Tag Archives: Oklahoma

Power Plant Invocations and Imitations of Sonny Karcher

Originally Posted on June 16, 2012:

I have mentioned before that Sonny Karcher was one of the first Power Plant Men that taught me how to work my way up the ladder of Power Plant Ingenuity (In the post titled, In Memory of Sonny Karcher A True Power Plant Man).  I used to come home from work after Steve Higginbotham dropped me off at the duplex where we were living at the time, and my family couldn’t wait to hear what Sonny Karcher had said or done that day.

Sonny Karcher

Sonny Karcher

Soon after I had arrived at the plant one day, after coming back from the coal yard, Sonny had just dropped me off at the front of the Maintenance shop where I was going to the tool room to get some tools for something we were going to work on.  Sonny was going to drive around behind the tool room in a yellow Cushman cart to pick up some larger equipment, and I was going to meet him there.

Like this only Yellow

Like this only Yellow

As he was backing out of the shop he suddenly made a motion with his left hand.  To me it looked like he was making the movement that someone would make if they were taking the lid off of a jar.  I thought this meant that he wanted me to do something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.

Various things went through my head, such as, I should get something to help remove lids from barrels.  Or I needed to look inside of a jar to find one of the parts I was going to pick up.  Nothing made much sense to me, so I waved for him to come back.

When he did, I asked him what he wanted me to do.  He asked me what I meant.  I told him that when he made that motion to open a jar, I couldn’t figure out what he wanted.  So he told me.   “I was just waving goodbye.”

He gave me a big smile and backed out of the shop again.  Each time Sonny Karcher waved goodbye, he used a different motion with his hand.  Sometimes he would look like he was twirling something on his finger.  Sometimes it seemed like he was trying to get something sticky off of his fingers.  Sometimes he just drew circles in the air with a couple of fingers.  Other times he looked like he was giving an awkward kind of salute.  Sonny made an art out of simple things like a wave goodbye.

That first summer it seemed like everyone was always munching on Sunflower seeds.  There were bags of sunflower seeds everywhere you looked.  Sonny already looked somewhat like a chipmunk with puffy round cheeks that formed from years of wearing a grin on his face.  They were extra prominent when his cheeks were full of sunflower seeds.  These were seeds still in their shells.

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

So, it was normal to see someone take a step back while standing around talking, turn their head and drop a few sunflower seed shells from their mouth into the floor drains that were spaced evenly across the maintenance shop floor.  There came a time when those drains had to be cleaned out because it seemed that every drain was packed solid full of sunflower seed shells.

Sunflowers weren’t the only items found in the drains, since chewing (or dipping) tobacco (such as Skoal) was used by a lot of the men in the Power Plant.

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums.... Never tried it myself.

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums…. Never tried it myself.

Cleaning out a drain full of sunflower seeds, dipping tobacco and spit was a job that might cause a lot of people to gag, and I know I had to fight it back at the time.  Most of the time I felt like I was having too much fun to get paid for working at the plant, but when it came time for cleaning out those drains, I felt like I was really working very hard for the $3.89 an hour that I was getting paid my first summer (1979) as a summer help.

But anyway, back to Sonny.  I remember one evening when I came home after working with Sonny during the day, and we were sitting around the dinner table eating supper when my dad said something surprising.  I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember what my response was.  It came out before I thought what I was saying, and I said it with the same surprised smile Sonny would have.  I replied,  “Well S–t the bed!”  With a heavy emphasis on each word.

That was a common phrase that Sonny used, and it was his response to anything surprising.  Needless to say, I don’t normally use four letter words that have to be edited out of a post.  It was just the matter of fact way that Sonny would use that phrase that made it seem all right to say at the time.  If I remember correctly, both my mom and my dad stared at me for a second in disbelief, then broke out laughing as they had never heard that particular phrase.  It was kind of like hearing “…Bless his heart” for the first time when used following an obvious insult.

In the year 1990 the Power Plant had a program that they called, “We’ve Got the Power”.  I will talk more about this in a later post, so I will just say that it was a program where we broke up into teams and tried to find ways to save the company money.  But long before “We’ve Got the Power”, there was Sonny Karcher.  He was often trying to figure out how we could make electricity cheaper, or even come up with other ways of making a profit.

One day Sonny asked me this, “Kev, your smart because you learn things from all those books at school so tell me this… someone said the other day that diamonds are made out of coal.  Is that true?”  I told him it was.  Then he said, “Well, what if we had one of those big dirt movers full of coal drive over some coal a bunch of times, would we be able to make diamonds?”

Dirt Mover full of coal

I told him that wouldn’t work because it takes a lot more pressure to make a diamond.  So, he asked me if it would work if we put some coal on the railroad track and we let an entire train full of coal run over it.  Would it make a diamond then?  I assured him that even that wouldn’t make a diamond.  He accepted it and just said, “Well, it’s too bad since we have that big pile of coal there, we ought to be able to come up with some way of making them into diamonds.

Another time when we were cleaning out the fish baskets at the intake (a job as smelly as it sounds) next to the 4 big intake pumps.  These are the pumps that pump around 189,000 gallons of water per minute each.  Sonny told me how big those pumps were and how much water they pumped.  Then he said, “You know, that entire boiler is there just to make steam to turn the turbine to make electricity.  It seems to me that we could just take these four pumps and have them pump water through the turbine and have it turn the turbines, then we wouldn’t need those big boilers.  Why don’t we do something like that?”  I assured Sonny that we would never be able to make enough electricity to make up for the electricity it took to turn the pumps that were pumping the water.  He shook his head and said that it just seemed to him that those pumps could turn that turbine pretty fast.

One day I watched as Sonny watched another Power Plant man walk into the shop with a new type of lunch box.  It was an Igloo Little Playmate.  Sonny made a comment about how neat this guy’s new lunch box was.  It was a new design at the time.

One exactly like this.  These were a new kind of lunch box at the time.

Sonny immediately went out and bought one.  The next week he came to work with his shiny new Little Playmate lunch box.  I admit.  I went and bought one myself a few weeks later.  But this was the beginning of a trend that I noticed with Sonny.  I began to notice that Sonny seemed to pick one item from each of the people he admired, and went and bought one for himself.  Or he would pick up a phrase that someone else would say, and would start using that.

At first I thought it might just be a coincidence, so I started to test my hypothesis.  When I would see something new that Sonny brought to work, I would look around to see who else had one of those, and sure enough.  Someone close by would have one.  Then I would hear Sonny talk a certain way.  His accent would change and he would say something like he was imitating someone else, and usually I could tell right away who talked like that and knew that Sonny had borrowed that phrase from that person.

Some may think that this would be annoying, but I think with Sonny it was an act of endearment.  It was his way of connecting with those people that he admired.  Sonny had a small yellow orange Ford truck and I figured that someone else must have a truck like that, so I started looking all around for one like it.  It took me a couple of weeks, but one morning while we were carpooling our way to the power plant, we came up behind the same kind of truck that Sonny had on its way to the plant.  It was green instead of yellow, but it was undoubtedly the same model of truck.  It was owned by Ken Reece, who was the manager over the tool room and warehouse.

Sonny imitated a voice that had me puzzled for a while.  I had checked out all the Power Plant Men around trying to figure out who Sonny was imitating.  Every once in a while Sonny would change his way of talking when he was making a point where he would let his lower lip come forward and work its way left and right as he talked, and he would close one eye more than the other and talk in a strange sort of a southern drawl.  I just knew he was imitating someone because it was so different than just the regular Sonny.

Finally, one day when I was walking through the shop I heard someone in the welding area talking just like Sonny would talk when he used that voice.  There was no mistake.  That had to be the person.  I could hear every inflection in his voice and it had to be the voice that Sonny was imitating because it had been much more honed and refined to give just the right effect.  So, I changed the course I was travelling so that I could make my way around to the welders to see who it was that was talking like that.

There in the middle of the welding shop was a heavier set man standing in the middle of a group of welders telling a story.  Everyone was listening to him quietly just as if it was story time at the library.  So, I stopped and watched.  This man wasn’t wearing an Electric Company hard hat.  He was wearing a Brown and Root hard hat, which indicated that he worked for the construction company that was building the plant.

