Tag Archives: Oklahoma

How Power Plant Men “Ate My Lunch”

The 53rd “Rest Of” Power Plant Post

Originally posted: November 22, 2013:

I suppose you’ve heard it said that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The same is true at the Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked for 20 years first as a summer help, then a janitor, a laborer and finally as an electrician. I did find out when I was a janitor, that even though there may not have been a free lunch, there was often a carefully prepared lunch for special occasions.

I have written about when I was an electrician where I would sit in the electric shop office during lunch and Charles Foster and I would sit and talk day after day about various topics throughout the years (See the post “Eating Power Plant Pickles, Peppers and Ice Cream“). He kept my lunch well-stocked with various types of vegetables throughout the year. It seemed to me that I had little to offer in the way of providing for the team.

The electric shop would occasionally have a special feast for no apparent reason. I would walk into the shop one day and find a big pot of beans soaking in water. They would soak the beans overnight. When I saw that big pot of beans, I knew that tomorrow the shop would be having a real bean feast. It was funny, but before becoming an electrician, the only place I had ever heard the phrase, “Bean Feast” was from Varuca in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

It was customary that when there was going to be a shop lunch that we would each bring something to go with it. We often had someone that made some Sun Tea. That is, they would put some tea in a big jar of water and put it outside so that it could bake in the hot summer sun until lunch.

Sun Tea

A couple of jugs of tea sitting out in the sun making Power Plant Sun Tea

I was pretty inept with coming up with some kind of casserole, and I didn’t have ready-made vegetable garden like Charles, so at first I didn’t know how I could contribute. As time went by, whenever we had a shop lunch, I could always be counted on to bring a tray of brownies. I knew how to bake brownies.

Sometimes, when it was the right season, and Andy Tubbs and Ben Davis and others had gathered enough fish that they had a lot left over, we would be treated to a fish fry. That was one of my favorite lunches. I could eat fish anytime.

Chili was another shop treat that I was always glad to see. It broke the monotony of the same lunch I ate every day. The shop used to make the best spicy hot chili.

Sometimes the Maintenance shop would cook hamburgers or something, usually because they wanted to do something for the people from other plants that were visiting during overhaul, or they were raising money for someone who was sick, or had some tragedy in their life like their house burned down or something. Power Plant Men were always on the lookout for someone to help. I always felt it was my duty to pitch in by eating as many hamburgers as I could.

For years, for lunch I either only brought a ham sandwich or I brought a couple of boiled eggs for lunch. I tried not to spend too much time putting my lunch together in the morning, so I went for the quick fix. For a year, each morning when I woke up, before taking my shower I went in the kitchen, put a couple of eggs in a pan of water, put them on the stove, and headed for the shower.

By the time I came out of the shower, the eggs were ready to come out of the pan and into my Little Playmate lunch box with my salt shaker and a couple of paper towels to be used as napkins for when I peeled them at lunch time. I had to put the shells somewhere….

One exactly like this

One exactly like this

When I was on the labor crew I used to be able to eat all day long and remain thin. When I arrived in the electric shop, the amount of physical activity was a lot less. I found that buying a cinnamon roll from the vending machine for morning and afternoon break was no longer a viable idea. My weight quickly went from 145 pounds to 163 in a few short months.

So, I could no longer eat like a Hobbit. I had to watch my weight. I stopped drinking Dr. Peppers and bought Diet Cokes instead. I limited myself to my one sandwich or a couple of boiled eggs and a fruit, and whatever vegetable treats Charles would give me. That still didn’t seem to help me keep my weight down, so I had to take other measures.

I began drinking Slim Fast for lunch every day. I would bring a half gallon of skim milk and keep it in the refrigerator and then I would use half of it each day for lunch mixing up a glass of Slim Fast. This helped keep me fairly…. um…. less Hobbit-like.

I would mix up a helping of Slim Fast each day for lunch

I would mix up a helping of Slim Fast each day for lunch

I don’t remember how many years I continued drinking Slim-Fast for lunch, but I’m sure it was a number of years. The same lunch every day. A glass of Slim Fast for lunch. — Yum…. um…. Yum…..

One day as lunch time was rapidly approaching, I went to the Ice Box to retrieve my carton of milk to mix my Slim-Fast. When I opened the refrigerator door, I didn’t see the carton of milk. I stopped and thought. I was sure I had left a half carton of milk there from the day before…. Someone had obviously taken my milk. That was unusual. I would trust just about everyone in the shop with my life (well, there were a couple of them in the lab that I had my doubts). Surely I could trust them all with my carton of milk.

So, as Andy, Ben and Diana came to the Work Table slash Lunch Table, I asked if anyone had seen my carton of milk that was in the refrigerator. Andy Tubbs replied that he had thrown it out that morning. He had seen that carton of milk sitting in there for months and had figured that it had gone bad a long time ago, so that morning he had poured it down the drain.

Semi-stunned, I explained that I had only put that milk carton in the refrigerator yesterday, and that I put a new one in there every two day. But at this point what could you do? Andy shrugged his shoulders. Said something like, “Oh Well…” I hobbled back to the office feeling a little downtrodden that I wasn’t going to be able to feast on my cool Malt Chocolaty glass of Slim-Fast like I had for the past 100 weeks…. Like I said… I was a “little” downtrodden about it.

I sat down in the office across from Charles and told him that my milk had been inadvertently tossed out. The only thing I had in my lunchbox at that point was my can of Slim-Fast. Maybe I had a spare pocket knife, some old hardhat stickers and a rosary, but nothing really edible as a backup.

I sat there for a couple of minutes when the office door opened up and Andy walked in with a plastic Tupperware bowl. It was filled with some meat and vegetables. He placed it down in front of me, and turned to walk out. — Power Plant Men….. That’s how they are. He had given me, what looked like the majority of his lunch to eat.

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

In the 20 years that I worked at the Power Plant, I had eaten all kinds of foods for the first time. From Squirrel to Deer Jerky. I think this was some kind of Deer Stew. I can tell you that of all the lunches I ate during that time, I can vividly remember eating that lunch. It was a Power Plant Man lunch fit for a king.

I guess I was feeling guilty that I never could really contribute anything more than just a tray of stale brownies for the team lunches, so I told the shop that the next day I was going to prepare a salad for them. Like at a salad bar. The idea didn’t seem to excite them too much. Most of them were Meat and Potato type people, as I was myself. But I thought I would surprise them.

I went to the store that evening and bought all kinds of things that I could use to make a salad bar. The next day, I brought bean sprouts, Alfalfa Sprouts, boiled eggs, a ham, some spinach, leaf lettuce and iceberg lettuce, some diced beets, broccoli, cauliflower, and about 4 different kinds of salad dressing.

Around 9:30 after our morning break, I began working on setting up the counter for lunch. I began by dicing up the ham….. Well… using a regular old knife to slice ham into little tiny cubes takes a lot longer than I thought it would. It turned out that by the time I had finished with the ham, and sliced up about 6 boiled eggs, and slicing up a pound of mushrooms and washed and prepared the lettuce, and cheese and beets and lemons (for squeezing) and everything to make it look like a real salad bar, it was already lunch time.

Ok. My Salad bar didn't have this many items...

Ok. My Salad bar didn’t have this many items…

I think I surprised the electricians that day. I don’t think they were thinking that they were going to get anything more than a bowl of lettuce with some vinegar and oil. I did the best I could and they seemed to enjoy it. Being that they hadn’t really counted on my salad being a full blown lunch, I think many of them (or most of them) had went ahead and brought there regular lunch just in case.

I know this wasn’t a typical Power Plant Man Lunch. And it isn’t like I eat a lot of salads myself. I just thought it was something that I could do without having to cook a lot…. I mean… the ham was already cooked, and I knew how to boil eggs. So, I thought, what the heck. I’ll give it a try.

I wasn’t very good at showing my appreciation toward the electricians because….. well….. because I just was never much good at that. I only did something like that once that I can remember. The electricians on the other hand were constantly doing things to show their appreciation for others. At least there was that one day when the Power Plant Men “Ate My Lunch”!

Why Do Power Plant Men always Lose the Things they Love the Most?

The 52nd “Rest Of” Power Plant Post

Originally posted November 9, 2013:

One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards. My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service. There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.

A Circuit board with Electronic components

A Circuit board with Electronic components

I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs. Like I said. It was really fun.

I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having. Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing. He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.

Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job. Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application. I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about. He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.

I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….

I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School. He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri. We immediately became friends when we met. We both enjoyed the same things. The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.

I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games. So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me. We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.

One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.

Risk Board Game

Risk Board Game

Jesse was beating us so badly that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn. Then his mother called us for dinner.

Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice. When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal. Chili. So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.

After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home. On the way home my brother started to chuckle. I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” in his head. It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.

So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say. We would just yell out, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!” It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.

When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory. I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!!”

Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm. He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived. The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?” When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.” When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was. I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse! You’re my friend!”

So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine. It’s poetry to my ears. Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.

End of Side Story….

So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most? Well… because all good things had to come to an end. Electronic circuit boards included.

When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it. They just aren’t used much anymore. Everything has gone digital. Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips. It just isn’t quite the same.

So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant. By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors. We were programming chips. Now the circuit boards looked more like this:

A digital Circuit Board

A digital Circuit Board

Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using. We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor. We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing. When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.

A heat gun like this

A heat gun like this

There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit… Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.

Well. Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun. We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.

A bearing heater

A bearing heater

The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature. No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit. Oh well….

When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor. The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant. They were made from genuine Asbestos. I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves. Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing. You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well… They were taken away. Not deemed safe for use by humans.

In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”. That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.

Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator. Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface. But…. I wouldn’t know about that. I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.

Old Crank Telephone

Old Crank Telephone

A manual crank megger was similar….

Megger with a Crank

Megger with a Crank

Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing. We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places. Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards. I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.

An induction Bearing Heater

An induction Bearing Heater

This heater didn’t even get hot. The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.

The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.

As for the volt-ohm meters. Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter. I dare say. It was a step up from the old Simpson meter. A lot safer also:

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

And the Safety belt? Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body. So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

So… you see… What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs. Real Power Plant Men I mean. So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss. They lose those things they hold dear. Yeah. They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had. I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.

So. That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most. Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing. Power plant Men just change right along with it. But sometimes it hurts a little

Comments from original post:

  1.  

    Ron November 9, 2013

    Great story, Kevin.
    When I transferred to the Seminole Plant, one of my jobs was to do the “daily sheets”. For each generating unit I calculated total MW, steam flow, gas burned, average temperatures and pressures, etc. We were privileged to have the first non-mechanical calculators in an OG&E Power Plant. The old calculators (I used at Mustang and Horseshoe Lake) were mechanical – motors, gears, shafts, levers, dials, and more gears. They made cool sounds when you hit the “Total” key. They even had a unique smell too. We paid $900 for each Monroe calculator in 1970. They didn’t make any noises. They didn’t give off any scent, either. But they were much faster, smaller, and lighter. I missed the old mechanicals. I still have the Post slide rule I used at OU too.

  2.  

    Eve MEL Thomson November 9, 2013

    Sadly, change is progress. I used a blackboard, now it’s a white board!

  3.  

    Wendell A. Brown November 11, 2013

    I loved your post, change comes in our lives but hopefully in our lives we blossom and become better for it, and always cherish the memories. I smiled a thousand times while reading it and will always remember “Jessie come eat your chili! Blessings!

  4.  

    Jack Curtis November 13, 2013

    Change, yes…but it’s more than that. Old time craftsmen involved a lot of themselves in their work. I remember men who grabbed a wire to determine the voltage on it. A lot of work was done by feel, a sort of extra sense that craftsmen developed on the job. Projects came out right because they knew what was intended and how to make it happen that way. They were an important link in the chain of production.

    Now so much work is untouched by human hands; merely moved along by button-pushers who have replaced true craftsmen. An old time carpenter or electrician could do things today’s replacements never dream of. Cabinet makers and machinists are gone, replaced by machine operators. Much is no doubt gained, but so much is lost…

    An average man in those days, was pretty competent with his hands, expected to have a list of skills and competencies…and that’s gone, too.

