Originally published on May 25, 2012:
Either this was the luckiest day of my life, or a day where stupidity seemed to be my natural state of mind. This particular day occurred sometime during September 1983. The Main Power transformer for Unit 1 had shutdown because of an internal fault during an exceptionally hot day during the summer and was being replaced.
While the unit was offline, while I was on the labor crew, I was asked to help out the electricians who were doing an overhaul on the Precipitator. The Precipitator takes the ash out of the boiler exhaust before it goes up the smoke stack. Without it, you would see thick smoke, instead, you see only clear exhaust. At the time the electricians I worked with were Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers. I had already applied for a job in the electric shop and was waiting to see if I was going to be offered the job. This gave me the chance to show the electricians what a brilliant worker I was.
Bill Rivers told me to go in the precipitator and wipe down the insulators that held the wire racks in place. He showed me where they were. I wore a regular half-face respirator because the fly ash is harmful to inhale.
Just before I went in the precipitator door to begin wiping down the insulators using a Scotch Brite Pad, Bill Rivers pointed to my flashlight and said, “Don’t drop your flashlight in a hopper otherwise you will have to make sure that you get it out of the hopper before we go back online.” I told him I would be sure to hold onto my flashlight (noticing that Bill had a string tied to his flashlight which was slung over his shoulder) and I entered the precipitator door.
The inside of the precipitator was dark. 70 foot tall plates are lined up 9 inches apart. Wires hang down between the plates and when the precipitator is turned on, the wires are charged up to around 45,000 volts of electricity. The wires each have a 30 pound weight on the bottom to keep the wires straight, and the wires are kept apart and lined up by a rack at the bottom. One end of the rack which is about 25 feet long is held in place by an electrical insulator about 3 feet long. This is what I was supposed to clean. The light from the flashlight lit up the area around me because everything was covered with the fine white powder reflecting the light.
The first hopper I came to was full of ash up to the top of the hopper, but just below where the insulator was mounted to the edge of the hopper. So, I worked my way down to the ledge along the edge of the hopper and dangled my feet down into the ash as I prepared to wipe down the first of the four insulators on this particular hopper. Just as I began, the precipitator suddenly went dark as my flashlight fell from my hand and down into the hopper. — Oh boy, that didn’t take long.
I sat there for a minute in the dark as my eyes grew accustomed to the small amount of light that was coming through the doors. After I could see again, I reached my hand into the ash to feel for my flashlight. The ash was very fluffy and there was little or no resistance as I flailed my hand around searching for it. I leaned over farther and farther to reach down deeper into the ash. I was at the point where I was laying down flat on the ledge trying to find the flashlight, and it was no where to be found.
I pulled myself over to the side edge of the hopper and dropped myself down into the ash so that I could reach over where I had dropped the light, but I was still not able to find it. At that point, I was leaning out into the hopper with only my one index finger gripping the ledge around the hopper (read that again…. one index finger was holding me up). I had a decision to make… I thought I would just bail off into the ash to see if I could find the flashlight, or I could give up and go tell Bill Rivers that I had done the one thing that he told me not to do, and in record time.
I don’t usually like to give up until I have exhausted every effort, so here was my dilemma. Do I let go and dive into this ash to retrieve my flashlight? Or do I leave the hopper and go tell Bill? I regretfully decided to go tell Bill. So, I climbed up out of the hopper, with my clothes covered with Ash (as we did not have fly ash suits at the time and I was wearing my coveralls). I made my way to the precipitator door and once I was outside, I determined which hopper I had been in when I dropped my flashlight.
I found Bill and told him that I had dropped my flashlight in a hopper full of ash. He told me to get the key for that hopper and open the door at the bottom and see if I could find the flashlight. Unlike the picture of the hoppers above, we had a landing around the base of the hoppers by the access door so you didn’t need a ladder to reach them.
Curtis Love had been watching the door of the precipitator for me while I was supposed to be wiping off the insulators. He came down with me, and we proceeded to open the access door at the bottom on the side of the hopper. When I opened the door both Curtis and I were swept backward as a stream of fly ash shot from the door. The ash fell through the grating to the ground below. We regained our footing and watched as a tremendous pile of ash grew below us. If the flashlight had come out of the doorway, it would have remained on the landing since it was too big to go through the grating, but it never came out.
After the ash had finished pouring out of the hopper as if it were water, I reached down into the remaining ash in the hopper to see if I could feel the flashlight. Still I was unable to find it. There was about 4 more feet from the doorway to the bottom of the hopper, so I emptied out as much ash as I could using my hard hat for a shovel. Then I pulled my body head first into the hopper and I reached down as far as I could in the bottom of the hopper, but I couldn’t find the flashlight.
So, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Curtis Love to hold onto my legs as I lowered myself down to the throat at the bottom of the hopper. I lowered myself down until I had half of my face laying in the ash. At this point only one of the two filters on my respirator was able to function as the other one was down in the ash. I reached my hand into the top of the feeder at the bottom of the hopper and with my finger tips I could just feel the flashlight. I had reached as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach far enough to grip the flashlight.
All of the sudden my head dipped down into the ash and my hand went around the flashlight. I was not able to breathe as my respirator (and my entire head) was entirely immersed in ash. Everything went dark. I struggled to get up, as Curtis had let go of my legs and I had plunged head first into the bottom of the hopper.
I had one hand free as the other one held the flashlight. I used it to push against the opposite wall of the hopper to raise my head up out of the ash. I still couldn’t breathe as my respirator was now clogged solid with ash. When I tried to inhale, the respirator just gripped my face tighter. Finally with my one free hand pushing against the hopper wall to hold my head out of the ash, I reached up with the hand that held the flashlight and pushed against my respirator enough to break the seal around my face so that I was able to get a breath of air.
Then I quickly pulled myself out of the precipitator as I heard Curtis saying the mantra that I had heard one other time (as I indicated in the post about Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love). He was saying over and over again, “I’mSorry,I’mSorry, KevinI’mSorry, ThoseGuysWereTicklingMe. I’mSorry,IDidn’tMeanToLetGo,ITriedToHoldOn, butThoseGuysWereTicklingMe.”
Looking around I spied a few Labor Crew hands sneaking away. As this happened before when I was sandblasting in the sand filter tank when Curtis Love had turned off my air, this wasn’t the first encounter I had with Power Plant Men In-Training playing a Power Plant joke on me. I told Curtis to forget it. I had retrieved my flashlight and everything was all right. I was covered from head-to-toe with fly ash, but that washes off pretty easily.
It dawned on me then that when I had dropped the flashlight, it had sunk clear to the bottom of the hopper and down into the throat of the feeder at the bottom. If I had dived into the ash in the hopper from up above, I would have fallen right down to the bottom of the hopper and been engulfed in ash. My feet would have been pinned down in the feeder pipe, and that would have been the end of me. It probably would have taken many hours to figure out where I was, and they would have found only a corpse.
While I was hanging on the edge of the hopper with only the tip of my index finger gripping the ledge, I was actually considering letting go. There never would have been an electrician at the power Plant named Kevin Breazile. I never would have married my wife Kelly, and had my two children Elizabeth and Anthony. I would not be writing this story right now. If it had been left to my own stupidity, none of those things would have happened.
I believe it was my guardian angel that had talked me out of letting go (or had actually been standing on my finger). As stubborn as I was, and against my nature, that day I had decided to give up searching for my flashlight and seek help. That one momentary decision has made all the difference in my life.
Since that day I have had a certain appreciation for the things that happen to me even when they seem difficult at the time. I have lived a fairly stress-free life because each day is a gift. Currently I work in a stress-filled job where individual accomplishments are seldom rewarded. From one day to the next I may be laid off at any time. I still find a lot of satisfaction in what I do because it was possible that it never would have happened. I have been kept alive for a purpose so I might as well enjoy the ride.
I find a special love for the people I work with today, because they are all gifts to me. I try to pay them back with kindness… when that doesn’t work.. I try to annoy them with my presence… Just to say….. — I am still here!
Comments from previous repost:
Originally posted December 14, 2012:
I have heard the relationship between Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick referred to as the “Punch and Judy Show”. Ok. I thought. Punch and Judy. Sounds like a show from the early 50’s. Must have been a comedy. I thought that for a long time until one day I ran across a brief history of the Punch and Judy Show. It turned out that Punch and Judy was a puppet show from the time of Queen Anne of England. She was queen of England from 1702 to 1714. I could only find a painting of Queen Anne. Didn’t anyone ever think about taking her photograph?
Anyway, once I learned more about Punch and Judy, I realized that this was probably a better description of the Rivers – Sonny relationship than those people realized. It turns out in the first version of the Punch and Judy show, Punch actually strangles his child and beats his wife Judy to death and beats up on other people as well. I suppose that was “entertainment” back then. Now we only have things like “The Terminator”!
I carpooled with Bill Rivers at this particular time when I was a janitor and while I was on labor crew (except during the summer when I carpooled with my summer help buddies). Each day Bill Rivers would explain about some trick he had played on Sonny that day. The one thing that amazed Bill the most was that every day he could play a joke on Sonny, and each day, Sonny would fall for it.
This reminded me of when I was in Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri and I used to borrow a pencil from my friend Bryan Treacy each day and each day I would chew it up to the point where it was practically useless. I had to come up with different diversionary tactics each day, but somehow I was able to coax a wooden pencil from my friend. Before he would realize what he had done, I had already chewed it up from one end to the next. I liked to think that I was tricking Bryan each day, but I also thought that it was odd that Bryan would have a new pencil every time, and he probably made sure that his mom kept a full stock of pencils just for my enjoyment in eating them (I also wondered if I was getting lead poisoning from all the yellow paint I was ingesting).