This guy was undoubtedly a master storyteller.  When it came to the climactic part of the story, the bottom of his mouth would stick out with his lip moving left and right and left again, and one eye was partially closed to show the intensity of the situation and the drawl would intensify.  Finally.  I had found the man that Sonny Karcher had admired enough to take one of his favorite traits and connect it to himself.  I could see why Sonny admired him so much.  He had everyone within listening distance captivated by his story.

This Brown and Root hand soon became an employee of the Electric Company within a couple of weeks after I left at the end of the summer (on September 9, 1979).  This heavier set person was still working at the plant when I first posted this story last year, but has since retired. He was one of this country’s leading Turbine mechanics and he can still tell a story like no one else.  He is no longer as heavy.  He is rather thin in comparison.  He improved his health after realizing that if he really loved his family, he needed to take better care of himself.

I consider this True Power Plant Man, Ray Eberle, to be a dear friend of mine.  I have never met anyone that looked more like my own grandfather than Ray.  Not that he was that much older.  No.  He looked almost exactly like my grandfather looked when he was Ray’s age.  There was no nicer man than my dad’s dad, and there is no nicer Power Plant Man than Ray Eberle.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

Comments from the re-post:

  1. Ron Kilman June 19, 2013:

    The Janitors at Seminole showed me how the PPM (Power Plant Men) were spitting their tobacco juice inside I-beam webs, in tight corners, and other hard to clean spots. They asked me to put out a memo asking the spitters to just spit out in the middle of the floor so they could clean it up much easier, which I did. I can’t remember for sure, but it seems like the puddles of stinky gross slime around the Plant tailed off for a while.

    Good story, Kevin. I hadn’t thought about Ray Eberle for a long time. He was a super turbine man I always enjoyed being around. I just remember his competence and his positive attitude.

  2. Monty Hansen August 17, 2013:

    It’s both amusing, and comforting to know the same things happen at power plants everywhere, we went through a “sunflower seed phase” which plugged the drains & the plant finally came up with a “NO MORE SUNFLOWER SEEDS” rule!

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Belt Buckle Mania And Turkeys During Power Plant Man Downtime

Originally posted on June 23, 2012:

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

A plain example of an oval belt buckle

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

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

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

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

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

A block of Jewelers Rouge used for polishing Jewelry

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

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

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

A Spud Gun

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

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

Anyway. The Canteen fund was used to purchase turkeys for the workers at Thanksgiving. One year when the fund didn’t have enough money to buy turkeys, the men at the power plant bailed the hay in the pastures that surrounded the north end of the lake, and sold the bails to pay for the turkeys. Then when Corporate Headquarters got wind of it, they insisted that the hay belonged to the Electric Company, and therefore could not be used to buy turkeys for the workers of just that one plant that had used their own money to fill the money box at the plant.

That was the end of the free turkeys for Thanksgiving. Kind of took the “Thanks” out of the giving… Needless to say, the hay wasn’t bailed much after that, it was just brush hogged like a right-of-way. I’m sure there is a Turkey out there somewhere that is grateful to Corporate Headquarters, but it isn’t the kind of mindless Turkey that cared more about messing with someone’s morale than about the efficiency of a Power Plant.

It was amazing how much of a morale booster a free turkey can be. Just think about it. Here were Top Power Plant hands at the time making close to $20 an hour or $160 a day who went home with a big grin on their face just like Bob Cratchit when Ebenezer Scrooge gave him the Giant Goose for Christmas, so they could hear their own children say, “God Bless Us, every one!”

The Scrooge from Corporate Headquarters or was he?

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

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

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

Comments from the Original Post:

  1. eideard June 23, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    I’ll bet there were folks who passed along tools when they retired, passed them along to the next generation or so in their own family.

    I still use a couple of fine screwdrivers that were my grandfather’s when he worked in the machine shop at Otis Elevator in Yonkers, NY.

    1. Plant Electrician June 26, 2012 at 3:20 pm

      I have a story about one such old tool that I will write about in a future post. :)

  2. jackcurtis July 7, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Yeah! I’ve inherited tools from earlier times now unavailable, replaced by newer power stuff that sometimes, won’t do what the older tool accomplished easily…

    1. Plant Electrician July 7, 2012 at 4:07 pm
      That is definitely what I experienced. I have a story about trying to destroy an old power drill so that we could purchase a new one.

      Additional Comments from previous post:

      1. martianoddity June 27, 2013:

        I’ve never been inside a power plant, and I’ve never known anyone living in one. But you write so well and give such a great insight that I can see the environment and the personalities that worked at the Power Plants you worked at too.

        1. martianoddity June 27, 2013:

          By living I mean working… 😀 But maybe it wouldn’t be so bad living in one the way you’re describing them.

      2. Ron Kilman June 27, 2013:

        I never got an authentic belt buckle made by a Power Plant Man. But I did get a brass belt buckle for a company service award one time. I don’t wear that kind of belt anymore. Who knew one day I would need something to put under my motorcycle kick-stand when I park it on grass (keeps the stand from sinking in the dirt causing the bike to fall). That OG&E belt buckle works just great!

        1. Plant Electrician June 27, 2013:

          That’s Great!!! One of the many uses of a large belt buckle.

Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace

originally posted on June 30, 2012:

Somewhere today there is a young man named Cameron Powell whose grandmother has recently died and who has a Great Grandmother named Dolores. A kind and gentle lady. If this young man were able to ask his great grandmother about his great grandfather he would hear the tale about a peaceful and kind man that made those who worked with him smile and enjoy their day. He lived his life in love with Dolores and his daughter and the very people that he worked with each day. All you had to do was walk in the same room as Howard Chumbley and a smile would come across your face instantly.

You see. While I was in my first years as a summer help at the Coal Fired Power Plant learning from the True Power Plant men of my day, 15 miles north of the plant along the Arkansas River was another plant. This plant was being operated by the Power Plant Pioneers of an earlier time. While we had the latest technological advancements that were available in 1974 when our plant was designed, the Osage plant was using old mechanical instruments that measured actual pressures and temperatures. What this meant was that when the pressure gauge registered 1000 pounds of pressure, it was because the pipe that was connected to the back or bottom of the gauge had 1000 lbs of pressure on it. I don’t know. They may have had a regulator on there that cut the pressure down to a safer range. That would seem crazy to anyone today to think that behind the Control Panel in the Control Room were pipes that ran from different steam pipes all over the plant to the gauges on the Control board, so that the Control Room operators could operate the plant correctly.

The Power Plant Men that worked in these early Generating Stations were subjected to dangerous chemicals and conditions though it was the best they knew at the time. Asbestos insulation covered the steam pipes. Turbine oil with PCBs were used to clean their tools. Howard Chumbley explained to me one day that they used to wash their tools in Turbine oil up to their elbows in what was now known to contain the dangerous chemical PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyls). A funny fact I found out later was that there was a temperature probe in the river just downstream from the plant taking the temperature of the water just like Sooner Plant (See the Post about Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River).

When the old Osage Plant closed in the early 1980s, that was when I first learned about it. This was because some of the pioneer power plant men came to work at our plant. Howard Chumbley became an Electical foreman and Gilbert Schwarz came to our plant as the superintendent of operations. Two gray haired men, both with a kind of slow peaceful look on their face. Howard had a smaller build with soft wavy gray hair. He could have been a professor at Harvard if you put a pipe in his mouth and a turtleneck sweater. Of course, that would not have been fitting for Howard. Gilbert was tall and had the look of a cowboy or a farm hand. I understand that he enjoyed working on the farm.

One year after I became an electrician in November 1984, Howard Chumbley became my foreman. It was less than a year after that when Howard retired. During the short time he was my foreman we took a trip up to the Osage Plant. It was named Osage because the Osage Indian Nation Territorial boundary is directly across the river from the plant. The plant itself actually sat adjacent to the Ponca Indian Tribe just outside of Ponca City. The day we went to the plant, Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien). a Power Plant Electrician and I loaded a special hazardous material containment barrel into the truck and I was given a special suit that I was to wear that would cover me from head to toe while I cleaned up a PCB spill. A smaller plant transformer had been removed from the old plant and there had been a slow leak under it that left a tar like substance on the concrete where the transformer had stood. As Howard, Diana and I approached the plant and I spied it for the first time. This is what I saw:

The old Osage Power Plant

As we drove closer I had a better look at the plant as we drove around the other side:

A closer view of the Osage Plant

It was definitely an old abandoned power plant. We took the barrel out of the back of the truck and hauled it inside on a two wheel dolly (or two-wheel hand truck, as it is often called). When we entered the abandoned plant we walked across the turbine room floor:

The stripped down Turbine Room floor of the Osage Power Plant

I could see where equipment used to stand that had been sold for scrap or stolen by vandals.

