Originally posted on October 27, 2012:
I can’t say that the Coal-fired Power Plant located in the middle of the North Central Plains of Oklahoma had visitors on Halloween Night trick-or-treating looking for candy. I have mentioned before that we had an evil plant manager when I first arrived as a summer help at the plant that did what he could to make life miserable for his employees. That would sometimes send chills up your spine.
I could tell you stories about the coffin houses on top of the precipitators. I already told you about the Bug Wars in the Basement (see: “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“), and even about the Boiler Ghost that ate Bob Lillibridge (See: “Bob Liilibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost“). Instead, I’ll tell a simple story about the Evil Plant Manager and his bees.
One time out of the blue when I was a summer help in 1980, the Plant Manager asked me in a suspiciously benevolent voice if I would stay after work to help him tend to his bees. You see. Eldon Waugh was a beekeeper.
Beekeeping is a noble profession, and I admire their ability to make a good thing out of a seemingly bad situation. Sonny Karcher was a beekeeper. Sonny was a Hero of Mine.
The plant grounds was a great place for bees because we had fields full of clover. But Eldon and bees? I have a slightly different take on it. Bees are industrious workers that are single-minded. They each have their job, and they go about doing it. They are willing to give their life for their hive and in that way, are sort of unsung heroes. Or maybe bees do sing about their heroes and we just don’t know it. Maybe their buzzing away is at times a lament for those who have worked their wings away to the point that they are no longer able to contribute.
Sort of reminds you of a Power Plant Man.
Since I was carpooling at the time and didn’t have my own car, Eldon said that he would drive me back to Stillwater and drop me off at the corner of Washington and Lakeview where I normally was let off, where I would walk up to the University Estates where my parents lived (and still do – or did when I first wrote this post. Now they live across the street from me in Round Rock, Texas). So I went to Eldon’s office when I finished work that day, and I followed him down to his pickup truck. We drove up by the coalyard where he had a trailer that had a bunch of white boxes lined up, which housed his beehives.
Eldon Waugh gave me a hood that beekeepers wear to keep the bees from finding out what the beekeeper really looks like so the bees don’t attack them later when they are flying by and realize that they are the person that keeps interrupting their beehive.
Eldon explained to me that when a bee stings you, you don’t grab the stinger and pull it out because that injects the bee’s venom into your body when you squeeze it. Instead you take a straight edge, like a knife or piece of thin cardboard or something similar and you scrape it off.
That’s when I realized that Eldon had only given me a hood. He hadn’t given me a full beekeeper suit like I would see on TV or in the neighborhood when I was young and some beekeeper came to collect a swarm of bees that had settled in a tree across the street from our house.
Eldon proceeded to open the beehive boxes and inspect them. He had me hold things while he was doing this. He showed me things like how the Queen was kept in a smaller box inside the bigger one that kept it from leaving. Somehow this reminded me of the ball of fire in the boiler that produced the steam that turns the turbine that makes the electricity at the plant.
When he went to open one box he told me that this particular box had bees that were more troublesome than the other bees, and they liked to sting. “Ok.” I thought. “Thanks for letting me know.” Like that was going to help.
I had already resigned myself to the idea of being stung by a bee that was unhappy that the beekeeper had called an unscheduled inspection of the beehive when Eldon jumped back; Pulled off his hood and started batting around in the air. Sure enough. A bee had climbed up under his hood and had stung him on the back of the neck.
I took a key out of my pocket and scraped the stinger off as he whimpered and pointed to where the stinger was jabbing him. The bee was on his collar making peace with his maker (because bees die after they sting you) as I wiped him away. Besides that one incident, the rest of the time went smoothly. Eldon inspected his beehives. It seemed like he was looking for mold or moisture or some such thing. He was satisfied. When we left he gave me a jar of his “Eldon Waugh” Honey that he used to sell at the Farmer’s Market in Stillwater. Then he drove me back to Stillwater.
There was something surreal about this experience, and in a few days, I was compelled to write a poem about it. This is not a poem about Beekeepers in General. This is a poem about Eldon Waugh, the Beekeeper as I saw him. I don’t know where I placed it, so I can’t quote it now, so I’ll remake it up the best I can. You have to excuse me, because I am not a poet (as you could tell with the Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost story), so bear with me. It is short:
Bees diligently gathering nectar,
Weaving honey for the hive.
Pouring life into their work,
Spending energy for queen to stay alive.
Beekeeper gives shelter to be safe,
Benevolent ruler over all.
Sharing fields of flowers not of his making,
Protecting helpless and small.
When time to pay the dues,
Beekeeper expects all to comply.
If one tries to deny his share,
Sting him once and you will die.
Why is this a Halloween story? I know I speak harshly of Eldon Waugh and I know that when he went home he had a family like everyone else. I know that Bill Moler his assistant plant manager was the same way. If you met him at Church or somewhere else, he would treat you with the dignity that you deserved. Something happened to them when they drove through the plant gates (I felt), that made them think they were invulnerable and all powerful. Like Mister Burns in the Simpsons (as I was reminded this week).
It was Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton) in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 that said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men”. At this particular power plant, because it was so far removed from Corporate Headquarters and any other Electric Company departments, the situation allowed the Plant Manager to be an absolute ruler. There wasn’t anyone there to look out for the employees.
A union had come through when the power plant was first coming online trying to get the plant to vote to join the union. Many employees had worked for unions before, and they preferred the tyranny of the evil plant manager over the stifling corruption of the union.
I remember the first summer I was at the plant (in 1979) when everyone was abuzz about the union election. Some people thought it would stop this “absolute power” syndrome infesting the two top dogs. Those employees that had worked for unions warned the rest that to me sounded like joining a union was like selling their soul to the devil. Some had even left their former employers to escape what they referred to as the “manipulation of their morals”. It came down to voting for the lesser of two evils.
I would like to point out that Lord Acton said that Great men are almost “Always” bad. There are exceptions. There was one great liberating moment in Power Plant history at our plant that occurred in 1987 the day that our new plant manager arrived at our plant. His name is Ron Kilman.
Ron called the maintenance department to a meeting to introduce himself to us in the main break room. I remember that when he began speaking he told us a joke about himself. I don’t recall the joke, but I do remember the reaction of the room. I’m sure our reaction puzzled Ron, because we were all stunned.
I gave Charles Foster a look that said, “I didn’t know Plant Managers could joke!” There must be some mistake. No rattling of chains. No “sacrifice your lives and families to provide honey for my table.” Ron was a rather likable person. It didn’t fit. What was he doing as a Plant Manager?
Throughout the almost 7 years that Ron was the plant manager, we were free from the tyranny of the “Beekeeper”. I have invited Ron to read my blog posts because he is one Plant Manger that even though he wasn’t one of the True Power Plant Men in the field showing their character daily by fighting dragons and saving fair maidens, he was our benevolent dictator that had the power to put his thumb down on the rest, but choosing “Might for Right” as King Arthur preferred.
Ok, so Ron Kilman doesn’t look exactly like King Arthur. That would be stretching it a little. Also… I’m sure some people found some reason to not like Ron Kilman through the years that he was Plant Manager. That would be because he made some unpopular decisions from time to time. That is the life of a Plant Manager.