Bryan Treacy today is a doctor living in Moore Oklahoma (and now back in Columbia Missouri). I would like to drop by his office without seeing him some time just to see if he has any wooden pencils laying about that I could leave all chewed up. I wonder if he would realize I had been there. He might read this blog from time-to-time, so I may have just blown my cover.
I mentioned Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick because they were the first two electricians that I worked for before becoming an electrician. I worked on the precipitator while I was on the Labor Crew. See the Post:
I also mentioned before that I owe my decision to become a Power Plant Electrician to Charles Foster an Electrical B Foreman at the time. I was a janitor and cleaning the electric shop office and lab were part of my duty. How I came to be the janitor of the electric shop is explained further in the post:
I had found the floor scrubbing machine in ill repair. Charles helped me put it back in running condition. He explained how to take care of the batteries and to keep them properly charged.
When the electric shop had an opening they tried to recruit me while I was still a janitor, but the Evil Plant Manager had a rule at the time that when you were a janitor, the only place you could go from there was onto the Labor Crew. That was when Mike Rose was hired to become a backup for Jim Stevenson that worked on the air conditioning and freeze protection. I knew about the janitor ruling so I didn’t have my hopes up. Besides, at the time I didn’t have any electrical background.
Charles asked me to take the electrical courses that were offered by the company. The company offered correspondence courses, and in about 3 weeks, I had signed up for them, read the books, and taken the tests. While I was on the labor crew I signed up for a House wiring course at the Vo-Tech. I was taking that course when I learned that Larry Burns was moving from our electric shop to go to another plant. It was then that I applied for the job as a plant electrician.
The main power transformer for Unit 1 had been destroyed by the heat wave that summer (1983) when the plant had tested it’s durability on the hottest day. The unit was offline for a couple of months while GE created a new transformer and shipped it to us.
After the main power transformer was destroyed and it took so long to ship in a new one, it was decided that we would keep a spare on hand. That way if it went bad again, we could swap them out quickly. That is probably the best assurance that we wouldn’t lose that transformer again. We had that spare transformer sitting around for years collecting taxes. I’m sure we must have paid for it a few times over again.
During the time that the unit was offline, and we weren’t shaking boiler tubes or cutting the ash out of the economizer tubes, I was working with Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick on the precipitator. The precipitator (by the way), is what takes the smoke (ash) out of the exhaust, so you don’t see smoke coming out of the smokestacks.
Bill and Sonny were pretty well sure that I was going to be selected to fill the opening in the Electric Shop, so they were already preparing me to work on the precipitator. Of all the jobs in the electric shop, this one had more to do with electronics than any of the others. That gave “being an electrician” a whole new dimension. I was even looking forward to taking an Electronics course at the Vo-Tech in the spring.
I was getting updates from Bill and Sonny about the progress of the job opening and they were telling me about the battle that was going on between the Evil Plant Manager and the Electrical Supervisor. Eldon Waugh, the plant manager at the time wanted Charles Peavler to be chosen as the electrician. He had an electrical background, because he had wired his barn once.
The ultimate reason why the plant manager wanted Charles Peavler to be the new electrician was because I had been placed on the blacklist due to the incident that took place earlier that I had described in the post:
Thanks to Larry Riley’s performance review, and his purposeful procrastination of the Plant Manager’s request to modify my performance review, and Charles Foster’s insistence that they follow the procedures that were laid out in the new Employee Application Program (known as the EAP), the argument stopped with Charles Foster’s statement: “Let’s just take whoever has the best performance rating as it is laid out in the company policy and leave it at that.” I was chosen to fill the position for the opening in the Electric Shop.
I was actually called to Eldon Waugh’s office while I was sandblasting the Sand Filter Tank. See Post:
When I arrived in Eldon’s office I was covered from head to toe in sandblast dust. My hair was all disheveled and my shirt was soaked with sweat. Jack Ballard (the head of HR) was sitting there along with Leroy Godfrey and Charles Foster. I knew what it was about because according to Bill Rivers on the way home the day before, they had already decided that they were going to accept me for the position.
Eldon Waugh explained that I was being offered the job that I had applied for in the electric shop. I felt really humbled at the time. Even though I was expecting it, I felt surprised that it was actually happening. To me, being an electrician was like the greatest job in the world. The electricians were like an elite team of super heroes.
I had the occasion to watch the electricians while I was a janitor in their shop and many of them were like these super intelligent beings that could quickly look at a blueprint and grab their tool bucket and head out to fix the world. I was very grateful for the opportunity, and at the same time apprehensive. I wasn’t sure if I had the quality of character and intelligence to become a part of this team. This was truly a dream come true for me.
Few times in my life has this happened to me. The day I was married. The day I became a Father. The day I drove to Dell to begin my first day as a Programmer Analyst. These were all major milestones in my life. The first major milestone was the day I became an electrician. Because of the way that I am (I don’t know…. maybe it’s because I’m half Italian), I just wanted to break out in tears and hug Eldon Waugh and cry on his shoulder. Instead, I just managed to crack a small smile.
I thanked them and started to leave. Then Jack Ballard said something interesting. As I was leaving he asked, “Uh…. Do you accept the offer?” Oh. In my surprise and elation, I hadn’t said anything but “Thank You”. Jack’s expression was that it wasn’t official until it was official. So, I replied, “Yes. I accept the offer”. “Ok then,” Jack replied. And I left to go crawl back in my hole and continue sandblasting the Sand Filter tank.
My last day on the Labor Crew was on November 4, 1983. I was leaving my Labor Crew Family behind and moving onto a new life in the electric shop. This was hard for me because I really did consider most of the people on the Labor Crew as family. Fred Crocker, Ron Luckey, Jim Kanelakos, and Ronnie Banks. Curtis Love and Chuck Moreland. Doretta Funkhouser and Charles Peavler. Jody Morse and Bob Lillibridge.
Most of all, I knew I was going to miss Larry Riley. I had worked with Larry from the day I had first arrived as a summer help in 1979. Now it was November, 1983. Larry was a hero to me. I love him dearly and if I had ever had an older brother I would have liked someone with the character and strength of Larry Riley. He remains in my prayers to this day.
The last day on the labor crew I suspected foul play. Mainly because the last day that Bill Cook was on the Labor Crew, he had asked us if we would throw Larry in the intake as a going away gift. I had worked with Bill when we were summer help together and I felt like I owed him one, so I told him I would help.
As we were driving from the Coalyard Maintenance building (the home of the labor crew) to the plant maintenance shop that day, Bill Cook, who was driving, suddenly turned toward the intake pumps and stopped the truck. By the time Larry had figured out what was going on, we had dragged Larry out of the truck and I was carrying him over to the Intake and getting ready to throw him in.
Larry had worked with me long enough to know that once I had set my mind on something, there was no turning back. He had tried to escape from my grip, but I had him where he couldn’t escape. As I climbed with him over the guard rail and headed toward the edge of the water, Larry said the only possible thing that could make me stop in my tracks. He said, “Please Kevin. Don’t do this.”
I was paralyzed. Stuck between my word with Bill Cook that I would help him throw Larry in the brink, and a plea from someone who meant the world to me. There wasn’t but one choice to make. I set Larry down. I walked back to the truck and I told Bill, “I’m sorry. I can’t do it.” I returned to my seat in the back of the crew cab. Without my help, no one else had the resolve and strength to follow through with Bill’s wish. We drove on to the Maintenance Shop.
So, on my last day on the Labor Crew, I thought that something similar might be planned for me. As soon as we left to go to work that morning, I headed up Belt 10 and 11. That is the long belt on the left side of the power Plant picture on the upper right side of this post…. Ok. I’ll post it here:
Once up 10 & 11 and 12 & 13, I was in the Surge bin tower. (The Surge Bin Tower is the white building you can see between the two boilers near the top that has the conveyor belt entering it from the left). From there, I roamed around looking for some coal to clean up. I figured I would stay far away from my labor crew buddies that day.
At the end of the day, I traveled back down belts 10 & 11 and headed into the office in the Coalyard Maintenance building to fill out my last timecard as a Laborer. Beginning next Monday on November 7, I would be an “Electrician.” Along with the empty feeling at the bottom of my heart was a feeling of excitement for the new adventure that awaited me.
Originally posted January 11, 2013:
Today I sit quietly in a cubicle with a group of other people on my team. We each type away throughout the day, or we are on calls in our own meetings listening to conversations where we offer input where it is necessary. I may listen to music on my computer to help me get into the rhythm of my work as I type away creating documents or sending IMs to other employees as they ask me questions throughout the day.
That was not how it was before the PC made inroads into our lives. We used to sit around and talk to each other. We did things to pass the time while we worked on tedious jobs. We talked about our families. We talked about movies and shows we had seen. We asked each other how their family was doing. Sometimes, we even sang.
I was sitting on the Precipitator Roof installing a new Rapper circuit board in the Rapper Vibrator cabinet while one of my Precipitator Mentors sat behind me making sure that I was learning the fine art of Precipitator Maintenance on one of the first actual jobs I worked on when I became an Electrician.
The day was growing long, and Sonny had taken over for me and was installing the second circuit board while I was sitting on a Tension house box where Sonny had previously been sitting. Suddenly I felt this sudden urge to burst out in song. It was not known before this moment that I was sort of a professional singer. Actually. I had grown up with a family of singers.
