Power Plant Men cherish few things more than Friday afternoon when they head out to the parking lot and the weekend officially begins. Coolers full of ice, a quick trip to the convenience store for some beer and they are ready for the next two days. That’s why when a suggestion was made that the Power Plant Men might have to start working on Saturdays as well, the idea was not well received.
The Maintenance Department at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had downsized from 13 crews to 4 teams. We were struggling to figure out how to make that work. We had four teams and only seven electricians. Which meant that one team only had one electrician. Diane Brien was the lucky “one”. She was the only electrician on her team.
We were spread out so far already, how could we possibly cover an extra day of the week? Who (besides operators – who work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) would want to give up their Saturday to work straight time at the Power Plant. I mean…. we all loved our jobs (for the most part), but this was asking a lot.
We had learned from the last two downsizings and the the Quality Process that when the company hired consultants, things were going to change. We were convinced that consultants were hired to take the heat off of upper management. They could just say, “Well…. This is what the Consultants told us would work best, so we’re cutting our staff in half.”
So, when consultants were hired for over $100,000 to figure out how we could work an “alternate work schedule”, we were suspicious. Any of us could sit around and put two and two together to figure out a way to work alternate work schedules. This led us to believe that this was another attempt to force us into something by saying, “The Consultants….. (not us)….” Bringing to mind the phrase from Star Wars, Return of the Jedi; “Many Bothans Died for This Information.”
Picture this lady telling the Power Plant Men how they were going to work on Saturdays and they were going to like it. The phrase “T’ain’t No Way!” comes to mind. Here is how the meeting went….
We were called to the main break room, which doubled as the main conference room, and tripled as the Men’s Club Gathering Sanctuary. The consultants were introduced to a room of silent, glaring, suspicious Power Plant Men types. We were told that they had been working on alternate work schedules that we might possibly want to consider. No matter what, they were not going to force anything on us. We were told that we would only go on an alternate work schedule if we voted and the majority were okay with it.
Power Plant Men chins began to jut out in defiance. The rattle of someone’s dentures came from the back of the room. A nearly unanimous vote of “No” was already decided by about 90% of the people going by the the body language of the men in the room.
The consultants continued by saying that they had three alternatives that they would like to run by us. The first one was to provide coverage 7 days of the week. I think everyone in the room knew that there were only 7 days in a week, and this meant that they wanted the four maintenance crews to work every day of the week. Including Sundays, since we figured that Sunday must be included in the 7 days, since we couldn’t think of 7 days without including Sundays.
Currently, Sundays were double time. If Sunday became a regular work day, then the only double time would be during the night. You can see the reason why management wanted to increase our regular coverage to the weekend. It would eliminate a large amount of overtime. This isn’t a bad idea when you are trying to figure out how to save money.
The consultants (I’m probably going to begin a lot of paragraphs with the words… The consultants… for obvious reasons) said that the benefit of working on Sundays was that every 4 weeks we would get 6 days off of work in a row! What? How does that work? They showed us how it worked, but the majority was not in favor of working Sundays.
I personally thought that if we had to work on Sundays, then I was probably going to be looking for a new job somewhere else. I knew operators did this, but this was something that they had accepted up front when they became operators. Operators are a special breed of workers that dedicate their lives to the plant. Maintenance crews, though they are equally loyal, are not willing to give up a regular work habit. Even though I worked Sundays when an emergency came up without question, this day was normally reserved for going to Church and spending the day at home with my family. So, this was never going to be a long term option for me.
The options to work on Sundays meant that there was only one day each week (Thursday) when all four of the teams would be working on the same day. That would be the day when we would have plant-wide meetings, like the Monthly (or had it moved to Quarterly) Safety meetings.
There were two options that included Sundays. Neither of them were acceptable to the Power Plant Men. The third option was to cover Saturday. The consultants showed us how we could cover Saturday as a normal work day and every four weeks we could have 5 days off in a row. How is it, you ask, can you cover one extra day and you have more days off?
The Consultant’s answer: Work 4-10s (four tens). That is, work four ten hour days each week. When you work ten hour days for four days, you still work the same 40 hours each week, only you have to show up at the plant for four days instead of 5. This means, you have one extra day each week where you don’t even have to go to work.
Think about this… We normally arrived at the plant at 8:00 and left at 4:30 (8 hour day with a 30 minute lunch). We were being asked to come in at 7:00 and leave at 5:30. Two extra hours each day and you only have to work 4 days. The company will not only be covering a Saturday now, but they would be covering 10 hours each day instead of just 8. The dentures rattled again in the back of the room, only this time it was Bill Green’s (our plant manager)…. he was salivating at the prospect of covering an extra 20 hours each week (2 extra hours each week day and 10 hours on Saturday) by just shuffling around the work schedule. That’s 50% more coverage!
Think about this some more….. I only had to do laundry for four days of coal and fly ash soaked clothes instead of five. I only had to drive the 30 miles to the plant and the 30 miles back, four times each week instead of five. That reduces my gas by 20%. It also gives me an extra hour each week when I don’t have to drive to and from work… this comes out to 48 extra hours free each year (after subtracting vacation) for just not having to drive to work five times each week. More than an extra week’s worth of vacation. saved in driving time alone. I’ll tell you some more benefits after I show you how this worked….
The consultants explained the 4 – 10s covering a Saturday with four crews like this….. We worked on a four week cycle. Each week, each team was on a different week in the cycle. We all worked on Wednesday and Thursday. The rest of the days, there were less than 4 teams working… it worked like this….
If you are working on week 3 (Monday thru Thursday), after Thursday you don’t go back to work until next Wednesday! Five days off in a row without using any vacation!
Crazy huh? The only catch was that you had to work on a Saturday once every four weeks. But think about this…. (I seem to enjoy saying that in this post…. “think about this…”) I think it’s because the first thought is that this is dumb. Why would I want to work two extra hours each day? Why would I want to give up one of my Saturdays? Ok… while you’re thinking about that, I’ll move on to the next paragraph…
I suppose you realized by now that there are 13 Saturdays that each person would work in a 52 week year when you work a Saturday once every four weeks. Thinking about it that way isn’t so bad. Especially since the Power Plant Men had at least four weeks vacation (160 hours) by this time since the majority of the Power plant Men had been there for at least 10 years. Those with 20 years had 5 weeks vacation (200 hours). My fellow electrician Charles Foster said that to me as we were going back to work…. “I can just take vacation every time we have to work on Saturday.” — We’ll see….
With 10 hour days, that meant that if you have 4 weeks vacation, then you have 16 days off. You could take your Saturday off for vacation for the entire year, giving you 6 days off in a row every 4 weeks using only 10 hours of vacation, and you can avoid having to work any Saturdays (if that’s really what you want).
The Power Plant Men decided to give it a try to see how we liked it for a few months. The majority of us had mixed feelings about this new work schedule. The other thought in our mind was, “We paid over $100,000 for someone to come up with this? Maybe we’re in the wrong line of work.”
One problem with this plan is that we had to have an alternate carpooling schedule. Scott Hubbard and Fred Turner and I were not all on the same teams. So, we had to figure out when we were working on the same days and try to remember who drove the last time we had that particular configuration of carpoolers in order to figure out whose turn it was to drive. We figured something out that seemed to work… there were just a few times when the neighbors would hear… “No, it’s my turn! No! It’s mine! Remember last Friday? But that was you and Scott! No! I have it right here in my notes! Fred drove, we talked about Deer Stands and types of feeders. I nodded my head a lot.”
The first Saturday Charles Foster and I showed up to work, we noticed a great benefit right away. Our team was the only team working in the Maintenance Shop. That meant that we had all the trucks to ourselves! No fighting over truck keys! We didn’t have to wait in line at the tool room. No waiting around for Clearances on the equipment. We had full reign over the shop. We also had Sue Schritter go to Ponca City to pick up parts shortly before lunch so that she could bring back Pizza for us! (ok. yes. we were bribed with Pizza) Courtesy of our foreman, Alan Kramer:
We really enjoyed working on Saturday. It turned out to be the best day to work. No management stalk… um… walking around watching us from around corners…. No meetings… Just working away without interruption. We would complete a lot of work on Saturdays.
Another benefit that I don’t think was expected was a big reduction in Sick Leave. I no longer had to take off time to go to the doctor or the dentist. I now had days off during the week, so I would just schedule doctor appointments when I was not working.
Holidays were handled two ways. You still only had 8 hours off for a holiday instead of 10, so you had to work around that. When there was a holiday, you could either work four 8 hour days (instead of 10) that week and take off the holiday just as you normally would, or you could take off 8 hours just on the holiday, and either use 2 hours of vacation or come into work for 2 hours (2 hours vacation made the most sense).
When it was all said and done, the Power Plant Men stayed on 4-10s working every fourth Saturday at our plant. Other plants were able to decide on their own work schedules. I know one of the other plants decided they didn’t want to change. They still liked driving to work five days each week instead of four. They liked cleaning five days worth of dirty clothes each week instead of four. They liked having two days off each week instead of an average of three days. Maybe they didn’t know what they liked.
This brings to mind a book that I read once after reading another book recommended by Toby O’Brien. Toby gave me a book once called “One Minute Manager”.
One of the authors wrote another book called, “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson, M.D. I encourage everyone to read this:
Reading books like these are a lot cheaper than hiring a consultant for boo-coos just to make changes. You just have “Power Plant Reading Time” during the morning meeting and read a chapter from this little book.
Power Plant Men working for a large Coal-Fired Power Plant have the kind of culture where Cleanliness is next to “Leroy Godfrey-ness”. If you knew Leroy Godfrey, then you would know that he was a perfectionist in a lot of ways. Or… Well, he expected the Plant Electricians to be anyway. A few years after becoming an electrician, there was some work being done by Ben Davis, one of our best electricians, at the Conoco (Continental) Oil Refinery twenty miles north of the plant in Ponca City.
Being a low level Electrician Apprentice, I was not included in whatever was happening at the Refinery. I didn’t work at the refinery for many years. When I finally did go to Conoco, I wished I hadn’t.
What was happening? A Co-Generation plant was being built there. It is called a “Co-Generation” plant because it serves two purposes. Waste gas from the refinery is used to fire the boiler that produces the steam to turn the turbine. Any steam left over is sent over to the refinery to supplement their own needs. The electricity is used by the refinery and any left over electricity is sold by the Electric Company for a profit. So, in a sense, it is a “Co-Existence”.