When Ron first came to the plant, he really wanted to stay at the level of the regular working person. I believe that he meant it when he told us that. As the years went by, the demands of managing the large plant occupied so much of his time that little time was left to spend with the people he cared about.
I remember him saying that his manager demanded him to be downtown in Corporate Headquarters so many days a week, and that left him little time at the plant. He asked me what I thought would be a solution to this problem. I told him that I thought he should have a representative that would stay at the plant in his stead that would perform Plant activities and report to him directly. Sort of as an extension of himself. I was not thinking of his Assistant Plant Manager because he had his own job to do.
I was sometimes taken aback when Ron would ask a question like that because it surprised me that he valued my opinion. I will discuss Ron Kilman and why I believe that he is a man of great character in a later post. I only mention him here to show the contrast between Eldon Waugh and Ron. Both were in a position of ultimate power over their employees. One took the high road, and one took the low. Neither of them had ever been to Scotland as far as I know (ok. I had to add another rhyme… geez).
I also titled this post as a “Halloween Election” story. I told you the scary part… that was the story about the beekeeper, in case you forgot to be frightened by it. I also threw in the part about the Union Election as a meager attempt to rid the plant of total managerial tyranny. But the real reason I made this a story about an Election is because of the striking similarity between Ron Kilman and Mitt Romney. My Gosh! Have any of you noticed this? Am I the only one that sees the resemblance? Notice the chin, the hairline and even the gray side burns.
Happy Halloween, and good luck with the next election.
Comment from last Repost:
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 our mail from the Post Office Box. 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).
I found out POs were 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
and the plant at Horseshoe Pond (or was it a Lake?) on the East side of town.
I even made a trip to Konawa once to the Power Plant there.
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.
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 (See “Power Plant Snitch“).
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 (in that time many Power Plant Men in order to not feel cheated formulated in their minds that they really did want to take their floating holiday before they used their vacation – They psychological term for this is: Cognitive Dissonance). 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.
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 again: “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.
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.
Originally Posted December 7, 2012:
What happens to a million dollar forest when left to the fate of two Power Plant Summer Help? I can tell you; the result is not good. Before I explain this statement, let me introduce some summer help to you so that you will have a deeper understanding of my summer help career. It spanned 4 summers for a total of 12 months.
I would like to start out by saying that there were a few summer help that I thought were very intelligent and goodhearted people. A dear friend of mine named Tim Flowers, who was a friend that I met while attending Oklahoma University my first year in school, was one of the smartest people you might run across in your lifetime. He was also a very hard worker who didn’t mind putting his entire effort into his work.
Blake Tucker from Pawnee also had a brilliant mind and had an honorable work ethic. He was fresh out of High School when he first went to work as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma. During his years as a summer help, I spent a lot of time with him working on mathematical calculations and on programming feats of magic.
Bill Cook, though he didn’t put his back into his work the way some would have liked to see, he did go on to work at the power plant on the labor crew a year and a half before I finally made it onto that team of singularly distinguished characters. Bill confided in me, and I consider him a friend, though I haven’t seen him in 30 years.
David Foster became a friend of mine the second summer when we were were summer help together. He only worked at the plant that one summer, but I talked to him a few times during the years when he was in college and I would run into him coming out of church or on campus. His father was a dentist in Ponca City.
This leaves me with all the rest of the summer help that worked with me during those 4 summers. I wrote a post about the first summer help I worked with that really didn’t fit the requirements, since you were supposed to be going to school in order to be a summer help. That was Steve Higginbotham. He was 34 at the time and not planning on attending school in the fall. You can read more about him in the post: Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown
Steve was a less than energetic person, but I could understand his lack of enthusiasm. He had been dealt a shorthand in his life and he was making the best out of his situation. What I found hard to understand were summer help that were fresh out of High School that were given the opportunity to work at an illustrious palace of a Power Plant, and they just didn’t want to work.
When I was leaving the house at age 14 to go to my first job where I was working for someone other than myself (I began selling tomatoes from my garden door-to-door at age 8), my dad told me something that became the core of my work ethic. He said, “Son.” Well, I don’t remember if he actually said “Son.” but it was something like that. Maybe he said “Kevin, before you go, I want to tell you something.” He said that I should do my best at whatever job they give me. I should do a job that I would be proud to show others. He never wanted to hear anything that would make him ashamed of me.
It was a thrill to go work at a German Restaurant as a dishwasher making $1.50 an hour. I worked my tail off each night. I didn’t know there was anything called “breaks”, and I focused on keeping ahead of the work so that I wouldn’t become swamped.
So, it was hard for me, by the time I was 20, to see summer help come to the plant and work real hard at not working. Young football players from Pawnee, who you would think would be able to put their best foot forward, were usually standing around talking smack about that one doofus of a summer help that wanted to get to work right away. That one guy that liked wearing his face shield and ear muffs hanging down from his hard hat swinging the industrial weedeater to-and-fro all day long.
This one group of summer help that were hired that summer all seemed to have the same bug, except for Bill Cook. Bill didn’t get along with them because he wasn’t from the same bully class that they graduated. At one point during the summer the tension between them and Bill rose to such a level that they had to handle it the only way left.
Bill had to meet one of them outside the gate after quittin’ time to settle matters. The truth of the matter was that Bill had done nothing to stir up their ire. They just didn’t like him. It seemed to be a personality issue with them. From what I understand, the cowards received what was coming to them as usually happens when they have mistook someone to be a weakling and easy pickings.
To illustrate the intelligence of this particular group of summer help (there were 3 of them), let me describe an instance where they were struggling real hard to keep from working. I didn’t understand their desire to keep doing what they were doing in the first place, so I wasn’t about to stay in the situation all afternoon.
Stanley Elmore had told us to mow the area around the main parking lot. This included the area by the main entrance. At that time there were sections of grass on all sides of the parking lot including the side by the garage (which is not there today). Stanley sent me and the 3 of them (not Bill Cook. I think he knew the tension between them and tried to work it so that Bill could be doing other things) out to mow this area with regular push mowers.
It was just after lunch when we started. I knew right away that the three amigos wanted to make this job last all afternoon. I think they were afraid that when they finished they would be sent to the park to empty the trash cans of the foul rotten fish guts and soiled baby diapers. A job that would make most summer help puke and even bring water to the eyes of a True Power Plant Man.
Well. I grabbed one of the lawn mowers and headed out across the drive to the grass and started mowing around and around one stretch of grass. By the time the others had dragged their mowers out and took their time starting them, I had finished one stretch of grass and went around to the other side of the parking lot to work on that side as well.
The grass on the far side of the parking lot wrapped around by the welding shop and over to the front entrance. So, once this entire section was done, we would be finished. It really wasn’t that much grass to mow. Not when you had 4 lawn mowers all going around in a counter clockwise direction.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three huddle together to have a quick discussion. I knew they were going to try to thwart my efforts to quickly finish this job so they didn’t have to move on to the next adventure. I also knew that there wasn’t anyway they were going to be able to stop me.
They had tried to stop me before earlier when we were going out to cut weeds down a long right-of-way. One of them had let his weedeater string out real far so that the strings were sticking out about 2 feet. He started his weedeater up so that the strings were whining and turned around so that the strings grabbed my leg and before I knew it I was flat on my back with a stabbing pain in my knee. My kneecap had been knocked out of the socket, which I quickly hit with the palm of my hand to knock it back over from the side of my knee.