My mother and my sister used to break out into song at random times throughout my childhood when a song would come over the radio on the easy listening station that was constantly on. So naturally, it would be natural for me to want to break out into song when the moment was right.
So, I just let loose singing one of my favorite songs. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t an accompaniment. I didn’t need the orchestra behind me on the radio to help me keep time. I had the orchestra playing in my mind…. I didn’t need the tuning fork that Sister Maureen used to use at Catholic School when I was a kid as she would bang it on the desk and then hum with a wavering hum until she came in tune with her tuning fork. No. The tuning fork came from years of listening to my favorite songs.
Yes. Even before the iPod was invented and the VCR had come around, there were two places where a person could hear a song over and over and over again. One place was the radio. Back in the 70’s when your favorite song was in the top 20’s you could hear it play over and over again every two hours on the radio.
So, I burst out with one of my favorite songs and started to serenade my new found friend, Sonny Kendrick. I began quietly and worked my way up to a crescendo. The song I sang began thus: “Here’s the story of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls….”
I continued with great confidence in my singing ability, knowing that I was impressing my fellow electrician with my fantastic singing ability: “all of them had hair of gold, like their mother….the youngest one in curls!” Even louder I bellowed out: “Here’s the story of a man named Brady who was living with three boys of his own. They were four men living all together, yet they were all alone!”
Now I was in full form with my hand on my chest, standing at attention with all the full emotion I could draw out as I sang the final verse: “Till the one day when the lady met this fellow. And they knew that it was much more than a hunch, That this group must somehow form a family, That’s the way we all became the Brady bunch!”
Then as if I was playing an air guitar on stage, I was able to dramatically complete my short opera with the shaking of my head as I sang the final words: “The Brady bunch, the Brady bunch. That’s the way we became the Brady bunch bunch bunch…..” (now you know the second place where you could hear a song over and over).
Acting rather proud of my accomplishment I relieved Sonny as I was going to install the third of the four Rapper cards in the cabinet…. I began connecting the wires to the circuit board one at a time when all of the sudden I was struck with some strange form of electricity!
Had we forgotten to turn off the electrical disconnect to the 480 Volts to the cabinet? My fingers were shaking from the sudden impulse of electricity. My knees were buckling so that I stumbled back and sat against rappers behind me. I was completely stunned. I couldn’t tell if my ears were actually picking up sound or I had suddenly died and was on my way to heaven because I had just electrocuted myself in the cabinet.
My head was spinning. Thoughts entered my head like, “Great. I have just been electrocuted! I have only been an electrician for less than a month and already I have killed myself. I hope my parents and my girlfriend don’t think I suffered when I died.”
Gradually, I realized that the sounds of harps and the humming of angels were all just an accompaniment that were being added by heaven itself to the song that was emanating from Sonny Kendrick! Sonny Kendrick, while he was taking his repose while I had proceeded to install my circuit board had suddenly had a similar urge to break out into song.
Only, unlike my feeble attempt at doing justice to the Brady Bunch Song, Sonny Kendrick was singing as if God himself had come down and suddenly transformed him into an Opera Singer. I couldn’t tell if he was singing something from Wagner’s immortal Opera “The Ring” or if he was singing La Boheme by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.
It didn’t matter to me. All I could do was sit there on a tension house in stunned amazement. Tears were rolling down my face. Here was a guy that people referred to as Baby Huey because of his build ( I guess):
Suddenly his lower build had moved up to the chest area and Sonny Kendrick had transformed into Franklin Floyd Kendrick! The magnificent opera singer!
When my friend and sudden Opera singing hero had finished, he stepped over the conduits and went to work to add the last rapper circuit board on the rack with the other three.
Still sitting on the tension house coming to my senses. Realizing that my transformation to heaven was only a temporary visit. I asked Sonny…. “What was that?” — That was all I could think of saying. What else could I say? “Can I have your Autograph?” I suppose I could have said that. No. All I could say was, “What was that?”
Here is a picture of Sonny. He didn’t have a beard then, but he has the exact same smile today that he had that day! He gave me this exact same smile when I asked him “What was that?” Exactly!
I said, “Sonny. What are you doing here? Why are you an electrician when you have a voice like that?” He replied by telling me that he had a family and he had to provide for them and he couldn’t do it by being a singer. So I asked him how he became an electrician.
You see. At the time, Sonny had the distinction of being the Electrical Specialist. He was the only one. He had gone to Oklahoma State Tech in Okmulgee and received a technical degree there in electronics. This gave him the ability to become the electrical specialist at the plant.
His real dream was to become an Opera Singer. Being an electrician was something to pay the bills. His heart was in his song. Sonny has a tremendous heart. I know. I have seen and heard it beating.
There is a part of Sonny’s story that is a tragedy. Isn’t that usually true with great artists? I suppose that is where their passion for their creativity comes from. This was true with Sonny, and in the next few months, I learned more and more about the burden that had been put on Sonny’s shoulders.
You see. One day. Sonny had said something to Leroy Godfrey to the effect that Sonny was a electrical specialist. He should be doing something more than spending all his time working on the precipitator. What his exact words were doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Leroy Godfrey had decided that day that Sonny Kendrick was to be banished to the precipitator. Never to work on anything but the precipitator.
In order to understand what this means… you have to understand the conditions someone has to work in when they work on the precipitator… First of all. No one wants to work with you, because it means working in the midst of pigeon dung, insulation, fly ash, and dust. Along with that, when the unit is online, the roof of the precipitator is one of the loudest places at the plant. Rappers and Vibrators going off constantly. Buzzing and Banging! Very hot in the summer and freezing in the winter.
As time went by, and Bill Rivers and Sonny filled in the blanks I came to understand just how burned out Sonny Kendrick was with working on the precipitator. I could see how he literally had to drag himself to the precipitator roof to work on the cabinets or fix a transformer knife switch. He would rather being doing anything else. The precipitator had become like Van Gogh’s ear. He just wanted to cut it off.
It had occurred to me at the time that the units had only been online for about 3 and 4 years and Sonny was already completely burned out on this job. It made perfect sense to me when I understood that this was a punishment for trying to stand up to an Old School Power Plant Supervisor. In order to understand Leroy Godfrey read the post:
A little less than two years later, Sonny Kendrick sang at my wedding. He was up in the balcony singing a list of songs that had been given to him by my mom. Bill Moler, the Evil Assistant Plant Manager who was serving as a Deacon at my wedding came in the front door dressed in his robes and ready to go into the church. I was standing there greeting people as they came in.
Bill suddenly stopped and stood still for a moment. Then he said, “Who is that singing? Where did you find someone with such a wonderful voice?” I proudly told him, “That’s Sonny.” Bill leaned forward and said, “Our Sonny?” I replied, “Yep. Sonny Kendrick. Our Sonny Kendrick.”
I had decided early on that I was going to do whatever I could to pull Sonny off of that Precipitator so that he could use his talents as they were meant to be used. So, every time I was asked to help out on the precipitator, I was glad to help Sonny.
Years later, when Sonny was finally able to be free of the precipitator, he went kicking and screaming, because I had turned precipitator maintenance on it’s head and it was hard for Sonny to see his work all turned Topsy-turvy. I knew that like myself, Sonny had a personal relationship with his work and that when someone else was tinkering with it it was a kind of “insult”.
I knew for Sonny it was best. It didn’t take him long to step out into the open air and take a deep breathe. Once he realized it was no longer his worry, he was a much happier man. I am pleased to see that Sonny Kendrick today wears the same smile that he did that day when he had broken out in song and serenaded me on top of the Precipitator.
It means that he still has the peace that he is due. I can’t help it. I have to end this post by posting his picture again. Just look into his eyes and see his joy. I’ll bet this picture was taken just after he had finished an aria of La Traviata by Guiseppe Verdi:
In a way. Sonny’s life has been a Aria. I have been blessed to have been able to call him “Friend”.
COMMENTS FROM THE ORIGINAL POST:
The best job I ever had with OG&E was as a Results Engineer at Seminole. I helped start up all 3 units, design, purchase and install a water induction prevention system for unit 2, balance turbines, fans, etc., became “Plant Photographer”, designed all the racks and supports for turbine/generator rotors and diaphragms, ran performance tests on the boiler/turbine units, and lots of other fun stuff. But in 1975 I was promoted to “Senior Results Engineer”.
OG&E saw people with an Engineering degree as automatically anointed for management. I didn’t agree with that, but I was stuck in that culture. That promotion made me “Supervisor” of Montie Adams. I first began working with Montie (Old Power Plant Man) in 1967 at Mustang as a summer student in the Results department. (That’s where I got to know Leroy Godfrey too).
Montie had taught me a lot, had tons of knowledge and experience, and was much more qualified than I was. But he didn’t have the degree so he couldn’t even apply for the job. I never did become comfortable supervising people with more knowledge and experience than me just because I had the magic degree. From 1975 on, my job focus was no longer on the equipment used in generating electrical power, but on the people who used and maintained that equipment. I never understood how an engineering degree equipped me for that.
Plant Electrician January 12, 2013
It’s funny how cultures change over time. You described the old power plant culture perfectly.
Today in my profession, it is perfectly sensible to manage employees that have more knowledge about their work than you have. The trick is knowing that. I currently have a terrific manager that would hardly know how to do what I do. That really isn’t his job though. He relies on his people to know what they are doing. It is being a good leader that makes one a good supervisor. Not trying to find or pretend to know all the answers yourself. Somehow that was lost on the Old Power Plant Man culture.