For the most part, Power Plant Men were looking for opportunities to get in a company truck and leave the plant grounds to work on something outside the confines of the plant where they work every day, week in and week out. Trips to the river pumps or the parks on our lake were always nice, because you would see wildlife along the way. You could look out over the Arkansas River in the morning as the sun was rising and feel the cool breeze and smell the pastures nearby.
Trips to Enid to our small peaking units were fun too, because we were able to work on some different equipment out in a quiet substation where mud daubers were the only sound until the units came online. The drive to Enid was nice because the 45 mile trip across the countryside is pleasant and the traffic is very light. You can go for miles without seeing another car.
After only a couple of visits to the Conoco Oil Refinery, I never looked forward to the 20 minute drive from the plant when we had to work on the Co-Generation Plant co-owned by our company and the Oil Refinery. There were a few things about the refinery that bothered me about working there. One annoying factor was the hideous smell.
I had lived in Ponca City for three years and the sour odor that poured out of the Oil Refinery to the south of our house generally blew right up our street. One winter morning I remember stepping out of our rental house into the dark on my way to work, and the exhaust from the oil refinery must have been blowing directly down the street to our house where I lived because when I took a breath I gagged immediately and was at the point of vomiting on the front lawn.
A side note…
My wife and I lived in this tiny house shortly after we were married. Kelly was an RN (nurse) at the local hospital working the night shift while I was an electrician at the Power Plant during the day. I had the philosophy that if we started by living in a dump and saved our money, then as we gradually worked our way up to a bigger house, we would feel as if life was getting better, and we never had to worry about money, since we always lived well below our means.
I figured that if we lived far below our means, our means would keep growing. Living just below your means meant always staying in the same economic spot (how many sentences can I put the words “means” and “meant” right next to each other?). The quality of Life doesn’t get much better. When living well below your means, life continues to get better even if your job stays the same your entire life. I had figured that I was going to be a plant electrician until the day I retired, so, this was my way of planning ahead.
My wife endured living in this tiny house one block away from the railroad tracks traveled by the coal trains on their way to our plant (which shook our house as they passed) for three years before we moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma where we lived with more than twice the square feet and no smell from the oil refinery.
end of side note…
I started out by saying that the culture at our Power Plant was that Cleanliness was very important. I suppose this was true at the Oil Refinery as well, only, it seemed that even though the clutter was all picked up, there was something “inherently” dirty about the oil refinery. I’m not sure how to describe it, but you just felt like you didn’t want to touch anything because it was going to leave some sort of dirty film on you. It was….. grimy (one could say… oily… well… it was an oil refinery).
Our Power Plant is in North Central Oklahoma, and during the summer going for an entire month with over 100 degree weather every day was not uncommon. There are parts of the plant where you had to work some times where the temperature reached 160 degrees. Of course, you can’t stay in that environment very long, and those areas are generally not the areas of choice when choosing which job to work on next.
One hot summer day in 1996, Charles Foster and I had to go to the oil refinery to our Co-Generation plant to fix an Air Conditioner Condenser Fan Motor.
This isn’t like one of those fans on the side of your house in the box that you know as your “air conditioner” that blows hot air out when the air conditioner in your house is running, though it performs the same task, only on a much bigger scale.
When you entered the oil refinery you had to wear a long blue cloak or coat called “Nomex” (pronounced “No Mex”).
The reason for wearing this heavy “woolen” coat was to help save your life in case you happened to be around the next time (next time?) something exploded, blasting flames in your direction. — Yeah…. comforting huh? Knowing that this flame retardant coat was going to keep you from being burned alive when something exploded in the refinery. Oh joy.
Everyone in the refinery was wearing these blue coats. It was a requirement before you could drive your pickup through the security gate.
Once inside the gate, Charles and I checked our clearances to make sure it was safe to work on unwiring the motor that was mounted under the air conditioner coils. Another fan was running that was turning a large fan blade blowing hot air down next to us. We had brought our own fans to blow cooler air on us while we worked on the motor. This particular motor weighed about 400 lbs, to give you an idea of the size of motor we were repairing.
Charles and I had brought a temperature gun to check how hot everything was when we were working.
When we checked the temperature, we found that the area where we had to stand was 160 degrees. The motor itself was even hotter than that. We had to wear leather gloves just to work on it without burning our hands. Asbestos gloves would have rendered us useless because they make you feel like you are wearing “Hulk Hands” where your fingers are about 2 inches wide.
See what I mean?
The air was too hot to breathe except for quick shallow breaths. Even though we had a fan blowing directly on us, we took turns approaching the motor, turning some bolts a couple of times, and then quickly moving out of the area to where we could be in the cooler 105 degree temperature.
There is nothing like a mild irritation (such as working in extreme heat) to motivate you to hurry up a job. Charles and I worked diligently to remove the motor and then lowered it down with a platform hand lift that we kept in the shop.
This fan motor was on the roof of a building, so once we had removed the motor from where it was mounted, we still had to lower it down to the back of the truck which was backed up to the side of the building. Once in the truck, we brought it back to the plant where we could work on it.
When you first went to work in the oil refinery you had to take a specially designed safety course when you are issued your Nomex coat. During that class, you are told that if you hear the sirens go off, that generally means that there are some toxic gases being released accidentally in the plant, you are supposed to take action quickly.
The funniest (or not so funniest) instructions was that when the sirens go off, you are supposed to run in the opposite direction away from the sirens. Which sort of reminds me of Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail when they had to run away from the viscous fighting rabbit. Yelling “Run Away! Run Away!” Great safety evacuation plan. — Plan of action: “Run!!!”
The toxic gas that everyone was worried about is called Hydrogen Sulfide or H2S. This is the gas that smells like rotten eggs. The only problem is that when there is more than the minimal amount of H2S in the air, you can’t smell it anymore because it quickly deadens your sense of smell.
Another fun reason to not want to go work in the Oil Refinery.
Anyway, Charles and I safely reversed the process to return the motor to its rightful place mounted on the bottom of the coils on the roof.
A few times I had to go to work at the Co-Generation plant because something was broken (like the fan motor), but most of the time that we went to the plant was to do our quarterly battery inspections. For more information about battery inspections, you can read this post: “Importance of Power Plant Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance“.
I have told you all the reasons why I didn’t enjoy working at the Oil Refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma. There were reasons why I did enjoy it. I suppose if you have been reading my posts, you will know the most obvious answer to that question (oh. I guess I didn’t really ask a question… but if I had…). The only redeeming factor with working at the Co-Generation plant at the oil refinery was being able to work with the best Power Plant Men and Women in the country.
I have given you an example above when I worked with Charles Foster. I also worked with Scott Hubbard and Diana Brien.
Both of them top class electricians and First Class Friends. Just to be able to work side-by-side with such terrific people made me forget about the poison gases. I didn’t mind the heat. I even forgot I was wearing the heavy suffocating Nomex Coat. What’s a little grime when your friend tells you about their day? About what they are planning for the weekend? Or the rest of their life?
Actually, I think that’s what made everything about working both at the Oil Refinery and the Power Plant itself the most enjoyable job I can imagine. Sure. We had a culture of “cleanliness” at the plant but I think it was the culture of “friendliness” that really made all the difference. It was also the most painful part the day I finally left the Power Plant to adventure out to find the rest of the world in 2001.
I suppose most people remember where they were New Year’s Eve at midnight on Saturday, January 1, 2000. That is a night I will never forget. Some people were hiding in self-made bunkers waiting for the end of the world which never came, others were celebrating at home with their families and friends. I suppose some people went on with their lives as if nothing was different that night. Not my family. My wife and two children spent the night at the Power Plant waiting to see if all of the testing we had performed the last two years had covered all possible failures of the Y2K scare.
A small group of Power Plant Men had been chosen to attend a party with our families in the main conference room at the Power Plant. All the food and drinks were supplied by the company. Our Plant Manager, Bill Green was there. Children were given the opportunity to rest in some other room as it reached their bedtimes.
Two years before this fateful night, the company was in full swing preparing for the Y2K computer disaster that had been foretold by those who knew that many computer systems only used two digits for the year instead of all four. so, when the year 2000 rolled around, it would suddenly show up in the computer as 00, which didn’t compute as a year in some systems. After all, you can’t divide something by 00. Suddenly, the time between events that just happened before midnight and those that happen just after midnight are 100 years apart in the wrong direction.
The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was completed in 1979 and 1980, so, my first thought was that by that time, computers were far enough along to know better. The Instrument and Controls Power Plant Men along with the Plant Engineers decided that the best way to check their systems was to change the clocks on the computers one at a time to just before midnight on New Year’s Eve and see what happens.
I thought that was a pretty ingenious way to go about testing the computer systems. By changing the clock on each system one at a time to New Year’s Eve and watching it roll over to the new Millennium, you learn right away if you have a problem, and you have contained the disaster to one system at a time while you test it. By doing this, it turned out that there was a problem with one system at the Co-Generation plant at the Continental Oil Refinery 20 miles north of the plant.
I wrote a post about the Co-Generation Plant in a previous post: “What Coal-fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery“. When it was discovered that the computer at the Conoco Oil Refinery Power Plant would crash on New Year’s Eve, it was decided that we would just roll the clock back to 1950 (or so), and we wouldn’t have to worry about it for another 50 years. The thought was that by that time, this computer would be replaced.
This was the original thought which caused the Y2K problem in the first place. No one thought in the 1960’s that their computer systems would still be operating when the year 2000 came around, so they didn’t bother to use four digits for the year. Disk space was expensive at that time, and anything that could save a few bytes was considered an improvement instead of a bug.
My wife wasn’t too pleased when I told her where we were going to spend New Year’s Eve when Y2K rolled around, but then again, where would you rather be if a worldwide disaster happened and the electricity shutdown across the country? I would think the Power Plant would be the best place. You could at least say, “I was in the actual Control Room at a Power Plant watching them throw the switch and light up Oklahoma City!” Besides, we usually spent New Year’s Eve quietly at home with our kids.
Even though we were fairly certain everything had been accounted for, it was the unknown computer system sitting out there that no one had thought about that might shut everything down. Some system in a relay house in a substation, or some terrorist attack. So, there we sat watching the New Year roll in on a big screen TV at one end of the break room. Children’s movies were being shown most of the evening to keep the young occupied while we waited.