When we arrived at the oil spill I was surprised by how small of a spot it was. It couldn’t have been more than one square foot. I put on the rubber suit with it’s rubber hat, rubber boots and a full face respirator and rubber gloves. I took a putty knife and scraped up the tar-like substance and placed it in special bag that had a special seal on it.

When I had scraped up the thick stuff, I poured trichloroethane 1.1.1 solvent (which is no longer used due to the dangerous fumes that damages your liver) on the spot and scrubbed it with a wire brush. Then I took a Scotch Brite pad and scrubbed the floor until the spot was much cleaner than the concrete around it. Everything I had used went into the special barrel. The bags of tar, the Scotch Brite pad, the wire brush the putty knife and the rags I had used to wipe everything up. Then as I took off my suit, every piece of the rubber suit including the full face respirator went into the barrel. Once everything was in the barrel, the special lid was placed on top and it was bolted shut. A Hazardous Waste sticker was placed on the barrel and the time and date and what was in the container was written on it.

Hazardous Waste Barrel

We took the barrel back to the plant and it was placed in a hazardous waste Conex Box that was later buried when it was full of different types of hazardous waste from all over Oklahoma.

A Conex Box

A few years after Howard Chumbley retired, so did Gilbert Schwartz. Gilbert was the Superintendent over the Operators so I didn’t work around Gilbert and I knew very little about him. However, later when I was married and living in Ponca City, I would see him at the Catholic Church in Ponca City where he was a member of the Knights of Columbus. He would nod and say hi whenever he saw me.

Both Howard and Gilbert were in the military. I know that Howard Chumbley was in the Navy during World War II and that Gilbert Schwarz was in the Korean War. Growing up I noticed that older men that had served in the armed forces seemed to have light gray hair. Especially if they had been in the Navy. I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence. Aubrey Cargill was that way also (See the post about Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill).

In 1998, Howard Chumbley died unexpectedly when he was admitted to the hospital in Ponca City with a broken arm. The hospital in Ponca City had a bad reputation (or Mortality Rate, as some might say). People didn’t want to go there if there was anyway to avoid it. The hospital in Stillwater was the preferred hospital in this area of Oklahoma.

I only met Dolores Chumbley on two occasions and they were both at Christmas or Award banquets. She seemed the perfect spouse for Howard as she appeared kind and peaceful as well. I’m sure they had a happy life together. I do not have a picture of Howard. I wish I did. His demeanor reminds me of my Mother-In-Law. We have a picture of her in our hallway and the words below the picture says: “Be Kind”. I would say that this is what Howard was all about. Everything about Howard was kindness. I was glad to have known him.

Here Lies Howard Chumbley

This past week on June 24, 2012 Gilbert Schwarz died at the age of 83. He lived a long and happy life as did Howard. There was something about these Power Plant Pioneers that gave them a strange sort of peace.

A Power Plant Pioneer – Gilbert Schwarz

I never found the source of this peace for sure. I suppose it was their long and happy marriages with their loving and supportive wives. Howard had a daughter that he was always very proud to discuss. She was a teacher somewhere close to Tulsa. She recently died of Cancer on January 4. That was 2 days after I wrote my first Power Plant Man post (Why Santa Visits Power Plant Men) at the beginning of this year.

Gilbert never had a child of his own, but his nieces and nephews meant a lot to him throughout his life and he was active in their lives as they grew up. I suppose if the Power Plant Pioneers were anything like the True Power Plant Men of my day, then they found a lot of peace in the friendships that they had with their fellow Power Plant Men locked away behind the Main Gate that they had to drive through each day on the way to work. Once you drive through that gate and enter into the Power Plant Kingdom, there is a certain peace that you feel knowing that what you will do that day will directly affect the lives of millions of people in the state of Oklahoma.

These Pioneers of the early days willingly put themselves at risk working around equipment that did not have the safeties and guards that we have today to supply the electricity to the State. I don’t know if there are a few of these brave Pioneers left from the Osage Plant. Gilbert was the last of the older men that I knew about. If you happen to find one of these men some day, don’t miss the opportunity to talk to him. I am sure they would be proud to tell you of the days that they spent being Pioneers of the Power Plant World. You should be able to recognize them. You can pick them out in a crowd. They are the mild peaceful looking old men treating the people around them with respect.

Comments from Previous Post:

  1. Ron Kilman July 3, 2013:

    Thanks! I had not heard of Gilbert’s passing.
    Yes, the old plants had full pressures to the gauges in the control room (throttle, extractions, reheat (if any), even condenser vacuum). The funniest “gauge” I ever saw was at the Byng Power Plant (north of Ada). It was the plant MW output “gauge”. When the control room operator changed load, he would move the dial on the “gauge” (with his hand) and ring a buzzer. The men firing the boilers would hear the buzzer, look through the glass window at the new plant MW output, and change the firing rate on the boilers accordingly!

    1. Plant Electrician July 3, 2013:

      That’s a great story about the MW output gauge! This reminds me of the throttle control on large older ships. The round thing with the handle that the captain would turn to change the speed of the ship. This actually called an “Engine Order Telegraph” that rings a bell when the setting is changed so the Engine room knows to look at the new setting and then does what it takes to make the ship go faster or slower, or even to change from forward to reverse. In the movies it looks like it just happens automatically.

Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator

Originally posted on July 6, 2012:

I suppose that many parents while raising their children would hear them say, “Dad, can you read that story to us again about the pirates that go to the island to find the treasure but Jim Hawkins fights them single-handed?” Or their children might say to their mother, “Will you tell us the story again about how you met daddy?” In my household, my children would say, “Dad, tell us another story about how you played a joke on Gene Day when you were working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in Oklahoma? Those are always the best!”

As I pointed out in my third post this year called “Power Plant Humor And Joking With Gene Day” the first time I met Gene Day, I could tell that he was the type of person that would take a joke well, or so I thought…. One of the favorite stories my daughter would like for me to tell her as she was growing up was the one where I had created a Psychological Profile of Gene Day, who at that time was an Auxiliary Operator.

It began one day when I was leaving the electric shop through the Turbine Generator (T-G) building ground floor. A very noisy location as large steam pipes wound around under the Turbines where the steam caused a rumbling or whining sound. It was normal when walking through this area to reach up to the ear plugs that were draped over your shoulders and put them in your ears because the decibels were dangerously high if you were exposed earplugless too long.

Earplugs on a cord that can be draped over your shoulders when not in use.

I stepped from the landing leading from the electric shop and started toward number 1 boiler when I spied Gene Day making his way around the first floor of the T-G building inspecting equipment and marking his documents indicating that they were operating correctly. As I saw him turn toward my direction I quickly dodged behind the nearest metal pillar (I-Beam). I peaked my head out from behind the pillar and took out the notepad that was in my back pocket, and the pen from my vest pocket pocket protector.

A pocket protector is a must for electricians and computer nerds who need a place to keep their small tools.

Gene saw me and gave me a suspicious look as I began feverishly writing in my notepad while looking from my notepad back to Gene and then back to what I was writing. After I had done this for about 10 seconds or so, I put my pad away, my pen back in the pocket protector and strolled away toward unit 1 to continue my work.

A notepad like this

It happened that this particular week was Gene’s week to monitor the equipment in the T-G building, so throughout the week he would be making his way somewhere around the T-G building with his clipboard in hand. Each time I encountered him I would do the same thing. I would visibly hide behind a beam and write notes in my notepad. I saw Gene rather frequently during the week because the majority of the time, I left the electric shop by going through the T-G room to one of the boilers and then to the precipitators, where I spent most of my time working at this time in my career (but that is another story for a later time).

