Tag Archives: Pickup

Hot Night on the Power Plant Precipitator

Scott Hubbard and I weren’t too sure why we had been called out that night when we met at the Bowling Alley on Washington Street at two o’clock in the morning in Stillwater Oklahoma to drive out to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Something about a fire on the top of the precipitator.

I was glad that Scott was driving instead of me when I climbed into his pickup and he began the 20 mile journey up Highway 177.  I wasn’t quite awake yet from the phone call at 1:45 am telling me that there was a fire on the Unit 1 precipitator roof and they were calling Scott and I out to put it out.  I figured if there was a fire it should be put out long before the 45 minutes it takes me and Scott to arrive at the plant.

We had all been trained to fight fires this size, so it didn’t make sense why we had to go do this instead of the operators.

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

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

My head was still swimming from the lack of sleep when we arrived at the plant, and headed to the Control Room to find out more about the fire we were supposed to fight.  The Shift Supervisor explained that there was an oil fire under one of the high voltage transformers next to some high voltage cables, and the operators that were on duty didn’t feel comfortable climbing under the transformer stands to try and put it out because of high voltage cable tray that ran alongside the fire (ok, now it made sense.  Electricity was involved.  Electricians had to work on anything that had an electric cable attached even if it was a fire).

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home.  The ones we used were bigger

The operators had already brought a number of fire extinguishers appropriate to putting out an oil fire to the precipitator roof, and they had an SCBA (Self Contained Breating Apparatus) waiting there as well.

Man wearing an SCBA

Man wearing an SCBA from Google Images

Scott and I went to the Electric Shop to get a couple of pairs of asbestos gloves just in case we needed them.

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

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

When we arrived on the precipitator roof we could smell the fire smoldering right away.  The operator explained that some oil soaked insulation was on fire under the transformer stand for Transformer 1G9 and that he had tried to put it out using the extinguisher, but since the transformer oil was soaked into the bricks of insulation, it didn’t seem to do any good.

The transformer stands are about 18 inches tall, so climbing under them reminded me of the time I was sandblasting the water treatment tanks and Curtis Love turned off my air (see the post:  “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“).  This time I had a self-contained breathing apparatus, so I was in control of my own air… only there would only be about 30 minutes of air in the tank.

After assessing the situation Scott and I decided that the only way to put the fire out was to remove the blocks of insulation that were burning.  This meant that I had to lay down under the precipitator transformers and come face to face with the burning insulation and pull them out while wearing the asbestos gloves and put them in a barrel.

The plan was that we would then lower the 55 gallon barrel down to the ground and extinguish the fire by filling the barrel with water.

Barrel of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner

A barrel this size, only it was empty and the top was removed

The precipitator is on the outlet end of the boiler.  The boiler exhaust blows through the precipitator and the ash in the exhaust is removed using static electricity generated by the large transformers on the precipitator roof using up to 45,000 volts of electicity.  When the precipitator is on, the roof is generally a warm place to be.

When a person is laying on the insulation under a transformer, the temperature is somewhat higher as the heat is trapped in the enclosed space between two enclosures called “Coffin Houses” (how appropriate).  When the insulation is soaked with burning oil, the temperature seemed to rise significantly.  Luckily the insulation was not fiberglass as you may have in your attic, because I was wearing nothing but a tee shirt and jeans.  So, I was not subject to the itching I would have if the insulation had been fiberglass.

I had turned the air on the SCBA without using the “Postive Pressure” setting.  That meant that when I inhaled, I pulled air from the air tank, but the air didn’t apply pressure on the mask to keep out the bad air.

I did that because, this looked like it was going to be a long job and I wanted to conserve the air in the tank, and I found that on this setting I was not breathing the smoke pouring up around my face.  Otherwise I would have reached down to the valve on my belt and changed the setting to positive pressure.

I kept wondering while I was lying there with my face a few inches from the smoldering blocks of insulation why I was so calm the entire time.  The hot temperature had caused my sweat reflex to pour out the sweat so I was quickly drenched.  I would just lay my head on the insulation as I reached into the hole I was creating and pulled a glowing brick of insulation out using the asbestos gloves.

I knew I was only half awake so I kept telling myself… “Pay attention.  Work slowly.  One step at a time.  I tried to work like Granny would when she was digging Taters on the Beverly Hillbillies (see the video below):

In case you are not able to view the video above, try this link:  “Granny Digging Taters“.

It’s funny when you’re half dreaming the various things that come to mind.  I’m not sure how picking up smoldering bricks of insulation translated in my mind to Granny teaching beatniks how to pick “taters”…. but it did.

There was also something about this that reminded me of eating chocolate…. oh wait… that was probably left over from the dream I was having when the phone first rang back at the house.

For the next hour or so, I filled the barrels with the burning insulation and then lowered them down to the alleyway between Unit 1 and 2.  During this time I was still groggy from the lack of sleep and the entire process seemed like a dream to me.

I remember lying on my stomach next to the burning insulation.  Pulling the blocks out one at a time, layer by layer until I reached the precipitator roof underneath.  I placed each block of smoldering insulation in the barrel that had been lowered down by an overhead chain-fall near me.

When the barrel was about 3/4 full, we would work the chain fall over to the motorized hoist that would lower it down to the pickup truck bed 100 feet below.  When the barrel left the confines of the precipitator roof and the night air blew over the top of it, the insulation would burst into flames.  By the time the barrel landed in the back of the pickup truck the flames would be lighting up the alley way.

Scott doused the flames with a hose and an extinguisher and hauled the barrel of insulation off to a hazardous waste bin while I repeated the process with the next barrel that Scott attached to the hoist.

By the time we were through I smelled like something that crawled out of a damp fireplace.  My shirt and jeans were soaked with sweat and caked with pink insulation.  The SCBA was out of air after using it for an hour and we were ready to go home.

The operators said they would bring the empty extinguishers back to the plant and send the SCBA off to have it recharged.  We checked back in with the Shift Supervisor in the control room and told him we were heading for home.

I don’t remember which Shift Supervisor it was, though Gary Wright comes to my mind when I think about it.

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

Gary Wright is the red haird man in the front row with the big round glasses

I don’t remember which operator was helping us on the precipitator roof either.  I would usually remember those things, but like I said, I was still dreaming during this entire process.

Normally at this time, since it was close to 3:30 in the morning, we would opt to stay over and just do some odd jobs until it was time to start work because the 6 hour rule would still require us to come back to work at the regular time (see the Post: “Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rule“).  Scott and I decided that we both needed a good shower and if we could catch even one hour of sleep before we had to head back out to work, that would help.

So, we climbed back into Scott’s truck and headed back to Stillwater to the bowling alley where I had left my car.  I don’t remember the drive home.  I don’t even remember taking off my shirt and jeans in the utility room where I walked in the house and placing them in the washing machine straightaway… though that’s what I did.

I know I took a shower, but all that was just part of the same dream I had been having since the phone rang earlier that night.  Usually I didn’t have trouble waking up when the phone rang in the middle of the night, but for some reason, this particular night, I never fully woke up.

Or… maybe it’s something else….  Could I have dreamed the entire thing?  Maybe I never did receive that call, and we didn’t have to go out to the plant in the middle of the night to put out a fire.  I mean… how crazy is that anyway?  Does it make any sense?

I suppose I will have to rely on Scott Hubbard to confirm that we really did fight that fire.  How about it Scott?

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

As Bill Gibson asked one time…. “Is the Fact Truer than the Fiction?”

Harmonizing with Dick Dale on Power Plant Christmas Harmonicas

Originally posted December 20, 2013.  Added additional news about Richard at the bottom of the post:

I think it was while we were sitting in the lunch room eating lunch while I was still a janitor when the subject of harmonicas came up.  Dick Dale must have asked me if I played a musical instrument, because that was my usual reply,  “I play the harmonica… and the Jew’s Harp.”  Just about everyone knows what a Harmonica looks like.  I suppose most people in Oklahoma knows what a Jew’s Harp is.  It’s that instrument you put in your mouth and you flip the little lever and it makes a vibrating twanging sound.

A Jew's Harp

A Jew’s Harp

Dick Dale, worked in the warehouse, and we had been friends since my second year as a summer help.  He told me that he always wanted to learn to play the harmonica.  I told him I learned by just playing around on it.  I never took lessons or used a harmonica book or anything.

When I was growing up, my dad knew how to play the harmonica, so we had one laying around the house all the time.  So, one day I as a kid, I picked it up and started playing with it.  It took about five minutes before my older sister ran to my mom and complained about me making a racket.  My mom told me to take it outside.  So, I not only learned the harmonica by playing around with it.  I was usually sitting alone in the woods while I was learning it.  I have found that under these conditions, there is usually some basic part of the skill that is left out.  So, I knew that my harmonica playing was never really up to snuff.

In the spring of 1983, I joined the labor crew, and I no longer ate lunch in the break room.  I kept it in mind that Dick Dale wanted to learn to play the harmonica, so some time during the summer, I purchased a Hohner Marine Band Harmonica for him, and I began creating a song book with the songs that I knew how to play.  I made up my own notation.  The holes in the harmonica were numbered, so I wrote the numbers of the holes I would blow in, and put an arrow above the number pointing up or down to indicate whether I was blowing in the hole, or sucking the air through the hole.

A Hohner Marine Band Harmonica

A Hohner Marine Band Harmonica

During the summer I talked to Dick Dale a few times, and he was having trouble with his family.  He was getting a divorce from his wife of fifteen years.  He was pretty upset about that, because all along he thought he was happily married.  This turned out not to be the case.  In the process, Dick moved from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Ponca City.  I was living in Stillwater at the time.

When winter came around, my friend Tim Flowers, who was a summer help for two summers at the plant, including the summer I was on the labor crew, came to visit me in Stillwater.  I had bought a harmonica for him for Christmas, and I told him I wanted to go visit Dick Dale in Ponca City and take him his Harmonica for Christmas, along with the booklet I had handwritten (as we didn’t have computers back in those days….).

