Tag Archives: Safety Belt

Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill

Originally Posted March 9, 2012.  I have added some pictures and slightly edited:

I had the feeling it would be an interesting day when the first thing that Stanley Elmore asked me when I sat down for our morning meeting was, “Kelvin, are you afraid of heights?”  Well, since before that day I hadn’t been afraid of heights, I told him I wasn’t.  I decided not to mention that my name was really “Kevin”, since I thought he was only calling me “Kelvin” as a joke.

Then Stanley, who liked most of all to joke around with people, started hinting through facial expressions of excitement (such as grinning real big and raising his eyebrows up to where his hair line used to be when he was younger) and by uttering sounds like “boy, well, yeah…. huh, I guess we’ll see” while shaking his head as if in disbelief.  He told me to get with Aubrey after the meeting because there was a job I needed to help him out with. (Ok.  I know.  Ending a terribly constructed sentence with a preposition).

Aubrey Cargill was our painter.  He worked out of the garage that I worked out of the last 3 years of working as a summer help.  There was a paint room in the back of the garage on the side where the carpenter, Fred Hesser built cabinets and other great works of art.

Fred was the best carpenter I have ever met, as well as one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known.  He wasn’t in the category of Power Plant man, as he didn’t involve himself in most of the power plant operations or maintenance, but to this day, Power Plant Men from all over Oklahoma can visit Sooner Plant on overhaul and admire the woodworking masterpieces created by Carpenter Fred many years earlier.

I had worked with Aubrey my first year as a summer help.  The garage hadn’t been built yet, and Aubrey had not been assigned as a painter, as both units were still under construction.  Aubrey was the same age as my father and in his mid-forties that first summer.

His favorite buddy was Ben Hutchinson.  Whereever one went, the other was not far away.  All during the first summer, the lake on the hill was still being filled by pumping water up from the Arkansas river.

Map of the Power Plant Lake

Map of the Power Plant Lake.  The power plant is on the northwest corner of the lake.  The Arkansas River is in the upper right corner of the map

Most of the last two weeks that summer I worked with Aubrey and Ben picking up driftwood along the dikes that were built on the lake to route the water from the discharge from the plant to the far side of the lake from where the water enters the plant to cool the condensers.  The idea is that the water has to flow all the way around the lake before it is used to cool the condenser again.  So, Ben and Aubrey took turns driving a big dump truck down the dike while I walked down one side of the dike around the water level and Aubrey or Ben walked down the other side, and we would toss wood up the dike into the dump truck.

A Ford Dump Truck

A Dump Truck

This was quite a throw, and often resulted in a big log being tossed up the dike just to hit the side of the dump truck creating a loud banging sound.  Anyway, when you consider that there are probably about 6 miles of dikes all together, it was quite a task to clean up all the driftwood that had accumulated in this man made lake.  After doing this for two weeks I learned the true meaning of the word “bursitis”.

After the morning meeting with Stanley Elmore I followed Aubrey into the carpenter shop, where he pointed to two buckets of paint that I was to carry, while he grabbed a canvas tool bag filled with large paint brushes and other painting tools and some white rope that looked like it had the seat of wooden swing on one end.  Aubrey nodded to Fred, and I understood by this that Fred had created the wooden swing that had four pieces of rope knotted through each of the corners of the seat and were connected to the main rope using some kind of small shackle.  When I asked Aubrey what that was, he told me that it is was a Boatswain Chair.  “Oh.” I think I said, “It looks like a swing.”

On the way to the boilers, we stopped by the tool room and I checked out a safety belt.  I could see Aubrey nodding at Bud Schoonover about my having to check out a safety belt, and what implication that had.  I of course preferred to think that my fellow employees would not purposely put me in harms way, so I went along acting as if I was oblivious to whatever fate awaited me.

We took the elevator on #1 Boiler to the 11th floor (which is actually about 22 stories up.  There are only 12 stops on the boiler elevator, but the building is really 25 stories to the very top.  So Power Plant men call the extra floors things like 8 1/2 when you get off the elevator where it says 8, and go up one flight of stairs.

Aubrey explained to me that we need to paint a drain pipe that is below us a couple of floors that goes down from there to just above floor 7 1/2 where it turns.  He said that he could paint the rest, but he needed my help to paint the pipe where it drops straight down, because there isn’t any way to reach it, except by dropping someone off the side of the boiler over a handrail and lowering them down to the pipe, and that turned out to be me.

He explained how the safety belt worked.  He said that I clip the lanyard in the ring at the top of the boatswain chair so that if I slip off the chair I wouldn’t fall all the way down, and then he could gradually lower me on down to the landing.

He didn’t explain to me at the time that the weight of my body free-falling three feet before coming to the end of the lanyard would have been a sufficient enough force to snap the white rope in half.  I guess he didn’t know about that.  But that was ok for me, because I didn’t know about it either — at the time.  We didn’t use Safety Harnesses at that time.  Just a belt around the waist.

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

So as I tied the canvas bag to the bottom of the chair, I saw Aubrey quickly wrap the rope around the handrail making some sort of half hitch knot.  I wasn’t too sure about that so I asked Aubrey where he learned to tie a knot like that and he told me in the Navy.  That was all I needed to hear.  As soon as he told me he learned knot tying in the Navy, I felt completely secure.  I figured if anyone knew the right way to tie a knot it’s someone in the Navy.

I clipped the lanyard in the shackle at the top of the boatswain chair and headed over the handrail.  I situated the chair to where I had my feet through it when I went over and the chair was up by my waist.  As I lowered myself down, I came to rest on the boatswain chair some 210 feet up from the ground.

It is always windy in this part of Oklahoma in the summer, and the wind was blowing that day, so, I began to spin around and float this way and that.  That continued until Aubrey had lowered me down to the pipe that I was going to paint and I was able to wrap my legs around it and wait for my head to stop spinning.

Then Aubrey lowered down another rope that had a bucket of paint tied to it.   Then I began my job of painting the pipe as Aubrey had hold of the rope and was slowly lowering me down.  Luckily Aubrey didn’t have to sneeze, or wasn’t chased by a wasp while he was doing this.  Thinking about that, I kept my legs wrapped around the pipe pretty tight just in case Aubrey had a heart attack or something.

