Tag Archives: Plant Manager

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

Favorites Post #73

Originally Posted July 21, 2012:

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

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

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

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

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

Otto from the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip

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

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

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

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

Kind of like this

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

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

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

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

A tractor just like this

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

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

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

Like this only with a mop handle

Anyway, during our time while traversing the wilds along the fence line, it gave the summer help time to think.  I was working with a good friend of mine by the name of Tim Flowers.  We had become friends while I had attended Oklahoma University in Norman my first year in college (before going to Missouri University in Columbia for my last 3 years).  So, my fourth year, 1982, as a summer help, Tim came to work alongside me.

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmm…. What does he think about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Heflin

Jim Heflin

 

Comment from previous Repost

  1. Ron   July 24, 2013:

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

Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor

Favorites Post #72

Originally posted August 30, 2014.

When a death or a near death occurs at a workplace due to an accident, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) will investigate what happened. There are two reasons for this. If they find that the company has been negligent in following the safety regulations set down in CFR 1910, then they are fined (if the negligence is severe enough). OSHA also investigates the accident to see if changes are needed to regulations in order to protect employees due to new unsafe workplace conditions that are not currently covered under CFR 1910.

Because of the tragedy that happened at our plant that I outlined in the post: “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting” and after I had met with the OSHA man (Gerald Young) to give him my deposition as discussed in the post last week: “The OSHA Man Cometh“, the plant manager, the assistant plant manager, and I were summoned to the Department of Labor building in Oklahoma City at 10 o’clock on Monday April 18, 1994.

On a side note:

The Department of Labor office in Oklahoma City is just a couple of blocks from the Murrah Federal Building that was bombed exactly one year and one day after our visit on April 19, 1995. Not that there was any connection.

Murrah Building before the bombing in 1995

Murrah Building before the bombing in 1995

I mentioned this because I went to the Murrah building later that day after the meeting with OSHA to meet my brother for lunch. He was working there in the Marine Recruiting office at the time. I think he was a Major then. He changed jobs in June 1994 and moved to Washington D.C.. His replacement was killed in the bombing. Here he is Greg today as a full Marine Colonel:

 

Colonel Gregory T. Breazile

Colonel Gregory T. Breazile

End of Side Note:

I was asked by Ron Kilman our plant manager to show up at 9:00 am on Monday in the building south of our main corporate headquarters where we rented office space to meet with the guys from our own Safety Department because they were required to attend the OSHA meeting with us. The Department of Labor building was just across the parking lot and across the street from this building, so we planned to walk from there.

I drove myself because Ron said he had other meetings to attend in Oklahoma City after this meeting was over and he wouldn’t be driving back to the plant. That was why I arranged to have lunch with my brother.  I figured that word had gone out from Tom Gibson that I talk a lot during long trips, and he just wanted some peace and quiet that morning.

When we met with the Corporate Safety Department Jack Cox told us how we should act during the meeting with OSHA. He didn’t tell us to do anything wrong, like withhold information. He just told us to answer all the questions as truthfully as we could. Don’t offer any information that isn’t directly asked by OSHA. Don’t argue with them if you disagree.

From what I understood from the conversation, we were supposed to be polite, truthful and don’t waste their time going down a rat hole with specifics. I was told that I shouldn’t have to say anything and I should be quiet unless I was asked a specific question. The Safety department would answer all the questions and make any statements that need to be made. I was assured by them that I had nothing to be worried about. I only needed to tell the truth if asked anything.

If you know my personality, I always want to throw in my 2 cents, even when I know it is wasted on the audience. But I took this seriously. We were going to be fined by OSHA for 10 different violations relating to the accident that occurred at the plant. I was there because I was directly in charge of the work that was being done when the accident occurred. It was my deposition that was used to determine about half of the violations.

After we had been briefed on how we should behave during the meeting, as a group we walked from the corporate building over to the Department Of Labor building. One of the safety guys was carrying a few binders. I think one was the company’s Policies and Procedures book (We called it the GP&P).

One of two General Policies and Procedures Binders

One of two General Policies and Procedures Binders

Upon entering the building we went to the 3rd floor where we were asked to wait in a room until OSHA was ready for the meeting. The room had a long table down the middle. As usual, I picked a seat about halfway down on one side. I remember Ron Kilman sitting across from me and about 2 seats down.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman

We waited and we waited….. 10:00 came and went, and no one came. We quietly discussed whether this was to make us more nervous by keeping us waiting. Then someone came to the door and apologized. They said that Robert B. Reich, the U.S. Secretary of Labor was in the office that day and that had thrown off everyone’s schedule.

 

Robet B. Reich as he looked in 1994

Robert B. Reich as he looked in 1994

This was quite a coincidence, and we wondered if Robert B. Reich (it seems like you need to put the B in his name in order to say it right) would be attending our meeting. That would sort of throw a whole new importance of me keeping my mouth shut to make sure I wasn’t putting my foot in it.

It seemed as if Mr. Reich had shown up unexpectedly. Or at least on short notice. Almost as if it was a surprise visit to check up on the place. He didn’t end up coming to our meeting. Now that I think about it. This was one day shy of being one year to the date that the Branch Davidians had burned themselves alive in Waco, which was one year and one day before the Murrah Building Bombing three blocks away from where we were sitting that morning. Aren’t coincidences interesting? Just saying…

The Siege of the Branch Davidian Compound outside Waco Texas

The Siege of the Branch Davidian Compound outside Waco Texas

More about why Robert B. Reich was there further below.

Around 10:30 four or five OSHA lawyers (I assume they were lawyers, they talked like they were), came in the room along with the Jerry that had interviewed me a few weeks earlier. They apologized again for being late due to the arrival of their “supreme” boss. They sort of sat at one end of the room and the people from our company was more on the other end. Jerry, the OSHA man, sat next to me in the middle.

I was saying a mantra to myself…. “Don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen…. don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen.

The meeting began by the Lady at the end of the table reading off the violations to us. I don’t remember all 10. I remember the most important violations. They mainly centered around the new Confined Space section of 1910. It was 1910.146 that dealt with confined spaces and it had gone into affect April 1, 1993, almost one year before the accident happened. Generally, OSHA gives companies about a year to comply to the new regulations, which kind of put us right on the edge since the accident at our plant had occurred on March 3, 1994.

Because of this, some of the violations were quickly removed. That lowered the number down to 6 violations right away. That was good. No one from our company had said a word yet, and already the OSHA lawyers seemed to be on our side. Then they read off a violation that said that our company had not implemented the required Confined Space Program as outlined in CFR 1910.146.

This was when our Safety Department leader, Jack Cox. said that we would like to contest that violation, because here is the company policy manual that shows that we implemented the Confined Space Program before the end of the year.

One of the OSHA lawyers responded by saying that we had not fully implemented it because we had not trained the employees how to follow the policy. When he made that statement, Ron Kilman contested it.

He had a stack of papers that showed that each of the employees at the plant had taken the training and had signed a paper saying they had read the policy. Not only that, but the person that was hurt was not a company employee, they were an outside vendor who was hired by the company to vacuum out the hoppers.

The OSHA man said that just because they took the course did not mean that they were properly trained. Ron asked how do you know they weren’t properly trained. The OSHA man replied, “Because they didn’t follow all the rules. If they had, no one would have been hurt.” — What do you say to that? You can tell we weren’t properly trained because someone was hurt? I suppose that the OSHA rules were written in such a way that if you followed them to the letter, no matter what kind of mechanical failure happens, no one will be hurt. I could see the frustration on Ron’s face.

I was a little amused by Ron’s statement though because Jack Cox had told us to just let them answer all the questions and the first seemingly absurd thing the OSHA man had said, Ron had addressed. — I smiled and said to myself…. “Don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen…”

One of the violations was that we didn’t have a Confined Space Rescue Team. That was true, we didn’t. There was something in the regulations that said, if a rescue team could arrive in a reasonable time from somewhere else, we didn’t have to have our own rescue team…. Well, we lived 20 miles from the nearest fire station equipped with a Confined Space Rescue team. So, there was that…. That was a legitimate violation.

The next violation was that we didn’t have a rescue plan for every confined space in the plant and each confined space was not clearly marked with a Confined Space sign. This was a legitimate violation.

The next violation was that we hadn’t coordinated efforts between different work groups working in confined spaces together. This was clearly stated in the regulations…. — Oh oh. that was me… I think I was mid-mantra when I heard that one. I had just said to myself… “…anything….just keep….” when I heard this violation. I stopped muttering to myself and immediately forgot that I was supposed to keep quiet.

I said, “But wait a minute. We did coordinate between the three groups that were working in the confined spaces. I was coordinating that. I had posted a sheet on a beam in the middle of the hopper area where the accident occurred where the Brown and Root contractors, and the vacuum truck contractors knew what hoppers were still full and which were safe to enter.

I kept the sheet updated each day and so did the vacuum truck workers. They indicated when they had finished vacuuming out a hopper, and I would inspect it from above. When I deemed it safe, the Brown and Root contractors could enter the space. The accident occurred because one of the vacuum truck workers entered the confined space while still cleaning it out and before I had inspected it to make sure it was safe.”

Jerry (the OSHA man that had interviewed me turned and said, “Oh. I didn’t know that. Do you still have that piece of paper?” — Incredibly, I did. About a week after all the vacuuming had finished and all the hoppers were safe, I was walking through the hopper area under the precipitator where I found the paper with the duct tape still on it laying on the grating. Without realizing the importance, I picked it up and brought it back to the janitor closet behind the electric shop that we now used as a “Precipitator Fly Ash Cleanup Room”. I had laid it on a shelf there. The lawyers said, “Send us the original sheet and we will drop this violation.

Here is a copy of the piece of paper. The big black splotch at the top is what duct tape looks like when you make a copy of it.

A copy of The Hopper Tracking Sheet

A copy of The Hopper Tracking Sheet

Well, that worked out good. I had stepped out of line by opening my mouth before I had been asked a question, but everything worked out all right.

The final verdict was that we had four violations. We had to re-train our employees on Confined Spaces. We had to create a Confined Space Rescue Team. We had to put the correct signs on all of the confined spaces and we had to develop rescue plans for all of the confined spaces on the plant grounds. If we did that by August 1, 1994, the four remaining violations which amounted to a $40,000 fine would all be dropped. So, we had our work cut out for us. This not only impacted our plant, but all the Power Plants. The meeting was adjourned.

I already told you what I did after the meeting (I went and ate lunch with my brother). But I haven’t mentioned yet why Robert B. Reich had made a surprise visit to the Department of Labor building in Oklahoma City on April 18.

As it turned out, that morning, Labor Secretary Reich had come to Oklahoma City to hand deliver a $7.5 million fine to Dayton Tire Company. This was due to an accident that had resulted in a man, Bob L. Jullian, being crushed by a piece of machinery in the tire plant. He died a week and a half later at the age of 53.