I thought that Jim Arnold, the Supervisor over the Maintenance Department, wanted me in the break room at the Power Plant so that he could keep an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t going to be causing trouble that night. Jim never really trusted me…. I suppose that was because strange things would happen when I was around. Of course, I would never do anything that would jeopardize the operation of the Power Plant, but that didn’t stop me from keeping Jim guessing.
No. Not really. I was there because I had a way with computers. I was the computer go to person at the plant, and if anything happened to any of them, I would probably be the person that could whisper it back into service. Also, if for some reason the Generators tripped, I was a switchman that could open and close switches in the substation and start the precipitator back up and run up to the top of the boiler if the boiler elevator broke down and get it started back up.
Except for my natural affinity for computers, any of the electricians in the Power Plant could do all those other things. I think there was just a little “prejudice” left over about me from when Bill Bennett our past A foreman used to say, “Let Kevin do it. He doesn’t mind getting dirty” (or…. he likes to climb the boiler, or…. he likes confined spaces, or… Kevin likes to stay up at all hours of the night working on things… I could go on… that was Bill’s response when someone asked him who should do the really grimy jobs — of course… to some degree…. he was usually right).
I was actually a little proud to be told that I was going to have to spend New Year’s Eve at the Power Plant. I had almost 17 years of experience as a Power Plant Electrician at that time, and I felt very comfortable working on any piece of equipment in the plant. If it was something I had never worked on before, then I would quickly learn how it worked… As I said, all the electricians in the plant were the same way. It was our way of life.
At 11:00 pm Central Time, we watched as the ball dropped in Time Square in New York City. The 10 or so Power Plant Men with their families sat in anticipation waiting…. and waiting… to see if the lights went out in New York…. Of course you know now that nothing happened, but we were ready to jump into a crisis mode if there were any reports of power failures across the country.
You see…. The electric grid on the east side of the Rocky Mountains is all connected together. If the power grid were to go down in one area, it could try dragging down the rest of the country. If protective relays in substations across the country don’t operate flawlessly, then a blackout occurs in a larger area than just one particular area covered by one electric company.
When relays operate properly, a blackout is contained in the smallest area possible. There was only one problem…. Breakers in substations are now controlled by remote computer systems. If those systems began to act erratic, then the country could have a problem. This did not happen that night.
There was a contract worker in the engineering department at our plant who was at his home in the country during this time hunkered down in a bunker waiting for the end of the world as was foretold by the minister of his church. He had purchased a large supply of food and water and had piled them up in his shelter along with a portable generator. He and his family waited out the end of the world that night waiting for the rapture. He told me about that a few months later. He was rather disappointed that the world hadn’t ended like it was supposed to. He was so prepared for it.
After 11 pm rolled around and there was no disaster on the east coast, things lightened up a bit. I decided to take my son and daughter on a night tour of the plant. So, we walked over to the control room where they could look at the control panels with all of the the lights and alarms. Here is a picture of Jim Cave and Allen Moore standing in front of the Unit 1 Control Panel:
Then I took each of them up to the top of the Boiler where you could look out over the lake at night from a view 250 feet high. The Power Plant becomes a magical world at night, with the rumbling sounds from the boiler, the quiet hissing of steam muffled by the night. The lights shining through the metal structure and open grating floors.
From the top of the boiler, you could look south and see the night lights from Stillwater, Pawnee and Perry. Looking north, you could see Ponca City and the Oil Refinery at Conoco (later Phillips). The only structure taller than the boilers are the smoke stacks. There was always a special quality about the plant at night that is hard to put your finger on. A sort of silence in a world of noise. It is like a large ship on the ocean. In a world of its own.
We returned to the break room 20 minutes before midnight, where our plant manager Bill Green and Jim Arnold tested their radios with the Control Room to make sure we were all in contact with each other. I had carried my tool bucket up to the break room in case I needed to dash off somewhere in a hurry.
We felt confident by this time that a disaster was not going to happen when the clock rolled over to midnight. When the countdown happened, and the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 counted down, We cheered “Happy New Year!” and hugged one another. I think both of my children had dozed off by this point.
Bill Green called the control room. The word came back that everything was business as usual. Nothing out of the ordinary. We waited around another hour just to make sure that nothing had shutdown. By 1:00 am on January 1, 2000, Bill Green gave us the (Bill) Green Light. We were all free to return to our homes.
I gathered up my two children and my wife Kelly, and we drove the 25 miles back home to the comfort of our own beds. When we went to bed early that morning after I had climbed into bed, I reached over and turned off the light on my nightstand. When the light went out, it was because I had decided to turn it off. Not because the world had suddenly come to an end. A new Millennium had just begun.
This post was originally posted on February 4, 2012. I have added some detail and pictures:
Coal-fired power plants are built out in the country away from any major town. I used to think this was because they didn’t want to pour ash and fumes on the nearby civilians, but now I think it has more to do with the kind of people that work at the plant. They like wide open spaces.
They like driving through the countryside every morning on the way to work, and again in the afternoon on the way home. In the morning, it gives them time to wake up and face the day ahead, as they can see the plant 20 miles away looming closer and closer as the dawn approaches. It gives them time to wind down in the evening so that by the time they arrive at their homes, the troubles of the day are long behind them and they can spend time with their families, their horses, and cows, and tractors, and their neighbors. But enough about Walt Oswalt for now.
Some brave power plant workers reside in the nearest towns 20 miles in either direction. This is where I was in 1986 when I moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma. I had a few good friends in Ponca City that worked at the plant, and so we decided it would be best for us to carpool to work each day. There were four of us and we would alternate drivers each day. We would meet early in the morning in the parking lot of a grocery store and all pile into one of the cars and make our 20 mile trek to the plant. Besides myself, there was Jim Heflin, Dick Dale and Bud Schoonover.
For those of you who don’t know these three, let’s just say that they were on the hefty side. At that time I was slightly on the pre-hefty stage of my life. I owned a little 1982 Honda Civic that would normally get 40 miles to the gallon on the highway.
With all four of us in the car, I couldn’t get past 32 miles to the gallon, as my car would spit and sputter all the way to work like the little engine that could trying to make it over the mountain.
Bud was very tall and in the front seat of my little Honda Civic, his knees would almost touch his chin and his feet were cramped and his head had to bend down a little. It was comical to watch us all pour out of my car in the parking lot. it was almost magical how we could all fit in there.
Bud Schoonover and Dick Dale worked in the tool room and the warehouse, and Jim worked on a mechanical maintenance crew. I was an electrician and called the electric shop my home at this time. I had worked with all three of these men from my early days as a summer help and we knew each other very well. Jim Heflin reminded me of an old hound dog that the kids like to climb all over and he just sits there and enjoys it.
He rarely had a cross word to say. I could go on about Jim, but this is a story more about Bud Schoonover than it is Jim. I will save him for another day.
Dick Dale was a jolly kind of person in general, but he had more wits about him than his other companions, and that tended to make him a little more agitated at some things, which he would work out verbally on the way home from work on most days.
Once before I started carpooling with Bud, Jim and Dick, Bud was driving home after work one day, and Dick was talking about his day. Every once in a while Bud would say “…and what about Jim.” After they had passed the Otoe-Missouri tribe and were close to the Marland turnoff, just after Bud had said, “…and what about Jim” for the fifth time, Dick stopped talking and said, “Why do you keep asking about Jim Heflin? What does he have to do with this?”
Bud answered, “Well. Jim did ride to work with us this morning didn’t he?” Sure enough. They had left Jim behind. So, they turned around and headed back to the plant. 15 minutes later, they arrived back at the plant, and there was Jim just waiting by the roadside with his lunch box like a good faithful hound dog, just as sure that they were going to come back and pick him up as he could be.
Bud Schoonover (or Scoot-On-Over Bud as I used to call him from time-to-time when we were climbin in the car), was a tall large man. I want to say that I saw him angry only one time, and it was kind of scary seeing this huge guy chasing after you like a large troll with a big grin on his face and tongue hanging out flailing his lunch box like a giant mace. Bud was really a mild mannered person most of the time, and though he might complain from time to time each day, you felt like he was someone that made an art out of remaining calm when faced with an angry mob lined up at the tool room gate demanding tools and parts. He wouldn’t move any faster if there was just one person or an entire crowd.
I could go on about Bud, and I probably will later, but today I am focusing on the act of carpooling with Bud Schoonover. Each morning Bud would watch the weather on TV before heading out of the house, and he just couldn’t wait for someone to ask him what the weather was going to be like, because he knew in his heart that he was providing a service to his fellow man by making sure that he never missed the weather report in the morning. So I would always oblige him. I would wait until we were on the road on our way out of Ponca City, and then I would ask, “Hey Bud. What’s the weather goin’ ta be like today?” Bud would squint his eyes (mainly because Bud seemed to naturally squint a lot. Sort of like Clint Eastwood) and he would look off into the distance and say a long drawn out “Well…..” Then he would go into the weather report.
To Describe what Bud’s face looked like you will have to use a little imagination… First, by starting with Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son…
Then you need to make her a white person. Then you need to make her a man. Then you need to add about 150 lbs. And you would have Bud Schoonover. Actually, Bud would make the very same expression that Aunt Esther is making in this picture. I couldn’t watch Sanford and Son without thinking about Bud Schoonover. I think Aunt Esther probably took lessons from Bud about how to move your jaw back and forth at some point in her life.
I remember one morning when we were driving to work and Bud was telling us that it was going to start clearing up around noon, and Dick Dale and I were sitting in the front seats looking out the window at the cloudless sky and the morning sun shining brightly across the meadow, and I said, “…going to clear up around noon?”, and he replied, “Yep, around noon”. I answered, “Well, that’s good, it’ll be about time.”
There was another time where Bud’s weather report one morning said that if we didn’t get rain soon the wheat farmers were sure to lose all their crops. When Dick Dale and I looked around, the wheat fields were all just as green and growing like there was no tomorrow. — There was a drought, but it was in the southern part of the state and didn’t effect us.
Because of this daily report, Dick Dale and I developed a way of speaking to each other without saying words. We would look at each other and move our eyebrows up and down and make small gestures with our mouths, and we both knew exactly what each other was saying.
My favorite Bud Schoonover carpooling story has to do with one morning when Bud was driving us to work and we were heading down the highway when we topped a small hill and were getting ready to head down into a valley just inside the Ponca Indian tribe. Bud slowed down the car and stopped right there in the middle of the highway.