So, I called up Dick to make sure it would be all right if we dropped by for a little while.  He was at home in his new house, and said he would be delighted if we came by.  Dick knew Tim Flowers from the time he had been a summer help.  While Tim and I were carpooling, Dick would be carpooling with Mike Gibbs, and sometimes on the way home, we would play car tag going down the highway.

One day after a Men’s Club dinner at the plant, while we were leaving, I was in the front of the line of cars heading for the main gate.  In those days, there weren’t two separate gates (one for entering, and one for exiting).  So, the one gate had to open almost all the way up before the person exiting could go through the gate.

When I pulled up to the gate, I pulled up on the entrance side, and Dick and Mike pulled up on the exit side.  We had been racing with each other up to the main gate….  Dick was revving up the engine of his pickup truck which could easily outrun my little blue 1982 Honda Civic.  I had to be more cunning to stay in front of Richard (yeah.  I liked to call him Richard).

As the gate opened, I was on the side where I could go through the gate first.  The way it worked was that as soon as I crossed the threshold of the gate, the gate would stop opening.  then, as I went through it, I drove over to the exit side and ran over the closed loop of the gate, so that the gate closed again leaving Richard and Mike waiting behind the closed gate as we made our escape.

Of course, as soon as we were out on the main highway, it didn’t take long for Richard to make up the mile lead I had gained while he had to wait for the gate to close and re-open.  So, the only way I could prevent him from passing me was by weaving over in the passing lane when he attempted to pass me, and then back again, when he returned to the right lane.

Eventually he was able to go around me, but from that day forward, whenever we were travelling home at the end of the day, and we were following each other, we would both meander back and forth across the highway on the way home…. when it was safe of course.  Since we were out in the country, on a seldom traveled rode, that was usually not a problem.  This came to an end when Richard moved to Ponca City.

When Tim Flowers and I arrived at Richard’s house in Ponca City that Christmas holiday, we surprised him when we handed him his very own harmonica with the booklet that I had written.  He invited us inside and we sat for a while as I explained to him  how the booklet worked.  He said he appreciated it, and that he would work on learning how to play his harmonica so that we could play together.

We sat around and made terrible music together for a while.  Then, because I didn’t want to impose on Richard too much, we left to go back to Stillwater.  A couple of weeks later after the holiday, Richard said he had been practicing on the harmonica and he really appreciated the Christmas present.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but two and a half years later, I moved to Ponca City after I was married, and my wife graduated from nursing school.  That was when Dick Dale, Jim Heflin, Bud Schoonover and I began carpooling together (See the post:  Carpooling with Bud Schoonover).  At the time Dick said that he had hoped to get over the tragedy of his marriage by the end of the year.  He had heard that it took a year to get over 5 years.  Since he had been married for 15 years, he figured by the end of 3 years he should be feeling like he was over it.

The only other person at the plant that I can remember that ever heard me playing the harmonica was Arthur Hammond.  He asked me one day in 1986 if I would bring my harmonica to work so that he could hear me play it.  So, I did, and while we were driving down to the Arkansas River to check batteries, I played some “harmonica blues” for him.  It was just stuff I was making up.

I had seen this movie called “Crossroads” with Ralph Macchio.  In the movie Ralph’s character is trying to learn how to play the Blues guitar from an old and once famous blues musician.  There are two things you learn as the movie unfolds.  The first is that in order to really know how to play the blues, you had to have experienced a real “Blue” time in your life.  So you had to play with the feeling that you had experienced.  The second thing was that Ralph had to play his guitar against a contract guitar player chosen by the devil in order to save the old man’s soul.

Crossroads (1986)

Crossroads (1986)

So, what was I supposed to do?  I had been blessed most of my life.  I hadn’t really experienced any “real” blues.  As Art was driving the pickup truck down to the river, I tried to dream up the bluest thoughts I could.  I thought…. what if the world ran out of chocolate…..  That would ruin everybody’s mood.  I piped out a few sorrowful sounding notes on the harmonica to try and portray my disappointment living without chocolate….. that sounded kind of lame.

Then I thought, wasn’t I upset that one time when I was a summer help and I stayed over to help feed the foremen that were having a dinner in the break room and Pat Braden and I fed the foremen, and no one offered me any food, so I had to go hungry for a couple of hours before I could go home and eat some leftovers at home.  I think I felt kind of blue that day…..  so I cupped my hand over the harmonica, tilted my head to the side and tried to remember that painful time as I shook my hand up and down so that the harmonica would make the sad “whaaa whaa” sound.

I drummed up a few more sad thoughts, and I thought I was really floundering as my debut as a blues harmonica player, so I paused for a few minutes to try and make myself feel bad about doing such a poor job playing the harmonica hoping that it would help.  Then Art said, “Hey.  You are pretty good!”  “What?”  I thought, “Oh… That’s Art, trying to be polite.”  “Thank you,” I said.  Boy.  How pitiful is that?  Surely I should feel bad enough now to play some blues at least a little better….

Anyway, a mile or two later, I decided to give it up.  I put the harmonica back in my pocket and told Art that was all I could do for now.  Finally.  We had some peace and quiet the rest of the way to the river.  I remembered that my sister would always run screaming to my mom when I was younger and blew a few notes on the harmonica, and here Art patiently listened and even complimented my playing.  Gee.  What a true friend he was.

Later, Dick Dale remarried, and as far as I could tell, he was a much happier person a few years after that.  I did what I could to help him.  Though, I think at times I confused him a little.  I will relay a story about that in a few weeks.

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

My Dear Friend Richard Dale

Richard Dale died at the age of 64 on Christmas Day, 2008.  He can now be heard in concert in Heaven playing the mouth organ.  Since I don’t play the regular harp, I hope one day to stand alongside him playing the Jew’s Harp.  Richard’s Mother Maurine Dale joined him in Heaven last month (November, 2015) at the age of 98.

Boppin’ With Bif during the Power Plant Downsizing

About a year after I had joined the electric shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, when it was my week to be the truck driver in Fall of 1984, I had an conversation with a contract electrician that I have never forgotten. It was with a guy named Mark Meeks. I have talked about him before in the post entitled, “Life Cycle of a Power Plant Lump of Coal“.

At the time, Mark was working as a contract help for the electric shop. He had been hired to help Mike Rose and Bill Ennis to work on Freeze Protection. I was driving him to the coalyard. He was telling me how he liked working on a job for a while and then he would move on to do another job working somewhere else.

I replied back that I liked having a job where no one had ever been laid off. The electric company had been in existence for about 70 years and had never had a downsizing. I noticed that when I said that, Mark paused and thought about what I said. I was not surprised when a few weeks later, Mark was hired as a plant electrician in the shop.

I’m not saying that no one was ever fired from a power plant. I’m just saying that there wasn’t a general downsizing where a group of people were laid off. After all. you can’t really ship the jobs overseas. Not when you want to provide electricity to Oklahoma City. So, as long as you did your job and showed up to work on time, you had job until it was time to retire. That type of job security sure felt good.

All good things have to come to an end at some point. Toward the end of 1986, Martin Louthan, the Superintendent over all the Power Plants, came to our plant to talk to us. He told us that when our plant was created, it was engineered so that it would accommodate 6 units. At the time we had two. He said that when they staffed the plant, they hired enough people to operate and maintain four units.

He explained that when the oil boom went bust in 1982, it changed everything. The demand for electricity dropped instead of increased as the company had projected. So, our power plant had too many employees for the foreseeable future. We were going to have to downsize. At the time we had over 350 employees.

I think we all knew that we had too many employees at the time. There was a lot of downtime when the maintenance crews had to look for something to do. There are innumerable “for instances” I could bring up. Like times when a team of welders had to go weld something at the train gate, which would normally take a couple of hours. Instead of having it done by lunch time, the crew would park their truck at the train gate, way out where no one would bother them, and listen to the radio for a week.

There were a lot of times like these where there just wasn’t enough work during a regular work week to keep everyone busy. Everyone seemed to have their own special place where they could go take a nap if they needed one. I think we all figured that they kept us all around because when it came time for overhaul, everyone was hard at work making all kinds of overtime. Anyway. We knew it was true. There were too many employees at our plant. Especially since we weren’t going to be expanding anytime soon.

So, here is how the company decided to downsize the company. They offered everyone a “Voluntary Separation Package.” (Or VSP as we refer to it at Dell where I work today – or I did when I originally wrote this post… Now I work at General Motors). They would give you so many weeks of pay for every year of service you had with the company. I don’t remember the exact amount. The employees had until a certain date to decide.

Employees that were over 55 years old would be able to take an early retirement package that would amount to a normal retirement if they had stayed until they had reached retirement age. Our retirement pension plan had grown large enough that it could comfortably absorb those who would early retire. You had until a certain date when you had to decide whether or not you would take the early retirement.

There was one caveat to the taking the Voluntary Separation Package or the early retirement. You had to decide to take one of these options before you were told if your permanent position with the company was going to be terminated at the end of the year. That is, if by the end of June, if you didn’t take the package, then in July if you were told that your position was being eliminated, then the package and retirement was no longer an option. So, if you doubted your “good standing” with the company, you probably would be inclined on taking the retirement package if you were old enough.

In the electric shop I think we had one person old enough to retire. Bill Ennis. He decided to stick it out and hope that his position would still be around. Bill was a good worker, so if that had anything to do with it, he was in good shape. Only one person in our shop decided to take the Voluntary Separation Package.

