Tag Archives: outside the box

Power Plant Impossibilities or Processionary Caterpillars

I can remember four occasions while working at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I was told that something was impossible when I was already doing it. I mentioned two of those times in the posts “Toby O’Brien and doing the Impossible” and “Printing Impossible Fast News Post“. One day in May, 1992, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City to take some training. There was a new kind of network that I was going to be responsible to create at our plant. During the training, I learned a little about how to hook up the RS-232 connectors to the Dumb Terminals I was installing throughout the plant. During the training, I also learned a lot about what was impossible.

RS-232 Training Certificate

RS-232 Training Certificate – notice that this is signed by our plant manager Ron Kilman and even the Manager of Power Plant Operations Jim Gist

I mentioned installing all the dumb terminals in an earlier post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“. I won’t go into the details about running the cables throughout the plant because I already covered that in the earlier post. What I would rather talk about is the narrow understanding at the time about the possibilities of networking instead of the impossibilities that I was learning by everyone that tried to teach me the laws of physics through common sense.

After I was done installing the terminals in the most obvious places, some people came and asked me if there was a way to install computer ports in some unlikely places. Some were sort of “out-of-the-way”. For instance, Phil Harden asked if I could install a network jack in the middle of the Bowl Mill area so that the Instrument and Controls team could wheel their portable Compaq computer out there and run diagnostics on the equipment while connected to the network.

A Compaq Portable Computer -- and early version of a Laptop

A Compaq Portable Computer — and early version of a Laptop

I also installed a jack in the environmental controls shack out by Unit 1 smoke stack for Tony Mena. Of course, I installed one in the Precipitator Control Room since that’s where I worked a lot, and a computer hooked to the network came in handy more than once. I was always eager to run network cable and hookup computers. It was one of my favorite past times.

One time early in 1993, the A Foreman’s office was going to be renovated. It was going to take about a month or more for the construction, so all the foremen needed somewhere to stay when the office was going to be out of commission. Tom Gibson asked me one day how many computers and printers I could hook up in the conference room. I told him as many as he wanted. For one thing, it was only just down the hall from the Telephone room where the X.25 modems connected to the microwave transmitter on the top of Unit 1 Boiler.

Since this was going to be temporary, I didn’t want to mount a lot of network jacks all over the conference room… well, maybe a few…. The rest, I just strung down the wall from the ceiling. I think all together we had 8 computers and a printer installed in that room.

During this time, we had a new clerk come to the plant. This was a rare occasion because it was rare that anyone ever left the plant. Jana Allenbaugh (later Jana Green) was our new clerk. She arrived on the first day when I had setup all the computers and everyone was moving out of the foremen’s office upstairs for their temporary stay.

I was just hooking up the printer, so I sent a long drawn out warning letter to the printer so that when I hooked it up in the Telephone room, it would start printing it out. I had done this before with Charles Patton… only, I don’t think Charles ever read what printed out…. See the post “Dick Dale and the Power Plant Printer Romance“. This time I printed out a warning to Jana from the printer itself. it told her that as a new employee, she probably needed to know not to trust anyone who wears a yellow hard hat. They were not to be trusted. Because they treated printers with disrespect. Hardly noticing them, and only talking to them when their paper gets stuck. It went on from there, but that was about the gist of it.

Anyway. Up to this point, I haven’t pointed out the areas of impossibilities that I was performing against all advice from those who knew better.

You see in 1992, when I had attended the training course in Oklahoma City to teach me all about the finer aspects of hooking up RS-232 connectors, I was told that this technology had it’s limitations. The most important being the distance from the modem you can install a printer without having some sort of other switch to boost the signal.

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter used to connect to the RS-232 cable

I was installing network cable that at the time was called “Cat 1”. That was about the lowest grade wire you could use for data. Actually, it wasn’t even considered fit for data, just voice. Well. I was using it…. all the documentation said that when using Cat1, you had to be within 50 feet from the switch. Well, in a plant where the control room was a good 100 yards from the telephone room, by the time you went up and down through ceiling, conduits, cable trays and wall, by the time the cable made it to the control room, it was at least 500 feet.

When running cable out to the shack by the smokestack I was able to use Cat 2 cable. This allowed a network cable to be around 500 feet long. When I ran this cable, it turned out to be longer than 1500 feet long. At least three times longer than the possible amount to run a network cable using this type of cable…. yet, I ran it, and Tony used it.

I know that if someone had asked Russell downtown at the Corporate Headquarters IT department, he would have said that this was as impossible as printing out the Fast News article on an IBM printer that I had printed out downtown. The truth was that there was a little data integrity lost by running a cable farther than possible by the laws of physics, but the system could easily handle the bad packets by resending them. The user never noticed that the connection was a little slower. No one ever complained that they couldn’t connect to the network.

A year after I had taken the initial training in hooking up network equipment, we learned all about the Quality process and how to think outside the box. See, “Power Plant Men have a Chance to Show Their Quality“. Between my father telling me that there is no word “Can’t” and Bob Kennedy saying that “I have a tool for that”, I had come to the conclusion that just about anything that needs to be done can be done. We just have to figure out how.

After we had taken the classes to learn about the quality process, one day I went to Ron Kilman’s office and I gave him a piece of paper. On it was a story about Processionary Caterpillars. It was significant, I thought, because it demonstrates what happens when people refuse to thing “outside the box”. The story goes like this:

Processionary Caterpillars feed upon pine needles. They move through the trees in a long procession, one leading and the others following – each with his eyes half closed and his head snugly fitted against the rear extremity of his predecessor.

Jean-Henri Fabre, the great French naturalist, after patiently experimenting with a group of the caterpillars, finally enticed them to the rim of a large flower pot. He succeeded in getting the first one connected up with the last one, thus forming a complete circle, which started moving around in a a procession, with neither a beginning nor end.

The naturalist expected that after a while they would catch on to the joke, get tired of their useless march and start off in some new direction. But not so….

Through sheer force of habit, the living, creeping circle kept moving around the rim of the pot – around and around, keeping the same relentless pace for seven days and seven nights – and would doubtless have continued longer had it not been for sheer exhaustion and ultimate starvation.

Incidentally, an ample supply of food was close at hand and plainly visible, but it was outside the range of the circle so they continued along the beaten path.

They were following instinct – habit – custom – tradition – precedent – past experience – standard practice – or whatever you may choose to call it, but they were following it blindly.

They mistook activity for accomplishment. They meant well – but went no place.

Processionary Caterpillars travelling in a circle

Processionary Caterpillars travelling in a circle

This post may seem like I am doing some bragging about my ability to think outside the box. My personality may be more apt to brag about my accomplishments than to recognize that everything I do and know is a gift from God. But in this case there is more to it than that. You see, even though my grandfather who was a sharecropper who worked his entire life farming land that didn’t belong to him, he was able to invent equipment to make his life easier. He could look at something in a catalog and build it…. I didn’t inherit this gene. I had to learn this way of thinking.

I used to get in arguments all the time at the power plant because I believed that I could do things that were equivalent to walking on water. It drove the engineers mad… Actually, they were mad all right, but just at me… .not in their minds…. Why was I so sure? I had been trained by the best.

If you have been reading my blog for the past two and a half years, you will know what I’m talking about…. I was trained by the best to think outside the box. To Power Plant Men, the Quality process was not a way to find out how to come up with quality ideas…. it was just a way to demonstrate what they already knew in a way where the Engineers and management could understand the benefit.

Here are some of the Power Plant Men that taught me the most about thinking outside the box:

Larry Riley, who taught me that you really can play music by the way you operate a backhoe.

Ken Conrad, who taught me that no matter how complicated a task, by breaking it down into simple steps, it is as simple as “Sweet Pea”.

Jim Heflin, who taught me that when all else fails, shake your head and say to yourself… “Well…. there it is…. let’s try that again a different way….”

Andy Tubbs who taught me that if you think you’re so smart that you don’t need to learn anymore, then it’s time you take out the blueprints and study it some more.

Floyd Coburn taught me that when it really looks hopeless, then prayer is always the best option.

Ed Shiever taught me that when you are extremely kind to your fellow man, when things begin to fail you, everyone will come to your aid.

Earl Frazier taught me that your memories will keep you loving those important to you long past the time when those people are lovable.

Kent Cowley taught me that you can still be a gentleman even when you are a boiler rat.

Mike Crisp taught me to look to the heavens in order to really understand the metal being shaped into a part by a lathe.

Bill Thomas taught me that loyalty to your fellow Power Plant Men comes from within your own heart, and not the actions of others.

Timothy Crain taught me that everything you do is for your family, no matter what situation they may find themselves.

Dale Mitchell taught me that personal integrity allows you to open your heart to even the most difficult people.

Juliene Alley taught me that one person can be everyone’s Mother when they are pure in heart.

Jerry Dale taught me that the more complicated the puzzle, the more humor will unravel it.

Bob Rowe taught me that simplicity makes more sense than trying to make things complicated.

I have listed a few (and only a few) of the Power Plant Men that as an accumulation, taught me to think outside the small box that I was in when I initially arrived at the Power Plant in 1979 when I first arrived as a Power Plant Summer Help until 2001 when I left to begin a new career as an IT professional (ouch… what a run-on sentence). This allowed me to think outside the box. I never would have made it to that position if it hadn’t been for the wonderful men and women who led me by the hand… sometimes kicking and screaming to the lid of the box so that I could peer outside and imagine other possibilities.

Comments from the previous post

    1. Dan Antion September 6, 2014

      I too was led into IT by others. It was a field that was new and expanding, and a better fit for some people. Nice post. Glad to have you in our box.

    1. Dave Tarver September 6, 2014

      Kev, as you know we had just an incredible , amazing group of talent at the plant , and for the most part a group that to along with each other and looked out for each other too.
      I still think about all those guys and all that collective intelligence among them, truly truly a blessing.

    1. Ron Kilman September 6, 2014

      Facet: a part or element of something.

      God is “omni-facetted” (new word) = He has infinite facets. Since each person is His unique creation, we each are born with our own unique manifestation of a part of God. You have learned to look for, recognize, and honor that in people. I think this is your best post yet.

  1. Monty Hansen November 19, 2014

    I dub thee “True Powerplant Man”

 

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Power Plant Summer Help Sanity Check

Originally Posted December 7, 2012:

What happens to a million dollar forest when left to the fate of two Power Plant Summer Help?  I can tell you; the result is not good.  Before I explain this statement, let me introduce some summer help to you so that you will have a deeper understanding of my summer help career.  It spanned 4 summers for a total of 12 months.

I would like to start out by saying that there were a few summer help that I thought were very intelligent and goodhearted people.  A dear friend of mine named Tim Flowers, who was a friend that I met while attending Oklahoma University my first year in school, was one of the smartest people you might run across in your lifetime.  He was also a very hard worker who didn’t mind putting his entire effort into his work.

Blake Tucker from Pawnee also had a brilliant mind and had an honorable work ethic.  He was fresh out of High School when he first went to work as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma.  During his years as a summer help, I spent a lot of time with him working on mathematical calculations and on programming feats of magic.

Bill Cook, though he didn’t put his back into his work the way some would have liked to see, he did go on to work at the power plant on the labor crew a year and a half before I finally made it onto that team of singularly distinguished characters.  Bill confided in me, and I consider him a friend, though I haven’t seen him in 30 years.

David Foster became a friend of mine the second summer when we were were summer help together. He only worked at the plant that one summer, but I talked to him a few times during the years when he was in college and I would run into him coming out of church or on campus.  His father was a dentist in Ponca City.

This leaves me with all the rest of the summer help that worked with me during those 4 summers.  I wrote a post about the first summer help I worked with that really didn’t fit the requirements, since you were supposed to be going to school in order to be a summer help.  That was Steve Higginbotham.  He was 34 at the time and not planning on attending school in the fall.  You can read more about him in the post:  Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown

Steve was a less than energetic person, but I could understand his lack of enthusiasm.  He had been dealt a shorthand in his life and he was making the best out of his situation.  What I found hard to understand were summer help that were fresh out of High School that were given the opportunity to work at an illustrious palace of a Power Plant, and they just didn’t want to work.

