This story was originally posted on February 11, 2012:
There are five main power plants in the electric company in Central Oklahoma, and maintenance men from each plant would work at other plants when there was an overhaul. An overhaul is when a generator was taken off line for the purpose of doing maintenance on major parts of the plant that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. Such as repairing boiler tubes, and working on the turbine and generator. Because employees would work at other plants for months at a time, living in camping trailers or cheap hotel rooms to save money, most people were able to work with and had the opportunity to know the Power Plant Men from the other four plants.
I have noticed that most non-plant people have a general misconception about Power Plant Men when they first meet them. As a young 18 year old entering my first job with real men, I learned very quickly that they each possessed a certain quality or talent that made them unique and indispensable Sure there were some “bad apples”, but they were never really and truly Power Plant Men. They either left because of incompatibility or were promoted to upper management. I know more than once the plant hired someone new only to have them work one day and never show up again. There were few if any real Power Plant Men that ever left the plant where the character of the plant and its ability to be maintained properly wasn’t instantly changed.
While I am writing this post this evening a wake service is being held at the First Methodist Church in Moore, Oklahoma for a true Power Plant man; Jimmy Armarfio. He was an electrician at Mustang plant. I had heard some stories about Jimmy before I actually met him; most of them about humorous things that had happened to him at one time or other. Everyone liked his African accent (Jimmy was from Ghana, a country in Africa) as they would imitate his voice while telling the stories. It seems that Bill Bennett our Electrical A foreman had more than a few stories to tell.
Jimmy came to our plant on an overhaul and worked out of our electric shop. The first time I talked to Jimmy, he was leaning against a counter during lunch just finishing a book. I happened to notice when I was walking by that the book was titled “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I had read that book not too long before, so I stopped and asked him what he thought of it. He said that it was interesting how this man who was in a prison camp in Siberia living in a miserable state could go to bed at night thinking that he had a pretty good day. I think I said something like, “Yeah, sort of like us working in this Power Plant.”
Then he said something that has always stuck in my mind. He said that in the English language there are many words that mean the same thing. For instance, for a rock, there is pebble, rock, stone and boulder. In his native language there is one word. It means “rock”. You may say, large rock, small rock, smooth rock, but there is only one word for rock. It made me reflect on the phrase, “In the beginning was the Word…” Suppose there was one word that included everything.
What I didn’t know at that time was that not only was Jimmy Armarfio from Ghana but he was the king of his tribe. Steven Trammell said that his friends referred to him as “King Jimmy” after he was elected King of his tribe. When I heard that Jimmy had died, I looked at the funeral home site and saw that one of his coworkers George Carr said the following: “Jimmy was a beloved coworker and one of my personal heroes.” Another friend, Jack Riley wrote: “It was my blessing to work with Jimmy. The most cheerful person I have had the privilege of knowing.” I have included his picture below. Jimmy Armarfio…. Take a good long look at A True Power Plant Man! A Hero and a King!
Originally Posted on April 7, 2012:
My wife came home from work one night in the early 90’s. She was a charge nurse at the Stillwater Oklahoma Medical Center at the time. She said that she was taking care of a patient that was one of the mostly saintly people she had ever met. He was going to die soon and she thought I might know who he was because he used to work at the Power Plant.
When she gave me his name I was surprised to learn that he was on his deathbed, and yes. I did know him. I agreed with her. He is and always had been a saintly person. The funny thing was that I felt that very few people really knew him as I did. Many people knew him enough to not think he would be classified in the “Saint” category, and I knew why this was also. I knew him so well quite by chance when I first came to the plant, and I made a decision about how to answer a common question that was being asked of me at the time.
As a summer help it was known that I was a college student, so the obvious question was, why was I going to school, and what did I want to be when I graduated. I could tell this was a rowdy bunch of men that enjoyed their day at work, and so I told them that I wasn’t sure yet what my degree would be, but I thought I might like to become a writer. I told them this hoping that they would bite where I could set the hook (in a fisherman sort of way), and they did.
The first person that asked me that question was Sonny Karcher, and when I told him that I thought I might be a writer, he took the bait and asked, “Are you going to write about us?” At the time, I had no plans about doing that, but I thought if they thought so, then they might fill my ears with the unique wisdom each of them seemed to have. So I answered, “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it, but I suppose I might.”
That’s all it took. After that, every time Sonny introduced me to somebody, he would say, “This is Kevin. He’s our new summer help. He’s going to college to be a writer, and he’s going to write all about us!” This produced the behavior I was hoping it would. That was that a number of Power Plant Men took me “under their wing” and bestowed upon me their own particular wisdom. For hours on end, as I worked with various men, they would tell me how things are in the world and how I should respond to them. Their own particular Philosophy Of Life.
At the time I really had not considered writing about my experiences at the power plant, but now that I am much older and the wisdom of these great men seem to be dying away, I thought that it would be a good idea to put these out there on the Internet where nothing ever really goes away.
I have refrained from mentioning the name of this Unlikely Saint until now because I think that if I mentioned it up front some Power Plant Men would read it and think I was just tremendously off my rocker and not read any further. So I prefaced my story with how I came to know this particular Power Plant Man enough to understand what my wife was saying when she told me about this Saint on the general medical (3rd) floor of the hospital.
Maybe I will refrain just a little while longer to tell you a few things that this man told me. It was obvious that he felt as if he was talking to me as a father would talk to a son. He was only two years younger than my own father. The one thing that sticks in my mind most is when he told me, “Kev, some day you may be a foreman or a supervisor running this plant, but always remember this…. Never forget where you came from. Never forget that there was a time when you first began and knew nothing. Don’t ever forget your friends. Don’t forget who you really are.” I have reminded myself of this often and made it part of my own “Philosophy of Life”. Years later when I became an electrician, he stopped by the electric shop and reminded me once again.
As an Aside comment, my mother tried to help me with this by referring to me as “My Son, The Janitor” when introducing me to someone for years after I had become an electrician. I was always proud to be called a janitor, and I would not try to correct her, because even though I was an electrician, I knew inside that I was also still a janitor. Today, even though my title may be “Business Systems Analyst” working for Dell (and now Senior Software Engineer working for General Motors), I also still carry around in the back of my head the title of “Janitor”.
I wish I had a picture to share of this Power Plant Man (I have one somewhere, but I am not able to find it just now), because if you could see him, you would think… this guy?
His skin was darkened from smoking so heavily all his life. Emphysema is what killed him while he was still relatively young. His belly grew over the years to become larger than his stocky barrel chest. His head nodded while he listened to you and especially when managers were talking as if he was laughing to himself because he knew what they were really saying. His clothes were always clean, which left everyone with the impression that he never did any work.
I remember one day while we were inspecting the dumper (where the coal is dumped out of the railway cars), as it had not been in-service for very long and everything needed to be inspected. I followed him down the stairway into the dumper going down into the darkness. There were lights down there, but they didn’t give off much light because the coal dust absorbs the light instead of reflecting it. So, you can shine a flashlight and it doesn’t fill the room with its glow as it might in a room painted with white paint. To me the place was eerily unreal until I had been down there enough times to keep my bearings on where we were going.
Anyway, I followed him down into the dark damp dumper where every handrail, every light fixture and every step was covered with coal dust. We had some wrenches and we were tight checking the rollers on the conveyors. When we were finished we found ourselves at the ground level exit of #2 Conveyor. I looked at this Power Plant Man and he didn’t have spot of coal on him. I, on the other hand, was black from top to bottom. My hardhat was black, my arms, my face, my jeans. All black with coal dust.
Then this Power Plant Man told me some more words from the wise…. “When you get to be good, you will remain as clean as I am.” This had as much impact on me as when Master Po told Kwai Chang Caine (In the Kung Fu TV series) that when he can walk on the rice paper and not leave a trace, then he will be a Shaolin Monk.
It seemed impossible to me that he could have worked right alongside me, actually doing more work than I was doing, and he came out pristine while I came out looking like a bat out of hell (or Pigpen times ten). But there it was.
So, for years whenever I worked in a coal handling area, his words always rang in my mind. I considered it a challenge. I realized that there were times when it would be impossible to come out clean, like when you are sandblasting a tank, or working inside the Precipitator wading through fly ash up to your waist. But when doing my regular job, I made a real effort to remain as clean as possible.
It made me happy to think that others might think that I wasn’t working hard enough to be in the True Power Plant Man League because my clothes were clean, because to me, it was a tribute to my own Shaolin Master…. Jerry Mitchell. Yes. Power Plant Men…. Jerry Mitchell.