It broke my heart the day that Arthur Hammond told me he was going to take the package. He only had three years with the company, so his package wasn’t going to be that big, but there was a lump sum associated with it as well. I explained his decision in the post “Power Plant Arguments with Arthur Hammond“. Arthur was a dear friend of mine. I feared that he hadn’t thought this decision through. On one hand, he was used to moving from job to job like Mark Meeks as a Contract electrician. On the other hand, he was raising a family who would benefit from a stable income without having to move from place to place.

The one an only good thing about Arthur Hammond leaving was that Scott Hubbard moved to the electric shop in his place. This was fortunate for Scott because the testing team was not surviving the downsizing and his position was surely going away. I had a bias toward the testers from their inception because when I was on the labor crew, we had not been allowed to apply for the testing jobs. I was also biased because Scott was replacing my friend Arthur. I explained this in the post: “Take a Note Jan, Said the Supervisor of Power Production“. As it turned out, Scott and I became like brothers. We worked together for years, and carpooled most of the time after he joined the shop.

As a side note. I ‘fessed up to Scott one day while we were driving home from work…. He was driving, and I told Scott, “I just want you to know that when you first came to the electric shop. I didn’t like you. It wasn’t anything you did. I just didn’t like you because you were on the testing team.” When I told Scott that, I could tell that he was uncomfortable and that he felt hurt by what I was saying. He turned his head away from me. I went on…. “When I came to know you while we have worked together, I just want you to know that you have become one of my best friends. I am sorry that I had prejudged you. I just wanted to let you know. I’m glad we are on the same team.”

So, what does this have to do with Bif? Well, Lynn “Bif” Johnson and Mark Meeks were two of the few people left that were told on the “day of reckoning” that their jobs were going way.

No. Not this Biff! This is Biff from "Back to the Future" played by Thomas F. Wilson

No. Not this Biff! This is Biff from “Back to the Future” played by Thomas F. Wilson — Ok. I needed at least one picture in this post…

I remember how our entire team was called up to the front office. We waited in Leroy Godfrey’s office. (He was early retiring). They called us one at a time to Bill Moler’s office (He was early retiring also). There we were told that who we would be working for.

Gary Wehunt had been sure that he was going to be axed. I think by that time we knew that the electric shop needed to downsize one more person. Gary was shocked when he was told he still had his job. He was going to be working for Andy Tubbs on the same team I was on. — Of course, in my own cocky 26 year old way, I never thought I would be let go.

Mark Meeks was told he would no longer be employed at the end of the year. The same was true for Bif Johnson. The company offered to help find a job somewhere in the company if there was position left vacant that needed a person with your skills. They also provided a service to help you create a resume and would help you find a job so that by the end of the year, you wouldn’t just be sent packing.

Mark called up some of his contract buddies and was soon on his way to another job. He had been a contract electrician for so long, this was “Situation Normal” (which is the first two words for the acronym “SNAFU”) for him. I thought it was ironic that he should be the one person from the electric shop that was laid off when I knew that the reason he had applied for the position in the first place was most likely because he thought he could be there until he retired, as we had discussed that day in the truck a couple of years earlier.

I later learned that before Leroy Godfrey early retired he had singled out Mark Meeks and had seen to it that he was the person that was going to be laid off because he had said something to Leroy one day that had annoyed him. Much like the comment I had made to Leroy one day when he went to Bill Bennett and told him to fire me. See the Post: “Chief Among the Power Plant Machinists ” As Bill Bennett explained. Leroy wanted to make sure that Mark was included in the downsizing. It was his gift to him.

Leroy Godfrey

Leroy Godfrey

So, what about Bif? With all the help offered by the company to find a new position and five months to find a new job, what happened to Bif? Well. Bif had the attitude that I had, though he is 10 years older than me. He had it in his mind that for some reason the plant couldn’t do without him…. or maybe it was more like the attitude I have at my current job. “I am going to stay here until you make me leave.” The last day of the year came around…. Bif was no longer working for the electric company.

It seems like there were two people at the plant at the end of the year that had their positions eliminated that decided to remain at the plant up until the last day of the year (Off hand, I have forgotten who the other person was). Neither of them had sought help from the company to find another position in the company or even outside the company. They were really only laid off because they chose to be. The company had offered them every opportunity.

There were a few lessons I learned from the different events that happened during this time. The first was that I shouldn’t dislike someone because of someone else’s decision. It wasn’t Scott Hubbard’s decision not to let labor crew hands apply for the testing positions. I saw the same thing happen at the gas plant in Harrah, Oklahoma when Mel Woodring became the foreman ahead of obviously more qualified electricians. The general feeling was to dislike Mel, but who was it that picked him? Mel didn’t have anything to do with that decision. He was a pawn in an effort to move him out of the Muskogee Plant.

The second was that no matter how much you think you are indispensable, you aren’t. We all knew the saying that if you want to find out how important you are, just put your hand into a bucket of water and pull it out and see what kind of hole you leave. That’s how important you are. — Well…. Archimedes would disagree with this assessment given that the water level in the bucket changed, but that wasn’t the point.

Third, Job Security? What’s that? A Power plant probably still has more job security than most other jobs.

The fourth lesson I learned was that when your friend has decided to make a dumb decision, no matter how much it is going to hurt them in the long run, after you have tried to convince them not to take that route, you have to stand by them as much as possible. I have had some friends in the past make really stupid decisions in their lives. No matter how dumb it is…. remain their friend. How much of a friend are you if you cut and run because of their bad decisions? Like my friend Bob Ray reminds me often…. “You can’t fix stupid.” No. You can’t. But you can be there to help when needed.

Comments from Previous post:

    1. heila2013 December 19, 2013:

      “You can be there to help when needed” Great message, for Christmas and the whole year around. Wish you happy holidays. Heila

      Jack Curtis January 9, 2013:

      Delightful! A cameo of the mindset of the sorts of Americans who built industry and of maturing in industrial America as well. And a fair guage against the way we have changed since…

 

Last Days as a Power Plant Labor Crew Hand

Originally posted December 14, 2012:

I have heard the relationship between Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick referred to as the “Punch and Judy Show”. Ok. I thought. Punch and Judy. Sounds like a show from the early 50’s. Must have been a comedy. I thought that for a long time until one day I ran across a brief history of the Punch and Judy Show. It turned out that Punch and Judy was a puppet show from the time of Queen Anne of England. She was queen of England from 1702 to 1714. I could only find a painting of Queen Anne. Didn’t anyone ever think about taking her photograph?

Queen Anne of England

Queen Anne of England

Anyway, once I learned more about Punch and Judy, I realized that this was probably a better description of the Rivers – Sonny relationship than those people realized. It turns out in the first version of the Punch and Judy show, Punch actually strangles his child and beats his wife Judy to death and beats up on other people as well. I suppose that was “entertainment” back then. Now we only have things like “The Terminator”!

Punch and Judy

Punch and Judy Puppet Show

I carpooled with Bill Rivers at this particular time when I was a janitor and while I was on labor crew (except during the summer when I carpooled with my summer help buddies). Each day Bill Rivers would explain about some trick he had played on Sonny that day. The one thing that amazed Bill the most was that every day he could play a joke on Sonny, and each day, Sonny would fall for it.

This reminded me of when I was in Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri and I used to borrow a pencil from my friend Bryan Treacy each day and each day I would chew it up to the point where it was practically useless. I had to come up with different diversionary tactics each day, but somehow I was able to coax a wooden pencil from my friend. Before he would realize what he had done, I had already chewed it up from one end to the next. I liked to think that I was tricking Bryan each day, but I also thought that it was odd that Bryan would have a new pencil every time, and he probably made sure that his mom kept a full stock of pencils just for my enjoyment in eating them (I also wondered if I was getting lead poisoning from all the yellow paint I was ingesting).

Bryan Treacy today is a doctor living in Moore Oklahoma. I would like to drop by his office without seeing him some time just to see if he has any wooden pencils laying about that I could leave all chewed up. I wonder if he would realize I had been there. He might read this blog from time-to-time, so I may have just blown my cover.

I mentioned Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick because they were the first two electricians that I worked for before becoming an electrician. I worked on the precipitator while I was on the Labor Crew. See the Post:

Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door

I also mentioned before that I owe my decision to become a Power Plant Electrician to Charles Foster an Electrical B Foreman at the time. I was a janitor and cleaning the electric shop office and lab were part of my duty. How I came to be the janitor of the electric shop is explained further in the post:

Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement

I had found the floor scrubbing machine in ill repair. Charles helped me put it back in running condition. He explained how to take care of the batteries and to keep them properly charged.

We had a Clarke Floor scrubber similar to this one

We had a Clarke Floor scrubber similar to this one

When the electric shop had an opening they tried to recruit me while I was still a janitor, but the Evil Plant Manager had a rule at the time that when you were a janitor, the only place you could go from there was onto the Labor Crew. That was when Mike Rose was hired to become a backup for Jim Stevenson that worked on the air conditioning and freeze protection. I knew about the janitor ruling so I didn’t have my hopes up. Besides, at the time I didn’t have any electrical background.

Charles asked me to take the electrical courses that were offered by the company. The company offered correspondence courses, and in about 3 weeks, I had signed up for them, read the books, and taken the tests. While I was on the labor crew I signed up for a House wiring course at the Vo-Tech. I was taking that course when I learned that Larry Burns was moving from our electric shop to go to another plant. It was then that I applied for the job as a plant electrician.

The main power transformer for Unit 1 had been destroyed by the heat wave that summer (1983) when the plant had tested it’s durability on the hottest day. The unit was offline for a couple of months while GE created a new transformer and shipped it to us.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

After the main power transformer was destroyed and it took so long to ship in a new one, it was decided that we would keep a spare on hand. That way if it went bad again, we could swap them out quickly. That is probably the best assurance that we wouldn’t lose that transformer again. We had that spare transformer sitting around for years collecting taxes. I’m sure we must have paid for it a few times over again.