Robert B. Reich had become so angry when he had studied the case on Friday that he wanted to hand deliver the citation himself the following Monday. That is how we ended up in the building at the same time on Monday, April 18, 1994. We resolved our dispute with OSHA on a congenial note and the citations were dropped on August 1. Dayton, however, was still fighting the conviction 18 years later, eventually paying around a $2 million penalty.

Now you know the rest of the story. Well, almost. Like I said, we had a lot of work to do in the next three and a half months.

Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression

Favorites Post #65

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 (that’s not a misspelling of Jimm’s name.  I really does have two Ms) who was a foreman that had just arrived from another plant.

We were standing just outside of 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“.

Like this Paul Bunyan only with tinted glasses. Actually, this is a historian named Wayne Chamberlain

Like this Paul Bunyan only with tinted glasses. Actually, this is a historian named Wayne Chamberlain

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.

Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum

Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum

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.

Jar of honey Eldon might be selling

Jar of honey Eldon might be selling

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

Ben Davis

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.

Wally Cleaver. See the resemblance?

Wally Cleaver. See the resemblance?

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 get along with me better 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.

Dave Goosman

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.

Thomas Jefferson -- good first impression

Thomas Jefferson — good first impression

John Adams -- bad first impression

John Adams — bad first impression

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:

  1.  

    Fred September 23, 2013:

    Don Pierce story: Don was in the P&H crane and had a job to do at the ash silo’s. There was a truck sitting there in the way. Don waited a good while and then “bumped” the truck with the crane slightly. A short, stocky and aggravated truck driver got out of the truck to confront Don. The driver had grabbed a short piece of log chain for a weapon. Don got down out of the crane and looked down at the driver and his chain. Then said while looking at the chain in the drivers hand “that ain’t enough”. The driver immediately got back in the truck and moved.

 

Hitting the Power Plant HR Cardboard Ceiling

Favorites Post #61

Originally posted September 5, 2015

I spent 12 weeks in Oklahoma City in 1996 working in an office building while the Power Plant Men came to the rescue and caused a culture shock for some who had never experienced a group of Power Plant Men so closely packed in an office cubicle before.  The effect can almost be the same as if you have too many radioactive particles compressed together causing a chain reaction ending in a tremendous explosion.  Having survived this experience I became intrigued with the idea of working in an office on a computer instead of carrying a tool bucket up 25 flights of stairs to fix the boiler elevator.

Our team had been in Oklahoma City when we were converting the Electric Company in Oklahoma to a new financial and planning system known as SAP.  See the post:  “Corporate Executive Kent Norris Meets Power Plant Men“.  One other person from out plant was in Oklahoma City for the entire 9 months it took to roll out SAP.  That was Linda Dallas, our HR Supervisor at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

SAP Logo

SAP Logo

Linda Dallas was on the core SAP team which was a coveted spot for one not so obvious reason.  The few people that were on the core team were learning how to implement SAP in a fairly large public electric company.  The consulting company Ernst and Young were teaching them how to build SAP screens and configure the application as well as how to run a large project.  —  Do you see where I’m going?

I went out and bought a book on programming SAP myself just in case I had a chance to play around with it when we were in Oklahoma City. I read the book, but unfortunately the opportunity to mess with SAP never came up (or did it?).

A programming book like this

A programming book like this

Mark Romano, the engineer that was coordinating our efforts during the project tried to have me assigned to the testing team for SAP, but the SAP guys said they didn’t need anyone else…. For more about Mark Romano, read this post:  “Power Plant Marine Battles with God and Wins“.  Consequently, when Mark told me that the testing team positions were just as coveted as the core team and they didn’t want an outsider coming in and showing them up, I understood.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet…. SAP was an up and coming terrific software package that took practically your entire company’s computer activities and put them in one all encompassing application.  People experienced in SAP were far and few between, so anyone looking for people with SAP experience were finding the pickin’s rather slim (as in Slim Pickens).  Because of this, most of the people involved in the core SAP implementation could basically write their ticket when it came to finding a job with a company trying to implement SAP in 1996-97.

I thanked Mark for putting in a good word for me with the testing team.  I also told him that the first time I actually am able to use SAP, I will break it within 10 minutes just so the testing team can see how it’s done.  —  I had a lot of experience with “Negative testing” as it is called in IT.  That is when you do what you can to try to break the application.

I like the word “consequently” today, so I’m going to use it again…. Consequently, when Linda Dallas came back to our plant to show us all how to use SAP after we went live, here is what happened….

We went to the small conference room where I had setup about 15 computers all hooked up to the company’s Intranet.  The team from Oklahoma City had actually brought the computers.  I had just run all the network cables to the room so they could train people 15 at a time.  The trainers wanted to “lock down” the computers so that they only had SAP on them and not other things like “Solitaire” that might distract the Power Plant Trainees.

Here is what happened when I showed up for my class….  Linda Dallas was teaching it along with one other guy from Corporate Headquarters…. I’ll call him “Jack”… for various reasons, but mainly because I can’t remember his name…  Jack told us that the computers we were using were stripped down so that it didn’t have games like Minesweeper and Solitaire on them, (as did all the regular Windows NT computers).

The first thing I did when he told us that was to browse over to the electric shop computer through the network and copy the minesweeper and the solitaire games from the computer in the electric shop to my training computer…..  See how rotten I used to be (yeah… used to be…  Huh?  What’s that?)…  Then I opened Solitaire and started playing it while they explained how to go into SAP and start doing our jobs.

They showed us the Inventory section.  That had all the parts in the company in it.  That was the part of the application I had helped implement in our small way.

When they showed us the inventory section, I realized right away how I could break SAP, so I proceeded to open 10 different screens of the SAP client, and began some crazy wildcard searches on each one of them.  The application came to a grinding halt. (for any developers reading this… let’s call it… “SQL Injection”).

Linda, who was trying to show us how to go from screen-to-screen suddenly was staring at a screen that was going no where.  She tried to explain that they were still having some performance issues with the application….

I just stared at my own computer screen trying to figure out if I had a red ten to put on the black jack….  when a red-faced Jack came around the tables and saw me playing Solitaire.  I just smiled up at him and he had a confused look on his face as we waited for the screen on the projector to begin working again.

My screen at the time

My screen at the time

I knew of course what had happened and after about 5 minutes of everyone’s screen being locked up, the application finally began working again and the training continued.  — I was happy.  I had completed my testing that the testing team didn’t think they needed.  Of course, I did it to honor Mark Romano’s failed attempt to have me moved to the SAP testing team.

Mark Romano

Mark Romano

A couple of years later when I was working with Ray Eberle on a Saturday (as we were working 4 – 10s, and rotated onto a Saturday once every 4 weeks), I showed him how I could lock up SAP for the entire company any time I wanted.  Since few people were working on Saturday, I figured I could show him how it was done without causing a raucous.  It took about 35 seconds and SAP would be down for as long as I wanted.  There was a way to prevent this… but…. If the testers never test it, they would never tell the developers to fix it (I’m sure they have fixed it by now… that was 18 years ago).

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

Anyway, the story about implementing SAP isn’t really what this post is about.  It is just the preamble that explains why in the spring of 1997, Linda Dallas left as the Supervisor of HR at our plant.  She found another job in Dallas (So, Linda Dallas moved to Dallas — how fitting) with some of the other core SAP team members implementing SAP.

When the job opening for Linda Dallas’s job came out at our plant, I figured that since I met the minimum qualification, I might as well apply for it.  Why not.  It would mean putting away my tool bucket and working on the computer a lot more, which was something I was interested in since my experience a few months earlier when I was working at Corporate Headquarters.

I knew right away that no one would really take my job application seriously.  I had all the computer related skills.  I had a degree in Psychology, and a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola with a focus on adult education.  That wasn’t really the point.  I had never been a clerk.

The natural progression of things meant that the only “real” possible pool of applicants were the women clerks in the front office.  Specifically Louise Kalicki.  Her desk was closest to Linda Dallas’s office, so, in a sense, she was “next-in-line”.

Even though I knew that the plant manager Bill Green and Jim Arnold the Maintenance Supervisor would never want me on the “staff”, I went ahead and applied for the job anyway.  I figured, it was worth the experience to apply and go through the interview process even though I wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Bill Green

Bill Green

I think Louise and I were the only two to apply for the job.  Maybe Linda Shiever did as well, as she had the most seniority at the plant.  Linda was actually the first person hired at the plant when it was first built.  Louise had been filling in for Linda Dallas for the past year while Linda Dallas had been in Oklahoma City working on SAP, so she was really a “shoe-in” for the job.

When I went up to the interview, the first thing I had to do was take a timed typing test to see if I could type 35 words a minute (I could type 70).  I had dressed up for the interview so that when I walked into the plant manager’s office, Bill Green and Jim Arnold had a little “Hee Haw” about seeing me without coal dust and fly ash coming out of my nose and ears.  I told them that “I can get cleaned up when I needed to” (notice that I used the word “get” and ended my sentence with a preposition… just so they didn’t think I was too stuck up.  See the post:  “Power Plant Men Learned Themselves Proper English“).

No one was surprised when Louise Kalicki was promoted to HR Supervisor.  She was probably the best choice when you think about it.  She had a better relationship with Bill Green and Jim Arnold than I did and a good part of the job was working with those two rascals (oh… did I actually call them rascals?  Bless their hearts).

This was right around the time that I had made my decision to go back to school to work toward a degree in Computer Science.  Working with computers was really my passion.

I have an interesting way of making decisions about what I’m going to do with my life.  I let certain events help make the decisions, instead of just jumping right in.  I had decided (knowing that it was pretty much a safe bet) that if I didn’t get the job as the HR Supervisor, then I would go down to Oklahoma State University just a few miles from my house and enroll in the Arts and Science College and work on a degree in Computer Science.

I made a lot of decisions that way.  I figured that if I was meant to do something, then it would work out that way.  If not, then, fine, I would go a different route.

Ok.  One more side story about working with Ray Eberle and SAP (See the post:  “Tales of Power Plant Prowess by Ray Eberle“)…  This happened some time around the year 2000.

SAP had this icon of a drip of water dropping and causing a ripple of waves….

SAP water drops

SAP water drops

When the application was thinking, this picture was in the upper right hand corner and it was animated, so that the water rippled out as the water dripped.  That way you could tell the difference between the application being stuck and just thinking.

This wasn’t just an animated GIF as we might have today.  It was actually a series of bitmap pictures that were all strung together into one file.  Once I figured this out, I used Paint to modify the picture.  I created three new versions….  The first one had a small ship with sails sailing across the rippling water.  The second one had a yellow fish that would leap out of the water over and over.

It was the third picture that was my masterpiece.  I reversed the flow, so that instead of the water rippling out, it came in as if it was a whirlpool sucking things down.  Then I added a small picture of our HR Supervisor’s face being sucked down into the whirlpool.

HR Supervisor sucked down a whirlpool

HR Supervisor sucked down a whirlpool

Then I created a small application that allowed people to change their water rippling animated picture to any of the four (with the regular picture being the fourth option) that they wanted quickly and easily.  I know the women in the front office liked the one with the HR supervisor being sucked down the whirlpool the best.  I won’t mention who they were, but by the following two pictures, you may be able to guess….