I could see that this had been pre-planned by their reaction. I think they thought it would take me out of commission or make me angry so they could watch me lose my top. The guy that did it apologized in a half sarcastic way and I told him it was all right. I wiped the dust off of my pants and grabbed my weedeater and went to work. I could see them at the back of the truck standing there wondering where their plan had failed.
Anyway, back to mowing the grass around the parking lot. I was able to tell immediately what they had planned. Their idea was to hem me in and mow very slowly so that I would have no where to go but to follow along behind one of them travelling at a snails pace. They were so slow they would take one step, wait a second, then take another step, etc.
So, as I came up behind one of them I suddenly took a left turn and cut a new path through the grass without even slowing down. I quickly came to the other side of the curb, and I turned left again and was heading back in the direction I came from just as if nothing was wrong.
I knew the law of physics. Newton’s First Law of Physics. If a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion unless it is acted on by another force. Well. The mind of the weak have little force. Newton was not only one of my favorite Physicist, he was one of my favorite Mathematicians as well.
Well. He did like sitting in the park under an apple tree. — So how did they keep the grass mowed back in 1642? Maybe they trained the grass just to stay small. Why don’t we have grass that just stays short? We could do that easy enough.
Because of the laws of motion and the size of my lawn mower and the speed in which I was mowing, I had calculated that I should be able to finish mowing the entire area in about 15 more minutes (or 900 seconds) if I were to do it all myself. — Funny how things run through your mind when you are mowing grass. No wonder Sonny Karcher loved mowing grass so much.
Anyway. That little story illustrates my point about how some summer help put all their brain power into thinking about how to stay out of work that they couldn’t even conceive of someone thinking outside the box. How difficult was it for me to just turn and mow a patch of grass out in the middle of the stretch of grass we were mowing?
Once they realized that there wasn’t anyway to stop me, they went ahead and finished their job. I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to stand out in the sun in 100 degree temperature anyway pretending to mow grass. Didn’t they know that just made the day seem longer?
It was during that summer that the plant manager was sold on the idea of planting a forest around the coal yard to prevent the wind from blowing all the coal away (Oklahoma is windy). So, a million dollars was spent to hire a company to plant a number of rows of trees along the south road next to the coal yard. When the trees were planted, they were sickly little sticks. The summer help were sent to go water them from time-to-time using the small Mitsubishi tractor pulling a trailer with a tank of water on it.
I have to admit that I never gave the idea much hope. The ground where the trees were planted was hard clay. The company that received the million dollars hardly even put any real usable tree-growing dirt in the hole when they planted the trees.
The trees were planted very close together so that you couldn’t mow around them on a tractor. So, when the weeds started growing tall (…as tall as the trees) and the field had been mowed, Stanley sent a couple of the lazy summer help up there to weed eat around the trees.
I had been told some time in my childhood that one of the fastest ways to kill a tree was to strip the bark off all the way around the tree. Not just strip the bark, but cut a little into the tree itself around the base of the tree. If you did this, the tree would die. The only actual living part of the tree is the outside section. Here is a link to a site that describes the part of a tree and a picture from that site:
So, do I need to go on? That’s right. When the summer help had finished trimming the verge around the trees their fate had been sealed. Two summer help in a matter of an hour totally wiped out the million dollar tree experiment. They had stripped the bark clean around every tree.
Not to be outdone. The Plant Manager spent 2 million dollars to have larger trees installed with plenty of good soil around the embankments on the north side of the coal pile. These were good healthy trees.There was even an irrigation system installed to make sure they were properly watered. This worked at least a year or two. Long enough for a lot of the trees to catch hold. The only problem is that the wind almost always blows from the west or the south defeating the purpose of the “windbreak” on the north side of the coal pile.
Ok. One more summer help story before I go. A friend of mine named Ben Cox became a summer help for a summer the fourth summer I worked as a summer help (how many times can I use the word summer in one sentence?). I had worked with him at the Bakery in Columbia, Missouri and he had followed me home that summer to try his hand at summer helping at the power plant. Tim Flowers and I had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail. I have mentioned Ben Cox before in the story about Ramblin’ Ann. He and I used to tag team Ramblin’ Ann just to keep our sanity. See the link below as a refresher on Ramblin’ Ann:
Ben wasn’t the most physically fit, and we didn’t want to see him have a heart attack at such an early age. Ben, however, held his own as best he could and survived a summer of working outdoors. He actually did better than Tim and I expected.
One day when we were driving to the coal yard Ben asked me why there were large hills of sand piled up across the road from the intake. Instead of telling him that the sand had been dredged out of the intake channel when they were filling the lake and sand was being pumped from the river up to the lake with the water, I told him something else…
I told Ben that they kept the large piles of sand there in case they ran out of coal. They would burn the sand as a last resort. I explained that they didn’t like to burn sand because it burned hotter than coal and it turned into glass in the boiler and really messed things up. But if there was a long coal strike and they totally ran out of coal, they would have to burn sand in order to keep producing electricity.
Tim and I watched closely as Ben mulled this over in his mind. At first he didn’t believe me, but after I explained why we didn’t burn sand all the time, you could start to see the wheels turning in his mind. Burning sand…. wow! There is sand all over the place! I never told him differently. I’m sure if he tried to sell the idea to someone, he would have found out quick enough.
Comment from the original post:
Your stories are so good! They bring back memories I hadn’t thought of for years. The part about “burning sand” reminded me of the Brown & Root engineer that was looking for an easy way to put holes in a thick set of blueprints. “Someone” (Kenneth Palmer or John Blake might have been involved) convinced him that shooting them with a 22 would be the easiest way to do the job. He then proceeded to take a new set of prints and totally destroy them!
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?
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”!
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 (and now back in Columbia Missouri). 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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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 traveled 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.
Originally posted September 20, 2013.
I had to stop and think why when I was a senior in college and I went to work in The Bakery in Columbia, Missouri that I instantly considered the grumpy old baker named Larry a close friend. His eyebrows were knit in a permanent scowl. He purposely ignored you when you said “hello”. He grumbled under his breath when you walked by. I immediately thought he was a great guy.
Why? I had to stop and think about it. Why would I trust this guy that acted as if he held me in disdain? Why? Because he acted like so many Power Plant Men I had worked with during my previous three summers working as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma.
It took me longer to realize that there was a particular art to making a bad first impression. It happened a lot at the power plant during my summer help years. One of my favorite mentors of all time Jerry Mitchell was really good at making a perfectly bad first impression. I wrote about Jerry in the post “A Power Plant Man becomes an Unlikely Saint“.
I guess some people would read it as acting macho. The person not only acts like they don’t care what you think, but that you are an annoyance and they wish you weren’t there. That’s what Jerry would do. I watched him when he first met Jimm Harrison who was a foreman that had just arrived from another plant.
We were standing just outside what would later become the A-Foreman’s office. Jimm came up to us and introduced himself and asked if we could show him around the plant. Jimm was being extra polite in order to make a “good” first impression. He kept complimenting us even though he didn’t know anything about us. Not that it bothered me. I always liked Jimm. I was glad to do anything he ever asked me.
Anyway. While Jimm was introducing himself to us, Jerry just stood there staring at him with a cigarette sticking out of his mouth. Jerry nodded his head slightly like only Jerry could do with an expression that looked like it said, “I don’t care who you are. You are bothering me.”