Before Jerry came to work at the power plant, he used to work on jet engines. Like many genuine Power Plant Men, he was a leader in the field of mechanics. I have a list as long as my arm of great men that work as Power Plant Men that are each near the top of the list of experts in their fields of knowledge. Jerry was one of them.
He built the engine in the blue corvette that he used to drive to work each day. He machined the parts himself. It could go from 0 to 80 and back to 0 from the main gate to the highway — how many yards is that? 200 yards maybe 300 He demonstrated it once to me. He was wondering if I was interested in buying it because he knew I didn’t own a car.
I think that I realized the true character of Power Plant Men from Jerry, because he had very little tolerance for those impostors that hung around Power Plant Men looking for a way to belittle them, or spread rumors to hurt their reputations, etc. because nothing bothers a pseudo-He-man like a True Power Plant Man, because it is like turning on a bright light and watching the roaches scurry away. Jerry could tell their character a mile away.
I will give you a “for instance”… One day as we pulled the truck up to the Maintenance Shop, Jerry told me to follow him and not say anything, just listen, because I was going to be shocked by the conversation that was about to take place. I wondered how he knew as I walked up to an older coal yard foreman approaching a lady who was a Brown and Root construction hand (you could tell by the hardhat).
So I stood next to the man and listened. He asked her how her night was last night and she began by describing the time she spent in a bar and she repeated the conversation she had with a man that was trying to pick her up. Without going into too much detail, I will say that she ended the conversation with the man in the bar by saying that she was looking for a meal, not a snack, and proceeded to talk about another man in the bar and how she could tell that he was the kind of man she was looking for in more than descriptive terms.
She finished by telling the older man that the man she left with and her had a “Jolly good time” (my words, not hers) for at least 4 hours non-stop with more than enough details thrown in. The older man was amused and hee-hawed about it slapping his knee in amusement.
Jerry nodded to me and we left. We walked outside of the shop and Jerry asked me, “Have you ever heard anyone talk like that before, let alone a lady?” I admitted that I hadn’t. Then he said, “That man that she was talking to is her father.”
I was thoroughly shocked and greatly disturbed. I had just heard a flowing river of filth spew from this person’s mouth as she was talking to her own father, and his response was to be amused by it. When Jerry told me this I looked at him in shock, and he looked back at me with his head nodding as it did often. His face had the regular straight poker face he usually wore, but his eyes told me that he was very saddened by this. He said he felt it was important for me to know.
I have often kept that poor old man and his lost soul of a daughter in my prayers. This man worked in the plant until the 1987-88 downsizing. Whenever I would see him working in the coal yard, I would remember that I needed to add him and his daughter to my prayers.
So in ending I will say this about Jerry Mitchell, as I say with all the True Power Plant Men I know. I have always considered Jerry a good friend. Jerry was always a good friend to me, and I know that he is a Saint in Heaven today. He never spoke a religious word in the years that I knew him, but I know that his large barrel chest held a tremendous heart.
When I think of Jerry today, I remember riding to Stillwater with him in his blue Corvette. As we drove by a row of trees in a creek bottom he suddenly said, “What is that noise? Do I hear Cicadas?” I said, “Yeah, sounds like it.” He replied, “I haven’t heard Cicada in years! After working around Jet engines for so long I could no longer hear the sound of bugs. My hearing is returning!” That was the only time I saw Jerry’s expression change from his constant straight face to a smile of satisfaction. I am 100% sure by the time Jerry made it to Heaven he was able to hear the harps very clearly.
Originally Posted September 28, 2012:
I have learned one thing from Power Plant Men, and the Power Plant Safety Process is that, when you become comfortable doing a dangerous job, that is when an accident is most likely to happen. Isn’t that when a young driver seems to become careless?
They drive carefully for the first couple of months when they have just learned how to drive, and then when they feel confident about their driving ability, they begin to cut safety corners, and the next thing you know an accident occurs. That was one lesson we learned in our Defensive Driving Course.
In the spring of 1986, while I was an electrician at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I went with another electrician, Ted Riddle, to work on a Major Overhaul for three months in Oklahoma City at a Power Plant just North of Mustang. While we worked there, we would eat lunch with a man well into his 50’s that was our acting foreman for the overhaul. His name was Willard Stark.
During lunch we would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio. When Paul would mention a date 20 years in the past, Willard would be able to tell us what he was doing on that day, many years earlier.
I was fascinated by his ability. I will probably talk about Willard more in a later post, but today, I mention him only because of his ability to remember what happened on dates long gone by.
Now that I am about the same age as Willard was then, I am beginning to see that certain dates hold a special significance. The more memorable the experience, either for the good or the bad, and I seem to remember what day it happened. That leads me to one of the memorable dates in my past life at the Power Plant.
The particular date was July 15, 1980. I was working at the power plant during my second summer when I was normally working out of the garage. But Stanley Elmore had told me to go to the Maintenance Shop and get with Ray Butler, because he was going to have me do some cleaning up around the shop.
When I arrived, Ray told me to go over and wait with this new hand that they had just hired the day before, and he would be over there in a few minutes when he finished what he was doing. I walked over to the young man (I say young, but he was 6 years older than I was. He was 25) named Kerry Lewallen.
I introduced myself to him, and we waited together for a few minutes until Ray came over and told us to get a forklift and move some crates that were nearby over to the Warehouse, and then meet him there to help build some shelves in the warehouse to store the larger material on pallets.
The reason I remember this day so well was because of what happened right after Ray walked away. Kerry looked at me and asked me if I wanted to drive the forklift. Well. I really did want to drive the forklift, because I thought it would be fun, but from my experience at the plant, I noticed that people like Larry Riley had a Hard Hat Sticker that said: “Certified Operator Industrial Powered Trucks”.
So I explained to Kerry that I wasn’t Certified to drive a forklift. Kerry had only worked there one day before that day, and even though he probably had a lot of experience driving a forklift (as most Power Plant Men did), he didn’t feel comfortable driving the forklift either.
So, we waited for Ray to come back and Ray asked if we were going to go get the forklift. Then Kerry said something that I have never forgotten, and that I have used repeatedly throughout my career at the Power Plant, as well as my current career. He explained to Ray, “I would like to, but I haven’t been circumcised to drive the forklift.”
I watched Ray as he listened, and I noticed a very faint smile as he realized what Kerry meant to say. Ray agreed, and said he would take care of it. I believe that was the day he took us to the warehouse and circumcised both of us to drive the forklift right then and there.
I couldn’t wait to get home and show my parents. As you can see, I was so proud of my new hardhat sticker, I didn’t put it on my hardhat, I just brought it home and framed it and hung it on the wall. That was July 15, 1980. Being Circumcised to drive the forklift was kind of like my “Come to Jesus” moment in my Power Plant journey.
Kerry Lewallen, as it turned out was a great welder, as were all the True Power Plant Welders. He stayed on at the plant to become one of the True Power Plant Men that worked side-by-side with the other great welders in the boilers welding boiler tubes, or in the bowl mill welding inside them in the tremendous heat that mere mortals like myself found totally unbearable.
As with Jerry Mitchell, my wife came home one day and told me about this very nice person that she worked with as a Nurse in the Stillwater Medical Center. She described her as being a very honest and pleasant person to work with. She also told me that her husband worked at the Power Plant. Her name was Vicki Lewallen, Kerry’s wife.
Through the years, there were many opportunities where we received Hardhat stickers. Most of them were safety related. Each year we would receive a safety sticker, if we hadn’t had an accident. It would indicate how many years in a row it has been that we have been accident free. I received my last safety sticker the last day I worked at the Power Plant during my going away party.
I didn’t place this on a hardhat either. Well. I was walking out the door leaving my hardhat behind (so to speak). I don’t remember how long the Plant Manager Eldon Waugh had worked for the electric company, (about 40 years) but just a couple of months before he retired, while driving back to the plant from Oklahoma City, he took an exit off of I-35 behind a semi-truck.
The truck stopped on the ramp realizing that he had taken the wrong exit and proceeded to back up. He ran into the company truck that Eldon was driving causing an accident. This was enough to ruin Eldon’s perfect safety record just months before he retired. The thought was that Eldon should not have pulled up so close to the truck, or have kept the truck in line with the driver’s side mirror so that he knew he was there.
Throughout the years that I worked at the plant we would have different Safety programs or initiatives that would help to drive our safe behavior. Since back injuries were a major concerned, we would watch films about lifting properly. Since we worked with heavy equipment we would watch videos about people being injured while working with dozers, and other big tractors.
