originally posted on June 30, 2012:
Somewhere today there is a young man named Cameron Powell whose grandmother has recently died and who has a Great Grandmother named Dolores. A kind and gentle lady. If this young man were able to ask his great grandmother about his great grandfather he would hear the tale about a peaceful and kind man that made those who worked with him smile and enjoy their day. He lived his life in love with Dolores and his daughter and the very people that he worked with each day. All you had to do was walk in the same room as Howard Chumbley and a smile would come across your face instantly.
You see. While I was in my first years as a summer help at the Coal Fired Power Plant learning from the True Power Plant men of my day, 15 miles north of the plant along the Arkansas River was another plant. This plant was being operated by the Power Plant Pioneers of an earlier time. While we had the latest technological advancements that were available in 1974 when our plant was designed, the Osage plant was using old mechanical instruments that measured actual pressures and temperatures. What this meant was that when the pressure gauge registered 1000 pounds of pressure, it was because the pipe that was connected to the back or bottom of the gauge had 1000 lbs of pressure on it. I don’t know. They may have had a regulator on there that cut the pressure down to a safer range. That would seem crazy to anyone today to think that behind the Control Panel in the Control Room were pipes that ran from different steam pipes all over the plant to the gauges on the Control board, so that the Control Room operators could operate the plant correctly.
The Power Plant Men that worked in these early Generating Stations were subjected to dangerous chemicals and conditions though it was the best they knew at the time. Asbestos insulation covered the steam pipes. Turbine oil with PCBs were used to clean their tools. Howard Chumbley explained to me one day that they used to wash their tools in Turbine oil up to their elbows in what was now known to contain the dangerous chemical PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyls). A funny fact I found out later was that there was a temperature probe in the river just downstream from the plant taking the temperature of the water just like Sooner Plant (See the Post about Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River).
When the old Osage Plant closed in the early 1980s, that was when I first learned about it. This was because some of the pioneer power plant men came to work at our plant. Howard Chumbley became an Electical foreman and Gilbert Schwarz came to our plant as the superintendent of operations. Two gray haired men, both with a kind of slow peaceful look on their face. Howard had a smaller build with soft wavy gray hair. He could have been a professor at Harvard if you put a pipe in his mouth and a turtleneck sweater. Of course, that would not have been fitting for Howard. Gilbert was tall and had the look of a cowboy or a farm hand. I understand that he enjoyed working on the farm.
One year after I became an electrician in November 1984, Howard Chumbley became my foreman. It was less than a year after that when Howard retired. During the short time he was my foreman we took a trip up to the Osage Plant. It was named Osage because the Osage Indian Nation Territorial boundary is directly across the river from the plant. The plant itself actually sat adjacent to the Ponca Indian Tribe just outside of Ponca City. The day we went to the plant, Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien). a Power Plant Electrician and I loaded a special hazardous material containment barrel into the truck and I was given a special suit that I was to wear that would cover me from head to toe while I cleaned up a PCB spill. A smaller plant transformer had been removed from the old plant and there had been a slow leak under it that left a tar like substance on the concrete where the transformer had stood. As Howard, Diana and I approached the plant and I spied it for the first time. This is what I saw:
As we drove closer I had a better look at the plant as we drove around the other side:
It was definitely an old abandoned power plant. We took the barrel out of the back of the truck and hauled it inside on a two wheel dolly (or two-wheel hand truck, as it is often called). When we entered the abandoned plant we walked across the turbine room floor:
I could see where equipment used to stand that had been sold for scrap or stolen by vandals.
When we arrived at the oil spill I was surprised by how small of a spot it was. It couldn’t have been more than one square foot. I put on the rubber suit with it’s rubber hat, rubber boots and a full face respirator and rubber gloves. I took a putty knife and scraped up the tar-like substance and placed it in special bag that had a special seal on it.
When I had scraped up the thick stuff, I poured trichloroethane 1.1.1 solvent (which is no longer used due to the dangerous fumes that damages your liver) on the spot and scrubbed it with a wire brush. Then I took a Scotch Brite pad and scrubbed the floor until the spot was much cleaner than the concrete around it. Everything I had used went into the special barrel. The bags of tar, the Scotch Brite pad, the wire brush the putty knife and the rags I had used to wipe everything up. Then as I took off my suit, every piece of the rubber suit including the full face respirator went into the barrel. Once everything was in the barrel, the special lid was placed on top and it was bolted shut. A Hazardous Waste sticker was placed on the barrel and the time and date and what was in the container was written on it.
We took the barrel back to the plant and it was placed in a hazardous waste Conex Box that was later buried when it was full of different types of hazardous waste from all over Oklahoma.
A few years after Howard Chumbley retired, so did Gilbert Schwartz. Gilbert was the Superintendent over the Operators so I didn’t work around Gilbert and I knew very little about him. However, later when I was married and living in Ponca City, I would see him at the Catholic Church in Ponca City where he was a member of the Knights of Columbus. He would nod and say hi whenever he saw me.
Both Howard and Gilbert were in the military. I know that Howard Chumbley was in the Navy during World War II and that Gilbert Schwarz was in the Korean War. Growing up I noticed that older men that had served in the armed forces seemed to have light gray hair. Especially if they had been in the Navy. I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence. Aubrey Cargill was that way also (See the post about Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill).
In 1998, Howard Chumbley died unexpectedly when he was admitted to the hospital in Ponca City with a broken arm. The hospital in Ponca City had a bad reputation (or Mortality Rate, as some might say). People didn’t want to go there if there was anyway to avoid it. The hospital in Stillwater was the preferred hospital in this area of Oklahoma.
I only met Dolores Chumbley on two occasions and they were both at Christmas or Award banquets. She seemed the perfect spouse for Howard as she appeared kind and peaceful as well. I’m sure they had a happy life together. I do not have a picture of Howard. I wish I did. His demeanor reminds me of my Mother-In-Law. We have a picture of her in our hallway and the words below the picture says: “Be Kind”. I would say that this is what Howard was all about. Everything about Howard was kindness. I was glad to have known him.
This past week on June 24, 2012 Gilbert Schwarz died at the age of 83. He lived a long and happy life as did Howard. There was something about these Power Plant Pioneers that gave them a strange sort of peace.
I never found the source of this peace for sure. I suppose it was their long and happy marriages with their loving and supportive wives. Howard had a daughter that he was always very proud to discuss. She was a teacher somewhere close to Tulsa. She recently died of Cancer on January 4. That was 2 days after I wrote my first Power Plant Man post (Why Santa Visits Power Plant Men) at the beginning of this year.
Gilbert never had a child of his own, but his nieces and nephews meant a lot to him throughout his life and he was active in their lives as they grew up. I suppose if the Power Plant Pioneers were anything like the True Power Plant Men of my day, then they found a lot of peace in the friendships that they had with their fellow Power Plant Men locked away behind the Main Gate that they had to drive through each day on the way to work. Once you drive through that gate and enter into the Power Plant Kingdom, there is a certain peace that you feel knowing that what you will do that day will directly affect the lives of millions of people in the state of Oklahoma.
These Pioneers of the early days willingly put themselves at risk working around equipment that did not have the safeties and guards that we have today to supply the electricity to the State. I don’t know if there are a few of these brave Pioneers left from the Osage Plant. Gilbert was the last of the older men that I knew about. If you happen to find one of these men some day, don’t miss the opportunity to talk to him. I am sure they would be proud to tell you of the days that they spent being Pioneers of the Power Plant World. You should be able to recognize them. You can pick them out in a crowd. They are the mild peaceful looking old men treating the people around them with respect.
Comments from Previous Post:
Originally Posted on August 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.
I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
Originally posted September 14, 2012:
I found out soon after I arrived at the Coal-fired power plant in Oklahoma the first summer I worked as a summer help that Safety was Job Number One. I was given a hard hat and safety glasses the first day I was there, and I watched a safety film on how to lift with my legs and not with my back. I thought the hard hat made me look really cool. Especially with the safety glasses that looked like someone wore as a scientist during the 1950s. Dark and square.
I used to keep a pair with me when I went back to school. When I was a senior at the University of Missouri, Columbia, while working at the Bakery on Broadway, I kept a pair with me at all times, along with a hat that I had stol…um…. borrowed from my dad and always forgot to return. (In fact, I still have that hat to this day).
That way, whenever someone suspected who I was, I would put on my glasses and hat and people would think I was Clark Kent. Anyway…. I diverse. I never thought about it being an Inspector Clouseau hat until one winter morning in the parking lot at the plant Louise Gates (later Louise Kalicki) called me Inspector Clouseau.
The yellow hard hat made me confident that I was part of the blue collar working class. Hard hats have a suspension system in them that make them look like it is riding too high on your head. You soon get used to it, but for the first couple of weeks I kept bumping into things because my hardhat made me taller than I was used to being.
This is this because of this great suspension system that causes the hat to ride so high on someone’s head. I learned about this not long after I arrived and Marlin McDaniel the A Foreman at the time told me to sort out of bunch of large steel chokers (or slings) in a wooden shack just inside the Maintenance shop by the door to the office elevator.
While I was bending over picking up the chokers (I mean…. While I was lifting with my legs and not my back…) and hanging them on pegs I suddenly found myself laying on the ground. At first I wasn’t sure what had happened because I hadn’t felt anything and it happened so fast. It seemed that my legs had just buckled under me.
I soon realized that one of the large chokers that I had just hung on a peg a couple of feet above my head had fallen off and struck me square in the middle of the hard hat. I was surprised by the force of the cable and how little I had felt. I became a true believer in wearing my hardhat whenever I was working. The steel rope had left a small gash across the hardhat that remained as a reminder to me of the importance of wearing my hardhat at all times.
Larry Riley used to comment to me that I didn’t need to wear it when we were in the truck driving somewhere. Especially when I was sitting in the middle in the back seat of the crew cab and it made it hard for him to see anything through the rear view mirror other than a yellow hard hat sticking up to the top of the cab.
During my first summer at the plant (1979), I did witness how easy it was for someone to hurt their back. I mean… really hurt their back. I was helping to carry a very large 30 foot long section of a wooden extension ladder. There were four of us. Each on one corner. I know that Tom Dean was behind me carrying one side of the back end. I believe that Ben Hutchinson and Aubrey Cargill were on the other side of the ladder.