We looked around trying to figure out what happened. Bud acted as if everything was just normal, and so the three of us, Jim, Dick and I were spinning our heads around trying to figure out what Bud was doing stopping the car in the middle of the highway with cars beginning to pile up behind us. Ideas flashed through my mind of some Indian curse that had possessed Bud, and I half expected Bud to start attacking us like a zombie.
So, I couldn’t stand it any longer and I had to ask, “Bud? Why did you stop here?” He said, “School bus.” Dick then chimed in with the next logical question and said, “School bus?” Bud came back with “Yeah, the school bus down there”. Sure enough. Down in the valley about 1/2 mile in front of us was a school bus heading toward us that had stopped to pick up some children along the highway and it had its red flashers on and its stop sign out.
So, Dick Dale said something to me with his left eyebrow, and I replied by raising the right side of my lip while tensing it up some.
Finally the bus resumed its journey toward us, and Bud began moving again, much to the delight of the long line of cars behind us. The bus went forward about 300 feet and stopped at another driveway to pick up some more children. We were only about 1/4 of a mile away from the bus at this point, so Bud stopped his car again and waited for the children to board the bus. I think I could see Bud squinting to get a better count of how many children were climbing into the bus. It occurred to me later that maybe when Bud squinted his eyes he magnified his sight so that ‘objects appear closer than they really were’.
Anyway, that was the first and only time in my life that I had waited twice for a school bus going in the opposite direction. It could only happen while carpooling with Bud Schoonover.
I now have a picture of Bud:
Originally posted May 11, 2012:
The Power Plant sits on a hill where you can see it 20 miles away looming in the distance. The lake that provides cooling water for the plant is also built on a hill. If the Electric Company had waited for the rain to fill up the lake we would still be waiting 34 years later. Fortunately the Arkansas River flows near the plant below the Kaw Lake dam near Ponca City and before it runs into the Keystone Lake near Tulsa. There are 4 large pumps alongside the river in a fenced in area that draws water from the river and sends it a mile up a hill where it pours into the lake. It is a beautiful lake and most of the area around the lake is a wildlife preserve. A part of the area around the lake is reserved for hunting.
Bald Eagles and Pelicans make this lake their home in the winter. During the winter months you can watch a web cam of a bald eagle’s nest on the lake. http://www.suttoncenter.org/pages/live_eagle_camera
I have included this map so that you can see the layout. the wide blue line in the upper right corner is the Arkansas river.
The River Pump station is just off the edge of this map.
During my second summer as a summer help at the Power Plant I was assigned to be the “gopher” for a maintenance crew that was going to be working down by the river for a week. Being a “gopher” means that you drive back and forth between the plant and the river bringing (in other words: “go for”) tools, supplies, food, water, and anything else that the Power Plant Men may need while they were working at the river.
At first I wasn’t aware of what job the Power Plant Men crew were assigned. I just knew it was down by the river. I towed a large air compressor behind the flatbed truck and a lot of air hoses and air powered tools. Then I watched as the men began to setup the equipment. At one point Ray Butler who was overseeing the job asked me to go back to the plant and get a Y-connector for the air hoses and some more hose.
I drove back to the plant and when I returned I was standing there with the Y-coupling in my hand watching the men dragging air hoses down into the river, someone asked me to help them move something. So I laid the Y-connector on the top of the Air Compressor. Thinking that would be a safe out of the way place for it. When I did that, it fell down into a cavity that was about 6 inches wide and 5 feet deep where there was the air intake for the compressor. It was too deep to reach it. You can see the air intake section on the front of this air compressor:
After trying to figure out how to take off the front grill of the compressor to retrieve the connector and not seeing an easy way, I told Dale Hull what I had done. He just smiled (well… Dale Hull had a perpetual smile or grin on his face anyway), and he went over to a tool box and pulled out a spool of wire. After cutting some off and fashioning a hook on the end, he quickly snagged the connector and pulled it right out.
Honestly when I saw him start fishing for that coupling I thought to myself that this wasn’t going to work and I was resigned to driving back to the plant again for another one and being humiliated by my failure. It’s too hard to hook something that far down with that flimsy wire. I was surprised and relieved when he quickly pulled it out with little effort.
Maybe he had a lot of practice doing this. In True Power Plant Man fashion, there was no ridicule. From the moment I told him I had dropped the connector, he went to work as if it was his job, not doing anything to attract attention. Until this moment, Dale Hull and I were the only two that knew that I had dropped that connector into the compressor housing. Even though I already had, I marked him down again in my book as a True Power Plant man.
Dale Hull was one of those surprise mechanics that had a lot more skill than you would think by looking at him. He reminded me of John Ritter. The actor on “Three’s Company”. I carpooled with him a lot during the first and second summer and one thing that stood out in my mind was that he had over 100,000 miles on his car and still had the original tires. He did his own wheel alignments. I spent many hours alongside Dale on weekends doing coal cleanup. I helped him move one time from one apartment to another. I remember that he had his own set of precision machining tools.
When I carpooled with him and Ricky Daniels, we would go to the gas station just north of the plant where Dale and Ricky would purchase some beer to drink on the way home. At this time, the place was crowded with construction hands that were still building the plant. I would sit in the back seat and watch the back of the heads of Ricky and Dale who, after a long hot day at work were relaxing by drinking beer and trying to stay awake until they reached Stillwater. I would see Dale’s head bobbing up and down as he would struggle to stay awake. Every day it was the same. We always made it safely home. I don’t know if it was the Novena to St. Jude that I was saying in the back seat or it was Dale’s ability to drive while nodding off to sleep or both.
Anyway. Back to the river.
In the river just below the surface of the water next to the River Pump Forebay there are 4 “coffin houses” where the water can flow into the pump forebay. From there it is pumped up to the lake. The 4 coffin houses (which get their name because they are rectangular shaped boxes that put you in mind of coffins) are mounted on one large concrete slab. The Power Plant Men were setting everything up so that they could drill holes in the concrete slab which was about 4 feet under water.
Why were they drilling holes in the concrete slab? (you might wonder). According to the EPA, it was required that the Electric Company continuously monitor the temperature of the water in the river at the point where the water enters the intake into the forebay area (As if the electric company was somehow going to be able to change the temperature of the water). So they were mounting a thermometer out in the middle on the concrete slab at the bottom of the river.
Hence the use of Air powered tools. It wouldn’t have worked well with electric tools. I remember Power Plant He-men like Bill Gibson standing out in the river (the water had been lowered by lowering the output of Kaw Dam about 20 miles upstream) taking a deep breath, and dropping down into the water. A few moments later a rush of bubbles would come blasting out of the water as he operated the air operated power drill. Each time someone went under the water, they had to find the hole they were drilling, put the bit back in it, and try to drill some more of the hole all while holding their breath. A lot of times they came up laughing because once they started drilling they couldn’t see anything because bubbles were flying in their face. Needless to say, the 10 or so holes they had to drill took almost an entire week.
Of course, they had to take time out for cookouts and swimming in the river. Fortunately there were no Power Plant Women down there at the time, because when it came time for lunch, a group of men in nothing but their skivvies would take a dip in the river.
When they were through there was a thermocouple mounted at the bottom of the river with a cable that led up the bank and into a small galvanized metal building that housed a recorder that took one month to make a full revolution recording the temperature of the water.
There was one other time when I worked for a week at the river. It was when I was on labor crew and we had to shovel the sand out of the river pump forebay. This is a concrete pit about 30 feet deep. Animals would fall in there from time to time and drown, so usually there was a rotting dead possum and a dead bird or two floating in the murky water when the pumps weren’t running.
A P&H crane would lower a large bucket into the pit and a couple of us would shovel sand into it until it was full, then the crane would take it up and dump it out, then lower it back down again for some more sand. We would be standing in the water or on a pile of sand shoveling sand all day. I remember my first day doing that, after a while I looked down to see that there were little tiny bugs crawling all over under the hair on my arms. I called them weevils because they weeved around the hairs on my arms. I quickly realized that my entire body was covered with these little crawling bugs. From the hair on my head down to my ankles. They really weren’t weevils, because those are much bigger than the tiny bugs that were crawling all over me. They put me in the mind of flea larva.
My first reaction was to panic, run around in circles screaming like a little girl. Instead I resigned myself to these bugs and just kept on working. They weren’t biting me. I think they were just looking for a way out of the pit. You climbed in and out of the pit using a ladder permanently mounted on the concrete wall. When it was lunch time I would take a dip in the river, clothes and all to wash them all off.
It’s a funny thought now to think that after I became an electrician a trip to the river pumps always felt like a vacation. Maybe because we were outside of the normal plant grounds. There usually weren’t any supervisors around. There was wildlife. There was a river you could play in if you felt the need. I never found myself working less while I was there, it just seemed enjoyable to have a change in scenery.
Anyway. I don’t think the EPA every really cared what the temperature of the river was, they just wanted us to go through the exercise of measuring it. But that is how the lake ended up on the top of that hill. The water is used to cool the steam in the condenser in the Power Plant. The fish and the birds also enjoy it and all the wildlife around the lake. All made possible by the diligent maintenance of the Power Plant Men.
Comments from the original post:
rjdawarrior May 17, 2012 at 5:10 pm
Loved it! The pictures really brought the whole story to life. You have a way with words that in trigs me.
My favorite part was the flea larva, I could just see you out there in a field full of testosterone, running around in a panic screaming like a little girl…..
Thanks for the enjoyment of the employment RJPlant Electrician May 17, 2012, at 5:21 pm
Thanks RJ, No matter how I try to forget it… I still remember it all too well.
Comment from last Repost:
originally posted on June 30, 2012:
Somewhere today there is a young man named Cameron Powell whose grandmother has recently died and who has a Great Grandmother named Dolores. A kind and gentle lady. If this young man were able to ask his great grandmother about his great grandfather he would hear the tale about a peaceful and kind man that made those who worked with him smile and enjoy their day. He lived his life in love with Dolores and his daughter and the very people that he worked with each day. All you had to do was walk in the same room as Howard Chumbley and a smile would come across your face instantly.
You see. While I was in my first years as a summer help at the Coal Fired Power Plant learning from the True Power Plant men of my day, 15 miles north of the plant along the Arkansas River was another plant. This plant was being operated by the Power Plant Pioneers of an earlier time. While we had the latest technological advancements that were available in 1974 when our plant was designed, the Osage plant was using old mechanical instruments that measured actual pressures and temperatures. What this meant was that when the pressure gauge registered 1000 pounds of pressure, it was because the pipe that was connected to the back or bottom of the gauge had 1000 lbs of pressure on it. I don’t know. They may have had a regulator on there that cut the pressure down to a safer range. That would seem crazy to anyone today to think that behind the Control Panel in the Control Room were pipes that ran from different steam pipes all over the plant to the gauges on the Control board, so that the Control Room operators could operate the plant correctly.