Each time, Gene would watch me suspiciously knowing that I was just messing with him, but not exactly sure what I was “up to”.   At the time, I wasn’t sure either.   So I just wrote down what I saw Gene doing, that way, if he ran over and grabbed my notepad from me, it wouldn’t say anything other than what I saw.

It had happened at the plant a few years earlier when I was a janitor that the company had hired an efficiency expert to monitor the employees at the plant.  He would walk around the plant with a stopwatch observing the employees. When he saw them he would write notes on his clipboard. It became very unnerving because you would walk around the corner and there he would be standing writing something down about you.

I went to the Assistant Plant Manager Bill Moler and told him that this creepy guy keeps showing up in the main switchgear by the janitors closet. And every time he sees me, he writes something down. I told Bill that it really bothered me.  He explained that he is an efficiency expert and he has a certain path that he takes throughout the day and takes a snapshot of what the workers are doing at that moment and writes it down. By doing that he calculates how efficient we are.  It seemed pretty silly to me, because most mechanics when they saw him coming put their tools down and did nothing while he walked by until he was out of sight again.

When I was on the labor crew a few weeks later, and I was blowing coal dust off of all the I-Beams above the bowl mills with a high pressure air hose, I looked down, and through my fogged up goggles I could see this guy standing directly under me. I was about 50 feet above him crawling across an I-Beam with the air hose blowing black dust everywhere. He had crossed my barrier tape to go into the bowl mill area to see how efficient I was being.

This is the type of barrier tape I was using. It is made of woven plastic fibers.

I was so mad I turned off my air hose, climbed down the wall Spiderman-like (no. not head first) and went straight into the A-Foreman’s office and told Marlin McDaniel that the Efficiency Expert had crossed my barrier tape and was standing directly under me as I was blowing down the beams with air.

It turned out that the Efficiency Expert had gone upstairs to complain that some guy in the bowl mill had dumped a bunch of coal dust on him while he was monitoring him from below. Evidently, he wasn’t expert enough to know you weren’t supposed to cross someone’s barrier tape without permission, as was indicated on the caution tags that were tied to the barrier tape. From that point on, the efficiency expert (now in lowercase) had to be accompanied by someone from the plant to make sure he wasn’t breaking any safety rules and putting himself at harm.

To make a long side story short, we turned out to be so efficient, people came from all over the world to study us. Somebody downtown hired the efficiency expert full time, but later he was laid off during the first downsizing.

He reminds me of a person on an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation where this guy Lieutenant Commander Remmick comes aboard the Enterprise and he walks around inspecting everything and asking everyone questions that make them uncomfortable and at the end asks Picard if he could come work on the Enterprise. He looked so much like him, that I thought maybe our efficiency expert went to Hollywood to become an actor.

Lieutenant Commander Remmick

Back to Gene Day. I suppose the thought of the efficiency expert may have been going through my mind as I was taking notes about Gene Day at work. Like I said, at the time, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it.

It finally came to me on Thursday morning. This was the last day that Gene was going to be on the day shift, so I figured I might as well do something about it. So when I entered the shop that morning, I sat down at the desk of my foreman Andy Tubbs and began to write. The title at the top of the page was: “The Psychological Profile of Gene Day”.

Using the notes I had taken during the week, I wrote things like the following: “Gene Day walks around the Turbine Generator building with a clipboard in his hand trying desperately to look like he’s doing something important. He constantly hopes that someone is watching him because he dislikes doing so much work to act busy for no reason.

At times Gene Day gets paranoid and believes that he sees people spying on him from behind every corner (especially I-Beams). Sometimes Gene Day stands in the middle of the T-G floor staring up into space as if he forgot what he was supposed to be doing.” I’m sure I wrote more, but I don’t remember everything… but I do remember the second from the last sentence. I will save that for a couple of paragraphs from now.

I took my Psychological Profile of Gene Day and went up to the Control Room. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Gene had just walked over toward the break room behind the Auxiliary Control Panel so I walked over by the Shift Supervisor’s office and I leaned against the top of the large Blue Monitor and placed the Psychological Profile on the top of the monitor in front of me.

Less than a minute later Gene came walking around behind me and seeing the paper on the top of the monitor came up behind me and looked over my shoulder and began to read….. He wasn’t trying to hide the fact that he was reading the paper, and I obviously knew he was there, and the title in large bold letters did say, “The Psychological Profile of Gene Day”. So, he read on.

I heard a few chuckles as he read through my interpretation of what he had done during the week. Then he came to the “Second from the Last Sentence”, as I could hear him reading quietly in my ear… The sentence read, “Gene Day sneaks up behind people and reads their private material over their shoulder!” — Bingo! I had him!

When he read that he grabbed me by the throat and started to Throttle me! Shaking me back and forth. This would have been a humdinger of a joke at that point, but I had one more sentence up my sleeve… ur… I mean on the paper….

As I was waivering (is that a word?) back and forth between life and death I managed to eke out something like: “Wait! There’s More!”…. Gene Day let up on me a little and looked down at the page and read the last sentence…… It read….. “Gene Day tries to strangle people who are only trying to help him by creating his Psychological Profile.”

That was all it took. Another perfect joke played on Gene Day, and I was able to live to tell about it. When Gene read that he was stunned into dismay. Giggling as hard as he could he retreated shaking his head in defeat.

Now, I know that Gene reads these posts, and he may remember this story a little differently, and I’ll give him that because Gene is older than dirt and his memory isn’t that good. But I was the one that was being strangled, and I still have a vivid image of those few moments. Not only do I, but so do my children, who will one day tell their children, who will say, “Mommy, will you tell us that story again about how Grandpa was strangled by Gene Day that time in the Control Room at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in Oklahoma?”

Fast And Furious Flat Fixin’ Fools Fight the Impact of the Canine Parvovirus

Original Posted on July 13, 2012:

Three of the four years that I worked as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant, I worked out of the garage.  Not only were we responsible for mowing the grass and cleaning up the park areas around the lake, we were also the Automotive Garage.  That is, we changed the oil and other fluids, charged dead truck batteries and washed the pickup trucks that were used at the plant and various other truck related jobs.  We also Fixed Flat Tires.

Something had happened the first summer when I worked out of the garage (my second summer as a summer help) that greatly impacted the need for us to fix flats fast and furious.  It was a disease that was rapidly killing dogs in Oklahoma during the summer of 1980.  It was known as the Canine Parvovirus.  We had a puppy at home named Oreo that died that summer from this disease.  By the time the dog showed the symptoms of the disease, it was just about too late to save the life of the dog.  This leads me to introduce you to Doug House  (No, not Dog House.  I know you were thinking that because I had just mentioned the Parvovirus killing dogs and you may have thought I misspelled Dog).

It was Doug House that taught me the fine art of “Fixin’ Flats”.  Doug House and Preston Jenkins had been hired because of their automotive skills more so than their Power Plant Man Prowess.  Doug House was a few years older than my dad and his son was about the age of my younger brother.  He was from Louisiana.  He didn’t have a Cajun accent or anything like that (or maybe he did and I just didn’t know it).  He sounded like an interesting mix between Winnie The Pooh and Frosty The Snowman (if you can imagine that).  So, those power plant men that remember Doug, listen to these two voices and think of Doug (and I don’t mean Jimmy Durante who is singing the Frosty the Snowman song.  I mean the guy that asks “What’s a lamp post?”):

Winnie the Pooh

Watch the Video Here:

Frosty The Snowman

Watch the video here:  

The Power Plant was still under construction when I started working in the garage (my second summer) and this meant that there were plenty of nails, screws welding rods and other pieces of shrapnel strewn over the roadways, giving ample opportunity for flat tires.  We would often come into work in the morning to find one of the operators’ trucks that had developed a flat tire during the night shift parked in front of the garage waiting patiently for the flat to be fixed.

It seemed like the garage was filled with all the latest equipment for automotive maintenance, however, the flat fixing tools were mostly manual.  We did have air powered tools so that we could quickly remove the lug nuts from the tire.  From there we would add air to the flat tire so that it was pressurized enough to find the leak.  Then we would put it in a half barrel trough full of soapy water to see if we could see the air leaking, blowing soap bubbles.  Once the leak was found and marked with a yellow paint pen, the wheel was placed on a special stand that was used to remove the tire from the rim called a “Tire Dismounter”.