The pipe really did need painting.  So, I knew this wasn’t completely just a joke to toss me out on a swing in the middle of the air hanging onto a rope with one hand while attempting to paint a pipe.  It had the red primer on it that most of the piping had before it was painted so it looked out of place with all the other silver pipes, but I couldn’t help thinking about Jerry Lewis in the Movie, “Who’s Minding the Store” where Jerry Lewis is told to paint the globe on the end of a flagpole that is located out the window on a top floor of the building, and he begins by trying to climb out on the flagpole with a bucket of paint in his mouth with little success.  But like Jerry, I figured it had to be done, so I just went ahead and did it.

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Fortunately, I found out right away that I wasn’t afraid of heights, even at this height and under these conditions.  So, instead of fainting away, I just painted away and finally ended up on floor 7  1/2 which is right next to the Tripper Gallery.  I think I finished this a little after morning break but I don’t think Aubrey wanted to stop for break just to lower me down and then have to start from the top again lowering me all the way down one more time.

This brings me to another point.  Notice where I landed.  Right next to the Tripper Gallery.  Power Plant ingenuity has a way of naming parts of the plant with interesting names.  The first time I heard that we were going to the tripper gallery to shovel coal, I half expected to see paintings lining the walls.  It sounded like such a nice place to visit…. “Tripper Gallery”.  It sort of rolls off your tongue.  Especially if you try saying it with a French accent.

The Tripper Gallery is neither eloquent nor French.  It is where the coal from the coal yard is dumped into the Coal Silos just above the Bowl Mills.  — Yes.  Bowl Mills.  I know.  It sounds like a breakfast cereal.  Almost like Malt-O-Meal in a bowl.

So, the Tripper Gallery is a long narrow room (hence the word Gallery), and there are two machines called Trippers that travels from one silo to the next dumping coal from the conveyor belt down into the coal silo, and when the silo is full, a switch is triggered (or tripped) which tells the machine to go to the next silo.  Since the switch “trips” and tells the machine to move, they call the machine the “Tripper”.

 

Here is a picture of a clean tripper gallery I found on Google Images

Here is a picture of a clean tripper gallery transporting grain or something other than coal I found on Google Images

I know.  That last paragraph didn’t have anything to do with painting the drain pipe.  But I thought since I mentioned the Tripper Gallery, I might as well explain what it is.  Anyway, when we returned to the shop I watched as Stanley Elmore went over to Aubrey to see how I did when I found out he was going to drop me over the side of the boiler in a wooden chair.  I could see that Aubrey gave him a good report because Stanley looked a little disappointed that this Power Plant Joke (even though essential), hadn’t resulted in visibly shaking me up.

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Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012.  Added a picture of Larry Riley:

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.

I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy.  You can see the house on the hill in the background

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a life time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  Each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Bif Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

Below the Economizer and above the air preheater in the diagram above.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was  probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.

As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Emergency Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp).  Anyway, I could go on and on.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back online in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time because of the heat.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a tee shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 160 degrees.  I was not wearing my  hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

Anyway, I threw the lanyard for my safety belt around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  Breathing slowly gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon-based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I tried tightening them, but I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out all the time.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross.  He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.

I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.

Comments from the previous repost:

  1. Jonathan Caswell August 12, 2014

    GLAD that you made it….even if the mallet didn’t!!!

    I can dig it. When I was hired for Security at one post…I really looked forward to working with and for that particular Supervisor who’d hired me. No such luck–she was gone in a month or two. THAT hurt! 🙂

  2. Ron Kilman August 13, 2014

    If the environment is too hot for a respirator to function properly in, it’s too hot for people to work in (if safety is actually job #1). I saw too many examples of “Get the Unit Back On is Job #1″.

 

Why Do Power Plant Men always Lose the Things they Love the Most?

Originally posted November 9, 2013:

One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards. My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service. There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.

A Circuit board with Electronic components

A Circuit board with Electronic components

I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs. Like I said. It was really fun.

I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having. Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing. He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.

Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job. Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application. I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about. He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.

I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….

I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School. He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri. We immediately became friends when we met. We both enjoyed the same things. The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.

I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games. So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me. We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.

One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.

Risk Board Game

Risk Board Game

Jesse was beating us so bad that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn. Then his mother called us for dinner.

Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice. When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal. Chili. So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.

After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home. On the way home my brother started to chuckle. I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” in his head. It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.

So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say. We would just yell out, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!” It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.

When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory. I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!!”

Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm. He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived. The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?” When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.” When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was. I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse! You’re my friend!”

So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine. It’s poetry to my ears. Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.

End of Side Story….

So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most? Well… because all good things had to come to an end. Electronic circuit boards included.

When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it. They just aren’t used much anymore. Everything has gone digital. Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips. It just isn’t quite the same.

So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant. By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors. We were programming chips. Now the circuit boards looked more like this:

A digital Circuit Board

A digital Circuit Board

Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using. We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor. We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing. When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.

A heat gun like this

A heat gun like this

There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit… Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.

Well. Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun. We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.

A bearing heater

A bearing heater

The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature. No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit. Oh well….

When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor. The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant. They were made from genuine Asbestos. I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves. Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing. You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well… They were taken away. Not deemed safe for use by humans.

In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”. That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.

Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator. Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface. But…. I wouldn’t know about that. I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.

Old Crank Telephone

Old Crank Telephone

A manual crank megger was similar….

Megger with a Crank

Megger with a Crank

Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing. We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places. Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards. I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.

An induction Bearing Heater

An induction Bearing Heater

This heater didn’t even get hot. The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.

The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.

As for the volt-ohm meters. Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter. I dare say. It was a step up from the old Simpson meter. A lot safer also:

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

And the Safety belt? Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body. So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

So… you see… What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs. Real Power Plant Men I mean. So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss. They lose those things they hold dear. Yeah. They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had. I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.

So. That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most. Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing. Power plant Men just change right along with it. But sometimes it hurts a little

Comments from original post:

  1. Ron November 9, 2013

    Great story, Kevin.
    When I transferred to the Seminole Plant, one of my jobs was to do the “daily sheets”. For each generating unit I calculated total MW, steam flow, gas burned, average temperatures and pressures, etc. We were privileged to have the first non-mechanical calculators in an OG&E Power Plant. The old calculators (I used at Mustang and Horseshoe Lake) were mechanical – motors, gears, shafts, levers, dials, and more gears. They made cool sounds when you hit the “Total” key. They even had a unique smell too. We paid $900 for each Monroe calculator in 1970. They didn’t make any noises. They didn’t give off any scent, either. But they were much faster, smaller, and lighter. I missed the old mechanicals. I still have the Post slide rule I used at OU too.