As we were walking through the shop, Tom stepped on the floor drain just outside of the A Foreman’s office. The drain cover was missing and a wooden piece of plywood had been put in its place to cover the hole.
Large equipment had driven over the plywood and it was smashed down into the drain making a slight indention in the middle of the floor.
When Tom stepped on the piece of wood, he lost his balance, and ended up spinning himself around as he tried to remain holding onto the ladder. By doing this, he became slightly twisted, and at once he was in terrible pain. Back pain. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this one event was a critical turning point in Tom Dean’s career at the power plant. He was pretty well out the rest of the summer recuperating from the back injury.
The next summer when I returned to the plant, Tom was working in the tool room. Obviously a step down from being a mechanic. He was also very unhappy. You could tell by looking at him that he had lost the proud expression that he had wore the summer before.
I don’t remember how long Tom worked at the plant after that. I just know that it really made me sad to see someone’s life deteriorate during the snapshots that I had in my mind from the summer before to when I returned to see a man tortured not only by back pain, but by a feeling of inadequate self worth. Hurting your back is one of the most common and most serious injuries in an industrial setting. It is definitely a life changing event.
There were other tragedies during my time as a summer help and they didn’t necessarily have to do with something dangerous at work. One summer there was a young man working in the warehouse and tool room. His name was Bill Engleking (thanks Fred. I didn’t remember his name in the original post). The next summer I asked where he had gone, and I learned that one morning he had woke up and found that he had become completely blind. It turned out that he had a very serious case of diabetes. The sugar levels in his blood had reached such dangerous levels that it destroyed his optic nerves overnight.
Then there was one of the Electricians, Bill Ennis. He would say that he was “Blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other one.” He was actually blind in one eye completely, and the other eye he was color blind. So, what he said was actually true.
It happened on occasion that people visiting the plant would be seriously hurt. Everyone at the plant was trained in first aid, and Power Plant Men, being the way that they are, are always willing to do whatever it takes to help someone out in time of trouble.
One day during lunch, a man came to the plant to fill the unleaded gas tank on the side of the garage in front of the warehouse. While he was reaching over the PTO (Power Take Off), His shirt sleeve caught in the spinning PTO shaft and broke his arm.
I remember Mickey Postman explaining what happened. His crew was eating lunch in the garage when they heard someone yelling for help. When they ran out to see what had happened, they found the man tied up in the PTO with one bone from his arm sticking straight out in the air. They quickly took care of him and treated him for shock as they waited for the Ambulance from Ponca City to arrive.
It is times like this that you wish would never happen, but you are glad that you had first aid training and you know what to do. This person could easily have died from this injury if not for the quick action of Mickey Postman and the rest of his crew. I believe other Power Plant Men that were there to help was Dale Mitchell, George Alley, Don Timmons and Preston Jenkins. Mickey would know for sure. I’ll leave it up to him to remind me.
I have illustrated these tragic events to demonstrate the importance of making Safety Job Number One. The Power Plant Men didn’t have to be told by a safety video to know how important it was. They all knew examples of tragedies such as these.
Each month the plant would have the Monthly Safety Meeting, and every Monday morning each crew would have their own safety meeting. Safety pamphlets would be read, safety videos would be watched. Campaigns would be waged to re-emphasize the importance of proper lifting techniques. Everyone in the plant had to take the Defensive Driving course.
The last summer I worked as a summer help in 1982 was the first summer that everyone was required to take the Defensive Driving course. The course was being given by Nancy Brien, Nick Gleason and Ken Couri. We learned a lot of defensive driving slogans like, “Is the Pass really necessary?” “Slow down, ride to the right, ride off the road” (when an emergency vehicle is approaching), “Use the Two Second Rule” (Only, I think it was 3 seconds at that time). “Do a Circle For Safety” etc….
My friend Tim Flowers and another summer help were carpooling during that time and we made signs with those slogans on them. Then when we were driving home in my little Honda Civic, we would hold one of those signs up in the back window so that the Power Plant person that was following us home (Usually Dick Dale and Mike Gibbs) would wonder what it said, and would pull up closer to read the sign, and it would say, “Use the 3 second rule”, or “If you can read this, you are too close”.
That was when I began wearing my seat belt all the time. Before that, it was not common for people to wear seat belts. They only had the lap belt before that, and those weren’t the safest things in the world. Especially since they would get lost inside the seat. I attribute the Defensive Driving Course that I took while I was a summer help at the plant for my safe record as a driver. There were a number of tips that I learned then, that I still use all the time today.
There is one advantage to wearing a hardhat that I didn’t realize until I left the power plant in 2001. It is that you never have to worry about hair loss on the top of your head. Whenever you are outside at the plant, you always wear your hardhat and safety glasses. When I changed jobs to become a software developer at Dell, I would find that just by walking down the street in the neighborhood in Texas, I would quickly develop a sunburn on the top of my head.
During the years of wearing a hardhat, I may have been losing my hair, but it never occurred to me. Not until I had a sunburn on the top of my head. I wondered at times if people would look at me funny if I showed up for work in my cubicle at Dell (when we had cubicles) wearing a yellow hardhat. Oh, and a pair of super stylish safety glasses like those shown at the top of this post.
You know when you are young, and I’m sure this has happened to all of you at one point in your life, you dream that you get off of the school bus at your school in the morning only to find that you are still wearing your pajamas. — Yeah. I thought you would remember that one. Well. I still have dreams of showing up at my desk job wearing a hardhat and safety glasses. I don’t realize it until I lift my hardhat up to wipe the sweat off of my brow, then I quickly look around to see if anyone noticed as I stuff the hardhat under the desk.
Comment from previous post:
Jack Curtis January 22, 2014:
The safety meetings, Defensive Driving, safety glasses… it was the same way for telephone men, too. And they jumped in whenever there were problems as well. It is striking to me, to see the differences in attitudes from one generation to another…
Originally Posted September 28, 2012:
I have learned one thing from Power Plant Men, and the Power Plant Safety Process is that, when you become comfortable doing a dangerous job, that is when an accident is most likely to happen. Isn’t that when a young driver seems to become careless?
They drive carefully for the first couple of months when they have just learned how to drive, and then when they feel confident about their driving ability, they begin to cut safety corners, and the next thing you know an accident occurs. That was one lesson we learned in our Defensive Driving Course.
In the spring of 1986, while I was an electrician at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I went with another electrician, Ted Riddle, to work on a Major Overhaul for three months in Oklahoma City at a Power Plant just North of Mustang. While we worked there, we would eat lunch with a man well into his 50’s that was our acting foreman for the overhaul. His name was Willard Stark.
During lunch we would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio. When Paul would mention a date 20 years in the past, Willard would be able to tell us what he was doing on that day, many years earlier.
I was fascinated by his ability. I will probably talk about Willard more in a later post, but today, I mention him only because of his ability to remember what happened on dates long gone by.
Now that I am about the same age as Willard was then, I am beginning to see that certain dates hold a special significance. The more memorable the experience, either for the good or the bad, and I seem to remember what day it happened. That leads me to one of the memorable dates in my past life at the Power Plant.
The particular date was July 15, 1980. I was working at the power plant during my second summer when I was normally working out of the garage. But Stanley Elmore had told me to go to the Maintenance Shop and get with Ray Butler, because he was going to have me do some cleaning up around the shop.
When I arrived, Ray told me to go over and wait with this new hand that they had just hired the day before, and he would be over there in a few minutes when he finished what he was doing. I walked over to the young man (I say young, but he was 6 years older than I was. He was 25) named Kerry Lewallen.
I introduced myself to him, and we waited together for a few minutes until Ray came over and told us to get a forklift and move some crates that were nearby over to the Warehouse, and then meet him there to help build some shelves in the warehouse to store the larger material on pallets.
The reason I remember this day so well was because of what happened right after Ray walked away. Kerry looked at me and asked me if I wanted to drive the forklift. Well. I really did want to drive the forklift, because I thought it would be fun, but from my experience at the plant, I noticed that people like Larry Riley had a Hard Hat Sticker that said: “Certified Operator Industrial Powered Trucks”.
So I explained to Kerry that I wasn’t Certified to drive a forklift. Kerry had only worked there one day before that day, and even though he probably had a lot of experience driving a forklift (as most Power Plant Men did), he didn’t feel comfortable driving the forklift either.
So, we waited for Ray to come back and Ray asked if we were going to go get the forklift. Then Kerry said something that I have never forgotten, and that I have used repeatedly throughout my career at the Power Plant, as well as my current career. He explained to Ray, “I would like to, but I haven’t been circumcised to drive the forklift.”
I watched Ray as he listened, and I noticed a very faint smile as he realized what Kerry meant to say. Ray agreed, and said he would take care of it. I believe that was the day he took us to the warehouse and circumcised both of us to drive the forklift right then and there.
I couldn’t wait to get home and show my parents. As you can see, I was so proud of my new hardhat sticker, I didn’t put it on my hardhat, I just brought it home and framed it and hung it on the wall. That was July 15, 1980. Being Circumcised to drive the forklift was kind of like my “Come to Jesus” moment in my Power Plant journey.
Kerry Lewallen, as it turned out was a great welder, as were all the True Power Plant Welders. He stayed on at the plant to become one of the True Power Plant Men that worked side-by-side with the other great welders in the boilers welding boiler tubes, or in the bowl mill welding inside them in the tremendous heat that mere mortals like myself found totally unbearable.
As with Jerry Mitchell, my wife came home one day and told me about this very nice person that she worked with as a Nurse in the Stillwater Medical Center. She described her as being a very honest and pleasant person to work with. She also told me that her husband worked at the Power Plant. Her name was Vicki Lewallen, Kerry’s wife.
Through the years, there were many opportunities where we received Hardhat stickers. Most of them were safety related. Each year we would receive a safety sticker, if we hadn’t had an accident. It would indicate how many years in a row it has been that we have been accident free. I received my last safety sticker the last day I worked at the Power Plant during my going away party.