The Power Plant Men that worked in these early Generating Stations were subjected to dangerous chemicals and conditions though it was the best they knew at the time. Asbestos insulation covered the steam pipes. Turbine oil with PCBs were used to clean their tools. Howard Chumbley explained to me one day that they used to wash their tools in Turbine oil up to their elbows in what was now known to contain the dangerous chemical PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyls). A funny fact I found out later was that there was a temperature probe in the river just downstream from the plant taking the temperature of the water just like Sooner Plant (See the Post about Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River).
When the old Osage Plant closed in the early 1980s, that was when I first learned about it. This was because some of the pioneer power plant men came to work at our plant. Howard Chumbley became an Electical foreman and Gilbert Schwarz came to our plant as the superintendent of operations. Two gray haired men, both with a kind of slow peaceful look on their face. Howard had a smaller build with soft wavy gray hair. He could have been a professor at Harvard if you put a pipe in his mouth and a turtleneck sweater. Of course, that would not have been fitting for Howard. Gilbert was tall and had the look of a cowboy or a farm hand. I understand that he enjoyed working on the farm.
One year after I became an electrician in November 1984, Howard Chumbley became my foreman. It was less than a year after that when Howard retired. During the short time he was my foreman we took a trip up to the Osage Plant. It was named Osage because the Osage Indian Nation Territorial boundary is directly across the river from the plant. The plant itself actually sat adjacent to the Ponca Indian Tribe just outside of Ponca City. The day we went to the plant, Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien). a Power Plant Electrician and I loaded a special hazardous material containment barrel into the truck and I was given a special suit that I was to wear that would cover me from head to toe while I cleaned up a PCB spill. A smaller plant transformer had been removed from the old plant and there had been a slow leak under it that left a tar like substance on the concrete where the transformer had stood. As Howard, Diana and I approached the plant and I spied it for the first time. This is what I saw:
As we drove closer I had a better look at the plant as we drove around the other side:
It was definitely an old abandoned power plant. We took the barrel out of the back of the truck and hauled it inside on a two wheel dolly (or two-wheel hand truck, as it is often called). When we entered the abandoned plant we walked across the turbine room floor:
I could see where equipment used to stand that had been sold for scrap or stolen by vandals.
When we arrived at the oil spill I was surprised by how small of a spot it was. It couldn’t have been more than one square foot. I put on the rubber suit with it’s rubber hat, rubber boots and a full face respirator and rubber gloves. I took a putty knife and scraped up the tar-like substance and placed it in special bag that had a special seal on it.
When I had scraped up the thick stuff, I poured trichloroethane 1.1.1 solvent (which is no longer used due to the dangerous fumes that damages your liver) on the spot and scrubbed it with a wire brush. Then I took a Scotch Brite pad and scrubbed the floor until the spot was much cleaner than the concrete around it. Everything I had used went into the special barrel. The bags of tar, the Scotch Brite pad, the wire brush the putty knife and the rags I had used to wipe everything up. Then as I took off my suit, every piece of the rubber suit including the full face respirator went into the barrel. Once everything was in the barrel, the special lid was placed on top and it was bolted shut. A Hazardous Waste sticker was placed on the barrel and the time and date and what was in the container was written on it.
We took the barrel back to the plant and it was placed in a hazardous waste Conex Box that was later buried when it was full of different types of hazardous waste from all over Oklahoma.
A few years after Howard Chumbley retired, so did Gilbert Schwartz. Gilbert was the Superintendent over the Operators so I didn’t work around Gilbert and I knew very little about him. However, later when I was married and living in Ponca City, I would see him at the Catholic Church in Ponca City where he was a member of the Knights of Columbus. He would nod and say hi whenever he saw me.
Both Howard and Gilbert were in the military. I know that Howard Chumbley was in the Navy during World War II and that Gilbert Schwarz was in the Korean War. Growing up I noticed that older men that had served in the armed forces seemed to have light gray hair. Especially if they had been in the Navy. I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence. Aubrey Cargill was that way also (See the post about Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill).
In 1998, Howard Chumbley died unexpectedly when he was admitted to the hospital in Ponca City with a broken arm. The hospital in Ponca City had a bad reputation (or Mortality Rate, as some might say). People didn’t want to go there if there was anyway to avoid it. The hospital in Stillwater was the preferred hospital in this area of Oklahoma.
I only met Dolores Chumbley on two occasions and they were both at Christmas or Award banquets. She seemed the perfect spouse for Howard as she appeared kind and peaceful as well. I’m sure they had a happy life together. I do not have a picture of Howard. I wish I did. His demeanor reminds me of my Mother-In-Law. We have a picture of her in our hallway and the words below the picture says: “Be Kind”. I would say that this is what Howard was all about. Everything about Howard was kindness. I was glad to have known him.
This past week on June 24, 2012 Gilbert Schwarz died at the age of 83. He lived a long and happy life as did Howard. There was something about these Power Plant Pioneers that gave them a strange sort of peace.
I never found the source of this peace for sure. I suppose it was their long and happy marriages with their loving and supportive wives. Howard had a daughter that he was always very proud to discuss. She was a teacher somewhere close to Tulsa. She recently died of Cancer on January 4. That was 2 days after I wrote my first Power Plant Man post (Why Santa Visits Power Plant Men) at the beginning of this year.
Gilbert never had a child of his own, but his nieces and nephews meant a lot to him throughout his life and he was active in their lives as they grew up. I suppose if the Power Plant Pioneers were anything like the True Power Plant Men of my day, then they found a lot of peace in the friendships that they had with their fellow Power Plant Men locked away behind the Main Gate that they had to drive through each day on the way to work. Once you drive through that gate and enter into the Power Plant Kingdom, there is a certain peace that you feel knowing that what you will do that day will directly affect the lives of millions of people in the state of Oklahoma.
These Pioneers of the early days willingly put themselves at risk working around equipment that did not have the safeties and guards that we have today to supply the electricity to the State. I don’t know if there are a few of these brave Pioneers left from the Osage Plant. Gilbert was the last of the older men that I knew about. If you happen to find one of these men some day, don’t miss the opportunity to talk to him. I am sure they would be proud to tell you of the days that they spent being Pioneers of the Power Plant World. You should be able to recognize them. You can pick them out in a crowd. They are the mild peaceful looking old men treating the people around them with respect.
Comments from Previous Post:
Originally posted on August 18, 2012:
I have just finished watching the movie “Godfather II” with my son. Toward the end of the movie Fredo Corleone and Al are going fishing. There is a scene where the motor boat in the boat house is lowered down into the water. I have seen one boat house like this before where the boat is hoisted out of the water in the boat house so that it can be stored dry while hovering a few feet over the water. The Coal-fired Power Plant where I worked as a summer help had a very similar boat house.
The Power Plant had a boat house because each month during the summer months the chemist had to go to various locations in the lake to take the temperature and a water sample. He would take the water samples back to the chemist lab where they could be analyzed. Each bottle was carefully labeled indicating where in the lake the sample was taken. In order to take the samples out in the middle of the lake…. A motor boat was required. Thus the need for the boat house.
The second summer as a Summer Help (before the boathouse was built) I was asked to go along on this journey with George Dunagan, a new chemist at the time. Larry Riley usually manned the motor, as it was known that the motor for the boat had a tendency to cut out and die at random times and the best person that could be counted on to fix a stranded boat out in the middle of the lake was Larry Riley. I know I always felt safe.
I have seen Larry dismantle part of the motor out in the middle of the lake, clean a fuel filter and put the thing back together again with a minimum number of tools at his disposal. I would sit patiently as the boat rocked back and forth with the waves (Oklahoma winds usually kept a steady flow of waves) waiting for Larry to repair the motor. I didn’t have any fear of missing lunch because Larry was in the boat. So, I would just sit and watch the ducks and other birds fly by or look into the water to see what I could see.
Larry would pull something out of the motor and say, “Well, look at that! No wonder this thing died.” Right on queue. A few minutes later and he would start the boat up again and off we would go speeding across the lake.
During the time I was a summer help, there were various tragic events that took place. One man committed suicide by drowning at the park while his sister and wife waited on the shore to tell whoever was first to arrive. Summer Helps were there, but I was on an errand to Oklahoma City at the time and only heard about it when I returned. He had wrapped himself up in some brush. Evidently, he was in some kind of legal trouble at the time and was expected to show up to serve jail time the following Monday.
Another tragedy which was very sad was when a man was swimming with his son on his shoulders out to the dock that was placed out in the water so that swimmers could swim out to it, when he had a heart attack while his daughter was waiting for them on the shore. When the summer help arrived, the daughter told them that her father and brother just went under the water and never came up. One of the Summer Help, David Foster jumped in and found them both drowned. It was a traumatic experience for him, which I’m sure lives on in his memory to this day. Both the father and son had drowned.
Another man was fishing where the river pumps discharged into the lake. This was a popular place to fish at a certain part of the day. A large man had waded out into the water, and at some point fell over. He could not swim (maybe because he had too much to drink) and was also drowned.
These tragic events were a constant reminder that water sports of all kinds have their dangers. Following Safety rules is very important. I believe that two of those 4 people would have not drowned if they had on a life preserver.
Another more humorous tragedy (depending on how you look at it) occurred not far from the boat ramp at the park located closer to Hwy 177. The story as I heard it was that this stubborn farmer who had become rich when they found oil on his land (and I won’t mention his name, because I don’t remember it. Heck. I can’t even remember his initials, if you can believe that), had bought his first boat. Not knowing much about boating, he wanted to make sure he was well equipped, so he attached the biggest motor he could buy to it.
He lowered it into water at the boat ramp at the park, and turned it around so that it pointed out into the lake. Then he opened it up to full throttle. The nose of the boat proceeded to point straight up in the air, and the boat sank motor first. The man swam over to the shore. Climbed in his truck and drove away. Leaving the boat on the floor of the lake. Now… I figure that someone must have seen this happen, because I’m sure that the person didn’t go around telling everyone that he met what he had done… — That is, until he had a few beers in him… maybe.