  2. Eve MEL Thomson November 9, 2013

    Sadly, change is progress. I used a blackboard, now it’s a white board!

  3. Wendell A. Brown November 11, 2013

    I loved your post, change comes in our lives but hopefully in our lives we blossom and become better for it, and always cherish the memories. I smiled a thousand times while reading it and will always remember “Jessie come eat your chili! Blessings!

  4. Jack Curtis November 13, 2013

    Change, yes…but it’s more than that. Old time craftsmen involved a lot of themselves in their work. I remember men who grabbed a wire to determine the voltage on it. A lot of work was done by feel, a sort of extra sense that craftsmen developed on the job. Projects came out right because they knew what was intended and how to make it happen that way. They were an important link in the chain of production.

    Now so much work is untouched by human hands; merely moved along by button-pushers who have replaced true craftsmen. An old time carpenter or electrician could do things today’s replacements never dream of. Cabinet makers and machinists are gone, replaced by machine operators. Much is no doubt gained, but so much is lost…

    An average man in those days, was pretty competent with his hands, expected to have a list of skills and competencies…and that’s gone, too.

 

Why Do Power Plant Men always Lose the Things they Love the Most?

Originally posted November 9, 2013:

One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards. My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service. There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.

A Circuit board with Electronic components

A Circuit board with Electronic components

I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs. Like I said. It was really fun.

I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having. Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing. He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.

Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job. Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application. I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about. He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.

I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….

I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School. He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri. We immediately became friends when we met. We both enjoyed the same things. The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.

I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games. So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me. We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.

One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.

Risk Board Game

Risk Board Game

Jesse was beating us so bad that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn. Then his mother called us for dinner.

Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice. When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal. Chili. So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.

After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home. On the way home my brother started to chuckle. I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” in his head. It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.

So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say. We would just yell out, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!” It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.

When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory. I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!!!”

Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm. He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived. The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?” When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.” When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was. I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse! You’re my friend!”

So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse! Come get your Chili!” No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine. It’s poetry to my ears. Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.

End of Side Story….

So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most? Well… because all good things had to come to an end. Electronic circuit boards included.

When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it. They just aren’t used much anymore. Everything has gone digital. Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips. It just isn’t quite the same.

So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant. By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors. We were programming chips. Now the circuit boards looked more like this:

A digital Circuit Board

A digital Circuit Board

Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using. We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor. We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing. When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.

A heat gun like this

A heat gun like this

There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit… Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.

Well. Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun. We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.

A bearing heater

A bearing heater

The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature. No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit. Oh well….

When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor. The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant. They were made from genuine Asbestos. I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves. Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing. You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well… They were taken away. Not deemed safe for use by humans.

In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”. That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.

Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator. Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface. But…. I wouldn’t know about that. I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.

Old Crank Telephone

Old Crank Telephone

A manual crank megger was similar….

Megger with a Crank

Megger with a Crank

Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing. We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places. Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards. I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.

An induction Bearing Heater

An induction Bearing Heater

This heater didn’t even get hot. The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.

The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.

As for the volt-ohm meters. Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter. I dare say. It was a step up from the old Simpson meter. A lot safer also:

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

And the Safety belt? Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body. So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

So… you see… What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs. Real Power Plant Men I mean. So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss. They lose those things they hold dear. Yeah. They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had. I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.

So. That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most. Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing. Power plant Men just change right along with it. But sometimes it hurts a littl

Comments from original post:

  1. Ron November 9, 2013

    Great story, Kevin.
    When I transferred to the Seminole Plant, one of my jobs was to do the “daily sheets”. For each generating unit I calculated total MW, steam flow, gas burned, average temperatures and pressures, etc. We were privileged to have the first non-mechanical calculators in an OG&E Power Plant. The old calculators (I used at Mustang and Horseshoe Lake) were mechanical – motors, gears, shafts, levers, dials, and more gears. They made cool sounds when you hit the “Total” key. They even had a unique smell too. We paid $900 for each Monroe calculator in 1970. They didn’t make any noises. They didn’t give off any scent, either. But they were much faster, smaller, and lighter. I missed the old mechanicals. I still have the Post slide rule I used at OU too.

  2. Eve MEL Thomson November 9, 2013

    Sadly, change is progress. I used a blackboard, now it’s a white board!

  3. Wendell A. Brown November 11, 2013

    I loved your post, change comes in our lives but hopefully in our lives we blossom and become better for it, and always cherish the memories. I smiled a thousand times while reading it and will always remember “Jessie come eat your chili! Blessings!

  4. Jack Curtis November 13, 2013

    Change, yes…but it’s more than that. Old time craftsmen involved a lot of themselves in their work. I remember men who grabbed a wire to determine the voltage on it. A lot of work was done by feel, a sort of extra sense that craftsmen developed on the job. Projects came out right because they knew what was intended and how to make it happen that way. They were an important link in the chain of production.

    Now so much work is untouched by human hands; merely moved along by button-pushers who have replaced true craftsmen. An old time carpenter or electrician could do things today’s replacements never dream of. Cabinet makers and machinists are gone, replaced by machine operators. Much is no doubt gained, but so much is lost…

    An average man in those days, was pretty competent with his hands, expected to have a list of skills and competencies…and that’s gone, too.

 

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012.  Added a picture of Larry Riley:

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.

I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him.  He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy.  You can see the house on the hill in the background

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a life time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  Each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Bif Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

Below the Economizer and above the air preheater in the diagram above.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was  probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.

As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp).  Anyway, I could go on and on.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back online in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time because of the heat.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a tee shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 150 degrees.  I was not wearing my  hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

Anyway, I threw the lanyard for my safety belt around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  Breathing slowly gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon-based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I tried tightening them, but I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out all the time.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross.  He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.

I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.

Comments from the previous repost:

  1. Jonathan Caswell August 12, 2014

    GLAD that you made it….even if the mallet didn’t!!!