I wondered at the time why Jerry would want someone to think that Jerry was a mean old man. I knew better by that time. I had seen Jerry’s heart that first summer and I knew that he really did care about things. I just let it go at the time.
The second summer as a summer help Don Pierce the crane operator from construction that was loaned to the plant would do basically the same thing. He was a tall countryish guy with a moustache and beard that reminded you a little of Paul Bunyan (well. he reminded me of him anyway). I talked about Don in the Post “Why Stanley Elmore and Other Power Plant Question“.
When you were first introduced to Don Pierce, he would stand there acting like he was 10 feet tall looking down at you. He would kind of give you a sneer like you weren’t worth his time. He might even spit Skoal between your feet if you caught him at the right moment. Yep. That was Don.
Turned out that even though Don didn’t want you to know it, he was really a nice guy. He liked a joke just as much as any other guy, but when it came down to it, he really cared about you. I would trust Don with my life. Actually, I probably did a few times. However, if he didn’t like you, he might point his Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum right in your face and just grin as you sped off. — That’s right Don. I remember that story.
I’m not saying that everyone at the plant gave you a bad first impression. There were those obviously nice people that acted kind at first glance. There were those that acted like they genuinely wanted to help right away. Of course, there were those that you immediately wanted play jokes on like Gene Day (See the post “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day” for one example of the many jokes I was compelled to play on Gene only because he was such a perfect target).
I’m also not saying that everyone that gave you a bad first impression was the kindest soul on the face of the earth. Obviously some people who gave a bad first impression did it because, well… because they really were bad and they didn’t care if you knew it. I won’t name names because well… Eldon Waugh might not like it if I did.
Eldon Waugh was the plant manager from the time I first arrived at the plant in 1979 until the first of the year 1988. If you were under his “control” (which meant, his chain of command. Which was everyone at the plant), then he treated you like a minion from day one. Sure, he could act nice at certain moments, but that wasn’t the norm. Throughout my posts I refer to Eldon as the “evil plant manager.”
That never kept me from praying for him. I figured that even a guy that seemed to admire “all things treacherous” still had a soul in there somewhere. The last time I saw Eldon at the plant I had a little “discussion” with him in the elevator.
It was a day when there was going to be a Men’s Club dinner. Eldon had come a little early so that he could visit people that he used to rule. I met him at the bottom floor of the office elevator. The elevator actually rose 6 floors to the next floor which was called the 2nd floor unless you took the Control Room elevator where it was called the 3rd floor.
As the door of the elevator closed on the two of us, I turned to Eldon and said, “Hey Eldon. You’re not Plant Manager here anymore. Are you?” He replied, “No.” Then as I pushed him around the elevator, I said, “So, I can push you around all I want and there’s nothing you can do about it right?” Surprised, he replied only by saying, “Ahh!!” Caught like a rat.
Oh. I didn’t hurt him. I just humiliated him a little, just between the two of us. When the elevator doors opened we both exited without saying a word. I went my way. He went his. Never a word spoken about it until now.
On a side note… I found throughout the years that all things become equal in an elevator when occupied by just two people. I will not mention encounters in the elevator again in any posts in case there are others of you curious if your names are going to be mentioned in the future. The rest of you are True Power Plant Men, of which I have the greatest respect. Eldon deserved a little payback.
If you met Eldon off of the plant site. Say in Stillwater, Oklahoma selling Honey. He would be a nice old man. So it was with his assistant plant manager. The difference was that Bill Moler would make a good first impression.
Which brings me to those that make a good first impression, only to find out later that they aren’t quite the good person they appeared to be. I won’t go into them because I want to focus on Power Plant Men, and those guys are definitely not in that category. I quickly learned to tell the difference thanks to my mentor Jerry Mitchell.
So, by the time I met Larry the Bakery Man in Columbia, Missouri, I could see through his scowl immediately. I could look right through the facade of orneriness to see that he was no more harmful than I was. We eventually became good friends. He said he could tell me things that he couldn’t tell another living soul. Well at least no other living soul that wasn’t “all country”.
When I arrived in the electric shop as a new electrician November, 1983, I came face to face with Ben Davis. Yep. Bad first impression. Small jabs of insults. Acting like he didn’t want me around. Like I was a nuisance. I was in his way. Needless to say…. I had to like him right off the bat. I knew his kind. He was really a great guy and I could tell.
Ben Davis somehow reminds me of Tony Dow. The guy that played Wally Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver. Ben has always been clean-cut and good to the core.
I thought about writing this post because lately I have realized that I have taken on the habit of making a bad first impression. For many years when I am meeting a new person or a group of people, I seem to purposely look or act “unfriendly” or aloof. It comes in different forms depending on the situation. But it has become my philosophy. I think unconsciously until now.
I have even been saying that now. It is my philosophy to make a bad first impression. Just as people in the dorm when I was in college never knew what to make of me, so it is 35 years later at Dell where I work today (and now at General Motors).
I have found that by making a bad first impression, then I am starting at the bottom of the barrel. The only way from there is up. Sure there is a time when someone will not know what to think of me. After a while when they know me better they come to realize that I’m not that bad of a person. In all the time I have been at Dell (12 years), I have found only a couple of instances where someone couldn’t get past that first bad impression.
For some reason when someone has a low opinion of me and then find out that I’m not so bad, it seems that they like me more than if they understood who I was right off the bat. Maybe it’s because they have set lower expectations and I surpassed them. I’m not sure.
When I think back about Larry the Bakery Man now, I realize the reason that I could nail him so quickly as having a good soul was because he was just like a certain Power Plant man that I had encountered the summer before. He was a welder. He would give you the same scowl when he looked at you… or well… when he looked at me.
This welder looked at me as if he didn’t like me. Like I was a nuisance and he didn’t want me around (have I said that before?). Anyway. The more I knew of Dave Goosman, the more I admired him.
Dave had his idiosyncrasies like everyone else, but he had a good heart. He would help you without hesitation if you needed help. You learn a lot about people when you are shoveling coal side-by-side.
I learned that Dave had a kind soul. He was quiet and in some sense, he was shy. He mumbled under his breath like Larry the Bakery Man. He knit his eyebrows when he looked at me just like Larry.
A few weeks ago Fred Turner (a True Power Plant Man) left a comment on the post “Sky climbing in the Dark With Power Plant Boiler Rats“. He told me that “Goose went to his maker a couple of weeks ago. I always liked him.” That pretty well sums up what everyone thought about Dave Goosman.
Notice the scowl? Yep. I replied back to Fred. I said, “Dave Goosman always had a smile on his face like he knew what you were thinking….. even when you weren’t thinking it.” Yeah. It was a smile to me… I knew a smile when I saw it. I could always see the humor behind the scowl. The humor that said…. “I’m really a mean guy. Don’t mess with me.” Yeah. Right Dave. He never fooled anyone. All the Power Plant Men loved Dave.
Dave was born 19 years and 2 days before I was born. When he was old enough he joined the Armed forces for a couple of years before settling on a career as a welder. I know that Dave loved his country as he did his fellow Power Plant Men. I think it is fitting that he died July 4, 2013.