When I was leaving the house at age 14 to go to my first job where I was working for someone other than myself (I began selling tomatoes from my garden door-to-door at age 8), my dad told me something that became the core of my work ethic.  He said, “Son.”  Well, I don’t remember if he actually said “Son.” but it was something like that.  Maybe he said “Kevin, before you go, I want to tell you something.”  He said that I should do my best at whatever job they give me.  I should do a job that I would be proud to show others.  He never wanted to hear anything that would make him ashamed of me.

It was a thrill to go work at a German Restaurant as a dishwasher making $1.50 an hour.  I worked my tail off each night.  I didn’t know there was anything called “breaks”, and I focused on keeping ahead of the work so that I wouldn’t become swamped.

So, it was hard for me, by the time I was 20, to see summer help come to the plant and work real hard at not working.  Young football players from Pawnee, who you would think would be able to put their best foot forward, were usually standing around talking smack about that one doofus of a summer help that wanted to get to work right away.  That one guy that liked wearing his face shield and ear muffs hanging down from his hard hat swinging the industrial weedeater to-and-fro all day long.

One with two handles like this one

One with two handles like this one (I like reusing pictures from old posts)

This one group of summer help that were hired that summer all seemed to have the same bug, except for Bill  Cook.  Bill didn’t get along with them because he wasn’t from the same bully class that they graduated.  At one point during the summer the tension between them and Bill rose to such a level that they had to handle it the only way left.

Bill had to meet one of them outside the gate after quittin’ time to settle matters.  The truth of the matter was that Bill had done nothing to stir up their ire.  They just didn’t like him.  It seemed to be a personality issue with them.  From what I understand, the cowards received what was coming to them as usually happens when they have mistook someone to be a weakling and easy pickings.

To illustrate the intelligence of this particular group of summer help (there were 3 of them), let me describe an instance where they were struggling real hard to keep from working.  I didn’t understand their desire to keep doing what they were doing in the first place, so I wasn’t about to stay in the situation all afternoon.

Stanley Elmore had told us to mow the area around the main parking lot.  This included the area by the main entrance.  At that time there were sections of grass on all sides of the parking lot including the side by the garage (which is not there today).  Stanley sent me and the 3 of them (not Bill Cook.  I think he knew the tension between them and tried to work it so that Bill could be doing other things) out to mow this area with regular push mowers.

It was just after lunch when we started.  I knew right away that the three amigos wanted to make this job last all afternoon.  I think they were afraid that when they finished they would be sent to the park to empty the trash cans of the foul rotten fish guts and soiled baby diapers.  A job that would make most summer help puke and even bring water to the eyes of a True Power Plant Man.

Well.  I grabbed one of the lawn mowers and headed out across the drive to the grass and started mowing around and around one stretch of grass.  By the time the others had dragged their mowers out and took their time starting them, I had finished one stretch of grass and went around to the other side of the parking lot to work on that side as well.

The grass on the far side of the parking lot wrapped around by the welding shop and over to the front entrance.  So, once this entire section was done, we would be finished.  It really wasn’t that much grass to mow.  Not when you had 4 lawn mowers all going around in a counter clockwise direction.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three huddle together to have a quick discussion.  I knew they were going to try to thwart my efforts to quickly finish this job so they didn’t have to move on to the next adventure.  I also knew that there wasn’t anyway they were going to be able to stop me.

They had tried to stop me before earlier when we were going out to cut weeds down a long right-of-way.  One of them had let his weedeater string out real far so that the strings were sticking out about 2 feet.  He started his weedeater up so that the strings were whining and turned around so that the strings grabbed my leg and before I knew it I was flat on my back with a stabbing pain in my knee.  My kneecap had been knocked out of the socket, which I quickly hit with the palm of my  hand to knock it back over from the side of my knee.

I could see that this had been pre-planned by their reaction.  I think they thought it would take me out of commission or make me angry so they could watch me lose my top.  The guy that did it apologized in a half sarcastic way and I told him it was all right.  I wiped the dust off of my pants and grabbed my weedeater and went to work.  I could see them at the back of the truck standing there wondering where their plan had failed.

Anyway, back to mowing the grass around the parking lot.  I was able to tell immediately what they had planned.  Their idea was to hem me in and mow very slowly so that I would have no where to go but to follow along behind one of them travelling at a snails pace.  They were so slow they would take one step, wait a second, then take another step, etc.

So, as I came up behind one of them I suddenly took a left turn and cut a new path through the grass without even slowing down.  I quickly came to the other side of the curb, and I turned left again and was heading back in the direction I came from just as if nothing was wrong.

I knew the law of physics.  Newton’s First Law of Physics.  If a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion unless it is acted on by another force.  Well.  The mind of the weak have little force.  Newton was not only one of my favorite Physicist, he was one of my favorite Mathematicians as well.

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Well.  He did like sitting in the park under an apple tree.  — So how did they keep the grass mowed back in 1642?  Maybe they trained the grass just to stay small.  Why don’t we have grass that just stays short?  We could do that easy enough.

Because of the laws of motion and the size of my lawn mower and the speed in which I was mowing, I had calculated that I should be able to finish mowing the entire area in about 15 more minutes (or 900 seconds) if I were to do it all myself.  — Funny how things run through your mind when you are mowing grass.  No wonder Sonny Karcher loved mowing grass so much.

Sonny Karcher

Anyway.  That little story illustrates my point about how some summer help put all their brain power into thinking about how to stay out of work that they couldn’t even conceive of someone thinking outside the box.  How difficult was it for me to just turn and mow a patch of grass out in the middle of the stretch of grass we were mowing?

Once they realized that there wasn’t anyway to stop me, they went ahead and finished their job.  I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to stand out in the sun in 100 degree temperature anyway pretending to mow grass.  Didn’t they know that just made the day seem longer?

It was during that summer that the plant manager was sold on the idea of planting a forest around the coal yard to prevent the wind from blowing all the coal away (Oklahoma is windy).  So, a million dollars was spent to hire a company to plant a number of rows of trees along the south road next to the coal yard.  When the trees were planted, they were sickly little sticks.  The summer help were sent to go water them from time-to-time using the small Mitsubishi tractor pulling a trailer with a tank of water on it.

A tractor just like this

A tractor just like this

I have to admit that I never gave the idea much hope.  The ground where the trees were planted was hard clay.  The company that received the million dollars hardly even put any real usable tree-growing dirt in the hole when they planted the trees.

The trees were planted very close together so that you couldn’t mow around them on a tractor.  So, when the weeds started growing tall (…as tall as the trees) and the field had been mowed, Stanley sent a couple of the lazy summer help up there to weed eat around the trees.

I had been told some time in my childhood that one of the fastest ways to kill a tree was to strip the bark off all the way around the tree.  Not just strip the bark, but cut a little into the tree itself around the base of the tree.  If you did this, the tree would die.  The only actual living part of the tree is the outside section.  Here is a link to a site that describes the part of a tree and a picture from that site:

How Does A Tree Grow

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

So, do I need to go on?  That’s right.  When the summer help had finished trimming the verge around the trees their fate had been sealed.  Two summer help in a matter of an hour totally wiped out the million dollar tree experiment.  They had stripped the bark clean around every tree.

Not to be outdone.  The Plant Manager spent 2 million dollars to have larger trees installed with plenty of good soil around the embankments on the north side of the coal pile.  These were good healthy trees.There was even an irrigation system installed to make sure they were properly watered.  This worked at least a year or two.  Long enough for a lot of the trees to catch hold.  The only problem is that the wind almost always blows from the west or the south defeating the purpose of the “windbreak” on the north side of the coal pile.

Ok.  One more summer help story before I go.  A friend of mine named Ben Cox became a summer help for a summer the fourth summer I worked as a summer help (how many times can I use the word summer in one sentence?).  I had worked with him at the Bakery in Columbia, Missouri and he had followed me home that summer to try his hand at summer helping at the power plant.  Tim Flowers and I had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail.  I have mentioned Ben Cox before in the story about Ramblin’ Ann.  He and I used to tag team Ramblin’ Ann just to keep our sanity.  See the link below as a refresher on Ramblin’ Ann:

Ed Sheiver Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann

Ben wasn’t the most physically fit, and we didn’t want to see him have a heart attack at such an early age.  Ben, however, held his own as best he could and survived a summer of working outdoors.  He actually did better than Tim and I expected.

One day when we were driving to the coal yard Ben asked me why there were large hills of sand piled up across the road from the intake.  Instead of telling him that the sand had been dredged out of the intake channel when they were filling the lake and sand was being pumped from the river up to the lake with the water, I told him something else…

I told Ben that they kept the large piles of sand there in case they ran out of coal.  They would burn the sand as a last resort.  I explained that they didn’t like to burn sand because it burned hotter than coal and it turned into glass in the boiler and really messed things up.  But if there was a long coal strike and they totally ran out of coal, they would have to burn sand in order to keep producing electricity.

Tim and I watched closely as Ben mulled this over in his mind.  At first he didn’t believe me, but after I explained why we didn’t burn sand all the time, you could start to see the wheels turning in his mind.  Burning sand…. wow!  There is sand all over the place!  I never told him differently.  I’m sure if he tried to sell the idea to someone, he would have found out quick enough.

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman December 12, 2012:

Your stories are so good! They bring back memories I hadn’t thought of for years. The part about “burning sand” reminded me of the Brown & Root engineer that was looking for an easy way to put holes in a thick set of blueprints. “Someone” (Kenneth Palmer or John Blake might have been involved) convinced him that shooting them with a 22 would be the easiest way to do the job. He then proceeded to take a new set of prints and totally destroy them!

Power Plant Impossibilities or Processionary Caterpillars

I can remember four occasions while working at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I was told that something was impossible when I was already doing it. I mentioned two of those times in the posts “Toby O’Brien and doing the Impossible” and “Printing Impossible Fast News Post“. One day in May, 1992, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City to take some training. There was a new kind of network that I was going to be responsible to create at our plant. During the training, I learned a little about how to hook up the RS-232 connectors to the Dumb Terminals I was installing throughout the plant. During the training, I also learned a lot about what was impossible.

RS-232 Training Certificate

RS-232 Training Certificate – notice that this is signed by our plant manager Ron Kilman and even the Manager of Power Plant Operations Jim Gist

I mentioned installing all the dumb terminals in an earlier post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“. I won’t go into the details about running the cables throughout the plant because I already covered that in the earlier post. What I would rather talk about is the narrow understanding at the time about the possibilities of networking instead of the impossibilities that I was learning by everyone that tried to teach me the laws of physics through common sense.

After I was done installing the terminals in the most obvious places, some people came and asked me if there was a way to install computer ports in some unlikely places. Some were sort of “out-of-the-way”. For instance, Phil Harden asked if I could install a network jack in the middle of the Bowl Mill area so that the Instrument and Controls team could wheel their portable Compaq computer out there and run diagnostics on the equipment while connected to the network.

A Compaq Portable Computer -- and early version of a Laptop

A Compaq Portable Computer — and early version of a Laptop

I also installed a jack in the environmental controls shack out by Unit 1 smoke stack for Tony Mena. Of course, I installed one in the Precipitator Control Room since that’s where I worked a lot, and a computer hooked to the network came in handy more than once. I was always eager to run network cable and hookup computers. It was one of my favorite past times.

One time early in 1993, the A Foreman’s office was going to be renovated. It was going to take about a month or more for the construction, so all the foremen needed somewhere to stay when the office was going to be out of commission. Tom Gibson asked me one day how many computers and printers I could hook up in the conference room. I told him as many as he wanted. For one thing, it was only just down the hall from the Telephone room where the X.25 modems connected to the microwave transmitter on the top of Unit 1 Boiler.

Since this was going to be temporary, I didn’t want to mount a lot of network jacks all over the conference room… well, maybe a few…. The rest, I just strung down the wall from the ceiling. I think all together we had 8 computers and a printer installed in that room.

During this time, we had a new clerk come to the plant. This was a rare occasion because it was rare that anyone ever left the plant. Jana Allenbaugh (later Jana Green) was our new clerk. She arrived on the first day when I had setup all the computers and everyone was moving out of the foremen’s office upstairs for their temporary stay.