    I can dig it. When I was hired for Security at one post…I really looked forward to working with and for that particular Supervisor who’d hired me. No such luck–she was gone in a month or two. THAT hurt! 🙂

  2. Ron Kilman August 13, 2014

    If the environment is too hot for a respirator to function properly in, it’s too hot for people to work in (if safety is actually job #1). I saw too many examples of “Get the Unit Back On is Job #1″.

 

Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill

Originally Posted March 9, 2012.  I have added some pictures and slightly edited:

I had the feeling it would be an interesting day when the first thing that Stanley Elmore asked me when I sat down for our morning meeting was, “Kevin, are you afraid of heights?”  Well, since before that day I hadn’t been afraid of heights, I told him I wasn’t.  Then Stanley, who liked most of all to joke around with people, started hinting through facial expressions of excitement (such as grinning real big and raising his eyebrows up to where his hair line used to be when he was younger) and by uttering sounds like “boy, well, yeah…. huh, I guess we’ll see” while shaking his head as if in disbelief.  He told me to get with Aubrey after the meeting because there was a job I needed to help him out with.

Aubrey Cargill was our painter.  He worked out of the garage that I worked out of the last 3 years of working as a summer help.  There was a paint room in the back of the garage on the side where the carpenter, Fred Hesser built cabinets and other great works of art.  He was the best carpenter I have ever met, as well as one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known.  He wasn’t in the category of Power Plant man, as he didn’t involve himself in most of the power plant operations or maintenance, but to this day, Power Plant Men from all over Oklahoma can visit Sooner Plant on overhaul and admire the woodworking masterpieces created by Carpenter Fred many years earlier.

I had worked with Aubrey my first year as a summer help.  The garage hadn’t been built yet, and Aubrey had not been assigned as a painter, as both units were still under construction.  Aubrey was the same age as my father and in his mid-forties that first summer.  His favorite buddy was Ben Hutchinson.  Whereever one went, the other was not far away.  All during the first summer, the lake on the hill was still being filled by pumping water up from the Arkansas river.

Map of the Power Plant Lake

Map of the Power Plant Lake.  The power plant is on the northwest corner of the lake.  The Arkansas River is in the upper right corner of the map

Most of the last two weeks that summer I worked with Aubrey and Ben picking up driftwood along the dikes that were built on the lake to route the water from the discharge from the plant to the far side of the lake from where the water enters the plant to cool the condensers.  The idea is that the water has to flow all the way around the lake before it is used to cool the condenser again.  So, Ben and Aubrey took turns driving a big dump truck down the dike while I walked down one side of the dike around the water level and Aubrey or Ben walked down the other side, and we would toss wood up the dike into the dump truck.

A Ford Dump Truck

A Dump Truck

This was quite a throw, and often resulted in a big log being tossed up the dike just to hit the side of the dump truck creating a loud banging sound.  Anyway, when you consider that there are probably about 6 miles of dikes all together, it was quite a task to clean up all the driftwood that had accumulated in this man made lake.  After doing this for two weeks I learned the true meaning of the word “bursitis”.

After the morning meeting with Stanley Elmore I followed Aubrey into the carpenter shop, where he pointed to two buckets of paint that I was to carry, while he grabbed a canvas tool bag filled with large paint brushes and other painting tools and some white rope that looked like it had the seat of wooden swing on one end.  Aubrey nodded to Fred, and I understood by this that Fred had created the wooden swing that had four pieces of rope knotted through each of the corners of the seat and were connected to the main rope using some kind of small shackle.  When I asked Aubrey what that was, he told me that it is was a Boatswain Chair.  “Oh.” I think I said, “It looks like a swing.”

On the way to the boilers, we stopped by the tool room and I checked out a safety belt.  I could see Aubrey nodding at Bud Schoonover about my having to check out a safety belt, and what implication that had.  I of course preferred to think that my fellow employees would not purposely put me in harms way, so I went along acting as if I was oblivious to whatever fate awaited me.

We took the elevator on #1 Boiler to the 11th floor (which is actually about 22 stories up.  There are only 12 stops on the boiler elevator, but the building is really 25 stories to the very top.  So Power Plant men call the extra floors things like 8 1/2 when you get off the elevator where it says 8, and go up one flight of stairs.

Aubrey explained to me that we need to paint a drain pipe that is below us a couple of floors that goes down from there to just above floor 7 1/2 where it turns.  He said that he could paint the rest, but he needed my help to paint the pipe where it drops straight down, because there isn’t any way to reach it, except by dropping someone off the side of the boiler over a handrail and lowering them down to the pipe, and that turned out to be me.

He explained how the safety belt worked.  He said that I clip the lanyard in the ring at the top of the boatswain chair so that if I slip off the chair I wouldn’t fall all the way down, and then he could gradually lower me on down to the landing.  he didn’t explain to me at the time that the weight of my body free-falling three feet before coming to the end of the lanyard would have been a sufficient enough force to snap the white rope in half.  I guess he didn’t know about that.  But that was ok for me, because I didn’t know about it either — at the time.  We didn’t use Safety Harnesses at that time.  Just a belt around the waist.

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

So as I tied the canvas bag to the bottom of the chair, I saw Aubrey quickly wrap the rope around the handrail making some sort of half hitch knot.  I wasn’t too sure about that so I asked Aubrey where he learned to tie a knot like that and he told me in the Navy.  That was all I needed to hear.  As soon as he told me he learned knot tying in the Navy, I felt completely secure.  I figured if anyone knew the right way to tie a knot it’s someone in the Navy.

I clipped the lanyard in the shackle at the top of the boatswain chair and headed over the handrail.  I situated the chair to where I had my feet through it when I went over and the chair was up by my waist.  As I lowered myself down, I came to rest on the boatswain chair some 210 feet up from the ground.

It is always windy in this part of Oklahoma in the summer, and the wind was blowing that day, so, I began to spin around and float this way and that.  That continued until Aubrey had lowered me down to the pipe that I was going to paint and I was able to wrap my legs around it and wait for my head to stop spinning.

Then Aubrey lowered down another rope that had a bucket of paint tied to it.   Then I began my job of painting the pipe as Aubrey had hold of the rope and was slowly lowering me down.  Luckily Aubrey didn’t have to sneeze, or wasn’t chased by a wasp while he was doing this.  Thinking about that, I kept my legs wrapped around the pipe pretty tight just in case Aubrey had a heart attack or something.