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

Darlene Mitchell

I would think that Bill Green would have liked the sailing ship the best since he liked to sail…. though… for some reason, I never made it around to install my “SAP add-on” on his computer (or Louise Kalicki’s for that matter, since she was the HR Supervisor).  Most of the Power Plant Men probably would like the fish jumping out of the water, since they liked fishing.  — I know… I know… I was being rotten… but it was fun.

Ok.  End of the Side Story and end of the post.

Crack in Power Plant Armor leads to Gaping Hole in Logic

Favorites Post #56

Originally posted November 21, 2015

Sometimes when something is written on paper, it becomes carved in stone (I should copyright that phrase — oh.  as soon as I click “Publish” I will).  I saw a flaw in Power Plant logic one day in November 1994.  Corporate Headquarters for the Electric Company in Oklahoma had decided that they needed very clear job descriptions for their Job Announcement program.

We had just completed a downsizing a few months earlier and two electricians were asked to determine what prerequisites someone would need to be able to do their jobs.  My first thought was… “Is that really a smart way to go about this?”  Just think about it….  You are asking someone who just survived a downsizing to determine what it would take to replace that person with someone else…. Can you see the flaw in this logic?

It was decided that in order to be hired as an electrician, you had to have the following prerequisites:   A technical degree in an electrical field.  A minimum of five years experience as an industrial electrician.  Have a technical knowledge of how to walk on water.  Able to swing from tall buildings using four size 2 conductor cable.  Have extensive experience bending conduit.  Able to work in confined space manholes.  Can bend a one inch diameter stainless steel rod with bare hands.  Black Belt in Six Sigma.  Able to explain the meaning of each color on a resistor.  Not afraid of heights.  Willing to shovel coal. — Yep.  that’s what it requires to do my job.

I knew right away this wasn’t going to be good.  We would never find someone who can both walk on water and was willing to shovel coal.  If we ever had to replace an electrician, it would be darn near impossible.

This wasn’t only true for electricians.  Every type of job in the company was given similar treatment.  I had been an electrician for 11 years at that point, and I didn’t even meet the minimum qualifications to be hired as an electrician.  If I had left the company and tried to apply for a job at our plant as an electrician, I would have been turned away at the door.

Whatever minimum requirements were written down did not only apply to outside applicants.  This was required of employees applying through the internal Career Announcement Program (CAP) as well.  In other words, I never would have been able to join the electric shop from the Labor Crew as I did in 1983, with only a scant understanding of what it takes to be an electrician.

It wasn’t until a few years later that this occurred to anyone.  The minimum requirements were relaxed a little.  That was when the training program was put in place to take High School graduates and above and allow them to train at the plant for a particular skill as I described in the post:  “Power Plant Train Wreck“.  The rest of the company had to live with their own minimum requirements.

The results of asking the employees what the minimum requirements should be for their own jobs, HR had painted themselves into a corner.  I knew why they did this.  It was because they had lawsuits in the past where someone was hired over someone else, and they thought they were more qualified for the job and they claimed they were victims of discrimination.  So, specific requirements for each job needed to be created…. Actually…. I think this is the opposite of what should have been done.

If I had my druthers, I would have approached this from the opposite direction… let me continue with my story and you will see why.

I started getting my degree in Management Information Systems (MIS) in 1997 at Oklahoma State University.  I was going to graduate from the business school in May 2001.  In the fall of 2000, I had only 6 credit hours (or two more classes) left.  I had started in 1999 applying for IT jobs in our company.  Many times I was asked by people in the IT department to apply for specific job openings.  I had worked with a lot of them, and they would have liked for me to work for them.

Unfortunately, at that time, here was the minimum requirements for a Software Developer:  You had to have one or more of the following:  A Bachelor Degree in Computer Science… OR Bachelor Degree in MIS with at least 9 hours of computer languages (I had the 9 hours of computer languages)… OR Bachelor Degree in a business or technically related field with 18 hours of computer science courses including 9 hours of computer languages…. OR Associate Degree in Computer Science with 9 hours of computer languages and 2 years of software development experience….. OR 8 years of directly related experience such as development in C, C++, ABAP, Visual Basic or Cobol.

Software Developer Career Announcement

Software Developer Career Announcement — Yeah.  I kept a copy….  Actually  I have a stack of about 20 job announcements where I applied.

It was that last requirement that I thought I could use.  Especially since I was well on my way to earning the degree.  I had many years writing code in Visual Basic and C.  I had taken a Cobol class already, and studied ABAP (which is used in SAP) on my own.  So, along with almost having my degree and working with IT for more than 8 years, I applied for these jobs.

Every time I did, HR would kick the application back to me and explain that I didn’t meet the minimum requirements so I was not able to be considered for the position.  Not until I had my degree in my hands.  The HR Director said that all the work I had done with IT didn’t count because I was doing it as an electrician.  She said her hands were tied.

In November 2000 the University had a career fair for students applying for IT or business careers.  So, I attended it.  It was in a large room where each of the companies had setup a booth and you walked around to each booth as the various companies explained why it would be nice to go work for their company.  They explained their benefits, and when they were done, they asked you for your resume (pronounced “rez U May” in case you’re wondering) if you were interested.

Before the career fair, I had gone to lectures on how to go through the interview process, and I had read books about how to create a good resume.  I had bought books on these subjects and read them after having gone to a lecture by the author Martin Yate.  Here are three books that came in useful in my job hunt:

Books to help find jobs by Marin Yates

Books to help find jobs by Martin Yate.  I attended his lecture about how to go through the interview process

So, here I was at a job fair dressed in a nice suit I had bought in Oklahoma City at a high end Suit store.  I had studied what color shoes, belt and tie to wear.  I had a stack of my carefully designed resumes in hand.  My wife Kelly had given me a professional haircut the night before, and I had even washed behind my ears.

I had quickly changed into my suit in the bathroom in the office area at the Power Plant.  I quickly took the elevator down to the ground floor and stole out to the parking lot to drive the 30 miles to the Job Fair.  No one saw me leave, except Denise Anson, the receptionist.

I made my way around each aisle of booths, carefully considering each company.  I was not really interested in working as a consultant where I had to do a lot of travelling.  After all, I had a family.  I gave my resume to many companies that day, and later I had interviews with many of them.  It felt very strange as a 40 year old acting as a kid in school handing resumes to companies.  I really just wanted to stay at the Electric Company where I had worked for the past 19 years.

Then I spied the booth I was really curious to visit.  It was the Electric Companies booth.  The company where I worked.  I saw a group of students walk up to the booth and the young man from HR began his speech about why it would be great to work for the Electric Company.  I stood toward the back of the small crowd and listened.  It was weird hearing him tell us about the benefits of working for the company.

The Director of HR was standing next to him.  She was the person that kept rejecting all of my job applications through the internal job announcement program.  I waited patiently thinking… I could come up with better reasons for working for the best Electric Company in the world.  He never mentioned once that the best employees you would ever find in the entire world worked just 30 miles north on Hwy 177 at the big Power Plant on the hill.  That would have been the first thing I would have mentioned.

I waited until the young man completed his speech and then asked the students if they would like to give him their resumes.  I stood there, not moving, but smiling at the young man from HR.  After everyone else left, the man turned to me and awkwardly asked me if I would like to give him my resume (it was awkward because I was just standing there watching him).  I replied as I handed him my resume by saying, “I’ll give you my resume, but I don’t think you can hire me.”

He replied, “Sure we can.” as he glanced down at my resume.  I continued, “See… I already work for the company.”  The young man brightened up and said, “I thought I recognized you!  You work at the Power Plant just north of here!”  I said, “Yeah.  You were the leader at my table during the Money Matters class.”  “Yeah!  I remember that!” He replied.

“Sure, we can hire you!” He replied.  I said, “No.  I don’t think you can.  You see.  I don’t meet the minimum requirements.”  Then I turned my gaze to the Director of HR who was now staring off into space…  The gaping hole in logic had suddenly become very apparent.  She replied very slowly…. “No… I don’t think we can hire you.”  The young man (I think his name is Ben), looked confused, so I explained….

“You see Ben… you can take resumes from all of these college students and offer them a job for when they graduate, but since I already work for the company, I have to have my degree already in my hand before I meet the requirements.  I can go to any other booth in this room and have an interview and be offered a job, but I can’t find an IT job in the company where I work because I don’t meet the minimum requirements.  Seems kind of odd.  Doesn’t it?”

I continued…. “Not only that, but the Electric Company has paid for all my classes to get my degree and 75% of my books.  I have only 6 more hours after December, and I can’t find a job with my own company.  I will probably have to go to another company that is guaranteeing a job when I graduate.  Does that make sense?”

Application to be reimbursed for summer courses in 1999

Application to be reimbursed for summer courses I took in 1999 — notice how cheap school was back then.  Also notice that I crammed 10 hours into one session of summer school.

The HR Director was still staring off into space.  She knew as soon as I opened my mouth who I was.  She had personally signed each rejection letter to me.

So, what had happened?  It had happened a few years earlier when the employees were asked what the minimum requirements should be for someone to be hired for their jobs.  That led them down a path of closed doors instead of opening up opportunities.

Here is what I would have done instead… I would have done what other companies do… Minimum Requirements:  “Team Player.  Able to work well with others.  Demonstrated an ability to learn new skills.”  — Who wouldn’t want an employee like that?  Sure.  Add some “Desired attributes” on the end like: Able to bend conduit.  Able to Walk on Water, etc.

I had spent about an hour at the career fair handing my resume to potential employers before I left.  I drove back to the plant.  On the way back to the plant I was having this sinking feeling that I was not going to be able to stay with the Electric Company.  I can’t describe how sad I was at this thought.

I couldn’t just stick around at the plant hoping that once I had a degree in my hands that I would be able to move into the IT department.  For all I knew, our own plant manager could have been telling HR that I couldn’t leave the plant because I was the only person that worked inside the precipitator.  I had been flown around the country to interview with different companies who were now offering me jobs.  Those offers wouldn’t still be there if I waited until I graduated, so I had to make a decision soon.

I knew that the Plant Manager Bill Green kept asking the Supervisor over Maintenance about my degree because Jim Arnold would ask me from time-to-time, “What’s that degree you’re getting again?”  I would say, “Management Information Systems” in the Business College.  Jim would go back to Bill and say, “Oh.  You don’t have to worry about Kevin leaving.  No one wants someone with that degree” (Yeah.  Heard that from someone on the staff that heard it first hand).