Dave shares the day of his death with two of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who incidentally both died on July 4, 1826. Exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams died in Quincy, Massachusetts. Thomas Jefferson died in Charlottesville, Virginia. Within hours of each other, these two great Americans died 560 miles apart.
All three patriots.
When the True Power Plant Men like Dave die, I like to think of them meeting St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. I can see Dave walking up there by himself. Handing his ticket to Peter and scowling at him as if to say, “You don’t want me in here. I’m not good enough for a joint like this.” St. Peter smiles and says, “Who do you think you’re foolin’ Dave? This place was made for people just like you.”
Comment from original Post:
Originally posted December 28, 2013:
Times were changing in 1987 when the electric company in Oklahoma decided that they needed to downsize the company in order to change with the new business environment. I always seemed to think that the executives down at corporate headquarters in Oklahoma City knew that the old pioneers in charge of the Power Plants would be very difficult customers when it came to the new business model.
Like I said…. Times were changing. The digital era was being introduced to the power industry. We had already upgraded the precipitator controls to make them computerized. Other areas of the plant were going to be next. Especially the employees. Of course, none of us knew that quite yet, except Bill Rivers, who was a natural visionary, and he was gone.
Side story time:
I had always been interested in computers and programming from the time I was a sophomore in High School when I had just turned 15 years old. My friend Jesse Cheng had introduced me to one of the first programmable calculators, the HP-25.
This was the most wonderful Christmas present I had ever received. I literally felt myself fainting when I opened the present and found that I had been given a pair of cowboy boots, only to find an HP-25 calculator inside when I opened it up. Ralphie had nothing on me that day.
It was much like the Christmas Story with Ralphie. I had tried every with way to convince my parents that using a slide rule in High School was passe (pronounced “pass A”). All the other students in my advanced chemistry class were using calculators, and I was still stuck with my dad’s old circular slide rule. It was a pretty neat one, I’ll grant you that, but it just… well….. I could work things out on paper faster than I could use the slide rule.
I introduced my friend Jesse Cheng in the post “Why Do Power Plant Men Always Lose the Things They Love Most“. He had an HP-25 calculator and had loaned it to me to take a Chemistry test. He showed me how it used Reverse Polish Notation, which is different than a normal calculator, but more like a computer.
The calculator could be programmed with 49 steps. Because it had a stack built right into it, and the reason it used Reversed Polish Notation, we could create all sorts of games with just those 49 steps. The book that came with the calculator had a moon landing game. We made more sophisticated games, like one called Battleship.
Anyway. Because of this early exposure with actually programming something in a logical manner, I was eager to learn more about programming. During college, my calculator was often sitting on my desk in the dorm room running a long program to help me perfect a random number generator. Finally in my Junior year in college, my calculator was completely fried.
After I was married at the end of 1985, I began subscribing to a magazine called “Compute”. It had actual programs in it in Basic. I would read the programs to learn how it worked, but at that point, I didn’t own a computer, so all I could do was dream about writing programs.
It wasn’t until Thanksgiving 1987 when I went to visit my ol’ friend Jesse Cheng in Columbia, Missouri who was interning as a medical doctor that I felt a sudden need to have a computer of my own. He had built a computer using a Heath Kit and we used it to play two computer games. One was called Starflight:
The other was called F15 Strike Eagle:
When I returned home I was pretty eager to buy a computer. Up until that time, every time my wife and I had gone to the mall, I always had stopped in the computer stores to look at the latest computers. I never had really considered buying one. But now, they had 20 megabyte hard drives! And you could play these terrific games like Starflight and F-15 Strike Eagle.
So, one day after we had left the mall, and my wife could see the look on my face, she finally said…. “Why don’t you go and buy one?” I asked her, “Are you sure? Because you know what is going to happen if I get a computer. I’ll be playing on it all the time.” She said, “No. I want you to go buy one.” So we turned around and went back to the mall.
That was the start of my journey into the world of computers.
End of Side Story.
As I explained in the post “Boppin’ with Bif during the Power Plant Downsizing“, the company offered an early retirement package for everyone 55 years old and older. They would give them full benefits to leave. This meant that our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey, as well as the assistant plant manager, Bill Moler and the Plant Manager, Eldon Waugh were all going to retire some time in August 1987.
We had a retirement party for Leroy Godfrey out in the country at Diana Brien’s house. A bunch of the electricians were there including Mark Meeks, who Leroy knew at the time was the one that was going to be laid off. Mark commented about that later when he was told that he was losing his job that Leroy had sat there and smiled at him while we were at the party. Mark knew Leroy didn’t like him, but hadn’t expected to be the one to go since everyone thought it would be Gary Wehunt, since he was the newest member in the shop.
I explained in the post, “The Passing of an Old School Power Plant Man — Leroy Godfrey” what Leroy’s management style was like. It was very top-down, if you know what I mean. It was like, “Because I told you so.” No need to explain anything. That was the world of Power Plant Management up to that point.
I think Corporate Headquarters realized that this needed to change in order for the company to compete in a world where electric companies could no longer count on the Corporation Commission to guarantee a sustainable electric rate or even a set number of customers. The world of electric power was changing rapidly and the company needed to move on from the mentality that it could be run like a “good ol’ boys” club.
It is easier to teach young dogs new tricks than older and crankier ones. It looked to me like this was a logical choice when looking back using hindsight. I think the company was making a bold move. I don’t think they really had much of a choice if they wanted to survive.
So, we had the main retirement party at the plant where people stood up and told stories about the old guys that were retiring. Nothing much happened there except the part where Leroy Godfrey’s daughter stood up and said that we just had to work with him, while she had to live with him… see the post about Leroy above for the full story about that.
Then the following Monday. I believe it was August 17, 1987, everyone was told to meet in the main break room for a meeting with our new management. That was when we were introduced to our new plant manager, Ron Kilman.
I remember a certain part of the meeting very well. Ron said something funny. It didn’t matter exactly what he said. I don’t even remember what it was. Probably something self-deprecating. I leaned over to Charles Foster, who had been my foreman for a while (on that day, it was officially Andy Tubbs). I said, “I didn’t know Plant Managers could tell jokes!”
Charles looked back at me and I raised my eyebrows and tilted my head while the corners of my mouth went down. — This was one of the signals I had learned while carpooling with Bud Schoonover when I needed to communicate with Dick Dale without saying anything out loud (see the post: Carpooling with Bud Schoonover“. This particular expression meant, “Maybe this won’t be such a bad thing.”
Ron Kilman remained the plant manager at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma for the next 7 years. The stories that I will post during this next year will all be at least partially from this time period. During this time, there were some decisions that Ron made that I applauded, and others that even he would admit he wished he hadn’t made.
All in all, I think that Ron has a good heart and that those times when he did make a rash decision, it was evident that he was falling back to his “management training” and not managing from his heart. Old School management training left a lot to be desired.
During the 7 years from 1987 to 1994, the power plant saw a lot of changes. Some I have alluded to already. Such as the move to computerize everything. The other was a total change in how management works. Or at least that was the attempt.
People were willing to step out of their regular day-to-day jobs and try new things that they thought would help the plant. Many of these things were successful. Some of them failed, but not so miserably as they would have if the earlier management had been around. The employees felt as if they had more of a say in how the plant ran instead of feeling like they were just a bunch of tools running around fixing things.