The pipe really did need painting.  So, I knew this wasn’t completely just a joke to toss me out on a swing in the middle of the air hanging onto a rope with one hand while attempting to paint a pipe.  It had the red primer on it that most of the piping had before it was painted so it looked out of place with all the other silver pipes, but I couldn’t help thinking about Jerry Lewis in the Movie, “Who’s Minding the Store” where Jerry Lewis is told to paint the globe on the end of a flagpole that is located out the window on a top floor of the building, and he begins by trying to climb out on the flagpole with a bucket of paint in his mouth with little success.  But like Jerry, I figured it had to be done, so I just went ahead and did it.

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Fortunately, I found out right away that I wasn’t afraid of heights, even at this height and under these conditions.  So, instead of fainting away, I just painted away and finally ended up on floor 7  1/2 which is right next to the Tripper Gallery.  I think I finished this a little after morning break but I don’t think Aubrey wanted to stop for break just to lower me down and then have to start from the top again lowering me all the way down one more time.

This brings me to another point.  Notice where I landed.  Right next to the Tripper Gallery.  Power Plant ingenuity has a way of naming parts of the plant with interesting names.  The first time I heard that we were going to the tripper gallery to shovel coal, I half expected to see paintings lining the walls.  It sounded like such a nice place to visit…. “Tripper Gallery”.  It sort of rolls off your tongue.  Especially if you try saying it with a French accent.

The Tripper Gallery is neither eloquent nor French.  It is where the coal from the coal yard is dumped into the Coal Silos just above the Bowl Mills.  — Yes.  Bowl Mills.  I know.  It sounds like a breakfast cereal.  Almost like Malt-O-Meal in a bowl.  So, the Tripper Gallery is a long narrow room (hence the word Gallery), and there are two machines called Trippers that travels from one silo to the next dumping coal from the conveyor belt down into the coal silo, and when the silo is full, a switch is triggered (or tripped) which tells the machine to go to the next silo.  Since the switch “trips” and tells the machine to move, they call the machine the “Tripper”.

 

Here is a picture of a clean tripper gallery I found on Google Images

Here is a picture of a clean tripper gallery transporting grain or something other than coal I found on Google Images

I know.  That last paragraph didn’t have anything to do with painting the drain pipe.  But I thought since I mentioned the Tripper Gallery, I might as well explain what it is.  Anyway, when we returned to the shop I watched as Stanley Elmore went over to Aubrey to see how I did when I found out he was going to drop me over the side of the boiler in a wooden chair.  I could see that Aubrey gave him a good report because Stanley looked a little disappointed that this Power Plant Joke (even though essential), hadn’t resulted in visibly shaking me up.

Why Do Power Plant Men always Lose the Things they Love the Most? — Repost

Originally posted November 9, 2013:

One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards.  My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service.  There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.

A Circuit board with Electronic components

A Circuit board with Electronic components

I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs.  Like I said.  It was really fun.

I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having.  Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing.  He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.

Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job.  Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application.  I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about.  He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.

I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….

I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School.  He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri.  We immediately became friends when we met.  We both enjoyed the same things.  The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.

I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games.  So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me.  We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.

One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.

Risk Board Game

Risk Board Game

Jesse was beating us so bad that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn.  Then his mother called us for dinner.

Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice.  When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal.  Chili.  So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!”  I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.

After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home.  On the way home my brother started to chuckle.  I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!” in his head.  It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.

So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say.  We would just yell out, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!!”  It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.

When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory.  I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!!!”

Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm.  He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived.  The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?”  When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.”   When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was.  I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse!  You’re my friend!”

So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!”  No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine.  It’s poetry to my ears.  Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.

End of Side Story….

So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most?  Well… because all good things had to come to an end.  Electronic circuit boards included.

When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it.  They just aren’t used much anymore.  Everything has gone digital.  Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips.  It just isn’t quite the same.

So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant.  By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors.  We were programming chips.  Now the circuit boards looked more like this:

A digital Circuit Board

A digital Circuit Board

Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using.  We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor.  We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing.  When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.

A heat gun like this

A heat gun like this

There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit…  Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.

Well.  Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun.  We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.

A bearing heater

A bearing heater

The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature.  No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit.  Oh well….

When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor.  The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant.  They were made from genuine Asbestos.  I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves.  Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing.  You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well…  They were taken away.  Not deemed safe for use by humans.

In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”.  That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.

Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator.  Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface.   But…. I wouldn’t know about that.  I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.

Old Crank Telephone

Old Crank Telephone

A manual crank megger was similar….

Megger with a Crank

Megger with a Crank

Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing.  We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places.  Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards.  I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.

An induction Bearing Heater

An induction Bearing Heater

This heater didn’t even get hot.  The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.

The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.

As for the volt-ohm meters.  Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter.  I dare say.  It was a step up from the old Simpson meter.  A lot safer also:

Like this.  Ok.  So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

And the Safety belt?  Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body.  So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

So… you see…  What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs.  Real Power Plant Men I mean.  So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss.  They lose those things they hold dear.  Yeah.  They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had.  I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.

So.  That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most.  Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing.  Power plant Men just change right along with it.  But sometimes it hurts a littl

Comments from original post:

  1. Ron   November 9, 2013

    Great story, Kevin.
    When I transferred to the Seminole Plant, one of my jobs was to do the “daily sheets”. For each generating unit I calculated total MW, steam flow, gas burned, average temperatures and pressures, etc. We were privileged to have the first non-mechanical calculators in an OG&E Power Plant. The old calculators (I used at Mustang and Horseshoe Lake) were mechanical – motors, gears, shafts, levers, dials, and more gears. They made cool sounds when you hit the “Total” key. They even had a unique smell too. We paid $900 for each Monroe calculator in 1970. They didn’t make any noises. They didn’t give off any scent, either. But they were much faster, smaller, and lighter. I missed the old mechanicals. I still have the Post slide rule I used at OU too.

  2. Eve MEL Thomson November 9, 2013

    Sadly, change is progress. I used a blackboard, now it’s a white board!