When I arrived back at the plant, I walked in the entrance and hurried to the elevator.  I waved at Denise as I quickly walked by the receptionist window and quickly went into the men’s room to change back into my jeans and tee-shirt and work boots.  No one else saw me.  I returned to work with Ray Eberle in the Print Room to work on SAP.  Ray asked me how it went…

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

I told Ray about my adventure and my encounter at the Electric Company booth.  Ray came to the same realization that I had on the way back to the plant… I wasn’t going to be able to stay with the company.  I was going to have to move on…

Power Plant Birthday Phantom

Favorites Post #55

Originally posted March 14, 2015

Long before Facebook ever graced the pages of our browsers, Power Plant Birthday reminders began appearing in the Outlook E-mail Inboxes of Power Plant men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Today it seems commonplace to be reminded of your friends birthdays as your smartphone pops up a message to remind you.  In 1997, a strange event began happening at the plant.  It sent some scurrying about to find the culprit.  Others found it funny.  Some worried that their secrets were about to be revealed.  One person was totally surprised by the response (me).

January 3, 1997 Charles Foster and I went to our morning meeting with our team in the main break room where we would meet every morning to go over the work for the day.  Alan Kramer began the meeting by asking me a direct question.  He said something like, “Kevin.  Do you know anything about emails from the Birthday Phantom?”  I asked him what he meant, and he went on to explain.

Alan Kramer

Our Foreman Alan Kramer

Alan said that when someone opened up Outlook to check their e-mail that morning, shortly after they opened it up, an e-mail appeared in their inbox that was from themselves.  So, when Alan had logged in that morning, he received an e-mail from Alan Kramer.  When he opened it, it had a subject of “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday”.  The body of the e-mail said, “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday.  He is 48 years old today.  Please wish him a Happy Birthday.  The Birthday Phantom.”

Jim Kanelakos in in the middle in the back (third from the left) with the red plaid shirt standing behind Vonzell Lynn

Wayne Cranford is the bald guy front and center on one knee between David Evans and John Costello

It happened that when Wayne Cranford opened his own e-mail, the subject said, “Happy Birthday Wayne Cranford!”  and the body of the email had the happy birthday song,  “Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday dear Wayne.  Happy Birthday to you.  The Birthday Phantom.

So, after Alan explained this to me, he looked at me again with a rather stern look and said, “Kevin.  Did you do this?”  What could I say?  So, I said, “Why is it that whenever something like this happens, I’m always the first one to be blamed for it?”.  I knew at that point that Alan’s next response was going to mean the difference between night and day, so I put on the most indignant look I could.

Alan said, “Well.  I just had to ask.”  I shrugged like I understood and glanced over at Charles Foster who had a stunned look hidden behind his best poker face.  Something like this:

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

You see…. about a year earlier, before we were using Microsoft Outlook, we were using Novell’s Groupwise for email.  Alan Kramer had come to me and asked me if I had done something “wrong” in regard to emails.  It turned out that I was innocent of any “wrongdoing” in that instance (well, almost).  Charles Foster was my witness.

What had happened was that one day, Danny Cain, who was the Instrument and Controls person on our team had come into the electric shop office to make a phone call to someone at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  I think it was Ed Mayberry.  Email was a new idea for most people at the plant.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

While Danny was on the phone, I turned to the computer sitting on the desk across the room from Danny and wrote an e-mail to the person that Danny was talking to telling him not to believe a word Danny was saying… whatever it was…. it wasn’t important.  I just thought it would be funny to send an email to Ed about Danny while he was talking to Danny on the phone.

The subject of the email was “Danny Cain”.  As Danny was talking on the phone, he happened to turn around just as I was clicking “Send”, and he saw his name in the subject line.  Charles was sitting there next to me, as we were on break at the time.  Danny quickly asked what I was doing and why did he see his name on an e-mail.  I put on the guiltiest look I could and said, “Oh.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.”  Rolling my eyes with obvious guilt.

I didn’t know how much this bugged Danny until a couple of days later Alan came into the electric shop office and said he needed to ask me a serious question.  I could tell he was upset with me.  He asked, “Have you been reading other people’s emails?”  I was confused by the question, because I didn’t relate it to Danny from the other day.  So both Charles and I looked confused.

I told Alan that not only had I not read other people’s emails, but even if I could, I wouldn’t because I considered other people’s emails private.  Then I explained to him that Novell’s Groupwise email was very secure, and I wouldn’t know how to hack into their email if I had a desire.  Which I didn’t.

 

Novell's Groupwise

Novell’s Groupwise

Still confused by why Alan would ask the question both Charles and I asked Alan what this was all about.  He didn’t want to say who it was that told him they thought I was reading their emails, but after we pressed him, he told us that Danny Cain said he saw me reading his email when he was in the office.  Then both Charles and I knew what this was all about.

I explained to Alan that I was just joking around with Danny at the time.  I reasoned with Alan that I would have to be pretty stupid to wait until Danny was standing a few feet away from me before I decided to read his emails.  Alan accepted my explanation.  Especially since it was backed by one of the most honest people at the plant, Charles Foster.

So, fast forward to November 6, 1996.  We were now using Outlook.  That was about as secure as a bag of Oreo cookies in a kindergarten classroom.

I was sitting in the electric shop office with Charles during lunch, and I had just finished writing some fun little programs that automated pulling stock prices from the Internet and putting them in Excel each day.  I asked Charles, “What shall I do next?”

Charles thought for a few moments and said, “You know when we were still all in the electric shop before the downsizing, how when it was someone’s birthday we used to celebrate it by bringing a cake and having a lunch or something for that person?  Well.  We don’t do anything now.  Can you come up with something that will help celebrate birthdays?”

After brainstorming ideas, we settled on sending emails and the “Birthday Phantom” was born.  I thought it would be neat to learn how to write programs that used the Outlook API, sending emails, and stuff like that.  So, I went to work during my lunch breaks writing the program.

It only took a week or so to get it working, and then we ran a bunch of tests on it until we settled on having the emails be sent by the same person that is receiving the email when they log on the computer.  Each time a person logs on the computer, the program would be kicked off.

The first thing it would do was check to see if the person had already logged on that day.  If they had logged on before, then it would shutdown because I didn’t want it to send more than one email for the same day, even if the person used a different computer.

The next thing it would check was if the person was on an exception list.  We had decided that it was best to keep the plant manager and his cronies… um… I mean, his staff from receiving emails, as we didn’t think they would appreciate it since they didn’t have much use for such things.  If the person logging on was on the exceptions list, the application would shutdown.

Then, it would check to see if it was anyone’s birthday that day.  If it was, then it would send an email from the person logged on, to the person logged on.  If it was the birthday of the person logging on, then it would modify the email so that it was personalized to say happy birthday to them.

There were little tweeks I made while testing the application before we went live with it.  First, I added little things like making sure the gender was correct.  So, if it was a woman’s birthday, then it would say “…wish her a happy birthday”.

Charles and I decided that the application would start running on January 1, 1997.  So, during December, I made sure it was setup on all the computers in the plant except those belonging to the staff.  This brings us to January 3, 1997, when Wayne Cranford was the first Power Plant Man to have a birthday.

As I hinted above, Alan’s response to my indignation at being accused of creating the Birthday Phantom would have determined how short-lived the Birthday Phantom would have been.  Since Alan didn’t pursue the inquiry I didn’t offer any more information.

For instance.  A few minutes after the meeting was over, I walked over the control room, and the control room operators were all standing around talking about the Birthday Phantom.  David Evans asked me if I was the Birthday Phantom.  I responded the same way I did with Alan, I said, “Why is it that when something like this happens, I am always the first person to be accused?”  David responded with, “Yeah, but are you the Birthday Phantom?”  Well.  I wasn’t the type of person to blatantly lie, so I had to admit that “Yes.  I’m the Birthday Phantom, but don’t tell anyone.”  The Control room operators said they would all keep it to themselves (yeah.  right).

Though some people thought the Birthday Phantom was a nuisance, others thought that their personal emails were at risk, and that the Birthday Phantom could be stealing their emails.  Whenever I heard that anyone was upset (such as Alan) with the Birthday Phantom, I just added them to the exceptions list and they never received another Birthday Phantom email.

Jim Padgett, a Shift Supervisor, had received a Birthday Phantom email one day, and called IT to report it as they were trying to track down the program to figure out where it was coming from.  Jim Cave told me that  Padgett had the IT guy on the phone and he was logged into his computer to watch what happened when he logged on and opened up Outlook to try and find what was sending the emails.

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left standing next to Jim Cave in the Jean Jacket.

Jim Cave said that the IT guy was sounding hopeful that he was going to finally be able to catch the Birthday Phantom when all of the sudden he said, “Oh!  That’s a Wiley One!”  I came to understand that in Oklahoma City, the IT department was taking this so seriously that they assigned two people full time for two weeks to try and find the culprit (I added Jim Padgett to the exception list, so he didn’t receive any more emails).

I hadn’t thought about it when I was writing the application, but back at Corporate Headquarters, they thought that the application had somehow gained access to the HR system in order to find the birthdays of each employee.  Even though, things like Birthdays and Social Security Numbers were not as sensitive in 1997 (for instance, the plant manager’s Social Security Number was 430-68-….  You really didn’t think I would put his Social Security number here did you?), if someone was accessing the HR database, that would have been serious.

Even though the IT department was taking this very seriously, there was one timekeeper at the Power Plant that was just about climbing the walls over the Birthday Phantom.  She was so concerned that I was afraid she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  I was not surprised by this at all, and had actually anticipated her anxiety.  Actually, the Birthday Phantom was designed for just this reason.  You see, this particular timekeeper was going to be turning 40 years old one week after the first Birthday Phantom email showed up.

After the second Birthday Phantom email arrived the next Monday on January 6, announcing that Jerry Potter had just turned 36, Linda Shiever called me and asked me if I could find out how to stop the Birthday Phantom.  I told her I would look into it.  I did look into it for about one second.  Linda was turning 40 on Friday.

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

On Wednesday, January 8, not only did Elvis Presley turn 62 (if he had been alive… or…. um…well, you know…) but the Birthday Phantom informed everyone at the plant that Sonny Kendrick (who was only 5 days younger than Wayne Cranford) had also turned 48 years old.  Linda Shiever was thinking about calling in sick on Friday.

Linda knew that when she came to work the morning of January 10, that her cube would be full of black balloons with the number 40 on them.  She had resigned herself to this a while before when she helped blow up the balloons for Louise Kalicki’s cube the previous August 23, less than 5 months earlier.  The appearance of the Birthday Phantom, however, had thrown in a new element of recognition.

The morning of January 10, 1997 finally arrived, and the Birthday Phantom email notified everyone that it was not only Linda Shiever’s birthday, but it was also Gene Day’s birthday as well.  Yeah.  The application could handle multiple birthdays on the same day.  Linda Shiever was happy to find out that the Birthday Phantom had informed the entire Power Plant that she had just turned 29.  In fact, that year, every woman at the plant was turning 29 years old according to the Birthday Phantom. — That was another one of those tweeks that came out of our testing.

Gene Day, on the other hand, according to the Birthday Phantom had just turned 100 years old…. Well.. Everyone knew he was ancient (See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” and the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“).  Needless to say, there was a lot less stress in the office area after that day.