 

Telling Time Power Plant Man Style

The 51st “Rest Of” Power Plant Post

Originally posted November 1, 2013:

You would think that telling time is a pretty universal past time. I used to think that myself. That is, until I went to work at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I first went to work there in 1979 as a summer help. I noticed something was different when I walked into the office to meet the Assistant Plant Manager, Bill Moler and the clock on his wall looked kind of funny. I had to stare at it for a moment before I realized what it meant:

24 hour clock

24 hour clock

The Power Plant Men called it Military Time because many of them had been in the military during the Vietnam War and had learned to tell time using this type of clock. When we filled out our timecards at the end of the day we put 0800 to 1600 Well. I put in the colons like this: 8:00 to 16:00 but that wasn’t the real Power Plant Man way to do it.

That wasn’t the only thing I learned about Power Plant Man time. Power Plant Men keep time in other ways. One of those ways, though it involves a clock, the time being observed isn’t the time of day. Instead it centers around five events.

Startin’ Time, Morning Break, Lunch Time and Afternoon Break and Quitin’ Time. A Power Plant Man’s day revolves around these events.

The moment Startin’ Time begins, the Power Plant Men are looking forward to Morning Break. They schedule their efforts around this event. That is, if they need to do a certain job that would run them into Morning Break, then they figure out something else to do, and push that event out until Morning Break is over.

In General, Morning Break would begin at 9:30 (Oh. I mean 0930 — pronounced “Oh Nine Thirty”). It was supposed to be 15 minutes long, but in order to make sure you didn’t miss your break, you usually headed toward the shop 15 minutes early. Then by the time you headed back out the door to and returned to your work, another 10 to 15 minutes went by. Essentially stretching morning break from 15 minutes to 40 to 45 minutes.

This was especially true in the early days of the Power Plant. The Power Plant Men’s culture evolved over time so that the actual time spent on their 15 minute break probably shortened from 45 minutes to 30 minutes.

The idea that the employees weren’t spending every moment of their day when not on break working just confounded Plant Managers, such as the “Evil Plant Manager” that I often talk about. Our first plant manager was so tight, when he worked at a gas plant in Oklahoma City, he was known for taking rags out of the trash and putting them back in the rag box because they weren’t dirty enough.

Now that I work at Dell as a Business Systems Analyst (and since I first wrote this post, I have changed jobs and now work for General Motors) after many years of working for great managers and not-so-great managers, I am always relieved when I find that a new manager doesn’t measure you by how many hours you are sitting at the computer, but by your results.

For those that looked closely at the performance of the Power Plant Men at our particular plant, they would find that when a job needed to be done, it would be done… on time. The bottom line was that when you treat the employees with respect, they go the extra mile for you.

“Quitin’ Time” was always an interesting time. From the first day that I arrived as a summer help (1979) until the day I left 22 years later (2001), Even though “Quitin’ Time” was at 4:30 (or 1630, later changing to 1730), it really began at 4:00 (or 1600, pronounced “sixteen hundred”).

at 4:00, a half hour before it was time to go out to the parking lot and drive home, everyone would return to the shop, where they would spend the next 30 minutes cleaning up and filling out their daily timecard. The timecard was, and probably still is, a sheet of paper.

A Daily timecard similar to this

A Daily timecard similar to this

Amazing huh? You would think with the way things are that paper timecards would have disappeared a long time ago. I could be wrong about that. If it is any different at the plant today, I’ll encourage one of them to leave a comment below updating me.

There are other ways that Power Plant Men tell time. Sure, they know that there are seasons, like Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring. But it is more likely that in their minds the Power Plant Men are thinking more like this…. Instead of Summer, they would think that this is “Peak Load”. That is, the units need to stay operational because the citizens of this country are in dire need of air conditioning.

Instead of Fall, there are two thoughts running through a Power Plant Man’s mind…. Hunting Season and the start of “Overhauls”.

As hunting season nears, many Power Plant Men are staking out their territories and setting up their deer stands. Some are out practicing with their bows as Bow Season starts first before you can use a rifle. The Plant staff didn’t like their employees taking off Christmas vacation, and did everything they could to keep you in town during the holiday. But when it came down to it… The real time to worry was during hunting season.

An Overhaul is when you take one of the units offline to work on things that you can’t work on when it is running. the main area being inside the boiler. When overhauls come around, it is a chance for working a lot of overtime. The pay is good especially if you get to go to another plant to work because then you not only get to work 10 or 12 hour days, but you receive a Per Diem of somewhere from $28.50 to $35.00 each day depending on how far back you want to look.

I don’t know what the Per Diem is today. I’m sure it must be much higher. Plus you get driving time back and forth each week, and you also receive mileage! So, you can see why Power Plant Men were often very anxious to go away on overhaul.

Overhaul season ran from the Fall into the Spring. It is during that time when the electric company could take a couple of units offline at a time because the electric demand wasn’t so high.

Another season that many Power Plant Men counted on was “Fishing Season”. It wasn’t like the other seasons, because it kind of ran into a lot of the others. If the weather was right, and the rain was right and the Missus was all right with it… Then it was fishing season. There were different types of fishing. In the electric shop, “Noodling” was popular. That is when you reach under the rocks in a river and feel around for a fish and then end up catching it with your bare hands.

Here is a picture I found on Google Images of someone that noodled an over-sized catfish

Here is a picture I found on Google Images of someone that noodled an over-sized catfish

Another timekeeping tool used by Power Plant men was “Pay Day”. It came around every two weeks. After a while everyone was on direct deposit, so it wasn’t like they were all waiting around for someone to actually hand them a paycheck. Many did plan their trips to the mall or to the gun shows in Oklahoma City around Pay Day. It was common to live from paycheck to paycheck.

If you worked in the coalyard, then you calibrated your clock by when the next coal train was going to roll into the dumper. There was generally a steady stream of coal trains coming and going. When a coal train was late, or even early, then I think it seemed to throw some coalyard hands into a state of confusion. But, then again, now that I think about it…. Walt Oswalt usually did seem to be in a state of confusion. — I’m just joking of course….. Well… you know…

If you were a Control Room Operator, then you were in a sort of Twilight Zone, because there really was only one small window in the entire Control room and that was only so that you could look through a small telescope at the Main Power Substation in case…. well… in case you were bored and you needed to be reassured that the world still did exist out there.

In the control room, there were clocks, but the control room operators had a lot more pretty lights to look at back then. Here is my favorite picture of a Power Plant Control Room (not the one where I worked):

I love this picture!

I love this picture!

See all those lights? Now everything is on the computer. That way if some foreign terrorist group decides they want to shut down the electric grid, all they have to do is hack into the system and down it goes. They couldn’t do that when the control room looked like this.

It seemed that being in the control room was out of time. It didn’t matter what time of the day you went in the control room. In the morning, the afternoon, even at two in morning. It always seemed the same. There were always two control room operators sitting or standing at their posts. The Shift Supervisor was sitting in his office, or was standing somewhere nearby. Other operators were walking in and out going on their rounds. I think the Control Room operators only knew that it was time to go home because the next shift would show up to take their place.

Electricians on the other hand, had their own kind of timekeeping. Well, not all of them… ok…. well… maybe just me…. I used an oscilloscope a lot when I was working on the precipitator controls, and so very small amounts of time meant a lot to me. For instance… The regular 60 cycle electricity in your house goes from zero to about 134 volts and then back to zero about every 8 and 1/3 thousands of a second (or .00833333…).

I used an Analog oscilloscope like this until we were given a new Digital one where you could zoom in and do all sorts of neat things.

I used an Analog oscilloscope like this until we were given a new Digital one where you could zoom in and do all sorts of neat things.

I will talk about it later, but when you are testing tripping relays, even as little as one thousandth of a second can be important. So, telling time with an oscilloscope can vary widely.

Then there were those timekeeping Power Plant Men that kept time by how long it was going to be to retirement. It was more of a countdown. I remember one Power Plant Man saying that he only had 21 more years and then he was “outta there”. An even more sad story was when Charles Lay at Muskogee who was 63 asked me to figure out his retirement because he wanted to retire in 2 years. Well….. sad to say… He had only been working there for 3 or so years, so his retirement package wasn’t going to be much and had never put anything into a 401k or an IRA.

Additional note:

Ben Davis just informed me this week (12/27/2020) that Charles Lay just passed away.

End of additional note.

Those who spent their lives working at the plant were able to retire with great benefits. It wasn’t like a union with all the healthcare and stuff, but the company did offer a very good retirement plan for those that had been there for the long haul. I suppose at this point they are measuring time in terms of their lifetime.

What it boils down to is that some Power Plant Men measured their life one-day-at-a-time, while others just looked at the entire time of their life as one time. Some looked forward to a time when they would be able to rest, while others enjoyed their work each day.

When I think about time, I realize that an infinite number of things can take place each second. Yet, a lifetime can go by without ever grasping what is important and what is fleeting. When I think back at the time that I spent working at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, what I feel is that I was blessed by the presence of such great men and women and it was time well spent.

Comments from Original Post:

  1.  

    Ron November 2, 2013:

    Time ran backwards on one clock at the Seminole Plant. Bob Henley (Seminole Plant Electrical Supervisor) rewired his office clock motor to run in reverse! You had to mentally reverse the clock face to read the time. If you noticed the smallest “hand” tracking seconds was moving counter-clockwise, that gave you a clue. Bob was a unique Power Plant Man.

  2.  

    Roomy: November 5, 2013:

    If you will remember we were working with guys from the Korean, Vietnam & WW2 back then. As for the time cards, what a mess, some like me do direct entry into SAP and some put it on a spreadsheet that the timekeeper can cut & paste. Yes, there are some that still do timecards every day!!!! I would like to relate a little more but it is almost lunch time!! Maybe after my final break I can pass on more info. Later

    Comments from the last repost

      1.  

        coffeegrounded November 5, 2014

        I sometimes feel like a fly on the wall…a fly spy, if you will. LOL

        I worked in Tulsa for a vendor-on-site at the A/A Computer Center. Got quickly indoctrinated with Military time. To this day I still enjoy using it. Go figure…must be the Military brat in me. 😉

    1.  

      Tory Thames November 6, 2014

      The planet I work in still uses Military time for everything. They no longer use time cards as everything is computerized, but the whole plant still looks at time the same way. Thankfully, we have outside break rooms. And you still have people that go out just to check that the world is still moving. It blows me away how much of life in a factory/plant revolves around this type of time that’s described. It’s truly like you say it is. At least of your little plant.

Power Plant Catholic Calibrating Cathodic Protection

The 50th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post

Originally posted October 25, 2015.

It was no secret at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that I was Catholic. When I was a summer help and working on the labor crew, I wore a large crucifix under my tee shirt. I had worn the crucifix since I was 13 years old.

I wore a crucifix like this

I wore a crucifix just like this only one size larger

When I joined the electric shop I had to take it off. Electricians should not wear any kind of metal jewelry for the obvious reason that if it were to come into contact with a “hot” circuit, the effect would be the same as if I wrapped the live electric wire around my neck. In other words… I could easily have been electrocuted.

In place of the crucifix, I wore a Scapular instead. Wearing a cord around my neck was unsafe enough, but it didn’t take much for the cord to break away from the piece of cloth on either end.

The Brown Scapular. It is worn so that one of cloth is in the front and the other is in the back.

The Brown Scapular. It is worn so that one of cloth is in the front and the other is in the back.

So, as I said, most everyone at the plant knew that I was Catholic. It was common for someone to see the cloth with the picture on it sticking out the back of my tee shirt and ask me, “What is that around your neck with the postage stamp on it?” I usually hesitated to answer the question because I understood that living in Oklahoma where there was only a 5% Catholic population, the Catholic Church was greatly misunderstood and I really didn’t want to enter a lengthy discussion about why Catholics do what they do.

Diana Brien (my bucket buddy) helped me out one day when someone asked me why I wore the scapular, and I was hesitating trying to decide if they wanted a short answer or a long one, when Diana broke in and said, “It’s a Catholic thing.” I quickly agreed. “Yeah. It’s a Catholic thing. It reminds me to be good. I need all the reminders I can get. Sort of like ‘Catholic Protection’.”