One video that we watched was called: “Shake Hands With Danger”. You can watch it here on YouTube:
This is a classic Safety film shown at the Power Plant periodically. I always thought we should have been provided with popcorn when we watched these. Harry in this film reminds me of a cross between Ken Conrad and Darrell Low. The “Old timer” reminds me of Mike Lafoe. I could go on.
When our new plant manager Ron Kilman arrived after Eldon Waugh, he had us watch a film where there was a near fatal race car accident. When they looked more closely at the accident, it turned out that there were many things that had to happen wrong that led up to the accident.
When an accident occurs on the race track, a Yellow Flag is raised, and everyone gets in line and takes it slow around the track until the accident is cleared. In the movie, the thought was that it would have been helpful if the yellow flag had come out each time someone was about to do something wrong “Before” the accident happened.
The foremen at the plant were given yellow flags to put on their desks as a reminder to see yellow flags whenever you see something that has the potential to be dangerous. We were even given yellow flag stickers to put on our hardhat. — By now, you probably know what I did with mine. Yep. I have it right here. I keep it by my bedside as a reminder:
At one point during the years at the plant, we created a Safety Task Force. When Bill Gibson was the head of the Task Force, he used his Safety imagination to come up with some customized Hardhat Safety Stickers that people at our plant would appreciate. One of the more patriotic Hardhat Safety Stickers looked like this:
I didn’t receive one of the stickers that he came up with that I really liked because I was away at the time on an overhaul when they were being handed out. Many years later, when I mentioned it to the guys at the plant in an e-mail, I was given a stack of them by Randy Dailey the next time I visited the plant.
Randy Dailey the Plant Machinist that was known as “Mister Safety” himself. Thanks to Randy Dailey I am able to show you a hardhat safety sticker that was created based on a particular phrase that was going around the plant at the time:
That really says it all doesn’t it. The real truth about Power Plant Men. They really do care about each other. The close bond between the Power Plant Men is what kept us safe. In the “Shake Hands with Danger” at one point, it mentions that each person should “Watch out for the other guy.”
That is how our plant remained as safe as it did throughout the years that I was there. When I received the Hardhat Safety Sticker for working 20 years without an accident, it wasn’t because I was always being safe in every job I was doing, because that wasn’t always true. It was because there were enough Power Plant Men and Women looking out for me that decreased my odds of being injured by decreasing the number of times that I would end up doing something stupid and getting myself hurt or killed.
So, not only do I thank all the True Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with throughout those years, but so does my wife and my two children. One little mistake at the wrong time. One extra time of Shaking Hands with Danger, and I might not have come home one day from work. It was more than luck that kept me safe. I thank each and everyone of the Power Plant People that I worked with throughout my career for watching out for the other guy.
NOTE: After posting this last year, Ron Kilman, the plant manager at our plant from 1988 to 1994 sent me a picture of his Hard hat. I thought I would post it here so you can see it:
Ron said he stacked his Yearly safety stickers on top of each other as you can see. 24 years of working safely.
Originally Posted March 16, 2013:
Seventeen years before Harry Potter captured the Snitch in the movie “Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone”, the Coal-fired Power Plant in north central Oklahoma was plagued by a similar elusive snitch. Unlike the snitch in Harry Potter, which was a small ball with wings that held a special secret only revealed in the last moments of the last Harry Potter Book (and movie) “The Deathly Hallows”, the Power Plant snitch had a more sinister character.
The Power Plant Snitch reminded me once again of the phrase that “Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.” I had experienced this phenomenon only a few years earlier when I was in High School and my father was a victim of this type of corruption. This made me especially abhorrent of deceit and dishonesty in the workplace. This was the reason why I had become so upset while I was a janitor and I learned a little “lie” that Jack Ballard had cooked up to force the employees to use their floating Holiday first so that they couldn’t use it around Christmas (See the post Power Plant Secrets Found during the Daily Mail Run).
You see, in the Lone Power Plant stationed out in the middle of the country in North Central Oklahoma, a plot had been hatched by the Evil Plant Manager that rivaled a James Bond conspiracy to take over the world. Only in this case, it was a conspiracy to take over the personal dignity of honest, descent Power Plant Men. Men who said their prayers each night when they went to bed. Men who went to work each day to provide for their children. Men who held God and country in the highest esteem.
As I mentioned above, I had seen this abuse of power before when I was in High School. It had affected my personality in a way that I became instantly angry at the site of dishonesty. This was something I had to learn to deal with throughout the years as I interacted with men of less than honorable dignity. In order to understand why, I will divert into a side story:
My parents had kept their financial difficulties and other stress out of our lives while I was in Junior High and High school back in the mid ’70’s. They didn’t tell me that my father, who was listed in the top 20 Veterinarians in the world, and among the top 5 bird specialists, was being targeted by the Dean and his minions at the University of Missouri Veterinary College.
I remember that my mother was introducing new foods to our palate, such as Lentils and other types of rice and bean dishes. She had even gone to work as a secretary at Stephen’s College to make ends meet. At the same time, I had traveled with my dad when I was 13 to Europe where I met Veterinarians around the world that all greeted my father as if he were some kind of king.
I remember walking down the road on the way to Liverpool from the University (a 5 mile walk) where a group of bird specialists from around the world were meeting to determine the universal Latin names of every part of the bird’s anatomy (which at that point had not been defined). The Veterinarian walking with me from India told me after I had made some offhand comment about my father. He said, “You don’t realize who your dad is. In India, your dad is the Father of Physiology! Your dad wrote the bible of Veterinary Physiology used around the world!”
I knew the book he was referring to. My dad had worked for three years day and night writing this book. Collaborating with renown Veterinarians around the world to compile a comprehensive book of Veterinary Physiology. The first of it’s kind. Before this book was written, you could only find the Physiology of a Pig, or the Physiology of a Dog. My dad had created a masterpiece that included an all-encompassing Veterinary Physiology in one book.
I say this, not to lift my father on a higher pedestal than he already is, but to put in perspective, how an important person such as James E. Breazile, DVM was treated by the “Evil Dean” of the Veterinary College at the University of Missouri in 1974 and until the day he resigned on January 16, 1978. Actually, the day my father brought the gold bound copy of the book home and presented it to my mother, she stopped talking to him for about a month for the first time in her life (for a totally unrelated reason which I may relay in a future post). Though the publishing company made a lot of money for years after this book was published, the total amount my dad received for his years of work totaled no more than $10,000 over a three year period.
Anyway. To make a long story short, (because I could go on for days about this), my father was not able to get a job at any another University in the United States, because he had tried to bring the corruption of the leaders of the Veterinary School (who had been stealing money from the University through bogus expense reports) to light, only to be told by the Chancellor of the University at the time, Herbert Schooling, “Boys will be boys.” It was just like the moment when Saruman told Gandalf, “We must join with him!”
It was only because my father had worked for Oklahoma State University before, when I was very young, that they didn’t need “permission” from University of Missouri to hire him, and take the multi-million dollar contracts that he had with Purina (and other businesses that had funded their electron microscope and other expensive scientific equipment at the time) with him, that we were able to escape the firewall that had been placed around my father’s career (ok. that sentence is long enough for an entire paragraph).
Anyway (again)…. I can’t let this story go until I give you the moment that was the “clincher” for me. The moment that I finally believed that my mother and my father hadn’t just gone off their rocker and become extremely paranoid living in a “James Bond” world….
My father (secretly) obtained a job from the Oklahoma State University in the Veterinary College. He was to start on January 9, 1978 with tenure (meaning that he couldn’t be fired without a really good reason). One week before he was going to resign from the University of Missouri. As usual, Oklahoma State University would begin classes one week before the University of Missouri after Christmas break.
During Christmas break (when I was a senior in High School), we would sneak into my father’s office at the Vet School in Columbia Missouri to remove his books and personal items from his office. We would go to this office at 10 o’clock at night after the school was closed for the night. At this point, I believed that both my mom and my dad had gone off their rocker and I was already planning on going through the phone book to find them a good Psychologist, or a priest to help them out.
Until Sunday morning, January 1, 1978. New Years Day. My mother and I were on our way to an early morning Church service at Our Lady Of Lourdes. My mom said that she thought it would be safe to drop by the Veterinary school and pick up some of dad’s things from his office (Dad had already left for Stillwater, Oklahoma to deliver a load of books and personal belongings – did I mention that my dad had a lot of books?).
As we pulled into the parking lot at the Veterinary College, my mom told me that I couldn’t go in because that was “Brown’s” car on the parking lot. — She had names for the different “bad guys” in the department. The Dean was “Whitey”. There was an older lady professor named “Brown”. Then there was the one that I recognized the most…. “McClure”.