I was just hooking up the printer, so I sent a long drawn out warning letter to the printer so that when I hooked it up in the Telephone room, it would start printing it out. I had done this before with Charles Patton… only, I don’t think Charles ever read what printed out…. See the post “Dick Dale and the Power Plant Printer Romance“. This time I printed out a warning to Jana from the printer itself. it told her that as a new employee, she probably needed to know not to trust anyone who wears a yellow hard hat. They were not to be trusted. Because they treated printers with disrespect. Hardly noticing them, and only talking to them when their paper gets stuck. It went on from there, but that was about the gist of it.

Anyway. Up to this point, I haven’t pointed out the areas of impossibilities that I was performing against all advice from those who knew better.

You see in 1992, when I had attended the training course in Oklahoma City to teach me all about the finer aspects of hooking up RS-232 connectors, I was told that this technology had it’s limitations. The most important being the distance from the modem you can install a printer without having some sort of other switch to boost the signal.

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter used to connect to the RS-232 cable

I was installing network cable that at the time was called “Cat 1”. That was about the lowest grade wire you could use for data. Actually, it wasn’t even considered fit for data, just voice. Well. I was using it…. all the documentation said that when using Cat1, you had to be within 50 feet from the switch. Well, in a plant where the control room was a good 100 yards from the telephone room, by the time you went up and down through ceiling, conduits, cable trays and wall, by the time the cable made it to the control room, it was at least 500 feet.

When running cable out to the shack by the smokestack I was able to use Cat 2 cable. This allowed a network cable to be around 500 feet long. When I ran this cable, it turned out to be longer than 1500 feet long. At least three times longer than the possible amount to run a network cable using this type of cable…. yet, I ran it, and Tony used it.

I know that if someone had asked Russell downtown at the Corporate Headquarters IT department, he would have said that this was as impossible as printing out the Fast News article on an IBM printer that I had printed out downtown. The truth was that there was a little data integrity lost by running a cable farther than possible by the laws of physics, but the system could easily handle the bad packets by resending them. The user never noticed that the connection was a little slower. No one ever complained that they couldn’t connect to the network.

A year after I had taken the initial training in hooking up network equipment, we learned all about the Quality process and how to think outside the box. See, “Power Plant Men have a Chance to Show Their Quality“. Between my father telling me that there is no word “Can’t” and Bob Kennedy saying that “I have a tool for that”, I had come to the conclusion that just about anything that needs to be done can be done. We just have to figure out how.

After we had taken the classes to learn about the quality process, one day I went to Ron Kilman’s office and I gave him a piece of paper. On it was a story about Processionary Caterpillars. It was significant, I thought, because it demonstrates what happens when people refuse to thing “outside the box”. The story goes like this:

Processionary Caterpillars feed upon pine needles. They move through the trees in a long procession, one leading and the others following – each with his eyes half closed and his head snugly fitted against the rear extremity of his predecessor.

Jean-Henri Fabre, the great French naturalist, after patiently experimenting with a group of the caterpillars, finally enticed them to the rim of a large flower pot. He succeeded in getting the first one connected up with the last one, thus forming a complete circle, which started moving around in a a procession, with neither a beginning nor end.

The naturalist expected that after a while they would catch on to the joke, get tired of their useless march and start off in some new direction. But not so….

Through sheer force of habit, the living, creeping circle kept moving around the rim of the pot – around and around, keeping the same relentless pace for seven days and seven nights – and would doubtless have continued longer had it not been for sheer exhaustion and ultimate starvation.

Incidentally, an ample supply of food was close at hand and plainly visible, but it was outside the range of the circle so they continued along the beaten path.

They were following instinct – habit – custom – tradition – precedent – past experience – standard practice – or whatever you may choose to call it, but they were following it blindly.

They mistook activity for accomplishment. They meant well – but went no place.

Processionary Caterpillars travelling in a circle

Processionary Caterpillars travelling in a circle

This post may seem like I am doing some bragging about my ability to think outside the box. My personality may be more apt to brag about my accomplishments than to recognize that everything I do and know is a gift from God. But in this case there is more to it than that. You see, even though my grandfather who was a sharecropper who worked his entire life farming land that didn’t belong to him, he was able to invent equipment to make his life easier. He could look at something in a catalog and build it…. I didn’t inherit this gene. I had to learn this way of thinking.

I used to get in arguments all the time at the power plant because I believed that I could do things that were equivalent to walking on water. It drove the engineers mad… Actually, they were mad all right, but just at me… .not in their minds…. Why was I so sure? I had been trained by the best.

If you have been reading my blog for the past two and a half years, you will know what I’m talking about…. I was trained by the best to think outside the box. To Power Plant Men, the Quality process was not a way to find out how to come up with quality ideas…. it was just a way to demonstrate what they already knew in a way where the Engineers and management could understand the benefit.

Here are some of the Power Plant Men that taught me the most about thinking outside the box:

Larry Riley, who taught me that you really can play music by the way you operate a backhoe.

Ken Conrad, who taught me that no matter how complicated a task, by breaking it down into simple steps, it is as simple as “Sweet Pea”.

Jim Heflin, who taught me that when all else fails, shake your head and say to yourself… “Well…. there it is…. let’s try that again a different way….”

Andy Tubbs who taught me that if you think you’re so smart that you don’t need to learn anymore, then it’s time you take out the blueprints and study it some more.

Floyd Coburn taught me that when it really looks hopeless, then prayer is always the best option.

Ed Shiever taught me that when you are extremely kind to your fellow man, when things begin to fail you, everyone will come to your aid.

Earl Frazier taught me that your memories will keep you loving those important to you long past the time when those people are lovable.

Kent Cowley taught me that you can still be a gentleman even when you are a boiler rat.

Mike Crisp taught me to look to the heavens in order to really understand the metal being shaped into a part by a lathe.

Bill Thomas taught me that loyalty to your fellow Power Plant Men comes from within your own heart, and not the actions of others.

Timothy Crain taught me that everything you do is for your family, no matter what situation they may find themselves.

Dale Mitchell taught me that personal integrity allows you to open your heart to even the most difficult people.

Juliene Alley taught me that one person can be everyone’s Mother when they are pure in heart.

Jerry Dale taught me that the more complicated the puzzle, the more humor will unravel it.

Bob Rowe taught me that simplicity makes more sense than trying to make things complicated.

I have listed a few (and only a few) of the Power Plant Men that as an accumulation, taught me to think outside the small box that I was in when I initially arrived at the Power Plant in 1979 when I first arrived as a Power Plant Summer Help until 2001 when I left to begin a new career as an IT professional (ouch… what a run-on sentence). This allowed me to think outside the box. I never would have made it to that position if it hadn’t been for the wonderful men and women who led me by the hand… sometimes kicking and screaming to the lid of the box so that I could peer outside and imagine other possibilities.

Comments from the previous post

    1. Dan Antion September 6, 2014

      I too was led into IT by others. It was a field that was new and expanding, and a better fit for some people. Nice post. Glad to have you in our box.

    1. Dave Tarver September 6, 2014

      Kev, as you know we had just an incredible , amazing group of talent at the plant , and for the most part a group that to along with each other and looked out for each other too.
      I still think about all those guys and all that collective intelligence among them, truly truly a blessing.

    1. Ron Kilman September 6, 2014

      Facet: a part or element of something.

      God is “omni-facetted” (new word) = He has infinite facets. Since each person is His unique creation, we each are born with our own unique manifestation of a part of God. You have learned to look for, recognize, and honor that in people. I think this is your best post yet.

  1. Monty Hansen November 19, 2014

    I dub thee “True Powerplant Man”

 

Power Plant Summer Help Sanity Check

Originally Posted December 7, 2012:

What happens to a million dollar forest when left to the fate of two Power Plant Summer Help?  I can tell you; the result is not good.  Before I explain this statement, let me introduce some summer help to you so that you will have a deeper understanding of my summer help career.  It spanned 4 summers for a total of 12 months.

I would like to start out by saying that there were a few summer help that I thought were very intelligent and goodhearted people.  A dear friend of mine named Tim Flowers, who was a friend that I met while attending Oklahoma University my first year in school, was one of the smartest people you might run across in your lifetime.  He was also a very hard worker who didn’t mind putting his entire effort into his work.

Blake Tucker from Pawnee also had a brilliant mind and had an honorable work ethic.  He was fresh out of High School when he first went to work as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma.  During his years as a summer help, I spent a lot of time with him working on mathematical calculations and on programming feats of magic.

Bill Cook, though he didn’t put his back into his work the way some would have liked to see, he did go on to work at the power plant on the labor crew a year and a half before I finally made it onto that team of singularly distinguished characters.  Bill confided in me, and I consider him a friend, though I haven’t seen him in 30 years.

David Foster became a friend of mine the second summer when we were were summer help together. He only worked at the plant that one summer, but I talked to him a few times during the years when he was in college and I would run into him coming out of church or on campus.  His father was a dentist in Ponca City.

This leaves me with all the rest of the summer help that worked with me during those 4 summers.  I wrote a post about the first summer help I worked with that really didn’t fit the requirements, since you were supposed to be going to school in order to be a summer help.  That was Steve Higginbotham.  You can read more about him in the post:  Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown

Steve was a less than energetic person, but I could understand his lack of enthusiasm.  He had been dealt a shorthand in his life and he was making the best out of his situation.  What I found hard to understand were summer help that were fresh out of High School that were given the opportunity to work at an illustrious palace of a Power Plant, and they just didn’t want to work.

When I was leaving the house at age 14 to go to my first job where I was working for someone other than myself (I began selling tomatoes from my garden door-to-door at age 10), my dad told me something that became the core of my work ethic.  He said, “Son.”  Well, I don’t remember if he actually said “Son.” but it was something like that.  Maybe he said “Kevin, before you go, I want to tell you something.”  He said that I should do my best at whatever job they give me.  I should do a job that I would be proud to show others.  He never wanted to hear anything that would make him be ashamed of me.

It was a thrill to go work at a German Restaurant as a dishwasher making $1.50 an hour.  I worked my tail off each night.  I seldom took breaks, and I focused on keeping ahead of the work so that I wouldn’t become swamped.

So, it was hard for me, by the time I was 20, to see summer help come to the plant and work real hard at not working.  Young football players from Pawnee, who you would think would be able to put their best foot forward, were usually standing around talking smack about that one doofus of a summer help that wanted to get to work right away.  That one guy that liked wearing his face shield and ear muffs hanging down from his hard hat swinging the industrial weedeater to-and-fro all day long.

One with two handles like this one

One with two handles like this one (I like reusing pictures from old posts)

This one group of summer help that were hired that summer all seemed to have the same bug, except for Bill  Cook.  Bill didn’t get along with them because he wasn’t from the same bully class that they graduated.  At one point during the summer the tension between them and Bill rose to such a level that they had to handle it the only way left.

Bill had to meet one of them outside the gate after quittin’ time to settle matters.  The truth of the matter was that Bill had done nothing to stir up their ire.  They just didn’t like him.  It seemed to be a personality issue with them.  From what I understand, the cowards received what was coming to them as usually happens when they have mistook someone to be a weakling and easy pickings.

To illustrate the intelligence of this particular group of summer help (there were 3 of them), let me describe an instance where they were struggling real hard to keep from working.  I didn’t understand their desire to keep doing what they were doing in the first place, so I wasn’t about to stay in the situation all afternoon.

Stanley Elmore had told us to mow the area around the main parking lot.  This included the area by the main entrance.  At that time there were sections of grass on all sides of the parking lot including the side by the garage.  Stanley sent me and the 3 of them (not Bill Cook.  I think he knew the tension between them and tried to work it so that Bill could be doing other things) out to mow this area with regular push mowers.

It was just after lunch when we started.  I knew right away that the three amigos wanted to make this job last all afternoon.  I think they were afraid that when they finished they would be sent to the park to empty the trash cans of the foul rotten fish guts and soiled baby diapers.  A job that would make most summer help puke and even bring water to the eyes of a True Power Plant Man.