Before I discuss what a Power Plant Catholic has to do with checking Cathodic Protection, let me just add that though I wasn’t the only Catholic at the plant, I was sort of the “Token” Catholic. Which meant, when someone wanted a straight answer about what the Catholic Church believes about any subject, I was the person that they turned to for answers.

Living in the midst of the Bible Belt, Monday mornings is when most of the questions would be asked. Preachers from various religions would occasionally say something during their Church service about Catholics and their “strange” beliefs. So, the next day, some would come to me to hear the other side of the story.

I will list a few questions…. “Why do Catholics say, ‘Hell Mary’?” “Is it true that the Pope has 666 on his Tiara?” “Is it true that Catholics are not able to say the entire ‘Our Father’?” “Are Catholics really against abortion because they need newborn babies to sacrifice in the basement of their Church?” “Is it true that Catholics can’t say for sure that they are going to heaven?” Aren’t Catholics cannibals by believing they are eating the real Body and Blood of Jesus?” “Don’t Catholics believe that they can do anything wrong they want because they know that they can just go to confession and have it forgiven?”

These are all actual questions I was asked when I was an electrician at the power plant. I understood why the Power Plant Men were asking me the questions, and I respectfully answered them. I would rather they felt comfortable asking me these questions than just going around thinking that I was some kind of barbaric pagan behind my back.

By feeling free to talk to me about being Catholic, I knew that I was respected by the Power Plant Men even though I was from a religion that they viewed as far from their own. There was one day when this became obvious to me.

I was on the second landing on Unit 2 boiler just about to enter the boiler enclosure when Floyd Coburn walked out. He was nicknamed “Coal Burner” partly because he was black, and partly because he worked in the coal yard for a long time, but mostly because his last name was Coburn which sounds a lot like Coal Burner. Someone figured that out one day, and called him that, and it stuck. When Floyd came out of the enclosure he stopped me. He tapped me on the arm and signaled for me to follow him.

We stepped out of the walkway a short distance and he held out his fist in front of me. Floyd was built like a wrestler. Actually, he was State Champion of the 148 lb weight class for 4A High Schools in Oklahoma in 1972 and 1973. This meant a lot because in Oklahoma, Wrestling was an important sport. He also had earned an associates degree at Rogers State College in Claremore.

Not once did I ever hear Floyd Coburn brag about his accomplishments, or even mention them. I suspect that few people if any knew much about Floyd’s background because as much fun as he was to work with, he was very humble, as are most True Power Plant Men.

Floyd was grinning at me as if he was about to show me a trick or a joke or something. Then he opened his fist. In the middle of his palm he held a small crucifix. The size of one on a typical rosary.

A rosary

A rosary

When I saw the cross I looked up at Floyd and he was grinning ear-to-ear. I gave him a puzzled looked. Then he told me. “I found Jesus! I just wanted you to know. I know you would understand.”

I felt very privileged that Floyd felt like sharing his experience with me. I thanked him for letting me know. I patted him on the shoulder and we went on our way.

Throughout the years after that, Floyd would set me down every now and then and share how he was expanding his faith with Jesus. He finally became a minister and re-opened a Church in Ponca City where his family used to worship when he was a boy. Floyd was the Pastor of the Broken Heart Ministers Church.

I always felt blessed that he came to me to tell me about his journey. The last time I talked with Floyd Coburn was around Christmas, 2005. I had dropped in at the plant to say hello while I was visiting Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Floyd wanted to talk to me about the progress he was making as Pastor of the Church in Ponca City. He explained the troubles he was having and asked for my prayers. He felt as if the devil was fighting against him. I assured him I have always kept him in my prayers.

One day around the end of October 2006, I felt compelled to write to the plant about a Power Plant Man David Hankins, who had died after my first summer as a summer help in 1979. I have always remembered him on November 1, All Saints Day, because I know that he’s in heaven as he had a tremendous heart.

I hadn’t written to the plant for some time. When I did, I received a couple of e-mails back telling me that Floyd Coburn had died on August 25 during his son’s birthday party. He died of a sudden heart attack.

Though I felt very sorrowful for Floyd’s family because of the circumstance surrounding his death, I felt a great relief for Floyd. I know he had a great desire to be united with Jesus Christ.

So. Now that I discussed some of my experience as a Catholic at the Power Plant, let me tell you about Cathodic Protection (that is not a misspelling of ‘Catholic Protection’).

Have you ever noticed on a car battery how one post is more shiny, than the other post? Especially after it has been in your car for a while. It’s not real noticeable so you may not have realized it. The shiny post is the Cathode or Positive post. Well. Cathodic Protection is just that.

You see the main ingredient besides Power Plant Men at a Power Plant is Iron. The boilers are almost entirely made from the stuff. There are underground and above ground pipes running all over the place. Well. You can paint most of the iron that is above the ground to keep it from rusting, but it doesn’t work very well when you bury the pipes and structure in the dirt.

So, how do you protect your investment? The answer is by using Cathodic Protection. There is a grounding grid made of copper wires buried in the dirt that ties to all the metal objects around the plant grounds. This not only helps absorb things like lightening strikes, but it also allows for the seemingly miraculous anti-rust system known as “Cathodic Protection”.

This is how Cathodic Protection works… You bury a large piece of metal in the dirt and you tie a negative DC (direct current) power source to it. Then you tie the positive power to the grounding grid. By creating a positive charge on the boiler structure and the piping you inhibit rusting, while you enhance the corrosion on the large piece of buried metal with the negative charge.

A nifty trick if you ask me. The only thing about using cathodic protection is that you have to keep an eye on it because the large piece of buried metal will eventually need to be replaced, or the charge will need to be adjusted as it decays in order to protect all the other metal in the plant.

A Cathodic Protection Rectifier liek those at the Power Plant

A Cathodic Protection Rectifier like those at the Power Plant

The Power Plant doesn’t just have one source for cathodic protection. There are numerous boxes placed around the plant that protected a specific set of equipment and buildings. So, when it came time to do Cathodic Protection checks, we would go to each station and take readings. If there were anomalies in the readings then someone would be alerted, and tap settings may be adjusted. In extreme cases, the large piece of metal would need to be replaced with a new one…. Though I never saw that happen.

Once I understood the concept of how Cathodic Protection worked I came to the conclusion that what Catholic Protection was doing for me, Cathodic Protection was doing for the Power Plant. It was helping to prevent corrosion.

If you don’t keep a close watch on how well your Cathodic Protection is doing, then you won’t realize when it needs to be re-calibrated. I have found the same thing applies with how well I am doing as a person. Sometimes I find I need to do a little adjustment to keep myself in line…

When checking a Cathodic Protection rectifier, when you use your multimeter to check the voltages, you have to put your leads and usually your hands into a container of transformer oil. This is somewhat messy and unpleasant. But we realize that it is something that just has to be done. We may wear latex disposable gloves to help keep our hands from soaking in the oil, but inevitably, I would end up dripping some on my jeans.

It’s the same way when trying to adjust myself to be a better person. It seems a little unpleasant at first, but you know it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s swallowing your pride. Sometimes it’s admitting that you are wrong. Sometimes it is just getting off your duff and stop being so lazy.

This is why I always felt so honored working with such True Power Plant Men. They were the ones that, even though they struggled in their individual lives like the rest of us, they always kept their mind on what was right and used that as a guide to make the right decisions.

When Power Plant Durability and Automation Goes Too Far

The 49th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post

Originally posted 10/12/2013

Everyone expects when they enter an elevator and push a button for the 3rd floor that when the doors open they will find themselves on the third floor. It doesn’t occur to most people what actually has to happen behind the scenes for the elevator to go through the motions of carrying someone up three stories. In most cases you want an automated system that requires as little interaction as possible.

I have found while working in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma that some systems are better off with a little less than perfect automation. We might think about that as we move into a new era of automated cars, robot soldiers and automatic government shutdowns. Let me give you a for instance.

The coal trains that brought the coal from Wyoming all the way down to the plant would enter a building called “The Dumper.” Even though this sounds like a less savory place to park your locomotive, it wasn’t called a Dumper because it was a dump. It was called a Dumper because it “Dumped.” Here is a picture of a dumper:

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

The coal train would pull into this room one car at a time. I talked about the dumper in an earlier post entitled “Lifecycle of a Power Plant Lump of coal“. As each car is pulled into this building by a large clamp called the “Positioner” (How is that for a name? It is amazing how when finding names for this particular equipment they decided to go with the “practical” words.

The Positioner positions the coal cars precisely in the right position so that after the car clamps come down on the car, it can be rotated upside down “Dumping” the coal into the hoppers below. No fancy names like other parts of the power Plant like the “Tripper Gallery” or the “Generator Bathtub” here.

A typical coal train has 110 cars full of coal when it enters the dumper. In the picture of the dumper above if you look in the upper left corner you will see some windows. This is the Dumper Control Room. This is where someone sits as each car pulls through the dumper and dumps the coal.

Not long after the plant was up and running the entire operation of the dumper was automated. That meant that once put into motion, the dumper and the controls would begin dumping cars and continue operating automatically until the last car was through the dumper.

Let me try to remember the sequence. I know I’ll leave something out because there are a number of steps and it has been a while since I have been so fortunate as to work on the dumper during a malfunction… But here goes…

I remember that the first coal car on the train had to positioned without the positioner because… well….. the car directly in front of the first car is, of course, the locomotive. Usually a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Engine.

A picture from Shutterstock of a locomotive pulling a coal train

A picture from Shutterstock of a locomotive pulling a coal train

Before I explain the process, let me show you a picture of the Positioner. This the machine that pulls the train forward:

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

The automation begins after the first or second car is dumped. I’ll start with the second car just finishing the process as it rolls back up right after dumping the coal… The car clamps go up.

  • The rear holding arm (that holds the car in place from the entrance side of the dumper) lifts up out of the way.
  • The Positioner begins pulling the entire train forward.
  • Electric eyes on both end of the dumper detect when the next car has entered the dumper.
  • The Positioner adjusts the position of the coal car to the exact position (within an inch or two) by backing up and pulling forward a couple of times.
  • The Holding arm on the back end comes down on the couplings between the two train cars one back from the car that is going to be dumped.
  • The four car clamps come down on the train car at the same time that the dumper begins rotating.
  • The Positioner clamp lifts off of the train car couplings.
  • Water Sprayers come on that are attached to the top of the dumper so that it wets the coal in order to act as a dust suppression.
  • The Positioner travels back to the car clamp between the car that was just emptied before and the car in front of it.
  • As the train car rotates to the desired angle. (I think it’s about 145 degrees), it begins slowing down.
  • When the car has been rotated as far as desired it comes to a stop.
  • The Dumper pauses for a few seconds as all the coal is dumped from the coal car.
  • The Positioner moves back and forth until it is in just the right position for the positioner arm to lower onto the couplings between the cars.
  • The Sprayers turn off.
  • The Dumper begins returning to an upright position.
  • The Positioner arm lowers down onto the clamps between the coal cars.
  • Once the car is upright the dumper stops rotating.
  • The 4 car clamps go up.
  • The Holding arm goes up. And the process is repeated.

This is a beautiful process when it works correctly. Before I tell you about the times it doesn’t work correctly, let me tell you about how this process was a little…uh… too automated…

So. The way this worked originally, was that once the automated process was put into operation after the second car had been dumped, all the dumper control room operator had to do was sit there and look out the window at the coal cars being dumped. They may have had some paperwork they were supposed to be doing, like writing down the car numbers as they pulled through the dumper. It seems that paperwork was pretty important back then.

Each car would pull through the dumper… The coal would be dumped. The next car would be pulled in… etc.

Well. Trains come from Wyoming at any time of the day. Train operators were paid pretty well, and the locomotive engineers would come and sit in the control room while the train was being dumped. Often (more often than not it seemed) the trains would pull into the dumper in the middle of the night. Coalyard operators were on duty 24 by 7.

So, imagine this…. Imagine Walt Oswalt… a feisty sandy haired Irishman at the dumper controls around 3 in the morning watching 110 cars pull through the dumper. Dumping coal…. One after the other. I think the time it took to go from dumping one car to the next was about 2 1/2 minutes. So it took about 3 1/2 hours to dump one train (I may be way off on the time… Maybe one of the operators would like to leave a comment below with the exact time).