  3. Wendell A. Brown November 11, 2013

    I loved your post, change comes in our lives but hopefully in our lives we blossom and become better for it, and always cherish the memories. I smiled a thousand times while reading it and will always remember “Jessie come eat your chili! Blessings!

  4. Jack Curtis November 13, 2013

    Change, yes…but it’s more than that. Old time craftsmen involved a lot of themselves in their work. I remember men who grabbed a wire to determine the voltage on it. A lot of work was done by feel, a sort of extra sense that craftsmen developed on the job. Projects came out right because they knew what was intended and how to make it happen that way. They were an important link in the chain of production.

    Now so much work is untouched by human hands; merely moved along by button-pushers who have replaced true craftsmen. An old time carpenter or electrician could do things today’s replacements never dream of. Cabinet makers and machinists are gone, replaced by machine operators. Much is no doubt gained, but so much is lost…

    An average man in those days, was pretty competent with his hands, expected to have a list of skills and competencies…and that’s gone, too.

 

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew — Repost

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012.  Added a picture of Larry Riley:

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.  I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him.  He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy.  You can see the house on the hill in the background

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a live time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  So, each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Bif Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was  probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.  As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp).  Anyway, I could go on and on.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back on in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a t-shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 150 degrees.  I was not wearing my  hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

Anyway, I threw my lanyard around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  It gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out all the time.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross.  He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.  I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.

Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill — Repost

Originally Posted March 9, 2012.  I have added some pictures and slightly edited:

I had the feeling it would be an interesting day when the first thing that Stanley Elmore asked me when I sat down for our morning meeting was, “Kevin, are you afraid of heights?”  Well, since before that day I hadn’t been afraid of heights, I told him I wasn’t.  Then Stanley, who liked most of all to joke around with people, started hinting through facial expressions of excitement (such as grinning real big and raising his eyebrows up to where his hair line used to be when he was younger) and by uttering sounds like “boy, well, yeah…. huh, I guess we’ll see” while shaking his head as if in disbelief.  He told me to get with Aubrey after the meeting because there was a job I needed to help him out with.

Aubrey Cargill was our painter.  He worked out of the garage that I worked out of the last 3 years of working as a summer help.  There was a paint room in the back of the garage on the side where the carpenter, Fred Hesser built cabinets and other great works of art.  He was the best carpenter I have ever met, as well as one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known.  He wasn’t in the category of Power Plant man, as he didn’t involve himself in most of the power plant operations or maintenance, but to this day, Power Plant Men from all over Oklahoma can visit Sooner Plant on overhaul and admire the woodworking masterpieces created by Carpenter Fred many years earlier.

I had worked with Aubrey my first year as a summer help.  The garage hadn’t been built yet, and Aubrey had not been assigned as a painter, as both units were still under construction.  Aubrey was the same age as my father and in his mid-forties that first summer.  His favorite buddy was Ben Hutchinson.  Whereever one went, the other was not far away.  All during the first summer, the lake on the hill was still being filled by pumping water up from the Arkansas river.

Most of the last two weeks that summer I worked with Aubrey and Ben picking up driftwood along the dikes that were built on the lake to route the water from the discharge from the plant to the far side of the lake from where the water enters the plant to cool the condensers.  The idea is that the water has to flow all the way around the lake before it is used to cool the condenser again.  So, Ben and Aubrey took turns driving a big dump truck down the dike while I walked down one side of the dike around the water level and Aubrey or Ben walked down the other side, and we would toss wood up the dike into the dump truck.

A Ford Dump Truck

A Dump Truck

This was quite a throw, and often resulted in a big log being tossed up the dike just to hit the side of the dump truck creating a loud banging sound.  Anyway, when you consider that there are probably about 6 miles of dikes all together, it was quite a task to clean up all the driftwood that had accumulated in this man made lake.  After doing this for two weeks I learned the true meaning of the word “bursitis”.

After the morning meeting with Stanley Elmore I followed Aubrey into the carpenter shop, where he pointed to two buckets of paint that I was to carry, while he grabbed a canvas bag filled with large paint brushes and other painting tools and some white rope that looked like it had the seat of wooden swing on one end.  Aubrey nodded to Fred, and I understood by this that Fred had created the wooden swing that had four pieces of rope knotted through each of the corners of the seat and were connected to the main rope using some kind of small shackle.  When I asked Aubrey what that was, he told me that it is was a Boatswain Chair.  “Oh.” I think I said, “It looks like a swing.”

On the way to the boilers, we stopped by the tool room and I checked out a safety belt.  I could see Aubrey nodding at Bud Schoonover about my having to check out a safety belt, and what implication that had.  I of course preferred to think that my fellow employees would not purposely put me in harms way, so I went along acting as if I was oblivious to whatever fate awaited me.

We took the elevator on #1 Boiler to the 11th floor (which is actually about 22 stories up.  There are only 12 stops on the boiler elevator, but the building is really 25 stories to the very top.  So Power Plant men call the extra floors things like 8 1/2 when you get off the elevator where it says 8, and go up one flight of stairs.

Aubrey explained to me that we need to paint a drain pipe that is below us a couple of floors that goes down from there to just above floor 7 1/2 where it turns.  He said that he could paint the rest, but he needed my help to paint the pipe where it drops straight down, because there isn’t any way to reach it, except by dropping someone off the side of the boiler over a handrail and lowering them down to the pipe, and that turned out to be me.

He explained how the safety belt worked.  He said that I clip the lanyard in the ring at the top of the boatswain chair so that if I slip off the chair I wouldn’t fall all the way down, and then he could gradually lower me on down to the landing.  he didn’t explain to me at the time that the weight of my body free-falling three feet before coming to the end of the lanyard would have been a sufficient enough force to snap the white rope in half.  I guess he didn’t know about that.  But that was ok for me, because I didn’t know about it either — at the time.  We didn’t use Safety Harnesses at that time.  Just a belt around the waist.

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

A Safety Belt like this, only skinnier without all the extra padding

So as I tied the canvas bag to the bottom of the chair, I saw Aubrey quickly wrap the rope around the handrail making some sort of half hitch knot.  I wasn’t too sure about that so I asked Aubrey where he learned to tie a knot like that and he told me in the Navy.  That was all I needed to hear.  As soon as he told me he learned knot tying in the Navy, I felt completely secure.  I figured if anyone knew the right way to tie a knot it’s someone in the Navy.