Well.  I grabbed one of the lawn mowers and headed out across the drive to the grass and started mowing around and around one stretch of grass.  By the time the others had dragged their mowers out and took their time starting them, I had finished one stretch of grass and went around to the other side of the parking lot to work on that side as well.

The grass on the far side of the parking lot wrapped around by the welding shop and over to the front entrance.  So, once this entire section was done, we would be finished.  It really wasn’t that much grass to mow.  Not when you had 4 lawn mowers all going around in a counter clockwise direction.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three huddle together to have a quick discussion.  I knew they were going to try to thwart my efforts to quickly finish this job so they didn’t have to move on to the next adventure.  I also knew that there wasn’t anyway they were going to be able to stop me.

They had tried to stop me before earlier when we were going out to cut weeds down a long right-of-way.  One of them had let his weedeater string out real far so that the strings were sticking out about 2 feet.  He started his weedeater up so that the strings were whining and turned around so that the strings grabbed my leg and before I knew it I was flat on my back with a stabbing pain in my knee.  My kneecap had been knocked out of the socket, which I quickly hit with the palm of my  hand to knock it back over from the side of my knee.

I could see that this had been pre-planned by their reaction.  I think they thought it would take me out of commission or make me angry so they could watch me lose my top.  The guy that did it apologized in a half sarcastic way and I told him it was all right.  I wiped the dust off of my pants and grabbed my weedeater and went to work.  I could see them at the back of the truck standing there wondering where their plan had failed.

Anyway, back to mowing the grass around the parking lot.  I was able to tell immediately what they had planned.  Their idea was to hem me in and mow very slowly so that I would have no where to go but to follow along behind one of them travelling at a snails pace.  They were so slow they would take one step, wait a second, then take another step, etc.

So, as I came up behind one of them I suddenly took a left turn and cut a new path through the grass without even slowing down.  I quickly came to the other side of the curb, and I turned left again and was heading back in the direction I came from just as if nothing was wrong.

I knew the law of physics.  Newton’s First Law of Physics.  If a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion unless it is acted on by another force.  Well.  The mind of the weak have little force.  Newton was not only one of my favorite Physicist, he was one of my favorite Mathematicians as well.

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Well.  He did like sitting in the park under an apple tree.  — So how did they keep the grass mowed back in 1642?  Maybe they trained the grass just to stay small.  Why don’t we have grass that just stays short?  We could do that easy enough.

Because of the laws of motion and the size of my lawn mower and the speed in which I was mowing, I had calculated that I should be able to finish mowing the entire area in about 15 more minutes (or 900 seconds) if I were to do it all myself.  — Funny how things run through your mind when you are mowing grass.  No wonder Sonny Karcher loved mowing grass so much.

Anyway.  That little story illustrates my point about how some summer help put all their brain power into thinking about how to stay out of work that they couldn’t even conceive of someone thinking outside the box.  How difficult was it for me to just turn and mow a patch of grass out in the middle of the stretch of grass we were mowing?

Once they realized that there wasn’t anyway to stop me, they went ahead and finished their job.  I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to stand out in the sun in 100 degree temperature anyway pretending to mow grass.  Didn’t they know that just made the day seem longer?

It was during that summer that the plant manager was sold on the idea of planting a forest around the coal yard to prevent the wind from blowing all the coal away (Oklahoma is windy).  So, a million dollars was spent to hire a company to plant a number of rows of trees along the south road next to the coal yard.  When the trees were planted, they were like sickly little sticks.  The summer help were sent to go water them from time-to-time using the small Mitsubishi tractor pulling a trailer with a tank of water on it.

A tractor just like this

A tractor just like this

I have to admit that I never gave the idea much hope.  The ground where the trees were planted was hard clay.  The company that received the million dollars hardly even put any real usable tree-growing dirt in the hole when they planted the trees.

The trees were planted very close together so that you couldn’t mow around them on a tractor.  So, when the weeds started growing tall and the field had been mowed, Stanley sent a couple of the lazy summer help up there to weed eat around the trees.

I had been told some time in my childhood that one of the fastest ways to kill a tree was to strip the bark off all the way around the tree.  Not just strip the bark, but cut a little into the tree itself around the base of the tree.  If you did this, the tree would die.  The only actual living part of the tree is the outside section.  Here is a link to a site that describes the part of a tree and a picture from that site:

How Does A Tree Grow

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

So, do I need to go on?  That’s right.  When the summer help had finished trimming the verge around the trees their fate had been sealed.  Two summer help in a matter of an hour totally wiped out the million dollar tree experiment.  They had stripped the bark clean around every tree.

Not to be outdone.  The Plant Manager spent 2 million dollars to have larger trees installed with plenty of good soil around the embankments on the north side of the coal pile.  These were good healthy trees.There was even an irrigation system installed to make sure they were properly watered.  This worked at least a year or two.  Long enough for a lot of the trees to catch hold.  The only problem is that the wind almost always blows from the west or the south defeating the purpose of the “windbreak” on the north side of the coal pile.

Ok.  One more summer help story before I go.  A friend of mine named Ben Cox became a summer help for a summer the fourth summer I worked as a summer help (how many times can I use the word summer in one sentence?).  I had worked with him at the Bakery in Columbia, Missouri and he had followed me home that summer to try his hand at summer helping at the power plant.  Tim Flowers and I had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail.  I have mentioned Ben Cox before in the story about Ramblin’ Ann.  He and I used to tag team Ramblin’ Ann just to keep our sanity.  See the link below as a refresher on Ramblin’ Ann:

Ed Sheiver Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann

Ben wasn’t the most physically fit, and we didn’t want to see him have a heart attack at such an early age.  Ben, however, held his own as best he could and survived a summer of working outdoors.  He actually did better than Tim and I expected.

One day when we were driving to the coal yard Ben asked me why there were large hills of sand piled up across the road from the intake.  Instead of telling him that the sand had been dredged out of the intake channel when they were filling the lake and sand was being pumped from the river up to the lake with the water, I told him something else…

I told Ben that they kept the large piles of sand there in case they ran out of coal.  They would burn the sand as a last resort.  I explained that they didn’t like to burn sand because it burned hotter than coal and it turned into glass in the boiler and really messed things up.  But if there was a long coal strike and they totally ran out of coal, they would have to burn sand in order to keep producing electricity.

Tim and I watched closely as Ben mulled this over in his mind.  At first he didn’t believe me, but after I explained why we didn’t burn sand all the time, you could start to see the wheels turning in his mind.  Burning sand…. wow!  There is sand all over the place!  I never told him differently.  I’m sure if he tried to sell the idea to someone, he would have found out quick enough.

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman December 12, 2012:

Your stories are so good! They bring back memories I hadn’t thought of for years. The part about “burning sand” reminded me of the Brown & Root engineer that was looking for an easy way to put holes in a thick set of blueprints. “Someone” (Kenneth Palmer or John Blake might have been involved) convinced him that shooting them with a 22 would be the easiest way to do the job. He then proceeded to take a new set of prints and totally destroy them!

Power Plant Impossibilities or Processionary Caterpillars

I can remember four occasions while working at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I was told that something was impossible when I was already doing it. I mentioned two of those times in the posts “Toby O’Brien and doing the Impossible” and “Printing Impossible Fast News Post“. One day in May, 1992, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City to take some training. There was a new kind of network that I was going to be responsible to create at our plant. During the training, I learned a little about how to hook up the RS-232 connectors to the Dumb Terminals I was installing throughout the plant. During the training, I also learned a lot about what was impossible.

RS-232 Training Certificate

RS-232 Training Certificate – notice that this is signed by our plant manager Ron Kilman and even the Manager of Power Plant Operations Jim Gist

I mentioned installing all the dumb terminals in an earlier post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“. I won’t go into the details about running the cables throughout the plant because I already covered that in the earlier post. What I would rather talk about is the narrow understanding at the time about the possibilities of networking instead of the impossibilities that I was learning by everyone that tried to teach me the laws of physics through common sense.

After I was done installing the terminals in the most obvious places, some people came and asked me if there was a way to install computer ports in some unlikely places. Some were sort of “out-of-the-way”. For instance, Phil Harden asked if I could install a network jack in the middle of the Bowl Mill area so that the Instrument and Controls team could wheel their portable Compaq computer out there and run diagnostics on the equipment while connected to the network.

A Compaq Portable Computer -- and early version of a Laptop

A Compaq Portable Computer — and early version of a Laptop

I also installed a jack in the environmental controls shack out by Unit 1 smoke stack for Tony Mena. Of course, I installed on in the Precipitator Control Room since that’s where I worked a lot, and a computer hooked to the network came in handy more than once. I was always eager to run network cable and hookup computers. It was one of my favorite past times.

One time early in 1993, the A Foreman’s office was going to be renovated. It was going to take about a month or more for the construction, so all the foremen needed somewhere to stay when the office was going to be out of commission. Tom Gibson asked me one day how many computers and printers I could hook up in the conference room. I told him as many as he wanted. For one thing, it was only just down the hall from the Telephone room where the X.25 modems connected to the microwave transmitter on the top of Unit 1 Boiler.

Since this was going to be temporary, I didn’t want to mount a lot of network jacks all over the conference room… well, maybe a few…. The rest, I just strung down the wall from the ceiling. I think all together we had 8 computers and a printer installed in that room.

During this time, we had a new clerk come to the plant. This was a rare occasion because it was rare that anyone ever left the plant. Jana Allenbaugh (later Jana Green) was our new clerk. She arrived on the first day when I had setup all the computers and everyone was moving out of the foremen’s office upstairs for their temporary stay.

I was just hooking up the printer, so I sent a long drawn out warning letter to the printer so that when I hooked it up in the Telephone room, it would start printing it out. I had done this before with Charles Patton… only, I don’t think Charles ever read what printed out…. See the post “Dick Dale and the Power Plant Printer Romance“. This time I printed out a warning to Jana from the printer itself. it told her that as a new employee, she probably needed to know not to trust anyone who wears a yellow hard hat. They were not to be trusted. Because they treated printers with disrespect. Hardly noticing them, and only talking to them when their paper gets stuck. It went on from there, but that was about the gist of it.

Anyway. Up to this point, I haven’t pointed out the areas of impossibilities that I was performing against all advice from those who knew better.

You see in 1992, when I had attended the training course in Oklahoma City to teach me all about the finer aspects of hooking up RS-232 connectors, I was told that this technology had it’s limitations. The most important being the distance from the modem you can install a printer without having some sort of other switch to boost the signal.

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter used to connect to the RS-232 cable

I was installing network cable that at the time was called “Cat 1”. That was about the lowest grade wire you could use for data. Actually, it wasn’t even considered fit for data, just voice. Well. I was using it…. all the documentation said that when using Cat1, you had to be within 50 feet from the switch. Well, in a plant where the control room was a good 100 yards from the telephone room, by the time you went up and down through ceiling, conduits, cable trays and wall, by the time the cable made it to the control room, it was at least 500 feet.

When running cable out to the shack by the smokestack I was able to use Cat 2 cable. This allowed a network cable to be around 500 feet long. When I ran this cable, it turned out to be longer than 1500 feet long. At least three times longer than the possible amount to run a network cable using this type of cable…. yet, I ran it, and Tony used it.

I know that if someone had asked Russell downtown at the Corporate Headquarters IT department, he would have said that this was as impossible as printing out the Fast News article on an IBM printer that I had printed out downtown. The truth was that there was a little data integrity lost by running a cable farther than possible by the laws of physics, but the system could easily handle the bad packets by resending them. The user never noticed that the connection was a little slower. No one ever complained that they couldn’t connect to the network.

A year after I had taken the initial training in hooking up network equipment, we learned all about the Quality process and how to think outside the box. See, “Power Plant Men have a Chance to Show Their Quality“. Between my father telling me that there is no word “Can’t” and Bob Kennedy saying that “I have a tool for that”, I had come to the conclusion that just about anything that needs to be done can be done. We just have to figure out how.