I didn’t place this on a hardhat either. Well. I was walking out the door leaving my hardhat behind (so to speak). I don’t remember how long the Plant Manager Eldon Waugh had worked for the electric company, (about 40 years) but just a couple of months before he retired, while driving back to the plant from Oklahoma City, he took an exit off of I-35 behind a semi-truck.
The truck stopped on the ramp realizing that he had taken the wrong exit and proceeded to back up. He ran into the company truck that Eldon was driving causing an accident. This was enough to ruin Eldon’s perfect safety record just months before he retired. The thought was that Eldon should not have pulled up so close to the truck, or have kept the truck in line with the driver’s side mirror so that he knew he was there.
Throughout the years that I worked at the plant we would have different Safety programs or initiatives that would help to drive our safe behavior. Since back injuries were a major concerned, we would watch films about lifting properly. Since we worked with heavy equipment we would watch videos about people being injured while working with dozers, and other big tractors.
One video that we watched was called: “Shake Hands With Danger”. You can watch it here on YouTube:
This is a classic Safety film shown at the Power Plant periodically. I always thought we should have been provided with popcorn when we watched these. Harry in this film reminds me of a cross between Ken Conrad and Darrell Low. The “Old timer” reminds me of Mike Lafoe. I could go on.
When our new plant manager Ron Kilman arrived after Eldon Waugh, he had us watch a film where there was a near fatal race car accident. When they looked more closely at the accident, it turned out that there were many things that had to happen wrong that led up to the accident.
When an accident occurs on the race track, a Yellow Flag is raised, and everyone gets in line and takes it slow around the track until the accident is cleared. In the movie, the thought was that it would have been helpful if the yellow flag had come out each time someone was about to do something wrong “Before” the accident happened.
The foremen at the plant were given yellow flags to put on their desks as a reminder to see yellow flags whenever you see something that has the potential to be dangerous. We were even given yellow flag stickers to put on our hardhat. — By now, you probably know what I did with mine. Yep. I have it right here. I keep it by my bedside as a reminder:
At one point during the years at the plant, we created a Safety Task Force. When Bill Gibson was the head of the Task Force, he used his Safety imagination to come up with some customized Hardhat Safety Stickers that people at our plant would appreciate. One of the more patriotic Hardhat Safety Stickers looked like this:
I didn’t receive one of the stickers that he came up with that I really liked because I was away at the time on an overhaul when they were being handed out. Many years later, when I mentioned it to the guys at the plant in an e-mail, I was given a stack of them by Randy Dailey the next time I visited the plant.
Randy Dailey the Plant Machinist that was known as “Mister Safety” himself. Thanks to Randy Dailey I am able to show you a hardhat safety sticker that was created based on a particular phrase that was going around the plant at the time:
That really says it all doesn’t it. The real truth about Power Plant Men. They really do care about each other. The close bond between the Power Plant Men is what kept us safe. In the “Shake Hands with Danger” at one point, it mentions that each person should “Watch out for the other guy.”
That is how our plant remained as safe as it did throughout the years that I was there. When I received the Hardhat Safety Sticker for working 20 years without an accident, it wasn’t because I was always being safe in every job I was doing, because that wasn’t always true. It was because there were enough Power Plant Men and Women looking out for me that decreased my odds of being injured by decreasing the number of times that I would end up doing something stupid and getting myself hurt or killed.
So, not only do I thank all the True Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with throughout those years, but so does my wife and my two children. One little mistake at the wrong time. One extra time of Shaking Hands with Danger, and I might not have come home one day from work. It was more than luck that kept me safe. I thank each and everyone of the Power Plant People that I worked with throughout my career for watching out for the other guy.
NOTE: After posting this last year, Ron Kilman, the plant manager at our plant from 1988 to 1994 sent me a picture of his Hard hat. I thought I would post it here so you can see it:
Ron said he stacked his Yearly safety stickers on top of each other as you can see. 24 years of working safely.
Originally Posted October 5, 2012:
The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked first as a summer help, then as a janitor, a labor crew hand and finally as an Electrician is located about 20 miles north of Stillwater, Oklahoma. It just so happened that Oklahoma State University in Stillwater has one of the leading Fire Protection and Safety schools in the country. They offer Fire Service Training for companies who need to train their employees how to fight fires. As a summer help I was fortunate enough to take the onsite training that they provided at the power plant about every other summer to train the employees how to put out difficult fires.
It does sound like a good idea considering that there was all this coal laying around that had the habit of spontaneously igniting into smouldering embers that could easily lead to a large raging ball of flames. In fact, the Coal Yard heavy equipment operators had to drive their large dirt movers over and over the coal on the coal pile to pack it down because if it was exposed to too much air, it would develop hot spots that would turn into smoldering piles of coal that were nearly impossible to put out.
I have seen a spot smoldering on the coal pile where a water wagon would drench it with water over and over. That only seemed to keep it from spreading as fast. The only way to deal with it was to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn itself out.
You would think that the OSU Fire Training Service would do a good job of teaching the employees the proper use of the fire extinguishers, and they did. The plant was loaded with Fire Extinguishers. As a summer help and labor crew hand, we would have to do a monthly inspection of all the plant extinguishers to check their pressures and initial the inspection sticker showing that we had been by to check it. This was a practice that would later change to once each quarter when the Power Plant Men were strung out too thin and the labor crew no longer existed. Even later, the operators inspected them as they made their rounds, since they walked by them during their shifts anyway.
The plant had more than just the regular chemical fire extinguishers, it had the larger roll-around type in a few places as well:
The Fire Training Service trained us to use this as well. Actually, they motivated us to go out and buy fire extinguishers to put in our own homes. Which came in handy for me one year when an air condition repairman was using a blow torch in my house to cut out the cooling coils but forgot to take out the filter first.
The moment I saw him light up his torch, I pulled out the extinguisher from under the sink and set it on the counter. As I watched him, he suddenly started jerking back and forth. I figured something was up, so I pulled the pin, and when he was finally able to pull the burning filter out of the air duct, I was ready to blast it with the extinguisher. So, I gratefully thank the electric company for properly training us to use the handy dandy fire extinguishers that you might use around the house.
One important thing that you learn about the little extinguishers in your house is that they don’t really go very far before they run out of chemicals. So, you have to get the job done quickly while the fire is still small and manageable.
When I first heard that we were going to be trained to fight fires the second summer I was at the plant as a summer help, I was pretty excited. Wow… Great!!! Fight Fires! That sounds fun. A day of watching safety videos and playing with fire extinguishers. I didn’t realize at the time that there was a reason why OSU Fire Training Service was the best fire training school in the radius of about 1,000 miles.
Sure. We watched the training videos. We learned all about proper fire extinguisher care and maintenance. We heard stories about how small fires turned into raging infernos that burned companies right out of business. One thing I remember is that some large percentage of companies that have a major fire are never able to recover to the point that they go completely out of business.
If you need the exact percentage, I suggest you call up the OSU School of Fire Protection and Safety. They probably have the latest statistic printed on their school lunch napkins, because these guys eat, drink and sleep fire safety.
Then, after they had impressed us with their Fire Safety Prowess, they said, “Let’s take about a 15 minute break, and we will meet outside just north of the water treatment plant where we will resume your lessons. Oh, and bring your rubber boots and maybe a rain suit.” Rain Suit? What? It’s about 100 degrees outside. “I wouldn’t mind getting a little wet”, I thought to myself. — The simpleminded summer help that I was at the time.
I would describe in detail to you how they had this obstacle course of staircases and pipes and other metal structures all sitting in a big tray. It’s enough to say that it was quite a tangled mess of a contraption.
“Interesting.” I thought… Are we going to climb the staircase and shoot the fire from up above with our handy dandy fire extinguishers which were lined up in a row off to one side? Climbing over pipes to fight a fire under the stairs maybe… Do we get to use the big roll around fire extinguisher that was there too? This looks like it might be fun.
That was when the fun began. One of the trainers turned a valve, and then I noticed that there was a fairly large tank there also that was hooked up to the pipes that wound around the mocked up structure of a stairway and other obstacles in the large tray. As he turned the valve, what looked like diesel or kerosene like petroleum product came spraying out of various holes in the piping spraying everything in the tray drenching it with fuel.
This other guy had a long rod that he had lit like a large lighter only it was giant size, and after the fuel had been spraying out for a while, he lowered the flame down into the tray that now was beginning to fill up with some kind of oily substance. He lit it and the flames quickly spread over the entire structure. He had us go in groups of 4 people with fire extinguishers to try to put out the fire. As their extinguishers ran out of fuel, others waiting behind would take their place trying to put out the fire.
We would chase the fire around the structure trying to put it out, but it wasn’t as easy as you would think. If you didn’t completely suffocate it by hitting it from many different directions and in a pattern from one end to the other just right, the fire would dodge around the spray from the extinguishers to be right back where you started. By the time we had used up all the extinguishers, we may have put the fire out about 3 times.
Rubber boots… I kept thinking…. my feet are getting hot… You couldn’t hardly get close enough to the fire to use your fire extinguisher without getting your eyebrows singed. I was always known for having long eyelashes, and I thought I could hear them sizzle as they brushed against my safety glasses.
That’s when they pulled the fire hose out of the fire box that was there next to the fire hydrant. All over the plant grounds there were these red boxes. They are lined up alongside the long conveyor belt from the coal yard to the plant (about 1/2 mile). They were also lined up around the two silver painted million gallon number 2 Diesel tanks. They were just about everywhere you looked (come to think of it).
I remember Summer Goebel when she was a new plant engineer one time asked me when she had first arrived, “What are all those red boxes out there?” (she was pointing out the window of the Engineer’s office). I told her they each contained fire hose and a valve wrench to open up the fire hydrant. I neglected to add that they also provided great shade for all the Jack and Jill rabbits that inhabited the plant grounds, which doubled as a wild life preserve.
So, we were going to use the fire hose! That sounded like more fun. That is until the one guy said to the other guy (more using hand and face signals — like putting his thumb up and winking) “open ‘er up” — so, he was using “slang” hand and face signals…
That’s when the real training began. First of all, we all backed up because as the flames grew on their structure, the heat literally talked directly to your legs and magically told them…. “back up, or else…” so, now that we were standing a good 50 feet away from the fire, we lined up in a row on the fire hose.