During the time that the unit was offline, and we weren’t shaking boiler tubes or cutting the ash out of the economizer tubes, I was working with Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick on the precipitator. The precipitator (by the way), is what takes the smoke (ash) out of the exhaust, so you don’t see smoke coming out of the smokestacks.

Bill and Sonny were pretty well sure that I was going to be selected to fill the opening in the Electric Shop, so they were already preparing me to work on the precipitator. Of all the jobs in the electric shop, this one had more to do with electronics than any of the others. That gave “being an electrician” a whole new dimension. I was even looking forward to taking an Electronics course at the Vo-Tech in the spring.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only it is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only it is twice as long

I was getting updates from Bill and Sonny about the progress of the job opening and they were telling me about the battle that was going on between the Evil Plant Manager and the Electrical Supervisor. Eldon Waugh, the plant manager at the time wanted Charles Peavler to be chosen as the electrician. He had an electrical background, because he had wired his barn once.

The ultimate reason why the plant manager wanted Charles Peavler to be the new electrician was because I had been placed on the blacklist due to the incident that took place earlier that I had described in the post:

Take a Note Jan Said the Manager of Power Production

Thanks to Larry Riley’s performance review, and his purposeful procrastination of the Plant Manager’s request to modify my performance review, and Charles Foster’s insistence that they follow the procedures that were laid out in the new Employee Application Program (known as the EAP), the argument stopped with Charles Foster’s statement: “Let’s just take whoever has the best performance rating as it is laid out in the company policy and leave it at that.” I was chosen to fill the position for the opening in the Electric Shop.

I was actually called to Eldon Waugh’s office while I was sandblasting the Sand Filter Tank. See Post:

Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love

When I arrived in Eldon’s office I was covered from head to toe in sandblast dust. My hair was all disheveled and my shirt was soaked with sweat. Jack Ballard (the head of HR) was sitting there along with Leroy Godfrey and Charles Foster. I knew what it was about because according to Bill Rivers on the way home the day before, they had already decided that they were going to accept me for the position.

Eldon Waugh explained that I was being offered the job that I had applied for in the electric shop. I felt really humbled at the time. Even though I was expecting it, I felt surprised that it was actually happening. To me, being an electrician was like the greatest job in the world. The electricians were like an elite team of super heroes.

I had the occasion to watch the electricians while I was a janitor in their shop and many of them were like these super intelligent beings that could quickly look at a blueprint and grab their tool bucket and head out to fix the world. I was very grateful for the opportunity, and at the same time apprehensive. I wasn’t sure if I had the quality of character and intelligence to become a part of this team. This was truly a dream come true for me.

Few times in my life has this happened to me. The day I was married. The day I became a Father. The day I drove to Dell to begin my first day as a Programmer Analyst. These were all major milestones in my life. The first major milestone was the day I became an electrician. Because of the way that I am (I don’t know…. maybe it’s because I’m half Italian), I just wanted to break out in tears and hug Eldon Waugh and cry on his shoulder. Instead, I just managed to crack a small smile.

I thanked them and started to leave. Then Jack Ballard said something interesting. As I was leaving he asked, “Uh…. Do you accept the offer?” Oh. In my surprise and elation, I hadn’t said anything but “Thank You”. Jack’s expression was that it wasn’t official until it was official. So, I replied, “Yes. I accept the offer”. “Ok then,” Jack replied. And I left to go crawl back in my hole and continue sandblasting the Sand Filter tank.

My last day on the Labor Crew was on November 4, 1983. I was leaving my Labor Crew Family behind and moving onto a new life in the electric shop. This was hard for me because I really did consider most of the people on the Labor Crew as family. Fred Crocker, Ron Luckey, Jim Kanelakos, and Ronnie Banks. Curtis Love and Chuck Moreland. Doretta Funkhouser and Charles Peavler. Jody Morse and Bob Lillibridge.

Most of all, I knew I was going to miss Larry Riley. I had worked with Larry from the day I had first arrived as a summer help in 1979. Now it was November, 1983. Larry was a hero to me. I love him dearly and if I had ever had an older brother I would have liked someone with the character and strength of Larry Riley. He remains in my prayers to this day.

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

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him

The last day on the labor crew I suspected foul play. Mainly because the last day that Bill Cook was on the Labor Crew, he had asked us if we would throw Larry in the intake as a going away gift. I had worked with Bill when we were summer help together and I felt like I owed him one, so I told him I would help.

As we were driving from the Coalyard Maintenance building (the home of the labor crew) to the plant maintenance shop that day, Bill Cook, who was driving, suddenly turned toward the intake pumps and stopped the truck. By the time Larry had figured out what was going on, we had dragged Larry out of the truck and I was carrying him over to the Intake and getting ready to throw him in.

Larry had worked with me long enough to know that once I had set my mind on something, there was no turning back. He had tried to escape from my grip, but I had him where he couldn’t escape. As I climbed with him over the guard rail and headed toward the edge of the water, Larry said the only possible thing that could make me stop in my tracks. He said, “Please Kevin. Don’t do this.”

I was paralyzed. Stuck between my word with Bill Cook that I would help him throw Larry in the brink, and a plea from someone who meant the world to me. There wasn’t but one choice to make. I set Larry down. I walked back to the truck and I told Bill, “I’m sorry. I can’t do it.” I returned to my seat in the back of the crew cab. Without my help, no one else had the resolve and strength to follow through with Bill’s wish. We drove on to the Maintenance Shop.

So, on my last day on the Labor Crew, I thought that something similar might be planned for me. As soon as we left to go to work that morning, I headed up Belt 10 and 11. That is the long belt on the left side of the power Plant picture on the upper right side of this post…. Ok. I’ll post it here:

Power Plant view when looking through the wrong end of the binoculars

The long belts run from the coalyard to the plant. Oh. And this is the intake. Just across from here is where I was going to toss Larry in the lake

Once up 10 & 11 and 12 & 13, I was in the Surge bin tower. (The Surge Bin Tower is the white building you can see between the two boilers near the top that has the conveyor belt entering it from the left). From there, I roamed around looking for some coal to clean up. I figured I would stay far away from my labor crew buddies that day.

At the end of the day, I travelled back down belts 10 & 11 and headed into the office in the Coalyard Maintenance building to fill out my last timecard as a Laborer. Beginning next Monday on November 7, I would be an “Electrician.” Along with the empty feeling at the bottom of my heart was a feeling of excitement for the new adventure that awaited me.

Power Plant Secrets Found During Daily Mail Run

Originally Posted on November 2, 2012:

Mid-July of my fourth summer as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1982, Stanley Elmore came back from the office area while I was working fixing a flat tire in the garage. He shook his head as in disbelief… which was Stanley’s normal way of saying that he either had some interesting news to tell you, or that he was playing a joke on you and was about to set you up for something. He told me that I was one lucky person. I had been chosen to do the Mail Run each morning for the rest of the summer.

What this meant was that each morning about 8:30 I would drive the Plant Manager’s pickup truck to Red Rock about 5 miles away to get the mail from our Post Office Box there. From there I would drive to Morrison, 23 miles away to go to the Post Office to pick up the plant mail at our box there, and then to the Morrison Bank to cash checks for Petty Cash and make any other transactions that were needed at the plant. After that, I would drive the 17 miles back to the plant. This 45 mile journey along with the stops each day lasted about an hour.

This meant 1 hour each day, I wasn’t chopping weeds, or picking up rocks, or emptying the trash from the cans at the park, or fixin’ flats. I was driving a company truck from place-to-place running errands. As a Catholic, this gave me time to say all three sets of Mysteries of the Rosary (there were only three sets at that time) each day while on the job. A month and a half later when I became a janitor, it was decided that I would keep delivering and picking up the mail each day. Which suited me fine. I enjoyed the drive, and after I became a janitor, Pat Braden told me how to take the back road (County Road 170) from Red Rock to Highway 64 on the way to Morrison, which was a pleasant drive through the countryside.

After a couple of weeks of doing the Mail Run, it was decided that I could also be used to make runs to Oklahoma City once each week for the Warehouse to pick up parts at various locations throughout the Metro area. I was proud that I was being trusted to do this while still being a summer help. I was given a booklet of POs (Purchase Orders), which I found out was like a book of blank checks from the Electric Company that gladdened the hearts of vendors when they looked at me warily while they asked me how I was going to pay for the parts I was picking up.  They would gleefully reply, “Oh!  You have a book of PO’s from the Electric Company!”

I was 21 years old at the time and had a Commercial Chauffeur’s license, but I looked closer to 16. So, vendors were surprised to see that I was carrying the cherished book of POs for the Electric Company. To them it was better than cash. With it, I could have a vendor load a $20,000 item onto the back of the flatbed truck by signing a slip of paper, tearing it out of the booklet and handing it to them. I was honored that the company trusted me with this job.

This was a long time before GPS systems were in cars, so I relied on Dick Dale and Mike Gibbs to give me directions and tell me the most efficient routes around Oklahoma City to go to the various stops on my route. These trips also took me to various plants in the area. I was able to go to the Power Plant north of Mustang on the West side of Oklahoma City

Mustang Gas Fired Power Plant opened in 1950

and the plant at Horseshoe Pond (or was it a Lake?) on the East side of town.

Horseshoe Lake Power Plant Turbine Room in 1924

I even made a trip to Konawa once to the Power Plant there.

Seminole Power Plant at night outside of Konawa Oklahoma. This picture was found at: http://www.redbubble.com/people/harrietrn/works/1425122-seminole-power-plant

But enough about my own enjoyment. I know you really want to hear about the secrets I learned. They aren’t really secrets as much as they were insights or observations. You see, each morning I would go to the front office before I left to take lunch orders from Linda Shiever, Joan Wheatley and sometimes from Linda Dallas and Carolyn Olbert.

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

They would have me stop by the diner in Morrison to pick up an order for lunch. I would stop by the diner on the way into Morrison and give them their order, then on the way back out of town, I would pick it up. Then I would have to smell the aromatic food the rest of the way back to the plant.