The stand used to remove the tire from the wheel

So, I became a Flat Fixin’ Fool.  And during the three summers that I worked repairing flats, I became pretty fast.  I loved fixing flat tires.  We used patches the first two years instead of plugs, which means that we fixed the flat from the inside of the tire by placing a patch over the hole inside the tire using special patches and rubber cement.

Tire Patch Kit

It wasn’t until the third summer working in the garage that I learned about plugs when my dad and I brought my uncle’s wheel to a garage to repair a leak and I was all ready to watch the repairman take the tire off of the wheel and repair it.  But instead, as soon as he found the hole, he just reached up to a shelf, pulled this black worm looking gooey thing and splashed some rubber cement on it and jammed it in the hole using some small kind of awl. Then took out his big pocket knife and cut off the part sticking out and handed the tire back to us and said, “No Charge”.  I was shocked.

Tire Plug Kit

My first thought was that I couldn’t figure out why someone wouldn’t go through all the fun of wrestling with the tire to remove it from the rim, then clamping it down so that you could easily reach the hole inside the tire with a wire brush so you could buff the spot clean, and then applying the patch and rolling over it with another special Tire Patch rolling pin.  My second thought was, “Why don’t we have those at the plant?”

So when I arrived for my last summer as summer help a couple of weeks later, I asked Stanley Elmore why we didn’t use Tire Plugs.  The next thing I knew, we had them.  Trucks could practically line up outside with their flat tires and you could run up to them with an air hose, fill the tire up with air, spray some soapy water on it until you found the hole, pulled out the nail and jammed a plug in it.  Take out your pocket knife, cut off the tail sticking out, and then yell “Next!”  At least that is what I dreamed about doing.  There was a little more work when it actually came down to it.

So, what does all this have to do with Canine Parvovirus?  You see, the Jackrabbit population in Oklahoma was being controlled by the ever elusive wily coyote.

No. Not this one. Real Coyotes.

The coyotes had caught the parvovirus and were being destroyed almost to the point of distinction by 1980.  The Coal-Fired Power Plant ground in north central Oklahoma became a veritable Shangri-la for Jackrabbits.  The plant grounds are in the middle of a wildlife preserve created by the Electric Company that not only made the wildlife preserve, but the entire lake where all sorts of animals lived.  None were more proliferate than the Jackrabbits.

Genuine Flying Jackrabbit found at http://www.richard-seaman.com

I learned a lot about wildlife working at this power plant.  For instance, This may be a picture of a Jack Rabbit, but Larry Riley could tell at 75 yards whether or not it was a Jack Rabbit or a Jill Rabbit.  Yep.  That’s what they called the female Jackrabbit.  There were Jack and Jill Rabbits.  I couldn’t tell the difference, but then half the time while Larry was pointing out a rabbit to me I not only couldn’t tell if it was a male or female, I couldn’t even see the rabbit because it was camouflaged in the dirt and weeds.

So, at this point you are probably wondering, “What does the multiplication of jackrabbits have to do with fixing flat tires?” (or maybe you are just wondering why I would go on and on about a subject as mundane as fixing flat tires).  I was recently reminded by one of the most stellar of Power Plant Men Shift Supervisors, Joe Gallahar (notice how his name is only one letter away from “Gallahad” as in “Sir Galahad”), that the night crew of operators that brave the weather better than any mail carrier ever did, as one of their formidable duties had to perform Jackrabbit Roundup while riding three-wheel All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs).

A Honda Three-wheeler used by Power Plant Men in 1980

It was important that the Jackrabbits not become too complacent around humans in this wholesale bliss, so the operators obviously felt it was their duty to see that they received their proper quota of daily (or nightly) exercise by being chased by ATVs.  There were enough thorny plants spread around the grassless dirt that inevitably at least one three-wheeler would end up with a flat tire by the end of the night.  And that is how the Canine Parvovirus impacted the flat fixin’ focus of the garage crew.  Fixing three-wheeler balloon tires was a slightly different animal altogether, plugs didn’t work as well on these tires, but the patches did.

I seem to remember another Power Plant A-Foreman that reads this post that used to take his three-wheeler out by the blowdown water ponds during lunch time and hone his skills maneuvering around the berm surrounding the two ponds (I won’t tell you his name, but his initials are “Ken Scott”).  His tires often needed a quick patch job later in the day.  We later went to Four-Wheelers as the added stability proved to be a much needed safety improvement.

There was also a clandestine group of Coyote hunters at the Power Plant, though I didn’t know it at the time.  Before (and many years after) the Parvovirus took its toll on the Coyotes, a group of Coyote Hunters would patrol the wilderness looking for signs of the highly elusive coyote.

I first realized something was up years later when I was a passenger in a company truck on our way to the river pumps when the driver slowed the truck down to a crawl as he looked out the window at something in the middle of the road.  He put the truck in park, climbed out and picked something up next to the truck.  He showed it to me.  It was fecal matter left behind by some creature.  Andy Tubbs was sure it was Coyote Dung and he wanted it for some reason.

The True Power Plant Electricians, Andy Tubbs and Ben Davis were the “fearless Coyote Hunters”, who were on a constant vigil for Coyotes.  This also gave them a chance to give their Greyhounds an opportunity to stretch their legs and get some exercise as a trapdoor to the large wooden box in the back of the truck was sprung open and the Greyhounds went to work chasing down the coyotes and bringing them back to the truck waiting for them at the next mile section.  Stretched Coyote skins were sometimes hung up in front of the cooling fans on the main power transformer to dry.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

Here is a motivational video of a man named John Hardzog (Not a Power Plant Man) that hunts Coyotes with Greyhounds:

http://video.nytimes.com/video/2010/04/26/sports/1247467638442/coyote-vs-greyhound-one-man-s-sport.html

Anyway.  the last I heard about Doug House was that he had moved back to Louisiana and is still there to this day.  I don’t really know what he’s doing these days as he would be in his low 80’s.  I do know that I enjoyed the sport that he taught me, and that was how to be a “Flat Fixin’ Fool”.

Another Interesting factoid is that by the time I finished writing this blog, it became July 14, 2012.  Bill Moler, the Assistant Plant Manager during the time that I was a summer help became 80 years old today (now 83. Since this post was originally posted three years ago).

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!

Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement

Originally posted July 27, 2012:

There were two distinct times in my life at the Power Plant Kingdom where I went Head-to-Head (or tête-à-tête as they say in France) with a horde of spiders.  The second time I fought side-by-side with my trusty friend Scott Hubbard, that I knew wouldn’t desert me when things went from bad-to-worse (for some reason I find myself using a lot of hyphens-to-day).  The first battle, however, I had to face alone, armed only with a push broom and a shovel.

It all started a few months after I became a janitor at the power plant (in 1982).  I had received my Psychology degree at the University of Missouri and I was well on my way to becoming a certified “sanitation engineer” (as my Grandmother corrected me after I told her I was a janitor).

It actually came in handy having a Psychology degree.  Power Plant men would sometimes approach me when I was working by myself to stop and have a conversation that usually started like this:  “So, someone told me you are a Psychiatrist.”  I would correct them and tell them that I am a janitor and I only have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology which makes me a properly trained janitor able to sweep the floor in confidence knowing that “I’m OK, and You’re OK.” (which was a joke lost on everyone at the plant except for Jim Kanelakos, who was also a janitor with a Masters in Psychology).

Then they would usually want to talk about problems they were having.  I would lean on my broom and listen.  Nodding my head slightly to show I was listening.  After a while the person would finish and thank me for listening and go on back to work.

The most important thing I learned while obtaining a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology was that Psychology is an art, not a science.  Though certain scientific methods are used in many areas, especially in Behavioral Psychology.  Being an art, means that the person must possess the talent for being a Psychologist.  This is as important as being properly trained.  So I never assumed the role of a real Psychologist, I rather tried my best to just be a friend.  I found that worked well.

As I mentioned, James Kanelakos was also a janitor at the Power Plant.  Which meant that between the 5 janitors and our leader Pat Braden, two of us not only had degrees, but both of them were in Psychology (with James having the Masters degree, and I as his pupil with the Bachelors).

Before I proceed with my battle with the spiders, I should mention a little about the dynamics of our Janitorial crew.