4 of us. Four hefty Brawny Power Plant men… (well, 3 hefty brawny power plant men, and one scrawny little runt of a summer help who actually thought he could be measured alongside them), Isn’t that a bit much for this one 4 inch fire hose? (or was it just 3 inches?). There were two hoses actually being used. One to create a wide barrier of water to protect us from the heat, and another hose to shoot water through the barrier into the fire.
A couple of guys manned the large roll around fire extinguisher. Here is an actual picture of the OSU Training Service training a group of employees at a work site to fight fires to give you a picture of what we faced:
Notice the two different types of sprays in the picture. I very wide spray and a narrow spray.
Like I said, these guys aren’t called the best Fire Trainers because they have pretty pamplets. so, the first time I slipped in the mud, I thought… hmm… I suppose the rainsuit would have kept all that mud from coming into contact with my jeans, and my shirt and my ego.
Well, the most fascinating thing was that we could walk up real close to this intense fire and the wide spray of water sheltered us from the heat.
Then with the large fire extinguisher on wheels, you could open it up on the fire by standing behind this barrier and shoot the chemicals right through the water onto the fire, and it would quickly and incredibly put out that tremendous fire when it was done right. The other fire hose that was spraying through the barrier of water was used to cool everything down so that the fire didn’t spring right back up. the water wasn’t going to put out an oil fire.
Anyway, not long after our first of many fire fighting training sessions that we had throughout the years, the night that we were actually fighting the dragon in the boiler (See the Post, “Where do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today“), the Control Room came over the gray phone (PA system) saying that there was a fire on the turbine room floor.
A bunch of power plant he-men dropped the lance they were using to pierce the dragon and ran off to fight the fire. It turned out to be a barrel full of oily rags that had spontaneously combusted. The fire refused to go out for a long time. It kept re-igniting until the contents had completely burned up.
I remained in the bottom ash area as I was still reeling from the steaming hot water that had been spewed all over me. A little while later the men were back ready to grab the lance and go back to work on the boiler around 10pm (this after a full day of coal cleanup from 8am that morning).
The one important topic that they ingrained into our minds while we were taking the training was that you have to know when the fire is too big to fight. We had learned what our equipment could do and what it couldn’t do. So, we had the knowledge to realize that if the fire is too big, then it is time to get out of there and call the professionals. The only problem was that the nearest professionals were about 20 minutes away. A lot can burn down in that amount of time…. but that is a story for another time. I see the grin on the power plant men’s faces. They know what I am talking about.
Comments from Previous Repost:
Originally Posted January 4, 2013:
November 7, 1983 I walked into the electric shop from the Power Plant Parking Lot with Bill Rivers. Bill was an electrician that I had been carpooling with off and on for almost a year. I remember walking in the door and the first thing I noticed were two guys leaning against the counter by the coffee pot that I hadn’t seen before. They looked like a couple of Electrical Contract hands.
When I came in the door, Bill told them that I was the new electrician. They both looked very surprised. The tall one told me that his name was Art Hammond and that this was his first day as an electrician in the shop also. He had just been hired. The shorter guy introduced himself as Gene Roget (it is a French name pronounced “Row jay” with a soft J). I could tell by his shock and look of disappointment at my young appearance and obvious lack of experience that he had been expecting to be hired permanently along with Arthur.
My new foreman was Charles Foster, the person that had asked me to think about becoming an electrician in the first place. Charles was a calm mild mannered person that made it clear to me the first day that I could call him Charles, or Foster or even Chuck, but don’t call him Charlie. Ok. I made a note of that in my mind….. When the need arises to really irritate Charles, I should remember to call him Charlie. — Just a side note… That need never did arise. I did think it was funny that I had referred to my previous foreman Larry Riley as my Foster Father, and now I actually had a Foster for a Foreman. The electric shop had a short Monday Morning Safety Meeting and then I officially began my 18 year career as an electrician.
I could go on and on about how Charles Foster and I became the best of friends. I could fill up post after post of the things we did and the hundreds of conversations we had each day at lunch…. and um…. I suppose I will in good time. Today I just want to focus on what we did the first day. The first thing Charles told me after making it clear that “Charlie” was not the way to address him, was to tell me that he believed that the way I would become a good electrician was for him to not tell me much about how he would do something, but instead, he would let me figure it out myself. And if I made a mistake. That was all right. I would learn from it.
I really hated making mistakes, and I wished at the time that he would let me follow him around telling me his electrical wisdom. Finally, in my mind I thought, “Ok. If Charles didn’t mind my making mistakes, then I will try not to mind it either.” It was hard at first, but eventually, I found that making mistakes was the highlight of my day sometimes… Sometimes not… I’m sure I will talk a lot about those in the coming months.
I followed Charles up to Bill Bennett’s office. He was our A foreman, and there was a cabinet in his office where he kept all the new electrician tools. I was given a used black five gallon bucket and a tool pouch to carry my tools. Like my first day as a summer help, I had to learn the name of a lot of new tools that day. There were crimpers, side cutters, Lineman’s Pliers, strippers and Holding Screwdrivers. I was given a special electrician pocket knife and was told that I would have to keep it very sharp. I had all sizes of screwdrivers and nut drivers. I put all the tools including the tool pouch into the black plastic bucket.
Bill Bennett was a tall very thin black man. He was a heavy smoker. This showed on his face as he looked older than I thought he really was. He spoke with a gruff voice from years of smoking. He was a very likable person (like most Power Plant Men). He told me that they had tried really hard to get me in the electric shop because the two men in the corner offices really didn’t want me to move off of the labor crew. He explained that I owed my new career to Charles Foster who gallantly went to bat for me. I told him I was grateful.
I was also given a Pocket Protector and a pair of small screwdrivers (one a philips screw driver). Charles explained that I would probably use these small screwdrivers more than any of the other tools. I also was given a small notebook and a pen. All of this went into my pocket protector. Which went into the vest pocket on my flannel shirt.
We went back down to the electric shop and Charles introduced me to Gene Roget again and Charles asked Gene if he would help me organize my tools and teach me some of the basics around being an electrician. Gene said that the first thing I needed to do was to lubricate my new tools. It just doesn’t do to have tools that are stiff. So, we worked on lubricating them and we even went down to the machine shop to get some abrasive paste that we worked into the tools to loosen them up. Gene took his side cutters and threw them up in the air and as they flew up, they rapidly opened and closed making a rattling sound. He caught them as they came down as if they were tied on his hand like a YoYo.
I worked the tools back and forth. Lubricating them and rubbing the abrasive paste in the joint. I had no coordination, so when I would try throwing my pliers in the air like Gene did, they would end up on the other end of the workbench, or across the room. So, I didn’t try it too often when others were around where I might injure someone. I thought. I’ll work on that more when I’m alone or just Gene is around. He had good reflexes and was able to quickly dodge my miss-thrown tools.
After Lunch Charles said that we had a job up at the coalyard that we needed to work on. He told me to grab my tool bucket and the multimeter from the cabinet. The electricians referred to it as the “Simpson”.
This was before each of us were issued our very own digital Fluke Mulimeter a few years later. I’m sure the old electricians are chuckling to remember that we used to use these old Multimeters. Charles explained to me that when you are checking voltage with the meter, that after you turn the dial to check voltage, always touch the two leads together to make sure the meter doesn’t move before touching the electric wires. This is done because if something happens that causes the meter to still be on “Resistance”, then when you check the voltage, the meter or the leads could explode possibly causing an injury. I had observed the electricians in the shop doing this back when I was a janitor, and now I knew why.
Charles explained that we needed to find out why the heater in the small pump room on the northwest corner of the dumper wasn’t running. So, we went to coalyard and found the space heater mounted along the wall. We tested it to make sure it wasn’t running. After checking the circuits with the multimeter on a panel on the wall, we found that we needed to replace a small fuse block because it had become corroded from all the coal dust and moisture.
I had seen electrical he-men go up to a panel and hold a screwdriver in their hand out at arms length and unscrew screws rapidly, one at a time. Bill Rivers had been doing that up on the precipitator roof when I was working with him while I was still on the Labor Crew. He could unscrew screws from a terminal block faster than I could unwrap Hershey Kisses.
So, when Charles told me to remove the fuse block from the panel, I thought this would be an easy task. I pulled out a screwdriver from my handy dandy tool bucket and with one hand holding the screwdriver, and the other hand steadying it by holding onto the stem of the screwdriver I moved toward the panel. Charles stopped me by saying something like: “Rule number one. Never use two hands. Especially when you are working on something hot.” Ok. I see.. If one hand is touching the metal screwdriver, and I come into contact with the screw which is electrified, then… um… yeah. Ok. I dropped one hand to my side and proceeded to remove the fuse block. That other hand remained at my side for the next 18 years when working on something hot (something is hot when it has the electricity turned on).
I explained above that I was pretty uncoordinated when it came to flipping my side cutters up into the air trying to act impressive like I knew what I was doing. Well. I couldn’t hold a screwdriver steady for the life of me. I tried to match up the head of the screwdriver with the slot in the screw, but I was pretty wobbly. It was kind of embarrassing. The truth had come out. This guy can’t even hold a screwdriver still. How is he ever going to become a real electrician?
Using all my concentration, I fumbled about and began working the screw out of the fuse block, when suddenly the screwdriver slipped slightly and Pow! Sparks flew. I had shorted the screwdriver between the screw and the hot post on the fuse block. There was a quick flash of light and a loud pop. Geez. The first time I’m working on something, what do I do? I blew it….. literally.
Well. Charles pointed out. The electricity is off now. Go ahead and change out the fuse block, then we will find out where the source of power is for it. So, I changed it out…. Feeling a little down that my new screwdriver now had a neat little notch on the blade where the electricity had melted off a corner of my screwdriver (I carried that notched screwdriver around for the next 10 years before I replaced it). We found the breaker that had been tripped in a DP Panel (which stands for Distribution Panel) in the Dumper Air Handler room and turned it back on. We checked the heater and it was working.