After we had taken the classes to learn about the quality process, one day I went to Ron Kilman’s office and I gave him a piece of paper. On it was a story about Processionary Caterpillars. I was significant, I thought, because it demonstrates what happens when people refuse to thing “outside the box”. The story goes like this:

Processionary Caterpillars feed upon pine needles. They move through the trees in a long procession, one leading and the others following – each with his eyes half closed and his head snugly fitted against the rear extremity of his predecessor.

Jean-Henri Fabre, the great French naturalist, after patiently experimenting with a group of the caterpillars, finally enticed them to the rim of a large flower pot. He succeeded in getting the first one connected up with the last one, thus forming a complete circle, which started moving around in a a procession, with neither a beginning nor end.

The naturalist expected that after a while they would catch on to the joke, get tired of their useless march and start off in some new direction. But not so….

Through sheer force of habit, the living, creeping circle kept moving around the rim of the pot – around and around, keeping the same relentless pace for seven days and seven nights – and would doubtless have continued longer had it not bee for sheer exhaustion and ultimate starvation.

Incidentally, an ample supply of food was close at hand and plainly visible, but it was outside the range of the circle so they continued along the beaten path.

They were following instinct – habit – custom – tradition – precedent – past experience – standard practice – or whatever you may choose to call it, but they were following it blindly.

They mistook activity for accomplishment. They meant well – but went no place.

Processionary Caterpillars travelling in a circle

Processionary Caterpillars travelling in a circle

This post may seem like I am doing some bragging about my ability to think outside the box. My personality may be more apt to brag about my accomplishments than to recognize that everything I do and know is a gift from God. But in this case there is more to it than that. You see, even though my grandfather who was a sharecropper who worked his entire life farming land that didn’t belong to him, he was able to invent equipment to make his life easier. He could look at something in a catalog and build it…. I didn’t inherit this gene. I had to learn this way of thinking.

I used to get in arguments all the time at the power plant because I believed that I could do things that were equivalent to walking on water. It drove the engineers mad… Actually, they were mad all right, but just at me… .not in their minds…. Why was I so sure? I had been trained by the best.

If you have been reading my blog for the past two and a half years, you will know what I’m talking about…. I was trained by the best to think outside the box. To Power Plant Men, the Quality process was not a way to find out how to come up with quality ideas…. it was just a way to demonstrate what they already knew in a way where the Engineers and management could understand the benefit.

Here are some of the Power Plant Men that taught me the most about thinking outside the box:

Larry Riley, who taught me that you really can play music by the way you operate a backhoe.

Ken Conrad, who taught me that no matter how complicated a task, by breaking it down into simple steps, it is as simple as “Sweet Pea”.

Jim Heflin, who taught me that when all else fails, shake your head and say to yourself… “Well…. there it is…. let’s try that again a different way….”

Andy Tubbs who taught me that if you think you’re so smart that you don’t need to learn anymore, then it’s time you take out the blueprints and study it some more.

Floyd Coburn taught me that when it really looks hopeless, then prayer is always the best option.

Ed Shiever taught me that when you are extremely kind to your fellow man, when things begin to fail you, everyone will come to your aid.

Earl Frazier taught me that your memories will keep you loving those important to you long past the time when those people are lovable.

Kent Cowley taught me that you can still be a gentleman even when you are a boiler rat.

Mike Crisp taught me to look to the heavens in order to really understand the metal being shaped into a part by a lathe.

Bill Thomas taught me that loyalty to your fellow Power Plant Men comes from within your own heart, and not the actions of others.

Timothy Crain taught me that everything you do is for your family, no matter what situation they may find themselves.

Dale Mitchell taught me that personal integrity allows you to open your heart to even the most difficult people.

Juliene Alley taught me that one person can be everyone’s Mother when they are pure in heart.

Jerry Dalel taught me that the more complicated the puzzle, the more humor will unravel it.

Bob Rowe taught me that simplicity makes more sense than trying to make things complicated.

I have listed a few (and only a few) of the Power Plant Men that as an accumulation, taught me to think outside the small box that I was in when I initially arrived at the Power Plant in 1979 when I first arrived as a Power Plant Summer Help until 2001 when I left to begin a new career as an IT professional (ouch… what a run-on sentence). This allowed me to think outside the box. I never would have made it to that position if it hadn’t been for the wonderful men and women who led me by the hand… sometimes kicking and screaming to the lid of the box so that I could peer outside and imagine other possibilities.

 

Comments from the previous post

  1. Dan Antion September 6, 2014

    I too was led into IT by others. It was a field that was new and expanding, and a better fit for some people. Nice post. Glad to have you in our box.

  2. Dave Tarver September 6, 2014

    Kev, as you know we had just an incredible , amazing group of talent at the plant , and for the most part a group that to along with each other and looked out for each other too.
    I still think about all those guys and all that collective intelligence among them, truly truly a blessing.

  3. Ron Kilman September 6, 2014

    Facet: a part or element of something.

    God is “omni-facetted” (new word) = He has infinite facets. Since each person is His unique creation, we each are born with our own unique manifestation of a part of God. You have learned to look for, recognize, and honor that in people. I think this is your best post yet.

  4. Monty Hansen November 19, 2014

    I dub thee “True Powerplant Man”

Power Plant Summer Help Sanity Check –Repost

Originally Posted December 7, 2012:

What happens to a million dollar forest when left to the fate of two Power Plant Summer Help?  I can tell you; the result is not good.  Before I explain this statement, let me introduce some summer help to you so that you will have a deeper understanding of my summer help career.  It spanned 4 summers for a total of 12 months.

I would like to start out by saying that there were a few summer help that I thought were very intelligent and goodhearted people.  A dear friend of mine named Tim Flowers, who was a friend that I met while attending Oklahoma University my first year in school, was one of the smartest people you might run across in your lifetime.  He was also a very hard worker who didn’t mind putting his entire effort into his work.

Blake Tucker from Pawnee also had a brilliant mind and had an honorable work ethic.  He was fresh out of High School when he first went to work as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma.  During his years as a summer help, I spent a lot of time with him working on mathematical calculations and on programming feats of magic.

Bill Cook, though he didn’t put his back into his work the way some would have liked to see, he did go on to work at the power plant on the labor crew a year and a half before I finally made it onto that team of singularly distinguished characters.  Bill confided in me, and I consider him a friend, though I haven’t seen him in 30 years.

David Foster became a friend of mine the second summer when we were were summer help together. He only worked at the plant that one summer, but I talked to him a few times during the years when he was in college and I would run into him coming out of church or on campus.  His father was a dentist in Ponca City.

This leaves me with all the rest of the summer help that worked with me during those 4 summers.  I wrote a post about the first summer help I worked with that really didn’t fit the requirements, since you were supposed to be going to school in order to be a summer help.  That was Steve Higginbotham.  You can read more about him in the post:

Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown

Steve was a less than energetic person, but I could understand his lack of enthusiasm.  He had been dealt a shorthand in his life and he was making the best out of his situation.  What I found hard to understand were summer help that were fresh out of High School that were given the opportunity to work at an illustrious palace of a Power Plant, and they just didn’t want to work.

When I was leaving the house at age 14 to go to my first job where I was working for someone other than myself (I began selling tomatoes from my garden door-to-door at age 10), my dad told me something that became the core of my work ethic.  He said, “Son.”  Well, I don’t remember if he actually said “Son.” but it was something like that.  Maybe he said “Kevin, before you go, I want to tell you something.”  He said that I should do my best at whatever job they give me.  I should do a job that I would be proud to show others.  He never wanted to hear anything that would make him be ashamed of me.

It was a thrill to go work at a German Restaurant as a dishwasher making $1.50 an hour.  I worked my tail off each night.  I seldom took breaks, and I focused on keeping ahead of the work so that I wouldn’t become swamped.

So, it was hard for me, by the time I was 20, to see summer help come to the plant and work real hard at not working.  Young football players from Pawnee, who you would think would be able to put their best foot forward, were usually standing around talking smack about that one doofus of a summer help that wanted to get to work right away.  That one guy that liked wearing his face shield and ear muffs hanging down from his hard hat swinging the industrial weedeater to-and-fro all day long.

One with two handles like this one

One with two handles like this one (I like reusing pictures from old posts)

This one group of summer help that were hired that summer all seemed to have the same bug, except for Bill  Cook.  Bill didn’t get along with them because he wasn’t from the same bully class that they graduated.  At one point during the summer the tension between them and Bill rose to such a level that they had to handle it the only way left.

Bill had to meet one of them outside the gate after quittin’ time to settle matters.  The truth of the matter was that Bill had done nothing to stir up their ire.  They just didn’t like him.  It seemed to be a personality issue with them.  From what I understand, the cowards received what was coming to them as usually happens when they have mistook someone to be a weakling and easy pickings.

To illustrate the intelligence of this particular group of summer help (there were 3 of them), let me describe an instance where they were struggling real hard to keep from working.  I didn’t understand their desire to keep doing what they were doing in the first place, so I wasn’t about to stay in the situation all afternoon.

Stanley Elmore had told us to mow the area around the main parking lot.  This included the area by the main entrance.  At that time there were sections of grass on all sides of the parking lot including the side by the garage.  Stanley sent me and the 3 of them (not Bill Cook.  I think he knew the tension between them and tried to work it so that Bill could be doing other things) out to mow this area with regular push mowers.

It was just after lunch when we started.  I knew right away that the three amigos wanted to make this job last all afternoon.  I think they were afraid that when they finished they would be sent to the park to empty the trash cans of the foul rotten fish guts and soiled baby diapers.  A job that would make most summer help puke and even bring water to the eyes of a True Power Plant Man.

Well.  I grabbed one of the lawn mowers and headed out across the drive to the grass and started mowing around and around one stretch of grass.  By the time the others had dragged their mowers out and took their time starting them, I had finished one stretch of grass and went around to the other side of the parking lot to work on that side as well.

The grass on the far side of the parking lot wrapped around by the welding shop and over to the front entrance.  So, once this entire section was done, we would be finished.  It really wasn’t that much grass to mow.  Not when you had 4 lawn mowers all going around in a counter clockwise direction.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three huddle together to have a quick discussion.  I knew they were going to try to thwart my efforts to quickly finish this job so they didn’t have to move on to the next adventure.  I also knew that there wasn’t anyway they were going to be able to stop me.

They had tried to stop me before earlier when we were going out to cut weeds down a long right-of-way.  One of them had let his weedeater string out real far so that the strings were sticking out about 2 feet.  He started his weedeater up so that the strings were whining and turned around so that the strings grabbed my leg and before I knew it I was flat on my back with a stabbing pain in my knee.  My kneecap had been knocked out of the socket, which I quickly hit with the palm of my  hand to knock it back over from the side of my knee.

I could see that this had been pre-planned by their reaction.  I think they thought it would take me out of commission or make me angry so they could watch me lose my top.  The guy that did it apologized in a half sarcastic way and I told him it was all right.  I wiped the dust off of my pants and grabbed my weedeater and went to work.  I could see them at the back of the truck standing there wondering where their plan had failed.

Anyway, back to mowing the grass around the parking lot.  I was able to tell immediately what they had planned.  Their idea was to hem me in and mow very slowly so that I would have no where to go but to follow along behind one of them travelling at a snails pace.  They were so slow they would take one step, wait a second, then take another step, etc.

So, as I came up behind one of them I suddenly took a left turn and cut a new path through the grass without even slowing down.  I quickly came to the other side of the curb, and I turned left again and was heading back in the direction I came from just as if nothing was wrong.

I knew the law of physics.  Newton’s First Law of Physics.  If a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion unless it is acted on by another force.  Well.  The mind of the weak have little force.  Newton was not only one of my favorite Physicist, he was one of my favorite Mathematicians as well.

Sir Isaac Newton  Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Well.  He did like sitting in the park under an apple tree.  — So how did they keep the grass mowed back in 1642?  Maybe they trained the grass just to stay small.  Why don’t we have grass that just stays short?  We could do that easy enough.

Because of the laws of motion and the size of my lawn mower and the speed in which I was mowing, I had calculated that I should be able to finish mowing the entire area in about 15 more minutes (or 900 seconds) if I were to do it all myself.  — Funny how things run through your mind when you are mowing grass.  No wonder Sonny Karcher loved mowing grass so much.