The following week, when I went to the tool room to get some supplies, Darlene Mitchell stopped me and asked me if the Birthday Phantom would do her a favor.  She was turning 45 years old on January 28, and she didn’t want the Birthday Phantom to tell everyone she was 29.  She wanted it to say, “Today is Darlene Mitchell’s Birthday, She is 45 years old and Lovin’ it!  Please wish her a Happy Birthday!”  I told her I would have a talk with the Birthday Phantom and it shouldn’t be a problem.

Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

Darlene Mitchell, a dear friend of the Birthday Phantom

After a month, when I was in the Control Room, Jim Cave, who was now referring to me regularly as “The Wiley One” said that the IT department had told Jack Maloy that they were no longer looking for the Birthday Phantom.  They were not able to find it.  The person that did it would just have to tell them who it was.

I still have the computer code I used when I wrote the program.  Sometimes I take it out and read it and I remember that year when the Birthday Phantom visited the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to remind everyone that we were all growing older and as a family, we should take the time to stop and say “Happy Birthday” to each other on that one day each year when we are special.

Birthday Phantom Code

Page 1 of the Birthday Phantom Code

Printing Impossible Power Plant Fast News Post

Favorites Post #54

Originally posted: July 12, 2014:

Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma didn’t have a clue the large can of worms he opened the day in 1988 when he told me to find out all I could about the company computer in Corporate Headquarters…. The one that ran all the important financial systems for the company. I remember going straight down to the Electric Shop office and sending a request for a username on the Honeywell Mainframe to the IT department, with Tom’s approval.

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

A Honeywell Mainframe computer

This story is a continuation of two previous stories…. Last week I wrote a post called: “Power Plant Customer Service Team Gone Wild“. This is the next shoe that dropped in that story…. Earlier this year I wrote a post called: “Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible“. Well, this is the second story in the list of “Impossible Things” Power Plant Electricians were able to accomplish when others said it couldn’t be done.

As a reminder… and in case you didn’t read last week’s post…. as a summary….. let me just say that I had printed out a form on every printer in the company as part of a “Quality Idea” our team was investigating. In doing so, I sent commands to the printers to change their quality settings, as well as the Font Size and a few other settings. When I ran the little known command that sent the document to every printer listed on the mainframe, I didn’t realize that this included all the billing, paycheck and work order printers that all had their special kinds of paper and setting for those particular jobs to run.

This was probably the biggest “Faux Pas” (pronounced “Foe Paw” — yeah…. French… which literally means: “False Step”) of my 18 years as an Electrician. Before I tell you about how the second shoe dropped… Let me explain that a few weeks before I had hit enter on the keyboard sending the disastrous command to the Mainframe, In June, 1993, I had found an interesting program on the Honeywell mainframe called “Magna 8”.

It had to do with creating reports from the main database. This was the entire database that ran the Electric Company Business! I thought this would be a great program to learn in order to create all kinds of reports for our plant that would help us understand where our efforts were being spent. I thought I might actually be able to tie our Maintenance Orders to the time the employees spent on them to their wages, and to the cost of the parts used…. Nothing like that existed at the time, and the little I was able to read from the Magna 8 User Manual on the mainframe, this seemed like just the ticket..

We had never heard of SAP, or other ERP systems at the time. — Oh… sorry… ERP stands for “Enterprise Resource Planning”. It does just that. It combines all the company’s business together in one application so that you can account for all the costs down to each machine, person, and part. If I could learn more about Magna 8, maybe I could start piecing these pieces together from the database. I was having one problem…. When I would page down in the user manual, it kept skipping the bottom half of every page….

I couldn’t figure out how to stop it from scrolling past the second half of each page. So, I called in a favor from the IT guys downtown and asked them if they could send me a printed copy of the Magna 8 User’s Manual. They said they would be glad to send me a copy. About a week later, I received the User Manual through company mail. It was about 4 inches thick.

There were different sections. One was called: “The Update Module”. Yeah…. That’s right…. It was used to enter data into the database…. I thought about that module for about 2 seconds and decided It would be best to stay away from that one. Then there was the “Reporting Module”.

That was the one I was looking for. — on a side note…. I know “for” is a preposition, and I know you aren’t supposed to end a sentence in a preposition, however, who doesn’t say, “That’s what I was looking for”? In these circumstances, I figure that I better approach it from a whole different angle…. like…. “That’s the section I really wanted.” — End side note.

A couple of weeks after I received the copy of the Magna 8 User Guide, I sent the infamous form to all the printers in the company, and that’s when I was sort of had all my “atta boys” taken away with that one “Uh Oh”. I was all prepared to watch my step while on the mainframe. About a week after the episode in Tom’s office when he told me not to send anything outside the plant without Ron Kilman’s permission, my foreman, Andy Tubbs came in the office and told me that in two days, I was supposed to go to some training in Oklahoma City.

“Oh. Training!” One of my favorite things! I always liked to learn new things. I asked Andy what the training was for (Oh geez… did I really say that? “For” at the end of the sentence again! — how about “I asked Andy what kind of training would I be taking” — yeah…. that’s what I said…). Andy replied, “Something called ‘Magna 8′”.

Oh No! I hadn’t asked for training! I had just asked for the user guide! Now I was scheduled to go to training in Oklahoma City and I knew that no one at the plant had “okay-ed” it. Now what was I supposed to do? I did the only thing I could think of at the time…. I asked Andy where I was supposed to go at Corporate Headquarters for the class.

Since I knew that this class hadn’t been approved by Tom Gibson or even our A Foreman Bill Bennett, I decided that I was going to go on my own dime…. that is, I wasn’t going to expense anything. I would pay for my own mileage and lunch, etc. Hopefully, no one would notice that I was gone that day. — Anyway, I could always fall back on the fact that my own Foreman Andy had told me to go….

So, when the day came, I drove to Oklahoma City and entered Corporate Headquarters dressed in my cleanest steel-toed work boots and my cleanest tee-shirt!

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

I chose this picture because they look like my boots, only I never wore the toes out so that you could see the steel toes.

Yeah. Just like this

Yeah. Just like this — no not really

When I introduced myself to the instructor, Scott Overmeyer, I told him I was surprised that I had been scheduled for this class. He told me that since I had requested the User Guide that he figured that I should attend this course so that I would know how to use Magna 8 to create reports. — Well, that explained it.

The classroom was short on computers so we had to share one computer between two people. I sat in the back row on the right side if you are facing the instructor. A young lady sat next to me. Her name was something like Laura Burgert. We didn’t introduce ourselves right off the bat. We spent the morning learning about how our database was structured.

Our database was not what is referred to as a “relational database”. I’m not even sure if that term was being used at the time…. anyway, we had what is called a “Hierarchical Database”. The relationships are more like a family tree. If you needed to connect the data, you had to go up the tree to where you could go back down another branch… sort of like if you were into Genealogy and you were looking for your 3rd cousin twice removed. This was all new to me.

I found this diagram of a simple Hierarchical Database model on Wikipedia

I found this diagram of a simple Hierarchical Database model on Wikipedia

Anyway, this isn’t an important part of this story, so don’t strain your brain trying to figure it out.

When noon came around and we were just breaking for lunch, Laura Burgert said to me, “You’re Kevin Breazile! Oh my Gosh!  You’re the guy that printed out that form on everyone’s printers!” I replied, “Yeah, that’s me. I sure was in trouble for that one.”

She replied that they had been trying to do something like that for a long time. Then she explained… “I work in the Communication Department and we create the Fast News Bulletins that are sent out to the printers….”

You see… this was what you had to do before e-mail was available…. When there was some news about the company that they wanted to disseminate to all the employees quickly, they would send out a Fast News bulletin to the printers and we would post it on the bulletin board in our area.

She continued to explain….. We have asked IT to give us a list of printers that we should send the Fast News Bulletins, because we know that our list is old and we are sending some to printers that messes up billing jobs and other things…. I said, “Yeah. I know all about those.”

She continued to explain some more…. IT told us there isn’t any way to tell which printers are good printers and which ones we shouldn’t be sending Fast News Bulletins. I replied, “Well…. I know which ones are good and which ones are not. I have all the forms that were sent to me. You can tell right away by the paper they are printed on, and if that’s not enough to give you a hint, just read the ‘colorful’ notes they wrote to me trying to convince me not to print on their printers anymore…”

Laura said it would be a great help if I could send those forms to her. I said I would do it as soon as I was back at the plant.

When I arrived at the plant the next morning, and Andy Tubbs told me that Tom Gibson was upset when he found that I had gone to Oklahoma City for training when Bill Bennett had mentioned it to him the day before. He had been all hot because he hadn’t approved any training and here I was going off on my own to Oklahoma City. I told Andy…. “Well…. You did tell me to go….” (looking sheepishly innocent).

Anyway, after that I gathered up the stack of around 500 forms and carried them up to the mail room where Denise Anson helped me put them in a small box to mail them to Laura Burgert.

A few weeks went by and Laura called me on the phone. She asked me how I had created the header on the forms. You see, I had created a header with the name of the company and part of the name was normally smaller and had one word over the top of another so….. well…… let me just show you…..

An example of the Company Memo Header on our Dot Matrix Printer

An example of the Company Memo Header on our Dot Matrix Printer – without the “Quality” turned on.

Notice the “GAS/AND” in the middle of the name of the company…. — This doesn’t look like anything to you today, because we now have laser printers and Publishers and all sorts of Word Art at our fingertips. But back then, printing this from a mainframe document took some work…. let me explain, just to give you an idea.

First, I had to space all the way out to where the word GAS starts, then I had to turn on the underline and decrease the font size to the size of the small letters and print out the word GAS then I had to turn off the underline and backspace the three characters, change the font back to the large size, then backspace all the way back to the beginning of the line, then print out the word Oklahoma and a space, then change the font back to small and print out the word AND then change the font back to the large size, and continue with the rest of the line. Yeah… I had to send backspace commands to the printer…. I was pretty proud of my header.

You can see by the Memo above that I had been using it for almost a year. The picture above isn’t even using the “Quality” setting on the printer which even made it look a lot sharper.

Anyway, on with the story…… The Fast News Bulletin’s header had a simple design. The “F” in Fast was created using a bunch of F’s. The A using a bunch of A’s. Like this:

Fast-old-news

Yeah… pretty embarass… um… I mean exciting huh? Laura was looking for a way to add some Quality to the Fast News Bulletin. I told her that I could create large block letters using the graphic commands on the printer I asked her what her printer ID was and I quickly created a Fast News Bulletin for her with a real header: Fast-News-Header Laura was excited and said that she may be getting back to me soon…. which she did a few weeks later. She asked if I could attend the first meeting of a new Task Force they had created to enhance the Fast News. I said I would be glad to attend, but I would first have to have permission from my Electric Supervisor before I could go (see?  I can actually learn something).

She said she would take care of it…. and she did.

Ben Brandt, our Assistant Plant Manager wanted to know why I was being asked to show up to a Corporate Communication Task Force! — “Uh… I don’t know.” I replied. Knowing that everything I did outside the plant grounds was being questioned after my previous “misstep”.