At the end of the day, when Bill Bennett came down to the shop to see how my first day went, Charles told him that I had jumped right into it and already had a notch in my screwdriver to prove it. Both Bill and Charles were good-natured about it. I filled out my timecard which told a short story about my first adventure as an electrician.
As I walked to the parking lot with Bill Rivers to go home, I was thinking that even though I had been full of nerves all day, this had to be one of the most exciting days of my life. I was actually one of the electricians now. I had the feeling that somehow something was going to happen and they were going to tell me that they made a mistake and that I would have to go back to the labor crew. That was a feeling that haunted me for about 3 months after moving to the electric shop.
Comments from the original post:
Ron Kilman January 5, 2013
Your memory still amazes me. It’s like you kept a copy of every day’s time card. I’ll bet your time cards take up a whole room at Sooner!
Great article. I still have some of the tools I was given on my first day in the Results Dept. at the Horseshoe Lake Plant in June, 1970 (don’t tell the Evil Plant Manager).
NEO January 5, 2013
I’ve got a few screwdrivers like that myself. Goes with the territory. Good post
Coments from previous repost:
Originally posted March 1, 2013:
I thought my days of working with summer help was over when I joined the Electric Shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I had worked as a summer help for four summers while I was going to college to obtain a degree in Psychology. As I stated before, this helped me become a first rate janitor, as I was able to lean on my broom and listen to the problems of Power Plant Men that needed an ear to bend and to have the reassurance that they really didn’t have a problem. It was someone else’s problem.
When the second summer of my electrical career began, the electric shop was blessed to have Blake Tucker as a summer help. I had worked with Blake before when we were in the garage, and I had found him to be a man of character. I was glad to be working with him again. Not only was Blake a respectable person, he was also very smart.
Blake was going to the university to become an Engineer. Because of this, he was able to be in a higher class of summer help than I was ever able to achieve. As I mentioned in earlier posts, my first summer I was making all of $3.89 an hour. By the time I left to become a janitor, I had worked my way up to $5.14 an hour. After arriving in the Electric shop, my wages had quickly shot up to a little over $7.50. Blake was able to hire on as an engineer summer help which gave him the same wage that I was making.
Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, said that he had a difficult task that he thought the two of us could handle. We needed to go through the entire plant and inspect every single extension cord, and electric cord attached to every piece of equipment less than 480 volts. This included all drill presses, power drills, drop lights, coffee machines, water fountains, heat guns, electrical impact guns, refrigerators, hand held saws, sanders, grinders, and um…… er… it seems like I’m forgetting something. It’ll come to me.
Anyway. Each time we inspected something, we would put a copper ring around the cord with an aluminum tag where we had punched a number that identified the cord. Then we recorded our findings in a binder. We checked the grounding wire to make sure it was properly attached to the equipment. We meggared the cord to make sure that there were no shorts or grounded circuits. We made sure there were no open circuits and repaired any problems we found. Then once we had given it our blessing, we returned it to our customers.
We went to every office, and shop in the plant. From the main warehouse to the coal yard heavy equipment garage. Wheeling our improvised inspection cart from place to place, soldering copper rings on each cord we inspected.
One thing I have learned about working next to someone continuously for a long time is that you may not realize the character of someone up front because first impressions get in the way, but after a while, you come to an understanding. The true character of respectable people isn’t always visible right away (this was not true with Blake. I could tell very quickly when I first worked with him as a summer help that he was a good person. Work ethic tells you a lot about a person). Other people on the other hand, that are not so respectable, are usually found out fairly quickly.
Men of honor aren’t the ones that stand up and say, “Look at me! I’m a respectable person.” People that are dishonorable, usually let everyone know right away that they are not to be trusted. This isn’t always the case, but by studying their behavior their true character is usually revealed. I think it usually has to do with how ethical someone is. If they mean to do the right thing, then I am more inclined to put them in the honorable category. — Anyway…
Since Blake was studying Engineering, I took the opportunity during lunch to run some of my mathematical queries by him. Since I had been in High School, I had developed different “Breazile’s Theories”. They were my own mathematical puzzles around different numerical oddities I had run across. Like dealing with Prime number, Imaginary numbers and the Golden Ratio (among other things).
So, for part of the summer, we spent time on the white board in the office looking at different equations. There was no one else at the plant at the time that I could talk to about these things. — I mean… others just wouldn’t appreciate the significance of adding 1 to the golden ratio!
Anyway. I titled this post “…Summer Help Stories”, and all I have done so far is talk about how good it was to work with Blake Tucker. Well. A couple of years after Blake was our summer help, we were… well… I wouldn’t use the word “Blessed” this time. We were given a couple of other summer helps for the summer. One of them was a good worker that we enjoyed having around. His name was Chris Nixon. I won’t mention this other guy’s name in order to not embarrass him, but his initials were Jess Nelson.
Right away, you knew that you didn’t want to work with Jess. I worked with him once and I told my foreman Andy Tubbs that I didn’t want to work with him again because I felt that he was not safe. I was afraid he was going to get both of us killed. One reason may have been that I would have been fried in an electric chair for killing him after he did something really stupid.
Luckily Andy was accommodating. He allowed me to steer clear of Jess for the rest of the summer. We just had to watch out for him while he was in the shop. He was messing around most of the time, and had absolutely no work ethic. We couldn’t figure out how come he was allowed to stay after a while. Most people in the shop didn’t want to be around him.
I think Bill Bennett finally found a couple of electricians that would take him. He worked with O.D. McGaha and Bill Ennis on freeze protection. Since it was the middle of the summer, I think that was probably the safest place for him. it turned out that Bill Bennett had some pressure put on him to keep him in the electric shop instead of firing him outright because he was in the same fraternity in college that Ben Brandt, the Assistant Plant Manager at the time was in, and he was a “friend of the family.”
Anyway. The majority of the plant knew about Jess before the end of the summer (as I said before. Those people that are less honorable usually like to broadcast this to others). That’s why, when Jess “stepped into a pile” of his own making, all the Power Plant Men just about threw a big party. It seemed to them that Jess’s “Karma” had caught up with him.
Chris Nixon, the more honorable summer help, was from Stillwater, Oklahoma, and had actually gone to High School with my brother. Jess on the other hand lived in a different town in Oklahoma usually, but was living in Stillwater while he was working at the plant. I figure he was probably living in his fraternity house on campus though I don’t know that for certain.
Well. One morning the week before the last week of the summer before the summer help headed back to school, Jess came into the shop strutting around like a proud rooster. He was so proud of himself because he had been at a bar on the strip by the Oklahoma State University Campus and had picked up a “hot chick”. He had a tremendously good time, and he wanted everyone to know all about it….. (as less honorable people often do).
After everyone had to hear him crowing about it all morning, Chris Nixon sat down at the lunch bench and asked him about his date from the night before. Jess went into detail describing the person that he had picked up (or had been picked up by). After listening to Jess for a while, Chris came to a dilemma. He knew the person that Jess was talking about. After asking a few follow-up questions, Chris was sure that he knew the person that Jess had his intimate encounter with the night before. He finally decided he had to say something.
Some of you may have already guessed it, and if you are one of the power plant men from the electric shop at the time (that I know read this blog), you are already chuckling if you are not already on the floor. If you are one of those honorable electricians, and you are still in your chair, it’s probably because you are stunned with amazement that I would have ever relayed this story in an actual public post and are still wondering if I am really going to go on.
I said above that Chris Nixon knew this person. I didn’t say that Chris knew this girl, or even “woman”. Yes. That’s right. While Jess thought he was out with a hot blonde all night doing all sorts of sordid things that he had spent the morning bragging about, he was actually not with a woman at all. Oh my gosh! You have never heard the roar of silent laughter as loud as the one that was going through everyone’s mind when they heard about that one!
For those men that had been thinking that they wished they were young again while listening to Jess in the morning, they suddenly remembered why they had made the decision to keep on the straight and narrow when they were young.
It would have been more funny if it hadn’t been so pitiful. After being sick to his stomach, he became angry. He called up the local Braum’s to find out if a “person” meeting this description worked there as Chris had indicated. He wanted to go down there and kill him. Of course, he decided not to, but he did go home sick that day and didn’t show up the rest of the week.
He did show up the next week, and the female summer help that had been working in the warehouse had written a poem about their summer help experience which they shared to the entire maintenance group at a farewell lunch in which they made mention of Jess’s unfortunate encounter.
Some folks in the electric shop gave Jess their own “going away present” down in the cable spreading room. I wasn’t there, so I can’t speak to it with any accuracy, so I’ll just leave it at that. Luckily it was still kept clean after I had had the Spider Wars a few years earlier. See the post Spider Wars and Bugs In the Basement for more about that.
Well. We thought we had seen the last of this person. We were shocked when next summer rolled around and Jess returned to our shop as the summer help again. He had been a total waste of a helper the year before. The entire electric shop went into an uproar. Everyone refused to work with him because he was too unsafe. We had barely escaped several injuries the year before.
Bill, being the nice guy that he was, had given Jess a good exit review the year before, because he didn’t want him to have a mark on his record. Well, that had come back to bite him.
Both Charles Foster and Andy Tubbs, our two electrical B foremen at the time went to Bill Bennett and told him that he never should have agreed to have Jess come back when he knew that he was not a safe worker. Bill had received some pressure from above to re-hire this person, and Jess had made it clear the year before that he could do what he wanted because Ben was friends with his family. But with the total uprising, Bill had no choice but to go to Ben Brandt and tell him that he was going to have to let Jess go.
Talk about “awkward”. I’m sure this was a tough task for Bill. He always did his best to keep the peace and he took the “fall” for this. Ben was angry at him for hiring him in the first place (after applying a certain amount of pressure himself) only to have to let him go. Anyway, that was a much safer summer than the year before. That was the last attempt at hiring a summer help for the electric shop.
Comments from the original post:
Thanks, Kevin – good post.
I don’t remember Jess. But I enjoyed working with Ben. He was of fine character and always wanted to do the right thing. Personnel (Corporate Headquarters) made it extremely difficult to terminate anyone. I think they feared “unlawful discharge” lawsuits more than anything. We always preferred getting candid and objective evaluations from our Foremen before hiring rather than after (if possible).