Anyway.  That little story illustrates my point about how some summer help put all their brain power into thinking about how to stay out of work that they couldn’t even conceive of someone thinking outside the box.  How difficult was it for me to just turn and mow a patch of grass out in the middle of the stretch of grass we were mowing?

Once they realized that there wasn’t anyway to stop me, they went ahead and finished their job.  I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to stand out in the sun in 100 degree temperature anyway pretending to mow grass.  Didn’t they know that just made the day seem longer?

It was that summer that the plant manager was sold on the idea of planting a forest around the coal yard to prevent the wind from blowing all the coal away.  So, a million dollars was spent to hire a company to plant a number of rows of trees along the south road next to the coal yard.  When the trees were planted, they were like sickly little sticks.  The summer help were sent to go water them from time-to-time using the small Mitsubishi tractor pulling a trailer with a tank of water on it.

A tractor just like this

A tractor just like this

I have to admit that I never gave the idea much hope.  The ground where the trees were planted was hard clay.  The company that received the million dollars hardly even put any real usable tree-growing dirt in the hole when they planted the trees.

The trees were planted very close together so that you couldn’t mow around them.  So, when the weeds started growing tall and the field had been mowed, Stanley sent a couple of the lazy summer help up there to weed eat around the trees.

I had been told some time in my childhood that one of the fastest ways to kill a tree was to strip the bark off all the way around the tree.  Not just strip the bark, but cut a little into the tree itself around the base of the tree.  If you did this, the tree would die.  The only actual living part of the tree is the outside section.  Here is a link to a site that describes the part of a tree and a picture from that site:

How Does A Tree Grow

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

So, do I need to go on?  That’s right.  When the summer help had finished trimming the verge around the trees their fate had been sealed.  Two summer help in a matter of an hour totally wiped out the million dollar tree experiment.  They had stripped the bark clean around every tree.

Not to be outdone.  The Plant Manager spent 2 million dollars to have larger trees installed with plenty of good soil around the embankments on the north side of the coal pile.  These were good healthy trees.There was even an irrigation system installed to make sure they were properly watered.  This worked at least a year or two.  Long enough for a lot of the trees to catch hold.  The only problem is that the wind almost always blows from the west or the south defeating the purpose of the “windbreak” on the north side of the coal pile.

Ok.  One more summer help story before I go.  A friend of mine named Ben Cox became a summer help for a summer the fourth summer I worked as a summer help (how many times can I use the word summer in one sentence?).  I had worked with him at the Bakery in Columbia, Missouri and he had followed me home that summer to try his hand at summer helping at the power plant.  Tim Flowers and I had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail.  I have mentioned Ben Cox before in the story about Ramblin’ Ann.  He and I used to tag team Ramblin’ Ann just to keep our sanity.  See the link below as a refresher on Ramblin’ Ann:

Ed Sheiver Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann

Ben wasn’t the most physically fit, and we didn’t want to see him have a heart attack at such an early age.  Ben, however, held his own as best he could and survived a summer of working outdoors.  He actually did better than Tim and I expected.

One day when we were driving to the coal yard Ben asked me why there were large hills of sand piled up across the road from the intake.  Instead of telling him that the sand had been dredged out of the intake channel when they were filling the lake and sand was being pumped from the river up to the lake with the water, I told him something else…

I told Ben that they kept the large piles of sand there in case they ran out of coal.  They would burn the sand as a last resort.  I explained that they didn’t like to burn sand because it burned hotter than coal and it turned into glass in the boiler and really messed things up.  But if there was a long coal strike and they totally ran out of coal, they would have to burn sand in order to keep producing electricity.

Tim and I watched closely as Ben mulled this over in his mind.  At first he didn’t believe me, but after I explained why we didn’t burn sand all the time, you could start to see the wheels turning in his mind.  Burning sand…. wow!  There is sand all over the place!  I never told him differently.  I’m sure if he tried to sell the idea to someone, he would have found out quick enough.

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman December 12, 2012:

Your stories are so good! They bring back memories I hadn’t thought of for years. The part about “burning sand” reminded me of the Brown & Root engineer that was looking for an easy way to put holes in a thick set of blueprints. “Someone” (Kenneth Palmer or John Blake might have been involved) convinced him that shooting them with a 22 would be the easiest way to do the job. He then proceeded to take a new set of prints and totally destroy them!

Power Plant Impossibilities or Processionary Caterpillars

I can remember four occasions while working at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I was told that something was impossible when I was already doing it.  I mentioned two of those times in the posts “Toby O’Brien and doing the Impossible” and “Printing Impossible Fast News Post“.  One day in May, 1992, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City to take some training.  There was a new kind of network that I was going to be responsible to create at our plant.  During the training, I learned a little about how to hook up the RS-232 connectors to the Dumb Terminals I was installing throughout the plant.  During the training, I also learned a lot about what was impossible.

RS-232 Training Certificate

RS-232 Training Certificate – notice that this is signed by our plant manager Ron Kilman and even the Manager of Power Plant Operations Jim Gist

I mentioned installing all the dumb terminals in an earlier post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“.  I won’t go into the details about running the cables throughout the plant because I already covered that in the earlier post.  What I would rather talk about is the narrow understanding at the time about the possibilities of networking instead of the impossibilities that I was learning by everyone that tried to teach me the laws of physics through common sense.

After I was done installing the terminals in the most obvious places, some people came and asked me if there was a way to install computer ports in some unlikely places.  Some were sort of “out-of-the-way”.  For instance, Phil Harden asked if I could install a network jack in the middle of the Bowl Mill area so that the Instrument and Controls team could wheel their portable Compaq computer out there and run diagnostics on the equipment while connected to the network.

A Compaq Portable Computer -- and early version of a Laptop

A Compaq Portable Computer — and early version of a Laptop

I also installed a jack in the environmental controls shack out by Unit 1 smoke stack for Tony Mena.  Of course, I installed on in the Precipitator Control Room since that’s where I worked a lot, and a computer hooked to the network came in handy more than once.  I was always eager to run network cable and hookup computers.  It was one of my favorite past times.

One time early in 1993, the A Foreman’s office was going to be renovated.  It was going to take about a month or more for the construction, so all the foremen needed somewhere to stay when the office was going to be out of commission.  Tom Gibson asked me one day how many computers and printers I could hook up in the conference room.  I told him as many as he wanted.  For one thing, it was only just down the hall from the Telephone room where the X.25 modems connected to the microwave transmitter on the top of Unit 1 Boiler.

Since this was going to be temporary, I didn’t want to mount a lot of network jacks all over the conference room… well, maybe a few….  The rest, I just strung down the wall from the ceiling.  I think all together we had 8 computers and a printer installed in that room.

During this time, we had a new clerk come to the plant.  This was a rare occasion because it was rare that anyone ever left the plant.  Jana Allenbaugh (later Jana Green) was our new clerk.  She arrived on the first day when I had setup all the computers and everyone was moving out of the foremen’s office upstairs for their temporary stay.

I was just hooking up the printer, so I sent a long drawn out warning letter to the printer so that when I hooked it up in the Telephone room, it would start printing it out.  I had done this before with Charles Patton… only, I don’t think Charles ever read what printed out….  See the post “Dick Dale and the Power Plant Printer Romance“.  This time I printed out a warning to Jana from the printer itself.  it told her that as a new employee, she probably needed to know not to trust anyone who wears a yellow hard hat.  They were not to be trusted.  Because they treated printers with disrespect.  Hardly noticing them, and only talking to them when their paper gets stuck.  It went on from there, but that was about the gist of it.

Anyway.  Up to this point, I haven’t pointed out the areas of impossibilities that I was performing against all advice from those who knew better.

You see in 1992, when I had attended the training course in Oklahoma City to teach me all about the finer aspects of hooking up RS-232 connectors, I was told that this technology had it’s limitations.  The most important being the distance from the modem you can install a printer without having some sort of other switch to boost the signal.

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter

A Modular DB25M to RJ45 Adapter used to connect to the RS-232 cable

I was installing network cable that at the time was called “Cat 1”.  That was about the lowest grade wire you could use for data.  Actually, it wasn’t even considered fit for data, just voice.  Well.  I was using it…. all the documentation said that when using Cat1, you had to be within 50 feet from the switch.  Well, in a plant where the control room was a good 100 yards from the telephone room, by the time you went up and down through ceiling, conduits, cable trays and wall, by the time the cable made it to the control room, it was at least 500 feet.

When running cable out to the shack by the smokestack I was able to use Cat 2 cable.  This allowed a network cable to be around 500 feet long.  When I ran this cable, it turned out to be longer than 1500 feet long.  At least three times longer than the possible amount to run a network cable using this type of cable…. yet, I ran it, and Tony used it.

I know that if someone had asked Russell downtown at the Corporate Headquarters IT department, he would have said that this was as impossible as printing out the Fast News article on an IBM printer that I had printed out downtown.  The truth was that there was a little data integrity lost by running a cable farther than possible by the laws of physics, but the system could easily handle the bad packets by resending them.  The user never noticed that the connection was a little slower.  No one ever complained that they couldn’t connect to the network.

A year after I had taken the initial training in hooking up network equipment, we learned all about the Quality process and how to think outside the box.  See, “Power Plant Men have a Chance to Show Their Quality“.  Between my father telling me that there is no word “Can’t” and Bob Kennedy saying that “I have a tool for that”, I had come to the conclusion that just about anything that needs to be done can be done.  We just have to figure out how.

After we had taken the classes to learn about the quality process, one day I went to Ron Kilman’s office and I gave him a piece of paper.  On it was a story about Processionary Caterpillars.  I was significant, I thought, because it demonstrates what happens when people refuse to thing “outside the box”.  The story goes like this:

Processionary Caterpillars feed upon pine needles.  They move through the trees in a long procession, one leading and the others following – each with his eyes half closed and his head snugly fitted against the rear extremity of his predecessor.

Jean-Henri Fabre, the great French naturalist, after patiently experimenting with a group of the caterpillars, finally enticed them to the rim of a large flower pot.  He succeeded in getting the first one connected up with the last one, thus forming a complete circle, which started moving around in a a procession, with neither a beginning nor end.

The naturalist expected that after a while they would catch on to the joke, get tired of their useless march and start off in some new direction.  But not so….

Through sheer force of habit, the living, creeping circle kept moving around the rim of the pot – around and around, keeping the same relentless pace for seven days and seven nights – and would doubtless have continued longer had it not bee for sheer exhaustion and ultimate starvation.

Incidentally, an ample supply of food was close at hand and plainly visible, but it was outside the range of the circle so they continued along the beaten path.

They were following instinct – habit – custom – tradition – precedent – past experience – standard practice – or whatever you may choose to call it, but they were following it blindly.

They mistook activity for accomplishment.  They meant well – but went no place.

Processionary Caterpillars travelling in a circle

Processionary Caterpillars travelling in a circle

This post may seem like I am doing some bragging about my ability to think outside the box.  My personality may be more apt to brag about my accomplishments than to recognize that everything I do and know is a gift from God.   But in this case there is more to it than that.  You see, even though my grandfather who was a sharecropper who worked his entire life farming land that didn’t belong to him, he was able to invent equipment to make his life easier.  He could look at something in a catalog and build it…. I didn’t inherit this gene.  I  had to learn this way of thinking.

I used to get in arguments all the time at the power plant because I believed that I could do things that were equivalent to walking on water.  It drove the engineers mad… Actually, they were mad all right, but just at me… .not in their minds….  Why was I so sure?  I had been trained by the best.

If you have been reading my blog for the past two and a half years, you will know what I’m talking about….  I was trained by the best to think outside the box.  To Power Plant Men, the Quality process was not a way to find out how to come up with quality ideas…. it was just a way to demonstrate what they already knew in a way where the Engineers and management could understand the benefit.

Here are some of the Power Plant Men that taught me the most about thinking outside the box:

Larry Riley, who taught me that you really can play music by the way you operate a backhoe.

Ken Conrad, who taught me that no matter how complicated a task, by breaking it down into simple steps, it is as simple as “Sweet Pea”.

