Lawrence Hayes was the foreman over the machinists when I first arrived at the power plant, but Ray Butler was undoubtedly the Chief. He was actually the Chief of the Otoe-Missouri Indian tribe, for a time, that was located just to the north and west of the plant grounds. The Machinists I can remember from the first summer is Don Burnett, Johnnie Keys, Ray Butler and Lawrence Hayes. Being a Machinist in a power plant is something that few people can pull off, but those that do, can create just about any metal part that is needed in the plant.
The machinists fascinated me when I first arrived at the plant in 1979. One side of the entire maintenance shop was the machine shop and it was filled with all different kinds of machining equipment. I recognized some of the equipment like the lathes, but other machines, like the mill, were something new. Then there is this very large lathe. It was monstrous. I wondered what kind of part would be machined with that big lathe.
Even though the power plant machinists came from very diverse backgrounds, they all have two important traits in common. They are very patient and they are perfectionists. The first summer as a summer help both of the units were still under construction and the mechanics were all busy going through the entire plant disassembling each piece of equipment and measuring it and cleaning it and putting it back together. Often they would find something that didn’t meet the Electric Companies specifications, so it would be sent to the machinist to fix. Very precise measurements were being used, and if there was a 3 thousandth inch gap (.003), and the company wanted it to be no more than 2 thousandths of an inch (.002)…. then it was the job of the machinist to add a sleeve and machine the part down until it was precisely where it was supposed to be.
I learned very little about the lives of the machinists because they were always standing behind the lathes watching vigilantly as the metal shavings were flying off of the parts, but I did learn a few things about some of them. First of all, each one of the machinists seemed to care about you right away. Don Burnett, a tall and very thin man with a friendly face, worked in a Zinc Smelting plant before he had come to work at the power plant. One time while he was working there, some molten zinc was accidentally poured down the back of his boot burning his heel. It was then that he decided that he would start looking for a different line of work. I went fishing with him and some other guys once, where he told me some more things about his life. Then a few years later, he moved to the Power Plant in Muskogee Oklahoma, where I saw him a couple of times while on overhaul down there.
Johnnie Keys would be perfectly cast as a hillbilly. He had a scruffy beard (this was before beards were no longer allowed in 1983 due to the problem with obtaining a seal on your respirator) and if you put an old leather hat on him, he would look like this:
When you ask Johnnie to create something for you, you can be sure that he will do the best he can. One time years later when I was an electrician, I asked Johnnie if he could take a piece of plexiglass and cut out 8 rectangles in it so that I could mount it in an electrical box so that a bunch of breakers could be accessed, without someone worrying about getting into the electricity. This is the control box that was used for the vent fans that were installed around the turbine room floor. As far as I know, it is still there today. Anyway, Johnnie brought it back to the electric shop when he was finished and it was perfect. He had a couple of holes in it so that I could put two standoffs to mount the plexiglass in the box.
It just so happened that Leroy Godfrey the electrical supervisor was in the middle of a little war between the engineers because they hadn’t consulted him about the project, and so he was intent on making the job go way over budget. I wasn’t exactly privy to this information at the time (or maybe I was). Anyway, after I had mounted the plexiglass to the back plate of the electric box using the standoffs, and it was sitting on the workbench, Leroy came up to me and looked at it. He said right away, “Go have the machinists put some more holes in it so that you can add more standoffs to mount the plexiglass. Knowing full well that it didn’t need the extra mounting, I told Leroy that I believed that two standoffs will be fine because the entire assembly was going to be put in the electric box, where there wasn’t going to be much movement, and I picked up the entire assembly with the breakers and all by the plexiglass and bent it all the way around to where both ends of the plexiglass were touching and shook the breakers up and down. Then I put it back on the workbench and said, “I am not going to tell the machinist to add more holes, this is perfect.” I knew that Johnnie had worked very meticulously machining out the plexiglass and I wasn’t going to bother him with meaningless revisions. It was at that point where Leroy Godfrey decided that I must go. He went into the office and told Bill Bennett that he wanted to fire me. Bill Bennett calmed him down, and it wasn’t long after that Leroy and the other old school power plant men were early retired.
Lawrence Hayes was the foreman at the time and I remember one morning while he was working on the lathe next to the foremen’s office. He had a disturbed look on his face about something as he had a long metal rod in the lathe and was busy measuring it from different angles. A little while later when I was passing by on the way to the tool room, Lawrence had Marlin McDaniel, the A Foreman out there and he was showing him something about the lathe. Then some time just after lunch, Lawrence had a big wrench and was removing the mounting bolts from the Lathe, and later picked the entire thing up with the shop overhead crane and moved it down to the other end of the shop. Over the next couple of days, the concrete where the lathe had been mounted was busted up and removed, and then re-poured, so that the mounting bolts were now properly aligned. The enormity of this job made me realize that when these Power Plant Men knew what needed to be done to fix something, they went right ahead and did it, no matter how big the job was.