I have a quote from Ron Kilman that said it all one day after a catastrophe had occurred. It summed up his management style as opposed to his assistant manager, Ben Brandt. I will relay the exact story later, but for now I’ll just say that when Ben Brandt saw what happened, the first thing that he said was, “Who did this?” When Ron Kilman saw what had happened, the first thing he said was, “How can we prevent this from happening again?”
Ben’s approach was from the old school of thought. Blame and punish the culprit. Later when we were drastically changing the way process improvements took place, my favorite quote from Ben Brandt is, “I am the obstacle! We aren’t going to change because I say so.” We all had to agree. He was definitely the obstacle.
Ron’s approach was one more like a leader. “Let’s get the job done right.” Sure, he is human, so the decisions weren’t always perfect, but I think in general, he was leading where other people may have been dragging.
Well… I will say no more for now… I look forward to writing stories about this time period during this next year. I’m sure there are a lot of those at the plant just as eager to see how I portray the different events that took place during this time.
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Originally posted April 5, 2014:
Today, work ended in a strange way. I was working away at Dell when I had a call with a business partner to go over some configuration of our timekeeping application. When I joined the call, the person on the other end of the line, who usually sounded like a normal woman with a slightly Hispanic accent sounded more like an insect alien with a very nervous tic.
I tried several quick remedies on my computer to resolve the audio issues I was experiencing. You see, at Dell, when we use the telephone, we are actually using our computer with a headset attached. After shutting down a few processes that I knew were not necessary in the hope of clearing up our communication, I thought that maybe rebooting my computer would be the simple solution. That was the lesson I had learned back at the gas-powered power plant in Harrah Oklahona in 1985.
Ellis Rook had told me back then that he didn’t mess with trying to figure out why the phone system wasn’t working. Whenever there was a problem, he preferred to just reload the program from disk, which took about a half an hour. No worries that all the phones in the plant would be down for a half an hour as the Rolm Phone computer was rebooting. So, I rebooted my system, since restarting the communication program didn’t work.
When my computer rebooted and I attempted to log in, when the screen would go blank just before the moment when you would expect the wallpaper to show up, my computer would indicate that it was logging me off and then would shutdown only to restart again…. Drats! …and I had this important call with my coworker that I was sure had not really changed into the alien that had been talking to me moments before.
I tried this a couple more times, and each time the computer would shutdown and restart. So, I swiveled around in my chair and turned to my current manager who was sitting across the bullpen cube from me and I said, “My computer has crashed.” It just keep restarting. She replied, “Go take it down to the computer clinic and have them fix it. They are great! They will fix you up right away.
On a side note, I just want to add that my current manager at Dell has been the absolute most influential manager I have ever met next to Charles Foster. She has perfected the art of “Expanding her bubble”. Charles taught me this technique many years ago.
So, on a side note of a side note, let me just tell you what my former foreman Charles Foster at the Power Plant did once. He ordered some equipment for everyone in the electric shop which ran into a few “extra” dollars. When he was called on the carpet to explain why he thought he had the authority to make this purchase, he explained it this way:
“When I went to ‘manager training’ they told me that during your career you will have times where it will be necessary to perform activities that you are not sure you are able to perform, so you should go ahead and try them. If you get your hand slapped, you just pull back and don’t do that again.’ This is called ‘Expanding your bubble’. I was just expanding my bubble.” He said Ben Brandt, the assistant plant manager, looked at him with a blank stare for a moment, and then told him that he was free to go. Evidently, according to the listening devices that we had hidden in his office, Ben turned to Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor, and said, “That’s a pretty good explanation.”
I bring this encounter up, because my current manager, Ali Levin, of whom I also have the greatest respect, just recently had an opportunity to expand her bubble. She was so successful that those around her that know what she has accomplished just stare in awe at her. I predict that within the next decade this young lady will have become the CIO (Chief Information Officer) of a Fortune 500 company (mark my word).
So, what does this all have to do with Charles Peavler and Power Plant Pilfering? Well. The final verdict from the super technicians down in our computer repair lab, said that since it was Friday afternoon, I wouldn’t be able to have my computer back in working order until Monday morning. Which meant that I would have to go all weekend without being able to log in and perform feats of magic on my laptop.
Ok. I was resigned to go home early and wait patiently until Monday morning when I could begin popping up various applications and flipping between them and the multiple Instant Message windows talking to various business customers throughout the day as I performed the satisfying dance of my day-to-day job. So. I left work early.
This evening as I sat down to create a post about Power Plant Men and my previous life working as an electrician at a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahama, the sudden loss of my computer flashed me back to a time when someone that was working with me experienced a similar loss. Instead of a laptop. This electrician had lost a set of “Jumpers”.
Ok. These jumpers don’t look like much, I know. But jumpers are almost as important to a plant electrician as a laptop is to an IT developer at Dell. That is, you just can’t get your work done without it.
So, it was either Donald Relf or Bob Eno who was working with me on Friday, March 29, 1993. During overhaul, we had been calibrating precipitator control cabinets all day. Much like today, April 5, 2014 when my computer died. At the end of the day as we were packing up our equipment Bob or Donald, I don’t remember, saw me leave my tool bucket next to the old typewriter stand that we were using as a portable workbench. He asked me if it was safe to leave our tool buckets there over the weekend.
I assured him that the coal-fired plant in North Central Oklahoma hired only “top-notch” Power Plant Men. His tools would be perfectly safe sitting out in the Precipitator control room over the weekend. I was so confident because I had always left my tools where I was working in the precipitator during overhaul and I had never had anything stolen. If anything, someone may have left me a present of chocolate behind only because they knew that I always did favors for chocolate.
You can imagine my surprise when we returned to the Precipitator Control Room on Unit 1 on Monday morning only to find that Bob (or Donald) had their jumpers missing from their tool bucket. We each used 5 gallon buckets to carry our tools. Mine had been untouched. No extra chocolate that day, but no unsavory fingerprints were detected.
As it turned out, we relied on Bob’s (or Donald’s) jumpers to do our job, so we actually had to return to the electric shop and create a new set of jumpers for him. I felt so ashamed. After all, I had so proudly explained that only those with the greatest integrity worked at our plant, and he didn’t have to worry about leaving his tools, and here I was having to cover for his losses. This was the only time in the 20 years I worked at the Power Plant where someone had stolen something from a tool bucket when they weren’t purposely playing a joke on me.
When I found time that day, I went to the control room and asked the Shift Supervisor if he could tell me who worked as the Unit 1 auxiliary operator over the weekend. I knew that this would narrow the culprit down to three people. He looked through his logs and said that Darrell Low, Charles Peavler and Jim Kanelakos had Unit 1 over the weekend.
Knowing how the shifts worked, I knew that each of these people had walked through the Unit 1 precipitator exactly 3 times over the weekend, before we returned on Monday morning. I also knew that no one else would have ventured to stroll through the Precipitator control room who was working over the weekend on overhaul. I knew this because of all the hundreds of hours I had already spent in this control room over the weekend, only one operator per shift ever visited. It was usually my reminder to take a break and go to the bathroom and buy something from a vending machine before returning.
I studied this list. Hmmm….. Darrell Low…. A person with impeccable character. Would love to play a good joke when given the change, but honest as the day is long. Jim Kanelakos…. Devious at times, but personally a very good friend. A person so dear to me that I him kept personally in my daily prayers. Charles Peavler… well… by the title of this post…. you already know the rest of the story.