James Kanelakos was obviously Greek.  With a name like Kanelakos, it was rather obvious.  He looked the part also, with a graying moustache that made him look like a Greek sailor.  He never was a “True Power Plant Man” and he would be glad to hear me say that.  Instead he was a person that at the time acted as if he was biding his time at the plant waiting for something else to happen.

This picture reminds me of Jim Kanelakos.  I found it at Mobleyshoots.com

Though he never mentioned it, I know that he was also part Irish, and every now and then I would see the Irish come out.  He was a family man, and in that sense he reminded me of my own father (who was also part Irish).  He was only 35 years old at the time, but he acted as if he had lived longer.  He smoked a pipe like my father did.  As far as I know, he always remained married to his wife Sandy, and together they raised two children, a daughter and a son.  That was where his heart really was.

He made no secret that his family came before anything else.  Not that he would say it straight out to your face, but you could tell it in the way he interacted with others.  Like I said, Jim was there “biding his time”, changing his career at a time when he needed something… else.  Maybe to strengthen his priorities.  He said once that he left the office to go work outside.

Then there was Doris Voss.  She was an unlikely site to see in the Power Plant Palace (especially later when she became an operator).  She was a “Church-going Fundamentalist” who made it clear to me that Catholics, such as myself, were doomed to hell for various reasons.  I always enjoyed our… um… discussions.

I thought it was quite appropriate during Christmas when the janitors drew names from Jim’s Greek Sailor’s hat and I drew Doris’s name to give her a very nice leather-bound Catholic Version of the Family Bible.  I later heard her talking to Curtis Love about it in the kitchen.  He was telling her that she shouldn’t read it and she told him that it looked pretty much the same as hers and she didn’t see anything wrong with it.  Needless-to-say, I was rarely condemned to a regular Catholic’s fate after that.

A Bible like this with a Tassel hanging out of the bottom

Curtis Love, as I explained in the post called “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“, was very gullible.  It was easy to play a joke on Curtis.  Too easy.  He didn’t take them well, because he would rather believe what you were joking about before believing that you were joking at all.  Because of this, it never occurred to me to play a joke on Curtis.  Some how, though, it is hard to explain, Curtis reminded me of Tweedledee.  Or was it Tweedledum?

I think he reminded me more of the guy on the right… or maybe the left.

Then there was Ronnie Banks.  I talked about Ronnie Banks before in the post where Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost.  He was like a likable young bear standing up on his hind legs.  You could joke around with him and he was fun to be around.  He acted like he enjoyed your company.  Interestingly though, none of the people on our team would ever be classified as “True Power Plant Men”.  We were more like an odd assortment of Misfits.

Pat Braden was our lead Janitor.  He was by far the nicest person one could ever work for.  He constantly had a smile on his face.  He smiled when he talked, he smiled when he walked, and he especially smiled when he stood up from a chair and became dizzy from his blood pressure medicine.  He had a daughter at home that he really loved.  He reminded me of the goodhearted Red Skelton.

This Picture of Red Skelton reminds me of Pat Braden

Now back to the Spider Wars and the bugs in the basement.

When I first became a janitor, I was assigned to clean the Control room and to sweep half of the turbine room floor and the Control room elevator landings and stairs.  I always enjoyed being a janitor.  I first became a janitor when I was 15 years old Sophomore in High School working the night shift (from 11pm to 6am) at a Hilton Inn in Columbia, Missouri.

To me it was a dream job.  Sure, I couldn’t keep my own room cleaned, but put a push broom in my hand and pay me $2.50 an hour and I could clean all night.  When I began as a janitor at the power plant, I was making $5.15 an hour.  Double what I was making at the hotel cleaning the kitchen, the restaurant and the bar in the wee hours of the morning.

Anyway.  I went to work cleaning the control room like there was no tomorrow.  I would shampoo the carpet once each week.  I would clean on the top and the back of the Alarm Panel.  I know I made Ted Holdge (Supervisor of Operations) real nervous once when I laid a vacuum cleaner on the top of the Main Electric Panel (That’s what I call it.  it was the Control panel where you synced up the unit when it was coming online) and I started vacuuming the top of it.  He actually jumped out of his chair in the Shift Supervisor’s office and stood there and watched me closely.  It obviously had never been cleaned before.  I was trying to get rid of a strange odor in the control room that eventually, I found out was years of burned coffee in the coffee maker in the break room.  I even had to scrub the walls in the kitchen to remove the odor from the entire control room.

Anyway.  I was getting to know the Control Room operators, and I was thinking that maybe someday when I had progressed past janitor and labor crew that one day I may become an operator also.

One day Pat Braden came to me and told me that I was going to have to move down to be the janitor of the Electric Shop.  There were many reasons.  The first was that Curtis wanted to be an operator and he thought that if he worked around them that they would get to know him and would want him to join their ranks and he had more seniority than I did, so he had first pick.  The second reason was that for some reason, since Curtis had been the janitor of the Electric Shop he had been bitten twice by a brown recluse spider, which had invaded the janitor closet downstairs.  If he were to be bitten again, he might lose his job for being unsafe.

I didn’t mind.  Cleaning the Electric shop meant that I also was able to clean the Engineers Shack and the Brown and Root Building next to it.  I also decided that the main switchgear which was where the Janitor closet was located needed to be kept clean to cut down on the onslaught of the poisonous brown recluse spiders (which in Oklahoma is a regular house spider).

The Oklahoma house spider — The Brown Recluse.  Otherwise known at the “Fiddleback”

My first day as a Janitor in the Electric Shop as soon as I opened the door to the janitor closet, I could see why Curtis had been bitten by a Brown Recluse (not twice, but three times — the last time he didn’t tell Pat.  He showed me, but just went straight to the doctor for the required shots to counteract the poison.  Not wanting to lose his job).  The janitor closet was full of them.  They were all over the little 4 foot by 6 foot closet.

Thus began the first war on spiders at the coal fired power plant.  The closet was also being used to store Freon and other air conditioning equipment used by Jim Stevenson the Air Conditioning expert in the Electric Shop.  I decided then and there to move all the equipment out of the closet.  The spiders were practicing “Duck and Cover” drills all over this equipment so it had to go.

My main weapon against the spiders were my boots.  When I spied a spider, I stomped on it quickly.  I asked Pat Braden to order a case of insecticide to help me combat the spiders.  The next day he pulled a two-wheeler up to the closet with two cases and said, “Here is your order sir!” (picture Red Skelton saying that).

I had cleaned the shelves, the cabinet and the floor of the janitor closet, and there was no place for spiders to hide in there anymore.  Each morning when I arrived, there was always more spiders there.  3 or 4 at least waiting for me in the closet.  All Brown Recluse.

I surveyed the combat zone and realized that spiders were all over the main switchgear.  So I decided I was going to sweep the switchgear regularly and kill every spider I saw to wipe them out for good.

A picture of a clean switchgear. Picture 6 rows of switchgear like this

So I laid down floor sweep (cedar chips with red oil) to keep the dust down, and began at one corner and worked my way across the switchgear sweeping and killing spiders.  I kept a body count.  I taped a paper in the janitor closet to keep track of my daily kill.  My first day I killed over 200 spiders.

I thought surely in a short time, I will have wiped out the spider population.  After sweeping the switchgear I laid down a blanket of Insecticide (equivalent to Agent Orange in Vietnam).  If I could kill any bugs that are around, the spiders would leave.  The insecticide didn’t kill the spiders.  they would just duck under the switchgear and then come out an hour later to be standing where I left them before.  So I kept stomping them out.

Every day, my body count was around 25 to 30 spiders and this number wasn’t going down.  That was when I discovered the Cable Spreader room…  I had been involved in mere child’s play before I walked down some steps at the tail end of the switchgear and opened one of the two doors at the bottom.

I cannot describe to you exactly what I saw, because nothing I say can put into words what was there.  I guess the best thing I can say is:  Armageddon.

There were two rooms.  One on each side at the bottom of some concrete steps.  They are called Cable Spreader rooms and are directly beneath the switchgear.  One side was unit one, the other was unit 2.  They are large rooms with cable trays lining the walls and across the room at regular intervals.  The floor was damp, and it was black, and it was alive.  There was a small path through the room where the operator would pass through “the gauntlet” once each shift as they muttered prayers that they not be eaten alive by the black oozing mass of bugs spiders and an occasional snake.