I told my mom… “Look. It’s 9 am on Sunday morning. New Year’s Day. She was insistent that “Brown” was in the building. Then finally she told me. “Ok. go downstairs (where my father’s office was) and look around. If no one is there, then grab some of his books.”
Then one of the most bizarre moments of my life occurred. I still remember every detail. It was like I had gone into a dream where fantasy suddenly became reality. I entered the dark building using my father’s key. Immediately turned left and went down the stairs into the darkness. I had to feel my way down the stairs, holding onto the handrail.
As I stepped into the subterranean hallway, I turned north toward my father’s office. I immediately stopped. About 50 yards ahead of me I could see two offices next to each other with their doors open and their lights on. The rest of the hallway was totally dark as we were below ground. Having been a “spelunker” in my youth, the darkness didn’t bother me, however, the existence of lights ahead were a total surprise.
I briskly walked down the hallway past the two doors. In the first office a lady was sitting at a desk. In the second, a man. I quietly walked on by. Then I turned around and walked passed the door where the man was sitting and stopped between the two doors. I could tell that both the man and the woman were talking on the phone. After listening for a moment I could tell that they were talking to each other, though I couldn’t hear what they were saying.
As a seventeen year old High School student, I suddenly realized that everything my mother and father had been saying for the past 5 years had been true. All the bugs found in my dad’s phone. All the threatening notes. The trips down to the gas station to use the pay phone because they were sure our own phones were bugged. The reason why he hadn’t received a raise in 5 years… All made sense! These guys were crazy!
I walked south to the stairway and turned around and looked back. “Brown” (the lady), was standing in the hallway with her hands on her hips like Professor Umbridge in Harry Potter!
I stood there for a second looking at her silhouetted against the light from her office, knowing that she couldn’t tell who I was in the darkness. then I darted up the stairs. Ran outside to the car. Jumped in the driver’s seat of the Pontiac Station Wagon and told my mom what I had seen.
My mom explained to me that this was “Brownie”. They talk on the phone so that no one can say that they have been seen talking together. You see…. they are supposed to be at a conference or some other “official” business this weekend so they can claim expenses for flights, hotel and food. That is why “Whitey” can live in a big ranch south of town on his measly salary. This is what my father had told the Chancellor of the University who told him that “boys will be boys”.
I didn’t know whether to lean over and kiss my mom when I suddenly realized that the list of insane people didn’t include my mother and father, or to peel out of the parking lot before Professor Umbridge made it up the stairs! Anyway. On News Years Day 1978 I had a totally new perspective on life. I can tell you that for certain.
To finish up with this side (non Power Plant) story…. in 1980 when Barbara Uehling became the Chancellor at the University of Missouri (from Oklahoma University, where I had attended school two years before), she began to clean house. I remember the day I learned that she had fired “Whitey” the dean of the Veterinary school.
I woke from my sleep very early in the morning when the phone rang. It was my father from Stillwater, Oklahoma. He had received a call from Iowa State from a Veterinarian, Deiter Delman, who had told him that they had just fired Whitey the Dean of the Veterinary College at Missouri. I told dad that was great, and I crawled back to my bed to finish my nightly ritual of sleep.
Moments later I was woken by another phone call. One of my professors from the College of Psychology Dr. Wright had called me. He said, “I have some news that your father will probably like to know. It is really top secret! I said, “Does it have to do with “Whitey” being fired? In my head I could see Dr. Wright’s one fake eye spinning around in his head like Professor Moody in Harry Potter (even though he hadn’t been thought of yet in 1981).
Professor Moody… I mean Dr. Wright…. said, “What? How do you know? This is “Top Secret?” the meeting was over just minutes ago? I told him that Dr. Middleton had called Dr. Delman, who had immediately called my father, who had already called me moments ago. — To put this in perspective…… The whole world knew within minutes. I wrote a letter to the Chancellor Barbara Uehling explaining the events that I knew about. She wrote back saying that the Provost would be looking into the additional names I had given her.
End of side story…..
Back to the Power Plant Snitch… (I can tell… this has already become a long post and is probably going to break my record of the longest post of all time).
In September 1984, not one year after I had joined the electric shop, Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, came down to the electric shop (which was normal. Since he ate lunch with us every day). This time, he locked the doors. The door to the Turbine room, the door to the main switchgear and the front door…. — all locked. He said, “What is said here doesn’t go outside this shop.”
Ok…. We all went instantly into “serious” mode. Bill explained that there was something up with the grubby looking janitor (I’m sorry… I don’t remember what name he was assuming to use at the time — I’ll call him “Bonzo” from now on). The janitor “Bonzo” had been neglecting his duties as a janitor, so Pat Braden (the lead janitor) had gone to Marlin McDaniel to have him fired. Marlin McDaniel had gone to the Assistant Plant Manager, Bill Moler to start the process of firing “Bonzo”.
Marlin McDaniel (who had been my A foreman while I was a Janitor and on Labor crew after Chuck Ross had left) was told by Bill Moler that he was not going to fire “Bonzo” under any circumstance. It didn’t matter to him that he wasn’t doing his job. Marlin was told to forget about it and not bring it up again.
Bill Bennett told every person in the electric shop…. “Keep clear of this guy. I don’t know what is going on, but something is definitely wrong.” At that point everyone in the Electric shop knew that “Bonzo” was a snitch. Don’t talk to the Snitch…. Ok… from now on I’ll refer to “Bonzo” as the “Snitch”.
I know I have bored all of you by the personal story of my father and the trials that he went through, so I’ll try to keep this short: I knew a year and three months ago when I first started writing about the “Goodness” of the Power Plant Man that I would eventually come to this story. I know that the Power Plant men that read this blog knew that this story had to eventually be written. So, here it is.
Through unforeseen circumstances… and I attribute it to my Guardian Angel who has kept me out of serious trouble up to this point, I was called to Oklahoma City by my girlfriend Kelly Burgess (who ten months and 11 days later became my wife and is ’til death do us part) on February 10, 1985. I called in to Howard Chumbley on February 11 and told him I would not be able to make it to work that day. I would be taking my floating holiday.
The following Monday morning when I had climbed into Bill River’s Station wagon at the bowling alley where we met, with Rich Litzer and Yvonne Taylor and we were on our way to work, I learned about what had happened the Friday before. The day that would forever be referred to at the plant as “Black Friday.”
Bill Rivers explained the entire scenario to me during the 25 minute drive to the plant. I can’t say that I was in tears because my system had gone into shock and I was zombified by each new revelation. If I could have cried, I would have. My system had just gone into shock. All emotion had shut down.
Bill explained to me that on Friday morning (February 11, 1985), a plant-wide meeting had been held. Everyone at the plant had been informed that a drug and theft ring at the plant had been found and eliminated. This included one lady who was a janitor. A machinist named Dink Myers. The Lead Janitor Pat Braden and two of the Electricians Craig Jones and Jim Stevenson.
Drug and Theft ring? Really? At our Power Plant?
Except for the female janitor (I can’t even remember her name), I had a personal relationship with every other person on this list (whether they knew it or not). I never worked directly with Craig Jones, but as an electrician, I did know that everyone held him in the highest esteem. I later found out that Dink Myers was a distant relation of mine when two years later I attended my grandfather’s funeral. Jim Stevenson was a close friend to the point that I used to give him Swedish Massages that would ease the pain of his rampant Eczema. Pat Braden…. Well. Pat Braden.. my Janitor lead. I loved him most of all.
I invited Pat Braden to sit next to my wife and I at my wedding 10 months later, even though the Evil Assistant Plant Manager would be serving as a deacon in the wedding ceremony (he didn’t come.. I understood why). Next to Charles Foster, Pat Braden was my next dearly beloved friend. — Other Power Plant Men, such as Mickey Postman and Ed Shiever, share in my total love for Pat Braden to this day. — Not that I have asked them… I just know… They used to work for this saint.
Here is what had happened…..
Eldon Waugh (the evil plant manager) had heard from a study that came out early in 1984 that 10% of a typical workforce were either on drugs or were robbing their employer. I know. I had read the same study. The company had hired the snitch to become a janitor at the best power plant in the country to infiltrate their troops and bring out the worst in them.
I distinctly remember the snitch walking into the electric shop once as I was walking out…. He paused… looked at me as if to say something, then went on…. (– my interpretation…. “oh… a victim….”…. Guardian angel response…. “This isn’t the droids you are looking for…”) He went on without saying a word.