I have saved the Chief until last. Ray Butler as I mentioned above was the Chief of the Otoe-Missouria India tribe. They really called him “Chairman”, but I think I knew what the title really meant.
As Ray Butler sat at a lathe or a mill working on a piece of metal, he always had the same expression. His head was slightly tilted up so that he could see through the bottom of his bifocals and he had the most satisfied expression. He looked as if he was watching a work of art being created before his eyes. It didn’t matter what he was working on, he always had the same expression. I mentioned above that the machinists (like all true power plant men), seemed to instantly care about you. This seemed to be especially true with Ray Butler. He was almost 7 years older than my own father. He treated me as one of his sons.
When I had been at the plant three days of my third year as a summer help in 1981, on Wednesday May 13, I went to the break room to eat my lunch. Ray came up to me and sat down across from me at the table. He looked at me solemnly and told me that the Pope had just been shot. He had heard it on the radio and knew that I was Catholic. He said that was all that he knew other than that they had taken him to the hospital. I could see his concern when he told me this, and I could see that he was equally concerned that this holy man across the ocean had been shot. I thanked him for letting me know.
Ray had served in the Navy during World War II and besides the time he spent in the Navy he spent most of his life from the time he was born until his death in 2007 in Oklahoma. He was born and died in Red Rock just a few miles from where the power plant was built. He went to high school in Pawnee. Even though I have seen him upset at times, he was always a man at peace. He retired in 1988 and the day that he left I met him on his way to the control room while I was on my way to the maintenance shop. I told him that I wished him well on his retirement and I gave him a hug. I didn’t see him again until a few years later when we had stopped by the Indian Reservation convenience store to buy gas and when he saw me he came out to say hello and it was like meeting a close friend. He gave me a hug and I got back in the truck and we left. That was the last time I saw Ray Butler, but I know that if I wanted to visit with him again, I could just go take a stroll around the Pow-wow area of the Otoe-Missouria Reservation and he would not be far away.
I have just finished watching the movie “Born Free” with my son. I had recorded it on DVR because I knew he liked watching Big Cats. It reminded me of when Ken Conrad (A True Power Plant Man Extraordinaire) had become entangled with a Bobcat one day while performing his heroic Power Plant duties.
When a person usually puts the words power plant and Bobcat together in a sentence, one may easily come to the wrong conclusion that this is a story about a run-away little Bobcat scoop shovel, or what is professionally known as a Bobcat Skid-Steer Loader since these are an essential piece of equipment for any power plant or any work site for that matter (and are fun to drive and do wheelies):
In an earlier post entitled “Indian Curse or Brown and Root Blunder” I mentioned that in the years following the completion of the power plant, steps were taken to be extra kind to the plant’s nearest neighbor, the Otoe-Missouria Indian Reservation. This story takes place on one of those days where the electric company was showing their true colors to the friends next door.
Every summer the Otoe-Missouria tribe would hold a Pow-Wow some time in June. This is when the the Native Americans of this tribe come together as a time for a reunion where the culture of the tribe can be kept alive. It spans over a number of days, and people come from all over with camping trailers and stay on the reservation and have a good time visiting. You can learn more information about the tribe’s Pow-wow, culture and the benefits from the Casino (which was not there at this time. Not even the Bingo Hall that used to bring in buses from all over the country) from web service that hosts news about the tribe: http://www.otoe-missouria.com
The Power Plant helped out by mowing the areas around the Otoe-Missouria Reservation where the campers would park and a large open field where events could take place and large tents could be erected. So, when I arrived at work in the morning I was instructed to fill a water and ice bucket, and get a box of cone cups, and bring my lunch. This was because I may not be back for lunch as I was going to be the gopher for Jim and Ken that day while they mowed the area around the Otoe-Missouria Reservation. Being a “Gopher” as most of you know means that you are the one that “Goes For” things. So, if they need something back at the plant, then I hop in the truck and I go and get it. This is fine for me, but I generally liked staying active all day, or else the day drags on. So I grabbed some trash bags and my handy dandy homemade trash stabbing tool and put them in the back of the truck as well.
I followed Jim Heflin and Ken Conrad on the two shiny new Ford tractors with double-wide brush hogs down the highway with my blinkers on so people barreling down the highway from Texas on their way to Kansas at ungodly speeds would know enough to slow down before they ploughed into a brush hog like the one below:
After we arrived at the reservation there was a man there that directed us to where we should mow and Ken and Jim went right to work. They first mowed in the area where there were a lot of trees and areas to park campers and Jim and Ken worked their magic weaving in and out of the trees with these big mowers behind them just missing each tree, trash can, fire grill, building and vehicles that happened to be in their way (like the one I had driven there).
After watching their skill with the mowers for a while I stepped out of the truck, now certain that I wouldn’t be hit with a flying rock because the mowers had moved a safe distance from me. I began walking around picking up some trash. While Ken and Jim mowed the rest of this area, I helped the man move some large logs and picnic tables and things like that around the campsite.
When Ken and Jim had finished this area they moved over the the large field at the edge of the campground, and I drove the truck over there and watched as they both circled around and around making smaller circles each time staying opposite of each other like they were doing a synchronized dance with the mowers.