Memo Ben Brandt Received

Memo Ben Brandt Received

So, one day I showed up at Corporate Headquarters again. Laura Burgert was there to greet me. She told me where to sit along a big long table in a meeting room. I was to sit about halfway down the table, while she sat on one end of the table.

When others came in, the IT person that was on the committee… I believe his name was Mike Russell sat on the far end from Laura. Laura opened the meeting by explaining the reason for the task force and when she finished she said, “For starters we were thinking that instead of using the ugly Fast News header we have been using, we would like to have a header like this…. And she passed a copy of the Fast News Bulletin I had printed out on her printer that day when she called me.

When Mike Russell saw it, he replied, “Our Printers can’t print a header like this.” Laura looked over at me, as if she wanted me to reply to Mike’s remark. So, I said, “This was printed out on the standard IBM network printer.”

Mike replied by saying, “No. Our printers can’t print like this. It’s impossible.” I repeated that this Fast News was printed out on Laura’s IBM printer from the mainframe just like the regular Fast News is printed out. I even told him that I could send him a copy of the header so that he could print it out and see for himself.

He said, “There’s no need to do that. Our printers can’t print this out.” — Though he held a bulletin in his hands that was printed out on our Standard IBM printer.

At the end of the meeting Laura thanked me for coming. She said, “See? This is what we have been dealing with. They probably weren’t going to be able to go anywhere with this.” I just nodded…. I thanked her for inviting me and I returned to the plant 75 miles north.

I guess it didn’t matter too much. A few months later and we were all being introduced to E-Mail, as I had been running telephone cable all over the plant so that we could set up a new NT Server network using Netware 4.0. Which used Novell’s GroupWise for e-mail. Fast News then just showed up in our Inbox.

It’s funny how things work out. What are the odds? I wreak havoc by sending a “rogue” form to printers that should be left alone, only to have those forms become useful to another department after I was “accidentally” enrolled in a training course where I happened to sit next to the one person in the company that could benefit from that printing blunder. Which then led her to look at ways to improve the Fast News Bulletin that she was responsible for creating….

Then the IT department refused to listen, but it didn’t matter anyway because new Technology quickly came along which began the process of weaning us off of the mainframe and onto a new state of the art network that later allowed us to use SAP a real ERP system that made the Magna 8 application that I went to learn in the first place obsolete.

I guess the Fast News Bulletin for the day is that Technology Moves Fast…. If you aren’t on for the ride, then you will be making statements like “That’s Impossible” and having a student in the 8th grade proving you wrong. It reminded me of what my dad always said when I was growing up… “Don’t ever say you can’t. — There’s always a way.”

Comments from the original post:

    1. Ron Kilman July 12, 2014

      Great story! I still applaud your initiative, enthusiasm, and risk-taking tenacity.

        1. Plant Electrician July 12, 2014

          Thanks Ron.
          I am still amazed by how many times I am told that something is impossible when I’m already doing it.

    1. Dave Tarvee July 12, 2014

      How they ever let you get out of there is incredible, I guess you were just real popular all over the company LOL and proved things were not impossible too many times, what a group of talent at Sooner in one place unreal

        1. Plant Electrician July 12, 2014

          That’s true Dave. It may sound like I was some lone wolf out there doing the impossible, but the truth is that we were surrounded by great Power Plant Men doing the impossible every day.

    1. Citizen Tom July 14, 2014

      Great story! I have been working with IT equipment since the early 80’s. The changes have been amazing, but I will never forget listening to a print job that made a printer sing (literally). The new printers are amazing, but the experts could make those first ones do the strangest things.

      The problem with the early computers, as you found out the hard way, is that almost any change involved programming. And since that early equipment was so costly, much of the testing had to be done on production equipment…….

      Anyway, it seems your management made the sensible decision to chalk up your mistake as part of the costs of training and testing.

  1.  

    miller davidge iii August 9, 2014

    Couple of things…My wife is an IT person and I sent the link to this to her. She loved it.

Corporate Executive Kent Norris Meets Power Plant Men

Favorites Post #52

Originally posted on May 30, 2015

I wonder if Kent Norris felt proud when his boss Wayne Beasley told him that he was being assigned to manage the eight Power Plant Men that were coming to Corporate Headquarters for the next 10 weeks to help prepare for the transition to SAP.  I’m sure he had no idea what he was signing up to do.  For the next 12 weeks, Kent bravely endured one torture after the other.

Kent Norris was a young Corporate Executive working for the Electric Company in Central Oklahoma when the Power Plant Men showed up at his doorstep August 6, 1996.  I wish I had a picture of Kent (Kent… I know you read this blog… if you send me your picture, I’ll add it to this post), because then you could see right away that he would be the perfect person for playing jokes.  Just like Gene Day back at the Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked.

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

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

See, you can tell by Gene Day’s expression that this guy was just right for Power Plant Jokes.  Kent Norris was much like Gene in this respect, and the best part was that he was young and wasn’t from a plant, so he had never experienced the Power Plant Lifestyle of perpetual joke playing (see the post “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“).

At the plant, Power Plant jokes are such a way of life that they include a section on the timecard to enter the number of Power Plant Jokes performed during the day, along with how many were successfully implemented.  This was used to create a PPJ (for Power Plant Joke) Quotient that would go on your performance appraisal each year.  That way you could set your stretch goals for the following year.

I explained last week why the eight of us were at Corporate Headquarters in the post:  “Do Power Plant Men and Corporate Headquarters Mix?” so I won’t go into that much here other than to say that we were working for 10 weeks preparing the Inventory module in SAP so that our company would be prepared to go live with SAP on January 1, 1997.  SAP is an ERP or Enterprise Resource Planning System.

SAP Logo

SAP Logo

Once all 9 of us were sitting in one cube, (eight Power Plant Men, and one young Corporate Executive, Kent Norris), that was when the opportunity for Power Plant Jokes began to take shape.  Kent sat at the table in the middle of the cube next to the telephone.

Most of the Power Plant Men had their backs to each other as they all faced the edge of the cube.  This way, a person walking into the cube could easily see the computer monitors.  I sat on the end of a table at the end of the elongated cube where I could watch everyone and no one could see my monitor (and incidentally, I had a great view of the outside world).

At first we began our harassm….uh… I mean… jokes…. on Kent by easing him into it with very simple things… When he would step out of his cube, we would do little things like put water in his pen cap so that when he went to write something down and removed the cap, water would spill on him.

 

Pen Cap used by Corporate Executives

Pen Cap used by Corporate Executives

Other minor pranks were things like, unplugging the keyboard and mouse from the computer so that Kent would think that his computer had locked up.  He tried rebooting his computer and for five minutes couldn’t figure out how to fix his computer until he found that the mouse and keyboard were unplugged, at which point, several muffled chuckles could be heard emanating from the far corners of the cube… Not from me, because I had learned the fine art of keeping a straight face in the midst of a hilarious power plant joke — after years of training.

Kent was so good at having jokes played on him that I think he enjoyed them as much as we did.  He would respond with phrases like “You guys!!!  Geez!”  The Power Plant Men were so fast at implementing jokes on the fly that all Kent had to do was turn around to talk to someone that had come to ask a question and all the wheels on his chair would be removed and hidden in various locations throughout the cube.

Ken Scott was the Supervisor of Maintenance at the Seminole Plant, who I had worked with at our plant since I first showed up as a new summer help in 1979.  He knew I was a trouble causer from day one.  I wondered how he was going to take our constant jokes with Kent, but he helped out with the rest of us, and when Kent would run off to tell his friend Rita Wing (I think that was her name) about a new joke we had just played on him, Ken Scott would break out of his straight “uninterested” expression into a big smile and laugh out loud.

Mike Gibbs and I would evaluate the day’s jokes on the way home each day.  We were carpooling from Stillwater.

Mike Gibbs

Mike Gibbs

The jokes became more elaborate over time, and I was reaching out to others beyond our cube to help out.  At the time, we were using Windows 3.2 which had small program called “Windows Popup” (I believe the file name was popup.exe).  It was sort of an old version of IMing someone before chatting was really common.  I taught our team how to use it, so that we could pop up messages on each other’s computers to coordinate our jokes while we were doing our work without having to even look at each other.

Popup means so many things now that we all use Internet Browsers.  “Windows Popup” allowed you to locate someone logged into the network, and pop a message right up in the middle of their screen.  It would include the logon name of the person popping it up.  My logon name on the computer system was BREAZIKJ.  The popup message would say Message from BREAZIKJ in the title bar, and it would display the message.  Here is an example I found on Google Images:

 

Windows Popup in Windows 3.2

Windows Popup in Windows 3.2

I had noticed that Kent often talked to the admin for Dennis Dunkelgod, a manager over the Telecommunications team.  His office was next to our bullpen cube.

 

Dennis Dunkelgod

Dennis Dunkelgod

I had worked with Dennis a couple of times running telephone cable at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we needed to install the computer network, though I don’t think he knew me by sight. I sent a Popup message to his admin asking her if she would help us play a joke on Kent.  The message was something like this…. “We are going to play a joke on Kent Norris and were wondering if you would like to help us out.”

The young lady admin didn’t know what to think when this message popped up in the middle of her computer screen, though she knew where it came from because our cube was just across the aisle from her.  She took a print screen of the message and gave it to Dennis.

Dennis, not knowing the ways of Power Plant Men didn’t know what I meant by “joke” and thought we might be planning something inappropriate.  So he came to our cube and asked who was this person BREAZIKJ.  I told him I was Kevin.  He asked me if I had sent that message.  I told him that I had sent it. (In trouble again… as usual).  As Dennis was replying Kent Norris walked into the cube and saw Dennis dressing me down.  He was saying that things like this did not belong in the workplace and he didn’t want to hear about this again!  I replied, “all right.”

Dennis left the cube, and Kent asked what was going on, so I said, “We were planning on playing a joke on you, and so I asked the admin sitting over there if she would like to help us out and it upset Dennis.”  Kent knew that Dennis was just looking out for him, so he explained that to us that Dennis misunderstood our intention.

One joke I played on Kent was this… Since he always answered the phone in our cube, I found a way to connect to a modem on the mainframe and dial out of the company (thanks Craig Henry for the tip), and then dial back in again and ring a phone….  So, I would wait until Kent hung up from the phone, which was just one second after he would say “Toodles” (which was Kent’s way of saying goodbye), then I would ring the phone and hang it back up.

Kent would answer the phone with his regular cheerful telephone answering phrase that I don’t quite remember, but it was something like, “Kent Norris, how may I help you?” only more interesting than that.  When he answered the phone the first time, he was surprised to find that no one was on the phone.  He hung it up and said, “That’s odd.”  Then throughout the week, at various times, just as Kent hung up the phone from a conversation, I would ring his phone again.

Kent began troubleshooting it… he noticed that the ring indicated that it was an outside number calling because of the double ring, but it seemed like the phone was malfunctioning, so he created a trouble ticket to have someone look into it.  Of course, the phone was working fine.