The can of bug spray in my hand seemed completely useless.  I knew what I had to do.  These two rooms and the cable tunnels that ran from there underneath the T-G building were the source of my daily trouncing of the meager few spiders that decided to explore the world above to see what was happening in the switchgear.  The real battle was down here in the trenches.  Each room was full of thousands of spiders.

I started with a large box of Plastic Contractor bags, a box of floor sweep, a shovel and a push broom.  I attacked the room the same way I used to clean my own bedroom at home when I was growing up.  I started in one corner and fanned out.  Not letting anything past me.  always keeping a clear supply line back to the steps that led up to freedom and fresh air up above.

At first I just took a large scoop shovel and scooped up the black mass of crawling and dead bugs and dumped them in a bag, until I had enough space to sweep the dust into a pile.  Then I attacked it again.  Occasionally a small snake would appear upset that I had invaded his space, and into the bag it would go.  Everything went in the bags.  The snakes, the bugs, the spiders and the grime.  There was actually a constant battle taking place down there that I was interrupting.  it was bug eat bug, spider eat bug and snake eat bugs and spiders wars.  Everything went in the bags.

I carefully hauled the bags out to the dumpster and out they went.  It took an entire day to clean one room.  Then the next day when I went back I completely cleaned it again.  This time paying more attention to making it livable.  I wanted these two rooms to be so clean that people could go down into these cool damp rooms in the hot summer and have a picnic down there and feel safe.  —  No one ever did though, but such is the life of a cable spreader room.  Years later Tom Gibson setup a sort of a greenhouse down there.

After that, each day I made my rounds of the switchgear, the cable spreader rooms and the cable tunnels killing any spider that showed it’s legs.  After the main battle in the two rooms and tunnels was over of countless spiders and bugs, I recorded about 230 spiders the next day by making my rounds.  The next day that dropped to around 150.  then 80, then 50 and on down.  Finally, when I was down to 3 or 4 spiders each day, I felt like the war was over and a weekly sweeping and daily walk-through would suffice to keep the switchgear safe.  This left the small janitor closet virtually free of spiders from that point.

The interesting twist of the entire battle against the spiders was that the electricians had seen my skills at “Battle Sweeping” and some of them had become impressed.  They told me that I didn’t have to sweep their shop and the main switchgear because they took turns doing it.  I still felt that as the janitor, with my battle hardened push broom, by paying a little more attention to detail would do a slightly better job.

The electricians didn’t really volunteer to clean the shop.  Whoever was the truck driver for that week was supposed to clean the shop at least one time during the week.  At $5.15 an hour, I was more of a volunteer than someone that was hired to do this chore, and I enjoyed it.  So, eventually, Charles Foster (An Electrical Foreman) popped the question to me one day…. He didn’t get down on one knee when he asked me, but either way, he asked me if I would think about becoming an Electrician.

That was something I hadn’t even considered until that moment.  The Electricians to me were the elite squad of Power Plant Maintenance.  Like the Results guys, but with a wider range of skills it seemed.  But that is a story for another time.

Since I originally posted this, I have written the post about the second war with spiders with Scott Hubbard by my side.  So, if this post wasn’t enough for you… read this one:  “Power Plant Spider Wars II The Phantom Menace“.  For a more tame story about spiders try this one:  “Power Plant Spider in the Eye“.

Comments from the previous post:

  1. standninthefire July 28, 2014

    I (a science major in college) always had a running debate with my psychology friends that psychology wasn’t really science. Granted, I only said that to get into an debate about the subject but I think you’re spot on when you say that psychology has an “art” component to it. It’s a combination of both but I think that the better psychologists are the ones who master the art.

  2. mpsharmaauthor July 29, 2014

    I didn’t think I would ever voluntarily read about spiders, but I have been proven wrong. Thank you for reminding me to never say never 🙂

  3. Jonathan Caswell July 29, 2014

    SPIDERS, BUGS AND BASEMENTS…OH MY!!!!

  4. Jim  July 29, 2014

    This has been some of the most enjoyable reading I’ve done for a looooong time 🙂

  5. sacredhandscoven October 21, 2014

    OMGosh, my skin is STILL crawling and I don’t think it will stop for a few decades! Your story reminds me of that scene in the Indiana Jones second movie where the girl had to reach into the bugs and pull the lever to save Indy’s life. If it had been me, he’d a been a goner! If anything has more than 4 legs it needs to stay away from me! I cannot imagine going through that cleaning job.

  6. Willow River January 28, 2015

    Good Lord, this is like reading a horror novel! I swear, if I had been anywhere near that sort of situation, you’d find me huddled up in some corner far away trying not to scream while I cry. This story only strengthens my belief that spiders are, to put it lightly, PURE EVIL!!! You, sir, are a very, very brave soul, and I salute you. From way over here, away from the spiders.

  7. iltorero February 7, 2015

    Curtis was bitten by Brown Recluse twice? They inflict some of the grossest wounds I’ve ever seen. We’ve got them in Maine, but they’re rare.

 

“I Think I Can, I Think I Can” and Other Power Plant Chants

Originally Posted on August 3, 2012 (I added a picture of Walt Oswalt):

The second summer as Summer Help at the Coal-fired Power Plant, was when I first worked out of the Automotive garage.  It wasn’t finished during the first summer.  The second summer when I began working in the garage, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley, Doug House  and Ken Conrad were the regular workers that mowed the fields using tractors with brush hogs, as I have explained in previous posts.  A summer help that also worked with us from Ponca City named David Foster was also able to mow grass using one of the new Ford tractors that we painted Orange to easily identify them as belonging to the Electric Company in Oklahoma.

I learned to drive the tractors later in the summer when I worked irrigating the fields in our attempt to grow grass (as told in the post “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It Pays To Listen“).  The next summer I was able to mow grass using a Brush Hog pulled behind a tractor:

brushhog

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

It didn’t take long before I had to mow grass on the side of the dam (and other levies).  The side of the dam has a very sharp incline, so while mowing grass on the side of the dam you sat more on the side of the tractor seat than on the seat itself.  Heavy weights were put on the front of the tractor and the back tires on the tractor were turned around so that they were farther apart than they would be otherwise.  This gave the tractor a lower, wider profile and a lower center of gravity helping to keep it from rolling over sideways down the slope.

Tractor Weights that fit on the front of the tractor

I had watched Jim, Larry, Ken and David mow grass along some very steep inclines the summer before without any tractors tumbling over, so I felt like it must be safe, even though looking at the tractors they still seemed a little “top heavy”.

The dam had a slope this steep but  much was taller

It was quite an eerie feeling the first time I actually mowed a slope this steep.  I experienced the same feeling as you have on a roller coaster when it hits the top of the hill and flings you down real fast when the tractor tire on the downhill side of the tractor rolls into a washed out spot on the dam causing the tractor to roll over just a little farther than you are used to.  It was definitely an adrenaline rush each time this happened, because it felt like the tractor was going to roll over.

That is when I remembered the story about the little engine that was trying to pull the train over the steep mountain, and he kept chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” over and over.  So, between each decade of the Rosary that I was saying while counting Hail Mary’s on my fingers, I added in an “I Think I can…” as an added prayer before the next “Our Father”.

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

In the time that I worked as a summer help we never turned over a tractor while mowing on a slope.  That isn’t to say that the tractors didn’t start to tip over.  It’s just that if you realize that the large back tractor tire has left the ground and is spinning freely, you could quickly turn the steering wheel downhill so that the tractor would turn downhill preventing it from rolling completely over.  The weight of the brush hog on the back helped to keep the tractor snug against the sloping dam.

Years later, after I left the Power Plant, in 2006, my father’s best friend, Tom Houghton, a Veterinarian in Lakeland, Florida was killed in a tractor accident at his family’s farm in Polo, Missouri.  This greatly effected my father.  He has not recovered from the loss of his friend still today.  As I was mowing grass and picturing my sudden demise if a tractor were to roll down the hill, my main concern was the sorrow my family would have felt by my death.  Needless to say… I never toppled a tractor.