I eliminated Darrell immediately since I knew his character and I would trust him with my life (which I actually would at times when he would place clearances for me). I suspected Peavler right off, but I thought I would make sure that Jim Kanelakos wasn’t just playing a joke on me first. So, I approached him and asked him if he had taken a pair of jumpers from a tool bucket in the Precipitator control room over the weekend.
At first Jim looked at me with a hurt feeling that I thought might be a perfect expression if he was playing a joke on me. He was holding the look of sorrow and hurt that I would actually accuse him vaguely of stealing a pair of jumpers from a tool bucket. When I pressed him on the issue. The hurt look changed to a look of resolve and he said directly, “No. I didn’t take them.”
I knew immediately that he was telling me the truth. Jim and I had worked together with Charles Peavler on the labor crew together. We actually used to analyse his behavior as sort of a joke, and kind of a refresher of our Psychology background. Jim Kanelakos had earned a Masters Of Arts in Psychology, while I had a bachelors in the same field. So, we used to have fun joking around together about the unusual behavior of Peavler.
Charles Peavler looked like the Sergeant on Gomer Pyle. Except that he had chewed tobacco so long that his lower lip was permanently curled so that he looked like Popeye. I say that because they had the same lower jaw and the same amount of hair on his head:
Once I was certain that Charles Peavler had taken the Jumpers from Bob’s (or Donald’s – I’m relying on one of you telling me which one) tool bucket, I approached him with the attitude that I already knew it was him. I came up to him in the Control room and said, “Charles! You know that pair of jumpers that you took from that tool bucket over the weekend? I need those back!”
I explained to him that I had told the visiting electrician that it was safe to leave his tools there because no one would touch his stuff. So, I felt personally responsible to get the jumpers back. Charles immediately denied that he had taken the jumpers. He said that he didn’t know what I was talking about. I told him that I had checked, and he was the only person over the weekend that would have taken them. So, I needed them back. He continued to deny that he had taken them.
As the overhaul was lasting a few weeks longer, I continually approached Charles in the middle of the control room where the Control Room operators were within earshot asking him to give the jumpers back to me. I would tell him how I need them so that we could continue our work. Also I would explain each time that the reputation of our Power Plant was at stake.
Finally one day he said, “Well. I don’t have them here. I took them home.” — That was a great relief to me. I had been continually accusing him day after day of taking those jumpers. I was finally glad to find out I hadn’t been accusing someone falsely, which was always a vague thought in the back of my mind. The moment he told me he had taken the jumpers home, I jumped on him (not literally – though the thought occurred to me). I said, “I need those jumpers back!”
It took about a week. Each day whether he was on the day shift or the night shift or the evening shift, since we were on overhaul working a lot of overtime, he was not able to escape me. I would go up to him and ask him, “Did you bring those jumpers today? ” Each time in the middle of the control room, quite loudly.
Finally, about a week after he admitted having the jumpers when I asked him about it in the middle of the control room, he went into the locker room and soon returned with the pair of jumpers and handed them to me. I quickly returned them to Bob (or Donald), and apologized profusely for the inconvenience. I didn’t tell him exactly what had happened to the jumpers, only that I had finally tracked them down.
I guess, he didn’t know that I knew him so well. So well in fact that to this day, I have kept Charles Peavler also in my prayers every day. When he lost his mother in on April 1, 2000 (fourteen years this week), I felt his loss also. He left the plant on July 29, 1994 during the last (and the worst) downsizing the Power Plant ever experienced. To this day, though I was peeved with Peavler back then, I still care for him deeply. I don’t think he was a “True Power Plant Man”, but neither was Jim Kanelakos or myself.
Some day Charles will meet our maker. When he does, he will be able to say, “Yeah. I did steal a pair of jumpers once. But I ended up by giving them back.” I clearly remember the look of relief that day when Charles placed those jumpers in my hand. It was if a heavy burden had been lifted. Actually, by that time I had decided that it was as important for Charles to give back those jumpers as it was for Bob (or Donald) to get them back. Something had compelled him to lift that pair of jumpers, I think it was an opportunity for him to face reality. I thought that he was having a “Come to Jesus” moment when he confessed.
I often wondered what Charles’ mother Opal Peavler would have thought of Charles. I suppose she finally found out. I suspect that by the time she found out, that Charles had mended his ways. After all, he was on his way when we had danced this dance in the middle of the control room that week in 1992. He did finally admit that he had stolen something. I’m sure he thought at the time that an electrician could easily make a new pair of first class jumpers. We wouldn’t care that someone had come along and taken one measly pair of jumpers.
Actually, if Charles had ever come to the electric shop and asked any electrician for a pair of jumpers, any one of the electricians would have been glad to whip up a pair as if by magic. I think it was just that one moment when he was alone with a tool bucket staring at him and a perfectly prepared pair of jumpers were gleaming up at him that in a moment of weakness, he decided he could pilfer this pair without anyone knowing.
To tell you the truth. I was very proud of Charles Peavler the day he placed those jumpers in my hand. Geez. I didn’t realize until after I finished this post that I have a picture of Peavler:
Originally posted May 17, 2014:
Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.
One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.
The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.
Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.
Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.
I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.
When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.
I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.
Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.
When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.
When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.
Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.
I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait) See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“.
With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.
While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.
Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.
By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.
The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.
The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.
So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.
As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”
So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.
Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….
George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.
Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.
The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.
This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.
You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).
Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.
Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.
This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….
Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.
I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….
In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.
In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically all “mechanical”.
Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.
Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.
I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.
It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.
He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?
The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.
When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.
That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…
I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.
Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.
Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.
Comments from the Original post
Originally posted June 13, 2014:
When discussing Telephones at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I have to remember that some of my readers have a completely different perspective of telephones than me. My children grew up probably never seeing a real rotary dial phone except in movies or old TV shows. It might be a little hard for them to imagine a telephone being a possible murder weapon. Telephones have come a long way since I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s.
When you turned the dial on a Rotary phone you put your finger in the hole on the number you want to dial and then you swing it around until your finger bumps up against the metal bracket. When you pull your finger out of the hole, the phone sends a rapid succession of pulses to the telephone company telling them what number you just dialed. It was very… well…. tedious and manual…. and not even electronic. It was electric signals and switches. “Mechanical” is the word I think I’m trying to say.
Even the way you received a dial tone was by sending something called a “Ring-to-ground” signal to the telephone company. That would happen when you would lift the receiver off the hook. There are only two wires used to communicate in an old phone and only one of those had voltage on it. when you ground that wire (called the “Ring”) momentarily, the phone company would then send a dial tone to your phone.
You could actually do this on a dead phone line at times when the phone company had shut off your service. On an old pay phone, when the proper coin was inserted in the phone, the coin itself was used to ground the ring wire, thus telling the telephone company to send the dial tone, allowing you to use the phone. In 1983 there was a movie called “Wargames”.
I had learned about how these telephones worked from Bill Rivers just before going to watch this movie. During the movie Matthew Broderick’s character needed to make a phone call at a pay phone but didn’t have a coin. By taking the mouthpiece off of the transmitter, and using a metal pop top he found on the ground, he was able to ground the “ring” wire to the pay phone, and he received a dial tone. There was a good ol’ boy sitting behind me in the movie theater that said, “You can’t do that!” — Being the newly educated smart (-alec) guy I was, I turned around and said, “Yeah. You really can.”