I was standing in the back of the truck leaning against the cab watching them when I noticed that Jim began waving one hand up in the air much like a cowboy would do while riding on a bronco to keep their balance. His head began bobbing and I wondered if he was all right. Then I saw what had happened. A very large cat that looked like a grown mountain lion came darting out of the tall brush and ran in front of Jim’s tractor and headed for the trees that lined the far side of the field. As excited as I could tell Jim was by this, he didn’t miss a beat with his mowing, and only lifted his hardhat long enough to wipe his head with a rag. Then he kept on mowing as if nothing else had happened. Maybe because he was in complete shock and auto-pilot had kicked in.
As Jim circled around, Ken came around to the spot where Jim had just been mowing. Unlike Jim, Ken did not start to wave his hand as a cowboy on a bronco. Instead he jumped up in his seat while shutting down his mower and jumped off into the tall brush. He began running around in circles. At this point Jim had seen what Ken was doing, so he shutdown his mower also. I had jumped off of the truck and ran toward where Ken was dancing. Jim came huffing and puffing up to me and asked me if I had seen that huge mountain lion run in front of him. I nodded to him and ran over to Ken who at this point was standing still as if frozen.
As we approached, Ken signaled for us to stay back, so we slowed down and watched him as we came slowly closer. Ken wasn’t moving his feet, but he was slowly swiveling his body around looking into the brush. Then like Tom Sawyer he bent down quickly and reached into a pile of mowed grass that had piled up near where he was standing. By this time we were close enough to see what was down on the ground that Ken had grabbed. He was holding down a kitten. It was a baby Bobcat. You could tell by the short tail (a bob-tail cat):
Ken had hold of the bobcat with both hands. One at the scruff of his neck and the other above his hind legs. He began lifting up the cat from the ground, and it was hissing and went wild trying to bite and scratch Ken. At this point the man from the reservation had come over, because he had also seen the very large bobcat run from the field and had watched Ken dancing in the grass. Ken asked him “What do I do now?” He had caught the baby bobcat, and now realized that he couldn’t let go of it without serious bodily injury (bringing to mind the phrase “Having a tiger by the tail”).
We all became aware that somewhere close by the mother was watching us from the trees. Jim remarked that he didn’t know bobcats could grow that big and the man assured him that there are a number of large bobcats on their reservation that he had seen. He suggested that he could get a five gallon bucket and Ken could throw the cat in the bucket while he put a wire screen over the top so that it couldn’t jump out and scratch or bite them.
We walked back to the camping area and the man came out of a small building and had some screen material and a board. Then Ken standing there sort of like Frankenstein with his arms straight out in front of himself (to keep from being mauled), asked a couple of times exactly what they were planning on doing, so that he would get it right. The man said that he should throw the cat into the bucket and he would quickly put the board over the top. Then he could put the screen over the board and take the board out and tie the screen on the top with some wire.
So that’s what Ken did. He quickly threw the cat into the bucket as the man slammed the board on top. It looked like it happened so fast that I was surprised to find that while the cat was quickly being ejected from Ken’s hands and being propelled into the bucket, it had enough speed to reach around with one of its paws and cut a gash down the side of Ken’s hand.
After that, I drove Ken back to the plant to get bandaged up and so that he could show everyone what he had caught. He was very proud of his wound and he seemed to grow even taller than his normal tall thin self. It seemed to take about 15 seconds before everyone in the plant knew that Ken had caught a bobcat as they were all making a trip over to the garage to have a peek at him. Ken said he was going to take it home and then decide what he was going to do with it.
I drove Ken back to the reservation to get his tractor as Jim had finished mowing the field.
The following day we learned that when Ken arrived at his house there was someone there already waiting for him to see his wild new pet. Yes. Most of you have been waiting for the other shoe to drop on this story. An Oklahoma Park Ranger. Who informed Ken that he had received 8 calls from different people at the plant letting him know that one Power Plant Hero Ken Conrad was in possession of a wild bobcat caught on an Indian Reservation (of all places — I say that because that is federal property, possibly making it a federal crime). And Ken could be in for a very serious legal entanglement. Ken told the ranger that he was only going to show it to his family then bring it back to the reservation and let it go. The Park Ranger (not usually portrayed as a lenient character) offered to take the bobcat back himself.
Needless to say. Ken was not very pleased with his fellow campers the next morning when he arrived at work. He kept saying… “You just can’t tell who your friends are. They all came over here acting like my buddies then they ran off to call the ranger.” By that time I had worked around the power plant men for one entire summer and this was my second. I knew that the Real Power Plant Men would have known that Ken would do the right thing and wouldn’t have called the ranger. Ken was right though, some of them were imposters. I knew there were some people at the plant who would have felt it was their duty to call the ranger, and I never considered them power plant men in the first place. Ken Conrad, however, has always lived up to my expectations as a Real Power Plant Man!
It’s funny what comes to mind when you sit down to watch a movie on a Friday night.