While waiting for Linda and Joan to decide whether they wanted the Chicken Fried Steak, or the Hot Roast Beef Sandwich, I would stand there listening to the conversations that were taking place in the front office. Having grown up around my mom’s Italian family in Kansas City, I had learned to listen to 3 or more conversations simultaneously while pretending not to be paying attention to any one of them.

So, I could hear the plotting and scheming coming from Jack Ballard’s office each morning. He was the head of HR.  He was usually trying to figure out how to implement the latest dictate coming from the Plant Manager. So, he would be throwing out suggestions about how to go about them. This used to stick in my craw, because nothing enraged me more at that time than to have management treat their employees in an underhanded way. I had my reasons for the rage that I felt, and maybe I’ll go into those some time in a later post.

One particular topic I remember was when Jack Ballard was trying to figure out how to keep employees from taking any time off for Christmas. Eldon Waugh (or did it come from Corporate Headquarters? Yeah… right), had an edict that no one could take vacation around Christmas because if they did, they would probably leave town, and if they did that, and the plant had an emergency, then there wouldn’t be enough people available to call.

I didn’t understand that reasoning, since OD McGaha had spent almost his entire life within a 3 county radius around the plant. Sonny Karcher would be right down the road decorating a little Christmas Tree in his front lawn. Actually, most everyone would just like to stay home and spend some quiet time with their family. If some of us wanted to take a trip to go visit family, well. So Be It.

This was before I had realized the full extent that Eldon went to make life miserable for his worker bees (see the Post “A Halloween Power Plant Election Story” for a more complete understanding of “Worker Bees”). Eldon (or was it Corporate Headquarters) had already declared that no one was able to use vacation the last two weeks of the year.

So, what was the problem? The problem was that we had something called, “Floating Holiday”. It used to be used for Good Friday in the earlier days, but then later was changed to one Floating Holiday, which meant that you could take it any time throughout the year. This included some time during the last two weeks of the year since it wasn’t “technically” vacation. Which was once too often for the Plant Manager and Jack Ballard (the head of Human Resources at the plant).

I guess that either they didn’t think that the employees would buy the idea that Corporate Headquarters would make a rule that said you couldn’t take your floating holiday around the time of a real holiday (Christmas), so they had to come up with a way to keep the employees from even having one extra day during those last two weeks, in case we would get it in our heads to drive to Oklahoma City to do some Christmas shopping. So something had to be done about it.

Luckily (or maybe not so luckily), Linda Shiever was taking her sweet time that day coming up with the money to pay for her lunch so that I was able to hear a good 5 minutes of the conversation between Jack Ballard, Sharon Lance and Linda Dallas as they brainstormed a way to prevent the atrocious act of worker bees thinking they should have more than the one or two days allotted them for the Yuletide season.

You see… Vacation usually had to be scheduled well in advance, so a frugal, hardworking Power Plant Man will naturally save his floating holiday for an emergency. Just in case something comes up and they have to take an unplanned day off (or he has to go save his wife from their burning house and the plant manager won’t let him use black time — oh. That wasn’t this Plant Manager). So, when it came down to the end of the year, and the floating holiday was still floating out there waiting to be taken, then the Power Plant Man would take it during the last 2 weeks of the year rather than lose it altogether. This just made sense. So, Jack had to come up with a solution that prevented this. (This was a number of years before vacation was allowed to carry over for the first 3 months of the following year).

The final solution was that Corporate Headquarters would come up with a Policy that said that the Floating Holiday had to be used first before vacation could be used. — No. I’m not kidding. That way the Floating Holiday would not be available at the end of the year. I heard this being formulated from the mouth of Jack Ballard. Once he said it, it was like a window in the ceiling of his office opened up overhead and a ray of sunshine shown down on his desk and you could hear angels singing, “aahhhhhhhh”. They knew they had found their solution.

I think this policy lasted a couple of years before someone forgot that they had made it, and things were back to normal. It just fascinated me to hear how easily this band of vacation time bandits could manipulate the employee’s benefits on a whim. This type of time thievery (as I alluded to above) enraged me.

Time Bandits

Those of us that were at the plant during that time know to what end this group finally met their fate. I will discuss it in much greater detail in a later post that involves someone that the plant employees referred to as “The Snitch” (See the post:  “Power Plant Snitch“). This story about the Floating Holiday is just a minor prelude of things to come in the following years.

On a more humorous note:

One morning when I went into the Plant Manager’s office to pick up the Pickup Truck Key, Bill Moler, the Assistant Plant Manager, entered the office with a big grin on his face and said that he finally found out why Indian Electric kept sending us an electric bill. Of course, Bill wasn’t paying the bill. Why would one Electric Company pay another electric company, just because they kept sending them a bill?

The answer came when the electricians had traced the sudden loss of electric power to the street lights in the Park areas on the south side of the lake. The power had been disconnected at the electric pole. The fuses had been removed. Upon further inspection, it was found that the electric poles did not belong to this Electric Company, it belonged to Indian Electric. They had turned off the electricity because our Electric Company had failed to pay their Electric Bill!

That is a funny irony that was not lost on Bill Moler. He was laughing about it all morning. An electric company that had their power cut off because they failed to pay their electric bill. How embarrassing is that?

Other interesting things happened on my trips to the Post Office and the Morrison Bank. Each morning I would arrive at the Morrison Bank just as they were opening at 9:00. One bank teller would be telling the other bank teller about her new boyfriend (around September). This later turned into a fiancee (in October). Then for a couple of months she would be discussing the impending wedding that was going to take place at the end of the year.

Cool Panoramic view of Morrison Oklahoma. Click this picture to see a blow up of it. Click the Back button to return to this page

Naturally at the end of the year, the bank teller was missing as she was on her honeymoon for a couple of weeks. I think it was a Carnival Cruise or a trip to Branson to go to Silver Dollar City (No. That was someone else. I wish I could put a smiley face here). Anyway. A couple of weeks after the New Year the bank teller returned, and as I followed them into the bank (as I did every morning), the one bank teller asked the newly married bank teller how everything went. The newlywed teller said that her new husband decided after about a week that he didn’t like being married so they decided to get a divorce.

Ok. I have to smile when I think about that one. There must be a punchline to a joke here somewhere. Like how many times does an Okie get married over Christmas? More times than they can take vacation…. Or something like that.

Power Plant Lady of the Labor Crew

Originally Posted on October 19, 2012:

In the Power Plant posts, I generally tend to focus on the Power Plant Men that taught their Power Plant culture to me while I was fortunate enough to grace the boilers and conveyors of the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the north central plains of Oklahoma. Every once in a while during this journey there were True Power Plant Ladies that came along that took their place right alongside the Power Plant Men.

The Women generally held their own when it came to the amount of work, their tenacity, and even for some, their ability to hit a spittoon from 6 feet. — Ok. I made up the part about hitting a spittoon.  Everyone just used the floor drains for spittoons in the early days before they became responsible for cleaning them out themselves, after the summer help found more grass to mow. — The choice spitting material was…. Sunflower seed shells.

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

In the first few years, Leta Cates worked out of the welding shop (I believe… Well, she hung around there a lot), and later became a clerk. Then there was Opal Brien who was in the maintenance shop and worked in the garage one year when I was a summer help. Of course, there was Darlene Mitchell who worked in the warehouse with Dick Dale, Mike Gibbs and Bud Schoonover.

There was also Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), who was one of the Electric Shop A team super heroes.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

Later came Julienne Alley that became the “Mom” of the welding shop. Some more came and went…. Especially the person that we referred to as “Mom” while I was on labor crew. Doretta Funkhouser.

I have mentioned before that the evil plant manager Eldon Waugh enjoyed manipulating his minion’s (oh… I mean employee’s) personal lives as much as he could get away with without stirring up trouble downtown. So, one of the rules he had put in place was that no one on the janitor crew could be considered for another position at the plant until they had first moved to the labor crew.

There even came a ruling later in 1983 (from Eldon and/or Bill Moler) that if it was your turn to go to Labor Crew, and you were not able to, or didn’t for some reason more than once, then you would lose your job altogether. That remained the case until Darrell Low was able to quickly move from janitor to Operator after Eldon had lost his control over the people on labor crew that he wanted to keep there, making the rule obsolete (I’m sure we had been told the rule had come from Corporate headquarters anyway).

Once on the labor crew, it was very rare that anyone left this crew to go to another position in the plant. They usually had to leave the company altogether, or find a job at another plant in order to escape. This was especially true after the summer of 1982 when the oil boom went bust in Oklahoma making jobs harder to find, and less people left the plant to go somewhere else to work.  The phrase on the first Tuesday of every month was, “Did you see that line of cars outside the gate this morning?  Be lucky you have a job.”

So, when I finally made it to the labor crew, many of the team had been there for a very long time. Others I had worked with before because we were janitors together. This included Ronnie Banks and Jim Kanelakos. Other members of the labor crew were Ron Luckey, Chuck Moreland, Fred Crocker, Bob Lillibridge, Tom Kelly, Bill Cook, Charles Peavler and Doretta Funkhouser. Larry Riley was our foreman.

While on labor crew I was able to learn how to operate a backhoe. Though I never learned the backhoe magic of Larry Riley, I was able to scoop up bottom ash and dump it into the back of Power Plant Men’s pickup trucks that needed it to fill in the parts of their driveways that had washed out at home. The very first time I operated a backhoe, I noticed right away that the brakes didn’t operate very well. You really had to play with it in order to get backhoe to not roll forward.