This meant that the dumper operator had to sit there and watch the coal cars being slowly pulled through the dumper for about 3 hours. Often in the middle of the night.

For anyone who is older than 30 years, you will remember that the last car on a train was called a Caboose. The locomotive engineers called it a “Weight Car”. This made me think that it was heavy. I don’t know. It didn’t look all that heavy to me… You decide for yourself:

A Caboose

A Caboose

Back in those days, there was a caboose on the back of every train. A person used to sit in there while the train was going down the tracks. I think it was in case the back part of the train accidentally became disconnected from the front of the train, someone would be back there to notice. That’s my guess. Anyway. Later on, a sensor was placed on the last car instead of a caboose. That’s why you don’t see them today. Or maybe it was because of something that happened one night…

You see… it isn’t easy for Walt Oswalt (I don’t mean to imply that it was Walt that was there that night.. well… it sounds like I’m implying that doesn’t it…. I use Walt when telling this story because he wouldn’t mind. I really don’t remember who it was) to keep his eyes open and attentive for 3 straight hours. Anyway… One night while the coal cars were going through the dumper automatically being dumped one by one… there was a point when the sprayers stopped spraying and the 4 car clamps rose, and there there was a moment of pause, if someone had been there to listen very carefully, they might have heard a faint snoring sound coming from the dumper control room.

That is all fine and dandy until the final car rolled into the dumper. You see… One night…. while all the creatures were sleeping (even a mouse)… the car clamps came down on the caboose. Normally the car clamps had to be raised to a higher position to keep them from tearing the top section off of the caboose.

If it had been Walt… He woke when he heard the crunching sound of the top of the caboose just in time to see the caboose as it swung upside down. He was a little too late hitting the emergency stop button. The caboose rolled over. Paused for a moment as the person manning the caboose came to a rest on the ceiling inside… then rolled back upright all dripping wet from the sprayer that had meant to keep down the dust.

As the car clamps came up… a man darted out the back of the caboose. He ran out of the dumper…. knelt down… kissed the ground… and decided from that moment on that he was going to start going back to church every Sunday. Ok. I exaggerate a little. He really limped out of the dumper.

Needless to say. A decision had to be made. It was decided that there can be too much automation at times. The relay logic was adjusted so that at the critical point where the dumper decides to dump a coal car, it had to pause and wait until the control room operator toggled the “Dump” switch on the control panel. This meant that the operator had to actively decide to dump each car.

As a software programmer…. I would have come up with another solution… such as a caboose detector…. But given the power that was being exerted when each car was being dumped it was probably a good idea that you guaranteed that the dumper control room operator actually had his eyeballs pointed toward the car being dumped instead of rolled back in his head.

I leave you with that thought as I go to another story. I will wait until another time to talk about all the times I was called out at night when the dumper had failed to function.

This is a short story of durability…

I walked in the electric shop one day as an electrician trainee in 1984 to find that Andy Tubbs had taken an old drill and hooked it up to the 480 volt power source that we used to test motors. Ok. This was an odd site. We had a three phase switch on the wall with a fairly large cable attached with three large clips so we could hook them up to motors that we had overhauled to test the amperage that they pulled to make sure they were within the specified amount according to their nameplate.

I hesitated a moment, but I couldn’t resist…. I had to ask, “Andy…. Why have you hooked up that old drill to 480? (it was a 120 volt drill). He replied matter-of-factly (Factly? Can I really say that in public?), “I am going to burn up this old drill from the Osage Plant (See “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace” for more information about Osage Plant) so that I can turn it in for a new one.

Ok. I figured there must be a policy somewhere that said that if you turned in a burned up tool they would give you a new one. I knew that Bud Schoonover down at the toolroom was always particular about how he passed out new tools (I have experienced the same thing at my new job when trying to obtain a new security cable for my laptop).

Anyway. Andy turned the 480 volts on and powered up the drill. The drill began whining as it whirled wildly. Andy stood there holding up the drill as it ran in turbo mode for about five minutes. The drill performed like a champ.

Old Power Drill

Old Power Drill

After showing no signs of burning itself up running on 480 volts instead of 120 volts, Andy let off of the trigger and set it back on the workbench. He said, “This is one tough drill! I think I’ll keep it.” Sure. It looked like something from the 1950’s (and it probably was). But, as Andy said, it was one tough drill. On that day, because of the extra Durability of that old Pioneer Power Plant Drill, Andy was robbed of a new variable speed, reversible drill that he was so craving.

new variable speed reversible drill

new variable speed reversible drill

Comments from original post:

 

 

Ron October 12, 2013:

Great stories!
Coal trains today have engines at the rear of the train. I hope we never try to dump one of them!

 

devin October 12, 2013:

It takes about 7 hrs to dump 150 car train

 

Bruce Kime October 12, 2013:

Wasn’t Walt but a certain marine we won’t mention. They dumped the last car & forgot to put the car clamps in the up maximum position. They give the go ahead for the train to pull the caboose through! Instant convertible caboose! Now there are break away clamps on the north side. And there are locomotives on the rear of the train because the trains are made up of 150 cars .

 

NEO October 12, 2013:

Like you, I can think of several ways to automate the process without dumping the caboose but I think the operator pushing the button may be the best. Automation can get out of hand.

 

Jack Curtis November 3, 2013:

An engineer used to remind us: “A machine always does what you tell it to…whether you want it to, or not.”
IF the union or the lawyers require a duty operator on an automated process, I’m all for giving him a button to push and attaching some responsibility. All automation designs are approved by Murphy…Wow! Thanks for the update Bruce!

Eating Power Plant Pickles, Peppers and Ice Cream

The 48th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post

Originally posted October 4, 2013

Pickles and Ice Cream usually makes one think of things other than Coal-Fired Power Plants, but when I think of Pickles, peppers or Ice Cream, my first thoughts are of the Electric Power Plant where I used to work. The place where I spent 20 years of my life in North Central Oklahoma. I suppose I have Charles Foster to thank for that.

Charles Foster

I wrote about Charles earlier this year in the post “Personal Power Plant Hero – Charles Foster“. In that post I explained about how Charles and I would sit in the electric shop office at lunch time talking about movies that we had seen. We would take turns telling each other about the movies in such great detail that when it came time for me to actually watch “Mrs. Doubtfire” for the first time, I felt as if I had seen it before as Charles had explained every scene to me in technicolor.

Robin Williams playing Mrs. Doubtfire

Robin Williams playing Mrs. Doubtfire

The other thing that we would do during lunch, of course, was eat lunch. Being that naturally boring person that I am, I would usually bring the same ham sandwich to work each day. Day-in and day-out, I would eat a ham sandwich, and an apple, or some other kind of fruit depending on the time of year.

If it hadn’t been for Charles I never would have experienced the finer side of Power Plant Lunch Time. Charles was an avid gardener. He had a very large garden between his house and the road where he lived out in the country.

People from Pawnee, Oklahoma would judge the world economic situation just by taking a ride out in the country to take a look at how Charles’ garden was coming along. Between Charles Foster and the Farmer’s Almanac, there was little guesswork left.

I was the beneficiary of this little piece of the Garden of Eden amid the arid Oklahoma prairie. Though I never came to take it for granted, every day when I opened my lunch box to retrieve my ham sandwich with American Cheese and a bit of Miracle Whip to keep the bread from sliding off, I would be given an extra treat from one of the kindest people I know. Charles would hand me something special from his garden.

Cherry Tomatoes were a common, but always special treat.

A perfect Cherry Tomato by Shelley Hourston at dogsbestfriend.wordpress.com

A perfect Cherry Tomato by Shelley Hourston at dogsbestfriend.wordpress.com

I include this perfect photo of a cherry tomato by Shelley Hourston because this is the kind of cuisine I was subjected to on a regular basis. I almost suspect that Shelley stopped by Charles’ garden to find this tomato. It makes the question about whether the cherry tomato is a fruit or a vegetable a moot point. The real answer is that it is a feast.

Growing up as a boy in Columbia, Missouri during the 1970’s I was spoiled when it came to Dill Pickles. The best Dill pickles that money could buy could be found in Central Missouri. I don’t remember the brand. They may not even exist today. I remember the ingredients on the jar very clearly. Cucumbers, Vinegar, Salt, Dill.

Today it is hard to find a jar of Dill Pickles that actually has dill in them. I think that you shouldn’t be able to label a jar of pickles as Dill Pickles unless they are pickled with dill.

Vlassic Pickles: Ingredients: Cucumber(s), Water, Vinegar Distilled, Salt, Calcium Chloride, Polysorbate 80, Flavor(s) Natural, Yellow 5

Vlassic Pickles: Ingredients: Cucumber(s), Water, Vinegar Distilled, Salt, Calcium Chloride, Polysorbate 80, Flavor(s) Natural, Yellow 5

Where’s the Dill?

Where's the beef commercial... but what is she really looking at? A pickle! She's really thinking... Where's the Dill

Wendy’s “Where’s the beef” commercial… but what is she really looking at? A pickle! She’s really thinking… Where’s the Dill

Why am I so picky? Well. Because besides this one company in Missouri that had only the 4 main ingredients, the only other place I found a true American Dill Pickle was in the Power Plant electric shop office in North Central Oklahoma during lunch. Not only did Charles make his pickles from the cucumbers he grew in his garden, but he pickled them with the fresh dill that he also grew in his garden.

Dill

Special Power Plant Pickle Dill

I realize I have digressed. I will climb down off of the pickle barrel now and continue with the important part of this story… um… ok… I mean.. I’ll continue talking about food. One summer Charles let me come over to his house and pick cucumbers and pickle them right there in his kitchen. We scrubbed them clean, put them in the jars with some dill sprigs. Brought the vinegar just to a boil and then poured it in the jars, and sealed them shut. — Best pickles ever. Four ingredients.

Besides being granted the best pickles and tomatoes around each day for lunch, when the right season came around Charles would bring peppers. I don’t mean the large bell peppers. I mean the thin hot peppers. Like this:

Hot pepper

A Serrano Pepper

At times Charles would bring in some very small peppers where I would take one little nibble of the pepper then a couple of bites of ham sandwich just to go with it. I became so used to eating hot peppers that at home I would buy a large jar of whole jalapeno peppers just to eat like pickles. Since I’m really going to town showing pictures tonight I tried to find a large jar of whole jalapenos, but I couldn’t find one. My mouth started watering while I was searching for jalapeno on Google Images.

While I am on the subject of peppers, I will mention that many years later, when I was “sequestered” with Ray Eberle for three years working on SAP (this is another story for a later time), he introduced me to the wonderful taste of Habanero sauce on my ham sandwich. Yeah…

habanero peppers

habanero peppers

Like Charles Foster, Ray would bring in a bottle of Habanero sauce every day and let me soak my ham sandwich with it. After that, I stopped buying jars of jalapenos and started using Habanero salsa for my chips at home.

On an even farther note…. one day when I was working on some homework for a course I was taking at the University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, my daughter, Elizabeth took one of the tortilla chips from my plate and dipped it in the Habanero salsa bowl I had sitting in front of me. Without looking up, I said, “I wouldn’t do that.” Not sure what I meant and thinking that I meant that she shouldn’t steal my chips, she put the chip in her mouth.

Habanero Salsa

Habanero Salsa

After the brief moment of complete unbelief that her mouth from the jaw down had just disintegrated, she started making strange sounds as she ran to the kitchen to try to find some relief. I told her not to drink any water, that only makes it worse. I told her that the only way to fix this situation is to keep eating chips. You see…. drinking water just washes all that hot stuff into every crevice in your mouth and throat. Eating chips absorbs the heat and carries it to safety.

When I was young at one point in my life, an ice cream truck used to come through the neighborhood selling ice cream and candy. It seemed like one of those fun times when you are a child that just seems to go away when you are older. Today there is an ice cream truck that goes through our neighborhood and when I watch the children that live next door all run outside to catch it, it brings back those memories.

Today's Ice cream truck.... well... Ice cream Van...

Today’s Ice cream truck…. well… Ice cream Van…

So, imagine my surprise when an ice cream truck for adults showed up at the plant one day. I didn’t even know they existed. Charles had to explain it to me. We were walking by the break room in the office area and this man was handing boxes to the janitor, who was stashing them in a freezer. Charles asked me how much money I had on me, as we quickly headed for the office elevator.