So the Snitch nailed a good friend of mine, Jim Stevenson…. I remember in January just before the verdict came down….. Leroy Godfrey had gone on a frenzied hunt for the portable electric generator. It had turned up missing…. Everyone in the shop was sent to look for it… After a day of searching, when it was time to go home…. I remember that as we were walking out the door to the parking lot that Jim Stevenson said, “They are never going to find the generator.” Bill Ennis asked, “Why Not?” Jim answered,. “Because their snitch has it. If they are going to let a crook like that work here, they are going to have to live with the consequences. He took the generator.”
A few months after “Black Friday”, Jim Stevenson was suing the company, and the specifically the Plant Manager and the Assistant Plant Manager. Lawyers came from Oklahoma City and interviewed people that had worked with Jim Stevenson and Craig Jones. I was in a quandary. I knew if they asked me about this situation I would have to tell them what Jim Stevenson had said. Jim had been fired for helping the snitch load the generator in the back of his truck months earlier. The funny thing was… I was the only one in the shop that they didn’t interview. I had never been on Jim’s crew, so I wasn’t on their list. At that point, if they didn’t ask me, I wasn’t going to volunteer.
The thing about this whole event was that it was setup from the beginning…. The Snitch asked Jim if he would help him lift the generator into the back of his truck…. This by itself was nothing out of the ordinary, since people could “check out” the generator for their personal use.
Jim had known that the Snitch had taken the portable generator and said to Bill Ennis that if they wanted to keep scum around like that, then they should incur the cost of that decision. What Jim didn’t know was that he was being secretly taped while he was being entrapped into loading the generator into the back of the Snitch’s truck. Jim reminded me of Dabney Coleman:
I won’t go much into the stories of Dink Myers, who shared a joint with the Snitch in the locker room, and Craig Jones who pulled up some “hemp” on the road to the river pumps to swap for a “stolen knife set” (though he didn’t know they were stolen) since these were “no-brainer” stupid moments in the life of young Power Plant Men… but I will defend Pat Braden…. The most honest and loving of souls (and again… I apologize for the length of this post).
In previous posts I have mentioned that Pat Braden reminded me of Red Skelton.
Today, when I want to reminisce about Pat Braden. All I have to do is watch an old episode of Red Skelton. As kind as Red Skelton was in real life… there was Pat Braden. If you don’t know about Red Skelton… Google him…. He was a sincere soul… He was a soul-mate to Pat Braden.
This is how Pat Braden was fired…… The snitch came to him one day and asked for the key to the closet so that he could get the VCR….. Weeks later, the VCR turned up missing and Pat was asked if he knew where the VCR went. He didn’t know. When I was a janitor I used to do go to Pat on a weekly basis and ask for the key to closet for the VCR. I had to regularly move it to the control room or the Engineer’s shack for training sessions. It was just part of our regular job and Pat Braden would have not thought twice about it.
As it turned out, the snitch had taken the VCR from the closet and had brought it straight to Bill Moler, the Assistant Plant Manager and handed it to him and told him that he had stolen it (even though technically, it hadn’t been stolen). Then about a month later, Bill sent out the request to find the VCR. At that point, Pat, who was the same age as my father (It’s funny, but a lot of people at the plant were the same age as my father), and on blood pressure medication that made his head swim when he stood up, didn’t remember anyone taking the VCR four weeks earlier… So, he was included in the “Theft and Drug ring at Sooner Plant on February 11, 1985”.
The story about Jim Stevenson is almost as tragic, though he had enough money to take the Electric Company to court. Pat’s income of $10 an hour didn’t quite leave him in a position to complain about being unjustly fired.
As the Tape recorder tapes revealed about Jim Stevenson (yeah… Like Watergate)… The evil Plant Manager, Eldon Waugh had told the Snitch to specifically target Jim Stevenson. The way it was explained in the recording between Eldon Waugh and the Snitch (as recorded by Jack Ballard, the head of HR at the Plant at the time), if Jim Stevenson were gone, then Leroy Godfrey’s only friend would be gone… Then Leroy would have to turn to Bill Moler or Eldon for friendship….. I want to continue printing periods as you ponder this thought…..
So…. Eldon and Bill had Jim Stevenson fired as part of a bogus “Drug and Theft” ring so that Leroy Godfrey would be their friend?….. How bizarre is that? You know… I can put this all in writing because it all became public knowledge when it became part of a trial between Jim Stevenson and the Electric Company a year later. The s**t hit the fan on January 23, 1986 when Bill Moler and Eldon Waugh were attending Jack Ballard’s funeral.
Immediately after the graveside services were finished in Ponca City at the Odds Fellows Cemetery, Jim’s lawyer hit them both with a Subpoena to appear in court… The lawyer wanted to make sure the trial took place in Kaw County (Ponca City) outside the area that received electricity from our electric company. A year later, these two individuals and the company settled out of court after news about the snitch was coming out and the company didn’t want any publicity surrounding this. Both the Plant Manager and the Assistant Plant Manager were “early retired” which opened the door for a new era of Power Plant Management. Jim Stevenson walked away with an undisclosed sum of money that was at least six digits.
Pat? I found out a few years later that my wife had been working with Pat in Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Ponca City. One day after, we had moved to Stillwater, and Kelly was talking to a friend from Ponca City, the subject of Pat Braden came up. When she had hung up the phone, I asked her, “Pat Braden who?” When she explained that she had worked with a security guard named Pat Braden in Ponca City, and that he was the nicest guy you would ever meet. He cared about one thing in life and that was his daughter… I knew she was talking about our Pat Braden.
Everyone that ever met this kind soul was touched by him. It was ironic that my wife Kelly had worked with Pat for a couple of years at the hospital and I didn’t even have a clue. I knew that Pat must have known…. After all…. I was the only Breazile in the phone book in Ponca City at the time. From what I understand… Pat is still around in Ponca City doing something….. Jim Stevenson still runs “Stevenson Refrigeration Services”. Both of these are honorable men.
Note that the True Power Plant Men mourned their loss for years after this event. A certain amount of “innocence” or “decency” had been whittled away. That is until 1994 rolled around….. But…. That is another story for a much later time….
Comments from the orignal post:
Ron Kilman March 18, 2013:
I of course heard about “Black Friday” at Sooner, but it was from Eldon’s perspective. It is evil when innocent people are set up to be fired like that.
We didn’t hire any snitches at Seminole.
Originally posted November 1, 2013:
You would think that telling time is a pretty universal past time. I used to think that myself. That is, until I went to work at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I first went to work there in 1979 as a summer help. I noticed something was different when I walked into the office to meet the Assistant Plant Manager, Bill Moler and the clock on his wall looked kind of funny. I had to stare at it for a moment before I realized what it meant:
The Power Plant Men called it Military Time because many of them had been in the military during the Vietnam War and had learned to tell time using this type of clock. When we filled out our timecards at the end of the day we put 0800 to 1600 Well. I put in the colons like this: 8:00 to 16:00 but that wasn’t the real Power Plant Man way to do it.
That wasn’t the only thing I learned about Power Plant Man time. Power Plant Men keep time in other ways. One of those ways, though it involves a clock, the time being observed isn’t the time of day. Instead it centers around five events.
Startin’ Time, Morning Break, Lunch Time and Afternoon Break and Quitin’ Time. A Power Plant Man’s day revolves around these events.
The moment Startin’ Time begins, the Power Plant Men are looking forward to Morning Break. They schedule their efforts around this event. That is, if they need to do a certain job that would run them into Morning Break, then they figure out something else to do, and push that event out until Morning Break is over.
In General, Morning Break would begin at 9:30 (Oh. I mean 0930 — pronounced “Oh Nine Thirty”). It was supposed to be 15 minutes long, but in order to make sure you didn’t miss your break, you usually headed toward the shop 15 minutes early. Then by the time you headed back out the door to and returned to your work, another 10 to 15 minutes went by. Essentially stretching morning break from 15 minutes to 40 to 45 minutes.
This was especially true in the early days of the Power Plant. The Power Plant Men’s culture evolved over time so that the actual time spent on their 15 minute break probably shortened from 45 minutes to 30 minutes.
The idea that the employees weren’t spending every moment of their day when not on break working just confounded Plant Managers, such as the “Evil Plant Manager” that I often talk about. Our first plant manager was so tight, when he worked at a gas plant in Oklahoma City, he was known for taking rags out of the trash and putting them back in the rag box because they weren’t dirty enough.
Now that I work at Dell as a Business Systems Analyst (and since I first wrote this post, I have changed jobs and now work for General Motors) after many years of working for great managers and not-so-great managers, I am always relieved when I find that a new manager doesn’t measure you by how many hours you are sitting at the computer, but by your results.