One day, Toby O’Brien came to my cube to ask me if I could tell him how I would do a root cause analysis on a particular accident.  Toby was working for the safety department at the time.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

I was showing him on the computer how I would make a hierarchy of causes and how each cause could be caused by something else, making something that looks like an organizational chart of causes (when you took this to an extreme, you would find that all causes lead back to God).  While I was talking to him, Toby was looking over my shoulder at the computer screen.  Kent was talking on the phone… As I was talking to Toby, I was also listening to Kent’s conversation and I could tell he was wrapping it up, and I wanted to ring the phone.  I figured that since I was in the middle of a conversation with Toby, this would be great cover for me.

So, as I continued talking along with Toby, I opened up the program I had configured to ring the phone and had it all ready to click the button when Kent said “Toodles”.  I could tell that Toby was a little confused by my talking to him while I was opening another program and acting oblivious to it. Still explaining to Toby as if nothing was happening I hit the call button just as Kent hung up the phone, and it immediately rang.  As Kent picked it up, I hung up and closed the program.  Kent said, “Hello this is Kent Norris….. Damn!  Kevin!” as he slammed the receiver back down on the phone.  For some reason Kent thought I was doing something, though, he couldn’t figure out what.  I just gave him a confused look.

At this point I heard a chuckle from Toby, he had a grin much like his picture above. I couldn’t hold it in much longer as my stomach was beginning to quiver and my body was shaking.  So I slunk down in my chair so Kent couldn’t see the smile on my face and put my hand over my eyes to try and concentrate on making a straight face again.  I squeaked out “…and that’s how I would do the root cause analysis on that accident.”

A Power Plant Touch Tone Phone

The climax of the Telephone joke was when one day, I set the program up for redial and left to go to the bathroom leaving my screen locked.  The phone kept calling Kent once every minute.  When I returned to the cube, Kent said, “Kevin!  Stop ringing my phone!”  I said, “I just went to the bathroom!  How could I be ringing your phone?”  At that point the phone rang and Kent said, “Pick it up!”  I picked it up and listened, and said, “There’s nobody there.  But you can’t blame me for that.”  Then I returned to my computer and turned off the program and didn’t call him anymore after that.

The most elaborate joke played on Kent began when one day Kent made the statement that he had never been to a Power Plant and had no desire in the world to ever visit a Power Plant!  I think someone had asked him if he had seen the control room at one of the plants and that was his response.  So, when an opening for an operator came up at our plant, we told Kent that we had sent in his application for the Operator job at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

Who wouldn’t want to see this?

Kent didn’t believe us of course, he thought this was just another little joke we were playing.  We told him that we put all the right things in the application so that he was sure to get the job.  Even though he would tell us that he didn’t believe us, we could see the small hint of doubt on his face, which made it a successful small joke… but this was only the beginning.

A couple of weeks later, Kent received word that since all the engineers were up at our plant in North Central Oklahoma they were going to hold their monthly safety meeting there and Kent and Rita were going to have to drive up to the plant to attend.  Which meant, Kent didn’t have a choice, he was going to have to visit the plant after all.  What Kent didn’t know was that his boss Wayne Beasley had been updated by Ken Scott about what we had told Kent about applying him for the operations job at the plant.

We told Kent that the real reason Wayne was having the meeting at the plant was so that Kent would be able to have his interview for the operations job, because they had accepted his application.  Of course… again… he thought we were just kidding him since he said he had no desire to even visit a plant in his life.  It was quite the coincidence though that shortly after he told us he never wanted to visit a power plant, here he was going to one.

Using Windows Popup (since IM wasn’t around yet), I sent messages to Denise Anson, the receptionist at the plant telling her about our plan with Kent. When Kent and Rita drove up to the main gate at the plant and said that it was Kent Norris and Rita Wing from Corporate Headquarters, Denise replied with, “Oh yes.  Kent Norris.  You have an interview for the operator position.”  Kent said something like, “No, I’m just going to a safety meeting.”  At this point, he couldn’t believe that the joke had actually reached the plant.

Denise messaged me using Windows Popup that he had just entered the gate…. I sent a popup to Ron Madron, who was going to ride up in the elevator with him letting him know that Kent was on his way to the parking lot…. When Kent and Rita entered the building and stood at the elevator, Ron Madron entered from the Maintenance Shop and entered the elevator with Kent and Rita.  Ron asked who they were and when Kent told Ron who he was, Ron replied with “Oh!  You’re the new operator!  Good to meet you!”  Kent could not believe that we had involved yet another person in our joke…

Ken Scott told me that he had talked to Wayne Beasley, Kent’s manager who was holding the safety meeting.  Here is his LinkedIn picture:

Wayne Beasley

Wayne Beasley

Wayne had told Ken that he was going to make an announcement during the Safety Meeting that Kent Norris was going to soon begin working at the plant as their new operator.  I messaged to Denise to ask her where Bill Green, the Plant Manager was because I wanted to fill him in on the plan.  Denise told me he was in Wayne Beasley’s Safety Meeting.

I asked her if she could go get him out of the meeting because I needed to talk to him right away.  So, she went and interrupted the safety meeting to tell Bill that I was on the phone and needed to talk to him.  When Bill answered, I told him about the elaborate joke we had been playing on Kent Norris and how Wayne Beasley was going to announce in the meeting that Kent Norris was going to become an operator at the plant.  Bill said thanks for letting him know because if he didn’t know it was a joke, he might have been upset if Wayne said that without him knowing it was coming…..

So, here is what happened in the safety meeting….. As the meeting was coming to a close, Bill Green, the Plant Manager, stood up and said, “We would all like to welcome Kent Norris to our plant and hope that he will enjoy coming to work for us as an operator.”  — The perfect execution of a power plant joke after weeks of preparation, it was executed flawlessly.

Later that afternoon when Kent came back to our cube at Corporate Headquarters, he said that was the greatest joke ever!  He couldn’t believe how we had everyone involved up to the plant manager.  We were all glad that it went off without a hitch.  We were also glad that Kent had enjoyed it so much.  He said that it wasn’t until he walked in the control room and they didn’t know who he was that he felt sure that he really wasn’t going to be an operator at the plant.

The joke where I laughed the hardest was during the last week working at Corporate Headquarters.  Wayne Beasley had come back from our plant to work where he normally worked, and he wanted to take our team out to lunch with Kent to congratulate us for doing such a good job. So, they picked a Mexican restaurant in Bricktown just east of downtown Oklahoma City.  This restaurant was chosen specifically because it offered a great opportunity for a joke to be played on Kent.

When we walked into the restaurant, Doyle Fullen, the Plant foreman and electrician from Muskogee told the waiter that it was Kent Norris’s birthday.  He told them that he was very shy and would deny that it was his birthday, but we were all bringing him out to lunch because we were celebrating it.  So, toward the end of the meal, out came the group of waiters singing Felice Navidad carrying a huge Sombrero.  Which they placed on Kent’s head!

Google Image of Large Sombrero

Google Image of Large Sombrero

We all sang Felice Navidad at the top of our lungs and clapped and laughed.  I laughed so hard at Kent’s culmination of Power Plant Jokes!  Rarely in my life have I laughed so hard as Kent stood there under this huge sombrero looking humiliated and at the same time proud to be so well loved by the Power Plant Men!

The week ended on Friday afternoon around 3pm, as each of us started leaving one at a time to drive back home for the last time.  Doyle and Bob Christy left first because they had the farthest to drive.  the rest of us left some time later.  Each saying goodbye to Kent a couple at a time…. until Kent was left sitting in the bullpen cube all by himself.  Thinking…. “I’m finally rid of these bozos!”

Unknown to Kent, the majority of us didn’t exactly leave the building… instead  we each went into the bathroom where I was the last to enter…..  I carried a bag that was full of 12 cans of various colors of Silly String:

 

Power Plant Silly String

Power Plant Silly String

Once everyone was ready, we snuck up to the side of the cube where we could hear Kent typing on a computer and with all 12 cans the six of us sprayed silly string over the cube totally covering Kent in Silly String.  That was our last goodbye.  We couldn’t leave without one more Power Plant Man Joke!

A week or two after I returned to the plant, I received the following letter through Intra-Company mail:

Note I received from Kent after I returned home to our power plant

Note I received from Kent after I returned home to our power plant

For years after, and up to today, I consider Kent Norris a dear friend.  One day when I was at the Stillwater Public Library during their yearly book sale, I found a book that I just had to buy for Kent.  It was perfect!  I sent it by intra-company mail.  Kent thanked me for it…. I figured it would remind him of the time he spent trying to Corral a passel of Power Plant Men!  Oh… here is a picture of the book:

Tootle the Power Plant Coal Train

Tootle the Power Plant Coal Train.  See the coal spilling out?

The OSHA Man Cometh

Favorites Post #17 (posted in no particular order)

originally post 8/23/2014

I suppose when you are a Plant Manager, the last person you want to see at your Power Plant doorstep is the OSHA Man!  That’s exactly what happened on Thursday, March 10, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  He was not paying a social call.  He was there to conduct an investigation.  One in which I was heavily involved.

In my post from last week, “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting” I described a near death accident where a contract worker was engulfed in fly ash in a precipitator hopper.  The accident was on all channels on the 5 o’clock news in Oklahoma City.  The press was there when the Life Flight helicopter arrived at the hospital where they interviewed the flight crew.  The OSHA office in the Federal building a few blocks from the Electric Company’s Corporate Headquarters had quickly assigned someone to the case.  Armed with all the authority he needed, he began a full investigation of the accident.

The day before Gerald Young, (the OSHA Man) arrived, I had done some investigation myself into the accident.  I was trying to figure out exactly what had happened.  Why had someone who thought that he had emptied out a hopper so much so that he climbed inside, had suddenly become engulfed in ash?  Where did this large volume of ash come from, and why did it decide to suddenly break loose and fill the hopper at the particular moment when James Vickers had decided to climb into the hopper?

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

Our Precipitator was longer than this one, but you can see the hoppers on the bottom

Larry Kuennan, the lead engineer had asked me to show him the hopper from the inside of the Precipitator, so he could have an idea of what took place.  I told him he needed to put on a fly ash suit and a full face respirator in order to go into the precipitator.  After we were all suited up, I took him on a tour of the inside.  A sight few people have had the chance to experience.  I could write an entire post just about the experience…. Oh…. maybe I already have.  See “Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me or Larry, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

The hopper we needed to investigate was not at the edge, so, we had to squeeze our way around a few beams in order to see the hopper where the accident took place.  When we arrived, I explained that when I had first inspected the precipitator, I had found that the ash had piled up five foot above the bottom of the plates because the feeder wasn’t feeding properly.

So, I had figured that when they were vacuuming out the hopper, the ash that was lodged between the plates (that were 9 inches apart) must have still been there when James climbed into the hopper.  Something had caused the ash to give way all at once.

