fight the fire.  It turned out to be a barrel full of oily rags that had spontaneously combusted.  The fire refused to go out for a long time.  It kept re-igniting until the contents had completely burned up.

I remained in the bottom ash area as I was still reeling from the steaming hot water that had been spewed all over me.  A little while later the men were back ready to grab the lance and go back to work on the boiler around 10pm (this after a full day of coal cleanup from 8am that morning).

The one important topic that they ingrained into our minds while we were taking the training was that you have to know when the fire is too big to fight.  We had learned what our equipment could do and what it couldn’t do.  So, we had the knowledge to realize that if the fire is too big, then it is time to get out of there and call the professionals.  The only problem was that the nearest professionals were about 20 minutes away.  A lot can burn down in that amount of time…. but that is a story for another time.  I see the grin on the power plant men’s faces.  They know what I am talking about.

Comments from Previous Repost:

  1. coffeegrounded  October 6, 2014

    I am extremely proud of my 2006 graduate of OSU’s Fire Protection program! My son-in-law went on to establish his own fire protection services company in Northern California.

    Go OSU!

    Very interesting article; thanks for sharing. I’m forwarding this post to my #1 son. Seeing this article and knowing the integrity of the program is gratifying and greatly appreciated. (My own parents lost their lives in a house fire.) Thanks for spreading the word on fire safety.

  2. Ron Kilman October 7, 2014

    Great story and reminder. After your original post I checked our little fire extinguisher in our kitchen. The pressure gauge was still in the green but it was 10 years old. So we decided to see if it still worked. It did – emptied all the chemical with good pressure. We replaced it with a new one and my wife got some “hands on” experience. Thanks for the reminder.