I think that was why we were so stunned when you arrived at the plant and you had a personality beyond “slave driver”. I know I’ll write more about this in the future, but there were a number of times where I was pleasantly surprised to find that you listened to me and even asked for my advice.
Originally Posted on April 12, 2013:
I witnessed a fast approaching Wall Cloud coming south from Tulsa when I was on overhaul at the Muskogee Oklahoma Coal-fired Power Plant the fall 1984. I stood outside of the Unit 6 electric shop looking north watching the darkness approaching at an alarming rate. As it approached I could see debris flying up from the highway a half mile away telling me that we were in for one heck of a wind.
I suppose I was mesmerized because all I did was stand there and stare at it. Maybe I thought, “At least if this blows me away, I can spend my last moments staring down a tornado. I watched as the wind hit the precipitator and stirred up the piles of ash under it and blew it away as if someone was blowing out a birthday candle.
The wall cloud rolled right over the top of me looking like a big steamroller wheel. At the same time the wind hit me knocking me back. I couldn’t breathe because of the dust and I took two steps to the electric shop door and dodged inside. The walls rattled as the wind buffeted the building. All I could think of was, “Cool!”
We found out a few minutes later that 4 miles south of us by the Fort Howard Paper plant a tornado dropped out of the cloud and touched down.
That was only one of many exciting moments at the Muskogee Power Plant. Last week I talked about how there must have been something in the water there that made people think and act a little differently than they otherwise would (See Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant). I said that because of the “interesting” way people thought and acted in Muskogee. This is the story about the day I think I drank some of the water by mistake.
Each morning when I was waiting for the work to start in the electric shop, two electricians, Jay Harris and Richard Moravek had a ritual that they performed before heading off to work on the precipitators for the day. One of them would hum a note, then together they would sing a short jingle that went like this: “Nestles makes the very best…….. Chooooocolate!!!” Richard would whistle as he sang, just like the Nestle’s Rabbit– Every morning without fail.
Both Richard and Jay were soldiers. Jay was a young soldier that knew my brother from the Marine Reserves. He would train with him in the TOW Anti-Tank unit somewhere around Broken Arrow. Richard…. Well… Richard was a Vietnam Veteran that had seen a lot of combat.
Richard had a metal plate in his forehead. He could tap it and you could hear it tink. “Tink, Tink, Tink.” He was a forward observer in Vietnam. They usually had a life expectancy of a couple of weeks. Richard had survived. He was attached to a group of Rangers.
Richard explained to me one time that he used to use a big M60 machine gun like Sylvester Stallone used in the movie Rambo. Only, he couldn’t shoot two of them at a time, and he couldn’t walk forward with it either like Rambo. He could only walk backward because the machine gun would knock you down.
I know that Richard suffered from the effects of Agent Orange and was fighting the cancer it caused at one point in his life. He died in November 6, 2007. He left behind a son named Richard that has commented to me that his dad was “A Great Man.”
If I keep talking about the people that I met while I was at Muskogee, I will never get to the story that I want to tell, because heroes seemed to be all over the place. Another electrician was Ellis Moore, who was in Vietnam while he was in the Army. He was still Shell Shocked from his experience there.
He told me stories about how his unit would be patrolling through the woods, and they would hear some gunfire, and they would just all put their backs to each other and would shoot blindly in all directions.
They were frightened and figured that was the only way they were going to stay alive. Ellis had an odd look on his face when he told me this story. One that told me that he had seen things that were too horrible to bring back into his mind.
This leads me to my story…. It began on a Friday afternoon about 2pm. I was working with Ben Davis, a fellow electrician from our plant in North Central Oklahoma.
I enjoyed working with Ben Davis during the overhaul. Ben was one of the most calm and normal person you could find. He was probably the most sane person in the electric shop. He didn’t care what other people thought about him. When he told you what he thought, you could count on it being the truth.
When I was dressing up in rags, (See the post From Power Plant Rags to Riches), Ben just looked a little concerned that I may have lost my sanity, but that didn’t keep him from treating me with the respect and dignity that I wasn’t even maintaining for myself.
We were working on 6A Forced Draft Fan and we made a measurement with the large Meggar indicating that the insulation might be a little weak somewhere in the motor.
We weren’t sure what the acceptable level of deviation was from the norm, so we decided that we would find Don Spears and ask him. Don was the Electrical Supervisor at Muskogee at the time. He was the splittin’ image of Oklahoma University’s Football Coach Barry Switzer’s bigger brother.
Ben and I talked to John Manning, the Electrical B Foreman, and he agreed that we should talk to Don, and would let him know that we were looking for him when he returned from a meeting he was attending.
We waited around in the Unit 6 electric shop until around 3 o’clock. At 3 o’clock on Friday, we liked to bug out early to head home to our families. At lunch I would go to the trailer down by the river and pack up my stuff in my car and then park it outside the electric shop so that when 3 o’clock rolled around, we could dodge out the door and head for home.
Only this time, we were waiting around for Don to show up. We finally decided…. What the heck…. We can talk to him on Monday. We bolted out the door, and Ben and I headed back toward Stillwater at breakneck speed.
Come Monday morning, I pulled up to the electric shop parking lot, and who do you think was standing there just waiting for me? Yep. Don Spears. With his hands on his hips, and his big Football Coach stance trying his darnedest to look just like Barry Switzer telling his team at half time that they were going to have to do better than that.
I happened to pull up to the shop about the same time that Ben did. Don Spears immediately lit into us. He said, “You left early on Friday didn’t you!!!” I said, “What? Surely not!”
Don replied that he came looking for us around 3:30 and we were no where to be found. He paged us but we didn’t answer. I responded by telling him that we must have been out working on a motor and couldn’t hear him because it was too noisy.
Of course, Don wasn’t going to buy that. He said this Friday he wanted to us to meet him in his office at 4:00. He was going to make sure we didn’t leave early. Ben and I assured him that we would be there.
So, next Friday at lunch Don came down to the shop and said….. “Remember. I want to see you in my office at 4:00 sharp. We both told him that we would be there, come rain or shine.
3 o’clock rolled around and we headed for home… I don’t think I stopped laughing until I was in Tulsa. It is always fun to play an on-going joke with someone. Especially when that someone could pulverize you with one simple punch.
So, you can imagine what I saw when I arrived at the Unit 6 Electric Shop next Monday Morning….
Yep. That was Don. He was standing there with his feet spread apart just like Paul Bunyan. His hands were on his hips and he looked rather mad. He said, “You Did it Again!!! You left early!”
I said, “What do you mean we left early?” He said, “You didn’t come to my office at 4:00!” “Oh, ” I said, “I can’t believe we forgot! Sorry! It must have slipped our mind.”
I know. I was being rotten, but this was just too much fun.
So, here comes next Friday. Same routine. At lunch I drove down to the trailer down by the river (the Arkansas River) and packed up my stuff and parked my car outside the Unit 6 Electric Shop expecting to leave out of there around 3 o’clock
Around 2:30 in the afternoon, Ben and I were working on something in the shop getting ready to clean up and head on home. Don Spears was sitting in the electric shop office in a chair right inside the door where he could look out and watch our every move.
As 3 o’clock rolled by, there was Don Spears with his face plastered to the window in the door not taking his eyes off of us, with a big grin on his face. Ben said something like “it looks like he has us this time.”
So, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands…. I walked in the office and sat down right on Don Spear’s lap. He looked at me totally surprised. I put my arms around his neck and I looked him straight in the eyes…..
Don sat there stunned. He couldn’t move, and he couldn’t speak. With the most sincere expression I could muster up, while looking in his eyes as dreamily as I could, I said, “You are just the cutest thing. I can’t hardly STAND it!” (Imagine saying that to Barry Switzer’s bigger brother). Then I stood up and sort of danced out into the shop.
I turned my head just enough to see Don darting out the back door to the office in the other direction. I turned to Ben and said, “Let’s go!” Out we went, and we were on our way home.
Come next Monday morning….. Ok…. I figured…. here it comes…. I drove up to the electric shop parking lot and there was Barry…. I mean Don… smoking a cigarette pacing back and forth in front of the electric shop door. What? No hands on his hips?
As I approached him he said, “I know what you’re up to!” I said in a calm voice with as straight of a face that I could muster… “What do you mean?” He said, “I talked to Bill Bennett (the A Foreman at our plant). He told me that you are just using ‘Psychology’ on me” (by the way, I do have a degree in Psychology).
I replied, “I am? What do you mean?” He said, “You know what I mean.” I looked confused as if I didn’t know what he was talking about. He continued, “Bill told me all about you.” I said something like, “Bill is a great guy.” Then I walked into the shop.
The next Friday…. Don was no where to be seen. The remainder of the overhaul, Don was keeping his distance. I don’t think we caught sight of him the next 4 weeks. It seemed that I had finally spooked him. From that point on, he decided that he didn’t care so much if we bugged out early.
Originally posted April 19, 2013:
Resistance is Futile! You may have heard that before. Especially if you are a Star Trek Fan. If not, then you know that there is always some form of resistance wherever you are.
I learned a lot about resistance when I first joined the electric shop at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1984. I was assigned to work with Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers on the Precipitator during overhauls and when I wasn’t working on the manhole pumps and there wasn’t any other emergencies going on. Actually, from 1984 on, for the next 17 years I continued to work on the precipitator… (if I had only known my fate….).
Not only did I learn a lot about resistance, I also learned about capacitance, reactance, transformers, rectifiers, power supplies, diodes, transistors, op amps, and pots (also known as potentiometers). Bill Rivers was the brains of the outfit. Sonny was the Electric Specialist banished to the Precipitator by Leroy Godfrey (See Singing Along with Sonny Kendrick). Bill thought up the ideas and Sonny went to work to implement them. I just jumped in where I was needed.