Anyway. This isn’t a story so much about how old phones work. I just wanted to bring the younger readers back-to-date on phones since now they don’t really call them telephones anymore. It is more like, “Smart Phone” and “Cell Phone”, “Mobile Phone” or just “Phone”. The phone in the house isn’t even referred to as a telephone. We now call them “Home Phone” to distinguish them from the actual phones that we use.
Anyway, when I joined the electric shop in 1983, I learned about the phone system. We didn’t use the older Rotary Dial phones at the plant. We were one step up. We had “Touch Tone” Phones.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, we had our own telephone computer at the Power Plant. It was called a ROLM phone system. See the post “A Slap In the Face at a Gas-fired Power Plant“.
To give you an idea of the technology used by this phone system, you connected to it using a “teletype” terminal that you connected to a telephone by clipping the receiver in a cradle. Then you dialed the phone computer. When you connected, it was at 300 Baud. Think of 300 bytes per second, only using audio…. like a fax machine. — It was like connecting using a modem. 300 baud meant that when it typed out the results on the paper that scrolled out the top, you could watch it as it slowly printed out each line. The maximum speed of the terminal was 300 baud.
In this picture you can see the cradle in the back where the phone receiver would fit in those two rubber cups.
After many years of going to the lab to connect to the telephone computer to make changes and to monitor the telephone traffic, in 1992 I decided to bring my 8088 computer to work and set it on the desk in the electric shop. We didn’t have our own computer yet. At that time the only people that had computers were office workers and the Shift Supervisor. We had started a computer club and having a computer in the shop was a big help. I had just replaced this computer at home with a 486.
I had a modem on my computer, so I tried connecting to the telephone computer, and it worked! So, sometimes during lunch when Charles Foster and I were sitting there talking about movies we had seen while eating vegetables from his garden, I would connect to the ROLM computer and just watch the call log. I could see whenever someone was dialing in and out of the plant.
We had a special call in number into the plant that allowed you to make “trunk” calls. This is another term you don’t hear much anymore. You see….. for the younger readers (again)…. long distant calls used to cost a lot of money. You would be charged by how many minutes you were on the call. During the day, it could be as high as $3.00 a minute to call across the country. Amazing huh? Because today, most of you with cell phones and even your land lines (which are rarely real land lines anymore) long distant phone calls are now free with your phone plan.
Yeah, if you wanted to call someone in the next town over, you would have to pay a fee for every minute you were on the call…. That was when AT&T had a monopoly on the phone lines in the United States. Sure, you only payed $7.00 each month for your phone, but you could only call people in your immediate area or you would be charged extra.
A Trunk line gave you access to a much wider area. The Electric company had a trunk line that gave them access to most of Oklahoma. You could dial into a local number that would connect you to the company phone system. Then after entering the correct password number, you could dial access numbers that would take you to another office location in the electric company. Once on that phone system, you could dial to get an outside line, and then dial a local number in that area.
Our plant had three access numbers that allowed you to dial out locally to Stillwater, Ponca City and Pawnee. This was useful when a foreman needed to call people out to work. They could dial into the plant, then back out to one of these other towns and then dial the local phone number of the crew member they were trying to reach without incurring a personal charge on their phone line.
So, here I was in 1992 during lunch watching the phone traffic in and out of the plant (not exactly NSA style, but sort of), when I saw something unexpected. A long string of numbers showed up. Someone had dialed in on the Stillwater trunk, then dialed out to the Corporate Headquarters trunk, then out to Oklahoma City and from there they placed a long distance call to a phone number in the same area code. The prefix on the phone number was familiar to me. It was a Ponca City phone number. I had lived in Ponca City for three years when I had just been married, from 1986 to 1989. I knew a Ponca City phone number when I saw one.
I thought this was odd, because it wouldn’t be normal for someone to dial from Stillwater through our plant to Oklahoma City only to call a Ponca City phone number when they could have dialed the local Ponca City access code. Then they wouldn’t have had to make a long distance call which bypassed our trunk call system causing the electric company to be billed for the long distance telephone call.
At the time I was a CompuServe user. This was when the World Wide Web was in it’s infancy. I was still using a DOS computer. When I connected to the Internet, it was either by using my dad’s Internet account from Oklahoma State University where I would use Telnet to access a bunch of mainframe computers all over the country, or I would use the DOS-based version of CompuServe. CompuServe was the king of Internet access before America Online came around and seemingly overnight made CompuServe obsolete.
In 1992, CompuServe had a service where you could look up phone numbers and find out whose number it was. Imagine that! Yeah. That was one of the neatest features on CompuServe! That and getting stock quotes. — Like I said…. There was no “www.whitepages.com” online. The only catch to using the reverse phone number feature, was that it was like making a long distance call. It cost money. You were charged by the minute for using the CompuServe reverse telephone number service, with the least amount being a dollar.
So, I bit the bullet and accessed the Phone Number lookup section of CompuServe. I quickly typed in the number. When the name and address of the user popped up, I quickly hit “Print Screen”, and then exited the service. My fee came to $1.00, but at least I knew what number had been dialed in Ponca City.
Charles, Scott Hubbard and I were a little excited by the time Terry Blevins walked into the electric shop office after lunch was over, I told him what I had seen.
When I told Terry the name of the person that had received the long distance call, he recognized the name right away. When I gave him the address, he was sure he knew who it was. The phone number belonged to the Music Director at the Ponca City High School. His son was attending college in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Well, that sort of cinched it. We had a pretty good idea who had made the call. It was a college student calling home, who had been given the phone number most likely by a fellow student who knew the code to call home in Oklahoma City. So, the only local access code this guy knew was how to dial through our plant to Oklahoma City and back out where he was free (but it was not free for us) to make a long distance call home.
Armed with this knowledge, I headed up to the front office. I went straight to the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman’s office. I told Ron what I had found. I explained in detail how the person had dialed from Stillwater into our plant and then to Oklahoma City and out and then placed a long distance call to Ponca City leaving us with the phone bill. Since it was the middle of the day, the cost of a long distance call was not cheap.
I told Ron that I had used CompuServe to lookup the phone number and that Terry had said that it belonged to the Music Director at the Ponca City High School and that he had a son in college in Stillwater. I was all ready to pounce on this guy. This was a fraudulent use of the telephone service and there were some pretty strict laws then about stealing long distance from someone else.
Ron, being the more level-headed of the two of us thought about it for a minute and said, “What would be the best way to stop this from happening?” — Oh. Well. I was so intent on catching the culprit, I hadn’t thought about that angle…. “Well….” I said, “We could change the pass code used to log into our phone system. We would just have to tell our supervisors what the new number is.”
Ron asked me what it would take to do that. I told him I could do it in two minutes. We quickly settled on a new 4 digit pass code and I left his office and returned to the electric shop and made the change essentially turning the tables on the Telephone Interloper. I suppose the college student in Stillwater was lucky that our plant manager at the time was the type to forgive and forget.
Three years later the entire electric company phone system was replaced by a new AT&T computer which was managed by AT&T. As you can tell… Technology just keeps moving forward making seemingly really neat new inventions quickly obsolete.