I clipped the lanyard in the shackle at the top of the boatswain chair and headed over the handrail.  I situated the chair to where I had my feet through it when I went over and the chair was up by my waist.  As I lowered myself down, I came to rest on the boatswain chair some 210 feet up from the ground.

It is always windy in this part of Oklahoma in the summer, and the wind was blowing that day, so, I began to spin around and float this way and that.  That continued until Aubrey had lowered me down to the pipe that I was going to paint and I was able to wrap my legs around it and wait for my head to stop spinning.

Then Aubrey lowered down another rope that had a bucket of paint tied to it.   Then I began my job of painting the pipe as Aubrey had hold of the rope and was slowly lowering me down.  Luckily Aubrey didn’t have to sneeze, or wasn’t chased by a wasp while he was doing this.  Thinking about that, I kept my legs wrapped around the pipe pretty tight just in case Aubrey had a heart attack or something.

The pipe really did need painting.  So, I knew this wasn’t completely just a joke to toss me out on a swing in the middle of the air hanging onto a rope with one hand while attempting to paint a pipe.  It had the red primer on it that most of the piping had before it was painted so it looked out of place with all the other silver pipes, but I couldn’t help thinking about Jerry Lewis in the Movie, “Who’s Minding the Store” where Jerry Lewis is told to paint the globe on the end of a flagpole that is located out the window on a top floor of the building, and he begins by trying to climb out on the flagpole with a bucket of paint in his mouth with little success.  But like Jerry, I figured it had to be done, so I just went ahead and did it.

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Jerry Lewis tasked with painting the gold ball on the end of a flag pole on the top floor of a department store

Fortunately, I found out right away that I wasn’t afraid of heights, even at this height and under these conditions.  So, instead of fainting away, I just painted away and finally ended up on floor 7  1/2 which is right next to the Tripper Gallery.  I think I finished this a little after morning break but I don’t think Aubrey wanted to stop for break just to lower me down and then have to start from the top again lowering me all the way down one more time.

This brings me to another point.  Notice where I landed.  Right next to the Tripper Gallery.  Power Plant ingenuity has a way of naming parts of the plant with interesting names.  The first time I heard that we were going to the tripper gallery to shovel coal, I half expected to see paintings lining the walls.  It sounded like such a nice place to visit…. “Tripper Gallery”.  It sort of rolls off your tongue.  Especially if you try saying it with a French accent.

The Tripper Gallery is neither eloquent nor French.  It is where the coal from the coal yard is dumped into the Coal Silos just above the Bowl Mills.  — Yes.  Bowl Mills.  I know.  It sounds like a breakfast cereal.  Almost like Malt-O-Meal in a bowl.  So, the Tripper Gallery is a long narrow room (hence the word Gallery), and there are two machines called Trippers that travels from one silo to the next dumping coal from the conveyor belt down into the coal silo, and when the silo is full, a switch is triggered (or tripped) which tells the machine to go to the next silo.  Since the switch “trips” and tells the machine to move, they call the machine the “Tripper”.

I know.  That last paragraph didn’t have anything to do with painting the drain pipe.  But I thought since I mentioned the Tripper Gallery, I might as well explain what it is.  Anyway, when we returned to the shop I watched as Stanley Elmore went over to Aubrey to see how I did when I found out he was going to drop me over the side of the boiler in a wooden chair.  I could see that Aubrey gave him a good report because Stanley looked a little disappointed that this Power Plant Joke (even though essential), hadn’t resulted in visibly shaking me up.

Why Do Power Plant Men always Lose the Things they Love the Most?

One of the things I loved the most about being an electrician at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was that I spent a good deal of time troubleshooting and fixing Electronic Circuit boards.  My Mentor Bill Rivers had taught me the fine art of repairing precipitator circuit boards to the point where I was very comfortable taking a board with burned out circuits and rebuilding it piece at a time until it worked well enough to be put back into service.  There is something comforting about fixing electronic circuit boards.

A Circuit board with Electronic components

A Circuit board with Electronic components

I had even built a little test box out of a proximity switch on a Gaitronics phone receiver hook where I could plug a large Operational Amplifier into it and turn a little knob to test it, where it would light up little red LEDs.  Like I said.  It was really fun.

I had told my friend from High School, Jesse Cheng, who was now a doctor just graduating from Harvard with his Masters in Public Health how much fun I was having.  Even though he was a medical doctor with an Engineering degree from Yale, he wished that he could do what I was doing.  He even applied for an Engineering job at our plant so that he could at least come down to the electric shop where I would let him help me troubleshoot and repair all kinds of electronic circuit boards.

Unfortunately, he was overqualified for the job.  Louise Gates asked me about him, since he had listed me as a reference on the job application.  I explained to her that even though he was a Medical Doctor, what he really wanted to do was work in a power plant with the great bunch of people I had told him about.  He would easily have given up his career to be blessed by the presence of such great Power Plant Men.

I will tell a side story about my Friend Jesse, before I proceed with the painful loss of those things that Power Plant Men love….

I met Jesse when I was a sophomore in High School.  He was the student body president when I arrived at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri.  We immediately became friends when we met.  We both enjoyed the same things.  The main thing was playing games, or solving puzzles.

I quickly learned that Jesse loved playing all kinds of games.  So, when I would go over to his house, we would usually go down in the basement where he had a new game waiting for me.  We would sit down there and play games until his mother would call us for dinner.

One day my brother came with me and we went down in the basement to play the game of Risk.

Risk Board Game

Risk Board Game

Jesse was beating us so bad that after the 3rd move, we joined forces only to have Jesse wipe us off of the map on the 4th turn.  Then his mother called us for dinner.

Jesse’s mother was a small Chinese lady with a meek voice.  When Jesse had guests over, she would cook his favorite meal.  Chili.  So, when it was time for dinner, she would call down to us from the top of the basement stairs, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!”  I had heard that call to action many times, and I had obediently left whatever we were playing to go eat supper.

After we had finished dinner and talked with Jesse for a while, my brother and I left to go home.  On the way home my brother started to chuckle.  I asked him why, and he responded that he could still hear Jesse’s mother calling “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!” in his head.  It sounded funny to hear the small Asian voice calling to Jesse to come get his Chili.