Jim Heflin, who taught me that when all else fails, shake your head and say to yourself… “Well…. there it is…. let’s try that again a different way….”

Andy Tubbs who taught me that if you think you’re so smart that you don’t need to learn anymore, then it’s time you take out the blueprints and study it some more.

Floyd Coburn taught me that when it really looks hopeless, then prayer is always the best option.

Ed Shiever taught me that when you are extremely kind to your fellow man, when things begin to fail you, everyone will come to your aid.

Earl Frazier taught me that your memories will keep you loving those important to you long past the time when those people are lovable.

Kent Cowley taught me that you can still be a gentleman even when you are a boiler rat.

Mike Crisp taught me to look to the heavens in order to really understand the metal being shaped into a part by a lathe.

Bill Thomas taught me that loyalty to your fellow Power Plant Men comes from within your own heart, and not the actions of others.

Timothy Crain taught me that everything you do is for your family, no matter what situation they may find themselves.

Dale Mitchell taught me that personal integrity allows you to open your heart to even the most difficult people.

Juliene Alley taught me that one person can be everyone’s Mother when they are pure in heart.

Jerry Dalel taught me that the more complicated the puzzle, the more humor will unravel it.

Bob Rowe taught me that simplicity makes more sense than trying to make things complicated.

I have listed a few (and only a few) of the Power Plant Men that as an accumulation, taught me to think outside the small box that I was in when I initially arrived at the Power Plant in 1979 when I first arrived as a Power Plant Summer Help until 2001 when I left to begin a new career as an IT professional (ouch… what a run-on sentence).  This allowed me to think outside the box.  I never would have made it to that position if it hadn’t been for the wonderful men and women who led me by the hand… sometimes kicking and screaming to the lid of the box so that I could peer outside and imagine other possibilities.

Power Plant Summer Help Sanity Check –Repost

Originally Posted December 7, 2012:

What happens to a million dollar forest when left to the fate of two Power Plant Summer Help?  I can tell you; the result is not good.  Before I explain this statement, let me introduce some summer help to you so that you will have a deeper understanding of my summer help career.  It spanned 4 summer for a total of 12 months.

I would like to start out by saying that there were a few summer help that I thought were very intelligent and goodhearted people.  A dear friend of mine named Tim Flowers, who was a friend that I met while attending Oklahoma University my first year in school, was one of the smartest people you might run across in your lifetime.  He was also a very hard worker who didn’t mind putting his entire effort into his work.

Blake Tucker from Pawnee also had a brilliant mind and had an honorable work ethic.  He was fresh out of High School when he first went to work as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma.  During his years as a summer help, I spent a lot of time with him working on mathematical calculations and on programming feats of magic.

Bill Cook, though he didn’t put his back into his work the way some would have liked to see, he did go on to work at the power plant on the labor crew a year and a half before I finally made it onto that team of singularly distinguished characters.  Bill confided in me, and I consider him a friend, though I haven’t seen him in 30 years.

David Foster became a friend of mine the second summer when we were were summer help together. He only worked at the plant that one summer, but I talked to him a few times during the years when he was in college and I would run into him coming out of church or on campus.  His father was a dentist in Ponca City.

This leaves me with all the rest of the summer help that worked with me during those 4 summers.  I wrote a post about the first summer help I worked with that really didn’t fit the requirements, since you were supposed to be going to school in order to be a summer help.  That was Steve Higginbotham.  You can read more about him in the post:

Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown

Steve was a less than energetic person, but I could understand his lack of enthusiasm.  He had been dealt a shorthand in his life and he was making the best out of his situation.  What I found hard to understand were summer help that were fresh out of High School that were given the opportunity to work at an illustrious palace of a Power Plant, and they just didn’t want to work.

When I was leaving the house at age 14 to go to my first job where I was working for someone other than myself (I began selling tomatoes from my garden door-to-door at age 10), my dad told me something that became the core of my work ethic.  He said, “Son.”  Well, I don’t remember if he actually said “Son.” but it was something like that.  Maybe he said “Kevin, before you go, I want to tell you something.”  He said that I should do my best at whatever job they give me.  I should do a job that I would be proud to show others.  He never wanted to hear anything that would make him be ashamed of me.

It was a thrill to go work at a German Restaurant as a dishwasher making $1.50 an hour.  I worked my tail off each night.  I seldom took breaks, and I focused on keeping ahead of the work so that I wouldn’t become swamped.

So, it was hard for me, by the time I was 20, to see summer help come to the plant and work real hard at not working.  Young football players from Pawnee, who you would think would be able to put their best foot forward, were usually standing around talking smack about that one doofus of a summer help that wanted to get to work right away.  That one guy that liked wearing his face shield and ear muffs hanging down from his hard hat swinging the industrial weedeater to-and-fro all day long.

One with two handles like this one

One with two handles like this one (I like reusing pictures from old posts)

This one group of summer help that were hired that summer all seemed to have the same bug, except for Bill  Cook.  Bill didn’t get along with them because he wasn’t from the same bully class that they graduated.  At one point during the summer the tension between them and Bill rose to such a level that they had to handle it the only way left.

Bill had to meet one of them outside the gate after quittin’ time to settle matters.  The truth of the matter was that Bill had done nothing to stir up their ire.  They just didn’t like him.  It seemed to be a personality issue with them.  From what I understand, the cowards received what was coming to them as usually happens when they have mistook someone to be a weakling and easy pickings.

To illustrate the intelligence of this particular group of summer help (there were 3 of them), let me describe an instance where they were struggling real hard to keep from working.  I didn’t understand their desire to keep doing what they were doing in the first place, so I wasn’t about to stay in the situation all afternoon.

Stanley Elmore had told us to mow the area around the main parking lot.  This included the area by the main entrance.  At that time there were sections of grass on all sides of the parking lot including the side by the garage.  Stanley sent me and the 3 of them (not Bill Cook.  I think he knew the tension between them and tried to work it so that Bill could be doing other things) out to mow this area with regular push mowers.

It was just after lunch when we started.  I knew right away that the three amigos wanted to make this job last all afternoon.  I think they were afraid that when they finished they would be sent to the park to empty the trash cans of the foul rotten fish guts and soiled baby diapers.  A job that would make most summer help puke and even bring water to the eyes of a True Power Plant Man.

Well.  I grabbed one of the lawn mowers and headed out across the drive to the grass and started mowing around and around one stretch of grass.  By the time the others had dragged their mowers out and took their time starting them, I had finished one stretch of grass and went around to the other side of the parking lot to work on that side as well.

The grass on the far side of the parking lot wrapped around by the welding shop and over to the front entrance.  So, once this entire section was done, we would be finished.  It really wasn’t that much grass to mow.  Not when you had 4 lawn mowers all going around in a counter clockwise direction.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three huddle together to have a quick discussion.  I knew they were going to try to thwart my efforts to quickly finish this job so they didn’t have to move on to the next adventure.  I also knew that there wasn’t anyway they were going to be able to stop me.

They had tried to stop me before earlier when we were going out to cut weeds down a long right-of-way.  One of them had let his weedeater string out real far so that the strings were sticking out about 2 feet.  He started his weedeater up so that the strings were whining and turned around so that the strings grabbed my leg and before I knew it I was flat on my back with a stabbing pain in my knee.  My kneecap had been knocked out of the socket, which I quickly hit with the palm of my  hand to knock it back over from the side of my knee.

I could see that this had been pre-planned by their reaction.  I think they thought it would take me out of commission or make me angry so they could watch me lose my top.  The guy that did it apologized in a half sarcastic way and I told him it was all right.  I wiped the dust off of my pants and grabbed my weedeater and went to work.  I could see them at the back of the truck standing there wondering where their plan had failed.

Anyway, back to mowing the grass around the parking lot.  I was able to tell immediately what they had planned.  Their idea was to hem me in and mow very slowly so that I would have no where to go but to follow along behind one of them travelling at a snails pace.  They were so slow they would take one step, wait a second, then take another step, etc.

So, as I came up behind one of them I suddenly took a left turn and cut a new path through the grass without even slowing down.  I quickly came to the other side of the curb, and I turned left again and was heading back in the direction I came from just as if nothing was wrong.

I knew the law of physics.  Newton’s First Law of Physics.  If a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion unless it is acted on by another force.  Well.  The mind of the weak have little force.  Newton was not only one of my favorite Physicist, he was one of my favorite Mathematicians as well.

Sir Isaac Newton  Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Well.  He did like sitting in the park under an apple tree.  — So how did they keep the grass mowed back in 1642?  Maybe they trained the grass just to stay small.  Why don’t we have grass that just stays short?  We could do that easy enough.

Because of the laws of motion and the size of my lawn mower and the speed in which I was mowing, I had calculated that I should be able to finish mowing the entire area in about 15 more minutes (or 900 seconds) if I were to do it all myself.  — Funny how things run through your mind when you are mowing grass.  No wonder Sonny Karcher loved mowing grass so much.

Anyway.  That little story illustrates my point about how some summer help put all their brain power into thinking about how to stay out of work that they couldn’t even conceive of someone thinking outside the box.  How difficult was it for me to just turn and mow a patch of grass out in the middle of the stretch of grass we were mowing?

Once they realized that there wasn’t anyway to stop me, they went ahead and finished their job.  I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to stand out in the sun in 100 degree temperature anyway pretending to mow grass.  Didn’t they know that just made the day seem longer?

It was that summer that the plant manager was sold on the idea of planting a forest around the coal yard to prevent the wind from blowing all the coal away.  So, a million dollars was spent to hire a company to plant a number of rows of trees along the south road next to the coal yard.  When the trees were planted, they were like sickly little sticks.  The summer help were sent to go water them from time-to-time using the small Mitsubishi tractor pulling a trailer with a tank of water on it.

A tractor just like this

A tractor just like this

I have to admit that I never gave the idea much hope.  The ground where the trees were planted was hard clay.  The company that received the million dollars hardly even put any real usable tree-growing dirt in the hole when they planted the trees.

The trees were planted very close together so that you couldn’t mow around them.  So, when the weeds started growing tall and the field had been mowed, Stanley sent a couple of the lazy summer help up there to weed eat around the trees.

I had been told some time in my childhood that one of the fastest ways to kill a tree was to strip the bark off all the way around the tree.  Not just strip the bark, but cut a little into the tree itself around the base of the tree.  If you did this, the tree would die.  The only actual living part of the tree is the outside section.  Here is a link to a site that describes the part of a tree and a picture from that site:

How Does A Tree Grow

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

So, do I need to go on?  That’s right.  When the summer help had finished trimming the verge around the trees their fate had been sealed.  Two summer help in a matter of an hour totally wiped out the million dollar tree experiment.  They had stripped the bark clean around every tree.

Not to be outdone.  The Plant Manager spent 2 million dollars to have larger trees installed with plenty of good soil around the embankments on the north side of the coal pile.  These were good healthy trees.There was even an irrigation system installed to make sure they were properly watered.  This worked at least a year or two.  Long enough for a lot of the trees to catch hold.  The only problem is that the wind almost always blows from the west or the south defeating the purpose of the “windbreak” on the north side of the coal pile.

Ok.  One more summer help story before I go.  A friend of mine named Ben Cox became a summer help for a summer the fourth summer I worked as a summer help (how many times can I use the word summer in one sentence?).  I had worked with him at the Bakery in Columbia, Missouri and he had followed me home that summer to try his hand at summer helping at the power plant.  Tim Flowers and I had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail.  I have mentioned Ben Cox before in the story about Ramblin’ Ann.  He and I used to tag team Ramblin’ Ann just to keep our sanity.  See the link below as a refresher on Ramblin’ Ann:

Ed Sheiver Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann

Ben wasn’t the most physically fit, and we didn’t want to see him have a heart attack at such an early age.  Ben, however, held his own as best he could and survived a summer of working outdoors.  He actually did better than Tim and I expected.