The Precipitator is the large box between the boiler and the smokestack (maybe you can see this in the Power plant picture). The purpose of the electrostatic precipitator is to take the smoke (or fly ash) out of the exhaust before it went out of the smokestack.
The controls for the Precipitator were all electronic at that time. That meant that there were circuit boards full of resistors, capacitors, transistors, operational amplifiers, diodes and potentiometers. These circuit boards controlled the way the power was distributed throughout the precipitator wires and plates through high powered transformers, and how the rappers and vibrators operated that dropped the collected ash into the hoppers.
Bill had me take an electronics course at the Indian Meridian Vo-tech so I would know the basics. Then he taught me all the shortcuts. I had to be able to look at a resistor and tell right away what the value of resistance it was. Resistors are color-coded and you had to learn what each of the colors represented…
I was expected to know this by sight. Bill would test me. There was a mnemonic device that I was taught to remember what each color represented, but it is not appropriate to repeat it, so I won’t. It is enough to say that the colors go like this: Black, Brown, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet, Gray, White (I will never forget this my entire life). These represent the numbers zero through 9. Here is a full explanation of how to read a resistor….. just in case you are curious, or you are such a boring person that you really need some material to bring up when you are at a party and don’t know what to say:
I found that having just the correct amount of resistance was very important. Too much or too less, and everything stops working.
Isn’t it that way with management also? If the management is too resistant to change, then things come to a halt. If they have too little resistance, they lose control of the situation. Depending on the circuit (or managerial decision) and what you are trying to do, it helps to have a manager that has a variable resistance to meet the needs of each situation. Resistance to change is always a balancing act.
During the first two years I was an electrician, the main control panels that controlled the operation of the precipitators were electronic. We spent a lot of time in the lab troubleshooting electric circuits looking for blown (or bad) parts that needed to be replaced. Then we would solder new components on the circuit boards and then put them back in operation. I learned how to be an electronics junky. I became addicted to fixing electronic circuit boards. It was like a game to me.
Later, the precipitator controls were changed to digital controls. That is, they were more like little computers controlling the precipitator. Instead of a bunch of circuit boards dumbly, but cleverly, doing their job, (how many commas can I use in one sentence?), little brains were added that made decisions and reacted to conditions in a much more dynamic way.
What was interesting was that one day Bill Rivers was describing how technology was going to be in the future. He said that some day, we will be able to sit in the lab and look on a computer and see what all the controls in the precipitator were doing (this was 1984). If something isn’t working right, we could just reach over, type a few keys on the computer and adjust the controls. Drink our sweet tea (a necessary staple in Oklahoma at the time), and then wait for the next crisis…. Then he would giggle at the look of disbelief on my face.
When he was telling me this, I was thinking in my head…. Well, that would be nice, but this sounds more like a pipe dream to me than reality. What does an older guy with six kids from a tool and die company in Columbia Missouri (where I grew up, by chance) know about the future of anything….. well…. anything…uh… new age…. If that is what you might call it… I found out you just don’t really know when you are sitting in front of a true “visionary” with tremendous insight.
Bill Rivers had this incredible knack for telling the future. In 1984 he was predicting computer controls in the control room where you ran the entire plant from a computer on a desk instead of using the “Big Board”.
He said you would be able to call someone on a phone you kept in your pocket or your watch like Dick Tracey.
I don’t know what journals Bill was reading or if he just dreamed all this stuff up in his head, or maybe he was a Star Trek Fan that believed that if you can dream it up you can do it. I do know that he picked up on subtle queues and made great inferences from them that seemed astronomically unlikely. However, I have to admit that he caught me off guard a number of times with predictions that definitely came true.
I will talk about this more in a future post, but for now I will say that we did upgrade the precipitator to where you could sit in the control room and monitor and adjust the precipitator controls (all 84 on each unit), and even each of the rappers (672 rappers) and vibrators (168 vibrators) on the roof of each precipitator. With one key on the computer I could send a plume of ash out of the smokestack that looked like the unit had just tripped, and a moment later, clean it up again. This meant that I could send smoke signals to the Osage Indian tribe 20 miles north up the Arkansas (pronounced “Are Kansas”) river, telling them that the Pow Wow would begin at sunset.
Today, I understand that the “Big Board” at the plant is just a large junction box and the plant is controlled almost (if not) completely by computers sitting on the desk. Before I left the plant in 2001, this was being transitioned slowly to computer controls. I have another story to tell some day about this, and how an operator named Jim Cave, a Power Plant Genius and true Power Plant Man of the highest integrity, was snubbed by upper management for speeding this technology along. — Another example of Power Plant Resistance….
But for now…. back to my electronic days… before I began re-programming the Eeprom chips in the precipitator controls….
Bill Rivers confided with me one day that when the new Instrument and Controls department had been formed from the “Results” department that his dream had been to become a part of this team. It meant the world to him. It was where he believed he belonged. It was one of his major goals in life.
There used to be two electrical specialists in the Power Plant. Sonny Kendrick was not always the only one. The other specialist was chosen to go to the Instrument and Controls shop. Bill Rivers wanted to move there also. He definitely had the experience and the knowledge to be a superb instrument and controls person. But Bill had this one problem.
He loved to joke around. He loved to pull strings and push buttons. I have mentioned in a previous posts that Bill would play a new joke on Sonny Kendrick every single day. As I have unfortunately found out in my own life… this tends to make them…. well….. it tends to make enemies out of those who have a chip on their shoulder. Those people who naturally feel inadequate in their abilities or their position in life. To go one step further…. anyone who feels “unloved”….. these people definitely do not like being joked with. They seem to never forgive you. My greatest regret in life is joking around with these individuals.
So, when it came time to choose who would be a part of the new Instrument and Controls shop, Bill Rivers was turned down. It was explained to him that the reason he was not given the job was because he cut off the leads of a transistor when he replaced them. — I’m not kidding. Bill Rivers had the habit of cutting off the leads of each resistor, transistor, diode or capacitor that he replaced…. this is why Monty Adams turned down his request for joining the “elite” Instrument and Controls shop (as he told Bill to his face).
Someone had told the Instrument and Controls Supervisor Monty Adams that Bill Rivers cut the leads off of transistors and resistors when he replaced them so that you couldn’t test them to see if they were all right. Implying that he didn’t want you to know whether he had replaced the transistor or resistor by mistake.
Bill Rivers took several transistors, cut the leads off of each of them and handed them to me and asked me to test them to see if they were still good or if they were bad. I took out my voltmeter, set it to ohms, and proceeded to test them as Bill Rivers had taught me. I told him…. this transistor is good….. this one is bad….
You see…. there is no way to cut the leads off of a transistor in such a way to make it impossible to tell if a transistor is good or bad…. In reality…. you cut the leads off of a bad transistor so that the person working on the circuit board knows that this is a bad transistor and doesn’t use it again by accident. This was electronics 101.
When Bill told me this story, he literally had tears in his eyes. This was because being part of the Instrument and Controls team was part of his dream. The future of his family and the entire rest of his life was decided the day he was told that he was not going to be a part of a team that he believed was his true lot in life.
I remember his exact words as he sat there in the lab alone and told me this story. He said, “… and Monty didn’t know… He didn’t know that you cut the leads…. that is standard procedure….” In Bill’s giggly way, he was crying out loud as he told me this.
From that point on….I knew that the decisions Bill made in his life were driven by that one decision to exclude him from this team. Unlike many of us that could say to ourselves…. “That is their loss”…. Bill kept this pain in his heart each day…. Every decision from that day further was effected by this event.
I calculated it out one day that I spent 414 hours driving back and forth from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the plant and back each day with Bill Rivers (along with Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer and occasionally others that needed a ride), and over that time, I became very close to Bill, even to the point of tutoring his son in Algebra (see post: How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic?).
I say this because I know about the pain that inflicted Bill River by a rash decision based on the hearsay of someone that held a grudge. I know how his entire life was changed and how it ended for Bill Rivers as a power plant employee. I know that every decision by Bill after this date was made in response to this one decision. Anyone who experienced Bill after 1983 knows what I am talking about.
I realized that today my own decisions in life help spell out my future. How some little remark may be misinterpreted, or even properly so. I realize as I write this post that how I accept or reject these events in my life, determines the future of my family. After seeing how every event in Bill’s life after that day at the power company was determined by his experience was to his detriment, I am determined not to let the same thing happened to me…..
That is why I have taken on the philosophy in my life that no matter how my actions are misinterpreted, I am determined to remain true to myself. I know what I mean, and I mean what I say, and I say what I mean, and an Elephant is Faithful 100 %.
Comment from the Original Post:
Originally Posted May 25, 2013;
Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline. The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators. This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust. The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”. The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust. When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air (or 99.999%).
Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop. These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator. I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post: Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant. It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years. You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant. I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.
When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it. He likes to get dirty.” At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop. Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning… Now those words took on their full meaning.
I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning. Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post: Singing’ Along with Sonny Kendrick). I was his chance to be lifted from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey. I had accepted that. I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.
So, here I was… One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post: Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door). Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers. I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit. Just a rain suit.
Not a lot of protection….
I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul. I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string. I had a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.
So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world. It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon. We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point. We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.
Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart. He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above. At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me. Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip. There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.
Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip. Then even lower. About 10 feet above us. A third clip. — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It pays to Listen“), then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….” A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn.
Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate. Every clip must be in their place. Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so. Ok. I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 clips per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and 7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…
Bill explained….. Clean each insulator. there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place.There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers. there were 84 hoppers, Great. Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks…. Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof. two on each section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension house on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.
Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a clip or broken. Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.
Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force. That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below. Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each. There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers. In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.
Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates. In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly. There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers. This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul. Oh. And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.
So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units). Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator. For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators. Some of my closest friends were precipitator components. Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.
We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me. I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment. I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.
Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in the boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas…. I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home…. Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”. I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash. I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby… Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it. He apologized. He explained that he meant it with affection.
At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it. The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter. That meant that they would infiltrate your filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs. Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.
I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu. This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so. I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth. I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.
I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator. So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters. They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles. I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.
To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell. The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors. Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals…. Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.
You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate. Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.
I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post: A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff. He said it had some kind of a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….
He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell. You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.
There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name). She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical. Unfortunately, we never found out what it was. In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces. This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.
I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of an electron microscope. I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one. I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.
So, I just continued wearing the organic filters. This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms. Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator. When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands. They knew everything I did.
One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job. One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma. They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had. They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.
Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be. I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously. No. I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it. I loved it. I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.
I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator. I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them. Coaxing them. Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job. If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”. Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7. But they were each my friends in their own way.
You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?” I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me. I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.
I have my own understanding of who I should be. My wife may call it “stubbornness”, and that may be what it is. I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again…. What was I going to do? Give up? How could I do that to a friend? I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma. That isn’t going to change who I am.”
Today I am called an IT Business Analyst. I work for Dell Computers (now I work for General Motors). It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world. I see the same pattern. When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job. You become invaluable. Almost irreplaceable. People look to you for answers. They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business. I am glad to be able to serve them.
Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?” Arnold replied, “Oh. nothing anyone wants.” (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators. No. I wouldn’t do that. Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.
Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good. His son, Tim Foster has taken his place. One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator. I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim…. I know Scott understands….
Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them…. Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness. Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly… Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good… next row….
Originally Posted July 26, 2013:
I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was well…. surreal.
This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.
As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.
At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.
Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.
David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.
During those times I knew that something was taking place in the superheat section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).
So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.
This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.
Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:
Or even a normal rat like this:
No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:
Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….
Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.
If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.
You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool.
So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.
Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.
There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where John Brien was staring back at him.
There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.
We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as I fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.
By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.
I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.
I took out my multimeter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connect where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.
I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”
That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.
I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.
There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.
I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.
Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.
Comment from previous post:
Originally posted September 13, 2013:
Of the 1,500 jokes played on Power Plant Men while I was working at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I can only remember a handful of the smaller ones. There are some I’m saving for later topics. Sometimes it was the smallest jokes that spoke the loudest. Especially when great care was taken to play the joke just right.
I think it was the idea that someone thought enough of you to spend a great deal of time setting up a joke just for the one little moment that the person finally realizes that they have been played. It’s when that smile comes across their face that all that work pays off. The realization that someone else would spend so much time just to make you smile was a good indication that they really did care about you.
In the post called, “Why Stanley Elmore and Other Power Plant Questions” I told a story about when I was a janitor in the electric shop and one of the electricians Andy Tubbs had been playing jokes on me while I was cleaning the bathroom. The funniest one was when I had turned around for a moment and when I went to go grab the dust mop, the handle to the mop was missing, while the dust mop was just sitting there on the floor. The handle was propped against the wall across the shop while Andy was innocently looking at a blueprint. It was so funny I had to go in the bathroom where I literally laughed out loud.
Charles Foster, my electric foremen had told me of a time when he played a joke on a welder in the welding shop that was welding away on something. The power to the welding machine was around the corner. Charles picked up the cord for the welder and kinked it like you would kink a water hose to stop the water from flowing. When he kinked it, the welding machine stopped working.
The welder looked at the machine to find that the power was off. Then he looked over and saw that Charles was standing about 40 feet away grinning at him holding the kinked cable. About that time, Charles straightened out the cable and the welding machine turned back on. The welder spun around to find the welding machine humming away. He looked back at Charles who kinked the cable again and the welding machine again shut off.
Amazed, the welder said something like, “I didn’t know you could do that!” Charles shrugged, dropped the cable and walked off. Unbeknownst to the welder, as Charles left, he met up with the other electrician that had been opening an closing the electric disconnect where the welding machine received its power. Leaving the welder unaware.
In the electric shop there is one bathroom. It is shared by all electricians, and therefore it has a lock on the door because Diana Lucas (Brien) had to use it. But sometimes someone might not realize that it was used jointly by both male and female members of the Power Plant family, and they might not lock the door. So, on occasion, Dee would go into the bathroom only to find that it was already occupied.
Once she entered the bathroom and found that someone was in the stall. She waited around for a while and asked me to go check it out because the guy was taking quite a long time and what at first was only a minor inconvenience was becoming higher priority. So, I entered there bathroom and sure enough. The stall was closed and there was a pair of boots easily visible under the stall where someone sat taking their own sweet time.
Dee finally figured that it wasn’t worth the wait and walked across the T-G floor to the maintenance shop to the nearest women’s restroom. After a while someone else remarked that someone was in the bathroom and had been in there a long time. At that point, it became obvious that either someone had died while sitting on his thinkin’ chair, or something else was definitely amiss.
So, one of the electricians decided to see if everything was all right. That was when they peered into the stall to find that there was only a pair of boots sitting all by themselves in the stall. It turned out that O D McGaha had put them there. He locked the stall, then climbed out under the stall and left them there. — It was a pretty good joke. It had half the shop concerned about the mysterious stranger in the stall.
Soon after this episode, a new sign was placed on the bathroom door:
Other little jokes like that were played on individuals throughout the 20 years that I worked at the plant. One small one that is a typical example of many was when Mickey Postman drove to work one morning with a brand new motorcycle. He was really proud of the new machine. Well. Mickey’s nickname at the time was “Pup”.
Mickey had two main reasons why he was a prime target for having jokes played on him. First, he took the jokes pretty well, because he would have a definite reaction. Sometimes good. Sometimes not so. The second reason was that he was red-headed. That meant that when he realized that a joke was being played on him, his face would turn as red as his hair. Everyone witnessing this couldn’t help but smile.
Mickey had worked his way into the maintenance shop from a janitor as I had, though he missed the labor crew (I believe) because it hadn’t been dreamed up by Ray Butler yet. He and I were practically the same age. He is 7 months older than I am. So, I always felt like, “but for the grace of God go I”. No. I don’t really mean it. I care a lot for Mickey and I never personally considered him as a candidate for jokes. I guess it was because he already had a cohort of Power Plant Men willing to play that part.
So, anyway. Mickey had this shiny new motorcycle parked out in the parking lot all day, so it was inevitable that at least one of the many Power Plant Men that had been assigned to the “Play a Joke on Mickey” detail, would happen to pass by the motorcycle in the parking lot. One of them would have felt obligated to reach down and turn the gas valve off.
The word had gone out throughout the plant that the valve had been closed on Mickey’s motorcycle so that we were all to expect that about the time that Mickey hit the bridge over the discharge on the way out the gate, his motorcycle would run out of fuel and die. It’s times like this that you never forget. A simple joke. A couple hundred Power Plant men all chuckling as they drove across the discharge bridge grinning at Mickey trying to restart his brand new motorcycle that had died perfectly positioned midway across the bridge. His face beaming as red as his hair!
I won’t go into the Wedding present that was given to Mickey Postman the day before his wedding. I intended this post to be only about petty or “minor” jokes. That one was a doozy. Actually. I will never post anything about it, other than to say that I wouldn’t ever say anything about how the machinist’s blue dye was applied.
Machinist’s Blue Dye, or Layout fluid is used when honing down a surface to make sure it is flat. There are other uses for it, but that is the one I am most familiar with. I wonder how that blue color looked along with Mickey’s red face…
Here are examples of two small jokes that took a lot of preparation.
The first one involved Howard Chumbley’s chair. Howard was a foreman in the electric shop. One of the nicest Power Plant Men in all of God’s creation. He was shorter than most taller people. And he was particular about how high his chair was adjusted. Being particular about anything automatically meant that you were a prime target for a joke dealing with whatever you were particular about.
Back then (1984), the height of an office chair was adjusted by turning it upside down and spinning the wheel bracket around to screw in or out the shaft.
So, Charles and I would rotate the bottom of the wheels around 1/4 turn each day. That meant just moving the wheels around to one set of wheels. Not very much. Every week the bracket would only be turned about 1 time, especially given that we wouldn’t remember to do it every day.
Eventually, after 5 or 6 weeks, Howard would go to sit down in his chair and realize that it was lower than he would like it to be. So, he would turn it over and lay the seat on his desk and spin the wheel bracket around a few times. Then test it and do it again until it was just the right height. Howard probably never thought about why every month and a half or so, his chair would be too short and he would end up turning it over and adjusting it back up.
This was a joke that Howard never knew was being played, but every time that chair went upside down, you can bet that Charles and I were grinning from ear-to-ear to have been there to watch it.
Ok. the last story has to be about Gene Day. After all. There was no one that I loved playing jokes on more than Gene Day. Actually, half of them, Gene probably never knew had been jokes. I have written two posts about playing jokes on Gene Day. One of them was just about one joke. See “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator” and “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“.
So, this particular week, I noticed that Gene Day was the auxiliary operator for Unit 1 Boiler. That meant that at least once each shift he was going to walk through the Unit 1 Precipitator Control Room that housed the controls for the 84 transformers on the precipitator roof.