For those that looked closely at the performance of the Power Plant Men at our particular plant, they would find that when a job needed to be done, it would be done… on time. The bottom line was that when you treat the employees with respect, they go the extra mile for you.
“Quitin’ Time” was always an interesting time. From the first day that I arrived as a summer help (1979) until the day I left 22 years later (2001), Even though “Quitin’ Time” was at 4:30 (or 1630, later changing to 1730), it really began at 4:00 (or 1600, pronounced “sixteen hundred”).
at 4:00, a half hour before it was time to go out to the parking lot and drive home, everyone would return to the shop, where they would spend the next 30 minutes cleaning up and filling out their daily timecard. The timecard was, and probably still is, a sheet of paper.
Amazing huh? You would think with the way things are that paper timecards would have disappeared a long time ago. I could be wrong about that. If it is any different at the plant today, I’ll encourage one of them to leave a comment below updating me.
There are other ways that Power Plant Men tell time. Sure, they know that there are seasons, like Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring. But it is more likely that in their minds the Power Plant Men are thinking more like this…. Instead of Summer, they would think that this is “Peak Load”. That is, the units need to stay operational because the citizens of this country are in dire need of air conditioning.
Instead of Fall, there are two thoughts running through a Power Plant Man’s mind…. Hunting Season and the start of “Overhauls”.
As hunting season nears, many Power Plant Men are staking out their territories and setting up their deer stands. Some are out practicing with their bows as Bow Season starts first before you can use a rifle. The Plant staff didn’t like their employees taking off Christmas vacation, and did everything they could to keep you in town during the holiday. But when it came down to it… The real time to worry was during hunting season.
An Overhaul is when you take one of the units offline to work on things that you can’t work on when it is running. the main area being inside the boiler. When overhauls come around, it is a chance for working a lot of overtime. The pay is good especially if you get to go to another plant to work because then you not only get to work 10 or 12 hour days, but you receive a Per Diem of somewhere from $28.50 to $35.00 each day depending on how far back you want to look.
I don’t know what the Per Diem is today. I’m sure it must be much higher. Plus you get driving time back and forth each week, and you also receive mileage! So, you can see why Power Plant Men were often very anxious to go away on overhaul.
Overhaul season ran from the Fall into the Spring. It is during that time when the electric company could take a couple of units offline at a time because the electric demand wasn’t so high.
Another season that many Power Plant Men counted on was “Fishing Season”. It wasn’t like the other seasons, because it kind of ran into a lot of the others. If the weather was right, and the rain was right and the Missus was all right with it… Then it was fishing season. There were different types of fishing. In the electric shop, “Noodling” was popular. That is when you reach under the rocks in a river and feel around for a fish and then end up catching it with your bare hands.
Another timekeeping tool used by Power Plant men was “Pay Day”. It came around every two weeks. After a while everyone was on direct deposit, so it wasn’t like they were all waiting around for someone to actually hand them a paycheck. Many did plan their trips to the mall or to the gun shows in Oklahoma City around Pay Day. It was common to live from paycheck to paycheck.
If you worked in the coalyard, then you calibrated your clock by when the next coal train was going to roll into the dumper. There was generally a steady stream of coal trains coming and going. When a coal train was late, or even early, then I think it seemed to throw some coalyard hands into a state of confusion. But, then again, now that I think about it…. Walt Oswalt usually did seem to be in a state of confusion. — I’m just joking of course….. Well… you know…
If you were a Control Room Operator, then you were in a sort of Twilight Zone, because there really was only one small window in the entire Control room and that was only so that you could look through a small telescope at the Main Power Substation in case…. well… in case you were bored and you needed to be reassured that the world still did exist out there.
In the control room, there were clocks, but the control room operators had a lot more pretty lights to look at back then. Here is my favorite picture of a Power Plant Control Room (not the one where I worked):
See all those lights? Now everything is on the computer. That way if some foreign terrorist group decides they want to shut down the electric grid, all they have to do is hack into the system and down it goes. They couldn’t do that when the control room looked like this.
It seemed that being in the control room was out of time. It didn’t matter what time of the day you went in the control room. In the morning, the afternoon, even at two in morning. It always seemed the same. There were always two control room operators sitting or standing at their posts. The Shift Supervisor was sitting in his office, or was standing somewhere nearby. Other operators were walking in and out going on their rounds. I think the Control Room operators only knew that it was time to go home because the next shift would show up to take their place.
Electricians on the other hand, had their own kind of timekeeping. Well, not all of them… ok…. well… maybe just me…. I used an oscilloscope a lot when I was working on the precipitator controls, and so very small amounts of time meant a lot to me. For instance… The regular 60 cycle electricity in your house goes from zero to about 134 volts and then back to zero about every 8 and 1/3 thousands of a second (or .00833333…).
I will talk about it later, but when you are testing tripping relays, even as little as one thousandth of a second can be important. So, telling time with an oscilloscope can vary widely.
Then there were those timekeeping Power Plant Men that kept time by how long it was going to be to retirement. It was more of a countdown. I remember one Power Plant Man saying that he only had 21 more years and then he was outta there. An even more sad story was when Charles Lay at Muskogee who was 63 asked me to figure out his retirement because he wanted to retire in 2 years. Well….. sad to say… He had only been working there for 3 or so years, so his retirement package wasn’t going to be much and had never put anything into a 401k or an IRA.
Those who spent their lives working at the plant were able to retire with great benefits. It wasn’t like a union with all the healthcare and stuff, but the company did offer a very good retirement plan for those that had been there for the long haul. I suppose at this point they are measuring time in terms of their lifetime.
What it boils down to is that some Power Plant Men measured their life one-day-at-a-time, while others just looked at the entire time of their life as one time. Some looked forward to a time when they would be able to rest, while others enjoyed their work each day.
When I think about time, I realize that an infinite number of things can take place each second. Yet, a lifetime can go by without ever grasping what is important and what is fleeting. When I think back at the time that I spent working at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, what I feel is that I was blessed by the presence of such great men and women and it was time well spent.
Comments from Original Post:
Originally posted November 9, 2013:
One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards. My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service. There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.
I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs. Like I said. It was really fun.
I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having. Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing. He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.
Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job. Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application. I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about. He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.
I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….
I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School. He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri. We immediately became friends when we met. We both enjoyed the same things. The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.
I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games. So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me. We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.
One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.
Jesse was beating us so badly that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn. Then his mother called us for dinner.
Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice. When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal. Chili. So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.
After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home. On the way home my brother started to chuckle. I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” in his head. It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.
So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say. We would just yell out, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!” It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.
When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory. I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!!”
Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm. He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived. The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?” When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.” When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was. I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse! You’re my friend!”
So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine. It’s poetry to my ears. Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.
End of Side Story….
So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most? Well… because all good things had to come to an end. Electronic circuit boards included.
When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it. They just aren’t used much anymore. Everything has gone digital. Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips. It just isn’t quite the same.
So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant. By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors. We were programming chips. Now the circuit boards looked more like this:
Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using. We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor. We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing. When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.
There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit… Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.
Well. Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun. We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.
The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature. No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit. Oh well….
When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor. The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant. They were made from genuine Asbestos. I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.
Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves. Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing. You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well… They were taken away. Not deemed safe for use by humans.
In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”. That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.
Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator. Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface. But…. I wouldn’t know about that. I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.
A manual crank megger was similar….
Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:
It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing. We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places. Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?
I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards. I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.
This heater didn’t even get hot. The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.
The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:
They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.
As for the volt-ohm meters. Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter. I dare say. It was a step up from the old Simpson meter. A lot safer also:
And the Safety belt? Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body. So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.
So… you see… What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs. Real Power Plant Men I mean. So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss. They lose those things they hold dear. Yeah. They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had. I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.
So. That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most. Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing. Power plant Men just change right along with it. But sometimes it hurts a little
Originally posted March 28, 2014:
Ken Couri was the plant safety guru long before Randy Dailey showed up on April 16, 1984. Ken gave us our yearly Safety training on such things as first aid and CPR. When Randy came on the scene, our yearly safety training shifted into overdrive! Ken was the one that tested my driving when we took the Defensive Driving Course the summer of 1981 during my third summer as a summer help.
I remember that Ken climbed into the pickup truck parked outside the electric shop as I walked around to the driver side. I thought. This will be a cinch. I’m a great driver. I should come out of this with flying colors. I talked about this class in the post “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One“.