So, that became a catch phrase for when you wanted to holler at someone, but didn’t have anything particular to say.  We would just yell out, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!!”  It always brought a smile to the faces of anyone who knew the story, and a confused look on the faces of any bystanders.

When I went to Columbia, Missouri to the University of Missouri, I told this story to the people that lived around me in Mark Twain Dormitory.  I would smile when I would be heading back to the dorm after class and someone from a block away would spy me from their dorm window and would yell at the top of their lungs, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!!!”

Jesse was in town one day shortly after the Christmas break and came to visit me in the dorm.  He walked off the elevator looking for the room where I lived.  The Resident Assistant saw him and immediately asked him, “Are you Jesse Cheng?”  When he replied that he was, he said, “Kevin is in Room 303.”   When I answered the door, Jesse said he couldn’t figure out how everyone on the floor seemed to know who he was.  I told him that “Everyone knows you Jesse!  You’re my friend!”

So, there were times when I was at the plant where a Power Plant Man (or Woman) would yell to me, “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!”  No one can say that without a big smile on their face, and on mine.  It’s poetry to my ears.  Jesse’s mother forever lives on in our memories.

End of Side Story….

So, why am I talking about troubleshooting electronic circuit boards in a post about Power Plant Men losing the things they love most?  Well… because all good things had to come to an end.  Electronic circuit boards included.

When I went to search for a picture of an electronic circuit board on Google Images, I had to page down a couple of times before I found a partial picture of a circuit board that had capacitors, resistors and diodes on it.  They just aren’t used much anymore.  Everything has gone digital.  Instead of troubleshooting electronic parts, you diagnose signals being sent between various processors and memory chips.  It just isn’t quite the same.

So, lucky for Jesse that he wasn’t hired at our plant.  By the time he would have showed up, we were no longer changing out transistors.  We were programming chips.  Now the circuit boards looked more like this:

A digital Circuit Board

A digital Circuit Board

Other things in the electric shop were taken away or became “unused” that I used to really enjoy using.  We had a heat gun mounted on the wall where we would heat up bearings in order to put them on the shaft of the motor.  We would stand there monitoring the bearing to see if it was hot enough… We would spit on our finger and drip the spit on the bearing.  When the spit would sizzle, we knew the bearing was hot enough.

A heat gun like this

A heat gun like this

There was something comforting about the smell of hot grease from the bearing mixed with the smell of smoldering spit…  Also in the winter, it felt good to warm yourself around the heat gun while you waited for the bearing to heat up.

Well.  Eventually, we no longer used the heat gun.  We had a fancier bearing heater that looked like a strange aluminum cone hat.

A bearing heater

A bearing heater

The bearing heater heated the bearing more uniformly, and we could use a special temperature pencil that would melt when the bearing reached the right temperature.  No more boiling bearing grease smell, and no smoldering spit.  Oh well….

When the bearing was the right temperature, we had a pair of large white Asbestos Gloves that we would wear to pick up the bearing and slap it onto the shaft of the motor.  The pair of Asbestos gloves in our shop came from the old Osage Plant.  They were made from genuine Asbestos.  I suppose a white cloud of Asbestos dust would fly up in your face if you were overly moved by the song on the radio in the shop and felt a sudden urge to clap.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Well… You can imagine what happened to our Asbestos gloves.  Those gloves that you knew were going to keep your hands from being burned as you picked up the scalding hot bearing.  You never had to worry about being burned…. but…. oh well…  They were taken away.  Not deemed safe for use by humans.

In the shop when before and after we took apart a motor, we performed a test on the motor called, “Meggering the motor”.  That is, we clipped a megger to the motor leads and one to the motor case and cranked a hand crank on the side of the Megger to generate 1,000 volts to see if the insulation in the motor was still good.

Meggers are much like an old telephone from way back, where you would turn a crank to call the operator.  Or you could take it fishing with you and shock the fish in the water to make them float to the surface.   But…. I wouldn’t know about that.  I just heard stories from other Power Plant Men about it.

Old Crank Telephone

Old Crank Telephone

A manual crank megger was similar….

Megger with a Crank

Megger with a Crank

Alas…. After a while, a Meggar with a crank became a thing of the past, as did our Simpson Volt-Ohm Meter:

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

We had a couple of these Simpson Analog Multimeters in the shop

It wasn’t only electric shop equipment that the Power Plant Men held dear that kept disappearing.  We used to wear safety belts at the plant to keep us from falling off of high places.  Would you believe that these Safety Belts were taken away from the Power Plant Men as well?

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

Power Plant Men wore Safety Belts like this

I explained how the electronic circuit boards were replaced with digital cards.  I also explained how the heat gun was replaced with a nifty new bearing heater, which was also almost made obsolete by another invention called an Induction heater.

An induction Bearing Heater

An induction Bearing Heater

This heater didn’t even get hot.  The bearing would heat up by a magnetic field on the bar that would cause an electric current to build up around the bearing, causing it to heat up almost by magic.

The Asbestos Gloves were replaced with well padded Kevlar Gloves:

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

High Heat Kevlar Gloves

They worked just as well as the asbestos gloves without the Mesothelioma thrown in as a bonus.

As for the volt-ohm meters.  Each electrician was eventually issued their own new Fluke Volt-Ohm Meter.  I dare say.  It was a step up from the old Simpson meter.  A lot safer also:

Like this.  Ok.  So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

Like this. Ok. So the multimeters had become more sophisticated over the years.

And the Safety belt?  Well… It turns out that if someone were to fall and be hanging from a safety belt, the injury caused by just dangling for any length of time on a safety belt while waiting to be rescued can be devastating to the human body.  So, the belts were removed, and Power Plant Men everywhere were issued new and improved Safety Harnesses.

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

Safety Harness being worn by a plastic Power Plant Man

So… you see…  What it boils down to is this…. Power Plant Men generally love their jobs.  Real Power Plant Men I mean.  So, whenever there is change, they feel the pain of loss.  They lose those things they hold dear.  Yeah.  They know that whatever is replacing the things they are losing will most likely be a new and improved version of what they already had.  I think it’s the nostalgia of how things used to be that they miss the most.

So.  That is why Power Plant Men always seem to lose the things they love the most.  Because they love doing what they do, and things are always changing.  Power plant Men just change right along with it.  But sometimes it hurts a little.