So, I decided, this was a perfect opportunity to play a petty joke on Gene Day. I took an Eeprom chip that was used to hold the control program for a Precipitator control cabinet, and proceeded to rewrite the program.
I found the code in the assembly language code that sent the message to the display when there was an overcurrent trip. That is, when the cabinet trips, the little LCD display would say: “Overcurrent Trip”. I rewrote the code to say: “Gene Day Trip”. This meant finding the code string: 4F:76:65:72:63:75:72:72:65:6E:74:20:54:72:69:70 and replacing it with: 47:65:6E:65:20:44:61:79:20:54:72:69:70:20:20:20. I wrote the program for a specific cabinet in the middle of the precipitator that I could trip without causing an issue in the general operation of the precipitator.
Then I took the chip to the Precipitator Control room and replaced the control chip for that cabinet and left it running. I had seen Gene Day on his way to the Precipitator Control room the day before, so I had a pretty good idea what time he would be passing through. Because no matter how lazy Gene Day was, he was always consistent. (Gene you know I’m kidding…. right?)
Anyway. I spied Gene leaving the control room around the time I expected, so I made haste to the Precip. Control Room and with my screwdriver, after opening the cabinet, I reached down to the tripping mechanism for an overcurrent trip and I tripped the cabinet. Then leaving from the opposite direction that Gene would be arriving, I slipped out of the Precip Control Room and headed for the plant control room to see Gene’s reaction when he arrived.
About the time I was going around the corner in the breezeway toward the Unit 1 elevator, I saw that Gene had already exited the precip. area, so when I entered the T-G basement I quickly called Gene on the gray phone. Gene turned around and went back in the Precip switchgear (which was just below the control cabinets).
When Gene answered the phone I told him that I was looking at the Precipitator controls in the control room and I saw that one of the cabinets had tripped and I was wondering if he had just been out there because the error indicated something very strange. He said he had just been in there and hadn’t noticed that a cabinet had tripped.
So, I asked him if he could look again, it was 1D8. I needed to know what the cabinet display said had happened because it looked like Gene had done something to it. He told me he hadn’t touched anything, but he would go look. — of course, when he went to look at it, the display showed: “Gene Day Trip”.
So, I was sitting at the precipitator computer for Unit 1 when Gene Day arrived in the Control room. As was typical with Gene Day, my head began to waiver and my eyes began to blur as Gene had grabbed me by the throat and was shaking me back and forth. My eyes may have been blurry, and I know that I was acting totally surprised as if I didn’t know what had happened, but you can believe that inside I was grinning ear-to-ear!
Comment from original post:
September 21, 2013:
More comments from the last repost:
Originally posted November 16, 2013:
Most of us have watched the Alfred Hitchcock Thriller “The Birds” at least once in their life. When I was young it used to come on TV around Thanksgiving about the same time that Wizard of Oz would rerun. What a mix of movies to watch after eating turkey in one of our Italian relative’s house in Kansas City as I was growing up. During those years of sitting passively by watching the birds gang up on the humans, it never occurred to me that some day I might take part in my own private version of “Blackbird Wars” amid the playground equipment found in a typical Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
A tale like this is best starts out with the line, “It was a cold and windy night…” That was close. My story begins with, “It was a dark and cold winter morning…” Unit 1 was on overhaul. That meant that it was offline while we climbed inside the inner workings of the boiler, precipitator, Turbine and Generator in order to perform routine yearly maintenance. Being on overhaul also meant that we came to work earlier in the morning and we left later in the evening. Since it was in the middle of the winter, it also meant that we came to work in the dark, and we left for home in the dark…. These were dark times at the Power Plant for those of us on long shifts.
At this time in my career I was working on Unit 1 precipitator by myself. I had my own agenda on what needed to be done. Sometimes I would have contractors working with me, but for some reason, we had decided that we didn’t need them for this overhaul. Maybe because it was an extra long one and I would have plenty of time to complete my work before it was over.
I can remember grabbing my tool bucket and heading for the precipitator roof to begin my day of calibrating vibrators and checking rappers to make sure they were operating correctly. I was wearing my winter coat over my coveralls because it was cold outside. In Oklahoma, 20 degrees was pretty cold. 20 degrees in Oklahoma with 30 mile an hour winds gives you a pretty low wind chill…. which chills you to the bone.
I had a red stocking liner on my hardhat that wrapped around my forehead that kept my head warm.
All bundled up, I left the shop through the Turbine Room basement and headed toward the breezeway between Unit 1 and 2. I climbed the stairs up the Surge Bin Tower until I had reached the landing where you can go to either Unit 1 or 2 precipitator roofs. Using rote memory after having performed this same task every morning for the past month and a half, I turned toward Unit 1.
The Precipitator is a big box that takes the ash out of the exhaust from boiler. It drops the ash into hoppers where it is transported to the coalyard into large silos, where trucks haul it away to make concrete for roads and buildings. The precipitator roof is full of large transformers (84 of them), 168 vibrators that shake the 29568 high voltage wires in the precipitator, and 672 rappers that bang on the 7560 metal plates. The transformers are used to collect the ash using “static cling”. The rappers and vibrators are used to knock the ash into the hoppers.
The Precipitator roof is a very noisy place when all the rappers and vibrators are running. It is covered with a sheet metal roof. It wasn’t originally designed that way, but someone with foresight thought that it would be a great idea to insulate the precipitator roof. In doing so, they needed to add a roof to keep the insulation from being exposed to the weather.
It wasn’t noisy that morning as I reached the ladder and quickly tied my tool bucket to a rope hanging down from above. It was dark, and lonely and quiet. Well. There were some lights, but this morning, the light from the precipitator didn’t seem to shine much as I pulled myself up the ladder. When I reached the top I turned around and sat at the top of the ladder and began pulling my tool bucket up.
It was at that moment when I realized that something was much different than usual. I had spent a couple of years working on the precipitator roof and inside and I had become friends with each of the transformers, and I even knew the unique sounds of each of the vibrators. I could tell when a rapper wasn’t rapping correctly. There would be a slight sucking sound as the rapper was drawn up into the cylinder…. There was a slight pause, then it would drop onto an anvil that was connected to the plate rack. But this morning everything was turned off. Yet, I could feel that there was something wrong.
There was a strange hum. I was trying to place it as I grabbed each foot of rope and pulled my bucket closer. There was more than a hum… There was a weird muffled sound all around. I had a chill down my back as if I was being watched. I quickly grabbed the handle of the bucket and stood up and turned around. I was ready to spot whoever it was that was spying on me!
What I saw immediately sucked the breath out of me. The precipitator is 200 feet wide and 120 feet long. Every inch as far as I could see was black. Not just the equipment, but the air itself.
During the night a cold wave had moved into Oklahoma from the north. With it, it had brought a horde of blackbirds. Thousands upon thousands of them. They had found refuge from the cold blasting wind in the precipitator roof enclosure. Safe and warm and undisturbed….. That is, until I arrived.
It was as if the blackbirds had discovered me at the same time I had found them. They suddenly burst into a frenzy.
I stood there in wonder for a few moments watching the swirling mass of blackness obscuring what little light was given off by the 100 watt Mercury Vapor lights. As I began to move toward the walkway the flying mass of feathers parted so that the birds kept a safe distance from me. As I grabbed the rungs of the ladder, I suddenly realized why keeping an aviary at a Power Plant is not a good idea. A warm moist gooey mass squished between my fingers as I pulled myself up the ladder and onto the walkway.
I took a few steps to where a package of WypAlls was laying on the walkway and pulled out a couple of heavy duty sheets of durable wiping material:
I decided that I was going to try to chase the birds out of the shelter so I began waving a couple of rags around as I walked down the walkway. All it did was cause the birds to bunch up in corners away from me. They would circle back around behind me. So, when I reached the other end of the roof, I climbed down to one of the rapper control cabinets and powered it up.
The rappers and vibrators began their music. A medley of humming and clanking. I went to each of the 14 cabinets on the roof turning on each of them until the entire roof had risen to a symphony of buzzing and banging. Music to my ears. After wiping down a few places where I needed to work, I spent some time testing and taking notes so that I could make adjustments in the control cabinet after I had made my way around each rapper and vibrator in that area. Then I left for break.
The sun was now up and daylight was shining through the openings in the precipitator roof. When I returned from break the hoard of blackbirds had decided to continue their journey south.
There was one time when I was working as an electrician at the Power Plant where I felt close to being a bird myself. It was when I had to travel to the top of the 500 foot smoke stack to repair some equipment. I was not only at the top of the smokestack, but I was literally sitting on the edge of it and shimming my way around it.
Why me? Well. Our A Foreman, Bill Bennett summed it up like this…. “Have Kevin do it. He likes heights.” Sure. Just like he said I liked to get dirty, so put me in a coal bin to fix a proximity switch. Or, just like he said that I liked climbing in holes in the ground, so I was assigned the job of fixing all the manhole pumps at the plant. What could I say? At some point, he was right. I couldn’t argue with him. Especially since he would call me a “scamp” with such endearment (See the post “Tales of a Tall Power Plant A Foreman“).
Well. You learn something new every day when working at a power plant, and I sure learned something that day. Quite a few things. I already knew that inside the tall concrete smoke stack was another smoke stack made out of brick. The outer stack would sway in the strong Oklahoma wind, while the brick stack inside would remain steady. On a windy day, at the very top, the stack would sway as much as six inches.
On this particular day I rode on top of the stack elevator to the top so that I could climb up onto the rim where the lightning rods were placed about 6 feet apart around the top.