On the way down Charles explained that we had just seen the Swan Man! The Swan man? I asked him what that meant. He explained that the Swan man traveled around the countryside delivering all kinds of food to people so that they didn’t have to go to the grocery store. Ok….. I thought. Sounds reasonable… When we reached the ground floor, we walked out of the building and there parked at the end of the sidewalk was this truck:

Schwan Truck

Schwan Truck

Wow! An Ice cream truck for adults!!! We stood around for a few minutes and when the man returned to his truck Charles and I gave him some money and we bought two boxes of Ice Cream sandwiches! Who would have thought that you could stand in the middle of the parking lot at a Power Plant in the middle of nowhere, 20 miles from the nearest city of any size, and buy ice cream from an Ice Cream Truck? I certainly never thought that would happen until it did.

Years later, when I was driving through the countryside on the way to my house outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma I spied a Schwan man driving his truck down the country road. I drove up behind him and started honking at him. My daughter, who was about 9 at the time, asked me what I was doing. I told her that she would see…. My son sitting in the back seat asked if we were going to get in trouble. I assured him that we weren’t.

After about a mile of me honking and blinking my lights at him, the Schwan man pulled over. I walked over to him. Looked at him rather seriously as he climbed out of the truck and said, “Do you have a box of Ice cream sandwiches for sale?” At that point, he put his brass knuckles back in his pocket, and re-holstered his pistol. Looked back at me with a straight face. Paused, Thought for a moment. Then said, “Sure!” He opened one of those side doors. Pulled out a box.

I handed him some money. Then returned to my car and drove home. On the way home I explained to Elizabeth about the Schwan man and about how he travels around the countryside bringing food to people. So, of course he wouldn’t mind selling me a box of Ice Cream sandwiches.

Power Plant Ice Cream Sandwich

Power Plant Ice Cream Sandwich

Anyway, back at the plant. After Charles and I figured out the Schwan Man’s schedule, we knew what day he was going to show up, so we made sure to have enough cash in our pockets to get a couple of boxes so that we could keep them in the freezer in the electric shop. It seemed like we had to eat them rather fast because our freezer wouldn’t keep them frozen hard and after a while they would get pretty soft. That was our story anyway. We didn’t want them to melt. Now. Would we?

So, thanks to Charles Foster we were able to eat like Kings in our Power Plant Palace. When Sonny Karcher, years ago used to say the phrase from a country song, “I’m just an old chunk of coal, but I’m going to be a diamond some day,” (a song by John Anderson) he was right in more ways than one. We would stagger back to the electric shop after working on a coal conveyor on the long belt, all covered with coal dust. Go in the bathroom and wash up… plop ourselves down on the chair in the office. Open our lunch boxes… and have a feast fit for a king!

I’ll leave you with the words from one of Sonny’s favorite songs the first summer I worked as a summer help back in 1979:

Hey I’m just an old chunk of coal but I’m gonna be a diamond some day
I’m gonna grow and glow till I’m so blue pure perfect
I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face
I’m gonna kneel and pray every day last I should become vain along the way
I’m just an old chunk of coal now Lord but I’m gonna be a diamond some day

I’m gonna learn the best way to walk gonna search and find a better way to talk
I’m gonna spit and polish my old rough edged self till I get rid of every single flaw
I’m gonna be the world’s best friend gonna go round shaking everybody’s hand
I’m gonna be the cotton pickin’ rage of the age I’m gonna be a diamond some day

Now I’m just an old chunk of coal…

Here’s John Anderson singing the song:

Comment from original post:

Tim Foster October 8, 2013:

Ah yes I remember that day when you came to the house to make pickles. It seemed cool that someone found Dad’s pickles so enjoyable that he wanted to come and learn how to make them. Unfortunately they have stopped making pickles but we have found some store bought ones that taste just like them. I will ask my mother every now and then if she sent Vlassic her recipe so that she would not have to smell the vinegar any longer. I wish I had inherited Dad’s green thumb but I have not as yet. My location just is not as good as his either. We are praying that this summer people will know that he is feeling better just by taking a drive out west of town to once again look upon the patch of land that has become a landmark.

Petty Power Plant Jokes Played on Prominent Power Plant Men

The 47th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post

Originally posted September 13, 2013:

Of the 1,500 jokes played on Power Plant Men while I was working at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I can only remember a handful of the smaller ones. There are some I’m saving for later topics. Sometimes it was the smallest jokes that spoke the loudest. Especially when great care was taken to play the joke just right.

I think it was the idea that someone thought enough of you to spend a great deal of time setting up a joke just for the one little moment that the person finally realizes that they have been played. It’s when that smile comes across their face that all that work pays off. The realization that someone else would spend so much time just to make you smile was a good indication that they really did care about you.

In the post called, “Why Stanley Elmore and Other Power Plant Questions” I told a story about when I was a janitor in the electric shop and one of the electricians Andy Tubbs had been playing jokes on me while I was cleaning the bathroom. The funniest one was when I had turned around for a moment and when I went to go grab the dust mop, the handle to the mop was missing, while the dust mop was just sitting there on the floor.  The handle was propped against the wall across the shop while Andy was innocently looking at a blueprint.  It was so funny I had to go in the bathroom where I literally laughed out loud.

Like this only with a mop handle

Like this, except the bracket for the handle was still there.

Charles Foster, my electric foremen had told me of a time when he played a joke on a welder in the welding shop that was welding away on something. The power to the welding machine was around the corner. Charles picked up the cord for the welder and kinked it like you would kink a water hose to stop the water from flowing. When he kinked it, the welding machine stopped working.

welder

An arc welding machine like this only gray

The welder looked at the machine to find that the power was off. Then he looked over and saw that Charles was standing about 40 feet away grinning at him holding the kinked cable. About that time, Charles straightened out the cable and the welding machine turned back on. The welder spun around to find the welding machine humming away. He looked back at Charles who kinked the cable again and the welding machine again shut off.

Amazed, the welder said something like, “I didn’t know you could do that!” Charles shrugged, dropped the cable and walked off. Unbeknownst to the welder, as Charles left, he met up with the other electrician that had been opening an closing the electric disconnect where the welding machine received its power. Leaving the welder unaware.

An Electrical Disconnect like this one by Square D

An Electrical Disconnect like this one by Square D

In the electric shop there is one bathroom. It is shared by all electricians, and therefore it has a lock on the door because Diana Lucas (Brien) had to use it. But sometimes someone might not realize that it was used jointly by both male and female members of the Power Plant family, and they might not lock the door. So, on occasion, Dee would go into the bathroom only to find that it was already occupied.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Once she entered the bathroom and found that someone was in the stall. She waited around for a while and asked me to go check it out because the guy was taking quite a long time and what at first was only a minor inconvenience was becoming higher priority. So, I entered there bathroom and sure enough. The stall was closed and there was a pair of boots easily visible under the stall where someone sat taking their own sweet time.

Dee finally figured that it wasn’t worth the wait and walked across the T-G basement to the maintenance shop to the nearest women’s restroom. After a while someone else remarked that someone was in the bathroom and had been in there a long time. At that point, it became obvious that either someone had died while sitting on his thinkin’ chair, or something else was definitely amiss.

So, one of the electricians decided to see if everything was all right. That was when they peered into the stall to find that there was only a pair of boots sitting all by themselves in the stall. It turned out that O D McGaha had put them there. He locked the stall, then climbed out under the stall and left them there. — It was a pretty good joke. It had half the shop concerned about the mysterious stranger in the stall.

Soon after this episode, a new sign was placed on the bathroom door:

A Power Plant Unisex bathroom sign

A Power Plant Unisex bathroom sign

Other little jokes like that were played on individuals throughout the 20 years that I worked at the plant. One small one that is a typical example of many was when Mickey Postman drove to work one morning with a brand new motorcycle. He was really proud of the new machine. Well. Mickey’s nickname at the time was “Pup”.

Mickey Postman

Mickey had two main reasons why he was a prime target for having jokes played on him. First, he took the jokes pretty well, because he would have a definite reaction. Sometimes good. Sometimes not so. The second reason was that he was red-headed. That meant that when he realized that a joke was being played on him, his face would turn as red as his hair. Everyone witnessing this couldn’t help but smile.

Mickey had worked his way into the maintenance shop from a janitor as I had, though he missed the labor crew (I believe) because it hadn’t been dreamed up by Ray Butler yet. He and I were practically the same age. He is 7 months older than I am. So, I always felt like, “but for the grace of God go I”. No. I don’t really mean it. I care a lot for Mickey and I never personally considered him as a candidate for jokes. I guess it was because he already had a cohort of Power Plant Men willing to play that part.

So, anyway. Mickey had this shiny new motorcycle parked out in the parking lot all day, so it was inevitable that at least one of the many Power Plant Men that had been assigned to the “Play a Joke on Mickey” detail, would happen to pass by the motorcycle in the parking lot. One of them would have felt obligated to reach down and turn the gas valve off.

motorcycle gas valve

The Gas valve on a motorcycle

The word had gone out throughout the plant that the valve had been closed on Mickey’s motorcycle so that we were all to expect that about the time that Mickey hit the bridge over the discharge on the way out the gate, his motorcycle would run out of fuel and die. It’s times like this that you never forget. A simple joke. A couple hundred Power Plant men all chuckling as they drove across the discharge bridge grinning at Mickey trying to restart his brand new motorcycle that had died perfectly positioned midway across the bridge. His face beaming as red as his hair!

Mickey Postman

Mickey Postman

I won’t go into the Wedding present that was given to Mickey Postman the day before his wedding. I intended this post to be only about petty or “minor” jokes. That one was a doozy. Actually. I will never post anything about it, other than to say that I wouldn’t ever say anything about how the machinist’s blue dye was applied.

Machinist's Blue Dye

Machinist’s Blue Dye

Machinist’s Blue Dye, or Layout fluid is used when honing down a surface to make sure it is flat. There are other uses for it, but that is the one I am most familiar with. I wonder how that blue color looked along with Mickey’s red face…

A example of how the blue dye shows the low spots on a flat surface

A example of how the blue dye shows the low spots on a flat surface

Here are examples of two small jokes that took a lot of preparation.

The first one involved Howard Chumbley’s chair. Howard was a foreman in the electric shop. One of the nicest Power Plant Men in all of God’s creation. He was shorter than most taller people. And he was particular about how high his chair was adjusted. Being particular about anything automatically meant that you were a prime target for a joke dealing with whatever you were particular about.

Back then (1984), the height of an office chair was adjusted by turning it upside down and spinning the wheel bracket around to screw in or out the shaft.

An old office chair that is adjusted by spinning the bracket where the wheels attach

An old office chair that is adjusted by spinning the bracket where the wheels attach

So, Charles (or was it Bill Ennis) and I would rotate the bottom of the wheels around 1/4 turn each day. That meant just moving the wheels around to one set of wheels. Not very much. Every week the bracket would only be turned about 1 time, especially given that we wouldn’t remember to do it every day.

Eventually, after 5 or 6 weeks, Howard would go to sit down in his chair and realize that it was lower than he would like it to be. So, he would turn it over and lay the seat on his desk and spin the wheel bracket around a few times. Then test it and do it again until it was just the right height. Howard probably never thought about why every month and a half or so, his chair would be too short and he would end up turning it over and adjusting it back up.

This was a joke that Howard never knew was being played, but every time that chair went upside down, you can bet that Charles and I were grinning from ear-to-ear to have been there to watch it.

Ok. the last story has to be about Gene Day. After all. There was no one that I loved playing jokes on more than Gene Day. Actually, half of them, Gene probably never knew had been jokes. I have written two posts about playing jokes on Gene Day. One of them was just about one joke. See “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator” and “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“.

So, this particular week, I noticed that Gene Day was the auxiliary operator for Unit 1 Boiler. That meant that at least once each shift he was going to walk through the Unit 1 Precipitator Control Room that housed the controls for the 84 transformers on the precipitator roof.

So, I decided, this was a perfect opportunity to play a petty joke on Gene Day. I took an Eeprom chip that was used to hold the control program for a Precipitator control cabinet, and proceeded to rewrite the program.