Backhoe

Here is a picture of a Backhoe

That was ok, because I was just loading bottom ash from a pile into a dump truck and I could just bump the backhoe right up against the dump truck and empty the scoop into the bed. That was working real good until while I was waiting for the dump truck to return after bringing the bottom ash to the place where it was dumping the ash, Jim Harrison pulled up in a shiny new Dodge Pickup. I mean…. it was brand new! He backed up by me and signalled to me from inside his truck. I was waiting there with a scoop full of bottom ash (which is a gravelly looking substance) for the dump truck to return.

My first thought was oh boy…. I shouldn’t do this…. I can hardly stop this thing and I know I will probably run right into the side of Jim’s new truck and he’s going to have a fit. So, I did the only thing I could do. I proceeded to drive around to the side of Jim’s truck to pour the load of ash into the bed of his truck.

Now… either it was Jim’s guardian angel, or it was mine (protecting me from the bodily harm Jim may have inflicted on me out of stress had I put a big dent in the side of his new truck) that stopped the backhoe just at the right spot, I’ll never know for sure. But something did. The backhoe for once stopped right where I would have liked it to stop and I dumped the ash in the truck filling it to the brim. I waved to Jim, and he drove away.

Later when I went back to the Coal Yard Maintenance building (where the Labor Crew called home) I saw Jim in the office, so I went to talk to him. I smiled and said, “I hope I didn’t make you nervous dumping that ash in your truck.” Jim said “No.” It didn’t bother him one bit. He said he knew I could handle it.

So I told him that was the first time I had ever operated a backhoe and the brakes don’t work too well, and I wasn’t even sure if I could keep the backhoe from running into the side of his truck. I remember Jim’s reaction. He said, “Ok, now I’m nervous.” Having done my share of passing the nervous energy over to Jim, I went next door to the break room to enjoy my lunch.

You would think that with Doretta being the only woman on the crew, she would have had it much easier than the rest of us. She was about a 29 year old lady that had a daughter at home. I know because she used to wear a shirt that had her daughter’s face on it. She was working to make a living like most everyone else on the labor crew. Doretta worked right alongside the rest of us when it came to Coal Cleanup, washing down the conveyor system using high pressure water hoses.

She worked right alongside me while we tied the rebar for the concrete floor of the new sandblast building that was going to be built behind the water treatment building. She worked with me in the sump pit between the precipitator and the smoke stacks with the Honey Wagon Sewer company that was helping us suck out the crud from the bottom of the pit. (This was before we had bought our own Honey Wagon). They call it a “Honey Wagon”, because, well… it is used to suck out things like Outhouses. You know how much that smells like Honey….. right? Um… ok.

We finally bought a Honey Wagon like this

Most surprising to me, Doretta worked cleaning boiler tubes in the boiler when the unit was offline and we needed to shake tubes to knock out the ash, or even use crosscut saw blades welded end on end to cut through the ash packed in the boiler economizer section.

I’m talking about two man crosscut saws. Welded end-on-end

This lady was a survivor. That is how she struck me.

Most of the time Doretta worked with a smile on her face. In fact, she had a smile embedded on her face from years of smiling to the point that her eyes smiled. Even though (as I found out in the course of my time on the Labor Crew), Doretta had a very rough period of her life, she hadn’t let it beat her down, and she was happy to be working on the labor crew, doing what most people would think was a thankless job.

It is true that when something needed to be typed, (Desktop computers were not available yet), Doretta would do the typing for Larry. She would also cut our hair. Being paid our modest salary (mine was $5.75 per hour at the time), we couldn’t afford to go to the barber every other week to have our hair trimmed, so Doretta would set up shop and one-by-one, we would go sit in the chair and she would cut our hair. Just like a mom would do.

I figured that if we were calling Doretta “Mom”, it only made sense that we would call Larry “Dad”. Larry’s reaction to my calling him “Dad” was more like Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker that he was Luke’s father. “Nooooooo!!!!” Except I was the little Darth Vader telling Larry I was his son…

The little Darth Vader from the Volkwagen commercial

Larry disowned me for a while as I have mentioned in an earlier post called “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“. He finally came around to admitting it when I continued calling him Dad. But he explained that he dropped me on my head when I was a baby and that was why I was so strange. So, Larry was our Labor Crew Dad, and Doretta was our Labor Crew mom.

It came to no surprise later when Doretta Funkhouser left the plant to become Doretta Riley. It seemed natural to me that my Labor Crew Mom and Dad would be married. I don’t know if that resolved the issue of my illegitimate Power Plant birth. I don’t remember anyone referring to me as a bastard after that. at least not in relation to my questionable origin, and at least not directly to my face. Though I do know of a few people during the years that would have thought that would have been an appropriate title for me.

I remember on one occasion when we were hauling scaffolding up onto the boiler to prepare for an outage, and I was working with Doretta using the large wench on floor 8 1/2 (I think), when Doretta came back from checking something at the bottom of the boiler. She said something to me then that puzzled me for a while. I didn’t understand it at first, but later came to know why she said what she did.

This is the type of Wench Hoist we were operating, only ours was powered by high pressure air. Not electricity

She said that it made her mad that people were trying to get me fired, when I’m a decent person, while there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to stay. She was referring to the wrath of Waugh after we had embarassed him in front of Martin Louthan when we had confronted them about not being allowed to be considered for the Testing jobs, (See the post “Take A Note Jan” said the Manager of Power Production“). Eldon was trying to dig up dirt on anyone that had caused his embarassment and had targetted me as one person to fire.

What had happened when Doretta had gone down to the foot of the boiler was that one or more of the “Pseudo” Power Plant Men-in-training had made an insulting reference to the past hardships that Doretta experienced in her life. I wasn’t aware of this until Eldon and Bill Moler questioned me about it a few weeks later when I was called to the office to see if I knew anything about the incident.

When they told me what had been said I became visibly upset to the point that I could hardly respond. Not because I didn’t want to answer their questions (which I didn’t, because I knew they were on their witch hunt which included me as well), but because when I learned that a couple of people on our crew had gravely insulted someone that I deeply cared about, I was both angry and upset. It was upsetting that someone would insult a struggling mother who was doing what she could to take care of her children only to be berated by others that worked closely with me.

After Doretta left the plant to marry Larry, I only saw her at a few Christmas Parties after that. She still had the same smile. I hope that she was able to find peace in her life, and that her family is doing well today. And that’s the story of my Labor Crew Mom and Dad.

Comments from the original post:

  1. Spent a little time on the picket line with the Navajo Local, District 65, in the Navajo Nation – when they were out on strike in 1987. Forget the lass’s name; but, the leader of the Local was a young Navajo woman, married with a couple of kids at home, who operated the biggest dragline at the Peabody Mine.

    Helluva skill.

  2. Gotta say, this is one of the more unusual blog posts I’ve seen in a while: different subject, funny, and well-written, too.

    Not my normal fare, but you’ve got a new follower… :)

  3. Your evocative stories return me to my years as a riveter… your subjects were the kind of people who built this country’s industry, I think. And I still think you have a book here…

What do Power Plant Men in North Central Oklahoma Do For Recreation

Originally Posted on August 9, 2013:

I first ran across Power Plant Men totally by accident the summer of 1979 when I was 18 and I went to work as a summer help at a Power Plant in Oklahoma. I walked into the plant, and there they were. All standing there looking at me as if I was the new kid on the block. Which, of course, I was.

I had very little in common with this group of men. It was interesting enough to watch them at work, but it was equally as interesting to observe them after hours. I didn’t spend a lot of time with them myself. I often just listened to their stories of adventure on Monday Mornings. I think that was why the Monday Morning Safety Meeting was invented.

Like I said. I had little in common with these He-men. The only thing I could relate to was around Fishing. I had been fishing my entire childhood with my Father. Most everything else they did was foreign to me. Though, the first summer it seemed like the only things to do was to go fishing and to go over to the Peach Orchard by Marland, Oklahoma and pick peaches. Well, that, and go to Men’s Club dinners.

Like I’ve said twice now, I had little in common with this sunflower eatin’ bunch of men. I had just finished my first year as a college student and the only thing I knew to do during my free time was to play Dungeons and Dragons or Pinball. Actually, I was quite a pinball wizard and could usually spend all day on one quarter. This didn’t seem to impress the likes of this bunch, so I kept my Pinball Prowess to myself.

The Evil Knievel Pinball machine was one of the many I had mastered.  By the way, why isn't his last name pronounced: "Nee-vel"?  Just wondering.

The Evel Knievel Pinball machine was one of the many I had mastered. By the way, why isn’t his last name pronounced: “Nee-vel”? Just wondering.

As I learned more about the Power Plant Men, I found out that they were a diverse group of men that had many different recreational activities. I have mentioned before that the evil plant Manager Eldon Waugh was a beekeeper, and so was my good friend Sonny Karcher. Even though Sonny spent a good portion of his time away from the plant doing some sort of farming, he enjoyed raising bees.

I mentioned in a previous post “Imitations and Innovations of Sonny Karcher” that Sonny liked to choose one thing about someone else and then take on that characteristic or possess a particular item that they had. So, I figured Sonny had become a beekeeper because he had a friend that did the same thing. I never thought that it was Eldon Waugh, since Sonny usually only chose something from someone he admired and Eldon made it a full time effort to make sure no one really liked him.

Beehives like this only lined up on a trailer

Power Plant Beehives

While I was a summer help I learned a few of the activities that Power Plant Men liked to do. For instance, I knew that Stanley Elmore liked to spend the weekend either making his yard look like something you would find in a Home and Garden magazine, or he liked cleaning his car and waxing his engine so that you could cook an egg right on it and not have to worry about any grit or grime between your teeth.

It goes without saying that the Power Plant Men that had families spent most of their free time with them. Those that didn’t have a family spent a lot of their time trying to avoid going down that path. So, they chose activities that would take them into the wilderness somewhere or maybe a river or two.