One day when we were driving to the coal yard Ben asked me why there were large hills of sand piled up across the road from the intake.  Instead of telling him that the sand had been dredged out of the intake channel when they were filling the lake and sand was being pumped from the river up to the lake with the water, I told him something else…

I told Ben that they kept the large piles of sand there in case they ran out of coal.  They would burn the sand as a last resort.  I explained that they didn’t like to burn sand because it burned hotter than coal and it turned into glass in the boiler and really messed things up.  But if there was a long coal strike and they totally ran out of coal, they would have to burn sand in order to keep producing electricity.

Tim and I watched closely as Ben mulled this over in his mind.  At first he didn’t believe me, but after I explained why we didn’t burn sand all the time, you could start to see the wheels turning in his mind.  Burning sand…. wow!  There is sand all over the place!  I never told him differently.  I’m sure if he tried to sell the idea to someone, he would have found out quick enough.

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman December 12, 2012:

Your stories are so good! They bring back memories I hadn’t thought of for years. The part about “burning sand” reminded me of the Brown & Root engineer that was looking for an easy way to put holes in a thick set of blueprints. “Someone” (Kenneth Palmer or John Blake might have been involved) convinced him that shooting them with a 22 would be the easiest way to do the job. He then proceeded to take a new set of prints and totally destroy them!

Power Plant Summer Help Sanity Check

What happens to a million dollar forest when left to the fate on two Power Plant Summer Help?  I can tell you; the result is not good.  Before I explain this statement, let me introduce some summer help to you so that you will have a deeper understanding of my summer help career.  It spanned 4 summer for a total of 12 months.

I would like to start out by saying that there were a few summer help that I thought were very intelligent and goodhearted people.  A dear friend of mine named Tim Flowers, who was a friend that I met while attending Oklahoma University my first year in school, was one of the smartest people you might run across in your lifetime.  He was also a very hard worker who didn’t mind putting his entire effort into his work.

Blake Tucker from Pawnee also had a brilliant mind and had an honorable work ethic.  He was fresh out of High School when he first went to work as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma.  During his years as a summer help, I spent a lot of time with him working on mathematical calculations and on programming feats of magic.

Bill Cook, though he didn’t put his back into his work the way some would have liked to see, he did go on to work at the power plant on the labor crew a year and a half before I finally made it onto that team of singularly distinguished characters.  Bill confided in me, and I consider him a friend, though I haven’t seen him in 30 years.

David Foster became a friend of mine the second summer when we were were summer help together. He only worked at the plant that one summer, but I talked to him a few times during the years when he was in college and I would run into him coming out of church or on campus.  His father was a dentist in Ponca City.

This leaves me with all the rest of the summer help that worked with me during those 4 summers.  I wrote a post about the first summer help I worked with that really didn’t fit the requirements, since you were supposed to be going to school in order to be a summer help.  That was Steve Higginbotham.  You can read more about him in the post:

Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown

Steve was a less than energetic person, but I could understand his lack of enthusiasm.  He had been dealt a shorthand in his life and he was making the best out of his situation.  What I found hard to understand were summer help that were fresh out of High School that were given the opportunity to work at an illustrious palace of a Power Plant, and they just didn’t want to work.

When I was leaving the house at age 14 to go to my first job where I was working for someone other than myself (I began selling tomatoes from my garden door-to-door at age 10), my dad told me something that became the core of my work ethic.  He said, “Son.”  Well, I don’t remember if he actually said “Son.” but it was something like that.  Maybe he said “Kevin, before you go, I want to tell you something.”  He said that I should do my best at whatever job they give me.  I should do a job that I would be proud to show others.  He never wanted to hear anything that would make him be ashamed of me.

It was a thrill to go work at a German Restaurant as a dishwasher making $1.50 an hour.  I worked my tail off each night.  I seldom took breaks, and I focused on keeping ahead of the work so that I wouldn’t become swamped.

So, it was hard for me, by the time I was 20, to see summer help come to the plant and work real hard at not working.  Young football players from Pawnee, who you would think would be able to put their best foot forward, were usually standing around talking smack about that one doofus of a summer help that wanted to get to work right away.  That one guy that liked wearing his face shield and ear muffs hanging down from his hard hat swinging the industrial weedeater to-and-fro all day long.

One with two handles like this one

One with two handles like this one (I like reusing pictures from old posts)

This one group of summer help that were hired that summer all seemed to have the same bug, except for Bill  Cook.  Bill didn’t get along with them because he wasn’t from the same bully class that they graduated.  At one point during the summer the tension between them and Bill rose to such a level that they had to handle it the only way left.

Bill had to meet one of them outside the gate after quittin’ time to settle matters.  The truth of the matter was that Bill had done nothing to stir up their ire.  They just didn’t like him.  It seemed to be a personality issue with them.  From what I understand, the cowards received what was coming to them as usually happens when they have mistook someone to be a weakling and easy pickings.

To illustrate the intelligence of this particular group of summer help (there were 3 of them), let me describe an instance where they were struggling real hard to keep from working.  I didn’t understand their desire to keep doing what they were doing in the first place, so I wasn’t about to stay in the situation all afternoon.

Stanley Elmore had told us to mow the area around the main parking lot.  This included the area by the main entrance.  At that time there were sections of grass on all sides of the parking lot including the side by the garage.  Stanley sent me and the 3 of them (not Bill Cook.  I think he knew the tension between them and tried to work it so that Bill could be doing other things) out to mow this area with regular push mowers.

It was just after lunch when we started.  I knew right away that the three amigos wanted to make this job last all afternoon.  I think they were afraid that when they finished they would be sent to the park to empty the trash cans of the foul rotten fish guts and soiled baby diapers.  A job that would make most summer help puke and even bring water to the eyes of a True Power Plant Man.

Well.  I grabbed one of the lawn mowers and headed out across the drive to the grass and started mowing around and around one stretch of grass.  By the time the others had dragged their mowers out and took their time starting them, I had finished one stretch of grass and went around to the other side of the parking lot to work on that side as well.

The grass on the far side of the parking lot wrapped around by the welding shop and over to the front entrance.  So, once this entire section was done, we would be finished.  It really wasn’t that much grass to mow.  Not when you had 4 lawn mowers all going around in a counter clockwise direction.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three huddle together to have a quick discussion.  I knew they were going to try to thwart my efforts to quickly finish this job so they didn’t have to move on to the next adventure.  I also knew that there wasn’t anyway they were going to be able to stop me.

They had tried to stop me before earlier when we were going out to cut weeds down a long right-of-way.  One of them had let his weedeater string out real far so that the strings were sticking out about 2 feet.  He started his weedeater up so that the strings were whining and turned around so that the strings grabbed my leg and before I knew it I was flat on my back with a stabbing pain in my knee.  My kneecap had been knocked out of the socket, which I quickly hit with the palm of my  hand to knock it back over from the side of my knee.

I could see that this had been pre-planned by their reaction.  I think they thought it would take me out of commission or make me angry so they could watch me lose my top.  The guy that did it apologized in a half sarcastic way and I told him it was all right.  I wiped the dust off of my pants and grabbed my weedeater and went to work.  I could see them at the back of the truck standing there wondering where their plan had failed.

Anyway, back to mowing the grass around the parking lot.  I was able to tell immediately what they had planned.  Their idea was to hem me in and mow very slowly so that I would have no where to go but to follow along behind one of them travelling at a snails pace.  They were so slow they would take one step, wait a second, then take another step, etc.

So, as I came up behind one of them I suddenly took a left turn and cut a new path through the grass without even slowing down.  I quickly came to the other side of the curb, and I turned left again and was heading back in the direction I came from just as if nothing was wrong.

I knew the law of physics.  Newton’s First Law of Physics.  If a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion unless it is acted on by another force.  Well.  The mind of the weak have little force.  Newton was not only one of my favorite Physicist, he was one of my favorite Mathematicians as well.

Sir Isaac Newton  Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Sir Isaac Newton Had 3 laws of motion and liked to mow grass (ok. So I made up that second part)

Well.  He did like sitting in the park under an apple tree.  — So how did they keep the grass mowed back in 1642?  Maybe they trained the grass just to stay small.  Why don’t we have grass that just stays short?  We could do that easy enough.

Because of the laws of motion and the size of my lawn mower and the speed in which I was mowing, I had calculated that I should be able to finish mowing the entire area in about 15 more minutes (or 900 seconds) if I were to do it all myself.  — Funny how things run through your mind when you are mowing grass.  No wonder Sonny Karcher loved mowing grass so much.

Anyway.  That little story illustrates my point about how some summer help put all their brain power into thinking about how to stay out of work that they couldn’t even conceive of someone thinking outside the box.  How difficult was it for me to just turn and mow a patch of grass out in the middle of the stretch of grass we were mowing?

Once they realized that there wasn’t anyway to stop me, they went ahead and finished their job.  I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to stand out in the sun in 100 degree temperature anyway pretending to mow grass.  Didn’t they know that just made the day seem longer?

It was that summer that the plant manager was sold on the idea of planting a forest around the coal yard to prevent the wind from blowing all the coal away.  So, a million dollars was spent to hire a company to plant a number of rows of trees along the south road next to the coal yard.  When the trees were planted, they were like sickly little sticks.  The summer help were sent to go water them from time-to-time using the small Mitsubishi tractor pulling a trailer with a tank of water on it.

A tractor just like this

A tractor just like this

I have to admit that I never gave the idea much hope.  The ground where the trees were planted was hard clay.  The company that received the million dollars hardly even put any real usable tree-growing dirt in the hole when they planted the trees.

The trees were planted very close together so that you couldn’t mow around them.  So, when the weeds started growing tall and the field had been mowed, Stanley sent a couple of the lazy summer help up there to weed eat around the trees.

I had been told some time in my childhood that one of the fastest ways to kill a tree was to strip the bark off all the way around the tree.  Not just strip the bark, but cut a little into the tree itself around the base of the tree.  If you did this, the tree would die.  The only actual living part of the tree is the outside section.  Here is a link to a site that describes the part of a tree and a picture from that site:

How Does A Tree Grow

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

cutting the Cambium layer all the way around a tree will kill the tree

So, do I need to go on?  That’s right.  When the summer help had finished trimming the verge around the trees their fate had been sealed.  Two summer help in a matter of an hour totally wiped out the million dollar tree experiment.  They had stripped the bark clean around every tree.

Not to be outdone.  The Plant Manager spent 2 million dollars to have larger trees installed with plenty of good soil around the embankments on the north side of the coal pile.  These were good healthy trees.There was even an irrigation system installed to make sure they were properly watered.  This worked at least a year or two.  Long enough for a lot of the trees to catch hold.  The only problem is that the wind almost always blows from the west or the south defeating the purpose of the “windbreak” on the north side of the coal pile.

Ok.  One more summer help story before I go.  A friend of mine named Ben Cox became a summer help for a summer the fourth summer I worked as a summer help (how many times can I use the word summer in one sentence?).  I had worked with him at the Bakery in Columbia, Missouri and he had followed me home that summer to try his hand at summer helping at the power plant.  Tim Flowers and I had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail.  I have mentioned Ben Cox before in the story about Ramblin’ Ann.  He and I used to tag team Ramblin’ Ann just to keep our sanity.  See the link below as a refresher on Ramblin’ Ann:

Ed Sheiver Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann

Ben wasn’t the most physically fit, and we didn’t want to see him have a heart attack at such an early age.  Ben, however, held his own as best he could and survived a summer of working outdoors.  He actually did better than Tim and I expected.

One day when we were driving to the coal yard Ben asked me why there were large hills of sand piled up across the road from the intake.  Instead of telling him that the sand had been dredged out of the intake channel when they were filling the lake and sand was being pumped from the river up to the lake with the water, I told him something else…

I told Ben that they kept the large piles of sand there in case they ran out of coal.  They would burn the sand as a last resort.  I explained that they didn’t like to burn sand because it burned hotter than coal and it turned into glass in the boiler and really messed things up.  But if there was a long coal strike and they totally ran out of coal, they would have to burn sand in order to keep producing electricity.

Tim and I watched closely as Ben mulled this over in his mind.  At first he didn’t believe me, but after I explained why we didn’t burn sand all the time, you could start to see the wheels turning in his mind.  Burning sand…. wow!  There is sand all over the place!  I never told him differently.  I’m sure if he tried to sell the idea to someone, he would have found out quick enough.