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the precipitator controls

I found the code in the assembly language code that sent the message to the display when there was an overcurrent trip. That is, when the cabinet trips, the little LCD display would say: “Overcurrent Trip”. I rewrote the code to say: “Gene Day Trip”. This meant finding the code string: 4F:76:65:72:63:75:72:72:65:6E:74:20:54:72:69:70 and replacing it with: 47:65:6E:65:20:44:61:79:20:54:72:69:70:20:20:20. I wrote the program for a specific cabinet in the middle of the precipitator that I could trip without causing an issue in the general operation of the precipitator.

Then I took the chip to the Precipitator Control room and replaced the control chip for that cabinet and left it running. I had seen Gene Day on his way to the Precipitator Control room the day before, so I had a pretty good idea what time he would be passing through. Because no matter how lazy Gene Day was, he was always consistent. (Gene you know I’m kidding…. right?)

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

Anyway. I spied Gene leaving the control room around the time I expected, so I made haste to the Precip. Control Room and with my screwdriver, after opening the cabinet, I reached down to the tripping mechanism for an overcurrent trip and I tripped the cabinet. Then leaving from the opposite direction that Gene would be arriving, I slipped out of the Precip Control Room and headed for the plant control room to see Gene’s reaction when he arrived.

About the time I was going around the corner in the breezeway toward the Unit 1 elevator, I saw that Gene had already exited the precip. area, so when I entered the T-G basement I quickly called Gene on the gray phone. Gene turned around and went back in the Precip switchgear (which was just below the control cabinets).

When Gene answered the phone I told him that I was looking at the Precipitator controls in the control room and I saw that one of the cabinets had tripped and I was wondering if he had just been out there because the error indicated something very strange. He said he had just been in there and hadn’t noticed that a cabinet had tripped.

So, I asked him if he could look again, it was 1D8. I needed to know what the cabinet display said had happened because it looked like Gene had done something to it. He told me he hadn’t touched anything, but he would go look. — of course, when he went to look at it, the display showed: “Gene Day Trip”.

This is the size of the LCD Display on the Precipitator Control cabinets

This is the size of the LCD Display on the Precipitator Control cabinets

So, I was sitting at the precipitator computer for Unit 1 when Gene Day arrived in the Control room. As was typical with Gene Day, my head began to waiver and my eyes began to blur as Gene had grabbed me by the throat and was shaking me back and forth. My eyes may have been blurry, and I know that I was acting totally surprised as if I didn’t know what had happened, but you can believe that inside I was grinning ear-to-ear!

Comment from original post:

Jack Curtis September 21, 2013:

Folks will go to elaborate lengths and great effort to perform jokes like these on fellow workers while feeling put-upon and resentful at something half the trouble requested done by the boss… We are a funny species!

More comments from the last repost:

    1.  

      mpsharmaauthor September 18, 2014

      “Folks will go to elaborate lengths and great effort to perform jokes like these on fellow workers while feeling put-upon and resentful at something half the trouble requested done by the boss… We are a funny species!” Keeps it entertaining, right? 🙂

    1.  

      wisediscerner September 18, 2014

      I’ve been following your blog, and in the early a.m. after I’ve gotten the coffee started and my husbands lunch prepared and breakfast fixed, then I sit down to relax and I read your stories, I start laughing, sometimes really hard, and my husband looks at me like I’ve fallen off my rocker!!! What a good way to wake up in the mornings. Thank you for sharing. May God bless you today!

       

    2. Dan Antion September 18, 2014

      Cool stories. Workplaces should be like this. I think this is something that is lost on people these days, that you need to laugh.

    1.  

      Ron Kilman September 18, 2014

      I love these stories!
      OK Kevin – how could you remember those lines of Eeprom code from 30 years ago?
      Also, I know somebody is playing a joke on me (like what you did to Howard Chumbley). My bathroom scales are going up about 1 pound every week. Can’t figure out who’s responsible yet 😦

        1. Plant Electrician September 18, 2014

          The code is easy to remember: “Overcurrent trip” is translated into ASCII numbers. Where a capital A is 65 and a small A is 97 and then just count up from there. So, the capital O is the ASCII number 79 which when converted to a Hexidecimal number is 4F (16 goes into 79 4 times, with 15 left over. An F represents the number 15). So, “Overcurrent trip” becomes: 4F:76:65:72:63:75:72:72:65:6E:74:20:54:72:69:70. “Gene Day Trip” is three characters shorter than Overcurrent trip, so, I had to add extra spaces at the end, which are the three “20”s (an ASCII number of 32) on the end of 47:65:6E:65:20:44:61:79:20:54:72:69:70:20:20:20. in order to keep the addresses on the chip consistent.

          Another note is that each two digit Hexidecimal code is equal to 8 bits which is a byte. You can determine what each byte is by taking each digit of the Hex number and translating it into 4 binary digits. So… 1 is 0001, 2 is 0010, 3 is 0011, 4 is 0100, 5 is 0101, 6 is 0110, 7 is 0111, 8 is 1000, 9 is 1001, A is 1010, B is 1011, C is 1100, D is 1101, E is 1110, F is 1111

          So, the Hex number for a Capital O is 4F, and that indicates an 8 bit byte of: 01001111

          And that’s how computers interpret the world. Zeroes and One’s. Or On and Off. So, if there is voltage on the first bit it is a 1 if the voltage is missing, it is a 0.

  1.  

    chriskeen September 18, 2014

    So funny! We used to have fun like this on the volunteer fire department. Always makes the tough stuff better when you can laugh together.

Prolonged Power Plant Pause Before the Panic

The 46th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post

Originally posted September 6, 2013:

Today when I attend meetings while on the job at Dell (and now at GM) and the discussion is about something new, and the manager is looking for input from the team, I usually sit there quietly while the others share their thoughts. This is not my usual behavior in other settings as I am usually quick to respond with a quip or something sarcastic.

Later, after everyone else has given their two cents, then if asked, I will wade in with both feet. This hasn’t always been the course of action I would have taken. Actually, I used to be pretty hot-headed. I was usually the first person to respond when someone asked a question. I already had my mind made up about just about everything.

My wife began noticing a change in my behavior a few years after we were married. She would ask me a simple question, like, “Would you like a piece of gum.” I would suddenly go into a momentary comatose state where I would stare off into space and think about it. She would say something like, “The answer doesn’t need a lot of thought. It is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

After careful analysis, I finally figured out what happened. The transformation began the day I entered the electric shop at the coal-fired power plant as an electrician. I described that first day in the post “New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop“. In that post I described my first job as an electrician when I went to the coalyard with my foreman Charles Foster to fix a room heater that wasn’t working.

The first time I used my new tools, Charles told me to remove a screw from a fuse block so that we could lift a wire in order to replace the fuse block.

A small fuse block like this.

A small fuse block like this.

When I was removing the wire (with one hand, as Charles had warned me that an electrician never uses two hands to do this), the screwdriver slipped and shorted out on the mounting screw which caused a brief flash. In the millisecond that the flash occurred, it cut a notch in the tip of my new Stanley screwdriver.

A Stanley screwdriver used by electgricians because of the rubber on the handle

A Stanley screwdriver used by electricians because of the rubber on the handle

This was the beginning of my 18 year career of various minor electrocutions and small explosions. We did things to minimize the chances of shorting out your screwdriver when working on a hot circuit (that means a circuit that has the electricity still turned on). One thing we would do is wrap rubber tape up the metal shank so that if it leaned against something metal with it while the tip was touching something hot, it wouldn’t short out the circuit.

Inevitably, something would happen every now and then and something was going to explode. So you just had to be prepared for that. This is where the “Prolonged Pause” comes in.

Sometimes there is nothing you can do. Let me give you a “For Instance”. One time when we had an overhaul on Unit 1 (we had 2 units at our Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma), Richard Moravek was visiting from the Power Plant in Muskogee, Oklahoma. I have written about him in the Post “Lap o’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant“. Each morning at Muskogee, he and Jay Harris would sing the song, “Nestle’s makes the very best Chocolate”, with Richard whistling as he sang like the Nestle’s rabbit with a whistle in his voice.

The Nestle's Rabbit

The Nestle’s Rabbit

On one particular day, Richard and I were sent to perform a “quick and dirty” elevator inspection on the Unit 1 elevator. It received a lot of wear and tear during overhaul with everyone riding up and down from the 9th floor where you could reach the upper echelons of the boiler. If things didn’t work perfectly every time, then the work would be slowed, and schedules wouldn’t be met.

During our elevator inspection we decided that we needed to change out some lights on the push buttons, because…. well… because some of them were burned out. Which caused them to not light up when they were supposed to, causing some Power Plant workers to become confused because they would forget which button they had pushed when they entered the elevator, thus, allowing them to forget which floor they were supposed to get off (working long hours will do that to you).

Anyway, Richard had taken the screws out of the push button panel and had swung the door on the panel open so that the wiring inside was all exposed. He reached in to pulled out one of the push button assemblies so that he could remove the bulb (oh… electricians call bulbs, Lamps… I mentioned that in the post “Placed On Light Duty at the Power Plant“, if you recall).

I had reached down into my tool bucket and pulled out a box of special elevator lamps….. Actually, I think it was a standard 6S6 lamp, but it looked like a bulb to me:

A 12 Volt 6S6 bulb

A 12 Volt 6S6 bulb (or is it a lamp?)

Richard had put his hand out to receive the bulb I had in my hand, so I handed it to him. At that point, a funny thing happened. You see, my other hand was on the elevator scissor gate.

An Elevator Scissor Gate

An Elevator Scissor Gate

As I placed the lamp into Richard’s hand, he suddenly twitched and sort of jumped at the same time. When he did, he pushed into me and he began doing a jig. My legs were twitching and I was sort of doing a jig myself, or maybe a jog.

It became apparent right away what had happened. While Richard’s one hand was in the elevator push button panel taking out the bulb, he had come in contact with the electric circuit. This was fine as long as he wasn’t grounded. That is, he wasn’t touching anything else metal, like the front of the panel.

Being a good electrician, Richard had kept his other hand at his side like Charles Foster had taught me my first day as an electrician. That is, until he raised that hand for me to give him a lamp. When my fingers touched his palm, and my other hand was holding the elevator gate, we suddenly made a circuit to ground. From Richard, to me, to the gate, to the ground, and back to the the main power generator through various grounds and circuits and transformers….

About the time that I realized what was happening, we had separated from each other, and were no longer dancing. It cracked us up and we stood there laughing about it for a minute because both of us had just been dancing in the elevator.

As I explained in the post about being on light duty that I mentioned above, when you went to work on the stack lights, you carried metal prod with you that you used to ground the large capacitors before you worked on the circuit. When you did this, there would be a bright flash and a loud explosion.

If a noise or a flash like that made you jump, you may end up going over the handrail and falling 500 feet to the ground. So, you learned that in the event of a flash, your first reaction is to freeze. Then assess the situation, and then if necessary, Panic.

Many years later (like 16 years), I became very aware of how well trained we were when something like this happened when I was once again working with Charles Foster in a junction box on the 11 landing of Unit 1 on the west side. We were standing side-by-side and we were working on something hot.

Suddenly there was a bright flash and a loud boom as something shorted out. By that time in our history, we had learned all about wearing fire resistant clothing, so that even though what we were wearing wasn’t fire proof, it also wasn’t going to melt to our skin.

What amazed me about this moment was that we both stood there still for a moment before we panicked. There was about a one second pause where we both restrained ourselves from jumping back. I chalked this up to our years of being around explosive situations. Jumping back as the first reaction can often lead to other injuries.

I took this resistance to panic with me into other situations. Before 1994 when OSHA added a bunch of new laws protecting people in confined spaces, I was crawling inside the main generator bus that goes out to the main power transformer. No hole watch. No one watching me outside that could grab me and pull me out if something went wrong.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer. The bus piping are those three pipes going into the building at the top in the back

I had squeezed myself into one of these pipes to clean the insulators that held the bus in place in the middle of the pipe. This meant that I was crammed into the pipe under the bus bar that ran through the middle of the pipe.