I heard very little talk of disgruntled husbands from the true Power Plant Men. The only story I can remember off the top of my head about a husband that was upset with his wife was Marlin McDaniel. He told us one Monday morning that he had to take his wife over his knee on Saturday. He explained it like this. “I was so mad at her that I grabbed her and laid her across my knees. I pulled up her skirt to spank her. I looked down to make sure I was aiming in the right direction… Then I paused for a moment… and I suddenly couldn’t remember why I what I was mad about.”

You know… It is funny because I had always thought that Marlin McDaniel looked like Spanky, and in the story he told about his wife, he was going to spank her. What are the odds of that?

Marlin McDaniel always reminded me of Spanky from Little Rascals

Marlin McDaniel always reminded me of Spanky from Little Rascals

It wasn’t until I entered the Electric Shop as an electrician in 1983 that I learned more about the recreational activities of Power Plant Men. I mean. I knew that Gene Day liked to drive around campus on weekends in his black pickup truck with the flames on it to impress the college girls, even if he was 50 years older than them. But besides that, I mean…..

Gene Day's truck was similar to this only different, with a different pattern of flames and a newer type of truck

Gene Day’s truck was similar to this only different, with a different pattern of flames and it wasn’t a low rider

Outside the welding shop on the lawn was a piece of art made from metal rods that had been created by the welders to resemble a cow with horns. It was used to practice lassoing. There was a certain group of Power Plant Men that took part in rodeos. Some riding on broncos, some lassoing cows and tying them up in knots. If I remember correctly, Andy Tubbs, one of the most intelligent electricians, was a rodeo clown. If you haven’t been to a rodeo, then you might not realize what a Rodeo Clown does.

A couple of Rodeo Clowns

A couple of Rodeo Clowns

Sure they stand around in bright colored clothes. These two guys aren’t just there for laughs. Here is a rodeo clown at work.

Rodeo Clown at Work

Rodeo Clown at Work

You see. When a contestant is riding a bull and they fall off, in order to keep the bull from turning around and goring the poor guy to death, a rodeo clown jumps into action and distracts the bull while the contestant is quickly spirited away to safety.

A Rodeo Clown Hard at Work

A Rodeo Clown Hard at Work

Jerry Mitchell had told me when I was still a summer help that you could tell who liked to participate in rodeos. They were usually missing one or more fingers. One of the rodeo hands explained it to me like this. When you lasso the cow, you quickly wrap the rope around the saddle horn. Just as you are doing that, the cow hits the end of the rope and goes flying back. This means that if you don’t get your fingers out of the way when you are wrapping the rope around the saddle horn, the rope will snap it right off.

January 1997 a new Instrument and Controls person came to work at the plant. Brent Kautzman was a rodeo person. We were sitting in a Confined Space Rescue team meeting once and Randy Dailey was espousing the dangers of roping cows in a rodeo when Brent said that he had his thumb cut off in a rodeo once. At first we looked at him as if he was just pulling our leg. He had all of his fingers.

Someone asked if they sewed his thumb back on. He said they weren’t able to do that. Instead they took one of his big toes and sewed it on his hand where his thumb had been. We were surprised when he showed us his thumb and sure enough. There was a big toe in place of his thumb.

Brent said that if he knew at the time how important a big toe is, he never would have done it. He said that he was young at the time, and he wanted to continue participating in rodeos, so he had them cut off his big toe and sew it on his hand. Anyway. Later, Brent returned to where he had come from, Richardton, North Dakota. He was a great guy, and a hard worker, but like myself, he wasn’t a True Power Plant Man.

The biggest source of recreation for Power Plant Men was Hunting. I would hear stories about how the hunters would send in their name for a drawing to be able to take part in the annual Elk Hunt in Montana. It was a lottery and they only picked so many people. So, the hunters would wait patiently each year to see if they were going to be able to make a trip to Montana.

Corporate Headquarters and the Evil Plant Manager wanted to make sure that not too many took off for Christmas because they wanted to ensure that enough people stayed in town in case there was an emergency at the plant and they needed to call everyone out. Christmas wasn’t really the problem at the plant as was “Hunting Season”.

There were two parts to deer hunting. The first few weeks it was bow season. You could go hunting for dear with a bow and arrows. Later you could hunt with a rifle. This was serious business in North Central Oklahoma. The Deer Hunters would prepare for this season all summer long. They would build their tree stands, and they would put out deer feeders to fatten up the deer.

A Deer and a raccoon fighting over who gets first dibs on the deer feeder.  My money is on the raccoon.

A Deer and a raccoon fighting over who gets first dibs on the deer feeder. My money is on the raccoon.

People would become pretty sparse around when deer hunting season opened. At least or a few days. You could usually only kill one or two deer and that was your limit. Each year the number was decided by the population of deer.

If there were too many deer running around then the deer hunters could kill more. The whole idea of Deer Hunting from a Wildlife perspective was for population control. When there were too many deer, they would start passing around diseases and then all end up dying off anyway. So, this was a way of controlling the population.

A few times I was invited to join the Power Plant Men in their recreation. It was always a learning experience for both of us.

I was invited to Charles Foster’s house one summer to make pickles. We picked the cucumbers from Charles garden. Charles’ garden was the pride of Pawnee. I spent some time with his family that day, cleaning and boiling the cucumbers in vinegar in the pickle jars with the dill we had picked from his garden. I think often of the day I spent with Charles in his garden picking the cucumbers and in his house that evening.

I was also invited once to go to the Resort just outside of Pawnee known as “Pawnee Lake”. Diana Brien and Gary Wehunt and their spouses were camping out there and they invited me to join them the following morning. I showed up in the morning where we cooked breakfast, then they taught me the art of flying across the lake on a jet ski.

Pawnee Lake Oklahoma. Photo taken by John Brumfield

Pawnee Lake Oklahoma. Photo taken by John Brumfield

To me, this was sheer madness, but I bucked up and did it anyway. If I was going to die, doing it on a jet ski was as good of a place as any.

Then they invited me to play horseshoes. Well. I kindly declined saying that they didn’t really want me to play horseshoes. They said that they needed two teams of two, and they would really appreciate it if I joined them. So, I succumbed.

My first throw was very impressive as it bumped right up against the stake. I knew that this was just beginner’s luck, I really wasn’t a beginner. I had played a lot of horseshoes as a kid. Only, I had lost any sort of self-control when it came to letting lose of the horseshoe. I think it was my third throw that did it. The horseshoe literally ended up behind me. I think I almost hit Tek’s pickup. (Tek was Dee’s husband’s nickname or was it Tex?). When I let go of the horseshoe and it went flying through the air, everyone scattered.

There was an interesting character that came by when we were at the Pawnee Lake. His name was Trail Boss. He was a larger sociable person. Someone that you would think would come from a town called Pawnee, Oklahoma. There was another guy that was there that scattered when Trail Boss showed up. So, I made a comment to the Boss that he seemed to have quite an influence on people. I figured that was why they called him Trail Boss.

This isn't Trail Boss, but you get the idea.  This guy is wearing a Trail Boss Hat

This isn’t Trail Boss, but you get the idea. This guy is wearing a Trail Boss Hat

Anyway. There were a lot of other things that the Power Plant Men did for recreation. I could go on and on. Maybe some of the Power plant that read this blog will post some of them in the comments. I purposely didn’t mention anything about “Noodling” (except for just now). I think I’ll do that in another post some time later.

Though I was like a fish out of water when I was with the Power Plant Men enjoying their time off, I was always treated as if I belonged. No one made fun of me even when they were scattering to dodge a rogue horseshoe. When I went fishing with them as a new summer help when I was 18 years old, I was never shunned and no one ever looked down on me. I have to give them this: True Power Plant are patient people. They put up with me for 20 years. I can’t ask for more than that.

Comments from the previous repost:

  1. Ron Kilman August 14, 2014

    My hobby was astronomy. I built an 8″ telescope when I lived in Ada (worked at the Seminole Plant in Konawa). I remember telling my Plant Manager (Jim Gist – lived in Konawa) about all the things I could see with my telescope. When I told him that I could see Uranus (I used the long “a” pronunciation), he got a real surprised look on his face – and finally said “All the way from Ada?” He was a real hoot!

  2. Citizen Tom August 14, 2014

    Good story! That’s the kind of experience most people can relate to, getting to know ones coworkers. And the interesting facts and pictures just make it more interesting.
    Never occurred to me a raccoon would take on a deer.

ABC’s of Power Plant Safety

Originally posted August 2, 2014

Scott, Toby and I were all sitting in the front seat of Scott’s pickup truck on our way home from the coal-fired power plant in North Cental Oklahoma, because this particular pickup didn’t have a back seat. I guess that’s true for most pickup now that I think about it. It was in the fall of 1993 and I was on one of my rants about Power Plant Safety (again).

Scott Hubbard was focusing on the road and he was smiling. I think it was because the person that was talking on NPR (National Public Radio) had a pleasant voice.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

Come to think of it… Scott was usually smiling.

I was going on and on about how the plant needed to take a completely didn’t approach to safety. I thought that we just looked at each accident as an isolated case and because of that we were missing the point. The point was that no one really goes to work with the idea that they want to do something that will hurt them. Power Plant Men in general don’t like having accidents. Not only does it hurt, but it is also embarrassing as well. Who doesn’t want that 20 year safety sticker?

I worked 20 years without an accident

I worked 20 years without an accident

I was in the middle of my safety rant all prepared to continue all the way from the plant to Stillwater, about 20 miles away when Toby quickly interrupted me. He said that he had received a safety pamphlet in the mail the other day that was saying the same things I had just said. It had talked about a way to change the culture of the plant to be more safe. Not using the same old techniques we were used to like Safety Slogan Programs (I was thinking…. but what about the Safety Slogan Pizza award at the end of the year? Would that go away? See the Post: “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe“). Toby said that he read it and then set it aside as just another one of the many safety sales pitches a Plant Engineer might receive in a week.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer – Toby O’Brien

He said he only remembered the pamphlet because I had just made a statement that was word-for-word right out of the safety pamphlet. I had said that the only way to change the Power Plant Safety Culture was to change the behavior first. Don’t try to change the culture in order to change the behavior. When I had earned my degree in Psychology years earlier, I had been told by one of my professors that the area of Psychology that works the best is Behavioral Psychology.