Larry and I climbed down between the hoppers where we could see the bottle racks underneath the plates.  The bottles are 30 pound cast iron anchors in the shape of the old style milk bottles.  They are used to keep the tension on the wires, which are the electrodes that are normally charged with up to 45,000 volts of electricity when the precipitator is online.

When we sat down to look at the four bottle racks, I noticed right away that one rack of bottles was about a foot and a half lower than the rest of the bottle racks.  This didn’t make sense to me at first.  I couldn’t think of any way that 176 wires and bottles would be lower than the rest of the wires in the hopper.  It was a paradox that took a while to soak in.

When we left, Larry Kuennen made a statement I will never forget.  He said, “Until now, I thought that Plant Electricians did nothing but twist wires together.  I never thought they worked on things like this.”  I replied, “We work on anything that has a wire connected to it.  That includes almost everything in the plant.”  He replied, “Well, I have a new appreciation for Plant Electricians.”

It wasn’t until I returned to the electric shop and heard Scott Hubbard’s recount of the accident (again).  Scott and his crew was working on the roof of the precipitator when the accident happened.  He said that when the accident happened he heard a loud bang.  Sort of like an explosion.

I told him what I had found inside the precipitator.   This could only mean one thing….  An electric insulator on the roof of the precipitator that held up the wires on that bottle rack had broken.  When that happened, it fell the foot and half causing all the ash that had been lodged between the plates to be immediately jolted loose, engulfing James Vickers who had just climbed in the hopper below.

After lunch, Scott went up on the roof and opened the portal on the tension house that housed the insulator that held up that row of wires.  Sure enough. The three foot by 3 inch diameter ceramic insulator had broken.  Something that had never happened at the plant up to that point.   A tremendous load must have been put on this insulator, or it must have been defective in order to just break.  These insulators are designed to hold up to 10,000 pounds of weight.  the weight of the bottles and wires altogether weighed about 6,000 pounds  add another 1000 pounds for the beam attached to the insulators on the top of the plates.  This meant that at least 3,000 pounds of ash was pressing down from the ash above in order for it to just pull apart.

An insulator like this only 3 foot long

An electric insulator like this only 3 foot long

There was only one person that the OSHA man Jerry wanted to speak to when he arrived at the plant (other than to arrange things).  That was me.  I was the acting foreman in charge of the operations in, on and below the precipitator when the accident happened.  I was also just a regular hourly employee, not so “beholden” to the company that I would participate in any kind of “cover-up”.

The first thing OSHA Jerry wanted to see was the inside of the precipitator.  So, I procured a respirator for him, and we climbed up to the landing where one enters the precipitator through side doors.  The first thing he did when he arrived at the door was take out a measuring tape to measure the height of the door.

I hadn’t thought about it until that moment, but a new set of OSHA regulations had  a new set of Confined Space regulations 1910.146 that dealt specifically with confined spaces.  It had gone into effect on April 15, 1993.  Here we were almost a year later.  I had always treated the precipitator as a  confined space, so I had always checked the air quality before I entered it.

So, I asked OSHA Jerry why he measured the size of the door.  He said, he was checking if the entrance was “restricted” or “limited”.  This was the requirement of a Confined space as stated in OSHA regulation 1910.146.  I asked him how small does an entrance have to be to be restricted?  He said, “Well.  That’s not clearly defined.  We could enter the precipitator by bending over and stepping in.

That was the first time I thought that maybe the precipitator itself may not really fit into the strict definition of a confined space.  The hoppers do for sure, but does the precipitator?  Hmm….  I wondered…. I still do come to think of it.  The hoppers were definitely confined spaces by definition… “any space with converging walls, such as a hopper…..”

Oh.  I forgot to describe OSHA Jerry.  He reminded me a little of the guy who was a sidekick in Cheers named Paul Willson:

Paul Willson in Cheers

Paul Willson in Cheers

Actually, he looked so much like him that I thought of him right away.

When we were done inspecting the precipitator, we returned to the front office where we went to Tom Gibson’s (our Electric Supervisor) office.  He closed the door and locked it.  And he began to interview me by explaining that anything that was said in this room would be held in confidence.  He explained that I could speak freely and that the Electric Company could do nothing to me for telling him the truth.

I thought… Ok…. um….  I have always been known for speaking my mind (maybe a little too much), so he wasn’t going to hear anything that I wouldn’t personally tell the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman to his face.  Just ask Ron.  I’m sure he would agree that I was pretty open about anything that popped into my mind.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman – Who wouldn’t want to be honest to a nice guy like this?

He asked me if I had been trained about the OSHA Confined Space regulations.  I responded by saying that we had a class on it one day where we went over our new confined space requirements.  That consisted of reading the company policy.  I knew that I needed to have a hole watch, and I needed to check the air before I went into a confined space.

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

We checked to make sure there was 20.9% oxygen, that there was less than 10 parts per million Carbon Monoxide, less than 5 parts per million H2S (Hydrogen Sulfide) and that there was less than 5% explosive vapors.  OSHA Jack wrote everything down.

Actually, while I was talking, Jerry asked me to pause often because he was writing everything I said word-for-word on a yellow notepad what I was saying.

While we were talking, I asked him a few questions also.  I asked Jack how he decided to work for OSHA.  Where he had come from (Kansas.  Wichita, I think).  How long he had been working for OSHA.  Did he enjoy his job…..  At times, I could get him to digress and tell me a story about his life.

As we continued with our interview over this grave accident that almost resulted in the loss of someone’s life, I was busy making a new friend.  By the time he had asked me everything he needed to know, I knew all about how he had grown up in Kansas, and how he had gone from job-to-job until he had ended up in front of me… interviewing me.

When we had finished the interview, he explained to me that this was an official document that contained all the answers to the questions he had asked me.  He said that this would be private and that the Electric Company would not be able to ever see what I said unless I wanted them to see it.  I asked him if I could show it to them.  He said he would give me a copy of it, and I could do whatever I wanted with it.  He asked me to sign it.  I did.

Page 1 of the statement I signed

Page 1 of the statement I signed

I took Jerry to the copy machine in the front office where he made copies for me.  When he handed them to me, I shook his hand.  I told him I enjoyed talking to him.  I also told him that I wished him well.  I showed him to the elevator, and he left the plant.  I made a copy of the papers that I had signed and went directly to the plant manager Ron Kilman’s office and gave him a copy of the document I had signed.

Ron asked me how it went.  I told him that it went fine.  Here is everything we talked about.  I had nothing to hide.  It did amaze me that OSHA Jack thought I might want to “spill the beans” about something as if we were treated like peons where the King had total rule. — I guess he didn’t know that Eldon Waugh had retired in 1987.

From there, I went to Bill Bennett’s office.  Bill Bennett was our A Foreman.  His office was across the hall from Tom Gibson’s office where I had been interviewed for the previous 3 hours. —  Yeah.  3 hours.  OSHA Jerry didn’t know Shorthand.

Bill asked me how the interview went.  I said it went fine.  He said that Ron and Ben Brandt had been worried about me because the interview had lasted so long.  Bill said he told them, “Don’t worry about Kevin.  He probably has this guy wrapped around his little finger.  He’s probably using his ‘psychology’ on him”

I always loved Bill with all my heart.  He knew me too well.  I told Bill that I knew OSHA Jerry’s life story by the time we were done.  Bill smiled…. just like this:

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to smile like Bill Bennett

I smiled back at Bill.  I returned to the Electric Shop to continue with Unit 1 Overhaul.  After all.  That was my “real” job.  I put on my fly ash suit, my full face respirator, and my rubber boots and returned to the innards of the precipitator to continue where I had left off.  I had a lot to think about as I scanned the Precipitator plates and wires in the dark with my flashlight safely strapped around my neck.

Comment from the original post

Ron Kilman August 23, 2014

Great story! And good job interviewing OSHA Jack.
When the OSHA (EPA, OFCCP, EEOC, etc.) Man cometh, whatever was scheduled for that day (week, etc.) was suspended and you do whatever he/she wants. Cost to implement changes was not a factor and permanent effects on plant efficiency or employee morale were of little importance either. At 67 (with increasing arthritis) I’m reminded of OSHA’s “help” every time I have to use both hands to start my recip saw (one to pull the trigger and the other to push the “safety” switch), or when I have to re-start my lawnmower every time I empty the grass bag.

Comment from a repost

Jill Holmes 

ESPs are nasty places to have to hang out. We had a guy who was severely burned by flowing ash from a bottom hopper–due to this and some other unrelated health complications which occurred during his absence, he was never able to return to work. For some reason he thought the hopper was empty but it wasn’t and when he opened the door, the ash poured out like water and severely burned his legs. Your story reminded me of the incident. I can’t imagine the impact of being nearly completely engulfed in hot ash. It is a miracle that the man survived.

Runaway Fire Hydrant Leaves Power Plant in the Dark

Favorites Post #13 (posted in no particular order)

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.

A notepad like this

Power Plant Notepad

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.

 

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

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.

 

An example of part of an Auxiliary Substation

An example of part of an Auxiliary Substation

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.

 

From the movie "The China Syndrome" where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

From the movie “The China Syndrome” where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

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.

A High Voltage Insulator like this

A High Voltage Insulator like this

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.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman is the one on the left in the plaid shirt

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.

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

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.

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

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.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

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….

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

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.

Telephone Grounding Panel

Telephone Grounding Panel

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.

 

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode "Night Call"

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode “Night Call”

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.

 

Mickey Postman

Mickey Postman

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

    1. Ron May 17, 2015

      That was an exciting day! Another great story. Thanks for the memories.

    1. Dan Antion May  17, 2014

      I like the mix of storytelling and information sharing you deliver here. Thanks again

    1. Dave Tarver May 17, 2014

      Aug 8, 2011 I lost all reserve in and lost both units in 2 separate storms and A1 would not start for a few minutes and A2 was leaking antifreeze terribly not a scratch and back online in 34 hours both units and no one ever asked me one question even with a Safety Dept not one question asked of me the SS on duty. Not many men on the planet have ever experienced an uncontrolled total plant outage- you would of thought a learning opportunity would of took place. Feb 2011 worst winter temps in years 50 Units or more tripped in Texas let alone the trusty units of Redbud and McClain were fighting Sooner rolled right along with storm warnings for two weeks ahead – the ICS still went to Detroit for just tours of other facilities once again the fall guy Tarver McArthur stood alone. I had authored a Freeze Protection Plan for the plant and that seemed to save the day and explain to the regulatory bodies how we were online and everyone else in Texas was off and enjoying rolling blackouts in a terrible winter weather situation not to mention our powers that be were all stranded in Detroit and very few people could get to the plant without getting stuck trying to get there as well – but a few health heart issues later I am still here to tell about it all you would think folks would want to take advantage of someone that had went through the fire and Ice but thats ok I want them someday distant to get all the credit they deserve when the trumpets sound as that is truly what matters most. DT

  1. NEO May 17, 2014

    Great story, and yes, you took exactly the proper lesson from it, and it is too bad that many of our bosses haven’t learned it.

    And yup, I’ve buried a lot of electrocuted squirrels over the years.