I had made it to the insulator that I needed to clean and wiped it down with the rag I had taken with me. Then I decided I couldn’t go forward anymore to look at any more of the insulators because it was too tight of a fit. So, I started to back myself out.

As I went to push myself back I suddenly realized that I was stuck. It was easy moving forward because I was using the soles of my sneakers to push on the pipe, but as soon as I wanted to go back, there didn’t seem to be anyway to maneuver my body in a way that would back myself out. My arms were stretched out in front of me.  This was one of a few times when I began to feel the panicky feeling of claustrophobia.

I had seen claustrophobia in others and I knew that when you are gripped with it, you can hurt yourself, or even Bob Lillibridge if he happened to be the one grabbing your legs at the time (see the post: Bob Lillibridge Meets the Power Plant Ghost for an explanation.

Here it came… I felt myself swelling up tight in the pipe as the panic was gripping me. I knew I had to do something quickly or it wasn’t going to be pretty…. Well, either way… nothing about this was pretty. So, I forced myself to calm down. I told myself to breathe out, and slowly back in.

Then I decided to use the palms of my hands that were stretched out straight in front of me to push against the pipe to move me back. With that effort, I could see (in the darkness) that I had moved myself back about 1/2 inch. I thought. “Ok, 1/2 inch is something. If I did that 100 more times, that would be more than 4 feet. 200 times and I would be out of this pipe.”

Realizing I could move myself at least a little bit allowed me to calm down and quell the panic. I did nothing but concentrate on pushing with my palms 1/2 inch at a time and eventually, I did climb out of that pipe (What?  You expected me to say I was still in there?).

I don’t know how many times over the years I have woken up in the middle of the night and swung my feet over the side of the bed and taken a few large breaths because I had been dreaming about being in that pipe again. I will discuss the topic of claustrophobia in a later post, but this example fit the topic of training yourself not to panic so I thought I would use it here.

If you ever end up talking to someone that doesn’t quite look at you when they look like they are trying to look at you, then you may think that they are a welder. There are some welders that seem to look at you from the corner of their eye. I suppose it was because the middle of their vision has been burned out because they have looked at the welding arc too many times without their visor down.  Or maybe they had just learned to look away from whatever they are seeing just as a safety habit.

Similarly, if you ever encounter someone that momentarily goes into a comatose state for a few moments when you ask them a simple question, you may now think that maybe this person was a Power Plant Electrician that has learned to have a Prolonged Pause before they Panic… or… respond to your question. If they aren’t from a power plant, then they probably were just trying to ignore you.

Comments from previous repost:

    1.  

      Dan Antion September 11, 2014

      Good advice for anyone in similar situations.

    1.  

      Slowmoto September 11, 2014

      Pause before panic is my response to most stressors perceived by a presenter or an emerging reality. You hit the mark!

  1.  

    Monty Hansen November 26, 2014

    Excellent writing! I felt myself getting panicky with you! As a control room operator I had an electrician drop a screwdriver & blow the unit out from under me at full load + 5% overpressure (2520#)-(It caused a false boiler feedpump saturation temp trip). The power plant has trained me not to startle as well, inside I may be screaming like a schoolgirl, but outside I am calm and handling emergencies as though routine.

     

    John W. Howell 

    Had to laugh out loud at the elevator dance. I could just imagine.

Power Plant Men Show Their True Colors

The 45th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post

Originally posted August 23, 2013:

If you happened to stop some Saturday evening at the old gas station just north of the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma back in the late 70’s around supper time, you might run into a group of grubby men that looked like they had fallen into a coal bin. They might look like they had been swimming in a batch of coal dust and sweat. Dark hair greasy with the grime of the day. If you took a closer look and observed their handkerchief after it had been used, you would have seen the black slime soaking through. The pores in their skin darkened by the black dust they had been wading through.

If you had run across a gang of shabbily dressed grubby men like this, then you would have just witnessed a group of Power Plant Men seeking a cool one on their way home after a full day of coal clean-up. Be assured, they drove with their windows down in the 100 degree heat. It helped dry the sweat that had soaked them from the top of their head to their soles of their feet. You may feel a little intimidated by this bunch of seemingly hoodlum type characters carrying six packs of Coors out of the store that looked like nothing more than a shack.

You might think that the snickers that you hear below their breath is because they are laughing at you. You might think that it would be safer to stay in your car with the doors locked and the windows rolled up until this gang of rovers left, even though the circumference of their upper arms indicated to you that it wouldn’t take much effort for one of these brutes to shatter your windshield if they had a mind to.

If per-say you happened to make the mistake of saying something neutral to them, such as “good evening”, you would be surprised by their reply. One might grin real big and spit off to one side (maybe in the reverse order…. spit first and then grin). Another might scratch the top of his head and lift his hat… (oh. That’s backward too) while at the same time looking over your vehicle to see what kind of tires are on it, or what kind of upholstery it has. Another might act as if they can’t hear you and just ignore your “good evening”.

This would have been a real possibility back during the summer of 1979 or 1980 at this one particular power plant. You may have even noticed a light blue Volkswagen Sirocco with a young guy sitting in the back seat waiting for a couple of lugs to return with their six packs under their arms for the trip back to Stillwater where they had left 12 hours earlier. That young guy in the back of the car…. that would have been me. Observing the parade of worn Power Plant Men on their way home after a day of coal cleanup. I wrote about days like this in a post called: “Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal“.

Yeah. Just like this

Yeah. Just like this. This is a copy of a picture that can be purchased at http://depositphotos.com/2691212/stock-photo-Dirty-hands.html

I met many of the Power Plant Men those first few summers when I worked as a Summer Help at the plant. I didn’t really get to know them until I had worked as a full time employee for many years. I wasn’t like this group of Power Plant Men that seemed like a bunch of misfits that somehow stumbled into performing great feats almost as if it was by accident. At first I figured that most of them were just really lucky. Later I learned that these lumps of coal were really diamonds in disguise.

Today, looking back I realize that each of the True Power Plant Men were some of the wisest, kindest, and most caring people I would ever know. I guess I ran across this the first summer as a summer help when people would offer to do things for me for no reason other than they could. When this would happen I would be suspicious at first that either a joke was being played on me, or someone was going to want to use this as leverage for something later.

This thought was short-lived, as all I had to do was look in their eyes to see their sincerity. I had grown up looking into the eyes of deceit. I could tell when I was being snookered. It didn’t take long to find that the True Power Plant Men really did care for my well-being, even when my well-being seemed to being doing just fine.

I suppose I could go down a list of times where power plant men did something nice for me. I probably would just be describing a regular day at work with this bunch of grubby guys in tee shirts and jeans and work boots. This post would become long and monotonous pretty fast. So, let me just focus on one example that illustrates what I’m talking about.

The following story follows a regular theme when it came to Power Plant Men heroism. I will preface it with a short side story…

Back during the late 70’s and early 80’s there were a few medical miracles that had surfaced that were said to cure cancer. One example of this was Vitamin B-17. It is found in fruit seeds. People found that when taken in regular doses, cancer can be prevented and even cured. Of course, the person seeking this cure can’t wait until they are on their deathbed when they try to find a sudden cure that is going to pull them out of the jaws of death.

What makes B-17 probably the most easily accessible cure for cancer is how fast the Cancer industry, that is, the Pharmaceutical and the AMA quickly tried to ban anything with enough vitamin B-17 in it from the market. They didn’t call it Vitamin B-17. They called it “Laetrile” (now in 2019 they have a new name for Laetrile, so we don’t realize it is the same thing: “amygdalin”). If there had been nothing to it, then they would have treated it like every other snake oil remedy that came around. They would have ignored it.

People in the United States that wanted to be treated with Vitamin B-17 for their cancer had to go to Mexico. They were happy to treat you down there. Raw apricot seeds were banned from the stores because they are a good source for this vitamin. Well. They couldn’t really ban apple seeds. I think people knew many years ago that eating an apple each day would keep the doctor away. As a child long before the word “Laetrile” had hit the news wire, I remember some people that would eat the entire apple, only leaving the stem. They insisted that the best stuff was in the apple seeds. Maybe Johnny Appleseed was on a mission from God when he went across the country planting apple orchards.

The argument was that Laetrile (Vitamin B17) contained Cyanide and that it could possibly be released and become toxic in the body. — This is the same argument that those in favor of using Laetrile were making. They believe that the cyanide is released by toxins emitted by cancer cells, and in this way, the cyanide actually targets the cancer cells. By the way, the chemical symbol for Cyanide is: CN.

CN is Cyanide. You can see it in the middle of the chemical diagram. Only this isn't Laetrile (vitamin B17). This is the chemical structure of Vitamin B12.

CN is Cyanide. You can see it in the middle of the chemical diagram. Only this isn’t Laetrile (vitamin B17). This is the chemical structure of Vitamin B12.

Anyway. This was also before there was anything like the Internet (because…. Al Gore hadn’t invented it yet). So, in order to hear the alternate viewpoint than the governments, you had to read newspapers that were “on the fringe”. Anyway, during that time around 1980 after the Laetrile ban, people were growing suspicious of the cancer doctors and whether they really cared to cure their patients or just grab their money while they were on their way down. The argument was that one person in California had died from apparently being poisoned by cyanide after taking Laetrile. Never mind that he was on his deathbed already from cancer and had only weeks to live.

Today is a different story, where there are a lot of homeopathic methods for fighting cancer. Laetrile is still banned I think, but who is going to ban the apple seed? — Oh. I guess they pick them before they have seeds these days, and where they used to press the entire apple to make apple cider, they may core them now first…. I’m sure it is because it makes the cider taste better…. Don’t you think? Or is it the added sugar…. maybe.

End of the Side Story Almost…

Toward the end of my first summer as a summer help in 1979 I worked for two weeks with Aubrey Cargill and Ben Hutchinson clearing out driftwood from the miles of dikes that had been built on the man-made lake to route the water around the lake from the discharge to the intake so it had time to cool. I wrote about this in the post “Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill“. Ben and Aubrey were best friends. They never told me that, it was just like they were two peas in a pod. Where one went, the other was always right by their side.

Well. 10 years after we had been tossing driftwood up the dikes into the dump truck, Aubrey had early retired from plant life, leaving his best buddy to fend for himself. Ben had become a foreman. I never heard a complaint about Ben as a foreman, but then, I wasn’t listening, so if someone had told me something negative, I’m sure it would have went in one ear and out the other and something inside me would have marked that person on my list of “Not True Power Plant Men”.

So, why this side story of cancer cures? Well. Around the summer of 1989 Ben Hutchinson began his fight with cancer. He took all the regular cures for cancer…. like “chemo-therapy”. — Oh. Now that is safe…. yeah. No one would ever feel poisoned by that…

Anyway. After trying all the regular cures, Ben was told that there was nothing left for him to do but to lay down and die. He was given so many months to live and sent home.

At this time there was a doctor in Athens Greece named Dr. Alivazatos that was reported to be curing cancer patients at a rate of 60%. He would say that the 40% that die come to him too late to be cured. Otherwise he would be able to cure them all. He had some special treatment that he was willing to share with the world, but he wanted to do it in a way where it was assured that he would receive credit for it. Not understanding the medical system in the United States, he said that he was waiting to be invited to the United States by the Medical community where he would tell them all how to do what he was doing.

Dr. Alivazatos, Athens Greece

Dr. Alivazatos, Athens Greece

When the Cancer doctors had drained Ben’s funds and sent him home to die, that was when the True Power Plant Men showed their true colors. They had heard about this doctor performing miracle cancer cures in Athens Greece and they were determined that Ben was not going to go down without a fight.

During the winter, while an overhaul was going on at our plant, barbecues were setup to raise money. Donations were taken. Requests went out to the other plants for help.

I don’t recall the exact amount that was raised. But I believe it was well over $30,000.00. Ben was sent to Athens for treatment. He was sent to Dr. Alivarazatos. Ben arrived too late. After his month of treatments there, he was sent home in March 1990, somewhat better than he had left, but still his cancer was too far gone by the time he had made it to the doctor’s doorstep, and by June, Ben succumbed to the cancer and died on the 13th of June.

— A personal note. June 13 is the feast day for St. Anthony. He is my patron saint and has been a personal friend of mine since my childhood.