I would like to tell you some more about George Dunagan, the chemist that went with us to take the water samples. He looked like the type of person that would make a good Sergeant in the Army. A solid facial structure, and a buzz haircut reminded me of the Sergeant Carter on the Gomer Pyle TV show. Here is a picture of Sergeant Carter and George Dunagan when he was younger:
George was in his mid-40s when I first met him. He was 4 months older than my father. He went about his business as a man that enjoyed his job. Occasionally, something might get under his craw, and he would let you know about it, but you always knew that he was the type of person that was looking out for you, even when you thought you didn’t need it.
I considered George a True Power Plant Chemist. He was a genius in his own field. When I was young and I worked around George, I felt like he was passionate about his job and that he wanted to teach it to others. He would explain to me what the different chemical processes in the Water Treatment were doing. He would take any opportunity to explain things in detail. Some people would think that he was kind of grumpy sometimes, and sometimes they would be right. He cared passionately about things that involved “right” and “wrong”. When he saw something that he considered wrong, he rarely sat still.
I considered George to be a passionate teacher that loved to see others learn. I made it a point to stop and nod my head like I was really listening when he was telling me something because I could see the joy in his face that knowledge was being bestowed upon someone.
As he took the water samples in the lake, he explained to me why he was doing what he was doing. How the EPA required these for so many years to show that the lake was able to cool the power plant steam back to water without disturbing the wildlife that inhabited the lake (that the electric company had created).
At that particular time, they were still taking a baseline of how the water was with just one unit running. Later when both units are running they would see how it held up by comparing the year before when no unit was running, then this year with one, and next year with two units.
I listened intently. Not so much because the topic interested me. I wouldn’t tell George that I was struggling to pay attention because the particulars about how he had to label each sample and put them in order in the box were not as interesting as things that came to my own imagination. I imagined things like… “Wouldn’t it be neat if you could breathe under water?” Or, “If the boat tipped over, and we were in the middle of the lake, would I stay with the boat or try to swim to the shore….” “Was that my stomach rumbling? Am I getting hungry already?” I would put my own imagination aside.
I listened intently, mainly because I could see that George would brighten up to find such an attentive pupil in the boat. I was grinning inside real big to watch George with such a satisfied look. I suppose inside as George was explaining the world of water temperature and bacteria growth, I was thinking, “I wonder if George used to be a Sergeant in the Army.” “Does he teach his own children the same way he does me?”. “I wonder what George did before he came here. Was he a chemist somewhere else?”
At the beginning of this year I began writing this Power plant Man Blog because I felt a great need to capture on paper (well. Virtual paper anyway), some stories about the people I was blessed to work with at the Power Plant. Sonny Karcher, who I considered a good friend had died a couple of months earlier. I needed to write about these men, because if I didn’t, I feared these stories would be lost to the world. These are too great of men to just fade away into history without something being left behind to record at least some memorable events in their lives. 16 days after I wrote my first post this year (on January 18, 2012), George Dunagan died in the Ponca City Medical Center.
One thing I was not surprised to learn about George was that he used to be a teacher. He had a Master Degree in Education and had taught at the Chilocco Indian School for 11 years before going to work at the power plant. This explained why he seemed to go into the “Teacher” mode when he was explaining something.
I also learned that he was in the U.S. Navy where he enlisted in 1954. This didn’t surprise me either. As I mentioned above, George reminded me of the Sergeant Carter on Gomer Pyle, and not in the humorous way, but in the way he carried himself like someone in the military. George Dunagan reached the rank of Master Sergeant in the Army Reserves where he retired in 1994, two years after retiring from the Power Plant life.
The movie Godfather II seemed to be about how one man struggled to build a secure home for his family and fellow countrymen through any means necessary, and about how his son destroyed his own family to the point where he was left completely alone with his family destroyed at the end.
Power Plant Men had their own struggles at home. They were not immune to family strife any more than anyone else. The nature of their work gave them a great sense of dignity and feeling of accomplishment. This sense of dignity helps relieve some stress in the family unit. To realize every day that the work that you perform directly impacts the lives of everyone that receives the electricity being produced at the Power Plant.
When something goes wrong and a base unit trips suddenly, the lights flicker in every school room, every store and every house of 2 million people reminding us that this fragile system is so stable because of the due diligence of True Power Plant Men with the sense to care as much as George Dunagan a True Power Plant Chemist.
Comment from previous repost:
Originally posted August 31, 2012:
I have often mentioned Jim Heflin in many of my posts. One might think from the attitude that Jim had toward me in a few of those posts was that we didn’t get along. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jim and I were best of friends during the time that we worked together and when we carpooled together back and forth from Ponca City to the Power Plant Kingdom in the midst of North Central Oklahoma.
I have mentioned before that Jim gave me the impression of a friendly hound that was happy to see you.
That’s him all right, except he had a happier expression. I also mentioned that the first time I talked to his wife Brenda on the phone I made the mistake of calling her “Brenda Bulldog” because of a character that my wife and I used as a point of contention between us. As I mentioned before, I should have chosen something more becoming since there was a slight resemblance of Brenda Sue and a Bulldog….
Besides that Faux Pas, Jim and I remained friends.
Jim was fun to be around because you could joke around with him, and you could tell that he was happy to be there. You could also tell that Jim was a very kind person. He didn’t like to see animals hurt, and felt bad when he knew he had accidentally mowed over even a field mouse with the Brush Hog. He was the kind of person you could put in a carnival in a tent and have people pay 50 cents to go see a happy lovable person, and people would come out feeling like they received their money’s worth.
Unlike most posts where I start out talking about a person, I usually end up telling you that they have died. Jim is still alive and well. Jim Heflin is living in Moore, Oklahoma with Brenda to this day. I was just remembering all the fun times that I had with Jim and thought I would share some with you to give you a flavor of the man.
So, here is a moment that I often think about when I think about Jim. He was driving to work one morning and I was in the front seat next to him. He kept looking at his side window and lifting up his nose at the window like he was sniffing it. It reminded me of a hound dog in a car that was trying to tell you that they wanted the window rolled down so they could stick their head out. He would do that for a few seconds, then he would look back at the road and pay attention to his driving. A little while later he would be back to sniffing the window with his nose pointing up to the top of the window.
Finally I couldn’t take it anymore, so I asked him, “Jim… what’s up? Why do you keep sniffing at that window?” He looked at me like he had forgotten I was in the car and just realized that I had been watching him. “Oh!” he said, “I’m trying to sneeze.” Thoughts flashed through my mind like, “Maybe he’s allergic to windows…” or “I hope that Jim hasn’t lost his mind, or I’m going to have to find another ride back to town in the evening…” or “Yeah, that’s right. Why didn’t I think of that?” Finally the thought came to my mind to ask him how that was going to help him sneeze, so I said, “Huh?”
That was when I learned something that I suppose I should have known by then, but no one ever told me… Jim was pointing his face at the rising sun, and the sunlight was helping him sneeze. That’s right. Some people have this uncanny “allergy” or “gift” or “talent” that causes them to sneeze when they look up at the sun. Especially, I figured, if they sniff a lot like a dog sniffing a window. I do remember that Jim gave it up, and we made it to the plant without a single sneeze.
Now unfortunately, whenever I hear a sneeze, I look around to see if the sun is shining on their face, just so that I can catch someone having a “Sun Sneeze”. Years later, my wife confirmed that, yes, some people sneeze when looking at the sun. I may have even been doing that before and didn’t realize it.
I have even become some what of a pseudo expert on the subject and can now tell you that since my son sneezes as he steps out into the sunlight that, “Yes… It is a known fact that some people sneeze because of the sunlight shining on their face.” You just don’t know when moments of life-changing education is going to come along and raise your IQ. Like that morning riding alongside Jim Heflin on the way to work.
Another time I often think about when thinking about Jim Heflin was in 1982 when we were dropped off below the dam when the floodgates had been open so the lake level could be lowered in order for EPA, or whatever department could inspect our dam and dikes. Evidently, after the lake had been full for 3 years, it had to be inspected, and repaired where it was deemed necessary. Because a large amount of water was being released, the Electric Company wanted to make sure that we weren’t accidentally flooding anyone’s land beyond the foot of the dam down to the Arkansas River. So Jim Heflin and I were commissioned for that job.
We were dropped off at the foot of the dam and we were to follow the creek as it wound through the countryside down to the river. Instead of the creek just heading straight toward the river, it ended up turning south for a while, and winding back and forth a bit, and what would have been about 1/2 mile straight to the river seemed like more than 2 or 3 miles. Anyway, we didn’t find the creek running over it’s banks, and everything was fine. We didn’t have any great adventures where we were chased by wild animals, or we saw Bambi or anything like that. We just spent a couple of hours walking through fields and trees and brush, and we talked. We had a great time talking about nothing in particular.
I’m afraid that this was shortly after I had learned how to ramble from Ramblin’ Ann, so I was doing most of the talking (You can read more about that in the post about Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann). But anyway, I had a great time with Jim just walking out in the woods talking about whatever came up.
I have found that there are times in life where I am sharing an experience with someone when I realize all of the sudden that I truly care for this person and I would do anything to help them if they needed it. I tend to imagine all sorts of scenarios when I’m in a situation and I remember that I was thinking about what I would do if a wild animal were to come charging through the woods toward us, and my main concern was how I could protect Jim. Jim was the kind of guy that looked like he needed protecting. I even looked around and found a good sized walking stick just in case the need should arise.
When we returned to the road where we had been dropped off, we still had about 1/2 hour before anyone was going to come pick us up and it started to rain really hard. At that spot there was a little hut that I would call a “monitoring hut”. It was the same kind of hut that was at the River Pump station that had the temperature recorder that was used to monitor the temperature of the Arkansas river (see the post, Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River). So, we stood in the little hut until the rain stopped.
You may remember that it was Jim Heflin that had driven the Backhoe through a muddy patch and became stuck in the mud down at the park when Larry Riley came and showed us his magic (see the post Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley). Also, it was Jim Heflin that informed me that David Hankins had died a few months before, while I was away at school. I spent days chopping weeds along roadways while Jim Heflin was mowing the fields all around me. It was Jim Heflin that first flushed out the Bobcat at the Otoe-Missouria Indian Reservation as I was watching from the back of the truck (see the post Ken Conrad Dances With a Wild.Bobcat).