When the wind is blowing there is a certain amount of a difference in the electric potential at the top of the stack as there is on the ground, so you could hear a slight crackling sound around the lightning rods even though it was a clear sunny day. I was wearing a safety belt and as I stopped to work, I would clip the lanyard to the closest lightning rod knowing full well that if I decided to jump off the stack, the lightning rod would just bend and the lanyard would just slide off the end.
I was not in any mood to do any jumping that day. I was there to fix jumpers instead. You see, there is a metal cap on the top rim of the smoke stack. Actually, there is a metal rim on the top of both smoke stacks. The concrete one and the brick stack inside the concrete stack. And there was supposed to be a set of jumpers around the top of the stacks connecting the two metal caps together electrically. This way, if perchance a bolt of lightning hit the inside stack, then the electricity would be routed to the outer rim and down the large grounding cables to the ground grid 500 feet below.
As I shimmied around the top of the stack, I became aware that as far as I could see… clear to the horizon, there wasn’t anything higher than me. At first this threw me a little off balance, because I usually focused on other objects to help me keep my bearings. In this case, only the other smoke stack was as high as me. So, I focused on the rim where I was sitting and tried as hard as I could to ignore the fact that I was a tenth of a mile up in the air.
I removed the broken jumpers and replaced them with the new ones. I didn’t think these new jumpers would last long considering that as the stack swayed back and forth, it would quickly wear the jumpers in two. But, there was some regulation or something that said they had to be replaced, and so that was why I was there.
I noticed while I was working on the top of the stack that birds were flying around below me. Actually, most of them were way below me. Few birds would fly as high as the stacks, and they were usually the predatory types that liked to swoop down on unsuspecting pigeons below. It felt a little odd to be working and looking down at birds flying when it is so normal to look up to see birds. From up there, a large flock of birds like those in “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock didn’t look so intimidating. They were nothing but small dots far below.
Comment from original post:
Originally posted December 28, 2013:
Times were changing in 1987 when the electric company in Oklahoma decided that they needed to downsize the company in order to change with the new business environment. I always seemed to think that the executives down at corporate headquarters in Oklahoma City knew that the old pioneers in charge of the Power Plants would be very difficult customers when it came to the new business model.
Like I said…. Times were changing. The digital era was being introduced to the power industry. We had already upgraded the precipitator controls to make them computerized. Other areas of the plant were going to be next. Especially the employees. Of course, none of us knew that quite yet, except Bill Rivers, who was a natural visionary, and he was gone.
Side story time:
I had always been interested in computers and programming from the time I was a sophomore in High School when I had just turned 15 years old. My friend Jesse Cheng had introduced me to one of the first programmable calculators, the HP-25.
This was the most wonderful Christmas present I had ever received. I literally felt myself fainting when I opened the present and found that I had been given a pair of cowboy boots, only to find an HP-25 calculator inside when I opened it up. Ralphie had nothing on me that day.
It was much like the Christmas Story with Ralphie. I had tried every with way to convince my parents that using a slide rule in High School was passe (pronounced “pass A”). All the other students in my advanced chemistry class were using calculators, and I was still stuck with my dad’s old circular slide rule. It was a pretty neat one, I’ll grant you that, but it just… well….. I could work things out on paper faster than I could use the slide rule.
I introduced my friend Jesse Cheng in the post “Why Do Power Plant Men Always Lose the Things They Love Most“. He had an HP-25 calculator and had loaned it to me to take a Chemistry test. He showed me how it used Reverse Polish Notation, which is different than a normal calculator, but more like a computer.
The calculator could be programmed with 49 steps. Because it had a stack built right into it, and the reason it used Reversed Polish Notation, we could create all sorts of games with just those 49 steps. The book that came with the calculator had a moon landing game. We made more sophisticated games, like one called Battleship.
Anyway. Because of this early exposure with actually programming something in a logical manner, I was eager to learn more about programming. During college, my calculator was often sitting on my desk in the dorm room running a long program to help me perfect a random number generator. Finally in my Junior year in college, my calculator was completely fried.
After I was married at the end of 1985, I began subscribing to a magazine called “Compute”. It had actual programs in it in Basic. I would read the programs to learn how it worked, but at that point, I didn’t own a computer, so all I could do was dream about writing programs.
It wasn’t until Thanksgiving 1987 when I went to visit my ol’ friend Jesse Cheng in Columbia, Missouri who was interning as a medical doctor that I felt a sudden need to have a computer of my own. He had built a computer using a Heath Kit and we used it to play two computer games. One was called Starflight:
The other was called F15 Strike Eagle:
When I returned home I was pretty eager to buy a computer. Up until that time, every time my wife and I had gone to the mall, I always had stopped in the computer stores to look at the latest computers. I never had really considered buying one. But now, they had 20 megabyte hard drives! And you could play these terrific games like Starflight and F-15 Strike Eagle.
So, one day after we had left the mall, and my wife could see the look on my face, she finally said…. “Why don’t you go and buy one?” I asked her, “Are you sure? Because you know what is going to happen if I get a computer. I’ll be playing on it all the time.” She said, “No. I want you to go buy one.” So we turned around and went back to the mall.
That was the start of my journey into the world of computers.
End of Side Story.
As I explained in the post “Boppin’ with Bif during the Power Plant Downsizing“, the company offered an early retirement package for everyone 55 years old and older. They would give them full benefits to leave. This meant that our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey, as well as the assistant plant manager, Bill Moler and the Plant Manager, Eldon Waugh were all going to retire some time in August 1987.
We had a retirement party for Leroy Godfrey out in the country at Diana Brien’s house. A bunch of the electricians were there including Mark Meeks, who Leroy knew at the time was the one that was going to be laid off. Mark commented about that later when he was told that he was losing his job that Leroy had sat there and smiled at him while we were at the party. Mark knew Leroy didn’t like him, but hadn’t expected to be the one to go since everyone thought it would be Gary Wehunt, since he was the newest member in the shop.
I explained in the post, “The Passing of an Old School Power Plant Man — Leroy Godfrey” what Leroy’s management style was like. It was very top-down, if you know what I mean. It was like, “Because I told you so.” No need to explain anything. That was the world of Power Plant Management up to that point.
I think Corporate Headquarters realized that this needed to change in order for the company to compete in a world where electric companies could no longer count on the Corporation Commission to guarantee a sustainable electric rate or even a set number of customers. The world of electric power was changing rapidly and the company needed to move on from the mentality that it could be run like a “good ol’ boys” club.
It is easier to teach young dogs new tricks than older and crankier ones. It looked to me like this was a logical choice when looking back using hindsight. I think the company was making a bold move. I don’t think they really had much of a choice if they wanted to survive.
So, we had the main retirement party at the plant where people stood up and told stories about the old guys that were retiring. Nothing much happened there except the part where Leroy Godfrey’s daughter stood up and said that we just had to work with him, while she had to live with him… see the post about Leroy above for the full story about that.
Then the following Monday. I believe it was August 17, 1987, everyone was told to meet in the main break room for a meeting with our new management. That was when we were introduced to our new plant manager, Ron Kilman.
I remember a certain part of the meeting very well. Ron said something funny. It didn’t matter exactly what he said. I don’t even remember what it was. Probably something self-deprecating. I leaned over to Charles Foster, who had been my foreman for a while (on that day, it was officially Andy Tubbs). I said, “I didn’t know Plant Managers could tell jokes!”
Charles looked back at me and I raised my eyebrows and tilted my head while the corners of my mouth went down. — This was one of the signals I had learned while carpooling with Bud Schoonover when I needed to communicate with Dick Dale without saying anything out loud (see the post: Carpooling with Bud Schoonover“. This particular expression meant, “Maybe this won’t be such a bad thing.”
Ron Kilman remained the plant manager at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma for the next 7 years. The stories that I will post during this next year will all be at least partially from this time period. During this time, there were some decisions that Ron made that I applauded, and others that even he would admit he wished he hadn’t made.
All in all, I think that Ron has a good heart and that those times when he did make a rash decision, it was evident that he was falling back to his “management training” and not managing from his heart. Old School management training left a lot to be desired.
During the 7 years from 1987 to 1994, the power plant saw a lot of changes. Some I have alluded to already. Such as the move to computerize everything. The other was a total change in how management works. Or at least that was the attempt.
People were willing to step out of their regular day-to-day jobs and try new things that they thought would help the plant. Many of these things were successful. Some of them failed, but not so miserably as they would have if the earlier management had been around. The employees felt as if they had more of a say in how the plant ran instead of feeling like they were just a bunch of tools running around fixing things.
I have a quote from Ron Kilman that said it all one day after a catastrophe had occurred. It summed up his management style as opposed to his assistant manager, Ben Brandt. I will relay the exact story later, but for now I’ll just say that when Ben Brandt saw what happened, the first thing that he said was, “Who did this?” When Ron Kilman saw what had happened, the first thing he said was, “How can we prevent this from happening again?”
Ben’s approach was from the old school of thought. Blame and punish the culprit. Later when we were drastically changing the way process improvements took place, my favorite quote from Ben Brandt is, “I am the obstacle! We aren’t going to change because I say so.” We all had to agree. He was definitely the obstacle.
Ron’s approach was one more like a leader. “Let’s get the job done right.” Sure, he is human, so the decisions weren’t always perfect, but I think in general, he was leading where other people may have been dragging.
Well… I will say no more for now… I look forward to writing stories about this time period during this next year. I’m sure there are a lot of those at the plant just as eager to see how I portray the different events that took place during this time.