St. Anthony of Padua

St. Anthony of Padua

I like to picture St. Anthony there with Ben when he died, taking his hand and leading him up to the pearly gates where St. Peter was standing… Without looking up, St. Anthony says…. “A True Power Plant Man…” St. Peter nods and passes him through without checking the roster. Once inside, an angel hands Ben his clean white robe. Ben puts it on, and by the time he pulls it over his head and straightens it out, it is all stained with black coal dust. The angel looks a little confused and St. Anthony, standing beside him in his brown robe with the bald spot on the top of his head says, “Power Plant Man….” The angel nods in understanding….. — end of personal note.

The Power Plant Men didn’t sit around and complain that they threw away good money to send Ben to Greece. They knew the odds were thin when they sent him. It didn’t matter to them. True Power Plant Men cherish Life. They live from day-to-day taking risks in a dangerous situation, yet they are safe, not for themselves, but for their family and friends. One extra day of life for Ben was well worth it.

This example of Ben was not the exception, it was the norm. Whenever a Power Plant Man was in need, there were 100 Power Plant Men there to help them. Never hesitating. I would say that they love each other as if they were all part of the same family. Actually, I have no doubt about it.

Oh. A side note. Dr. Alivazatos was (and some would say conveniently) killed in a hit and run accident in 1991. No one to date has been able to duplicate his treatment and many believe that he was a fraud, though he had been tried and found not guilty.

Comment from previous post

  1.  

    sacredhandscoven August 28, 2014

    Beautiful story, thank you for sharing it. Takes me back to the days when you did for people, because that is what people do. It is just a pity that only a few of us are raising our kids in the old way, nowadays. True Power Plant Men sound a lot like the Feed Mill Men that I was raised by and with. Daddy was a feed mill worker from 17 to 56 until his emphysema got so bad he had to retire. All three brothers and one of my sisters went on to work there too for a decade or more until daddy convinced them they weren’t safe there.

    Again, thanks for a return to a more precious time of life.

     

    Garfield Hug 

    Without the grubby men, we will be lack of power or utilities. This is a heartfelt story. It reminded me of how people sometimes turn their noses up on chaps doing jobs that smell, reek of dirt or unpleasantries. But without their hard work, garbage, public health works and infrastrutural support would be absent. Thank you for reminding me of their hard work. Blessings

In Pursuit of the Power Plant Gai-tronics Gray Phone Ghost

The 44th “Rest Of” Power Plant Post

Originally Posted June 14, 2013:

When I first watched the movie “The Goonies”, I recognized right away that the script was inspired from another Pirate treasure movie I had watched when I was a child. I have never seen the movie again, and it was probably a made for TV movie or something that has been lost in the archives years ago. I’m sure that Steven Spielberg when he was growing up must have been inspired by this movie when he wrote the script to Goonies, because this was a movie that had inspired us when we were young.

The Goonies looking at the treasure map

The Goonies looking at the treasure map

You see… In the movie I had watched as a kid, some children that were trying to save their family or an old house or something similar to the Goonies story, found a clue to where a Pirate treasure was buried. The clue had something to do with a “crow’s nest”. It turned out that the model of a ship that had been sitting on the mantle piece in the old house had another clue in the pole holding the crow’s nest. This clue had holes in the paper, and when held up to a certain page in a certain book, it gave them another clue to where there was a hidden passageway. Which led them one step closer to the treasure.

Anyway. As a child, this inspired us (and I’m sure a million other kids) to play a game called “Treasure Hunt”. It was where you placed clues all around the house, or the yard, or the neighborhood (depending on how ambitious of a treasure hunt you were after), with each clue leading to the other clue, and eventually some prize at the end.

Why am I telling you this story about this movie that I watched when I was a child? Well, because I felt this same way all over again when I became an electrician at a coal-fired power plant out in the country in north central Oklahoma. Here is why.

I used to carpool to work from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the power plant 25 miles north of town with another electrician named Bill Rivers. He had kept urging me to become an electrician along with Charles Foster, who had suggested that I take some electric courses to prepare for the job. Once I became an electrician, Charles Foster, my foreman, would often send me with Bill Rivers to repair anything that had to do with electronics. Bill Rivers was good at troubleshooting electronic equipment, and well, he was generally a good troubleshooter when he wasn’t getting himself into trouble.

I remember the morning when Charles told me to go with Bill to go fix the incessant humming that was coming over the PA system…. “What?” I asked him. “I can’t hear you over the loud hum coming over the PA system.” — No not really… We called the Gai-tronics PA system the “Gray Phone” because the phones all over the plant where you could page people and talk on 5 different lines was gray.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

I walked into the electric lab where Bill Rivers was usually hanging out causing Sonny Kendrick grief. I hadn’t been in the electric shop very long at this point. I think it was before the time when I went to work on the Manhole pumps (see the post Power Plant Manhole Mania). In the lab there was an electric cord going from a plug-in on the counter up into the cabinet above as if something inside the cabinet was plugged in…. which was true. I asked Bill what was plugged in the cabinet and he explained that it was the coffee maker.

An old Coffee pot like this

An old Coffee pot like this

You see, our industrious (evil) plant manager had decided that all coffee at the plant had to come from the authorized coffee machines where a dime had to be inserted before dispensing the cup of coffee. This way the “Canteen committee” could raise enough money to…. uh…. pay for the coffee. So, all rogue coffee machines had to go. There was to be no free coffee at the plant.

So, of course, the most logical result of this mandate was to hide the coffee maker in the cabinet in case a wandering plant manager or one of his undercover coffee monitor minions were to enter the lab unexpectedly. Maintaining the free flow of coffee to those electricians that just had to silently protest the strong arm tactics of the Power Plant Coffee Tax by having a sort of… “Tea Party” or was it a “Coffee Party”.

I told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him fix the hum on the gray phones. Bill Rivers said, “Great! Then let us play a game. let’s call it, ‘Treasure Hunt’.”

Bill reached up in one of the cabinets and pulled out a blue telephone test set. I’m sure you must have seen a telephone repairman with one of these hanging from his hip. ” Oh boy.” I thought. “A new toy!”

Telephone Test Set

Power Plant Telephone Test Set

I grabbed my tool bucket from the shop and followed Bill Rivers out into the T-G basement. This is a loud area where the steam pipes carry the steam to the Turbine to spin the Generator. It is called T-G for Turbine Generator. Bill walked over to a junction box mounted near the north exit going to unit 1. He explained that except for the gray phones in the Control-room section of the plant, all the other gray phones go through this one junction box.

Bill said that the game was to find the Gray Phone ghost. Where is the hum coming from? He showed me how the different cables coming into this one box led to Unit 1, Unit 2, the office area and the coal yard. I just had to figure out which way the hum came from. So, I went to work lifting wires off of the terminal blocks. We could hear the hum over the gray phone speakers near us, so if I were to lift the right wires, we should know right away that I had isolated the problem.

Gray Phone Speaker

Power Plant Gray Phone Speaker

We determined that the noise was coming from Unit 1. So we took the elevator halfway up the boiler to another junction box, and then another where we traced the problem to a gray phone under the surge bin tower. It took 4 screws to remove the phone from the box. When I did, I could clearly see the problem. The box was full of water. Water had run down the conduit and into the phone box.

Bill Rivers told me that now that we found the problem, we wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again, so we drilled a small weep hole in the bottom of the box, and we took plumbers putty and stuffed it into the top of the conduit where it opened into a cable tray.

A tub of Power Plant Plumbers Putty

A tub of Power Plant Plumbers Putty

The box would fill with water when the labor crew would do coal cleanup. On labor crew we would spray the entire surge bin tower down with high powered water hoses to wash off all the coal dust. Each time, some water would end up going down the conduit into the gray phone until it grounded the circuit enough to cause a hum.

Bill and I continued searching throughout the plant for phones that were causing a hum. Most were caused by water in the box. Some were caused by circuits that had gone bad (most likely because they had water in them at some point). Those we took to the electric shop lab where we played a different kind of treasure hunt. — Let’s call it…. Finding the bad component. It reminded me of an old video game I had bought for my brother for Christmas in 1983 that winter when I gave him an Intellivision (so I could play with it). It was the latest greatest video game console at the time.

An Intellivision Game Console

An Intellivision Game Console

I had given my brother a game called “Bomb Squad”. Where you had a certain amount of time to diffuse a bomb by going through a circuit board cutting out components with some snippers. If you cut the wrong connection, you had to hurry up and solder it back on before the bomb blew up.

Bomb Squad. It even talked to you and a siren went off if you were going to blow yourself up.

Bomb Squad. It even talked to you and a siren went off if you were going to blow yourself up.

That’s what we were doing with the Gray Phones. We were testing the different components until we found one that wasn’t working correctly. Then we would replace that transistor, or capacitor, or resistor, or diode, and then test the phone by plugging it in the switchgear gray phone box and calling each other.

I have a story later about someone using this technique while fixing gray phones, only he would call himself on the gray phone where I would call Bill and Bill would call me. Someone misinterpreted this and thought the person was trying to make everyone think he was more important because he was always being paged, when he was only paging himself. He was removed from fixing gray phones for this reason, even though he was only person at the plant in Mustang Oklahoma that knew a transistor from a capacitor (See the post Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark).

So, why am I going on about a seemingly boring story about fixing a hum on a PA system? I think it’s because to me it was like a game. It was like playing a treasure hunt. From the day I started as an electrician, we would receive trouble tickets where we needed to go figure something out. We had to track down a problem and then find a solution on how to fix it. As I said in previous posts, it was like solving a puzzle.

Each time we would fix something, someone was grateful. Either the operator or a mechanic, or the Shift Supervisor, or the person at home vacuuming their carpet, because the electricity was still flowing through their house. How many people in the world can say that they work on something that impacts so many people?

Well… I used to feel like I was in a unique position. I was able to play in a labyrinth of mechanical and electrical equipment finding hidden treasures in the form of some malfunction. As I grew older, I came to realize that the uniqueness was limited only to the novelty of my situation. If you took all the power plant men in the country, they could probably all fit in one large football stadium. But the impact on others was another thing altogether.

The point I am trying to make is that it was obvious to me that I was impacting a large portion of people in the state of Oklahoma by helping to keep the plant running smoothly by chasing down the boiler ghosts and exorcising the Coalyard demons from the coal handling equipment. Even though it isn’t so obvious to others, like the janitor, or the laborer or the person that fills the vending machine. Everyone in some way helps to support everyone else.

A cook in a restaurant is able to cook the food because the electricity and the natural gas is pumped into the restaurant by others. Then the cook feeds the mailman, who delivers that mail, that brings the check to the person waiting to go to the grocery store so they can buy food that was grown by some farmer who plowed his field on a tractor made in a huge tractor factory by a machinist after driving there in a car made by a manufacturer in Detroit who learned how to use a lathe in a Vocational school taught by a teacher who had a degree from a university where each day this person would walk to class during the winter snow wearing boots that came from a clothes store where the student had bought them from a store clerk that greeted people by saying “Good Morning! How are you today?” Cheering up all the people that they met.

I could have walked into the lab and told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him find the hum in the PA system and he could have responded by saying, “Oh really? Good luck with that!” Instead he said, “Let’s go play a game. ‘Treasure Hunt!” This attitude had set the stage for me as a Power Plant Electrician: “Let’s go have some fun and fix something today!” Where would that cook have been today if the power had gone out in his restaurant that morning all because an attitude had gotten in the way….. I wonder…

Comments from the original post:

  1.  

    Ron Kilman June 15, 2013:

    Great story! It’s neat how God puts us in teams to “fix stuff” and make life happen.

  2.  

    Monty Hansen August 16, 2013:

    I wonder why they don’t make ‘em bright yellow or some other color easy to spot in an emergency? Anyway, I remember this one gray phone/speaker we had & when you’d wash down the basement if you accidentally got water in it, it would bellow throughout the plant like a sick cow moose until it finally dried out!

    1.  

      Plant Electrician August 16, 2013:

      Thanks Monty, I remember having to stuff putty down the end of conduit from a cable tray to gray phones so that water wouldn’t run down them during washdown. We pulled a gray phone out of the box one day and water just poured out of it. We took to drilling a small hole in the bottom of some of them just to let the water drain out (as I mentioned above).