If I were to sum up the three summers as a summer help working in the Garage, I would call them my “Adventures with Jim Heflin”. It was Jim that I worked with most of the time. We cleaned the park twice each week. Mowed grass. changed oil in the trucks. Washed trucks in the special truck washing bay behind the garage. Picked up rocks from the fields so the mowers could mow without tearing up the equipment. Changed and repaired flat tires.
Throughout all of this I was keenly aware that as nice a guy that Jim was, he wasn’t a True Power Plant Man. Like Sonny Karcher, he longed for a more simple life. Power Plant Men rarely have a simple life. It is filled with one crazy adventure after the other. When you drive through the gate, you have no idea what you might be doing that day. Like Sonny, Jim would have loved to have mowed grass clear across the country until the day he died.
So, I wasn’t too surprised when Jim and I were driving home one evening and Jim told me that he was going to leave the plant. He tried to explain it to me by coming up with various reasons why he was unhappy with his job; which was no longer in the garage. He didn’t really have to convince me. I knew. The Power Plant Life was not for Jim. He was sad about it, but at the same time I could tell he had already made up his mind.
After Jim left, I never saw him again. I never ran into him in town or heard from him. I had heard that he had moved to Oklahoma City, and I believe now that he lives in Moore, Oklahoma as I mentioned before. I have another friend from my childhood that lives in Moore, Oklahoma that may have an occasion to read this blog. His name is Dr. Bryan Treacy.
So, I would just like to say to Bryan, that if you are walking down the street in Moore someday and you see a couple coming out of a Sirloin Stockade, or Wendy’s and one of them looks like a bloodhound and the other sort of like a bulldog, just walk up to them and tell them that Kevin Breazile says Hello. And then just before you go, say, “Oh, and Otto says that Brenda bulldog sure has a cute wiggle.” — Now I’m really going to get it… and not from Brenda….
Here is a picture of Jim Heflin today, 33 years after our adventures in the forest:
Originally Posted on November 10, 2012:
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” A line from the movie Apocalypse Now, may come to mind when reading the title stating that the Power Plant has sites of beauty. Especially the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. What could you find of beauty at a Power plant with a coal pile, and large metal structures?
The answer is found almost everywhere you look. I have mentioned before that the plant property is largely a wildlife preserve. A large man-made lake was constructed on a hill to provide cooling water for the plant condenser. In the process a veritable Shangri-La was created where wildlife could live in peace and comfort protected by the Power Plant Humans that maintained the grounds.
The second and third summers that I worked at the plant as a summer help, in 1980 and 1981, in order to go to work, I left my parent’s house from the back door each morning. From there, I walked behind three houses, where I climbed over a barbed wire fence into a field. I crossed the field and came out onto the dead end of a dead end road, where I walked over to Lakeview Drive. From there I walked about a quarter mile to the corner of Washington where I would catch a ride with whoever I was carpooling with at the time (usually Stanley Elmore).
During the summer of 1980, when I began working the 12 hour shifts 7 days a week to do the irrigation for the new grass we were trying to grow (see the post “When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays To Listen“). When I needed to be at work at 6 am each morning, I walked through the field at 5:15, the sky would just be at the point where you could vaguely see. I didn’t bring a flashlight so the first few weeks were more like feeling my way through the dark, looking for any clues to help guide me to the road and back to civilization. Luckily the cow (or bull) in the field didn’t seem to pay me any mind.
As the summer progressed, my trek to the corner was a little lighter each day. until I could comfortably see where I was walking. I bring this up because on one particular morning I came across something that I have never forgotten, and I’m sure I will never see again. After climbing over the barbed wire fence and turning to go down toward the road, I found myself at the edge of a field of Queen Anne’s lace that was left over from the year before. That is, the dead stalks of Queen Anne’s Lace (very similar to Hemlock).
I’m sure you have all seen Queen Anne’s Lace at one time or other if you have ever been in a field in the summer, as it is found everywhere in the United States.
The Queen Anne’s Lace I saw was all dead, so the field was full of stalks that looked like this:
The ground was literally covered with these stalks, so that it blanketed the entire section of the field. Across the top of every one of the hundreds of thousands of stalks where the head of the plant formed a kind of bowl shape, a spider had weaved a blanket of web on each plant. The webs were all highlighted with morning dew as the sun had just enough light to brighten the dew on the webs so that the field appeared as if it had a magic blanket of silk laid across the top of it.
When I came to the edge of the field of Queen Anne’s stalks all covered with dew covered webs I just stood there in amazement. I knew that I was going to be the only person to ever view this beautiful site. So, I tried to absorb as much of it into my brain as I could. I realized that God had the thousands of tiny spiders work through the night weaving these webs and that He had materialized the dew softly across the field.
I knew I couldn’t remain there all morning and there was no way around the quilt of webs, so I finally had to bring myself to walk through the masterpiece. I mention this moment in my Power Plant life because you never know where something of great beauty is going to show up.
This brings us back to the plant where there are hidden places around the lake called Weir Boxes. Those who regularly work with Weir Boxes use them to measure the water flow through an irrigation system. The plant used weir boxes to measure the amount of leakage from the various dams around the main lake and an auxiliary lake used as a holding pond for water before being released to the lake once it is tested for purity.
The flow rate can be measured by the amount of water flowing through the V shaped notch. When the lake was first built it was important to monitor the 6 weir boxes located around the lake to make sure the dams were stable and were not leaking. The water that leaked through the dam was generally routed through the weir boxes that were placed at the foot of the dry side of the dam by the use of a kind of “french drains” that were put in place when the dam was built.
As a summer help, when it came time each month for the weir boxes to be checked, we would climb into a pickup with some industrial sized Weed Eaters in the back and head for a trip around the lake. We would locate each weir box, and clean out any weeds or brush around them. Then we would mow a path through the weeds from the road to the weir boxes so the person coming by to inspect the weir box wouldn’t have to walk through the high brush to the box, possibly stepping on snakes and other native scary creatures. That task was left to us.
When we did this task, it was usually the first thing we did in the morning. I know to Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, he loved the smell of Napalm in the morning, but I was more partial to the smell of freshly shredded weeds and grass. It was the only cool part of the day. It was only going to get hotter and stickier from there. So, I have always had a pleasant memory of doing Weir Box detail.
This reminds me of a trick that Stanley Elmore, the foreman over the summer helps, taught me. Since we would spend days on end going down a roadside with either a heavy duty weed wacker
Or an Industrial Weed Eater with saw blades strapped onto a shoulder harness chopping weeds all day:
Stanley told me that in order to keep the mosquitoes away, you eat a banana in the morning before you leave the shop. For some reason by eating the banana, the mosquitoes would leave you alone. It worked like a charm, and I made sure that my mom had a stock of bananas in the house for my lunchbox each morning. It wasn’t until later that it was discovered that Avon had a skin oil product that repelled mosquitoes while leaving your skin soft and plush and nice smelling at the same time. It is called: “Skin So Soft”.
So now the secret is out why the Big Brawny He-man Power Plant Men smell so good and have such Beautiful Skin (no. I’m just kidding. They don’t really have beautiful skin — believe me!). It later became marketed as an insect repellent. It is still that way today. I suspect that the secret ingredient in Skin So Soft is Banana Oil.
Another trick that Bill McAllister taught me was that when Arthritis is bothering you, you just spray some WD-40 on your joints and rub it in, and it fixes it right up.
I told my dad, a Veterinary Professor at Oklahoma State University, about this. He told me that WD-40 had the same solvent in it that was used by veterinarians to rub medication on horses that helps the medication absorb into the animal. He warned that using WD-40 on your joints to lubricate your arthritic joints may make them feel better, but at the same time it pulls in the other chemicals found in the product that you wouldn’t want in your body.
The first summer when I was a summer help and I was in a truck driving around the perimeter of the new lake, that was still being filled, with Dee Ball looking for anything unusual, we spied what at first looked like a Muskrat near the edge of the water.
Dee stopped the truck and climbed out to get a closer look. A Muskrat looks somewhat like a big rat and sort of like a beaver. What we were seeing looked more like an otter than a beaver.
But it wasn’t quite like an otter either. It was more furry. and dark. Dee knew what it was after watching it for a minute. He told me. “That is a Mink”. My first thought was how does Dee Ball know what a Mink is? He sounded so definite. To me Dee Ball, though he was in his early 40’s at the time, looked like an old farmer who had a hard life. He acted half crazy part of the time, though he was always respectful and kind. At least he wasn’t mad at you very long for playing a joke on him.
So, later I went and looked it up, and you know what? He was right. He had told me that it was unusual for Minks to be this far south, and again I wondered how he knew so much about something that wasn’t even from around there. He said that the mink must have followed the Arkansas river on down to the lake.
Pointing toward the north with his finger… and tracing it down until he pointed at the lake…. (that way he could show me how he was processing the journey of the Mink to the lake). I thought maybe some ranger had put posters up around the lakes up north letting the animal life know that a new animal preserve had opened up in Northern Oklahoma where even a Mink could live in peace knowing they would be safe from hunters and trappers.
I remember Dee telling me that it was the tail of the mink that gave it away.
I have mentioned in the Post about “Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down By The River” that Bald Eagles migrate to the Power Plant every winter. This brings bird watchers to the lake to watch the Eagles. There is a link to view an Eagle’s nest on the Web.
I have had the privilege along with the other Power Plant Men to watch these majestic birds, the symbol of the strength of our nation, each winter while I worked at the plant. I have seen a bald eagle swoop down onto the lake and grab a fish from the water.
What a beautiful site!
The plant itself has a beauty of its own. When you visit the plant at night, you find that it takes on a surreal atmosphere. The same hissing of steam through the pipes is heard. The same vibration of the boiler and the bowl mills can be felt. But the plant lights up like a ship on the ocean.
You can’t see the light here, but if you ever travel from Stillwater to Ponca City during the night, you see what looks like a huge ship lit up floating above the landscape off in the distance. It is truly a beautiful site.
Originally Posted December 7, 2012:
What happens to a million dollar forest when left to the fate of two Power Plant Summer Help? I can tell you; the result is not good. Before I explain this statement, let me introduce some summer help to you so that you will have a deeper understanding of my summer help career. It spanned 4 summers for a total of 12 months.
I would like to start out by saying that there were a few summer help that I thought were very intelligent and goodhearted people. A dear friend of mine named Tim Flowers, who was a friend that I met while attending Oklahoma University my first year in school, was one of the smartest people you might run across in your lifetime. He was also a very hard worker who didn’t mind putting his entire effort into his work.