I had done my “Circle for Safety” by walking around the truck to make sure there weren’t any obstacles in the way. Which, by the way, is why AT&T trucks used to stick an orange cone at the back and front corner of their truck (maybe they still do. I haven’t noticed one lately). When an AT&T worker goes to pick up the orange cones, it forces them to look in front and behind the truck to make sure that there isn’t an obstacle behind or in front of it that they might hit when they leave the parking space.
I thought, right off the bat, I must really be impressing Ken Couri. Ken was a heavy equipment operator from the coalyard. He was a heavy equipment operator in more ways than one. In fact, I always thought of him as a gentle giant. Anyway, I thought, he probably hadn’t seen anyone do a circle for safety as geometrically circular as I was doing it. I had calculated the radius from the center of the truck to the front bumpers, added two feet and began my circle for safety checking both the front and back of the truck for obstacles. All clear.
I climbed into the truck, and without hesitation, grabbed my seat belt and strapped myself in. Smiling, I looked over at Ken, who was looking down at his checklist, apparently not paying any attention to me. Hmmm. Ok. Maybe he would be impressed by the way I backed out of the parking space.
I always had the habit of turning around and looking behind me as I backed out. So, I did just that. I carefully backed the truck out of the space while observing everything through the back window, momentarily glancing back to the front to make sure the truck didn’t strike anything as the truck pivoted around. Confident that I had done everything right, I noticed that Ken hadn’t looked up or written anything on the checklist.
He told me where to drive, and I put the truck in drive and headed in that direction. That is when I looked up at the rear view mirror for the first time. I suddenly realized I had made a grave error. I watched as Ken’s hand that held the pencil worked its way up the sheet to a particular checkbox and marked it.
You see, while I was busy creating my perfect Circle for Safety, Ken had climbed into the pickup and reached up and knocked the rear view mirror down so that it was way out of whack. I stopped the truck for a moment as I adjusted the mirror knowing full well that I was supposed to have done that long before I had put the truck in reverse. Well, that was that. No perfect score for me, and I was just beginning the test.
I didn’t know whether to feel bad about that, or to laugh about the way that Ken just sat there with no expression on his face as he checked the box that indicated that I hadn’t checked my rear view mirror before shifting into reverse as we had learned in the videos. I think I was so ashamed about not checking my rear view mirror before shifting into reverse so much that I didn’t even tell my best friend, Tim Flowers on the way home that day. Actually I was so disappointed with myself that this is the first time I have revealed this secret failure to anyone (other than Ken Couri of course, God rest his soul).
The one thing I remember most about Ken Couri during the yearly safety meetings was that he would tell us the story about Annie, who was our CPR dummy. Annie was a drowning victim in Paris France in the Seine river. Her real identity wasn’t known, but her drowning was considered such a tragedy, because someone so lovely as her had apparently committed suicide, and no one was around to save her.
Years later, a guy named Asmund Laerdal in Norway used her image to create the CPR mannequins known as Rescue Annie.
I am sort of an emotional person at the weirdest times, so whenever we had to practice CPR on Annie, I would get all choked up while trying not to let my coworkers see that I was having difficulty with performing CPR on a mannequin of a real person that had died from a real drowning back in the 1800’s. The only comfort I had was knowing that, as Ken Couri pointed out and Anna Edwards said in 2011: Her enigmatic smile is known to millions around the world and she has been kissed billions of times. (Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1393184/How-girl-drowned-Paris-kissed-face-time.html#ixzz2xJxJIJNj).
Once every year we would receive First Aid training from Ken and Randy. Each time we would hear the same stories about Safety and their importance. Randy, who had been a medic in the army had a full array of sayings (maybe the Power Plant men can add a comment to the post with some of his phrases). I wish I could remember them all at the same time.
Unfortunately they only come to me when an appropriate occasion arises. Like I see some unsafe act, or a possible situation where a tragedy could happen like the ones that Randy would describe. I remember his speech about the ABCs that you perform when you run across someone that is unconscious. You first “Assess” the situation. Then you check for “Breathing”, then you check their “Circulation”. He would always end by saying that “A weak pulse is hard to find.”
He would demonstrate this by tapping the dummy on the shoulder as an example and say, “Hey. Are you all right? You don’t want to perform CPR on someone that is only taking a nap in the park.” Then he would turn to one of us and say, “Call 911!” That was called, “implementing the EMS system. EMS stood for the “Emergency Medical System”. Then he would place his ear close to the mouth of the dummy while he was checking the pulse on the neck. He would repeat, “A week pulse is hard to find.”
In the past I may have described Randy Dailey as someone that would remind you of Barney Fife from the Andy Griffith Show… Maybe I haven’t, but he sort of does sometimes. You tell me.
Here is Randy Dailey:
Randy may occasionally remind a novice of Barney Fife, but to the experienced Power Plant Man, just looking at him and a Power Plant Man automatically thinks “Safety”! During the “We’ve Got the Power Program” (See the post: “Power Plant “We’ve Got the Power” Program) Randy Dailey invented a special pen that you could put in your handy dandy pocket protector worn by most respectable Power Plant Men that would beep at you if you were bent over too far and were putting yourself at risk of a back injury.
Randy had a lot of compassion as he trained us on safety. You could tell that he had an agenda, and that was to make sure that all of us came out of the class knowing how to provide the best first aid possible to our fellow Power Plant Men as possible. When he spoke to us about dressing a wound and performing CPR on someone who had no pulse, he never cracked a joke (well, except when he showed us how to create a diaper out of the triangular bandage).
He was serious about safety, and we carried that with us when we left the class. We knew that Randy had seen the worst of the worst during his life. I remember Monday, May 8 of 1989 we had just begun our safety training course. Randy may not have been thinking about the fact that he was turning 40 that day, but for some reason I had always known his birthday.
He told us a tragic story of a 4th of July celebration that he had attended. The topic was knowing when “not to do CPR”. I think he was in Arkansas. He was sitting in the bleachers watching the celebration when suddenly something went terribly wrong. As the crowd was watching the large explosions overhead creating huge balls of red and green and blue, there was suddenly an explosion on the ground that was unexpected.
A piece of metal shot out of the area where the fireworks were being ignited and flew into the crowd. I think he said it was a young lady that was struck in the head by a metal plate that cut the top of her head completely off just above the eyebrows. Randy went on to explain that in a case like this, CPR would obviously be useless, so use your common sense when assessing your surroundings.
Each year when Randy would tell this story, I would feel this sick feeling in my stomach, and I would taste this strange taste of blood in my mouth as the corners of my mouth would go down in disgust. This was an obvious tragedy that Randy witnessed, and the feelings I had were not so much about the person that was struck as they were instantly killed. It was because behind the stalwart face of Randy, while he told this story I could see the tremendous sorrow that he felt while recounting this story to us.
I knew, and I believe we all knew, that the reason that Randy was such a great Safety instructor was because he really and truly wanted to save lives. That was his ultimate goal. He would begin his mouth-to-mouth resuscitation training by quoting from the Bible. It was from Kings 4:34. He would say that mouth-to-mouth is found in the Bible. Then he would quote word-for-word from the book about Elisha saying:
“And he went up, and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands: and he stretched himself upon the child; and the flesh of the child waxed warm.”
Randy pointed out, this is Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the Old Testament folks! So, when a situation arises, don’t be worried about germs and the like. Do what is necessary to save a life! Again I could see his mind flashing back to some tragedy that drove Randy on to make sure we were properly trained in First Aid and CPR.
Randy didn’t teach us Safety to gain “Bonus Points” from management as some pseudo-Power Plant Men did. Randy, from the day he came to the plant in May 8, 1984 (What a birthday present to become a Power Plant Man on your Birthday!) until the day I left on August 16, 2001, was a true hero to me. I don’t know if he ever served in combat. I don’t know if he ever received one little stripe or medal on his uniform in the Army. What I do know is that to this day I am eternally grateful that I have had the opportunity to meet one of the most remarkable souls of our time the day Randy Dailey showed up at the Power Plant. I have always been certain that God himself sent Randy to administer his Safety Wisdom to the Power Plant Men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma! Randy continued to bless all of us year after year.
Originally Posted April 18, 2014:
When I was an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma I inherited working on the Precipitators from Sonny Kendrick, the Electrical Specialist in the electric shop. One time after I had been struggling with the performance of the precipitator trying to lower the emissions of Fly Ash going out of the smoke stacks, I encountered a very odd situation.