It was during that same summer in 1981 that I first worked with the Power Plant Icon Walt Oswalt.  Every plant must have at least one person like Walt.  He is the type of person that once he has something in his mind about how to do something, nothing is going to change it.  I know many different stories about Walt Oswalt that have been shared with me, but this is one of my own.  Walt is a sandy-haired Irish-looking man that always reminded me of the little old man, Jackie Wright, on the Benny Hill Show.

Walt reminded me of Jackie Wright only with more hair

I now have an actual picture of Walt that I found laying around….

Walt Oswalt

Walt Oswalt — See the resemblence?  not much more hair

One Saturday while I had caught a ride to the Power Plant to do “coal cleanup” the crew was asked who would like to wash down belts 10 and 11.  These are the 1/2 mile long belts that go from the coalyard all the way up to the plant.  You can see them on the left side of the picture of the plant on the side of this post.  Finding the opportunity for a challenge, I volunteered.

I made my way up to the top of the Transfer tower where I found Walt Oswalt.  He was working out of the coalyard at the time and was helping us wash down 10 and 11 belt.  Wearing rainsuits and rubber boots we began at the top and worked our way down.  It didn’t look like this belt had been washed down for a while.  We could blast the tin enclosure with the high pressure hoses we were using to completely wash off all the coal dust that had built up over time.  This looked like it was going to be a fun job.

Then Walt pointed out to me that most of our work was under the belt where the coal had built up almost solid up to the belt itself so that the coal was rubbing on the rubber Uniroyal conveyor belt.  Remember, if the conveyor belt goes up, it has to go back down also.  So underneath the conveyor is where the belt returns.  it is a big loop.

Directly underneath this conveyor is the return for the belt

So, Walt Oswalt and I spent the rest of the day laying on the grating so we could see under the belts washing the coal down the slope of belt 10 and 11.  Under the conveyor is another set of rollers that the rubber conveyor belt rides on it’s return trip to the Crusher Tower.  During this time there were two chants that came to my mind…. One was, “Whistle While you Work”, since we seemed to be in some kind of coal mine working away like the Seven Dwarfs (you know…  Walt Disney… Walt Oswalt).  The other one was the song, “Workin’ In a Coal Mine” (…goin’ down down).

Disney’s Seven Dwarfs Mining

At one particular spot the coal had built up and packed itself in there so much that one of the rollers wasn’t able to turn and the belt was just rubbing on the roller.  After we had washed the coal away we could see that the roller was not able to turn still because the belt had worn it flat on one side.

Walt called the Control Room to shutdown the belt so that we could look at it.  We could see that the roller was bad.  For some reason the other belt (11) was out of commission so without this belt running, no coal was being sent up to the plant.  The coal silos and the surge bin hold enough coal for a while but not for too long during the summer when the units need to run at their maximum rate to supply the electricity needed by the customers.  We could have the belt shutdown for a while, but not for too long.

I followed Walt down the belt to the Crusher Tower wondering what he had in mind.  He didn’t tell me what we were going to do, so I just gathered my clues by watching what he did.  When we came out of the belt and left the Crusher I was surprised that it was already dark outside.  When I had left the Maintenance Shop it had been morning.  Now it was dark.  We had spent the entire day (12 hours at this point) in Belt 10 and 11.  I didn’t remember ever taking a break or eating lunch or even going to the bathroom.  Just holding the high pressure water hose, directing the stream down under the belt… all day.

We walked over to a new building that was still being built called the Coalyard Maintenance Building.  This was the new building that was going to be used by the new Labor Crew in a few months. Outside the building to one side was a Conex Box, as I have described before.  This is the kind of large box that you see on the CSX train commercials that are being transported by trains.

A Conex Box

We used them to store equipment used for specific jobs or crews.  In this case, the Conex box had conveyor equipment in it.  Walt found a long straight roller that is used under the Number 10 and 11 belts and tied it to a 2 wheel dolly.  We rolled it back to the Crusher Tower and began the long trek back up the belt.  I was pulling the dolly and Walt was carrying some large wrenches.

When we arrived at the spot where the roller had been worn, Walt called the control room to let them know we were beginning to work.  We pulled the safety cords on the side of the conveyor to ensure that the belt would not start, even though we were assured that a Clearance had been placed on the breaker in the Main Switchgear (where I began my first war with the spiders a year later.  See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“).

Walt climbed over the belt and I stayed on the main walkway.   We worked upside down for a while unbolting the roller.  At one point we decided we needed some more suitable tools and headed back down the belt to the Coalyard Garage where the heavy equipment is serviced and brought back some large ratchet wrenches and sockets with an extension.

Socket Wrench with extension

I think the chant, “I think I can, I think I can” was running through my head on our second trip back up the conveyor belt.  I think it was around 10pm.  We finished changing the roller and decided to leave the old one laying in the walkway for the night.  Walt said he would bring it back to the coalyard on Monday morning.

We made our way back to the Maintenance shop where I took off the rain suit and rubber boots that I had been wearing all day and put my regular boots back on.  I went up to the control room and asked if anyone could give me a ride to Stillwater since the evening shift of operators were just getting off at 11pm. I believe it was Charles Buchanan that gave me a ride home that night in his little beat up pickup truck.

I never worked directly with Charles Buchanan since he was an operator.  The first impression that one may have is that he looks like a caricature of a construction worker in a comic strip.

First Impression of Charles Buchanan

Charles reaffirmed my belief that Power Plant Men are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.  There were a few times when I caught a ride with Charles to or from the plant.  Each time I felt honored to ride in his truck.  If I think about what chant was running through my mind as we were on our way home at night, I think it would be something like the song “You’ve Got a Friend”: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend….”

That is what all real Power Plant men and linemen are like.  Wherever you look in the United States, these great men and women work tirelessly to keep you safe by providing electricity to your homes.  Something we take for granted until the power goes out.

Recently when the power went out in the east, the linemen from this electric company drove with pride, eager to help those in need:

A convoy of Electric Company Trucks on their way from Oklahoma to Indiana to help return power to millions of Americans in the dark

Below I have included the lyrics for the song “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King and her husband James Taylor.  See how well it fits those people that work around the clock bringing the power to your home:

You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend.

If the sky above you should turn dark and full of clouds
and that old north wind should begin to blow,
keep your head together and call my name out loud.
Soon I will be knocking upon your door.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there.

Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend? People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you. Well, they’ll take your soul if you let them,
oh yeah, but don’t you let them.

You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend. You’ve got a friend.
Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend. Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend.
Oh, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.

Here is a YouTube video of James Taylor singing this song:

If your aren’t able to play youtube videos directly from the picture… here is the link:  “You’ve got a Friend

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012.  Added a picture of Larry Riley:

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.

I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy.  You can see the house on the hill in the background

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a life time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  Each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Bif Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

Below the Economizer and above the air preheater in the diagram above.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was  probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.

As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Emergency Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp).  Anyway, I could go on and on.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back online in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time because of the heat.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a tee shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 160 degrees.  I was not wearing my  hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

Anyway, I threw the lanyard for my safety belt around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  Breathing slowly gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon-based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I tried tightening them, but I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out all the time.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross.  He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.

I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.

Comments from the previous repost:

  1. Jonathan Caswell August 12, 2014

    GLAD that you made it….even if the mallet didn’t!!!

    I can dig it. When I was hired for Security at one post…I really looked forward to working with and for that particular Supervisor who’d hired me. No such luck–she was gone in a month or two. THAT hurt! 🙂

  2. Ron Kilman August 13, 2014

    If the environment is too hot for a respirator to function properly in, it’s too hot for people to work in (if safety is actually job #1). I saw too many examples of “Get the Unit Back On is Job #1″.

 

Life and Death on the Power Plant Lake

Originally posted on August 18, 2012:

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

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

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

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him

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

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset across the lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sergeant Carter

George Dunagan

Or does he look more like Glenn Ford?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Comment from previous repost:

  1. Monty Hansen November 3, 2014

    Your story about George brought back warm memories of my own plant chemist, from long ago. “Chet Malewski”, a brilliant man in his own field, very kind, with a love of teaching and I was happy to soak up any knowledge he was willing to pass on. I took Chet fishing once & we spent the day in my boat. I find it amazing how much our power plant lives have paralleled. Chet resembled Albert Einstein in appearance.