Blake Tucker from Pawnee also had a brilliant mind and had an honorable work ethic. He was fresh out of High School when he first went to work as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma. During his years as a summer help, I spent a lot of time with him working on mathematical calculations and on programming feats of magic.
Bill Cook, though he didn’t put his back into his work the way some would have liked to see, he did go on to work at the power plant on the labor crew a year and a half before I finally made it onto that team of singularly distinguished characters. Bill confided in me, and I consider him a friend, though I haven’t seen him in 30 years.
David Foster became a friend of mine the second summer when we were were summer help together. He only worked at the plant that one summer, but I talked to him a few times during the years when he was in college and I would run into him coming out of church or on campus. His father was a dentist in Ponca City.
This leaves me with all the rest of the summer help that worked with me during those 4 summers. I wrote a post about the first summer help I worked with that really didn’t fit the requirements, since you were supposed to be going to school in order to be a summer help. That was Steve Higginbotham. He was 34 at the time and not planning on attending school in the fall. You can read more about him in the post: Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown
Steve was a less than energetic person, but I could understand his lack of enthusiasm. He had been dealt a shorthand in his life and he was making the best out of his situation. What I found hard to understand were summer help that were fresh out of High School that were given the opportunity to work at an illustrious palace of a Power Plant, and they just didn’t want to work.
When I was leaving the house at age 14 to go to my first job where I was working for someone other than myself (I began selling tomatoes from my garden door-to-door at age 8), my dad told me something that became the core of my work ethic. He said, “Son.” Well, I don’t remember if he actually said “Son.” but it was something like that. Maybe he said “Kevin, before you go, I want to tell you something.” He said that I should do my best at whatever job they give me. I should do a job that I would be proud to show others. He never wanted to hear anything that would make him ashamed of me.
It was a thrill to go work at a German Restaurant as a dishwasher making $1.50 an hour. I worked my tail off each night. I didn’t know there was anything called “breaks”, and I focused on keeping ahead of the work so that I wouldn’t become swamped.
So, it was hard for me, by the time I was 20, to see summer help come to the plant and work real hard at not working. Young football players from Pawnee, who you would think would be able to put their best foot forward, were usually standing around talking smack about that one doofus of a summer help that wanted to get to work right away. That one guy that liked wearing his face shield and ear muffs hanging down from his hard hat swinging the industrial weedeater to-and-fro all day long.
This one group of summer help that were hired that summer all seemed to have the same bug, except for Bill Cook. Bill didn’t get along with them because he wasn’t from the same bully class that they graduated. At one point during the summer the tension between them and Bill rose to such a level that they had to handle it the only way left.
Bill had to meet one of them outside the gate after quittin’ time to settle matters. The truth of the matter was that Bill had done nothing to stir up their ire. They just didn’t like him. It seemed to be a personality issue with them. From what I understand, the cowards received what was coming to them as usually happens when they have mistook someone to be a weakling and easy pickings.
To illustrate the intelligence of this particular group of summer help (there were 3 of them), let me describe an instance where they were struggling real hard to keep from working. I didn’t understand their desire to keep doing what they were doing in the first place, so I wasn’t about to stay in the situation all afternoon.
Stanley Elmore had told us to mow the area around the main parking lot. This included the area by the main entrance. At that time there were sections of grass on all sides of the parking lot including the side by the garage (which is not there today). Stanley sent me and the 3 of them (not Bill Cook. I think he knew the tension between them and tried to work it so that Bill could be doing other things) out to mow this area with regular push mowers.
It was just after lunch when we started. I knew right away that the three amigos wanted to make this job last all afternoon. I think they were afraid that when they finished they would be sent to the park to empty the trash cans of the foul rotten fish guts and soiled baby diapers. A job that would make most summer help puke and even bring water to the eyes of a True Power Plant Man.
Well. I grabbed one of the lawn mowers and headed out across the drive to the grass and started mowing around and around one stretch of grass. By the time the others had dragged their mowers out and took their time starting them, I had finished one stretch of grass and went around to the other side of the parking lot to work on that side as well.
The grass on the far side of the parking lot wrapped around by the welding shop and over to the front entrance. So, once this entire section was done, we would be finished. It really wasn’t that much grass to mow. Not when you had 4 lawn mowers all going around in a counter clockwise direction.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three huddle together to have a quick discussion. I knew they were going to try to thwart my efforts to quickly finish this job so they didn’t have to move on to the next adventure. I also knew that there wasn’t anyway they were going to be able to stop me.
They had tried to stop me before earlier when we were going out to cut weeds down a long right-of-way. One of them had let his weedeater string out real far so that the strings were sticking out about 2 feet. He started his weedeater up so that the strings were whining and turned around so that the strings grabbed my leg and before I knew it I was flat on my back with a stabbing pain in my knee. My kneecap had been knocked out of the socket, which I quickly hit with the palm of my hand to knock it back over from the side of my knee.
I could see that this had been pre-planned by their reaction. I think they thought it would take me out of commission or make me angry so they could watch me lose my top. The guy that did it apologized in a half sarcastic way and I told him it was all right. I wiped the dust off of my pants and grabbed my weedeater and went to work. I could see them at the back of the truck standing there wondering where their plan had failed.
Anyway, back to mowing the grass around the parking lot. I was able to tell immediately what they had planned. Their idea was to hem me in and mow very slowly so that I would have no where to go but to follow along behind one of them travelling at a snails pace. They were so slow they would take one step, wait a second, then take another step, etc.
So, as I came up behind one of them I suddenly took a left turn and cut a new path through the grass without even slowing down. I quickly came to the other side of the curb, and I turned left again and was heading back in the direction I came from just as if nothing was wrong.
I knew the law of physics. Newton’s First Law of Physics. If a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion unless it is acted on by another force. Well. The mind of the weak have little force. Newton was not only one of my favorite Physicist, he was one of my favorite Mathematicians as well.
Well. He did like sitting in the park under an apple tree. — So how did they keep the grass mowed back in 1642? Maybe they trained the grass just to stay small. Why don’t we have grass that just stays short? We could do that easy enough.
Because of the laws of motion and the size of my lawn mower and the speed in which I was mowing, I had calculated that I should be able to finish mowing the entire area in about 15 more minutes (or 900 seconds) if I were to do it all myself. — Funny how things run through your mind when you are mowing grass. No wonder Sonny Karcher loved mowing grass so much.
Anyway. That little story illustrates my point about how some summer help put all their brain power into thinking about how to stay out of work that they couldn’t even conceive of someone thinking outside the box. How difficult was it for me to just turn and mow a patch of grass out in the middle of the stretch of grass we were mowing?
Once they realized that there wasn’t anyway to stop me, they went ahead and finished their job. I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to stand out in the sun in 100 degree temperature anyway pretending to mow grass. Didn’t they know that just made the day seem longer?
It was during that summer that the plant manager was sold on the idea of planting a forest around the coal yard to prevent the wind from blowing all the coal away (Oklahoma is windy). So, a million dollars was spent to hire a company to plant a number of rows of trees along the south road next to the coal yard. When the trees were planted, they were sickly little sticks. The summer help were sent to go water them from time-to-time using the small Mitsubishi tractor pulling a trailer with a tank of water on it.
I have to admit that I never gave the idea much hope. The ground where the trees were planted was hard clay. The company that received the million dollars hardly even put any real usable tree-growing dirt in the hole when they planted the trees.
The trees were planted very close together so that you couldn’t mow around them on a tractor. So, when the weeds started growing tall (…as tall as the trees) and the field had been mowed, Stanley sent a couple of the lazy summer help up there to weed eat around the trees.
I had been told some time in my childhood that one of the fastest ways to kill a tree was to strip the bark off all the way around the tree. Not just strip the bark, but cut a little into the tree itself around the base of the tree. If you did this, the tree would die. The only actual living part of the tree is the outside section. Here is a link to a site that describes the part of a tree and a picture from that site:
So, do I need to go on? That’s right. When the summer help had finished trimming the verge around the trees their fate had been sealed. Two summer help in a matter of an hour totally wiped out the million dollar tree experiment. They had stripped the bark clean around every tree.
Not to be outdone. The Plant Manager spent 2 million dollars to have larger trees installed with plenty of good soil around the embankments on the north side of the coal pile. These were good healthy trees.There was even an irrigation system installed to make sure they were properly watered. This worked at least a year or two. Long enough for a lot of the trees to catch hold. The only problem is that the wind almost always blows from the west or the south defeating the purpose of the “windbreak” on the north side of the coal pile.
Ok. One more summer help story before I go. A friend of mine named Ben Cox became a summer help for a summer the fourth summer I worked as a summer help (how many times can I use the word summer in one sentence?). I had worked with him at the Bakery in Columbia, Missouri and he had followed me home that summer to try his hand at summer helping at the power plant. Tim Flowers and I had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail. I have mentioned Ben Cox before in the story about Ramblin’ Ann. He and I used to tag team Ramblin’ Ann just to keep our sanity. See the link below as a refresher on Ramblin’ Ann:
Ben wasn’t the most physically fit, and we didn’t want to see him have a heart attack at such an early age. Ben, however, held his own as best he could and survived a summer of working outdoors. He actually did better than Tim and I expected.
One day when we were driving to the coal yard Ben asked me why there were large hills of sand piled up across the road from the intake. Instead of telling him that the sand had been dredged out of the intake channel when they were filling the lake and sand was being pumped from the river up to the lake with the water, I told him something else…
I told Ben that they kept the large piles of sand there in case they ran out of coal. They would burn the sand as a last resort. I explained that they didn’t like to burn sand because it burned hotter than coal and it turned into glass in the boiler and really messed things up. But if there was a long coal strike and they totally ran out of coal, they would have to burn sand in order to keep producing electricity.
Tim and I watched closely as Ben mulled this over in his mind. At first he didn’t believe me, but after I explained why we didn’t burn sand all the time, you could start to see the wheels turning in his mind. Burning sand…. wow! There is sand all over the place! I never told him differently. I’m sure if he tried to sell the idea to someone, he would have found out quick enough.
Comment from the original post:
Your stories are so good! They bring back memories I hadn’t thought of for years. The part about “burning sand” reminded me of the Brown & Root engineer that was looking for an easy way to put holes in a thick set of blueprints. “Someone” (Kenneth Palmer or John Blake might have been involved) convinced him that shooting them with a 22 would be the easiest way to do the job. He then proceeded to take a new set of prints and totally destroy them!