One morning as I was walking out to the precipitator as I passed the Unit 1 boiler I noticed that a couple of tanker trailers were sitting outside the bottom ash area. Hoses had been attached to one of them and were running up the side of the boiler. What looked like a pump was running. I didn’t have a clue what was in the tanker. I figured it was just some routine thing that power plants did every so often to make things more interesting. You wouldn’t believe how many times Power Plant Men would come up with new and interesting things just to keep me in awe. (Of course, I am easily amazed).
Anyway, I didn’t really pay much attention to the tanker on the way to the precipitator. I just walked around the tankers that were there and entered the precipitator switchgear and up the stairs to the Precipitator control room where 84 control cabinets were waiting for my attention. On the way into the switchgear I had glanced up at the smoke stacks and noticed that the exhaust from the boiler was looking pretty good.
As I walked passed the control cabinets that controlled the back of the precipitator, I was surprised to find that they were powered up all the way and there wasn’t any sparking happening. Well. I thought. Maybe they are at low load and not much is happening inside the precipitator this morning.
As I walked between the two rows of cabinets toward the cabinets that controlled the transformers near the intake of the precipitator, my surprise turned into astonishment. I had never seen the front cabinets powered up to such a high level with no sparking. Everything was 180 degrees from the way I had left the cabinets the evening before when I was struggling to adjust the power to lower the emissions.
After going through each of the cabinets adjusting the power levels higher only to find that I was able to easily increase the performance even further, I returned to the electric shop for break. When I arrived in the electric shop office I told Charles that something very strange had happened this morning and I’m trying to figure it out, because all of the sudden the precipitator was operating at maximum efficiency.
After break I walked back out to the precipitator control room past the tanker trailers and found that everything was still running smoothly. “My work is done” I thought. I decided to go to the top of the precipitator and start working on fixing malfunctioning vibrators for the rest of the day.
I worked on the precipitator roof until noon, and then went back to the shop for lunch. I sat with Charles as we talked about movies we had seen. Charles was telling me about how the song for Ghostbusters had been on the radio. When the song said,
“If there’s something strange
in your neighborhood
Who ya gonna call?
Charles’ son Tim (not having seen the movie) thought that instead of saying “Ghostbusters” they were saying “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!” Besides being exceptionally cute, it was also an honor for Charles for him to hear Tim sing, “Who ya gonna call? Charles Foster!”
After lunch was over I went back out to the precipitator control room to check on the cabinets one more time. To my surprise when I walked through the row of cabinets, they were sparking again as they had been the day before! Not quite as bad, but bad enough that I had to go through the cabinets and adjust them back down almost to the levels where I had them before.
It took longer to adjust the cabinets down than it did to raise them in the morning. When break time came along, I was too engrossed in adjusting the cabinets to notice, so I continued working through break. It must have taken me close to three hours. At that time I was still using a small screwdriver on some potentiometers inside each of the cabinets to make the adjustments.
About the time I finished, all the sudden something happened. The cabinets began acting the way I had seen them in the morning! All the sparking stopped and the cabinets began powering up to the highest point they could go based on where I had set them. Ok. Now I needed to find out what was going on!
I walked out of the precipitator and headed for the Control Room. I walked past the tanker trailers and noticed that the pump was running again. I hadn’t thought about it, but when I had walked by them a few hours earlier they had been turned off. This was curious. I figured that it was more than a coincidence.
Pat Quiring was the Unit 1 Control Room operator when I arrived. I asked him what has been going on with Unit 1. I explained to him that when I arrived in the morning I found the precipitator running smoothly, then later it wasn’t, and just a few minutes ago, something happened again and there it was. Pat said two things were going on that day.
One thing was that we had been burning a pile of sand that had been soaked with oil. They had been mixing it with the coal at the coalyard and blowing it into the boiler with the pulverized coal in order to dispose of the hazardous waste. Hmm.. This was a possibility. I couldn’t see how the sand would make a difference, but maybe the mixture of the chemicals in the oil had something to do with it.
Then I asked him. “What about those tankers on the side of the boiler? Why are they there?” Pat said that we were also burning Vertan. Well, not “burning” exactly. We were destroying it in the boiler, because it was chemical waste that needed to be disposed and it is easily destroyed into it’s chemical components in the heat of the boiler.
“Vertan? What’s Vertan?” I asked Pat. He said it was some chemical used to clean boiler tubes. These tankers had been sent to our plant from another plant that had just had the boiler tubes cleaned, and we were just burning it off to get rid of it. They had a schedule they were using to burn the Vertan. They couldn’t just get rid of it all at once because it caused a buildup in the economizer that caused the airflow to be affected through the tail end of the boiler.
So, I wondered, maybe this has to do with airflow. Diverting the airflow to different parts of the precipitator could definitely affect things. The cabinets out in the middle of the precipitator definitely had different electrical properties than those out on the edge.
I suddenly realized that this was 1988 and the Internet was not readily available to the typical user, and the World Wide Web still had a few years before it was widely going to be used. Frustrated that I couldn’t just go “Google” something for another ten years, I did the next best thing that I could do. I decided to pay a visit to our Power Plant Doctor! I wrote about Doctor George Pepple in the post “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. He was the head Power Plant Chemist.
I went to the Chemistry Lab and found George working away on some diabolical experiment. No. Not really, he was probably just testing some water samples. When Dr. Pepple was working on any kind of chemical test, he did it with such mastery and grace that it always reminded me of a mad scientist.
I asked George about Vertan. He explained to me that it was a chemical that was mixed in water and pumped through the boiler tubes to clean out calcium buildup and the like. I mentioned to him that I thought it may be affecting the operation of the precipitator and I was curious to know more about it.
Professor Pepple then explained to me that Vertan was called TetraAmmonia EDTA. EDTA? Yeah, he said, “Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid”. He said this just like my Animal Learning Professor, Dr. Anger used to say “Scopalamine” (See the Post “Poison Pill for Power Plant Pigeons“).
I wrote down this information and I continued monitoring the progress of the precipitator throughout the rest of the week. Each time the pumps were running on the Vertan trailers, the precipitator operated as if it was new and completely clean. Each time the pumps turned off, the precipitator reverted back to the regular mode of operation, only it would be a little better each time. By the time all the Vertan had been destroyed in the boiler, the precipitator was running very well on it’s own.
Over the weekend I went to the University Library at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and Looked up TetraAmmonia EDTA. Not much had been written about it. I was able to find an article about it in a Journal. It had the chemical composition.
A few years later when the Internet became available I was able to find a better model of the Vertan molecule:
I mentioned that at the same time that the Vertan was being burned in the boiler, we were also blowing contaminated sand into the boiler in order to burn off oil that had soaked into the sand. At one point, I had to go work on the head end of the number 10 long belt to find a 480 volt ground in a circuit. When I arrived, I could see where the oil from the sand had caused the coal to cake up on the belt and cause a big mess where the conveyor dumped the coal onto the belt 12.
There didn’t seem to be any correlation between the times that sand was being burned. The process for burning the sand lasted a lot longer than burning off the Vertan. By the time that the sand was burned off, the precipitator was humming away operating at near maximum efficiency. So, it seemed as if the sand didn’t have anything to do with the increase in performance.
I was convinced that burning Vertan in the boiler was more convincing. If not Vertan, then just injecting water could have been a factor. Since the Vertan was in water and they were pumping large amounts of water into the fireball in order to destroy the Vertan. Maybe the increase in Humidity had something to do with the improvement.
A couple of years later when the “We’ve Got The Power” Program was underway (See the Post, “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“). Terry Blevins and I were investigating the idea that Vertan could be used to improve the performance of the precipitator. We found that Ammonia Injection was used to treat Precipitators.
This is done by injecting ammonia into the intake of the precipitator to treat it when it was performing poorly. This reinforced our idea that Vertan was the main reason that the precipitator had responded favorably during that time since Vertan broke down into Ammonia at high temperatures. Even then, we didn’t exclude the possibility that the increase of humidity may have also played a role.
Another team had the idea that injecting sand into the intake of the precipitator would improve the performance of the precipitator by sandblasting the ash off of the plates. They had seen this happen when sand had been burned earlier. I had rejected this idea as being viable. I knew that the velocity of the airflow in the precipitator was no faster than 4 miles an hour. Hardly fast enough to keep grains of sand airborne.
It was worth a try though, and the other team pursued the idea and ran a test by injecting the sand. It definitely wouldn’t hurt anything to try. The idea was rejected by the Steering Committee (Ron Kilman), based on my input, even though something extraordinary happened during the test. When this happened, I became the instant enemy of the team leader.
I will cover this dilemma in a later post (possibly next week). For now I will just leave you with the knowledge that because I had chosen Vertan over Sand, I had definitely made an enemy of a True Power Plant Man.