To some, this might sound like treating the symptoms instead of the actual cause of a problem. If your not careful that may be what you end up doing and then you ignore the root of the problem, which brings you back to where you were before you tried to change anything in the first place. Toby said he would give the pamphlet to me the next day.

So, the rest of the ride home was much more pleasant. Instead of finishing my rant about Safety, we just listened to the pleasant voices on National Public Radio. I was excited about the idea that someone might have a solution that I believed offered the best chance to change the direction of Safety at the plant away from blaming the employee, to doing something to prevent the next accident.

The next day, after we arrived at the plant, I made my way up to the front offices to Toby’s desk so that he could give me the safety pamphlet he had mentioned on the ride home. When he gave it to me, the title caught my eye right away. It was a pamphlet for a book called: “The Behavior-Based Safety Process, Managing Involvement for an Injury-Free Culture”. Now I was really excited. This sounded like it was exactly what I had been talking about with Toby and Scott. I sent off for the book right away.

When the book arrived I wanted to climb on the roof of my house and yell “Hallelujah!” I was suddenly one with the world! As I read through the book my chin became chapped because my head was nodding up and down in agreement so much that the windy draft caused by the bobbing motion chafed my chin.

I finished the book over the weekend. When I returned to work on Monday, I wrote another quick letter to the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman and the Assistant Plant Manager, Ben Brandt telling them that I would like to discuss an idea for a new safety program…. um…. process. Process is better than Program… as we learned in Quality Training. A process is the way you do something. A program is something you do, and when it’s over, you stop doing it.

Later that week, I met with Ron Kilman, Ben Brandt and Jasper Christensen in Ben’s office.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman

I had just read the book for the second time, I had already had 5 dreams about it, and I had been talking about it non-stop to Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard in the electric shop for days. So, I felt confident that I was prepared for the meeting. I still remember it well.

Ron asked me to explain how this new process would work and so I started right in….

In order for this process to work, you have to understand that when an accident occurs, it is the system that is broken. It isn’t the employee’s “fault”. That is, the employee didn’t wake up in the morning thinking they were going to work today to have an accident. Something went wrong along the way, and that is what you have to focus on in order to improve safety. Not so much the employee, but the entire system.

If people are unsafe, it is because “The System” has trained them to work unsafe (for the most part…. — there will always be someone like Curtis Love…. accidents sometimes traveled 45 miles just to attack Curtis Love).

The trick is to identify the problems with the system, and then take steps to improve them. Ben was nodding as if he didn’t quite buy what I was saying. Ron had looked over at Ben and I could tell that he was skeptical as well (as I knew they would, and should be…. I had already demonstrated that I was a major pain in the neck on many occasions, and this could have been just another attempt to wreak havoc on our plant management). So Ron explained a scenario to me and asked me how we would go about changing the system to prevent these accidents in the future….

Ron said, Bill Gibson went down to work on the Number 1 Conveyor Belt (at the bottom of the dumper where the coal is dumped from the trains).

Bill Gibson

Bill Gibson

While he was down there, he noticed that some bolts needed to be tightened. The only tool he had with him that could possibly tighten the bolts was a pair of Channel Locks.

 

Channel Locks

Channel Locks

All of us had a pair of Channel Locks. One of the most Handy-dandiest Tools around.

Ron continued…. So, instead of going back to the shop and getting the correct size wrench to tighten the bolts, Bill used the channel locks to tighten them. He ended up spraining his wrist. Now how are you going to prevent that?

I replied…. One of the most common causes for accidents is using the wrong tool. There are usually just a few reasons why the wrong tool is used. If you fix those reasons, then you can prevent this from happening. The main and obvious reason why this accident occurred was because the right tool wasn’t there with him. This could be fixed a number of ways. Bill and his team could have a small bag that they carry around that had the most likely tools they might need for inspecting the conveyors. They might have another bag of tools that they use when they need to go inspect some pumps… etc.

Another solution may be to mount a box on the wall at the bottom of the dumper and put a set of wrenches and other important tools in it. If that box had been there and Bill had found the loose bolts, he only would have to walk a few feet to get the right tool instead of trudging all the way back up to the shop and then all the way back down.

It wasn’t that Bill didn’t want to use the right tool. He didn’t want to bruise his wrist. He just wanted to tighten the bolts.

— This had their attention… I was able to quickly give them a real action that could be taken to prevent a similar accident in the future if they would take the effort to change the “System”. Even Ben Brandt leaned back in his chair and started to let his guard down a little.

This was when I explained that when someone does something, the reason they do it the way they do is comes down to the perceived consequences of their actions…

We were always being drilled about the ABC’s of First Aid from Randy Dailey during our yearly safety training. That is when you come across someone lying unconscious, you do the ABC’s by checking their Airway, the Breathing and their Circulation. I introduced Ron, Ben and Jasper to the ABC’s of Safety. Something completely different. The ABC’s of Safety are: Antecedents, Behavior and Consequences.

An Antecedent is something that triggers a particular behavior. In Bill’s case, it was finding the loose bolts on Conveyor 1. It triggered the behavior to tighten the bolts. Bill chose to use the wrong tool because the correct tool was not immediately available, so he weighed the consequences. The possible behavior choices were:

  • I could use the pair of channel locks here in my pocket.
  • I could spend the next 20 minutes climbing the 100 feet up out of the dumper and go over to the shop and grab a wrench and walk all the way back down here.
  • I could leave the bolts loose and come back later when I have the right tool.

The consequences of these behaviors are:

  • I could be hurt using the channel locks, but I haven’t ever hurt myself using them before, and the chances are small.
  • I could be late for lunch and I would be all worn out after climbing back up to the shop. The chances of me being all worn out by the time I was done was very high.
  • The loose bolts could fail if I waited to tighten them, and that could cause more damage to the equipment that would cause a lot more work in the future. The chance of this is low.

The behavior that a person will choose is the one that has an immediate positive consequence. If the odds of being hurt is small, it will not stop someone from doing something unsafe. Also, if the negative consequence is delayed, it will not weigh in the decision very highly. Positive consequences outweigh negative consequences.

So, in this case, the obvious choice for Bill was to use the channel locks instead of going back to get the right tool.

When I finished explaining this to Ron and Ben, (Jasper was nodding off to sleep at this point)… Ben asked where I came up with all of this. That was when I reached down and picked up the book that was sitting in my lap. I put it on the table. I said, I read about it in here:

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process by Thomas Krause

Ben grabbed the book and quickly opened up the front cover and saw that I had written my name inside the cover. He said, “It’s a good thing you put your name in here or you would have just lost this book.” I told him he could read it if he wanted.

Ron said that he would consider what I had said, and a few day later he responded that since I had been requesting that we start up a Safety Task Force to address the plant safety concerns that he would go ahead and let us start it up, and that he wanted us to consider starting a Behavior-Based Safety Process in the future. — That will be another story…

Let me finish this post with a warning about the Behavior-Based Safety Process…

In order for this to work, it has to be endorsed from the top down, and it has to be implemented with the understanding that the employee is not the problem. Punishing employees for working unsafe will destroy any attempt to implement this process properly. Training everyone is essential. Especially management. I can’t emphasize this enough. In order to produce an accident-free culture, everyone has to keep it positive. Any chances in the system that helps prevent accidents is a good thing. Any unsafe behavior by an employee is a symptom that there is something wrong with the system that needs to be addressed. — Reprimanding an employee is destructive… unless of course, they intentionally meant to cause someone harm. — But then, they wouldn’t really be Power Plant Men, would they?

The phrase was:  'Cause I Love You Man!

The phrase was: ‘Cause I Love You Man!

 

Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion August 2, 2014

    My father always made a box or a rack do that every tool needed to adjust something like a table saw was always attached to that saw. I do the same thing.

  2. Anna Waldherr August 3, 2014

    I really enjoyed your post. I’ve never worked in a power plant (no hand eye coordination, for one thing), but the challenge of convincing management to focus on safety and change an existing procedure is universal. Best wishes!

  3. Dennis Wagoner August 4, 2014

    Great post. I worked at a Ford UAW plant for 28 years. We finished out with four years without a lost time injury – this plant was heavy machining manufacturing automotive steering gears so we had a lot of heavy equipment everywhere. Walking out the door the same way and with the same body parts you came in with will be our greatest legacy!

  4. Monty Hansen October 19, 2014

    I’m the powerplant nightshift foreman with 31 accident free years, yet my hardhat sticker says 26 years, so I went to our safety guy to find out why the “sticker” program had been dropped. He did some research & found out that about a half dozen years ago, corporate accountants did a cost/benefit analysis of our hardhat safety stickers & could see no “profit” in it

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

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

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

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

brushhog

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

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

Tractor Weights that fit on the front of the tractor

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

The dam had a slope this steep but  much was taller

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

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

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

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

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

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

Walt reminded me of Jackie Wright only with more hair

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

Walt Oswalt

Walt Oswalt — See the resemblence?  not much more hair

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

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

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

Directly underneath this conveyor is the return for the belt

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

Disney’s Seven Dwarfs Mining

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

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

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

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

A Conex Box

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

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

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

Socket Wrench with extension

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

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

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

First Impression of Charles Buchanan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally Posted July 21, 2012:

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

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

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

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

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

Otto from the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip

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

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

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

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

Kind of like this

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

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

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

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

A tractor just like this

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

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

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

Like this only with a mop handle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmm…. What does he think about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Heflin

Jim Heflin

 

Comment from previous Repost

  1. Ron   July 24, 2013:

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