I was “suspect” early in your story of where you were going. I remember the whole thing and for years looked at every guy working at Braums and wondered. . . . .? ” I hope this guy scooping my ice cream isn’t him.
Plant Electrician March 4, 2013
Yes. I believe the guy’s name was Terry.
Hi Kevin, I remember when that all happened. I ran into Chris Nixon last summer, he is working for the Payne County Sheriffs department.
Originally posted March 22, 2013:
I have found that elevators have a way of equalizing personal differences when there are just two of you alone in an elevator. It is one of the few places in a Power Plant where no one is watching or listening (usually) to what is said between two parties. Once the doors open, it is difficult to convince others what has happened because there is only one other witness. Depending on your position, this can be either a good thing or a bad thing.
Soon after I became an electrician I was introduced to “Elevator Maintenance”. The Power Plant has 7 elevators. One that goes to the main office area. One that goes to the Control Room. Two for the boilers. Two for the Smoke Stacks and one that takes you to the top of the Fly Ash Hoppers in the coal yard.
The office and boiler elevators were made by Montgomery. These each had to be inspected regularly to keep them running safely. If not, then the plant ran the risk of having people stuck in the elevators for a period of time, which is never a good situation.
There were times when people were stuck in the plant elevators. I may devote an entire post to that subject at some time. Today I’m more interested in the people that inspect the elevators and the effects that elevator inspections had on them.
I didn’t think about it for a long time, but one day when I was walking by a person that I worked with at Dell, Jeremy Tupa, stopped and said, “I still get chills thinking about what you used to do at the Power Plant.” I didn’t know what he was referring to until he reminded me. He said, “When you had to drop test the elevators.” It took me a while, but I finally remembered when I had told Jeremy about drop testing the stack elevator.
Our team at Dell had gone to Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio for the day. Jeremy and I were sitting next to each other on a ride called “The Scream”. It would raise you up and then you would free-fall down and then it would quickly jerk you back up again and drop you again. That’s when I told him this wasn’t scary to me, because it was just like drop testing a stack elevator.
Oh yeah. I guess to some people that must seem kind of scary. To the people that actually perform that activity, they do things to their mind to convince themselves that everything is safe. Well. Besides that, when following all the safety precautions, it really is a safe activity (see. I’m still doing it).
When drop testing an elevator, you load the elevator with more weight than what the elevator is designed to carry. Usually by bringing a few pallets of sandblasting sand by forklift to the elevator and then piling them in the elevator until you have reached the desired weight for a drop test.
Once the elevator is weighed down, you climb on top of the elevator and manually operate the elevator using the inspection controls until you have raised it up a couple of floors. Then someone up in the penthouse releases the brake so that the elevator free falls.
Once the elevator obtains a certain speed, a tripping device located in the penthouse rolls over and locks, that causes a locking device on the elevator to engage, which sets the “dogs”. The dogs are clamps that dig into the railing that the elevator uses as sort of a track to go up and down without shaking back and forth.
Once the tripping mechanism in the penthouse is operated. it cuts the power to the elevator. Once the dogs are set, there is a loud bang and the elevator isn’t going anywhere. It comes to an instant stop.
Performing a drop test in an elevator shaft seems rather routine, and it is more trouble resetting everything and filing the track smooth again where the dogs dug in creating a notch, than it is to actually perform the drop test.
The Smoke Stack elevators are a lot more fun.
The smoke stack elevators are these Swedish made three man elevators made by a company named Alimak. They operate like a roller coaster does when it is cranking its way up the first hill. The weight limit for these elevators is much lower obviously, since they only hold 3 people.
I could usually load a few large anchors and maybe an Engineer or two in the stack elevator and run it up 50 feet or so and perform the drop test. In order to perform a drop test on a stack elevator (notice how I use the word “perform” as if this was a work of art…. well… in a way it was), you had to disengage a governor first. The governor would prevent a free-falling stack elevator from just flying to the bottom by engaging a secondary brake when the governor sensed that the elevator was moving too fast.
After installing the special governator (like Arnold Schwarzenegger) to keep the governor from engaging, using a large screwdriver or small prybar (meaning that the large screwdriver also functions as a small prybar), the brake is released allowing the elevator to free fall to the ground or well, until the elevator sensed it was moving way too fast and locked up.
Did I mention that these activities are performed while standing on top of the stack elevator? Yeah. Right out in the open. The entire elevator inspection was done standing on top of the elevator. That was how you inspected the railing and tight checked all the bolts all the way up and down the 500 foot stack elevator rail.
A large Allen Wrench with a permanent cheater bar was used to tight check the rail bolts.
One time before I was an electrician, when Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien) was pulling down on an allen bolt with the cheater bar, Jerry Day, who was with her, pressed the button to lower the elevator down to the next bolt and left Diana hanging in mid-air 100’s of feet above the ground!
Needless to say, the experience of hanging onto a large Allen wrench stuck in a bolt 100’s of feet up a smoke stack, left Diana a little scarred (no I spelled that right). Diana is a tough Power Plant Woman of the highest degree and I used to perform the elevator inspections with her. She would go up the smoke stack on the top of the elevator, but I generally did the tight check on the bolts and let her run the buttons.
This is all just a teaser to the real story behind this post…
In the fall of 1984 Ben Davis and I went to Muskogee on a major overhaul. While I was there, part of the time I lived in a trailer with a guy from Horseshoe Lake named Steve Trammell. To this day, (and Steve does read these posts) we have always referred to each other as “roomie”.
While at Muskogee Ben and I worked out of the electric shop located next to the main switchgear for Unit 6. The Muskogee electricians we worked around were, John Manning, the B Foreman, Jay Harris, Richard Moravek, David Stewart and Tiny.
All of the electricians Ben and I worked with were great Power Plant Men, and I will write a post later about our experience there. For now, I am just going to focus on one person. David Stewart. Why? Because he inspected the stack elevators at Muskogee, like I did at Sooner Plant.
I don’t know exactly how the conversation was started because I walked into it in the middle when I entered the Electric foreman’s office to eat my lunch. David was semi-arguing with the rest of the he-men in the room. The argument centered around this: David Stewart was convinced that if you were in an elevator and everything failed and it was falling to the ground, if you jumped up as hard as you could at the last moment, you would be all right.
I will pause here while you re-read the last sentence………..
While you are thinking this thought over, watch the following Pink Panther video from 1968 called, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Pink on YouTube. Especially from 4 minutes and 15 seconds to 30 seconds into the film:
At first I thought that this was an ingenious joke that David was playing on everyone in the office because everyone was falling for it (I had actually used this technique before in my own jokes. This is the joke where you act like you’re really stupid while everyone tries to convince you of something obvious, only to end by grinning with a look like: “Gotcha”). They were all trying to explain to David why it was impossible to jump up in a falling elevator at the last moment and you would be all right. The more I listened, the more I came to realize that David was convinced that this was so.
I took David aside and tried to explain to him that according to the law of gravity and acceleration that you would be falling too fast to be able to jump high enough to make any difference to your falling fate. I presented him with the formula for acceleration and showed him that if you even fell from about 50 feet, you would be crushed.
final velocity = Square root of the initial velocity squared plus 2 times acceleration times distance. With Gravity having an acceleration of 9.81 meters per second and 50 feet being just over 15 meters…
I showed him that his final velocity would be about 17 meters per second, which is equivalent to about 38 miles an hour straight into the ground. From only a 50 foot fall. It didn’t phase him. He was so certain it would work. — I understood. This was his way of coping with doing a drop test on the stack elevator. His mind had convinced him that all he had to do was jump up in the case that the elevator safeties failed.
Fast Forward 5 months. It was in April of 1985 when a man from the Swedish Elevator company would come around and do our yearly stack elevator inspection. During this inspection he told me that we needed to remove the top gear rail from the railing.
The reason was that on a stack in Minnesota, when all the safeties had failed on an elevator, it didn’t stop going up. It went all the way to the top and off the top of the railing and fell to it’s doom. By removing the top gear section, the elevator wouldn’t be able to go high enough to go over the top of the railing.
Anyway, while we were inspecting the elevator I asked him if he would be going to the Muskogee power plant after ours, and he said he would. He knew David Stewart and would most likely be working with him on the Muskogee Stack Elevators.
So, I told him the story that David really believed that he had convinced himself that he could jump up in a falling elevator at the last moment and he would survive. So I convinced the elevator inspector to tell everyone about how they need to remove the top gear section, but that it doesn’t really matter, because it is a proven fact that all you have to do is jump up in the elevator at the last moment and you will be all right.
Fast Forward another year. It was now April 1986…. The elevator inspector and I were up on the stack elevators tight checking all the bolts when I remembered about David. So I asked him, “Hey, did you ever do anything with David and jumping up in the elevator?”
He responded with, “Yeah I did! And until the moment that I had said anything I thought you were playing a joke on me, but here is what happened…. We were all sitting in the electric shop office eating lunch and I told them just like you said. When I got to the part where you could just jump up in the elevator and you would be all right, David jumped out of his chair and yelled ‘See!!! I told you!!!’ It was only then that I believed your story. Everyone in the room broke out in a roar of laughter.” — As much as I love David Stewart, I was glad that the joke was performed with perfect precision.
Now for the clincher…. — Oh. You thought that was it? So, let me explain to you one thing about drop testing the stack elevator… The elevator doesn’t go up and down like regular elevators with cables and rails and rollers. It uses one gear on a central rail that has notches to fit the gear.
The gear is heavy duty as well as the rail. You can count on it not breaking. The gear was on a shaft that was tied to the braking mechanism, the governor and the motor through a gearbox. The ultimate clincher is this… The gear… The only thing holding the entire elevator up and the only thing tied to any kind of a brake had one pin in it that kept it from rotating on the shaft. One pin. In mechanical terms, this is called a Key:
Everything else on the stack elevator can fail and the elevator will not fall, but if this pin were to fail…. the elevator would free fall to the ground. Thinking back, I must have explained this to Jeremy Tupa, my coworker at Dell back in 2004 when we worked together. It made such an impact on him that I would drop test an elevator that was completely held up by only this one pin. This is the weakest link in the chain.
I know that every now and then I wake up either from a claustrophobic fit because Curtis Love just shut my air off (see the Post: Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love) or while I’m taking a flying leap off of the stack elevator. If only I could have the confidence that David had. If only I could believe that jumping up at the last moment would save me.
Actually, I can picture jumping up and a hand reaching down to grab me and pulling me up… only it pulls me on up to heaven. That’s when I’ll know the truth. David was right. Just jump up as hard as you can. Jump and know that you will be safe. God will catch you.
Comment from the original post:
Originally posted June 21, 2013:
Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Thanks to my high school math teacher Robert Burns, I have always admired Archimedes. I remember the day he was talking about him in class, and he was explaining how Archimedes had sat down in the bathtub and when the water overflowed, and he suddenly realized how to calculate the volume of the king’s crown, he jumped out of the tub and ran down the street in his birthday suit yelling “Eureka! Eureka!” Meaning… I have found it! I have found it! I especially remember Mr. Burn’s eyes tearing up as he told this story. To Mr. Burns, mathematics was an adventure. He instilled this love into me.
So, how does a discussion about Archimedes tie into a story about a Gas-fired Power Plant in central Oklahoma? Well it does, or it did, on December 19, 1985.
The day began with my drive from Oklahoma City, where I was staying, to Harrah, Oklahoma where I was on overhaul at a power plant called Horseshoe Lake Plant. The lake must have been named Horseshoe Lake for the obvious reason that it was shaped like a Horseshoe as it wrapped around the north part of the plant.
I suppose this lake was originally used to cool the condenser water once the steam had been used to turn the turbine, but it was much too small to be used by the units that were in operation when I was at the plant. Instead it was a Fish farm where Tilapia were raised.
I wrote about working at this plant on this overhaul in an earlier post called “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy“. This morning when I arrived, I figured I would be working in the shop repairing more of the older open-faced motors with their sleeve bearing and cambric insulation. It started out that way.
One time during the morning, Ellis Rook, the electrical Supervisor came up to me and started talking to me about the ROLM phone computer. He knew I had experience working on the Phone system. I had been trained by the best even before I had gone to Muskogee to take a class. Bill Rivers at our plant had taught me how to make “moves and changes” and how to troubleshoot the entire plant’s phone system without ever leaving the lab.
Anyway. Ellis Rook told me about the problem they were having with the phone system that day. He told me what had been done to try to fix the problem. I was thinking of a few things I would try (even though I was still more of a Rookie than Ellis Rook — ok. I couldn’t resist that one). I had been an electrician in training for just over 2 years, which still made me a rookie.
I originally thought Ellis had approached me for ideas on how to fix the problem, so I was formulating some answers in my mind while he was going on… then he said, “What I do every time to fix any problem is just reboot the computer.” — ok. He wasn’t seeking advice. He was seeking approval. So, I looked at him with as blank of a stare I could and just nodded and replied, “Well, that usually does it.” — Nevermind that it took about 25 minutes for one of these old ROLM computers to reboot and during that time all communication with the outside world was cut-off.
This was when I remembered a story that Bob Kennedy had told me about Ellis Rook.
One day, he took another electrician with him to inspect the exciter collector rings on one of the units. The exciter is connected to one end of the generator usually (though if I’m not mistaken, the exciter house was off to one side), and it spins at 3600 rpm. It is not coincidental that this is 60 cycles per second, which is how fast the electricity alternates between positive and negative in your house. This is exactly why the electricity alternates that fast. Because that is how fast the turbine-generator is spinning.
Anyway, Ellis had taken a strobe light with him to go inspect the collector rings on the exciter because there was some indication that a fuse had blown on one of the collectors. Using the strobe light, you could set it to blink at 3600 times per minute and the collector rings spinning at 3600 rpm would appear to stand still.
By slowly adjusting the rate that the strobe light was flashing, you could rotate the shaft slowly and inspect it just as if it was standing still, even though in reality it was still spinning at 3600 rpms (the same speed as the lawn mower in the post: “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“).
After examining the shaft for a bit, they located the blown fuse. When the fuse blew, a little indicator would stick out so it could easily be seen. Ellis Rook slowly rotated the shaft around until the fuse was in a good position and then stopped the shaft from rotating by setting the strobe light to the exact same rate that the shaft was rotating.
Then Ellis said something that would go down in the Annals of History at Horseshoe Lake. He told the electrician to change out the fuse. — Ok. Stop and think about this for a minute. The room where the collector rings are is normally dark, so all they can see is this turbine shaft in front of them and it looked like it was standing still. Forget the roar of the spinning turbine and just chalk it up to a loud fan running.
Luckily the electrician wasn’t lulled into a false sense of security and didn’t put his hand forward to remove the fuse. That would have easily have been the last thing he would have ever done (as a live human being). — There has to be a good murder mystery plot involving a strobe light. I’m sure one of the great writers at WordPress can come up with one. I can think of a couple myself.
Anyway, when Ellis Rook told me how he fixed the telephone computer problems by rebooting the computer, this story flashed through my mind for about 3 seconds. I think I put my hands in my back pocket just for safe keeping.
Anyway. I ate lunch in the electric shop office with my ol’ “Roomie” Steven Trammell, (We have called each other roomie from the time we were in Muskogee on overhaul in 1984. See the post about Muskogee in the link above. To this day, we call each other roomie, as we have kept in touch throughout the years). While I was sitting there arguing with Art Hammond about something (See the post: “Power Plant Arguments with Arthur Hammond“) I was reading an instruction manual about some electronic sensor that could tell you the percentage open a series of valves all in one little box.
Reggie Deloney had been working with the engineer on this valve detecting device for the past 4 weeks, and couldn’t get it to work. The engineer asked me if I would look at it to see if I could figure out what was wrong with it, because it wasn’t working at all…. It would work every now and then, but then it would stop.
When I read the manual I noticed that there was a “common” in the circuitry and that Reggie and the engineer had assumed that the common was the same as the “ground”. This usually isn’t true in electronic circuits as it is in regular electrical wiring. So, I stood up from where I was lounging back reading the pamplet and lifted the common wire up so that it wasn’t touching the metal cart, and suddenly the valve indicator worked.
When Reggie returned from lunch, I excitedly told him what I had found. He looked a little astonished, so I showed him. He had only spent the last 4 weeks working on this. So, I went into the shop and worked on another motor.
Later I walked into the office figuring that Reggie had told the good news to the engineer. He was sitting there with the engineer scratching their heads still trying to figure out why the instrument still wasn’t working. So, I picked up the wire so it wasn’t touching the cart, and said. “See? Works.” Reggie with a very irritated voice said, “Yes! You figured it out!” He looked at me with a look that said, “Get out of here!” So, I left.
Art, who was listening said, “I don’t think Reggie is ready to figure it out yet.” Then I got it. Oh. I see… It is nice and cool and clean in the office. The engineer wasn’t going to figure it out on his own…. Just a week or so left of overhaul….
About that time, Bob Kennedy, my acting A Foreman told me to go with Bill Thomas and help him out. Bill was from our plant and was a welder. He was working out of our shop to help us out with any mechanical needs we had from welding to uncoupling pumps and fans and realigning motors and any other stuff. Now… I know that Bill Thomas had a nickname. But I usually called people by their real names, so I only remember him as Bill Thomas. Maybe a Power Plant Man reading this post will remind me of Bill’s nickname.
This is where Archimedes comes into the story.
So, Bill Thomas had been working on a cooling water fan structure all morning single-handed lifting it up. It weighed somewhere between 50 to 75 tons. um… yes…. I think that is about it… about 100,000 pounds. yet, Bill using nothing but the muscles in his arms and back had been lifting this monstrosity off of the ground. Like Archimedes who lifted an entire ship out of the water once using a lever.
You see. With True Power Plant Men, you really don’t ever hear that something “can’t” be done. Bill had to work under this large round hunk of metal, so he had to pick it up. After spending two hours lifting it with only his two arms spinning a huge chain-fall, he had managed to lift the structure 2 inches from the ground. — well. No one said anything about tossing it in the air… just lifting it off the ground. He still had about 22 inches more to go.
This was where I came in. Did I tell you this plant was old? Well it was. They didn’t have a lot of electricity in this building we were in, and there wasn’t an electric hoist, so Bill had to pull a chain that went around a pulley that turned a shaft to a gearbox that would slowly (real slowly) lift something huge. So, the Power Plant Men from this plant had created a “tool” to make this job faster.
Bill had pulled an air compressor over to the building and had hooked the air hose up to the special tool.
This was going to make his job much faster. There was only once catch. He needed an extra weight. I was the extra weight that he needed.
You see. The special tool was an air powered grinder.
And it was mounted to a piece of plywood. the grinding wheel had been replaced with a pulley. The idea was to stand on the plywood and step on the lever that operated the grinder so that it would spin the pulley. The chain for the chain-fall would fit through the pulley assembly.
Bill had asked the person that gave him this special tool what happens when the chain snags. They said, that’s when you need the extra weight. They explained to Bill that when two people are standing on the plywood, they will be able to overpower the grinder so that it can’t pull itself out from under them. If there isn’t enough weight on the plywood, then if the chain snags, the special tool will slide across the floor and attempt to climb up to the top of the chain-fall until someone lets off of the lever that operates the grinder.
So. I was the extra weight. Not that I was all that big at the time.
Anyway. The next thing I knew, I was standing on the plywood, and Bill was operating the large grinder with his foot and we were lifting the large cylinder off of the ground. Before long we had it at least a foot up. Bill had put some stops under the cylinder in case we had to set it down for some reason, it wouldn’t have to go all the way to the ground.
That’s when it hit me…. No. I didn’t suddenly remember that I hadn’t had any chocolate for lunch (though, that would have been a tragedy). No. That is when as I was watching the chain spin through the pulley at breakneck speed, the chain suddenly went taut. As the chain became snagged in the chain-fall, the chain whipped up, and before I could perceive what had happened I found myself lifted off of the ground and being thrown backward.
The chain had flown back and slapped me across the face, sending my hardhat flying and shattering my safety glasses. I ended up on my back about 5 feet from where I had been standing. Bill rushed to my side to check if I was all right. I checked myself out and decided that I was going to be all right.
I told him I needed to go get another pair of safety glasses from the tool room. he looked at my eyes and said. “Boy. That is really going to be a shiner tomorrow.” Evidently, I was developing a black eye. I was thinking… “Great! And I’m getting married in two days. I can just see my wedding pictures.” (I can see myself trying to explain to my children in the future that – “No. Your mother didn’t sock me in the eye during the wedding”).
I went to the tool room and checked out a new pair of safety glasses:
When I returned to the electric shop, Bill Thomas and Arthur were there. Everyone was saying the same thing. “Boy! That is sure going to be a shiner tomorrow.”
A little while later, Ellis Rook came in the shop and said that Larry Hatley (the plant manager) wanted to talk to me. So, I followed Ellis to the Plant Manager’s office. Larry asked me if I was ok. He wanted to know if I needed medical attention. I assured him that I was all right. My safety glasses had protected me. They had been destroyed in the process, but I was just fine. I think as I left I heard Larry say under his breath, “boy… that is going to be a shiner tomorrow.”
Well. The next day (December 20, 1985) when I showed up at work (my last day there for overhaul before leaving to be married the following day), everyone came around to look at my eye. There wasn’t anything to see really. Any swelling had gone down over the night, and my face was back to it’s regular… um…. tolerable self.
The people I worked with the fall of 1985 at Horseshoe Power Plant treated me like family while I was there. That was the way it was when you worked with True Power Plant Men. I cherish their memory.
Comment from original post:
Originally posted July 19, 2013:
In another profession being put on light duty may mean that you don’t have to work as hard as everyone else. When an electrician is put on light duty it means something else entirely. I think I calculated the number of lights and it was well over 10,000 light bulbs in the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma. Ideally you would think that every one of the lights should be in good working order.
Electricians don’t call a light bulb a light. The light is the fixture. The bulb is called a “lamp”. So, for the rest of this post I’ll call the light bulbs “lamps”.
You may think that it’s pretty straight forward to go change out lights (oh. I mean… lamps), but it’s not. You see, it isn’t like in your house where you have the regular light bulbs everywhere with just different shapes and wattage. Sure, there were different Watts for the different lamps, but for a good number of the lights, they varied by voltage as well.
Not only that, but these lamps were different types of lights. Most of which are not incandescent (well… now that the government has seen fit to force the lighting industry to stop making incandescent lamps altogether, I guess it wouldn’t seem odd to the younger folks).
In the office areas and places like the main switchgear 4 foot fluorescent lamps were used. Each 4 foot fluorescent lamp is 40 watts. Just because it is 40 watts, it doesn’t mean that the voltage is low. It can take up to 650 volts to start up a fluorescent lamp. A Fluorescent lamp actually has a gas in it that causes a coating on the glass to glow when a current flows across the gas.
Besides the typical fluorescent lamps, the majority of the rest of the lamps in the plant were various sizes of Mercury Vapor lamps. (now replaced with Sodium Vapor).
Before you become all twisted about using Mercury Vapor to light up a power plant because of the environmental impact, I think I should point out that even though a fluorescent lamp is filled with an inert gas like argon, it is mixed with Mercury vapor as well, and the phosphorous coating on the glass has mercury in it also.
So, if you have fluorescent lamps in your house…. Well, there you go. And you know those lamps that are used to replace your old incandescent light bulbs….. Yep… and they have other kinds of hazardous metals as well. I suppose it is good for the environment to take those hazardous materials out of the earth and put them in lamps in your houses. Isn’t that improving the environment?
The thing about using Fluorescent lamps and Mercury Vapors and Sodium Vapor lamps is that they all use different voltages. So, in order for them to start up and stay running, the voltages have to change from the start up voltage to the operating voltage. Each lamp has it’s own transformer designed just for that one type of lamp. It is placed in the light fixture for the lamp.
If the light glows blue, then it is mercury vapor. If it is orange then it is a sodium light. Your street lights are the same way. Well. Now there is also Halogen lamps which shine white.
Besides these different type lamps, we also had some super special lights. We have the flashing lights on the smoke stack and the red blinking light on the top of the radio tower. The lights that flash on the smoke stacks are really flashbulbs.
Our smoke stacks are 500 feet tall with beacons at the 250 foot level and the 500 foot level. Not only did you have to change out the bulb, but you often had to change out the large capacitors and the circuit boards that had been fried by a passing lightning storm.
You may have heard that with the older style Television sets that had a picture tube (before the flat screen TVs came around), that you could electrocute yourself by taking the cover off the back of the TV and working on it, even though you unplugged the set from the wall before you started. A few movies used this in the plot. Robert T. Ironside even used it once in an episode during the first season.
Well. The Stack lights are like that. When we opened up the light fixture to work on the flash tube or the circuits inside the first thing you did was take a metal rod with a wooden handle and a wire attached with a clip on the end and clipped the wire to the handrail. Then turning your head the other way, you placed the metal rod across each of the large capacitors in the box. Invariably, one of the capacitors would let out a loud pop that would echo across the lake…. oh, and leave your ears ringing.
Once the voltage was discharged from all the capacitors, you knew it was safe to go to work fixing the light. The lights had a day and a night mode, and the difference was how many times the flash tube flashed when it discharged. What I mean to say is that it wasn’t just one flash. It is really a series of flashes closely timed to look like one flash. The number of flashes and the timing between the flashes determine how bright the flash is.
At night the flash was much dimmer because it didn’t need to be so bright. When it was stuck in the day mode at night the farmers for a 30 mile radius would be calling saying they can’t sleep because every 6 seconds their bedroom would light up as the smoke stack lights would blink.
I thought I would just put that picture in there so you could see how pretty the plant looked from across the lake at sunset. To me it looked like a big ship on the horizon.
I mentioned above that there was a radio tower that had a light on it that needed to be changed when it burned out. The actual lamp looked a lot like a regular incandescent bulb in your house, but it was different. It was designed just for this job. It didn’t burn out very often. Ok. I can see your look of disbelief, so here is a picture of one:
Yeah, looks just like something in your house. Doesn’t it?
Anyway. I changed out the light at the top of our radio tower which is only about 200 feet tall. It looked like the following picture:
I had to climb to the top of this tower to replace the red flashing light. I was by myself when I did it. Bill Bennett handed me the bulb that had been specially ordered and asked me if I would do it. If not, they could call Oklahoma City and have the line crew come down and change it. I told him I could do it. The tower wasn’t that tall, and I had shimmied around the top of the smoke stack before at 500 feet with only a slight urge to panic.
I changed the lamp out without incident. I know that some people have a much more interesting job changing these lights out than I had. Our radio tower was only 200 feet tall. Here is a video of someone that had to climb a tower 1768 feet high. You can see the beacon when they reach the top of this radio tower:
if your browser doesn’t play the video from the picture try this link: “Climbing a 1768 foot tower“.
Ok. That is crazy! Wouldn’t dropping someone from a helicopter onto the tower using a safety line be safer?
My last story about being on light duty at a power plant is about when Ted Riddle and I were working at the gas-fired power plant near Mustang, Oklahoma. I talked about the time that Ted and I worked at this plant in the post “Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark”
While we were there after they found out that we were electric conduit running fools, they gave us all sorts of jobs running conduit all over the plant. One job they showed us was in an area that was dark. All the lights were out in this area. The foreman explained where the light bulbs were kept. They were just the regular incandescent lights like the normal lights you would have in your house.
Well… Ted and I had both been put on Light Duty at our plant, and we knew that when we went to change out one light, we were supposed to change out all the lights that were out. So, Ted and I each grabbed a box and a ladder and headed up to the boiler enclosure to change lights.
After lunch, the foreman came running up to us yelling, “What did you do? You used up all of the light bulbs!” Well. Yes. We had used up the lights, but now when you go up on the boiler you can see where you are going. The foreman then explained to us that this little plant didn’t have the same kind of budget that the new big plants had. They couldn’t afford to just go around replacing all the lights whenever they burned out. They only put in a light when someone has to work in that area. We had lit the entire place up like a Christmas tree.
Ok. Take a note Jan… Don’t replace all the lights if they are incandescent.
Ok (again), that wasn’t quite the last story. Let me tell you some more about replacing Fluorescent lamps in our Coal-fired power plant. When we were placed on Light Duty, we would grab a couple of boxes of 30 lamps from the pallet in the main switchgear and go to work.
In the main switchgear the lights were up high, so we used a 10 foot ladder with a stand on the top of it (No. I don’t mean like a Deer stand…. geez… Power Plant men…. always thinkin’ ’bout huntin’). Actually it is called a Platform ladder:
I didn’t like using this wobbly ladder when I was by myself. besides being wobbly, the thing weighed a ton. So, I would take a smaller ladder and put it on top of the breaker cabinets and climb on top of them. The only problem here was that I couldn’t get directly under the lights, so I would end up reaching out to one side to change a light while I was standing on a ladder on top of a seven foot cabinet. Not a pretty sight if someone safety minded walked in.
I felt safer doing this than standing way up in the air on a 10 foot wobbly platform ladder. I always had the feeling that if I sneezed, the ladder would topple over. The rule of thumb was to keep your belt buckle within the rungs on the ladder.
When we were done changing out fluorescent lamps, we usually had a stack of boxes of burned out lamps. We couldn’t just throw them in the dumpster because they were a safety hazard as they were. We had to break each bulb. We found that we could take a box of 4 foot fluorescent lamps and back the truck over it and it would let out a low but loud boom that sounded like a cannon going off.
The ingenious electricians invented a bulb busting barrel where you slid one 4 foot bulb into a tube and then lifted a handle quickly, and it would explode the lamp in the safe confines of the metal barrel. The end of the lamp may at times come shooting out the end of the tube, so you never wanted to be standing to that side of the barrel. I would show you a picture of one, but I’ve never found another one like it.
So, if you were into breaking glass, this was the best part of being placed on Light Duty. After a hard day of changing out lamps all over the plant, you could stand around in front of the electric shop and slide the lamps down a tube like mortar shell and pull the rod and…. Boom! A puff of Mercury Vapor released into the atmosphere a small cloud of dust…. repeat.